Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Why Orcs?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on February 17, 2011

Stories rooted in the modern world or familiar historical periods are (relatively) easy to explain to audiences. You can slap a year and location on the screen, and you are done. “Hong Kong, 1928.” Boom. Not many people playing a game were ever in Hong Kong in 1928, but most of us are familiar enough with the era and geography and historical events that we can build a working mental model of the setting with that short line, with blanks ready to be filled in by game / movie / book / whatever.

If we know we’re playing a superhero game, or reading an urban fantasy book, we expect some major ahistorical elements to be introduced. But we’ve got our foundation built in precious few words. Likewise, a familiar setting set in the not-too-distant future isn’t hard to keep up with. London 2015, Chiba City 2058 – the player can simply take what we currently know of the location and extrapolate changes based on current trends. The nearer the future date, the more comfortable we feel with the setting and less exposition we know we’ll require to understand what’s going on. I really don’t expect London in 2015 to be that strikingly different from London today.

But how about, “Khevegas City, Year 168 of the Fourth Age?”

We’ve got nothing. Or almost nothing. Maybe we know it’s a city (… of mutant lobsters?) and can formulate some questions about what the first three ages were all about. But as an audience, we’re immediately lost at sea. Fantasy games not based on the real world are pretty dang alien.

With any storytelling medium, creators need to understand that their audience is only going to give them a limited window of attention with which to establish the setting and make the audience feel comfortable moving on to the more important stuff… character and plot. That window of attention may vary from individual to individual, but it’s never unlimited.

Any experienced, successful game developer (or writer) will tell you that you do NOT want your player to spend their first several minutes of a game being bombarded with exposition. That will use up the attention window in a hurry. Very few players want to spend fifteen minutes at the beginning of a game hearing backstory. It’s certainly possible to make a game for the niche that represents the exception to the rule, but most players want a minimum of exposition before getting to the good stuff (which, contrary to popular belief, doesn’t necessarily mean either action or some kind of tutorial).

For me, as a player, I want just enough background at the outset to know why I should care.  The rest I can take in as I need it. The world should not be one that requires a massive info-dump at the outset.

Tolkienesque or D&D-style fantasy worlds have had decades to simmer in the popular geek culture’s mythology. That makes it very easy to use as a foundation for a setting and provide shortcuts to the player’s understanding. With just a few visuals or lines of exposition, you can effectively say, “Medieval fantasy world. Elves. Dragons. The orcs are named ‘borks’ but are functionally identical. We’ll tell you more later.” Done. You can then explain the critical importance of the annual Bork Pride Parade in the capital city of Sniffleheim at some point prior to the player needing this information.

It’s really hard to present a really unique fantasy world to players. Quite honestly, we tend to lose interest early on because it’s hard to construct that new mental model of the setting. This is why we keep falling back to variants on this traditional setting.

It can be and has been done. One of the most strikingly original (non-RPG) worlds I’ve ever enjoyed (until it beat me too often and I quit playing) was the game Out of This World (AKA Another World) by Eric Chahi. The solution with that game was to put the player in the shoes of a character just as mystified by the alienness of another dimension as the player. I have always felt that Final Fantasy VII offered a fantastic introduction for the player into an unusual world that mixed mid-20th-century industrialized civilization (which players had an immediate understanding of) with a magical, strange one with a bizarre history. While it stumbled a lot in late game exposition, in the beginning the details were provided as the player needed them, and there were enough familiar metaphors for modern life that we never felt too lost. And I’m looking forward to the upcoming indie RPG Age of Decadence, which has adopted a world based on ancient Rome rather than medieval Europe. It is a historical location that should still be familiar enough to most gamers that they can understand the setting without requiring too much explanation.

I applaud the efforts to go beyond orcs, elves, and dragons. But I’m also fairly comfortable in those worlds, so I won’t hold the games that stay there in contempt or anything. But please, designers, just because it’s a perfectly reasonable starting point and foundation for a setting, it’s not a setting by itself. It’s only a starting point.


Filed Under: Design - Comments: 15 Comments to Read



  • McTeddy said,

    I agree that Orcs and Elves are an acceptable part of fantasy. Having a basic knowledge of these creatures helps me to quickly adjust to the new setting and to feel at home.

    I tend to hate getting thrown into alien worlds because I spend hours trying to learn all the new terminology. Even worse they always seem to fall into the same categories as “Elves” (Egotistical, yet noble blood), “Orc” (Society based around war) etc.

    I’m fine with the usage of tropes. I’m fine with Dwarves engaging in heavy drinking and feats of strength. I’m fine with knowing about these races.

    What I’m not fine with is that every fantasy kindgom is at war with a Big Bad Wizard/God/Thing? I want to see the same tropes used in new ways.

    I want to see an orc trying to raise his family in a human village but racism makes his live hell. I want to see the elves ruling over their kingdom in a time of peace. I want to see a dwarven child open an ale stand outside their stand so that they can save up for a new bike!

    Our already established tropes have so much more to offer than we seem to create. But I suppose war is the primary thing we put in ALL games… so I’m not just blaming fantasy.

    To me, having Elves in fantasy is like having Asians in a martial arts movie. It’s not necessary… but I find that they fit in pretty well.

  • McTeddy said,

    I agree that Orcs and Elves are an acceptable part of fantasy. Having a basic knowledge of these creatures helps me to quickly adjust to the new setting and to feel at home.

    I tend to hate getting thrown into alien worlds because I spend hours trying to learn all the new terminology. Even worse they always seem to fall into the same categories as “Elves” (Egotistical, yet noble blood), “Orc” (Society based around war) etc.

    I’m fine with the usage of tropes. I’m fine with Dwarves engaging in heavy drinking and feats of strength. I’m fine with knowing about these races.

    What I’m not fine with is that every fantasy kindgom is at war with a Big Bad Wizard/God/Thing? I want to see the same tropes used in new ways.

    I want to see an orc trying to raise his family in a human village but racism makes his live hell. I want to see the elves ruling over their kingdom in a time of peace. I want to see a dwarven child open an ale stand outside their stand so that they can save up for a new bike!

    Our already established tropes have so much more to offer than we seem to create. But I suppose war is the primary thing we put in ALL games… so I’m not just blaming fantasy.

    To me, having Elves in fantasy is like having Asians in a martial arts movie. It’s not necessary… but I find that they fit in pretty well.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Well, Dragon Age did do the thing about having the elves being a largely subjugated / lower-caste race. That was different. I’ll give ‘em credit for that.

  • Tom said,

    I think part of what makes steampunk fun is that it takes familiar and anachronistic elements and twists them just a bit so that they’re still recognizable but become more interesting to look at/think about. I try to do something similar with my fantasy races. It’s easy enough to come up with unique races, but it’s kind of fun to twist something familiar 45-degrees. I enjoyed Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” comics for similar reasons.

  • Whiner said,

    I still wish Dragon Age had done their elves as drow. I know perfectly well that it would have caused kerfluffles, but I think it would work quite differently to use a race that is ‘traditionally’ thought of as evil as the oppressed race. DA’s elves still had all of the traditionally positive elements associated with light elves, and those elements are still shown to be admired by the general populace, which sometimes made the prejudice feel tacked-on.

  • Xian said,

    Why orcs? Because they will work a lot cheaper than goblins.

    Even if you have never played an RPG before you have probably been exposed to fantasy so you start with a basic understanding of the various races and their inherent abilities and weaknesses. If you try to deviate from the norm, it usually is not going to be extremely different. That hulking brute might not have green skin and tusks, but his abilities are going to be very similar to the orc he replaced.

    You can introduce characters or creatures with radically different characteristics and make it work. Alien, comes to mind – you learn it’s abilities gradually – the acidic saliva, the parasitic method of propagation, and since it is so very different you really don’t know what is it capable of doing.

  • Bad Sector said,

    I want to see an orc trying to raise his family in a human village but racism makes his live hell. I want to see the elves ruling over their kingdom in a time of peace. I want to see a dwarven child open an ale stand outside their stand so that they can save up for a new bike!

    Well, i don’t like that. It is like everyday boring stuff but instead of having people doing them, you get orcs or dwarves. If it is boring with human beings, it’ll also be boring with humanoids.

    Orcs, Elves, etc are simply humanoids which show some sort of extreme that would otherwise be possible to use with a human, but by making a special race for this extreme you put it a notch further (f.e. the brutality of orcs is an extreme of the brutality of humans). There is a reason for the human race to be mostly average in most fantasy settings.

  • sascha said,

    “It’s really hard to present a really unique fantasy world to players. Quite honestly, we tend to lose interest early on because it’s hard to construct that new mental model of the setting. This is why we keep falling back to variants on this traditional setting”

    I guess I’m one of the few exceptions to that. If I hear tolkienesque, medieval Fantasy I usually move on, yawning. If I see something that is really ‘fantastic’ (as in: what your limitless fantasy might come up with), then you got my attention, especially if it got some sci-fi/futuristic stuff mixed in, like Wizardry had sometimes for example. Actually I can’t hear about orcs and elves anymore. Oblivion would be one of the very rare exceptions to that, maybe because they have a lizard and cat race mixed in, heh.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Oh, I’m quick to gripe and moan about a setting that sounds all-too familiar. But ultimately, whether it is a traditional or non-traditional setting, it’s all in how its presented and told.

    I can still be sucked into a good ol’ fashioned D&D-style world in a heartbeat if it’s done well. It’s all about the details and presentation.

    And a really unique setting? Again, it’s about how it’s presented. Remember how Planescape worked out? One of the weirdest settings I’m familiar with, yet it started you out very well, using the “amnesia” trope to good effect as you started figuring out the world just as your character did.

  • GhanBuriGhan said,

    Outcast (the Appeal Action Adventure) did a great job of introducing you to a fairly alien world, you even got to learn some alien language. While the humanoid aliens were still “human” enough to easily relate to and their world familar enough for easy orientation, their culture was unique enough to be interesting.

  • Menigal said,

    I have to say that I’m a bit like Sascha; a generic Elves ‘n’ Orcs setting is turning into more and more of a turn off to me. They, and the rest of the Tolkien set, have become bland, boring stereotypes that need quite a bit of shaking up to become interesting again, and I’ve passed on more than one game because they’ve not done anything with them. Even back in my D&D days I never had orcs in my world and elves tended to be far less godlike than normal.

    Yes, use the generic fantasy toolkit as a start, but let the player know right away that they’re not in Kansashire anymore. It doesn’t need to be anything too clever. Calling an Elf a Fle won’t cut it, and just makes me think there’s lazy writing going on, but plonking us on an asteroid city that’s dreading an assult by the notorious space pirate Orc McOrcson might hold my attention long enough to see what the rest of the world’s like.

    That’s not to say that a generic Elves ‘n’ Orcs world can’t work. It’s just going to have to work a hell of a lot harder to make me think it’s something special. Comedy and trope-smashing are probably the best way to go these days.

  • Kelhim said,

    While I agree with you in defending tradtional high-fantasy settings, which people are familiar with, and while I, too, think that it’s difficult and not always fun to learn about a completely new world I nevertheless like some variation. Some fresh air.

    Tolkien is great, almost all of us who love fantasy have read the novels, but that’s the point: We’ve been there before – many times and one more. If I want to experience the dreads of Moria, I can just read The Fellowship or log in into LotRO. Video games copying Middle-earth have to add something I don’t already know, the same applies to novels.

    You’re right, creating something totally unique not only is very hard to achieve nowadays, it also may be a challenge too great for players who in the end really want to play a game, not work themselves through what feels like hundred pages of exposition.

    But it’s still possible if you take an approach that suits the medium. For example, I could imagine a game start where you, in contrast, don’t know anything about the world or the specific setting you find yourself in – and then you learn about it step by step as you progress. The game world had to be intriguing and engaging all by itself – not because you already know everything from a thousand similar generic fantasy games you’ve played before.

  • WCG said,

    “For me, as a player, I want just enough background at the outset to know why I should care.”

    Amen, especially because I DO want to care. It may not be as important as in a book, but I do want to care for the characters in an RPG and in the quest, too. (Note that it’s probably harder to do that in a comedy, but still important, don’t you think?)

    I also like learning about (and exploring) a detailed, well-thought-out new world. But I’d rather learn more and more as I play, preferably from NPCs (I love to read, but finding and reading books in an RPG usually doesn’t work well for me).

    At the start, just tell me enough to catch my interest. Then KEEP my interest by letting me learn more and more of the world as I go. And orcs are fine. I’m sick to death of fantasy cliches in books, but I don’t care so much in games. (Admittedly, I WOULD like to see more SF RPGs.)

  • Scars of War Blog » Why NOT Orcs said,

    [...] recently on the benefits of using your standard fantasy races/settings in a game or creative work (link). I’m going to talk a little bit about the other side of that, the cost of ‘orcs’ [...]

  • Because Sometimes Convention Is Right said,

    [...] guess this goes along with my own article, “Why Orcs?” Reading someone else kinda-sorta embracing the same position makes me feel a little [...]

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