Elf Rage 2

Tuesday, May 5, 2009 - 3:58 PM

The drow, or dark elves, are a creature straight from the Dungeons and Dragons universe, and they have a long and colorful history despite their monochromatic appearance. They originally started as one of the most frightening opponents in the RPG, portrayed as ancient, decadent and amoral creatures who have a burning hatred and contempt of other races, especially their elven relations. The original descriptions of what the drow were like pointed at a vicious and depraved culture that was nonetheless highly educated and sophisticated. There were hints of the wonderfully inhuman Melniboneans from the Michael Moorcock Elric saga.

When the Forgotten Realms setting came out, things changed. The popularity of Forgotten Realms brought out a very different kind of drow elf, one which I abhor to this day. The fickle decadence was replaced by an adolescent portrait of cut-throat politics and pretentious power struggles. The alien behavior of the drow was lost, and they became like other elves; pointy-eared humans, who in this case had morality issues and an allergy to sunlight. One of the major reasons this version of the drow became popular was the work of R.A. Salvatore, in his portrayal of the rather melancholy renegade drow Drizzt Do'Urden.

What happened?

The drow all suddenly became cloak and dagger caricatures, smirking and swaggering around in arrogant circles. The fragments that Gygax and his contemporaries produced were swept away under this new hierarchy, and the drow lost their identity. The RPG world was suddenly filled with redemptive anti-hero drow, renegades against the oppressive matriarchy of their society.

This is the seat of my Elf Rage. I loathe this version of the drow, and for several reasons. Cheesy moustache twiddling villains rub me the wrong way, no matter what they are, but losing the elegant inhuman ugliness of the original dark elves was just plain inexcusable. I also find it laughable how some people interpret the drow from a metagame standpoint, in particular the fact that they are depicted with black skin. That's black as in ink, not black as in negroid, though some people seem to have made that mistake on occasion.

As it turns out, a good look at early DnD monsters will reveal some bits and pieces of very old mythology. Svart alfar were the dark elves in Nordic/Germanic myth, and these were the direct basis for the drow themselves. Svart, for those who do not already know, is literally 'black'. It's the root for the word 'swarthy', meaning dark-skinned.

So, why not make them ink-skinned? Take your racial theories elsewhere.

Also, the notion that the matriarchal religion of the drow represented some kind of gamer fear of women is patently ridiculous. I point to the simple fact that, originally, the drow had sexual dimorphism: the dice sets for female stats were better than those for males. The women had better innate magical abilities, and they were even physically bigger than the men. This is in keeping with the arachnid theme of their own deity. Now, perhaps gamer fear of women figured into later depictions, but I refuse to believe it was originally part of the drow aesthetic.

Also, some have complained about the notion of a race that is born evil. Well, why not have a race which is literally born evil? This IS fantasy, after all. It brings up some very interesting questions about morality, of course, but I do not happen to believe that the concept of a race born evil makes everything suddenly black and white, particularly if the evil in question is actually just a very different set of operating parameters. A tiger kills the ox to eat. It is a killing animal, born and created for it. If it were intelligent, would it continue to have this killing instinct? Would it need to exercise that instinct regularly? Would that make it evil in the cosmic sense?

When I designed evil elves for my setting, I wanted to avoid a couple of specific factors involved with the drow. First, the drow society is entirely a construct built by their female demon-goddess Lolth. I try and avoid direct divine intervention as much as possible in world building, saving it for specific circumstances. Second, the drow are basically attacking the surface world because of the usual needs for vengeance, conquest, just plain malice, etc. I wanted something more sophisticated than that, something less human and much less short-term.

This post went on for a bit, so I'll cap it off with a little introduction to the next. It's only fair that, having pig-poled the drow, I should show what my own ideas have been about what an evil elf would be. So, consider this.

The elves were born from the alfar's attempts to understand human symbols and concepts. One among them noticed that humans had some strange ideas about decomposition, decay, and fear. The word corruption as an intangible, moral concept did not exist for the alfar. The alfar noticed that the concept was most often associated with cities, and so the one who chose to study the concept built one. All of those who wanted to study these concepts went to the city, and began the process. Later, that city was sealed off, and their leader told the other alfar that isolation was required for a time.

After a great deal of time the other alfar began to wonder what had happened to their comrades, and they went to the city to alleviate their concerns. What they ended up doing was leveling the city and scorching the surrounding land to nothing but rock.

But what they did not know was that some citizens of Uryashar had long since left the city to walk covertly among the other races. It was not enough for them to study by becoming; they had to continue their study by influencing, manipulating and creating events in the lives of others.

In later days, these once-alfar would be called the Shepherds.

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At May 5, 2009 7:43 PM, Blogger Carol Hanson said...

Ahhhh. That clicks together nicely!


At May 6, 2009 9:38 AM, Blogger Mark said...

I must confess to some annoyance with the "born evil" trope, mostly because it's too simple. If a race of beings are born bad, it's too easy to dismiss them and wipe them out. When my characters are making choices of such cosmic, global, and genocidal import - wiping out a race or sacking a city - I want them to have to come to grips with the consequences of their actions. I want them to know that what they're doing might be wrong, after all. Granting their actions metaphysical sanction by saying "those people are bad, so it's ok that you killed them" sucks all the drama out of it.

That said, I'm not a fan of absolute morality. Or, rather, I don't mind when something is absolultely bad once in a while, but what I really don't want is for anyone to know it.

The biggest frustration I have with the Drow is that I want to Drizzt to be my character. Before you get out the pitchfork, let me explain. My process works like this:

1. Mark observes a race of beings that are supposed to be inherently and irredeemably evil.

2. Mark's inherent frustration with the idea of inherent and irredeemable evil attempts to choke him in the night.

3. Mark decides to subvert the frustrating trope so he can sleep again.

4. Drizzt.

And it's incredibly frustrating, because Drizzt sucks. I don't want to make Drizzt my character, and yet I also do. It's a paradox of suck. A suckadox.

In any case, I'm with you 100%. The original dark elves were alien and frightening, later dark elves were boring and lame, and it's a shame.


At May 6, 2009 9:58 AM, Blogger Carol Hanson said...

But "inherently and irredeemably evil" was always a gaming simplicity, like color-coded dragons.

Everyone knows animals feel pain. So some people are vegetarians. They're starting to discover that plants feel pain. So some people are vegans. But people who still eat meat aren't considered unusual, and if you believe that meat is meat, then what's so very wrong with cannibalism?

Start with the idea that drow are non-vegan non-vegetarian cannibals in how they treat other races. Sapient doesn't matter. If it's not drow, what's wrong with killing it? If it's sapient and not drow, then it's probably thinking of killing me, so all the better. If it -is- drow, then it's certainly thinking of killing me, so let's try to come out on top.

Then add a culture isolationism and decadence that says pain is the highest form of pleasure (especially other people's pain).

Perfectly reasonable point of view. ;-)


At May 6, 2009 10:55 AM, Blogger Mark said...

I both agree and disagree with you.

The idea of the Drow as seeing themselves as above us as we are above plants and animals, thus justifying them using, abusing, and potentially even eating us is fine. I'll admit that the whole "I am as above you as you to the beasts, thus justifying my asshattery" thing is a little old for me, but I won't go so far as to say it's bad. I'm just a little tired of it. I get a lot of it in Exalted.

I love the culture of isolation and decadence bit. Of course, then the question you need to answer is "who keeps the decadence going?" That's easy, though - various slave races whose pitiful lives are justified by the ideology of arrogance and cannibalism described above. I'm still totally on board.

Then, however, you get to "that says pain is the highest form of pleasure (especially other people's pain)" and we trip onto what I see as the problem.

Who does that? Really, who does that?

That's where the Drow start to lose me. Xenophobic? Check. Elitist? Check. Great capacity for cruelty to outgroup members (including underclasses within society)? Check.

Inherent senseless cruelty? Sorry. I can't quite swallow it.


At May 6, 2009 11:03 AM, Blogger Carol Hanson said...

"Inherent senseless cruelty?"

Nothing senseless about it! It's the most exquisite of sensations, the line between pleasure and pain, between life and death? There's been enough humans who explore it, who are fascinated by the physiological and psychological effects of torture, that, given a culture that feels itself already superior to everything else, it's hardly strange that it becomes the norm. It's not evil: it's Science! Or, more likely, Art.


At May 11, 2009 10:31 AM, Blogger MCHossman said...

Oh, no! Mont did it. He brought up the Drow. Now you's guys (and gals) are gonna get to hear me rant!

First off, I sort of share the same boat that Mark wishes he could row in. I love the idea of playing one of the most feared and feral of races as an option for character play. They are quite an inspired (and inspiring) race which carries with them so much potential for character play/development as well as GM fodder for game play.

As far as the entire race being EVIL, I don't have too much problem with that. Anything that is different can, in some light, be defined as 'EVIL' as Carol illustrates. What we don't find in the gaming materials, however, is why they are EVIL or why they are the way they are. They are fanatical devotees to Lolth, the Demonweb Spider... that's some pretty messed up stuff when you step back to consider. Why? What's behind it?

Quite simply, the Drow have no friends. Every race, every creature they run into wants to kill them... mostly because they're EVIL *with the twisty moustache for effect* but let's be real for a moment. You have a race of magically enriched people that live outside of their original environment and despite everything and everyone that strive to kill them, they still persist! That, in itself, is all sorts of sexy when considering PC options!

A loose and quick analogy could be Israel in the Midlde East. Surrounded by enemies, dwarfed by numbers yet still they have the means to not only defend themselves, but grow and prosper despite the animosity or even apathy of their closest of neighbors. This only adds to their attraction for player rpg play, so why not?

And when we bring up religion and fanaticism, one doesn't really need to follow the strict guidelines of rationality. If I go and shoot your dog, the courts are only concerned with my open use of firearms and your loss of property, it's not a murder wrap. So maybe the same is with the Drow and all else. They are below them, other races don't register because they are the ones who matter.

People suffer for their religion all of the time by poking themselves with sharp sticks to denying themselves their personal urges. Like Carol says, if pain is somehow tied to the exaltation of religion or the like then it makes its own sense... especially if it is within its own paradigm (IMO). Hell, the drow not only abuse and torture their own failures by turning them into Driders (half-drow, half spiders) and even though the Drider's despise and hate their drow counterparts, they are still used as guardians an shock troops. Why? It must be because of some belief system that keeps them tied to the race as a whole.

Wanting to be the 'good' Drow is like playing the guy who wants to be known as the 'good' Nazi. He carries with him the prejudices of his race as well as the hatred of his own people. What real chances does this person have? So what if the guy really believes in nationalist socialism but wants to be seen as something more than a placard with two words on it, its in the perception of who and what he is that really comes into play here? He's different... but that doesn't play out, in real life -OR- (if you have a decent GM) in your typical rpg setting.

Personally I do not like playing the 'only guy who is different' archetype. It is too easy a way to make that character 'unique' and when you are playing with others, it is impossible for anyone to truly delve into the world of personal challenges and development when you have 3-5 other players also wishing to have personal discovery and development. What often happens is a watered down world that lends itself into accepting an anachronism only to ignore the more critical aspects of story making that addresses the core reason that you chose to create the anachronism in the first place.



At May 12, 2009 7:25 AM, Blogger C Hanson said...

"Wanting to be the 'good' Drow is like playing the guy who wants to be known as the 'good' Nazi."

This. As succinctly put as I've ever heard it (and I'll be quoting it in the future :-)).


At May 15, 2009 9:46 AM, Blogger C Hanson said...

Testing another comment to this post.


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