They're so iconic to a fantasy setting that when they crop up in Sucker Punch, it's not even necessary to ever say the name. You see the gross-skinned dudes and recognize them immediately. I've written something in the neighborhood of seven different campaign worlds in the last sixteen or so years, and orcs have played a major part in nearly every one of them. The complexity of my orcish cultures has grown alongside my familiarity with the rules, exposure to fantasy literature, and desire for a deeper gameworld. I find them such a useful foil to other societies in a campaign, and so convenient when you need a knot of hardbodies to throw at the players, that I'm continually attempting to refine and revisit how their society functions in relation to the rest of the world.
My "first" campaign was actually a research project for a class in middle school. I taught myself and a few friends how to play DnD, and then we played a game, and I gave a presentation on it. I managed to make DnD homework, and thus subsidize purchasing both books and dice. It may remain my proudest moment. However, the campaign itself was fairly generic, albeit homebrewed. I focused on a Norse-inspired campaign in a chilly waste, spread the civilizations out, and generally made things violent and rough. In that setting, orcs were pretty well just orcs. I was still learning most of the themes that undergird DnD, and fantasy in general.
My next campaign was a much more involved affair, entirely crafted from the ground up. I wrote the gods, drew up the map, and created my own riffs on the races; I think there were twelve different elven races alone, along with three dwarven races and three half-undead races. Orcs still lived in the far north, and generally kept to themselves. When their population reached a certain critical mass, however, they embarked on a massive military campaign that swept southward, crushing any kingdom in their way. This violence was partially due to the connection I drew between the race and Orcus (c'mon, look at the names); for these orcs, slaughter was a holy rite. To represent these violent traits, I created an exhaustive list of special orc weapons, because this was 2e and weapons generally had separate damage values for creatures of different sizes. All orcish weapons were less effective against large creatures, but generally a half- to full-step more damaging against medium creatures. Orcs were basically vicious slaughtermongers, and the party had a pretty thrilling stand against an army of them...which ended when one of the players just Wished that there weren't any orcs. At that point, the party was shifted to a version of the campaign world prior to the creation of the race....aaand, we graduated and didn't do much more gaming.
I was busy with pushups and pledgeship during my first semester of college, and being sad over the fact that there were no women at my school during the second semester. There was a lot of Dashboard Confessional during these days, and no gaming. I did become pretty involved with Warcraft, though, and the presentation of orcs in that lore helped me to see the race in a different light. I'm pretty sure Warcraft had actually influenced my Orcus-orcs too, since I'd played quite a bit of WCII during high school. However, seeing the orcs tied into a noble culture that was simply distinct from humanity was as impactful for my thought process as Jack Faust and Lovecraft had been.
My next campaign actually had more than one continent (a first for me) and orcs were relatively isolated from the "main" civilizations of the gameworld. They shared their homeland with a vast gnollish slaver society and a jungle full of cannibalistic elves and one of my four kobold subspecies. I still kept the traditional orcish focus on violence and warfare, but flipped things and made them extremely sophisticated. Their culture was a combination of psuedo-fuedal Japan and Aztec myth, all placed in an ashen volcanic wasteland. They rocked obsidian katana and served the first daughter of the grinning locust god of fire and the regal queen of winter. I still feel this is one of my more fascinating approaches to orcdom, even though it never got much of a spotlight in a game mostly focused on...and I swear this is totally different than Tinderbox...a goblin slave rebellion in the largest established empire of the gameworld.
It really was different, I promise.
I've already discussed the orcish presence in Tinderbox, but what has me thinking about them now is that I started recently started playing Warhammer: Age of Reckoning. I've long loved the whole Warhammer universe (Fantasy and 40k), and have read many of the army codices...despite having never played the game. I did play Dawn of War and most of its expansions, and of course had HeroQuest as a young lad. The Man Known As Larkins and I were going to try playing some 40k using the starter set, but every attempt we've made to do any sort of gaming seems to trigger crises and obligations on a cosmic scale.
Even without a direct experience of the setting, though, I'm thoroughly enamored with its themes and concepts. The tone is much darker than most fantasy (save maybe Joe Abercrombie's First Law, or Martin's shit-hot series I shouldn't need to name), and it revels in that darkness. However, there are elements of extremely grim humor scattered throughout the world as well, especially with the Skaven and---as you'd hope I'd get to, given the general topic of this post---the orcs.
So I loaded up WAR to check out that free trial, and after making my obligatory run at the pet class (Squig Herder), I tried a Black Orc. And I love him. For those unfamiliar, orcs in Warhammer are markedly distinct from their representation in other settings. They reproduce by shedding spores, for instance, and have a Saiyan-esque ability to grow more powerful through conflict. They also, awesomely, grow bigger, which you can see in WAR by comparing a Black Orc (which are, canonically, the largest and strongest orcs in a community) to a Choppa (which are, creatively, orcs what cut things). Orcs have dense muscles, thick skin, and heavy bones...they're elephants amok with crudely-sharpened weapons. They fight each other, they fight other races, and if you were to stand one in front of the mirror, they would fight that.
And this just works for me. Despite my predilection for complexity, despite my almost pathological need to dig just that little bit deeper into backstory, I love orcs who are dumb as bricks and built like houses. My very favorite part of logging into WAR is getting to the character select screen, where all the characters are shown arrayed on a two-level platform. When you mouseover each character, they display some sort of animation. The Chosen of Chaos unleash a mighty roar if they're blade and shield wielders, or a more demure fist pump if they rock a two hander. The goblin Shaman leaps back away from the pointer as though terrified of your attention.
The Black Orc repeatedly smashes himself in the head with his sword. And it is the bright spot in my day.