Elves We Need, and Elves We Don’t

Elves. One of the founding player races in Dungeons & Dragons, they’ve always been a source of consternation for me, while at the same time being one of my top five favourite non-human, non-monstrous player races. But they have a convoluted history with a lot of internal inconsistencies in D&D, and one that is becoming more convoluted with the upcoming release of Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes. So it’s time for an intervention, because D&D has a serious elf problem. and by “elf”, I mean Eladrin.

Background

Elves in D&D are, for lack of a better term, a mess, and this can be traced back to the not so great amalgamation of inspirational sources used by Gygax when he kludged together the concept. As far as I am able to discern, they were inspired initially by the fae folk of Irish mythology, and the more robust elves of Norse influence used by Tolkien. The problem was immediate, because those influences are radically different from each other. It was compounded when Gygax laid out the very Irish fae inspired court system in Greyhawk for 1e AD&D, while BECMI went in different directions that were more grounded in the Norse influences and Tolkien. From there, each campaign setting world has received a clutch of unique elves that have followed the rough guidelines established in Greyhawk (Grey, High, Wild), with the notable exception of Dark Sun, which, as usual, plays by its own rules.

Past the incongruence of the inspirational material, elves were riddled with logistical and cultural issues within the game as well. Their low birthrate and insanely long maturation period meant that they were effectively a dying race from the get go. When combined with the level cap and class restrictions of earlier editions, it made their history as presented even less sensical, especially when it involved “elven high magic”. This lurched along until Wizards lifted the restrictions in 3e D&D, and later released the Races of the Wild book in 3.5e D&D; which did much to make elves into a viable species with a chance at survival. However, Elven history and mythology was rapidly becoming an even more tangled mess even while viability as a species issues were being sorted.

The Drow Connection

Drow are the spanner in the works here. Originally introduced in Greyhawk, their origins weren’t well defined and expanded on until Forgotten Realms snapped them up to turn them into a mess of low grade villains. This was the source, I think, of much of the unification of mythology effort. Drow had to be explained. There were numerous factors that contributed here, but I think the greatest one was the recycling of the Underdark subsetting from Greyhawk into Forgotten Realms. This is why it’s not always good to do a full lift of an idea from one setting to another. Suddenly there were two worlds with the same underground with the same monsters and races in it, except Forgotten Realms went HAM on the previously only breifly described or undiscussed background for the Drow, and has driven their development completely since. The issue this raised, of course, was that all that work had to be reconciled somehow because of the common mythology and sub-setting used in both campaign settings.

The Amalgamation

1e AD&D and 2e AD&D largely approached elves on a world by world basis. Each world had its own set of elves, with a unique history, culture, and origin, even when they were following the general template established by Greyhawk. At this point though, demihuman deities were starting to be shared between Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms. This continued through 3e and 3.5e D&D, without much change. Then 4e D&D happened. It’s hard to write this part without sounding like I need a string board and a tinfoil hat. After several attempts, I’m just bullet pointing it.

  • Greyhawk establishes the Elven base collection of subraces and a pantheon of gods for them.
  • Forgotten Realms lifts much of that, and makes it so that the two elven populations are effectively linked.
  • Forgotten Realms goes deep into the mythology and history of elves, creating problematic gaps between the histories of elves given their now common link. In particular, the Crown Wars and origin of the Drow.
  • D&D as a “generic” setting in 3.5e lifts some of the Forgotten Realms work, blends it with Greyhawk material, and turns it into a cosmic history/mythology.
  • Elves are now split between Arvandor (Aborea) where literally all their gods are and where they go when they die, and the Feywild in origin. This is a split between the development path started by Gygax (elves are fae) and where later developers went (elves are linked to nature but not fae) that persisted through editions.
  • Elves become a plastic race over this process, adapted for every environment. Elf fatigue begins to set into the player base.
  • 4e D&D seeks to further “sort” the problem, and recasts the Eladrin as a kind of proto-elf, all elves are now explained as being Eladrin who effectively acclimatized to their worlds, all elves are now non-native to their worlds courtesy of 4e’s approach to gaming.  Players are mixed in their reception to the idea.  
  • 5e D&D doubles down on everything, and moves to further unify the existing mess by building on the bones of 4e’s conceptualization.

The Eladrin

With reference to the title of this post, these are “elves” we don’t need. The Eladrin seemed new to many of us in the fraught days of 4e D&D, but they actually have deeper roots in D&D lore. The Eladrin made their first appearance in 2e AD&D, in the Planescape setting. They were a race of elf looking celestial beings from Aborea (later renamed Avandor, fully titled the Olympian Glades of Arborea), a Chaotic Good aligned plane in the D&D cosmology with no connection to the fae or later Feywild. Owing to their appearance, they were rumoured to be elves or related to them, but the background in 2e AD&D made it painfully clear that they were a completely separate race. 3e and 3.5e D&D maintained this, expanded on it, and also kept the Eladrin subraces intact.

4e D&D changed it all on a whim (like it did with so many other things). Eladrin were delinked from their previous lore and recast as a kind of proto-elf, representing what elves who never left the Feywild “were”. They were then shoehorned into every setting. This was, to me, a particularly bad idea because not only did it cast away all the amazing lore and background to the race that could have been used to build up something infinitely more interesting than grinding out another elven subrace, but it also degraded the existing player race elves. It was a ill thought out and badly executed effort that was ultimately detrimental to the edition and its campaign settings.

Now, with the impending launch of Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, it’s been announced that the Eladrin are back, and that WotC has decided to stick to their guns on the their strange reinterpretation. Now, in the past, I’ve advocated that sometimes taking a light approach to canon can be a good thing. It can create something better or greater than its predecessors, often leaving problematic aspects in the past. To me, this decision makes more problems than it solves.

My main issue is that it’s a poor use of lore in the game. The Eladrin were already an established and varied race in the game, complete with their own power structures, heroes, and so on before the 4e D&D debacle. I also think it’s a mistake to try to link all elves together under one origin. Humans aren’t subjected to that, and it makes them vibrant and interesting, with their own gods, beliefs, and ideologies varying from world to world, setting to setting. This just makes it so elves are the same, everywhere. A boring, homogenous monoculture, repeating the same patterns on every world, in every setting. Having different histories, origins, pantheons, and so on is a net positive, since it helps differentiate campaign settings from one another. What made the Elves in Dark Sun and Dragonlance so memorable? They were different. Dark Sun elves were a wild departure from anything previously done in D&D. Dragonlance elves were intrinsically linked to their world, its gods, and its history, and a well defined departure from the fae origins of the Greyhawk elves they were loosely patterned off of.

Dark Elves

These, as the post title would indicate, are elves that we actually need. As I wrote earlier, Forgotten Realms has driven Drow development, and the development of “generic” D&D elven history for that matter, for some time. In particular, its associated novels have made Drow the favourite of many players, and the bane of more traditionally minded DM’s. What hasn’t been touched or expanded on is the return of Dark Elves to the Forgotten Realms setting. Dark Elves were dark skinned and dark haired elves who settled the southern forests and jungles of Faerȗn. Their history, like that of most dark skinned peoples in Forgotten Realms, is rougher than average. One of their main cities was annihilated by the Sun Elf led First Sundering that created Evermeet and re-cast the face of Toril. They were then the main targets of Sun Elf aggression in the Crown Wars, saw their last great city reduced to the wasteland of the High Moor, and were ultimately cursed (regardless of being guiltless or un-associated with the demon queen Lolth) into becoming Drow, magically cast from Corellon Larethian’s sight, and imprisoned in the Underdark by Sun Elf magic in an effort by Sun Elves to basically hide their rather serious crimes.

Well, these Dark Elves are back. The Lady Penitent series by Lisa Smedman, for all its flaws and issues, not the least of which was being a vector for the nonsense of 4e D&D, returned the Dark Elves to the Forgotten Realms setting, and, presumably, by extension of the kludged unification, theoretically to every setting where Drow exist who had any worshippers of Eilistraee. At the time, it went unnoticed by WotC that this had occurred. Or what its potential ramifications were. Much was probably missed because it was 2008, and the team in charge of butchering the Forgotten Realms campaign setting were hard at work trying to make their vision of a largely POC-less campaign setting come true.

Now, racist tropes about dark skin and evil aside, this is another example of a missed opportunity by WotC to develop something new, interesting, and diverse for 5e D&D. Dark skinned anything as a player race in D&D in general is rare as hens teeth (even Dark Sun was inhabited almost exclusively by sunburnt white people). In Forgotten Realms, the list can be summed up as a handful of human ethnic groups, Gold Dwarves, and Half-X player races that have human parents from said ethnic groups. It’s pretty thin on the ground by any standard. Now, since 2008, there’s been an outstanding chance to write some serious, canon (WotC official, not DM Guild) material for a world that desperately needs something not dipped in colonialism or casual racism.

In this, I realize there has been speculation about how many Dark Elves were reverted, how Eilistraee might think about the process, and so on. Taking a canon-light or canon-speculative approach, I would postulate that, reasonably, a larger number than estimated of Drow were reverted back to Dark Elves. I would go further, and put forward that the possibility of being freed from the demonic taint of Wendonai, and being welcomed back into the fold by the Seldarine would become very attractive to Eilistraee’s followers; possibly resulting in a growing Dark Elf population (by magic cleansing and more traditional ways), and of Drow followers who, for the purposes of spreading her message and keeping tabs on the Lolth following Drow, retain their demon tainted bloodline and traditional Drow appearance. Personally, I would make the process a level 7 divine ritual conducted at certain times of the year (maybe during a particular lunar phase), and then integrate it with celebrations and festivities in the Dark Elf community as they, you know, break away from being dysfunctional Drow.

So here are my questions about these elves:

  • Where are the Dark Elves? What are their stats and position in the world?
  • How are other races dealing with the sudden appearance of Dark Elves?
  • What has happened in High Moor since, and what is Q’arlynd up to?
  • Given the riven and shattered nature of Faerȗn, are they carving out a new homeland?
  • How do the Sun Elves feel about this bit of history coming back to haunt them?
  • Are the Dark Elves receiving divine help from the Seldarine to get back on their feet in a bit of a mea culpa move similar to the assistance the Gold Dwarves got?
  • How are the Drow dealing with a sudden reminder of who they once were?
  • How is Lolth dealing with the stick in the eye of a fact that her daughter is not only back, but has a pack of Dark Elves following her?
  • Given that the Seldarine and Dark Seldarine are pan-setting, cosmology spanning pantheons, what’s happening with this on other worlds where Drow exist?
  • Why are Eladrin being given priority over a playable race from the base campaign setting that would add more much needed diversity to the setting and allow for some quality world building and adventures?

Final Thoughts

Creating universal origins in something as complex as D&D is a bad idea. Why? Because every change made then needs to be accounted for elsewhere. A core issue to me is that D&D has, in the past, tried to operate as a “generic” fantasy game on many levels, but in reality, has created an immense amount of lore and structure that made it the opposite of that. For example, worlds like Athas and Krynn didn’t conform to the “generic” D&D structures of Toril and Oerth, or even make use of the cosmological structures of D&D like the outer or inner planes. Eberron made partial use of established canon, but went in radically different directions with its Drow and elves (and Orcs). By creating a canonical Ur-myth that “solves” elves in two of its campaign settings (Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk) to include an unneeded new subrace deeply linked to the mythology, it throws a spanner into the works of worlds that deviated from the path those settings took. Just off the top of my head, this is what I immediately wondered:

  • Why did the Seldarine abandon the elves of Athas, Aberynis (Birthright) Krynn, and Eberron?
  • How is the history and creation of Drow on Oerth sensical now, and how can if be addressed with the new history and mythology?
  • Why did Lolth abandon her Drow on Athas to be butchered?
  • Why are there no Drow on Krynn?  
  • How did the Drow of Eberron break free, completely, of Lolth? And why hasn’t she aggressively tried to go after them?
  • Where did the elves of Aberynis come from, and how are they effectively atheists now?
  • If the Seldarine are actually a cosmology spanning pantheon, why are they all lesser and medium powers? There’s a literal (but for some reason, poorly described) space empire of Elves that worship them in Spelljammer, in addition to all the elves on various worlds and planes.

I think it the changes will also cause problems down the road creativity wise. It’s my thought that WotC is unaware or not fully appreciative of the effect its actions in 5e D&D are having on how people are playing and interacting with their product. It’s subtle and not so subtle “guidance” for new players in the PHB and in any representation of player races has led to heavy use of stereotyped combinations of player races and classes. Adventurers League (AL) has created an entire movement within the culture of the 5e D&D community to adhere to AL standards and practices, moving players and DM’s alike away from getting creative or exploring new combinations of things with it’s PHB+1 and standard array policies on character creation. The result is a growing population of gamers who are being conditioned to use things as they are without deviation.

Now, I know there are lots of creatives out there who can and will disregard official material and roll hard on their own ideas. But for every one of those, there are a dozen players and DM’s who will just take what’s offered and call it a day. It will become the pattern from which future works will be developed, characters are made, and become a director of creativity in the community. I listened to the official video from WotC on the redux of the Eladrin, and it just came off as badly thought out and a poor use of lore that didn’t add anything to the game except to act as a tissue thin justification for the re-presentation of Eladrin as elves for the 5th Edition.

Well, nothing to do now but wait for the book to drop and get the full story of how things will be influenced for the foreseeable future.

4 comments

  • Reblogged this on Confessions of a Geek Queen and commented:
    *applause*

  • What BX/BECMI sources do you recommend I take a look at if I want to understand how they depicted elves? It seems more interesting than the forced rationalisation of elves you describe.

    And yeah even Pathfinder neglects to do anything interesting. You’d think being unable to rely on wotc IP would force them to be creative. Drow are still underground demon-worshippers, and even though all (?) elves come from the equivalent of Venus rather than another plane, this has zero effect on their characterisation.

    • The Gazetteer series for BECMI, outlining the world of Mystara, is where it all is. While AD&D was limiting what players could play, BECMI was constantly expanding it. The Elves of Alfheim, and the Shadow Elves modules are where you want to look. BECMI elves were part of their world, and had a very Norse/LotR feel about them; although they went in some weird directions fast with Shadow Elves. At the same time establishing the tree-home stuff we now take for granted. Another example of different directions they took is in the Orcs of Thar, where race/classes for all the goblinoids are presented, and that was while AD&D was still adamant that only the conventional player races were acceptable.

      • Thanks for the quick reply — I’ll check out those volumes of the GAZ series.

        It’s a shame Mystara doesn’t get more love. Obviously wotc’s pushing Forgotten Realms to the exclusion of everything else, but the 5e players I see who use other TSR settings typically go with Greyhawk and Planescape.

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