Tuesday 29 May 2012

AD&D Races: Elves

Wood Elf?
Races are one of the big tone-setters in any fantasy game. A game with only humans is going to have a different feel than one where there are only demi-humans and AD&D's assumption that players can play any one of several races certainly puts a distinctive stamp on the default gameworld.

Elves are particularly interesting because of what they are not. What the word means to a person probably reflects that person's reading or movie-watching more than any other race. While AD&D's dwarves, half-orcs, and hobbits/halflings are inextricably linked to Tolkien's versions, the elf as described in first edition retains its own identity to a much greater extent.

High Elf?
Art: Wendy Pini
"Elves" can be, of course, Tolkien's superhuman serial-incarnating immortals from the dawn of time, or they can be the fairies of Rackham and Shakespeare, the wood/nature spirits of English folklore, Wendi Pini's shipwrecked star-voyagers, or the elemental magic-wielders of Scandinavian and Celtic myth. But Monster Manual elves are basically the English type.

Over time they changed, but from the start Gygax demonstrated a knowledge and interest in the beings found in the folklore of the British Isles, and not just English stories. The MM, MMII, and even the Fiend Folio have many examples which are straight adaptations by Gygax from English, Scots, Irish, and Welsh tales and myths into AD&D stats. Probably only Greek mythology rivals Britain for direct inspirations for AD&D monsters.

The elves fit into this "ecology" and are in fact a very poor fit for either Middle Earth or Vanaheim, while the more whimsical of Britain's "fairies" are given their own entries as brownies, pixies, sprites, booka/pookas, and so on, leaving the elves themselves as one of the main demi-human options for player characters.

Which is not to say that Gygax didn't try to ride more than one horse. Even in 1977, AD&D elves came in a wide variety of types: Grey (specifically given the alternative name of "faerie"), half-elves, wood-elves (AKA sylvan elves), aquatic elves, the default high-elves, and the rumoured drow or "black elves".

Although the tallest male elves can reach 5' 6" in height, according to the DMG, the average is 5'; not "little people" exactly but far from the imposing forms of Tolkien and many older tales of elves.

Elven Queen?
In (particularly Scots) folklore, the elves and the other fairy races are divided into two camps, the seelie and the unseelie courts, where "seelie" means "blessed" and court is used in the sense of a royal court, with a king and queen at its head - Oberon and Titania being the most famous examples of elven rulers due to their appearance in A Midsummer's Night Dream, although the "Queen of Fair Elfland" encountered by True Thomas is still also widely sung about anywhere where two or more beards and a guitar doth gather together. Presumably, the unseelie court likewise has its rulers, although I don't know of any specific examples off the top of my head (and I can tell you that Google is no help at all in this area!)

The influence of these stories is so strong, in fact, that they manage to impinge on one of the most clear of all the lifts from Tolkien - the ranger class. Despite its unarguable origins in Tolkien, in that class the list of "giant class" opponents is really a thinly disguised list of the Unseelie Court of British folklore.

Elven Royalty?
In the Players Handbook the "giant class" covers bugbears, ettins, giants, gnolls, goblins, hobgoblins, kobolds, ogres, ogre magi, orcs, and trolls. Of these only orcs and ogre magi are not found in British folklore. The UA version of the list added some monsters from other sources (gibberlings, flinds, norkers etc.) but at the same time MMII had added many more examples of British monsters and intelligent races.

In the end, "seelie court" of AD&D consisted of the Booka, Brownie, Buckawn, Dryad, Dwarf, Elf, Gnomes, Grig, Killmoulis, Leprechaun, Nixie (Anglo-Saxon), Pech, Pixie, Pseudo-dragon, Selkie, Some Dragons, Sprite, Swanmay, and Sylph from the lists of intelligent creatures, although some of these races would be neutral to humans. These, plus their opposite numbers in the ranger's list plus the hags and many more non- or semi-intelligent British monsters - from cooshee to yeth hounds - constitute the "natural" associations of the AD&D elf much more than balrogs and wraiths.

Elf and Sylph?
For me, and many people I knew, these were the sorts of things we associated with elves, and in Irish Studies in school we were taught about some of them as well as hearing stories from our parents and grandparents long before we ever read Lord of the Rings. So I never had that urge that so many seem to have had to make elves into a super-human race, and similarly level limits never bothered me or seemed unreasonable. Many of the stories Gygax drew on told of the decline of the elves and their associated races and creatures - even Chaucer's Wife of Bath mentions it (as does, of course, Tolkien although for subtly different reasons). The "fact" is well established in myth that elves retreated in the face of the rise of humans and the game builds that fact into its default make up.

If elves in AD&D don't seem very elvish to the modern player used to later depictions both in film and in other game systems, it may help to consider why elves are the way they are in the game and what the source material is for that particular design and build some scenarios that emphasise those origins. There are a lot of meanings to the word, and it probably helps to know which one is being used.


  1. I believe that Poul Anderson's depiction of elves was a big influence on Gygax. My favourite rendering is probably the Middle English Sir Orfeo, where the "faerie" are basically indistinguishable from the mortals. Good observation about the "seelie" and "unseelie", never knew that (lacking an education in Irish studies).

  2. Mythological elves were associated with shapeshifting all right although the later stories seem to have modified that to a skill with illusions. So being indistinguishable from humans fits right in there, especially in context with the stories of changeling children brought up as human by unsuspecting parents.

    I know a lot of players were bemused by the idea that kobolds were on the ranger's "giant class" list but for me it was just an odd choice of name; the list itself made perfect sense.