There is an Orcish civilization. It is not the only one, of course. This one is an empire, centered around Tosk, the “City of Spears”.
The Toskan empire is not interested in conquest. Rather, its clans secure work, resources, and prestige by aiding those in need. They are mercenaries, enforcing order in lawless lands by the consent of those living there.
This guide is intended to present Tosk and its inhabitants as a system-neutral play aid for TTRPGs. In addition to the main text, two voices present their perspective on Tosk and its people: Virens, a Toskan orc, and Santino, a human traveler making his way through the empire.
The content of this guide is CC-BY licensed. You can grow and expand Tosk as you wish, but you must acknowledge the original author (“Astral Frontier”).
Orcs as “the other”
Every real-world marginalized group is different. Whether gender, sexuality, ethnicity, disability, or something else, each faces its own challenge and has its own experiences. And human beings can find themselves in several of these categories, facing further unique challenges (intersectionality).
Orcs are often othered in fiction. They can be treated as subhuman monsters, rampaging barbarians, uncouth primitives, or inherently wicked creations of evil and deserving of destruction. More sympathetic views depict orcs as marginalized people, and sometimes have them stand in for an existing group.
This guide assumes that orcs are marginalized in their own world to an extent, but does not intend to paint them as a substitute for any real world group. Likewise, orcs can stand at the intersection of identities. There are queer orcs, disabled orcs, orcs from shunned ethnic groups, orcs who faced persecution for religious reasons, and more. This guide does not intend to uphold such people as heroes, or pity them as wretches. It intends to depict them as people.
Assumptions about orcs
Everyone’s orcs are different. As a storytelling device, orcs have been twisted and molded to fit a story’s needs. Nevertheless we have to start somewhere. This guide assumes the following:
- Orcs are a distinct “species” or “race” in a biological sense, such that a population of orcs will produce children that are recognizably orcs.
- Orcs can be interfertile with other similar “species” or “race” in your world, yielding children who are a mixture of orcish and other ancestries.
- Orcs are physically more resilient than a typical humanoid of their size. Whether this is from a faster rate of healing or tougher physiology is up to you.
- Orcs have a range of skin colors, the way human beings do. This can include greens, grays, and other hues not found among human beings.
Other than these differences, orcs have the same continuum of physical, mental, emotional, artistic, spiritual, and other capacities as anyone else.
Perhaps the biggest single source of misunderstanding between Toskan orcs (and perhaps orcs in general) and the rest of the world is the orcish relationship to violence. To outsiders, it sometimes seems like orcs have a violent or bloodthirsty nature, or lack civilized refinement.
The truth is that Toskan orcs understand and accept violence more readily than many other people.
There is a Toskan proverb which translates to “bad blood must be shed”. It means that people can let aggression or frustration build up. When it does, it will fester, and taint how that person relates to others. Sometimes, stressful feelings are directed at another person. Other times, they’re a response to circumstances. Either way, physical violence is a way to give those feelings an outlet. When the bad blood is shed, the Toskans believe, people can get back to their important business, with clear heads and sound judgement.
Visitors to Tosk sometimes laugh at the spectacle of a pair of orcs punching each other on the floor of the Senate. What they overlook is how those individuals will shake hands at the end of the fight, and talk through the issue that sparked it. Toskans, in turn, will sometimes wonder why rivals will let their disagreements go for months or years, and point out that things like duels are fundamentally no different than how orcs do things. They just wish the rivals had gotten their business settled sooner, so they could get back to being productive.
This doesn’t mean that orcs resort to violence first and foremost. It is just another tool in their toolkit for managing emotions, the same way human beings will talk through issues. Nor does it excuse violence when the two parties are not on equal footing. An adult orc who used violence against a child would be condemned and swiftly dealt with.
The Divisions and the Clans
Santino thought about the question.
“I think the reason I always thought of orcs as warriors is that the only orcs I tended to meet were warriors. But that makes sense, doesn’t it? I was on the battlefield. Who else would you find there but warriors?”
Toskan culture divides people into four roles: the spear (hunters and warriors), the sickle (farmers and laborers), the drum (scholars, artisans, and spiritualists), and the empty hand (those unable to contribute but deserving of care). It is common to introduce someone with their role, e.g. “this is Virens, spear of the Solitarius Dens clan”.
Orcs are further associated with clans. Each clan has a name and a history. While leadership of a clan is often given to a spear, every role is represented within a healthy clan.
Toskan orcs do not condone or tolerate either slavery or misogyny. To them, it’s everyone’s responsibility to contribute to the health of the clan, in whatever way they can.
Orcs begin life as members of the empty hand. As children, they are born into a clan and raised by its members. As an orc matures, they are expected to take up another role. At the age of maturity, they are also expected to join a new clan. This broadens an individual orc’s horizons, maintains cordial relationships between clans, and keeps individual clans from becoming inbred or dominated by a single bloodline.
At any time, an orc can declare themselves part of another role, though it is expected that they would apprentice themselves to an experienced individual first. Orcs may not join a new clan without that clan’s permission, although they can leave a clan at any time. Being clanless is seen mostly as an embarrassment or a selfish act - the orc is depriving a clan of their skills and presence.
Tosk’s people value freedom, not as an abstract concept, but as a daily reality for themselves and for all orcs. If you take up the spear or the sickle, either you join a clan or you go it alone. But it’s your choice, and you can renounce your allegiance if your obligations are settled. If you don’t want to work, the orcs don’t have to feed you. If you aren’t causing trouble for someone the orcs pledged to protect, you aren’t their problem.
These principles apply to non-Toskan orcs, or non-orcs who ally themselves with Tosk and its civilization. If a human was accepted into a clan, it would be unorthodox, but as long as they carried the spear or sickle or drum, they’d be treated no differently.
Five languages are most commonly spoken within the city and throughout the empire:
- Grubelt is a rough, growling language. It is economical, expressing common concepts with clarity, and building unusual ideas out of compound terms. While it is in no sense the original or default orcish language, it is the one detractors most often try to associate with orcs.
- Injana-Naya is a flowing language deeply dependent on intonation. It originated with steppe people, who often needed to shout from the backs of riding animals at full gallop.
- Saltisam is a general-purpose language with a rich evolution and numerous loan-words. It originated among river-people who engaged in trade.
- Tanarkindi is an evolution of an earlier language now considered lost. Its written form is elaborate, with pictographs annotated by syllabic symbols. When spoken, it is drawn out and paced. It is widely considered “the language of scholarship” within Tosk, but several groups speak it as a first tongue.
- Delkan is an earthy, passionate language with a rich palette of profanity and descriptive terms. Speakers are sometimes looked down upon by more conservative Toskans, but many Delkan loan-words and terms have entered conversation in other tongues.
Most Toskans speak 2-3 languages at most. Professional translators sell their services to people, both citizens and visitors.
These are by no means the only languages spoken by the orcs themselves, or other inhabitants of Tosk and its territories. Examples include trade-tongues from other regions, tongues associated with ethnic groups that make their home in the city, and cryptolects or jargon spoken within individual clans.
Like everyone else, orcs will invent or borrow terms, and the most useful of these terms enter the city’s vocabulary by repetition. Sometimes, young orcs will become fascinated by certain words or phrases from other languages, such as terms from elvish or human languages. The point of this is not so much communication as experimentation with languages their elders might disapprove of orcs using.
Several religious systems exist within the Empire. The religion most associated with Tosk, though, is known simply as the Drumming.
This belief system teaches that all living things are on a spiritual journey between realms. One realm, the Now, is the physical world. Another, called the Never, is a realm of static and eternal contemplation. Intelligent beings, they say, can exist in both these worlds. They use various means, such as music and mind-expanding herbs, to bridge these worlds both for themselves and for others.
The Drumming faith doesn’t impact most Toskans’ lives on a day to day basis. Instead, it serves as a philosophical basis for grappling with difficult concepts such as death and loss. Drummers also justify the hunting of wild beasts, as devout hunters are said to awaken a beast’s spirit upon death and help it progress on its journey.
Hunting and Agriculture
Tosk values both hunting and agriculture to keep its people fed and clothed.
Toskan agriculture makes use of complex irrigation techniques and technologies. Members of the sickle incorporate lessons learned in other lands, then put them into practice in test fields nearer to home. When not attending to crops, they study the way water moves in the region, and sometimes undertake projects to shift the flow of it (such as constructing aqueducts).
Spears are responsible for game hunting. Toskan hunters prefer going after larger beasts, leaving smaller prey for the leaner seasons. They typically form hunting parties, rather than hunting solo. The Drumming religion treats hunting as a sacred affair, and spears are strongly encouraged to make use of as much of a beast’s carcass as possible, rather than killing for sport.
Spears are also responsible for the taming and domestication of animals. Toskans use a variety of beasts for riding, help in planting and harvesting agricultural fields, and more.
Tosk practices representative democracy, expressed through a unicameral debating legislature. The legislature is made up of representatives from every officially recognized clan, apportioned by population.
Toskan orcs join together into a clan, whose chief is effectively both representative in law and centurion during wartime. This chief is known as the “First Spear” (whatever their role, though it is almost always that of the Spear). A trusted subordinate, the “Second Spear”, typically represents the will of the chief and the clan within Tosk’s legislature.
Clans and government
There is no emperor or hereditary succession system. The clans are the largest political unit within the empire. Outside of the city’s walls, a clan may either travel for exploration, conquest, and other reasons, or it may stay within a territory to guard it and enforce peace.
The “First Spear” of a clan is elected by acclaim by the recognized members of the clan. One clan, in turn, is voted by the legislature to administer the city of Tosk itself. In one sense, the First Spear of that clan could be said to be an “emperor”, but the legislature still rules the empire, in fact as well as in law.
In the course of a year, an orc clan might:
- be ordered by the legislature to take control of a province from another clan (with any attendant complications that a transfer of power entails)
- vote in a new First Spear, should one die, step down, etc.
- send a new Second Spear back to Tosk to speak for them, or otherwise communicate the clan’s situation and intentions back and forth
- defend an existing province from external threats: bandits, invading armies, spies or saboteurs, wild animals or monsters, etc.
- act as witness or protection for some local leader during a political action or time of unrest - however, the clan typically does not get involved in internal affairs of a province
- collect tithe - in the form of grain, fruit, livestock, or other harvest, as well as lumber or other raw materials for construction - and secure it on its way to Tosk or other destinations
- celebrate orcish cultural rituals, feast days, etc.
- participate in ritual hunts or other acts of animal-spirit veneration
“Why is the spear the weapon of the orcs?”
Virens has pried a straight, sturdy branch from a nearby tree, and is using a wickedly curved knife to strip away bark and create a sharp point. Wood shavings pile up at his feet.
“The spear is the most basic weapon. The pointy end is for the enemy. The rest is grip, and parrying surface. Simple.” Virens rotates the stick around to demonstrate a few key postures.
“Simple doesn’t mean identical.” The orc carves a few distinctive designs into the haft of the nascent spear, then reaches behind him with the knife and expertly cuts off a lock of his own hair. He wraps the hair around the spear, just back of the sharpened head, creating a black tassel. “Keeps blood from flowing down the shaft and making a slippery grip, distracts the opponent when shaken in their face, but also marks a spear as someone’s.”
The orc warrior holds the spear out for inspection. It’s a rough but functional weapon, visually distinctive, primitive and powerful. Satisfied, he stands, then abruptly breaks the spear across his knee. Wood splinters fall at his feet.
“Orcs die in battle. It is our nature. We are alive when we fight. We choose what we fight for. That is how we will be judged.”
“Things break. That is the harsh truth of this world. And its hope. Evil breaks too.” Virens sits down again, and calmly starts carving a new point onto one of the damaged ends. “And there will always be more spears.”
The popular image of the Toskan spear is a brawny, eager warrior, fighting to preserve their homeland. In reality, the most commonly encountered spear is a shepherd, tending a flock and fending off predators. While all spears are expected to fight, this is more due to the dangerous nature of the orcs’ world. Danger can come upon a community at any time, from any source.
“Tosk is known as the ‘City of Spears’. Leaders of clans are called First Spear. Many people who see orcs only see the hunters and warriors. They think that is all there is. They do not see the farmers toiling in the fields, the herbalists and herders, the builders of brick and wood. Such orcs don’t travel like the clans do. They work the land where they are.”
Virens pulls out his drum. He does not play, but only holds it for inspection. “A member of the One Fang gave this to me as a gift.” The drum is not pretty at all. It’s little more than a gnarled piece of wood, carved into a cylinder with a grip. The drumhead is leather, decorated with an alcohol-based dye depicting a mountain.
“The art of working wood and leather is just the beginning. Before that, what of the animal whose hide this is? Who tended it, fed it, saw its eventual slaughter? What of the drummer who awoke its spirit to send it to its next journey? What of those who fed these artisans, grew the wheat and milked the beasts to give them bread and cheese? Those that harvested apples and berries for them? The strong backs who raised tents and houses for all of them?”
Virens smiles, more sadly. “This is what an orc clan is about. The right to live, the opportunity to grow stronger and wiser, the freedom to find and use your talents. Without the Sickle, the Spear would be weak indeed.”
The sickles are farmer and laborers. They work the land, gather food, or otherwise serve the community in a non-violent capacity. “The sickle” is still a weapon, and they are still expected to fight if it comes to it.
Sickles are not treated as less than spears. Orcs know where their food and tools come from, and honor the sickles for their hard work and skills. What distinguishes sickles from spears isn’t that what they do is unimportant, but what they do isn’t chiefly concerned with the taking of life.
Virens turns his sabertooth knife over and around in his hands. The naturally sharp tip has been sharpened further by orcish hands, with serration added as well. Depressions in the bone anchor the leather handle.
“These are the stories my clan told me, when I grew up.”
“Many Toskan Orcs believe in the Now and the Never. You could say waking and dreaming, but that’s not quite right. Animals live in the Now. They are present, mindful. They do not plan, or hope, they just live. Trees, plants, rocks, live in the Never. They don’t act, yet they are. Folk - orcs, humans, catlings - we live between. We see, we do, but we also think ahead, to a world we don’t yet inhabit but wish we could.”
Virens flips the knife once, catching the blade carefully in his hand. “Our people use the drum to connect these modes of existence to each other. There are many ways, including certain herbs, but music is the most reliable. When we perform the hunt for an animal, we beckon it from the Now at its passing. Its spirit has been elevated, made something more. We ally with these spirits. Our experience as Folk, in exchange for their services.”
“The drummers connect worlds for other reasons. To say goodbye to loved ones. To gain spiritual understanding of problems in the Now. To celebrate life for its own sake. To bring people together.”
He puts the knife away. “Other people sometimes don’t understand the orcs. We live more in the Now than others, but we recognize the value of the Never. It is our way to safeguard that great path, and shepherd others along it.”
A smile crosses his coarse features. “I can’t say how much of all this I believe. But, a good drumming is beautiful to me. Should we meet with an orcish clan, I invite you all to participate.”
While the drummers’ role is named for and associated with the Drumming religion, the role itself encompasses most intellectual, social, and spiritual pursuits.
Art in Toskan culture is divided between the sickles and the drummers. More physical works of art - architecture, sculpture, and the like - is typically done by sickles. Drummers are the poets, orators, and storytellers.
The Empty Hand
Virens rubs his hands together, cracking the knuckle bones now and then. He doesn’t meet anyone’s eyes. He’s too busy remembering.
“Not every hand is suitable for holding the Spear or Sickle, or beating the Drum. Children and the aged can’t be expected to fight or die for the clan. Parents of children either. The sick or the wounded. Their value to the clan has already been paid, or will be someday. Hunters and workers feed and shelter them, and warriors defend them, for the sake of the clan.”
The very young, the very old, people experiencig illness or distress, and people late in their pregnancy may all claim this status.
Members of the empty hand aren’t expected to materially contribute to their clan, in the same way as a hunter or farmer might. Instead, they contribute by performing what tasks they can, or supervising children, or sharing their stories and insight with the community. If there is a disagreement between a clan’s members, an empty hand might be called on to resolve it.
Orcs don’t concern themselves with whether an individual can “pull their weight”. Instead, they ask whether someone in the clan is willing and able to contribute to that person’s needs. If so, the orcs reason, that’s all that matters. The occasional truly slothful person will soon find themselves clanless, and that is a problem that has solved itself.
Not all clans are created equal. Some have a storied history, others are upstarts. Some are noble and benevolent, others are cruel and bloodthirsty.
Solitarius Dens: the One Fang. Nomadic, wide-ranging, interested in the most far-flung parts of the empire. They take their name from the practice of warriors hunting dangerous predators, and taking a fang as a trophy.
Ferox Clamoris: the Fierce Cry. A matriarchal clan, by tradition. Most current members are women. One of the oldest clans in orc history. Legend attributes their founder as a shapeshifter and the mother of Tosk’s first founders, with their father as a wild animal. The clan’s name refers to the birthing cry of the children.
Taurus: the Bull. A brutal and militaristic clan. They prefer fighting to diplomacy, and are typically called in to deal with uprisings, large-scale banditry, or actual invasion by hostile forces. Despite their methods, they strictly uphold Toskan cultural values.
Fulminis: the Thunderbolt. A highly-mobile clan that prefers to fight mounted. They are nomadic and distrust city life. The clan where Virens and his half-brother Acutus were born.
Vinea Ferro: the Iron Vine. They prefer protecting farmers and herders specifically, feeling a kinship to those who work the earth.
Lupus Tenebris: the Black Wolf. A small renegade clan, with a strength between 30 and 50 spears. They went rogue after their leader, Petram, broke with Tosk over a territory assignment. They serve as mercenaries and bandits, and are sometimes hunted by other clans. They are not considered legitimate representatives of Tosk, but may present themselves as such if the deception is a benefit.
Novus Sanguis: the New Blood. A clan established in the last ten years by an orc leader named Lacertus. The Novus Sanguis wishes to establish a “new Tosk”, a second orcish city, rather than trusting the empire to a single home city and a series of far-flung provinces. Lacertus believes in close cooperation with other races. The clan is unpopular with the traditionalist or nomadic clans, but their ambition attracts many followers in the legislature.
Ultima Scutum: the Last Shield. An old and respected clan, currently in charge of Tosk itself. Their First Spear Canem Rubrum (Red Dog) is a legendary orc, with three daughters, all of whom could be First Spear after his passing.