Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Orcs and Art

With the nod to inclusivity in the 5E Basic Rules, the art has come under additional examination to see if WotC could walk the walk now that they've talked the talk. So how does the art fare?

Numerous sites and blogs have done in-depth frequency and focus analysis and for the most part the numbers are good in terms of diversity and inclusivity. It's obvious with even a flip through of the 5E PHB, so much so some people stuck on a narrow mode of thinking actually comment on there being too many women or persons-of-color (POC)/minorities/non-whites in the art. Seriously.

This post on the Go Make Me A Sandwich blog documents one such exchange and does a good job of highlighting the positive and active depictions of women and POC in 5th edition art. I definitely agree with what the author has to say regarding the topic of inclusive art.

However, I did come across one statement that didn't sit right with me:
CHECK IT OUT, A HALF-ORC PALADIN. This is something I never expected to see! The treatment of race in the Forgotten Realms setting has always been… problematic at best. Orcs and half-orcs have always been depicted with traits that read as a very thinly veiled analogue for blackness. So to see Paladins, who are the literal embodiment of good, being represented by a righteous-as-fuck looking half-orc? That’s revolutionary!
The image being commented on was of this half-orc paladin found in the 5E PHB:
Half-orc paladin, D&D 5E Player's Handbook

There are a number of hyperboles within the statement that could be interpreted as portraying D&D and the Realms as distinctly anti-inclusive (even downright unintentionally racist) throwbacks. While I will not say the game or setting are perfect in every way regarding this issue, I feel there is much more nuance and inclusivity to the game and setting than the statement gives them credit for. Things just aren't as bad as that one statement makes it out to be, though I understand it's exaggerated for the sake of expressing excitement for the recent art direction.

Half-orc paladin aren't revolutionary in D&D and the concept is not foreign in the Forgotten Realms. Whatever this concept may be, it's far from the first instance and not breaking any barriers that still exist.

One example of Forgotten Realms having already knocked down the barrier before 3E came to sweep away the restrictions of older editions was Shield of Innocence an orog* paladin of Torm from the War in Tethyr (1995) novel, the events of which are summarized for the game setting in the Lands of Intrigue (1997) boxed set. Shield of Innocence became the patron saint of the Loyal Order of the Innocents, suffice to say, to earn such an honor meant this orog paladin made the sacrifice needed to live up to his name.

*An orog is an orc/ogre offshoot in 2nd edition (if I recall correctly), later adapted into a type of Underdark-based 'uberorc' in 3E.

As it pertains to the art, let's set some limits at art pieces from the 3E era (or pre-4E) and from WotC and affiliates only. We'll keep things to D&D Core or FR only (as they share the same art trends and cross-pollinate). We'll exclude Eberron because it has a purposefully divergent take on orcs that is in part a reaction to this supposed problematic depiction of orcs in Core and FR. A quick Google search reveals the following:

- We have the half-orc paladin on the cover of Dragon #275, the September 2000 issue. This came on the premier of 3rd edition (released in the summer of the same year, during Gen Con, I assume) when the new edition opened up every class and race combination. So from the onset, the concept found purchase in the main periodical publication for the game for the issue immediately scheduled to follow the wide release of the 3rd edition game.
Dragon #275, September 2000
- There was a half-orc paladin for the D&D miniatures line, released with the Underdark set in 2005.

Half-orc Paladin miniature, Underdark set
- Bringing it back to the Forgotten Realms, in Player's Guide to Faerun, we have art showing line-ups of the different races and ethnicities. For the half-human line-up, shown below, we get a good look at a half-elf, a half-orc and a half-drow. Take a closer look at the half-orc with his sword and armor with the holy symbol of Tyr (scales on a hammer) emblazoned on his breastplate. This half-orc is very likely a paladin of Tyr (or arguably a cleric of Tyr with the War Domain, or maybe a Justiciar). Not that any order or subsect of Tyr's clergy have less stringent commandments, they're all paladin-like.

Half-humans, Player's Guide to Faerun
by Steve Prescott
- Now paladins are most-righteous folk, but it doesn't mean other types of holy warriors are lesser in discipline and devotion.

Races of Destiny gave us a half-orc cleric on its cover.
Races of Destiny cover art
by Adam Rex
Complete Divine gave us the Pious Templar prestige class and the art and sample character provided us with Graaghya, a badass armored half-orc female. While she's still a worshiper of wily old Gruumsh, the Pious Templar is a less barbarian-esque take on one of his followers.
Pious Templar, Complete Divine
by Wayne Reynolds
- Then we have a few depictions of half-orcs in non-savage or less savage images. These characters may not all be good or even lawful, but they seem like honest, 'civilized' people going about their business. These pieces offer some respite from the raging, axe-wielding, berserker foaming at the mouth archetype we're so used to seeing with orc art.

Half-orc Samurai, Complete Warrior
by Doug Kovacs
(Now artists for much of the DCC RPG line) 

Half-orc Bouncer, Races of Destiny
by Jim Nelson
Occult Slayer, Complete Warrior
Bloodhound, Complete Adventurer
by Steve Belledin
In the early days of 3E, WotC offered an extensive series of character portrait sketches by many different artists, many of them TSR staples. Amongst them were these non-standard orcs by Sam Wood, one of the initial concept artists for 3E.

Half-orc Wizard, DnD website
by Sam Wood
Half-orc Bard, DnD Website
by Sam Wood
Half-orc Dragonrider, DnD website
by Sam Wood
Lest we think all the non-standard orc depictions were found in the Core books, here are some more Forgotten Realms examples, beginning with the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting book that started it all for 3E FR:
Racial Line-up, FRCS
by Todd Lockwood
(Note: Female half-orc warrior in sensible armor, more fighter than barbarian.)
Trademeed in Narfell, FRCS
by Carlo Arellano
(Looks like a half-orc inspecting a weapon for purchase.
A marauding orc would just raid the place for steel and goods.)
Further continuing with other FR 3E/3.5E supplements:
Imperfect Companions, Champions of Valor
by Ralph Horsley
(A half-orc in armor with a mace, more cleric than barbarian.)
"Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous", Power of Faerun
by William O'Connor
(Bodyguard/Chaperon or former adventuring companion)
More civilized seeming orcs were also present in the video game side of the D&D and FR franchise.
Half-orc portrait, Icewind Dale 2 CRPG
(Plate armor, metal shield, and a serene pose and expression.)

As we can see, the notion of righteous and/or civilized half-orcs has been an ongoing concept before 5th Edition was an inkling in Wizard's business plan (indeed before WotC brought out TSR). The recent illustration is another good addition to this trend.

Half-orc paladin, D&D 5E Player's Handbook
Let's just keep in mind it's a trend that was started at least 14 years ago, two D&D editions back (three editions (and almost 20 years) if you count the Shield of Innocence character).
Half-orc Paladin
by Mark Zug

 Make that at least 15 years ago when it comes to illustrations.
Half-orc Paladin
by Todd Lockwood
Sure there are plenty of foaming-mad, barbarian-type 'primitive savage' orc and half-orc illustrations in D&D and FR, but to say that one 5E art piece is revolutionary while imply the setting has done a poor job at offering non-problematic depictions as a contrast is being unfair to the setting and the people who worked hard to inject inclusive and progressive art and lore into the game over the decades.


  1. Thanks! The driving impetus to look into this "problem" was I recalled discussions by the 3E designers and artists where they expressed their desire to bring diverse characters to the game as much as possible (and there were marketing department barriers in that fight). Good and talented people should get credit where credit is due.