Grumpy Gamer's Egregious Archetypes, Part 5: Noble Savage Green-skin Orcs
- Green skin
- Black hair, often with pronounced male pattern baldness and gnarly
- Prognathous lower jaw with tusk-like lower canines
- Broad, muscular frame
- Crude leather-strap armor covered in spikes, fur, bones, bits of chain
and the occasional hunk of battered metal plate
- Physical strength
- Good with axes of all kinds
- Assertive and fearless
- MOAR DAKKA!
- Not particularly cerebral
- Most "good" races despise them because they are "misunderstood"
Another fantasy race that owes much of its existence to Professor
Tolkien, the Orc has in recent times undergone a massive public relations
Tolkien's Orcs were the invention of Morgoth, the most powerful of the
Ainur. He made them in mockery of the elves of Illuvatar, either through
vile sorcery applied to various muds and slimes from the bowels of Arda,
or by corrupting actual Elves and twisting them into Orcs, depending on
who is telling the story. Tolkien's orcs have broad bodies shorter than a
man, bowed legs, long arms, and crooked backs, making them walked stooped
like an ape. They have flat Goblin-y faces with wide, fanged mouths and
slanted eyes, and skin described as "sallow" or "black." Not green - that
Essentially, Tolkien's Orcs and Goblins (which are the same creature -
the only difference is size) were created as cannon fodder for the great
evil overlord villains of the stories. They were Sauron's footsoldiers and
lackeys. The Uruk-hai created by Saruman were evidence of his mad attempts
to play God, and served as his stormtroopers. They were irredeemably
wicked - not necessarily evil by nature, but so thoroughly subservient to
the forces of darkness that they were pretty much rotten to the core. They
were brutes, thugs and terrorists, soulless killers bent on destruction
and carnage. They used the Black Speech of Mordor, a harsh and guttural
language which has seemingly become the template for Orcish (or Orkish) in
most other settings, but were clever enough to also be fluent in Westron.
These orcs can still be found in the Lord of the Rings Online - mostly as
hostile mobs, but also as playable monster characters for PvMP in the
Ettenmoors. But most other games featuring Orcs have taken a very
different approach to the race, attempting to add depth and pathos to a
race that was created to be un-dimensional and anti-sympathetic.
The first green-skinned Orcs came around much later, with Dungeons &
Dragons, in the 1970's and 80's. These green-skinned barbaric tribals are
the ones most often adapted in other works. D&D Orcs are Chaotic Evil,
which is more or less in keeping with Tolkien's orcs, but these Orcs are
not dominated by a great godlike power - they're just a bunch of
one-hit-die barbarian jerks doing whatever evil things they feel like
doing because that's how CE rolls.
D&D also carried on Tokien's idea of orc-human hybrids. The Half-orcs
of Tolkien's world are sleazy characters who are universally up to no good
whenever they are encountered, but except for sallow skin, slanty eyes and
an ill-favored cast to their faces, they pass as regular humans. D&D
Half-orcs are much more orc-y in appearance and stick out like sore thumbs
among human society. Some of them try to fit in with the "good guys" and
live in human cities. Others embrace their darker halves and head to the
barbarian tribes to become warriors.
This tribal barbarian theme has been sort of split into two different
paths: that of the battle-crazy 'zerker race, and that of the proud and
The battle-crazy 'zerker is what one finds in settings like the Warhammer
universe. It's too bad Warhammer Online didn't do better than it did,
because Warhammer Orks are hilarious. These Orks are blindly
hyper-aggressive, bristling with spikes and axes and skullz on everything.
In the 40k universe, they can make functional weapons by essentially
hammering any parts together to make something that looks like a weapon.
If it looks like dakka, it is dakka, and more dakka is always better.
These orcs are not so much "evil" as they are comically aggressive and
brutish. They are dumb as a bag of hammers, but who needs brains when you
have MOAR DAKKA!
The noble savage is slightly more popular in MMOs, in large part because
of the Warcraft universe. Warcraft Orcs are basically the fantasy
greenskin version of Klingons - a strong, proud warrior race ruled by
honour and a deep, abiding love of warfare and yelling dialogue with a
Muppet-like growl. They have a "savage," barbaric culture but with a
deeper, spiritual side keeping their heightened aggression somewhat in
This new type of Orc often stands taller than Humans, not just in the
Warcraft universe but elsewhere as well. Orc society in these cases is often
patriarchal and absurdly masculine. Physical prowess is valued more than
intelligence, women are chattel, and everyone lifts. These Orcs are warlike
and testosterone-fueled, but not really evil. They live in harsh conditions,
and have harsh rules and unforgiving codes that may seem brutal to
outsiders, but they are also capable of great deeds of heroism and goodness,
the same as the other races.
axes and/or honor.
This new direction more or less mirrors our current views of real-world
tribal cultures. Western culture has long regarded itself as "advanced"
and "proper," and the hunter-gatherers they encountered in remote places
were seen as "backwards" because they didn't have guns and cathedrals and
galleons, or as "immoral" because they didn't wear a lot of clothing. We
now view these ancient cultures in a different context - they live in
closer harmony with nature without guns, stone buildings and sea-faring
vessels. Modesty is impractical when it's always oven-hot and humid as a
steam shower. We now accept that these cultures are different from but not
lesser than our own.
This appears also to be the case with Orcs. Orc "culture" is an
amalgamation of many different aspects of real-world tribal and other
cultures. Though they are certainly warlike and love a good fight, they
are no longer strictly seen as "evil" by forward-thinking people - though
they often suffer from a bad reputation because of the propaganda of the
people they have fought against in the past, who play up their savagery
The Orcs of the Elder Scrolls universe are a good example - they fought
for independence in the past, and the humans and elves they fought against
spread tales of their ferocity and bloodlust and savagery. Nevermind that
a lot of their culture is centered around crafting high-quality armour,
and the worship of the same basic set of gods as everyone else.
These gentle, misunderstood souls stand at odds with the original Orcs.
There was no cultural misinterpretation of Tolkien's orcs - they were
clearly wicked, savage beings with no regard for life. It wasn't a
spiritual-but-martial tough-guy culture that inspired them to attempt to
commit genocide against the Rohirrim at Helm's Deep - it was the will of
their evil overlord, Saruman, and of his evil master, Sauron. They weren't
staging a righteous rebellion, they were out for blood and murder, for the
death of every last man, woman and child in Middle-Earth. They didn't live
in druidic harmony with their environment - they had more of a
slash-and-burn approach to nature. There is no misinterpretation here. The
motivations of Tolkien's Orcs are stated fairly explicitly.
Warcraft Orcs have as much in common with Tolkien's Elves as they do with
his Orcs. Maybe even more. Now that the Orcs of Azeroth are no longer
being controlled by a powerful demon, they're dirt-worshippers with a
strict code of honour. Tolkien's Orcs didn't give a hot damn about honor,
and when their master fell, so did they. WoW Orcs are Orcs in name only.
Don't get me wrong - I actually like the more modern take. The Orc is the
raging berserker-beast inside all of us, but having those feelings doesn't
make us monsters. In a way, the story of an Orc is the story of an
underdog - in order to make something of himself, the Orc has to overcome
a severely tarnished image, the hatred and prejudices of his peers and his
own base, violent instincts. Behaving in any way other than as a raging
bloodthirsty goon risks earning the Orc the scorn of his peers - to behave
in a thoughtful, civilized manner is considered an act of outrageous
non-conformity. Orc stories have a kind of inverse depth that is unique to
their race. Quite frankly, there are lots of times when I find Orcs to be
the only race I can really relate to.
And it's not just because we look alike. Shut up.
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