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

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.

In this Orlando Furioso painting, the Orc is just a large man.

The idea of a great horde at the edge of civilization that threatens those within the city walls is easy enough to find in actual history. The “barbarian at the gates” trope extends from China to Europe, as far back as the bronze age and is as recent as the Boxer Rebellion. It concerns the idea that some of us live in civilization, where the rule of law is supreme, and trade and production routes provide for us. Then there are those outside of civilization, where anarchy reigns and resources are scarce. Lawlessness and poverty breed hardened warriors who throw themselves against the walls to take what we have. These people are often racialized heavily, with features that mark them as different from those in the walls exaggerated to the point of grotesqueness, and whose crimes are also exaggerated. We see this in Roman depictions of Huns, Crusader depictions of Turks, and Chinese depictions of the northern tribes.

This image of An Lushan plays up his non-Chinese characteristics, including a wild beard to make him seem more beastly.

Now, first, it’s worth pointing out that the relationship between those inside and outside the walls is dynamic, and not an either/or. James C. Scott, in his book The Art of Not Being Governed writes about this dynamic in southeast Asia, where people frequently move to the cities only to leave for the jungle a few generations later. He describes a relationship between the city folk and the “barbarians” outside in which both populations depend on the other and are not necessarily antagonistic. People who live in cities or under the protection of cities generally do so because they enjoy the stability. We associate civilized areas with culture, prosperity, and power. We associate “uncivilized” areas with ignorance, poverty, and brutality. Of course, that’s not the whole story. Civilization is powerful yes, but most of those living within it have very little power at all, and almost no ability to shape the society they live in. While food and goods are available, they are only available to those who can procure them, and urban poverty in endemic throughout time. Not to mention that the monocropping needed to feed such large populations often led to malnutrition, making civilized folks weaker on an individual basis. Meanwhile, “barbarians” often ate rich and varied diets, had reasonable control over the society in which they lived, and took care of the sick and elderly. There are exceptions in all these cases, but it’s vital to point out that there is no easy way to paint all these people with one brush.

Miao people, one of many indigenous groups in South China and Southeast Asia, have faced centuries of discrimination for being “uncivilized”. In reality, their cultures are deeply complex and beautiful.

So what do the barbarians at the gates want, when they do attack? Often they attack in response to military pressure on their own borders. Sometimes, they are met with resistance as they try to migrate, either to follow a food source or to escape some other threat. Sometimes, they are hoping to expand their territory or, yes, they are looking for plunder. The reasons that people may attack settlements are as varied as the people doing the attacking, but they never do so unless they think it will be worth it.

The sack of Rome is horrific, but was also the culmination of years of conflict and sinking temperatures, forcing northern tribes to seek their fortunes as roaming hordes.

So we have a few elements here: civilization is a place where people gather seeking stability and power. In order to maintain a hold on those within it’s borders, kings and rulers play up the gifts of civilization as well as the threat from those outside it. Those outside civilization seek autonomy, though they may move into cities for that stability, just as people might leave. People outside civilization may migrate or attack for a variety of reasons, but they are also likely to trade or assist cities as needed. For a great historical example of how “barbarians” are used by civilized folk, look into the Amarna Letters from the canaanite bronze age.

These unassuming slabs of stone tell a complex story of political intrigue as canaanite kings use Abiru tribespeople to disrupt rival trade.

So what does this have to do with Orcs? How do we use this in a campaign?

First, consider your world. Let’s just make it a standard D&D fantasy world for now. You’ve got humans, elves, dwarves, all the stuff in the PHB. Let’s say that there are a bunch of human cities where elves, halflings, gnomes, and some dwarves live. There are also woods nearby with elvish cities, and mountains where dwarves have their settlements. Let’s say that cities are largely independent, but that there is a small human kingdom made up of a few settlements. Finally, to the south of the mountains, there is a dusty steppe. This is where our orcs are. In a regular roleplaying game, these orcs might storm up for any reason including the non-reason that it’s just because they are evil.

The first few adventures of your campaign may involve a few dungeon dives. Let’s say that as the heroes return to the city to collect their rewards, they are able to here rumors of tensions between the dwarves and the orcs. There have been occasional raids on trade caravans and the dwarves are getting antsy because the attacks seem carefully coordinated. Later, in a stall, some traveler offers one of the players an orc scroll. An orc scroll? Do the orcs have a written language?

Consider how writing works in your world. Humans, elves, halflings, and gnomes have access to parchment, paper, and quills, so they have a writing system that involves dipping a quill into ink and writing on a soft surface. Their writing systems would match this look. Let’s decide that dwarves write on clay tablets, using a stylus to make indents. In this game, we’ll say that orcs have modeled their writing system on dwarvish. It’s orcish language, written in dwarvish script. But how is it written? Since they’re on the steppe, we’ll give them quills, and have them scratch on tree bark. They don’t want to make trees into paper since there are so few, but they have figured out how to remove bark carefully without damaging the tree permanently. Then they dye the etchings with natural dyes to make it stand out. So the orcish script is based on dwarvish, but looks different because of how its written. Since not that much bark is available, writing is only taught to important figures such as priests and chiefs, with priests taking on other clerical duties. So what’s on the scroll? Looks like dwarvish, but doesn’t read like it. A good roll might reveal what it says. Based on what we wrote above it could be mundane, maybe a census of a tribe or an inventory of goods. However, maybe it’s a treatise on orcish religion. Writing makes organized religion and theology much easier, so maybe we’re seeing that happen.

So then, what to do about these raids and the skittish dwarves? Nothing yet. The dwarves can handle it for now. Over time, the attacks get more bold, until maybe a dwarvish settlement is sacked. Now we have to understand why this is happening.

Let’s decide that there is a drought, meaning the orcish chiefs have to travel farther and farther to find food and water for their people. Maybe rather than that, there is a magical disturbance creating an increase in monstrous activity that is forcing the orcs away from traditional hunting grounds. This means that while raiding may have been a source of additional income, it’s becoming more vital to orcish survival. Players may be tasked with figuring out why the attacks are more coordinated. Perhaps they reveal at the same time the source of the orcs’ sudden interest in writing: a new orcish leader named Haddar is uniting the tribes. Orcish tribes compete with each other for resources, and so conflict and cooperation are common among them. They work together some times, but there is enough bad blood among them to keep them disorganized, until now. Haddar is a warchief who dreams of an orcish nation. He wants organized trade routes, he want the oral poetry of the orcs written down, and he wants to be a king. Pushed off the steppes, he feels that need more keenly than ever, and has his eye set on the weaker dwarvish cities. From his foothold in the mountains, Haddar can create a thriving orcish kingdom, or even an empire. By negotiation, coercion, or conquest, he has bent the other chiefs to his will.

Now, the players have some choices to make. Do they attempt to disrupt and destroy this new orcish nation? Do they meet with Haddar and try to work it out, or assassinate him? Do they work with him to challenge the threat to the south? Doing so might alienate the dwarves, but perhaps if the threat to the south is big enough, the players can pull together a reluctant alliance.

Maybe they see a side of orcish culture they never knew about before. In the campaign I am currently playing in, I am a half-orc, and was given permission by my DM to help color aspects of orcish culture in his setting. In his setting, the gods and their existence are a fact of life. I decided that in the orcish understanding of the birth of the gods, the first two gods were born from a single egg, which makes double-yolked eggs a sign of divine favor for orcs.

Maybe they see him as nothing but a monster, but one who they give begrudging respect. After all, just because the GM has not made them monsters doesn’t mean the people of that world don’t think they are. Consider the ways that Haddar might be underestimated by players who think that he’s a mindless beast and not a cunning strategist.

By refusing to accept that orcs are just evil for the sake of evil, you have created a vibrant world with complex politics. Having to consider what orcish writing is like forces to us to consider what other kinds of writing are like. A major threat emerges under the cover of a minor threat. Players have to consider how their actions might influence the world around them, and on top of that, you get an interesting character in the form of Haddar and an opportunity to explore a culture that is not often explored sympathetically in TTRPGs.

We can only imagine what other scenarios and adventures we can come up with by applying the same logic to goblins, Yuan-Ti, or Mind Flayers. In a sense, GMs should already have been weaving this kind of complexity into their world in order to create a sense of richness and improve immersion. Now is the perfect time to put these strategies into practice.

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

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