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Author Topic: Orcs and the "gamefication" of Middle Earth  (Read 20000 times)
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« on: January 28, 2016, 01:57:13 AM »

A few thoughts occurred to me while assembling some Tolkien-appropriate orcish forces for SoBH and DR games. This very interesting blog post by Zhu Baijie catalysed them somewhat (I commented as JC). As many of us are keen on gaming in Middle Earth, I thought these might – perhaps – be of interest. On the other hand, it just might see like a completely insane post!

My main contention is that gamers have, over the decades, tended to distort the descriptions contained in Tolkien's writings and that these distortions have become quite deeply embedded in RPG and wargaming rules and publications. I think this "gamefication" also had an impact on Peter Jackson's films (I wouldn't be at all surprised if WETA had a hefty population of current or former gamers). Here are some examples:

Distortion 1. Goblins and orcs are different things This may first have been popularised by Gary Gygax, who needed no excuse to split off one humanoid tribe from another (originally, I think, to give progressively tougher opponents for player characters as they advanced in levels). In some of his earlier writings (unpublished in his lifetime), Tolkien did distinguish between goblins, orcs and "gongs", but the concept was streamlined, so that "goblin" in The Hobbit is described as a translation of "orc". The ghost of the idea survives, perhaps, in Gandalf's description of the slopes of the Grey Mountains as "stiff with goblins, hobgoblins and orcs of the worst description", but this may be just an example of Tolkien's use of the rhetorical technique synonymia (listing different names for the same thing), just as he might have said "bandits, brigands and footpads of the worst description". He certainly uses the technique elsewhere. In LotR, "goblin" is used to describe even the very biggest orcs (the Uruk-hai of Isengard) - just as it's used to describe the great soldiers of Bolg's bodyguard in The Hobbit. There are plenty of examples of individuals being called both orcs and goblins: Azog, Grishnakh, Ugluk (implicitly and, probably, explicitly) and the dead Uruk-hai at Amon Hen. One line from LotR that often causes confusion here is when Tolkien first describes Ugluk (“a large black orc”) and then Grishnakh (“a short crook-legged creature, very broad”) and then says “Round them were many smaller goblins”. This might imply that goblins are smaller than orcs – except that Ugluk’s kind have already been identified as “goblins” twice – and Grishnakh will be described as a “goblin” twice before the chapter is out. So the distinction is clearly between smaller goblins and bigger goblins – all of the creatures involved are called goblins in the text.In short, all orcs are goblins, and all goblins are orcs.

Distortion 2.There’s a distinction between uruks and orcs (rather than uruks being a kind of orc). This comes, I think, from the same "levelling up" tendency that D&D introduced. Tolkien never talks about "orcs and uruks". In the narrative voice, uruks are overwhelmingly described simply as "orcs". There are few exceptions: Pippin is depicting recalling "the clutches of the Uruk-hai"; and the narrator distinguishes between the "fierce uruks" that marshall the Durthang line of smaller orcs that Pippin and Frodo join in Mordor and their charges - as well as between the Durthang line and the uruks that crash into them. And uruks are described as such in the Appendices too – but, crucially, they are also described as orcs in the same passages. Also, in the Battle of the Fords of the Isen, in Unfinished Tales, we get a “close-up” of Saruman's "fierce uruks, specially trained". But for the most part, it's characters that talk about uruks, while the narrator just calls them "orcs". The Helm's Deep chapter provides a wealth of examples. In short, all uruks are orcs. And all uruks are goblin too!

Distortion 3. Uruks are man-height. I think this persistent distortion arose in some of the "secondary literature" that was published in the 70s and 80s, as people created bestiaries and encyclopaedias of Middle Earth. The infamously inaccurate (but wonderfully illustrated) Tolkien Bestiary describes Uruks as "as tall as Men". There is, of course, nothing to support this in the books. Quite the opposite: Gimli, despite facing the “hugest” of Saruman’s orcs at Helm’s Deep, comments that they are much easier for him to fight than the “over-large” Dunlendings. And Gollum says that the Hardrim are “almost as bad as orcs and much bigger” (as noted above, Uruks are orcs – and Gollum would have seen plenty of Uruks, both in the Misty Mountains and in Mordor). And, crucially, Saruman’s half-orcs have “goblin-faces” but are “man-high”.  They remind the Hobbits of Bill Ferny’s friend, not the Uruk-hai. Uruks are significantly shorter than Men – enough to make a military difference

Distortion 4. “The Uruk-hai are half-orcs.” This is one where it’s easy to see why the confusion arose. Although Aragorn is puzzled by the Isengard Uruks’ equipment, he doesn’t seem surprised by their physiology. They’re large orcs, but he’s seen lots of those (not least recently in Moria, where there were “large and evil” orcs – “black Uruks of Mordor”). But Treebeard starts to speculate about Saruman’s orcs: “He has been doing something to them.” And, at Helm’s Deep, Gamling says “these creatures of Saruman, these half-orcs and goblin-men, they will not quail at the sun”. It’s only later (in Flotsam and Jetsam) that we learn that there were many creatures like Bill Ferny’s friend in the armies of Isengard – and that there were “many” of them at Helm’s Deep. These are the same type of creatures that show up in The Scouring of the Shire – and they are clearly not the Uruk-hai. Most obviously, they are described as “Men”, whereas the Uruk-hai are “Orcs” passim. That said, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to argue that when Gamling says “half-orcs and goblin-men”, he means Saruman’s unusual orcs and his somewhat orcish men (echoed in “Man-Orcs large and cunning and Orc-Men treacherous and vile” in Morgoth’s Ring). “Half-orc” is clearly not a taxonomic term at this stage, and Gamling may be using it differently from Aragorn. Or Tolkien may just be indulging in synonymia again. In any case, it’s clear that Saruman has two distinct type of (possible) hybrid: large goblin-soldiers and horrible Men with goblin-faces. And they’re not the same thing (The Battle of the Fords of the Isen distinguishes between them too: the Men-orcs are ferocious, mail-clad axemen who aren’t disadvantaged by height against the Rohirric shieldwall as Saruman’s orcs are). The Uruk-hai are different from the Men-orcs/goblin-men/half-orcs of the armies of Isengard and the Scouring of the Shire.

Distortion 5 Uruks are much, much bigger than other orcs. We know that some of the smaller orcs are Hobbit-sized: Sam and Frodo can pass themselves off as small orcs in Mordor. And we know that the “hugest” Uruks mustered by the Hornburg Gate are sufficiently shorter than Men for Gimli to find them easier to fight. And we know that the Haradrim are “much bigger” than orcs. The implication, surely, is that Uruks are roughly the height of dwarves. Even the huge orc-chieftain is only “almost man-high” (and thus clearly shorter than even a short Man). Again, an equivalence with dwarves suggests itself. Yes, Uruks are bigger than other orcs – by definition. But they don’t seem to be that much bigger: there’s not that much room between Hobbit-sized and “significantly shorter than Man-height”.

Distortion 6 Uruks are too big to ride wolves. This is something that is frequently asserted by gamers, the assumption being that wolfriders must be small orcs. But we don’t get any indication in Tolkien. A straight reading of LotR suggests that Saruman’s orcs are big uruks, and that some of those orcs are mounted on wolves. If a wolf can big enough to carry a Hobbit-sized rider, it’s surely not much of a stretch to imagine a wolf that can carry a dwarf-sized rider. Both would have to be fantastical wolves – which is exactly what Tolkien’s wargs are. Tolkien gives no indication that Uruks are too big to ride wolves

Distortion 7 Uruks are a rarity in Middle Earth. In typical army list for wargaming in Middle Earth, Uruks are presumed to be a relative rarity in the armies of Mordor – and even, sometimes, of those of Isengard. But Tolkien’s texts suggest that this was not his intention. Again, read LotR carefully straight through, and you get the impression that all (or at least the overwhelming majority) of the orcs of Isengard were uruks. Yes, there’s a reference to no “orc-folk of any size” escaping the Ents at Orthanc, but in context, that’s very clearly a reference to the Man-high, goblin-faced half-orcs (like Bill Ferny’s Southron friend) – which again underscores the size difference between Uruks and Orc-Men/half-orcs/goblin-men. And when it comes to Mordor, the narrative makes no distinction between sizes of orcs at the Pelennor or the Morannon. But we can say that most of the orcs that Sam and Frodo encounter in Mordor are Uruks: Shagrat and Gorbag (who self-identify as Uruks) and their companies, plus the Uruks that charge into the Durthang line versus the Durthang line and Snaga. We also get a nice definition of an Uruk: “a big fighting orc” (echoed in the appendices’ “great soldier-orcs”). And then we get this gem from the tracker: “If that’s the way you fighters go on, small wonder there’s bad news from the battles”. That suggests – very strongly – that it’s the big orcs (the Uruks) that do the fighting in the battles. So expecting the Orcish armies of Mordor to be largely composed of Uruks seems not unreasonable. On top of that, we get the appendices, which tell us that the uruks sacked Osgiliath and made Ithilien uninhabitable with their depredations. That is, there were whole armies of Uruks more than 500 years before the events of the book began. That’s a lot of time to breed a lot of Uruks. It’s more than reasonable to suppose that most of the Orcs fighting at the Hornburg, the Pelennor and the Morannon were Uruks.

Distortion 8 Orcs come in small, medium and large. Or at least Merp would have us believe so. Tolkien’s text suggests that though there are doubtless many breeds of Orc, the main division is between the big ones – the soldier-orcs of Mordor and Isengard, some of whom are also to be found in the Misty Mountains – and the small ones (slaves and levies in Mordor and living free, though generally under the rule of Uruks in the Misty Mountains). Now, as I’ve argued above, the gap doesn’t seem to be that big, but the Merp-style distinction of “snaga, soldier-orc, Uruk” doesn’t get support from the text. The soldier-orcs are the Uruks. Orcs come in many sizes, but are best thought of as “big” (fighters = Uruks) and small (slaves = Snaga)

Distortion 9 The Isengarders are more upright in posture than other Orcs. This is a gaming commonplace, but doesn’t appear to have any foundation in the text. The Isengarders certainly have thick legs, and Grishnakh’s soldier-orcs (almost certainly Uruks of Mordor) have crooked legs, but there’s nothing to suggest that one lot are more upright in stance than the others (or that those crooked legs aren’t thick too). And there’s clear evidence that the Isengarders aren’t particularly upright: “Immediately in front were bowed backs and tough thick legs going up and down”. Emphasis mine. This comes at a point when the Isengarders are carrying Pippin and Grishnakh’s troop have dropped behind them. Also, earlier the whole company (Isengarders and Northeners at this point) “run with the long loping strides of Orcs”. The physiology seems similar. Isengard Uruks do not appear to be more upright in posture than other Orcs.

Distortion 10. Orcs are primitive and stupid. This is perhaps the most pernicious of all. Although Tolkien’s orcs are articulate and cunning (albeit debased and vile), the RPG and Warhammer notion that they are dim, inarticulate and predisposed to shamanism is often reflected back on to the orcs of Middle Earth in gaming. In fact, Tolkien sets out orcs’ technological sophistication in The Hobbit: they are inventive, good at tunnelling and making weapons, interested in explosions and engines, and quite possible responsible for inventing various weapons of mass destruction. In the forces of Saruman, the orcs have mail but most of the Dunlendings do not – because the orcs can make it themselves. And, in The Two Towers, we learn that Orcs use medicine, including healing balms for wounds and revitalising draughts. On top of that, at least some of them can write in dwarf-runes (even if it’s only four letters). In short, Orcs are clever and technologically sophisticated.

Quite enough for now (or for ever!), I’d have thought. Does any of this matter? Not really, of course. But the fun of gaming in Middle Earth is that you can actually do a bit of in-depth research in a way that you can’t with most other fictional settings. So I hope all this might be of some interest or use to others who are assembling Orcish forces for gaming.

Rigth! Back to my wolfriders!

Oh, and the orcs of Middle Earth aren’t green. But we all knew that – didn’t we?  Wink
« Last Edit: January 28, 2016, 01:58:54 AM by Hobgoblin » Logged

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« Reply #1 on: January 28, 2016, 02:46:52 AM »

Thanks for this,,good read!
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« Reply #2 on: January 28, 2016, 04:33:24 AM »

Quite the exhaustive bit of research you did there.  Wink   I like it! I'll have to revisit this when I eventually do a Lord of the Rings project.  Smiley
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« Reply #3 on: January 28, 2016, 05:46:23 AM »

Nice post,and I agree!

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« Reply #4 on: January 28, 2016, 07:19:19 AM »

Nice post. You need to start blogging!


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« Reply #5 on: January 28, 2016, 08:37:05 AM »

Awesome post! Applause applause!
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« Reply #6 on: January 28, 2016, 09:23:20 AM »

It has been some time since i last read the books, but I thought that the main difference between Orcs and Uruks were that the Uruks had a better tolerance for sunlight.

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« Reply #7 on: January 28, 2016, 09:26:03 AM »

Yeah, this one was visited a couple of months back wasn't it? I got completely crushed when I foolishly started quoting someone else's theories as Tolkein and felt most red-faced.

I would mention, however, that (I think) the Tolkein Orcs/Goblins are mentioned as having a stooping, crouching sort of posture, so although not tall, they may not necessarily be small as such, just hunched over.

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« Reply #8 on: January 28, 2016, 10:32:19 AM »

I agree, and I would add that the difference in words is because:

- goblin is the "human language" word.
- orc (plural yrch) is the "elfic language" word.
- uruk is the "orc language" word.

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« Reply #9 on: January 28, 2016, 10:50:17 AM »

..and i thought i took Middle earth too seriously Wink
I think you are on the right track. I always assumed that the "goblinoid " races come in all shapes and sizes and are all "goblins". Orcs was just a name/discription for the larger ones ("goblins" are lesser goblins and orcs greater goblins).
If i remember rightly Saruman was accused of the crime of crossing orcs with wild men and creating the Uruk-hai who could move and fight during the day.  Sarumans orcs were for me normal, not interbred creatures that he gathered around him from the misty mountains or has borrowed/leased ( Laugh) from Sauron.
I think a lot of the other names and discriptions of the various goblin races are often just Tolkiens poetic way of writing and avoiding repeating his discriptions over and over.

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« Reply #10 on: January 28, 2016, 10:52:43 AM »

Pretty much what I've thought all along. I'm with emosbur. Tolkien was a linguist and etymologist, so it was always going to be about using different descriptive names and languages.
When I first started fantasy gaming back in the day I was given some old Minifigs Orcs. Despite their obvious vintage I kinda liked them and kept them and have adapted them over the years and incorporated them into my own army. I'm glad to see the swordsman are now available so I can build up my unit further...

Earlier attempts at modifying historical rulesets for ME often suggested a more humanoid alternative for the Orkish legions using a combination of Dark Age warriors and even Romans as proxies. As has been stated it is the RPG and gaming fraternity that have morphed these humanoid warriors over the years. Their origins have been stated as warped and corrupted versions of elves by Melkor.
When I started collecting I favoured Nick Lund's more humanoid Chronicle Orcs and graduated to his larger versions when he worked for Grenadier.

There are some excellent examples painted up on this forum by Mr Hobgoblin. To my mind they seemed much closer to my idea of the books, but there was a definite tendency in the 1980s and 90s towards scale creep generally and a tendency to excessive caricature in the Citadel/GWs minis that always put me off them. Particularly the more comic pointy ears and gnomish getup. The battier and sillier they got the more I distanced myself from them and the more the genre put me off fantasy gaming.
The use of technology, armour and weapons is one of the reasons I particularly like the rendition of the Uruk-Hai in the PJ films. The exaggerated differences between them and the goblins of Moria in the films is one of the principle reasons I hate them. The comic caricatures of the goblins in the Hobbit films even more so.
There were a whole host of human allies fighting alongside the less human forces of Mordor, which is an area I am particularly interested in. ATM I am casting about for historical proxies for the Dunlendings and for the black clad cavalry host that issued from Minas Morgul before Pelennor in the books. I find it interesting that the colour black features as emblematic of good AND evil in the novels. Black is the new grey in Middle Earth apparently...

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« Reply #11 on: January 28, 2016, 12:17:51 PM »

An excellent couple of posts here, both descriptive and visual. Thank you for sharing.


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« Reply #12 on: January 28, 2016, 12:42:18 PM »

Great research.

What I hate about Orcs and goblins in most wargames and RPGs is that they have become a silly race of idiots, who speak in some kind of mockney accent. To me, from my reading of the LotR and other Tolkien, Orcs are just as clever as men. They are just twisted, evil and self-loathing. But they are cunning and inventive, not idiots.

For me the best representations of Orcs have been the old Perry Citadel pre-slotta ones (which are rather too large, I'll concede). Two things I like about these models is 1) they look evil and nasty and built for the business of war without looking silly or like caricatures, and 2) they had kit. Bottles, bags, clothes, armour - they obviously were warriors but it felt like to me they had their own culture, manufacturing capabilities etc. etc.

Good stuff!


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« Reply #13 on: January 28, 2016, 02:14:50 PM »

I would mention, however, that (I think) the Tolkein Orcs/Goblins are mentioned as having a stooping, crouching sort of posture, so although not tall, they may not necessarily be small as such, just hunched over.

That's a very good point. Here's the quote from The Hobbit:

"The passage was low and roughly made. It was not too difficult for the hobbit, except when, in spite of all care, he stubbed his poor toes again, several times, on nasty jagged stones on the floor. "A bit low for goblins, at least for the big ones," thought Bilbo, not knowing that even the big ones, the orcs of the mountains, go along at a great speed stooping low with their hands almost on the ground."

It's an interesting passage. First, the passage is low from a hobbit's perspective: it's low, but not too bad. Second, he thinks it's "a bit low for goblins, at least for the big ones." So, not too bad for the small ones - just as it's not too bad for him. That supports the idea that the smaller orcs are about hobbit-sized - as confirmed in LotR. And note that the "big ones" are goblins too. And if the low tunnel isn't too bad for small orcs and hobbits, then we might well hypothesise that dwarf-sized creatures (bigger than hobbits) would have more difficulty.

We also get this interesting phrase: "the big ones, the orcs of the mountains." I've seen some people argue that this indicates that "orc" means "a big goblin", i.e. that the emphasis should be on orcs rather than of the mountains. The problem is that Tolkien shows (and tells, in later editions) that "orc" means simply "goblin": "Orc-rist" = "goblin-cleaver". And, in the appendices of LotR, we learn that there are "great uruks" in the Misty Mountains (sent there by Sauron before coming into the service of Saruman).

I think, though, that there is the ghost of an idea here that you can see in some of the drafts of LoTR (Moria's "real orcs" becomes= "black Uruks of Mordor", for example). So, after toying with "orc" in the drafts as a designation reserved for the larger goblins, Tolkien appears to settle on uruk as a word that means "goblin" but is generally reserved for the larger goblins. Presumably, "orc" wouldn't work because he'd already used it as a synonym for "goblin" (he also uses the terms synonymously in much earlier writings). So, rather than the big goblins in Moria being "real orcs", they become "black Uruks".But the point is that Tolkien settled the issue before publication: orcs were goblins, and goblins were orcs.

In the process, he evidently came to dislike the word "goblin" - which is a Romance-language word, unlike elf, dwarf, warg, wose, ent and orc, which are all Germanic. That's why he uses "goblin" so much less in LotR than in The Hobbit - and that's why the inhabitants of Goblin-town are described as "orcs" in LotR. The creatures hadn't changed, but the preferred term for them had.

The description of orcs running is carried straight over into LotR, where the Uruk-hai run "with bowed backs", Grishnakh runs "stooping low" and "bent almost double", and Shagrat "ran crouching" with "long arms" that "reached almost to the ground".

The most important point*, though, is that this, like so many of the "close-ups" of orcs, is from a hobbit's perspective. Though some orcs are as small as hobbits, many are quite a bit bigger. And Tolkien does use words such as "big", "large", "huge" and "hugest" to describe orcs. Without context, we could easily assume them to be quite big creatures. But there is context that shows that they are relatively short (the contrast with the half-orcs, the fact that a "huge orc-chieftain" is not as tall as a man) and relatively small (the fact that the Haradrim are "almost as bad as Orcs and much bigger").

They are, though, only relatively small. They seem to be quite stocky too: Grishnakh is "very broad", the orc-shapes at Helm's Deep are "squat and broad", and the Isengarders have "thick legs". So yes, they seem to be quite bulky. Big heads are a recurrent theme too. And they're evidently very strong and tough.

My sneaking feeling is that Tolkien's orcs were more like dwarves than is generally assumed.

*Important is a relative concept here!  Cheesy
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« Reply #14 on: January 28, 2016, 02:24:38 PM »

Yes, Hobgoblin did make some of these points a little while back, but I for one, am happy to see the argument fully explored with such detailed forensic analysis of the sources. (Mainly because I completely agree! Cheesy)

(Stick that in your TL:DR pipe and smoke it!)


What I hate about Orcs and goblins in most wargames and RPGs is that they have become a silly race of idiots, who speak in some kind of mockney accent. To me, from my reading of the LotR and other Tolkien, Orcs are just as clever as men. They are just twisted, evil and self-loathing. But they are cunning and inventive, not idiots.

Totally. The whole D&D and later GW subversion of Tolkien's orcs into bright green, semi-comic 'Mockney' wide boys (sorry 'boyz') is a crass piece of cultural vandalism driven by a mix of puerile taste and humour, and some kind of commercial imperative to appeal to young kids.

sukhe_bator - great pic.
I had those Minifigs orcs in the late 1970s. Think I said almost exactly the same thing last time this discussion came up... Pre D&D, pre-GW, pre-Peter Jackson and co, those were the model orcs which actually resembled what is described in the books - despite the crude sculpting (by modern-day standards). That's what Tolkien described.

Great thread  Smiley

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