Superior Species -OR- Why Elves Need To Shut Up

This is actually my second time writing this. The first as last Tuesday night as I was starting to come down with my bug. I looked back over it and man, even pre-Nyquil, I was off my nut with fever. It was a long, winding rant that wandered into complaining about racial stats in RPGs not taking culture into account, and a long list of shows and books with elf equivalents. That version has been deleted, though I will talk about the cultural race stats at some point because WoED20 sidesteps that.

Speaking of my illness, I’d like to take a minute to thank everyone who wished me well here and elsewhere. I’m amazingly lucky to have such supportive fans, and let’s face it at this point, friends. You guys rock hardcore and remind me again and again why I do this. I can only hope to put half as big a smile on each of your faces as you all did for me once I got to read the comments.

Also, in a bit of cruel irony, while I was laid up my new laptop arrived, so I didn’t get to play with the new toy for a couple of days. That’s something else I’ve got to thank you folks for: this is my first rig paid for entirely from my writing proceeds! (and it’s tax deductable!). There’s a lot of on-board production tools in it, so I plan on giving back with some audio and visual content (since I can take the laptop to Starbucks to upload it). Podcast, anyone?

But let’s turn to the topic at hand: Elves are smug bastards and it’s a trope I think we would all be happy to see go away.

Let’s define terms first: ‘Elves’ in this case doesn’t have to be a literal pointy-eared forest dwelling near-fae race. It can be an group in fiction typically described as ‘High Men’ in the TVTropes entry for ‘Five Races’. They’re the guys that we’re supposed to aspire to, what mankind ‘could’ be.

The problem is that in a staggering majority of portrayals, they are also smug, condescending, obstructionist, rude, and/or just plain racist when it comes to interacting with the other species. Worse, because part of the trope is that these guys are what we want to become, they’re often supported by the narrative itself.

This comes in a few flavors:

The Elder Race: Withholds crucial information and resources from other races under the pretense that they are ‘too young’. Also attributes all divergences from their culture and philosophy as a flaw brought on by this ‘youth’. To them, anyone who doesn’t agree with them is clearly just too inexperienced to figure out the ‘right’ way.

This is a favorite variant for ‘elves’ in sci-fi settings. Vulcans are a very mild version while the Asgard from Stargate: SG-1 represent the standard, though they learned to respect humanity after a while.

The Snob: It’s Elvish, or its crap—that’s the attitude of these guys. Your wine? It’s okay; not nearly as delectable as even the poorest elven vinegar of course, but you… you tried. If the local elves act like this, expect a weird type of branding where everything will have an ‘elven’ and sometimes a ‘dwarven’ version. Elven rope, elven bread (okay, we can admit it’s better than dwarf bread), elven swords, elven sex toys, elven gold teeth and elven giant clock medallions.

It’s right here where that ‘the narrative backs them up’ thing comes in. The majority of the time,that elven rope really is stronger and lighter and burns mutant river folk like holy water. And yes, that bread will feed you for the whole day with just one slice. And the less said about that ‘toy’, the better—but it’s fantastic. Because elves.

Worse, in RPGs and the like, if this stuff has stats, you better believe ‘elven’ gives you a bonus. So just growing up in their society means you’re buffed tot he gills purely by going to the store and buying gear. A human gets a cloak, chain shirt and boots and gets a +4 AC. An elf gets a cloak of elvenkind, elven chain, and boots of elvenkind and gets all the bonuses forever.

There’s only one thing worse than a sneering jerk: a sneering jerk who is right.

Unsurprisingly, this is your typical D&D elf. They are just so much damn better, never seem to earn any of it, but love to talk about it.

The Isolationist: You don’t see this one as often, I guess because the Cold War is over, but these guys want to be left alone. Of course, this means getting them involved is the only hope we have of saving the world. This means they’ll be even more right than the Snob because they have to back up their talk directly.

Once you’ve identified this type, be on the lookout for hidden super-weapons, swarms of high level wizards, and peerless warriors. They will kick so much ass… once properly cajoled and begged and ass-kissed. A lot of the story in this case will be aobut proving worth to these guys, or convincing them that they should help—even if not helping means their annihilation.

For some reason, this type is almost always some manner of riff on Native Americans or Tribal Africans. The Aiel from Wheel of Time fit the bill, demanding all sorts of tests and meetings and crap when the fate of the world depends on their asskickery.

The Author’s Moral High Ground: The worst of the worst. These elves aren’t just empirically better than everyone else, they’re also morally superior was well.

The actual flavor of this superiority depends on the author, but common traits include pacifism, vegetarianism (veganism now), sexual openness, and—of course—respect for nature. Hippies, basically. They don’t have to (and rarely do) have all of these, but whichever ones they have will be the One True Way. Often that’s the source of their superiority, but modesty is never one of their virtues.

When this is in play, expect the (almost always human) hero to adopt their ways eventually and be better off for it—and never shut up about being better off for it. Also, expect the villains to be the exact opposite of the elves to really drive that anvil down onto the audience’s skull.

My least favorite of these are the sapient horses (whose name I won’t even attempt to spell) from Gulliver’s Travels. They’re also a fine example of the double standard in play, as they treat the Yahoos like trash and don’t get called on it either by the universe or Gulliver (much). He quesitons them, but he doesn’t go too deep because he accepts their reasoning intrinsically.

The Mentor: This last group is probably the ‘best’ you can hope for if the author is using this trope. This is where the elves are grooming humanity or at least the main character for greatness without spoon-feeding them and their actions come off as something like the Snob or the Elder Race.

When these guys talk about their greatness, their intent is to inspire rather than boast. Usually their values and methods are some long lost phiolsophy or something they’re trying to pass on. With a bad writer, it still comes off as being a boastful ass who looks down on others, but a good writer can get the torch-passing aspect across really well.

In these kinds of stories, expect all those dudes to be dead by the end and the human (or equivalent) going on to do a better job of passing the knowledge on than their mentors mostly because it’s a new and shiny thing they’re learning and examining instead of a written in stone belief they’re trying to hammer into someone’s skull.

As long as you don’t believe they’re evil, Jedi fall into this. Also airbenders, especially Tenzin in Legend of Korra, who is all about steadfastly drumming the air nomad way of life into everyone who tries to learn from him without considering that way of life is 170 years out of date.

Here is an observation I’ve made about all of these types though: No one likes them.

I’m not saying that everyone hates them, but when asked what they like about elves or elf characters, no one says’ their smug sense of superiority’ or ‘the fact that they look down on everyone’. If they were villains, that might be the case, but they usually aren’t and again, I have never heard someone say they like this trope where elves are assholes.

So why is it a thing people keep writing?

Two things and I’ll get the elephant out of the living room first: Tolkien.

Essentially all non-Christmas elves and many elf-like races have some DNA in common with Tolkien elves. Tall, pretty, pointy-eared, excellent craftsmen, better fighters, immortal… mix, match and tweak as you want, we all know who they;re grandpappy is.

Tolkien’s elves aren’t quite as dickish as their progeny, but you can see shades of it. They’re ditching Middle Earth just as Sauron is prepared to kill everyone’s asses and you’ll notice they didn’t save any seats for Men or Dwarves at first. They talk about immortality and rag on Men (ALL of Mankind) for Isilduir taking the ring. There’s usually reasons given here, but it’s still not a nice picture.

But here’s the thing about Tokien’s elves: They’re based on the daoine sidhe (where have we seen that word before) of Celtic Myth. If you’re not familiar with Celtic Myth, first you need to understand that they had some badass heroes. Second, you need to understand that to the listener of the time a lot of being badass is having the respect of people who were more badass.

The clan leader was the leader because he got people working together and got shit down, not because he was the strongest warrior. But he was nothing if he didn’t have the respect and loyalty of the strongest warriors. And that’s where the daoine come in. They were an entire race of badasses who were in turn friendly toward various heroes. That was their point. They were there to make the hero more badass by showing he had more badass people who respected him.

People sometimes forget with our love of underdogs that Frodo and the Ring is only half the story in LotR. The other half is an old-school Divine Right of Kings tale about Aragorn proving his bloodline worthy to rule once more by being a badass and hanging together an epic alliance.

The elves in LotR are there to make Aragorn good by association. It’s just that while Viggo got to lead an army of the dead and make out with an elf, he wans’t surfing down stairs on a shield or killing goddamn elephants and something got lost in translation (yes, those didn’t happen in the books, but Legolas was still clearly Most Awesome once he shows up despite ‘Strider’ being Most Awesome when he was alone with the hobbits).

Later writers lacked the research or sense of history Tolkien had, and in the same way Watchmen gave brith to the 90’s in comics, Tolkien’s elves gave birth to the elven jackhole.

If you want to argue, I’ve got a counter: the Mistwood elves from The Hobbit. They aren’t pretty. They aren’t smart. They’re assholes, but in the ‘fratboy’ sense. That’s not better than anyone and Bilbo makes that clear by playing them all for chumps.

Because at the time of the Hobbit’s writing, the elves were there just as another enemy obstacle and they were closer to faeries. Which bring me to the second reason: Faeries.

When writers want to subvert Tolkien elves, they typically go right to the source material: the fae of European mythology. And while they are as many and varied in form, temperment and abilities as Japanese yokai, most faeries were predators in some form that preyed on humans.

I’ve touched on this before, but faeries were a way to explain the many, many unexplained deaths that happen among people who don’t have skills in forensics, medicine, or psychology. If someone died in a way that they couldn’t explain, or just up and left—faeries! They also served to warn people away from ‘sinful’ things.

So yeah, faeries make you dead and are often used as a metaphor of temptation (see sin). So it’s no wonder a lot of them (especially the various sidhe) are supernaturally beautiful, graceful and make very nice things one might want.

The late Terry Pratchett, especially in the book Lords and Ladies plays with this well, revealing that the ‘pretty’ is a lgomour meant to lure in prey who they then enslave.

These of course make perfect villains, but when you’re tying to make ‘good’ elves, it’s very easy for a writer to try and soften the casual cruelty and violence of the fae into something more high school.

So what’s the alternative?

Well there is some value in elves that don’t fully ‘get’ human culture. My issue is with the self-superiority, so you might recall that in this article I outlined how the elves on Ere actually have biological differences from humans. They’re closer to obligate carnivores, but have massive sweet toothes that result in elf cuisine and human cuisine having very small points of intersection. I was writing in character there, but if you’ve every had organ or honey chicken from a Chinese restaurant, that is the bare minimum of sweetness they like in their sauces. (I love honey chicken, but there are some places that go too far and make it inedible to me) Imaging pouring liquid lollipops over a steak and you’re closer to tastes.

Plus they’re arboreal creatures; built for climbing and graceful, yes, but what’s graceful in the trees isn’t graceful on a city street.

They’re better at living where they do and how they do, but they aren’t just plain better. No one is on Ere. Some think they are like the hailene (Ere’s ‘elves’), but they’re largely bad guys when they thing this way, so who cares what they think?

This talk of elves has got me thinking about the WoE stats for them. I could probably do a whole post on racial stats theory (Specifically, cultural vs biological bonuses), but I’ll just share the general gist of it. (Note: ALL Ere Characters get +2 to any one ability score at 1st level):


Size: Medium

Base Speed: 30ft

Languages: Common and Elven

Arboreal Build

+2 racial bonus to Acrobatics and Athletics. Climb Speed 10 for climbing trees or other large plants.

Elven Ears

+2 racial bonus on Perception checks made that involve hearing.

Elven Sight

Elves have Darkvision 30ft and Low-light vision 120ft.

Choose 2 Elf Background Feats

Sample Elf Backgrounds

Woodland Hunter [Background, Elf]

You are used to hunting in deep forests and compensating for screening foliage.

Benefit: You ignore up to 20% concealment due to vegetation.

Lifeweaver Mystic Tradition [Background, Elf]

The elves of the Tresholm sculpt their homes and businesses from living wood and plants.You know the least of these secrets.

Benefit: You gain Vitae affinity and know the spell minor plant shaping.

Arboreal Alertness [Background, Elf, Miare]

In the deep forests and jungles, danger can pass within a few feet without detection. Those who live there are constantly on guard and ready to leap into action.

Benefit: You gain a +2 racial bonus to Perception checks and initiative rolls.

Special: This bonus stacks with Elven Ears and Miare Scenting.

Tresholmi Agriculture [Background, Elf]

Farming the lush ecosystem of the titan bolls has taught you a deep understanding of flora and fauna, particularly what is good to eat.

Benefit: +2 racial bonus to Nature and Survival checks. While in a forest or jungle, you always find enough food to feed one Medium humanoid each day regardless of your Survival roll.

Tresholmi Weapon Traditions [Background, Elf]

You have trained as a warrior of the Tresholmi people and are familiar with the standard weapons they use.

Benefit: You gain proficiency with Long Blades and Bows, and Advance Proficiency* with the bastard sword.

*Advanced Proficiency is a feat you may take with certain weapons that allows you to use them in an advanced way. For example, a bastard sword is a two-handed weapon, but with Advanced Proficiency: Bastard Sword, it can be wielded one-handed.

Deep Roots In The Community [Background, Elf]

You have lived in one city, village, etc for more than fifty years and have gained an intimate understanding of it and its people.

Benefit: You gain a +2 racial bonus to Diplomacy and Sense Motive checks made against citizens in your home city or pertaining to your home city.

Communally Raised [Background, Elf]

You were raised by everyone in your home town, not just your parents. This gave you piecemeal knowledge of a great variety of things.

Benefit: Once per day, you can choose to gain a +1d6 racial bonus to any INT, WIS, or CHA-based skill roll. Choose to use this ability before making the roll.

And that’s it for this week. I have no idea what I’ll be doing next week, possibly another Let’s Watch provided I can find a suitable show on YouTube. If you have suggestions, for material or what I should blog about, I’d be more than happy to hear it.

About Vaal

Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter. You can also purchase his books from all major platforms from the bookstore
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  1. “How did my dwarf ever learn how to dodge giants if he was raised by halflings?”

    I’m loving your feats, as always.

    As a side-note, I CANNOT listen to podcasts. I can watch videos and vlogs and such. I can read transcripts. But every time I try to listen to a podcast I start looking for something to do at the same time and generally end up trying to read one thing while listening to another, which doesn’t work very well. I’ve heard that listening to those while driving works well, but I am truly unfortunate and do not have long transits every day.

  2. Only tangentially related, but anyway:
    I wonder why nobody seems to have thought to combine the two main cultural aspects of elfs. Just imagine a bog standard tolkienistic elfin civilization, ruled by a big, fat, jolly, bearded, very non-elfy dude who goes around giving presents one night in every year.

    Of course, to know who deserves presents the king needs a vast, ubiquitous spy network… And once you have the elf Gestapo you’re well on your way to full on nazi elfs again. Which the world really needs more of.

  3. An interesting take on Elves, I do enjoy your deconstructions a lot.
    The background feats you’ve got for them in WoE20 look very like a lot of fun to play with so far.

    One minor thing: In the ecology article (and I realise it’s a couple years old) you(Kaiel) mention that sugarcane is a recent introduction from Rizen but in Soul Battery, on page 26 it’s said “it only grows in the

    Probably easier to update the ecology.
    I only mention it because I really like both the book and the article, and it struck me as odd they didn’t match.

  4. Yeah, there are some amazingly annoying people in RPGs and RPG-descended material. Elminster *spit*.

    So the different part of a race in Ere d20 is the fluff and the background feats? I could get behind that.

    Communally Raised’s effect doesn’t seem to align with its fluff exactly. It gives you a bonus which you likely use on making your good skills even better. Maybe steal from the D&D 4e Jack of Trades feat instead, which gives a +2 to any skill you’re not trained in?

    • PS, I’m not particularly a fan of podcasts or video; personally I like to take in info by reading.

  5. I think you nail elves pretty dead-on, here. One thing that I find interesting (as a moderate-major Tolkien fanboy) is how different his elves are depending on what version one reads. In the Lord of the Rings, they’re fading but still strong. Rather than seeming to withhold vast stores of knowledge all the time, it seems more like they have no desire to inflict their mistakes on their heirs, humanity (as a side note, Aragorn and Faramir are held up as model humans, and it’s interesting that they are sort of halfway between elves and normal men). In the Hobbit, there’s Elrond (who provides some info, advises against the mission, and seems pretty isolationist) and the Mirkwood elves (who are isolationist, but more militantly, and not above greed). I’m going to skip the Silmarillion, but suffice to say that it features a lot of elves doing selfish and stupid things at times, in ways the more popular works don’t. I always thought there was a coherent thread, there, of elves screwing up, eventually getting weary, and ultimately deciding that 1) they are tired of the world and 2) they should leave others to make their own mistakes. Read that way, their departure isn’t entirely selfish. YMMV, though.

    As for Stargate’s Asgard, one thing I loved about that show was the way they warmed up to humanity over time. Thor actually showed gratitude when humans helped him out, and not grudgingly. In fact, if I remember right, his first appearance involves saving a bunch of humans who are under his protection, and he went on to protect Earth from the bad guys for a while, even if it was only with threats. Later on, as the main characters met some Ancients, THEY would regularly withhold information, refuse to help at all, and generally act in a superior way. The Asgard looked pretty good before that, but the contrast made them look great.

    And in the end, of course, they do a fairly literal passing of the torch, offering Earth literally all of their knowledge. Overall, I actually think the Asgard are more a subversion of the archetype you’re discussing.

    Nitpicking aside, it’s true that elves can go wrong very easily. Everyone seems to feel obligated not to stray to far from the mold (after all, if you change too much are they really still elves?). It can lead to some tired rehashings and obnoxious characters who you really want to just punch, if only to quiet them. It’s a toss up what’s more annoying to read: elves who are always right, justifying their superiority, or elves who are wrong but never lose their haughtiness.

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