Races in Fantasy Gaming: Elves

The host is riding from Knocknarea

And over the grave of Clooth-na-Bare;

Caoilte tossing his burning hair,

And Niamh calling Away, come away:

Empty your heart of its mortal dream.

The winds awaken, the leaves whirl round,

Our cheeks are pale, our hair is unbound,

Our breasts are heaving our eyes are agleam,

Our arms are waving our lips are apart;

And if any gaze on our rushing band,

We come between him and the deed of his hand,

We come between him and the hope of his heart.

The host is rushing ‘twixt night and day,

And where is there hope or deed as fair?

Caoilte tossing his burning hair,

And Niamh calling Away, come away.

The Hosting of the Sidhe, by W.B. Yeats

A conversation in G+ a few days ago got me thinking about elves, particularly in gaming. Rather than continue to monopolize that thread with points about the Silmarillion, here’s my second post about races in fantasy gaming (the first is here). Elves as a player race are one of the hallmarks of fantasy gaming, such that some settings have set themselves apart primarily through not having elves. I think it’s fine and good for settings to break out of the mold, but let’s look at elves in their own right, because they’re sort of a big dividing point among gamers – either you hate elves and would never consider playing one, or you love them and want to play them all the time. (I personally occupy a middle ground, but I’ve known a lot of people of the extreme camps.)
To paraphrase the question that started the G+ conversation, what is it that is quintessentially elven? The words that come to mind for me, and I think for a lot of people, are “lithe, graceful, long-lived, aloof, nature-loving, magical,” and so on. Some of these I’m fine with, and some I object to firmly. Description of body type drives me crazy – I really do think that there should be fat elves, broad-shouldered elves, gangly elves, and so on. This idea was cemented in my mind years ago at Shattered Isles. One of the guys on my team played an elf, and had a good laugh about the fact that the culture packet described elves as slender and graceful. Coming from a LARP context, it’s nonsense to describe races around physique; I’ve seen games restrict races according to player builds, and I’m firmly convinced that those were terrible ideas. I’d like to see tabletop and video games similarly embrace all body types for all fantasy races. There are a lot of really good political reasons for this shift, but the reason I care is that it opens the field to nuanced characterization and choice.
Stereotypes play a useful role early on in a system or a setting – they give the players something simple to comprehend. Declaring that the stereotype is the reality, though, is reductive and lazy. Once players grasp that there are elves in this setting, they’re ready to move on to more differentiation: elves that don’t all look like Orlando Bloom, elves that aren’t universally specialized in bows and blades, elves that have as much variation as humans. This is the problem with making “variation” the definitive human trait: the race with the most “variety” gets the blandest abilities (because they could be anything), while the rest of the races are pigeonholed into a narrow subset of classes by ability score modifiers or other stat-based influences. D&D Next includes basic, intermediate, and advanced levels of complexity in options – stereotypes are for beginning players. Intermediate and advanced players should be comfortable with breaking down the monolithic presentation.
The overly simplistic presentation of elven culture is just as problematic. 2e was possibly the worst about this, what with The Complete Book of Elves and Elves of Evermeet. These books were hyper-focused efforts to unpack more detail in elven culture, but the elves lack any real sense of internal conflict, only the continual threat of invasion and annihilation from without. Within their borders, they concern themselves with the kinds of things that don’t involve conflict or challenge in any tangible way: strumming on stringed instruments, sitting beside fountains, and so on.
Among D&D settings, Eberron and Dark Sun get quite notable passes. Eberron probably does the best job of any TSR/WotC-published setting of presenting multiple elven cultures that are about something more than being tree-people. The elves feel like part of the world – even the Aerenal elves who are aloof and isolated are more engaged in the goings-on of Khorvaire than the elves of Evermeet. The Aerenal and Valenar elves are both focused in really interesting ways on concepts of legacy, lineage, and ancestor worship; I particularly like that they go about it in different ways from one another. Oh, and half-elves are their own, stable race (called the khoravar), rather than making a whole player race that is about not having a story of its own. Admittedly, this may not be for everyone. I don’t know a lot about Dark Sun’s elves, but I know they were pretty different from the norm – as you’d expect from Dark Sun.
This brings me to my central idea: the Silmarillion is the definitive culture packet for elves, while The Lord of the Rings gives some vague impressions of what elves look like to outsiders, but nothing more. The Ainulindalë, Valaquenta, and Quenta Silmarillion sections reveal a great deal about the conflicts that drive the elves; notably these are both conflicts with other elves and with the other forces of the world. It doesn’t do a whole lot to explore day-to-day life, but the overwhelming pride and passion of the elves drives the story and continually reshapes the world. Unfortunately, most game settings parallel the Third Age of Middle-Earth more closely than the First Age, when the elves are withdrawing from the world and only a heroic few bother to do anything of any use. As a result, there are countless versions of elven cultures that are modeled on Legolas, and possibly Galadriel and Arwen. Tolkien understood and cared about the fact that the vitality and passion was almost faded from the elves; his countless imitators ape the outward signs of elvishness but don’t have a real mastery of the themes that make these decisions compelling.

A more balanced approach might be Brust’s Dragaerans, though it’s only the Easterners who would call them elfs. Dragaerans differ from D&D elves in a lot of important ways, starting with their more urbane bearing – no forests and leaf motifs for these guys, let me tell you. They’re more, well, French. The seventeen Houses of Dragaera are only the starting point for internal conflict – two Dragaerans of the same House have no trouble clashing with one another. Especially the Dragons. It also helps that the Khaavren Romances are written from an insider perspective – many, many settings make the mistake of only writing about elves from an outsider’s point of view.
I don’t have the level of investment in the Iron Kingdoms setting that some of my friends do, but from talking to them while working on this post, it sounds like IK presents elves with quite a bit more nuance than the norm, with conflicting factions and internal disagreement over some pretty central cosmological questions. I did put together an elven character for a one-shot IK game, and what I read there suggested to me that physical stereotyping was alive and well, but the elves had otherwise been adapted to fit into the setting well, rather than just being bolted on.
I understand how the outsider perspective and the absence of serious conflict came to be the standard, though. For one thing, far more people have read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings than The Silmarillion; the two former works are told primarily from a hobbit’s perspective, preserving the mystique of the elves. Even when Legolas joins the Fellowship, he remains tight-lipped on the deeper secrets of the elves. He’s part of a ruling elite of Sindar over the more numerous and less-advanced Silvan elves, but the text doesn’t really explore any conflict on that point, even though they’re pretty comparable to a Norman minority ruling over a Saxon populace.
In stories not written by the Professor, such as classic fairy tales and so on, it is even more important to maintain elves as the Exotic and Other, because I think it’s generally fair to say that other authors have not done as much background writing on their elves, fairies, or whatever as Tolkien did. I think it’s fine and good to have mystical and exotic things in a story, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that once “elf” is a player race, they aren’t the exotic other anymore, and you really do have to start spelling out the answers to some of their secrets. Once an elf is an option for a PC, adventures can and should be taking place in the domains of the elves; interest in the plot elements of a culture should be a good reason to choose one race over another. I certainly like that reason better than picking the one with the best pluses!
Now, you could allow elves as players without giving them even a toehold on the secrets of the elven culture(s) – an exile with a shoddy memory is a perfectly fine PC every now and again. If every elf has to be that way, though, let’s stop pretending that elf is a standard race option.
I also don’t think that elves should just be humans with pointy ears and a long lifespan. At the absolute least, build the culture around some speculation as to what an incredibly long lifespan would do. Better still if you don’t stop there, and develop a few more features that set your elves apart from everyone else’s… you know, just like you’re doing with every setting element. Do us all a favor, though, and avoid the following:

  • Baskin Robbins’ 31 Flavors of Elf (especially when distinguished by terrain type – desert, aquatic, arctic, whatever – with no greater cosmological reason that they are that way. Otherwise, we’ve really got to stop saying that humans are the most adaptable. Actually, I think “humans are the most adaptable” is lazy, so… hmm.)
  • Superiority complexes: it’s best not to go around telling players that it’s totally cool and okay for be supercilious douchebags to one another. Save that behavior for NPCs. Correspondingly, don’t make them Just Better. Your rules should be balanced! (2e-and-prior, I’m looking at you here.)
  • Related to the previous point – hardline xenophobia. PCs need to be pretty free and comfortable interacting with strangers. Breaking this rule is for expert players and DMs prepared to tell interesting stories about the xenophobia itself (preferably by undermining it at every turn – upholding xenophobia shouldn’t be anyone’s job).
  • Bladesingers, and really any other class with racial prereqs, unless everyone else’s toys really are equally cool. Be honest with yourself about this, and don’t leave the humans in the cold. Also, recognize this as “all elves are graceful,” which is an idea that is ready to die.
  • Immunities to common effects (this is Design 101, but apparently not everyone got that memo).

I can only assume there are plenty of people who disagree with every word I’ve said in this post, though if you disagree with the Yeats at the beginning, I declare your argument invalid, because that’s just an opening quote, not something you should be arguing! Also, I am inherently unsympathetic to Yeats haters. Yaters? Whatever.

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