Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Shadow Elves: RPG Items I Like

WHAT IS IT?
Supplement covering a race of secretive, underground Elves in the Mystara setting.

HOW DO YOU SPELL THAT?

I have to begin with something of a confession…I don’t know the Drow. I’m an old school AD&D player, but honestly I’ve never followed the whole Drow thing. I remember someone in our group in grade school had a copy of Q1: Queen of the Demonweb Pits, and I remember it had a cool map. So my knowledge of the Drow is pretty much restricted to the following facts:

1. They have a Queen who lives in a sticky and infernal hole.

2. They live underground and have dark skin in a strange response to normal evolutionary development.
3. They’re super evil.
4. There’s a guy named Drizzle who wields a pair of sweet swords and is the only good Drow. And every MMO I’ve ever played is composed of 10% of the population with name variations on his. Which might explain why I don’t know how to spell it.

Now my point in making that confession is that while
GAZ13: The Shadow Elves might look like a Drow knock-off book at first glance...I honestly can’t make a comparison on that score. So I’m going to leave that issue aside. Instead I’m going to focus on the supplement as it is.

A couple of ideas to consider before plunging into this. First, calling them "Shadow Elves" does suggest at least some kind of sinister nature to them. Or perhaps more rightly that they’re seen as evil or dangerous in the outside world. And they’re also at the same time elves, connecting them to that tradition in Mystara. Second, the Shadow Elves have rarely popped up in the previous gazetteers. I can’t recall more than a brief mention or NPC. They represent the fourth major “group” of Elves in the Known World regions, along with
Alfheim, the splinter elves of Minrothad, and the odd “from elsewhere” Belcadiz Elves of Glantri. Third, they might be considered tied to the other two gazetteers covering hostile, expansionist or even evil peoples: GAZ10: The Orcs of Thar and the GAZ12: The Golden Khan of Ethengar. It will be interesting to track how PCs of this race are built. Mystara offers an open alignment system with the focus on Law, Neutrality and Chaos. It has fewer absolutes.

THE BOOK ITSELF

The Shadow Elves contains two booklets plus an enclosed poster map. The 32-page Player’s Booklet and 64-page DM’s Guide follow the excellent and dense page layout of the previous volumes of the series. Two newcomers to the series crafted this volume, although both have extensive rpg credits. Carl Sargent, on the one hand wrote books for TSR, GW, FASA and other rpg companies; Gary Thomas, on the other, wrote for TSR but is probably better known for his Traveller Contributions. The cover of the volume is another Clyde Caldwell illustration, but it is a little misleading. The books describe the Shadow Elves specifically as being more fair skinned than other Elves, and not possessing a greenish or grey cast to their skin. However the cover shows three figures with distinctly grey skin. Stephen Fabian returns for the interior artwork, which is excellent as always. The maps are solid- with a nice urban overview on the inside of the folio cover. The poster map is only one sided this time, but it does offer a nice view of the Shadow Elves' cavern complexes, complete with markers for the relative position of foreign surface cities and locations.

PLAYER’S BOOKLET
I usually start with the DM’s material, but once again I have to flip the order around because the DM’s Guide presents significant secrets and spoilers about the setting. Those reverse key facts given in the Player’s Booklet.

The booklet begins by establishing several key points, most importantly that almost no one on the surface world knows of the Shadow Elves. Some humanoids know that the Elves dwell in caverns even deeper than their own beneath the Broken Lands. The Elves believed for many generations to have been the sole survivors of the destruction which visited Blackmoor. In their travels and hiding underground, the found the guidance of the Immortal Rafiel who led them to the deeper places of safety. The four clans of the Shadow Elves believed that the world had been devastated by the Rain of Fire. Only in recent years did they discover that others survived and that the fallout from those events had passed. When the Shadow Elves petitioned the Elves of Alfheim to be granted a portion of their surface bounty, Alfheim denied them. Living in caverns stretching vast distances, the Shadow Elves possess arts adapted to their circumstances. They have four major cities, one for each of the clans.


The first ten pages cover all of this player-facing history and culture. One of the more useful sections is the “Day in the Life…” which describes common routines and beliefs in four pages. That’s a solid way to give players entry into such as foreign culture. Other topics are covers over the next several pages: the Shamanic tradition of the Shadow Elves (different than that of Ethengar, more a variant clerical approach), culture, travel, trade and so on.


Most of the booklet, from page 14 on, focuses on playing a Shadow Elf PC. These are basically as Elf-class variant. They lack access to the advanced options offered in Elves of Alfheim, but have new options of their own. These include some advanced fighting techniques. They also have their own experience table. The skills rules return and are pretty heavily described in this section again. By this point, across all of the gazetteers, players and GMs will have many closely related but slightly different versions of the skill system. That’s kind of a problem. It means a chunk of mechanical rules reprinted across many of the books. It also means some items and options don’t synch up. New or Shadow Elf specialty skills ought to be better marked out in the text, to make it easier for gamers to assess the differences. Like Orcs of Thar, this book offers some skills which are “class abilities” to allow the Shadow Elves to emulate those classes (without actually taking them). That remains a can of worms for the GM, especially as those options don’t appear for other race-based classes.


Shadow Elves get their own list of accessible spells. Some are standard from the basic rules, but 26 are variants or entirely new. Descriptions are provided for all of those. Many of them deal with rock and life in the tunnels. Rare Shadow Elves may also take levels as a Shaman, with XP split between their normal progression and this class. Shamans gain a number of special ability and social benefits. They also gain access to more spells. The booklet provides write ups for these 33 spells.


DM’s GUIDE

So I’m going to be presenting some SPOILERS in this section, although I’m not going to dwell too much on the specifics. This 64-page booklet begins by emphasizing that much of the history presented earlier is significantly wrong or biased. From there it presents the fourteen “Verses” of the Immortal Rafiel and then a discussion of time and the calendar here. That’s a slightly weird leap, as you'd expect the history next. The material on time in the sunless caverns does start to get at some of the implications for life here. Beyond the “timeless” nature of such an existence, there’s the emphasis the Shadow Elves place on ritual and omens. Days have associations with past events and ritual requirements. It reminds me a little of the calendar rituals and sacred times of the Ancient Romans. But part of the problem is that this discussion gives us fragments and references to the history, before being given a better sense of what that entails.

Next we do get details of the real history, “As the Immortals See It.” The Shadow Elves originated as early colonists from the Backmoor- the earliest Elves to settle the Glantri area. During the cataclysm, they fled underground beneath the Broken Lands, believing the world had been destroyed. Later Elves who followed the, found no evidence of the early colonists. The Shadow Elves eventually made their way back to the surface, but the unearthing of another Blackmoor artifact elsewhere created devastation and convinced them that the surface had been compromised beyond measure, so they descended again. They found a forgotten
Azcan temple and settled there, but eventually lost that to the Orcs before being subsumed by that blood-thirsty tradition. Pressing deeper they found signs of the Immortal Rafiel who led them to the most subterranean caverns and taught them the ways of his “soul-crystals” as used by the Shamans. Much time passed and then the Elves had word of the survivable surface, having caught and tortured some foolhardy adventurers. The Shadow Elves clashed with the humanoids of Thar and then eventually sent representatives to the Elves of Alfheim. They demanded half the lands of the surface Elves and absolute leadership. When Alfheim refused, the Shadow Elves declared war. However they were no able to overcome the surface Elves militarily, so they have invested in a long-term plan of infiltrating and undermining their tree-dwelling cousins.

So that’s kind of dark- not classically evil, but instead more xenophobic, jealous and resentful. The Shadow Elves believe that the surface Elves abandoned them, and that they hold first claim to the region. That makes them unreasonable and adversarial. A darker hidden truth lies in the secrets of the Soul Crystals the Shadow Elf shamans work. They do not, as they tell others, pattern a soul and allow it to be reincarnated. Instead, these are tied to the Radiance, first presented in
GAZ3: The Principalities of Glantri. In short, they use radiation energy from the engine of the crashed alien ship to power their magic. And the creation and manipulation of that energy is to fuel Rafiel’s great work. Eight pages cover these secrets. I like the guidelines here for slowly indoctrinating a Shaman PC- over time revealing the secrets and deception to them. It would be a difficult thing to pull off- and might only work for a full party of Shamans. Of course there’s the added risk of PCs dropping dead from radiation poisoning or having a limb rot off…

Pages 17-27 cover the geography of the region, in a section which tightly covers a ton of material. We get a sense of the basic locations underground, what life is like there, as well as a full and detailed breakdown of the City of Stars, the main city. I particularly like the focusing on how players might encounter elements here. Rather than take a fully abstract and objective approach, the authors focus on elements useful at the table. Six pages follow that pattern, discussing travels and military presence in the region. That’s followed by three pages on flora and fauna, including some beasts unique to the region. The middle four pages of the booklet are a pullout section offer a “What Everyone Knows” handout. This is a nice mix of rumor, hearsay and error- combined with a few correct facts. This might be most fruitfully used by a DM as a script, putting this gossip and speculation into the mouths of NPCs rather than just handing it out on paper.


Nine pages present the NPCs of the region, each given a extensive write-up (including stats and combat notes). These offer some great hooks and possibilities for the DM and nicely flesh out the other material. For the first time I can recall in any of the gazetteers, we actually get descriptions and state block for Immortals. Rafiel has an illustration which makes him look like a scientist in a kimono. Atzanteotl, a Lord of Entropy who tried to convert the Shadow Elves is also presented- though he’s more interested in a struggle for the hearts and minds of the humanoids of Thar. Six pages follow detailing the ambitions of the Shadow Elves at various levels, the nature of their spy network, and in specific how the Shadow Elves have infiltrated and affected each of the surface nations. This is rich material especially for DMs wanting to introduce the Shadow Elves as adversaries.


The book ends with a section on adventures. Two pages offer basic notes on different campaign types with Shadow Elf protagonists (military, sneaky, shamanic, etc). There’s a brief mention of using this as the basis of an enemies campaign, with the PCs fighting against the Shadow Elves. Little mention or advice is given about how to handle the lone Shadow Elf PC within a standard party. Given that you’d expect that to come up, it would have been good to see some ideas on how best to handle the difficulties. Five adventure seeds, plus one slightly developed adventure wrap things up. These are decent, but some fit more with one campaign type than another.


OVERALL
I enjoyed reading through The Shadow Elves. I’ll admit I was worried at first that it would just seem like an “evil underground Elves” treatment, but there’s some complexity to the world given here. Players have some options about their path and personality. History and culture have shaped this people, and their responses and attitudes have a logic to them. The Shadow Elves aren’t omniscient spymasters and manipulators behind the scenes of the surface world, but they do have an agenda and plots in motion. The internal contradictions and secrets within Shadow Elf culture present interesting play opportunities. Some elements of the material draw heavily on the ideas of Blackmoor, radiation magics, and the alien spaceship engines. That’s to some people’s taste and not to others. However it would not be particular hard to modify those and keep the essential spirit of the supplement. Mystaran DMs will find ideas to build from here. Other GMs will find material they can easily adapt to another campaign or setting.


The map of the Shadow Elf lands is taken from the excellent Mystaran map resource at mystara.thorf.co.uk

THE GAZETTEERS IN REVIEW
GAZ 13: The Shadow Elves
GAZ 14: The Atruaghin Clans
Dawn of the Emperors: Thyatis and Alphatia