Some of my best friends are orcs

I hate orcs. I don’t mean by that that orcs are some kind of overused fantasy cliché, or that an orc killed my best friend. I hate orcs, because, when I GM, orcs (and occasionally goblins and gnolls and trolls and…) are everything I hate.

Orcs are barbarians. Think about it for a moment. They do not have culture. Orcs do not build houses. Orcs do not write poems. Orcs do not craft tools. Orcs kill and murder and steal, and they retreat to their hideouts with loot only when the enemy has the advantage of five to one, and when they’ve retreated they rest, multiply for a generation only to invade again. Gnolls eat people (and everything else, really). Goblins steal babies. Hobgoblins are Nazis only without the Wagner music. And don’t even get started on drow.

My point is that evil races are evil for a reason. They might be created by evil gods, but then again they might just be a society of assholes. Once a society has at least some kind of culture, it’s hard to treat it as ‘monsters’ (that’s why the cultured drow must be as perverted as humanly possible. When the society started to accept lesbians, the drow started to be in BDSM. When the society became more accommodating of that, drow switched to more exciting sides of demon worship).

Fighting orcs is one of the most exciting things in fantasy RPG – you fight the invasion forces of the Dark Lord, avenge your hometown, or defend it from future invasions. Orcs aren’t people, and they are always objectively wrong.

The first editions of D&D were about Law vs Chaos. The more recent ones, starting from AD&D, focused on Good vs Evil. But D&D, to me personally at least, is about Civilization vs. Barbarism. The PC races are the civilized ones. Oh sure, they fight and murder each other like every nation ever but they also cooperate. They build cities, trade, write poetry and make food together. Dwarves might end up as ghettoized outcasts in a human city, but they usually aren’t slaves, lunch or sacrifices.

Of course, this is just a game. Your interpretation of orcs is equally valid as mine. There are a lot of great books about monster races in fantasy, like Pratchett’s trolls or Hines’s goblins. I love Eberron partially because it treats all humanoids equally. And Eberron shows us that once orcs have some kind of culture, they become another race. They’re not red eyes and bloody axe, they’re not vengeful children of an insane god. They’re invaders to repel, and a war troop of orcs is as threatening as a group of highwaymen. I want orcs to be terrifying brutish invaders, goblins to be clever little buggers, and ogres to be child-eating bogeymen. This makes half-orcs truly heroic, fighting to overcome their tragic heritage.

Orcs are barbarians so that we don’t have to dehumanize actual humans. This is important – in pulp games Nazis are treated almost exactly like orcs, and yet it’s easy to forget that humans followed this ideology willingly! Humans are treated like monsters and monsters are people. Don’t take our monsters away, lest we forget what is a monster.