Monday, 10 December 2012

Campaign Bestiary: The Elves

These are some notes on the physical and cultural characteristics of the elves in my campaign.

The Elves

Physical Characteristics

Elves differ in form only slightly from Men, and non-humanoids find it easy to get them confused ("all humanoids look alike" they say). Generally speaking, the facial features and limbs of Elves appear elongated and thin compared with those of Men. Their skin colouring is always a pale ivory, and appears slightly translucent. If burned by the sun, they do turn red, but they never tan (or freckle). Their hair is straight and either pure white or pure black, without gradation. To human eyes, they tend to appear rather albinoid. They have high cheekbones, and large, slightly slanted, almond-shaped eyes with little white showing, with either pale gray or very dark blue irises.

In low light, an Elf's pupils dilate enormously, making their eyes appear completely black — they can see much better in darkness than can Men, but like most creatures do require some light to see by. They are able to discern detail over a considerable distance, with vision comparable to that of a hawk.

Their willowy build makes Elves relatively puny compared with Humans. They are, however, remarkably resilient when it comes to physical harm; they can take a surprising amount of damage without being disabled, and they heal very quickly, seldom scarring visibly unless from some terrible trauma. They seldom suffer from disease, and they are immortal unless killed by violence.

Elves are naturally nimble and graceful, and perform as a matter of course acrobatic feats that members of other races would have to train at for years to achieve.

Elf children are rare, especially among High Elves, and grow from infancy to adulthood over a period of about 60 years.

History and Culture

The Elves are a withdrawn and decadent race, the remains of what was once a highly advanced and widespread civilization. They are not native to this plane, but have lived here for many thousands of years — knowledge of their native plane is now lost, though information may still exist in some ancient archive. Their kingdoms at one time dominated the land from the farthest north to the furthest south, from east to west, and their cities were jewels in the landscape, centres of culture and scholarship. Those days are now long past, and those who are left now have little to do with the affairs of the outside world.

In the days of their highest achievement some 5,000 years ago, the Elvish civilization was a loose confederation of some two hundred kingdoms of varying size and power. There had always been a certain amount of rivalry between them, and alliances and hatreds that rose and fell over the centuries, but serious conflict was rare and seldom long-lived. However, at that time something happened to change the way of things that had stood for millennia. Rivalries gradually became more intense, and disputes more bitter. Scholars became secretive and jealous of their knowledge, which before they had shared freely. Kings and queens began to demand not just respect, but submission from their peers. Bloodshed became more common, and the monarchs began building armies, something that had never before seemed necessary. Cities became fortifications, and the inhabitants of smaller communities began to withdraw into them. The so-called Lesser Races began to become slaves, rather than the valued servants they had previously been. Elvish civilization became a dark and tyrannical thing; general conflict seemed inevitable to all, and everyone prepared for it as best they may.

The Great War, when it came, seemed at first nothing more than another petty dispute over the control of an unimportant stretch of land. However, rather than dying away the conflict intensified, with more and more kings drawn in on either side. Some took the opportunity to strike at their rivals while they were otherwise occupied, and were stricken in their turn. There came a time when it seemed that there was no place in the world where one Elf was not trying to kill another, and the scale of the war grew and grew and grew. Vast stretches of country in the south-east were laid waste, and in fact have never recovered to this day. The conflict reached a crescendo, after over three hundred years of constant warfare, in the cataclysm that created the Cursed Lands, but even after that calamity (which wiped out fully a third of the Elvish race, not to mention vast legions of their slave troops of other races) the war dragged on and on. The scale of warfare dropped, but not for want of hatred — rather because the remaining warrior-monarchs simply no longer had the resources to maintain themselves. Gradually, over another thousand years, the war continued, dying away here and flaring up there but never ending, bleeding away the vitality of the Elvish race almost to extinction.

Not every king or queen went to war voluntarily. There were many who were wantonly attacked and forced to defend themselves, and were thus drawn willy-nilly into the seemingly endless madness. There were others who, seeing the way the wind was blowing, went into hiding from their own kin and thus avoided entanglements, but those who remained successfully hidden were by far the minority.

The surviving Elves fall into one of three loose types:

High Elves

Light Elves

The first are those who, having successfully hidden themselves, managed consciously to maintain the nobility and scholarship of the old days to some extent, though by its nature such an existence results in an isolationist outlook, even in the best of times. To have remained hidden through all those long years of warfare, they must necessarily have been relatively unimportant to begin with, or else they would have been sought out. However, in these communities is the last vestige of the glory of the elder days.

Dark Elves

The second are those who managed to remain hidden by becoming utterly ruthless in their quest for anonymity. Although they keep much of their knowledge and skill, they are become absolutely xenophobic and will seldom, if ever, venture out of their own borders or allow any others in. For these Elves, a trespasser is an enemy, and thus deserving of death, which is dealt out without mercy or compunction.

Wild Elves

The third are those who, by thousands of years of constant warfare, of constantly hunting and being hunted, have become virtual savages. They are normally to be found living in small, barbaric tribal groups, having discarded any knowledge or culture unrelated to pure survival. No creature can live such a life without losing its essential humanity, and for the most part these eternal warriors are, by any normal standards, completely insane.

Magic and Technology

High Elves have regular access to highly technologically advanced equipment that to other, younger races appears magical. In fact, they employ little magic as it is understood elsewhere, preferring to employ more predictable and reliable means of achieving their aims. Elves are bought up to treat the use of these objects as normal and usual, but many of them can be extremely dangerous in unskilled hands and should be treated with great caution.

Wild Elves, for the most part, have lost the knowledge required to build or maintain the equipment their more civilized cousins take for granted. Their descent into barbarism and ignorance has resulted in the adoption of beliefs and superstitions that civilized Elves would consider ludicrous. While they may still possess items of great potency from the Ancient Days, they (like the other races of the modern world) tend to view them as magical rather than as technological objects.


High Elves are basically irreligious. They recognise the existence of powerful entities with the ability to directly manipulate physical laws, and even maintain intercourse with some of them, but they do not treat them as gods. Their "religion" is actually a system of ritual designed to foster social bonding and to facilitate the communal remembrance of significant people and events, and though it has some common elements across Elvish culture, is largely specific to each community.

Wild Elves have adopted an animistic and shamanistic religion. Each tiny clan has its own magic-maker with the responsibility of dealing with those entities they have come to view as supernatural, and in this respect (as in many others) the Wild Elves have come strongly to resemble the cultures of other primitives all over the world.