Orcs in roleplaying games have been a problematic topic of late, and one I found myself thinking about a lot. Much discussion has been had about Orcs and whether they are inherently bad for roleplaying games. My own rumination on the subject has lead me to a 3rd opinion, of which I’d like to share.
There are 2 distinct kinds of orc, and it is important to use one or the other, and never (or almost never, see Using Orcs below) at the same time.
The Kinds of Orcs
I’ve decided, for the sake of sanity, to classify orcs by their heads. In pop culture, orcs are either shown to have "Man" heads or "Pig" heads, given that there’s a good number of both, I’ve decided to split them this way in my own work, to let players know immediately what form of orc exists in my games. This is by no means a hard and fast rule across all media, as Tolkien orcs appear to be of Pig type, while having Man type heads, but it gets the point across for this post without muddying waters.
Pig-Orcs, for the sake of this article, are orcs who’s head are pig-like. Pig-Orcs are not naturally occurring, and are only a facsimile of life. These orcs are embodiments of pure evil, spawned from unholy ritual or a portal to an evil dimension. These creatures may slaughter, pillage, eat children, or other such horrible acts, and may in fact be intelligent and speak a common tounge, but these creatures are not a "people," they are a force of evil. Pig-Orcs do not reproduce, do not have families, have no inherent culture beyond that which their master enforces. Settlements of Pig-Orcs are entirely strategic, either as a center for war operations or a camp for resting.
On the other hand, Man-Orcs are a fantasy species like any other. They have their own customs and culture, they have families, communities, art. Their physical appearance is based on their ancestral homelands, however that manifests. These orcs are capable of reproduction, and if biology supports it, making half-children with other compatible species. There may be factions of evil Man-Orcs, and there may be cultures that find outsiders to be lesser, but these are not inherent traits of the Man-Orc, but of their upbringing.
Why This Matters
Cool, two different kinds of Orcs, who cares? I do. My friends who care about diversity and representation do. My friends who care about having enemies to cut down without mercy do. You do.
The division of Man-Orcs and Pig-Orcs are important because it lets us have our cake and eat it too. When I first learned about the Orc debate, I struggled to understand why I had a hard time with it. I agreed that racist depictions of Orcs were bad, but also inherently knew that orcs-as-evil wasn’t, but couldn’t explain my stance. It wasn’t until reading a lot of blog posts, on both sides, that I came to realize that there was not 1 kind of Orc, but 2. Splitting Orcs up this way immediately fixed my understanding of the problem, and so I went about codifying this new position (which is likely not new, but one I didn’t find anywhere else.)
With this delineation made, what does this mean for worldbuilders, be it books, tabletop or video games? Pick an Orc and stick with it.
If you want Orcs to be the default enemy, you need to make sure they are Pig-Orcs (even if they don’t have pig heads.)
If you want Orcs to be a playable species, you need to make sure they are Man-Orcs, and give them the necessary due as a real and fully rounded culture.
This will help ensure your orc are not racist caricatures of marginalized people in either case. That’s not to say you can’t screw it up in other ways, but it’s a good starting point.
Finally, there is the inevitable "What if I want both kinds in my setting?" Here’s three ways I could imagine doing it right:
Orks and Orcs: Don’t actually use these names, it’s too confusing, but the idea of two, unrelated species that fills these two separate roles is totally reasonable. This is the best use case for games like 5e where the lines are blurred by the authors, such that Orks are the playable species and "Kros" are the evil that keeps stealing children.
Pinocchio Orcs: Like the story of Pinocchio, it could be that some group of Pig-Orcs were magically made "real" or "whole" by some powerful entity. This small group of Orcs are now a real culture, who must grapple with their entities of evil cousins. It’s important to note, for such a scenario, that you must avoid the tropes of "noble savages." These people did something to earn this gift, and it should be deeply engrained in their culture.
Corrupted Orcs: The opposite of the Pinocchio scenario, a group of orcs did some terrible act and were warped by it. In such a scenario, it may make sense to have an orcish organization dedicated to curing or eradicating these "lost cousins," and should come with physical signifier of such a change (maybe regular orcs are flesh-toned, and turn green when cursed.)
Again, be sure not to fall into other traps of biases, but hopefully this is a good starting point for you.