Orcs: A Twisted Reflection
I love Orcs as a concept. Which is odd because they are pretty standard bad guys, right? Seven feet tall, stronger than a powerlifter, and with a face only a mother could love. Clad them in random bits of armor they found and give them a below average intelligence, and there you go. They come usually as a bunch of mindless grunts and brutes serving a dark lord or a ravaging bunch of raiders that menace small towns. Regardless of circumstance, they are pretty much innately evil and enjoy wreaking havoc. They also have a pretty particular grudge against the Elves. Pretty basic, all things considered.
Yet it’s hard not to see their tusked faces pretty much everywhere. From sword and sorcery fantasy like Dungeons and Dragons or Warcraft to sci-fi fantasy like Warhammer 40k, these massive hulking monster-people have appeared in some form or another. More interestingly, they remain largely consistent across the genres, with very minor changes and tweaks. So the question is raised: why Orcs? What gives them such staying power?
Enter the Orcs
In D&D Lore, Orcs were created by the one-eyed god Gruumsh, who, having been left with no lands to populate with his creatures, instead created caverns, ruins, and badlands for them to inhabit. This lines up with some historical accounts, as Orcs are not native to the mainland of Toril. They instead come from either unexplored regions or another world entirely using portals. Originally arriving in small clusters, they bandied about, creating small amounts of trouble. Eventually, the first true Orc horde was formed and waged a large-scale invasion campaign, which was held back by the elven armies. The horde would then regroup, repopulate, and try again, only to be defeated again. This became a regular occurrence until the portals were reopened and a massive Orcish horde arrived, sending the population across the entire realm.
After the chaos of the Orcish invasion died down and their numbers reduced, there was no truly established Orc society. There is instead a loose confederation of tribes that do not band together, but also rarely infight. Most Orcs do not build cities, instead living in the remains of other cities that they have conquered or found abandoned. Each tribe’s numbers are small, making it easy for them to survive in smaller encampments or caverns if need be. Because there is no established trade among Orc tribes, most tend to rely on items they get from raiding, find off of dead enemies, or craft themselves, which tends to be of lower quality compared to the other races’.
The main unifying force for Orcs is their connection to Gruumsh, who teaches that Orcs are superior and that conquest over all creation is their birthright. Gruumsh’s rage and desire for war passed on to his children, who now wage wars in his name. Orcs are often seen menacing Humans and Dwarves, but carry a specific grudge against Elves largely due to Gruumsh’s history with the Elvish god Corellon. Gruumsh also demands a regular sacrifice from his Orcs, typically in the form of slain enemies(elves, preferably), although some Orcs have taken to removing one of their own eyes as sacrifice, which Gruumsh will sometimes reward by granting them magic as well as the title of “Eye of Gruumsh”.
Orcs are often referred to by the other human and demi-human races as something like a walking plague. They live in blighted lands, consume all things in their wake, rarely take prisoners, and kill as easily as they breathe. Not by choice, but by their very nature. Where creatures like the Drow were led astray and manipulated by a self-serving master, Orcs were created for the sole purpose of conquest. They are made to fulfill their god’s grudge.
A bit of history!
The term Orc- actually has very little basis in mythology. The only main origin point for the word can be the Etruscan-Roman deity Orcus, who was similar to Hades, but mostly dealt with broken oaths. After that, it became Orco, which was a catch-all term that described all manner of demon or violent monster, and eventually became the word Ogre. Pretty neat, but not very enlightening.
Instead of taking directly from mythology, the modern Orc exists because of JRR Tolkien(gotta pay respects to the king). Tolkien took the old term and used it to describe the creatures in The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, and Silmarillion. In his universe, Orcs were originally Elves who were taken by the god Melkor and tortured, eventually mutating and becoming grotesque mockeries of Elvish grace and elegance. These creations would go on to serve Melkor in his quest to take all of creation for himself. After Melkor’s defeat, the Orcs would be left to their own devices.
During the War for the Ring, Sauron would create a new breed of Orc, combining the strength of Orcs with the intelligence of Goblins. The process being more akin to mechanical production than anything else. Part of this production required the destruction of the surrounding forest, creating a blighted landscape.
It is interesting to see how a relatively new concept like Orcs plays so well with millennia old ones like the Elves or Trolls, with the overall concept only evolving slightly over the past century.
Looks evil. Sounds evil. Must be evil.
Removing the influence of deities from the equation, it wouldn't be too far out of line to say that Orcs just look evil. It's by design. They're massive humanoid monsters with strange proportions, pig-like faces that can be either squashed flat or elongated into snouts, red eyes, massive tusks, and skin that ranges from gray to sickly green. They are designed to look like humanoid boars with temper issues. Giving them dozens of battle scars and removing some appendages or facial features enhances the effect.
But why is it so important that the bad guy looks like a pig? Aside from some questionable hygiene, pigs are pretty mundane animals. Some people even keep them as pets, so why does that part matter so much? Part of that may have to do with the sheer amount of resources pigs go through. A particularly fat one can consume as much food as three men. Wild boar are similar in terms of appetite, but need to be more violent in order to get the food. They are more aggressive, developing thicker skin, hair, and tusks in order to fight off competition. And did I mention they are an invasive species? It's not hard to see the thematic relevance of a “walking plague” that enters an area, consumes all of its resources, and leaves only ruin in its wake.
The modern depiction of Orcs can best be described as a sort of perversion of nature. Their appearance is intended to be grotesque and unnatural, they do not come to the world naturally, instead being set loose upon it from another realm entirely. Where boar can at least fertilize the land so that plants can regrow, Orcs are meant to consume all that is in their wake without producing anything in turn. Even in their origin, blighted badlands were created for them to inhabit. It is the only place in which they thrive, and the only place nothing else can. And their natural enemy is the Elves, who are the most in-touch with nature.
Additionally, Orcs are compatible with all other human and demi-human races, save for Elves, with Half-Orcs being nearly indistinguishable from full Orcs according to the lore. In this sense, Orcs only ever create that which benefits themselves.
So why do I like Orcs?
With everything in mind: them being created as a direct counter to the natural order and living blight, why do I like them? And it’s a little complicated. Orcs are at once a Nature vs. Nurture debate as well as an exercise in Controlled Narrative.
Part of the Orcish creation myth involved Gruumsh having his eye removed by Corellon, an act that also removed Gruumsh’s gift of prescience. Then, when the gods were selecting lands to populate with their creations, Gruumsh was left with nothing. According to the lore, Orcs tend to tell the story a little differently. Orcs claim that Gruumsh never lost his eye, but instead only ever had one. They also claim that Corellon cheated in their battle, using magic to defeat Gruumsh rather than fighting honestly. Then, during the claiming of lands, Orcs claim that they were chosen by drawing lots, and that the drawing was rigged against Gruumsh, and he had to carve out a niche specifically so that the Orcs would have a chance. Gruumsh’s rage, the trait that all Orcs inherited and share, is at the unfairness of Corellon and his peers.
The Orcs’ perspective of the world is one of struggle against the unfair and controlling Elves. In this, the constant raids and wars are because they believe nobody would give them a chance otherwise, which does seem to be the case as the general population fears Orcs. They have to be tough, brash, and “evil” just to survive. Everyone hates Orcs, so Orcs hate everyone. Part of their history can be presented as just a group of people thrown into an unfamiliar situation and trying to figure out how to navigate it.
I have even had a few Dungeon Masters who made house rules regarding Half-Orc characters. One was that they must all take at least one level of Barbarian so that they can use the Rage mechanic. This was something the Dungeon Master saw as fitting because of their connection to Gruumsh and his trademark rage. During a short campaign, one player was a Half-Orc Fighter who wore full plate armor and full helmet to conceal her identity, which had to do with her backstory. Our party was going through a town that had been waging a small-scale war effort against a nearby Orc tribe, so there was plenty of anti-Orc propaganda strewn about(posters depicting Orcs in a grotesque manner, straw effigies that people purchased and threw into open flame, etc.). The Dungeon Master made the player do saving throws to prevent their character from going into a Rage, so that we could complete our mission without any trouble. It became a sort of test of endurance, watching all of the propaganda against her people while trying to complete a side quest. Suddenly, a short, three-session campaign had more personal stakes and felt more lived-in.
That small change in perspective shows a much more complex and nuanced world. One filled with self-fulfilling prophecies and confirmation biases. And with that, a talented Dungeon Master can challenge parts of the lore and challenge the rules of their world. They can take the time to challenge “innate evil” as both a game mechanic and a concept. They can also show to their players what centuries of fighting just to survive can do to a society and how it affects their growth.
But what do you think? How do you prefer Orcs be used? Do you prefer a pure evil bad guy, or something more complex? Do you have more D&D races you’d like a deep dive on? Let us know on our Socials HERE!
Hunter Fox is a long time fantasy nerd, caffeine addict, and amateur game designer. He has some large ambitions of being a fantasy author in his own right and loves to go on diatribes about worldbuilding and magic systems. When he’s not managing his group’s campaigns, he’s working on his writing skills, cooking for himself and his roommates, or brewing mead.