Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Making Elves Different

Okay, I admit it. Reading Lord Dunsany changed my life. Exaggeration? Maybe a little. But the fact is, when a book changes the way you see things… when a book changes what you’re even capable of seeing… I’m sorry, that is something that is going to ultimately spill over into everything else about you.

The thing I like best about this is of course the new insights that apply to longstanding problems in gaming. On the fantasy side, we have elves being generically all tall and blonde and vaguely “gay”. In science fiction we have the “people in rubber suits” problem. I’ve heard so many complaints about this sort of thing over the years, but I’ve never heard anyone point out that Lord Dunsany had put this to bed before most of our favorite authors were even born.

Anyway, if you want to make elves in your game different on some fundamental level, here are a few things to look at:

  • Timelessness — Okay, you probably get that time doesn’t mean the same thing to people that are basically immortal. But most stories about elves have some sort of thematic element related to time. Do your elves even comprehend what time actually is? Can they stop time when they interact with people in the human world? Can elves entice mortal heroes into a place where they will be (in effect) transported ten, a hundred, or even a thousand years into the future?
  • Elusiveness — While you might set an elvish stronghold on your campaign map, that doesn’t mean player characters will be able to just go straight to it. And hey… maybe being an Elf Friend has its privileges in that regard. But somehow, some way… there should be a physical place strangely disconnected to the earth that only the elves know how to get to and from. Elfland, the Uttermost West, something…!
  • Immortality —  Tolkien explored at length what happens when mortal men attempt to achieve the kind of elvish immortality that has been denied them: bad stuff ensues! What happens when things go the other way? What if the elves desire to be more like mortals in some way… and then things go terribly wrong because of that?
  • Heaven — If elves don’t have souls, then what happens when they die? What does it even mean that there are no elves in heaven? I personally have not ever given much thought to this– and I’ve often been mystified by the fact that this turns up as some sort of rules artifact in various places. But really, both Tolkien and Lord Dunsany gave this sort of thing a great deal of attention. Have you even considered your game’s cosmology all that much…? What kind of deal would elves make with demons and so forth if they don’t even have a soul to offer them in exchange?
  • Half-Elves — The biggest takeaway from Tolkien and Dunsany here is that this is not just another fantasy race with it’s own perks and foibles. Rather… this is a rare thing that is necessarily going to have tremendous historical and mythical impact. In Tolkien you have the weird situation where Elrond chooses to be more like the elves while his twin brother chooses to become the first of the Númenóreans. In the King of Elfland’s Daughter, Orion has this strange connection to an entirely alien world– and he is the conduit through which magic spills over into an otherwise forgettable little kingdom. Do you think half-elves should have some sort of mind blowing destiny… or should they be more like some sort of weirdness magnet? Or something else entirely?!
  • Alignment — The original Law/Chaos alignment spectrum of Poul Anderson conflates aspects of “good vs. evil”, “mundane vs. magical”, and “human vs. elvish” into some sort of epic supernatural struggle. Dunsany seems to emphasize the themes of “familiar vs. alien” and “Christian vs. fantastic” even more. But in his handling, I see alignment being more of a separate stat signifying how elvish you are and how likely you are to encounter or even be aware of the fantastic. Children and princes would have low scores while peasants might have zero. Foxes will have more. Trolls and elves will have the maximum rating… but fantastic creatures that spend time in “the fields we know” might gradually lose points. However you play this… the trick is to stop thinking about alignment as being some sort of cheap Myers Briggs knock off and more about some sort of fantastic conflict between worlds that fundamentally reflects the nature of every creature’s being and which has real consequences that can impact the very fabric of reality in surprising ways.

Don’t let yourself be limited by watered down fantasy that has been filtered through a lazy combination of materialism and naturalism. Strike off into new territory by facing the demands of myth head on.

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3 responses to “Making Elves Different

  1. Lord Nerdhammer April 16, 2015 at 11:01 pm

    Wow. Substantive.

    What about the same analysis for demi humans… khobolds Orcs Hobgoblins bugbears.

    • Cirsova April 17, 2015 at 10:44 am

      In the three Dunsany books I’ve read, demi-humans were not present as they’re understood in fantasy today. When they were mentioned, they tended to be part of the amalgam of fey creatures; goblins, dryads, fairies, etc. were all a part of elf-dom in general. There were elder gods and cosmic horrors, though, many of whose descriptions Lovecraft copied wholesale; Azathoth is pretty much Mana Yood Sushai with some cosmetic changes, for instance.

      • jeffro April 17, 2015 at 10:50 am

        In Dunsany’s take on Elfland, trolls are not the regenerating monsters of Poul Anderson and D&D. They were mischievous agents of the Elf King that want to kidnap children, take them to Elfland, and have them replaced by a changeling.

        “Where are you going, child of men?” the troll asked.

        “To the houses,” the child replied.

        “We don’t want to go there,” said the troll.

        “N-no,” said the child.

        “Come to Elfland,” the troll said.

        The child thought for awhile. Other children had gone, and the elves always sent a changeling in their place, so that nobody quite missed them and nobody really knew. She thought awhile of the wonder and wildness of Elfland, and then of her own home.

        “N-no,” said the child.

        “Why not?” said the troll.

        “Mother made a jam roll this morning,” said the child. And she walked on gravely home. Had it not been for that chance jam roll she had gone to Elfland.

        “Jam!” said the troll contemptuously and thought of the tarns of Elfland, the great lily-leaves lying flat upon their solemn waters, the huge blue lilies towering into the elf-light above the green deep tarns: for jam this child had forsaken them!

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