Orcs were a tricky one. They have such an iconic place as "the evil villain's mook henchmen", and as "savage humanoid X". Here are the three most notable examples of orcs in existing fiction.
In Lord of the Rings (the origin of 'orcs'), they're the savage foot soldiers of the dark lord Sauron; a degenerate, yet technologically "advanced" race supposedly derived from corrupted elves, who represent a spreading, malignant force of darkness seeking to overrun the world.
In the Warcraft series of games, the orcs first appeared as an invading race of hulking marauders, hellbent on conquering the world of Azeroth. However, they came from the bizarre, alien world of Draenor, and were whipped into their frenzied state by demonic forces, and with the corruption lifted, they showed signs of returning to their native attitude; proud, noble (but savage) warriors, with a shamanic bent.
In the Warhammer series (specifically the grimdark future of the 41st millenium) the "Orks" are an aggressive, brutish race of marauders, who frequently head out on "Waaaaghs"; an unruly blend of a pub crawl, interplanetary brawl and Jihad. Their trademark ability is an innate psychic power that almost bends reality to their will in bizarre ways; such as red paint making vehicles move faster and meaning that their ramshackle, bodged technology actually works for them (for example; a human using an orc gun has a slim chance of it firing, an orc using the same gun will make it fire consistently... but only if he yells "DAKKA DAKKA DAKKA!" whilst doing so.)
Within D&D, they're often portrayed in a similar manner to Lord of the Rings; savage raiders often under the thrall of a demon or evil mage; or sometimes just a raiding party under the command of a chieftain. They're represented, in the terms of their abilities, as cave-dwelling (darkvision with a light sensitivity) with great strength, but reduced intelligence, wisdom and charisma. This almost immediately places them in the roles of melee combatants, and discouraging them away from spellcasting roles. Obviously, this isn't set in stone, they can be spellcasters, but they will be handicapped in comparison to other races. In the Eberron campaign setting (Yes, I know I keep harping on about it), the orcs mostly exist in wildernesses, forests and marshes and the likes, and historically were instrumental in defending Eberron from the invasion of the Daelkyr and the Quori (nightmare beings from another plane of existence). The orcs are the originators of a druidic sect known as the Gatekeepers, who helped banish some of the nightmare beings and seal Dal Quor away from "reality". The remaining orc tribes are highly shamanic, living at peace with the wilderness, and are often protecting it from the marauding "Valenar" elves. I personally love this reversal of archetypes, and while I want something like this, I don't want to rip it off completely.
Since I picked up D&D 3.5 edition around nine-ten years ago, I have often felt that the orc/half-orc was beaten with the short end of the stick, and was woefully sub-par in comparison with the other races. Hopefully my setting's version will give them something of a boost.
With the removal of half-orcs from my setting, this left me wanting to place my orcs in their stead, so I wanted them to feel more like a playable race, as would be found in the Player's Handbook. These 'common' races get a +2 to one stat and a -2 to another, a bonus to certain skills, a bonus to resist something and then a collection of individual skills relating to the race. For example, the dwarves have +2 Constitution (the measure of their health and hardiness) but a -2 to Charisma (the measure of their personality and social grace), and they're slower (but never slowed by heavy loads or weighty armour) whilst receiving bonuses to resist poisons and spells, and gain bonuses to skills relating to analysing and working with metals, their unique ability is "stonecunning" which grants them the ability to detect unusual stonework (hidden doors, traps et cetera); this paints the image of the hardy warrior and industrious worker the dwarves are famed for in fantasy. So, I had to think about how to make the orcs follow this template; what image do they need to portray?
I wanted my orcs to be big and strong, a genuine icon of physical might. But how do I offset this? Are they slower and/or clumsier (this would fit the musclebound dolt idea)? Are they weak-willed and rash (easily manipulated and controlled)? I settled on making them "stupid" by comparison, giving them a +2 bonus on Strength and a -2 penalty to Intelligence (the measure of their skilfulness and ability to reason); essentially casting them in the role of "big, dumb guy". Obviously this doesn't need to manifest as the thicky who speaks in the third person or some sort of pidgin language, but could be portrayed as someone who is a little more direct in their approaches to obstacles. My orcs are big, hulking figures, standing upwards of 6' and weighing up to over 300lbs, with females standing about 6" shorter and up to 50lb lighter. Their skin is a warty hide, varying between green-grey and brown-grey, with mid-greys being the most common tone. Their eyes are small and dark (often described as "piggy"), and are usually shades of hazel, brown or yellow, and peer out from under a heavy brow which slopes over a domed head. Their vision isn't terrible, comparable to a humans, but they do possess the ability to see in the dark, much as a dwarf does. Orcs are frequently bald, but have sparse hairs over their body, with females having a tendency to having hair upon their heads. Completing their ferocious appearance is a powerful jaw and underbite, leading to a narrow chin; their jaw also holds large teeth and two prominent tusks. The whole image of an orc is somewhere between some kind of simian and a brutish porcine creature. An orc's strong jaw muscles, and large teeth aid it in being able to chew and swallow almost any organic matter (including the odd bit of soil and rock), which their intense stomach acid will often break down into digestible nutrients. Scholars theorise that the ancestors of the orcs were some kind of scavenger species, and to this day, the race are still able to survive on almost any food and are highly resistant to spoiled, contaminated and even toxic foodstuffs.
Orcs are from a barbaric, tribal culture, grown from eons of living as savage hunter-gatherers in the wilds of the world. They gather around campfires and share tales of great deeds and mighty hunts; emulating heroes and warriors who either slaughtered or overtook rival tribes and conquered territory for their tribes. The greatest warrior spoken of in orcish oral tradition is "Gruumsh". A hnandful of theologians argue as to whether Gruumsh was a real person, a conglomerate of ideals and people or even one of the lost gods. Orc tales of him vary, but some key facts remain; he lost an eye in battle with an elven lord, he waged war with the elves trying to claim the forests, his warband were exiled from their home by dwarves and he was a mighty and noble, albeit savage, warlord. Some believe the legends of the elves and the dwarves are simply an excuse by the orcs to pursue aggression against these races, as they occupy the two terrain types that the orcs favour; mountains and woodlands. Since the start of the great industrial revolution, and the subsequent turmoil in which nation's have clashed over designs and advancements, orcs were being left behind by the other races as they didn't share the need for progress or the drive to develop; they were content in their ways. When humans began using orc territories as outposts, even building fortifications, the orcs stepped in and retaliated. One particularly heated battle resulted in the human construction being completely levelled. Rather than being angered, the human leaders saw a potentially formidable force, and approached the orcs more diplomatically, offering them baubles and trinkets in exchange for fighting for them. The orcs agreed, though it is uncertain if they did it for the baubles or simply for a love of violence, and as time passed, they became used more widely as "berserker units" in armies, as well as bodyguards and, stranger still, saboteurs, owing to their unexplained facility with breaking objects. To this day, orcs are often welcome in groups of adventurers and tomb raiders purely for their ability to break open doors and chests, as well as being used as bodyguards and even thugs. Even in a world where dwarves are prized as being hardy, determined fighters, hobgoblins are disciplined and martially trained from youth and warforged offer a unique toughness and relentlessness, the image of an orc bodyguard or mercenary group still conjures an image of ferocity and power. Orcs are a highly intimidating people, and often practice "being scary", regardless of their occupational calling, as a means of getting their way; and often, the stronger and more physically imposing an orc is, the better he is at it.
Outside of their "employment" in the modern societies of Fold, orcs still live in semi-tribal groups; gatherings of extended families and clans, often within slum districts of a city. This is not to say that no orc is rich, it is just rare to see one living as a noble would; they share their wealth with their immediate family first, then the rest of their community second. Orc communities are led by the strongest, toughest and sometimes meanest member, and while merit is proved through strength, they recognise that without their community, they wouldn't be as strong. Often, this "chief" will be advised by something akin to an elder, or a shaman, often a druid, or sometimes a cleric, in the veneration of Gruumsh, and sometimes in the lesser "religion"; D'zl. The worship of Gruumsh's 'divine spirit' revolves around strength and power; to excel, one must prove he is the biggest, baddest he is. Orcish rituals held under Gruumsh's name are often little more than glorified riots and attempts to claim more of a settlement as part of the "orcslum"; fortunately these festivals are a rare occurence. Truly devout, and often zealous, worshippers of Gruumsh will put out one of their eyes in homage to the warrior, and in some cases this leads to the orc unlocking previously untapped abilities, and it is believed that these individuals carry the blood of Gruumsh in their veins. The worship of D'zl on the other hand is often seen as a more peaceful tradition... Relatively speaking. D'zl is chronicled as being some kind of progenitor of orcish ingenuity and artifice, which is to say, their ability to disassemble things and attempt to rebuild them. Orcs are not crafters, but often try to rebuild things, especially if it could benefit them, and as a result of their slight mental hindrance, the final product is often ramshackle and/or dangerous. Orc buildings, while sturdy, are rarely pretty, and their attempts at much more complex items, such as clocks, steam engines and firearms, are prone to malfunction... And explosions. D'zl, according to legend, stole numerous technical designs and taught the orcs to build them and "improvements" and even stole the dwarven designs for an internal combustion engine in the distant past. Given how recent the industrialisation has occurred, some doubt the veracity of these legends, but don't doubt that facets of them are true. D'zl, as a religion and/or idolised figure, seems to revel in destruction and chaotic accidents; orcish demolition crews often ask for the blessing of D'zl before beginning work, and consider themselves to have "been ignored" if something isn't on fire by the end of the working day. That said, D'zl is not used as an excuse for rampant, anarchic destruction; every act of destruction must be balanced by, or at least pave the way for, creation or progress, but is still seen as a chaotic faith. As Gruumsh worshippers are seen as traditionalist, and D'zl devotees are more progressive, it is rare that they will work cooperatively, and many see a true union of orcs as a warning sign that something akin to the hordes of marauders and barbarians is going to recur.