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Basic Information

In many ways orcs are the uber-mooks of the fantasy RPG.
They owe their prevalence mainly to Professor Tolkein, who welded together the traditional goblin of Western myth with some obscure references from Beowulf and - perhaps - a bit or two of the Southern European ogre to create what is, arguably, the first instance of an inhuman mook race.

Tolkein's orcs were vaguely oriental in appearance, but were generally subhuman and disgusting creatures that came about from the corruption of elves - where elves were almost universally superior to humanity, orcs were pretty much the diametric opposite.

Virtually every fantasy work since has featured orcs in one way or another - many of them very unlike the original.

In appearance an orc may be green and tusked, reddish brown and apelike or like a primitive human with a pig's head. They may be modified humans, modified elves, uplifted animals or a seperate species altogether - they may even be fungi. They will, however, normally lack the fae character that sometimes adheres to Goblins. Physically they may be nothing but a series of falling plates, or a significant challenge and they may be bullying cowards or terrifying beserkers - there may even be several different kinds colour coded for your convenience1. They may not always be called orcs … but they will usually be recognisable for what they are.

In all but the most subversive settings, orcs will, as previously implied, serve mainly as mooks - they may be always chaotic evil or a proud warrior race2 - or may have some other specific hat. Harnmaster based the social organisation of its orcs on mole rats and eusocial insects and in the cRPG Arcanum the orcs filled the twin roles of primitive tribals and urban slaves. Surprisingly Palladium managed an extremely nuanced presentation in which orcs, whilst generally feral and dangerous, were also conformist and easily lead and could be dragooned into doing good as well as evil, depending mostly on the behaviour of whoever's example they happened to be following.

Traditionally orcs are major league omnivores - in some cases this is an extension of the 'pig faced human' model, in others they can obtain nourishment from wood and soil. This may or may not be played for laughs, but orc ale almost always will be.


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • Your orc can be basically anything - just make sure your players know what it is in your setting.
  • Although in-character ignorance may be amusing - using the Arcanum example, an urban character might well assume that all orcs are stunted and servile and be completely unprepared to meet a far more atavistic sort of orcish warrior in the wilderness.
  • For those who like the original idea of an entire species of warrior drones, orcs could easily be a form of fantasy bioroid or homonculus, thus allowing the fantasy ideal of (almost) dissonance-free genocide, including a lack of non-combatants of which to argue about the slaughter or otherwise.
    • If they need to be corrupted humans, elves or whatever, there still doesn't need to be a 1:1 correspondence - multiple humans may go into one vat and a possibly different number of orcs crawl out.
    • Or you could reverse this idea, with a typically high fantasy lack of ontological inertia whereby killing the BBEG leads to all the (surviving) orcs turning back into people. For the purposes of most high fantasy, no-one will ask what happened to the dead ones.
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