Saturday, September 7, 2019


Elves is a fascinating artifact. It's a third-party supplement for AD&D 1st edition, published in 1983. This era of roleplaying is very mysterious to me. It's not that surprising, considering I was but a wee little baby when this game came out, but it still feels weird. I guess there's a part of me that thinks the world began the moment I was born. I've got an Amzaon wishlist filled with games from the mid-90s to early-00s, because that's what I think of as "classic" gaming. "Classic" is when I was a teenager. Anything prior is prehistoric. To learn, then, that there was a fairly sophisticated 3rd party supplement so early in roleplaying's history is startling.

Elves is a kind of hybrid adventure/campaign setting/rules expansion. It discusses the various varieties of elves, includes maps of their cities and villages that could be plopped into nearly any setting, and then ties it all together with an epic story of going from town to town collecting magical clothes so that an NPC can kill a dark god off-screen. (I know that's kind of a reductive way to refer to a by-the-numbers scavenger-hunt quest, but the part where the High Elf king leaves the party in his palace while he goes off to resolve the main plot had to have been as aggravating in 1983 as it is today).

That gets to the hardest part of this review - figuring out the exact level of world-weary condescension to heap upon this book, both in praise and in complaints. It certainly deserves a bit of a scolding. In nearly every town, there's at least one sexy female shopkeeper with a prominently listed "Appeal" stat (Elves transparently renames several AD&D terms, though I could never quite figure out if it's because it was based off a cloned rpg or if they were just covering their ass about its dubious AD&D compatibility). No male character gets their Appeal listed in that way, and the only non-shopkeepers to get that kind of treatment are the half-elven rancher's teenage daughters, who very conspicuously ride unicorns instead of horses.

And I got to figure that even in 1983, giving a 15 year old girl a numerically quantified sexiness stat was more than a little creepy, even if your audience is ostensibly 15 year old boys, but I also kind of want to give it points for remembering that teenage girls exist. Not too long after this book was released, D&D proper managed to put out a book about fantasy Arabia with zero named female characters. Is it worth it then, to have a couple of inappropriately sexualized teen virgins if that means we also get Eauoi, the arctic sculptor whose leg was crushed by a fallen statue and who recovered by carving herself an artificial leg out of whale bone and getting back to work?

That's the paradox of Elves. It's kind of awful . . . unless it's ahead of its time. Unfortunately, I have no intuitive sense for what its time was actually like.

For example, this book features a lesbian couple in a long-term, committed relationship . . . the dark elf queen and her "assistant, life mate, and lover" Crescentia Yursula. And I really don't understand what's going on here. Dark elves are really evil, in that gross, over-the-top way where every aspect of their culture features some kind of shitty, counterproductive violence (they make wonderful music . . . by putting captive slaves into giant, human-powered organs, where they are tortured into producing particular notes). So maybe the dark elf queen is only allowed to be a lesbian because she's evil.

Or maybe the whole thing is exploitative. Both the queen and Crescentia are said to be beautiful and eternally youthful. It could be that they're part of this book's whole thing with its relentless male gaze, and that they exist to titillate its young, male audience. Except, canonically during the events of the adventure, Crescentia is hundreds of miles away, ruling the eastern half of the dark elf empire with a loyalty otherwise unheard of among dark elves. I'm not sure, then, how her relationship with the queen even comes up. Is the implication that she fucks so good that she was rewarded with control over the nation's secondary capital?

In the past, artists would sometimes use the freedom allowed to villains to sneak gay representation into otherwise "respectable" works. Is that what's going on here? Did people still have to do that in 1983? Unfortunately, baby John was in no position to gauge the social mood of the time.

A similar problem crops up with the book's broader aesthetics too. At the broadest level, a lot of what's going on in Elves is kind of hokey. The way they break down the elvish species into a bunch of color-coded, geographically themed specialist varieties - high elves are the original, then there are wood elves and dark elves and ice elves and grey elves - it's textbook basic. Or was it?

The way things get basic in the first place is that first somebody does something, then people really like it, then a new wave comes along, inspired by the first, and they keep doing it, and it is only in retrospect that you look back and see that it was everywhere. Where does Elves fit into this?

It must have innovated at least a little, because ice elves never became A Thing. That makes me wonder what other innovations the book might have that are simply invisible to me because they are now ubiquitous. Ah well, at least I can finally give up my pretensions of being a scholar of rpgs.

The best part of this book is without a doubt the character names. Most are fantasy-generic and kind of forgettable, but a few are absolute gems. There's the innkeeper, Bursty Marble. Or the evil actors Mr Dark and Wanda Truly. And who could ever forget Vegan, the dwarf (I know it's probably just a coincidence and that they just chose a couple of syllables at random, but the term "vegan" was coined in 1944, so I'm just going to imagine that this guy is a berserker who followed a strict diet that eschewed all animal products)?

The worst part of this book is probably the incidental sexism (until they get married, wood elf women are the literal property of their fathers, but married wood elves have full rights of citizenship, so that's nice). The second worst part of this book is the adversarial assumptions that underlie the presentation of the adventure. There are several cases where the book offers the PCs some essential advantage only if they ask. The most egregious example is when they're looking for a particular god-slaying sword and they find a decoy sword that has many of the same properties, but is intelligent and will reveal itself as a fake if the characters think to ask.

That same adventure also features a different decoy sword that is the same as the target in all respects except that it can't be used to kill a god, which makes me think that maybe there's just a disconnect between the way I like to roleplay and how this book expects players and GMs to behave.

Overall, Elves is a neat little book, occasionally frustrating, but clearly a labor of love. I can't say that it's particularly broadened my horizons regarding the use of elves in a D&D game, but hell, it's 2019 - I've already seen every possible way elves can be done. Can't hold it against the book that I'm a cynic.

PS - Dark elves getting black skin because they're so evil is a gross trope, and it bugs me here, just like it bugged me in The Complete Book of Elves, and just like it's going to bug me the next half-dozen times I see it happen.

UKSS Contribution - I'm going to chicken out here. I'm so, so tempted to go with one of the great character names. Ninefingers, the knife merchant. Melora Needletongue, the tailor. The Goat Boy tavern. However, if I'm being honest, I wouldn't be able to use any of them without being extremely broad and silly (this book could be, at times, broad and silly, but I would undoubtedly exaggerate those tendencies a hundredfold).

So I'm going to go with my fourth or fifth favorite thing, just to try and keep some semblance of dignity. The high elves have self-sailing boats made of enchanted glass. Those were kind of cool.


  1. If it's any help, the high elf/wood elf divide goes back to (probably misinterpreted) Tolkein, and Drow first show up in 1978, so having a bunch of regional elf variants doesn't seem to begin with this book.

    1. I figured they were probably riffing on the Drow with their dark elves. And that the high/wood split was already common. Ice elves I haven't seen elsewhere. And Grey Elves are very different from what I've seen elsewhere. I'm just wondering if this book is purely derivative, or whether anything it created wound up migrating back into "official" D&D, even if only indirectly, by inspiring later writers.