On the subject of orcs and goblins, while my favourite races remain dwarves and elves due simply to the moods and themes they convey, I think orcs and goblins are some of the most interesting races to contemplate from a quasi-academic world-building point of view. I especially like the way they’re such a “malleable” element from that perspective. From one setting to another, they can be very different things, while nevertheless always corresponding to their general archetype. For instance:
- In Tolkien’s legendarium, they’re minions and foot-soldiers of a Dark Lord (one of several from different points of the timeline). Even though it’s pretty much stated that they’re miserable wretches who hate themselves and their Lord above anything else, it’s quite clear within the framework of the legendarium that they’re evil aberrations and ought to be eradicated from the face of the earth.
- In Warhammer, they’re just crazy tribal wildlings who infest every part of the world and don’t get along well with anyone else. They’re more an expression of primitive tribalism and sheer brash moxie than of pure evil, so they could be viewed as relatable in their own way.
- In Warcraft (at least the early RTS games) they’re a relatively well-developed, if brutish and somewhat alien-seeming, warrior-culture civilisation that’s invading the human/dwarf/elf world from another world of their own through a magic portal, making for a “clash of civilisations” type deal. Again their evilness is highly debatable. IIRC, at one point in the grand Warcraft storyline, orcs are completely defeated and enslaved by humans. Later they regain their freedom and self-worth through an uprising led by a Moses-cum-Spartacus-like hero, becoming a separate competing civilisation again.
- In many other settings, they’re more “integrated” so that orc/goblin mercenaries, labourers and adventurers may be tolerated in human lands, and humans in turn may dare to visit as guests among orc/goblin tribes, allowing for mixed adventuring parties and the like. I played a campaign in one PC strategy game where a few bold, forward-thinking polities of orcs, goblins, dwarves and humans cohabiting a wild, wartorn region had formed an alliance in an effort to usher in a Camelot-like age of stability and prosperity despite their old enmities.
All these things and more can be done with orcs and goblins, depending on the specifics of the setting. Really, if I was designing my own pseudo-Tolkienesque fantasy setting, one of the first things I’d ask myself is: “What are orcs and goblins in this world?”.
Also, to strike off on a tangent, another interesting thing to look at is this: If a fantasy setting is stripped of orcs and goblins, who has their place instead? For instance, in the Dark Sun setting (where orcs and goblins are extinct), the thri-kreen have filled that void.