Written by: Vanatosis Arentire
Images by: Novaleigh Freng
What is an orc? Dictionary.com defines an orc as “one of an imaginary race of evil goblins, especially in the fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien.” That seems fairly straight-forward, yet, within the role-play genre, orcs tend to be a difficult race to play. The reason why, perhaps, is due to the many different interpretations of the orc which currently exist in literature and the realm of fantasy role-play. From brutal, dull-witted misshaped hulks to proud and honorable warriors, the portrayal of the orc will vary from source to source. There is not even a consistent universal description of an orc’s appearance, for example: Tolkien orcs sport sallow or greyish skin while Warhammer orcs are known as “green-skins” for obvious reasons. Orcs’ attributes are also diverse, and often contradictory: World of Warcraft orcs practice magic and are shamanistic, while by contrast; Tolkien orcs do not. The various, and very different, interpretations of this same race are confusing and discouraging to those who would otherwise consider role-playing an orc suggesting that some clarification on the topic would not only be helpful but necessary.
Amongst the more knowledgeable, Tolkien is credited with the creation of the modern humanoid orc. Often used interchangeably with “goblin,” orc is a term borrowed from the Anglo-Saxon language meaning “foreigner, monster, demon.” In his writings Tolkien described orcs as dull, miserable and cruel creatures with “squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes” and foul blackish blood. Possessing their own language – the harsh sounding Black Speech, orcs are also apt to use the speech of men, albeit ina harsh, broken fashion. Foul, stunted and grotesque, Tolkien created the orc as a polar opposite to his beloved fair and graceful elves, so it is no accident that they are thought to be perverted and corrupted elves by heritage.
In his tome The Silmarillion, Tolkien posits an elven origin for his orcs, revealing that wandering elves were captured in the earliest times by the villainous demigod Melkor and placed in his “prison, and by slow arts of cruelty were corrupted and enslaved; and thus did Melkor breed the hideous race of the Orcs in envy and mockery of the Elves, of whom they were afterwards the bitterest foes…” The orc exists as an affront to the elven race and to the natural order. JEA Tyler says, in his Tolkien Companion, that “Morgoth never possessed any true creative power, and thus he took existing creatures and ruined and distorted them for his own purposes.” Used predominantly as the foot soldiers and cannon fodder for evil, it is implied by Tolkien that they are bred according to their particular purpose, explaining the variations in their appearance, size and skin tone throughout his novels.
Despite their large role Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (LOTR), information on orc culture is limited. What little that can be gleaned indicates that orcs possess a rudimentary knowledge of medicine and familiarity with armor and weapon crafting. While not specifically mentioned in the books, the movie also portrays them as having a bit of skill with siege craft. Mentions of female orcs are (largely) absent from Tolkien’s work lending credibility to the belief that their society is dominated by the male gender.
The Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) treatment of orcs borrows heavily from the Tolkien model in many aspects. Again, they are portrayed as disfigured, carnivorous humanoids, but with grayish skin tones, lupine ears and lower canines resembling boar tusks. Muscular in build, D&D orcs often hunch over while standing endowing them with a beast-like demeanor.
Physically they are gray-skinned, tusks protruding from their lower jaws and flattened noses affecting a more bestial look than the Tolkien orcs. They speak a rudimentary form of the common tongue, though it varies in dialects from region to region, and apparently do not have their own language. They dress in very unappealing colors like blood red, moss green and other vile looking hues in an effort to make their adversaries uneasy. Their armor, while functional, is usually rusted and dirty as well. Their eyes are similar to humans but usually have a red tint to them and appear to glow due to their infrared vision.
The D&D orc however maintains a tribal culture with an emphasis on hunting and raiding nearby communities. Slow-witted and warlike in temperament, they are constantly looking to prove themselves in battle, as they are highly territorial, and seek to expand their territory whenever possible. The Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual states, “Orc society is patriarchal: Females prized possessions at best and chattel at worst. Male orcs pride themselves on the number of females they own and male children they sire, as well as their battle prowess, wealth and amount of territory. They wear their battle scars proudly and ritually scar themselves to mark significant achievements and turning points in their lives.”
D&D orcs are universally despised, particularly by elves who, like Tolkien’s elves, consider them blights and against the natural order.
While similar to the D&D orcs in some respects, the World of Warcraft (WoW) orcs are overall quite a bit different. Appearance-wise, they are green skinned muscular humanoids with large tusks protruding from their lower jaw (though not nearly as pronounced as the Trolls in the same game). Their dress is tribal and their speech is gruff. However, the portrayal of their culture and attributes in the WoW game system is much more nuanced and multifaceted than their predecessors in LOTR and D&D.
In the World of Warcraft, orcs are a warrior race and driven by the high-minded concept of honor. The orc leader Thall perhaps provides a perfect example of the WoW orcs’ code of honor. A wise and mighty shaman, Thall stepped down from his position of leadership, during the Cataclysm, and held the world of Azeroth together with his considerable magical ability until the Earth Pillar could be repaired. He placed the needs of the many before his own – a value shared by his people.
Orc society in WoW is warrior-driven and their knowledge of arms and weapon making is considerable. In heated battle WoW orcs throw themselves into a berserker rage compounding the effectiveness of their proficiency with axes and melee weapons. Despite the emphasis placed on the warrior element of orc society, WoW orcs are much more than just a fighter; they can fulfill other roles such as rogues, hunters, shamans, warlocks, mages and death knights. WoW orcs delved into arcane pursuits such as shamanism, necromancy and spiritualism and have a keen affinity with animals, especially the ones hunters use for pets.
Orcs in the Shadowrun universe are a total departure from previous incarnations. In the Shadowrun setting, orcs, elves, dwarves and the like are actually mutations of the human race. This is explained as the Unexplained Genetic Expression, or UGE, in-game. The disfigurements caused by UGE-induced mutations make their victims resemble creatures of myth – so due to their highly muscular bodies and tusks – characters with this particular mutation are named “orcs” according the lore of the game. These changes usually manifest at the onset of puberty (or those already mutated individuals can bear similar looking offspring) and mature faster than a normal human with a lower lifespan of around 40.
Despite their appearance and lower intelligence, Shadowrun orcs retain most of the traits endemic to humanity and culturally they are no different than humans. However, they are still feared by some due to their bestial appearance, though, so at times it is a bit difficult for them. Also, the occurrence of the mutation’s physical expression at puberty is a trauma that adds a bit of angst and depth to your story as these disfigured mutants are still human underneath it all.
Over the decades since Tolkien first penned his epic saga, a multitude of authors and gamers have attributed a broad, and contradictory, range of traits to the orc. Portrayed on one hand as the archetypical shock trooper from Hell, the orc also can also be a tragically disfigured monster with the soul of a human. The orc defies any generic, simplistic description. Most table-top role-play games have their own version of the orc, as do many of the console and computer games. Does this mean you have to follow any of these examples? Of course not, but a working knowledge of the orc’s many descriptions should impart insight into the type of orc you may want to play. Do the research, separating what works from what does not, and unless the game rules don’t allow it, there is no reason why you can’t play an orc in a manner which suits you and adds depth to your role-play experience.
So if you’re tired of playing a boring human, a dour dwarf or especially an obnoxiously sweet, pretty elf, why not try the unexpected and role-play one of the most intriguing races available today. Orcs can be quite fun and surprisingly versatile once you get to know them. Happy gaming, everyone.