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More Than Pointy Ears

I’ve been playing and reading a lot of Dungeons and Dragons related stuff recently. It’s been years since I swore off D&D (the mid 90s, I believe) and I am becoming reacquainted with the things I like and the things I do not like. This post is about one of the things that I don’t like: D&D Elves.

I always had a problem with Elves back in the old days. I remember thinking they were seriously lame and that geeks’ obsessions with them were weird and annoying. As the years passed, this feeling dimmed, and I became a fan of elves as I encountered them in the Warhammer universe, in Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, and other places as well. I eventually came to think that my dislike of elves was simply adolescent rebellion (of a strange sort) against what was “cool” (and yes, I’m painfully aware how ridiculous it is to discuss that which is “cool” or “not cool” in D&D).

Now that I’m back in the D&D world, I can confidently tell you that grown-up me was wrong and adolescent me was right: D&D Elves do, in fact, suck. What I was wrong about, however, were the reasons why this is.

Just Another Pointy-Eared Dude

Yo, bra, after we slay the what-not, wanna kick back and drink a few brews?

Yo, bra, after we slay the what-not, wanna kick back and drink a few brews?

The problem with D&D Elves is that, for all the window-dressing of a long-lived, wise race living aloof in their silver palaces or mystical forests, in practice they are nothing like that. Elves are just humans with better hair. They are, for lack of a better term, “cool humans.” People who play elves tend to do so just for their abilities; it is really rare that I have seen anybody bothering playing an elf like an elf. Dwarves, Halflings, Gnomes, Half-orcs, and so on all have distinct and interesting role-playing elements that most people use to make their characters interesting. Elves? Nope. An elf talks like a human, acts like a human, has human feelings, and is essentially identical to humans except according to the rules, wherein they get a couple special buffs that humans don’t.

Part of this is the fault of the game itself. D&D is so very obsessed with game-balance, that they try to keep everything even-steven between the playable races and, furthermore, they promote a world wherein elves and dwarves and gnomes and such live side-by-side in general harmony and equality, all of which essentially homogenizes the races into different flavors of human being. Really, all an elf is is a set of different characteristics for the purpose of gameplay. Any role-playing aspect of elves is often too abstract or too serious to be actively interesting to your average Mountain Dew-chugging basement dweller. You don’t play an elf to be an arrogant prick, you play an elf because you want skills like Legolas but also want to be about the same size as a regular person so that the majority of enchanted chain mail shirts you find will fit.

The Children of Silver Starlight

More like *this* than just some guy with a bow and pointy ears.

More like *this* than just some guy with a bow and pointy ears.

That, however, is not how I see elves at all. I see elves as among the most alien of the demihuman races, not the least. These are beings who do not know sickness, old age, or fatigue and who live for centuries on the edge of our reality. Their every movement is graceful, their voices are pure , and their arts are ancient and beautiful. They are a species who once ruled the world in justice and peace until they, through their arrogance, failed and suffered. That suffering is still new to them, though it be ancient history to humanity. Elves are supposed to represent the best of everything, but tempered with arrogance and grief that no human can understand. They are not like us.

This, of course, is the root of the problem. It’s hard to put yourself in Elrond’s pointy shoes. How do you act? What kind of things do you say? Now, we of this enlightened age have access to a wide variety of examples of this; the actors and actresses who have played the elves in the Lord of the Rings films are great inspiration. More generally, though, I try to think of this: how would you feel if the weight of the world were on your shoulders? How would you feel if you knew you (and your people) had dropped that weight, dooming mortal beings to suffer and languish in barbarism? That’s how elves feel. All the time. Humans have the privilege of short lives and shorter memories – they can throw off their grief and their failures, dust themselves off, and try again. Elves lack this resilience. They are strong – far stronger than humans – but the breadth of history is just a moment for them, and their grief is never washed away. For them, time does not heal all wounds. They get to see their failures magnify through the ages of history. Elrond has been beating himself up for centuries over not killing Isildur on the slopes of Mount Doom and tossing the ring in the lava. Now, he sees a new generation faced with that ancient evil that he could have stopped, but didn’t. If you want to know why he’s serious and grim, that’s why.

This is tall order for your average D&D game, granted. Not everybody wants to be the serious guy, nor do they always want to play alongside him while you are making your fart jokes with your dwarf pals. That, though, is what elves are about – the long view, the weight of the past, and the hope for the future. They can be happy, too, but probably about things that others think are strange. They are not looking for quick fixes, they are not looking to forget their problems, and they are not looking for ephemeral pleasures. They are seeking to right wrongs, to save the good, and to fight against a world that seems forever sliding into the Shadow. I am currently playing with a guy who, I feel, is trying to do this on some level, but he is unsure how to proceed, since what an elf asks of you is to rise above the typical petty concerns of a D&D party. Still, he consistently refuses gold and treasure (because it has no worth to him) and, instead, thinks in the long term. It’s fun to watch, but I can tell it takes him a bit out of joint sometimes.

Still, it’s a lot better than another dual-scimitar wielding drow elf, right?

Romance in RPGs

Been a while since I wrote a gaming-themed thread, so here we go:

You know what almost every heroic story in scifi/fantasy has? A love interest. You know what kind of game aspires to create the same feeling as a heroic scifi/fantasy game? RPGs. You know what almost always sucks for everybody? Trying to create romance-themed storylines in an RPG.

How it should work in the GM's head.

How it should work in the GM’s head.

Of course it all sounds like a good idea, but when you actually get down to doing it, it never seems to work. Sure, it makes perfect sense that the player who makes the ‘ladies man’ character gets to have a love interest. Yeah, getting the prince to fall in love with your Valkyrie is pretty awesome from a plot standpoint and creates all kinds of fun conflict to explore. Having a married character is a fantastic plot hook for almost any game. Unfortunately, this stuff never seems to come across too well.

But Why?

Okay, I’m not even going to cite all the various problems that arise when you get a bunch of socially awkward geeks in a room imagining that they’re fantasy character is falling in love with another fantasy character that is portrayed by their best buddy the GM. Let’s skip that Freudian smorgasbord and establish a few assumptions. They are as follows:

  1. You are playing with emotionally stable and well-adjusted adults who can talk about kissing and girls without losing their minds.
  2. You are playing in a group with mixed gender players and/or folks confident enough in their sexuality that the idea of ‘pretending’ to love a character played by somebody otherwise unattractive to you does not create weirdness.
  3. Everybody agrees that a love story would be a cool addition to the plot.
How it works in practice.

How it works in practice.

Okay, let’s make all of those (grandiose) assumptions. These things still don’t work easily (if at all). Here are a few of the reasons.

We are not Actors

Pretending to be in love is a very, very challenging piece of performance. Hell, if you’ve never really been in love, it’s very hard to simulate it. Even if you have, you might not have a really firm idea of what happened to you or how you acted or even whether you should act that way again. Also, no matter how open-minded and confident you might be in the presence of your fellow players, acting out a love scene (and I’m not even talking sex – BY ALL MEANS DO NOT GO THERE! Seriously, guys – that gets all sorts of creepy really fast) is sort of a private thing, and it’s hard to commit to it or believe in it in the same way you can easily believe that a dragon is chasing you or that you really want to kill the villain who burned down your character’s village. Without commitment to the scene, it feels wooden and flat. It doesn’t ring true.

What is Love? (baby don’t hurt me…don’t hurt me…no more…)

So, say your character falls in love with (whoever). What does that mean in terms of the game? While some game systems work this in very well (7th Sea has the Romance background, the Fate system has Aspects tailor-made for this), others are very poorly suited to this kind of thing (D&D, for example). Exactly how to work romance into the plot can sometimes be unclear to both the GM and the player. The significant other becomes something you tag on to your character sheet, which is just plain odd. Sometimes they act as a henchman, which is practical, but it becomes very easy to relegate their role in the game to ‘the handsome guy who holds my spell components’ or ‘the cute blonde girl who shoots arrows’ and, in general, the whole interesting aspect of the romance is lost. This makes sense, since it’s easier to manage that way, but it also rings false and wastes story potential.

Stereotypes AHOY!

If you are playing with a single-gender group (and sorry about that – playing with both guys and gals is awesome and I highly recommend it if possible), introducing the opposite sex can quickly degenerate into a bunch of guys (or, I suppose, girls, though I have yet to encounter an all-female gaming group and suppose its existence really only in theory) complaining about what the other gender ‘does’ or is ‘like.’ This kind of pigeonholing can range from the insulting and misogynistic to the merely boring and archetypal. The object of romance ceases to be a real character and is treated as a flat stereotype of either the perceived positive traits of a gender or the negative ones. This is not only bad stereotyping but can also quickly bleed into bad behavior or crude talk on the part of the players. I don’t know about you, but I don’t enjoy this.

What To Do?

Okay, so how do you surmount these obstacles? Well, I don’t have all the answers, I must say. Across my decades of GMing, I can really only say I’ve been successful in introducing romance storylines in one campaign I played in and in one other I played in (both 7th Sea). When it has worked, the following tools seemed to be in evidence:

  • Let it be Player Initiated: You cannot and should not attempt to introduce a romance-related thread unless the player has made it clear they want that to happen. This can either be with the way the character is constructed (they have the ‘Star-Crossed’ flaw, for instance, or something equivalent) or how the player plays the character (he is constantly serenading pretty ladies, asks about the presence of attractive NPCs and so on). To foist a love storyline on a player that doesn’t really want one is a waste – everybody will feel weird and it won’t be any fun.
  • Skip the Courtship: Pre-established romances are easier to play than new ones. This, oddly enough, is often true for life as it is in RPGs. Once the fires of infatuation have faded, you can still be just as much in love with somebody but can also act normally around them and avoid certain levels of love-struck foolishness. Accordingly, players that begin play with pre-established lady-loves or doting husbands or what-not have a less taxing role-playing task ahead of them. This is not to say that courting can’t be fun in a game, but you really need the player to be on-board and need to be sure you have the right game atmosphere to make it work.
  • Love is Risk: Romances should be played as player vulnerabilities. This doesn’t mean you need to kill a player’s wife at every opportunity, but to love requires a degree of commitment and compromise. Romantic storylines should be mined for conflict, and not all of it need involve danger. I had one PC’s wife leave him (taking all his money) because he ignored her and went gallivanting about the world with his friends (i.e. the PCs) and left her alone. It was an entire adventure arc to win her back, and it was awesome. Likewise, romance storylines exist to make conflict and conflict makes plot interesting. There are lots of ways to do this (you don’t need to go far to find examples). At it’s heart, being in love (whether in reality or in a game) means you (or your character) are extremely vulnerable to the person they love, simple as. Nobody has the power to hurt you like the person you love, whether it be intentionally, accidentally, as a result of others’ actions, or whatever. As a good GM, you need to use this to make the story go. If players don’t want their characters’ loves to be central to the plot, they probably shouldn’t have them in the first place.

That’s what I’ve got for now. I’d love to hear what others have done (and if it worked). As a storyteller, I badly want to initiate these kinds of stories inside my campaigns, but I also know from a gaming perspective just how difficult it is to pull off. There is a difficult (and unique) balance to be struck and, while I do know it’s possible, I don’t think it is practical to expect it to work in every game.