Disclaimer: This article is written from the perspective of a white man, and as a result should be taken with a grain of salt, I am not and never will consider myself to be an expert on racial issues, and the voices of people of color should hold more weight than my own in this context.
D&D's orcs are racist caricatures. This is a bad thing and should not continue.
3. I still wouldn't have a group of 1 HD monsters for my players to fight without feeling bad about. Which, depending on the game you're running, could be a good thing, but its not what I'm looking for.
This solution is not without its problems, because presenting an entire species as fascists takes away the agency of the individual to be evil. It is essentially reducing the evils of fascism to "orcish nature" rather than the actual complex system of hatred, propaganda, and evil that it is. Nobody is born a fascist, they are molded into one by politicians and bigots.
A solution to this is to have orcs literally be human beings that are shaped by an evil ideology, one so corrupted and cruel that it physically twists their bodies into a crueler form. Half-orcs are those that were raised in the ideology but escaped soon enough to not be corrupted wholly, though the physical effects are still evident. Humans become orcs over time, and orcish babies start out as humans. This also fixes the "what to do with baby orcs" problem, since inherently it means that orcs are not genetically chaotic evil, so one has a moral imperative to save the orc babies and take them to an orphanage.
Of course, this physical appearance needs to be completely divorced from the racist depictions that already exist. This also applies to all the other solutions I have. Don't have your orcs have dark brown/black skin, thick lips, dreadlocks and wear "primitive" clothing. These fascist orcs I described might wear jackboots and armor emblazoned with the symbols of their cruel ideology, their skin color isn't really important, its whatever it was before they were turned, perhaps more rough and thicker though. They still have fangs and pig snouts, the better for sniffing out victims and ripping them apart.
|Don't make your orcs look like this, especially the one in the middle. From the 4th edition D&D Monster Vault.|
However, this solution does have the problem of potentially making those who were raised in bigoted environments feel like monsters, and that there is nothing they can do about it. You could have it that as a half-orc does good deeds and unlearns their ideology they become more and more human, both physically and mentally.
Solution 2: Orcs as Completely Non-Human
This is less of a replacement of orcish behavior and attitudes and more of a replacement of orcs entirely. Instead of having humanoids with piggish features and a militaristic attitude, there instead are literal bipedal boars that live in colonies similar to ants, and function on instinct rather than intellect. These man-pigs don't fight because they're evil, they aren't sentient, they fight for the protection of the Sow-Queen and to expand their colony.
|The swine from Darkest Dungeon|
Or maybe there is a sorcerer, putting demons into the bodies of innocents and forcing them to fight his battles, the demonic presence within them changing their body into one more suited for combat. These aren't war-like humanoids, they are victims of demonic possession, modified for war and designed to spread conflict. They have jagged fangs and claws and beady red eyes that reflect back fear and horror at their own actions, even as their bestial throats bellow forth war cries. Maybe the sorcerer is long dead, but his army still lives, wandering the world and inhabiting dungeons.
|Not quite what I'm describing but the deadites from the Evil Dead franchise are close.|
But What If I Want My Players To Negotiate With Orcs?
If you want your players to be able to negotiate and make peace with orcs, then why not just replace them with humans or some other, new species of your own creation? This article is about how to preserve the role of the 1 hit die cannon fodder that can be slain without guilt, for more complex characters like that, something else is required. Replace them with a band of cave dwelling bandits or descendants of humans that evolved to live underground and have been fighting out of necessity and fear. These both would make for interesting role playing opportunities.
But we can have a fun role playing experience without falling back on old stereotypes and bigotry in order to have "bad guys". We don't need to be old school in our rulesets AND our ideology. Yes, D&D is just a game, but games are art, and works of art reflect the beliefs (both consciously and unconsciously) of those who create them.
I understand the need for violence in a lot of old school games, I really do, its a core part of the pulp fantasy nature of the game. I'm not complaining about that. But we don't need the monsters that our characters fight be racist caricatures.