Brave New Worlds III – Backsliding Into Elvendom


So Hark’s been reading about drow, and now she wants to negotiate the problems of ‘evil races’ in a world where everyone’s pretty vile to everyone else, and matriarchy, and diaspora, and religious competition.  Basically she wants to play a game set in the Underdark, for reasons which I think are interesting, so I’ve been thinking about drow and what I can do with them vis-a-vis integrating them into the world I’m building for D&D purposes.

What I don’t want is the Tolkenian baggage of Regular Elves to go with my Dark Elves, so I’m rolling with an idea I had some years ago (before I went off on this NO FUCKING ELVES, DWARVES OR HOBBITS kick) and modifying it.  The original idea was this: elves are extinct.

Elves can interbreed with humans, and as societies (mainly human) have expanded into their traditional holdings, the elves have discovered that there are other kinds of incorporation too.  They have moved in, bred in and otherwise gotten in with humans to the point that there is no-one left with pure elvish ancestry, and that elvish culture largely consists of selling elaborately hand-crafted silver-and-feather gew-gaws to rustics and easily confused travellers (plus a few ruined, abandoned cities in the deep forests, inhabited by ghosts and bad memories).  There are such things as half-elves, individuals where the elvish blood runs truer than elsewhere, but aside from excellent night vision, pointy ears and a greater than natural aptitude for magic (perhaps the Illusionist could be made available to them as a class?), there is little difference.

That was the original idea.  Now, the revision.

Elves are extinct – on the surface.  As other societies expanded, the ancient domains of the elves were subsumed.  The elves who did not integrate with humans and eventually reduce down to half-breeds (perhaps because there were none to integrate with – I’m starting to get a feel for different continents and regions here) struggled to adapt, and were driven further and further into the barely-habitable wildernesses.  Eventually, some of the larger tribes who’d been driven to the right parts of the world moved underground, to scratch a bare and bitter existence that they still found preferable to their surface-dwelling years, largely because they had chosen it.

They delved deep.  They were forgotten.  They awoke strange, ancient powers and bargained with them.  They were changed.

And that’s where drow come from in whatever-the-hell-I’m-calling-this-world.  They consider themselves the noble and pure survivors of the true elven race – they detest surface-dwellers, particularly the blood-traitors who bred in with humans rather than stay pure – they are a bunch of arrogant, xenophobic, isolationist survivalists, whose culture is preoccupied with living up to its own legacy, staying pure.  Of course, from their point of view, they were driven into becoming what they are because it was that or dwindle away into a polluted mockery of their former selves.  The irony of their current situation is lost on most of them.

Perhaps they are trying to reconquer the surface world.  Perhaps they just want it to leave them alone.  Perhaps their new gods drive them to do strange and terrible things, or perhaps they do them out of spite.  Perhaps they can be bargained with – perhaps not.  They are a capricious lot anyway, and there are different houses, in different parts of the world, and different, competing monotheist cults among them.  What one house wants may not be what another wants.

That’s… interesting enough to warrant their presence, I feel.  I still don’t want to put bloody dwarves in it though.

12 thoughts on “Brave New Worlds III – Backsliding Into Elvendom

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  1. Von I really like that take. Elves are so much more interesting when they’re people rather than lordly faerie beings. And it’s easy to fall in love with the Drow when you’re a neophyte role-player (Hark is new right?) I had an unashamed Drizzt clone PC when I was 14 myself ;)

    That survivalist take on elves is something I incorporated into my Shail world too – I’ll put more up soon. Great minds eh?

    1. She is indeed only ickle. I did point out that not even I would have one drow in a party of surface dwellers, though, so it’s an urge that’s going to wait until we have some people for an ‘underworld’ campaign. Fortunately I have some in mind…

      I dunno if they’re more interesting – I just thought “what if we accelerate their long decline and see what happens when it’s happened?” My elves remember being lordly faerie beings – they either exploit that, trading off a tawdry version of their heritage as best they can, or they resent that, and hold their bastardised version to be the One True Elven Way.

      Looking forward to seeing more of Shail, it must be said. I’d still like to play a priest of Skorn one day…

    1. Hobbits, for sure. Goblins > Hobbits, any day of the week.

      Dwarves I’m never sure about. There must be some way of making them more interesting: I’m told Game of Thrones manages it in at least one case, and I quite like Warhammer’s magic-using Chaos Dwarfs who gradually turn to stone, keep slaves, and trade their dark technologies with other evildoers. Or the PP ones who are a people of merchants and mercenaries, ostensibly neutral in the great wars but loaning out some of their defence forces to interested parties, where it suits them. There’s some mileage there, I feel. I just don’t like the phoned in “here’s Gimli again!” way that they tend to be done, and the way they automatically and lazily fall into yr. average fantasy world.

      Elves, dwarves and (sigh) hobbits are fine and dandy, if and when you’re running for the kind of people whose only contact with the fantasy genre has been Lord of the Rings, the people who only end up trying D&D because all their mates are doing it. There’s a time and a place for them. I just… don’t want them in a world that I’m building for more established fantasy-heads who are sick of the old chestnuts.

  2. I also had to deal with Drow in my game, when I hadn’t intended to include them at all (elves being mostly rare in the world I imagined). Working with the player that wanted to play one, we figured out that when they went underground, they quickly came up against the Dwarves, who pushed them to the fringes of the Dwarf under-empire. This had resulted in the Drow becoming nothing more than a series of scattered bands roaming the underdark, more raiders than anything, living on the fringes of Dwarf society and harassing the outskirts. Since there was no strictly-speaking religion/clerical abilities in this world (I admit, it was based on the Avatar: the Last Airbender world), there was no priesthood, and the drow prized speed, skill, and strength over learning or magic, rationalizing that those traits would be less useful to a group of raiders/barbarians. Still proud and haughty, but on a downward spiral. Naturally, the PC was a wizard drow who had found a mysterious tome and learned magic, while being constantly pitied/tormented for being physically weak, hence his escape to the surface where almost no one had seen or heard of what he was. It was an interesting experiment.

    1. Certainly sounds like it.

      I think I prefer my underground empire, if only because the ‘fall of great houses’ shtick is part of what draws Hark and myself to them, and ’cause I’m sick of ‘elves’ and ‘downward spiral’ as reflexive associations, but that’s purely a personal preference – your idea seems solid and interesting too!

  3. Just a couple of points on options for what to do in this sort of situation, especially when you have made a deliberate choice to exclude certain otherwise ‘standard’ options for race/class etc and this is based on what I have tried.

    I ran a couple of campaigns (yes they were very long and lots of characters died along the way) where either there were specific race or class restrictions within the normal D&D world. In some games I compensated for this by having higher magical worlds or other neat things the characters could be made to do.

    For example I ran a campaign set around the time of WWII where there was no magic but what alchemists could brew or induce through “scientific” method. Clerics lost all spells and became more like Bards with their motivational abilities through oratory etc, no wizards, rangers, paladins, and other stuff that couldn’t be adapted into a near zero magic world. Kickers being every level advancement the characters had a 1/20 chance of advancing randomly as a level of sorcerer (this increased each time they gained a level at a rate of (1+ current sorcerer level)/20. As a way of working something quirky in, meanwhile the main antagonist was an invading ‘fleet’ of Githyanki with all their Psi-powered stuff. (Oh and there were no elves, dwarves or hobbits there)

    But… I ramble, which appears to be my style.

    1) Capitulate and allow a race you hadn’t planned for because it makes the player happy and by changing to suit the fickle whims of your players you remain forever popular. (a la Mit Romney)
    B) Don’t. They should be able to appreciate the world you have built as is and as you see fit to change it whenever you like. (a la George Lucas)
    Thirdly) Don’t treat them as a race, treat them as a subspecies or just a religious sect i.e. they are still people just “black skin/white hair/spider lovers” combo.

    I remember a Law & Order episode where a judge makes a decision and he notes; “Neither the prosecution nor the defence is happy, good, I must be doing my job right”

    The compromise seems to be the best way to get mostly what you want and partially what they want.

    1. Your low magic/psionic invaders idea sounds good! I’m never sure where I stand with psions – I think it’s a good idea, interesting mechanics, but it feels a bit bolted-on and unnecessary when you already have Vancian magic. Would use it for a less overt kind of fantasy though, like a shot.

      To make them fit in the campaign world as is they’d have to be a subspecies/sect of something other than elves. Elves weren’t in the world originally because I’m sick of the post-Tolkenian ‘standard elf’, but that’s the only reason. I’m perfectly happy to bring in the drow provided I don’t have to have the others running around, hence drow as the majority among survivors and half-elves as the only extant surface dwellers, more or less totally integrated into human societies, trading off an ‘exotic’ heritage that only really exists as a commercialised memory or a dark reflection. No ‘proper elves’ at all. Player gets what they want, I don’t have to compromise my principles, everybody wins.

      1. I tend to find the concept of a Psion ‘class’ too much, but characters who have some sort of Psi-ability that works with their other abilities much more palatable.

        For example building a Paladin who instead of drawing their power from their god(s) actually generates the power internally from their belief and faith in the god(s)by combining Fighter levels with Psion levels. The character doesn’t need to be aware of the difference but the charactes growing awareness of the difference between themselves and other Paladins from their order as they advance could become an interesting story point to build around.

        1. Hmm.

          So you’d use the existing mechanics, but frame them as derived from psionics rather than magic?

          If so, I can dig that (although I do like AD&D’s percentage-chance-of-psychic-ability bit, I don’t like that it brings a whole additional set of mechanics into a character).

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