About Those Elves

Today, I want to talk about elves.

When you sit down to make your own fantasy setting, whether for publication or just for your own game, the simple reality is that you stand under the twin shadows of Tolkien and D&D. They set an expectation for what a fantasy world looks like and, more importantly, they establish the baseline you will be judged against. Even if you had never read either, nor any of the bajillion books influenced by them, your fantasy setting would be described in terms of the way it’s _not_ Tolkien.

One of the classic decisions to make in a setting is how to handle race – not in the nuanced sense of modern conversation, but rather the seemingly simpler question of the inclusion of non-human races. There are a few ways to approach this, and there are good and bad angles to each approach.

The first is to just roll with it. You shrug your shoulders, accept that a fantasy setting has humans, elves, dwarves and maybe some kind of hobbit analog. Elves are long lives, magica, beautiful, blah blah blah. Dwarves dig holes, grow beards, drink and fight. Hobbits do…well, something other than just farm in pastoral-england-equivalent. Probably steal.

This can be done well, as illustrated by most published D&D settings. Just accepting it and moving on to more interesting things tends to work out pretty well, provided those other things are actually interesting. It’s also fairly hard to do this too badly, since there are clear guidelines to follow. You’d need to really take steps to make it worse.

The best such setting find ways to make the dwarves and elves interesting within the bounds of these ideas. Dragon Age, for example, has very standard-seeming dwarves, but enough thought has gone into their culture that they feel much more interesting than the standard. The worst settings tend to accentuate the stereotypes even further, though thankfully, it is rare to see that in a finished product.

The next option is to yank them out. There are two approaches to this – the first is to simply embrace a human-only fantasy setting. This is a powerful, workable idea, but I’m not going to dwell on it much because that’s a hole other kettle of fish. The other approach is to remove one race or another.

Skyrim does this very well – the setting very clearly had dwarves(effectively) at one point, but they all vanished at some point in the past. Adds a mystery to the setting, provides an excuse for interesting ruins, but removes the need of dealing with them in play.

The famous bad example is from a brilliant game called Talislanta, which famously advertised “NO ELVES” as a means of setting itself apart from D&D. And it was true, as far as it went. Tal actually had dozens and dozens of races, many with fascinatingly fleshed out cultures. But if you looked at the art, there sure were a lot of slim, graceful, pointy-eared races as part of the mix. It looks and feels like they got rid of the word elves to prove a point more than to serve a purpose.

Supplemental to this is the possibility of inserting your own. I feel really torn on this because on one hand I’m always a fan of celebrating creativity and encouraging people to do new and interesting things, but in practice, it follows certain predictable patterns.

Most such races are ones that are cool to some specific segment of the readership. There’s always someone who wants to play a cat-man or a minotaur or whatever, and it’s usually pretty clear when such an inclusion is the author’s race of choice. That’s not intrinsically bad, but when the author thinks the race is awesome, he’s less likely to actually make the case for why the race is awesome to anyone else.

The real rub is that introducing a new race takes work. Elves and Dwarves have decades of assumptions and imagery to build on and your new race does not. If you give them equal time, you give the new race short shrift, but if you give the new race more space, you’re showing favoritism. It’s hard to balance.

Games that have done it well have gone full bore from the ground up. Earthdawn used the hell out of its art assets to make sure the T’skrang were as strongly present in the images of the game as any other race, and it paid off (at least for me, since they’re one of the few non-core races from a game I can remember off the top of my head).

Games that have dropped the ball are legion, and mostly forgettable.

The last and often most interesting approach is to put your own spin on it. Let the races remain recognizable, but change them enough. I turn back to Dragon Age for a great example of this – it’s elves were very clearly once “classic” elves, but they’ve fallen from that and are now under the boot of history. Sovereign Stone did something more drastic, but interesting, and overlayed the races with a _different_ stereotypical model, so you had Samurai elves and Mongol Horsemen Dwarves and so on. It had problems, but the underlying idea was interesting enough to keep in mind.

Terrible examples of this include kender. Worse examples of this include reskinning kender.[1]

Now, the point of calling out these different approaches is not to say one of them is best, but rather to simply suggest that when you sit down to make your fantasy opus, this is something to consciously think about. Don’t make a decision by default or out of a knee-jerk reaction. Know what you want, and make the choice that serves that.

[back] 1 – Ok, why the kender hate? Because they’re terrible. They are designed to enable the worse sort of screw-the-other-players play while allowing the all purpose what-my-character-would-do-defense. They are an idea that barely work in fiction, where there are checks on their behavior and on response, but which utterly fail in a real social context.

13 thoughts on “About Those Elves

  1. Nick

    As I recall, Monte Cook’s Arcana and Arcana Evolved also did a good job providing races that were original or interesting without leaning on elves, dwarves etc.

  2. Paul Weimer

    Dragon Age, for example, has very standard-seeming dwarves, but enough thought has gone into their culture that they feel much more interesting than the standard.

    I thought that the caste-mad Dwarves were significantly different that I lumped them with the Dalish and the Elves as being nicely reinterpreted.

  3. Rob Donoghue

    That raises a good point – the line between a creative interpretation and a full on twist can be a fine and fuzzy one. For DA, I view it as interpretation because if you don’t know the cultural details, dwarves still look like dwarves (Short, grumpy, armored and be-axed). In contrast, if you don’t know the details and you see the elves, then it’s likely you’ll ask “Why are they living in slums?”

    But it’s a fuzzy line, and no harm in it being so.

  4. Jeremy Morgan

    Enjoyed this post thoroughly, and thought I’d add a bit more on the way Skyrim does things.

    My brothers and I have come to an interesting conclusion in regards to the dwarves in Skyrim (or the Dwemer, if we want to be proper). As we see it, there are no dwarves, really. The Dwemer are just another elven race, like the Altmer, Dunmer, etc. It might be better to avoid the elven terminology and call them something more like demihuman or elder race.

    Not sure why I felt the need to share that, just found it interesting in context of what you’ve said here, Rob.

  5. 3Jane

    (As a side note, Jeremy, if you look to the source, dwarves *were* just another elven race: ljósálfar, “light elves” vs. dökkálfar/svartálfar, “dark elves”/dwarves.)

  6. Cam_Banks

    I wonder if you ever read anything I ever wrote about kender (or other races). I frequently went into such assignments with a problem (often perception of past use of a race) and a mind toward a solution.

    “Fixing” races and expanding them to be more than cookie cutter templates in RPGs is one of my things.

    You should have heard me swearing about tinker gnomes back in the day, before I was made to write about them.

  7. captainindigo

    Arcanis from Paradigm Concepts is another that some cool twists on the classic races. Dwarves were once giants and have been cursed by the gods, Elves are elemental beings of magic, etc. Makes it stand out as much more than another D&D clone.

  8. Rob Donoghue

    @Cam I’m pretty sure I haven’t. The reality is that I’m so scarred from experience at the table that well written books are no defense. 🙂

    Though that’s part of the rub – if the work of “fixing” isn’t done at the beginning, then you get diminishing returns on trying to do it later.

  9. Reverance Pavane

    [Nostalgia alert]: There was a period of time where The Lord of the Rings was not readily available outside libraries Australia (it was available in the US because the US edition was actually a copyright violation). This is my excuse for why we had never encountered LotR before we started playing D&D, which led to an interesting dynamic. For example orcs essentially became the barbarians that lived outside of civilisation (the law) and were employed as warriors by those who either couldn’t afford better soldiers or who didn’t care because they treated all feats of arms with disdain (such as myself). On the other hand, we had source material for elves and dwarves. Elves were taken from the Aes Sidhe and Daoine Sidhe of Irish myth, including bronze armaments, mounds, and faerie rades. Dwarves were the solitary craftsmen and magicians of Norse lore, although with a greater Germanic influence. So essentially we were going to pre-Tolkien sources.

    About a year later one of the new players mentioned LotR [“Oh. You mean like Lord of the Rings?” “Lord of the Rings?”] and it was subsequently borrowed from a library and devoured (and later that year it started to assume it’s permanent presence in bookstores).
    But we’d had a year of playing the game and we liked what we had done. In particular I grew rather attached to my orcs. Particularly since most of my player’s interactions were with the orc troops I’d employed (it was a shared world with about 7 gamemasters and 20 or so players; the gamemasters had their original characters who were the literal dungeonmasters in the world). They had to develop personality (in this case “born to hustle” and “good to have on your side in a fight”) and so was born the fun fair and Gobbledoks Vegetarian Restaurant(a troll-run establishment that boasted “We Serve Elves Too”). The character of the orcs had been set, and remained that way through every subsequent campaign I’ve run.

    The role of Elves and Dwarves (and Goblins and Dragons) were developed in play from this basis too. In fact the Aes and Daoine Sidhe were later shown to be exactly the same creatures who took an alignment stance based on who they were talking to at the time, and then later ceased to be what people thought they were entirely. [http://reverancepavane.livejournal.com/tag/rpg%20nostalgia has details if anyone is interested … or bored.]

    The result was different from Tolkien although we drew on the same sources. Because the character of the races had been developed in play they fitted the world. And the fact that they were different from either the D&D paradigm or Tolkien granted freedom to new players (it helped that a new player wasn’t generally allowed to play a non-human because they were “non-human” and therefore alien and strange, not just humans with pointy ears and immunity to sleep spells).

  10. Reverance Pavane

    I also find the evolution of dwarves, elves, and trolls in Runequest to be interesting as Greg refined his ideas of what Glorantha was. In the early publications (1st & 2nd Edition, Foes, Runelords) they were shown as being rather firmly based in both Tolkien and Beowulf.

    Now the Mostali, Aldryami, and Uz are totally different creatures, not just culturally and mythologically, but also physically. And an important part of this was in the renaming of them. [Although less so in the case of Trolls/Uz because they don’t have a preconceived cultural game legacy to live down.]

  11. Emerson Harris

    One thought when introducing a new race? Hang your hat on a simple concept. Beast races are often favored, but you can work it another way. Take, for example, the genasi from Forgotten Realms or the warforged from Eberron (both D&D settings for the three of you who don’t know). New races, old motifs. Fire people and water people? Got it. I can figure out how that works and bring all my assumptions about elementals and the elements with me. Robots made of wood? Check. No more need be said. When introducing your own race, if you can sum it up in three words and really sell it, I think you’ll be fine.

  12. Helmsman

    A friend of mine once asked me how RPG’s can pull from Tolkeins work in their racial templates and not get called out for it, but if anyone started sampling from Gene Roddenberry’s work and wrote a sci-fi setting that included Vulcans, Klingons and Romulans as stock races, people would cry foul.

    Personally, I think the reason why these races are constantly re-used is purely about escapism. Elves oven appeal to non-athletic heavyset geeks, and Dwarves appeal to the skinny waifs among us who might wish for more physical power. That’s not a hard and fast rule, but I think it explains the prolific nature of these races across many games.

    Orcs and Golblins on the other hand are humanoid enough to be familiar, but have enough of an “other” quality that killing them doesn’t really feel like murder with all the related moral quandaries.

    That’s the crux, the races exist to service a particular narrative need of the game. Elves appeal to a certain kind of player, as do dwarves. The specific advantages and disadvantages associated with each race are meant to balance each other out. You get frail and graceful or tough and slow. Even if you took pointed ears and beards out of it, the nature of these advantage/disadvantage pairs would make the races pretty similar to what Tolkein wrote up originally.

    The only game I know of that totally circumvented these tropes was Exalted and they did so by throwing the need for racial balancing out the window and then skeet shooting it as it fell. Exalted did this so effectively that any attempts to add in these races became mechanically irrelevant. (Though the mechanics and the narrative option to do so were still very much there.) This instead opened up the game to organically develop very interesting races like the Djala.

    I think in there we can see a lesson. If designers don’t want racial templates that are easily identifiable as elves and dwarves then they need look beyond racial traits that are basically templates for playstyle. (Finess vs Endurance etc…) and consider a more darwinian approach of how a given race might have carved out a niche for it’s self outside of the Player Character adventuring context.


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