On Mordor, Where the Jock Orcs Lie

I've been running around Mordor and everything is fine.

Shadow of Mordor allows you to play a zombie(?) bonded with the forger of the rings of power as a wraith and run around and kill orcs. A lot of orcs.

Yes. Celebrimbor. He's your wraith buddy. Gollum shows up also. Ah, the joys of licensed property. I think if they released a game, and had no tie-ins, people would complain. For me, seeing stuff like that yanks me right out of the game. It is the exact same thing with putting Drizzt into a computer game or module.

I wonder, are people daft? Let me try this another way. Do you know anyone in your actual life, who would encounter a known NPC of a licensed property, like Elminster or Drizzt, in a module or computer game, who would react by going "How cool!" It's the Dungeon Masters Non-Player Character on maximum overdrive.

Maybe I just don't know those people. Maybe it's a thing. I don't like it.

That's not even what we're talking about today. We're talking about lousy orcs.

The Orc and the Jock

So, what does the orc do all day?

The orc depicted in the game are visually designed after Peter Jackson's orcs from the films, not the "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" of Tolkien's myth. They appear comforting visually—not disturbingly like asians.

But the game involves you running around orc dominated areas. You spend a lot of time observing orcs as you sneak around. What does the orc do all day?

Apparently his best impression of that guy who beat you up in high school, with a healthy dose of being a sh^&bird.

That's not to say there isn't a high degree of creativity and menace in individual orcs. Each can be promoted if they kill you, and they independently engage in power struggles and get promoted all on their own. Some random orc that got in a lucky stab on you can end up a warchief. And once promoted, they all gain certain personality traits. Some rhyme or sing, others are cowards, and still other braggarts. This is by far the best part of the game.

But for the most part, you're sneaking about listening to orcs. What do orcs do? They drink (grog which you can poison to make them fight each other), they brag, they piss, and they pick on "pinkskins".

So if you're not interacting with the orcs, they act just like stereotypical jocks picking on nerds. Is this because the game is written by programmers? PERHAPS. Whatever the reason, the braggadocio comes off as false. (I'd like to say as an aside, I'm talking only about their actions while you're in stealth. When you actually engage them and the captains, they say some neat things and act in some cool ways.)

But what is the solution? It is a problem that goes beyond this gam, and extends into the entire realm of evil and disposable bad guys. How do you have disposable bad guys? Aren't they people too?

Tolkien himself even struggled with this, revisioning the origin of the orcs over and over, struggling to come up with something that made sense. Even by the time of his death, he had failed to come up with a satisfactory solution.

The question is, what does evil look like when it isn't being evil? All too often our conceptions of evil have more to do with our own psychological fears and failings then actual representations of evil. Personally, I spent a lot of time around people who acted somewhat similarly to the orcs in Mordor (though not quite as craven or cruel) and the conception leaves me feeling less like the orcs are evil, and more like my protagonist is a social reject, which I cannot imagine was the intent.

Not everyone was unpopular/unhappy in high school/college.

What does real, palpable, detects as glowing purple evil do on its day off?

Evil on Vacation

The problem, is, of course, subjective morality. No one, besides the deranged, actually believes that they are committing acts of evil. Even the most unstable acts done by people are simply rational responses from their perspective. What does real, vicious, evil do when nobody is looking?

Well, here are some ideas on that front:

  • Evil doesn't create. It can only corrupt or destroy. 
  • Evil is external and inimical to this plane or force of reality (which still leads to the question of how they spend their free time.)
  • Natural unstoppable forces that care nothing for human concerns or morality (earthquakes or old ones)
  • They are extremists regarding race or outlook. (Nobody cries when you kill a Nazi or Dalek/space nazi)
  • Living weapons (which then give ground to explore what it is a living weapon does in free time)

The whole point is to have faceless mooks you can murder without consequence. But is that of value? Philosophically, what is the problem with accepting that the people you are killing are, you know, actually people?

Probably that probe is a little complex for blowing off steam during a game of some sort, but it doesn't have to be. Gnolls can have little gnoll babies and be hostile to humans. And then you can kill the gnolls. And even they have their own culture, you don't have to respect them. But you don't have to take the extra step and justify them as being irredeemably evil. You could just, you know, be ok with being a murdering douchebag.

One of the changes I've noticed since implementing On the Non-Player Character in all of my games is that some groups and players will leverage social skills to move through the dungeon/adventure instead of combat. It provides another mechanical cog that allows the players to interact with the world in a meaningful way. Literally, due to it being a mechanical objective interface for social conflict, players can leverage that power and talk the bad guy into at the very least not being hostile to the party.

It doesn't stop the bad guys from being jerks, of course, and sometimes they end up being killed anyway, for very good reasons like "I want your magic item." and "Well, I guess you are worth some experience."

Hack & Slash 


  1. Yeah they're people too, so what? No one - not even soulless orcs - can be engaged in evil activities 100% of the time. Even Orthanc needed plumbing, and how are you supposed to show a plumber who is plumbing evilly? Just because they aren't whipping slaves or raping puppies right now, that doesn't mean that they don't deserve a good killing for things that they have done or for the goals they are working towards.

    I wonder if the problem stems from Hollywood's notion that you can't show a bad guy getting what's coming to him at the hands of the hero until after you have established visually that the bad guy deserves it. In a video game like this (full disclosure: haven't played it - basing this conjecture on your description,) one where wanton slaughter can occur at the drop of a helm, the designers likely followed Hollywood's lead and wanted to establish that any rando orc encountered deserved a good killing *right now*. Instead of accepting that while Orc #62633 is engaged in a little light carpentry *at this moment*, last month that orc helped butcher three small villages in the Westfold. And while it may look like the senseless murder of a carpenter-orc, we all know it is a well earned retribution for off-screen activity.

    To put it another way, I would rephrase the question: Philosophically, what is the problem with accepting that the people you are killing are, you know, actually evil?

  2. This is at least a post-enlightenment and probably even a 21st century attitude. For most of human history the equation was simple:

    Not us = evil.

    The people in the other tribe were always evil. The way they ate, drank, pissed and loved their children was evil. The children themselves were evil. Even when we were trading with them they were evil.

    Killing those outside the circle of empathy was not murder. How could it be? They aren't human like us so homicide doesn't apply.

    However, our circle of empathy has expanded since the enlightenment and is doing so exponentially. There are no more "others" on Earth.

    Fortunately, there still are in RPGs.

  3. I think it's easier if you think of different types of evil

    1) People who want something and don't care who they have to hurt to get it so it's more a function of lack of restraint - and their minions who are often more stupid or cruel or in some other way flawed at a level below evil. Without the leader they'd just be malicious.

    2) Tribal - us vs them - this was normal for most of human history and is still true to an extent - and makes perfect sense for carnivorous predators who need a certain minimum exclusive hunting range to survive. Treating different groups as simply having different sizes of circle of empathy can work e.g. each tribe of gnolls hates everyone else including other gnoll tribes. Some humans are the same. Goodie humans, dwarves, elves etc might have a circle that can extend to anyone capable of reciprocating.

    Orcs could be played as either of those.

    3) Supernatural evil - this is less rooted in IRL types of behavior but instead ties into the setting. For example some undead god that wants everyone dead. I actually see Tolkein's orcs like that - they have been given a craving, like a heroin addiction, for the flesh of humans and elves and it gnaws at them constantly driving them insane.

  4. I've always liked the "engineered in alchemic vats of demon ichor by half-mad sorcerer kings" schtick. Beings designed from the DNA up to be shock troops for the dark armies of some evil demiurge or another. They may not necessarily be invariably "Evil" but they are far more aggressive than your average schmuck and are born with the knowledge of how to wage war built into right their brains. Some might restrain their natural impulses and live in a tense peace with their neighbors, many don't.

    At least that's my excuse for including them as both psychotically violent mooks and a barbarian/berserker race-as-class option in my campaigns.

  5. The players in my previous campaigns didn't typically encounter orcs in their homelands; this was by design. The orc homeland was on the other side of a vast waste, and there was little reason to go there except to kill orcs. The orcs they did encounter, however, were typically part of a raiding party that had come from their homeland to spend a couple of months raiding villages: you know, take what they can, then bring it home. This was their reason for holing up in a dungeon and for storing treasure/prisoners, but they didn't show up in the winter and spring - only summer and autumn. Because the players knew that these orcs were basically murderers, thieves, and slavers there was never a moral dilemma about how to handle them. Just some food for thought about how someone else has handled it.

  6. On Orcs; obsessed with brutishness, uncaring of harm to other orcs and even shoddy about self care. They will do their duty, sharing things out and making today's grub for the guys, but grudgingly. They see other folks as doing something wrong just by being there, and those that are having a good time must die! They do get bizare hobbies in their off moments, collecting live flies they have pulled the wings off of, stomping on flowers, biting other orcs while they are sleeping and running away.
    Some can be trained and forced to put hammer to steel on an anvil. Such orcs get a taste for the industry and machinery as long as it is harsh and in some way harmful to others. They have no sense of aesthetics however and make totally utilitarian things and crudely at that.
    Their second greatest obsession is playing power games among themselves, wrestling to see who is boss (and no rules), black mailing each other, punishing each other for imagined wrongs, stealing whenever it might give a moments entertainment.
    They collect possessions but are careless with them and lose interest, but woe betide anyone who takes one of their things, unless its a tougher orc.
    They do not have loyalty to leaders. As soon as an orc is bored, has nothing to fight or steal and no enforced duty then they scheme about hierarchy. However the top orcs keep finding "important tasks" for the lower ranks to reduce their scheming.
    There are no, zero, zip, nada friendships among orcs, it is perpetually every orc from himself within orc society. Only during conflict with others is there a united front and it does not remain stable even then.

    1. So...mindlessly killing orcs and taking their stuff isn't so much genocide as it is honoring their own cultural norms. That's awesome!

    2. Very much in keeping with my views.

      It's not merely their cultural norms, conflict and cruelty is the lens through which they view the world. This is made easier by making them alchemical or sorcerous creations, though I suppose a biological species "raised" by parents more interested in teaching their kids hard knocks (if they interact at all) is possible, though unpleasant to think about. Even more unpleasant to think about how such a species is propagated.

  7. Philosophically, the problem with accepting that they are people is that there's an immediate follow-up question: Do you HAVE to be fighting them? If you storm their home (fighting them over there so we aren't fighting them over HERE!), take their stuff, kill all the adults, orphan and traumatize their children...before killing them, because that's what Adventurers/Humans/Paladins do, then doesn't that make YOU the bad guy?

    But, here's a thought that isn't done often. What if:

    Orcs ARE people. They make comfortable homes, write beautiful poetry, raise loving families, create inventions, tell bright happy fairy tales to their adorable kids, and have rich inner lives.

    ...back in the orcish homeland, that is.

    But, it turns out its the ORCS who are the intolerant assholes. The Orcs you are fighting are a combination of Viking Raider and Crusader Knight, the second sons from those nice cozy Orc suburbs who are exporting their violence. Some of them are motivated by greed and just being angry young men trying to find their way in life, but they are officially invading for purely religious reasons. They are not permitted (or cannot communicate the religious histories in the high pitched dog whistle of a sacred language they MUST be passed down in) to proselytize their religion to any other race aside from other Orcs, and they cannot allow their women or children to settle in a land where they might be threatened (intellectually, mostly) by non-believers. And this doesn't seem like a huge tragedy to them because, what, were they supposed to use REASON AND FAIRNESS? With disgusting elves and humans? How absurd! Snarf, snarf.

  8. Of course, I actually have thought about this problem, and have been working on another, separate, theory. Its not just subjective morality.

    If a might-be-educated-to-be-good race has a culture of regularly doing bad things, then some good (or just neutral, whatevs) person might be forgiven for calling them "evil" and possibly even for jumping to silly conclusions like thinking they don't love their children.

    Maybe gnoll kids closer to viscous feral, animals who run out into the wild after birth and only rejoin the pack after they go through sapience-puberty, instead of the helpless maintenance-heavy waifs that need constant coddling that humans are used to, but calling them hellspawn just for being different is jumping the shark.

    The problem, as I see it, is that D&D has card-carrying bad guys. Not only can Paladin look at you and say "Yep. Evil.", if you happen to be an Anti-Paladin, you walk around wearing black armor *announcing* to everyone "MWAHAHAHHA! I AM THE VILLAIN! _I_ AM GOING TO KILL EVERYONE! IT'S ME! LIKE GOLDEN FREDDY, ITS MEEEEE!" There are whole religions devoted to self-proclaimed-and-proud-of-it evil gods who literally direct their worshipers from their many diverse divine thrones...in HELL. And none of the bad guys ever denies that they are evil or say things like "There is no Good or Evil. There is only power, and those who are too weak to wield it."

    You know, instead of a world where Dragons are Color-Coded for your convenience, they could be just big lizards with a taste for gold, entire flocks of livestock, and temptingly helpless bound virgins. Halflings and centaurs could be just as much of a threat as Trolls and Goblins. Heck, in classical art, centaurs are supposed to kidnap woman in rape-raids, but one of them still trained mythic heroes like Hercules. Lizardfolk are already neutral and a dark enough shade of gray that you actually might be better off using the Zapp Brannigan school of suspicion towards neutrality. Just consider how dangerous all the "good" creatures really are and how silly the movitations for war between RL humans have been over the course of history and you'll come up with something to run! Besides, its mostly the ugly creatures that get called "always Chaotic Evil", and that's some dodgy reasoning right there.

    The LotR Orcs, it should be noted, are sired from elves who were basically tortured, bred, probably cursed, and stripped of their cultural identity by Melkor (Silmarillion Satan, basically) to become an aggressive warrior/slave race. So all of those Jock Orcs in the video? That you killed in Shadow of Mordor? They're elves. Elves taken away from their mamas and abused. Every single one of them. Every Orc is a Driz'zt just waiting to happeeeeeeen OH MY GOD THAT'S TERRIFYING, KILL THEM ALL!

    1. "Every Orc is a Driz'zt just waiting to happeeeeeeen OH MY GOD THAT'S TERRIFYING, KILL THEM ALL!"

      If ever there was an entirely justifiable excuse for complete multiversal genocide of a sentient species, that would be it.

  9. The Orcs in my game come in two general varieties with a myriad of variations. There are your "civilized" ones that are similar to the Orcs you'd see in Oblivion & Skyrim and then there are the wild ones who cling to the old ways ... a combination of Hills Have Eyes mutant cannibals and Deliverance hillbillies.
    I don't really buy into the idea that Orcs or any creatures need to be universally evil to make killing them palatable. I suppose there are players who are squeamish and need justifications like that but I haven't run into any. As a player, I've killed more Humans over the years than Orcs and fifty percent or more of those Humans were neutrally-aligned rather than evil. I'm sure some of those neutral bandits who made the mistake of trying to rob my adventuring companions and me had tragic stories or were driven to that life in an effort to feed their starving families but none of that mattered. If the encounter had been a friendly conversation at a tavern instead of an ultimatum on the road, we might have tried to help them find an alternative career ... maybe hired them on. As it was, it was us or the bandits and we preferred it be them. There was no need to make them snarling brutes or cackling mad mustache twirlers to justify their deaths.

  10. I think another useful tool for dealing with this question is the idea that (to borrow from Sondheim) "nice is different than good." A character can be primarily driven by a love of theft and violence ~and~ still enjoy a (comparatively) quiet evening spent drinking with his comrades and reminiscing about the time they flayed that annoying gnome. It's touched on in other places here on the blog, but being evil doesn't necessarily have to mean you're also an asshole - you could be really fun and personable, ~while also~ being totally down to disembowel a baby later. I think introducing this spectrum allows one to fill in most of the blanks re: "What evil's coffee break looks like."


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