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Thread: Why use D&D races in our stories?

  1. #1
    Leadership Dreamhand's Avatar
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    Why use D&D races in our stories?

    In commenting on a story in the showcase that included Orcs, I offered the following... well... okay, it's a rant. But I also think it's an important talking point for fantasy writers and I wanted to to put it out to the group.

    Quote Originally Posted by Dreamhand View Post
    I understand that Tolkien and Role-Playing Games are often the foundation of a fantasy writer's love of the genre (they were certainly mine), but drawing literally (as opposed to metaphorically) from those sources reduces your work from "a bold new vision" to mere "D&D fan fiction".

    If you're just starting out, testing your writing craft, then sure... be derivative and utilize the tropes and cliches of the genre in your drafts.

    But when your ready to tell your OWN story, don't use those works as a crutch, cannibalizing the work and creation of others to support it. Don't limit yourself (or the genre) to a single narrow body of tired, over-used conventions. You have to full scope of imagination to draw from, and yours is utterly unique from everyone else's... and THAT is what will make your tales exceptional.
    The argument was made that orcs are a convention of fantasy literature like knights and vampires, to which I respond...

    A story about a knight or that has knights in it isn't derivative because of the documented historical precedent and the vast body of work that has made the concept an archetype of the genre.

    A story about vampires isn't derivative because of the extensive cultural folklore that spans the globe that supports it and the vast body of work that has made the concept an archetype of the genre.

    Orcs are Tolkien's creation (yes, Lief, they are. He may have drawn from mythology, but the contemporary awareness of the "orc" is rooted squarely with Tolkien), a metaphor for the cruel brutality he saw in the world. D&D took Tolkien's creation and turned them into 1 hit-die targets for low-level player characters. While there are many D&D novels that feature orcs, they all reference back to a single source - D&D - which in turn points back to Tolkien.

    Consequently, ANY work that features orcs ultimately will be associated with and over-shadowed by D&D and Tolkien. It can't stand on its own merit because as soon as the reader sees "orc" they will think of either Gary Gygax or Viggo Mortensen (or possibly Ian McKellen). What they WON'T be thinking of is the AUTHOR's story, and whatever tale they are attempting to tell will essentially be Tolkien fan fiction.

    Not that there's anything wrong with Tolkien fan fiction. It's a great world and a wonderful opportunity for a writer to hone their craft in a world where the original writer has done most of the heavy lifting. Go for it!

    I'm not suggesting anyone remove fantasy elements from a fantasy story. I'm suggesting that, if you - as a writer - need a race to embody the archetype of cruelty and brutality in your fantasy world, that you create one based on YOUR story, not someone else's.
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  2. #2
    I disagree with this. Yeah, sure they started that way, but with each time they are used in a story they change and evolve. You mention how vampires are ok because of the large cultural folklore assosiated with them, well, with orcs we're in the proccess of MAKING that extensive cultural folklore.

    There's plenty of ways to use orcs without just copying tolkein.

    There's Blizzard Orcs which are proud warrior race guys.

    The Orks from Warhammer 40k which have the mind of a little kid in a 300 pound killing machine.

    Hell, there's even Discworld's Orcs who are considered to be terrible killing machines but are were really modified humans that simply didn't have a choice but to kill.

    The orcs in my world follow the blizzard model most of all but with dashes of the others, they are genetically engineered soldiers created by the elves in their war against the dwarves, but eventually broke free and established their own culture that's equal parts roman legion and feudal Japan.

    'Course, ignoring all the other ways to use Orcs, there's the simple fact that they're familiar to us. Why reinvent the wheel when there's a perfectly good one just sitting there?
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    Quote Originally Posted by Dreamhand View Post

    Consequently, ANY work that features orcs ultimately will be associated with and over-shadowed by D&D and Tolkien. It can't stand on its own merit because as soon as the reader sees "orc" they will think of either Gary Gygax or Viggo Mortensen (or possibly Ian McKellen). What they WON'T be thinking of is the AUTHOR's story, and whatever tale they are attempting to tell will essentially be Tolkien fan fiction.
    No, I don't think this is correct at all. It is perfectly possible to write an engaging, original story using orcs, and even Tolkien-style orcs, that is not even close to being Tokien fan-fiction, if that's what you want to do. To be honest, I find the breadth of the assertion to be ludicrous. Maybe that's how you read stories that have orcs in them, or other standard fantasy races that have appeared in any number of stories, but the idea that you put forth that any reader who comes across them will somehow be unable or unwilling to think of the author's story because they'll be so engrossed in thoughts of Tolkien or Dungeons & Dragons is insupportable, in my opinion.
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  6. #4
    I rather think it's normal and fine to use fantasy elements that are well-established by other works. It's better, sometimes, than making a race almost identical to orcs - because that's the element you want in your story - and just calling them Pigmen or something.

    I mean, put aside orcs for a moment. Everyone has thoughts and opinions and preconceptions about orcs.

    What about mithril? One of the things some fantasy writers want to do is to find a way to create a better class of sword or armor, so new metals are common. Is it better to create a new class of metal, with a new funny new name, with all of the same properties as mithril? What's wrong with just using mithril?

    The reason I defend orcs and mithril and the rest of them is this: If you have a lot of fantasy elements, throwing in a familiar element here and there makes it easier for the readers to accept all of the rest. My current WIP doesn't use any of these D&D tropes. But in one of the stories I had worked on, there were orcs and ogres and others - and then three new races called the Gorgit, the Traelu, and the Ettoch, around which much of the backstory was centered. Using the established elements helped to create a more involving setting for these new and much more original races, without having the lengthy introduction process that would've been necessary to have created additional new races (which would have been a huge detraction from the story).

    Even using orcs and ogres, I had no problem making them my own. They were the brute races, which used violent actions to call upon their gods to have a steroid-like drug infused into their veins. Too much of this blood-magic caused an Ogre to degenerate into an Orc. The ogres were capable of living in their own villages; the polluted rage of being an orc made them an outcast, and they joined other orcs in raiding from the hills. And right there, just like that, you already have a clear enough image of that situation in your head, a platform from which I can now talk about the much-more-important Gorgit, Traelu and Ettoch, which uses that same steroid-type magic to create essential (and much more original) plot elements.

    It's like, if you're describing the arsenal of an powerful, ancient army, with half a dozen new magics and weapons and races, you might throw in "mithril" chainmail just to help set the mood without adding still another confusing new name. It saves time and what I can only call "comprehension energy" to help you focus on the more important stuff.
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    Moderator Reaver's Avatar
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    Excellent point, Devor. My only questions are: is mithril spelled mithril or mithral? Also, is it a D&D idea or Tolkien's?
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  8. #6
    Quote Originally Posted by Reaver View Post
    Excellent point, Devor. My only questions are: is mithril spelled mithril or mithral? Also, is it a D&D idea or Tolkien's?
    Tolkein's. He trademarked Hobbit but not mithril. So his spelling his correct - it's not impossible that I misspelled it.
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    Leadership Dreamhand's Avatar
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    I'm particularly taken with Queshire's idea that we're in the process of defining a new archetype. That's intriguing and I hadn't considered it.

    Quote Originally Posted by Steerpike
    ...the idea that you put forth that any reader who comes across them will somehow be unable or unwilling to think of the author's story because they'll be so engrossed in thoughts of Tolkien or Dungeons & Dragons is insupportable, in my opinion.
    I think you may misunderstand the point I was making there. By referencing something that is so strongly and definitively associated with something else - something unique and specific to one particular work - you invite all of the readers perceptions and beliefs ABOUT that work to be infused in the story. That's something you as a writer have NO control over and - in my opinion - is a HUGE gamble. If they hate D&D or Tolkien or whatever (or, like me, believe them to be over-used cliches), that taints the readers perception of the work.

    It's like a lawyer asking a question in a trial that he/she doesn't know the answer to. Why subject your story unnecessarily to such potential bias?

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  10. #8
    I agree with Devor that comprehension is best served by using established names for the types of critters, beings, metals or weapons your fantasy characters are using or coming across. As they say, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's a duck. If what you've got is a greenskinned humaniod warrior race, then yes, by all means call it an orc.

    But why use a different species at all? Why not just use a different nationality - a different human culture? I know fantasy species (I wouldn't call them races) like elves, dwarves, orcs, trolls and whatnot are quite popular, but I've never thought much of them myself. They seem like a shorthand. You just need to write "x was an elf" and people think of Tolkein elves and you then don't really need to develop them much because everyone takes for granted that they're archers and live in woods. Same goes for any fantasy species. I'd rather see new cultures, cultures created by the author which are well developed, rounded and layered and interesting. As far as I'm concerned, a culture should be treated like a main character: it must have depth, good aspects and bad aspects and downright weird things about them which make them unique and believable.

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    Senior Member Feo Takahari's Avatar
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    I use common fantasy races because I hate D&D and Tolkien. For instance, if I've just played an otherwise entertaining video game in which you kill hundreds of orcs, I'll write a story in which one of the protagonists is an orc.

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    Senior Member TWErvin2's Avatar
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    My novels don't contain orcs, but they have goblins, ogres, zombies, giants, dragons (fire, acid, frost, steam breathing), griffins, wyverns, gargoyles, wizards, werebeasts, etc.

    I guess just about everything you'd find in either D&D or Tolkien in some fashion. While there may be some reflection of those books and games, they're my own, created to be a part of the world created in The First Civilization's legacy series. In truth, a goblin is pretty much a goblin. So what? Kids get an idea of what a goblin is from way back when they're kids dressing up for Halloween. Using conventional elements of fantasy novels, and even some games--there's nothing wrong with that.

    But I also have souled zombies, for example. There are fallen angels and WW II machines of war that come into the mix. The elves (greater elves or immortal bloods) are not the 'standard elf'. And the lesser elves are sprites and pixies. How magic works in my world isn't anything like D&D or Lord of the Rings.

    One can go the direction of Stephen R. Donaldson, creating ur-Viles and the Blood Guard, for example--there's nothing wrong with that, but he did have giants.

    If the 'standard fare,' including a novel that has orcs in it, doesn't strike your fancy, don't include them in your writings, or don't read stories that include them.

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