What do you think of when you imagine elves? Do you think that they’re woodland demi-humans, inclined to magic, with high Dex and low Con? Do you think of the fact that they have low-light vision and speak sylvan? Or that they’re resistant to sleep and charm spells? Do you think of Legolas, or Drizzt, or Dobby? Or even Buddy the Elf, whose character arc was one of the most magnificent examples of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey?
Well, maybe not Buddy.
Now, cast your mind back to your childhood. What were your first thoughts about elves? Were they mysterious woodland creatures, tricky and capricious? Were they magical and inscrutable? Did they steal into children’s rooms at night, or lead them into the forest to dance beneath the moon? Were they a whole host of other imaginings of the wide-eyed minds of children?
Old fairy (faerie?) tales are full of myths about elves, and they have been imagined many ways. Tales of the wars between the seelie and unseelie courts, the use of glamours to beguile mortals, people disappearing at standing stones, and a magical summer country abound in old stories. And they’re almost completely absent in most modern RPGs. Ladies and Gentlemen, our collective childhood has been sanitized in the name of statistical efficiency.
Creatures of Legend
Fairy tales are universal, and all fill the same function within their respective societies. European myths abound with stories of trolls, goblins, elves, dwarves, ogres—all sorts of creatures. Other cultures have similar creatures in their folklore—oni and kappa from Japan, nagas and rakshasa from India, adze, popobawa and tikoloshe from various African nations, and many more. At their root, all of these stories are steeped in a sense of the mysterious. They are stories of creatures that are used to make sense of a frightening world.
Elves are probably the most-loved and represented of these fantasy creatures, so they’re a wonderful example. But consider ogres, and goblins, and dwarves. Each of these are mysterious in myth and legend, their powers frightful and terrifying. Heroes could not defeat them as they could simple humans. Fae creatures were tricked into giving their true name, giants were lured onto beanstalks that were cut from beneath them, vampires were eluded by scattering rice at their feet—each children’s story is a new invention. Rarely does the warrior face the creature in single battle and fell it as he would a human enemy. With a few exceptions (I’m looking at you, Grendel), there little mystery in those stories.
As wonderful as they are, writers of fantasy literature (and, subsequently, role playing games) couldn’t help but adopt them. Early fantasy writers infused their stories with that sense of wonder, creating races that were alien to our human sensibilities, often with other-worldly motivations and incomprehensible motivations. But as these creatures were further explored, they became more clearly defined. As such, the sense of mystery slowly melted away.
A seismic shift occurred with their introduction into role playing games. Players had to be able to get into the heads of their characters. When players were able to play alien races, their motivations and behaviors had to become anthropomorphized. Furthermore, the metrics of advancement within games like Dungeons and Dragons—experience, treasure, and magic items—meant that all characters were ultimately striving for the same things. This further humanized inhumans.
The Danger of Stereotyping
Another phenomenon occurred during this period, especially within literature. Novels are an expression of their times, full of the beliefs and biases common within those cultures. Most fantasy literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was highly Euro-centric, with protagonists typically being white men. Stories like Conan the Cimmerian and the Lord of the Rings have protagonists that exemplify European ideals of manliness, and are notable for casting non-white humans as villainous, products from barbaric cultures from which white victims often need to be defended.
Non-human races suffer from much the same issue, often in a way that attempts to hide the Euro-centrism behind a veneer of fantasy other-ness. Non-human races have often been used as thinly veiled depictions of non-white races in a way that dehumanizes them, in both literature and film. While we all have a soft spot for our favorite demi-humans and humanoids, examining the stereotypes for evidence of these types of hidden racism can be a valuable exercise in making your world seem more fantastic.
Bringing Back the Mystery
Bringing the mystery back into your non-human races can be challenging on two main fronts. The first is cultural: how do you create a creature that has an alien culture and motivations, while still making it so that players can identify with them? The second is game mechanics: what do you do to make your creature special in a way that doesn’t make them either too powerful or too vulnerable?
In order to make a non-human race culturally different, there are a few things you can try. First, just making them rare within human lands helps. If all the smiths in a fantasy milieu are dwarves, and they all act the same, they quickly lose their sense of wonder. Another technique is to make them difficult to communicate with, as vocal ranges, speaking techniques, and accents would certainly be more pronounced than they are between human cultures. You can also build a mythology around them, and give them cultural values and motivations that don’t clearly align with the dominant human dynamic, like an elven culture that believes that all life is sacred and must be spared if possible. Making them have goals beyond gaining experience and treasure is also a good way to set them apart.
Mechanically, you run into a different issue. When drow elves were first introduced, everyone wanted to play them; aside from being cool, they had bonuses beyond what you could get with the core races. On the other hand, who would want to play a goblin or a kobold? Second edition tried to balance that with “effective character levels”, so that awesome races would advance more slowly. But it didn’t address the fact that elves were still basically pointy eared humans with higher Dex and lower Con scores. If, on the other hand, racial powers were coupled with racial flaws that both required role playing and had mechanical impacts, it would add to the sense that non-human races were more than just modified human templates that were better suited to specific classes. Making their racial motivations powerful enough to be compulsions would give players a motive to play them out, and underscore how inherent these traits are.
Myths abound with stories of fae creatures and magical lands. Sometimes the best way to recapture that sense of wonder is to go back to those myths and see how they can be incorporated within your world.
In our beloved example, how do we make elves more than just pointy eared humans? Stories abound of faerie creatures being able to be bound in a circle of cold iron, and of cold iron causing pain to the touch. Faerie creatures are often tied to the woodlands, and need to commune with nature regularly. Often they can communicate with woodland creatures, or sense the feelings and fears of trees, and knowing their true name can give you power over them. They can be fickle and flighty, but are often bound by their word as if by a geas. Many tales talk of glamours, where they can change their appearance or beguile others by some innate ability, and how they can become terrified or undone if their glamours are broken. Stories speak of the Summer Country, and the Seelie Court, a magical realm where humans can disappear into a dream-like twilight, and to which all fae creatures must both return and answer to.
These myths are ripe for mining, both for cultural ideas and for game mechanics. Moreover, stories like this abound for hundreds of types of creatures, giving them special weaknesses to go with their special powers. Demi-humans and humanoids become more fascinating when they’re mythologized. But there’s nothing saying you have to stick to someone else’s script. Why can’t dwarves be a forest dwelling race, who use the roots of their tree friends to bring precious metals and gems to the surface? Why not have ogres fiercely defend their territory because it possesses their lifestone, a carved boulder that must be destroyed in order to destroy them? Why can’t werewolves need to run with a pack of wolves on the nights of the full moon, and feel the need to protect their pack at all costs? Each of these examples could be used to add flavor to your world in a way that doesn’t break it, and could make a good hook for a module or campaign.
In the end, fantasy games should preserve the fun of playing. If you’re happy with what you have, stick with it. But there’s no reason why these old tropes should feel like—well, old tropes. With a handful of sentences, you can breathe new life into creatures that have become all too familiar, and give players the opportunity to play something that feels other-worldly. By playing with motivations of character races, and putting in a few critical details, you can reinvigorate choices that may have grown tired. As long as you’re careful to make sure some sort of balance is preserved, you can give creatures like elves the same sense of wonder they inspired when you were reading fairy tales, instead of just feeling like pointy eared humans.