Saturday, April 13, 2013

Fallen Elves

"We must depart into the West, or dwindle to a rustic folk of dell and cave, slowly to forget and to be forgotten."

Saw the remnants of our people
Sweeping westward, wild and woeful,
Like the cloud-rack of a tempest,
Like the withered leaves of Autumn!

Longfellow -Song of Hiawatha

A Elbereth Gilthoniel silivren penna míriel o menel aglar elenath!

Na-chaered palan-díriel o galadhremmin ennorath,

Fanuilos, le linnathon nef aear, sí nef aearon!

which Tolkien translates as;

O Elbereth who lit the stars

From glittering crystal slanting falls
With light like jewels from Heaven on high

The glory of the starry host

To lands remote I have looked afar And now to thee, Fanuilos

Bright spirit clothed in ever-white

I here will sing beyond the sea

Beyond the wide and sundering sea

which bears some resemblance to a passage from another hymn

O Elbereth Gilthoniel

We still remember, we who dwell

In this far land beneath the trees

Thy starlight on the western seas

Despite being a lifelong atheist I've always had a powerful sense of the transcendent. These passages and the merest mention of the theme that Tolkien placed at the heart of his legendarium -the long defeat of the elves- used to make me shiver with delight when I was a child and weep piteously as a corrupt and drug-fucked young man. Though the Longfellow quote does not refer to the elves the theme is the same. There is a defeat that will consume everything and the world will pass away from us all and the only holding on is letting go. Sic transit gloria mundi.

I loved Tolkien's elves with such a fierceness that it galled me to see what happened to fantasy and what is still happening with the genericising tide of banality drowning the fierce joy and sorrow. Everyone now thinks elf means long straight hair and languid insouciant poise and my curmudgeonly intolerance waxed mightily before I realised I don't really care.

I like the idea of bypassing Tolkien whenever possible. There is enough precursor material that one can get by without plagiarising, indeed, one could be picky in one's plagiarisms and build something entirely different from; Druedain, Bombadil, Southrons, Mewlips, Numenorean oddities and Tevildo: Prince of Cats but I digress.


If you aren't very good at drawing it can help to loosen the wrist a little, and the mind also. Scribble away. This is something I stressed when I was teaching kids about art-making. Unless you know what you are doing that implement you have for mark-making is going to keep its secrets, inside every pen is a bewildering infinity of marks but only crap things will happen if you haven't the witchery to unleash it. When there are things that you can do and practices or exercises you can undertake that makes it easier then it is as though you've glimpsed some kind of sorcery beyond space and time. We as a species, as a culture, as a conglomerate entity, we have techniques available for unlocking the gate that leads to the miracle burning in the marrow of us but it's too easy to mooch around outside in a kind of desolate fecklessness. This desolate feckless mooching is where the bad things happen. It makes me think of the banal atrocities perpetrated by those whose cultures have been destroyed. It is on the outside of the capacity to experience the numinous heart of everything that these horrors are. The frustration with the world that is the frustration of the uninitiated is a haunted and famishing thing.

It makes me think also of the look on the faces of people who are on the road with a barrow-load of items while men with machetes and guns and toxic ideologies are making free with their homeland. Such people never thought the structure of their lives would be so thoroughly undone. They look as surprised that such things occur in the world as I would be.


If there are elves then they are simultaneously fickle and flighty and steeped in ancient wisdom and weird. The Good Folk and Fair Folk and Gude Neighboures are all euphemisms for what they really are; Evil and Ugly, Bad Neighbours, or at the very least Not Like Us. Not for nothing are diminished Tuatha De Danann and Vanir mixed up with the lost souls of the unbaptised dead and the pagan ancestors and fallen angels. Not for nothing is the boundary between fairy and demon and ghost a bit blurry.

It should be remembered that traditional folks have that marvellous tendency to ascribe everything to supernatural agency. Elves made you sick or killed you with magic or curdled milk, knotted horse's manes, pinched milkmaids, stole children and replaced them. It is this last relationship like that of cuckoos parasitising other birds that defines my own understanding of elves.

These cuckoos are common where I am and use their eldritch mocking cry to distract and enrage crows and currawongs so that their nests may be parasitised.

If elves are anything they are witnesses of the wild purity of existence. They were there, right there in the centre of things, watching the demiurgic agency ushering forth the thing-in-itself from nescience - gorging on the fugitive light. Their relinquishing of undifferentiated prime seems a defeat, a sundering, a fall from grace. Their walking with us on the earthly plane bitter to them, and they are sufficiently alienated from the human world that perhaps they care not what they do to us. Indeed they prey upon us or adorn us with flowers and bestow unimaginable pleasures upon us in turn without distinction. They are elementally amoral. The fall of the elves is like the fall of an older order of existing in the world in a purely poetic dimension of existence to a dull prosaic world. Among humans they suffer the alienation of the disenfranchised and the persecuted.

Alongside this alienness which in itself is sufficient cause for genocidal racism there is the fact that they can all cast spells. Any one of them could use magic to blind you or put you to sleep or strike you down from afar. This again brings to mind the fear of sorcery in traditional cultures. In the excellent film Ten Canoes the Yolngu men have a discussion about what would happen if you leave a turd in the bush where a sorceror could find it. They envisage different scenarios where, for example, the sorceror puts your turd up in a tree and when the branches rub together you get a sore throat. If the accounts of the burning times and the accounts of contemporary traditional cultures tell us anything it is that people have a terrible paranoid fear of malign sorcery and are happy to anthropomorphise ailments and misfortune especially if they can find a friendless old lady to brutalise. It's happening somewhere in Africa right now.

Judson Huss: preposterously bizarre

OK, well I've edited out a vague meandering ramble about setting design. Suffice to say I believe in brevity and the necessity of inducing some kind of exercise in creativity for the GM and players. The setting is always going to be a collaborative exercise. I'm more interested in establishing tone and promoting a trope-armature upon which can be hung internally consistent elements.

So I'm dealing with a Crapsack World setting where the elves are strange. The True Elves (who are higher level) live apart in hollow hills which are the otherworld and are preposterously bizarre and beyond my remit right now. The elves I am dealing with are lost in the diminishing world, grown senile and disparate and corrupt. These are the rustic folk of dell and cave.

PC elves are something I dealt with years ago and I guess remain somewhat relevant but what I am interested in doing is weaving a few little weird fragments together with a kicker. Assuming race-as-class and the existence of spellbooks there is an interesting little reward mechanic that can be used to send magic-users and elves trooping around the countryside in search of elfin magic and things to trade for it. The idea of intra-level reward mechanics needs fleshing out further later on.

First level spells vary so widely in power and utility it seems a bit ridiculous. They are a very interesting glimpse into the early game, two of the spells can be replaced by a padlock and a wheelbarrow.

Every elf is a first-level LL elf with one 1st level spell

Note on nomenclature: I've named my elves using a fair few obsolete dialect words (because it makes me feel so very clever) e.g. Sloomit Waghorn means "slovenly villain/trickster" and Habberjock means "turkey cock" and by extension "thick-lipped idiot".

Misergeist: Hold Portal - Hooky emaciated gloating buzzard-folk; Long and twisted are they and keepers of secrets . The geists are melancholy avarice embodied, hook-nosed and sallow flinthearts that spend their lives gloating over tarnished pewter in the dim and secret cysts of the margins of the world. Misergeists are vanishingly few and bereft of generative vitality; always they seek brides and bridegrooms favoured by the heavens.

Sloomit Waghorn: Read Languages - Conspiratorial manipulative lurkers in alcoves. Hidden in the Bounder-Keeps of the imperium's tattered brink are the fey and crump-horned scholars of the dead years. They keep chronicles kept in dusty archives in which are remembered the aeons of the Earth's dark prime and dynasties beyond. They seek runestones and ogham-staves and other archaic inscriptions.

Worriganger: Light - Feral outcasts shrouded in rags and dusty fur who live alone in desolation. They are dusky and angular strangers who mutter in their solitude and follow after the wayward with wolfish intent. Worrigangers are feared and abhorred such that the name is a malediction cast upon the rapist and the hearthless vagrant.

Habberjock: Shield - Thick-lipped grotesques of apparently majestic stupidity. Habberjocks are outlandishly ugly changeling children grown man-high and uglier still. their voices are thick and unctuous and their eyes dull and gleaming. They delight in the company of geese and mules and in the slow-worm and eft.

Brackenfrau: Charm Person - Burnished nut-brown moon-faced wenches with crinkly hair that lurk in the withery drears and fern-brakes of a grey autumn. Out in the dappled half-light they dwell in hovels and weave plots to capture comely admirers. They trade in stolen children and seek to use their powers of persuasion to encourage the starveling poor to part with their offspring.

Hollowback Ylfen: Detect Magic - Fair to look upon from the front but weirdly hollow and cow-tailed behind. The Ylfen pass briefly unnoticed among humans seeking articles of spae-craft hidden among the detritus of decaying civilisation. To them, all magical trinkets are their province, to be purloined and returned to the barrows where they reign in solitude.

Gluntie Queyne: Magic Missile - Gangling, bristly and ungainly fairy women. Horse-faced and haggard and possessed of an abrasive angularity of demeanour. The Glunties dwell apart in realms of fearful loneliness as their capacity to strike men dead with elf-shot makes them formidable and hated and their tendency to imbibe inebriants immoderately makes them unpredictable.

Flibbertigibbet: Ventriloquism - Far too slender and unearthly to be beautiful -glittering dark and furtive craven wispy fey who haunt the fen-lands and spinneys. They have an unwholesome predilection for leadings-astray and yearn merely to caress the placid faces of the wayward dead. The living are too too coarse and earthly for them.

Scalbert Gumph: Sleep - Shambolic fae manifest as slobbery dullards that sleep under bridges and in abandoned mills. They shamble about in the drunken twilight seeking the unwary with groping fingers and muttering dark lullabies. More than anything they desire comely sheep and black roses and locks of maiden's hair.

Ouphe: Floating Disc- Gawping outlandish pudding-headed wanderers. Mostly harmless, ouphes prance uncouthly around the peripheries of the world and laugh at thunder and cry at sunlight and sleep in ditches. What they value is hard to gauge but they have little to offer anyone that makes any sense so it matters little
Capripeds: Protection from Evil - Unctuous epicurean blackguards who traffick with strange forces. In the high hills the Capripeds dance in the new moon's dark with godless things from elder aeons, for the shades can touch them not and the awfish nymphs of the unbegotten prime harm them not for they wrap themselves in webs of glamer.

Canny Childe: Read Magic - Diminutive starry-eyed archaics of cherubic seeming. Like unto a child of ten or eleven years in aspect but with a wry glance and a knowingness beyond their apparent youth, the Canny parasitise human dwellings where they can creep about seeking the glyphs and sigils of arcane witchery and abuse the trust they elicit in their hosts to worm their way into vaults of secret gramarye.

Apropos of nothing: The man is a sorceror


  1. I like the evils and the idiosyncratic/antiquated language. In fact, I like the term Misergiest more than I can readily explain. Rolls off the tongue well.

  2. I actually try very hard to ration my use of three-syllable words. I know how satisfying they can be and cut out every second one that comes to me but still; habberjock, hollowback, brackenfrau, middenmurk - it's an affliction without a name.

  3. Wow... yeah just fucking wow. I have wanted to comment something hooting my appreciation for the last 4 or 5 posts but was too slack jawed to have anything more than

    1. I am just happy to be able to participate. You have been very influential on me so I would just like to take the opportunity to say thank you :)

  4. Man, if you ever give dwarves the same treatment as you've given elves and orcs I might have a hype explosion.

  5. Oh man there is something like this about orcs? Aw eff yeah.

  6. I'm voraciously cannibalising this for my home game, thank you.
    Some spells differ between this and LotFP, so I hope I can write well enough to make the other elves nearly as evocative.

    I'm playing with the idea that all elves start at level 1 with a spell in their heart, yet they look like humans. With each spell they memorise they look more and more like these weird fallen elves.
    A level 1 elf with a single spell would have pointy ears (of course), and then they'd get stranger from there. Casting the spells would reverse the transformation and make them look more human.

    They'd get all their spells back at moonrise and thus transform into their most elfy forms... which makes me think I should bring the phases of the moon into the thing somehow.

    So much to think about, very very good.

    1. Fantastic! I like the ideas you are working with very much and I appreciate the fact you're using my stuff. It gives me great satisfaction.

      I had the idea that certain elfin entities of myth and legend might be higher-level elves. Practically all the abilities ascribed to mythic creatures could be modelled with the spell list. e.g. Leshies are 3rd level with Ventriloquism, Charm Person and Invisibility and look like bright green version of Eugene Hutz with backwards feet.

    2. I humbly submit the following -

      The names aren't quite as evocative unfortunately, but I like old words and have a thesaurus!

    3. But wow yea, perhaps each level the spells they get influences what they become somehow? Like they don't need spellbooks and can't change their spells per day because their spells are part of their being?

      I'm working through the idea that the more alien they seem, the more powerful intrinsic abilities they have. Cast the spells and you lose the creepiness, but you also lose the abilities.

      Like a Light-spell elf would have infravision, and their eyes would gleam dully in the darkness.
      Cast your spells and you lose the infravision, but you also lose the eye-gleam and so you seem more human.

      Elves don't need to sleep, but the touch of moonlight regenerates their spells and sends them cavorting and gallivanting to do mysterious elf things in their disconcerting elf-forms for an hour per level.
      That should possibly be an hour per level of the highest spell they can cast. I can't decide yet!

      It makes them fairly werewolfy in execution, perhaps they can resist the urge depending on how close it is to the night of the new moon.

      I really haven't been this enthused about something in quite some time. God forbid I take a crack at your dwarves.

    4. Your enthusiasm is awesome. May I suggest, if you are interested in old words and want to expand your Thesaurus-capacity tenfold, check out Joseph Wright's Dialect Dictionary of English (or some shit like that)it is six volumes and five thousand pages with gameable stuff on every page. You can't access a hardcopy for love or money but you can download the individual parts. It's byous as a catthern-pear.

      Being werewolfy is a good thing. I'm very much of the opinion that we take tropes for granted in a way that eventually robs them of their grandeur and magic. Fuck with that shit and it shall reward ye, I say.

      It's very flattering and somewhat peculiar to see my gibberish-style emulated thus. I'll give a more thorough assessment shortly but it looks good to me.

    5. I'll have to check it out, I ended up flicking through The Hobbit for additional terms. I was inordinately pleased with attercap being a combination of attercop and redcap.

  7. Thanks, your elves piece is great and Wright's dictionary is fascinating.

    1. Thank you, Ed! I'd love for more folks to get a chance to learn some of those obsolete words.