Saturday, April 3, 2010


As I have promised I am going to present my conceptualisation of elves for the Middenmurk setting, or rather, for the “Northern Marches” – the ad hoc term I will use for the (semi) civilised lands nearest to the Middenmurk dungeon. As a matter of course I am assuming that the Middenmurk will be flexible like any other Megadungeon, having certain assumptions about flavour and texture associated with it but fairly much unattached to a specific setting so people can stick it where they want it. Which is a way of saying I’m not making a sandbox but I am doing bits and pieces of setting stuff.

So, I conceive of elves of the Northern Marches as being very much unlike the elves of Tolkien’s legendarium and, as such, fairly much different from elves as presented in D&D and role-playing games in general. The starting point for the approach I am making is the idea of elves as being objects of fear to peasants within the Mediaeval paradigm. Elves are fundamentally supernatural entities from beyond the fields we know that visit the world of the everyday to cause trouble for inscrutable reasons. Elves can be helpful but are associated with sickness and ill-luck, with nightmares, curdled milk, blighted crops and, worst of all, stolen babies.

The word elf is etymologically connected with the word oaf, which is associated with the idea of the changeling child; weird, uncouth, fey and shunned by the community. In this context elves can be seen as a kind of mythic explanation for a variety of intellectual disabilities, developmental disorders and mental illnesses. They can also be the explanation for manic creativity and savant abilities and psychopathic disregard for the well-being of others.

The idea of entities that will come in the night and steal your child is a deep-rooted and primordial fear. I guess this makes elves the perfect primitive psychological projection of the unknown other.

I am fond of the idea that elves are different and otherworldly, but not necessarily graceful and beautiful. They are merely different. They exist in a kind of strange parasitic relationship to human communities, possessed of uncanny secrets of the otherworld and with great capacity to help mankind, but a capriciousness and proclivity to inflict harm with casual detachment.

Additionally, and significantly, elves live among human beings like cuckoos. Elf PC’s will be changeling children or foundling urchins or uncanny strangers who are tolerated for a while by the superstitious peasants of the Northern Marches. They will always be on the margins of society, however, and always be a little odd. The association of elf and oaf – a word derived from elf - informs my conception.

Devil’s in the Details: Elves (oafs, changelings, hogboys, wights, Yule-lads, Fae)

Yes, I am well aware that James Maliszewski has already presented elves in this format. I have the utmost respect for James and think him a capital fellow, however, his Eld are from a fundamentally different paradigm to my elves (though they are similarly quite sinister) and I think there is space enough for both to exist (and let’s face it, James is the king of the OSR blog-o-sphere and I am a swineherd from the outlying provinces).

As I did with dwarfs I am presenting some aspects of elves as being analogous to real-world human psychological and developmental disorders. I do this in the interests of remaining faithful to the original subject matter as I see it, i.e. within a Mediaeval paradigm, these disorders are explained by and attributable to supernatural agents. Any offence caused by this approach is unintentional and I apologise in advance.

Many Elves (d20 thrice)

1. Speak in a raspy whisper.
2. Fear the colour red, won’t touch it and refuse to wear red garments.
3. Laugh at funerals, cry at glad tidings and show no compassion.
4. Make strange bestial noises, seemingly without being aware of what they are doing.
5. Have the ears of an ass, which they hide beneath some kind of headgear.
6. Appear to be perpetually adolescent, but with ancient eyes - or - appear wizened with age, but bright-eyed and hale.
7. Have a tail like a cow’s, which they conceal beneath clothing.
8. Have a strange floral or herbal fragrance.
9. Don’t tend to come in out of the rain or in any other way avoid discomfort.
10. Skulk around bone-yards, crossroads and other such ill-omened places
11. Feel compelled to build cairns of stones and little idols of sticks at random places.
12. Have the eyes of a falcon and stare at people in an unsettling manner.
13. Eat insects, snails and spiders.
14. Occasionally go into a trancelike state where they murmur in a long-forgotten tongue and rock back and forth.
15. Creep around at night and do odd jobs for people.
16. Dislike iron and avoid touching iron objects.
17. Have teeth which are disconcertingly sharp.
18. Periodically give away money and valuables.
19. Have skin which is cold to the touch.
20. Sing songs of unearthly beauty.

Some Elves (d16, 1d3 times)

1. Have a vacant, open-mouthed, idiotic expression.
2. Have no sense of privacy or modesty.
3. Have a sharp, feral, countenance.
4. Fear the sun and shroud themselves in layers of cloth to avoid its rays.
5. Harass and ride livestock to amuse themselves.
6. Take delight in frightening people with cruel pranks.
7. Cast a pale shadow.
8. Tend to attract the attention of various small animals.
9. Habitually sleep in ditches, up trees, or under hedges.
10. Are androgynous.
11. Creep around at night and peer through windows.
12. Crave butter and cream and will pay almost any price to get hold of it.
13. Are very lustful and seductive.
14. Move with feline grace.
15. Destroy things for no apparent reason.
16. Are very tall and gaunt or small and childlike.

Common Travelling Gear (d16 thrice)

1. A hazel switch
2. A small pouch containing (1d6) 1. Henbane 2. Dried Elf-Cap Mushroom 3. Datura 4. Mandrake 5. Belladonna 6. Diviner’s Sage
3. A stone that looks like a toad
4. A tall dunce’s cap
5. Ragged finery, tattered and befouled
6. An ancient bronze dagger.
7. A bone flute.
8. A sprig of mistletoe
9. An old shillelagh
10. A shortbow and quiver of arrows
11. An archaic corselet of bronze scale armour
12. A staff inscribed with ancient secrets in runes or ogham
13. A rote or lyre
14. A lock of human hair
15. A collection of elf-shot
16. Golden chains from a barrow-tomb


  1. Love this reconceptualization, especially the idea that they are cursed/blighted

  2. Good stuff, Ive given a lot of thought to reconceptualization of the "standard races" myself, though I went with a more science-fantasy-ish transhuman elf, I dig your elves with a "wrongness" to them.