How to think like an Orc

I often rag on Fantasy for being a genre populated solely by novels derived almost directly from either the writings of Tolkien, Robert E. Howard or hybridized from both. The fact that I am critical of it, does not mean I don’t love the genre. There is something to be said for immersing oneself in the familiar pseudo-medieval world full of magic of mythical creatures. I guess part of my slight disdain for Fantasy literature is my gaming background. I played lots of fantasy themed campaigns in various settings, under various systems – from Warhammer FRP to GURPS Fantasy and everything in between. I played fantasy themed tabletop games, Tolkien based collectible card games and etc. I inhabited these worlds, and I know them inside out. I can write essays about the similarities and differences of Elves in various D&D based settings as compared to say Warhammer Fantasy Elves or Tolkien Elves. So when I pick up a book, and see a writer try to treat me to his version of Elves/Dwarves/Orcs I can read between the lines, and usually trace his inspirations to particular novel series, or game franchise.

I really do appreciate when authors diverge from the common fantasy archetypes and build non-Tolkienesque bestiaries. Great example of this is Perdido Street Station which comes with completely unique menagerie of sentient races, and original mythology. That’s the sort of thing I enjoy – stories that break the mold and try something different. Either that, or shake up and subvert the established archetypes.

I touched upon this subject before when I wrote about the Family Life of Orcs. Orcs are the ubiquitous fantasy antagonists that die by the dozens at the hands of the noble heroes – so my idea was to invert this dynamic. Portray Orcs not as bloodthirsty monsters, but as territorial tribal people just trying to live their lives, raise their children and expand their influence. They are not inherently evil, but simply different – they don’t speak the common tongue, they do not understand human culture and customs. It was an interesting thought exercise, so I figured we could do this again.

This time though, I want to go further and play around with their biological and psychological makeup. Let’s say that you don’t want to make them more likable or easy to empathize with. Perhaps you want them to be bloodthirsty, remorseless monsters. How do you sell that though? I mean yes – the rulebook, bestiary or whatever supplementary lore you are using will probably tell you that Orcs are evil by nature. I don’t like that assumption. I think that the whole idea of “evil aligned races” is a storytelling crutch. A person can be evil – I buy that. But a whole race? How do chaotic evil creatures even form a stable society?

There are way around this conceptual issue. For example you could claim that Orcs have magical origin and blame their alignment on some evil deity or sorcerer. But then you are just trading off one tired trope for another (wizard did it). So I don’t like this approach either.

You could also do what Warhammer universe did and simply claim that Orcs are not as much evil, as they are stupid and infantile. Warhammer Orcs are actually sentient fungi (no, I’m not shitting you – look it up) and they don’t really have much going on in the brain department. They don’t have much of a society as they have a horde, that accomplishes things mostly thanks to inertia and forward momentum of mob mentality. The brighter individuals can wind up the horde and direct it’s energy toward a target. Without a leader, their society fractures and falls apart due to a never ending maelstrom of in-fighting. I’m actually somewhat fond of this interpretation.

But let’s say you want to do something else. You want the super-competent Tolkienesque Uruk-hai rather than comic relief Orcs of Warhammer universe. Let’s play around with this concept and come up with way to justify their behavior without simply saying “they are evil”.

Our new Orcs are going to be a humanoid race that has evolved alongside (or apart of) us, but initially filled a different ecological niche. They spent their formative generations in different environment, responding to different outside pressures and thus have different adaptations. It stands to reason that Orcs would be morphologicaly and neurologically different from us. Their minds would very possibly work quite differently from ours.

Here is a real world example – chimpanzees are often considered the intellectuals of the animal kingdom. They are our fastest and brightest students, learning to resolve logical puzzles and matching patterns faster than any other of our Great Apes cousins. But there is one area where they do worse than, for example, orangutans: self awareness. Chimps often fail to recognize themselves in the mirrors, and fail tests that require counter-intuitive logic. Orangutans are less logically inclined and slower learners, but have more developed self awareness. They are more like us in that aspect – they understand mirrors, they are able to empathize and figure out puzzles that baffle chimps. They seem to have more developed higher brain functions, but since these are slow costly (from purely biological standpoint) to run, they under-perform on pure pattern matching intelligence tests, than the animals that devote more circuitry to just stimulus processing rather than implementation. There is a difference between raw intelligence and self awareness.



This concept is actually one of the core themes in Blindsight by Peter Watts. He really sells the idea in the novel, and has lots of support for it in the footnotes. The basic idea is that our self awareness is an evolutionary fluke. We got it for free because it was dragged into our genome, linked to some other trait that was heavily selected for back in Pleistocene, and it is mostly baggage that holds us back in terms of raw intelligence and performance metrics. And as evidenced by experiments with Chimps intelligence and self awareness are not as closely linked as we usually assume. Honestly, read Blindsight for a long form explanation – it is a fascinating book either way.

Here is how all of this applies to Orcs. Let’s imagine a race which evolved high functioning intelligence, but very little self awareness. They can use tools and build shelters but create no art. They form social groups, effectively hunt in packs and perhaps even have a functional language but never develop a culture. They are not introspective. They do not attach importance to the concept of self. They are driven mostly by instinct. They are fast and very adaptive – their agile minds driven in large part by the animalistic, reptilian brain that we buried under lots of gray matter. Think about how your brain acts during a fight-or-flight reflex – your body moves on its own, without cognition, without conscious thought. That’s how Orcs are all the time. Driven, motivated but not aware. Completely free of existential issues and high concepts such as love, loyalty, freedom. But blessed with an over-abundance of purely functional intellect that can be used for developing better weapons, better hunting strategies and etc… Unlike animals they are extremely adaptive – they invent new tools and alter their behavior and lifestyles in response to changes in their environment.

Does this sound like Orcs yet? It sounds like them to me. And they are not evil at all – they are just wired differently. Perfect antagonists who can be complete and utter bastards, without actually needing to have some convoluted motivation or alignment related excuse.

Imagine this race of intelligent but instinct driven monsters stumbling upon human settlements. They would be dumbfounded by our art, by the our useless, functionless things we surround ourselves with, by our flowery language full of useless gibberish. They would probably recognize our intellect, but see us as slow, vapid, amorphous space wasters busy processing meaningless cognitive garbage. They would be faster than us – their whole lives are one fluid motion. No thought but action. No reflection, just forward movement. They work faster, breed faster, build faster and react faster to environmental changes. They are better in every way except one – they have no culture, no concept of beauty, and no empathy. They have no need for such things. On the surface they would appear to us as barbaric, inhuman beasts organized into some military society.

They would probably be aggressive, expansive and completely uninterested in trade or peaceful coexistence. We would not get along at all. In fact, they would flood us in waves that coincide with their breeding seasons. Each year they would pump out more and more babies that would reach maturity in record time, quickly exhaust food resources and be forced to move in huge armed throngs to richer and more fertile lands – those controlled by humans.

You could build a whole campaign around exploring this idea. Have players learn the ecological dangers of allowing Orcs to breed freely without inhibitions. Or how their brutal raids on human lands are essentially their instinctive solution to overpopulation. Their armies either get wiped out, or conquer enough territory to support the next generation resolving the food and space shortage issues one way or the other.

What do you think?

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20 Responses to How to think like an Orc

  1. Iodine DENMARK Google Chrome Windows says:

    This is a very neat take on orcs. I like it. I think though, that many of the differences between these orcs and other “classic” orcs would probably never really come to the fore during gameplay. But the blindsight orcs are cool and makes sense, while remaining distinctly orcish.

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  2. george nikolopoulos GREECE Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    Great idea.
    Reminds me of a documentary where homo sapiens and neanderthal were compared and had a fictional part about how their coexistance would be like.

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  3. Daosus UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    This is not too different from an interpretation of the migrations of the steppe horse peoples. Whenever the conditions on the steppe get bad, the carrying capacity drops, and they have to run over the civilized areas to find food. They don’t care for the civilized lifestyle, thinking it weak and effeminate. That is, the civilized lifestyle pays attention to unimportant things. The farmers are all stunted by their sedentary lifestyle and poor diet. They consider them sub-human. Like I said, pretty similar stuff.

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  4. well classic orks appear pretty much a pack of wolfes. Not that bright per se, fighting about who gets to be leader and following the leader strictly.

    i also like the concept of an insect-like hive-mind.
    With no individuality at all and maybe not even much intellect per orc, but controlled by the need to serve the current mission.

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  5. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ george nikolopoulos:

    Which documentary was that? Link?

    @ Daosus:

    Very true. But, horse people could still be reasoned with and could change their worldview. Consider the Game of Thrones (the show) example in which a group of Dothraki stayed behind with Daenerys Targaryen who was, by their society considered inferior and unfit to lead on account of being a woman and a foreigner. Granted many of those were slaves and attendants, but there was a number of Dothraki proper who stayed with her out of loyalty, friendship or whatnot.

    With instinct driven, non-introspective, non-self aware orcs such a thing would not be possible.

    @ Dr. Azrael Tod:

    Right, but Orcs create and use complex tools – iron and steel swords, armors, bows, siege machines and etc. They don’t build these by instinct (well, except Warhammer Orcs, but they are comic relief) but rather must learn and transfer these skills. This means they must have high intelligence to plan, design and improve their tools, and means of communication that allows them to share abstract concepts on how to build and use them.

    Neither Wolves nor Great Apes actually have that sort of things. Some apes may use tools, but they usually don’t teach each other that skill. Rather, individuals stumble upon ad-hoc solutions to problems that require tool use. They also don’t specialize as tool users – there are no apes who specialize in picking and sharpening the right sticks, and transferring these skills to young apprentices. Orcs must have weapon smiths, siege engineers and strategists.

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  6. astine UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    Why would they be uninterested in trade? Trade affords a very material advantage and doesn’t require self awareness. If they are cooperative on any level, they’d probably already trade amongst themselves.

    Also, one thing I’m skeptical of with regards to Blindsight is Watts’ insistence that culture serves no evolutionary purpose. It the orcs are cooperative at all, then communication will become important and it’s likely a lot of what we call culture will arise from that. Self-awareness would likely develop from that. Not to mention that displays of intelligence and wealth will be important from a mate-selection perspective and artwork also is important there.

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  7. Matthew UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows says:

    Man, where have you been my whole life? You have a great blog, and I am glad I stumbled upon this from (not sure if you know it). It is nice to see people like myself who creatively think about concepts in fiction and try to understand the reasons behind people’s choices as well as creatively coming up with their own ideas. I look forward to reading more!

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  8. thomo AUSTRALIA Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    I like the implementation! But – in keeping with the nothing-is-original theme – I think you just re-invented the Krogan from Mass Effect.

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  9. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ astine:

    Very good points. They could be potentially interested in trade. The question is whether or not it would occur to them that we could be trade partners.

    And yes, you are right in that Watts might actually be wrong about this. Most of the animals we have pegged for high intelligence tend to also exhibit some degrees of self awareness so there is definitely a correlation there. I think that Watts is postulating that the correlation is not a human thing, but a mamalian thing in general and that’s why it shows up in so many places. But perhaps, like you say it is a universal trend – increased intelligence leads to complex social structures which require empathic thinking, which in turn selects for self-awareness.

    @ Matthew:

    I’ve been right here. Welcome!

    @ thomo:

    Fair enough, but Krogan can be quite introspective. Especially the female you meet in ME3 is quite different from your average Krogan warrior.

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  10. Liudvikas LITHUANIA Google Chrome Windows Terminalist says:

    You mention our “flowery” language, feel free to speculate on how a proper language should look. Perhaps we should abandon it for a better alternative.

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  11. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Liudvikas:

    I actually like our “flowery” language with all it’s idiosyncratic and inconsistencies. I’m actually opposed to the reductionist efforts that aim to streamline and simplify it. If the language was exact and there was exactly one way to say something, how would we write poetry… Or sitcoms for that matter – a lot of our humor revolves around building up, and escalating series of miss-communications and misunderstanding into blown out proportions.

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  12. Liudvikas LITHUANIA Opera Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Luke Maciak:

    Personally I don’t trust nature to do anything properly, we should step in and use our intelligence to redesign any and every aspect of our existence, language included. The idea in Culture series of Marain language fascinated me – design a language to influence thought in desirable ways. What if we did that? Poetry doesn’t need to change, human mind does, we still have many harmful leftovers from our evolutionary development and this could be one of the ways to dispose of them.

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  13. Mike Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    @ Liudvikas:
    Not sure if you explored that aspect, but there’s a complex correlation between language and the actual high-level thinking. If language has no word for some concept, it’s a good indication that such concept does not exist for the culture which uses it.

    So I think to propose a new language would mean to propose a new way of thinking about things, and you want a non-“flowery” orc (with definition of “orc” given above) language?
    Can any human possibly produce such a thing?
    I mean, in a functional-thing sense, so another human being can be taught it from the start, and won’t immediately invent a new “words” afterwards, due to stuff embedded in our brains by the millions of years of evolution.

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  14. Callum AUSTRALIA Google Chrome Mac OS says:

    Hey man just going to say I love these, but one question how would these orcs feel about other orcs? Would they form emotional bonds like friends or lovers? Perhaps their paternal and maternal relationships are only out of necessity and will exist only up until the young orc is self sufficient then the parents will feel no attachment to it, and let it do what it wants. Any thoughts?

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  15. Sir_Jeffrey_Hudson Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I really love this version of orcs! Very clever *throws science glitter and vanishes into the night*

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  16. Pingback: Ravenflight Part 3: My green dudes are different | Terminally Incoherent UNITED STATES WordPress

  17. Mil Google Chrome Windows says:

    What do *I* think?

    Kill’em all and let Gruumsh sort’em out.

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  18. Luke Maciak wrote:

    Right, but Orcs create and use complex tools – iron and steel swords, armors, bows, siege machines and etc. They don’t build these by instinct (well, except Warhammer Orcs, but they are comic relief) but rather must learn and transfer these skills. This means they must have high intelligence to plan, design and improve their tools, and means of communication that allows them to share abstract concepts on how to build and use them.

    Neither Wolves nor Great Apes actually have that sort of things. Some apes may use tools, but they usually don’t teach each other that skill. Rather, individuals stumble upon ad-hoc solutions to problems that require tool use. They also don’t specialize as tool users – there are no apes who specialize in picking and sharpening the right sticks, and transferring these skills to young apprentices. Orcs must have weapon smiths, siege engineers and strategists.

    i was just re-reading that old text and noticed something. Ants do use tools too. Weaver-Ants glue leaves together (with silk) to build huge structures that complex are far beyond what a single ant could grasp. Others cross water over a bridge consisting of other ants. They even have some kind of tactics when dealing with enemies.
    Or a different Example in Wikipedia:

    Ants of the species Conomyrma bicolor pick up stones and other small objects with their mandibles and drop them down the vertical entrances of rival colonies, allowing workers to forage for food without competition.

    So we have building structures, using tools, combining Materials and something similar to besieging/organized warfare.
    Everything of course purely based on instinct and a instinct-driven Orc group would be far more predictable than a group of thinking humans, but they should be capable of everything we see “typical” orcs do in most stories.
    Only Exception: the pretty much won’t fight each other inside a clan. There would be no “Cirith Ungol”-Scenario with hive-orcs.

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  19. Red Girl CROATIA Google Chrome Windows says:

    It is impossible not to have a culture. It just doesn’t have to be very advanced or “cultured,” by our standards.

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  20. James AUSTRALIA Google Chrome Linux says:

    Have you looked at the Gargun of the Harn setting… it is essentially the cultural reality you have described…

    Throw in the fact they are ‘queen born’ insects that look like mammals… but are still in fact insects and you have their version of an orc.

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