Dreams of Corant 2

Saturday, May 30, 2009 - 5:27 PM

The concluding vision of Corant's past.

You sit and comb out your hair. It is almost to your ankles these days, long and luxuriant and glossy, and it is one of the pleasures of your life. You enjoy running fingers through it, combing it out, feeling the weight of it swing back and forth. Usually, you'd pin it up later and take a long walk.

But today will be different.

Only an hour ago, Tobin had an argument with you. This wasn't surprising, because you two often argued. It was always about small things, small things that you didn't even notice but he always did. These little considerations of comment or glance or word just weren't very important to you, but for him, every little thing forgotten was something to carry as a grudge.

For a while, you just ignored it. Tobin is kind enough, but he could never understand you, or what you know, and you were too busy dreaming. The secrets in you twine around your belly and make you warm at night, and the mysteries you ponder are ones that Tobin would never be able to grasp with his weak-fingered mind. You did love that he tried so hard to please you, as if he were apologizing for the marriage, but you didn't love him. So you were both lonely in your own way, and that was just how it was. You knew he suspected a lover, but he would never know the truth. You tried to be kind, but after a while, his touch was something you tolerated.

He called you cold, so you were. He wept, so you comforted him. You were still a woman, however apart you felt, and so you tried to be good, but Tobin's resentment stained any chance of friendship. So you resented the distance too, and consoled yourself with trying to understand the credo your teacher had left.

But lately it had been harder. There had been no children from Tobin's impassioned fumbling, and he really wanted children. You knew it was your duty, but you were thankful there weren't any.

Tobin was a good man, yes, but the thought of bearing his children bothered you.

You were a little bothered about something else too. Did your teacher make sure there would be no children?

It made you worry about your sister, too, because the things you shared with her seemed to weigh heavy on her. They were difficult for her to bear, perhaps. She could not explain the dull ache in her eyes, and that makes you sad. You thought Lun would join you in understanding, but she couldn't understand.

Despite it all, you love your sister, even though she also makes you feel alone. At least you know she loves you back.

But now, combing your hair out, you have to make a decision.

Tobin got angry. He'd grabbed hold of you when you tried to turn away, and he'd never laid a hand on you before, not like this. You finally you decided to tell him what you thought. All the words you'd kept to yourself about him being insecure and weak and controlling and foolish and stupid; you dusted the edges off and you were ready to send them flying, however insincere some of them were except in anger.

But with the first whisper of breath through your lips, a thread slipped from you, a tugging that you felt slip out of your heart like a needle coming out of your skin, and it went through him
Blood covered the wall, and he died, just like that.

You stood there, numb with fear but suddenly elated.

This is what your teacher had meant about communication.

That is when you started to really understand what hid in the credo.

Tobin, you tell yourself, was a good man.

You are sorry for this, you tell yourself. You are sorry, but the hollow in your stomach makes you understand that this one accidental event has killed the Corant who played along the river bank, the pretty Corant who danced in the circle at the coming of spring, and the Corant who was the pride of her parents. You can't stay here anymore.

I am sorry, you tell yourself through Tobin's memory. I am sorry I could not be a good wife to you, and I am sorry that you died. I did not mean to kill you, but I cannot weep for you, because my love is not for you.

With a sigh, you look at yourself in the mirror, studying your proud beauty, and your long dark hair flowing around you like a waterfall at night. Then you take up the sharp knife, and you hack it short. You will leave the hair behind with Tobin's staring body, and you and your sister will leave.

But first, you will wash. You feel dirty.

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Dreams of Corant

Thursday, May 28, 2009 - 12:10 PM

More dream-experiences of Corant's life that Mearowyn got to enjoy after being horribly hurt by Corant's form of expression.


He told you, from the beginning, that you could not share what you knew.

“I trust you,” he said, the first night. “Keep what I tell you safe, and keep me safe.”

Each dark of the moon, you'd go out and meet him, and all night, he'd speak to you in his low, rich voice, telling you tales and poetry older than the White Tower at Kaylan. Sometimes he'd even show you dreams made real, sifting out of the shadows that always boiled around him. He wasn't like other teachers at all; he'd ask about your thoughts, and you lived for the moments when you surprised him with an observation or a comment. It would make him smile, and he might even touch your hand, stealing your breath away.

It was too much joy to bear, and when Lun got curious, you told her. She didn't believe you, so you told her to come with you, to hide and wait.

And so you wait, near the river, in the darkness, and you keep waiting, but he is not there. Your hands start to get numb, and you don't want to sit down. The time passes by like water slowly freezing solid, and you know you've started shuffling fitfully, but you can't help it. When Lun finally gets tired of the 'game' and leaves, you stay, hoping, pleading inside, please, please I won't do this again, just come back, please, I'm sorry.

It is late when he comes out, and suddenly you feel like a stupid little girl, thinking that you could fool him. He stands there and looks at you, unreadable like he usually is, and your shiver isn't just from the cold.

“I'm so sorry,” you say, barely, but he hears you.

“Corant,” he says, making paradise out of your name. “I trusted you.”

And that's when you can't help it, and burst into tears. This only makes it worse. You feel stupid and ugly when you cry, and you wanted everything to be perfect.

“It's all right,” he says, then, and you look at him. He does not say it like your parents do when you do something wrong. And then suddenly he's there and his arms and his shadows and his cloak all wrap around you like snow gone warm, and you start crying again as his perfect hand brushes against your hair, but now it is because you've always wanted him to do this and why why why did it have to be because you did something wrong?

“It's all right,” he whispers, steam from a warm teapot. “When you know enough, you can teach Lun and share with her. Until then, this was just a game. You can tell her that. Go home now, and I will be waiting for you next time.”

And then he's gone again, with only a memory of his cloud of darkness around you, and the faint, burning-wood smell he left behind.


Your parents want you to marry, but what do you care? Tobin is a good enough man, sweet, even, but you don't really notice him. You are too full of your stories and studies, and everyone wonders at your knowledge and skill these days. Eighteen now, and strong, and beautiful.

Over the years, you've made a little place for yourself where you meet your teacher, a camp site across the river. No one ever finds it; you know it has something to do with Him, but that's all you need to know.

He keeps it safe for you.

So, you sit and comb out your long, dark hair, wrapped in the blanket you wove last month to wait for him. A small fire burns nearby. It reminds you of him, the fire. It isn't that he is warm, but he makes you feel secure. He is strong, and his power can destroy, but it purifies; fire makes all things clean again, burns away impurities.

It also reminds you of him because of the baths, the long, scorching hot baths you take to wipe away all the sweat and dust of a long day. Resting there, lazy and immersed, it is easy to think of him as warm, enveloping. He's never held you like he did the one night, but he's touched you.

Your hands remember every moment of it.

And then, he arrives, the fire going eerie and blue for a moment, and you look up from braiding your hair. He emerges like a shadow lengthening, and there is the blazing white affection for you in his luminous eyes.

“Corant,” he says, like he always does, and you smile and get up to curtsy as he taught you. And then you both sit, and there are lessons. Lately it has been more and more about the power in experience, and the profound understanding that can change one's outlook or health or even the soul. He discusses quietly how pieces of disparate knowledge can be joined by a single thought, and this is often how magic works; the creation of a complete pattern where all the power can flow cleanly. And then he shocks you.

“You are ready,” he says softly, and the fire stutters. “Your thoughts and your will are trained, and waiting for wisdom that will grant you great power.” One of his dark, wrapped hands extends and gives you a folded piece of vellum.

“This is a credo for you. Live by it. Learn to understand it. Comprehend the secrets in the words. Finish the pattern, Corant, and then I will come back to you.”

Then your heart stops. “You are leaving,” you say. You've long since been able to speak with him openly. “Why are you leaving me?”

“Because the student must learn on their own. You can teach Lun what you know, now. Take her with you. There are so many keys to understanding this, and you sometimes you must travel to find them. I will only hinder your learning if I stay.”

But I love you, you want to say, and yet your tongue refuses. It isn't the right time. Instead, your mouth opens, and some resigned part of you says, “How long must I wait?”

“Until you have lived the credo, Corant. When you complete that pattern, I will come to you, and we will be together again. I know you will succeed in this.”

You take the paper, not looking, and you nod fiercely to belay the tears. “I will, I promise.”

Then he stands up, and offers a hand, which you take, readily, and then he pulls you in, easy as the wind nudges a leaf, and before you know it, your head is tilting up and your lips part and he kisses you, he drains the breath out of you with his cool mouth and threads of fire slip through your muscles and knot in your stomach. You know you make a sound, but you don't remember it, and then he's gone again, gone into the darkness where you know you can't follow.

But one day you will. You hold the paper in one hand and you swear one day you will.

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A Few Brief Words

Tuesday, May 26, 2009 - 8:21 AM

Between class, wedding planning and miscellaneous intrusions of that thing called life, my brain has been a little short on words lately. This isn't to say the brain is short on ideas, of course; it cranks out concepts and characters and potential plots at alarming speed. This makes me frustration incarnate at times; it is like having a crowd of new people crammed in my skull, all clamoring for development, recognition and a voice. Above all they want that voice.

They want to live long enough to make their name mean something.

Sometimes I think that this is one reason I am a gamer. Gaming is like a quick solution to the mob of unborn characters. Need a new face in the game setting? Easy. The demand for expression is met, however briefly, and my players get to see yet another uncannily human NPC. Or uncannily inhuman, I guess.

Given all the travel and mess in the next few weeks, I imagine updates here might be a bit thin. So, for the next few posts, I'm going to share a few things I've already written rather than my usual practice of writing direct-to-blog. For starters, I'm going to post some material that is connected to my previous mention of the Shepherds, and specifically referring to an NPC who had a tremendous impact on my DnD group, both in and out of character. In fact, I think Corant had the greatest impact on the party out of any NPC.

Corant was an introduction to the Shepherds. She was an example of someone who had been seeded with a fragment of knowledge, and was transformed by letting it grow through her. By the time the players met her, she was horrific, but she'd started as a normal, intelligent young woman. Corant killed by communicating, and one of the party got dropped by her 'conversation'. As a result, that party member was stained by what Corant had known and experienced, and later had these vision/dreams, reliving small moments of Corant's life.

This was certainly one reason Corant affected my group so much, but I believe there was something more to it. The evil of the Shepherds, when expressed through others, comes out as a lonely, desperate creature. It is a despairing, empty kind of evil, a gnawing and mournful thing. This has the effect of generating sympathy as much as loathing or hatred, and this is one reason why the work of the Shepherds is so dangerous. As a patron of the group once said, 'The Shepherds never force anyone to do anything. They only offer.'

Corant accepted that offer, and here is the first part of that story.


To the north, there are the Nightsigh mountains, and you've always loved watching them, the fog that broke over their toothy crowns every evening. You imagined them as giant emperors and empresses, long ago turned to stone by their mighty patience, facing away from the bleak and terrible land everyone knows lays beyond them. The elves would come and tell tales, but never tales of what was beyond the Nightsigh. 'Sad and horrible,' they said, but nothing more.

But you would walk along the river, with the sun at your back, and warmth in your step. Swift runner, sharp-eyed, you could outwit and outrun most of the boys, and today, it makes you smile to think of them wanting to chase you. Lun was always so jealous of you, and you thought it was funny. You've always been the pretty one, with your long, dark hair and bright eyes, and besides, you're oldest, so that means you get courted first. You have just reached your fifteenth year, so it will start soon!

But mother also says ladies don't play about like you do, and you do it anyway, running down to the river to fish or watch the birds or climb trees. Sometimes your hair gets tangled up or you come home dirty, but mother always forgives you because you sing so beautifully, and you know all the old poems and your calligraphy is perfect. Today, it is catching salamanders, ankle-deep in the wide, muttering river, dreaming about the future. You've always wanted a horse, but home is too rocky and uneven for real riding. Tara's son said so; he'd been south, to Wevnir, and open ground. Perhaps when you do get married, there will be horses... but you won't be like other ladies. You'll ride where you wish, forever!

That's when you notice that someone is watching you from the other side of the river, and you look up, startled, because no one lives there.

That is when you see him


standing there in the shadows, with shadows boiling around him and a streak of darkness held in his


hands like a shepherd's crook, and he looks at you with blazing white eyes, the most dreadful and beautiful thing you have ever dreamed of, and suddenly you don't want your hair to be so tangled and your hands are all muddy and your feet dirty, and he just looks at you and then he smiles and your heart flutters like a butterfly you caught in between your hands once. And then it flies free, because he speaks to you, in a voice just like the fog breaking over the Nightsigh.

“I've been waiting a long time to find you.”

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Adventure Seed

Thursday, May 21, 2009 - 9:24 AM

Some additional information for my players, on a person who has been in the background for a long time...

The Nakibs of Jundo Anha serve two primary purposes. They are wise women and men who offer counsel and a sharp eye to the rulers of their people. They are also mystics who study and watch over the swamp-riddled verdant land, and gather threads of power from the earth. Nakibs (or Nakibas) do consider themselves custodians and wardens of the natural world, but there is nothing rustic about them. They are as clinical as they are reverent about increasing their understanding of the world, often cultivating libraries as well as greenhouses, and carefully studying the interlaced balance of animal and plant.

Most Nakibs begin as scholars, members of the aristocracy, and as they advance in understanding and skill, they are usually assigned regions of land to watch over. Most find some individual facet of nature to focus on, and they often share information with one another.
A handful of Nakibs have achieved extraordinary skill in their craft, and gather no little fame. Many of these Nakibs still attend the plutocratic court of Jundo Anha, but a few have wandered far from home to study and understand other parts of the world.

Nakiba Hafsah al'Kabir was one of these. Daughter of a merchant who traded in art, rare flowers and books, Hafsah had access to a high level of education and sophistication. Her family did not have a Nakib, but her father did keep a greenhouse, and she showed an aptitude for horticulture early on. Originally, her father had hoped she would become a Hakima, a truth-sayer and magician, but Hafsah lacked the subtle wit and unrelenting self-awareness for that lofty position. However, her exhaustive knowledge of local plants and animals attracted the attention of another Nakib, who appealed to her father to allow her the Seven Tests of Empathy. Hafsah passed them easily, showing the proper sensitivity, perception and insight to weave the threads of a Nakiba.

After her induction, she rose quickly in skill, and was named Nakiba within a year's time. Her apprenticeship to a Nakib was cut short with the sudden death of her father, who died in a shipwreck while en route to the port of New Ombos. Being eldest in the family, Hafsah had to make decisions about the family business. Wealth is extremely important for status in Jundo Anha, and Hafsah preferred to maintain high standing above and beyond the quiet recognition as Nakiba. She spent a few years acquainting herself fully with all the trade routes her father used, branching out the business and doing some exploration of her own. After securing and refining her family business, Hafsah returned to Jundo Anha and resumed her studies as a Nakiba.
Her social status and considerable talent won her the plot of Andira Laa, a particularly humid pit of old swamp, which Hafsah spent a couple of years overseeing. The richness of life in such a fertile but hostile environment was fascinating to her, and she experimented heavily with alchemy using processes and materials from Andira Laa. Some of her experiments won considerable accord from her Nakib peers, but Hafsah would be known for transplanting flowers from other places.

Specifically, during her travels Hafsah had been exposed to the rare and peculiar flora of the Shemshir basin. Flowers and plants grow there which will not grow anywhere else, due to some elusive quality of the earth or the weird sorcery of the Par'hu who live there. Hafsah became aware of plants there which could revive the recently dead, allow sight into the future, and create other wonders. She experimented with crossbreeding and grafting in the Andira Laa, seeing if these plants could fit into ecosystem there, but only had limited success.

The bizarre and potent drugs from Shemshir also caught Hafsah's attention, and she began to make use of some of them recreationally. But she also found one in particular which increased her sensitivity and awareness to the plants she was working with. She could hear their growth like a form of soft music. This subtle level of perception allowed her to make leaps and bounds of progress in mystical horticulture, and by the time she started to study what little was known about Par'hu garden sorcery, the other Nakibs came to her with concerns about her extensive use of Shemshir drugs. They were grudgingly surprised by what she'd done with the Andira Laa, but also pointed out that she'd broken several rules about transplanting species.

Choosing to withdraw honorably, Hafsah publicly apologized for her failings, gathered up her merchant business, and relocated to Korai, where lack of strictures on imports and exports caused her wealth to increase. She began to heavily invest in the small but potent market for Shemshir plants and products, and quickly became known as a seller for them. Her experimentation continued, and eventually she became fascinated with the ability of certain Shemshir plants to overcome or transform the effects of death, as well as those which behaved more like animals.

Eventually, Hafsah's studies branched further into arcane practices, looking at the patterns of necromancy and the concept of ecology created in conditions where necromantic forces were prominent. Her erudition and magical skill grew, as did her wealth, as did her level of experimentation. Her original affinity for swamps did not fade, and she continued to study the fecundity of an environment that was so full of death. Much of her experimentation at this point was performed on herself, or under tightly controlled conditions. She did not introduce her work to any natural environment at that time, and traveled a fair amount to collect books, materials and information to expand her work.

Hafsah developed a reputation as a remarkable apothecary, a talented necromancer and a skilled herbalist and horticulturist, as well as a clever and influential merchant. In the recent days of her career, she has grown increasingly reclusive, and purchased a large swath of forbidding sub-tropical swamp in the Purayu islands, presumably as a home. Particularly recent findings are a bit troubling, however; indications show that she had been doing extensive work with the frightening Shemshir ochre tilia, a beautifully colored but rather mangy clinging plant whose pollen puts animals into a deep hypnotic state...which the plant uses to slowly consume them.

What is happening on Hafsah's island is still a mystery, but many of the local populations have suddenly ceased contact with neighboring islands.

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Warning! Warning!

Friday, May 15, 2009 - 6:31 PM

We're experiencing some comment issues here again. I blame the overwhelmingly erudite essays of Ryan for shocking the commenting feature into insensibility.

Working on the issue now...

Inherently Evil

Wednesday, May 13, 2009 - 12:49 PM

We have had some great comments on recent posts... inspired by Elf Rage. This post is a bit late but I think some people will find it very interesting reading.

It is important to note that in a fantasy setting, just like science fiction, you are dealing with the concept of beings who simply do not think or feel the way humans do. They don't perceive the world the same way, either. Being human ourselves, we have to use the human perception as a baseline for these depictions, but it is important to understand that an entirely different species might make decisions on an entirely different set of thoughts, rationales and feelings. and this is rather more absolute than merely having an opinion. Evil implies motive, and if something cannot help but be what it is, how evil is it really? This is one reason why I don't think the presence of absolute evil makes things suddenly black and white. Absolute evil does not negate moral shades of gray.

I will also mention that I don't believe that something born inherently evil is automatically Absolute evil. Absolute evil is reserved for those supernatural things such as demons, who are removed entirely from the constraints of natural law. In my mind, something like a demon might be able to make sense, but ultimately, their way of thinking would be almost entirely incomprehensible to a mortal creature.

Of course, right from the start, you have a problem with the terminology. What does inherently evil even mean? Considering how out of control 'what if my paladin...' threads get in RPG forums, it is pretty easy to see how differently people view good and evil (my favorite one-liner is from a friend of mine: 'if you have to explain why it isn't evil, it's probably evil'). Instead of philosophizing, I'm going to use some examples of three intelligent races from my own campaign which are commonly regarded from the human standpoint as 'evil'.

Goblins are widely considered a dangerous nuisance. They are not very bright, breed very quickly, and can be extremely tenacious. They are careless with resources, but are capable of living in places humans won't even go near. Goblins have only one real sense of morality, and that is the survival of their own kind. The fae blood in their veins has given them a degree of creativity, whimsy and fascination, but the goblin view of beauty is a bit skewed, and they find the extreme of creatures in shock or pain oddly compelling; it is like one step up from the human tendency to stare at a car wreck. Part of this is how they were bred; goblins were made to be expendable soldiers, meant to fight and die en masse for their ogre autarch masters (the Gavarrhan).

Goblins left on their own don't want to fight wars, but there is a constant danger implicit to a goblin population. Bred to obey, goblins are compelled to follow orders from hobgoblins or ogres, and will do so even if it kills them. Goblins fear their masters for this reason, often actively avoiding contact with ogres or hobgoblins, but they literally cannot comprehend direct disobedience to either. They can coexist with humans fairly well if coached, and are quite capable of emotions like love or compassion. The irrevocable splinter of obedience to the Gavarrhan is troublesome enough, however, and there is a lot of prejudice towards goblins. Goblins, not understanding prejudice as a concept, attack would-be attackers furiously in order to protect their own, and have no compunctions about resorting to torture or atrocity to scare other races out of their territory.

The pheesu are a rather different case. Like goblins, they were manipulated into becoming a race of their own, but in this case the pheesu were merely uplifted to sapience from their original animalistic state, and left to develop on their own. Originally pack-hunting reptilians, the pheesu developed a kind of 'over-pack' hierarchy that provided a foundation for a large society, bolstered by an acknowledgment of racial identity. But the old tenets of predator-prey relationships and territorial rights were hard-wired in the pheesu psyche. As much as the pheesu became capable of rationalizing or comprehending, their instincts were in them from birth. Their initial conquest was merely for more territory as their race grew, but they were not interested in subjugating other races for any other reason than to use them as cattle. The pheesu were indifferent to the philosophy, art or science of prey animals. They would toss human captives to their hatchlings so that their hatchlings could fight over the food, giving their young practice at killing as well as weeding out the weak.

Pheesu were ferociously protective of their children, but they did not make allowances for runts of the nest. The strong live, the weak die. Killing was just part of being a pheesu; the imperative of predation would overwhelm them if ignored for too long, and the average pheesu would have to kill an animal once a week or so. This was not regarded as a hindrance to them. It was just part of being pheesu. Likewise, physical confrontations between packs were an accepted occurrence. Like many animals, they had behavior allowing for minimal harm of their species in a confrontation, and that became a ritualized but nonetheless brutal act of resolution. They had no empathy for prey races, such as humans. A pheesu was not being cruel when it started eating a human alive. It would not have thought to spare the human the pain, because the human was merely not important. At no point did the pheesu ever ask whether or not they were doing something wrong. It would have been exceedingly difficult for them to even understand the notion that it would be wrong from another point of view.The pheesu only respected or communicated with those creatures that were individually tougher than a pheesu, or for some reason did not set off their territorial instinct.

The Shepherds, descendents of the Alfar who studied human symbols of corruption, are all sages and scholars. They seek out forbidden secrets and keep many of the same, occasionally letting one or half of one slip to watch as the disease of knowledge spreads through the world. They study corruption in all forms; body, mind and soul. They examine the countless ways corruption might manifest and grow as well as how it is stopped or dealt with. Shepherds watch the process of secrets growing into different secrets, and collect all manner of lore that is regarded as repugnant, grotesque, frightful or blasphemous. The malice of a Shepherd is incredibly subtle and far-reaching, and thus to the common mind, they do not seem nearly as cruel as they actually are. The act of manipulating other beings is so ingrained to a Shepherd that it is instinctive. They are capable of compassion, but it is often for the purpose of building trust so that they can violate that trust in the future. Though the horrors they practice on others (and sometimes themselves) do further their constant study, Shepherds feel contentment in doing these things, and regard it as quite healthy and normal.

All Shepherds consider themselves part of a family. All Shepherds follow a common goal, which is so integral to who and what they are that it is an intimate bond between them. In a sense, one can consider all Shepherds to be in love with one another. In their view, no one else can see the depths that a Shepherd has descended to, and no other race can possibly understand how far a Shepherd can go. To a Shepherd, the world is a strange place, for it does not mirror the nightmare life that they are content with nor the twisted, selfish place they see the world as. Expressions of love between Shepherds border on atrocity in the eyes of other beings, and the compassion they show to non-Shepherds is pain at best.

So, which of these is inherently evil? Which of these is evil at all? How much black and white morality do you see here? Could any of them be potentially allies or heroes? What about antiheroes?


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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Elf Rage?

Monday, May 4, 2009 - 4:18 PM

Over at the Burning Zeppelin Experience, there's some excellent talk about Elf Rage, which is something I've both seen and been part of.

I'll be clear. I don't hate elves, or even the concept of elves. I do have elves in my DnD game, and I would cheerfully include them in a fantasy novel. But I hate how they are usually portrayed, especially in modern fantasy literature, and particularly in RPGs. My primary reason for this is simple.

Elves are not humans.

I've touched on this topic before, but it bears repeating. One of the biggest problems in fantasy literature (particularly modern fantasy literature) is that non-human races are basically humans with some odd quirk or physical difference. They are often culturally very limited in comparison with humans, usually only with one basic social pattern ('we love nature' is a fine example). Though this makes a certain degree of sense with particularly long-lived races, as a culture might homogenize itself after a very long time, it's still not very likely. The one exception to that might be if the actual psychology of the race is different from the human norm, but we have already pointed out that in most examples, it Isn't. They act and react like humans, they follow basically human lives under a patina of carefully applied theme, and in most cases are even biologically similar to humans.

That said, my own Elf Rage is mitigated by my acceptance that elves are an archetype of their own. Whatever their depiction, the notion of these otherworldly, beautiful and ancient creatures is ever-present. You may call them something other than elves, and perhaps they have horns instead of pointed ears, but they are still in keeping with the elf archetype. Fantasy stories in particular are replete with the Fair Folk, even if only mentioned. People quickly grasp on to that archetype, and it has been present mythologically for ages. It's easily accessible at its heart, even if the peripheries are silly.

So, what do you do to make an elf separate from the aggravating tropes they've been connected with?

That's the hard part. I do with elves what I do with any non-human race. First I decide what fundamental mode of behavior is intrinsically different in them, and then I carom this facet off of the usual survival mechanisms to see how everything changes. Then I start fitting it into the world I'm placing them, and the rest tends to fall together. I should mention that I am a huge psychology/sociology/anthropology geek, so I have a lot of patterns in my head to play with, and a lot of questions I don't even consciously ask anymore. They just answer themselves eventually.
To make my elves accessible, I do keep a few of the standard concepts behind them, but the way I handle them are considerably different from what I've bumped into in my reading.

My own elves are latecomers. Humanity has been around a lot longer than they have, and one of the big keys to the elf world is that they are trying to understand humans and how they fit into the universe. The elven predecessors, the alfar, did not have a shape of their own. They Became whatever they wanted to be, and that was how they understood something. So, in the beginning, they were clouds and mountains and trees, and in all respects they were clouds and mountains and trees, existing as these things in order to know the greater whole. But then they saw that humans gave meaning beyond what was there, and this puzzled and intrigued them. To the alfar, fire was fire. You didn't need to explain it further than that. To a human, fire could meant security, safety, sometimes emotional warmth, passion, volatility or even anger.

The alfar were astounded, and thought that perhaps humans understood the world on a level that the alfar did not. They did not comprehend symbols at first, but they did what they had always done. They became the symbols in order to understand them. Most of the alfar broke into groups in order to study and meditate on these abstract human concepts, and carefully built themselves a new shape in order to learn. This would be the beginning of the elves, and the relation to human concepts is why elves appear somewhat human. As time went on, some alfar found themselves so deeply absorbed into their study that they lost the power to change again, and these were the first elves, grounded forever into the universe as humans were. Elves are still engaged in their attempt to understand humanity, though some have given up on the process. They've been companions to humanity since the beginning, and though neither really understands the other, humans will always find the elves fascinating and the elves are always drawn to humanity.

The alfar themselves are for the most part gone. Those who did not become elves left the world in shame and outrage because of the studies of one of their own, who found the human concept of corruption fascinating, and built a city to explore it. They leveled the city and departed, leaving behind only a handful of their own to watch over their now-lesser children.

I did keep many pieces of the old elf template. As you can see, I kept the Tolkienesque notion that the elves were connected to one of the world's great evils, innocently stumbling into something that consumed them. The elves do live a long time, but their lifespan depends strongly on what philosophy they were born from. Some only live as long as a human does. Also, this translation of elvenkind accounts for the notion that there must be many different kinds of elf, something that I was merely looking for a good way to explain. If humans have so many ethnicities, why not elves, after all?

So, here you have elves which are walking symbols. Unlike humans, elves really are stereotypes, whatever their personal differences in attitude and opinion. Some elves can always be counted on to be vindictive, for example, and some are always passionate and quick-tempered. It is part of what they are. Humans are amazed at the self-confidence and utter certainty of the elves, and elves wonder at the ever-changing nature of humanity with its shifting boundaries and mutable personalities. This isn't to say that elves do not change their behavior; they do. But elves don't have any illusions about who or what they are. Their illusions are in what they want to become.

This is one reason why the elves fell prey to themselves in the city of Uryashar, and why there are some branches of the elven race which are feared and despised to this day. And no, that wouldn't be the drow. But the drow are a topic for another day. Most of my Elf Rage is vested in that very specific subject.

So, do I support Elf Rage? To a degree, yes, it is justifiable. But all stories use archetypes, and elves have become just another archetype.

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