The barbarian is the opposite of the savage...the savage is basically a savage who lives in a state of savagery together with other savages; once he enters into a relationship of a social kind, he ceases to be a savage. The barbarian, in contrast, is somebody who can be understood, characterised and defined only in relation to a civilization, and to the fact that he exists outside of it. There can be no barbarian unless an island of civilization exists somewhere, unless he lives outside it, and unless he fights it. And the barbarian’s relationship with that speck of civilization - which the barbarian despises, and which he wants - is one of hostility and permanent warfare.
-Foucault, Society Must Be Defended, via
Option 1: Classic Orc HordesTheir Appearance: Brutish.
Light but functional armour. Weapons designed for use from the back of a beast. Bows. Warpaint. Sneers and slabs of muscle. A language that sounds like dogs fighting over a bone.
Their Tool: Cavalry. Hog cavalry.
Horses, bless them, are neurotic and fragile beasts. Pigs are smart. Possibly too smart. A really evil horse will try to kick you when it thinks you aren't looking (but you are). A really evil pig will watch you until you blink, then feign a charge, allowing an ally to nip you in the ankle and toss you onto your back.
These Orcs have riding boars. Self-foraging, self-organizing, rubber-fat coated boars. Their mounts are as smart as hounds and they bite just as hard. They won't beat a horse in a sprint, but the Orcs don't need to sprint. You have one horse. They each have three or four riding boars and they can change mounts on the move.
Their Goal: Loot.
They come from a harsh and impoverished land. Your cities are full of treasures. Your lands are unguarded. Your armies are slow and disorganized. The Orcs can ride a hundred miles in a day. A hundred miles! And they can attack multiple targets at once.
They smash into a region, grab anything that isn't nailed down, and ship it back to their homeland. Art and artisans, books, gold, icons. Doesn't matter. If you look soft and literate you'll get chucked onto a wagon and shipped away. They love food, drink, and simple comforts. It's not difficult to bribe them. Cities that pay tribute are spared. In some cases, the tribute is less than local taxes and rents, so it could be a net benefit.
Their Leader: A huge, scarred, cunning Orc.
Killed his rivals, wears his heads as trophies. Broke the old tribes and forged his own. Whip smart, utterly focused, enormously charismatic, endlessly adaptable. He doesn't lead from the front. He has generals - brothers, sisters, old allies.
There might be a Dark Lord somewhere, full of ancient malice and cruelty, but probably not.
They respect skill. If the PCs have a plan and are willing to work with the Orcs, their status could change overnight. Pay a set tribute from dungeon loot and get a castle? What a deal. The Orcs killed the guy in the castle and they know the PCs won't try anything. They took the castle once; they'll do it again in a heartbeat. Really, they just want loot, comforts, and power. Don't stand in their way and you'll do fine.
They don't care who you worship, as long as you don't mind who they worship or try to pretend you are better than them. Your gods clearly aren't effective. Similarly, they toss aside the old social order. Princes work in the fields next to beggars. Poor but intelligent soldiers rule cities; rich but slow merchants fight in the front rank of the next invasion.
Their Methods: Scout, Strike, and Slaughter.
Their invasion was planned. They sent scouts, bribed merchants, purchased maps. Converted goblins and other outcasts. In some areas they deliberately cut down trees or piled up stones for their siege engines. Nobody noticed or put the pieces together. Their assault is designed to crush resistance before it can form. Their armies arrive ready for battle before your armies are even awake. And then they kill almost everyone. It's pragmatic; there's going to be a famine, and the Orcs don't mind eating people. The survivors glue their lives back together under Orc rule.
This is all fairly generic. If you'd paid for this content, you might have grounds to complain. You can reskin this type of invasion (Gus L. did a fantastic job), or take an entirely different (and more positive) view, but let's take it in a different direction.
Option 2: Aztech OrcsTheir Apperance: Refined.
They come from across the sea in huge ships, sailing against the wind, sails stacked as high as the clouds. Travelers say they first landed far to the south, but who knows; they are here now.
They are tall, thin, and strange. Some people say they dye their flesh. They seem to love jewelry. They seem to be confused, like people lost in a dream.
Their Tool: Guns.
They have astonishing guns. Our guns are noisy, slow, and liable to explode. Their guns are small, quick, and accurate. Their smallest weapons fire six shots before reloading, and each shot kills. Their long guns fire twenty shots. Each one is pointed like an adder's fang. Each leaves behind a curious metal shell, as if the bullet hatched or grew from a pot.
Their Goal: Crops.
The seem to be lost. Their first invasion force took a few cities almost by accident. They killed everyone who resisted and any priests they could find, but left everyone else alone. They want us to plant their crops; tall grain, green and sticky with sugar. They take any treasure they find, but nothing else seems to hold value. Sometimes, they send surveyors and map-makers and plant-collectors.
They killed all our horses. They ride slow but gigantic beasts with hooked claws and herd a kind of furry pig. Every field is planted with their grain. Everyone who does not work in the fields works in the mines or on one of their colossal building projects. They appoint local overseers and torture them to death if they fail.
Their Leader: Do they even have one?
Some of their armies have clear leaders. The smaller groups seem to fall apart or choose new leaders frequently. Sometimes they even fight each other! Perhaps all their leaders are back across the sea. They do not seem to have a single strategy, but try new methods each time an army arrives.
If they have a Dark Lord, it's a Dark Lord Cutler Beckett.
They care only for grain and blood.
Each month, or on special days, they sacrifice someone on the altar of our cathedral. They smashed out the windows and tore down the icons and put up icons of their own; beasts and men and stars. They have a thousand gods. They do not care if we believe in their gods, but they will not tolerate worship of our own. They say their gods killed and ate our gods.
Perhaps they are right.
The PCs should probably avoid direct alliance with these Orcs. They are unlikely to be treated as equals. Fighting them by disrupting their networks seems like the best plan. It's also possible to exist outside their society; despite their technological edge, they have a limited understanding of local terrain, politics, beliefs, and factions.
Their Methods: Siege and Collapse.
They kill our armies in the field. We retreat to our cities. They sit outside and wait. Anyone who leaves is shot. Anyone who looks over the walls is shot. When the siege ends, they tear down the walls and build new structures. They kill arbitrarily, send thousands across the sea in great ships, and give the survivors new names and ranks.
They don't think of us as people. They think of us as obstacles or resources or, at best, lost children.
17th century colonialism steamrolls a 14th century medieval society. Take advice from here and here to fight back. Emphasize strangeness. Watch Aguirre The Wrath Of God; the PCs are watching from the riverbanks.
Marauding Orc hordes might crash a setting and set up camp in the ruins. The Aztech Orcs will rebuild the world in their image. To the PCs, this will look like madness.
Aztech is deliberately spelled that way. Tech advantage, you see?
Option 3: OrcasTheir Appearance: Alien.
Fat, but not obese. More like armoured, coated, rolled in mud and left to dry. Their skin is obsidian and ivory. Their eyes are inscrutable. Their teeth are sharp. Their warriors are eight or nine feet tall. They wear well-made fur coats and thick steel armour.
It is said they come from the far north, beyond the long-bearded raiders. Their cities are half in the sea and half on the land. Their poets sing of wars beneath the ice; generations of wars to hone their culture into a killing weapon.
Their Tool: Magic.
Therianthropy is a spiritual disease. The soul forgets the body's form and overwrites it, changing the creature into something new. The Orca have weaponized therianthropy. They can shift from their peace-forms into strong and vicious war-forms or sleek swimming-forms.
They have other spells; scrying, seeing through the eyes of others, commanding the weather. Spells to raise the dead and break bones. In their land, spellcasters know the counter-words and wards, but we do not know them. Their most powerful casters use spell-thralls and cast from the safety of their glacier towers, a thousand miles away from any battlefield.
Their Goal: Luxury.
It cannot be easy, living in a land of ice and stone, where no crops will grow and no cattle can be herded. The Orca are tired of surviving. They want to live.
A harsh mountain pass is nothing to them. They attack in the winter, using frozen rivers as highways. They hunt with water-wolves and tracking spells. They are willing to negotiate terms, trade prisoners, and accept tribute, but their end goal is clear. They want to rule.
Their Leader: They say they have a Queen.
They don't. They have a council of elders and war-leaders, with special leaders elected for special occasions. The council's identity is kept secret by the use of shapechanging, spells, and the occasional diplomatic murder.
Their Rule: Adoption and Corruption.
They understand our rulers and our laws. When they take a city, they are careful to preserve our records. They declare themselves barons and dukes and princes with all due ceremony. The brutality of their initial assault - children devoured, buildings torn apart, ghosts raised and set loose in the streets - is followed by serene normality.
They let each town and city keep most of its ancestral rights. Inconvenient ones are, of course, quietly removed from renewed charters. They promise peace and order and deliver it. In some regions, their taxes and demands are lighter than the old lords. They are slowly changing the world to suit their needs.
Their Methods: Winter Siege, Summer Growth.
They sent scouts at first. Sailors, branded with strange runes and stripped of their memories. The Orca saw with their eyes, heard with their ears. Then, in the winter, the first assault. It was a bitterly cold year. Our troops could not be rallied. Our lands could not be defended. The Orca took city after city, massacred anyone with expertise in warfare, and prepared for spring. They negotiated for peace, returned a few cities... and the next winter, attacked again.
They established new schools and new churches. Attendance is not required, but outsiders are not promoted or favoured. It is frightening how much they know about us, and how little we know about them.
I'll probably be using the Orca in my game. Some ideas were taken from Dan's post here, but I'd had the core idea sketched out ever since I found Randall Mackey's art.
I think they are a better foil to my group than the Classic Orc Horde or the Aztech Orcs. They keep the feudal structure intact, but weaponize it. They have a secret. Even I'm not sure what it is. They invite exploration into to the frozen north or the sunless deeps.