Friday, January 22, 2021

Elves Part 3: Elf Subraces

Artist credit: Steve Prescott
I didn't expect to write even one of these articles, let alone 3. Well, you can't have elves without elf-types, so here are my versions of the three classic elf subraces (High, Dark, Wood) for Underworld. Please see the last post of this series here. I'm basically writing down every solid idea I've had so far, but the more I write, the more I feel like this trichotomy will inevitably be deconstructed. I began charting factions and races in my setting and started expanding the list exponentially, so each region of the world would have a good variety of unique societies. And so... just one type of High Elf, Dark Elf, and Wood Elf stopped being sufficient. I'll instead likely create a matrix of two axes: light to dark (with a neutral zone in the middle) and Seelie to Unseelie (with a neutral zone in the middle), creating 9 basic types of elf. Except that, obviously, there are more elf societies than that. Hoo boy, I've really gone down the worldbuilding rabbit hole. But in any case, I can right now offer up "the classic three," good for most elf purposes.

High Elfs

Or, I dunno, Eladrin or "Sun Elves" or whatever name you want them to have

  1. I always picture High Elfs as some seriously Baroque, Elizabethan, ruff-wearing dandies rather than the Peter Jackson/Elder Scrolls robed, leaf-armored, Elrond-type. I throw around the Shakespeare stuff an awful lot but that's genuinely what fits most for High Elfs in my mind. Which does mean roguish little goatees are acceptable. Most of the humans of the Overworld are not technologically/aesthetically past the 13th or 14th century, so the dream-like elfs of the Underworld are like an advanced, enlightened civilization. This also means that the primary source of learning rapier fencing is from fairies.
  2. I often picture them with vaguely metallic skin, like gold or silver or copper or bronze (or even mithril!). If they have to be white, then they should be literally porcelain, marble, or alabaster. Their hair should also be gold or silver or white or pink or something "fairy-like."
  3. When it comes to the longevity thing, High Elfs should be noted as the primary group of elfs who chose "progress" in the old dilemma of "progress vs. preservation," since it was they who embraced Heaven and the rise of humans. So while they still have a culture of strict traditionalism and hierarchy and other conservative traits, they also have a huge pressure among themselves to achieve and be perfect, as it's become part of the communal narrative of "what elfs are meant to do with their immortality" in contrast to the mortal races. "Achievement" may indeed mean learning magic or innovating some craft, but it also may mean progress in the war against the Unseelie Fey. But what's valuable to note is that there is no High Elf lower class. There are no serfs or peasants.
  4. Instead of your traditional D&D druid, the primary divine caster among High Elfs is a type of cleric called a Sibyl. A Sibyl is a type of traditionally-feminine oracle who are usually attached to a specific location. The first Sibyl also wrote 12 tomes called the Sibylline Books that contain prophecies and prescribe solutions to every possible anticipated conflict plaguing the High Elf people. Each of the four Seelie elf kingdoms own 3 of them, distributed among their kind as would be safest. They're guarded by a specialized order of priests and are a matter of great political importance.
  5. High Elfs will take changelings either temporarily, to enchant a key human with magic blessings, or to plant one of their own among humans as a double agent. This has nothing to do with goblins taking changelings, which is partly to torment humans and partly to acquire new goblins (the transformation process taking 13 hours, giving humans a window to quest for their baby back). Once again, this just confuses humans about the fey.
  6. I talked a bit about the origin of elfs and their role in history. So there's been a gradual exodus of the "favored peoples" of Heaven out of the Underworld and closer to the Overworld. First humans, then pechs, then dwarrow, then gnomes, and lastly the elfs. And it's been very highly politicized and debated among elfs. But the first major group, and the ones who led the charge, are the original "high elfs," who threw off the yoke of a ruling class of oppressive titans seeking to keep them deep in the Underworld. The High Elfs call them "Fomorians," but most people know them as "Wyrd Giants." They're a specific tribe of giants that did not merely get their asses kicked in the elf rebellion, but were cursed to wander without homes for the rest of time. They had their imaginations taken away and their fates sealed. Now they're known as among the most dangerous and spiteful of the High Elfs' mortal enemies.
  7. High Elfs are infamous for the tumultuous marriages of their aristocracy, in a very 19th century bourgeoisie kind of way. Or, once again, like Oberon and Titania. These are modeled after the original fey marriage: the High King of the Seelie Fey must be married to the land itself, and to please her must be beautiful and unblemished. Nowadays this is the Green God, who is married to the Bound God (the personification of the Underworld). It's an old tradition. The first High King was, allegedly, the Dead God himself. After him was the Fomorian King. You see why conflict is an inevitable outcome of these marriages.
  8. So yeah, every elf noble who gets married inevitably forms a rivalry with their partner. Other elfs and fairies take sides in the conflicts, too. Some of them are more seriously enemies than others, but no married elfs are unconditional allies. So that's a surprising source of factional divide. Meaning that, yes, you need to take the list of every fey faction and multiply it by 2, because that's actually the number of factions. The only exceptions would be 1) elf lords who are single, and 2) elf lords who are in polycules (in which case you have 3+ factions in competition). It roughly evens out. But once again, naïve humans frequently end up accidentally harming their favorite fey patrons by making the mistake of thinking their spouse can be trusted. It's not their fault. Titania approached them and asked why her husband was speaking with a mortal. How were they supposed to know that giving an honest answer would lead to a war breaking out?
  9. My elfs are indeed immortal, but I wrote an adventure featuring an undead plague spreading through the land that affected each race differently. It turned humans into wights after they die, like in Dark Souls. Pechs' shadows separated from their bodies and took over the fields. Dead dwarrow were becoming ghosts who couldn't pass into the afterlife and join their ancestors. Gnomes were becoming will-o-wisps. And elfs? Slowly losing the will to live. That's right, the big negative impact on them is that they... became mortal. I mean, imminently mortal, but still. Clearly not as drastic as the others, but certainly a world-shaking crisis in elf society.
  10. If you haven't guessed by now, yes. All the high elf lords and ladies are based on famous musicians. Lorde, Florence and the Machine, David Bowie, BORNS, everyone who was in Fleetwood Mac when Rumours was made, Janelle Monae, Prince, Hozier, Kate Bush, the Cure, Beyonce, Heart, Frank Ocean, Harry Styles, and probably others. This isn't meant to be cutesy or anything. I'm not trying to make a goofy "Elvish Presley" parody that you can't take seriously. I just incorporate the most fantasy-like parts of modern culture to the same degree I incorporate cultural influences from throughout history. To me, stealing from Shakespeare and stealing from Led Zeppelin are basically the same thing. You know how seeing familiar ideas and images borrowed from, like, the Bible or King Arthur and recontextualized can just resonate more deeply than totally original imagery? Well, stealing from modern stuff works just as well for me, when done right. And if elfs are meant to be the embodiment of pure creative, artistic energy, then the closest thing I can get to that are my favorite artists. Or at least the "elf-iest" artists. Oh, and you can probably tell my age from my influences, so you know. If "elf queen Annie Lennox" would be more fitting for you, by all means.


The "Dark Elfs" you're thinking of

  1. Okay so aesthetically, my Drow will basically be like the High Elfs except with all their clothes colored black, white, gold, and red. I might allow some spider motifs here and there but they shouldn't look like they're in "costumes," if that makes sense. It's important that Drow look like conquistadors, you know? White hair is a must, and I tend to go for pure white eyes. As for the skin color, I think we've mostly moved away from the "deep, rich dark purple that looks nearly black" of 1st Edition and more towards a diplomatic "vaguely grayscale but maybe with a hint of blue or purple." Fine by me.
  2. But I'm also less inclined to make them pretty or sexy. I'd prefer them to be creepy. They move like marionette dolls, unnatural and strange and crooked. They have big Joker smiles when they're about to cut you up. If most elfs are uncanny, then Drow are straight-up cartoon serial killers. Although I think I'm inclined to expand the spider affinity to all types of vermin. I'll take your snake Drow, rat Drow, mosquito Drow, bat Drow, scorpion Drow, cockroach Drow, and so on. And some other weird stuff: when a drow dies, their body sprouts into an evil black wicked tree with horrible contorted screaming faces on it. That’s where the Underdark forests come from. A lot of them get really good at climbing, so even though they don't literally have "spider climbing" powers, they can often get away with pretty impressive wall-climbing.
  3. I've talked at length about how elfin longevity naturally leads to a conservative psychology, especially on a societal scale. Well maybe you see where this is going. Drow take it so far as to be the most racist and fascist possible. "Palingenetic ultranationalism" is the definition I'm using here, both because it is incredibly useful and accurate but also because it maps onto my idea of Drow exceptionally well. Here's a good video that defines that (among other things), but the gist is this: Drow society almost universally 1) identifies as a discrete and cohesive group (the "nation"), 2) places this group identity above all else as holding the utmost importance imaginable (e.g. they don't see themselves as part of anything greater, like "elf-kind" or "fey" or "subjects of the Old Gods," and they rarely subdivide into smaller groups), and 3) they once held glory and are due for a rebirth of literally Biblical proportions. They don't just long for the good ol' days. They'll seek to plunge this world into Armageddon if that's what it takes to cycle things back around again to when they can be in charge.
  4. Of course, the granting of one's own people with mythological importance is a bit less intriguing in a high fantasy setting where lots of peoples actually do have mythological importance... but just remember to roleplay Drow as being pompous zealots who go on and on about their collective destiny and how they need to purge the impure and whatnot. And, as discussed previously, they kinda just exaggerate all the worst qualities of aristocracy. Their perverse love for glamour and aristocracy takes on a hateful and imperial character. Make them as racist and disdainful as you need to. Their empire holds the gnomes and myconids as client states, after all. They are nothing if not decadent imperial bastards.
  5. Fascism generally means authoritarianism, which generally means Lawful Evil. That always made more sense to me than Chaotic Evil for them anyway. The only way I can see myself rationalizing them as aligning with the forces of Chaos is by playing up the demon-worship. Which, actually, I could probably get on board with. They have no reservations about making as many infernal pacts as necessary to meet their goals. Speaking of which:
  6. There’s a small list of things that 4th Edition got right and did better than any other edition. Here is one of them: in every edition except 4th, the drider (a Drow+Spider centaur-style hybrid) is a drow that has been cursed by their goddess Lolth after being called by her to face a test, and then failing it. She twists them into this disgusting form and they’re rejected and cast out by drow society like a leper. This is dumb. The drider is clearly superior to the regular drow under the logic of drow religion and values. As I understood it, they believe that the spider is the pinnacle of nature’s beauty and Lolth’s favored creature and all that, right? The drider is also, going by their stat block, way more powerful than a regular drow. It can even be a spellcaster, so it’s not like it’s some kind of dumb savage. In 4th Edition they correctly interpreted the drider as a gift bestowed upon Lolth’s favored servants so they can resemble more closely the perfect form while also being the most badass soldiers in her army. Now of course, I don't involve Lolth in my game, but I'll take this interpretation of driders, please and thank you.
  7. Artist credit: Anna Ignatieva
    Let's focus on the gameables. What do adventurers have to deal with? Well, Drow foot soldiers communicate by sign language and all wear a vial of cyanide around their neck, quickly drinking it upon capture. I've gotten my players with that one a million times and it always pisses them off. They wield adamantine weapons and often wear white cloaks, at least as officers. For trail rations, a Drow matron officer will get to enjoy snails, truffles, stirge eggs, lobster, wine, etc. For food, a male foot soldier is handed a bag of live spiders and a canteen of spit (this was my co-writer's idea). They have a sickening love for grating music that haunts the Underworld’s denizens as a grim warning of their presence. Try to play Danse Macabre when Drow are "on screen." I also try to make sure I have a good "3D mapping method" for each Underworld race, and I came up with this for Drow:
    1. "Spyders (Drow spider scouts): get a bag of spyders and let them work overnight. They go out and collect information, then they come back and use their webs to re-recreate the local network of caverns, with each strand corresponding to a tunnel. It’ll take 1 to 8 hours depending on how complicated the system is. They will be noticed by Drow. Need to be fed with maggots but otherwise last forever. If half of them die then the supply is useless."
  8. Of course, they prefer stealth and deception and will merge their homes with their natural surroundings. So beyond the awful Snow White haunted forests, they build their military outposts in giant hanging stalactites and they cultivate spider webs in plantations like you see below. Most importantly, they hide the entrances to their cities in innocuous-looking abandoned buildings. While I recognize they are a very different kind of sound from the other music I cited, I know for a fact that House of the Rising Sun, Hotel California, and anything by Nine Inch Nails are describing places and feelings in the world of Nightmare. Liminal spaces are also a big inspiration.
    Australian spider web season
    Example liminal space
    Another example

  9. Let's talk about matriarchy. It's always been one of the more debatable parts of Drow lore. On the one hand, it's always been neat and kinda novel and makes them a bit more memorable. On the other hand, it comes off as pretty sexist to have the only major matriarchy in the world also be the super Nazi villains. Of course, I'm not suggesting that a matriarchal society wouldn't be bad, because gender inequality is awful no matter what. But it's probably worth noting that, in the real world, matriarchies aren't a real thing. That's right: there's a broad consensus among anthropologists that there has never been discovered a single culture that is unambiguously matriarchal. It doesn't happen. Here's some reading on the matter, but it's important to understand that even if matriarchy is hypothetically as bad as patriarchy, the fact that it's never happened before is kind of telling. The few traits that firmly divide men and women in a pre-modern gender-binary society just don't lend themselves to women ever having a systemic advantage. The only way you could make that happen is by using some fantasy elements, like if spellcasters are only found among women or something. Which is all just to say, I'm not crazy about Drow matriarchy, but the leadership among my Drow is pretty feminine just because that's most of the conquerors and lords I've written about. They're probably just like all other elf-kind: as LGBT as you can imagine, even with gender fluidity not being uncommon. They're just toxic about it, because, y'know, evil.
  10. I will, however, write about their main leader: the Black Queen Mab, daughter of Oberon and Titania (rulers of the White City of the High Elfs) who inherited the Drow throne in a trial-by-combat (she's an expert rapier duelist). Her half-sister is the human monarch of Andolia, Adelaide the White Queen. Mab is married to the Crimson King and likewise has a colorful court with a Purple Piper and a Yellow Jester. She has spent at least a century readying for war with her half-sister's kingdom, and she styles her kingdom in the fashion of a funeral march (wearing a veil to battle, of course). She also has a lover called the Bride of Night who's just a giant spider with a human head (picture Patches the Spider from Bloodborne). Now there's a solid boss monster to throw at the PCs. Drow nobility have the same kind of melodrama and factionalism as High Elfs but never amounting to anything that would impair their collective strength against their foes. Cutthroat Drow politics are like a sport, almost like practice for their sneaky style of warfare.


You know, "wood elfs"

  1. These have, thus far, been the one type of elf my players have had the most experience dealing with. They don't live in the Mist Lands or the Shade Lands. Just the regular ol' wilderness. They have learned to fear the dreaded woodwose. Naked, furry, raging, green-skinned, moss-covered guerilla warriors who hate civilization and most magic. They're really territorial and violent. Are they secretly spiritual and wise like a Hollywood Native American? Eh. They mostly just hate people because people are bastards and it's justified. I'd hate to say they're totally "savages" since that sounds pretty bad, but you gotta understand that they're about on par with everyone else when it comes to structural morality. Oh, and obviously they're cannibals, because I'm an unoriginal hack and all the cool kids do cannibal wood elves these days.
  2. Of course, actual medieval "woodwose" were said to just be wild men. People who went to live in the woods and went mad, you know? I don't suppose that's actually something that happens to the humans of my world on any kind of large scale, but elfs? Oh yeah. As I explained in the last article: the wilderness is the battlegrounds between the Overworld and the Underworld, and sometimes there are elf armies dispatched to war who don't come home. They go bonkers and embrace the insanity of war and form woodwose societies. Whether they were aligned with Seelie or Unseelie forces before, they now either care for nothing or care only for the parts of the earth that cares for them. Which is typically nature itself. I've had players broker peace with them before, though. They can be reasoned with, as they have needs and desires just like anyone else. They're just an entire society comprised on traumatized, adrenaline-fueled warriors.
  3. Artist credit: Brom
    So that longevity conservatism. I had described other elfs as having highly ritualized lifestyles and civic ceremonies that reinforce their core memories over the centuries, maintaining a consistent communal identity over time by feeding into it again and again and again. Well woodwose have a simpler method. They are so traditional and so opposed to progress that they simply refuse to give up their "primitive" way of life at all. They don't build new technology, learn about the world around them, or expand their borders if they can help it. And since memories are fleeting when you're immortal, the type of perpetual environment they seek to construct for themselves is one full of pleasure. They're absolute hedonists, constantly reliving the life of drugs and orgies so the centuries-long blur of their lives is a good blur. Of course, this is at least as much a response to imminent mortality as it is immortality, since they have more violent lifestyles than other elfs.
  4. The psychedelic drugs also help them to tap into dreaming energy, since they're cut off from Wonderland and Nightmare. For spellcasters, they uphold bards as a sacred vocation, but more often as entertainment than enlightenment. Still though, vates and druids usually pop up in woodwose cultures. The kinds of magic that emerge out of their natural connection to their environment and their strong loyalty to powerful elementals. Nothing that would take your fancy book-learning to understand.
  5. Throw in more Celtic stuff, why not? Even the fake stuff. They sacrifice people in flaming Wicker Men. They believe that the spirit is contained in the head, leading to lots of decapitation and head hunting. At feasts, the Champion’s Portion tradition states that the bravest warrior gets the choicest cut of meat. They definitely braid their hair a lot, and wear war paint. They're rarely dressed in more than foliage or some bronze jewelry and they hear the natural humming of the earth that's normally only heard by beasts. They call it "the Great Melody," and it taught them all the Sylvan language of wilderness creatures.
  6. Their arrows have distinctive slits in the arrowhead that run up next to the shaft. This is to collect bacteria and cause infections easier when they hit people. The arrows are planted in animal feces before use so that they will make the target sick when hit. As mentioned, they do the guerilla warfare thing with lots of ambushing and hit-and-runs. Camouflage is a no-brainer. They spy on human lands by literally doing a wolf-in-sheep's-clothing thing among domesticated herds of farm animals. Dress as a cow and see what you overhear in the fields. It's led to a strange, unintentional semi-alliance with pech serfs. They also sometimes make deals with barbarians and enchant them to become beast-men, like the Warhammer kind. They already shepherd the beasts of wilderness, so bringing up powerful beast people as their mightiest creatures is a natural next step for them. And of course, any groups of druids and rangers among humans can usually enjoy non-hostile relations with woodwose, serving as the primary diplomats between the two species.
  7. I know I kinda make it sound like they're just Forsworn from Skyrim and are opposed to the forces of Law, thus making them Chaotic. But trust me, they're Neutral. They hate the forces of Chaos, too. They hate demons and undead and the kinds of warlike and cruel ambitions that are often all-too common in Chaotic society. To the untrained Lawful eye, a druid and a witch may look similar, but woodwose usually think of witches as adhering to just as unsavory authorities as knights and priests do. They have enough common ground with both to leave some hope for temporary alliances, though. Like Lawful society, Woodwose want peace and stuff. Like Chaotic society, Woodwose want freedom and partying and stuff. They just don't want to be bossed around by angels or demons, and they certainly don't see pandering to either of them for the sake of gaining power to be a worthy pursuit. They're just about as disillusioned as a traumatized soldier in warfare can get.

So yeah. Elf lore. I got lots of it. I guess. I'll be the first to admit these are less "thematically cohesive visions" and more "whatever ideas I hear/occur to me that I just kinda vibe with," but I look at what I've written above and I see nothing but net. Difficult for a player to ever play as, but memorable nonetheless.


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