[Review] Elves Pt. III; Darkness & Light

Let’s wrap this one up. Three parts for a 98 pager is on the indulgent side as it is. It might indicate that the average information density of gaming material has decreased since the 80s, it might indicate that I enjoy reviewing ancient 3rd party supplements that no remembers a little bit too much. Doesn’t matter. This one is for me!

Dark Elves(Nannuatan)

The treatment of dark elves in Elves is a welcome departure from the milktoast treatment they would receive in the post-satanicpanic era of DnD supplements. Their evil is more pronounced, their depravity more manifest, yet Elves never fails to introduce the odd unique magical device or conceit to make them stand out. The pseudo-tolkinian prose increases by a factor of .5 in this section, causing the occasional raised eyebrow, but I’ll be damned if I ever read a dry, technical supplement on dark elf fluff. Just put on the Lord of the Rings soundtrack to get in the right mood.

Dark Elves

The Nannuatan are small, inhumanly, obscenely beautiful, like Lucy in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, complete with carnivore’s teeth. The worship of Morda bids them that their women must be bred twice and that they must never intermarry, everything else is permitted; murder, rape, incest. Their elders, if of sufficiently high status, are granted unlife by Morda, a fitting parody of an afterlife in heaven. They are so far gone they no longer recognize the concept of good and evil.

Their society is a crossbreed of Oberon’s court on its worst day and Melniboné on an average day. Two typical faery tale elements, the pied piper and the Wild Hunt, are nicely introduced. For celebration the Dark Elves ride out in great processions and proceed to slaughter all they come across, returning laden with captives. Their music is inhumanly beautiful and often ensnares humans to seek them out and be taken into their strongholds deep under the mountain. They have instruments formed of choirs of slave musicians, and distill music from their agonized screams. They are ruled by the evil, lustful queen Ledathis and her lifemate Crescentia Ursula. There is a voracious, wild abandon to their evil coupled with a careless disdain for the world around them.

As is only fitting for a race of evil, the dark elves are adept at Sorcery, capable binders of elemental spirits and craftsmen of enchanted objects. One of their more unusual items is the Fear Bird, distilled from the corpse of an eagle or hawk, which takes the shape of a shadowy bird whose shriek causes lower level creatures to fail morale and flee. The weapon of their elite is a bizarre rocket-propelled throwing knife that reduces AC from armor by three. The sometimes off-key choices keep it fresh.

After that we get a sample village, which reads more or less like someone took a blueprint of a gulag and just added a coat of fantasy paint and the sample city, which I will cover since it is…gasp! actually part of the adventure.

The Temple of Morda is the adventure that first introduces the Dark Elves. The Helm of Annoc, the last remaining artifact, has been stolen by evil Dark Elves! The PCs must travel to the realm of the Dark Elves to retrieve it before it can be destroyed to bring about the ressurection of Morda! The first step is Dark Isle, city of the Nannuatan and home of the Temple of Morda! Enter the PCs!

Temple of Morda is terribly organized, confusing, bizarrely structured and yet oddly compelling. A whole section of the adventure takes place in the fully mapped out town of Dark Isle that has been described in the preceding section. The heroes must venture into the heart of darkness and pose as the enemy, in order to discover some terrible secret! It’s a classic, and you don’t see it copied that often [1] because, unlike B1 or even B2, copying it is rather difficult.

Dark Isle is…wild. Once again the off-key choices make for a bizarre if compelling environment. I had expected Minas Morgul and instead I get a fantasy Venice in a lake under a mountain, where a beautiful slave is whipped for the amusement of the PCs on the way in, twilit by purple radiance from blood-fed lichen, the canals are aswarm with races on the backs of magical creatures, pickpocketing is an honoured profession and danger lurks in every alley. It doesn’t have the alien splendor of D3 but there is a wild sort of gonzo creativity that you would see in products like City State; underwater brothels, guaranteed non-poisoned wineries, an inexplicable Temple to Timar god of light, an abandoned house with a squid monster, factories that grind up slaves to feed the lichen etc. etc.

The problem is that this segment is not structured. The adventure essentially tells you to let the PCs faff about for a few days before revealing the location of the treasure. That sucks. It should be a game of finding the right person to ask, and figuring out who to avoid. The adventure does note that asking directly will arouse terrible suspicion and recommends this part of the adventure should take up ‘a couple of frustrating days.’ That’s what I want in my adventures; wasting PC time arbitrarily and causing frustration.

The rest of the adventure is a description of the Temple of Morda, a road to the ritual site, and the entire roster of NPCs that seek to destroy the helm of Annoc and thus bring about the return of Morda. That’s it? You think. And then you notice there is a time table. And different formations. And tactics. And there’s even….gasp, different agenda’s in the party (Andahl the Creator of Ancestors has no interest in the destruction of the Helm and will not interfere if he thinks the party might bring down Queen Ledathiss, Momnis will attempt to assassinate Andahl during the ambush). So its an ambush…but its an ambush on the Queen of all Dark Elves some of the most powerful warriors in the realm, with betrayals, reinforcements, tactics, high stakes, everything. A big, beautiful chaotic mess of a scenario. When do you plan your offensive? Do you attack them while they are in the temple? While en route? In the middle of the ritual? What if there is an innocent with them?

All the major NPCs have tricked out custom magical gear, ‘beautiful chainmail +3 covered with scenes of carnage and slaughter’ and even nameless elite guard will be equipped with magical weapon. I am talking Throne of Bhaal levels of magical shit here. It’s…probably a good time? The information on who is where at what time will require you to take some notes.

The Temple proper is 9 rooms, and the layout is a simple fork with rooms accessible through a single corridor, though the flavor is strong with this one, almost satanic or lovecraftian. The Temple to the Void in the Realm of the Lord of Nothing. Black basalt lined with pale red marble trim, black marble columns with Spirit Imps bound into them, Wizard-locked gateways of meteoric iron and a Main Temple wrapped in permanent Darkness that is actually protecting you from witnessing the full horror of the Void. It asks the tough question…are you the kind of guy that will try to steal from the Lord of All Evil in a Temple Dedicated to His Name, and rewards you accordingly.

There’s a second Dark Elf adventure called the Hunt which is really a follow up to The Temple of Morda and should be treated as part of the same scenario. When/If the PCs get away with the helm of Annoc they are persued out of Dark Elf territory. If Andahl lives (which he probably will, considering he is an 18th level cleric/9 ftr with a Ring of Teleport), he raises the Queen and the captain of the Guard as Vampires and they call a Wild Hunt against the party.

The Hunt will teleport in front of the party near the village of Ashwood Bend (this is where the adventures suddenly start using the world map and using it with a vengeance) and start tracking the PCs with 100% unerring accuracy using magical fucking super hounds but to its credit the adventure does note that if you were smart enough to journey in some other direction you have a pretty decent chance of avoiding them.

Again we see that tantalizing combination of great flavor coupled with shitty implementation, the telltale sign of the frustrated novelist. The hunt can travel even by day, shrouded under a cloud of darkness but will always attack during the night, extinguishing all light. Hunters are mounted on giant cats, an Eldar Vampire of horrific strength that essentially taunts the players during the fight rewards them with 1000 gp in mythril coinage [1] and then fucks off, a scene that is unpleasantly reminiscent of Vampire the Masquerade.

Normally bad Role Aids adventures are just boring, this is the first one that is fairly interesting but just a mess structurally with some awful design decisions but there is nothing here that is unsalvageable. Whether you’d consider it worth your time is another question. This one isn’t terrible, and its got some good atmosphere and a nice messy set piece battle. **

Demi-Elves.

At first I was on board with this one because of the way it uses the background that is already present to explain the origins of the Demi-Elf or half-elf in a way that makes sense. The inevitable consequence of the War of the Races, the Demi-Elves are the least fantastic of the races of the elf, a fecund and rugged breed living on the plains between the wood elves in the east and the ocean in the west. Their towns are like frontier towns and their manners are more akin to human peasants then creatures of faerie, that I can dig. The plains dwelling tribal variety is culturally identical to Native Americans, that I DESPISE. I shit you not, they live in tipi’s, keep herds, pray to the “Big Ghost” and otherwise annoy the shit out of everyone with their disregard for borders, large number of offspring and incessant drinking. It’s a shame, I don’t mind a race born in the conflagration of the war of the races IF ITS DONE TASTEFULLY.

The supplement then wastes your time again by describing a ranch that is shared by a demi-elf rancher and a tribe complete with magic totem poles, a tipi with a wight in it and thirty different areas suitable for the preparation of fish and wildlife. A gnawing emptiness awaits.

This section does not waste your time describing any sort of Demi-Elf border town straight out of a spaghetti western and instead dives right into The Hunt Part II.

The Hunt part II is, again, an unwieldy, if impressively noisy mess, as the Nanhuattan legions ride out in full force, teleporting or flying across Wood Elven lands in a bid to recover the helm of Annoc. This is a fascinating stretch of the adventure hampered by several atrocious design affectations and a complete and utter refusal to utilize proper organization, a five star gourmet meal with a drugged up japanese midget squatting howling in the middle and ready to wrestle for it to the death.

The adventure is a bit of a spoilsport in that it will attempt, by hook or by crook, to persuade the PCs to ditch their magic super balloon that makes them all radiate evil asap because it would be ‘too easy to detect’ before saddling the PCs with a high level wood elven ranger that is redeemed only by his extreme cowardice and steadfast refusal to join in any fight. His name? Terieshi the Fearless!

This scenario makes a suprising amount of sense once you piece together where you are on the map and what your options are (I mean realistically), but its second cardinal sin is to conquettishly refuse to include any sort of map or other geographical representation despite the fact that most of it is going to be random encounter rolls modified by what particular route the PCs take to what harbor. There is also the question why the High Priest of Morda does not care overmuch for the Artifact that will bring about his Return to be recovered. The adventure operates on a brazen, impetuous half-logic, trusting on style to carry the day. ‘But have you seen my Army List?’ asks Hunt pt. II, trotting out distinct encounters for Army Search parties, combinations of regular and special army groups, Orbs of darkness that can be destroyed but that enable the Dark Elves to move even by day, eldar assassins disguised as wood elves and a fuck you random encounter with the Eldar Brethren (one 15th level lich, a bunch of vampires and other nonsense, among them 4-20 Clerics of level 5-7. Riiiiiiight).

This thing would have worked as a hexcrawl instead of a distribution of probability for random encounters based on what city they are setting out for. It also could have covered some other scenario’s; What if the PCs seek help from the Wood Elves whose territory they are crossing through? What if they just head south until they can get themselves a teleportation to Anduvil (their destination)? What if they get a magic carpet or some other means of transportation?

There’s snatches of good encounters, wounded wood elves returning from an engagement with the enemy, harbors under siege and penalties for tarrying (my personal favourite in a chase scene) but it’s all haphazardly organized. Re-organize as a hex crawl, add moving enemy tokens like in Dragons. Hell, Add Warmachine rules so the PCs can join a Cavalry unit or something. I mean there’s an opportunity to enlist the aid of a Demi-Elven tribe in exchange for cold, hard cash fer goddsake. 50 cavalry of levels 3-8. Jaisus.

Another fuck you that I only figured out after my second readthrough; the choice of different port is a lie. Freeport is under siege, Clearport had its special ship sunk the fuck into oblivion and for some reason it having sunk near the harbor mouth has blocked shipping for 3 WEEKS. UH HELLO? HAVE YOU POINTY-EARED BUM-FONDLERS EVER HEARD OF DREDGING? At this point I can summarize the perilous realm of Elfland and the Road to Northport thusly.

Elwyn
Pictured: The Road to Northport (21)

At this point I would have appreciated several large fires or volcanic eruptions or perhaps the moon crashing into an island at some point since this section seems doomed to become a big fucking mess and I hate nothing as much as a job half done.

When the PCs get to Northport they are cordially invited to set out on a single ship and a last slow burner will take place that will be instantly detected since the GM keeps covering the journey day to day, IMMEDIATELY PUTTING THE PCS on edge.

This section of the scenario is confined to the boat, presents an escalating situation that gets worse each day the PCs do not intervene, has detailed tactics for the enemy in case the PCs do act. There’s Two VAMPIRES on the Boat. They sneakily hunt and charm their way through the crew each night, usually in rat form. There’s mutinies and nighttime assaults. Effects are given of increased vigilance. In short, this section of the adventure is entirely functional and somewhat exciting.

Somewhere in this screaming, kaleidoscopic mess is someone doing a good evocation of the gates of Minas Morgul opening but I’ll be damned if I can see it through the arbitrary railroadery, terrible organization and woeful design choices. There’s loads of ways in which this could have been designed to not suck. This isn’t one of them. Barely a **.

High Elves

The vision of High Elves in Elves is unexpectedly good and deserves praise. Avalin is an island shrouded in enchanted mist that passes only those that are friends to Avalin, all others can never reach the islands, once it belonged to the Gods. Time passes differently on it. YES!

The High Elves are so magical it hurts. Each citizen is at least a 4th level magic user. Their slaves (all labour is done by them) consist of the nobles of lesser races, particularly elves. Their lower city is like the wealthiest districts of all other cities. The palaces of their nobility is beyond mortal imagining. They sail the sea on ships of glass that know no mortal equal.

Yet they are stricken with decadence and sloth. They spend days fascinated by conjured color patterns of their own creation. They no longer even repair their city, sufficing to cover any signs of decay with illusion. They have an empire no longer and care nothing for the world at large.

No village here, only a description of the city of Avalin, mostly useless and terribly long-winded, though the image of the Dragon Gate and Glass Boats is nice enough, even if it does not go far enough.

Avalin, the Arrival.

At this moment I am unsure whether this concluding adventure is one of the greatest conclusions to a multi-part adventure ever or in fact a giant piece of shit and one of the worst adventures I have ever reviewed.

The party arrives at Avalin with the artifacts and…nothing. They get no reception, welcome or acclaim. Slaves are strolling idly through the streets. No one seems in any great hurry. What the fuck do you do now? Asking around gets you pointed, very lazily, to various locations, that send you to other locations. They take it into outright farce. A department of Minor Deities and Heroes sends you to the Department of Major Deity Slaying which eventually sends you to a descendant of Annoc. Talking to one of the Demi-Elf traders has you getting obviously scammed ‘Oh yeah, Annoc, great friend of mine, just give me the artifacts and we’ll do the meeting in a week’ and is a way to actually lose the adventure. The descendant of Annoc (Cirel) barely pays attention to the PCs as they recite their deeds and just sort of carts off the items while making some vague plans to do something about the evil in the future.

What the fuck is going on?

The central conceit is that to prevent the decadence of the High Elf race Sol the Summoner attempted to bind their sloth into a single receptacle and thus preserve his species from decadence ah la an early season Star Trek TNG episode. Much like the episode, this backfired horribly and now a demon of Sloth rests in the orb, eroding the energy of the high elven race. It’s…clever actually.

It’s a final confrontation and after the insanity of the Hunt pt. II PC’s are more or less expecting an epic smackdown. They should be on edge…aaaaaand bureaucracy. Anti-climax. Something is obviously off. At this point they are chomping at the bit and losing their minds. Cirel momentarily stirs but is quickly lulled into inaction again. It’s interesting, reminds me of the possession of Saruman. This section would probably work is what I am saying.

The only problem is that the investigative part of the adventure is, as written, unfinished. There isn’t really a way for the PCs to puzzle out Sol is to blame, other then perhaps some vague description of his tower looking more ramshackle then others. That would be fine…but the final confrontation with the demon is boring. It’s a set of saving throws that need to be overcome so you can figure out to smash the orb and blammo! Adventure over! I expect better from the Death of the Morda. Maybe. MAYBE you can play this up as this thing being Morda’s most powerful servant or something but this needed something that can be fought with strategy, roleplaying, something bizarre and offkey. As it is it is ALMOST good but ironically comes off as lazy.

Reward is suitably awe imposing, literally any nonartifact thing the PCs want, max 4 per person, unique only plz, 500.000 gp in gemstones, a small keep on Avalin and 50 slaves per person. which seems on point for the fucking High Elves. That’s…one hell of a retirement party. A bizarre final act, I can almost respect it. **

The book ends with a cheatsheet for some custom rules for various elven breeds which are mostly overpowered bullshit, a note on the Elfquest roleplaying game, and larger maps suitable for photocopying or printing, which is a godsend.

What do you even say about Elves? I think in the time it came out it probably would have filled a growing demand for filthy elfwankery that would gradually come to subsume all of the hobby and give birth to truly horrific excesses of flavor text and class kits in the 2e era. The flavor text is hit or miss, with the Ice Elf and the Dark Elf really standing out as something special, possibly superior to the lukewarm treatment both would get in Forgotten Realms [2]. The adventures proper are the true meat and potatoes of elves, however, representing a sort of adventure path before this became a popular format[3]. While interesting and not without its off-key sort of charm, most of the modules would require serious tinkering now and are rather too fond of heavy handed railroading, tonal dissonance, arbitrary bullshit and general asshattery to make it worth a recommendation. An oddity, a queer thing dredged up from the distant mists of time, when Dnd was Untamed, Wacky and Wild and one of the first (that I know of) to attempt the Collect All the Artifacts format that would later be popularized in big shiny fuck you modules like Rod of Seven Parts or the OSR Splinter’s of Faith series. Maybe check it out if you are autistically obsessed with Lord of the Rings, only in a non-serious stoner sort of way where you are not afraid if someone is taking the piss out of it. **

[1] Which is like three nickles worth of mythril presumably

[1] I don’t mean straight up MGS-style infiltration missions like the excellent Temple of the Frog or the superb X4-X5, I mean more long term infiltration in a territory of the enemy that is not immediately hostile like D3.

[2] Everything in Forgotten Realms is lukewarm.

[3] There’s precedent like the A, D or T series of course.


10 thoughts on “[Review] Elves Pt. III; Darkness & Light

  1. Oh Dark Elves, the species that got me into RPing in the first place. Once when I was a small child, my mind conjured up images of graphic violence perpetuated by these malignant elves. But once I became a larger child, sadly they weren’t as extreme as I thought they would be.

    Then I found Warhammer.

    DEATH TO THE FALSE PHIONEX KING! GLORY TO MALEKITH THE EVERLASTING; RULER OF NAGGAROTH AND TRUE HEIR OF ULTHUAN!

    The place where they’re living in sounds pretty awesome, more than I could ever say about The Grey Elves. Mystical Venice is always a concept that I love exploring. Better than just “Fantasy Castle Land” that most people go for.

    Demi-Elves. Eh, Native American Expies are not my thing. Might as well put “What makes the Red Man Red.” But if it had them like the Scoia’tael or Dailish from Dragon Age would’ve been a nice spin.

    High Elves are great. Interesting to see them not be the “I’m so superior to you even though my society hasn’t progressed technologically/magically/ socially/ or any other note worthy thing in the past millennia.” That doesn’t mean that can’t be cool, like the Thalmor from Elder Scrolls.

    4th level Magic Users for an entire populace, dang.

    On a whole I think this product was okay. It had some good concepts, but not-so-great executions.I leave off with this:

    And what’s wrong with Forgotten Realms? Apologies if I sound like an egg. I never truly explored DnD’s worlds besides Planescape,Spelljammer, Ravenloft, and Dark Sun. Even then, its mostly as articles and never truly inside of them.

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    1. I agree. Warhammer seems the only succesfull attempt to move elves beyond the Master’s tropes. Their disdain of lower races is so untolkienish !

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Warhammer Dark Elves is damn fine dark elves, aye.

      Demi-Elves was probably the worst because it is just a lazy ripoff. Mystara had a sort of native american stand-in living on a plateau somewhere but those were humans. Why make them elves if you aren’t going to distinguish them from their human stereotypes.

      I think the Scoia’Tael is about on point for sad elves, that is to say, Elves stripped of their grandeur and innate superiority. I think if they would have been a bit less blatant in their rip-off (throw in some mongolian or hunn influences or something) the Demi-Elf concept could have been neat. Plains Elves. Each warrior a full dozen of the finest horses. Riding like the wind. Uncatchable. Deadly with a bow. It is said they bind the heads of their young so they grow to become elongated and distorted. Yeah that’d work.

      I think the original deal with High Elves (or just Tolkien’s Elves) was that they were closest to Iluvatar (God) and were allowed to dwell on the islands with the gods, basking in the light of the two trees. The original elves followed Feanor on his quest to retrieve his magic super gemstones that reflected the light of creation from Morgoth. Their stasis is a result of their proximity to a state of perfection, where the modern notion of progress is not really possible or desirable.

      I don’t think the concept retains its original strength if you introduce the concept of scientific progress, which is why I like the portrayal of High Elves in Warhammer Fantasy as something noble and tragic that no longer has a place in the world.

      Elves is fascinating but kind of flawed, at least it wasn’t boring.

      [Forgotten Realms]

      Forgotten Realms is maybe the ultimate weaksauce setting, and I say this as an avid Baldur’s Gate fan. Cobble together from disparate fantasy influences, there is not a single concept or element that Greenwood has not taken and diluted until it becomes tame, meek and buried under voluminous torrents of trivia. A good setting is a few blazing ingots of detail, around which a whole world may readily be inferred. Forgotten Realms is like watery jam, smeared across too many sandwitches. Anti warhammer fantasy.

      Dark Sun is the one I want to play the most. I am fascinated by the built in endgame.

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      1. Dark Sun has an interesting different treatment of many of the standard “Tolkien” humanoid races. I like the take of nomadic lazy trickster elves, interested in having a good time in what time they have.
        There are a couple of other D+D variants on elves (from Carl Sargent) that are worth a look: The Shadow Elves (one of the basic/expert gazetteers) and Rockseer Elves (from The Night Below).
        I do like the Warhammer Elves: the snobbish High Elves are fun to play (for the referee).

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  2. Interesting series of reviews: some of the adventure ideas are strong, just not quite good enough to justify the work of rewriting? A couple of other “enemy infiltration” modules: (i) The Silver Key (2e), where the PCs are polymorphed into orcs in order to steal the titular item, and have to blend in, but if they behave too “orcishly” they become orcs. Intriguing idea not wholly successfully handled; (ii) WGR6 City of Skulls, a raid on a prison in Dorakaa (capital of Iuz’s empire in Greyhawk). Superb module, with an excellent notoriety mechanic to penalise actions that stand out in this depraved nightmarish place.
    Looking forward to your review of B10, and even more so to the Palace of Unquiet Repose.

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    1. Hey! Thanks for the praise and WGR6 is one I’d love to revisit. I expect to deliver an alpha version of Palace tonight or tomorrow, after that it’s editing with Malrex.

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  3. Fucking hell, I want to run a city-sandbox game in Dark Isle now. That sounds metal as all hell and I approve.

    Tired, lazy “fantasy species as human racial category” can get in the sea though.

    The idea of arriving at the Isle of the High Elves and finding it decadent beyond the frisson of enjoyment and reduced to the merely tedious, its bureaucracy sunk into jobsworthiness? That’s clever, and yet disappointing: I think on balance my soul is crushed, mainly because that sort of bathetic flourish should in my ever-humbles come in the second or third act of a five act story, allowing us to whip ourselves back up to some sort of climax (sorry, thinking about those underwater brothels again) and leave… satiated. It’s the sort of trick a pretentious novel would pull and while I respect the craftsmanship of ‘The End of Mr. Y’ I still threw the bastard thing across the room when I read the epilogue.

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    1. Bugger, caught you out necromancin’ in my lawn did I?

      Dark Isle seems fitted for short sand-boxing though the amount of GM legerdermain required to keep the place running under sustained player scrutiny might soon reach epic proportions. Your note on the mis-placement of the last section is well noted and does credit, ex-story gaming Dot-worshipping pervert that you are.

      As I run through tombs and dredge my email for donations I dream fondly of nightmarish evenings spent trudging through White Wolf. My Birthday shall be soon. Perhaps I shall celebrate in grand manner.

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