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Tabletop Meditations #16: Old Empires

In any given fantasy RPG, but by no means all of them, a remnant empire or a landscape littered withRuins of an empire the bones of an ancient empire sometimes mysterious oft times still vaguely powerful. Old empires appear throughout fantasy and thus many fantasy tabletop roleplaying games. Using this trope makes it a little easier to begin to build your own setting using this as the basis for a dark age or at least an age where the empire is in a state of decline this loss of power being vital to adventuring.

Ancient empires lend a sense of history, which can still be seen and sometimes experienced to a game world. They can provide explanations for some of gaming’s oldest tropes, especially for the ubiquitous dungeon, and present adventure hooks in the forms of artifacts, lost knowledge, and explorable ruins. The old empire (or empires) that may be present in a given fantasy world also carry their own tropes and various resemblances to those of real-world history. Old empires are useful to the GM in the context of RPG campaigns but also carry certain disadvantages.

When speaking of empires there are certain terms that are inseparable in most incarnations of this fantasy trope. These are Empire, Imperium, and Citizen.

The word empire carries with it some baggage in and of itself due to actual history and it conjures a very specific type of image. In the popular imagination, the word empire often conjures to mind the imperial wonders of the ancient world, marble statues massive multi-columned buildings and/or massive armies that could drink lakes and inland seas dry. Of course, in the modern context however it also brings to mind the subjugation of indigenous peoples, the snatching of land, and constant wars of conquest.

“Today the word empire is used to describe an extensive state made up of several ethnic groups but ruled by only one of them.  It has, at least since the early 20th century, also carried the suggestion of tyranny and brutality, inherited from the practices of modern European colonial powers.” [Grafton, Anthony, ed. 2010. The Classical Tradition. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Mass. Empire. pg.310]

The imperial entity also means the mass rule of law and an enforced order over a given territory. An empire allows for widespread civility allowing the gentler aspects of civilization to take hold as well as providing the structure for the crueler aspects of humankind to prevail (the argument for barbarism as told by R.E. Howard). Education and philosophy blossom as well as giving a chance for cults and even gangs (a criminal underworld) to appear.

Imperium refers, in common use, to the empire and its forces sometimes with exclusion to its people. Here it serves more as a reference to its machinery rather than its people or possessions. More often, it is synonymous to Empire and often it is used for both. However, it is actually a reference to the territorial reach and extent of the empire. “One thing all the various meanings of the word imperium have in common is the association between extended territorial dominion and military rule.” [Grafton. 310] This basic definition is as old as Rome and is less vague than the casual usages. “As early as the 1st century BCE, the Roman historian Sallust had used the phrase Imperium romanum to describe not merely the power but also the geographical extent of the authority of the Roman people.” [Grafton. 310]

When it comes to the term Citizen when speaking of empires this refers to those individuals that the Imperium sees as the core of its existence often making official capacity to accommodate that (or those) group(s) cultural traditions and to those that it has a legal and/or philosophical responsibility. Note also that there will be some legality involved with citizenship handled by an imperial bureaucracy. The reality of citizenship however is always an unpredictable affair and will vary throughout the history of the empire. In game terms, imperial citizens are often snobby and serve as exemplars of over-civilized fops that are incapable of not getting themselves killed not just in the wilds of the world but in the rural farmlands as well.

“IMPERIAL CITIZENS are so civilized that they have given up WAR in favour of POLITICS and POISON. The Management considers this effete and will direct you to feel contempt for most of these people, except the Emperor, until you come upon the elderly man who retains the old virtues of the Empire. A former General, he is totally trustworthy and warlike and scorns politics too. He will become a staunch supporter of the Tour and of great help either on the QUEST or in SAVING THE WORLD.” [Jones, Diana Wynne. 2006. The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. Revised and Updated Edition. pg.95]

An empire from the POV of a player in an RPG setting on the other hand is one of a civilizing force that carries with it a corrupting force as well as the violent force of law. It seems a bit libertarian but when it comes to a group of often somewhat individually powerful freewheeling adventurers their world view is one of reaping the benefits by hook or by crook from the landscape, evil forces, monsters, and its people. A functioning empire of course impedes this ravenous impulse of the rapacious adventurer with its far reach, armed authorities, and system of laws not to mention a potentially oppressive and faceless bureaucracy.

Even in its different phases an empire always affects the Players. A dying empire is an impediment to be overcome and its authorities avoided if possible. A long dead one presents opportunity in its corpse where adventurers can pick its bones clean. Of course, this can also happen with a dying empire in its last throes with players aligned with the barbarians at the gate perhaps riding the barbaric tide as it were, or following in its wake, or caught between a desperate authority and a savage horde.

In fantasy worlds, old empires typically have a single seed from which they are grown, a trope that helps to characterize the nature of the empire and what role it is itself to play within the game. The most common tropes are the Ancient Empire, the Lost Empire, the Evil Empire, and the Vestigial Empire.

The Ancient Empire often long gone, if not it is often senile and rapidly disintegrating, is a very common trope. It concerns a long existent imperial power that either has passed or is passing. Most of the world shares a common origin from within this type of old empire and if not from its peoples then from among its knowledge and maybe customs. These types of old empires help to build a historical foundation for a setting laying in a base layer of information in the setting giving the players a sense of history as they experience its artifacts and their characters share in its heritage. Heritage being writing, architecture, and economics, which may live on long after the empire, has died.

As this Ancient Empire was wide reaching and of course would have been involved in large engineering projects, it has left an indelible mark on the landscape not just the people and their cultures. “ANCIENT ENGINEERING PROJECTS tend to litter the landscape in some parts of the continent. Most of them are quite mysterious, and all of them are made of some substance not known to the present inhabitants, often of a greenish colour, or a matte black, though white is not unknown. They will be gigantic. Most of them will be pillars that touch the clouds, but ROADS and broken BRIDGES are common too. It is unknown what challenge caused earlier peoples to make things that were so very large. Most of them are no use to anyone.” [Jones. 4]

Lost Empires on the other hand are often not as far reaching and are widely believed to be extinct.  Within the game, they serve as a foundation for mythoi, as hidden enemies or saviors, or holders/discoverers of special knowledge.  A lost empire is an empire that has somehow disappeared from history and any information on it lay in vague historical accounts, clues in place names and legends. It seems only to exist within the odd bit or curiosity that can be found by the players within myth and folklore or that they simply happen upon in the course of an adventure.

An important aspect of a Lost Empire found in fantasy RPGs are Remnant (Lost) Cities. These lost cities are tracked down through a string of clues and can exist as still functioning locales though in complete isolation a la Shangri-La or as hidden and mostly intact i.e. not pillaged ruins. A Lost Empire can also serve as a mythic foundation for stories and the explanation for any strange anomalies such as dungeons as well as certain exotic places and anomalous peoples (not always human) of the world.

In addition, a Lost Empire can serve as a nebulous threat or even enemy striking from the shadows from beyond the mists of history. These enemies must be detected, discovered, and ferreted out by the PCs. These hidden people may also serve as secret saviors to be sought, or a secret repository of special knowledge that lays hidden for the PCs to quest for.

This brings us to the unavoidable Evil Empire, which always serves as an active villain sometimes doubling as an end of the world trope. This is most often the active type of empire though the Evil Empire can also be a disintegrating ancient empire though now evil if it has not always been so due to degradation and always a definite threat. This type of ancient empire is an active villain for the players to confront and maybe even try to topple. These sorts of powers often play into the end-of-the-world trope as well sometimes possessing the power of the apocalypse other times seeking it. Usually the McGuffin said world-ending power (often an object or artifact) could instantly put an end to the evil empire instead when the PCs get involved.

Finally, we arrive at the Vestigial Empire, an empire that serves as background and mood than anything else. It is just a contrast to the wilderness and its citizens the opposite of adventurers. “VESTIGIAL EMPIRE. […] This Empire occupies an area usually slightly larger than most other COUNTRIES and you will know you are in it because the ROADS will be well made and patrolled by Imperial GUARDS in HELMETS and SKIRTS. Rest-houses line the way, a day’s march apart. The LANDSCAPE will be full of prosperous farmlands, vineyards, and olive groves, and you may even see a little light INDUSTRY, such as pottery and carpet-making. White villas crown the hills – in fact, most BUILDINGS in the Empire are white. When you reach the imperial CITY, you will find TEMPLES and colonnades as well as streets of decent houses, drains, and public Baths. The aura of civilization extends to daily life too. The Vestigial Empire is the only Country on the Tour to have POLITICS. It has a parliament and a senate and many noble CLANS to jockey for power. This keeps all Imperialists very busy, very noisy, and very likely to POISON one another. They also […] understand MONEY in a truly civilized way.” [Jones. 216]

This does not mean that the Vestigial Empire was always as it is it could be the remnant of a once great ancient empire and the relics of its greatness strewn across the land. Essentially a Vestigial Empire is exactly what its name implies it often serves little actual purpose to the setting and is not necessarily any kind of impediment to the PCs, an annoyance perhaps or a place to trade but that is all. Essentially, the Vestigial Empire serves as a rest stop for the PCs and marks the line separating civilization and barbarism (according to imperialist thought).

Now if I may digress a little, there is a seminal fantasy world where old empires as an explicit idea simply do not really exist though an argument can be made for the Elves. In J.R.R. Tolkien it does seems that world lacks an Old Empire.  I have always felt this lacuna when confronting the Legendarium. It seems to need at least one Old Empire in order to stitch together some of the cultures in that world.

An example being the Rohirrim, only a single regional kingdom codifies their culture. As a people, they simply descended and gathered from other people through time. Their consistency of culture seems hard to achieve in that manner alone. However, where this cultural glue seems to lack the most is with the Easterlings. Granted they follow Sauron though he seems to function more as a god or object of reverence and worship than an actual king or lord. It seems they would need unification by a powerful overlord. Joined into a single cultural force before being forged into a war machine by a powerful overlord that rules them rather than influences them from afar.

Tolkien’s world is filled with ruins but ruins of the fortresses of petty kings and lords, there is no Alexander, Rome, Ch’ing, or even Attila to serve as a basis for a united regional culture just individual heroes. His Legendarium is more concerned with lineage and personal family histories rather than politics or even major cultural diversity except where it comes to language and race. The Legendarium is more a collection of heroic stories, songs, and tales documenting the plight of certain families and individuals than a world history. So in that respect Old Empires are basically completely absent, the Elves are very similar to the Rohirrim though the ruins of their younger days tend to be more widespread.

Concerning RPGs, Old Empires are useful to Game-Masters especially with the values that can be drawn from the historical. The GM can draw from history to provide not just inspiration but also some basic facts about what an actual empire was capable of not just in temperament but technological innovation and in the development of the arts. Instead of making up value and legal systems from scratch, the GM can obtain them from history already fully laid out and time tested in both practice and enforcement.

Examples of this historical wealth are found with the Roman and Chinese empires. From the Roman the primary points being the military machine, its extreme emphasis on order, running water, a senate or discernible governing body later to be usurped by an emperor. With the Chinese its vast armies and their military organization/logistics, the capability of the mass production of goods especially arms, the development of writing, philosophy, and medicine. These are all various civilized developments, systems and discoveries that can only be advanced or even made within a stable civilization of a certain level of advancement.

The Prime Uses of an Old Empire within an RPG campaign are many. Building an Old Empire into the past of a setting can help to explain common gaming tropes like dungeons, make its heirs desperate to reclaim their “heritage” creating wider conflicts, and provide a foundational layer to the history of the world deepening its history.

Injecting History via an Old Empire provides an easy framework on which a GM can build a setting and giving their new world a sense of historical identity or lineage. This can drop clues for PCs to follow to long lost cities, leave behind valuable artifacts, and leave lost knowledge behind ripe for rediscovery. The places the adventuring PCs visit may have a visible lineage and unique identity linked to the old empire distinguished by architecture, place names, familial lineages, and political organizations.

Imperialism can serve as a motivator to both Players and the NPCs. Either can see the old empire as their heritage and want to reclaim some of that former glory. It can motivate NPC (sometimes Player) villainy through imperialism. “Just as the Roman empire had become the embodiment of the Stoic notion of the koinos nomos, the universal law for all mankind, so its heirs sought to impose their own legal and religious order on all the peoples they overran.” [Grafton. 310] An aging empire that is rapidly disintegrating may try to forge outward under new leadership or try to transform itself into a new power providing a dynamic changing backdrop where the PCs could stand to benefit from the ensuing chaos.

Old Empires can explain away Dungeons, Ruins, Artifacts, and other such RPG commonalities as its relics or ruins. As well as set the mood when traversing the ruins of its lost glory. “RUINS of former days, like ANCIENT ENGINEERING PROJECTS, litter Fantasyland. Only the large kind are important to the Tour, and even most of these will be just setting the mood. You are not expected to be happy on this Tour. The Ruins make you think of the sad losses of former days. But cheer up. Just occasionally you will find TREASURE in a Ruin.” [Jones. 164]

Using old empires as a foundational component of your game world does have a few drawbacks. These disadvantages are Imperialist concepts inherent in an empire can overwhelm a game, the Players may become resentful of being restricted by existent imperial law and power, and old empires tend to be over-used in fantasy fiction.

This idea, old empires, is cliché territory when it comes to fantasy fiction but if the cliché is fun why not use it in an RPG campaign. As long as it doesn’t bore the Players or inhibit their characters to the point of strangling the fun out of the game it’s fine.

Imperialist concepts can begin to take hold of the game and cause certain in game tensions to become uncomfortable in real life. One of these concepts being slavery when based on certain superficial aspects of characters such as race and culture, which might get construed as stereotypes where characters may start expositing certain lines that smack of real world racism just with different names. Another example is the justifications for theft or domination, which may group certain characters together and the previous can happen the same way and may end up in slavery that then can proceed even further into the overlap.

Lastly, the PCs can become hateful of civilization within the game world and run amok if it becomes too oppressive of a force within the game. Players as well can simply become bored or frustrated with an empire that constantly boxes them in and thwarts their plans without fail. There has to be some holes to room to breathe even in a very powerful and extremely oppressive power’s demesne. Players will work hard against the odds if there is at least a glimmer of hope of success.

In conclusion, Old Empires are tropes of fantasy fiction but in terms of tabletop RPGs, they are still useful and hold some fascinating avenues to explore. Old Empires are useful to GM’s when building a history for their world and providing an explanation for the origins of some fantasy RPG tropes such as dungeons and monster haunted ruins. There are disadvantages of course when using old empires in your game. You run the risk of tramping on old clichés, letting imperialist thinking to overwhelm your fantasy, and alienating your players through the over-application of imperial will.

However, the advantages of a successful implementation of an old empire (or empires) in your game can outweigh the negatives. A successful implementation takes some lessons, inspiration, and facts from history, avoids the standard tropes though a twist on or subversion of the idea, and makes sure it enhances the fun at the table!

 

Tabletop Meditations #15: The Golem

The creature comes barreling down a narrow web-choked hallway in the enemy wizard’s fortress. The ground shakes as the large humanoid stomps towards our hapless adventurers. Its fists like cudgels and its door-shattering shoulders wide and powerful. Its feet and legs like dreadful stumps ready to stomp our heroes into pulp. Snickering behind the monster is the wizard who created it and ordered it to slay his enemies. This is a golem; an artificial creature shaped from clay, chiseled from stone, or hammered from iron by a powerful wizard. It unwaveringly obeys every order that its maker gives it.

The golem is another staple of the fantasy roleplaying game used mostly by mages in game as a minion to account for their own physical weakness or set as a powerful guardian against adventurers and the like. Similar to other entities and beings considered classic archetypes of the RPG genre, the golem has roots just as deep if not deeper. The adaptation of the golem into RPG’s was probably inspired by the pop-image of the creature, which first hit the popular imagination with the silent film Der Golem (1914), a partially lost classic of the horror genre. Of course, the filmmakers were themselves inspired by a medieval Jewish folktale. This folktale, known as the Golem of Prague, has its clay feet planted firmly in biblical and Jewish lore.

“In the Talmud, the word ‘golem’ has come to mean lifeless, shapeless matter, something unformed and imperfect, a body without a soul.” [Patterson, Jose. 1991. “Angels, Prophets, Rabbis, and Kings from the Stories of the Jewish People” New York. Peter Bedrick Books. p.98]

First, what exactly is a golem? Of all the differences in systems found across the RPG-scape the few points about golems that are commonly accepted are that  it takes a mage or wizard of sufficient power to create and that “Golems are magically created automatons of great power. Constructing one involves the employment of mighty magic and elemental forces”. [Cook, Monte. Jonathan Tweet, Skip Williams. 2000. “Dungeons & Dragons: Monster Manual”. Renton, WA. Wizards of the Coast, Inc. p.109]

All the sources that I’ve encountered also concede that a golem is not technically living although it may be semi-autonomous able to carry out simple commands it is still not technically living. Therefore, most things that affect living beings such as death effects, poison gas, as well as most non-magical attacks (this last one does vary although a semblance of it is retained in most instances), do not affect them. It is also a mindless object in the most basic sense and thus cannot feel fear or fall victim to psychic attack and psychological warfare. Therefore, a golem is a magical construct given animation by a powerful spell-caster through a ritual that binds a spiritual force to an artificial body making it strong, durable, and immune to certain attacks and special modes of combat typically effective against living intelligent beings.

“A golem is a “construct”, a powerful, enchanted monster created and animated by a high level magic-user or cleric. Golems can be made of almost any material.” [Allston, Aaron comp. 1991. “Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia”. TSR, Inc. p.180] Essentially, a golem is the most basic example of a magical construct. The term magical construct can also apply to animated objects like statues and armor although this effect can be achieved in many games with simple spells with lesser power than for a golem. These would come about in a fashion more akin to standard magical items.  However, a measure of power is still required similar to a golem. “A living statue is an enchanted animated creature made by a powerful wizard.” [Allston. P.208]

Now what is a construct since a golem is also defined as a magical construct? “Constructs […] are created much as magical treasures are.” [Allston. P.253] Essentially a magical construct is a magical device that mimics the most basic features of a living being barring reproduction. However, how does a magical item pull this trick off? A wizard cannot just conjure a soul out of nowhere and infuse it into the artificial body (the construct) so a readily available substitute is required. This substitute for the soul came in the ancient lore from the secret name of God and the creative power of the Hebrew Alphabet. In RPG’s which draw on a very rich and deep reservoir of world (though still mostly Western European but expanding) mythology and ancient lore another source is found in the form of errant elemental spirits.

“The animating force for a golem is a spirit from the Elemental Plane of Earth. The process of creating the golem binds the unwilling spirit to the artificial body and subjects it to the will of the golem’s creator.“ [Cook. p.109]

Therefore, a golem so far is a magical construct that lacking a soul to grant it authentic life mocks the semblance of life using a trapped elemental spirit instead. The materials of the constructed body can be just about anything but tend to have a relationship to the earth in most versions but is probably not a necessity. This maybe stemming from the creatures originally being sculpted from clay. The magical process to create such a constructed creature lies within not only Jewish lore but primarily seems related more to the old silent films.

The golem as a creature has beginnings in certain biblical and mystical passages and works. The idea of a powerful artificial person was a common one in ancient times and became more widespread with the middle age folktales that draw on these sources especially when the European Jews suffered brutal oppression at the hands of their fellow countrymen.

There are commentaries to the Sefer Yetzirah, the Book of Creation the most influential book of the Ma’asei-Bereshit mystical tradition written sometime between the 3rd and 6th centuries, which claims that biblical figures made golems. “The commentators believe Abraham used Sefer Yetzirah’s power, noting the wording, “the people they made in Haran” (Gen. 12:5); the prophet Jeremiah also made a golem. […] The idea was a theme in the Talmud (Sanh. 38a). Two anonymous Talmudic Sages were able to create a “one-third” size calf for Sabbath meals 9Ber. 55a; Mid. The. 3). More cryptic is the report that Rava “created a man”, who he then sent to Rabbi Zeira, who caused the creature to return to dust[.] [Dennis, Geoffrey W. 2016. “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, & Mysticism Second Edition”. Woodbury, Minnesota. Llewellyn Publications. p.181]

Up to the middle ages, there were multiple tales of Jewish figures attempting to or creating golems for various reasons. The Spanish philosopher and poet Solomon ibn Gabirol (ca. 11th century) is credited by Jewish occult tradition with creating either a female golem or a mechanical automaton. [Dennis. P.164] It seemed that creating a golem was a common ability in occult accounts and especially in certain medieval stories.

“The famous Rabbi Elijah of Chelm is reputed to have created a golem by writing God’s Holy Name on a piece of parchment and sticking it on the forehead of a clay model of a man. Not for one moment did it occur to the rabbi that he might be creating a monster that would run amok destroying everything in its path. When the golem proved uncontrollable Rabbi Elijah had no choice but to remove the parchment from its forehead, whereupon it immediately turned to dust.” [Patterson. P.98]

“Jewish folklore gives many accounts of rabbis who not only created golems but returned them to dust when they were no longer required. Most of them were used as attendants or bodyguards, and whereas they were supposed to have been able to understand and follow commands, they lacked the power of speech – a gift which God alone could grant.” [Patterson, p.98]

This brings us to the most common use for golems, guardianship and protection especially emphasized in the middle age folktales. The middle ages for European Jews were sometimes exceedingly bleak. This is the time that the most well-known and popularized myth of the golem originated when scattered throughout Europe Jews became victims of severe religious and economic oppression. Some brief examples of the ultimate results of this oppression being the Rhineland Massacres of 1096, the 1190 York Massacre, and the Black Death Persecutions from 1348 to 1350 to name just a few.

“They were forced to live in walled ghettoes which were built in the poorest sections of towns. […}[L]ife in the ghetto was governed by religious devotion and a strict code of morality. The poor overcrowded conditions were compensated, to a certain extent, by a growth of folk tales and stories many of which attempted to portray a happier life than the one the Jews were actually experiencing. […] The stories told in those days were peopled with a rich variety of figures who defended Jewish life – God, the rabbis, and the Golem[.]” [Patterson. P.86-87]

“With its great physical strength, its supernatural power to unearth the evil plots of their enemies, the golem became a kind of imagined redeemer to the Jews, helping them to cope with the daily problem of survival. By far the most popular of all golem stories are those told about the Golem of Prague.” [Patterson. P.99]

The story of the Golem of Prague concerned the famed rabbi Yehuda Loew of Prague (1512-1609) who was a renowned scholar of the Torah and the Talmud, a gifted storyteller, an eminent scholar, and could speak several languages fluently. One night he had a vivid dream.

In this dream, he found himself in the Christian quarter of the city and there to his horror he witnessed the murder of a child. Then the shadowy form of the killer took the little corpse, placed it in a sack, and left it in a cellar in the Jewish ghetto. As the shadowy murderer passed by him, the rabbi recognized it as the priest Thaddeus, an evil clergyman determined to destroy the Jews of Prague. With the festival of Passover fast approaching, it would be the Jews that would be blamed. Understanding the hideous implications of this horrible action, the rabbi prayed for help.

The answer was immediate. In his dream, he saw the sacred name of God and a formula of mystic words that would help him create a golem out of clay who would destroy the enemies of Israel. He awoke suddenly covered in sweat.

Taking the message of his dream as prophecy, the rabbi went to the banks of the River Moldau. There he shaped a man of immense size and when all was completed to his satisfaction, Rabbi Loew took from his pocket a piece of parchment. On this parchment, he had written the secret name of God and placed it in the mouth of the cold gray figure. He began chanting a mystical incantation while walking around it seven times one way and then seven times the opposite.

Immediately the figure began to glow like fire and then as soon as the glow had dimmed, its eyes opened. The rabbi gave it some clothes that he had brought and named the creature Joseph. As an artificial creature, the golem had no understanding of good and evil, could not speak, and could not reproduce. “He could not speak, having no soul, but he could obey.” [Constable, George ed. 1985. “The Enchanted World: Spells and Bindings”. Alexandria, VA. Time-Life Books. p.56] This creature, Joseph, was also very powerful knew the rabbi “because the longer Joseph lived the larger and more powerful he grew, he was an effective deterrent to violence”. [Constable. p.56]

With Joseph at his side, Rabbi Loew found the murdered child hidden in an abandoned basement in the house of a pious Jew. He had Joseph transfer the body to the basement of Thaddeus’ house. When the authorities came to the old man’s house, the rabbi directed them to the priest’s home where they discovered the body to the priest’s surprise thereby sparing the Jews of Prague.

Later, Joseph would also protect the rabbi’s people against a pogrom imposed by Rudolf II the Hapsburg Emperor (1552-1612). His work done the rabbi allowed the golem to rest on the bench in front of his house where the rabbi’s wife, Perele set him to hauling water. The rabbi had warned her previously that Joseph should not do household chores. Like a holy vessel, he was meant only for God’s work.

Regardless, she set him to his task, hauling water buckets from the well to fill the barrels in the pantry while she went to the market. A few hours later she returned with her shopping and was surprised by a crowd of her neighbors gathered about her home shouting, “it’s a flood!”. The pantry barrels were filled to overflowing yet Joseph did not stop. He kept running to the well and filling his buckets and then ran back to the pantry to continue to fill the overflowing barrels. It was at that moment, by good fortune, that Rabbi Loew returned from synagogue and ordered Joseph to stop. Then the rabbi turned and told the crowd that the floods had been sent to punish mankind but this had only been a reprimand to his wife.

However, as Joseph’s size and strength increased “like many other golem tales, over time the Prague golem grew in power and in unpredictable behavior”. [Dennis. p.182] “Like other creatures of magic, however, golems had a willful streak, and their ever-increasing size made them a threat to the very folk they were summoned to serve. So it was with Joseph, who ran amuck on a Sabbath eve for reasons no one could determine, leveling the ghetto walls with his massive shoulders and leaving buildings ablaze in his wake.”[Constable. P.56]

Of course, his creator caught him and “pulled the parchment from his lips, and recited backward the scripture that had started him into motion. All that was left when the man had finished was a lifeless mound of clay.” [Constable. p.56]

Hence, “the creator was forced to destroy his creation, thus curbing his own hubris and teaching him humility.”  [Dennis. P.182]

This story however, is more modern than one would think though its roots lay deep in the myths of the past. “Though golem tales were published through the 13th century, the story of the Golem of Prague as known today is the [sic] largely creation of an early 20th-century rabbi and writer, Yudel Rosenberg, and his book, Miflaot Maharal, “The Wonders of Rabbi Judah Loew”. [Dennis. P.181]

It is probably this story that inspired the filmmakers to make the movie Der Golem, which no doubt played a critical role in popularizing the myth.

“While filming A Bargain with Satan (1913) on location in Prague its lauded star Herr Paul Wegener was taken by the ancient ghetto. One legend told by the Jews there so intrigued him that he used it as a basis for his next picture. This picture Der Golem (1914) was more a sequel to the actual 16th century legend. In the film, an elderly antique dealer purchases an excavated statue after recognizing it as the legendary clay-man. A magic charm brings the creature to life and later goes on a rampage through the streets of Prague in a love-crazed pursuit of the antique dealer’s daughter. It reverts to stone when the girl snatches the charm from its chest and falling from a tower smashes to pieces on the cobblestones below. [Gifford, Dennis. 1973. “A Pictorial History of Horror Movies”. Middlesex, England. The Hamlyn Publishing Group Limited. The Clay Man Cometh – And Cometh Back]

With any successful film, of course there was a sequel, which was in effect was a prequel that followed the actual myth closer than its predecessor had. Most importantly however, this sequel reveals the process of the golem’s creation. In the prequel to Der Golem, subtitled How He Came into the World (1920):

High Rabbi Loew sees in the stars that danger impends for the Jews of Prague. Instantly a flower-sniffing Junker arrives with a decree from Emperor Ludwig: leave before the end of the month. Loew consults his ancient archives.

‘This figure called Golem was made long ago by a magician of Thessaly. If you place the magic word in the amulet on his breast he will live and breathe as long as he wears it. Astaroth guards the magic word which can endow even clay with life.’

Loew moulds a mighty giant of clay, then creates a magic circle of fire and summons forth the spirit. Astaroth, a floating head, speaks in smoke the word ‘Aemaer’. Loew writes it down and puts it in the amulet: instantly the Golem’s eyes light into life. [Gifford. The Clay Man Cometh – And Cometh Back]

This is important not just from the establishment of a process of creation that can be adapted for RPG play, there are many different ways in Jewish occult lore to create a golem however all revolve around God, but it also establishes the power of the magic-user. “As the sequel/prequel to Der Golem demonstrates the ritual activation of the golem, it also demonstrates the golem master’s power. In the second story strand of the 1920 film, Lowe travels to the court of the Emperor, gives a powerful demonstration of MAGIC […], and saves the lives of the Emperor and his throng – for which service the Emperor cancels his edict against the Jews.” [Clute, John. John Grant. 1997. “The Encyclopedia of Fantasy”. New York, NY. St Martin’s Press. p.422]

Seemingly related to the methods found in the surviving Der Golem film most roleplaying games have similar procedures and rituals to animate and control golems. A good example taken from Palladium Games’ Rifts is this spell called, appropriately, Create Golem:

The sorcerer first draws a pentagram of animal blood. Second, he sculpts a Golem (humanoid shape) from clay. Third, he places two onyx gems […] for eyes. Fourth, he places a heart, molded out of iron, into the clay body. Lastly, the mage recites the ritual ceremony. At the end of the ritual, the mystic places a single drop of his blood on the behemoth’s forehead to bring it to life. [Coffin, Bill comp. 2001. “Rifts Book of Magic”. Taylor, MI. Palladium Books, Inc. p.147-148]

This spell is a Level 13 spell in the Palladium system, which as legend would indicate a powerful spell requiring a skilled and powerful mage to create a single golem.

From the moment it entered the popular imagination through film, the concept begged infusion into the fantasy RPG realm. This concept being of an unquestioning minion with a physical might that more than compensates for its master’s physical weakness as well as a simple guardian type monster. This idea retains a little of the golem’s purpose of protection and the idea that a powerful magic-user can create an artificial life. In a sense, the mage through the creation of a golem is trying to attain the elevation of a god.

An RPG golem is an animate, semi-autonomous magical construct created for the purpose of guardianship or protection through its shear might. These creatures are created by powerful wizards or those privy to powerful magical knowledge. The ritual and method that is used to create them is varied almost as much as those found throughout their history in story and myth. They often lack the ability to speak and to think for themselves though they can understand, follow, and execute their master’s orders.

However, it seems that most RPG’s don’t take advantage of the dangers posed by a golem found in lore where they can grow dangerously independent of their masters and increase in power and size the longer they live. They may still be very physically powerful and difficult to procure but they seem to lack the unpredictability of legend.

RPG Golems began as a demonstration of faith and power in Jewish occult tradition, became figures in folktales in the middle ages which spawned the seminal tale the Golem of Prague, which was adapted into a silent film in the early 20th-century. This film helped to popularize the idea of the golem as a magical servant/protector that then in turn was adapted into the world of RPGs.

On a final note since RPG golems can be made of many different materials not just clay, stone, or iron but also flesh. These flesh golems should they retain the rebelliousness of the legendary golems have more than a passing resemblance to the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

 

Arvan: Land of Dragons RELEASED!

Arvan: The Land of Dragons, the new campaign setting for Dice & Glory. It centers on the Age of Adventure and a burgeoning international trade and era of conquest. As well as the reclamation of territory from the supernatural forces that have dominated it for so long. This resulting from an extended Dark Age of Mad Mage-Lords and Dark Warlords. In addition, in the East an ancient empire struggles to slow its disintegration into smaller feudal princedoms. While its central theocracy seizes power for itself by focusing the chaos on the empires’ former Western colonies. Power is up for grabs for those willing to seize it.

The world’s technology level hovers between the late Iron Age and the High Middle Ages. No “Tolkienesque” classical player races exist with Arboreans (tree-men), Amazons, Fauns, Ratlings, Naga, unicorns, and Hill-Giants instead. Of course, there are still human beings. The world of Eu, the planet on which the setting of Arvan exists, has a healthy dose of dark mystery along with a patina of medieval grit. It has realistic underpinnings established for the fantasy of the world to exist on. Inspirations include ancient Rome, Greece, the ancient Americas, as well as Warring States Era China, with some influence from ancient Africa and the Celtic lore and history of Europe not to mention Ancient Greece.

The setting focuses on an “Age of Adventure” wherein the players and their characters can explore and engage the world. Players have a chance of making a mark on the world of Eu. The focus of the setting is adventure be it raiding and pillage, thievery, monster hunting, dragon-slaying, establishing trade routes, exploration, or conquest.

This setting was nearly 10 years in the writing and evolved after several years of role-play. The history of Eu and its cultures were constructed to provide a deep background for fantasy games that may stay as standard and shallow as they please or take a deep dive into the people and places of the fantasy world.

The PDF is available right now at DriveThruRPG.com and RPGNow.com!

The print edition will be available sooner than expected from Lulu.com but more on that later.

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Brilliant Botanics #1 – Manfruit Tree

The mystical Manfruit tree, a pregenerated supernatural plant for Dice & Glory that adds a legendary element to a campaign. Especially if it’s revealed as the ultimate treasure or final goal. Also these trees are extremely tough though like mundane trees they are unable to take offensive actions. Additionally they are physically tough and can take certain passive actions to resist damage.

Brilliant Botanics can be used at the discretion of Game-Masters to add variety to their game worlds easily and quickly. The Manfruit tree is fleshed out enough for GM’s to drop them into game-sessions without any prep-work beyond reading the document. Finally, Manfruit trees are a great addition to any GM’s bag of tricks & treasure.

Brilliant Botanics also includes a brief Magic Abstract describing how mages may use these supernal vegetables in their spells and potions as components.

Brilliant Botanics #1 – 583k

Inspired by the Chinese literary classic Journey to the West!

Postscript on Elves, Dwarves, & Trolls

I’d noticed the odd relationship between the Elves, Trolls, and Dwarves concerning their evolution through mythology and into fantasy roleplaying as it stands today and decided to explore these commonalities and divergences. This is what led me to write Tabletop Meditations #11 through #13. However, there are few things that I’ve not said about elves, dwarves, and trolls such as bringing up the issue of half-races and sub-races including Orcs though I may have (or not as the case may be) touched on them.

The common points between each of the aforementioned races being their beginnings in mythology, their adoption into the realm of fairytale, adaptation into fantasy fiction, and further adaptation from fiction into the world of roleplaying seemed to me to be not only connected but related. Especially since they all originated in Northern European mythology and all at one time or another were also considered different types of fairy-folk.

They had all three begun as separate or mostly separate types of creatures where the lines of distinction in the original myths were still blurry. This is especially true of the elves and dwarves and then after their division between the trolls and dwarves though one was a diminutive race and the other essentially deformed giants. Note that I had avoided a discussion on giants in and of themselves as they are not as entwined with the dwarves and elves, though the birth of the dwarven race seems to owe directly to the lore of giants.

The subject of giants is also very broad and they really don’t change much throughout their existence whereas the trolls though they are essentially giants themselves noticeably change with time though their base nature does not. Trolls also possess several unique and readily identifiable features both physical and personality wise. There is also an abundance of material which brings these features to the forefront and serves as documentation of their evolution as a fantasy race. Essentially the giants’ path from myth to roleplaying is almost identical to if not a bit more plain than the trolls and so I chose follow trolls especially since they are more distinctly prevalent in myth and fairytale as archetypical villains and characters than giants. Not to mention the trolls’ evolution is more demonstrably entangled with that of the dwarves and elves.

Just as well, I also avoided any in-depth discussion of the sub-races derived from the 3 fantasy races only really mentioning the Orcs and Drow, both descendants of the elves. This was mainly so I could keep focus on the pieces and as the sub-races are simply variations on the core race getting directly to that core without explicitly excluding them was the best strategy. In roleplaying games these 3 races are used as a foundation to create variations off of, the elves in particular as demonstrated by the 2 most prevalent and popular of these which happen to be the Orcs and the Drow.

Orcs originally started as a sub-race of elves but embodying all of the opposite negative characteristics of the elves’ positive but the Drow have usurped that role in the minds of roleplayers. I’m not going to write an article solely dedicated to Orcs as it would be very short though there is an overabundance of information on them starting from Tolkien onward but most of it is supernumerary. As the Orcs are not only associated with the elves but derive, especially in Tolkien’s Legendarium, from them the story of their evolution is somewhat redundant with that of the true elves though the etymology of the name is interesting it’s also somewhat problematic.

Orcs are portrayed as a savage, clannish species that is barbarically tribal even though some authors and game designers try to inject some nobility into them, either through the design of their culture or the portrayal of individual characters as racial/cultural representatives of the more noble/human aspects of the Orcish. They have and are undergoing their own evolution in the world of roleplaying fantasy seen specifically in certain attempts at humanizing them. A perfect example is demonstrated in the Palladium Fantasy RPG. “In the right group, orcs, can be as fiercely loyal, heroic and courageous as a palladin [sic]. Orcs of good or aberrant alignment will never betray a friend or ally, or desert him at a moment of need.” [Siembieda, Kevin. 1998. Palladium Fantasy RPG: Second Edition. Palladium Books Inc. MI. 302]

Of course, this new humanization is built on top of the old and familiar. “They have a reputation for being dull-witted, muscle-bound brutes with a wicked disposition.” [Siembieda. 302] The Drow on the other hand are a more recent invention of Gary Gygax for Dungeons & Dragons and are essentially the literal visual and spiritual inversion of classic elves rather than an inferior and corrupted reflection that are the Orcs.

Half-races are another related subject which I also failed to touch upon although they play a prominent part in Tolkien’s Legendarium especially where half-elves are concerned. “The sons of Eärendil were Elros and Elrond, the Peredhil or Half-Elven. … At the end of the First Age the Valar gave to the Half-elven an irrevocable choice to which kindred they would belong. Elrond chose to be of Elven-kind[.] … To him therefore was granted the same grace as to those of the High Elves that still lingered in Middle-earth[.] … Elros chose to be of Man-kind and remain with the Edain; but a great life-span was granted to him many times that of lesser men.” [J.R.R. Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings (1991 ed.). HarperCollins Publishers. Appendix A. 1010]

Basically, men and elves can interbreed but the resulting offspring can choose between an elvish immortality or a slightly enhanced mortal span of life, at least according to Tolkien. Of course, he also mentions another half-race in his work which really doesn’t serve much of an explicit role overall, these are the half-orcs. “Among the Dunlendings who, in the Third Age of Sun, came to Saruman’s banner of the White Hand in Isengard, there were some whose blood, by the sorcery of Saruman, became mixed with that of the Orcs and Uruk-hai. These were large Men, lynx-eyed and evil, who were called Half-orcs.” [Day, David. 1979. A Tolkien Bestiary. Mitchell Beazley Publishers Limited. 128]

Both of these human-hybrid races are much beloved and perhaps a little overused in tabletop roleplaying though I guess there could be an argument here to logically classify both half-races as half-elves. This means that somehow the genetics between humans and elves and an elven sub-race, the Orcs, are somehow compatible. A taxonomy between these races, or is it species, might prove a bit problematic but this can be dismissed since the godhead of Tolkien’s Middle Earth created them all in the first place, so magic. Guess that helps to explain half-dragons too.

The attempt to fit fantasy races into modern-day taxonomy is beside the point failing the concept that, for one reason or another (often essentially irrational) they need to exist within that fictional world. Essentially, a half-race is a plot element or story device rather than a rational element to be quantified or scientifically explained.

Fantasy races as a whole being more than a collection of character traits and in terms of tabletop gaming, bonuses and abilities in the context of story and/or setting. This is especially useful to keep in mind when abandoning Tolkien altogether. Basically, when explaining half-races, species, and taxonomy in a fantasy setting it comes down to just utilizing the minimal amount of rationalization necessary for suspension of disbelief and patch the holes with myth and magic or good-sounding pseudoscience to explain it away.

My aim in writing these 3 articles was to explore the roots of these 3 archetypical fantasy races which are still an integral part of popular fantasy today, their entanglements, and how that shaped the current concepts about these mythic creatures while touching upon the more interesting questions that swirl about them and the concept of fantasy races. The common roots of elves, dwarves, and trolls continue to twist through myth, fairytale, fantasy-fiction, and even each other continually budding off and sprouting new ideas and concepts from the old.

Dwarves

“They are prominent in Germanic and Scandinavian legend and generally dwelt in rocks and caves and recesses of the earth. They were guardians of mineral wealth and precious stones and very skillful at their work. They were not unfriendly to man, but could on occasions, be vindictive and mischievous.” [Rockwood, Camilla, ed. 2009. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, 18th Edition. Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd. Dwarf]

In the popular mind, the term ‘Dwarves’ tends to bring to mind a short, bearded man with a Scottish accent wielding a battle-axe, namely actor John Rhys-Davies’ portrayal of the dwarf Gimli in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy not malignant, black-skinned creatures to which sunlight is deadly. “In the world were also DWARFS – ugly creatures, but masterly craftsmen, who lived under the earth[.]” [Hamilton, Edith. 1942. Mythology. Little, Brown and Company, Boston. 460-461]

As elves and fairies at one time were nearly indistinguishable so too were the dwarves even when compared to trolls. Dwarves just as elves and even trolls were born with the mythic world, wandered into folktales, were adapted into fairytales, and then reinvented by the authors of fantasy fiction. “The two most popular beings to be included in HEROIC FANTASY as either COMPANIONS to or enemies of humans are dwarfs and ELVES, yet the origins of these two groups of beings are confusing. In Nordic mythology the Alfar (elves) comprise one of the four main groups of dwarfs, but in Celtic mythology the elves are a part of the land of FAERIE, distinct from the dwarfs, who are creatures of the Earth.” [Clute, John & Grant, John. 1997. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. St Martin’s Press, New York. Dwarfs. Dwarfs]

The confusion between the elves and the dwarves also includes mention of another fantasy race or at least the seed which would lead to the inception of one of the more infamous of the fantasy races, the dark elves. “[I]n the North of Midgard, there were dwarfs; they lived in Nidavellir (Dark Home) in caves and potholes, while somewhere below was Svartalfheim(Land of the Dark Elves). No valid distinction though can be drawn between the dwarfs and dark elves; they appear to have been interchangeable.” [Crossley-Holland, Kevin. 2015. The Norse Myths. The Folio Society Ltd., London. xxv]

The current guise of dwarves are that of short, under or at 4 ft. tall, men with long bushy beards, barrel chests possessed of metalworking skills and knowledge of the underground as well as a penchant for swinging axes, hammers, and picks. “They are small, but solidly built and strong, almost always bearing beards and wielding axes.” [Clute & Grant. Dwarfs]

Inevitably one question tends to crop up repeatedly when discussing dwarves concerning the etymology of the word itself or more specifically about the plural noun form of ‘dwarves’ as opposed to ‘dwarfs’. The word ‘Dwarf’ and its unusual plural ‘Dwarves’ are well known but so is its proper plural ‘Dwarfs’, so where did these two different plural forms come from? Well, the second ‘Dwarfs’ is the proper plural form before the early 20th century but the plural noun form of ‘Dwarves’ began to be used more frequently as time wound on.

The work with the most influence in this regard is J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937) where the unusual noun form was corrected in certain editions by the editor to the then more common ‘Dwarfs’ but by the time it was to exert its influence over the creator of Dungeons & Dragons, Gary Gygax, the unusual noun form was left in place. In Appendix N of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Game Master’s Guide (1979) Tolkien’s work is listed as “Inspirational Reading”. Thusly Tolkien and Gary Gygax helped to propagate the newer plural form of ‘Dwarves’ which is now considered by most to be the proper form when discussing the fantasy race.

However, long before that question of English noun form, or even before English came to be, the concept of diminutive but supernaturally powerful creatures associated with the elemental earth was already an old idea.

Dwarves as did the elves began existence conjoined to other ideas taking a somewhat alien proto-form deep in the past as far back as the ancient Greeks. In the colorful myths of ancient Greece creatures called the Dactyls or Daktyloi served as their precursors. “[T]he Daktyloi, or “little fingers,” [are] the ten sons of the Great Mother Rhea. They emerged when, in Rhea’s birth pangs delivering Zeus, she dug her fingers into the earth. The Daktyloi are dwarf craftsmen, gifted and generative, evoking the wisdom and creativity of unconscious impulses that consciousness tends to overlook.” [Ronnberg, Amy ed., 2010. The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images. Cologne, Germany. TASCHEN. 384]

The Dactyls/Daktyloi resemble at least in part the core points of the modern dwarf: supernatural birth of the race, short stature, and great skill at working metals and stone. “DACTYLS, the discoverers of iron and the art of working it. Their home was usually said to be Mount Ida in Crete. They were considered to have magical powers.” [Hamilton. 481] But aside from the possible (and quite probable) influence of the Greek Dactyls, modern dwarves began as a part of the Norse creation myth. They were one of the most ancient races in existence aside from the giants and the gods themselves.

In whatever form that dwarves seem to take they are always perceived as beings created directly by the actions of the gods. They are always an ancient race closely associated with said divinities and are always in some way associated with the alchemical element of earth. It is primarily from the Norse myths that the current concept of dwarves is drawn and it is in these myths that we can see these elements at work. “[A]ccording to the Eddas, the dwarfs sprang into being close on the heels of the gods and they took shape from the same primordial stuff as the planet’s rocks, mountains, and seas. The tale of the origin of dwarfs is one and the same as the dawning of the earth.”  [Constable, George ed. 1985. The Enchanted World: Dwarfs. Time-Life Books. Alexandria, Virginia. 9-10]

The story of the Norse dwarves is much grimmer than miraculous unlike the Dactyloi from whom they inherit a few of their defining traits. After the slaying of Ymir by the gods: “Within the soil, life quickened and began to squirm: the dwarfs. As maggots spring from decaying flesh, say the Eddas, so the dwarfs took form within the vast landscape of Ymir’s corpse. Children of the earth, they were at first as featureless as earthworms.” [Constable. 11]

The appearance of said featureless worms, the proto-dwarves, from dead flesh was a widely held belief in antiquity that maggots spontaneously erupted from rotten meat in a process known as ‘Spontaneous Generation’, an idea supported by Aristotle. It was these worms that were observed by the gods and for whatever reason the gods decided to remake them. “They [the Norse creator gods Odin, Vili, and Ve] transformed the dwarves […] who had been small maggotlike creatures born from the flesh of the first giant, Ymir, into intelligent humanoids.” [Wilkinson, Philip & Philip, Neil. 2007. Eyewitness Companions: Mythology. DK Publishing. NY, NY. 115]

Of course, the Norse gods didn’t stop there. “From Ymir’s skull they made the dome of the sky, placing a dwarf to support it at each of the four corners and to hold it high above the earth.” [Davidson, H.R. Ellis. 1964. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. Penguin Books. England. 27] Dwarves were definitely portrayed as having great physical strength as well as being initially gifted with great and magical skills. “[T]he dwarfs, creatures with strange names, who bred in the earth like maggots, and dwelt in hills and rocks. These were skilled craftsmen, and it was they who wrought the great treasures of the gods.” [Davidson. 28]

Contrary to the popular depictions of dwarves nowadays, in myth the shade of their skin was a reflection of their earthy nature. “To the dwarfs they gave human shape, but their hue was the blackness of earth in which they had being.” [Mackenzie, Donald A. 1912. Teutonic Myth and Legend. Kessinger Publishing (Reprint). 13]

Their slight stature was apparently proportional to their original worm-forms though they were still somewhat associated with the concept of elves. “In the Northern “Story of Creation” these elves, or black dwarfs, are, it is evident, intentionally belittled.” [Mackenzie. xxxvi] They also, like the worms they were, continued to live beneath the earth and were also associated in certain terms with trolls even as the gods set a king to rule over them. “Over them the gods set Modsognir, who is Mimer, to be king. In the mounds of the earth dwell one tribe of these earth-black elves, within rocks another, and a third have their habitation inside high and precipitous mountains. Besides these are the Trolls[.]” [Mackenzie. 13]

Basically at this point, what separated the dwarves and elves from one another was that the ‘light elves’ lived in Alfheim and the ‘dark elves’ what would later become the dwarves, lived deep in the earth. At first there was no real distinction between them as two separate races. Often dwarves were also included in the same breath as trolls and indeed they shared the same lethal allergy to the sun. “Because they lived in caves, or underground, the dwarfs and giants also had in common a mortal terror of sunlight; it turned them into stone.” [Crossley-Holland. 243]

Perhaps it was the dwarves’ connection to the earth that precipitated their divine transmutation into their humanoid form by the gods and the gods’ need for their skills which were inherent due to this supernatural association marked most prominently by the color of their skin. Here is where they become the murderous craftsmen of the gods who live deep in the black earth that are so common to the northern myths.  These squat subterranean creatures wielded enough supernatural power and a deep enough wisdom of the earth to necessitate their consultation and employment by the gods. “They were as old as the rocks they inhabited, and from that ancient bond with the earth had come mundane wisdom and an intimacy with earthly mysteries.” [Constable. 9]

Dwarves were the masters of the earthly as the gods were masters of the heavens. “Living in the realm of dark rock and flickering volcanic flame, moving through underground passageways as easily as fish course the water and birds ride the wind, they were guardians and master manipulators of the earth’s mineral riches.” [Constable. 14]

Granted the Norse gods were suited perfectly as clients of such oddly-talented creatures. “The Scandinavian pantheon was devoted to war and luxury, and naturally looked to the dwarfs for arms and adornment.” [Constable. 14] Of course, it is often implied that the gods looked down upon their craftsmen as lowly creatures not much different from the worms that they were shaped from save for the occasional requirement of their earthly abilities. So the dwarves began to use cunning and deception much as mortals when confronted with the supernatural in such tales. In addition to this, they also mastered the magical-arts which were to become one of their many crafts. “As a number of myths make clear, dwarfs and giants were repositories of knowledge and magic songs and on occasion revealed their wisdom to the gods.” [Crossley-Holland. 242]

There are multiple stories of the dwarves proving their skills often forging masterpieces for the gods in particular Mjöllnir, Thor’s hammer. “With his dwarf-wrought hammer, Thor kept the frost giants at bay, although they were ceaselessly restive.” [Constable. 22] Dwarves were now the craftsmen of legend; they were wizards and the makers of great weapons and miraculous items. “It is no surprise that dwarfs, capable of breathing life into cold metal, were masters of incantations and the runic alphabet, used in the ancient Norse world for mystic inscriptions.” [Constable. 25]

The hammer of Thor was perhaps their most famous work but by no means their only work for the gods in fact it was the third. “The third treasure was the great hammer Mjollnir, which would hit anything at which it was thrown and return to the thrower’s hand. Because of the interference of the fly, however, which was Loki in disguise, it was a little short in the handle.” [Davidson. 43]

The skills of dwarves and the resultant products of said skills played greater and greater parts in the Norse myths. They were so skilled as to be able to nearly undo the mischief sowed by the god Loki himself, of course hired by Loki to save his own skin.  “One day in a fit of mischief Loki cut off Sif’s golden hair, and Thor would have killed him if he had not found two cunning dwarfs to make new tresses of real gold for Sif, which would grow like natural hair. They also made Freyr’s wonderful ship and Odin’s great spear Gungnir. […][T]hey succeeded in forging a marvelous boar with bristles of gold, which could run faster than any steed and light up the darkest night. They also forged the great gold ring, Draupnir, from which eight other rings dropped every ninth night.” [Davidson. 42]

Another key myth which concerns the dwarves is The Mead of Inspiration which not only reveals a specific aspect of their magical prowess but also a central element of their emerging inherit racial personality. The titular mead was a powerful concoction that gave wisdom and poetic inspiration to any who imbibed of it. A pair of villainous dwarves had brewed it from the blood of a god.

“When two companies of gods [the Aesir and the Vanir] met to make peace, they took a vessel and spat into it, and from the contents they created the wise Kvasir, who was able to answer all questions. Kvasir however was killed by two dwarfs, who let his blood run into three huge vessels, and mixed it with honey to make a rich mead. Whoever drank of this received the gift of inspiration, and could compose poetry and utter words of wisdom. The malicious dwarfs, however, went too far when they killed a giant called Gilling, and his wife as well. The giant’s son, Suttung, took vengeance on them by putting them on a rock and leaving them there to drown. To save their lives they were forced to give him the mead, and it is for this reason that poetry is called ‘Kvasir’s blood’ or ‘ship of the dwarfs’.” [Davidson. 40]

Dwarves drawn from the Nordic myths began to spread across Europe the diminutive race branching off into many different types. “Their names varied from land to land and region to region. The British Isles had their goblins, knackers and leprechauns, Germany its Erdleute and Stillevolk, and Scandinavia its trolls and bergfolk and huldrefolk. But their kinship to the earth, their matchless skills and their stunted stature were universal.” [Constable. 8]

It is here that dwarves figure more as adversaries and dangerous fairies to be treated with caution and apprehension than the hard-fighting miner-warriors of popular fantasy as they seeped into the folktales of Europe. The entire race bore the guilt of the crime of the pair who had brewed the blood-mead and were now famous as having a penchant for hording and guarding the treasures of the deep earth. “The ugly, misshapen dwarfs […] represent greed; they do nothing that is not in their own interests. Mastersmiths and magicians, quick to show malice, they lust after fair women, after power and, above all, after gold.” [Crossley-Holland. Xxxviii]

Eventually dwarves found themselves thrust into the fairytales of northern Europe and Great Britain often as the antagonists or later on, providing magical assistance to the hero. “As the sagas devolved into FOLKTALES dwarfs were regularly depicted as scheming and cunning, and in this form they found their way into FAIRYTALES[.]” [Clute & Grant. Dwarfs] Dwarves were the villains or monsters in such well-traveled fairytales as Rumpelstiltskin and The Yellow Dwarf or benevolent in such tales as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

Dwarves became a force of nature, of the earth but as fleeting as the wind and nearly invisible but always lurking at the edges of normal reality. “Within the earth itself, a tapping sound that came from a region untunneled by mortal miners might betray the activity of a mining party of dwarfs.” [Constable.9] They were everywhere especially their traditional haunts where their voices could be heard floating upon the air. “[I]n Scandinavia, echoes cast back from stony mountainsides were known in the Norse language as dvergamal – “voice of the dwarf.” Dwarfs, perhaps amusing themselves, were said to cause the echo by mimicking any sound heard in their domain. But they melted into the rocks long before a human intruder could draw near enough to spot them.” [Constable. 9] At this point they had almost merged completely with fairies as just another kind of fairy-folk.

In fact many types of creatures that had spawned directly from the dwarves that are still considered a part of fairy-kind. “Sometimes they are described as drawing their power from the Earth. In this sense they may be synonymous with gnomes, and to a lesser extent with kobolds (→GOBLINS) and leprechauns. All these strands emphasize the diminutive and mischievous aspects, but dwarfs are also warlike.” [Clute & Grant. Dwarfs]

In fairy tales dwarves had twisted into villains though they weren’t much better in myth. But they had gotten closer to the modern idea of the little race. “In Teutonic myths, the dwarfs are small man-like beings, versed in the lore of mineral and skillful as forgers of weapons and treasures for the gods. In Wagner’s Nibelungen Ring they are crafty and cunning and dwell in the bowels of the earth.” [Martin. Dwarf.]

It is the image of a demented villain with a tiny twisted body and a fiendish mind and an ancient soul filled with arcane power that Richard Wagner drew upon when he delved into Teutonic myth for his master-symphony, known as Wagner’s Ring Cycle or the Ring of the Nibelung. “The dwarfs, or nibelungs, are black uncouth pigmies, hating the good, hating the gods; they are crafty and cunning, and dwell in the bowels of the earth.” [Martin. 307]

In that story it is the Nibelung Alberich that forges the ring of power from “Rhinegold” stolen from the Rhine Maidens (3 water-nymphs invented by Wagner for his story) that causes the whole fiasco which propels the entire epic to its ultimate conclusion. Wagner drew from the traditional figure of the dwarf. “The traditional dwarf-figure is drawn from NORDIC FANTASY, particularly the Volsunga Saga and Nibelungenlied[.]” [Clute & Grant. Dwarfs]

As dwarves survived in Wagner’s compositions from the 19th-century and into the twentieth they were to be reworked by J.R.R Tolkien yet again into something resembling almost wholly, the modern concept of the dwarven fantasy race. “Modern treatments of dwarfs can be traced to J.R.R. TOLKIEN, who drew upon both Nordic myth and some of the mischievous aspects in the works of E.A. WYKE-SMITH to depict his dwarves (as he spelled it) in The Hobbit (1937); these have all the aspects of traditional dwarfs, including squabbling belligerence, but are essentially good.” [Clute & Grant. Dwarfs]

Tolkien however, took away their evil dispositions and tempered their mystical powers. As with his versions of the elves and trolls, a patron god creates the dwarves. “In a great hall under the mountains of Middle-earth Aulë, the Smith of the Valar, fashioned the Seven Fathers of Dwarves during the Ages of Darkness[.]” [Day, David. 1979. A Tolkien Bestiary. Mitchell Beazley Publishers Limited. 69]

Tolkien also solidified the physical attributes that now describe the race while discarding the grotesqueness that had been a part of them of old. “[.]Aulë made Dwarves stout and strong, unaffected by cold and fire, and sturdier than the races that followed. Aulë knew of the great evil of Melkor, so he made the Dwarves stubborn, indomitable, and persistent in labour and hardship.  They were brave in battle and their pride and will could not be broken.” [Day. 69]

He also handily described their now familiar skills at the same time diminishing their magical abilities reducing their skillset to hard labor and earth-craft. “The Dwarves were deep-delving miners, masons, metal-workers and the most wondrous stone-carvers. [T]hey were made strong, long-bearded and tough, but not tall, being four to five feet in height. As their toil was long, they were each granted a life of about two and half centuries, for they were mortal[.]” [Day. 69]

It is from Tolkien that Gary Gygax took his inspiration and with only some slight modifications chiseled the image that dwarves now take in fantasy RPGs the world over. “Dwarves are typically deep tan to light brown of skin, with ruddy cheeks and bright eyes (almost never blue). Their hair is brown, black or gray. They favor earth tones with small bits of bright color in their clothing. Although only 4 or so feet tall, they weigh no less than 150 pounds due to their stocky muscular build. They live for no less than 350 years on the average.” [Gygax, Gary. 1978. Advanced D&D Monster Manual. TSR Games. Dwarves.]

It is at this point that dwarves have solidified into short, human-like creatures that dwell deep in the earth or in mountain caves that wield the knowledge of the earth from whence they reap its treasures (namely gold and gems) and possess the skills of miners and craftsmen. They also tend to be a bit war-like and are a stout and stubborn folk. A few of their number may still wield the powers of old and forge a magic weapon here and there. Dwarven magic where it does exist often is associated with or draws its inspirations from the Nordic runes. Of course, this brings us to what is in some ways a somewhat pedantic and in others kind of important question about the dwarven race as a whole, what of the dwarven women?

Universally it seems that dwarves had been a race solely of males, a race that is comprised of a very limited and fixed number of individuals as with the Dactyls, or a race that may rely on its members creating new members as they themselves were created, by carving them from the living rock of the underground. It was not until Tolkien that the question was tackled in a world that operated on the laws of nature (mostly), as in such a world the question of how the dwarves would reproduce would naturally be raised. According to Tolkien dwarves had “very few women-folk.” [J.R.R. Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings (1991 ed.). HarperCollins Publishers. Appendix A. 1050 – footnote]

In fact, the only dwarf-woman named in Tolkien’s work was Dís the daughter of Thráin II. “It was said by Gimli that there are few dwarf-women, probably no more than a third of the whole people. They seldom walk abroad except at great need. They are in voice and appearance, and in garb if they must go on a journey, so like to the dwarf-men that the eyes and ears of other peoples cannot tell them apart. This has given rise to the foolish opinion among Men that there are no dwarf-women, and that the Dwarves ‘grow out of stone’.” [Tolkien. 1053] This has also led to the beard or no beard argument which frankly is dependent on the setting/world and the whims of its creator(s).

The scarcity and temperament of the dwarf-women (at least in Tolkien) seems to direct the fate of the dwarves in the same direction as that of those two races that they share so many generative similarities with, the elves and trolls.  In the cycles of myth they are destined to fade from the mortal world as the dying vestiges of a long-disappeared elder age. “It is known that they dwindled further, but whether they still live within secret caverns of the World or have now gone […] cannot be learned.” [Day.75] Though in the many varied worlds of roleplaying they battle on with pick, hammer, and ax.

Trolls

They have been and are, from their very inception, the consummate villain whether they be fierce beasts bent on random destruction and death, or mystical monsters that snatch away the hero’s loved ones for some nefarious purpose, or a supernatural arbiter of an unbelievably harsh but ironic justice.

The malformed embodiment of pure malevolence, the flesh-eating troll populates the many worlds of fantasy roleplaying serving almost solely as an adversary ready to slay and be slain. Trolls bring to mind the image of a ravaging giant obviously more beast than humanoid seemingly mindless in all its endeavors save the intent to inflict harm, at least in the minds of today’s fantasy roleplayers.

A troll is a predatory giant demi-humanoid with claws and fangs found in Nordic & Scandinavian myth and in the roots of Norwegian fairytales where they stand as vicious vestiges of an elder and chaotic world. In the Encyclopedia of Fantasy they are defined as: “MONSTERS of Scandinavian MYTH and NORDIC FANTASY; related Shetland myths call them trows. They have affinities with GIANTS (size, general malevolence, fondness for eating human flesh) and earth ELEMENTALS: they are associated with mountains and cold, and often turn to stone on exposure to daylight[.]” [Clute, John & Grant, John. 1997. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. St Martin’s Press, New York. Trolls.]

They have taken many forms from their inception in Nordic lore through to their adaptation into their fairytale roles as monsters with a penchant for abduction and cannibalism; at one time they were even able to fly. “Besides these [Elves/Dwarves] are the Trolls, who fly hither and thither carrying bundles of sticks, and have power to change their shape.” [Mackenzie, Donald A. 1912. Teutonic Myth and Legend. Kessinger Publishing (Reprint). 13]

The evolution of the concept of trolls has parallels to that of Elves. Like elves they matriculated through lore into fairytales and then into fantasy and Sword & Sorcery fiction then ultimately from there into tabletop RPGs. Also like elves they seem to have had a less than active role in the myths that birthed them serving mainly as an “off-camera” enemy to a certain hammer-wielding god. “[…] Thor was away Fighting trolls and troll women and their wolfchildren in Iron Wood[.]”[Crossley-Holland, Kevin. 2015. The Norse Myths. The Folio Society Ltd., London. 121]

At their beginnings they were closely associated with the gods, as adversarial legions, and there was little distinction between them and dwarves aside from a not yet strictly defined size difference. “In Icelandic myth malignant one-eyed giants, and in Scandinavian folklore mischievous DWARFS, some cunning and treacherous, some fair and good to men […]. They lived in hills and were wonderfully skilled in working metals, and they had a propensity for stealing, even carrying off women and children. […] Their name is Old Norse for ‘demon’.” [Rockwood, Camilla, ed. 2009. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, 18th Edition. Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd. Trolls]

The mythic roots of the troll, both as a fantasy race and monster, penetrate deeply into the mythology of Northern Europe (Norse mythology, the folktales of Lapland and Norwegian fairytales). At their beginnings in Norse myth they were giants born of evil taking their place as the enemies of the gods, this probably the apex of their imaginary existence. “Now by divination did Odin come to know that in Ironwood the Hag, Angerboda (Gulveig-Hoder) was rearing the dread progeny of Loke with purpose to bring disaster to the gods. Three monster children there were – Fenrer, the wolf; Jormungand, the Midgard serpent; and Hel. From these the Trolls are sprung.” [Mackenzie. 90] It is interesting that in the Norse mythology the trolls were the malformed offspring of godling monsters born of the trickster god Loki thereby distancing the trolls from the gods a step further than even the beasts of Ragnarök those who are destined to slay the gods and the world.

The classical root of the troll twists from myth into folktales and eventually fairy tales particularly those of Scandinavia. They were adopted by folktales in Lapland in the far north of Finland as supernatural antagonists then collected into fairytales in Norway at various times especially in the 19th century with Asbjørnsen & Moe being the most notable today of those collector-editors of folk & fairytale aside from the German Brothers Grimm. In the Norwegian tales trolls were synonymous with mortal fear of the dark and wild places of the world. “Every Norse child had heard […] that giant trolls laired under country bridges, preying on livestock, shepherds, and farmers. […] The Lapps gave a wide berth to the northern mountains, assuming that trolls chose places large enough in scale to suit their size. The same wariness of mountains applied to other countries, and trackless forests were also regarded as unsafe.” [Constable, George ed. 1985. The Enchanted World: Giants and Ogres. Time-Life Books. Alexandria, Virginia. 86]

Trolls invaded vast tracts of wasteland and began to take up residence in the familiar haunts of fairy-folk, wild woods, dark forests, shadowy canyons, windswept mountains, and occupied ruined castles and old shanties in the middle of nowhere. “In the old days, the Lapps rarely ventured north towards the Arctic coast: They were hardy people, but all knew of the land in the north called Trollebotn, or Troll Bottom, a wind-swept waste haunted by huge, murderous beings. No Laplander cared to face those trolls, some of them three-headed, some with more hideous deformities, all malevolent and filled with hatred for humankind.” [Constable. 79]

In these tales the concept of trolls is similar to elves in that their, the trolls’, identity merged with that of fairies becoming a part of the realm of fairy for a time even exhibiting the level of mystical power associated with such beings. However, trolls were always nasty. They ran the gamut from being vicious supernatural predators with awesome magical powers to simply giant slavering beasts that happened to be very formidable against even the strongest warrior.

The fairy tales of note concerning trolls are, at least in my opinion – Three Billy Goats Gruff (the troll lives under a bridge and threatens the titular Billy goats), The Ash Lad who had an Eating Match with the Troll (where a farm boy tricks a troll into committing hari-kari), Soria Moria Castle (where trolls  with 3 and even 9 heads make an appearance), The Golden Bird (where trolls are caretakers of wondrous treasures & enchanters of a prince to whom they’ve cursed into the form of a fox), The Companion (troll-hags are slain and there’s a potential troll-wife in a princess who was described to “wear a troll-hide” but was restored by the hero who beat the hide off of her).

In these tales trolls also seem to exhibit a trait which definitely distinguishes them from their true-fairy brethren, they are viciously, even sadistically, vindictive.  For example in the tale titled Troll’s Stone – After her and her husband’s failure to lure any herdsmen or the village priest to their cave so that they could eat them, the she-troll sends her husband to the frozen lake to catch fish where he promptly lays on the ice, he’s lazy, and freezes to death while fishing and as he was late with dinner his wife decides to go out to find him. Finding instead his frozen corpse on the ice and unable to drag his body back home she promptly snatches up his catch and: “Before she went, she said, “A curse on thee, thou wicked lake! Never shall a living fish be caught in thee again.” Which words have indeed proved fatal to the fishery, for the lake since then has never yielded a single fish.” [Booss, Claire ed. 1984. Scandinavian Folk & Fairy Tales. Crown Publishers, Inc. 630]

Trolls always seemed to direct this particularly vicious side towards humans especially those who refused to hold fast to ancient traditions and arcane treaties with the elder world of the trolls even as the trolls themselves faded and sank into the shadowed places of the earth.

The Trolls in Resslared best exemplify the balance of the trollish sense of justice. In the tale the local trolls “were wont to borrow food and drink, which they always returned two-fold.” [Booss. 282] The people of the village had a certain understanding with them and lived with the trolls peaceably. Eventually of course, the old residents died off and new people began to replace them who were not as “charitable” as their predecessors while the trolls lived on. Eventually, as fairy tales go, “[o]ne day the “mother” of the Trolls went, as was her custom of old, to a cottage, and asked the housewife if she could lend her a measure of meal.” [Booss. 282] Needless to say the housewife refused this and every additional request of the old troll lying that all her cans were empty, her cows farrow, and the like. So as justice is served in such stories: “The housewife laughed in her sleeve, and thought that she had escaped the Trolls cheaply; but when she inspected her larder it was found that she had really told the truth to the Troll woman. […] Ever after that the plenty that had heretofore been was wanting, until finally the people were compelled to sell out and move away.” [Booss. 283]

A perfect example of pure viciousness on the part of a troll is in the tale The Trolls in Skurugata – Once a hunter named Pelle Kant trespassed on troll territory. “It is generally understood that Trolls, when their territory is encroached upon by mankind, withdraw to some more secluded place. So when Eksjö was built, those that dwelt in the vicinity moved to Skurugata, a defile between two high mountains whose perpendicular sides rise so near to each other as to leave the bottom in continual semi-darkness and gloom.” [Booss. 251]  It is in this place that the hunter, Pelle, decided to go shooting and then as the hunt was unsuccessful cursed and raved aloud that the trolls had cursed his gun. So a troll woman makes an appearance and offers a poodle for him to shoot instead. He ties the unfortunate animal to a tree and shoots it through the head only to discover afterward that it was actually his own child wrapped in a dog’s hide. The troll woman then rewards him with a dollar piece which always reappears in his pocket when spent which he proceeded to use to drink himself to death.

Starting at about 1841 Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe collected together folktales from around Norway many of which concerned trolls. In these tales Christianity has a significant part to play representing an opposing force to elder and very hostile pagan forces (embodied primarily in the trolls). It is the wave of the new world overwhelming the old fully represented in the struggle between the hero and the troll(s). Once again it seemed that the trolls were nearing new heights as potential opposition to the divine though now even the sound of church bells could hurt and even kill them. “Should they be within the hearing of church bells, or otherwise fall under religious influence, their power is destroyed.” [Booss. xiv] The new power of Christianity was overpowering the older world of faerie.

Of course in these tales trolls were also granted the ability to sniff out “Christian blood” as well as having certain thirst for it. In the story The Boys Who Met the Trolls in the Hedal Woods – “The boys were all ears, and listened well to hear whether it might be an animal or a Forest Troll which they heard. But then it started snorting even harder and said, “I smell the smell of Christian blood here!”” [Asbjørnsen, Peter Christen & Moe, Jørgen. 1960. Norwegian Folktales. Pantheon Books, NY. 10] Trolls were the enemy from the elder chaos opposing the emerging god of light and its new order. “All at once the Troll came, and he was so huge and burly that he had to go sideways to get in through the door. When he had got his first head in, he shouted, “Ugh! Ugh! I smell the smell of Christian blood!”” [Asbjørnsen & Moe. 70] – from the tale Soria Moria Castle.

It is at this point that J.R.R. Tolkien makes his appearance once again in the ephemeral world of faerie and that of the elves, dwarves, and trolls. He redefined their birth as a race of pure unadulterated evil. “It is thought that in the First Age of Starlight, in the deep Pits of Angband, Melkor the Enemy bred a race of giant cannibals who were fierce and strong but without intelligence. These black-blooded giants were called Trolls, and for five Ages of Starlight and four Ages of Sun they committed deeds as evil as their dull wits allowed.” [Day, David. 1979. A Tolkien Bestiary. Mitchell Beazley Publishers Limited. Trolls]

He refined the behavior of trolls including their level of stupidity, to be fair they were not very bright in the fairytales either (see The Ash Lad who had an Eating Match with the Troll for example), their strength, and their raw savagery. “They desired most a diet of raw flesh. They killed for pleasure, and without reason – save an undirected avarice – hoarded what treasures they took from their victims.” [Day. Trolls] The appearance he ascribed to his trolls though was not carried over into the popular figure of the troll but which did link the creatures more closely to the earth than they had been since their inception though he did leave their vulnerability to sunlight untouched. “Trolls were rock hard and powerful. Yet in the sorcery of their making there was a fatal flaw: they feared light. The spell of their creation had been cast in darkness and if light did fall on them it was as if that spell were broken and the armour of their skin grew inwards. Their evil soulless beings were crushed as they became lifeless stone.” [Day. Trolls] A curse which is prominent in gory detail in certain tales.

“Just then, the sun appeared at the rim of an eastern ridge. […] With a hoarse cry […] Her great bulk swelled, until her eyes were black and her skin taut and shiny. Then she burst in a blinding spray of blood. Slowly, the loose skin collapsed and crumpled toward the rock edge, shriveling into a boulder that still bore the troll wife’s face, its mouth wide in a silent scream. Trolls could not survive the sun. It turned them to stone.” [Constable, George. 1985. The Enchanted World: Night Creatures. Time-Life Books Inc., Chicago, Illinois. 28]

Tolkien did cement their size and strength in the popular imagination however which was then further refined in a later work of sword & sorcery and this is where current tabletop roleplayers will start to recognize the monster that stalks the underworlds of their imaginations. The tough specimen of troll found in the novel Three Hearts and Three Lions (1961) by Poul Anderson is the model used by Gary Gygax for his troll “which regenerates even as it is hacked apart and must be burnt piecemeal.” [Clute. Trolls] That very work is listed under “inspirational and educational reading” in Appendix N of the Advanced D&D Dungeon Masters Guide (1979) evidence of its direct adaptation by Gygax.

“Trolls are horrid carnivores found in nearly every clime. They are feared by most creatures, as a troll knows no fear and attacks unceasingly. Their sense of smell is very acute, their infravision is superior, and their strength is very great.” [Gygax, Gary. 1978. Advanced D&D Monster Manual. TSR Games. 97] This is the very image of what is now considered a troll reimagined as a nightmare predator and fodder-monster of RPGs.

The scaly stone-hide ascribed by Tolkien now fully shed and their subhuman appearance now exaggerated to its fullest. “Troll hide is a nauseating moss green, mottled green and gray, or putrid gray. The writhing hair-like growth upon a troll’s head is greenish black or iron gray. The eyes of a troll are dull black.” [Gygax. 97] They are also mostly bestial and are more brutish and dangerous than ever. “A troll attacks with its clawed forelimbs and its great teeth. […][A]fter being damaged, a troll will begin to regenerate. […][T]his regeneration includes the rebonding of severed members. The loathsome members of a troll have the ability to fight on even if severed from the body; a hand can claw or strangle, the head bite, etc. Total dismemberment will not slay a troll, for its parts will slither and scuttle together, rejoin, and the troll will arise whole and ready to continue combat. To kill a troll, the monster must be burned or immersed in acid, any separate pieces being treated in the same fashion or they create a whole again […].” [Gygax. 97]

In the popular imagination Trolls lurk in ill-lit (often slime-plagued) subterranean lairs and are ugly, smelly, often giant, and always viciously evil. They are not as codified as the Elves though, aside from the ideas of the sun turning them into stone and their eating flesh. Most trolls found in roleplaying games have retained the ability to regenerate found in Gygax’s AD&D, however this ability is not always carried over. Strangely enough, the popular concept of trolls has splintered the magic-slinging elder-world denizen of fairytales from the monster-enemy concept of sword & sorcery and RPGs to the point that trolls have bifurcated into two separate species: the RPG Troll and the troll of fairy-stories.

Born in the cold forge of Nordic myth trolls trickled down through history in folktales and then fairytales where they served as the hideous man-eating monster lurking about the wastes at the edge of civilization just waiting to snatch away women and eat livestock and children. Sword & Sorcery fiction trans-mutated them into veritable juggernauts, more than a match for any warrior who would dare confront them face to ugly face. They are the embodiment of every repugnant aspect of mankind sitting in their lairs among the hoard of treasure looted from the corpses of their victims, striking out blindly at the sunlit world in which they have no place.

Trolls like elves were transformed and added to by storytellers and writers until they reached their core forms in fantasy games today but unlike elves they seemed to spring forth fully formed very close to what can still be recognized as (if not already named) a troll being thought up from the ether as antagonistic monsters from the very beginning.

Elves

Elves, the humanoid embodiments of beauty and grace armed with the wisdom of ages as well as a not insignificant amount of magical power. They are ubiquitous in modern fantasy but once upon a time Elves, Dwarves, Goblins, and fairies were synonymous and virtually the same thing.

The popular concept of an “elf” is a tall, angelically beautiful humanoid akin to a human being with a pair of pointed ears possibly armed with a head full of arcane knowledge. In concept elves have mutated from obscure references in ancient myth and then into the fairies of Victorian nursery stories ultimately taking their core modern form in the work of J.R.R Tolkien. In a way, the transformation of the “elf” resembles, at least superficially, the evolution of one of the most infamous characters in literature, Lucifer.

“[O]n the second day of creation, one of the archangels, in fact the highest archangel of all, had through pride attempted to set himself up to be worshipped as an equal to God (2 Enoch 29.4-5; cf. 1 John 3:8). The Latin translation of Isa 14:12 names this individual “Lucifer”.” [Van der Toorn, Karel. 1999. Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, Second Edition. Brill Academic Publishers, The Netherlands. 246] This reference in the King James Bible was to be taken by John Milton and shaped as Tolkien did the elves, into the character of Lucifer the fallen angel onto which the popular idea of the Devil/Satan persona hangs.

Lucifer “Light-bearer” in Latin; used in Classical mythology with reference to the planet Venus as a morning star. The name appears in Isaiah 14:12 – “How art thou Fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!” –[…] the misinterpretation of this passage resulted in Lucifer being added to the list of names associated with SATAN; it became popular in this sense following John MILTON’s use of it in Paradise Lost (1667).” [Clute, John & Grant, John. 1997. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. St Martin’s Press, New York. Lucifer] The Devil had (or has depending on your beliefs) many names but the one most identified with the archfiend nowadays is the popularized one, his name before the fall. The current concept of elves in popular culture has followed a similar line of evolution as the Evil One but first, what exactly is an elf as defined in the popular culture of today?

Elves in the popular mind are the humanoid embodiment of beauty, grace, and wisdom and of a race each of whose members are effectively immortal. They are beautiful, skilled, wise, and may wield some mystical powers. When it comes to roleplaying games (RPGs) they are often one of many such creatures segregated into categories referred to as “Races”.

The term “race” when used in the context of RPGs and this article, refers to a character classification based on assumed or actual genetic stock (in actual taxonomy it would be Species) that determines special benefits and penalties within the game as well as any other flavor or baggage that comes packaged with it. There is some controversy attached to this idea as fictional races served as narrative devices washing out individual identities of its members in favor of coloring the whole as evil hordes or semi-metaphoric masses for some other purpose by the author(s). This in turn translated into RPGs where a character’s race began to predetermine certain aspects of the character regardless of any other factors especially when it comes to moral predestination, i.e. the “evil races”. For now, and in this article “Race” in the context of RPGs will be treated more as character modifying packages with no attached moral predetermination.

The modern idea of the elf began as vague references in various mythic cycles, in particular the Nordic, Scandinavian, Teutonic, and Germanic myths, beginning as creatures of near god-like power and then with time reducing to evil dwarves and tiny fairies. Strangely enough, dwarves began as ‘dark’ or ‘evil’ elves of the earth only later to retain their diminutive size and craft abilities as their cousins the  ‘light elves’ regained their stature.

“Originally a dwarfish being of Germanic mythology, possessed of magical powers which it used for the good or ill of mankind. Later the name was used for a malignant imp, and then for FAIRY creatures that dance on the grass in the full moon and so on.”  [Rockwood, Camilla, ed. 2009. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, 18th Edition. Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd. Elf]

Elves are defined in Bulfinch’s Mythology as: “Spiritual beings of many powers and dispositions, some being evil, and some good.” and goes on to say that: “The Edda mentions another class of beings, inferior to the gods, but still possessed of great power; these were called Elves. The white spirits, or Elves of Light, were exceedingly fair, more brilliant than the sun, and clad in garments of a delicate and transparent texture. They loved the light, were kindly disposed to mankind, and generally appeared as fair and lovely children. Their country was called Alfheim, and was the domain of Freyr, the god of the sun, in whose light they were always sporting.” [Martin, Richard ed. 1991. Bulfinch’s Mythology. HarperCollins Publishers Inc. New York, NY. 302]

Here elves already possess much of what the modern roleplayer associates with them even the vague relationship with the moon. However, they seem to have a lot more mystical power than usual and are a bit small being akin to children at this point. Also elves seem, as Lucifer in the bible, to appear more as references though the elves play little if any active parts in the myths that birthed them. “Light elves and dark elves and the inhabitants of Niflheim are mentioned in the myths from time to time, but they do not have an active part to play in them.” [Crossley-Holland, Kevin. 2015. The Norse Myths. The Folio Society Ltd., London. Xxxviii]

It’s somewhere at this point that elves and fairies begin to become confused although it’s not very clear that elves were fairies to begin with or vice versa. “The other common English term for an individual fairy was “elf”, and this derived not from Latin but from the Nordic and Teutonic languages, reaching England with invasions from the Continent. In Scandinavia, the word for “elves” was alfar, which – appropriately, since fairies were tied to things of the earth – had to do with mountains and water.” [Constable, George ed. 1984. The Enchanted World: Fairies and Elves. Time-Life Books. Alexandria, Virginia. 10-11]

To complicate things elves were divided into good and evil strains as well. “The alfar of Scandanavia were believed to be divided into good and bad branches: the Liosálfar, or Light Elves, who were air dwellers; and the Döckálfar, or Dark Elves, whose kingdoms were beneath the ground.” [Constable. 11.] As they became increasingly delineated from dwarves they also lost their explicit relationship with the deep earth. “[I]n Celtic myth elves are far more closely related to the world of FAERIE, which makes them creatures of light and air, whereas dwarfs are creatures of darkness and earth.” [Clute, John & Grant, John. 1997. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. St Martin’s Press, New York. Elves.]

Elves and dwarves were also segregated by morality at this time more commonly known as alignment in tabletop roleplaying circles. “In Nordic myth the good elves live in Alfheim while the black (bad) elves live in Svartheim. The Svarts are shown as dwarfs or goblins[.]” [Clute. Elves] It is at this point dwarves can be left behind as they branch off in another direction away from elves. As dwarves and goblins became Svarts and began to split from the general faerie host elves seemed to melt further into the mass especially when elves reached the Victorian era. “Throughout the Victorian period, elves and fairies are interchangeable.” [Clute. Elves]

The 19th century saw an unprecedented growth in children’s fiction with the late 19th and early 20th centuries being referred to as the “Golden Age of Children’s Literature” [according to Wikipedia]. This mode of fiction often incorporated fantasy elements specifically fairies and faerie folk and among those, elves proved extremely popular. Of course, elves again began to mutate to suit their audience. “A subset of fictional elves – brownies – were considered to appeal particularly to children. Brownies derive from Scottish FOLKLORE, where they are depicted as helpful faerie folk who attach themselves to a household and assist in running it; if they are offended, though, their mischievous side surfaces and they become hobgoblins […]. Brownies were […] popularized in the USA by Palmer Cox (1840-1924) with his illustrated brownie poems in St. Nicholas Magazine, which later appeared in the first of several books, The Brownies: Their Book (coll 1887). The popularity of these books meant that the brownie was firmly entrapped in the realm of CHILDREN’S FANTASY.” [Clute. Elves]

As time marched on past the Victorian era fantasy writers began to adopt the ancient image of the elf as a vestige of an elder world though still leaving the elf firmly in the realm of fairy. Namely Lord Dunsany in The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924) and Poul Anderson in The Broken Sword (1954) where the elves regained their stature but were still inextricably linked with the world of faerie. It wasn’t until The Lord of the Rings (1954-55) that elves, though still relics of an older world though not necessarily a wholly faerie realm, gain what is the core of the modern concept of elves. “It was not until the 20th century that authors sought to establish elves as a distinct part of Faerie [.][…] Elves thus became acceptable adult “packaging” for fairies, and in that sense elves ceased to be playful and mischievous: they became secret guardians of Faerie, aristocratic and full of the wisdom of the ancient world.” [Clute. Elves]

This is where J.R.R. Tolkien, a name forever linked with high fantasy and very specific fantasy races including the aforementioned Dwarves and Goblins among others, comes into the picture to sculpt the idea of elves into a more familiar form than they had heretofore taken. “Thus Eru, the One, who the Earthborn know as Ilúvatar, created the fairest race that ever was made and the wisest. Ilúvatar declared that Elves would have and make more beauty than any earthly creatures and they would possess the greatest happiness and deepest sorrow. They would be immortal and ageless, so they might live as long as the Earth lived. They would never know sickness and pestilence, but their bodies would be like the Earth in substance and could be destroyed.” [Day, David. 1979. A Tolkien Bestiary. Mitchell Beazley Publishers Limited. 84]

Tolkien forever transformed the elf from fairy tale denizen into the majestic demi-angelic beings the idea of which forms the core of today’s idea of the creatures within his Legendarium which includes the Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion. They were beautiful, human-size, wise, and gifted with certain supernatural talents. “These people were the Quendi, who are called Elves, and when they came into being the first thing they perceived was the light of new stars. […] And further, when the new light entered the eyes of Elves in that awakening moment it was held there, so that ever after it shone from those eyes.” [Day. 84]

It was from Tolkien’s Quendi that the core of what would morph into the Elf fantasy RPG race came when adapted by Gary Gygax for Dungeons & Dragons. It was also Tolkien that completely broke the dwarves from elves making them into completely unrelated races within his elaborate Legendarium. “Elves, certainly as depicted by J.R.R. TOLKIEN but also as portrayed in some early FAIRYTALES, tend to be more graceful than dwarfs, are seemingly ageless, and though mischievous are not warlike.” [Clute. Elves]

Gary Gygax kept the heart of the elf from Tolkien and reintroduced some elements reminiscent of their fey origin. “They concern themselves with the natural beauty around them, dancing and frolicking, playing and singing unless necessity dictates otherwise. Because elves love nature, they are not fond of ships or mines, but of growing things and the lands under the sky.” [Gygax, Gary. 1979. Advanced D&D Dungeon Masters Guide. TSR Games. 16] This as compared to Tolkien’s model and this: “Elf (plu. Elves) Fairies of diminutive size, supposed to be fond of practical jokes. (Anglo-Saxon, ælf)” [Rockwood. Fairies.] It was after this that the elven race was born as RPGers currently know it along with their occasionally controversial brethren: the black-skinned subterranean Drow (an evil elven sub-race) whom followed in 1977.

Elves at this point, aside from the seemingly endless parade of variants, were completely apart from Dwarves, Goblins, Brownies, and generally other faerie-folk which had themselves become fantasy races in their own rights each with their own variations and so-called sub-races. Even the equally ubiquitous Orc, another invention of J.R.R. Tolkien, began as elves within the Legendarium only to be transformed by their creator (his inspirations from myth notwithstanding) into a wholly ‘evil race’.

“Within the deepest Pits of Utumno, in the First Age of Stars, it is said Melkor committed his greatest blasphemy. For in that time he captured many of the newly risen race of Elves and took them to his dungeons, and with hideous acts of torture he made ruined and terrible forms of life. From these he bred a Goblin race of slaves who were as loathsome as Elves were fair. […] These were the Orcs, a multitude brought forth in shapes twisted by pain and hate. The only joy of these creatures was in the pain of others, for the blood that flowed within Orcs was both black and cold.” [Day. 198] As a result Orcs are perceived as a race of essentially demi-human monsters completely unrelated to elves in most current RPG games as well as in the minds and imaginations of players.

The elf as they stand now in the tabletop RPG world is the picture of physical beauty and grace, possessed of wisdom seemingly drawn from the experience of their ancient (and usually dwindling) race almost as some sort of racial memory, and with a penchant and natural born talent for the magical arts. “Magic fascinates elves, however, and if they have a weakness it lies in this desire.” [Gygax. 16.] They have also had some of their fairy nature added back into the mix. “Their humor is clever, as are their songs and poetry.” [Gygax. 16.]

Basically, elves had been elevated far above their former status as simple fairy-folk in effect regaining their initial high-position in popular myth but all the while inhabiting an earthly station among the other mortal races. By being the most beautiful race in existence but also the most capable particularly when it comes to their level of wisdom and magical ability they lessen the abilities of the other races in comparison. Due to this near perfection especially when self-perceived, elves can become somewhat insufferable as characters particularly when the game or story is treating them in such a way as to give this mode of thought (and in effect, behavior) credence.

This has led, somewhat justifiably, to a certain level resistance in the gaming community against anything having to do with elves, good or evil. This distaste for anything elvish arises not only as part of fatigue due to their omnipresence in fantasy but as a reaction to their seeming perfection above all other races and how many choose to portray them. Take a human character as opposed to an Elven character for example: an elven wizard is more wise and powerful than a human one, an elven druid is much more in tune with nature if not almost one with it, and an elven ranger is essentially legendary whereas a human ranger is on the face of things, second rate.

When you have an elf especially one that is constantly speaking down to their fellow adventurers in-game on a habitual basis this breeds more than a little resentment and leads to the destructive stereotyping of elves in general. In an apparent attempt to assuage this problem before it should raise in-game, or perhaps because it did immediately arise, Gary Gygax wrote in the Advanced D&D Dungeon Masters Guide (1979): “If elves tend towards haughtiness and arrogance at times, they are not inclined to regard their friends and associates as anything other than equals.” [Gygax. 16.]

But attitude no matter how justified it may be is not the only way elves have gotten under the skin of some gamers. Racial issues have also arisen probably due in part to a pedestal being included with the elven race especially since the portrayal of elves as not just perfect but popularly as Caucasian. This in turn has justifiably injected controversy into one their better known variations, the subterranean Drow whom are seemingly meant to be a literal negative image of the prototypical Caucasian elf.

The Drows’ black skin and white hair being the reverse of the fair-skinned, dark-haired light-elf but they are also marked as an evil race. The predestined evilness of the Dark Elves ensuring a perception or moral inferiority on the part of the Drow as opposed to their cousins. The culmination of the superiority of the elf and their black-skinned and evil sub-race has ignited more than a few furious debates about racism in roleplaying.

Ultimately, we arrive at the defining traits of elves in the popular imagination: beauty, grace, effective immortality, and wisdom. In addition to these amazing inherent abilities they are also equal in stature to humans. “Their size would be the same as that of Men, who were still to be created, but Elves would be stronger in spirit and limb[.]” [Day. 84]

Elves are physically beautiful; they are flawless and pretty, with both the females and males of the species being beauteous possessing near angelic features. “Their hair is like spun gold or woven silver or polished jet, and starlight glimmers all about them on their hair, eyes, silken clothes and jeweled hands. There is always light on the Elven face, and the sound of their voices is various and beautiful and subtle as water. Of all their arts they excel best at speech, song and poetry.” [Day. 84.]

Elves are graceful that is, they possess a natural elegance of movement often translated as Dexterity into RPGs or some extra ability with certain items or weapons or at tasks/skills that call for maneuverability such as balance and especially at handling the bow and arrow.

Elves are also effectively immortal, that is they cannot die from old age or natural causes; they tend to get stronger and of course all the more wise as they age but they can still be killed as can any other mortal. “Elves would not grow weak with age, only wiser and more fair.” [Day. 84]

The wisdom of elves permeates the whole race and is rarely a wholly earned thing through experience but rather inherited. All elves tend to have a high level of good sense and practicality but also a deep reservoir of knowledge retained from their elders occasionally almost more as a racial memory in certain cases. They have access to knowledge and wisdom collected by and as the natural cultural sedimentation of a most likely very ancient civilization. “Elves were the first of all people on Earth to speak with voices and no earthly creatures before them sang.” [Day. 84]

All of these strong points and advantages do seem to paint the elven race as a race of superior humanoids that excel at everything. However, there are certain aspects of their character which does seem to arise not just with roleplayers, especially those who honestly take heart in elven superiority, but come packaged together with them as the flip side of their positive aspects.

With superior wisdom there would come with it a supreme arrogance which may not only diminish the capacity for good judgment but the possibility of completely counteracting it. This arrogance would only increase with age as the elder of the race would have experience in many instances where their wisdom won out and so would become more and more reliant on it eventually too much leading to a disease of destructive arrogance among the elder race as a whole as the young would, and somewhat rightly, always yield to the guidance maybe even the tyranny of the old.

Another fundamental attribute which has its own balancing flip side is elvish beauty. Such a gaggle of beauties would not see extreme beauty as an exception but as a fundamental, anyone else less attractive than the accepted low point, which would be unfairly high among a race of angel-faces, would be shunned as disgusting or even suspect especially if beauty is considered a virtue in and of itself. Elvish beauty can lead to a sublime superficiality where they would immediately pass judgment based on the level of physical attractiveness of any given individual. Giving them a penchant for judging others based on appearance which would be both harsh and unfair when in comparison to their own almost supernatural beauty.

Elvish beauty may also lead to expectation and the arrogance of the beautiful when surrounded by those who worship beauty and are not as attractive as their foci, after a while an elven adventurer among the rabble may not only resent the others as underserving of their company but also expect to be waited on or treated in a superior manner as compared to their non-elven companions.

Their longevity as well can with enough time become a negative where the elves fall victim to the senility of a vanishing civilization and the supreme arrogance of those that have seen it all as well as a seemingly fatal lethargy or disinterest in the outside and younger world and races. Basically this would be the final nail in their collective coffins with a senile culture falling victim to a plague of utter arrogance and superficiality with a final and apocalyptic apathy to mark their pitiable end. But I guess that depends on the setting. These negative aspects are a part of their being as much as the positive especially in the context of active RPG campaigns.

Thus, the current picture of the elf is one of a beautiful, graceful, immortal, and wise race of (mostly) benevolent beings even if they may be a bit playful or mischievous at times with great skill at the bow and with magic. In current tabletop RPGs elves adhere to these basic qualities and have gained innumerable others based on their author(s) increasing the number of elven races and sub-races exponentially. Weirdly, this brings us back to the case of the Prince of Darkness due to the sheer variety (at least in name) of elves. “Intertestamental and later Jewish texts ascribe the Devil a variety of names and activities.” [Van Der Toorn. 246]

All-in-all elves as they appear in the current state of RPGs is the result of long evolution starting in the dim recesses of mythology to the nursery tales of the Victorians to the Legendarium of one of the most famous of all authors of fantasy. It is in the worlds and games of the tabletop that the fantasy existence of elves has been deeply probed and explored revealing controversy and their more negative aspects discovered and hopefully overcome.

Building Tabletop Myths

Another hubpages article from Robert A. Neri Jr.

This one explores the construction of myth using the material generated from playing a tabletop RPG campaign as medium.

Role-players can extend their game beyond the limits of the tabletop and enrich their games by constructing myths of the raw materials and medium provided by their play using a handful of techniques.

Read it Here