The scene was as gruesome as expected. Unlike the Kelbit tribe, who took slaves, the Urzun tribe simply killed. The two carts had been utterly destroyed and stripped of all valuables. The guards who had attempted to defend the caravan were dead in the mud, their skulls crushed by the heavy clubs and hammers of the Urzun, who liked the feeling and sound of breaking bone. The traders had been slaughtered and cut to pieces. The Urzun were known to eat the flesh of men. Rannvar the Ranger knew the terrible truth – this was the work of only three or four orcs, not a large group. At least they had not remained. Unlike the goblinoids, the orcs never bothered with stealth and simply charged forward, confident in their incredible strength and resilience. This would not be a pleasant job.
In most fantasy worlds, there is the basic threat. Most of the time it is a humanoid creature and often it is the orc. The orc has a very special place. Most creatures and monsters in fantasy gaming are based on folklore and legends. The orc, however, is not. It is pure fantasy and in many ways it is ours, something that belongs to fantasy roleplaying and players and nobody else.
The word orc has murky origins. It is recorded in Old English as having Latin roots and vice versa, but the meaning is roughly the same – ogre or foul creature. It only has one literary reference until the 20th century, from Beowulf. It seems likely that the evolution of the word ogre to orc comes from France.
Simply put, orc didn’t really mean anything specific. Until J.R.R. Tolkien came along. And thus began the age of the orc.
Although early on Tolkien makes little or no distinction between orcs and goblins, it becomes more pronounced with time and apparently Tolkien intended to amend his earlier work to make it clear that these were separate creatures. The later films do make a clear distinction. Tolkien’s orcs are the root for the fantasy orc. They are filthy, ugly creatures that hate men and intend to destroy mankind. They are both slavers and eat man-flesh and despise beauty. They are never explicitly described, so the idea for how an orc looks is somewhat flexible.
Tolkien’s works are absolutely the major influence on roleplaying games, at least in the beginning. Therefore it should come as no surprise that orcs were very early a staple of the game. They appear in the 1e Monster Manual of D&D with the following description: “Orcs appear particularly disgusting because their coloration – 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 armor tends to be unattractive – dirty and often a bit rusty. Orcs favor unpleasant colors in general. Their garments are in tribal colors, as are shield devices or trim. Typical colors are blood red, rust red, mustard yellow, yellow green, moss green, greenish purple, and blackish brown. They live for 40 years.” They are made quite pig-like and that stuck for a long time. An orc was never a particularly large threat in older versions of D&D. Other systems had various attitudes towards how dangerous or distinctive the orc was. In 2e days the orc, like many other things, went through minor revision and the description, while retaining pig features, adds ape-like features as well.
Once D&D goes through the big change of 3e, so does the orc. It becomes a more destructive and savage creature and the description changes somewhat and leaves more room for interpretation: “This creature looks like a primitive human with gray skin and coarse hair. It has a stooped posture, low forehead, and a piglike face with prominent lower canines that resemble a boar’s tusks.” The one great advantage of 3e was the flexibility and suddenly there was room for the orc to be a permanent threat, not just for low-level characters.
The beauty of the orc is that it is such a simple creature. It is destructive and evil and has no redeeming features. They kill, enslave, eat, pillage, torture and defile their victims. When done right, they are a simple threat but also a terrifying one. In general orcs are portrayed as being very strong and hardy but less intelligent than an average human. Sometimes they are also agile, sometimes smarter – there is endless room for adjustments.
While the orc can be a simple and straightforward threat, the trick is to make them memorable and unique. In the game I’m currently running, one of the major threats are the orcs. I’ve turned them into five major and distinctive tribes that also have several subtribes within each. One tribe is considered unusually brave and collects slaves, another is especially brutish, is known for eating flesh and breaking bones and yet another is considered cowardly but cunning and sets traps and ambushes. They also have distinctive appearances, so my players can gather from what they see and hear what to expect. My orcs are larger than humans, but hunched so they seem equally tall. They are physically extremely strong and hardy and can fight past the point when most others would fall. Mentally they are somewhat weaker, and have less intelligence, awareness and force of personality. They have coarse, dark hair and beards and hairy chests, legs and forearms. Their skin can range from a brownish-green to a yellowish-green, but there also orcs with a very dark green skin tone that is almost black. They have a combination of gorilla and boar traits physically, for example a very flat nose and large tusks. They treat their women terribly and are none the kinder to women of other races. In short, they are destructive and evil brutes with no redeeming features.
Such a simple thing as the common orc can make for a memorable encounter or villain. All it takes is a little thought and effort. Experienced players and GM’s tend to dismiss the simple pleasures of the game. There is sometimes a level of arrogance that develops towards things that become routine. I say you should remember what made you start and was fun and make the most of it instead of ignoring it.
Because the simple fact is, these games are there for us to enjoy.
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