Orcs and Evil in Dungeons & Dragons

Christopher Hunt

Were the elves, dwarves, and orcs of Dungeons & Dragons created in God’s image?

Offhand, we might answer, “Of course not; they don’t exist.” Yet, as we bear the image of our creator, we emulate his creativity with our own. From that viewpoint, these imaginary creatures—and others like them (hobbits and faeries)—were most certainly created in the image of humankind. And it’s that fact that some fans of D&D find troubling, citing that many of the same stereotypes used to classify real-world peoples of different races, colors, and ethnicities as "other" have been used to make these imaginary peoples in the game "other," as well. It’s a conversation that has been going on for a long time; in 2020, D&D publishers Wizards of the Coast announced a number of updates to address issues on race.

Character race is fundamental to Dungeons & Dragons. The very first decision a player makes when creating a character is to choose a race—or, more accurately, a species: traditionally human, elf, dwarf, gnome, or halfling, along with the more nuanced “mixed species” half-orc and half-elf. These distinctions establish the character’s biological traits and cultural heritage. Among the updates by Wizards of the Coast were those that greatly expanded the range of choices for players to now include D&D’s traditional villains: goblins, orcs, dark elves, hobgoblins, etc. I can now choose to play an orc; generally, orcs have been understood to be evil in their very essence. While some would argue that being evil is what makes an orc an orc, others find that predetermined moral outlook of good or evil as an unwanted imposition on the player.

Sci-fi and fantasy author N. K. Jemisin explained why she doesn’t include creatures like orcs in her writing: “Orcs are fruit of the poison vine that is human fear of ‘the Other.’ In games like Dungeons & Dragons, orcs are a ‘fun’ way to bring faceless savage dark hordes into a fantasy setting and then gleefully go genocidal on them.” For Jemisin, orcs are “an amalgamation of stereotypes” and represent a “[k]inda-sorta-people, who aren’t worthy of even the most basic moral considerations, like the right to exist.” Even while a player nowadays may opt to roleplay an orc character, that baked-in evil ethos has been presented as typical of the culture. Orcs appearing as monsters that player characters may encounter in their adventures still have that evil horde vibe. “Orcs are savage humanoids,” according to one official website for D&D. “They gather in tribes that satisfy their bloodlust by slaying any humanoids that stand against them.”

Most of these fictional “races” in Dungeons & Dragons descend from ancient European folklore, filtered through modern fantasy fiction. The creators of D&D, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, riffed on the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, among others, to populate their game, lifting some ideas out of Middle-earth wholesale. This included the inherent, implacable hatred that orcs had for everyone else. Orcs are quite purposely Tolkien’s irredeemable other. And they were undoubtedly created in human image. Tolkien scholar Dimitra Fimi quotes the author describing orcs in a letter: “The Orcs are definitely stated to be corruptions of the ‘human’ form seen in Elves and Men. They are (or were) 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.”

To me, that last is a blatantly racist remark, yet I recognize that one comment sums up neither Tolkien nor his orcs. As Fimi points out, Tolkien created his world in the style of a medieval chronicler, placing his creatures in the hierarchy of his own “great chain of being:” immortal elves near the top, mortal humans right in the middle, and condemned orcs at the very bottom. But, these lowest of the low find their origin from higher up in Tolkien’s order of being: the first orcs were made from twisted and corrupted elves who had been deceived into rebelling against their creator by Middle-earth’s version of the “devil.” From that standpoint, they are much like the demons of the Bible, fallen angels with no hope of salvation. It was this repugnant image and intrinsically evil nature that Gygax and Arneson transplanted into D&D.

Traditionally, orcs were much like the demons of the Bible, fallen angels with no hope of salvation.

I rolled up my first D&D character in 1982 at age 12. Even as my warrior, Elemon, slew orcs by the score, I wondered how whole societies of creatures could be entirely evil . . . or entirely good, for that matter. Back then I couldn’t have articulated it this way, but if the creation reflects its creator, it’s no wonder that an elf or an orc, bearing human image and “created” by humans, also bears human brokenness—not only in its depiction, but also in the inspiration for its creation. In our world, sin has corrupted God’s good creation. “As it is written: ‘There is no one righteous, not even one.’” Apart from Jesus Christ, we are the evil hordes of our own world. I’m not surprised, then, that in worlds of our own making, we deflect away from ourselves the role of villain and assign it to some other, like orcs or goblins.

In the wake of the police killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter demonstrations that followed, the discussion about race and racism in D&D took on new energy. As part of their response, Wizards of the Coast updated how player characters are created in December of 2021. Character races like orcs, goblins, and dark elves are no longer identified as “typically evil;” they may be good or evil as defined by how they act, according to the will of their player. God created us in his own image. Ever since sin entered the world, some humans have denied that truth in other people based on one superficial pretext or another. The salvific work of Jesus Christ breaks down all those false divisions, calling God’s image-bearers into an unbreakable unity as his church.

Wizards’ new approach remakes the fantasy races in D&D so that, even while we may not recognize the image of God in them, we can more clearly see reflections of ourselves in their common humanity. Of course the elves, dwarves, and orcs of Dungeons & Dragons are imagined beings, but the players who take on their roles are real humans, beloved of God. For me, the simple act of affirming the moral worth of these fictional creatures highlights the incalculable worth of the real person playing the game.

Topics: Games