When I was putting together the campaign setting I’m using now, I wanted to give each race a country. I didn’t want the country of elves to have elves, only elves, and all elves, because that’s not just creatively bankrupt, it’s also very boring. But I did want a physical location that served as a historical and cultural center. Basically, I was going for something not unlike Europe, where Germany is the traditional but not exclusive home of Germans. This analogy helped me because it gave me some footholds to design each country and, more importantly, their accents: elves are French, gnomes are Irish, and so on. But I also thought it was ridiculous that only standard PC races could have countries, and you may recall that I love me some monstrous PCs, so a few of the classically “savage” races got promoted to the same level as humans and dwarves. Though I have ideas for micronations for gnolls or kobolds and the like, only two monstrous races have large established countries: goblinoids and orcs.
Physically, orcs have changed a lot over the years, perhaps more than any other monster. Depending on your edition, an orc could look like a moblin, an uruk-hai, a burly green person, or 4E’s off-duty fashion models. But mentally and societally they’re pretty much the same as they’ve always been. They like power, axes, and fighting, and they hate everybody, but mostly elves and dwarves in that order. Their groups are small and usually based around a leader who gained that position by beating the previous leader in a fight, and they subsist on the things they kill and the things they steal from the bodies.
Obviously this doesn’t much work in an advanced society. There’s no sense behind a nation of wandering tribes who want to kill each other. In order to promote orcs to the same level as PC races, I had to come up with a reason they could work together and a reason they could settle down enough to build cities, both notions antithetical to orcs as we traditionally interpret them. I ended up giving them a country replete with natural resources, so harvesting and selling them was a much safer and more direct path to power and wealth than physically fighting over who got to sit on land they couldn’t fully leverage, and I made churches the main source of power in the land. As a rule orcs usually follow whatever the most orc-like deity in the edition is, and converting that from worship of one god to two or three separate churches worshipping similar but different gods wasn’t that much of a stretch. None of those religions has Gruumsh’s “kill everything you can catch” tenets, and they act as a stabilizing influence to keep the country together. Take those changes and apply them for a few hundred years, and you end up with orcs that still mostly look and act and think like you know, but in a culturally elevated way.
I still had to decide what their real-world inspiration was, and it wasn’t long before I settled on Russian. It fit geographically because I didn’t want them to share any borders with human, elven, or dwarven lands. It fit culturally given the importance of religion in historical Russia, as least as far as I researched it. It fit economically with power, wealth, and population focused more in the west, near the other countries, and less in the east. Perhaps most importantly, it was an accent I could do. With that connection we built it up more and more, keeping in mind the orcish base and the needs of our campaign setting, into the hybrid we have today.
My players have graciously indulged these real-world analogies in our campaign setting. When I first told them orcs were Russian, the response was “yeah, okay, that makes sense”. One of the players even jumped on it, declaring that he was involved in a war against orcs so he could hate them with that strange sort of self-righteousness typical of entrenched racism. I rewarded his contribution with a mini-campaign in which an orc stabbed him with a poisonous blade and his interns had to venture into orc country to chase the assassin before he succumbed to his wounds. He loved it.