This article is a system-neutral worldbuilding supplement featuring fierce, honor-bound orcs hailing from a cold, hostile land. Does your world have room for such a place? We invite you to adapt it to your game, in pieces or in full!
To the north of a classical fantasy continent sits a cold, wind-swept peninsula. Snow-capped mountains and iron-rich bogs fill this place, leaving little arable land for farming. The people of this land are as hardy as they are strange, living their lives tied up in a web of honor, obligation and violence. This article is meant to illuminate these misunderstood northern peoples, their ways and their culture. I hope you enjoy it.
Orcish society is dominated by their conception of “honor.” Slights and injuries cannot go unanswered without shame. It is not unheard of for a farmhand to be killed after insulting another’s mother, and this is not seen as murder. Every interaction is tied up in the web of honor. If a gift is given and no satisfactory thanks or return gift is received, this is seen as a grievous insult, just as much as spitting on someone would be.
Orcs place a great emphasis on self-control, especially in combat. Injury, or even death, is seen as preferable to dishonor. Many tales exist of orcs who continued fighting with wounds that would incapacitate anyone else, like the mythical Yerug Shornhand punching a human soldier with the still-bleeding stump where his hand used to be. This is not to say the orcs are stupid, or tactically inept. Far from it. They will rarely start a fight when outnumbered or outmatched, but once a fight starts, they are very unlikely to stop.
The orcish conception of honor doesn’t mean they’re above theft, of course. Many spend the summer months raiding the northern coast of the main continent, ransacking villages and temples for gold and goods. Sometimes they even spend the winter on the continent, using a captured town or temple as a base for raiding, before sailing back when the sea-ice melts.
Long ago, in the time beyond memory, there was Zazotz, the Volcano-King. He ruled the whole world with his magmatic fist and his bottomless anger. For eons upon eons, he howled and screamed into the void, boiling the world as he did. As time passed, the rage began to subside. The world cooled. No longer did the wounds he inflicted on the world simply heal. Now they left scars and holes. The first, and deepest, is what we know as the great ocean.
As Zazotz’s rage cooled, the world beyond himself became clear to him. He saw a fiery orb in the sky, not an incandescent rage like his own, but a soothing warmth. This orb was Lith’an’Yel, the Lady of the Sun. As time passed, they spoke, and became friendly. Zazotz cooled, embodying the soothing warmth he learned from Lith’an’Yel, and soon water formed upon him, filling the craters and scars left by his rage.
In time, Zenyr was born of Zazotz and the sea through crude means. Zazotz did not realize this at the time, and so she was left to raise herself. Her anger over this has never truly subsided, but she only rarely batters the coasts with enormous tidal waves.
Later, Zueyar was born of Zazotz and Lith’an’Yel’s union, and the harvest-lord created grains and fruits for the people of the world. The staple grain of the orcs, used for much of their bread and mead, is named for him.
Now, Zazotz’s fiery rage is a thing spoken of only in legend, though the sea between the Orclands and the Continent remains a pertinent reminder of what he was capable of. Now, he provides the platform that all the living world is built on, sustaining and blessing the devote alongside the newer deities he calls family.
Zazotz, Lord of the Land. The patriarch of the northern orcish gods. Once, he was a rage-filled fire god, now he is a calm, stable god of rock and dirt.
Lith’an’Yel, Lady of the Sun. Lith’an’Yel is the odd one out of the traditional gods of the northern orcs. She was originally a deity worshiped by a group of elves that live in and under the nearby mountains, but she was adopted into the orcish pantheon after a particularly lucrative conquest, which also brought one of her priests back to the tribe.
Now, she is believed to be the bride of Zazotz and mother of Zueyar. She is traditionally depicted as a dark skinned elf, like the tribe her priest came from, and she is usually carrying a torch.
Zueyar, Lord of the Harvest. Zueyar is the son of Zazotz and Lith’an’Yel, the combination of sun and land. He is depicted as a wiry orc carrying a scythe.
Zenyr, Lady of the Sea. Zenyr is the daughter of Zazotz and the sea, born as a result of deeds too crude for this article to elaborate on. She has a temper notorious to the point of idiom, such that the kind of person you or I would describe as “having a hair-trigger,” an orc would describe as “soaked in the water of Zenyr.”
Smoke curls into the sky from the hearths and smoke shacks of Beruvik. To its west is the River Klaar, wide and deep. To the east, a few farms sit along a glacial melt-water river. To the north, a large bog devours the terrain.
A large longhouse sits in the center of town, holding the community’s valuables, most of which were gained on raids in the southern lands. The longhouse’s horde includes coins from foreign empires, religious trinkets from far away, an axe that glows in the presence of humans, and a long, black-metal and wood contraption with a detachable, banana shaped metal box on its underside.
A drydock sits on the River Klaar, with a longship under construction. A ritual altar made of stone sits beside it, where sacrifices to the gods are made before raiding expeditions. A long row of benches and tables run down the center of the town, where most of the locals eat their meals.
The walls of the town’s houses are made of sturdy wood, and the roofs are made of thatch, letting out smoke and letting in light. Each house has its own central hearth. Each house is decorated with a clan sigil out front, where the beams of the roof cross.
The names of the Northern Orcs are traditionally written in an alphabet of straight lines, all vertical or diagonal. I have done my best to provide an accurate transliteration of their names, as they would be understood by an English speaker from our world.
Nuim Lassen, jarl. Nuim is a deep-voiced, charismatic orc who is respected among his people as an excellent raid leader. He wears gold rings around his right arm, which he breaks to award bonuses to particularly impressive orcs after battles. Carries a sword he calls Lightbringer.
Urog Graven, fisher. Urog is a light green-skinned orcish woman who spends much of her time out on the water. She knows the local waters well, and often returns with lots of fish, and occasionally stranger things from the deep. She carries a barbed spear that she uses for fishing. Her biceps are huge.
Terdok Lovig, shipwright. Terdok is an orc with a talent for woodworking. Terdok is responsible for the building and maintenance of the orcish longships, light and swift vessels feared along the coast.
Silas Mølgaard, star-reader. Silas is a fortune teller, an orc who reads the signs in the stars to predict the future. People like him are considered essential for any raiding party, for they can predict the most fortuitous time to attack. Silas himself is a short, stocky orc with many thick wrinkles at the corners of his eyes.
Lauritz Dall, archer. Lauritz is a strong, broad-shouldered orc with a keen eye for distance. He uses this to make impressively precise shots with a large orcish bow. When not out raiding, he spends most of his time hunting.
Ulrikke Thuesen, bear-bonded warrior. Ulrikke is an orc who has sworn herself to the Sign of the Bear. In times of conflict, she can summon the most holy gift an orc can receive: The fury-trance they call the Berserker Rage. Outside of raiding season, she usually works in the forests, hauling logs.
Sarotir Meldgaard, wolf-bonded warrior. Sarotir is an orc sworn to the Sign of the Wolf. In combat, she fights bare-handed, ripping at enemies with her hands and teeth. She, too, can light the inner fire of the Berserker Rage. Those who have fought at her side describe it as an almost spiritual experience, as if some fragment of the Rage manifested in them, too.
Thura Horne, ransacker. Thura is a tall, muscular orc with braided reddish hair. She carries a large bearded axe, which she also uses to chop and whittle wood.
Marikoth, elven archer, Blue eyed, light skinned elf, with hair in an orcish braid. After this many years among the orcs, Marikoth’s elven is a little rusty.
Wezz, goblin goblin. Wezz is a small, green-skinned creature with nimble fingers and a talent for clothing repair, something that is quite valuable in this cold land.
The Vakmuson Farm
Just east of Beruvik, two longhouses sit side by side on a hill overlooking a floodplain. Half of the floodplain is filled with the greenish wheat-like grain called zueyar, and the other half is filled with wild grass and a herd of goats that feed on it.
A small river of melt-water runs along the outer edge of the floodplain. It overruns its banks in spring most years.
Grug Vakmuson, farmer. One of the few farmers in the area, Grug maintains a field of zueyar and a herd of goats. He lives alone most of the year, but hires itinerant labor in the spring and fall for planting and harvest.
Just beyond the north edge of Beruvik is Tulgan’s Smithy, located between the village walls and the edge of the Moonlit Bog. The Smithy is centered around a sturdy longhouse, used by the family for cooking and sleeping alike. The smelter and the forge are closer to the road, in a wooden shelter whose supports are decorated with invocations to Zazotz.
With his children, Tulgan harvests the iron from the Moonlit Bog, carrying deposits that range from pea-sized to pig-sized back to the smithy.
Tulgan Xugugson, blacksmith. Tulgan is a dark green orc with red, braided hair. He speaks Common with an unusually lyrical cadence.
Mahk Tulganson, apprentice. Mahk is a burly green-skinned orc with prominent tusks. He’s quite strong, even by orcish standards, but he has an unfortunate tendency to get into fights with other people in the village. And people from outside the village, since they’re not part of the complicated web of orcish honor.
The bog is a treacherous and strange place. Many areas that look solid are nothing more than rafts of decomposing vegetation over a dozen or so feet of water, ready to break if something too heavy steps on it. In the open water, oily film and pools of reddish growth can be seen.
The most common tree in the bog, the Moonshy Birch, possesses a peculiar quality: At night, its leaves curl up, greatly reducing the canopy of the bog. As a result, the bog is slightly brighter at night than during the day, since the leaves otherwise block so much sunlight.
Venomous frogs infest the bog. I mean venomous, not poisonous. They headbutt you and inject venom into their victims via bony protrusions in their skulls.
In winter, the bog freezes over almost completely. This makes it possible to traverse with little risk.
Tree of Protection
Eight gigantic slabs of rock sit vertically around a tree, each bearing the same Orcish glyph. The glyph resembles the English letter Y, with the center line extending all the way to the top. Anybody familiar with Orcish script will recognize it as a common symbol of protection.
The tree itself is an enormous birch, roughly 100 feet tall, and a simple spear is embedded in it, roughly six feet high. Ravens are often seen perching on the spear’s shaft.
Runestone to Yerug Shornhand
This gigantic rock has been placed at the side of the road and inscribed with the tale of legendary raider Yerug Shornhand’s fight against the foreign knight, Malgerius the Orange. The fight ended when Yerug, having now lost his right hand, punched Malgerius in the head with the stump hard enough to kill him.
The orcs are gross and unhygienic: False. They’re incredibly hygienic. At least on land. You try a month at sea and see how you smell, huh?
The orcs are ruthless barbarians who care only for slaughter and burning things: False, for most of them. The orcish raids are more about food and trade goods than chaos. Under the right circumstances, they’ll even trade peacefully.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this article, and the people portrayed within. A lot of research went into this one, with the orcish idea of honor being influenced equally by Dr. Jackson Crawford’s videos on Viking culture, and the description of Viking society in Debt: The First 5000 Years by David Graeber.
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