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Places by the Way Design Blog 4.0: Ye Elves of Groves, Yadda Yadda Yadda

posted Sep 24, 2017, 3:23 AM by Douglas Sun

"Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves..."

— Shakespeare, The Tempest

It has always seemed to me that wood elves pose a nice challenge when running a typical D&D campaign. From the very beginning Dungeons & Dragons has taken most of its cues on the elvish race from Tolkien*, for whom elves are anything but little nocturnal dudes who help out overworked shoemakers. His elves are more like the ultimate good guys — not immune to faults and bad judgment, but beings of considerable beauty and power, and fundamentally benign. The Players’ Handbook tells us that, “They value and protect others’ freedom as well as their own, and they are more often good than not.” Any capacity for evil is conveniently cordoned off through the existence of the drow.

Furthermore, the Players’ Handbook also tells us — again, taking cues from Tolkien — that there are “high” elves and “wood” elves. The latter are wild and uncouth compared to their “high” cousins (although such concepts are all relative when you’re talking about elves) and above all, they are reclusive and distrustful of non-elves. In other words. Thranduil and the elves of Mirkwood live on in D&D. And we all remember how they dealt with Bilbo Baggins and the dwarves.

This becomes an especially contentious issue in a setting like the Forgotten Realms, in which humans have inexorably pushed elves and other venerable races out of lands they formerly inhabited. If you’re an elf, are you really going to be good with that, even if you understand that most humans aren’t deliberately trying to exterminate your kind?

Conflict between elves and non-elves got worked out in The Hobbit because Tolkien, telling his own tale as the sole author, made sure that the good guys all got together in the end. But what about the less predictable course of an interactive storytelling exercise like a D&D campaign? How many buttons can you push on a wood elf before he snaps? And what happens then? Does he exclaim, like Finn the Human: “I can’t do that; it’s against my alignment!” Wood elves pushed over the brink — that sounds like a recipe for real ugliness.

When I started brainstorming Places by the Way #4 a few weeks ago, I soon realized that this tension between wood elves’ intense insularity and the good alignment and benign nature of elves in D&D needs to be my angle on the module. It’s not interesting to say, “Oh, they’re elves and they live in trees and stuff, la-dee-da-dee-da,” and then leave it that. But if I play around with the fact that they’re instinctively hostile to outsiders and protective of their turf, yet theoretically limited in what their alignment and basic nature permits them to do in response to such challenges — as well as the fact that within a community there is bound to be a continuum of attitudes and opinions that fall within those parameters — well, now I think I’ve got something.

It’s too early to say exactly where I’m going to go with this. I have decided that the wood elves of Sylvanhome will be concerned about humans who have moved into the neighborhood. At least some of those humans are good, but probably some will be evil. This will be a problem, as all humans look alike to these elves. Most probably, the challenges facing the party will involve diplomacy as well as fighting.

Beyond that, you’ll just have to stay tuned and see how things shake out. If you have been grappling with how to handle wood elves in D&D as I have, I hope Places by the Way #4 will help you — in terms of your general approach, if not with particulars.

*As a comparison, something that fascinated me while working on the Rolemaster Races and Cultures book was how RMFRP seems to handle faerie races in a way that owes more to the Brothers Grimm and older, folkish traditions.