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Saturday, January 15, 2011

Part II- Dark Elves, Dark Elves, everyhwere I look?

Part II

In a previous post I talked about my personal road and involvement in playing Dark Elves in Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. I've played one dark elf in 1st edition (around 1986/7) and one in 2nd edition (1997/200) since 1982; not a bad track record. My one for 1st edition coincided with me purchasing Unearthed Arcana with my own cash which was a huge moment for me. Interestingly enough both coincided with two of the best campaigns I ever played in.

In 1989 the gaming world changed with the introduction of a character by RA Salvatore called Drizzt Do'Urden and since then grognards the world over have labeled this event along with Lorraine Williams as the worst things ever to happen to Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (I think it was 3rd and 4th edition that was the worst but that's just me). I fully agree with the Lorraine Williams part, the second, not so much and here's why.

Look at what changed, I mean what really changed. TSR hit a gold mine with what was morphing into a major character that rivaled Spiderman was to Marvel Comics. Think about this at one point in the late 80's there were 4 Spiderman titles in a month, four! Was he overexposed? Most assuredly, but more to the point Marvel was smart they were using their most well know property to gain more sales. Smart companies do this and if I was in the same boat I'd probably do the very same thing. So with that realization it was all Drizzt Do'Urdern all the time everywhere in the Realms. If this was say for a character from Greyhawk I don't think there would be this much gnashing of teeth this many decades later. Gord anyone?

In a way I don't think anyone can fault TSR for having him appear so much, in this sense Drizzt is no different then Marvel using Spiderman as their poster boy and the parallels are somewhat similar as to why they were so popular:
  • Loners (by and large)
  • Both misunderstood by the "public at large".
  • Both intrinsically good, despite those they protect not understanding them 
By and large this probably describes large numbers of teenage boys who probably formed the largest readership of the character. I don't look down on anyone who might make their teenage years easier, one knows they are hard enough as it is.

So with all that said what makes Drizzt whiny and not Peter? I really don't think either are personally but maybe that's me. I think much like Ravenloft, Dragonlance's D1-15 and Drizzt its a case of people's impression of them that means "this is so" rather then what it might actually be. Look through Dragonlance, some think its rail-roady, sure it is to a point but that's what happens when you mirror a series of books and vice-versa. Peter could be pretty darn whiny, especially in the early days, rarely does Drizzt mask slip, it may have later as I stopped reading the series after Siege of Darkness.

I think the problem that exists for the old time gamers is the fact that it changed the idea of Dark Elves very much from what Gary Gygax imagined them in the Fiend Folio and D1-3 the Drow Series D1-3 (the companion to the Giant Series G1-3). The problem I have with that is that what was Gary imagining from exactly? Traditionally Dark Elves were a Norse idea and I don't see a lot of direct influence there. If one looks at the literary sources of say Tolkein, his Dark Elves are those that never beheld the light of the Trees, again something very different. I like Gary's imagining in D3 as opposed to say the City of Menzoberranzan boxed set (circa 1992). Newer school players are probably bound to like the later. Doesn't mean that either is wrong, but in over two decades of gaming archetypes are bound to change. Whether they want to admit it I'm guessing that the people consuming the media and games have changed as well.

Another problem I see with this over-arcing theme of Dark Elves is that once someone played in or read G1-3, and D1-3 the cat was largely out of the bag anyways. Its not like you can stuff that particular genie back in the bottle again. Then the issue was compounded with the explosion of Salvatore's writing and the Forgotten Realms shifting to the default campaign setting for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. I think this also speaks to a larger problem as well: the politics of TSR, the ouster of Gary and the fact that second edition was starting to become more and more of a reality to the older generation of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons gamers.This lead to a massive schism that still reverberates today which I won't delve into here.

Expounding on this further then brings to nature of the character Drizzt. Many of the old guard simply label him as a munchkin character that is over the top and breaks the rules of the game.  That may be so, but if anything he fits better rules-wise in 1st edition, and after all 1st edition allowed for the playing of dark elves as characters by none other then Gary... It's important to note that while I'm a big fan of Greyhawk in terms of a campaign setting (with all its clunky weirdness that goes hand in hand with it) its not like the  World of Greyhawk is not without its munchkin characters either: Again, Gord anyone? So when you throw all of this together a rather combustible mix is starting to brew.

So why might that be? I think Drizzt also came about a certain time (the late 80's/early 90's) that were much different then the 70's and what the gamers then grew up with in terms of reading. Keep in mind reading being the primary mode for the transmission of these ideas or by mail ;) In some cases the older generation of gamers and wargamers grew up with the likes of Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon and such. Harryhausen's movies were also likely to be big in their formative years. For the newer gamers and the ones that straddled that line (like me) we were exposed to a wide variety of things and to us our first introduction to say Conan was through a movie rather then the books. I guess what I'm trying to say here is that the character-type is different then the player. The player identifies with the character, but is the character type tainted by the player type? I wonder if some of the "good" drow syndrome was related to the "Worf syndrome"; surely there had to be some Klingons that weren't rat bastards? right? (Don't look at me I liked the Romulans better).

If the argument that the character of Drizzt attracts a certain type of player, then I would agree with that and that is where the problem lies. Looking over multiple forums that cater to multiple editions this is the sense I get. It would seem that many old-schoolers are continually beset with new school players wanting to play drow rangers dual wielding scimitars. I doubt that's the case for everyone, but lets go with it for a moment. If that's the case then I count myself lucky as I've never had to deal with that in my group. While this maybe is indeed a problem, I can certainly understand why someone would want that escape. We play this game as a means of escape if only for a little while. What many younger players might want is an escape for any number of reasons where they are victims of their surroundings per say or things that are terrible in their regular everyday lives. Its easy to sit back in disparage kids for wanting to play out some fantasies of not being the victim and the butt kicker, to give it out rather then have to take it.  I see nothing wrong with that. Some will counter with: "What about the 40-year guys doing this?" Well is that a problem with the character/stereo-type they want to play, or that type of player? I'd say the later.

So how does one reconcile the imagery of Dark Elves in this day in age? I'm not sure you can. Because its reached such a level in the gaming community especially the Dungeons and Dragons community that its a touch-point for certain factions. I'm not going to worry about  Dungeons and Dragons 3.0, 3.5 or 4 because they represent such a departure for what many consider Advanced Dungeons and Dragons that its largely irrelevant to the people that would be playing the older editions of the game. As I noted on the first order of business to reclaim the Dark Elves (if that is indeed your aim) is at once the easiest and toughest: no Dark Elf PCs. This might cause and uproar in your group depending on the players, but then you don't have to worry about the "Drizzt Syndrome" of certain types of players wanting to play him. 2nd point: return them to being monsters of an unknown quality rather then known the world over; think about it in this sense:
  • In the Forgotten Realms- Dark Elves are evil, wicked and downright sadistic. All over the realms people know they are evil, have heard of them etc. But how is this so for such a "rare" race? Seems like plenty of the common folk have plenty of advanced knowledge of deep underground races. Unless this is of course because they raid so often?
  • In the World of Greyhawk Dark Elves are evil, wicked and downright sadistic. People know they are evil, but yet at the same time barely know of them... How can either of these be?
In a pseudo medieval setting most people are going to have a extremely limited knowledge of really ancient legends. Dark Elves fall in that category. They are going to be worried about farming, winters and "real" monsters like goblins, orcs, hobgoblins and ogres; the ones that they do know of and probably have seen with their own eyes. So how would most folk hate and fear them if that are that rare?

The answer is that the imagery of Dark Elves is so muddled in Advanced Dungeons and Dragons that you have to separate out just what the are. Or at least separate player expectation. The DM needs to make a decisions of how are they presented in his world. Are they mysterious and unknown? If so it stands the reason that most people would have no idea what they are if they saw one and certainly would have no idea of them being the "bogey-man" race that they are presented as. The Forgotten Realms is more guilty of this then Greyhawk per say. In Greyhawk the dark elves are largely unknown and I think the less a DM allows them the better off things will be.

Another benefit of making them unknown is that it eliminates one of the main role-playing reasons why someone might want to play a certain drow ranger clone: if people aren't going to automatically want to kill them on sight it negates the tragic hero angle right off the bat. If the default meme of the last 20 years is gone, what incentive is for this players to play the same thing they read about? There isn't and there is the beauty of it: they can then be free to play their dark elf as something else, not what they read in a book.

Dark Elves do not have to be a touch point like they have been prior, they can be more of what they used to be. It merely takes more effort then it used to.

With all that said I'm looking forward to writing my first dark elf inspired adventure and for 1st edition Advanced Dungeon and Dragons rules no less. It will be a replacement for Q1- Queen of the Demonweb Pits, it's very much in need of a better ending and hopefully I can deliver. Oh and looky here's Loth ;)

In closing for my own part I'm fairly neutral in this as I grow older, having played two dark elf characters since 1982 hardly makes me an fan-boy for them as in both cases it was what my inner muse whispered at the time. I guess playing Warhammer also effected how I viewed dark elves as well as the imagery there is a whole 'nother discussion in and of itself.

Oh and one last thing from D3 by none other then Gary Gygax: "In the right hand cage there is a Dark elf fighter/magic-user of 4th/4th (HP: 24, no armor, 12 strength, 18 intelligence, 9 wisdom, 18 dexterity, 15 constitution, 13 charisma) placed into captivity yesterday and paralyzed by the spider demoness. He is Nilonim, a dissident Drow captured in Erelhei-Cinlu  where he led a band of rebels attempting to overthrow noble rule. He is of neutral alignment with a slight tendency towards good deeds." Interesting stuff, were the seeds for the explosion of good Drow contained within? I'm not saying Gary intended anything by this, but it had to have been in there for some reason.


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