Toward the end of the Second Age, the Ord’s power waned and the Ald and their allies drove them into retreat. But not all the Ord who departed in the Last Migration made it away on their dimension-hopping airships. In the chaos of their departure, one wing of the relocating population swung too close to the Home Range, and the dwarves there — aided by the magicks the elves had stolen from the Ald — struck. They shot many of these airships from the sky, and sent them crashing into the peaks below. Those Ord who survived, the dwarves captured and dragged underground in chains.
For generations, these captive Ord were subjected to a brutal course of reverse-eugenics aimed at enhancing their strength and endurance and stripping them of their staggering intellect and sense of identity. This process was helped along with judicious application of alchemical substances to turn these Ord into the perfect subterranean slaves. So were born the orcs, the legacy race of the Ord, in the halls of the Underkings.
The dwarves foisted on their slaves the dangerous manual jobs the dwarves wouldn’t risk their own lives performing. Pickaxe and chain in hand, the orcs were pressed into work. Dwarfdom’s Great Expansion, from the Home Range to their mega-cities dotting the edge of the continent, was built on the back of the orc. Untold thousand of orcs died in the Great Expansion, lost as excavations took them into areas dense with poison gas or hungry beasts from the Deep. The alchemical hasteners that devolved just a few generations of Ord into orcs remained in their blood as they bred; future generations of orcs developed a keen sense of smell akin to that of a wolf, and this sense warned them ahead of time whether danger lay in the next cavern. The orcs were evolving. The dwarves hadn’t planned on this, but they were glad for the change, as it would lower the mortality rate of their slaves and speed progress along.
And speedy the progress was. In just a few hundred years, the Great Expansion nearly doubled the inhabitable areas of Deepearth, and dwarven outposts and forts sprung up faster and farther apart. With the orcs doing the dangerous work, more dwarves were able to turn their focus to their arts and sciences and make revolutionary discoveries and advances. Orcish labor built the Tramway Network, and steam technology stolen from the Ord powered the dwarves’ great subterranean trains. It was a golden age for the dwarves; all dwarfdom was united in a vast empire that should have taken thousands of years (and who knows how many dwarven lives) to build. More and more lay in their grasp — the plunder of Deepearth and the riches of the surface — and the dwarves, in their greed, overreached. It was a combination of dwarven avarice and their own technomantic advances that spelled the ends of both orcish enslavement and their own golden age.
The dwarves continued to experiment on (“refine”, in their parlance) the orcs during the orcs’ long captivity. The dwarves bred them stronger and hardier, and as a result fewer orcs died as quickly in their labors. Driven by greed and the wealth of the Underkingdoms, dwarven demand for surface goods grew; their human and halfling trade partners couldn’t keep up with the demand, so the dwarves started breeding orcs to grow and harvest resources in dwarf-owned tracts on the surface. The dwarves didn’t want to lose profits feeding these orcs, or have their slaves eat up the tasty, tasty beef from the surface, so a cabal of dwarven alchemists and biomancers imbued a labor-host of orcs with chlorophyll; as a result, these first green orcs (previously, they’d been a dull blue-gray) could work longer hours on the surface, with less food. The dwarves deemed this a success and cross-bred these green orcs with their other slave populations, They’d made the green skin a dominant gene, so in but a handful of generations, all of orcdom was green in hue and could absorb nutrients from sunlight.
Another refinement — and one that proved to be their undoing — the dwarves began as a means of controlling their growing slave population. With fewer and fewer orcs dying from labor, and the adult population rising (due to the short lifespans and breed cycles they’d bred into them), the dwarves had a large and surly excess slave population that was proving harder and harder to control. Where they couldn’t cull (read: murder) a given population for practical purposes, the dwarves tried something new: modifying the orcs by breeding into them a winter mammal’s need to hibernate.
After two generations, the new hibernation trait had taken hold; late every fall, the orcs grew sluggish and sleep deprived and fell into hibernation for two months out of the year. The dwarves had the orcs carve out winter dens for themselves, and expansions ceased while the slaves slept. Hibernation was the dwarves’ ultimate insurance against rebellion — the slave population wouldn’t, couldn’t revolt when it would inevitably fall asleep a few months hence; and if it did, the dwarves would simply kill the rebelling orcs in their sleep and breed a new generation of slaves. The dwarves patted themselves on the back for a job well done and went back to their hearths.
What the dwarves hadn’t counted on was for the orcs to adapt, just as they’d evolved their frightening sense of smell. The overwhelming majority of the orcs had to sleep, yes, but a handful found they could resist the biological imperative to hibernate, and stayed awake during their two months alone, talking, planning — plotting. In making the orcs hibernate, the dwarves had done something their forefathers had never allowed: they’d put all the orcs in the same place for an extended period of time. And while the orcs have to hibernate for two months out of the year, those months don’t have to be continuous. The “wakers”, if orcish legends are to be believed, whispered to every orc, orcmaid, and pup, breathing into their sleep dreams of freedom and revenge while working their sleeping siblings free from their chains. When the dwarves woke the orcs that spring, they found their slave population awake, unchained, and enraged. A tide of blood erupted on them from the dens. So swift and coordinated was the orcs’ surprise attack — the first decisive battle of the Red Exodus — that legend says the only orcs found dead in the slave dens were the wakers; they’d given their lives to spread the drumbeat of rebellion to the sleepers before succumbing to the deadly weakness the dwarves had bred into them, and lying down to die.
We do not need to revisit the Red Exodus, those months of howling horror in the deep places of the world. It is enough to know that when the orcs burst onto the surface, most of them seeing the sun for the first time, a powerful new race had taken its place in the world — a race that would die before it wore chains again. Warag!
Orcs are broad at the shoulder and average six feet in height, with males and females being about the same size. Depending on the tribe, both genders may bear ritual scars and tattoos to denote their rank, or as marks of honor for great accomplishments. An orc who falsely scars himself with deeds he hasn’t accomplished or a rank he hasn’t earned is risking his life. Such an offender would either be killed on the spot, or given a brutal and disfiguring scar that crosses the entire face with a jagged X, marking them as shunned for all time.
Skin pigmentation varies slightly depending on geography. Orcs who spend most of their time indoors or otherwise out of the sun will see their skin yellow as their chlorophyll dies out; “yellowskin” is an insult akin to “bookworm.” A healthy green tone is the sign of a strong orc.
Orcs are the shortest lived of the mortal races. They age about twice as quickly as humans. Orcs reach sexual maturity at 8 and middle age at 20. Orcs rarely live beyond 35, and an orc over 40 is considered ancient. Orc pups are born in litters of 3 to 6 at a time, and a newborn pup set on its feet will, after falling a couple of times, be able to walk, and then run. The dwarves bred the orcs to be ideal slaves: strong, quick to mature and reproduce, and quick to die.
Orcish society is currently at a crossroads. Traditionally, orcs are arranged into militaristic, nomadic tribes that keep to their own hunting grounds. Such tribes are rather egalitarian societies, all things considered, with strong anarchic streaks; elders are revered and listened to, though decisions are made by the chief, a non-hereditary position won by often lethal combat. Tribes war with one another quite often, but these are mostly along the lines of border disputes and skirmishes and are never wars of eradication. When threatened by an external force, orcish tribes come together quickly and with frightening synchronicity; an orcish warhorde, while seemingly loosely organized, is easily the match of the most well trained human armies. But the orcs’ need to hibernate, combined with the wanderlust common to nomadic peoples, makes sustained wars and campaigns nearly impossible.
The tribal orcs mentioned above are known as traditionalists. They stand in stark contrast to the modernists, a trans-tribal group of orcs that has risen in the areas of continuous orcish settlement, i.e. the tradepost cities in the southern Afterlands, any multiracial city with a sizeable orcish population, and the orcish city-port of Orcsport. The modernists believe that the orcs’ future lies in civilization, and not in their nomadic tribes. They can learn from the city-dwelling humies they so despise, and better orcdom for their troubles. Modernist orcs don’t scar their faces, don’t frown on the benefits of civilized life, and many of them have shed their tribal affiliations. While the split between the traditionalists and modernists has never erupted into open war — the factions aren’t organized or geographically defined enough for such an outbreak to occur — resentment abounds, and many suspect the factions are headed towards an inevitable conflict.
Whether an orc grew up on the plains or in a town, self-reliance as a virtue abounds. Orcs are expected to stand on their own and keep to themselves in most matters. They may help their neighbors or not according to their whims, but in times of danger orcs always band together. Serious misdeeds such as murder or theft are brought before the chief, whose judgements tend to be swift, brutal, and final. On a side note, even modernists defer to their chief above all other forms of authority — even when living in another race’s city with an acknowledged ruler.
All orcish enclaves are susceptible during the winter, when they must hibernate. One of the greatest duties an orc can perform is to serve as a Watcher — a wintertime guardian — and stay awake to protect the den while the rest of the tribe (or community) slumbers. These orcs keep themselves awake through a combination of rigorous training, self-flagellation, and drinking bitter concoctions their shamans brew to keep their eyes open. Watchers are extremely irritable and borderline insane from their sleep deprivation. In fact, the stereotypical orc that most races would describe — a frothing monster, with bloodshot eyes, who’ll attack anything that moves and doesn’t appear to feel pain — is a pretty good description of a Watcher.
When a den wakes in the spring, the Watchers (who have survived; it’s not guaranteed) will pass out for at least three months, and when they wake up in the summer, they’ll find themselves nicely dressed and well groomed, with a multitude of gifts strewn about their sleeping mats from a grateful tribe. Waking a Watcher during the spring is one of the greatest taboos one can break.
Most other races are very nervous around orcs (see the above note about deferring to their chief above any regional sovereign). Only the dwarves understand their roots as being anything but violent and brutish, and they haven’t done much to dispel these ideas since their time on the surface.
Orcs loathe dwarves, and the feeling is mutual. The most prized trophy an orc can carry is the beard of a dwarf, and some of the greatest orc warriors will have them woven into cloaks.
Elves find the orcish appetite for violence offensive and think their willingness to be ruled by passions and lusts is vulgar. For their part, orcs find elves boring and pent-up. “Talking to an elf” is an orcish expression that denotes a particularly unpleasant activity, akin to “watching paint dry”.
Orcs keep a weather eye out for gnomes whenever they’re in the woodlands, and take special care not to carve up the local flora too much when they’re in gnome-held lands. They find battle against gnomes to be incredibly frustrating, and often more than a little embarrassing.
Orcs know that halflings are an easy target in lean times, and usually extort “protection” supplies when they live near each other. However, the orcs do honor these agreements, and have been known to come to the defense of halfling villages that they’ve bullied for years.
Human and orcish armies have clashed innumerable times over the years, with each committing atrocities against the other. Unlike with dwarves, however, orcs and humans share a grudging respect for each other, both considering the other to be the only race capable of matching their own talent for large-scale violence.
Orcs and ogres sometimes work together when they have common cause, most often in times of war against humans when the ogres perceive the plunder to be worth their time. Except in these situations, they have no real use for each other and simply keep their distance.
Alignment and Religion
Orcs are predominantly Chaotic Neutral, and most of their clerics either worship The Garden or local gods of war and strength. They rankle under unproven authority, and expect to be able to pursue their own interests and agenda unless a distraction is truly worth their time. They also consider fighting to be the best kind of fun.
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