A little bit of setting noodling that has been rattling in my head. It may go too far, but it’s proving a curious experiment on a particular hypothesis. Nominally it’s for a D&D style setting, but most of it is pretty much generic fantasy. Very incomplete for now – just races. Classes and gods will need their own noodling.
At some point, the elves grew tired of all this and took over. Stop and consider that their average lifespan is something in the order of 2000 years if they don’t do much of anything about it. If they want to spend some of that time looking into ways to extend it, then that’s no great problem. Then adopt the D&D logic behind XP and levels and it’s not hard to end up with Tolkein-esque elves where is it largely a race of badasses, with only the very young coming in anywhere below 20th level.
So, start with that – the elves are not in decline. They are not in retreat. They are not teetering on the edge of collapse. They are strong and vibrant and their hand extends to cover much of the world. Those parts that they do not rule are largely those they have deemed unworthy of the effort, either because the cost would be great (as with the Dragon Princes’ domains, or the Maddest Depths) or the because the prize seems unworthy (as with the Bleaks). Some of the old kingdoms still stand in a recognizable form, but their kings bend knee to the Elvish throne, and have for generations.
Even the divisions among the elves are no great source of tension. The drow, rather than maligned outcasts bound to a monstrous goddess, are the lords of the underworld in all its splendor. The wood elves are lords of the wild, while the high elves rule over the civilized races. There is rivalry and tension, certainly, but open warfare between elves is something only the mad would propose. All things come in time, and only a fool would risk so much rather than be patient.
That is, of course, what the little people are for. For all their power, elves are also very conservative about any risk to their lives. The lifespan of an elf is a treasure, and the idea of wasting it is repellent to most any elf. This does not mean they are necessarily fearful – even a single elf is a mighty combatant, and willing to fight to show it – but when dealing with matters of risk, they are more than happy to let others do the dirty work.
An extension of this is that elvish conflicts are almost always through third parties. The greatest rule of elven society is that elvish life is sacrosanct, but that does not somehow make them better people. They just find other ways to play out the petty rivalries and conflicts that we all recognize.
As a result, there are plenty of adventurers in the domains of the elves, and it is a highly regarded career. Some elves have stables of their own adventures, but there is always great demand for freelancers, and it’s a good (if dangerous) living. The work is familiar, but the reasons for it may less so. To the elves, and ancient, forgotten dungeon that has sat untouched for centuries is roughly the equivalent of the attic that they stored stuff in years ago, forgot about, and just don’t want to touch. It’s just that where you might be worried about wasps or raccoons, they’re concerned about goblins and hags.
After all, consider how much crap you accrue in just a few years. Elves do this for centuries and there is nothing so crass as “U Store It” facilities to put these things in, and you can’t have them cluttering up the place, so a well secured little cave somewhere (spruced up, of course) with some basic security precautions is really the best option for those things you just can’t bring yourself to throw away.
And, of course, if you have a rival you want to stick it to, a little looting is a wonderfully indirect route to pursue it. Nothing says “screw you” like showing up at a party in your rival’s former favorite hat, after all. There can be a bit of an arms race to this, so some “dungeons” are real deathtraps, but they really run the gamut.
The lifespans of elves also means that there’s some element of sport and entertainment in playing adventurers against challenges (and each others) as it’s own sort of game. But it is not just for play. Adventurers are dangerous individuals granted a lot of leeway, and even freelancers must be accountable to some elf. While some elves maintain private household adventurers, others effectively support guilds of freelancers for their own purposes.
All of this may suggest a very callous attitude on the part of elves towards the short lived races, but that is a gross simplification. The elves assume a position of superiority, certainly, based on their lifespans, but that does not equate to indifference. Elves may become very emotionally attached to other peoples, and the idea of being needlessly cruel to them is largely frowned upon, but the relationship is largely at arms reach. No matter how attached an elf becomes to a human, that human is unlikely to live more than 70 years or so, and for much of that time they will be old (something elves have no real context for, and can be put off by). It will end in tragedy.
Obviously, in a game like this, elves are not a playable race. Any elf that might be an adventurer is going to be so young that it would be outright irresponsible to send them into the field. Certainly some elves enjoy “going on adventures” but in that case the rest of the adventuring party is something more like a retinue.
Humans are by far the most numerous and varied people. They still have many cultural and political distinctions, but over time those have altered to reflect elvish patronage. Certainly some elves maintain entirely human households, but more often things are more indirect – it is rare that a large or powerful human leader or institution not have some manner of elvish patron, sometimes more than one. And, of course, “elvish” equates to power and prestige, so many of the trappings of elvish culture have been adopted by the upper tiers of human society. Sometimes this is blatant sycophancy, but more often it is unthinking – that certain elvish rules of conduct are simply how things are.
As a people, humans are well regarded by elves, and the very best of them are “almost elvish”. This sometimes goes to far, as evinced by the half elvish. Half elves are rare and precariously placed. To a human family, the birth of a half elf is cause for celebration, as it will almost always improve the fortunes of the family, and to humans, the half elf is seen as something exciting and exotic. To an elf, it’s a profound embarrassment, a point of shame for the parent. There is effort not to blame the child too much for the union, but the taint is hard to shake. Half Elves frequently end up in trusted service roles – messengers, majordomos and such – in elvish households if they are willing to behave appropriately elvishly. Those less willing to do so often end up as adventurers or in positions of prominence in human communities. Often, humans will treat half elves as proxies for their elvish parent, offering gifts to the child that would be too little for the parent. While half elves benefit from this, it is rare that the parent look to favorably upon this.
There are two great dwarven kingdoms, each occupying both surface and underworld. They are far enough apart that they interact very little. Both kingdoms are very stable, almost to a fault. The elves have propped them up, helping deal with underworld menaces, but have also established the limits of both kingdoms. Dwarves are greatly respected by the elves, but not necessarily well liked. Elven political language gives great respect to Dwarven title and rank, speaking glowingly about millennia of alliance, and in almost any situation involving the lesser people, the dwarves voice is the first heard. But for all that, there is a hollowness to it. For all the show of respect, the words of the dwarves carry no great weight, a fact that the dwarves either accept (as a sign of how in alignment the two peoples are) or resent.
The little folk of the south are barbarians, plain and simple. Some few of them trade with the elven nations, but the further it is from the bleaks, the more of a novelty they are (something that cunning little folk have used to their advantage – mysterious halfling magics can command a great price from the cullible). There was a time when the elves went to war upon the Bleaks, and they did not once lose a battle, but neither did they hold the land they took very effectively. The little folk were tenacious and decentralized, unwilling to commit their forces to battle. The elves determined that the harsh land of the Bleaks was hardly worth the trouble, and in a grand treaty, ceded it to the khan of the little folks. This was curious because there had not previously been a khan – rather, the Elves simply found a local ruler who was willing to take elvish aid and use it to fight his neighbors. Since then, there have been many khans, and the elves have a habit of backing winners in order to maintain the peace and keep the halflings fighting among themselves.
The elves still have a few holdings in the Bleaks – mines and other useful resources – and there are occasional conflicts, but nothing major. Cynics suggest that the main purpose for the elvish presence is to make sure there is always a worse job to threaten people with.
The Touched were a nation of humans who sought to rise up against the elves, turning to dark powers to do so, powers which twisted their bodies unnaturally. They failed, of course, and it is only by the infinite mercy of the elvish court that they still live today. Their nation has been erased from the histories, its lands given to loyal kings, and its people scattered to the wind. Tradition (and law, in many places) demand that they be covered at all times, that the marks of their abomination be hidden from the eyes of the world, and now that covering is one of the signatures of their people, usually very ornate and colorful, but also conveying rich information to those who know how to read it. Many people do not even know what they look like beneath their hoods and veils. They are not well regarded, and many unwelcome jobs of society fall to them, including waste handling and certain entertainments. By extension, they have a reputation for criminality (one which has become somewhat self-fulfilling) . But their reputation far exceeds the reality, as every Touched community knows that they are only a well placed accusation away from the drowning pits. Many Touched communities are nomadic, traveling as migrant labor or entertainers, in hopes that the ability to keep moving will keep them safe.
 Visually, I’m thinking of Mass Effect’s Quarians here.
This is a wonderfully evocative setting. Immortal quasi-omnipotent elves also dovetail well with something like D&D3 system for crafting magic items using XP. To an Elf, the investment of a few thousand XP is trivial.
I had similar concerns about having uber-Elves as PCs when I set a game in First Age Middle Earth. However, I soon came to realise that although Elves of that time are far more puissant that normal mortals, the human heroes of the Age do match up reasonably well – it’s just a case of resetting the baseline. Easier to do in some game systems than others of course.
How about a troupe style campaign, where every player has an Elf PC for Machiavellian schemes and the occasional world-shattering quest, and non-Elf “grogs” for the every day dirty work?
Ooo. This is fecund conceit, fecund enough to cause this lurker to de-lurk-ify. A few things occur to me immediately that make for epic conflicts. First, the shorter lived races are going to have, I think, gods that promise a freedom from bondage very high in their faiths. Cast in terms from another mythology, if the Elves fill the role of the Lunar Empire, the humans will have an Orlanth. I’m also thinking, if you want to oppose the Elves, or gain elvish level authority you have to play the long game. One way to play the long game? Necromancy. Liches unlive even longer than elves. But, classically in this kind of fantasy, not creatures that are known to cooperate. Maybe they do play together in this world, in open or in secret. Both game-able. Another way to play the long game against long lived creatures that also take a long time to reach full maturity and full power? You go after the young. Young elves would be the prime target of any violent opposition, above anything else. So now we have assassins infiltrating the great estates of the elves, hunting, pardon, children. The cure is worse than the disease. I think this world goes Glen Book, Black Company, in tone, very fast. Or maybe its just me.
Have you read the Jhereg series by S Brust?
Absolutely! And while I wasn’t looking to emulate it directly, the resonance is impossible to ignore. 🙂
Another twist: elves can end up taking over without an imperial organized effort to do so. Posit that some elves get involved in human politics; further, some end up running things. Successful rebels or mercenary captains, marrying in, adopted as heirs, whatever. But elves live forever (or a long time, anyway), and competent rulers tend to stay around until they die. Which the elves don’t. So one by one, human realms could end up with elvish nobles or queens, simply by a ratchet effect: once you go elvish you likely keep them. Neighbors who don’t like their own ruler might even voluntarily submit to an elf with 200+ years of successful rule.