Friday, September 2, 2011

The Problem with Elves, Redux

I experienced a runaway success with my post on The Problem with Elves, thanks to a repost by Greg Christopher over on Google+ and Alias at his blog (in French!).  There were a lot of great responses, so I feel that I need to make a follow-up post.

History and Memory

One of the frequent comments was that even we poor humans experience distorted and fuzzy memories.  Expecting an elf to remember facts from a century and a half ago may just be too much.  I have three basic responses to this.

Historians greatly value primary sources of information, despite the fact that they are biased, limited in their view, and incomplete.  The simple fact that elves have imperfect memories does not mean that those memories would not be valuable, or influential.  The simple concept of "lost empires" would be almost impossible to apply.  Given that I am not a student of history, especially as a discipline, I will yield that perhaps I do not understand all the forces at play.  But, I still have a gut feeling that having an elf who served under Constantine when he converted to Christianity also advising Charlemagne and Frederick Barbarossa couldn't help but change how Europe handled the Dark Ages.

Elves, and most similar races such as dragons and nephilim, are seen as wise, intellectual, and storehouses of knowledge.  They are precisely the sort of people to not only remember the history, but to study and record it.  If elves do have memories as fuzzy as humans, I would expect them to use journals or other methods to record those memories while they were still fresh.  Now, it is certainly possible that centuries of fuzzy knowledge get combined with a tendency to aloofness and precise manners to create an illusion of intellectualism.  But, that feels unsatisfactory to me.

Similarly unsatisfactory is the loss of the weight of the ages to my elf PC.  I want my elf to rattle off stories like Duncan McLeod or Ramirez.  Human wizards might talk about the ancient Golden Age of Magic, when Mordenkainen and Tenser held court over the Arcane Council.  Elven wizards fondly remember having tea with Mordenkainen, and competing with Tenser for a woman's attention.  If you're going to take away those memories, why have the long-lived race in the campaign in the first place?

Throwing a (Learning) Curve Ball

I got some really interesting responses to the learning curve issue.  I think that I could synthesize them into a really interesting setting justification that actually makes sense.

First was the suggestion that elves place a high value on self-sufficiency and awareness of their place in the universe.  While they mature and learn at roughly the same pace as humans, they are not considered "adults" until they learn all the skills that go into living.  They must learn to hunt, tend to the grain fields, operate a smithy, cobble their own shoes, etc.  It is similar in a lot of ways to the current vogue of knowing exactly where your food is coming from (q.v. Mark Zuckerberg's insistence on personally killing any animal he eats).

Then came the suggestion that, though elves may have long memories, their skills do get rusty.  Leveling up, for elves, is more a matter of remembering how to do things, rather than learning how.  At the time, I had an issue with this, because it implied that all elven PCs were either coming out of retirement or civilians who were trying to recall the lessons from university or a stint in the army.  But, it does work well to justify the learning curve.

A third suggestion, drawn from WHFRP and a White Dwarf article, is that elves only have a limited capacity for memory.  That nightly trance they do instead of sleeping?  That's when they edit out the day's events to only keep the memories they think are important.  Elves can explicitly decide to forget awkward conversations, failed relationships, or traumatic experiences.  I kind of wish I could do that.  The highly edited memories that remain may stretch back over centuries, but they are generally not really a reliable record of what actually happened.  As I am not familiar with WHFRP, I don't know how much this is part of current canon in the system.

Combine these concepts, and you can have ancient beings with memories that stretch back over several human lifetimes.  And beings who have a remarkable breadth of knowledge.  But, as they strive for breadth, and edit out old memories, they lose the kind of focused excellence that brighter burning races get in most skills.  You don't end up with many level 100 elves because each elf has reached level 10 in a couple dozen NPC classes.  Since most of those skills are of little use in adventuring, they don't really matter.  A couple tweaks to the mechanics for the race (e.g., automatically considered "trained" in all skills, can sometimes pull out an "I know I learned how to do this once" bonus) could easily model this.

Setting Expectations

One of the most common observations was that, in many settings, the elven society is distinctly separated from the human society.  That is what keeps the elves from distorting the humans' sense of history, and vice versa.  There were also a few suggestions, like in the learning curve discussion above, that made explicit changes to the way elves typically work.  I wanted to call out here that, yes, there are always ways to bend your setting around the issues that elves create.  Part of the point of the original post, though, was to hang a lampshade on the issues, so that you can make the changes to have elves make sense.

Some of the implications of the common fixes are interesting.  If elves are tucked away and almost never seen by humans, then why are they a core race?  If there are four core races (human, elf, dwarf, halfling) of roughly equivalent power, I would tend to expect that each one makes up roughly 25% of the adventuring population.  If your elves are so isolationist, why is it that most of the ones that are seen are adventurers?  (There were some great answers to this question, but also some settings that seemed to leave the question hanging.)

In some cases, the elves were truly inhuman and alien in nature.  Similar to the WHFRP situation above, their minds simply do not work the way ours do.  This can cover a wide swath of seeming inconsistencies.  But, do your players actually represent this (or see it from you) at the table?  If your elves are so alien, do they have a culture and political structure that is alien as well?  Do social skills used on and by elves get modified accordingly?

Again, I want to reiterate that I am not saying that elves can't work in a setting.  And I am certainly not saying that anyone's interpretation of elves is wrong.  I'm simply trying to shine a spotlight on the fact that including a race that lives for centuries will have much more impact than a greater number of birthdays.


  1. Ok, one bit of tangent on elves in medieval Europe courts, Frederick II of Hohenstauffen, Holy Roman Emperor would have been all over that, whether elves were accepted elsewhere or not.

  2. I see where your coming from. In my setting, the elves have more in common with the concept of the Seelie or Unseelie than they do with Tolkeins elves. For example, halflings, gnomes, spriggans and the like are all servitor races of the elves.

    Elves encountered in the actual campaign setting of Zama, instead of their home plane, gradually lose these traits. In part due to the ritual that permanently prevents their return to the Summerlands. Partly from exposure to humanity. So in a sense, PC elves remain similar to elves as presented in the rulebook. Except possibly more self-centred and a little more treacherous and cunning.

    However, elves, like almost any intelligent being in the game, are social animals. It's this drive to try to seek out others of their kind that drive the majority of such exiles to become adventurers. In effect, they travel and delve not so much for gold and riches, but to fund their tireless search for others of their kind.

    A while ago, one of my players asked me, given that all the races in my game world actually visit the summerlands when they die (when they are between incarnations), why don't elves simply commit suicide after being exiled.

    At the time I just smiled and asked him if his character would like to try it and find out. He didn't take me up on the offer. Just as well. There's a reason exiled elves cant be brought back from the dead in my setting. Given that an exiled elf can never return to the Summerlands, there's only one place left for elves to go when they die. And the denizens down there arn't the sort to let so rare and tasty a morsel as an elven soul escape their clutches.

  3. @Misfit - That's because Frederick II was a badass.

    @Brian - That's a really interesting spin on the whole issue. So are PCs at all likely to meet elves that haven't been exiled? (Also, out of curiosity, have you read Deborah Turner Harris' Caledon series, particularly City of Exile? One of the main characters is a Sidhe who is in exile.)