Explorer's Guide to Wildemount provides an alternative to one of Dungeons & Dragons' more problematic races. Earlier this week, Dungeons & Dragons released Explorer's Guide to Wildemount, a new campaign setting book for the continent of Wildemount. Fans know Wildemount as the setting of Critical Role's current campaign, and the book provides tons of lore and details about this diverse and expansive place. In addition to giving players everything they need to start a campaign in Wildemount, Explorer's Guide to Wildemount also contains a ton of player options, including four new subraces, three new subclasses, and a brand new school of magic. However, one of the book's most important offerings is an alternative orc race that steps away from some of that race's traditionally troublesome elements.
The "Orcs of Exandria" race found in Explorer's Guide to Wildemount specifically notes that orcs are not bound to commit acts of evil by nature, nor do they have a supernatural power that drives them to kill or commit acts of violence. That's a major difference from the playable orc race found in Volo's Guide to Monsters, which claims that orcs have a blood lust and only have a limited capacity for empathy, love, and compassion. That subtle difference is also reflected in two major trait differences - the Orc of Exandria does not have a penalty to their Intelligence stat, nor do they have the "Menancing" trait that grants them an automatic proficiency in Intimidation. Instead, Exandrian Orcs have the option to be proficient in several skills, including Animal Handling, Insight, Intimidation, Medicine, Perception, and Survival.
So - why are these changes important? Orcs have had a problematic history that traces back to the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, who used orcs and goblins as footsoldiers for the forces of evil. Many saw Tolkien's orcs as a representation of the "Other," especially in the context of World War I and World War II. As orcs were dark-skinned, brutish, and had slanted eyes, some consider Tolkien's orcs to be caricatures of non-European races, particularly of the Japanese. In fact, Tolkien once described the orcs as looking like the "least-lovely Mongol types." Although Tolkien's other letters give no evidence that he was consciously racist, he was seemingly affected by the prejudices and misconceptions of his time.
Regardless as to whether Tolkien intended for his orcs to represent a certain group of people, his depiction of orcs as a humanoid but evil race was a popular fantasy trope for many years, one that is still reflected in Dungeons & Dragons today. And portraying any "race" or group of intelligent people as inherently evil feeds into the notion of harmful stereotypes, even when orcs are portrayed as distinctively different than humans. Additionally, deciding that orcs are inherently less intelligent than other races also touches upon harmful topics of eugenics and the belief that some people are less intelligent solely due to their genetics and not a variety of socio-economic factors that starts from the moment of a person's birth.
Explorer's Guide to Wildemount takes an important step in specifying that no race of intelligent creatures in inherently evil, nor are they inherently less smart than other races. While many still see the idea of "race" in Dungeons & Dragons as problematic, Explorer's Guide to Wildemount at least removes one of the most problematic aspects of that part of D&D, making it easier for players to craft whatever sort of orc character they want to play as.