Elf
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“Elves are wonderful. They provoke wonder.
Elves are marvellous. They cause marvels.
Elves are fantastic. They create fantasies.
Elves are glamorous. They project glamour.
Elves are enchanting. They weave enchantment.
Elves are terrific. They beget terror.
The thing about words is that meanings can twist just like a snake, and if you want to find snakes look for them behind words that have changed their meaning.
No one ever said elves are nice.
Elves are bad.”

Lords and Ladies Terry Pratchett

Basic Information

In European folklore, these small creatures are quite industrious. They will come into homes at night to help those they find deserving. They will do the work for the owners with flawless craftsmanship. Once they are rewarded properly they leave allowing the deserving person to continue prosperously. They have the power to bless and it could be assumed from that that they have the power to curse as well.

In most fantasy role-playing settings, elves tend to follow the way they were depicted by J.R.R. Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings and other writings. Tolkien's elves are an ancient race; tall, slender and graceful of form, possessing deep wisdom, a reverence for nature and an innate magic that manifests itself not through spells and sorcery but the way they do things, a magic which, in some cases puts them on a par with the more powerful entities in creation1. They are immortal, capable of being slain, but immune to the ravages of disease and age. This fact more than any other creates a barrier between elves and men and makes it difficult for the two races to understand each other.

Tolkienesque elves are generally depicted as having pointed ears, but Professor Tolkien himself would not comment on elvish ear-shape.

The Tolkien elves also bear some relation to the faeries of European myth - also known as the sidhe to the Irish and more euphemistically by such names as "The Kindly Ones", "The Fair Folk" and "The Gentle Ones", possibly to cover for the fact that in many cases they occupy the 'abducting alien' slot later inhabited by the greys. The actual role of the fae varies from tradition to tradition - in some they are friendly towards humans (not always with the most positive of results), and in others callous or sadistic - and some tales divide the two classes, the Anglo-Scottish tradition defining the seelie court ("good") and the unseelie court ("evil"). Confusingly the same roles in Scandinavia mythos are filled by trolls in many cases - the name serving for both the human like "faerie" and the brutish, predatory giant. Many fantasy settings adopt the seelie/unseelie divide (with adaption decay) by having an evil race of elves, generally (and unhelpfully) conflated with the Nordic svartalfar and therefore living underground and often black skinned - this is increasingly subverted in modern times2.

The "workers by night" trope is better fitted to creatures like brownies, dormovoi and booka who appear in so many folk myths across so many cultures that it becomes worrying…

The inversion of elves and faeries: changing the "fair folk" and the "little people" tropes for one another, seems to be an artifact of the 18-19th century, possibly due to growing urbanisation and separation from rural folk traditions.

Elves as they are portrayed in classic D&D are shorter than humans and are mortal, although extremely long-lived by our standards. They are visibly inspired by the Tolkien model but much humanised both mechanically and thematically … mostly to make them playable but "balanced" against other species.

In pretty much all settings, elves hate orcs and the orcs hate them right back3. Some sort of grievance against dwarves is also traditional.

Sources

Bibliography
2. The Simarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien
3. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

Game and Story Use

  • In a fantasy game it could be that the elves have been helping the PCs and they need to figure out what to do.
    • Perhaps the elves helped someone that was not sufficiently grateful and as a result that person is now cursed. This could be a PC or just someone that has hired the PC to figure out what they must do to break the curse.
    • Perhaps someone has captured one of the elves and is forcing them to work constantly.
    • Perhaps someone has hired the PCs to capture some of the elves to build a work force.
  • In a more modern game they could be helping people make their way out of the gutters- almost like guardian angels, until they are crossed and must be dealt with.
  • In a more modern setting where magic and technology meet they could be the new denizens of sweat houses- forced to work with no reward in sight.
  • If the elves are forest dwellers, they might use cool living architecture like the Living Root Bridges.
  • Sadistic, abductor elves will be a terrific surprise for players raised on Tolkien and post-Tolkien elves.
  • Part of the problem with elves is that it is very hard to be convincing when writing a character who is hundreds, let alone thousands of years old - many writers solve this by only having mortal characters interact with very young elves. Tolkien, of course, had other ideas but characterisation in his work can be limited.
    • Ancients can also shortcut a lot of mystery - what do we know of these ancient peoples thousands of years ago? A grand research project and quest is so much more dramatic than popping next door to ask granddad.
    • As far as mortals are concerned these immortal elves are aloof and patronising: aloof because they can't afford to develop any kind of attachment to something that lives, in relative terms, about as long as a toddler's pet hamster and patronising because, well, pretty much anything you ask them, they have already been over with a hundred or so other humans already, some of whom have been very hard to tell apart and few of whom understood even the basics of the background and context to what they are being told, and they are getting tired of explaining it.
    • It is entirely acceptable not to have playable elves in you setting - you can still have elves, its just that there aren't any at starting character levels (well, maybe a dozen or so but they have homework and aren't allowed out after curfew) - pretty much all of them are high level NPCs centuries old. It's also acceptable for there only to be a few hundred elves left total… and all of them to be terrifyingly powerful from centuries of study and practice.
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