About Those Elves, blog

Today, I want to talk about elves.

When you sit down to make your own fantasy setting, whether for publication or just for your own game, the simple reality is that you stand under the twin shadows of Tolkien and D&D. They set an expectation for what a fantasy world looks like and, more importantly, they establish the baseline you will be judged against. Even if you had never read either, nor any of the bajillion books influenced by them, your fantasy setting would be described in terms of the way it’s _not_ Tolkien.

One of the classic decisions to make in a setting is how to handle race – not in the nuanced sense of modern conversation, but rather the seemingly simpler question of the inclusion of non-human races. There are a few ways to approach this, and there are good and bad angles to each approach.

The first is to just roll with it. You shrug your shoulders, accept that a fantasy setting has humans, elves, dwarves and maybe some kind of hobbit analog. Elves are long lives, magica, beautiful, blah blah blah. Dwarves dig holes, grow beards, drink and fight. Hobbits do…well, something other than just farm in pastoral-england-equivalent. Probably steal.

This can be done well, as illustrated by most published D&D settings. Just accepting it and moving on to more interesting things tends to work out pretty well, provided those other things are actually interesting. It’s also fairly hard to do this too badly, since there are clear guidelines to follow. You’d need to really take steps to make it worse.

The best such setting find ways to make the dwarves and elves interesting within the bounds of these ideas. Dragon Age, for example, has very standard-seeming dwarves, but enough thought has gone into their culture that they feel much more interesting than the standard. The worst settings tend to accentuate the stereotypes even further, though thankfully, it is rare to see that in a finished product.

The next option is to yank them out. There are two approaches to this – the first is to simply embrace a human-only fantasy setting. This is a powerful, workable idea, but I’m not going to dwell on it much because that’s a hole other kettle of fish. The other approach is to remove one race or another.

Skyrim does this very well – the setting very clearly had dwarves(effectively) at one point, but they all vanished at some point in the past. Adds a mystery to the setting, provides an excuse for interesting ruins, but removes the need of dealing with them in play.

The famous bad example is from a brilliant game called Talislanta, which famously advertised “NO ELVES” as a means of setting itself apart from D&D. And it was true, as far as it went. Tal actually had dozens and dozens of races, many with fascinatingly fleshed out cultures. But if you looked at the art, there sure were a lot of slim, graceful, pointy-eared races as part of the mix. It looks and feels like they got rid of the word elves to prove a point more than to serve a purpose.

Supplemental to this is the possibility of inserting your own. I feel really torn on this because on one hand I’m always a fan of celebrating creativity and encouraging people to do new and interesting things, but in practice, it follows certain predictable patterns.

Most such races are ones that are cool to some specific segment of the readership. There’s always someone who wants to play a cat-man or a minotaur or whatever, and it’s usually pretty clear when such an inclusion is the author’s race of choice. That’s not intrinsically bad, but when the author thinks the race is awesome, he’s less likely to actually make the case for why the race is awesome to anyone else.

The real rub is that introducing a new race takes work. Elves and Dwarves have decades of assumptions and imagery to build on and your new race does not. If you give them equal time, you give the new race short shrift, but if you give the new race more space, you’re showing favoritism. It’s hard to balance.

Games that have done it well have gone full bore from the ground up. Earthdawn used the hell out of its art assets to make sure the T’skrang were as strongly present in the images of the game as any other race, and it paid off (at least for me, since they’re one of the few non-core races from a game I can remember off the top of my head).

Games that have dropped the ball are legion, and mostly forgettable.

The last and often most interesting approach is to put your own spin on it. Let the races remain recognizable, but change them enough. I turn back to Dragon Age for a great example of this – it’s elves were very clearly once “classic” elves, but they’ve fallen from that and are now under the boot of history. Sovereign Stone did something more drastic, but interesting, and overlayed the races with a _different_ stereotypical model, so you had Samurai elves and Mongol Horsemen Dwarves and so on. It had problems, but the underlying idea was interesting enough to keep in mind.

Terrible examples of this include kender. Worse examples of this include reskinning kender.[1]

Now, the point of calling out these different approaches is not to say one of them is best, but rather to simply suggest that when you sit down to make your fantasy opus, this is something to consciously think about. Don’t make a decision by default or out of a knee-jerk reaction. Know what you want, and make the choice that serves that.

[back] 1 – Ok, why the kender hate? Because they’re terrible. They are designed to enable the worse sort of screw-the-other-players play while allowing the all purpose what-my-character-would-do-defense. They are an idea that barely work in fiction, where there are checks on their behavior and on response, but which utterly fail in a real social context.