Part of my interest in creating this series was to come up with monstrous humanoids that are distinct so I can avoid eye-rolling racist tropes.
Intentionally or not, it’s easy for a bunch of humanoid monsters wearing clothing and using tools to appear like stand-ins for marginalized groups and be seen as a justifiable target of prejudicial sentiments like “that’s just how they are.”
The more a creature resembles a human the harder it gets to justify why they are all bloodthirsty bandits.
Orcs might get the worst of this treatment. Until perhaps Ebberon most RPG Orcs have been portrayed as tribal groups unable or unwilling to assimilate into “respectable” society. There is also the troubling origin of half-orcs in some settings which I won’t bother going into here.
I found myself avoiding using Orcs, or I’d make them as much like humans as possible which of course makes them far less interesting. However, I came across a post by Stephen R. Marsh (yes, as in “Moldvay / Cook & Marsh, the architects of B/X DnD) left in a B/X Facebook group where he mentions orcs were, from his standpoint, intended to be “Culturally Vikings (Norse) gone feral.” The image of orcs being raiders on longships stripping human temples, getting back on their boat and moving on to the next seaside fortification just made sense to me.
I was already a pig-faced orcs kind of guy so I compared the Viking origin to the social habits of feral hogs, who have been a growing danger and environmental concern for decades, and it all fell into place.
Orcs are Viking swine.
Communities: Orc communities are called sounders. They are nomadic tribal societies, often as large as a human town, made up of female orcs and children. The sounder is usually managed by the oldest females seen as uniquely wise for their years of childrearing and midwifery. These “eldest sisters” as they are often called, make every major decision related to its safety and prosperity, no matter how informal that decision-making process might seem.
Raiding Parties: When male orcs reach adulthood they undergo a psychological and physical change that opens the libidinal gates, so to speak, and triggers an intense urge to do battle. The young men of these communities form raiding parties and seek out treasure and food.
Successful raiding parties often subsume smaller groups if they have the resources and leadership to do so. If a raiding party grows too large they can become war hordes powerful enough to threaten entire kingdoms.
Courtship: They return to their home Sounder for 4 months starting in the late fall to share treasure and engage in a rather involved courtship ritual based on the crafting of and giving of gifts. Nearly Knight-like codes of chivalry accompany hand-made tools, clothing, poems, art, and even baked goods as interested raiders attempt to show their softer sides and woo a new or existing partner before the raiding season returns.
Elder Males: Male orcs lucky enough to be considered elderly are called uncles and become hermits living in the wilds adjacent to their original Sounder. The community will supply them with food and protection. Uncles are seen as crackpots, sages, or both. It is a sign of respect to listen to any advice they may share regardless of if the listener has any intention of using it.
Half-Orcs: If for any reason an orc is not raised among the Sounder or leaves to live and work in the cities of other races, that Orc is considered “Half-Orc,” meaning without their communities they can only hope to be half of what an Orc “Should” be.