Friday, June 12, 2009

From Gil-Galad to Leafy Tights

I am very enamored with the concept of the “elf lord,” these days, though I admit that I was none too keen on elves back in the hay-day of my D&D play. Very few of my fellow players ever used an elf as a regular character (well…until the UA and the Drow, but that’s another post, folks).

Although the earliest character sheet I can find (in my 3rd or 4th grade hand writing) is for a 1st level elf called Silver Fox, I and my players all developed deep aversions to elven characters based, I believe, on the following:

- Lack of power
- Lack of elvish “role-models”

The first is pretty easy to explain. Starting with B/X, the rate of advancement for an elf character is extremely slow; the elf requires (on average) twice as much XP as any other character to go up in level. Certainly elves are versatile with their weapons and wizardry, but you’re still limited to a single action per round (i.e. cast a spell or swing a sword)…if you’re half the level of your companions, then you have half the hit points, and thus half the staying power.

Furthermore, elf characters in B/X have their levels capped at 10. In AD&D there is some variation to the levels, but compared to humans with unlimited advancement, the elf is a poor choice for the long-term campaign (well, unless you want to play an elvish thief…but who wants that? See “role-models” below). It just makes gamist sense to play a human character.

Look at the World of Warcraft…the closest thing most people are playing to a “long term RPG campaign” these days. If elves could only reach levels 5/11 in fighter-magic-user, even multi-classed, how many players would be choosing elves over humans? Very, very few. It is this type of gamist sensibility that informed our early D&D campaigns.

Regarding “role-models;” well, there just weren’t that many elven heroes to model our characters after. For one thing, none of us had read Tolkien in those days (or much of it…the Two Towers is so slooooow, to a kid). The elves of Dragon Lance were fairly mundane and petty (hey, just like humans! Except with level caps, so they suck!). What else is there? Faeries and leprechauns of English folklore?

Well, now that I’m older…and a bit wiser, perhaps…my sensibilities have changed. For one thing, I’ve read more. I’ve read the entire LotR, the Silmarillion, and the Children of Hurin. I‘ve read Elizabeth Boyer’s fantastic The Wizard and the Warlord, providing great insight into the ljosalfar and dokkalfar, the Sandanavian elves Tolkien borrows for his books. I’ve read up on Norse mythology. And, of course, I’ve seen Peter Jackson’s movies…if the opening scene of armored elves battling orcs doesn’t give you a bit of respect for the elder, I don’t know what will.

I’ll admit the ability to create elven fighters in the vein of Gil-Galad or Glorfindel…or even half-elf heroes like Elrond…was one of the initially very cool things that drew me to D20 and back into D&D role-playing. However, having divorced myself from THAT game, and going back to my Old Scool roots, I find myself strangely disappointed.

I find very few illustrations of elves in my B/X rules…nothing that really jazzes me up. And BECMI is worse what with the pictures of elves in leaf-patterned jump suits. Ugh! It’s like TSR was purposefully trying to push me away from elves. Hell, look at the Gazeteers: the de Belcadiz of Glantri are the worst stereotypes of Spanish (NOT elfish) nobility, and Alfheim…well when it features obvious pastiches of Wendy Pini’s Cutter, Leetah, and Skywise I have to chuck the whole thing.

AD&D (and HackMaster) is too complex for my interests now, and OD&D is too…um…basic. What to do, what to do. It’s quite frustrating; despite my posted “variable damage” posts, I am not much for wholesale house-ruling, figuring game designers know a fair bit about their trade. And yet, I don’t want to design my own “fantasy game” that basically knocks off D&D.

There’s no plan for a follow-up “elf” post at this time. I’m open to suggestions of how to create a real “Elf Lord” in a B/X (or Labyrinth Lord) setting. Maybe cutting the XP to advance in half, forcing a choice between fighting and magic, and extending the level cap to 12 or 14?

Or I suppose I could move over to WFRP where elves kick ass over humans.


  1. I think people's perspective on demi-humans in OD&D / Basic had a lot to do with what levels they were playing at. If you preferred to stay at the lower levels, then the level caps weren't much of an issue at all. If you like higher level play... it was a big deal.

    At first level in B/X D&D an Elf is a *very* effective class. Reading Lord of the Rings or even just watching the Bashki version made them cool enough to want to play as well.

  2. Yep, I agree with everything you wrote...well, maybe not the Bashki part (sorry, I think Bashki's Legolas looks pretty wimpy).

    Problem is, my clan had not watched Bashki, nor were we interested in low-level play once we hit mid- and high- levels (bring on the dragons and demons!). With the multiple prerequisites it was already tough for the elf to advance; watching a cleric hit 3rd level when you'd just made 2nd could be disconcerting.

    I intend to start up a new B/X/Legend Lore game pretty soon with all new players, so I'll see how it works out. I just think it would be cool to bring in some of that Tolkien/Second Age kind of color....

  3. If you want Tolkien-flavored elves, first, raise the level cap to 12 or even 15, Decrease the exp per level by something like 25%, and replace the magic-user spells with clerical spells.

    Why swap the spells? Because the elves of Tolkien are not fireball-throwers. They are healers and sages. They heal wounds, cure poisons, supply amazing foods without recourse to plow-and-furrow agriculture, and bolster the spirits and courage of others with their songs and example.

    In short, Tolkien's elves are far closer to D&D's clerics than they are to magic-users, and if I were making a B/X Middle Earth, I'd toss clerics as a PC class and simply use elves with clerical spells.

  4. So not even the elves in the Basic and Expert frontispieces inspired you? I find them awesome personally, but I get where you're coming from.

  5. See my rant on "Elven Role-Models." Yes, I am inspired by the elf on the Basic set's the only one worth a damn I can find.

    As for the Expert set frontspiece...not sure which character you're calling an elf.

  6. I just found your Elf Rant, and I agree with it--in fact, there really aren't any other B/X elf pictures I can think of at all--maybe the one on the original Isle of Dread cover--it kinda looks like Jeff Dee was sneaking a Grey Elf in there...

    Admittedly, I can't prove the character in the middle with ram's horns is an elf, but -she comes across to me as kinda elfy. :-)

  7. Ah, and for me, she is an exceptionally badass fighter...basically the high level version of Morgan Ironwolf. But that is my opinion.

    Until I see more pointy-eared evidence, it is only a theory, my friend.