Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Problem With Elves

I think anyone who stops to consider the playable elf for a little while will recognize the central mythological problem with playing them. The same might be said of dwarves, but the mythological origins of dwarves are less clear in modern culture—while we can look through Tolkien to find older elves, and while many authors have done so because the idea of a Fair Folk is a pervasive and unsettling element of Celtic myth-cycles—we have trouble seeing through Tolkien to find the Norse dvergr.
Elf-like creatures (water nymphs, actually, which were Greek but are here portrayed in a neo-Raphaelite romantic style that mirrors that of Elves and how they were depicted in the Victorian period) drawing a man to his death

Which leaves us, now, at this juncture, with elves to talk about. We have two radically different conceptions of elves that stand at odds with each other: the playable Dungeons and Dragons fantasy-type elf, and the elf of mythology. Mythologically, stemming from those cycles, elves are a dangerous, capricious, inhuman, almost monstrous people inhabiting a land that exists side by side with ours but through a sort of veil. These Fair Folk or Good Folk (and you must always call them that for fear of offending them) are not the mystic tree-hippies or detached sorcerers of modern fantasy.

In their mythological origins, elves are much more akin to awful spirits than they are to men. Their ways are inscrutable. They may invite a commoner to dance and refuse to let them go until they die of de-hydration. They may causally invite someone over for a few drinks only for that person to find that the world has passed beyond all recognition and a hundred years have gone by while he was away. Elves are capricious, and seem incapable of understanding human beings.

I've striven to integrate this portion of the elvish mytho-spirit into the elves of the 10th Age. They are long-lived, and therefore find the tribulations of men somewhat amusing. They form deep attachments that they can break in an instant. They are fond of deals and tricks, and often have a somewhat perverse sense of humor when it comes to the other races. Still, this doesn't cure the main problem.

The tension is that elves of Celtic myth were about fear and the unknown and they were essentially inhuman. In a game like D&D, we're asking people to portray these roles, to inhabit them, not only as an actor might inhabit a role, but as a method actor might. How can we properly expect players to be elves as depicted in the myths? For that matter, how could we even want that, considering it would make playing the game as a party impossible or unpleasant?

Some of the work might be done in separating out the other "fair folk" from the elves and giving playable elves a more grounded base in the everyday realm of mortals. Pixies, nixies, sprites, griggs, atomies, leprechauns, and various others can still fill the traditional trickster role without too much trouble.

In order to make elves playable, they must be at least somewhat tame. They must be brought back from that terrifying wild place that they reside in mythology. Yet, I would argue, in order to preserve that which makes them elves, they cannot be wholly tame. They must be at least somewhat strange, other, outre, and unapproachable. To strike this balance... ah, that is the problem with elves.


  1. I feel strongly that the biggest problem is in their name. Elves was just but one subset of the various spirits of ancient Celtic myth, and in fact, 'elves' have really nothing at all to do with the Tuatha De Danann, or the Aos Si and their like. So when vanilla/standard/Tolkienesque fantasy talks about elves, they're trying their best to incorporate the spirit of those myths, but still put it in human-relatable terms. However, in the original myths, these beings and spirits were unknowable and alien. They were not necessarily evil, but their morals were so far away from ours that they may as well have been.

    The way I've been working around it is to have essentially "Greater Fey" and "Lesser Fey" (that's just the way I describe them to myself, no one in the world calls themselves "lesser something"). The Greater Fey are the original spirits and beings of the earth, and they are infinite and multitude. They are not one race, or dozens of races - they are all individual and unique entities, and they are in decline. But they were the original gods of the world, and they are who many of the myths of the world are told about (much like the Tuatha De Danann). Then the Lesser Fey are the Dwarves, Elves, Gnomes, & the like. They exist from inter-and-outer-breeding between the Greater Fey and various other races over time. This has taken place over many thousands of years, and a sort of evolution has taken course.

    This allows me to have (slightly) standard races in the game (though with my own changes), as well as have an actual, mythological Fey-type that is mysterious, magical, terrible, mischievous, and all-but-unknowable. They are alien, and that's how they should be.

    1. I agree with you on all fronts. That's one of the things I've been trying to build into my own setting; a sort of more-or-less Faerie status that is somewhat implicit. Those races that interact with men (and are playable) tend to be less strange, less of Faerie, and more mundane. Those that live out in the wild are more so, and generally more powerful and inscrutable.

      I've been contemplating writing another entry on gods of rivers, fields, trees, and glens as well. This is something else that Celtic and Classical Greek/Roman mythology share in common—demigods of rivers and such. The hills are literally alive.

  2. this is great

    lets make elves nightmares again in 2016!

  3. I share many of the same ideas re: elves though I am going as much Terry Pratchett as folkloric these days. I found the D&D "subrace" conceit to help and it wasn't hard to have a subrace of elves that were sane enough to deal with humans.

    Oh BTW this post and your post on Wizards and Masters earned you a place on my blogroll. Keep up the good work.

  4. Great point, but I'm not sure that this won't hinder playability as PCs. It is great for NPCs though.

    How much of their alienness can be attributed to such a skewed perspective of time that it's not even worth noting the names of mortals? Perhaps to them, mortals are like ants and not worth noting differences, except that one scholar who studies them as a biologist might study insects.

    1. I absolutely agree. Extremely long life is a really weird time dilator when it comes to having interactions with short-lived races.