Seriously, what am I supposed to do that’s original with orcs? They’ve been invented and reinvented 30,000 times. Gaz10 The Orcs of Thar, the very first D&D Gazetteer I ever bought (which started my lifelong adoration of Bruce Heard, kicked off my obsession with nonstandard PC races, introduced me to shadow elves, and began my deep fascination with world design) introduced us to yellow orcs and red orcs. Spelljammer gave us the militaristic scro. Eberron gave us noble demon-hunters and druids. Even the decision not to use orcs (as in the case of Dragonlance) is revelatory.
And with Classic Monsters Revisited and the Pathfinder Bestiary, Paizo brought the threat of orcs back to the table. According to CRM, they’re mask-wearing raiders and looters in small groups, torturers in their lairs, and a tidal wave of fury breaking against civilization in large bands. If you get the drop on them, you can go all Legolas/Gimli and hew through them pretty easily (at about 6 hp a pop). But if they get the drop on you, they hurt. Being on the receiving end of an orc crit (note the 18–20 threat range on what is already 6–12 points of damage) nearly killed one of my low-level characters in one blow, and she was a plate-wearing paladin! (These books also brought the threat of the orc horde back, with encounter numbers that can hit triple digits and orc battle standards as morale boosters.)
So orcs have been reinvented and revisited already. Orcs are done.
Over there…in the back of the cave, under that pile of skulls and sleeping furs…there’s a tiny corner of orcdom still left to talk about.
The first regards half-orcs. In most games, half-orcs are the product of rape, raiding, and other violence. (See below for an article that critiques that stance, by the way). But we forget that in Tolkien’s works, half-orcs were the products of science: the results of Saruman’s experiments. Perhaps to change things up, half-orcs can be the same in your campaign: elite troops that are the results of a wizard’s (or a whole magocracy’s) experimentation…or a mutation…or a willing experiment by two peoples against an external foe…or any number of other reasons. The “bandit’s bastard” doesn’t have to be the default.
The second I already mentioned in the ogre entry: That orcs stand in contrast to elves and dwarves. (Indeed, if you go back to Roger E. Moore’s article, “The Half-Orc Point of View”—very worth Googling or tracking down in print—there’s even some suggestion in Tolkien’s legendarium that the first orcs were corrupted and twisted elves, which explains why they are opposites (short-lived, fecund, bestial, loathe beauty, etc.) in almost every way.) If elves and dwarves are the lords of the forests and mountains, orcs are the rot at the root and the rust in the metal.
Notice, though, that orcs don’t stand in contrast to humans. They loathe civilization, yes, absolutely…but humans don’t represent the opposite of all that is orc. In fact, to elder races like the elves and dwarves, humans and orcs have many disturbing similarities: short life spans. Fertility. Grasping for territory and influence. A disregard for and fouling of their environments. A love of weapons more for the damage they cause than for the skill in the craftsmanship. The list goes on.
That is the secret of orcs…and of humans… And while it may never affect your gameplay, keep it as a thought lurking in the back of your head: that to many of the wise races, the only real difference between orcs and humans is which side of the wall they’re on…
Orcs love masks of all kinds. One of their treasures is a magical mask, a kind of witch doctor fetish capable of casting disguise self and many other spells. Non-orcs wearing the mask find they cannot take it off—and worse yet, it subtly draws all orcs within fifty miles toward the wearer. Inevitably, these orcs form warbands in an effort to reclaim what is theirs. The chaotic artifact is a gift of the orc trickster god, often known as the Horde Caller for his skill in getting orcish armies to mass (while leaving the generalship to someone else).
The orcs of the city-state of Ramblen dwell in the bowels of the giant citadel-city (a many-leveled complex as large as a barony), where they mine, stoke the giant smelters and furnaces, and engage in blood sports. Their gladiators are famous for sporting the Flames of Ferocity. These brands are awarded to orcs who have won their bouts while in the thrall of “the living death” (fighting below 0 hp due to ferocity). These orcs are healed by their shamans, then branded to show their fortitude. They also join a brotherhood secretly dedicated to overthrowing the city-state and wetting the streets with blood.
Elves and dwarves have always labeled orcs and other evil races durche’wyth—a portmanteau that combines Dwarven and Elven speech to mean “foulers of the waters.” When humans begin producing firearms, the Conclave of the Elders pronounces them durche’wyth as well—especially after orcs begin creating grenades and bombards, apparently with human aid.
—Classic Monsters Revisited 52–57 & Pathfinder Bestiary 222
Regarding orcs in Golarion, I would love to see more about the Quest for the Sky. There were lots of hints about it early on, but we haven’t gotten much new info recently—it’s just a phrase to explain where dwarves and orcs and the Sky Citadels came from. I want details.
Obviously, the people who really love orcs are the Games Workshop and White Dwarf folks. Their (Cockney?) greenskins and cobbled-together machines are a lot of fun—and just browsing the models is a good source of inspiration. Orcs with falchions are all well and good, but if your Pathfinder characters start slinging guns, you should make darn sure the orcs get cannons.
Also on the subject of orcs, this article is really thoughtful and well done—and even more thoughtful and well done are James Jacobs and Wes Schneider’s responses (included in the article).