Original Dungeons and Dragons made it easy to tell which elves are the Evil ones – they’re the Drow, the ones with the coal black skin. Whilst this might have been more socially acceptable in the 1970’s when the first edition was published, most modern gamers tend to shy away from that specific form – even those who are otherwise happy to have “evil races” be easily distinguished by their form.
It might seem useful to backtrack the appearance of elves from DnD back to Middle-Earth, and so to the mythic originals from which Tolkien drew his inspiration. Unfortunately it’s not. The Norse sagas have two kind of ‘elf’ – the lios-alfar, which are your basic elves, and the svart-alfar, which are dwarves. Arguably the Vana might be the inspiration for the High Elves, but the distinction between Quenya and Sindarian is largely linguistic rather than genetic, and the Vana are more close kin to the Aesir (both are Norse gods) than the Alfar (who are just elves), so I’m guessing not so much.
The other mythical source for elves is the Celtic Tuatha De Danaan: since these are usually invisible, this doesn’t help us identify their appearance. When they do choose to appear, they seem indistinguishable from the Celtic lords with whom they interact, during the era in which they are still gods. After the coming of Christianity,.these nature-spirits devolve into fairies. Here are the origins of the Winter and Summer Elves – Lugh becomes Lord of Summer and Morrigan the Lady of Winter. Their appearance tends towards the element of which they are master – so the Lady of Winter has white hair and a crown of icicles. Here the lines blur as to whether they’re elves at all. At one end of a story-spectrum you have elementals – beings made of an element, who are usually only semi-sentient. At the other you have Tolkien’s elves – which are essentially humans-plus.
So given the diversity of sources, we can mentally draw our elves any way we please; though most fantasy worlds have elves as the peak of human grace, though not particularly strong or tough. For our own gameworld, Twissen – loosely based on 4th ed DnD’s Points of Light setting – we decided that the only way to tell the difference between the Elven races was by carefully studying the eyes – eyes being windows to the soul. We relied heavily on input from the biologist on the team about how such a race could have evolved. While realism isn’t vital, it’s certainly a good jumping off point. We started from “all the elves were one race made by a god long ago” and projected forwards, based on the environment in which they lived – a callback to those Celtic spirits-of-hill-and-vale
So, your eye-color-coded elves are:
- High Elves are intrinsically good at magic – they are often wizards – and their centuries long exposure to high levels of magic has warped them. They have no pupils and silver orbs
- Wood Elves live close to nature, and their eyes, whilst sharp, are the most normal of the races. Tending to brown and green shades, they have ordinary sized pupils.
- Dark Elves have darkvision, and hence their eyes are black orbs – actually all pupil, to capture whatever faint shreds of light make their way to their subterranean home. We also made them worship Zehir the snake rather than Lolth the spider, because I’m arachnophobic, but that’s a whole different modification. For some of the directions this took their society, see JSF: The Snake Tribes
- The Shadar Kai became elves – the shadow elves – as they seemed more elfin than human. They are those elves of any sub-race who spend sufficiently long in the world of the dead to partake of its nature. Their eyes become misty portals – dark swirling and enchanting.
- The Desert Hags were a new race, tied to the sand and the heat, and their eyes had no pupil, instead having large brilliant irises that somehow filtered the light entering to keep the sun from blinding them.
- Our campaign never met the Sea Elves, but we imagined them as having blue eyes, with clear lids that could close completely when above the water – essentially built in goggles to preserve their eyesight. We’ve got a whole JSF piece brewing for later about Sea Folk – merpeople, crab-taurs, squid-children, and selkies
So there you go. Varietals of elves, identifiable with a good Spot check, but not quite as racist as the original. Trivial illusion magic, or even a good disguise, allows any elf to masquerade as any other kind of elf, but they still require an ear-bob – or a more extensive illusion – to appear human.
Fire-elves and wind-elves? We went all Arabic, and called them ifrits and djinni. What color are those elements? Handing the ball over to Ste for that next week.