Thursday, October 22, 2020

This is an Orc

An orc by Jason Sholtis
I have a longstanding preference for pig-faced orcs, owing no doubt to the Dave Sutherland illustration that appears on the title page of the Holmes Basic rulebook, which depicts two fighters and a wizard fending off a horde of these vicious things. It's one of Sutherland's best pieces in my opinion, if only because it's stuck with me all these years and forever colored my view of these monstrous humanoids. 

I know there are plenty of other interpretations of orcs – let a thousand flowers bloom! – but I prefer an explicitly bestial version of them. This interpretation is a way of vacating the space better occupied by human antagonists, allowing orcs to serve as products of black magic and demonic sorcery rather than just another kind of bland goon whose only purpose is to occupy a space on a hit die progression chart. 


  1. I'm kind of drawn to AS&SH take on the origin of orcs, as human/pig faced demon hybrids. But pig faced orcs all the way.

  2. This topic has come up on a couple of gaming forums recently. So I hope you'll forgive me for quoting myself:

    "Because there are so many different things that come to mind nowadays when one says 'orc,' I actually mostly avoid the term in my games. What are orcs, anyway? Are they Tolkien's goblins? Warcraft's cool green people? The 'spectre, wight, or hell-devil' that haunted the Anglo-Saxons? I include all three.

    "For the original, mythical orcne (demon-corpse) of Dark Ages mythology, I use the thoul stats and call them draugr (although elves will still refer to them as orcneas). These are the creepy-ass shadow-monsters that haunt the misty, boggy places where you'd expect Grendel to stalk off the moors in the dead of night, sneak into your mead-hall, eat all your thanes, and murder all your athelings. Not something a 1st level party wants to run into in the dark, that's for sure.

    "For Tolkien's yrch, I actually ditched the concept of goblinoids altogether and replaced them with Chaos-spawned beastmen. So my campaigns have ratlike humanoids called skavers instead of kobolds, doglike humanoids called mogrels in place of goblins, piglike humanoids called gruuchs in place of orcs, etc. They're all brutish, violent, disgusting, semi-intelligent (barely smarter than animals if there isn't a demon-prince or a Dark Lord around to drive them with its evil intelligence and organize them into a Chaos army), and mostly just irredeemable little sacks of bonus XP.

    "For the Orsimer of videogameland, I make them one of my standard playable demihuman character classes, but I term them ogres instead of orcs. (This is etymologically tenable: the Old English word orcne almost certainly shares the same root as the Latinate word ogre, namely Latin Orcus, hell.) This does require that I shuffle some monsters around a little bit: the 4+1 HD monster becomes a troll and the 6+3 HD monster becomes an ettin (greater troll). For the most part, ogres in my campaign are portrayed as closer to the Elder Scrolls version than the Warcraft version, because come on, Elder Scrolls is just plain cool and its orcs are awesome."

  3. I've been thinking a lot about this too recently as I try to teach myself some basic illustration techniques.

    My mental orcs are from Tolkien, which I read mid-70's before a few years laying my eyes/hands on the Holmes Basic set. As a result, I always felt a bit off-put by PIG-orcs (as oppose to ape-ish). Still, orcs as twisted cross-breeding of men and animals with some fey thrown in still floats my boat far more than the weird World-of-Warcraft/Incredible-Hulk/Green-Martian-Tharks (sans extra arms) that have become all the rage.

  4. I like pig-orcs in D&D too - especially as D&D goblins are essentially Tolkien's orcs. As I mentioned on the 'Alternate Humanoids' post, you can track changes in D&D's conception of orcs from the "oversized goblins" of Chainmail (not quite right for Tolkien, whose Uruk-hai are still "goblins" and "goblin-soldiers", but near enough for *Uruks*) through to Swords & Spells, where orcs have acquired pig-faces (probably from the Hildebrandt Tolkien calendar) but are still significantly shorter than humans - in line with Tolkien - and then to the Monster Manual, where the Middle Earth link is broken decisively, with D&D orcs sprouting to 6'+ in height.

  5. I loved the Brothers Hildebrand look of fat, almost piggish orcs, though I always thought of them as apeish Brute men in my games , much as I think Tolkien described them (I may be wrong on that). But I admire the Peter Jackson films depiction of a wide variety of basic orcs, though the Uruks were kind of clones of each other. Love or hate the movies, the orcs had varying personalities, and since then I’ve tried to imbue them with some amount of individuality. Though all are for sure psychotic killers.

  6. I like my orcs as all-male creatures which can self-spawn, are assisted to spawn through sorcery, or through corruption of wayward boys like the donkeys in Pinocchio. I do really like your reference to Malificent's goons as I think that their appearance and behaviour matches what I've just written and would be happy to represent all orcs in the way Disney did.

  7. I don't mind beastmen of all kinds, but the "man" part always comes first -- sure the pigfolk will eat you, but really you smell of the roast pork their scouts say you cooking over the fire last night? The fighting billys of the goatmen see your wineskin of goathide, and the minotaurs remark on your boots before they charge.

    Homo homini lupus est

    A pig snout doesn't really change that, and I like my beastfolk to have rationality, cruelty and cunning that makes them the same as the humans they encounter - equally monstrous of course. The party can tlak to them, they just may not like what they hear, even though it makes perfect sense.

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  9. Like other comments made here, my D&D orcs blend various influences. In stature and overall look, they're similar to the Tolkien-Jackson orcs. However, in demeanor they're more like the barbaric yet relatable orcs of online games, with outright vileness more a preserve of my separate goblins. I give a small nod to House On The Borderlands inspired piggishnes, giving my orc magico-religious practitioners boar-skull head-dresses but otherwise have let it go: