Friday, October 16, 2009

A Partial Pictorial History of Elves in D&D

So, over at the Temple of Demogorgon, Brunomac makes fun of poor Indel, the unfortunate elf who starred in those silly D&D comic book ads from the early 80s. He even goes so far as to mock him as a "Keebler elf," which is fair enough, considering his attire.

Now, I'm not here to defend Indel's honor, as he pretty much defines "hapless." I do, however, want to point out that many gamers' conception of what an "elf" is has changed considerably over the years and that Indel, while pathetic, is very much in line with the earliest depictions of elves in Dungeons & Dragons. As I have argued before, Gygax's consistent assertion that Tolkien's influence on the game was minimal is borne out if you look at the way elves have been illustrated in the game prior to the late 1e era -- case in point being this fine fellow from Volume 1 of OD&D:


He doesn't much look like an elf to me either, but he's clearly labeled as such. I'm guessing he's AWOL from Santa's workshop or something, because I can't recall ever seeing an elf portrayed with a beard outside of that context.

Then there's this lovely lady from the AD&D Players Handbook. She's standing next to a human male and it's clear if you see the original illustration that early D&D elves were (largely) much shorter than Men. Take note of her costume, with its tasseled skirt.


This guy is also from the PHB and he looks like Spock robbed Merlin's closet. Interestingly, he's roughly the same height as a human being.


I still can't make up my mind if this guy is in fact an elf or not, although I am coming round to the notion that he is probably meant to be. He looks like Indel's long-lost brother and appears to be slightly less hapless.


These are elves from the Monster Manual. Their height is difficult to make out from this illustration, but I don't get the impression of their being very tall.


I've always been very fond of this piece by Dave Trampier, which shows wood elves. Take a look at their ears and general attire. They're definitely more in line with a "fairy tale" sensibility than anything Tolkien-esque.

It's possible this guy from the cover of module D1-2 isn't an elf, but I've long assumed he was, based on the clothing he's wearing. The only guys you ever see wearing hoods like that are archers or elves and he doesn't appear to be the former.

I think it's interesting to see how the portrayal of elves has changed over the years, since I think it strongly supports the notion that elves have changed in D&D from the early days. Speaking only for myself, I vividly recall that my friends and I just assumed that all elves were short little guys with funny hats and shoes for the first couple of years we played the game. I'd place the shift in our perceptions to somewhere around 1981 or thereabouts, maybe a little later.

Nowadays, I tend to use "elf" in a situation-dependent way. It's basically a word I use to describe any inherently magical not-quite-human race, whether they look like Ernie or Elric. In my Dwimmermount game, elves, especially the red-skinned Eld, are more like Melnibonéans than repairers of shoes, but, in a different campaign setting, who knows? I prefer a lot of malleability in what constitutes demihuman X or Y, as that approach gives me more freedom to do with them what I want.

48 comments:

  1. I think D&D shaped the mythology of dozens of creatures to the point that now when the Public thinks of X it is the D&D version.

    One interesting story was that I knew what a Catoblepas was before playing D&D. Because in my library there was encyclopedia of monsters. I was a mythology buff and read that book. Later I was struck at the similarities between it and the Monster Manual.

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  2. The "Spock" guy is probably a half-elf if he's the same size as a human. Another fun early-D&D elf illo is the floppy-hatted guy leading the party in Sutherland's illustration at the back of module B1 (which, IIRC, you've posted and discussed before -- or was that Jeff Rients?).

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  3. I can't think of any examples of gnome confusion, though.

    I think Julian May's books might be to blame, alongside Tolkein: their market reach was smaller, but their depiction of elves was quite specific and very aspirational. And that last note might explain everything: Tolkein's elves were alluring immortals - it's almost impossible to say that and not have them turn out to be fashionably elongated versions of whatever film stars are hot at the time. Now vampires are occupying that niche, mermaids had a go at it for certain market segments; maybe one day it'll be Sahuagin. I think ogres have blown it, though.

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  4. In that picture with the giant frog, I've always assumed that was either a gnome or a brownie.

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  5. I always thought the guy about to be eaten by the toad was a brownie, but now that I think again, it is likely an elf. Certainly not a gnome, considering the puny nose ;-)

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  6. which, IIRC, you've posted and discussed before

    Yep. Found it here: http://grognardia.blogspot.com/2009/01/old-days.html

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  7. Wow, that's some really, REALLY awful artwork!!!! Maybe its not so much a statement of what elves look like as much as it's a statement that the early TSR artists weren't that good (except for Tramp, and of course EO while a somewhat limited artist was the PERFECT artist for early D&D) They don't look like ANYONES conception of elves, they look like a bunch of spock ears drawn on regular figures....!

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  8. Wow, I'd forgotten all about that first, bearded Elf. Hmmm... Maybe they're a subspecies of Dwarf or Gnome.... ;-)

    I'd read the Hobbit and LotR a while before discovering D&D in 1975, so my perception of Elves has always been influenced by Tolkien: taller than Men on average, and an older, decadent (not in the immoral sense) species. I've also (in my WFRP games) borrowed liberally from Melniboneans for Elves, but I've never warmed to the shorter Keebler-style or fairy-tale portrayal of Elves.

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  9. Once i got this

    http://www.toyarchive.com/Dungeons&Dragons/Figures/PeralayMelf.html

    it was my concept of what an elf was, it was shorter than the rest of the figures but still looked tough. The package artwork is actualy even tougher looking.

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  10. I read Tolkien and lots of celtic and germanic mythology before I took up D&D,(Holmes edition), so, I was always put off by the early D&D version of elves. I saw elves as tall, weird and otherworldly beings. Unpredictable and fearsome to humanity.
    It seems to me that the pointed-shoe type elves are largely derived from victorian age romantic re-imagining of folklore. The whole idea of the "fairytale" is a repackaging of the folktails of various cultures in order to make them sellable.
    Though they created some brilliant art for the books they issued, a lot of the rewriting of folktails that the victorians did ends up smoothing over and cutesyfieing the stories of encounters with non-humans that originally weren't meant to be funny.

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  11. Elves know something you don't. I think that's essential to the archetype, and it appears in Tolkien's original use of the word "gnome" to describe his lofty Noldor.

    I think the MM elves show a lot of Tolkien influence. The first guys look a lot like what I'd expect from Tolkien elves: martial, haughty, splendidly decked-out. Tramp's wonderful frolicking wood elf piece seems like it would be right at home with the Sylvan elves of Tolkien.

    I've grown to like the bearded elf from OD&D partly because, for my fantasy pursuits, Tolkien has finally been elevated to a separate plane. I've always loved Tolkien. But I no longer have any desire to ape his brilliant works with mediocre pastiche. Pre-gunpowder quasi-medieval elves and dwarves and orcs has already been done perfectly by Tolkien and there's really nowhere else to go with it. I'm finally happy with that fact.

    In the weirder vistas that now occupy my fantasy pursuits, traditional elves don't have much of a place. Just speaking for myself, of course.

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  12. @seven, I had that figure too. I was always mad at how they made his bow useless by molding it with the quiver attached! Dumb!!

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  13. I like very much James' comment about thinking of elves as encompassing a wide variety of entelechies, embodied or no. (to include brownies and so on)

    "Nowadays, I tend to use "elf" in a situation-dependent way. It's basically a word I use to describe any inherently magical not-quite-human race, whether they look like Ernie or Elric."

    If you read "The Fairy Faith In Celtic Countries" a turn of the century ethnographic/anthropological look at the global phenomenon of people seeing praeter human intelligences then you can't help but be on board with James. Tolkien's elves are clearly what the Scots and Irish called "the Gentry", but the term elves could include Terence McKenna's "Self-Transforming Machine Elves From Hyperspace" with equal accuracy. D&D always to me had a bad habit of bringing western logical positivist, scientistic reductionist and existentialist crapola to what's supposed to be a romp through Faerie.

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  14. The Trampier illustration looks like it could be a portrayal of Rivendell as presented in The Hobbit, with merry elves singing silly, insulting songs as the dwarves climb down into the canyon.

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  15. Since I started my gaming career with MERP, nothing is an elf unless it's a vain, haughty, tall and immortal being of ennui and great skill.

    I have no idea what the D&D elf is, but for me it has never been an elf. Maybe I should call elves moriquendi and so on, in order to distinguish it from "regular" gaming elves...

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  16. @Darius
    Now that I've checked my MM, that is definitely a representation of a brownie or a leprechaun. Besides, giant frogs aren't that big and by the time of 1E the image of elves had pretty much crystallized and pointy hats and booties were not part of that image.

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  18. Sorry, that last comment was mine and upon first attempt it didn't make much sense. Let me try again!

    Even though Gygax denied Tolkien's influence had a huge impact on D&D, is it possible that TSR's own illustrators may still have been influenced by him? I presume some of them read LotR and had their own ideas. Many of these concepts seem to overlap. Really the only differences seem to be in size/proportion which could be interpreted differently depending on the viewer's perspective.

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  19. Agree with Marion on the frog picture.

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  20. Based on Norse mythology, the difference between and Elf, a Svartalf, a Dwarf and a Troll is purely subjective. It wasn't until Tolkien and D&D that anyone cared whether the little guy with the beard was called an elf, a dwarf or a goblin.

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  21. For some reason, I've always thought that the little guy with the frog was a Pixie. I don't remember why, maybe I read it somewhere, or saw a picture labeled "pixie"?

    I used to run elves very "Tolkeinish", but lately have tried to make them even more alien and seperate from humanity. Though I've never used them as a model, I love Steven Brust's Draegaran elves.

    As usual, I good-naturedly call "shenanigans" on the whole "Gygax says D&D wasn't influenced by Tolkein" thing :)No one's ever been able to find a single quote of that nature from before TSR got threatened with legal action by the Tolkein estate, and dwarves, elves, orcs, wargs, wraiths, hobbits, ents, rangers, and balrogs certainly didn't come from Vance or Leiber.

    It's probably more likely Gygax *himself* wasn't that influenced by Tolkein, but there were a lot of fingers in the pot of those first little booklets.

    Cool trivia - Bob Bledsaw's (creator of Judges Guild and the Wilderlands) first D&D campaign was set in Middle Earth, and the Wilderlands were born after his group stumbled through a portal in the Misty Mountains!

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  22. @Al:
    "For some reason, I've always thought that the little guy with the frog was a Pixie."

    So have I. I must have read that somewhere.

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  23. There's one other place you can find bearded elves in D&D -- the gazetteer line for BECMI. My avatar is a case in point -- a scanned image from the "Elves of Alfheim" Gazetteer, which has a respectable number of bearded elves. I also think you'll find them in places in some of the other gazetteers that had Stephen Fabian as an illustrator (which was most of them). "The Principalities of Glantri" is a likely candidate.

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  24. That "elf" pic from the brow books looks soo much like a Dwarf that I have to believe that it was simply a mistake on the part of the artist when he labeled it a elf. Anyone know who he was by chance?

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  25. Is that stretching it too far?

    Not necessarily. It's hard to say as we have few direct statements on this point by any of the artists. We do know that Gygax didn't really like Tolkien and consistently denied a strong influence, while Arneson liked Tolkien and stated that it was an influence over his conceptions in the Blackmoor campaign.

    All that said, I still think the strength of evidence is against much in the way of a powerful Tolkien influence beyond some names and basic conceptions, almost all of them monsters.

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  26. It wasn't until Tolkien and D&D that anyone cared whether the little guy with the beard was called an elf, a dwarf or a goblin.

    Interestingly, in OD&D, there are illustrations of an "elf," a "dwarf," a "gnome," and a "goblin" that are largely interchangeable -- all short, bearded guys with swords.

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  27. dwarves, elves, orcs, wargs, wraiths, hobbits, ents, rangers, and balrogs certainly didn't come from Vance or Leiber.

    No, they didn't, and no one, least of all me, is claiming that there were no borrowings from Tolkien in OD&D. My position is that the borrowings were almost always very superficial -- mostly monsters -- and used because of familiarity rather than because of any deep connection between Tolkien's fantasy and that of OD&D.

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  28. That "elf" pic from the brow books looks soo much like a Dwarf that I have to believe that it was simply a mistake on the part of the artist when he labeled it a elf. Anyone know who he was by chance?

    The artist is (I believe) Greg Bell, who did most of the art in the LBBs. He was a teenager at the time (as I recall) and a lot of his art is in fact based on panels from contemporaneous Dr. Strange comic book issues.

    As to their being a mistake, that's unlikely, as there is a dwarf illustration that's labeled as such, although its difference from the elf one is minimal. For that matter, there are also illos of gnomes and goblins that look very much the same. This suggests to me that, at this time, none of these fantasy races had yet solidified into distinctness in terms of appearance and the art reflects this.

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  29. > No, they didn't, and no one, least of all me, is claiming that there were no borrowings from Tolkien in OD&D. My position is that the borrowings were almost always very superficial

    Superficial indeed - EGG himself gives the strong impression of not really caring for Middle Earth (/Midgard -jk-) but he was aware others did, since it was the most popular fantasy setting/variant at the time. He himself, however, actively dropped out from playing in those many Middle Earth diplomacy variants in the 1971/2 period, but instead wrote his own Napoleonic and Hyborian Age flavors (cute maps).

    The "mistake" in OD&D was to lazily and oh-so-casually suggest dwarves, elves and hobbits (if anyone should wish to be one) as PC races. And to have that snowball from there whilst not bothering to codify any further the "you can be anything" attitude (previously Balrog, later Dragon) since free-form /was/ the rule of the day.

    > This suggests to me that, at this time, none of these fantasy races had yet solidified into distinctness in terms of appearance and the art reflects this.

    *nods* Goes without saying. Who played an elf before 1974?

    02c/ymmv as ever, anyhow,
    David. :)

    p.s. Love the way you pinned "the notion first of a "multiracial" world and the adventuring party" in /all/ fantasy literature post-1974 specifically to D&D "by extension" in that previous post. Nicely audacious... ^^

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  31. I've always raised an eyebrow at Gygax's viewpoint tha he didn't care much for Tolkien or had much influence on D&D. No question, writers like Vance, Howard and the like, were a major influence, but LOTR's really did establish the idea of a multiracial adventuring party to fantasy literature and certainly to the games theme.

    Personally, I think Gygax simply changed his tune when the Tolkien Estate went after him and TSR and the experience left such a bitter taste that I think he wanted to distance himself away from Middle Earth as much as possible. That said, is there any interviews or responses from EGG prior to the lawsuit to support this? I would be more then happy to be wrong ;-)

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  32. Two comments:

    I'd agree that the perception of elves did change about 1981, and part of it may be the very strong influence of Tom Meier's elf sculpts on the miniatures industry. Ral Partha's first figures were very much 'Middle-Earth' in style, but morphed into a very different design esthetic between 1980 and 1981. That same design style, albeit much overdone and hyper-stylized, is still with us today.

    Re the Tolkien estate and D&D, I think Dave was too far under the radar for them to notice; his published output was always much lower and much smaller then the corporate production of TSR. Gary, being the public face of TSR, would attract Tolkien's attention; it should also be kept in mind that the estate had just gotten through fighting a legal battle with an American publishing house that had been publishing unauthorized editions of both "The Hobbit" and "LotR" in the US. Gary, in my experience, was always *very* sensitive to things like this, and it may very well have caused him to move as far away from Middle-earth as possible.

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  33. I first got into D&D in the mid/late 80's. At that time, I assumed Elves to be short, forest dwelling fairy-folk with pointy shoes, and green caps - like the one's form Elf Quest, Link from Legend of Zelda, and the wide-range of 80's cartoons (including the Wizards movie). When I first looked at the descriptions (not being fully literate then), I was really confused about the tall, pointy-eared Elves, and the short, round-eared Halflings, as I had no idea what a "Halfling" was, I almost played a Halfling believing they were the little green-clad elves from other fiction.

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  34. > I've always raised an eyebrow at Gygax's viewpoint tha he didn't care much for Tolkien or had much influence on D&D.

    Needs Jack's Sword of Sharpness to cut through the time barrier, IMHO. :)

    The problem is where it's assumed D&D as published in 1974 is fully representative of actual gameplay and influences therein prior to that date and using what flimsy evidence there is such as the presence of elves to presume the author was playing some LotR variant rather than couching the game in familiar terms with convenient names to hook the framework onto.
    [LoTR's narrative whilst immersive is, if anything, less of an "adventuring" one than the likes of Eddison, Lewis or Baum and a long way short of SF equivalents such as Doc Smith].

    As for influences on elvish depictions in art; yes, those were, at least to some degree, imported /into/ D&D even setting aside that the Tolkien fandom had been going strongly since the mid-late 60s.

    > I assumed Elves to be short, forest dwelling fairy-folk with pointy shoes, and green caps - like the one's form Elf Quest...

    *g* At the time I felt that the evolving D&D elf was almost deliberately an attempt to distance itself from Wendy Pini's work.

    d.

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  35. Very interesting article, I had no clue that there was such a changing image of the D&D elf. Have any of the other "demihumans" received this kind of change over the years?

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  36. >LoTR's narrative whilst immersive is, if anything, less of an "adventuring" one than the likes of Eddison, Lewis or Baum and a long way short of SF equivalents such as Doc Smith]>

    Yea, but you can't take away th idea that LOTR's was the first fantasy novel to establish the idea of a group of multiracial characters journeying together which is a major aspect to D&D. Of course it doesn't have to be, but it certainly encouraged the idea that if someone wants to play PC's other then humans they can.

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  37. > Yea, but you can't take away th idea that LOTR's was the first fantasy novel to establish the idea of a group of multiracial characters journeying together which is a major aspect to D&D.

    The Hobbit and Galactic Patrol both date to 1937 - in neither case was the "Big (, Big) Bad" added until later, so they're possibly both better examples of actual "adventuring" than LotR.
    (No coincidence that Lensman was /the/ SF game benchmark in the pre-D&D era).
    The influences certainly do not have to be pure fantasy since Appendix N, for one, includes science fantasy and science fiction.

    > Of course it doesn't have to be, but it certainly encouraged the idea that if someone wants to play PC's other then humans they can.

    Became very hide-bound and humanocentric with demi-humans almost as outlying stereotypes and little beyond that vs. the original, albeit nebulous, "you can be anything" which kinda got left on the sidelines.

    Still curious as to how many people /actually/ played elves (or dwarves, or h----ts) prior to 1974 out of those 200/300-or so people who were stated to have played the game in one form or another, and in what form /they/ envisaged them...

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  38. Who wrote the Hobbit again? I keep forgetting the authors name...

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  39. That dead, white English guy who had very little direct influence on the creation of D&D, IIRC.

    Only the one PC there but a better case IMO for D&D-style "adventuring" nonetheless (or, at the least, Fighting Fantasy... or T&T *g*) than LoTR.

    A good "our elves are different" thread, anyhow. ;)

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  40. Yup, that's right. and when you break in town, both TH and LOTR have the same premises: a group of multiracial individuals off on a journey/adventure.

    EGG has said repeatedly that it was other writers who greatly influenced OD&D, especially Jack Vance who was EGG favorite author. Yet if you look at the original books the one single author you can point out directly more then anyone else of having an influence is JRR , who from a gaming point of view, created the concept that Elvles, Dwarves, Halflings are as significant as their human counterparts and all the reason why there's charts and rules for playing them in the OD&D books.

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  41. For those without the original books, those "charts and rules" basically equate to a single paragraph each; two bolted on to the other classes, the other entirely optional. Level limitations render those secondary and ideas such as elves swapping class could hardly be said to be Tolkienesque.

    The monster tables are more Barsoom than Middle Earth and the spells and magic items really don't look like a thinly disguised pastiche of Tolkien. And that's in the rules as published with at least some Tolkien "hooks" added on, which is /still/ no indication as to actual play prior to publication. Without the ability to look back, that would be akin to me creating a character called Conan Meriadoc of Rohan and you telling me I'd snatched from Tolkien and/or Howard.
    (Pseudo-medievalism, real-world mythos and self-created ideas clearly form a far larger part of the final product, regardless).

    p.s. You'd think they could at least spell Tolkien's name correctly if were /that/ familiar with his works. Wrong every single time, IIRC...

    Anyhow; apols./OT to elf art methinks, even if an adjunct on origins, influences and ideas.

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  42. The fact that EGG added those three races meant he was taking his queues from LOTR's and TH. Otherwise, he would of just listed them simply as monsters as other writers of his time and before him thought of Elves and Dwarves no different then any other type of monster. As to the magic system he credited Vance's Dying Earth as being his main inspiration as JRR never really divulged how magic worked or even had names for his characters spells.

    Anyway, this seems to me this is becomming more about who's going to get the last word in then anything else so knock yourself out and babble as much as you want on this thread. It's all yours.


    .

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  43. Interesting. I’ve heard a rumour that Gygax commissioned the artist for OD&D because he was willing to work for less than anyone else on the market, not because he enjoyed that particular style.

    Does anyone know if this is true? If so, then it might explain the interchangeable elves, goblins and other demihuman races.

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  44. Heh heh, not just Indel, but I also made fun of that Grognardia guy. But jeez, he is just so damn unflappable ;)

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  45. I must say...I read Lord of the Rings and pictured them much as Dragonlance & the players Handbook did - ultrababes & lean & sleek males. Elves were meant to represent the perfection that Men (and by extension women) could only dream about.

    So, when Elwood gave it to me...I was happy.

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  46. "Interesting. I’ve heard a rumour that Gygax commissioned the artist for OD&D because he was willing to work for less than anyone else on the market, not because he enjoyed that particular style."

    Mike Mornard's made that claim, if I remember right. It was in an RPGnet thread about that original bearded elf.

    I've been engaged recently with trying to figure out how races were interpreted in the early Wilderlands.

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  47. Trampier's are my favorite depiction.  But I'm biased cause I'm a huge sucker for his bold, dark style.

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  48. I really think tolkien had more of an influence on the players than Gygax. His style (in my opinion) was much more Vance, Lieber, and Howard, and others.

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