Friday, February 3, 2012

The Elves of Alfheim: RPG Items I Like

Sourcebook for Elves in the classic D&D setting of Mystara.

The Gazetteer series now makes a significant turn- moving from nations and adventure settings to a deep treatment of particular Mystaran races. For more on Mystara and the Gazetteer series, see here. I don't know if it is deliberate, but on the printings I have of GAZ5: The Elves of Alfheim (and GAZ6: The Dwarves of Rockhome) the usual “GAZX” listing doesn't appear on the upper left hand corner of the cover. I suspect the intent might have been to sell this supplements as a more general “Elf” sourcebook for gamers playing in D&D. That's important because, of course, this was a system that IIRC first presented the race=class concept. I guess readers understand what that means- but I hadn't realized until recently that it was a significant bone of contention for both players in the old editions and some working with recent OSR systems.

I remember reading the D&D rules, but I was deep into AD&D. The idea that players choosing a Dwarf or Elf (and I think a Hafling as well) end up stuck with that as their class as well bothered me. It made a certain amount of sense- players gravitated to certain archetypes when playing those races (or vice versa). But at the time I felt they'd removed some player freedom in favor of simplicity. At that age it hadn't the implications of all members of a race having a specific class or concrete racial trait hadn't occurred to me. Perhaps I assumed those rules only applied to adventurers. But a supplement dealing with the Elves as a nation and a people has to wrestle with those questions. It has to support the original presentation and rules from the system, back up that explanation, and at the same time make sense. Elves of Alfheim has to offer options for Elf players, just as some of the previous volumes allowed characters from those nations some new options and details.

The Elves of Alfheim keeps much the same format as the previous books, but with a longer 96-page interior booklet. The tri-fold cover has a color hex map showing Alfheim in relation to its neighbors. The interior of the folder has a fully annotated and highly useful map of Alfheim Town- with the conventional and arboreal layers shown. Some past gazetteer city maps have been clunky, more rough shapes than anything. This gives a rich location which the DM could easily use and put into play. Smartly, one panel has a detailed layout of Embassy Row, the area most given over to foreigners. That area offers the most adventure opportunities within the city. The large fold out poster map has the usual hex map of the kingdom, but that takes up only a quarter of one side. The rest of that side gives a color coded map of Alfheim Town, already covered in the screen. For DMs planning on making that city the cornerstone of a campaign that's great, but if not then it feels like a duplication. Three insets on that side offer illustrations of what settlements in the tree-tops look like. They're western European buildings, but perched on limbs. I'm used to a more “tribal” or “primitive” approach to those treeborne settlements from other sources (such as Everquest). There's also a nice example of how one maps an Elven Town by charting trees. The flip side of this poster map is disappointingly blank.

The booklet follows the same text design as before, done with three columns. The font size (except in certain places) feels larger and more open than in the early gazetteers which felt cramped. The previous volume GAZ4: The Kingdom of Ierendi moved to open things up, but Alfheim dials that back a bit. The pages look right, with a solid balance to white space to text. Some pages have an iconic watermark of a tree, but that's colored lightly enough that it doesn't affect legibility. Stephen Fabian provides more excellent art here- great evocative images and superb shots of NPCs. Some of the Elf clothing and feature designs echo Elfquest, while some feel more like Tolkien. There's other art in the booklet- location diagrams, heraldry, and maps- which I assume comes from the cartography team of Dave Sutherland and Dennis Kauth. The material is written by Steve Perrin (of Runequest fame) and Anders Swenson.

It has been said within our group that I have a bias against Elves. I don't think that's necessarily true. But I do have an objection to some common and unquestioning presentation of Elves in games. In particular I dislike a default mode of racial arrogance and superiority. Some players love the Elves, but then have trouble defining what makes them great (or interesting or cool). Claiming inherent nobility or a superior connection with nature doesn't really do it. That's a value statement rather than concrete or specific evidence. And I've often seen players fall back to a sense of inherent superiority and the dismissal of other races based on Elves just being better. Oddly, this feeling comes from watching players many years ago and not recently. Much like my bias against Haflings, it arises from my early play experiences. So I guess I have to learn to overcome my upbringing.

Consider that Dwarves and Haflings have some “cultural” and physical character traits that can easily be grasped and played out at the game table: height, temper, love of material goods, etc. What do Elves have? If you have war-avoiding Elves, passivity isn't a fun thing to play, and if they go to war when provoked then that really isn’t a limitation or hook for play. Fragility, for Elves with a CON penalty, also doesn't seem like something fun to play. So the fallback personality & conflict trait can arrogance or superiority. And that's something that can gate on other players. What I guess I've objected to in the past has been a player fetishization of the Elves without any depth to that. There are traits that ought to define the Elves: extended lifespan, magical aptitude, and connection with nature. The question is how to put those into play in an good way at the table- how can players (and DMs) make Elves more than humans with pointy ears and self-proclaimed coolness.

After some brief comments about how DMs and players might use this supplement, Elves of Alfheim launches into a fairly comprehensive history of the peoples and their migrations. I particular like that the book takes time to address existing material. It mentions supplements useful in developing this volume and discusses the implications of the quests from CM7: The Tree of Life. In considering the history, Alfheim establishes a basic fact with heavy implications: only six full complete generations of Elves have lived and died since the beginning of the history given. That chronicle begins with the World of Blackmoor. Previous gazetteers have integrated details from that history (in particular Glantri) but none has really built and extended ties to that time. From the Alfheim book, we get a more complete picture of how the collapse of Blackmoor, the shifting of the poles and so on impacted the races of the world. There's an amusing detail in the path of Elvish migrations on the map, one that might be seen as prophetic. The map given clarifies that Mystara is simply a version of our world with the continents slightly shifted and turned on their side. The Elves migrate from their homelands after the fall of Blackmoor up into pseudo-North America, closer to the “Midwest.” They next leave that land to head to the Sylvan Realm which looks at lot like Seattle. Finally they make their last major shift and end up in New England. So we get TSR (Lake Geneva), WoTC (Seattle), and then Hasbro (Rhode Island). Perhaps I'm reading too much into that, especially from a book published in 1988. Also notable in the history are the Drow...sorry, I mean the Shadow Elves. They're dark skinned elves who live underground and resent their above-ground cousins. They get their own GAZ later in GAZ13: The Shadow Elves.

The next sections (pages 10-38) cover all of the major touchstones of Alfheim society: the way of the Elf, economics, politics, geography, environments, and a detailed treatment of Alfheim City. This is all well-written and very Elf-y. I suspect reader and DM's reactions will depend on how much the expect and enjoy a classic and middle-of-the-road treatment of the Elves. If you were to imagine a standard game treatment of Elven society, Alfheim would be close to that. There are a few distinctions worth noting. Primarily, the classic Tolkien derived tension between Dwarves and Elves isn't present. Also there's the division of the Elves into different clans. That touch adds a good deal of color to them, and is something I borrowed for my campaign Elves. One odd bit does call Elven society “classless,” and then gives a breakdown of the classes and hierarchy within it. This is a contradiction worth exploring- a distinction between how they see themselves and how they actually are. I like the ideas about wild magic and places, and the discussion of sacred trees. That Elves approach war as they would a hunt is also a useful concept. Perhaps because I've seen all the radical, diverse and different treatments of Elves in other games, this still feels vanilla. I played Rolemaster with its dozen+ Elves, some of them pretty crazy. Some of the Forgotten Realms and Dark Sun treatments stick in my head as well. But vanilla's my favorite flavor of ice cream, a delicious default, so that's worth considering.

Next comes a presentation of the notable NPCs of Alfheim- one of my favorite and among the most useful sections of the book. This runs from page 39-44 and 53-62. Elvish and non-Elvish characters are covered- with a brief stat block. Most of each entry covers the personality, goals, and history of that character. I love this kind of material and it doesn't disappoint. I think the best compliment you can give game material is that you're imagining stories from it as you read. In most cases stories using the NPC sprang to mind immediately. Two previous gazetteers took the time to present important NPCs (Karameikos and Glantri). That makes them more useful to a GM considering running a campaign set in or passing through Alfheim. On the race=class question which the book thus far avoided- it stays the course with all of the Elvish NPCs listed with the Elf class.

The middle eight pages of the booklet are a pull-out section for players. Two pages present narratives from outsiders on how they see Alfheim, and a third page offers a glossary of Elvish terms. The remaining five pages offer guidelines for creating an Elf character. This material covers both Alfheim and non-Alfheim Elves (mentioning two other Elvish groups which have appeared in Mystara material). The rules offer some suggestions for playing Elvish personality quirks (laziness/efficiency, clan focus, used to magic, spendthrift). Mechanically, the most important addition is the reutrn of the idea of skills, first presented in Karameikos and inconsistently treated throughout the series. The rules for skills have been consolidated and Elves now begin with a Tracking skill. Each clan has a signature skill as well.

Elves in D&D top out at 10th level, but can train with a human to go above that as a warrior. Alfheim presents a new system allowing Elves to now do the same with magic. Essentially they can train in Alfheim with a Treekeeper and learn higher level spells. The rules presented on pages 63-71 go over how to split these levels and experience. They also break down a new list of Elvish spells and offer four pages of spells, many of them new and many of them simply adapting over other spells (especially Druidic ones). The magic section covers a number of other secrets as well, which makes it more of a DM resources rather than something for a player to read through.

The last part of the book considers campaigning in Alfheim. Three pages cover the general considerations for building such a campaign. I especially like the idea of working with the players and having them define their family and friends as resources for story elements. For DMs just starting out or trying to figure out how to build such a centrally located game, the discussion will prove helpful. Of course after the general discussion the book gives seventeen pages of more specific adventures. There are some new monsters and a couple of pages of seeds for stories. But the book also includes six more fully defined adventures- with scenes, NPCs and twists (and nice connections to material & characters presented earlier). That makes this book especially useful for a Mystara DM.

I think you have two ways of considering The Elves of Alfheim. On the one hand, it works quite well as the sourcebook for Elves in the Mystara setting. You have an interesting, fun and rich take on the culture- without any artificial need to shock, darken or make the Elves eXtreme. They fit with the relatively lighter tone of the whole setting. There's a simplicity there that allows the DM more room than something highly specific or off-the-wall might. These stories and incidents rely on classic story tropes and motivations, which can make for some really excellent campaigns. On the other hand for DMs looking for a new take on the Elves, it may not be as useful. Or it might be if all you've been over-saturated with books offering a new take on Elves as psionic, spike-limbed hermaphrodites. I think there's enough in the way of good ideas to be borrowed (as I have done in my campaigns) to make this another gazetteer worth recommending. And I say that despite my bias against Elves.