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I've always assumed that with all modern fantasy, D&D included, their racial archetypes for their inhabitants always had their roots from Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. And in part, I do believe there is enough healthy evidence to indicate that many of D&D's Orc characteristics are indeed inspired from Tolkien's Orc, whether it's their physical prowess, inherent brutality (although this is likely to change very soon), militaristic organisation, etc.

But where do they really come from? Tolkien's Orc stems from enslaved and corrupted elves who had their humanity literally tortured out of them. Where do D&D orcs come from and what makes them what they are?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ See my answer to the relevant question "Who invented Orcs?" \$\endgroup\$ – Lexible Jun 27 '20 at 19:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ Related reading: "Orcs, Britons, and the Martial Race Myth" Part One and Part Two by James Mendez Hodes. \$\endgroup\$ – BESW Jun 27 '20 at 21:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ Are you asking for the in-game history or the design history of orcs? \$\endgroup\$ – okeefe Jun 28 '20 at 2:03
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You are correct that Tolkien is responsible for popularising the modern orc, although there are earlier references including in Beowulf, which is one of the oldest written works in English - albeit Old English - however, I'm sure you can find the orcish reference:

þanon untydras ealle onwocon
All evil progeny were born from him (Cain)

eotenas ond ylfe ond orcneas
the giants and elves and evil spirits

swylce gigantas þa wið gode wunnon
also the giants who fought against God for a long time

lange þrage he him ðæs lean forgeald
he repaid them for that

From Tolkien, they made their way into the fantasy arm of miniature wargaming, which was the starting point for Dungeons & Dragons and all that followed.

The original 1974 Dungeons & Dragons, Volume 2: Monsters & Treasure says next to nothing about their origin and culture (p. 7-8):

The number of different tribes of Orcs can be as varied as desired. Once decided upon, simply generate a random number whenever Orcs are encountered, the number generated telling which tribe they belong to, keeping in mind inter-tribal hostility. When found in their "lair" it will be either a cave complex (die 1–4) or a village (die 5–6).

[...]

Note that if Orcs are encountered in an area which is part of a regular campaign map their location and tribal affiliation should be recorded, and other Orcs located in the same general area will be of the same tribe.

Orcs do not like full daylight, reacting as do Goblins. They attack Orcs of different tribes on sight unless they are under command of a stronger monster [...]

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1978) had this to say (Monster Manual, p. 76):

Orc tribes are fiercely competitive, and when they meet it is 75% likely that they will fight each other unless a strong leader (such as a wizard, evil priest, evil lord) with sufficient force behind him is on hand to control the orcs. Being bullies, the stronger will always intimidate and dominate the weaker. (If goblins are near, for example, and the orcs are strong enough, they will happily bully them.) Orcs dwell in places where sunlight is dim or non-existent, for they hate the light. In full daylight they must deduct 1 from their dice rolls to hit opponents, but they see well even in total darkness (infravision).

Known orc tribes include the following: Vile Rune, Bloody Head, Death Moon, Broken Bone, Evil Eye, Leprous Hand, Rotting Eye, Dripping Blade. If orcs from one of those tribes are encountered in an area, it is likely that all other orcs nearby will also be from this tribe.

[...]

Orcs are cruel and hate living things in general, but they particularly hate elves and will always attack them in preference to other creatures. They take slaves for work, food, and entertainment (torture, etc.) but not elves whom they kill immediately.

It was at this point that the first origin story of the orcs appeared in Dragon #62 (June 1982), p. 28:

This is the tale the shamans tell, in the camps of the orcs when the night is deep on the world and dawn is far away:

In the beginning all the gods met and drew lots for the parts of the world in which their representative races would dwell. The human gods drew the lot that allowed humans to dwell where they pleased, in any environment. The elven gods drew the green forests, the dwarven gods drew the high mountains, the gnomish gods the rocky, sunlit hills, and the halfling gods picked the lot that gave them the fields and meadows. Then the assembled gods turned to the orcish gods and laughed loud and long. “All the lots are taken!” they said tauntingly. “Where will your people dwell, One-Eye? There is no place left!”

There was silence upon the world then, as Gruumsh One-Eye lifted his great iron spear and stretched it forth over the world. The shaft blotted out the sun over a great part of the lands as he spoke: “No. You lie. You have rigged the drawing of the lots, hoping to cheat me and my followers. But One-Eye never sleeps; One-Eye sees all. There is a place for orcs to dwell . . . here!” With that, Gruumsh struck the forests with his spear, and a part of them withered with rot. “And here!” he bellowed, and his spear pierced the mountains, opening mighty rifts and chasms. “And here!” and the spearhead split the hills and made them shake and covered them in dust. “And here!” and the black spear gouged the meadows, and made them barren.

“There!” roared He-Who-Watches triumphantly, and his voice carried to the ends of the world. “There is where the orcs shall dwell! There they shall survive, and multiply, and grow stronger, and a day shall come when they cover the world, and shall slay all of your collected peoples! Orcs shall inherit the world you sought to cheat me of!”

In this way, say the shamans, did the orcs come into the world, and thus did Gruumsh predict the coming time when orcs will rule alone. This is why orcs make war, ceaseless and endless: war for the wrath of Gruumsh.

Which is still super-cool.

Further developments in D&D have taken this gospel as, well, gospel.

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D&D orcs aren't related to elves, but it varies by campaign setting.

The origins of the orcs varies between campaign settings and sources, but it is most commonly asserted that they were simply created by Gruumsh, primary deity of the orcs in many worlds.

Unlike in Tolkien's works, D&D's orcs are not derived from elves. Gygax was eager to distance the game from Tolkien's lore after a lawsuit, which also saw D&D change "hobbit" to "halfling" and a few other changes.

General lore

According to the article "The Gods of the Orcs" from Dragon magazine #62 (p. 28), orc shamans tell that long ago, the gods of each race drew lots to determine the terrain in which their people should live. Gruumsh was cheated out of any home for the orcs, and in response declared that his race should forever conquer the lands of other races. The orcs thus came into the world, though it is not specifically stated here how they were created. The AD&D 2e book Monster Mythology concurs with this view.

The D&D 5th edition Monster Manual p. 244-245, follows on from this story and defines that Gruumsh is very specifically the creator of the orcs. This is a surprisingly rare assertion; most sourcebooks only state that Gruumsh is primary god which most orcs worship.

The Complete Book of Elves p. 9-10 gives a description in a story which, like most prehistoric origin stories of races in D&D, is considered only an approximation of the truth, and may be contradicted by other myths. In this version of events, Gruumsh became enraged after seeing the first elves, and tried to destroy them, leading to a fight in which the elven god Corellon put out Gruumsh's eye. Gruumsh fled and created the orcs from his burning hatred and blood, for the purpose of one day destroying the elves. Thereafter the elves were infused with Corellon's blood, and other deities created the other common races in imitation of the elves.

A possible alternative appears in Lords of Madness p. 26-27, where it is described that the primal aboleths, created by an Cthulhuesque elder entity millions of years ago, decided themselves to create forms of life with which to populate the world. Among their creations were humanoids, who may have been the ancestors of current-day orcs. It is speculated that, through the power of faith alone, these humanoids called deities into being, and these gods destroyed the aboleths' planetary empire.

Setting-specific

Mystara: According to the 1988 D&D sourcebook The Orcs of Thar (GAZ10), set in the Known World setting, the souls of evil or chaotic beings were reincarnated into the world long ago as "beastmen" to atone for their sins. These beings were the ancestors of the orcs and goblins. This origin story doesn't occur in other D&D settings.

Forgotten Realms: The 3.5e book Grand History of the Realms notes that the orcs existed around 24,400 DR, but does not define their creation. The generic lore generally applies to this setting, and Gruumsh is a deity in Faerûn.

Eberron: According to the original Eberron Campaign Setting, the orc nations arose some 30,000 years ago on the continent of Khorvaire. The origin of the orcs is not stated.

Greyhawk: The Scarlet Brotherhood p.68 describes that orcs have existed since ancient times, when they took part in a war between red dragons and fire giants in the Hellfurnaces mountain range, a war which also involved the human Suel Imperium. They were later employed by the Suel as mercenaries, and spread into the Flanaess along with several human groups during the Great Migrations. However, the orcs' creation is not documented. The generic lore (excepting D&D 4e and the non-AD&D Known World material) usually applies to this setting. It's not impossible that they were actually bred by the Suel Imperium as a warrior race (they bred the Derro this way, and in recent times the Scarlet Brotherhood have bred the kimazar, kurg and rullhow), but that would be speculation.

Side-note on alignment

It's worth noting that in D&D 3.5's Monster Manual, orcs are not inherently evil. Orcs are listed there as "often chaotic evil", with "often" being a game term defined as around 40-50% of creatures having that alignment, which they may acquire through nature or nurture. It's not specified how much of the orc's alignment comes from "genetics" and how much is social; there is precedent for the latter case, in that settlements in 3.5 have prevailing alignments, and the existence of predominantly evil cities or nations of humans are well-documented.

The "often/usually/always" keyword is omitted in 5e monster statblocks, creating the sense that all orcs are of the same alignment. Officially (per MM p. 7), the listed alignment is only the default. Orcs could always be non-evil in 5e; they just tend to be chaotic evil.

The AD&D 2e Monstrous Manual, p.282, notes:

Orcs have a reputation for cruelty that is deserved, but humans are just as capable of evil as orcs.

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