This is a diversion from painting to consider the appearance of one of the most common fantasy races in role-playing games – Orcs.
I grew up with an initial image of Orcs from the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons ‘Monster Manual’, alongside images of Warhammer Orcs from Games Workshop. I think visual images stick in mind more than written descriptions – I certainly saw many images of green skinned orcs. I’d say I had two ideas for orc skin – green from WH and brown from D&D. I played other games with orcs, but didn’t consider that they might be thinking of them as different again. There have been many gaming publications over the years, and in recent decades plenty of fantasy movies (even TV series) that present orcs that may influence what we consider their appearance to be. The Hobbit/LotR movies certainly suggest greys and blacks.
I had been assuming that D&D Orcs were of dark brown skin. While painting orcs recently, I started to look into their description in various editions of D&D and was surprised to see variations between editions that don’t exist in other D&D creatures. Skin colour has changed, and it appears that the designers wanted to get away from the “piggish” look that they started with. Since I’ve been (or will be) painting Goblins and Kobolds, I looked at their descriptions too. There is slightly different wording between editions, but those creatures physical appearance is unchanged in 1st through 3rd edition.
As a result of this minor research, here’s a simple description of Orcs drawn from a variety of sources – with the focus being prominent Role-Playing Games.
1st Edition (AD&D): Orcs appear particularly disgusting because their colouration – brown or brownish green with a bluish sheen – highlights their pinkish snouts and ears. Their bristly hair is dark brown or black, sometimes with tan patches. Even their armour tends to be unattractive – dirty and often a bit rusty. Orcs favour unpleasant colours in general. Their garments are in tribal colours, as are shield devices or trim. Typical colours are blood red, rust red, mustard yellow, yellow green, moss green, greenish purple, and blackish brown.
2nd Edition (AD&D): Orcs vary widely in appearance, as they frequently cross-breed with other species. In general, they resemble primitive humans with grey-green skin covered with coarse hair. Orcs have a slightly stooped posture, a low jutting forehead, and a snout instead of a nose, though comparisons between this facial feature and those of pigs are exaggerated and perhaps unfair. Orcs have well-developed canine teeth for eating meat and short pointed ears that resemble those of a wolf. Orcish snouts and ears have a slightly pink tinge. Their eyes are human, with a reddish tint that sometimes makes them appear to glow red when they reflect dim light sources in near darkness.
3rd Edition (d20): Gray skin. An orc’s coarse hair usually is black. It has lupine ears and reddish eyes. Orcs prefer wearing vivid colours that many humans would consider unpleasant, such as blood red, mustard yellow, yellow-green, and deep purple. Their equipment is dirty and unkempt.
Pathfinder (d20): It has coarse body hair and a stooped posture like some primitive man but with a grayish-green skin tone and bestial facial features. Burning red eyes peer below a low, sloping brow, just above a flattened nose, and prominent tusk-like teeth. Greasy black hair.
Warhammer: A typical Orc is a naturally large creature that stands taller than the average Man, with long arms and short legs, huge slabs of muscle moving underneath tough green skin, and their jaws are lined with vicious fangs that jut out from their under-bite. They have beady red eyes, a generally foul demeanour, and are naturally bald.
M.E.R.P. (Middle Earth Role Playing): Build: Heavy, with thick hides, short legs, and long thin arms. They have grotesque, fanged faces and random hair growth. Colouring: Black or grey hair, black or reddish-brown eyes, and deep grey or black hides.
The One Ring: “Their appearance and size differs from tribe to tribe, but many prominent features are common to all Orcs, such as swarthy skin, short legs and broad, slanted eyes, wide mouths and long fangs.” Broad, with crooked legs and long arms, Mordor Orcs differ greatly in size and capabilities, from the small but deft Snaga to the large Black Uruk.
Finally, here’s some notes from J.R.R. Tolkien on the subject:
Swart, slant-eyed, with thick legs and large hands, ugly and filthy fanged humanoids. The Uruks are larger, more powerful and cruel and “black”.
“They are (or were) squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes”.
In case you don’t know… Sallow = “(of a person’s face or complexion) of an unhealthy yellow or pale brown colour.”
Okay… back to painting now… Some grey mixed with flesh for my new batch of Orcs!