Are we the baddies? – Why Evil Orcs are so 1985!
Well, after the excitement of my previous post on safety tools, I thought I would have a stab at another uncontroversial subject: subjective morality
The recent discourse around changes to the noted alignment of orcs and drow in Dungeons and Dragons has respawned one of the oldest discussions I can remember in roleplaying – what is Good and Evil?
I’m sure many of us will remember the older versions of Paladins. All Lawful Good with a long list of vows and strictures to follow, lest they become just a simple Fighter. And those Paladins would inevitably come face-to-face with a goblin lair, which they hack and slay their way through … to the nursery. The big, wet pleading eyes of the goblin children look up at them, as they raise their +5 Holy Avenger and then a voice echoes from somewhere around the table … “Killing innocent children doesn’t seem very Lawful or Good, does it?” and off to the pages of Dragon we went to debate whether Paladins could, indeed, slaughter goblin families willy nilly and still claim to be Good.
The thing is, I thought we had settled this back in the late 1980s. You know, just before vampires moved from ‘absolutely positively ok to kill on sight’ to ‘sympathetic creatures of tragedy to be looked at as vehicles of pathos’…
It’s something I have never understood really. Humans can be good or evil, nuanced creatures with multiple conflicting motivations and emotions. Dwarfs can be too. As can elves. Evil gnomes and even evil halflings exist in games. Twisted faeries, good-natured giants and all manner of other creatures show a full range of morality.
But Orcs? Drow? They MUST be evil. That’s CANON!
I wonder whether putting ourselves into the mindset of the Drow, they get up in the morning and think ‘You know what, I need to do some really evil shit today. For Lolth. Some despicable nasty shite that’s just plain wicked.’ OR do they think ‘Blessed Lolth, may my actions today bring honour unto your many-legged form, and by thought and deed will I make myself a better worshipper of your faith.’
I’m going to suggest the latter. They don’t see themselves as evil. No one sees themselves as evil, for fucks sake. What nonsense. Evil is perceived, surely, as a comparison between what someone does/says and what you would do/say in terms of morality and tolerance. And THAT comparison is viewed through a lens of your own personal, out-of-game, moral code. The chances of an entire species being evil is … ridiculous.
Moreover, this just feels like clipping off something officially that has been accepted off-hand for, well, decades everywhere but the most hardcore of old-school tables.
Some of the most satisfying games I have run have subverted the moral expectations of the genre when it comes to fantasy species and ‘good vs evil’. Long before Spire was a thing (and what a magnificent thing it is) I ran a campaign at a convention where the opening scene was the land, sea and air invasion of a sleepy human kingdom by marauding noble High Elves ‘taking back’ the land that once belonged to their ancestors. I portrayed them as ruthless, driven and cruel. What made it more chilling was that in their mindset, they were totally within their rights – it was a natural assertion of their place in the world, after years of human domination. I’ve had goblins as an analogue of the family-based trading city-states before, pushing commerce around the world. I’ve had noble Minotaurs defending a snowy mountain pass, 300-Style, to buy humanity time against a horde of onrushing undead.
Not one eyelash has been batted about it at the table!
We can even look to franchises that just get on with it in their own way, like World of Warcraft.
When the Warcraft franchise became the World of Warcraft with the launch of the MMO, players were asked to make a choice; Horde or Alliance? The bestial, tusk-faced orcs and their allies or the silver-armoured humans of Stormwind and their allies? The Horde, made up of Orcs, Trolls, Tauren and the Undead were surely the ‘baddies’ right? The Alliance, grouping Humans, Dwarves, Gnomes and Night Elves were the ‘goodies’?
Well, not quite. If you encountered the WoW world from the Horde perspective for the first time, as I did, and especially as a Tauren player, you had a painting of the Alliance as a zealous, persecuting force, hard set on destroying your way of life. I remember the first time you really encountered the Alliance proper, near Ratchet – there was a real sense of invasion. And as an Alliance player, the Horde is just that, an invading horde of bad guy tropes, all set to destroy your way of life.
However, neither side really positioned itself as out-and-out moustache-twirling villains. The orcs, for example, had a constant power struggle for leadership between extreme and moderate orc leaders. And their backstory is quite tragic, as refugees from another world. They also, essentially, have the poster boy for the franchise in Thrall, the orc shaman and noble embodiment of one of the lead designers. The trolls are deeply spiritual, and the Tauren – a native American parallel – always seem ill-fitted to their role. Even the undead are the victims of past events, trying to carve out an unlife in their blighted former kingdom.
As the franchise has progressed, these differences have been softened even more. Now, Horde and Alliance characters have fought together against all manner of Old God badness and rallied against common enemies. Thrall and Anduin are best mates. It’s not really a World of WARcraft anymore, and I doubt anybody really feels the morality of the setting is a strict moral binary.
We see this relative morality everywhere in fantasy and SF – is Judge Dredd a heroic figure battling the evils of the future? Or is he a poster boy for an ultra-oppressive fascist regime? Were the workers on the Death Star complicit with the crimes of the Empire, or were they merely workers who had no power to stand up against their oppressors and had to collaborate to survive, or not, as it were, after the rebel terrorists had their way? Is House Atreides the noble caretaker of Arrakis? Or is it just another version of the Emperor’s chokehold on the planet – same oppressor, different flag?
Beyond all that, there’s another phenomenon at play here that we might want to consider, and that is the way many of the new 5e gamers view their interaction with the D&D product and especially the official product. I’m sure you will have seen a reference to something called ‘home brew’? When I first heard it I thought it was talking about someone who had made up new classes or whatever.
Oh no … it’s used to refer to someone making up their own ‘homebrew’ adventure, and not using ‘official’ campaigns. I know, right? Head scratching…
But in a world where we might well have millions of new players across the globe who view the Word of Wizards to be the absolute official version and anything that deviates from that as an unofficial, unlicensed and potentially just wrong hack, maybe Wizards have to be a little more circumspect in what they publish?
When they published the Monsters of the Multiverse book, it essentially did a delete-all-and-replace on Volo’s Book of Monsters and in doing so, removed some very specific stuff about those popular monsters. It threw the official ‘canon’ back into the hands of the individual GM to ‘homebrew’. I can easily see a case where changes to defined alignments is another step in this process.
So, like so many of these so-called controversial topics, it’s all boiled down to not a lot of anything. Do you want pure Evil Orcs? Have them. You want Drow to be the same ‘kill on sight’ creatures as zombies. Do it! But it’s no longer the game’s default, and that is, in the balance of things, probably a good thing.