Friday, June 19, 2009

Early Pictorial History of the Drow

Unlike many old school gamers, I am not ashamed to admit that I like the Drow -- but that's because I remember what they were before Drizzt and his imitators came along, turning the dark elves into a culture of angsty Elric wannabes. When I first encountered the Drow, I found the idea of evil elves to be a powerful one, perhaps because, though my superficial reading of Tolkien, I always associated elves with goodness and light. The notion of evil and subterranean elves is probably more consonant with folklore about fairy creatures than are Tolkien's creations, but, for whatever reason, it seemed literally perverse to me and so I found myself at once repulsed and fascinated by the Drow.

But that was a long time ago and the Drow have "evolved" over the years so as to be, in my opinion, quite different than the original Gygaxian conception of them. I thought it'd be interesting to take a look at the G, D, and Q modules and see how the Drow were illustrated in order to see what insights, if any, one might glean from the artwork.

This is the first time the Drow are illustrated, in module G3, by Dave Sutherland. What's interesting is that piece doesn't make it clear that the Drow have black skin, unlike the piece below.
This second piece shows the Drow armed with many of the race's archetypal accoutrements, including their magic bucklers and hand crossbows, which were the height of "cool" when I was a kid. Notice the helmet the Drow on the left is wearing. It reminds me a bit of the helm we often see Elric wearing in many illustrations of the doomed emperor of Melniboné, so perhaps the "corruption" started early.

Here's a fairly unimpressive Dave LaForce illustration of a female Drow. She definitely doesn't have the "dangerous and sexy" vibe that a lot of female Drow illustrations have nowadays.

This is the famous Bill Willingham piece I discussed previously.

There's a female Drow captive in the background of this piece. It's admittedly hard to see her, since she's upstaged by Blonde Sonja in the front.

Once again, we see some not-obviously dark-skinned Drow, this time demonstrating the use of the atlatl, another signature weapon of the dark elves.

Erol Otus gives us one of the iconic images of the Drow, complete with tentacle rod.

Here's another piece that I presume is of a Drow from context, but it's admittedly hard to tell from the illustration itself, as she doesn't have black skin.

Here's Belgos, the Drow vampire and his succubus girlfriend from Vault of the Drow. They're quite the pair, don't you think?

And here's a Drow, possibly Lolth herself, hanging out with a Type II and Type III demon. This is also the first appearance of the spiderweb bikini that would eventually become a standard element of female Drow illustrations. This last piece is by Erol Otus.

As you can see, there's a definite development in the way the Drow are portrayed, with the earliest illustrations lacking the "seductive" qualities you see in the later ones. Like all good villains, the Drow pretty quickly became objects of admiration by many gamers and you can see this in the way they are portrayed in artwork. I find that a pity, since it's now hard to use the Drow as I did in my youth, before most gamers had internalized the "dangerous but desirable" interpretation of the race. In retrospect, I suppose the only thing that's truly remarkable to me is that Drizzt is a male Drow. Looking at these illustrations, one would have expected the first good-aligned Drow to be female. Perhaps gamers aren't so predictable after all!

45 comments:

  1. Great commentary. I have to admit, I love the drow too. I tend to view them more in the vein of Northern European dark elves. They are tricky, evil, not the least bit seductive, and certainly not misunderstood. I'll be adding my own pictorial work to the mix soon as I'm working on another OSRIC project that deals with these Dark Elves and try to portray them in a different vein.

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  2. Is it possible their image changed with people's perceptions? Admitedly when I was young I associated good with beautiful. Obviously I know better now. Judging a book by its cover indeed... Although I don't know how 'evil' was perceived then, as I wasn't able to play rpg's at that time. But perhaps that idea, that beautiful could be evil, wasn't as popular. (The only examples I personally can come up with are Sirens, Lilith (the biblical figure), and Succubi. All of which are older figures in mythology and have been around for a long time.)

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  3. My favorite character concept from my childhood was a Neutral Good female Drow Cleric of Istus.

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  4. Your second linked picture was NOT drawn by David Sutherland. It doesn't match his style at all. In fact it appears to be a remake (by, I'm guessing, Jeff Dee) of Sutherland's (admittedly pretty weak) illo on p. 15 of pastel G3 (it's the same subject matter/composition drawn in a completely different style -- the drow in Sutherland's version looks like those in your first and fifth linked images).

    Also, I'm dismayed that you're missing my all-time favorite drow picture, Trampier's back cover illo of the pastel D3. There's also a pretty good DCS illo on p. 4 of D1 of some unambiguously black-skinned drow, marred only by the fact that the hand crossbows appear to be M1911A's. ;)

    Lastly regarding good (or at least neutral with good tendencies) aligned female drow, don't forget Leda, the clone of Eclavdra from Gary Gygax's Sea of Death, published a year before The Crystal Shard...

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  5. ...or Willingham's Fiend Folio illo, or Erol Otus' Drow female with dead baby earings, etc.

    In my opinion, no one truly captured the twisted malignity of the Drow better than EO.

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  6. The drow were always portrayed as sexual & deviant, evil elves, even from the Giant modules...at least in the prose, if not in the illustrations.

    I've never read the Forgotten Realms books, but drow have been evil, depraved, and desirable since first introduction.

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  7. In retrospect, I suppose the only thing that's truly remarkable to me is that Drizzt is a male Drow.

    I wonder. It's a male-dominated hobby, so I can see how a male character would be more popular with that audience than a female character would. Men can wish they were like Drizzt, women can wish they were liked by Drizzt. Everyone wins.

    I've never been comfortable with the later conception of the drow. The connection of black skin and evil alignment has always concerned me, and I'm also not sure what the message is behind a female-led society being characterised as cruel and depraved. There are definitely some issue in there.

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  8. In my opinion, no one truly captured the twisted malignity of the Drow better than EO.

    And while keeping them sexy!

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  9. Timeshadows said:
    In my opinion, no one truly captured the twisted malignity of the Drow better than EO.

    Wouldn't it be equally true to say, "No one truly captured anything whatsoever to do with D&D better than EO?" :)

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  10. I've never been comfortable with the later conception of the drow. The connection of black skin and evil alignment has always concerned me, and I'm also not sure what the message is behind a female-led society being characterised as cruel and depraved. There are definitely some issue in there.

    It is dubtful that there is a message. More likely we are projecting our own fears and hang ups onto an unrelated fantasy. The kingdom of Celene is ruled over by an elf queen, the drow are just an evil reflection that society. The "black" aspect is just a signifier of "evil", much like demons are often described as "black" or evil doers as "black hearted".

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  11. James, don't you think Western (Christian) tropes would suggest the opposite?: women as evil and men as good. I'm not surprized Drizzt was male given the fetishization of female drow that you show nicely here.

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  12. Interesting post, but I'm not buying into any evolution based on this slim series of images. All I see here can easily be written off as a bunch of artists' interpretations of an element of the game - the sort of thing you can see in any old D&D creature that gets a fair amount of treatment. While there may indeed be an evolution of the drow to discuss, I'm just not sold on it based solely on the exhibits at hand.

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  13. D&D was cooler when you didn't need to be a drow to be an evil elf.

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  14. Your second linked picture was NOT drawn by David Sutherland. It doesn't match his style at all. In fact it appears to be a remake (by, I'm guessing, Jeff Dee) of Sutherland's.

    You may be right. The illo isn't signed and Dee does have an art credit in the module.

    Also, I'm dismayed that you're missing my all-time favorite drow picture, Trampier's back cover illo of the pastel D3. There's also a pretty good DCS illo on p. 4 of D1 of some unambiguously black-skinned drow, marred only by the fact that the hand crossbows appear to be M1911A's. ;)

    Alas, I don't have copies of the pastel covered modules anymore and had to go on the PDFs I own, all of which are compilation modules. I remember the Tramp piece in question, but don't have a copy of it anymore.

    Lastly regarding good (or at least neutral with good tendencies) aligned female drow, don't forget Leda, the clone of Eclavdra from Gary Gygax's Sea of Death, published a year before The Crystal Shard...

    That's a fair point and one I never had the heart to ask Gary about, because he once went off ranting about how all Drow were evil and insane by human standards and I immediately thought of Leda.

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  15. The drow were always portrayed as sexual & deviant, evil elves, even from the Giant modules...at least in the prose, if not in the illustrations.

    I don't recall any intimations of sexual deviancy in the early modules. Do you recall specifically any instances of it from those modules?

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  16. James, don't you think Western (Christian) tropes would suggest the opposite?: women as evil and men as good.

    That's not what's at work here. Surface elves are portrayed as vaguely matriarchal in Gary's works, no doubt drawing things like Spenser and other similar conceptions of "faerie queens" and such. The Drow are clearly intended as a twisted reflection of them.

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  17. Interesting post, but I'm not buying into any evolution based on this slim series of images.

    That's good, because it wasn't the main purpose of the post!

    I think the Otus images clearly show the beginnings of the fetishization of the Drow that reaches full flower later on. The other illos are just that -- illustrations. I'm not even sure that the shift we see with Otus was intentional, because the text of the modules in which the art appears doesn't show any evidence (that I could find) of Drow being re-interpreted in a quasi-positive light.

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  18. I have to agree about liking the concept of the Drow.

    Tolkien's elves were meant to be perfect, unfallen man. They were stronger, wiser, and older than man.

    If that sort of power could be turned towards evil and sadism...then you know you have an enemy to fear.

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  19. I find it interesting that you, James, thought of elves as connected with goodness and light from your reading of Tolkien. Didn't you read about Feanor? He might be an elf, but calling him good is stretching it.

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  20. I didn't read The Silmarillion until I was much older, years after I'd started playing D&D, so I knew nothing of Fëanor at the time.

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  21. I don't recall any intimations of sexual deviancy in the early modules. Do you recall specifically any instances of it from those modules?

    D3, The Great Fane, Level 5, especially rooms 1 and 3.

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  22. And, how could I forget...the description of the of the drow city in D3:

    "...wallow in the sinkhole of absolute depravity which is Erelhei-Cinlu.) The most popular places in the city are the gambling dens, bordellos, taverns, drug saloons, and even less savory shops along the two main streets. The back streets and alleyways too boast of brothels, poison shops, bars, and torture parlors. Unspeakable things transpire where the evil and jaded creatures seek pleasure, pain, excitement, or arcane knowledge, and sometimes these seekers find they are victims. All visitors are warned that they enter the back streets of the city at their peril."

    I think I read this module sometime in 1982, as a ten year-old, soon after playing through it.

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  23. Matthew,

    Thanks for those references, especially to the Fane, as I hadn't recalled them. I did remember the description of Erelhei-Cinlu, but, for whatever reason, it never really sank in as evidence of anything more than the fact that the Drow were Evil. I grant that there's obviously more going on there than that; it just never really registered with me at the time and, even now, it doesn't quite jibe with the conception of the Drow I hold, even though it's there from module D3 on at least.

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  24. James,

    People get different impressions from reading the same text, of course. For me, the very first impression of the drow was that they were morally deviant. Perhaps the DM of my childhood's GDQ campaign played up that angle enough to make that sort of image stick.

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  25. Isn't it possible Drow were always pseudo-Melnibonians?

    Think about it, magical non-human race of fragile beauty and, to human views, evil to the core. Is that the Dragon Empire or the rulers of the Underdark.

    In that case Drizzt makes perfect sense as an Elric wannabe (I've never read Drizzt's books so I don't get the dislike). Elric is the "good" Melnibonian who topples the empire. To be honest, the "whiny" aspect is one of the reasons I haven't like Elric and even Hawkmoon from time to time.

    Anyway, I doubt viewing Drow as Melnibonian is debasement, but what happened to the Drow is just part of a larger pattern of people (especially teenagers who are slightly outcast) turning the idea of the alien evil race into emo Elves who are inherently superior just misunderstood.

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  26. "The drow were always portrayed as sexual & deviant, evil elves, even from the Giant modules...at least in the prose, if not in the illustrations."

    While I agree with this, and the passages Matthew quoted immediately sprang to mind, sexual is not necessarily the same thing as sexy.

    I share James' strong early reaction to the drow. My first, lasting impression is that they're alien and repugnant and not something you'd want to be around. Once EO came up with Lolth in the spriderweb bikini (apparently so as to consort with slavering, murderous demons), we were off to the races thereafter.

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  27. I agree Herb.

    In the B/X game I'm playing in, the Drow underground cities had fallen to Chaos(hence dungeons) a century ago and the remnants of the Drow seek to reassert themselves on the world or retire from it completely in the woods (hence wood elves - very much like Dragon Warriors Elves).

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  28. Various comments:

    - another good illo of Edralve, the drowic slave lord appears in A4 In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords

    - FWIW, the illo with the "drowic" prisoner never struck me as a drow, much less a female drow: I'd always assumed it was an ogre, troll, or some other creature being dragged along by the PCs

    - also FWIW: re: the D3 EO illo of the drow priestess with the morning star and smoking staff---I'd always assumed that the smoke was infused with light, given the play of light and shadow suggested by the shading of her breastplate, upper torso, and face

    - I'll see if I can track down some images for the other drow we've mentioned...

    Allan.

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  29. I always thought the seductiveness of the drow was a natural progression. My elves being sensual and indulgent, it seemed only natural that an offshoot of them that evolved without the virtue of self-restraint would take that up to 11, especially of course the first and second estates of their society.

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  30. I don't recall any intimations of sexual deviancy in the early modules. Do you recall specifically any instances of it from those modules?

    Sexual deviancy was also a strong impression of the Drowic Vault for me, fed in part by (blue D3 pages):

    - p 22: [Commander Pellanistra's] apartment is also very expensively and lavishly furnished, and amidst the articles are several lewd statuettes

    - p 22: [High Priestess Charinida's] lounge [is] decorated with innumerable perverted and lewd paintings, tapestries, statues, etc. Even the carpets are obscene.

    - p 23: The bed chamber of the High Priestess is as lewdly and evilly decorated as the outer room.

    - p 23: Behind the secret door is a cell wherein is chained an
    insane human of great strength (9th level fighter; H.P.: 73;
    18/81 strength, 11 intelligence, 9 wisdom, 16 dexterity, 18
    constitution; 17 charisma) kept here by Charinida for whatever purposes please her at the time. There are several whips and torture instruments on one wall, and near them is a gag and a ring of invisibility. Note that the
    prisoner is bound to the east wall where the secret entrance to room 4) is

    re: good drow

    - p 16: Rakes roaming the streets in Erelhei-Cinlu are bands of bitter youths, often outcasts. The band will be composed of eithe Drow, Drow-elves, and half-Drow (human cross) or Drow, half-Drow, and (1-2) half-orcs. The former sort of group is 40% likely, the latter 60%. Drow crosses will have magic resistance equal to their Dark Elven heritage but no spell ability. The bands with elven-Drow members will be hostile to all they perceive as part of the system which prevails in their world, and the Dark Elves with them are of the few who are neither totally degenerate nor wholly evil—they are haters of the society around them and see no good in it.

    - p 21: In the right hand cage there is a Dark Elf male fighter/magic-user of 4th/4th level (H.P.: 24; no armor; 12 strength, 18 intelligence, 9 wisdom, 18 dexterity, 15 constitution, 13 charisma) placed into captivity yesterday and paralyzed by the spider demoness.
    He is Nilonim, a dissident Drow captured in Erelhei-Cinlu where he led a band of rebels attempting to
    overthrow noble rule. He is of neutral alignment with a slight tendency towards good deeds.

    Allan.

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  31. Otus' head shot, in the post above this one's, remains my favorite drow illo. But the Willinghmam drawing in the FF is second. Very surprised it wasn't referenced here, as it has a great dynamic quality and is accurate WRT skin color.

    It would be easy, but wrong, to level racism charges at the drow being black. For one thing, they are truly black, not brown skinned as wrongly shown in very late 1E illustrations (I think it was Parkinson who gave us the Bootylicious Drow). And they were never intended to resemble African people; they were elves, with the thin, sharp faces and features of that mythical race. And, has been pointed out, black has long been a symbol of evil and death, outside any connotations or attachments to rac.

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  32. Herb,

    The Melnibonéan angle isn't one I'd considered before, but it makes a lot of sense.

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  33. While I agree with this, and the passages Matthew quoted immediately sprang to mind, sexual is not necessarily the same thing as sexy.

    That's a very good distinction and one that I think is particularly pertinent here.

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  34. Allan,

    Thanks for all the references. Guess it just goes to show I need to re-read these modules again every so often, since I missed or otherwise overlooked many of them the last time I read them.

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  35. Ouch! It's not always such a bad thing . . .

    No, it's not and I didn't intend it to be taken as a blanket condemnation of finding inspiration in other people's ideas so much as an expression of my distaste for ham-handedly aping something earlier. I think there's a world of difference between writing a D&D adventure inspired by a favorite movie and writing one that goes so far as to include thinly-veiled clones of characters from that movie, right down to their names, appearance, etc.

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  36. De nada James. I've found that several of TSR's early modules bear repeat re-readings---each time coming away with some further insight, connection, recognized inspiration, etc. that wasn't there the first (or third, etc.) time I read them. EGG's are the richest in this way, with A1, B1, L1-2, and WG5 also fitting that bill, for me.

    For folks interested in leveraging the depraved side of Erelhei-Cinlu, it is detailed further in Oerth Journal #14 @ http://www.oerthjournal.com/oj14.html as well as in Dragon Magazines 298 and 300 (both available in .pdf from Paizo @ http://paizo.com/store/paizo/dragon/issues/2002 and 300 in print as well).

    Allan.

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  37. I loved the evilness of Drow until the FR series with Drizzt. I thought the first series was good, but started getting too preachy for me.

    I know Gary hated the later depictions of the Drow. According to him, they were the nastiest, meanest, low-down dirty creatures of the underground. There was no "nice" bone in their bodies. If you were captured by them, Lord have mercy on your soul!! That's the only way to play them in your game.

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  38. "It would be easy, but wrong, to level racism charges at the drow being black. For one thing, they are truly black, not brown skinned... And they were never intended to resemble African people; they were elves, with the thin, sharp faces and features of that mythical race."

    I must admit that the curly-haired drow in the earliest pictures (like the one that James says "doesn't make it clear that the Drow have black skin") very much communicated to me that they had black skin tone.

    Without outright condemning it myself, I do think that it's open to some criticism. It's challenging.

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  39. Thanks for saving me the research, Grodog...

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  40. Without outright condemning it myself, I do think that it's open to some criticism. It's challenging.


    Delta,

    I in no way wish to fan any flames, but I always thought it odd that Keith Parkinson's cover for the "supermodule" GDQ 1-7 depicted the drow as having actual brown skin tone, versus the glossy or dead black (depending on gender) described in the earliest texts.

    Playing through that series as a (very!) young man, I always envisioned the drow as described and depicted by Gary and the TSR bullpen. Not a slam against Parkinson (R.I.P.), but I never liked GDQ 1-7's cover...the drow looked too much like real people.

    (Though from a purely adolescent male standpoint, Parkinson's female drow had a bit of vivaciousness to their curves that did not go unappreciated at the time...)

    PS OT: Oh, and Delta, I am loving OED so far. Keep it up...I'm probably going to use it as my system for my first game when I get back in the 'States.

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  41. "PS OT: Oh, and Delta, I am loving OED so far. Keep it up...I'm probably going to use it as my system for my first game when I get back in the 'States."

    Hey thanks, you can fan those flames any time you want! :)

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  42. The Drow do not have negroid skin tones or features, any more than the most albino Caucasians have skin the same white as dove feathers.

    Matte black is a scary, unnatural color for skin, just as matte white is, or matte blue, or matte green. Magical creatures have unnatural characteristics. That's all it is.

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  43. The "black" aspect is just a signifier of "evil", much like demons are often described as "black" or evil doers as "black hearted"

    Very true, but there's something a little off-putting (only for me, apparently) about it being something obvious and physical, rather than metaphorical. If they were just called "Black Elves" because of their personalities, but were otherwise much like their cousins (for example, like the Dark Elves of Warhammer), then I could deal with that, but for their skin to be black... that just rubs me the wrong way.

    For the record, I'm happier with orcs (for example) being a variety of unearthly colours than I am for them to be uniformly green, for similar reasons.

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  44. OOOOO! I am so late in my comments.
    From my understanding drow were always a depraved race. With depravity having its fullest meaning and expression. Their skin color was and is a mark upon the race, but was never meant (IMHO) as a racial signifier, (meaning being african or african american) any more than the ugliness of Tolkens orks (perverted and twisted elves) were a signifier of a particular race.

    I too loved the race upon sight. The idea of the race enthralled me like no other. (No wait, there was the gythyanki)and i found a way to play one as a character. I did not originally like any depiction of them other than "Skillet Pan black" But as of the last few years have softend, choosing to accept it as slight variations in tonal qualities, as opposed to differing skin color.

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  45. The Drow should be able to have any skin tone, like the humans, it's presumable to think one race only has one skin tone. =x I like the thought of them all having different skin tones. And kinda wish they were real to be honest. > o> And wish to be one of them~ <3

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