There are three common problems that I see cropping up with demihuman races. Not all settings suffer from these, so I'm not saying this is a universal issue. Rather, these are common pitfalls when attempting to depict something so strange as a race that is almost like men but not quite in some significant ways.
The first is the little men with beards/tall men with ears flaw. This is something that has plagued me personally for a long time. I've struggled to find solutions to this time and time again and I think I have finally hit on a method of depiction that satisfies me. Why bother to have dwarves and elves and halflings and trolls and orcs if they're all just people with different skins on? So I've gone through great lengths to differentiate my demihumans, to make them somewhat strange and unlike men.
The second issue is the problem of the monoculture. I have tried to address that in the 10th Age by explaining it (though even in the 10th Age there is no monoculture but rather two-five racial cultures for each demihuman race which are determined by a number of factors). Dwarves are intensely conservative and purposefully try to replicate ancient social structures. As something more-than-human (or less-than-human, as the argument may go), they have an almost supernatural ability to recreate their own societies. Their language has barely changed in centuries.
Elves, on the other hand, actively promote a mono-culture through teleportation magic (the Silver Road) and the standardization of elvish classics and grammaticians taught to all wind elves the world over.
The third issue is one that I remembered when I started writing this essay but which I've now forgotten, so maybe it wasn't all that important. Anyway, what I really want to talk about today is the first -- making demihumans a little less human.
Particularly, what I'm after here is in city construction. My players have just moved from the Dorlish (a mannish mageocracy) city of Portomagno to a nearby elvish capital called Tyrma. Four days at sea have deposited them in a completely different world.
I do my best to describe the gritty every-day realities of the 10th Age and it makes for a good contrast with the ethereal sensibilities of the elvish city. In Portomagno the streets are rarely paved, are packed with people, and stink of shit. Buildings are made from wattle and daub and, rarely, stone. The stink of the sea rolls outwards from the fish markets and the Cloth Market thrums with activity. Everywhere you look are brightly colored tunics, pelissands, houppelands, and robes.
Tyrma is nothing like that. The streets are all wide avenues of white flagstone that meander lazily, as though through a garden rather than a city. Meadows and stands of trees are common -- there is an entire forest known as the Eastern Wood encompassed within the city walls. All the buildings are made of (or at least sheathed in) marble of various types. The elvish towers soar gently in the sky, slender like spikes of ivory or bone. Artwork adorns every surface in the form of carvings or gilding. While there are always a few elves about, there is rarely a mass press of bodies. Tyrma is home to 11,000 elves and Portomagno 8,000 men and yet Tyrma covers two or three times the area that Portomagno does.
Even in the oldest and densest parts of the city of Tyrma, there are places to stop and take in the sights. Blossoming courtyards, marble fountains, and small shaded corners where poets gather abound. Glass, a rare amenity in mannish lands, is common in Silversong (the kingdom where Tyrma resides) and some of the great towers are blessed with crystalline windows.
Peace and tranquility are the primary attributes I want to emphasize with elvish city-building. While they may have learned to make towers and courtyard-houses from the southmen, they do it in a way which is true to the elvish spirit. Freedom of movement and integration with the environment are paramount; an elvish architect would never lop off a hill to build a level floor, but rather try to incorporate it into his construction.
I think this contrast has worked, because everyone was in awe of Tyrma. It is nothing like any of the hot and pressed cities the players have been in so far and that, I think, goes a long way to help describe the character of the wind elves of the 10th Age.