When my spouse and I started the very first campaign set on Rasherochernon’s Folly almost a decade ago, I was still learning the ropes of GMing. I mean, I’m always learning and re-learning the ropes, but they were still very new ropes to me, and I had the fresh blisters to show for it. In large part I kept to the books. I made lots of new material to put into our campaign setting, but what I did draw from the books was largely untouched.
So it’s no surprise that my early orcs were Tolkienesque monsters who spoke halting Common when they bothered to communicate outside their brutish tongue, who used violence as punctuation the way you and I might use our eyebrows. Those orcs were designed to be the enemy, the random encounter, the OpFor for a session where I didn’t want to deal with moral ambiguity in combat.
I’ve grown up a lot in ten years, and so has the Folly; by extension, so have the orcs of the Folly.
Orcish communities are clannish cultures, perhaps the most family-oriented of all the clannad of the Folly. A typical orcish community is matrifocal and matrilineal and comprised of three to ten central family houses. An orcish house is actually a cluster of dwellings and utility spaces, though there is usually some overlap between houses both in terms of physical space and the sharing of utilities (such as a single blacksmith’s forge which serves an entire orcish community).
The means of supporting the community differ by region and availability of resources. All communities engage in agriculture to some degree. The plains orcs of the northwestern continent grow a variety of staple crops, many of Terran origin such as wheat and navy beans. Sylvan orcs tend to rely on pits beneath the forest floor where mushrooms and other fungus are carefully cultivated. Orcish communities are generally distanced from other clannad, so they are self-sufficient. Even so, other communities are sometimes settled near an existing orcish village or grow outward until they meet orcish lands. In these cases orcs will often trade with their neighbors while keeping an arm’s-length relationship.
Orcish societies, like human societies, value specialization, though the tendency toward smaller communities means that most orcs are expected to be jacks of all trades while mastering one in particular. Orcish communities generally cannot and do not support full-time careers which do not return a utilitarian result, such as poetry and sculpture. This is not to say that the arts are not valued in orcish societies, nor that knowledge for its own sake is undesirable. Rather, these pursuits are personal gifts from the author, artist, or researcher given to the community at large from the fruits of her free time. While orcs might welcome a traveling bard from a human or elven culture, they would probably not want to make the social sacrifices necessary to support that sort of bardic tradition. Orcish culture is founded on shared work, hardship, and joy; a society where one class labors so that another may pursue artistic venues without distraction goes against orcish values.
While plains, sylvan, and hill orcs are usually referenced as the “default” by most other clannad, orcish societies are much more diverse. On the two western continents mountain orc fort towns often lie near mountain dwarven communities, and the orcish forts sometimes act as gateways or protectors of the dwarves. These communities are frequently organized in a more martial fashion and have more firmly designated territory. On the southeastern continent and in the great forests of the northwestern continent lie orcish tree cities, which are much more urbanized and decentralized than smaller communities; similarly, the deserts of the northeastern continent host diverse cities whose founding cultures are orcish. Orcish cities are multitiered both in terms of physical structure and social station, and public political offices take the place of family elders in the governance of daily affairs. Urban orcs are expected to spend a few years focused on a single job, such as town guard or tree caretaker, before moving on to a new position. Concepts like permanent marriage and the small-unit family (what Terran humans in Westernized cultures might call a nuclear family with extended family included) are normalized in a few orcish cities. Hierarchical social advancement, alien to less urbanized orcs, can alter the course of one’s life in an orcish city.
The urbanization of orcs on the Folly followed two major historical paths. The first, most common in non-sylvan orcish cities of the northeastern continent, came as previously established cities hired orcish mercenaries to garrison as permanent militia or regular armies. The mercenaries integrated into city life, and in the case of elven cities the mercenaries began to outpopulate their hosts within a handful of generations. As elves began moving toward the less-populated northwestern continent in order to escape war and hardship, their cities became more and more a blending of traditional orcish culture and diverse, urbanized culture.
The second path was more straightforward. Sylvan and high elf tree cities were not always self-sustaining, and sometimes they would be depopulated within a few generations of their establishment as the elves moved on to greener pastures (sometimes literally, in the case of plains-dwelling elves). Orcish communal values were often better suited to the maintenance of these grand arboreal cities, and groups which had fallen on hard times began congregating in abandoned tree towns. About ten percent of sylvan orcish cities had their roots laid by elves; the remainder were established by orcs who brought sylvan culture as they moved elsewhere in the world.
Orcs are often seen as militaristic and regimented by other clannad, and there is some truth in that assessment. Compared to members of other societies, any given orc is more likely to be trained in one or more combat disciplines. Defense of the community falls to all its able members. Only a few villages can afford to have a dedicated fighting force. The social glue of shared experience is literally and symbolically represented by this martial service. To someone who has grown up in an orcish community, joining a weekend hunting party is as much about binding and continuing the community as it is about getting meat to put aside for winter. Because orcish communities are usually smaller than those of other clannad, they also tend to be more protective of their immediate environment. The lives of an entire orcish village might depend on making sure that the local sylvan elves don’t stray into orcish hunting grounds. Non-urban orcs are perceived as speaking more directly than other clannad – “blunt” is the word often used by humans and elves – in large part arising from a shared background in close-knit communities which lack a significant hierarchical structure.
Like humans, ethnic orcs on the Folly have longer lifespans than their more insular kin on other worlds. An average orc can expect to live for 100 years, compared to the fifty or sixty years that an offworld orc might see if she lives a peaceful life. Since Folly orcs occupy a wider space in their world than many other worlds allow, they are able to cultivate medicines to treat pernicious diseases, pass down knowledge to children from their elders which might be lost in a more tumultuous society, and benefit from friendly relations with other communities. Unlike most of the first humans of the Folly, the early orcs were settlers by choice, and they were careful from the beginning to structure societies which would allow them the benefits denied them on their worlds of origin.
Smaller orcish communities generally do not centralize religion, though some tree cities radiate outward from a single temple. Orcish religious traditions often reflect those of their neighbors, and as such orcs generally see the deities as manifesting as anything from abstract concepts like the family hearth to the goddess of storytelling. The image of the one-eyed war god brought to the Folly by early orcs has transmuted into one of the few near-universal orcish cultural touchstones: Grummson One-eye, whose domains are Community and Healing. In one mountainous region of the northwestern continent, orcish and dwarven communities share a single interpretation of the owl-headed goddess of knowledge, Gullach.