Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Elves in Red Earth

Still lots and lots to talk (and rant) about these days, and I haven't yet gotten to around to the subject of elves in my Red Earth campaign; I just can't seem to help but get sidetracked.

Let's go ahead and get to it.

The original draft for this post spends the first thousand words quoting all the information found in the OD&D books as a foundation; but I've since decided NOT to go down that road. Here are the basic takeaways of note (with regard to OD&D elves):

  • They are never noted as having an exceptionally long life span; there is no mention of longevity at all in any of the books (nor are there special notes regarding elves under the entries for the potion of longevity or the staff of withering as there are in later editions, like B/X).
  • With regard to appearance, there are no notes stating elves have pointed ears or that they are beardless (contrariwise, the illustration labeled "ELF" on page 32 shows an individual with a longer beard than the "DWARF" on page 8). Per Greyhawk, elf skin color ranges from "tan to fair" with "wood elves being the darkest." Height is given as "five or more" leaving open the possibility of rather tall individuals.
  • The original books state that "elves are of two general sorts, those who make their homes in woodlands and those who seek the remote meadowlands." No distinction is made between these two types. In the Greyhawk description of the elf class, four types of elves are listed: wood, high elves, meadow elves, and fairies...this last being a term found in the Chainmail fantasy supplement where it was used interchangeably with "elf," much as was done with dwarves/gnomes, goblins/kobolds, and pixies/sprites. The 1E Monster Manual will "clarify" this by stating "faerie" is the term for Grey Elves, even as it removes the term "meadow elves" from the game lexicon. Aquatic elves are added (along with a host of other underwater variant monsters) in the Blackmoor supplement.
  • Elves are "not naturally adapted to horseback." While they have the split-move-and-fire ability found in Chainmail (and originally used to model the speed of horse-born archers like Huns, Mongols, etc.), it only applies to elves on foot.
  • In the wilderness encounter tables, elves are on the GIANT TYPES sub-list (along with dwarves, gnomes, and treants). It would appear that the "giant class" of monsters (i.e. the enemies against whom rangers receive a special damage bonus) was meant to apply to ANY type of nonhuman humanoid. 

It is highly interesting to me that elves, as originally presented in Chainmail, were NEUTRAL in alignment (albeit with "a slight pre-disposition for LAW"). By OD&D, of course, they appear on both the Law and Neutrality lists, but this explains why elven clerics (only available as NPCs) are limited to 6th level of experience...per OD&D no cleric may progress above 6th level unless aligned with either Law or Chaos.

So it is with MY elves: these are not the goody-goodies found in Tolkien, but something far more aloof from humanity. An ancient race, not in terms of longevity, but in terms of culture...these elves have been around for a looong time, and have already passed the apex of their civilization. Not demihumans but protohumans...another species of humanity (like neanderthals or denisovans) destined to one day be extinct or subsumed into what we know as the modern human race.

The main inspiration for my elves are Moorcock's Melnibonean fantasy race (Elric and all his kin). I've written before about the general similarities between the Elric books and D&D, and the specific similarities between Melniboneans and the D&D elf. For my campaign world, I am embracing these parallels, although they are not an island or sea-going people (I already have my Numenorean/Valyrian sea king-types in the descendants of Atlantean refugees...and they are all "normal" humans). Instead, elves are a coastal-mountain folk living in the Chilean region of the Andes...though I admit to being tempted to move them farther north.

Another inspiration for my campaign setting is the artwork of Bob Pepper, and specifically his illustrations for the old Milton-Bradley card game, Dragonmaster. Each of the "suits" found in the game provide visual clues and inspiration for distinct factions of my campaign setting. Considering the Moorcock influence, it should come as no surprise that the DragonLords are the model for my elves, although they are not literally "dragon lords" in the Melnibonean sense.

Still, they are an ancient culture with access to metallurgy and sorcery that is hard to find (or equal) in the young human kingdoms. Though they ceased their wars of conquest centuries before the coming of the Sea Lords to the temperate eastern plains, the elves maintain enough might to remain independent from the ever-expanding Red Empire of the north, and most human communities continue to hold them in superstitious awe.

[the Sea Lords being a notable exception]

For once upon a time, the elves were conquerors, and the early humans of the continent little more than primitive, nomadic tribes and a ready slave population. These slaves would eventually throw off the yoke of servitude, using lessons learned from their decadent masters to forge their own kingdoms in the lowlands (thus was the Red Empire born), but the animosity and dread of their former oppressors remain.

Nor is this their only legacy, for in elder days the elves experimented with dark magics and sorceries best left unknown. The result: fell beasts and twisted monsters, demonic enchantments and dangerous pockets of enchantment that continue to plague and bedevil those who stumble upon them. It is said that dragons were created by elvish magic, but most sages consider the possibility unlikely in the extreme. However, it is a certainty that both the orc and gnoll species were products of the elves' attempts to create pliant slave races that would not rebel as their human servants did. Unfortunately (for everyone), this was a disastrous failure.

In these latter days, the elves are very much a diminished people, but they still retain secrets and powers unknown to the younger human race. It is unlikely that they will ever return to their former splendor, but the occasional elvish adventurer has been known to come down from the mountains, searching for treasure and glory among humans of like mind.

These are the elves of Red Earth. They are otherwise as found in the OD&D books.
: )


  1. This is a kind of elf i want to try in my own campaign.

    1. They're far less whimsical. I look at the way Elizabeth H. Boyer treats the Alfar (elves) in her Norse fantasy books...they're not much different from Sciplings (humans) other than residing in a faerie realm and having more belief/access to the supernatural. The humans seem naive next to them.

      But my elves are a bit more jaded and decadent than Boyer's Alfar.
      ; )

  2. Ah, Dragonmaster. I was wracking my brain trying to recall the name of that game the other day and just could not come up with it. Thanks for the reminder, however unintentional.

    1. I never had Dragonmaster as a kid, though I was a big fan of Dark Tower (mainly due to Pepper’s artwork). I only recently acquired a copy of the card game (right before the pandemic hit) and I like it quite a bit.

  3. That last bullet point is very interesting. On the monster summary table I called that part of the tables Humans/Humanoids, but as I hadn't worked on the random encounter tables yet, but I see clearly now that Humans is one table and Giants, containing most of the other humanoids, is a separate and more inclusive group than expected. I'll have to look into the implications of that.

    Excellent work!

  4. Also, I like your interpretation on elves. Extrapolating from what is actually in the rulebooks leads to an interesting version of elves. I like the decadent fallen/falling civilization you present.

    1. Thanks. Not exactly an original idea, but not a bad alternative to the Tolkien-like fey; another branch of humanity destined to be replaced by “modern” humans.