“Orcs are human beings who can be slaughtered without conscience or apology.” This damning assessment of one of fantasy’s most ubiquitous villains comes from N. K. Jemisin, titan of modern fantasy and slayer of outdated genre tropes. As “kinda-sorta-people,” she writes, orcs are “fruit of the poison vine that is human fear of ‘the Other.’” The only way to respond to their existence is to control them or remove them.
What is an orc? To their creator, J. R. R. Tolkien, they are “squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes: in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.” More than half a century after Tolkien wrote that description in a letter, here is how Dungeons & Dragons describes the orc in the latest Monster Manual, where all such demi-humans are relegated: “Orcs are savage raiders and pillagers with stooped postures, low foreheads, and piggish faces.” Half-orcs, which are half-human and therefore playable according to Player’s Handbook rules, are “not evil by nature, but evil does work within them.” Some venture into the human-dominated world to “prove their worth” among “other more civilized races.”
Genetic determinism is a fantasy tradition. Dwarves are miners and forgers. Half-orcs are rampageous. Elves have otherworldly grace and enjoy poetry. Dark elves, known as Drow, have skin that “resembles charcoal” and are associated with the evil spider queen Lolth. As both a ruleset and a fantasy backdrop, D&D is in the business of translating these racial differences into numerical scores: Dwarves get extra points when they try to hit something with a battleaxe. Elves get plus two dexterity. Half-orcs’ “savage attack” lets players reap extra damage off a critical hit. All because of their race.
D&D has mostly shunned the same approach when it comes to gender. The original version, from 1974, had no special rules for women player characters, but a Dragon magazine column from 1976, with the header “Bringing the Distaff Gamer into D&D,” gave some women’s strength scores a nerf compared to men’s, and replaced their charisma scores with one for “beauty.” Those rules didn’t stick, and the latest Players’ Handbook reminds gamers that they “don’t need to be confined to binary notions of sex and gender.”
Over the years, however, D&D has made only trivial movements away from racial essentialism. Sure, publisher Wizards of the Coast has removed, for example, half-orcs’ –2 debuff to intelligence. One faction of orcs has more complex, even humanizing qualities in a recent book. Yet the stereotyping remains.
The game’s designers know they have a problem, too. In June 2020, when Black Lives Matter protests swept the country, the D&D development team posted a blog titled “Diversity and Dungeons & Dragons.” In no uncertain terms, this explained how D&D’s 50-year history of characterizing orcs and Drow as monstrous and evil is “painfully reminiscent of how real-world ethnic groups have been and continue to be denigrated. That’s just not right, and it’s not something we believe in.” To make things right, they said, D&D would offer new descriptions and possible rule changes for races in supplementary books, and correct some past errors.
You can only get so far with a couple of rule changes and a $30 book. D&D is a fantasy game, and fantasy has this unfortunate obsession with an anti-intellectual sort of ethnography. These people live in this place and behave like so, by nature. These other people don’t get along with them, simply because they are civilized and they are uncivilized. D&D cocreator Gary Gygax’s nods toward fantasy forefather Tolkien—including elves, dwarves, halflings (hobbits), and orcs—were so obvious that Tolkien Enterprises threatened to take copyright action. Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian series and H. P. Lovecraft’s horror fiction—the latter focused on the immeasurably horrible “other”—also served as inspiration for the first D&D rulebooks.
Fantasy worlds are, definitionally, made up. There doesn’t have to be racism, yet in some of fantasy’s most cherished texts it is almost always present. Helen Young, author of Race and Popular Fantasy Literature, has cataloged the prevalence of fantasy racism across countless fantasy media. “I ended up finding that it’s rare for a fantasy world not to have an idea of race or racism built into it,” says Young, particularly in the way that fantasy heroes and beauties are often coded as white. For Howard, desirable women were “lily-white.” Elves, considered a superior race, were fair-skinned and light-eyed. In his work and Tolkien’s, she says, “pretty much all of their own evil races—and even evil individuals, for the most part—are based on anti-black, anti-Semitic or Orientalist stereotypes.”