Saturday, September 30, 2017

The Inextricable Grace of Elves

I've written about elven psychology, linguistics, origin, military, weapons, half-elves, and their infinitely looping kingdoms at the end of time.

But one thing I haven't written about is what it's like for the PCs to actually encounter true elves, face to face.

Should I do a recap first?  I feel like I should.

Boring Elven Lore Shit

Originally, you had baseline humans.  When transhumanism resulted in True Elves, they basically started running the show.  They made slave-races for different tasks: spacers (halflings), soldiers (orcs), laborers (dwarves), while the baseline humans went extinct, only leaving various races of subhumans (bred to be fulfill different types of magical sacrifices).

Eventually, the technology slipped away and the True Elves lost the ability to create more of themselves.  Their degenerate offspring are the High Elves (who are the Low Elves) and they are the most beautiful creatures on Centerra (save nymphs and such).  The True Elves have either left the planet or jumped ahead to one of the temporal estates at time's end.

Elves have the best civilization and the best historical records because many of them were spared the Time of Fire and Madness; they were safely living on Eladras when it happened, a tree that grew downwards from the moon.

(I thought I wrote a post about Eladras, but I didn't.  It's roots are still in the moon, pieces of its trunk form some of the orbital biomes, its branches fell in the Dustwind, and its seeds were used to make grow Aglabendis.)

So the High Elves live forever, magical and powerful, isolating in the beautiful places they have claimed for themselves (often forests).  Each High Elf city is ringed by Wood Elves, the outcasts that society has deemed too ugly or too offensive to dwell among them.  (They're still extremely beautiful by pseudo-medieval standards.)  Elves claim all beautiful things, not just beautiful forests (which sometimes resemble parks) and so sometimes the wood elves are more like beach elves or mountain elves but you get the point.  They're the dirt-elves that range away from the parties plazas.

And then percolating through all elven society are their slave-races, except they'd never call them that.  They are their little brothers and little sisters, and they are enslaved by love.  They love their older siblings, and revere them even though they aren't allowed to sit at the same table as them, or even speak to them directly.  These are the half-elves (elf-men and elf-women) who are sterilized adult humans who have been created via semi-elfification of stolen infants, the alchemical orcs who have been restored to some of their original prowess as super-soldiers, the ashakka who are wooden golems powered by elven ancestors, and all manner of magical bullshit that they are capable of conjuring.

Most people think that half-elves are the true elves, since those are the ones that sometimes engage in trade.  Most scholars know of the furtive Wood Elves, and believe them to be the true elves.  And a vanishing few mortals have been to the elven cities and met the High Elves (who are the Low Elves) and believe them to be the true elves.  And everyone is wrong once again.

How Elves Talk

The thing to realize is this: unless you've been living in elven society for a few hundred years, you're going to offend someone terribly within a few seconds of walking in the door.

Remember that all of elven society is predicated on beauty and positivity.  Unpleasant things are corrected, removed, or ignored.

A smelly adventurer with blood in his mouth and shit on his boots represents an extremely significant challenge to etiquette, best avoided altogether.  An adventurer will find it nearly impossible to access an elven city, because they really don't want you in there.

But even within the elven city, all discussion of unpleasantness is avoided.  This means that they avoid discussing pretty much all of the outside world.  Talking about unpleasantness is an offense that entails punishment: shunning, resocialization classes, and in the most extreme cases, banishment to the wood elves.

If you could sum up the elven civic philosophy, it would be this: don't inconvenience others.

More specific advice on how to talk to an elf.
  • Don't talk about unpleasant things, you may make someone uncomfortable.
  • Don't make too much eye contact, you may seem intimidating.
  • Do not ask questions about absent friends, something bad might have happened to them.
  • Hell, don't ask questions at all.  That puts a burden on the other person to ask.
  • Compliments are basically mandatory.  A lack of compliments is basically an insult.
  • Don't talk about things that the other person might not know about.  If you don't know if the other person knows something or not, it is best to approach the topic obliquely.
Conversation is best limited to safe topics.  Pretty things like the clothing that the other elf is wearing.  Local music.  Delicious food.  Art.  Culture.  Weather.  Reminiscing about other happy times.  Inside jokes.  

You might think this sounds boring, but elves are brilliant and clever and pretty.  They're always alluding to other things, connecting different areas.  They're hilarious.  If they were talking to a human they liked, they'd be careful to only refer to areas of culture and history that the human was likely to know about, in order to avoid making them self-conscious of their ignorance.  Humans love hanging out with elves; they're like humans who have learned how to avoid offending people.

An elf who was interrogating you might stand at the other end of the room, look out the window, and wonder aloud "I wonder where my kinkajou is?  It's almost time for his massage."

That's remarkably direct, for an elf.  That's bad news.  You're about to be slowly lowered into a vat of acid over a 36 hour period.  You better tell her where her kinkajou is, dude.

You might think the inability to ask questions is a bit limiting.  You'd be correct.

Books are the exception.  When an elf is alone with a book, the pretense is dropped.  After all, there is still a need to learn about the actual world.  And if an elf wishes to learn about unpleasant things in the privacy of their own home, they are certainly allowed to do so, as long as they don't inconvenience others.

Written and spoken words have very different purposes in elven society.

Another workaround is the use of intermediates.  A servant hears a politely coded message, conveys it to a subservant in a less polite form, and then the subservant will meet with another elf's subservant, and the two of them will have a plainly spoken discussion.  Then the resolution will make its way back up to the elf, who is then informed of what he has decided.

Sometimes the elf is her own subservant, in a different guise and identity.  This is actually pretty common in elven society--compartmentalizing their identity into polite and impolite forms.  While wood elves might use masks to accomplish the same thing, high elves use glamours and actual transformations.

This is an advantage in fighting a high elf.  If you surprise them with combat, they'll usually refuse to fight until they can assume their "war face" (combat identity).  They're very good at running away, but try to make that first combat count.

Pretense is as important as air.

Unpleasant things are usually disguised as something else.  Combat is often referred to as dancing, but even that euphemism is becoming worn and distasteful.  Combat is now often referred to as "music appreciation" or "physical listening" or something similar.

The distaste is now even rubbing off onto actual dancing, which was beginning to have a more negative connotation due to its association with combat.  So dancing is now referred to as "joyful warfare" or "imitating the wind".

How Elves Live

Usually alone or in romantic pairs/trios/quartets.  Except not alone alone.  Each elf has a large estate consisting of their "family" of non-elves (half-elves, alchemical orcs, human sycophants), servants, playthings, protectors, and fashion statements.

Like if an elven household was a dungeon, it might be a redwood with a pavilion at the top and a branching complex in the roots.  It would have a romantic pair of elves as the "bosses".  One room might have 3d6 "little brothers" (alchemical orcs armed with crush gauntlets and jump jets) and a ziggurat made of hot tubs.  Another room might have Sir Hembriss the Curator, a charmed rakshasa who does hair and makeup.

Elven households are very diverse, because fashion.  No elf wants to show up to the gala with the same color rakshasa as their rival.

I've painted a pretty negative picture of elves, but there are plenty that take good care of their adopted families.  Many of them are effective mentors, and a few are even friends with members of their household.

Children aren't common because (a) some elven cultures practice population control, and (b) raising an elven child is risky and unpleasant.  Too much messy biology, too much disappointment and death.  It's also incredibly expensive: the same magical manipulation that improved human stock into elves also made them dependent on magical technology that is absent, faulty, and/or poorly understood.

For example, the elven fetus was never meant to be grown to parturition inside a uterus.  They were designed to be grown in a vat.  And since those vats no longer exist, the elves have had to invent some pretty drastic workarounds.  Expensive, unpleasant, and especially risky.

This is true for all stages of an elf's development, not just pregnancy.  Elven procreation requires a lot of infrastructure and technology.  It's not an exaggeration to say that an elven hospital is the third parent, since mom, dad, and magic all make tremendous and necessary contributions to the final product.

This restriction means that you'll hardly ever see elves living in the slums.  An elf will have wealthy parents, or they'll never make it past the first trimester.

How Elves Fight

Some cultures of elves will just run away, in order to don their war identity.

Other cultures of elves will fight you directly, but under the pretense of "dancing with you".  This requires having a bard nearby, who will strike up music during the combat.  If the bard stops playing, the pretense drops, and the elf will be forced to fight you directly.  (This makes the combat worse, not easier.)

How do you shoot an arrow at someone indirectly?  You shoot it very high, so that it takes a high, arcing path.  That makes it easier to pretend that you were shot by accident, so as not to upset the elf.

Couldn't you just hold your shield over your head and be safe from elven arrows?  Well, no, because high elven arrows don't fly in a straight line.  They're curved so that they fly in spirals.  Elves do other tricks with the fletching, such as ablative rachides and clockwork oscillators, that make the arrows fly in even more complex patterns.

Then they spend a few decades mastering it.

This means that elvish arrows are essentially useless in human hands.  (The inverse is not true.)

<sidebar>Elves really hate to see anyone else using their toys.  There are various ways to accomplish this, such as covering them in diseases that only affect humans to remaining inert unless surrounded by elven DNA (which is easily bypassed by anyone wearing elfskin gloves).</sidebar>

Elves are capable of producing pretty much every entry in the monster manual, but they prefer bodyguards who don't leave a mess.  Stranglers (such as a lesser wind) and devourers (such as an ooze) are ideal.  Elves really hate it when their bespoke stuff gets broke.

They also aren't above simply paying you to go away.  Giving an adventuring party a large ruby works fine: they have plenty more gems.  Besides, a large ruby in the hands of mercenaries is likely to bring nothing but turmoil to human lands, without making the humans any wiser, more numerous, or more powerful (all things that elves seek to prevent).

The elves would find it hilarious if it wasn't already so eye-rollingly banal at this point.

How Elves Die

The pretense persists until their dying breaths.  It is an inextricable part of their souls.

Consider the words of Milasham vin Valtir, an elf who was stabbed in the aorta by adventurers while attempting to recover her stolen kinkajou.

"Look," she said, reaching into her breast pocket and pulling out a bloody hand.  "I have found rubies."


  1. "If you could sum up the elven civic philosophy, it would be this: don't inconvenience others."

    I am wondering whether you're describing Britain.

  2. I was raised understanding "don't inconvenience others" to be the basis of civilized life.

    I would certainly have no objection to rendering those who fail to meet that expectation down to their constituent proteins...

  3. This was a wonderful read, and one that has make me consider the character of elves more deeply than "Jaded. Haughty." Thank you.

  4. The bit about intermediaries reminded me of Soviet leadership. Members of the Politburo couldn't afford to back a losing proposition, so they had their respective assistants hash things out beforehand to suss out the politically correct opinion. Then everyone would show up at the meeting already in agreement.