Orcs. Orcs are awesome.
The default in D&D, Dungeon World and other games is that Orcs are evil. This is wrong. Orcs are badass. If you need a sentient fungal infection like in WH40000, do that. If you need a humanoid species, give them nuances.
Just as elves are beings of the forest, and merfolk are... well..., Orcs are beings of the mountain. Unlike Dwarves, who build in the stone and turn the mountain into their home, Orcs are one with the mountains, adapting themselves to the stone and living there in communion with nature, with a level of respect and love for the pebble and the rock Dwarves never dream of.
Orcs are beings of ice and magma, of stone and moss, a fierce people used to hardship, bonding into clans because the hard winters in the mountain ranges demand solidarity and fellowship. "An orc dies alone", they say, not as cruelty, but as harsh truth.
You might be thinking “Mountains do not move”. I want you to picture a volcano, where the fury and heat from the planet explode with terrible fury and flow inexorably. I want you to think of an avalanche, burying several square leagues under meters of snow and stone. I want you to imagine glaciers, breaking over a lake with terrible, majestic cracks. That’s the Horde. Those are the orc shamans, the warriors, the warlord, the orc queens. Terrible creatures, prone to tremendous good and evil.
Use in Adventures
This origin story makes it much more plausible to have orcs in an adventure as protectors of their realm, as antagonists with an understandable motive even characters can be sympathetic to. Orcs can thus
- march as a response to humans defiling their land,
- be swayed to evil by magic just as other creatures can, e.g. the White Pickaxe clan have fallen under the spells of a white or red dragon, and they can be a huge asset to characters if they're freed,
- provide a more interesting ecosystem of creatures in which they have motives to ally or antagonize other creatures. The Green Hand tribe can be sworn enemies of the mountain trolls, because the latter just ate the bedrock under their previous town out of spite. Trolls will do that.
You might find that this origin helps make half-orcs less icky. That's intended.
I finally sat down and wrote this in part because I've disliked the treatment of orcs in D&D for a very long time, and in part because of recent events. Make no mistake: the current depiction of orcs in D&D and other games is based on racist tropes and is a racist dogwhistle in itself. I cannot solve the race problems inherent. I just hope that this alternative gives you some food for thought for your own games. I know that, even if just out of sheer professionalism, I don't want to have mortal humanoid creatures that are one or two degrees removed from men, but essentially good or evil. I also cannot solve all the problems D&D has. I just wanted to make Orcs cool, this time.
Photo credit: Simon Fitall on Unsplash