In “preparing”❶ for my 2017 Open Legend campaign (which still needs a name), I’ve put some thought into the traditional fantasy races: humans, elves, dwarves, gnomes, and halflings or hobbits. These are the races that were originally presented by Tolkien and/or presented in D&D 1e as playable races. I’ve thought about how they’ll play a role in my upcoming campaign, and how I want to explain their origins.
Tolkien presented elves as a long-lived race that was present before anyone else. Dwarves had a different creator, but lived during the First Age, as did the elves. Men were created by the same creator as the elves, but later. Hobbits seem to have come much more recently, probably in the second or third age. In most other versions of these fantasy races I’m familiar with, elves are tall and graceful; humans are…human; dwarves are short, stocky, and into living underground; gnomes are small and curious; and halflings are also small and make great thieves.❷ But there are also half-elves, elves with human and elvish parents. How does that work, if they are completely different races?
This is where Open Legend helped me. It talks about how fantasy races don’t have specific racial benefits, but they can be defined with specific perks and flaws (and possibly feats.) That got me to thinking. What if all the fantasy races are really just humans adapted to specific environments? So, for a first draft, I’ve got elves and dwarves (because I have players who want to play them 😉).
The elves are humans that have lived for centuries (millennia?) in the rain forests. The spend their lives in the trees, leaping branch to branch, vine to vine. They’re extremely agile. They’ve grown tall and lanky, averaging well over 6 feet tall. They are very adept at magic, as well, as the particular rain forest they’ve set up shop in is imbued with magic. Finally, they are longer lived because of something (or things) specific in their diet that make it easier for them to fight disease and that slows down their rate of aging.❸
Dwarves are also humans. Instead of the rain forests, however, they moved into the mountains. They were the original miners, and so moved into the mines as they left the other humans behind. They’ve become master miners and smiths. This has pushed them towards being short and stocky: short so they can squeeze through tight places, stocky because they need to be strong to work the equipment of mining and smithing. They are also long lived, but not so much as the elves. In the dwarves’ case, it’s likely because of minerals in their drinking water. And since they’ve moved mostly underground, they also have a completely different diet than they once had, living on plants and animals that never see daylight.
The fact that elves and dwarves are just specialized humans makes the idea of half-elves and half-dwarves reasonable. It’s just like a European marrying an Asian. Or any other combination from the real world. That also means there’s plenty of room for racism. My current thought is that the elves are outgoing, frequently sending out emissaries and such. They allow their members to enter the outside world. Hence, there’s lots of elves and half-elves to be found outside the rain forests. The dwarves, however, are isolationists and racists. They feel they are superior to others and so largely shun outside relationships. They also shun those who have those relationships and refuse to even acknowledge any offspring from such a union. Finding dwarves and half-dwarves is thus a rare occurrence. Even rarer are the offspring of an elf and a dwarf.
As they have been separated culturally from other humans for so long, elves and dwarves each have their own languages. Most outsiders rarely learn either elvish or dwarvish❹, but elves frequently learn other human languages. Dwarves learn other languages only rarely, as befits they’re isolationism. However, at any given time, there are a handful of dwarves whose job it is to trade with outsiders. They will always know at least one other language and often know several.
I will most likely continue to develop these two cultures, as well as the other cultures in my as-yet unnamed world. If and when I make additional posts, I’ll link to them from here. This will likely include prototypical elves and dwarves, especially as my players begin to encounter NPCs.
❶ I haven’t been really formally preparing, mainly just thinking and taking some notes here and there. But the characters are created and we’re starting with A Star Once Fallen. So…things are likely to start soon.↩
❷ Based on an extensive 2 minutes of research and 25 year old memories.↩
❹ If I ever get around to creating languages for them, they probably won’t be called elvish and dwarvish. I mean, that would just be copying from everyone else.↩