There’s a scene in the film The Two Towers when a hungry, monstrous looking thing named Snaga eyes the hobbits Merry and Pippin, wondering if he can eat them. He asks “What about them? They’re fresh!” It’s a creepy creature with pale skin and long ears. His teeth keep his lips from closing all the way and he spits as he talks. There’s another monster that thwarts his eating plans by decapitating him, man-sized and muscular. Both of them are orcs of different kinds and both kinds were created by the author J.R.R. Tolkien.
Tolkien created the evil creatures called orcs as a foil to his better known elves, hobbits, and dwarves. He calls them “goblins” in The Hobbit. Being a linguist, he had the Latin name ‘Orcus’ in mind, who was a god that punished oath-breakers in the underworld. “Orcus” is also the origin for the word “ogre”, a creature that would eat humans. The Anglo-Saxon word “orc” means “demon”. Clearly it is a word meant to bring foreboding of some kind to its reader.
In the lore of Middle-earth, they are twisted to his service by the evil Morgoth in mockery of the good things in creation, like men and elves. They are crude, violent creatures. In the second volume of The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, there is a further change brought on by the treacherous wizard Saruman into a newer larger type of orc, called an Uruk. Although typical orcs hated bright light and would suffer in the daylight, the Uruk could travel about unhindered in daylight. It is suggested many times that there were also half-orcs in Middle-earth. Orcs in Middle-earth speak the Black Speech, a vile tongue created by Sauron to control his servants. This Black Speech was created by Tolkien to be harsh sounding and impart a sense of a lack of propriety. Some names given orcs in The Lord of the Rings books and the Hobbit are Lugdush, Grishnákh, Ufthak, and Bolg. The name Snaga mentioned above is a Black Speech word that meant, originally, “slave”.
As a result, orcs are portrayed as various humanoid creatures that all fall on the evil side of the spectrum. In the tabletop RPG Dungeons & Dragons, orcs are traditionally enemies of the players as NPCs and not player characters. Half-orcs, described as similar to the Uruks of LotR, are readily available as player characters, however. They are tall and have large tusks and greenish skin and will find themselves outcast due to their lineage, often seen as unnatural to humans, elves, and dwarves.
This absence of a player class of character in the venerable Dungeons & Dragons franchise has not kept other games from capitalizing on making them available for players to choose.
In World of Warcraft, they are a race available to players. Orcs in the World of Warcraft hold shamanistic beliefs and are noble warriors, in stark contrast to the creatures of Middle-earth. Not originally natives of the world of Azeroth, they came from a world now known as the Outland where they were coerced by the Burning Legion to fight another race called the Draenei. Their battles had led them to the world of Azeroth where the orcs were ultimately defeated and subjugated by humans. Eventually, they were led back to their noble ways and shamanistic beliefs and ways by an orc named Thrall, though they are still generally distrusted by humans. They are part of the Horde and live in the same area as trolls. They are trying to survive in a world that distrusts them and so can be seen in this way as a sympathetic class of characters, as opposed to the simply evil creatures originally created by Tolkien. They have a first name in Orcish as well as give a name of some description of a deed or practice, given later in life and may also be changed if need be. Some notable orcs are Orgrim Doomhammer, deceased Warchief of the Horde, succeeded by Garrosh Hellscream.
The orcs and goblins of Warhammer are related and called collectively “Greenskins”. They are less like men than their counterparts in other game settings and more ape-like in their proportions as well as having their origin in some kind of fungal spore. They are savage and care only for battle, whether it means their enemy or each other. Using ingenious machines of destruction is another of their hallmarks, though they can tend to harm themselves quite easily. As orcs fight in battle, it is possible that they physically grow in size. The more they win in battle, the more powerful they become and can eventually become a Warboss, like the black orc, Grumlock or the Warlord, Grimgore Ironhide. These Warbosses can use a type of psychic call to unite the various tribes into one giant overwhelming force called a “WAAAGH!” which allows them the ability to operate almost as one mind of destruction. In the related Warhammer 40,000 games, they are “orks”, spelled with a “k” instead of a “c”, a practice Tolkien sometimes used. Their description is the same as their counterparts in the fantasy world except they now inhabit the distant reaches of space and use larger and more outlandish machines. In both universes, they speak a kind of cockney-inflected English, phonetically spelling words like “shoota” (assault rifle), “big’uns” (veteran), and “boyz” (members of a group). The naming practices of these orcs are similar to the orcs of Middle-earth, producing threatening names but also adding a descriptive compound name, like Gorbad Ironclaw and Morglum Necksnapper.
Lineage 2 is another popular online game that allows orcs as a playable character, but the history and backstory of the game is minimal, so orcs seem to be more of a class of character rather than a role-playing option. These characters are physically stronger than the other playable races but are also able to use magic well, as they are shamanistic. They were created by their revered god of fire as paragons of strength and stamina. Taking a cue from WoW, they are also shamans in the game. These orcs seem a bit short on backstory and more of a classification of a kind of race that would fit a particular type of warrior with magic capabilities.
Orcs have received quite different treatments in different games and stories. Originally a brutish horde created to harry the Free People in Middle-earth, they have moved on to other kinds of roles and histories, though they still tend to find violence in their culture, regardless.