Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Eldritch

I suppose one of the reasons why I so miss the cadences of High Gygaxian is that I love words. I'm not precisely sure when my love affair with etymology began -- I know for certain it was in full flower by the time I was in 9th grade -- but the origins and unusual uses of words is a lifelong fascination of mine. I adore evocative archaisms, particularly when applied in new and daring ways and Gary was a master of this peculiar art. Tolkien was similarly talented, although of course his academic training forbid him from abusing old fashioned verbiage with the same glee as did the Dungeon Master.

I myself tend more toward Tolkien's approach that Gygax's, but I'm not so doctrinaire that I'd turn my nose up at a good idea even if I arrived at it in the "wrong" way. A case in point is an idea I plan to use in my next campaign (more on that soon). I was recently thinking about "eldritch," a word Grandpa Theobald was very fond of and whose mere sound I find redolent of dark fantasy. As I sometimes do, I tried to figure out the etymology of the word based on its spelling. The word looked Old English in derivation and, in my wasted youth, I'd studied the language and I'm pretty good at ferreting out the meanings of many English words because of it. To me, "eldritch" looked to be derived from the compound of ælf ("elf") and rice ("kingdom"), which struck me as absolutely brilliant. Looking into the matter, it seems there's some dispute among etymologists as to whether the "eld-" portion of the word derives from ælf as I supposed or elles, meaning "foreign, other, weird" (from which the modern English word "else" is derived).

Regardless, I found the notion of "eldritch" meaning "elf kingdom" simply too delicious to pass up. Riffing on the Lovecraftian associations and my recent flights of fancy regarding sword & planet stories, I decided to go all out and create a goulash of these elements. What I decided was that the elves of my as-yet-unnamed campaign world are in fact the degenerate remnants of a sorcerous empire of Chaos-tainted beings from the Red Planet. These "red elves," as they are sometimes called by the few who know of their existence, are among the most ancient civilizations in the cosmos. Their demon worship and black magic once gave them mastery over not just their home planet but also a large portion of the starting campaign world, until their hubris and infighting brought about their downfall. Now a dying race, the red elves -- who call themselves "the Eld" -- seem content to wallow in their decadence, but there is always the possibility that one or more of them might cast covetous eyes toward other worlds and once again open the portals that allow them to cross the ether that divides them ...

The Eld are thus the "dark elves" of my campaign world, but without all the baggage that comes with the Drow, whom I love, but which have been ruined by the likes of Drizzt and his imitators. This also allows me to go with the notion of the elves (i.e. PC race) are somewhat inclined toward Chaos without having to force any individual PC (or NPC) to be an agent of mischief and/or destruction, let alone evil. Likewise, having the Eld originate on another planet ties in nicely with the classical notion of elves and fairies as being from "the Other Side." And, of course, there are bound to be portals to the Red Planet in ruins and dungeons throughout the world, meaning that I have an easy way to send the PCs there should they be so foolish as to use them.

2 comments:

  1. At the risk of sounding too much like a new-schooler, your description of these red elves of yours reminds me strongly of the Blood Elves of World of Warcraft fame.

    Ancient, check. Powerful, check. Corrupted by Darkness of one sort or another, check. From another planet...that's where your version differs, and I find myself liking yours better, if only for the pulp feel of it.

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  2. I play and enjoy WoW, so it's possible I might have even been influenced by the Blood Elves, though, if I were, it was very subconscious. I'm not categorically opposed to borrowing from other media, so long as the borrowing is appropriately adapted to the medium onto which it is grafted. I think the true genius of Gygax and Arneson is the way they borrowed with abandon with dozens of diverse and even contradictory sources and yet managed to forge a new thing that was more than the sum of its parts. That's the thing I find missing from most attempts to swipe ideas from one place and retool them.

    That said, my red elves are intended to be an homage to Burroughs's red Martians by way of H.P. Lovecraft, with a dash of several other sources that make an evil extraterrestrial race the progenitors of a less ignoble species from heroes spring.

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