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Tabletop Meditations #17: The Lich

Whether it is at the head of an undead horde or a shadowy figure behind the scenes using monsters and people like chess pieces the undead wizard known as the lich is adept on and off the field. These undead wizards appear as mostly skeletal with only the scant, mummified remnants of flesh left hanging from their yellowed bones, and in the deep black pits of their perpetually grinning skulls, red pinpoints of hellish light. The lich is a very common archetype in modern fantasy and one of the most recognizable but how far do the roots of the monster actually go?

The lich is an undead spell-caster that has for the most part deliberately become undead as a bid for immortality able to gather more arcane-knowledge and thus power over time. When they first appeared seemingly out of whole cloth they were undead spell-casters with strange powers, became ideal and grim antagonists, and continue today as antagonists of boss-monster proportions.

[A] mage or cleric so thirsty for immortality as to try to cheat death, and already powerful at magic. [Greenwood, Ed. 1988. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Forgotten Realms, The Lords of Darkness. TSR, Inc. 2]

A lich is an undead creature therefore; our concerns lie first with the condition of undeath and the meaning of ‘undead creature’. First off, undead creatures were formerly living and thus have had a “first death” rising from the grave weirder and more powerful.

Undead creatures are dead bodies animated often by an outside force after the soul of the dead being has since flown from the bones. This force, often malicious, oft defined as demonic and occasionally elemental replaces the soul as the animating force and/or mind. This force typically alters the corpse in significant and grotesque ways to adapt the newly formed creature to its new (un)life as a creature of the night. In the case of Liches, this force is magic rather than a demonic spirit though perhaps still elemental.  However, their actual soul has been captured in a special object called a Phylactery. The transformation of the body to the being of a lich is the death of the mage and the rotting of the corpse leaving only that necessary to contain the animating force. The once living visage reduced to the bones with maybe some withered, leather-tough tatters of flesh to hold the joints together.

The urge for immortality is so strong in some powerful mages and magic-user/clerics that they aspire to lichdom, despite its horrible physical side effects and the usual loss of friends and living companionship. Lichdom must be prepared for in life; no true lich ever is known to have come about “naturally”. [Greenwood. pg.73]

The term and the creature fused together in the pulp fiction of the early 20th century. For the most part the term was used as an archaism. An archaism is a deliberate imitation of old-fashioned language in order to stress a certain time-frame or to enhance atmosphere. Similar archaisms were revived and sometimes redefined by the popular imagination in that fertile ground known as American Pulp Fiction, namely in the fantasy and horror genres of weird fiction. Masters and innovators of modern archaisms as literary device included such well-known names as H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith.

The etymology of the term Lich, plural Liches, is straightforward. Its roots lie in the Old English word for ‘corpse’, not a monster or evil spirit, just a dead body:  “A corpse (Old English lic).” [Rockwood, Camilla ed. 2009. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable 18th Edition. Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd. 781] Though archaic its original use lingers in certain usages such as ‘lich gate’ and a few others.

Lich gate or lych gate The covered entrance to churchyards intended to afford shelter to the coffin and mourners while awaiting the clergyman who is to conduct the cortége into church.”

Lich wake or lyke wake The funeral feast or the waking of a corpse, i.e. watching it all night.”

Lychway or lickway A trackway, especially in a remote upland area, along which corpses were borne for burial in a distant churchyard.” [Rockwood. 781]

The modern fantasy trope of the Lich may have indeed started with the term itself.

Pulp Fiction where most modern fantasy archetypes were, if not born, then mantled with their modern guises, the lich is no exception. However, in regards to the lich this lineage begins with the appearance of the term “lich” in weird stories beginning in the 19th century with Ambrose Bierce at the very beginning of the weird genre of fiction.

One of the earliest appearances in fiction of the word occurs in Ambrose Bierce’s story the Death of Halpin Frayser. In fact, the fictional quote that precedes the story is the earliest part to mention our undead subject.

For by death is wrought greater change than hath been shown. Whereas in general the spirit that removed cometh back upon occasion, and is sometimes seen of those in flesh (appearing in the form of the body it bore) yet it hath happened that the veritable body without the spirit hath walked. And it is attested of those encountering who have lived to speak thereon that a lich so raised up hath no natural affection, nor remembrance thereof, but only hate. Also, it is known that some spirits which in life were benign become by death evil altogether. [Hopkins, Ernest Jerome ed. 1970. The Complete Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce. University of Nebraska Press. The Death of Halpin Frayser]

Soon after the term was adopted by one of the three musketeers of weird fiction, Clark Ashton Smith.  His connection to Bierce being that: “At fifteen, [Clark Ashton Smith] became likewise infatuated with [the poetry] of George Sterling. Sterling (1869-1926) had moved from his native New York State to California in 1891 and had become a protégé of Ambrose Bierce – “bitter Bierce,” the misanthropic writer, poet, journalist, and satirist[.]” [De Camp, L.Sprague. 1976. Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers: The Makers of Heroic Fantasy. Arkham House . Sauk City, Wisconsin. 199]

Bierce himself was quite aware of the young writer. “In 1912, Ambrose Bierce wrote to a western magazine, warning that, while Smith was a very promising young poet, this premature publicity and exaggerated praise might be bad for him and lead to an equally exaggerated reaction against him.” [De Camp. 201]

Eventually through his use of the word and his close connections via written correspondence, his contemporaries, Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft, began to use the word as well. However, Smith used the term more often to describe an animated corpse than an undead wizard. This is around 1926 and the lich is still a little strange.

But on its heels, ere the sunset faded, there came a second apparition, striding with incredible strides, and halting when it loomed almost upon me in the red twilight – the monstrous mummy of some ancient king, still crowned with untarnished gold, but turning to my gaze a visage that more than time or the worm had wasted. Broken swathings flapped about the skeleton legs, and above the crown that was set with sapphires and balas-rubies, a black something swayed and nodded horribly; but, for an instant, I did not dream what it was. Then, in its middle, two oblique and scarlet eyes opened and glowed like hellish coals, and two ophidian fangs glittered in an ape-like mouth. A squat, furless, shapeless head on a neck of disproportionate extent leaned unspeakably down and whispered in the mummy’s ear. Then, with one stride, the titanic lich took half the distance between us, and from out the folds of the tattered sere-cloth a gaunt arm arose, and fleshless, taloned fingers laden with glowering gems, reached out and fumbled for my throat… [Connors, Scott ed. 2006. The End of the Story: The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith Volume One. Night Shade Books. San Francisco. The Abominations of Yondo. 7-8]

In his 1932 story The Empire of the Necromancers, the lich has lost the weird belly-monster and taken the basic form of an animated corpse. “After a while, in the grey waste, they found the remnants of another horse and rider, which the jackals had spared and the sun had dried to the leanness of old mummies. They also raised up from death; and Mmatmuor bestrode the withered charger; and the two magicians rode on in state, like errant emperors, with a lich and a skeleton to attend them.” [Connors, Scott ed. 2007. A Vintage from Atlantis: The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith Volume Three. Night Shade Books. San Francisco. The Empire of the Necromancers . 194] And “All that night , and during the blood-dark day that followed, by wavering torches or the light of the failing sun, an endless army of plague-eaten liches, of tattered skeletons, poured in a ghastly torrent through the streets of Yethlyreom and along the palace-hall where Hestaiyon stood guard above the slain necromancers.” [Connors. A Vintage from Atlantis. 199]

Eventually Robert E. Howard resourced the lich for his mystical two-fisted adventure tale Skull-Face in 1929.

I shuddered. Kathulos laughed wildly again. His fingers began to drum his chair arms and his face gleamed with the unnatural light once more. The red visions had begun to seethe in his skull again.

“Under the green seas they lie, the ancient masters, in their lacquered cases, dead as men reckon death, but only sleeping. Sleeping through the long ages as hours, awaiting the day of awakening! The old masters, the wise men, who foresaw the day when the sea would gulp the land, and who made ready. Made ready that they might rise again in the barbaric days to come. As did I. Sleeping they lie, ancient kings and grim wizards, who died as men die, before Atlantis sank. Who, sleeping, sank with her but who shall arise again!” [Howard, Robert E. 1974. Skull-Face Omnibus. Neville Spearman, London.]

Of course, Lovecraft followed suit in his The Thing on the Doorstep originally published in 1937. “He must be crematedhe who was not Edward Derby when I shot him. I shall go mad if he is not, for I may be the next. But my will is not weak – and I shall not let it be undermined by the terrors I know are seething around it. One life – Ephraim, Asenath, and Edward – who now? I will not be driven out of my body … I will not change souls with that bullet-ridden lich in the madhouse!” [Derleth, August ed. 1963. The Dunwich Horror and Others. Arkham House Publishers, Inc. Sauk City, Wisconsin. The Thing on the Doorstep. 300]

Though Lovecraft used the term lich to mean the body of the possessed he is probably trying to get the idea through to the reader that the original inhabiting personality is gone essentially slain by the thing that now occupies the flesh. Although within the story, it does concern a sorceress who cheats death by taking possession of others’ bodies even able to drive her former corpse around very similar to the current incarnation of the lich.

These three tales forever merged in the minds of pulp readers the image of the skeletal corpse with the idea of a powerful undying sorcerer. From there the word seeped into the lexicon of fantasy writers but the archetype was not yet quite complete.

The basic idea of the lich naturally filtered to the latter day pulp writers, in particular one Gardner Fox and his Conan-Kull pastiche Kothar. In his 1969 novel Kothar: Barbarian Swordsman a lich appears that will serve as the basis for all future undead wizards in the popular mind.

He turned and stared back into the dark tomb and saw the dead thing standing in the darkness, rotted and ugly in its cerements. […] It was just a corpse, a corpse that walked and spoke and seemed to be alive.

“Who are you?” Kothar growled.

“My name is Afgorkon, long and long ago.”

Kothar scowled. Afgorkon? Surely he had heard Queen Elfa speak of Afgorkon who had been a mighty magician fifty thousand years ago. He tried to think, but could not, being held in thrall by the black, empty eyeholes of the dead thing standing before him, bent and brown and old.

[…]

The lich turned and moved with those strangely thumping footsteps across the tomb. Its rotted hands moved and its withered tongue clacked, and sounds issued from the throat that was little more than bones. The words it spoke reverberated throughout the cairn, they brought down tiny showers of dirt from the root-pierced ceiling, they made the death-slab shake.

Yet they also opened an invisible door and caused a pallid glimmer by which Kothar could see, past the burial garments which still encased Afgorkon, an opening door and a chamber where lay a sword in a scabbard chained to a great leather belt on top of two chests heavy with jewels and golden coins of a kind no man had looked upon for half a million years.” [Fox, Gardner, F. 2016. The First Kothar the Barbarian Megapack. Wildside Press LLC. Kothar: Barbarian Swordsman]

Fox was definitely inspired by Howard’s Conan the Barbarian as Kothar the Barbarian is near identical though apparently less intelligent and with the sexual content of the stories turned up. On a related note The Cat and the Skull, a story written for Weird Tales by Robert E. Howard around 1928 saw print in 1967 in the King Kull lancer paperback.

The face of the man was a bare white skull, in whose eye sockets flamed livid fire!

“Thulsa Doom!”

[…]

“Aye, Thulsa Doom, fools!” the voice echoed cavernously and hollowly.

“The greatest of all wizards and your eternal foe, Kull of Atlantis. […]”

[…]Brule charged with the silent ferocity of a tiger, his curved sword gleaming. And like a gleam of light it flashed into the ribs of Thulsa Doom, piercing him through and through so that the point stood out between his shoulders.

Brule regained his blade[.] Not a drop of blood oozed from the wound which in a living man had been mortal. The skull-faced one laughed.

“Ages ago I died as men die!” he taunted. “Nay, I shall pass to some other sphere when my time comes, not before. I bleed not for my veins are empty and I feel only a slight coldness which shall pass when the wound closes, as it is even now closing. Stand back, fool, your master goes but he shall come again to you and you shall scream and shrivel and die in that coming! Kull, I salute you!” [Louinet, Patrice ed. 2006. Kull Exile of Atlantis. Ballantine Books, New York. The Cat and the Skull]

Most importantly however, Gardner’s novel was read by Gary Gygax whom used the lich in that story as his template for the monster in his game Dungeons & Dragons.

“While a few of the critters in questions are purely products of my own imagination–carrion crawler, gelatinous cube, roper for instance–there were many sources of inspiration for the majority of the monsters, and I will name a few: […] Lich: Right on in regards to Gardner Fox. Gar and his wife Linda were friends of mine.” [Gygax, Gary. 2007. EnWorld.Org. Forum Post]

We have finally arrived at the Archetypical Lich. The Undead Magic-User or Priest that willingly underwent the lethal mystical transformation into an undead monster has taken its modern form. “Preparation for lichdom occurs while the figure is still alive and must be completed before his first “death”.” [Mohan, Kim ed. 1981. Lenard Lakofka auth. 1979. Best of Dragon Vol.II. Blueprint for a lIch.] After they have successfully undergone this process, the wizard’s soul has been captured within the Phylactery singly the most valuable item in any lich’s amassed treasury no matter how vast.

The word Phylactery is defined in the dictionary as an amulet but also refers to devices of orthodox Jewish prayer. In that respect, phylactery refers to two small leather boxes containing slips of vellum on which are written portions of Mosaic Law. One is worn on the head and the other on the left arm in token of the duty to obey religious law. Strangely, the lich’s phylactery reflects these ideas, as it is a magic amulet containing its living soul, which the lich must protect. If it is destroyed, so is the lich.

The phylactery may take any form – it may be a pendant, gauntlet, scepter, helm, crown, ring, or even a lump of stone. It must be of inorganic material, must be solid and of high-quality workmanship if man-made, and cannot be an item having other spells or magical properties on or in it. It may be decorated or carved in any way desired for distinction. [Greenwood. pg.74]

The idea of it being a mystical container for the soul of a sorcerer is similar to the character of Koschei the Deathless from Russian mythology. The basic idea found in mythology of a powerful wizard, evil king, troll, or other monster being able to hide its heart or soul somewhere else preventing them from being slain is an old one.

Unlike most undead Liches retain all of their knowledge from life and have an eternity to become masters at anything they choose.  Therefore, the archetypical lich is uber-powerful or in the very least has extremely refined skills often of the arcane variety, the perfect villain to set against a group of rowdy adventure seekers.

With the lich as a villain, there are a couple of things to ask about the fundamentals of their character stemming from a few problems posed by their immortality and especially the type of immortality that they have achieved. The Lich is an undead creature, an animate corpse with magic power, created by imprisoning its soul in a phylactery.  In some circles, the soul is believed to be the seat of intelligence (and indeed, in certain game systems it may very well be). Does this mean that in actuality, the wizard has imprisoned himself in a psychic prison (the Phylactery) and the creature that is the corpse is just a mockery with a black (or grey) soul of pure magical force?

As they are sentient, do they suffer the emotional consequences of being left behind by their world and the familiar? Is that why they occupy themselves sometimes for decades or even centuries perusing their labyrinthine libraries burying their ruined faces in rotting tomes as their world disintegrates around them? Would this render them insane, depressed, delusionally out-of-touch, or erratic in their behavior? Do they desire some connection any connection to other beings even if it is negative, perhaps violence is the only way they can relate to others. I suppose that individual Game-Masters and their Lich characters should answer these questions on a case-by-case basis those questions best left for them.

In summary, the modern archetypical lich as an undead magic-user that has trapped their own soul within a phylactery was born of an archaism utilized by pulp authors in their weird tales. They were then borrowed and honed into their final wretched form by Gary Gygax and continue to appear in very similar if not identical forms across media such as the lich in Adventure Time, World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King, and in a slightly altered version in the guise of the Night King in Game of Thrones.

“I know what the dead know.” – Afgorkon [Fox. 22]

As an afterword, I am aware that Frank Belknap Long also used the term lich in his 1924 Weird Tales pulp story The Desert Lich. However, it has very little substance of the Lich in anything else besides its title. “The Desert Lich has an Arabic setting, but is a non-supernatural conte cruel in which a man who had sold an unfaithful wife is forced to lie in a sarcophagus with her corpse.” [Joshi, S.T. 2004. The Evolution of the Weird Tale. Hippocampus Press. New York, New York. 99]

Tabletop Meditations #14: 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. Although 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.

Tabletop Meditations #12: 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 a peculiar 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), 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 thought up from the ether as antagonistic monsters from the very beginning.

Tabletop Meditations #11: 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 arbitrary 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 a long evolution started 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.

Tabletop Meditations #6: Dragons

They are both majestic and terrifyingly powerful beasts that dominate both the air and the land with their fearsome talons and vicious teeth. They wield the power of fire or poison and scales like shields. These great lizards have been used as symbols for heavenly or hellish might as well as to adorn the shields and banners of knights and kings. In fable and the popular mind they exhibit the penchant for kidnapping (and a peculiar appetite for) young maidens and stand as the ultimate examples of overwhelming greed when portrayed sleeping on hill-tall piles of treasure, their hoards of gold. Dragons are a staple, and occasionally the focus of, tabletop roleplaying games and, as several other ‘classic’ RP monsters they have been drawn not only from popular fiction but up from the deepest mists of time and mythology.

“Described and feared by human cultures worldwide from the earliest times, the dragon exists in a vast range of forms and abodes in myth and legend.” [McGovern, Una, ed. 2007. Chambers Dictionary of the Unexplained. Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd. Dragons]

Classically dragons are split into two primary classifications especially when it comes to mythological comparisons though the primary features of the RPG dragon are found mostly with one, the dragon of European lore but the contemporary idea of which seems to move ever closer to the mannerisms of the other, the Eastern Dragon, in both role-playing games and fiction. There is a stark contrast between these two classic types so much so that they appear to be near mirror opposites. These two classifications are defined as The Eastern Dragon and the Western Dragon.

Western dragons are the classic evil monster and have an appearance familiar to anyone who has had even a glancing association with popular fantasy fiction and/or role-playing games. They have bat-like wings, four limbs that end in nasty claws, crocodilian jaws studded with ripping teeth, a tail like a bullwhip, horns on the head (perhaps owed to their Christian religious symbology), and occasionally a barb at the end of the tail.

“The classical Western dragon is a malevolent fire-breathing monster encased in an armour of shimmering scales, borne upon four powerful limbs with talon-equipped feet, and sporting a pair of huge leathery wings, plus a long tail tipped with a poisonous barb or arrow-headed sting.” [McGovern. Dragon]

The European tail-barb however seems to be a recent, comparatively speaking, addition acquired by some dragons from the heraldic likeness, more reserved these days for dragon-like monsters such as Wyverns.

“In nearly all modern representations the tail, like the tongue, will be found ending in a barb, but it should be observed that this is a comparatively recent addition. All dragons of the Tudor period were invariably represented without any such additions to their tails.” [Fox-Davies. 1978. A Complete Guide to Heraldry. Bonanza Books, New York. 225]

One of the most ancient stories involving dragons and the one that best demonstrates the shear ‘epicness’ of the creatures is the Mesopotamian creation myth wherein Marduk, the chief god of Babylon, hunts down and slays the she-dragon Tiamat.

“Marduk searched the universe for Tiamat, his dragon mother. […] He spread his net across the void and caught her in it [.] Then, taking aim with his bow, Marduk shot an arrow between Tiamat’s open jaws, straight down into her heart. Then he disposed of Tiamat’s […] monstrous carcass. He split her skull and severed her arteries; he cleft her body “like a fish into its two parts,” from one of which he fashioned the firmament and from the other the solid earth.” [Constable, George, ed. 1984. The Enchanted World: Dragons. Time-Life Books. Alexandria, Virginia. 14, 18]

From the very beginning dragons and the power contained in their awesome forms shaped, and in this case formed, the natural world.

“Having positioned the celestial bodies, Marduk used Tiamat’s spit for clouds, placed a mountain on her head, and made an outlet from her eyes for the waters of the Euphrates and the Tigris.” [van der Toorn, Karel. 1999. Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, Second Edition. Brill Academic Publishers, The Netherlands. Tiamat]

The dragon goddess stood as an embodiment of a single massive natural force, all the salt-water of the earth. “Tiamat is the personified primeval ocean [.]” [van der Toorn. Tiamat] In the Old Testament a term translated as “the deep” and that is etymologically related to Tiamat is frequently used not only as a designation of the primeval sea but also to denote the cosmic sea (Yam) on which the world floats, “and from which all water comes, as well as any large body of water, including rivers, and the depth of the sea and the earth.” [van der Toorn. Tiamat]

In Medieval Europe and England the dragon was a symbol of Satan and thus inherently evil and wielded a significant amount of supernatural power requiring a righteous (and blessed) hero to eliminate the beast.

“In western myth battles with dragons symbolize the struggle between good and evil or the mastering of man’s base nature and reflect early Christian beliefs. Rescuing a maiden from a dragon represents the release of pure forces after vanquishing evil. Treasure-guarding dragons often signify the struggle to attain coveted inner knowledge.” [Wilkinson, Kathryn, ed. 2008. Signs & Symbols: An Illustrated Guide to their Origins and Meanings. DK Publishing. Dragons]

Perhaps the best known examples of the medieval Western dragon popular today are the story of St. George and the dragon and that of Sigurd the dragon-slayer and Fafnir (the dwarf/dragon) in the Icelandic Volsunga Saga popularized by Richard Wagner in his 1876 Der Ring des Nibelungen (Wagner’s Ring Cycle). The dragon may have been acquired as a symbol of the devil by medieval Europeans due to the portrayal of the creatures in the bible; namely in the New Testament in Revelations, the Apocrypha, and in the Greek texts of the Pseudepigrapha.

“The dragon has often a fiery appearance, behaves in an aggressive, insolent and lecherous way and often represents the powers of chaos, especially in primordial times. The dragon is sometimes connected with natural phenomena like storm, flood or drought.” [van der Toorn. Dragon]

They are also, sometimes still, associated with serpents which are in turn related in symbolic terms if not also in appearance to the serpent in the Garden of Eden which tempted Eve with the apple.

“A dragon is a fabulous winged crocodile, usually represented as of large size, with a serpent’s tail, so that dragon and SERPENT are sometimes interchangeable.” [Rockwood, Camilla, ed. 2009. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, 18th Edition. Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd. Dragon]

This of course, continuing in the biblical vein, leads us to dragons as the ultimate symbol of evil as the serpent of the garden is taken popularly to be Satan in one of his favorite guises.

“In most Mediterranean and European MYTHOLOGIES, SERPENTS are associated with evil, and dragons, a sort of super-serpent, are more evil still.” [Clute, John & Grant, John. 1997. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. St Martin’s Press, New York. Dragons]

The concept of the dragon was originally inseparable from that of serpents and was in fact synonymous for ages. This association and synonymy with serpents began with the etymology of the word ‘dragon’ itself.

“The Greek word drakēn is related to drakos, ‘eye’, and in classical legend the idea of watching is retained in the story of the dragon who guards the golden apples in the Garden of the HESPERIDES, and in the story of CADMUS.” [Rockwood. Dragon]

Later the romans appropriated the Greek word giving it a more recognizable form.

“In Latin, the Greek word was converted to draco, and it came to mean “giant snake.” To the Romans the dragon was a giant snake, probably a python from India or Africa.” [Cohen, Daniel. 1982. The Encyclopedia of Monsters. Dorset Press, New York. 228]

This serpent-dragon concept continued well into the middle ages especially in England.

“Most British dragons… are of the worm variety – lacking wings and legs, with lengthy, elongate bodies, and emitting poisonous vapours rather than fire.”  [McGovern, Una, ed. 2007. Chambers Dictionary of the Unexplained. Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd. Dragon]

In time the image of the dragon with its association with elemental and physical might was integrated into the heraldic arms of certain individuals and families.

“Among the ancient Britons and the Welsh the dragon was the national symbol on the war standard. Hence the term PENDRAGON for the dux bellorum, or leader in war.”  [Rockwood. Dragon]

It seems not until they were adopted as heraldic monsters gracing the banners of noble families and warlords did they begin to take on their more recognizable form.

“The head of a dragon is like nothing else in heraldry, and from what source it originated or what basis existed for ancient heraldic artists to imagine it from must remain a mystery, … It is like nothing else in heaven or on earth. [T]he wings of the dragon are always represented as the wings of a bat[.]” [Fox-Davies. 1978. A Complete Guide to Heraldry. Bonanza Books, New York. 224]

By the end of the middle ages the Western Dragon had attained its classic appearance, monstrous attitude, and symbolic meaning. It was a powerful beast with breath of fire and an evil disposition which only champions of good could quell. Eastern dragons however were primordial beasts which were often beneficial to humankind.

“Oriental dragons are very different from the dragons of the West. Oriental mythology includes many kinds of dragons, and collectively they influence and control every aspect of nature and the affairs of mankind. In stark contrast to their Western counterparts, Oriental dragons are exceedingly wise, are capable of flying without the aid of wings and (aside from spasmodic outbursts of anger) they appear relatively benevolent in their interactions with humanity. They are also revered – to the extent that many of the East’s most ancient and august human lineages claim direct descent from a dragon.” [McGovern. Dragon]

The Eastern Dragon appears as a scaled serpentine creature with the branching horns of a stag and eagle-talons on their four feet. They often have ‘feelers’ on either side of their toothy maw identical to those of a catfish, are portrayed as aquatic, and/or soaring playfully through the clouds with the ability to fly through the air without the aid of wings.

“In China dragons were Associated with the weather and were thought to be rain-bringers; some of the country’s worst floods were attributed to humans upsetting a dragon. Chinese dragons were believed to control water, vital for crops. In contrast, western dragons control fire.” [Wilkinson. 36]

In the East, dragons were powerful elemental beings to be revered and feared when offended. They wielded a significant amount of mystical ability and not just the ability to swim through the air as they did through water but the ability to exert a divine level of control over the weather and over the water in which they lived.

“Dragons were held to exercise control over rainfall, and are often depicted playing with a ball or pearl (symbol of thunder) among the rainclouds.” [Whittaker, Clio. 2007. An Introduction to Oriental Mythology. Quantum Publishing Ltd., London. 38]

Basically, Eastern Dragons brought immense elemental power with them being not just a powerful supernatural force in the world; they were of the world, a part of the very natural world that their existence would seem to defy. They combined certain mystical aspects of nature.

“[T]he dragon began as a benign symbol representing the fertilizing waters of the serpent and the divine “breath of life” of the bird; the latter also associated with it sky deities and rulers. Later the dragon became symbolically ambivalent, and was seen as both creative and destructive.” [Wilkinson. Dragons]

They also gained the power of symbolism absorbing and incorporating certain human aspects.

“They are symbols of great power, spiritual and temporal, and are associated with wisdom, strength, and the creative forces of nature. They are revered and temples are dedicated to them.” [Wilkinson. Dragons]

Seemingly as the Western Dragon carried the sheer physical menace and viciousness now associated with the RPG Dragon, the Eastern Dragon seems to have brought the mystical and elemental abilities as well as the superior spiritual attributes found to a lesser extent in humanity. Of course, the current trends in both pop-literature and roleplaying games have begun forging the two together along with heaps of personality.

“The dragons of Chinese mythology, by contrast [to those of the Western sort], are usually benevolent. This tradition has facilitated REVISIONIST FANTASY about dragons of the Western sort.” [Clute & Grant. Dragons]

The RPG dragon draws from both mythological types as well as from popular fiction all hung on the skeleton of the war-gaming dragon. Dragons as did wizards, started as simple field pieces of surprising power on the fields of fantasy battles waged in the early heyday of miniature war-gaming. These dragons pretty much took solely from the Western type dragon requiring only the physical might and fire breath (not to mention the advantage of flight) on the field. They evolved as did the first major role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons, from the war game but were also injected with some new DNA found in certain works of fantasy fiction.

These works are listed in Appendix N from the 1977 edition of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide by Gary Gygax where he cites them as primary inspirations for the game. Of primary interest are the Elric books by Michael Moorcock and of course, the Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. Both of these series of books having much to do with the current form of RPG Dragons. When it comes to Moorcock’s tales of Elric, the morose albino black-rune-sword wielding dragon-riding prince, it is within the Dreaming City (not specifically cited in Appendix N but it was published originally in 1961, well within time to inspire Gary Gygax) that the form of the current era RPG dragon takes shape.

“They were dragons, without doubt! The great reptiles were some miles away, but Elric knew the stamp of the huge flying beasts. The average wing-span of these near-extinct monsters was some thirty feet across. Their snake-like bodies, beginning in a narrow snouted head and terminating in a dreadful whip of a tail were forty feet long and although they did not breathe the legendary fire and smoke, Elric knew that their venom was combustible and could set fire to wood or Fabric on contact.” [Moorcock, Michael. The Elric Saga, Part I. Nelson Doubleday Inc. Garden City, New York. 305]

To that framework built of the war-game field piece and fleshed out with the physical-ness of Elric’s dragons the next influence to add to the RPG Dragon, an element which would train the sights of greedy adventurers forevermore in their direction, is the work of Tolkien.

In particular the Hobbit, the work of his cited in Appendix N and so a direct relation, and the dragon Smaug which is present within. Smaug, a flying fire-breathing beast, seizes the dwarven kingdom of Erebor under the Lonely Mountain for himself and covets the unbelievable mass of treasure within as his hoard atop which he slumbers.

“There he lay, a vast red-golden dragon, fast asleep; a thrumming came from his jaws and nostrils, and wisps of smoke, but his fires were low in slumber. Beneath him, under all his limbs and his huge coiled tail, and about him on all sides stretching away across unseen floors, lay countless piles of precious things, gold wrought and unwrought, gems and jewels, and silver red-stained in the ruddy light.” [Tolkien, J.R.R. 1997. The Hobbit. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston. 184]

Of course, Tolkien modeled Smaug after the traditional European mythic dragon in particular Fafnir; Smaug is greedy, covetous, and pure malignant evil, a perfect example of the classic Western Dragon. Tolkien’s Inklings compatriot C.S. Lewis attributed the same quality to his version of the monster equating it more however as a symbol of greed, one of the seven deadly sins.

“Dragons are emblems of covetousness – when, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952) C.S. Lewis’s Eustace is turned into one, it is by thinking covetous thoughts about the horde he has come across. Wagner’s Fafner has similarly opted to change into a dragon in order to better guard the CURSE-ridden hoard for which he has already sacrificed his brother. Though dragons like Tolkien’s Smaug are typologically related to the Satanic dragon of Christianity, their hoard derives from the Norse version of dragonishness. This is at once one of their defining characteristics and their Achilles’ Heel; it is because he has suffered a theft from his hoard that Smaug emerges, and is thus killed.” [Clute & Grant. Dragons]

This hoarding trait is definitely present in RP Dragons if not one of their primary distinguishing traits.

Other works attached details to the RPG Dragon and explained details and behaviors of dragons in order to increase believability and foster reader immersion. These works used, and some continue to use, techniques known as Rationalized Fantasy, that is “stock fantasy elements are given a rationale that provides them with internal consistency and coherence.” [Clute & Grant. Rationalized Fantasy.] These works add in taxonomies, species, detailed or not so detailed explanations of draconic physiology and anatomy as well behavior even psychology. These works includes the likes of the Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey, The Flight of Dragons by Peter Dickinson, the Dragon Jousters series by Mercedes Lackey, and the more recent Temeraire series of books authored by Naomi Novik.

These types of fantasy novels add in multiple details fitting dragons into the natural world making them powerful, majestic, but still fearsome beasts that may be preternatural but very much animals with a niche all their own – they like the rest of the animal kingdom including the whole of humankind are biological entities with a definite anatomy. Peter Dickinson’s work, The Flight of Dragons, is a testament to the rationalization of fantastic beasts laying out a blue-print for how the various aspects of the mythical creature could fit into the mundane world.

“[M]y theory is that the particular specialisation of dragons was that they evolved a unique mode of flight. They grew to their enourmous size because size was necessary if they were to fly successfully. They breathed fire because they had to. Their “blood” had seemingly magical properties because a particular chemical reaction was necessary for their mode of flight. And so on. At the remoter fringes of the theory I think I can show how the life-form that evolved through this specialisation came to prefer for its diet young ladies of noble breeding.” [Dickinson, Peter. 1979. The Flight of Dragons. Perrot Publishing Limited. 16]

However, the foremost of these works would be Anne McCaffrey’s the Dragonriders of Pern where the dragons were differentiated from each other by the colors of their scales to which size was also attached (Gold, Bronze, Brown, Blue, Green, with gold being the largest and green the smallest); a sort of color-coding as it were. The Pern series of books are more sci-fi than fantasy and the Pernese dragons are described as genetically modified versions of Pern’s native fire-lizards only resembling the mythical dragon in that they resemble fire-breathing winged dinosaurs, in fact dubbed “dragons” due to that resemblance by the planetary colonists that bred them.

When it comes to mating the Pern series of novels are very descriptive mostly from an emotional angle. The Pernese dragons share a telepathic link with their riders and influence the sexuality of their riders and others around them particularly evident during the described mating ritual. The sexuality of the Pernese dragons does have a definite relationship with the sexuality of their riders and to whom they will “impress” due to their intense tele-empathic bond, later clarified by the author herself [McCaffrey, Anne. 2000. Pern’s Renewable Airforce]. This talk of dragon-sex brings us to a strange behavior attributed to dragons in the popular imagination and myth, the awkward habit of kidnapping maidens.

“Dragons’ legendary habit of devouring maidens is something many fantasists have tried to rationalize. Because dragons are seen as solitary, they have to have some sort of sexuality, and eating virgins fits the bill.” [Clute & Grant. Dragons]

This component of the draconic personality is often ignored or simply left out by most contemporary fiction and role-playing games. It was added by medieval literature.

“In medieval romance captive ladies were often guarded by dragons.” [Rockwood. Dragon]

An element of this strange trans-species draconic sexuality can be found in the Eastern Dragon as well.

“Dragons represent the male yang element.” [Whittaker. 38]

The philosophy behind Ying and Yang is that apparently contrary, not necessarily opposing, forces have an element of each other within themselves because they are interconnected. Ying and yang are an indivisible whole with Yin being the passive and/or feminine element and Yang, the dominant/male element.

In most of the fiction mentioned previously, dragons are used as either massively powerful weapons or, especially in Smaug’s case, the primary threat of the story which must be overcome. In all of these cases dragons are just essentially plot devices for the most part, the dragons in Temeraire are much more integrated as characters, however as Fiction Narrative and RPG Narratives are completely different dragons are primarily used in RPG’s as campaign-enders or set-pieces as the great threat marking a sort of chapter or book-end in a tabletop campaign.

They are ideal foils for Player Characters, great lumbering powerful beasts with fiery breath and a penchant for constructing or at least occupying complex often maze-like lairs which probably evolved in game-play starting as simple cave-lairs and quickly becoming something more complex as gameplay demanded. The penetration into the depths of a dragon’s lair can be a campaign in and of itself.

“As often as not, whether intelligent or bestial, dragons are the hunter, not the hunted. Standing as they do as a gate between life and death and as flesh-and-blood beings that are nonetheless magical in their essence, they are LIMINAL BEINGS often connected with the getting of wisdom rather than merely enemies to be confronted. A conversation with a dragon is always a kind of duel, a struggle to refuse hypnotism or mastery.” [Clute & Grant. Dragons]

RPG Dragons typically are not just a random encounter.

The dragon has evolved from a term essentially describing only a sharp-eyed serpent to a majestic beast representing primordial supernatural power. This traditional malleability of the dragon continues especially in the fantasy today not just as a symbol but as a literalized creature with certain authors building their own details not just to increase reader interest but also believability onto the mythical framework, the most influential in the realm of roleplaying being Michael Moorcock, Ann McCaffrey, and, of course, Tolkien. The mythical dragon is the root of certain RPG tropes when it comes to dragons: dragon-slayers (Marduk), half-dragons (the Chinese dragon).

The malleability of myth and the additions of fantasy authors have inspired the dragon-rider and the draconic character in roleplaying as well. The idea of dragons not only in RPG’s but in mythology itself seems to change to suit the role the creatures are set to play but have always represented an epic and earth-shattering experience wielding massive amounts of primordial magical power. “Mythology reveals the dragon as both creator and destroyer and involves epic themes such as cosmic chaos, creation, and rebirth.” [Wilkinson. Dragons] Dragons have evolved from the idea of gigantic serpents into a vast array of fantastical animals with their own biology and anatomies as varied and numerous as water on the face of the earth.

“There is a particular affinity between dragons and water in all its natural forms: seas, rivers, lakes, rain.” [Whittaker. 38]

The first RPG dragons were derived from fiction which borrowed from myth and took their form from war-games. Dragons in RPG’s have a deep and long lineage and thus can be very useful to the creative and clever Game-Master. Dragons can be built and designed by the GM using the transformative fictive elements found in popular fantasy fiction, and many already have been.

The GM should think of specific links to their setting such as special adaptations that would bind the native dragons inextricably to that setting. Creating believable dragons helps to not only surprise the players but grounds them within the campaign world providing a deeper level of immersion; the same result desired by the fiction authors via the same method. Coloration, scale patterns, the presence of hair, and any number of odd physical features or bizarre powers are all options. Dragons continue to evolve in the human mind shaped by the immense creative forces contained therein and so will continue to evolve and change with not only literature but also with fantasy roleplaying games in general.

Tabletop Meditations #5: On Vancian Magic

When it comes to magic in tabletop role-playing games my opinion is a bit conventional in the sense that I dislike Vancian Magic, a system of RPG magic inspired by the Dying Earth series of books and stories authored by Jack Vance. I do acknowledge its importance in not that it was essentially the first codified system but that it is vital to the formation of the tools and ideas in turning magic towards tabletop gaming from whence most current RPG magic systems spring, the magic system I authored included. I don’t particularly care for it because it tends to be trite in my opinion and restrictive as well as losing the mystery or ‘fluffy’ aspects of magic.

It treats spells as pre-packaged single purpose weapons which the wizard “fires & forgets”. The ‘spells as ammunition’ mindset probably owes its inception in the roots of tabletop RPG’s, namely War-Gaming. Aside from justifications for the in-game impact of a Vancian magic system such as the Surgeon Metaphor and the Alzheimer’s comparison, I think it’s also generally not great for mystery or atmosphere and definitely more afforded to war and video-gaming. Though to be fair the descriptions of magic used in the Dying Earth, from whence it is inspired, are definitely apart from the gaming adaptations of Gygax & Arneson. It is more conducive to the fiction of Jack Vance (of course) than role-playing a mage character and more-so in a setting much less like Vance’s Dying Earth.

‘Vancian’ magic is too artificial and strict for my taste but provides a stepping stone when it comes to game design. It does, as is one of the popular arguments against this strain of gaming magic, turns spell-casters into field pieces to be pointed at the enemy as mystic artillery. Don’t get me wrong sometimes I like this aspect of the good ‘ole fire-ball slinging type wizard.

My preference for magic includes a healthy dose of mystery and risk involved as when I play a mage I like to experiment with my abilities even if I might get burned in the end, or blown up which has happened. Game magic does need its well-defined or ‘hard’ aspects to be playable. If magic is too ‘fluffy’ or ill-defined it makes the in-game use of it too esoteric though if it is weighed down by too many rules and calculations then the learning curve for players becomes a bit too steep.

A Game-Master should keep the player characters questioning exactly what an enemy mage may be doing or what they may be pursuing due to the softer aspects of magic and know that it can’t be good or have at least a rough idea motivating them to take action against their enemy as the ‘hard’ aspects will be known to them at least in a ‘meta’ sense and these if overly defined may give the game away in the knowing.

The ‘hard’ aspects of an RPG are the bits of the game defined either in broad terms or in very quantified ‘Hard’ terms creating elements that can be manipulated in game terms allowing players and thus their characters to work with that game aspect, in this case magic, easily due to its consisting primarily of either clear cut rules and/or numeric values. They are also a necessary and operative part of the system and cannot be removed without breaking the system.

Another frequently used name for these ‘hard’ bits is ‘crunch’ but that is also applied to refer to additional more optional bits as well so I will be using the former term throughout this article. In contrast a ‘fluffy’ aspect refers to a soft/fuzzy aspect or something not solidly defined in game terms but may be covered by a broad rule requiring the GM and/or players to interpret it in respect to game-play if it becomes necessary but which still has some sort of impact on game play. Basically anything not solidly or explicitly defined by the game system but still operative in-game which is not outside of the game system.

The workability of magic or what makes something ‘workable’ for a game are the ‘hard’ aspects defined within the game system allowing the participants (Players and Game-Master) not only to understand the general overall concept behind them but also how to use them while still being able to play with the ‘soft’ parts lending some demi-officiated “wriggle room”.

The ‘hard’ gaming aspects of magic allow the participants to grab a hold of the concept like handles and manipulate it as if it were a system of dials, switches, and levers. Now this is exactly how Vancian systems operate but the condemnation, I believe, belongs to the sorry fact that it’s also how most Vancian-based magic systems feel especially if they’re not steeped in the proper atmosphere. They feel very mechanical.

“[M]agic, when present, can do anything, but obeys certain rules according to its nature. Generally ideas as to its nature are left undefined. Attempts to write a system or define the rules […] can produce shallow and simplistic fantasies.” [Clute & Grant. 1997. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. New York, St. Martin’s Press. Magic]

This core problem with Vancian magic can be traced back to Vance himself and his possible attitude towards the idea of magic if this can be extrapolated from his highly influential work.

“Magic is a practical science, or, more properly, a craft, since emphasis is placed primarily upon utility, rather than basic understanding.” [Vance, Jack. 1998. The Compleat Dying Earth. SFBC edition. pg. 582]

The Vancian Magic system originally appeared in Dungeons & Dragons and packages magic into strictly defined “spells” with mostly inflexible game applicable stats along with a description of effects. It is a rules-based magic system which is reliant on and mainly composed of functional rules. The spell-caster using Vancian magic must “memorize” their spells which allows them to cast a certain number of spells per day, this number being based on their caster experience level and the spell list from which they are allowed to memorize spells. The casting often involves certain “components” such as hand gestures and chants etc. and after the casting the memorized spell is essentially forgotten.

“When subsequently cast – by speaking or some other means – the words or gestures, or whatever triggered the magical force of the spell, leaving a blank place in the brain where the previously memorized spell had been held.” [Gygax, Gary. 2001. Jack Vance & the D&D Game. The Excellent Prismatic Spray Vol.1, No.1. Pelgrane Press Ltd.]

Which leads us to a major complaint about this system of magic is that of the memorization of spells and the ability to memorize multiple instances of the same spell which after casting are then forgotten which is often compared, unjustifiably, to a form of Alzheimer’s Disease. The Alzheimer’s complaint being that spell-casters after casting a spell completely forget it as if it were never in their heads similar in effect to an Alzheimer’s patient but only in a very selective (and superficial) manner which is not quite equivalent to the real-life disease.

This manner expending of spell magic can be explained within the game system in several different ways but the cognitive dissonance that it can inspire takes some out of the game, me included. It is readily evident even during play that it is completely artificial, designed to work within a game.

“To my way of thinking, the concept of a spell itself being magical, that its written form carried energy, seemed a perfect way to balance the mage against other types of characters in the game.” [Gygax. 2001. Emphasis mine.]

Not to say that deliberately designing a magic system to function as a part of a game is inherently a bad thing; it just shouldn’t be too evident.

Like the rest of tabletop roleplaying the Vancian Magic System has its primordial origins in the world of war-gaming and was directly inspired by Jack Vance’s the Dying Earth, being adapted by Gary Gygax to Dungeons & Dragons.

“Just what portions of these works, the subsequent AD&D game, stemmed from inspiration related to the writing of Jack Vance? Several elements, the unquestioned foremost being the magic system used in these games.” [Gygax. 2001]

Essentially the current idea of the magic-user began with Dave Arneson’s seminal Blackmoor campaign which evolved from his miniature war-gaming sessions. Magic as a feature of war-gaming entered into the scene as a means to reenact fantasy battles found in fiction in particular those found in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and the desire to add in new features, most likely out of boredom, to war-games and move beyond just reenacting historical battles but it was not until the fantasy supplement added to the back of the first edition of the Chainmail miniature rules in 1971 by Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren that the course of RPG Magic was set.

“Magic spells are the purview of the “Wizard” type in Chainmail. Although unexceptional as melee fighters, Wizards have two ranged attacks they can employ: a “fire ball” and a “lightning bolt”. The former explodes like a thrown bomb, creating a circle of carnage,…, while the latter extends in a straight line from the Wizard, annihilating those in its path.” [Peterson, John. 2012. Playing at the World. Unreason Press LLC. pg.42]

A second edition quickly followed in 1972 due to the first edition being a hit.

Chainmail in its second edition thus set a precedent, a foundational one for the future Magic-user class, that Wizards may have inferior or superior levels of power relative to other Wizards, and that some powerful spells may not be cast by Wizards of lesser ability.” [Peterson. 163]

Around the same time Dave Arneson began to apply the fantasy rules to his war-gaming sessions which soon mutated into the Blackmoor campaign setting.

“By the time he brought his Blackmoor campaign to Gygax’s attention, Arneson had introduced a number of innovations in the Chainmail magic system, not all of which would ultimately become a part of Dungeons & Dragons.  Notably, Blackmoor wizards were ranked by numerical level rather than by hierarchical titles [.] … In addition to levels of Wizards, spells themselves were sorted into ranks representing difficulty or power [.]” [Peterson. 165]

The first edition of Dungeons & Dragons later followed this in 1974 with its own integrated magic system. Ultimately though, it was gamers that gave it the name which persists today.

“Because I explained this often, attributing its inspiration to Jack Vance, the D&D magic system of memorized then forgotten spells was dubbed by gamers “the Vancian magic system”.” [Gygax. 2001]

Vancian magic has a few readily evident strengths. Packaging spells into easily digestible bites rendering them infinitely useable in-game making that aspect of magic supremely ‘workable’ though limited in its mutability is absolutely one. Predictability is another easy to discern strong point in that it makes the GM’s job easier allowing them to have some fore knowledge of what’s at the players’ disposable at any given time. Its primary contribution to RPG magic is something that I myself have a penchant for, modularity though in a limited sense. It excels at the ‘hard’ bits of a roleplaying system due mainly to its creation in the war-gaming arena where wizards (and druids) were field pieces.

Another bonus of a purely Vancian system is the forcing of players to think strategically when playing mages memorizing only the spells they think may need later.

“Then he sat down and from a journal chose the spells he would take with him. What dangers he might meet he could not know, so he selected three spells of general application: the Excellent Prismatic Spray, Phandaal’s Mantle of Stealth, and the Spell of the Slow Hour.” [Vance. 1998. 5]

Bad choices however, can lead to a Vancian wizard to become near useless left with nothing to do but either get killed or try to hide in an encounter especially in an unforeseen/unaccounted for one.

There are some fundamental weaknesses. The first is also one of its strengths the nifty packaging of spells which makes them easy to use also makes them fairly inflexible without some special caveats being added into the game (the Feat mechanic being an example). Another inherent in such a mechanical system of magic is that it is unrealistic (so-to-speak) being based on strange logic used in and more appropriate to Jack Vance’s fiction where it is a narrative device as it naturally would-be and was meant to be in the first place; narrative in a work of fiction and that in an RPG being very different.

It’s over-definition not just disallowing for in-game flexibility but it also restricts subtle variation. In fact, variation requires that brand new spells be authored. This ‘rules based’ form of magic also seems to lack in consequences even for the “over-use” of magic leading to a few in-game questions such as the question of technology and wide-spread utilitarian use of magic but those will not be addressed here.

Jack Vance’s Dying Earth fiction is peculiarly suitable for adaptation into the realm of gaming due to its belonging to a certain strain of fantasy fiction known as Rationalized Fantasy. In Rationalized Fantasy “stock fantasy elements are given a rationale that provides them with internal consistency and coherence. In such works the laws of MAGIC may be carefully codified, often through elaborate systems of mysticism[.]” [Clute. 801] Basically it’s where something fantastical is explicable in mundane terms. Jack Vance definitely quantified spell-casting and sorcery in this work.

“Mazirian, by dint of stringent exercise, could encompass four of the most formidable, or six of the lesser spells.” [Vance. 19]

He even seemed to invent the idea of naming spells in effect packing them and their effects into solid armaments equivalent, but much more powerful than, a standard weapon such as a sword rendering libraries as potent as armories.

“Mazirian made a selection from his books and with great effort forced five spells upon his brain: Phandaal’s Gyrator, Felojun’s Second Hypnotic Spell, The Excellent Prismatic Spray, The Charm of Untiring Nourishment, and the Spell of the Omnipotent Sphere.” [Vance. 23]

This is not to say the wizards and magicians found in his fictions could not wield swords and daggers in fact, they routinely did; a decided difference between Vance’s fiction and the “Vancian” system of magic.

In effect with Rationalized Fantasy, the atmosphere of mysticism and mystery which I feel should surround magic in an RPG can be diminished by overly technical game terminology or mundane in-game explanations and too complex a construction of game-mechanics. RPG magic systems should try to maintain atmosphere as well as provide some easy to use and understand ‘hard’ aspects not to mention provide some flexibility.

The main points which are important to an RPG magic system are a sense of ‘workability’, an element of risk to the caster in addition to those on the receiving end, flexibility in its in-game use, and details helping along the atmosphere which should hang over magic and spell-casters like a pall. RPG magic requires definition but that shouldn’t absolutely define its every edge. Magic requires certain ‘hard’ meta-game aspects required to be made use of in-game these should be kept to only the necessities for ease of use and on top of that, a certain measure of risk to the caster and their companions.

Hard aspects should be spare but allow ‘workability’ in a meta-sense more than in-game as that can be explained with mythology or a character-eye view of the game world adding even more color to the game. Risk is essential and provides a sort of ‘internal questing’ the mage character can do providing a thrill with just the casting of a spell as well as all the other potential arcane and enigmatic risks when on the search for or even just perusing certain esoterica.

Magic should also have a sense of its own volition. The artifice shouldn’t be inside of the magic present in a game but should be a structure on top of it through which the magic-user conducts their craft mostly consisting, within the game, the belief system from which they pull their explanations for it. Magic itself should be a nearly autonomous, amorphous mass writhing just underneath the surface of in-game reality.

Is the Vancian system of magic a fair equivocation to magic as presented in Jack Vance’s work? A little, it is somewhat starkly defined in the Dying Earth books but is not as sharply defined as it is within the Vancian system adapted from his work. It is from his work that libraries and moldy old tomes have become synonymous with the RPG magic-user not to diminish the influence of Gandalf the Grey.

“The tomes which held Turjan’s sorcery lay on a long table of black steel or were thrust helter-skelter into shelves. These were volumes compiled by many wizards of the past, untidy folios collected by the Sage, leather-bound librams setting forth the syllables of a hundred powerful spells, so cogent that Turjan’s brain could know but four at a time.” [Vance. 4]

In most Vancian systems magic grimoires, the spell books of wizards, are nigh useless to non-mage characters, unless they know whom to sell them to that is, but in the Dying Earth non-mages could make use of the magic though  not to the extent as a dedicated spell-caster. The Vance character Cugel the Clever, from which certain aspects of the D&D thief class were taken aside from Fritz Leiber’s the Gray Mouser, and whose specialties are self-absorption and being picaresque rather than anything akin to Vance’s disciplined craft but in a pinch he too can cram a few spells in his skull.

“Cugel opened and read; finding an appropriate spell, he held the fire-ball close the better to encompass the activating syllables. There were four lines of words, thirty-one syllables in all. Cugel forced them into his brain, where they lay like stones.” [Vance.271]

In his fiction unlike in games that make use of a Vancian system books of spells are useful to anyone who can read, very similar to such items found in lore and more in line with the popular idea of the wizard.

“In the popular imagination, magicians always had books, or libraries of books, containing all their magical secrets. These books were jealously guarded, for if the knowledge they contained fell into the hands of the unwise or the unworthy, anything might happen.” [Cohen, Daniel. 1985. The Encyclopedia of the Strange. New York. Dorset Press. pg.216]

The Dying Earth stories do indeed keep to this idea better than the “Vancian” magic system model. This brings us to another complaint about Vancian systems which did not originate from Vance’s fiction, the ability of mages to memorize more than one instance of the same spell. In the Dying Earth, Mazirian the magician after casting a spell at a homunculus which he was extracting from his vats but to no effect and quickly found himself within its grip. “The mesmeric spell had been expended, and he had none other in his brain.” [Vance. 1998. 20]

In fact, none of his mages “encompass” (memorize) more than a single copy of any individual spell in any of the stories. Of course as stated before, the narrative of fiction and that of an RPG game are very different animals.

RPG magic should have flexibility. Modularity in this respect is probably the best way to go from a design standpoint allowing the participants to make use of whatever parts of the system they require at that moment. Modularity also encourages mixing and matching. Game-magic should encourage PC-mages to explore in-game magic not just in its casting but in the formulating of new spells, altering old spells, and hunting down legends, mythical spells and items as well as hard to find components. Players and thus their mage characters should feel as if they’re penetrating the deep mysteries of the (game) universe encouraging exploration.

Also, do not count out the consequences of magic as well not just to counter any perceived in-game over-reliance on it but the effects of magic accruing over-time within the setting as well, where spell-casters may be responsible for some of the supernatural woes found in the game setting shaping non-casters’ opinions about mages and magic. The side-effects of spells, the warping of the world and dimensions, magical residue and even magical contamination are other such approaches to the consequence angle.

Details add flavor and lend to the atmosphere tied to magic and can help make ‘fluffy’ bits of the system to be a little more coherent and help to steer players towards certain decisions when dealing with the softer aspects of a system. Atmosphere is built from not only the GM’s words at the table but also added to by certain details such as specified components and description of ceremony etc. and use of the ‘fluffy’ bits. Keep in mind strange and mostly non-functional details that can evince reactions from players and/or their characters are very important.

Players may know how their mages work their magic in-game from a mechanics standpoint but certain details especially those that accumulate over time from an array of game components within the magic system not all or any of them need be functional in-play either. However, over-use of this tactic may diminish the impact of this strategy and so it should be used sparingly but not so sparingly that it can be ignored. These details can seem, in the minds of players and perhaps even GM’s, to amount to a puzzle to which no one has all of the pieces or a riddle with no answer hinting at something stranger just beyond understanding.

Though RPG magic essentially came from war gaming and evolved into quantified Vancian Magic then began to be adapted into various systems of game magic with varying ‘fluffy’ and ‘hard’ aspects/quantities it does not mean that RPG magic should always be strictly defined in its execution all the time. Vancian magic was necessary that it gave a baseline for what was necessary to make magic a ‘workable’ aspect in RPGs by quantifying it in game terms.

The original purpose of the spell-slinger was to serve as mystic field artillery on the field of battle in war-games later becoming the “swiss army knife” characters of OD&D. I find Vancian magic too clear-cut and inflexible, I desire a magic system that allows for flexibility and variation; magic that can serve as its own quest maybe even its own self-contained world within the world of the game.

Spells should be more than ammunition, magic can be a quest unto itself all wrapped in an air of mystery providing yet another avenue of adventure besides Dungeon Crawls, MacGuffin Quests, Bug-Hunts, and Monster-Slaying. RPG magic should be ‘workable’, should carry risk in the practice if not by its mere presence, should have flexibility, and should carry a certain air or atmosphere. When I run a mage I want the arcane power and knowledge that they wield to be something extraordinary and supernatural invoking wonder and trepidation in those not so inclined (or talented). Magic however does need to be ‘workable’ in-game and not just by the GM but also by the players so it may be fully explored, its mysteries penetrated, and the unfathomable risks experienced.