Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Elves Part 2: The Elfs of Underworld

Following up on previous posts about the lore of races in Underworld, here's everything I know about elfs in my setting so far. I already vomited out my thought process on elves in my last post, so below is the stuff I've actually settled on. 

The bad thing about spending so much text describing your influences is that you kind of blow your load on a lot of the neat ideas. I'll try not to re-cover too much of the same ground, but you'll definitely see a lot of the qualities discussed in that last article finding their way into my elfs quite pervasively. You may even need to just assume some of the discussed ideas hold true of my elfs, through inference. But below, I'm gunna focus on the more novel stuff. I'll start with traits universal to all elfs before getting into subraces. And yes, I am, actually, going to roughly retain the traditional D&D trichotomy of elves: High, Dark, and Wood. It helps maintain basic player expectations for what they can play, even if they aren't well-versed in the setting-specific details yet.

  1. Just like every other non-human in my setting, elfs come from the Underworld. Combine the Celtic "live under hills" with the Alice "down the rabbit hole" thing. Of course, because I've fleshed out the Underdark to be about 90% of the world's content rather than just one among many Ranger favored terrain types, I also had to figure out what the geography of the Underworld is like. It's not just limestone caves, you know. Part of what helped is blurring the line between "biome" and "supernatural plane" (e.g. "Hellscape" is a terrain type in the Underworld). Which brings us to the elf-relevant ones.
    1. The Mist Lands describe any range of Underworld realms that follow your standard "fairy dreamscape" patterns and are inhabited by most fey. Of course, unlike the lands inhabited by dwarrow or hobs, the Mist Lands are more like "pocket dimensions" that don't strictly fit into the world around them according to normal physics. Hence, why you usually see their borders obscured by mist. Throughout the Mist Lands you'll run into strange weather patterns like mirages, time fluctuations, and sentient flower blooms. Two of the sub-terrains include Mushroom Forests (an Underdark classic, of course) and Bog Ground (because the Underdark needs more wetland representation and you need an environment to meet Banshees). But the third is the Wonderland, which is the closest thing fey get to "civilization" (although it's still experienced by humans as functionally another wilderness terrain type). This is that sort of area where the grass grows in checkerboard patterns and MC Escher stairs surround you and common objects stand in for other common objects in weird, dreamlike ways (artist credit below: Vladimir Kush).

    2. The Shade Lands are the evil version, duh. I never liked the Shadowfell, but if I'm putting regular elfs underground then I need somewhere special for drow to live. So the undead dimension is now being reflavored and mixed in with evil fey as the spooky place that exists as an ugly, dark reflection of all the parts of our imaginations that get celebrated in the Mist Lands. Weather might include nightmare apparitions, whispered blasphemies on the wind, a blight degrading your health and fresh supplies, that kind of thing. One of the sub-terrains is the Boneyard, which is like Dark Souls at best and a Zdzisław Beksiński painting at worst. Another is the Vale of Shadow, which is your spooky, otherworldly dark forest that you probably unknowingly entered just by getting lost in the regular woods on the Overworld. I try to draw from Twin Peaks to get it right. Sometimes it also edges on wetland, with bog iron walls that, on close inspection, are actually small, rusting hands outstretched. Of course, this is just the outskirts of Nightmare, where the dread energies of undeath really fester. If the Vale of Shadow is the woods from Twin Peaks then Nightmare is the Black Lodge. Or, like, a Francis Bacon painting. Temperature is unnaturally cold and makes you feel like you have a fever. The walls and passages are cast in stark light and shadow without explanation for the borders. You get a growing sense of despair and unease if you spend too long there. All nonmagical drinks might turn into wine. If you stare into your reflection in the water, you feel compelled to fall in. When you reappear, you'll be temporarily deafened for some reason.

      Vale of Shadow


    3. Anywhere that exceptionally powerful fey meet in either of these two terrains, a lot around them changes to become more like a stage play. Curtains appear behind them and occasionally in front (when dramatically necessary). Spotlights appear. Music plays. Anything in the environment they interact with is like a low-production, minimalist prop, two-dimensional and on stands. Maybe there are stagehands dressed in black that are subtly moving stuff around. People's motions seem choreographed as though there's an "audience" in the opposite direction of the curtain. It's weird.
  2. Wood elfs live in the wilderness of the Overworld because they kinda reject elf society, but their innate connection to magic remains even if they don't live in Wonderland or Nightmare. After all, forests and other wild areas are the borderland between the Overworld and the Underworld, and comprise the main battlefield that the forces of good and evil find themselves contesting. Psychologically, a "wood elf" could, thus, just as easily be called a "battlefield elf": the kind of society that gets subsumed by the chaos and violence of war and destruction and learns how to live and breathe it naturally. Imagine an Apocalypse Now scenario happening to an entire culture.
  3. Elfs have a really complicated relationship to mortalkind. Many of them hate it. Maybe they want to be left alone, or maybe they want to outright destroy them. But some want to interfere and affect it. Where the influence of the fey bleeds into the world of mortals, you get those weird mystical thresholds like magic ponds, rabbit holes, crossroads, twilight shadows, etc. and, especially, you find...
  4. Gardens. They're essential to understanding fey. They perfectly embody the oxymoron of "artificial/tamed nature." And, of course, they feature grand prominence in Victorian culture. Even if you live deep in a human city, you can still be visited by a fairy who finds its way into man's world through the magic of the sacred garden. Whole swathes of Wonderland and Nightmare are really just miles and miles of enchanted walking gardens, too. When I design elf-themed dungeons, I typically plunder that sort of architecture for inspiration.
  5. Quirky stuff: elfs are always left handed. They often experience gynandromorphism. They might grow fun weird features depending on their clan of origin (insect parts, flower parts, animal parts like antlers, a snake's tongue, etc.). These qualities all accumulate as they age, so "young" elfs seem closer to humans (easier to be used as PCs) but older elfs have a lot of weird traits like horns and wings and fire hair (easier for NPCs). They never seem to make eye contact, except when they are specifically seeking to impress upon you or even enchant you. They always whisper when they're talking one-on-one, which often gives the impression they're sharing something sensitive, building intrigue and trust or suspicion... even though it's just a thing they do. Think of Littlefinger from Game of Thrones, but even more inscrutable. They're nearly always found wearing some kind of headwear. They're very indulgent in any form of idle entertainment. They're seemingly all skilled in a magician's sleight of hand. Dancing is another seemingly innate skill, and a crucially rich tradition in all elf cultures.
  6. The classic: high elfs make stuff out of mithril, dark elfs make stuff out of adamantium, and wood elfs make stuff out of bronze. All of them are weak to Cold Iron, which I'm defining as "unrefined, unprocessed, raw iron."
  7. Let's talk about that immortality. Yes, true immortality, not just longevity. It starts with a list of some ways people have thought of that you can make elfs seem old. I'm gunna be stealing from this post a lot, paraphrasing ideas from the comments that I like (so all credit to those people). Elfs can't befriend mortals easily because they die so quickly, but they might be inclined to befriend generations of mortals (the way you might keep several generations of dog). Elf Lord: "Steward, remind me: how long do these humans live again?" Steward: "Just under a century, your grace, if memory serves." Elf Lord: *turns to the human* "So are you a 'descendent' of the fellow I spoke to last time or...?"
  8. They plan ridiculously far in advance, meaning that elfs are constantly pulling out elaborate contingencies for everything. They take their time preparing for things like war. "Why go to war now when the harvests are looking good, your warriors can spend those years training and [reveling] and upgrading their gear, and you can earn yourself a bunch of gold to pay them with? Ten years and we'll be much better prepared." They also might underestimate the speed at which human politics works: you assume you have a decade to prepare for their retribution after you screwed them over, but they might be on your doorstop with an army as early as next summer.
  9. They don't sweat the little things, including stuff that mortals would consider "once in a lifetime." They have extremely low fertility rates, so most adult elfs only run into children once ever few decades. Thus, they rarely find themselves dealing with the personality type that doesn't have much much life experience yet (the kind that old people dismiss as just not "getting it" yet). It also means they don't have many young people around to challenge them, reinforcing the conservativism.
  10. But here's something different and unique about my elfs: despite being immortal, their memories rarely go back more than a centuryOnce again stealing from creative people online, elf memories have similar patterns to humans: there are semi-regular chokepoints in their lifespan when lots of memories get dumped all at once. Let's say you're 20 years old. The reason you don't remember stuff from when you were 4 years old now as well as you did when you were 7 isn't just because it's been 16 years instead of a mere 3. Right now, your memories of being 17 years old (3 years ago) are not going to deteriorate that much by the time you reach 36. Your brain actually dumped a lot of its memories around the time you were 11 years old. For humans, there are "benchmark ages" that these dumps tend to happen, including 2-4, 11, and around 60 (but possibly as early as 40). It's entirely possible that, if we lived long enough, we'd encounter another benchmark age of massive memory loss. Who's to say you wouldn't get the exact same thing at around 120? It's been speculated. So for elfs, they routinely lose a lot of memories every 100 to 150 years or so. An elf may be 800 years old, but if you asked them about something that happened 300 years ago, it would be like someone asking you about a thing that happened when you were 5 or 6. It's gunna be fuzzy at best.
  11. One way to combat this used by elf wizards is a magical process of extracting and storing memories, to be revisited later (you know, like Dumbledore). A memory bank is an awesome piece of lore treasure to find at the end of a dungeon. Problem is, even if elfs are intrinsically magical creatures, the discipline of spellcasting remains rare and difficult, so most elfs can't rely on this. Instead, they need to rely on strict traditionalism as a civic virtue.
    1. To elaborate on the psychology of memory, the main way that brains form memories is by building and reinforcing associations between ideas. That simple process covers your semantic memories, procedural memories, etc. But day-to-day episodic memories get connected with stronger or weaker associations and then prioritized in a way that constructs a larger-scale "memory of identity" you have of yourself and the world around you. Who you thought of yourself as when you were a teenager was a mental idea built from a lot of key memories, and largely defined by how you saw yourself in relation to other people and forces in your life around you. Change your social situation enough and you start not only having a different self-conception, but your brain also starts operating on a different set of more relevant "key memories" contributing to that self-conception. When people mentally split their lives into "chapters" like this, their working memory usually covers any stretch of the past that they still think is "relevant" to who they currently are. You create these cohesive narratives that sort out the jumble of memories, and hold onto the ones most valuable to you. And memories of identity are just associations: "Right now, I know that I'm my parent's child and they're smothering me, I'm a minor without agency, I'm my friend circle's clown, my English teacher's favorite student, my shop teacher's least favorite student, the new guy at my job, the old guy at my summer camp I volunteer at, a millennial who keeps getting criticized when I volunteer at the old folk's home, etc."
    2. Well, we do this on a societal scale as well. Shared communal traditions serve as cultural narratives that shape our conceptions of who we are as a society. A lot of people believe that this is the core ingredient to conservative psychology, and it affects everyone. Of course, we witness a constant culture war between those who conservatively value some old narrative of society and those who progressively challenge it, with personal comfort being a major factor in deciding how people engage in that debate. But even aside from that, we also empirically know that people do overwhelmingly tend to get more conservative as they age. Even if they don't adopt values we place in conservatism (e.g. views on race, gender, sex, religion, economics, etc.), they trend towards the mindset of conservatism. They grow uncomfortable with things that challenge their long-held narratives and sense of self. They lionize the past, but a version of it that contains only the memories they liked and have been reinforcing over the years. It's not merely that today's old people are conservative because they came from a conservative time: even people who are very progressive in their youths and went against the grain are still frequently susceptible to falling into this pattern.
    3. So how does this affect elfs? Well, like old people, they become fucking terrified of losing their memories. Because memories aren't just valuable for their own sake. They're also the ingredients of your identity. The story you tell with which memories matter most to you and how you interpret them will determine the world you live in, and will keep alive your shared memory of the past. Maintaining social order helps to ground elfs, which is especially necessary in a world where humans and dwarrow and gnomes are constantly pushing forward and changing so much and seeking to re-define everything about life as we know it. Re-telling the same stories, re-living the same rituals, and even reenacting important historical events all tangibly contribute towards combatting an elf's natural memory loss. And when you live for centuries, this helps your brain know which memories you shouldn't bother to keep (which will be the vast majority), because the memory of "every time I interacted with a dwarf and they had good manners" goes against the narrative. This is all reinforced by that thing I mentioned about there not being many young elfs to challenge the narrative. Elfs live stuck in time because they're scared of moving forward.
    4. Remember how the central question of Planescape: Torment is, "what can change the nature of a man?" Well, I could totally see an evil elf wizard slowly turning into a good guy over a thousand years just by losing his memories of those early days. And if the social and cultural associations that built his identity of "evil villain" withered away and changed (such as by losing his loyal minions and getting all the revenge he wanted and running out of local victims to oppress), then nothing will maintain the villainy. If those old associations leave, a new identity will be inevitably constructed out of his changing environment. This might lead to some weird stuff where the human PCs read ancient stories of the great, wicked archmage who, in their experience, is a really kind and generous patron. They want to resent him for his past crimes and try calling him out... but he's just not the same person in any meaningful sense.
    5. When the day comes that I make a playable elf race for Brave, I'm considering recreating the immortality thing by not giving them a level cap. You can just keep playing one and leveling up forever. But you have to keep track of what benefits you gain at every level, because once you hit level 11, you have to erase some of what you got at level 1. Then at level 12, you erase what you got at level 2, and so on. Many levels may be spent trying to maintain the same benefits you would be losing, so you can keep your character the same over the years. Or you could use it as a chance to completely re-build your character, slowly over time.
  12. I throw stuff around like "they live in Nightmare" or they're the "creatures of dreams" and I want to explain that. Elfs predate humans or even dwarrow or most other races. They're among the earliest of peoples, before mortality was a thing. So it would be weird to frame them by their relationship to humans, like that "they're the ones who spin our dreams" or anything. To an elf, the pure, undiluted power of imagination is just their normal. But a popular myth goes that, early in her history, humanity struck a deal with the elfin gods to visit their kingdoms whenever they sleep. Whether they end up in the good place or the bad place isn't certain, but human dreams are just the soul visiting fey kingdoms. Artists are the type of person who can subconsciously tap into that connection and open the door even in the waking hours.
  13. People love categorizing elfs (both humans in-universe and real human players), but the schema is messy and usually not easily organized to an outsider. Throw it onto the pile of "ways that elfs confuse humans."
    1. There have always been "light elfs" and "dark elfs," which broadly correspond to "good dreams" or "bad dreams." This isn't necessarily "good or evil," it's just a question of what kinds of emotions they're geared to invoke with their dream nature. Happiness, pleasure, wonder, serenity, thrill? Or fear, anxiety, depression, anger, regret? These can be used for good or evil. Some of the most evil elf lords are "light elfs" who entrance mortals into endless pleasures, into lotus eaters. Some of the most merciful good elfs are those who paint with sadness to build peace, whether on a personal inner level or between societies themselves. Most elfs are strongly inclined towards light by default, but they can slowly transform into dark elfs if they have their hearts warped and twisted black, or conflict subsumes them into hatred and xenophobia, or they're driven mad in the most harrowing parts of the Underworld. 
    2. This is distinct from the categories of "Seelie" versus "Unseelie," an old Elfish word meaning "blessed." This is a little closer to "good or evil," but is more like "likes or dislikes humanity/the Gods of Heaven." Once again, many light elfs on both sides, and even some dark elfs on the Seelie side. The Gods of Heaven named which peoples of the world are blessed with their Grace, and elfs are among them. See, unlike vanilla D&D, it's the evil gods who created most beings and the good gods who are trying to tempt them into the light. That's why good dwarrow broke off from the duergar and moved closer to the surface world. Meek humans were the first and immediately had a mass exodus from the Underworld, making them the favored peoples of Heaven (because the Gods enjoy underdogs and those who hold faith unconditionally). Elfs are more divided on the matter than most.
    3. Tying it back to the immortality and traditionalism dynamics, Unseelie Fey are those who are just sickened by the new perversion of the natural order, and are especially indignant about the foolish humans and their rise to power. Humans and the creatures of Heaven's Grace should be eradicated and past glory should be reclaimed. Meanwhile, Seelie Fey see the transition of power from the old peoples to the young ones as something that should be accepted. Humans will inherit the world and that is the way of things. Unseelie fey think that mortalkind are against the natural order and should be purged, while Seelie Fey recognize that mortals will never enjoy the same harmony with nature that elfs have, but they should at least respect it. They'll inevitably live in their stone houses in their stone cities with their stone walls and have their clunky, artificial fields of crops. But as long as they aren't actively destroying and perverting nature, this isn't a problem. However, Seelie elfs still recognize the fallibility of humanity. They have tyrants and those who would rape the earth and the natural world, and so elfs have a responsibility to intervene and guide humanity rightly. Not always to be good, but to be worthy of their inheritance and to take care of the world. This is part of why fey are so sneaky and manipulative and have hidden motives: because they are directly interested in the affairs of mortals.
      Credit: Jackub Rozalski
    4. So Seelie Fey play tricks and punishments on bad humans and reward good humans, while Unseelie Fey punish all of them. Humans, who generally can't tell the difference, get mixed signals. But consider how much worse it is that bad people often occupy positions of great power and privilege and enjoy positive reputations. Some of the most beloved public figures are actually monsters. So if the fey do something awful to a beloved tyrant, most people are more inclined to believe the fey are malicious than to realize justice has been done. Oh, and of course, fey can't all agree on what's best for their shared priorities. Many Seelie Fey want to help the biggest human kingdoms be prosperous, but some are disgusted by the patriarchal attitudes built into feudalism and chivalry and will target knights and princes just for the crime of occupying their station. So humans usually just think of fey as being completely unpredictable and generally untrustworthy.
  14. So the three elf races broadly correspond to Seelie+Light ("High Elfs"), Unseelie+Dark ("Drow"), and Wildcard ("Woodwose"). Any other permutation is possible, but these combinations are predominant because of historical reasons. Drow civilization has been around and developing for thousands of years, and the High Elf civilization has been a distinct society for quite a while, too. But plenty of elf characters might not fit cleanly within one subrace. They're more like ingrained cultural traditions, resulting in "the classic D&D dark elf" referring more to a specific cultural heritage more than an entire species.
    1. Examples of exceptions: Bertilak the Green Knight strikes me as a powerful high elf adventurer who has lived and fought among wood elfs and has carved out a unique role among the fey. Plenty of evil elfs exist who aren't necessarily Drow, like La Belle Dame Sans Merci, who belongs to the Autumn Court of Seelie Fey. The Fairy-Feller is another good example of a free agent, the master woodsman of elf-kind (the way dwarrow would likely have an esteemed master smith). Lord Huron is a powerful elf prince who commands spirits and undead for unknown purposes, sometimes good and sometimes evil. Many believe the Wild Hunt to be a bunch of rowdy elfs. Jareth the Goblin King spins mostly positive dreams for purposes that are difficult to understand as motivated by good or evil. The Queen of Hearts is the only leader of an Unseelie kingdom who's a light elf.
      Credit: Chechula Čupová

      Credit: William O'Connor

      Credit: me. My own attempt at
      illustrating the poem. I'm gunna
      take another swing at it some day.
  15. Add in the fact that "fey" does refer to more than just elfs. Forest gnomes, pixies, leprechauns, and the like are generally Seelie and goblins, hags and trolls, and nightmare creatures are generally Unseelie. For the purposes of making a really fleshed-out, dynamic sandbox campaign, I've made tons of sub-groups (basically "countries") of each of the three common types and even the uncommon permutations to serve as factions. All have their own unique quirks and traditions and history and values and allies and enemies. The Seelie Fey has four major kingdoms, one for each season. Likewise, the Unseelie Fey have four major kingdoms, one for each suit of cards. Woodwose have their own unorganized chaos of shifting barbarian tribes. Expect tribes not just in the woods, but in swamps and mountains and rivers. The Love Club is a semi-secret society/eternal party comprising some of the lords and ladies from the Autumn and Winter Fey, while the Summer and Spring Fey have a radical subset of members (along with some Woodwose) who formed the "Cult of Nuada" (a religion that believes the Dead God is no longer dead and has been reborn). If things come across as overwhelming to human players, that's okay. Most adventurers who get involved in these politics usually do so without knowing what they're really getting into, more tempted by the promise of powerful allies and relationships than the purer motivations of someone who wants to pick the right side to back.
  16. One last thing about the psychology of elfs, which is also confusing to humans: the importance of respect and pride. Obviously, humans have their fair share of honor cultures and can construct complicated and obtuse social norms. But the way elfs regard these ideas is a bit unintuitive even by human standards. There is a natural hierarchy among all fey that all fey respect. Goblins will be a bunch of deranged and ballistic menaces until the moment a hag enters the room, when they suddenly straighten up and prepare to take orders. Anyone who disrespects the hierarchy (typically humans) is disdained and rebuked. But that doesn't mean they're wholly opposed to anyone challenging the hierarchy. You just have to play the game. Getting one over someone of greater prestige or authority than yourself by using cunning is the finest way to earn respect among fey. Even your victim will accept your victory over them. Your rival is planning to double the size of their kingdom by marrying off their son to a mermaid princess? You decide to cast a spell causing the son to fall hopelessly in love with a goblin jester, and frame the mermaid's brother for it. If you manage to start a war over this nonsense, you'll have thwarted your rival well enough that you may have earned a slice of their kingdom for yourself. Elfs are indeed Chaotic, but there's a Lawful rhythm and rhyme to it.
  17. Let's go over religion a bit. Don't worry, it's fairly simple. The "gods" of fey religion are just the oldest and most powerful of all the immortal elf lords and ladies. So to elfs, theological conflicts are just their politics. Clerics being granted spells by their god? Literally just a feudal exchange of power and resources between a king and their vassals, or a baron and his knights. When is a "holy war" or "church schism" based on genuine principles and religious convictions and when are they based on realpolitik self-interests? It's both every time, because elf nobility are both incredibly ambitious and scheming as well as driven by specific drives and ideas they seek to embody. A victory for the Elfin Count of Lust is both a geopolitical gain for his court and a philosophical triumph in the battle for worldwide horniness.
  18. So do elfs practice religion in any sense? Well, sure. They focus a lot on votive offerings like burying sacred objects or throwing them in sacred bodies of water. But this isn't done out of a blind faith so much as, as mentioned before, respect. See, a human would think this is basically animism, but animism is the mere belief that all things have spirits. It's a way to interpret natural phenomena and assign cause to things. But elfs and other fey know when there's a tree spirit or a river spirit or a hearth spirit and pay homage for practical reasons. They're just doing business with their neighbors and landlords and whatnot. Prayer to your god? Direct communication to your boss.
  19. Worship sites are called “Nemetons,” which are shrines or temples centered around sacred trees or groves, usually built from massive standing stones called “Menhirs.” What might be thought of as religious vocations include: druids (shamans), bards (storytellers), and vates (oracles). But again, they're a little more like civil servants trying to facilitate the social order. That said, some of the more prominent fey "gods" are absolutely worshipped as gods by certain humans and other non-fey, in the more traditional sense. These include the Satyr (god of wine, fertility, instinct, and knaves), the Green God (lord of the hunt, music, nature, and crafts), and Una (goddess of art, beauty, love, and poetry).
Alright, now onto the common subraces. Except that'll have to come in another post because this one ran way longer than I expected.

Maybe I'm bad at writing.


No comments:

Post a Comment