Rethinking Orcs: How to Add Dimension and Remove Racism from Your Campaign

Michael A Gold
9 min readJul 1, 2020

Wizards of the Coast has recently announced plans to rework how race functions mechanically in Dungeons & Dragons, removing racial stat changes and getting rid of the concept of evil races. This is an excellent step forward. The idea of evil races and the depiction of Orcs (not to mention Yuan-Ti, Goblins, and most other “monstrous” races) is lazy and problematic, built on euro-centric and racist tropes that have infected fantasy since the days of Tolkien and Howard.

Tolkien’s Orcs created a lasting and troubling trope in fantasy

I say that it’s lazy because “evil Orcs want to hurt good people because they are evil” is an uncreative way to create conflict. GMs can do better. If you aren’t sure how to use Orcs in your game without making them a mindless evil horde, I may be able to help.

My goal here is to help GMs brainstorm ways to create interesting conflicts for their campaigns which don’t rely on racist tropes. By removing these tropes from your game, you have an opportunity to add depth and character to your campaign and create a more robust experience for everyone involved.

First, it’s important to figure out what Orcs are, and what role they play in fantasy settings. Orcs are usually depicted as a race of monstrous humanoids that threaten civilized settlements. They are depicted as brutish, unintelligent, and powerful fighters who attack as a horde. Orcs are an invention of Tolkien’s for the most part, and in his stories, they were corrupted copies of elves. They were also inherently evil. Some people have told me that Orcs actually exist in mythology, but the only example I could find was a creature in chivalric legends called an Orc, but which was a kind of sea-monster. Orcs are a foil to civilization, and provide a threat great enough to move players to action, but which are easy enough to handle in small groups. Orcs are also usually an early-game or red-herring threat. Orcs are sometimes being used or manipulated by the true villains, but are rarely the villain themselves.

Michael A Gold

Michael writes about history, religion, and the Bible. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and Netflix account.