Friday, November 19, 2010

Orcs of Golarion

Probably due to being influenced by Tolkien, as a teenager I developed some interest in linguistics and language. That didn't really blossom until very late in my teenage years when I relocated for two years to Argentina, learned Spanish, and was forced to use it as my daily language the entire time I was there. One interesting side effect of speaking two (or more) languages is that you realize that some languages have subtle semantic shades of meaning built into their vocabulary which others do not, and you have to get to that same subtle semantic shade by using cumbersome phrasing or qualifiers in one language that in another may be easily expressed via simply using another word. And those things stick with you, too--even though I haven't used much Spanish in the almost twenty years since I came back home to the States, there are still times when a Spanish word will pop unbidden into my head and I struggle to find a good English equivalent--because we don't really have one.

For example, although this actually goes the other way--we have two words in English that have subtle shades of semantic difference and there's only one word in Spanish for both of them--the Spanish word esperar means to hope or to expect. In order to express the difference between hope and expect, you have to rely on context, or phrase it entirely differently; what you would want or wish for vs. what you believe will happen, or something like that.

This little diatribe aside, which only amuses me because linguistics (and romance languages in general) is a hobby of mine, my review of Paizo's slim little book Orcs of Golarion is strongly going to feature the differences between what I hoped the product would be and what I expected it to be. In other words, the book was not what I hoped it would be, but it was everything I expected it to be. So, while I remain disappointed, I am not surprised.

There's a school of thought that orcs are, essentially, just monsters. Their only raison d'être is to serve as something that PC's can slaughter with impunity and not feel guilty about later. This is most probably due to Tolkien, who utilized them in that fashion when he essentially created the concept of the orc for The Lord of the Rings. They're really shallow as a race; they exist for only shallow reasons, and the way they're portrayed is more of a caricature rather than a real racial character study. This notion has been further strengthened by Warhammer, who's orcs are not only caricaturish, but also cartoonish and silly in many respects as well.

So, this is what I expected from the book Orcs of Golarion, a shallow, obvious, and facile discussion of orcs that perpetuated this tired cliche. But, in the back of my mind, I thought to myself, "but there's no need to write a whole book, even of the slimmer Pathfinder Companion series, if that's all you're going to do. So surely they have something more in mind than to say over and over again that orcs aren't really capable of much because their entire existance is predicated on anger, dominance, violence, impatience and callous disregard for life. There must be more to it than that. That would be such an easy, obvious, and shallow treatment of the idea, when if they dig a little deeper, they could turn orcs into something really interesting." I guess I was hoping for the kind of "rehabilitation" that Paizo is proud of doing with their Revisited line. For that matter, orcs did appear in the first of that line, Classic Monsters Revisited, and they weren't significantly changed there from a Tolkien/Warhammer melange. The problem is that the 4 page treatment for orcs in Classic Monsters Revisited was nearly as deep as the 32-page Orcs of Golarion. The longer book didn't really add much, if anything, to the mix, other than a handful of traits, spells and feats near the end. Besides, those Paizo rehabilitations are a bit oversold anyway; for the most part, they just further explored the cliches and expectations that we already had for those monsters.

That said, the parts of the book that I liked the best were the few pages that talked about the different tribes and different environmental varieties of orcs. These pages at least hinted at orcs that might be more than the cliched caricature, but it was just a hint that was not fully developed.

Some of the artwork was quite good, but some of it was not. One artist in particular, who had at least three significant works that I can remember off-hand, put forward stuff that looked like Warhammer or Warcraft fan-art. Another artist had some really great looking orcs, but usually just head-shots. There was a lot of art of various flags and banners.

So, again... the book wasn't actively bad. In fact, it delivered exactly what I expected. And, there are many players of D&D (and Pathfinder, which is of course essentially the same thing) who want nothing more from their orcs, and see caricaturish orcs as a benefit to the game. They don't want to stop and think about their orcs. They don't want to wonder if the orcs might not have some redeeming or even interesting features. They just want something that they can vent their righteous fury on without any qualms.

Sadly, I don't think a book about that is necessary, or even a benefit to the game. If you're going to go to the trouble of putting out a book about orcs, tread just a bit deeper. Make them interesting. Make them more complex than just a handful of juvenile emotions given fictional anthropomorphic form. Orcs are in the Monster Manual (or Bestiary, I suppose), sure, but they're not even monstrous humanoids, they're humanoids. I'd like to see them as such.

Warcraft was the first to attempt this. By giving their orcs a proud, shamanistic tradition and taking away the stigma of making them just easily identifiable as evil, they are the ones who've truly made some inroads into rehabilitating the orcs. Pathfinder, on the other hand, falls back into Tolkien and Warhammer inspired tired cliches.


So, over the last three or four months, I've reviewed a pretty big handful of Pathfinder books that I've picked up; an even half dozen, I think. And where previously I raved about everything Paizo that I had picked up, I've had some reservations about the last five that I've reviewed. Paizo have, at least with me, scraped off a bit of their shiny teflon coating, and now I feel that I need to be careful to pick up items with subject matter that interests me strongly, and not necessarily expect that they're going to turn literally everything that they touch to gold. Part of this may be my own somewhat eccentric tastes. A more traditional gamer might, for instance, be really turned off by a product that gives us deeper, more morally ambiguous orcs. But it could be done.

I recall, for instance, reading Privateer Press's Monsternomicon II, which while being mostly just a monster book listing a la Paizo's own Bestiary or the original Monster Manual, also had a rather lengthy appendix on the skorne empire out to the east of the main area of the setting. My first thought on reading what they'd done with the skorne was that, "holy cow, this is what hobgoblins should be. Why do we have to get the rather flaccid attempt to rehabilitate hobgoblins that Eberron gives us with Darguun when we could have the real full treatment that Privateer gave us?" The skorne, although renamed, are very clearly an expression of the exact same concept as hobgoblins.

Similarly, either the trollkin or the tharn from Privateer are an expression of the exact same concept as the orcs (taken in two different directions, obviously). The same could probably be applied to the gobbers as an expression of the idea of goblins. And the ogrun as the idea of ogres. And the special Iron Kingdoms varieties of trolls... anyway... These Iron Kingdoms races really raised the bar for me in terms of what I expect from the races that are just one step away from being PC races. I don't want orcs, goblins hobgoblins and whatnot to simply be one-dimensional monsters that stand up as flat, cardboard cut-outs for the PCs to knock down because hey, they wear the Evil team jersey and they're completely lacking in redeeming or even interesting features that would cause us to want to 1) pause and consider whether or not we should just kill them on sight, or 2) possibly find the concept of playing one of them interesting. Is that too much to ask? And while I'm at it, although I easily identified the skorne as Privateer's take on the hobgoblin concept, why didn't I make the same connection as intuitively between trollkin and orcs? Why not use trollkin society for orcs in my settings to get the kind of depth that I want?

In any case, I am, however, excited about the upcoming Paizo release (next week, I think) of the Book of the Damned Vol. 2. Not only did I quite enjoy vol. 1, which touched on devils in the setting, but the Paizo guys (especially author James Jacobs, who's doing this next one) have demonstrated repeatedly that they can make demons really, really interesting. But, I don't have that yet, and in the meantime, I'm not going to pick up anything else to read and review from the RPG world, in part because I really need to concentrate on getting a few other books done that I've borrowed and want to return. So hold tight, if that's the reason you come to this blog (ha! As if anyone comes to this blog!) and I'll return to reviewing some RPG material soon. Of course, much of it is very old; I've got some five year old books still that I've had on my shelf for some time but haven't gotten around to reading, so it's not like I'm going to be doing anything that's going to gather any significant attention anytime soon. Oh, well. Not only am I the most opinionated guy on the internet, according to my blog subtitle, but I'm the least important and least relevant opinionated guy on the internet as well. I can live with that.


Elton said...

I think the way you're using calque, it doesn't mean what you think it means. The context of your message says that calque has something to do with copying in some way.

It actually means a loan translation is a word or phrase borrowed from another language by literal, word-for-word (Latin: "verbum pro verbo") or root-for-root translation.

Something that can be applied universally. Still, it was fun to learn a new French word! :)

Joshua said...

I know exactly what it means. I'm using it in the sense that Tom Shippey uses it when he calls the Rohirrim a calque of the Anglo-Saxons in his book The Road to Middle-earth.

Be careful trying to be over-corrective on a word you just barely learned; chances are you're not going to be familiar with nuances if you just learned it.