Historical Context Matters: Now With More Context

On the 11th I posted the first of my background pieces on the Elven Progenitors setting.  Now I’ve got more material for you.

Last time I covered city names, the names of bodies of water, the basics of city-states, mother-daughter city relations, Elf-home, the Northmen, and the return of slavery.  I still need to talk about the divisions amongst the elves, the cold war, where people get their slaves, why orcs aren’t fighting everyone all the time (and whom they are fighting), the alternative flora and fauna, and maybe something about the Elven Republic.  But there’s no way I’m going to cover all that, so I’ll settle for telling you a bit more about elves.  But to whet your appetite, first, the original conceit of the setting; then a brief background on how much of the world has been explored and settled.

The original conceit of the setting, when I was first developing it with my brother for a series of quick adventures that we wanted to play (yes, it started as an RPG setting), was that we were playing in an alternate version of our own world.  While we didn’t want there to be any magic as most people would recognize it, we did decide to switch things up when it came to evolution, and I’ve used “artistic license” (i.e. unrealistic lies) to hand wave past a few of the problems which follow.  Specifically, the first sapients to evolve were what we would call elves, and they bred all of the other races of sapients in addition to making some awkward accidents along the way.  I know that this doesn’t make much sense when it comes to an evolutionary time-scale (except for the part where elves are actually long-lived enough to breed other species meaningfully), but if you’ll ignore that problem and accept that elves can effectively do magical things with breeding then I suspect you’ll enjoy what follows.

At the time of the great war, elves and their various subject races had cities in Elf-home (Africa), Europe, and western, central, and southern Asia.  A select few elves had performed extensive studies of ocean currents and hypothesized the existence of a land mass to the west of Europe, though with the outbreak of civil war they kept this knowledge secret.  They worried that access to the resources of an entirely new continent would represent a dangerously unbalancing factor in the war, and could only lead to further suffering.  They were also concerned that, if a peace settlement were achieved, the struggle to settle in the New World would re-ignite the civil war.  Therefore, unbeknownst to those fighting the great war, they repurposed a breeding project which had been sidelined by the war and used it to develop a self-replicating massive area denial bioweapon; as more of their fears about the conflict came to pass, and it seemed clear that allowing either side to spread to the New World would only exacerbate the civil war, they deployed their weapon in the New World to prevent exactly that.

Now, with that teaser out of the way, how about a little more detail…

The struggle over slavery and manumission, the assassination of the elven royal family (symbolic leaders rather than actual ones), the collapse of the Elven Republic, and the war which grew out of those factors are all central to understanding the politics going on behind the scenes of the setting.  Fortunately, you don’t need to know anything about most of them to appreciate the short stories that I’ve written thus far, and most non-elves probably only know about those events through folklore of some sort.  But in order for any of them to makes sense, I should probably go a little further back.

Elves are incredibly long lived, and do not appear to age upon reaching maturity.  If an elf isn’t murdered and doesn’t suffer some terrible accident, it could live thousands of years.  Because of that, elves can do all kinds of strange things.  If there’s something, somewhere, that a tremendously skilled human being has been able to do, there are a number of elves who are able to do it better.  It’s not that they can’t die, but that they live for so long and at such a high performance capacity that the normal human limits with which we are familiar mean little to them.  Stories about crazy kung fu masters able to outfight crowds of people, or take on many swordsmen with their bare hands?  That’s an elf.  The most charming and personable person in the world, loved by nearly everyone they meet because they’re just like that?  That’s an elf too.  It might be the same elf.  They’re probably also a virtuoso on the piano, a talented painter, and could accurately describe offhand the entire anatomies of one hundred species of fish, birds, and humanoids.  When you have more than a hundred years to get really good at a number of things, you can just keep picking up masteries as you go.  Old elves have quite literally mastered and forgotten more things than you’re ever likely to know.  Elves aren’t born virtuosos, and not every elf is driven to constant self-improvement, but even the laziest elf has had too much time on their hands and has almost certainly mastered whatever struck their fancy, oh, about twenty years ago.

This doesn’t mean that they don’t develop their own idiosyncrasies.  An old elf is a lot like an old human, except that the old elf isn’t facing present or approaching decrepitude.  Their bodies seem somewhat more resilient than a human’s, if only because they eventually get over whatever injuries they’ve acquired.  Some of them might seem to have permanently sunny dispositions, perhaps because they decided long ago that it wasn’t worth moping around and being gloomy, and they’re fortunate enough to not get depressed.  Some of them might never talk to anyone who isn’t at least fifty years old, because anyone any younger is unbearably naive, rash, or just not worth it.  Maybe they’ve seen enough terrible things happen on Tuesdays that they spend all of their Tuesdays sleeping until whatever this Tuesday has brought is over.  Perhaps they just don’t like something and haven’t since they were twelve.  They could adore novelty or abhor it, be charming or curmudgeonly or whatever they please, and they could probably act one way with one group and entirely differently with another.

This also gives them a very different perspective on those with shorter lives.  In fact, some elves consider humans to be not much better than very intelligent pets.  Why?  Well, they don’t live very long for one thing, and it doesn’t pay to become as attached to them as one might with an elf.  More telling, most non-elves simply never master the intricacies of civilized life.  The most formal modes of elven language are filled with a number of subtle nuances of specific posturing and controlled body movement (a good speaker is one who is able to control their blush response, for example), and while simple speech is perfectly sufficient for conveying most information, any knowledgeable speaker would agree that it is simply less meaningful than full formal speech.  But formal speech often takes decades of practice to master, as part and parcel of the basic body-awareness training which would be given to a young elf, and by the time that most non-elves are able to parse and use formal speech their bodies are already starting to fail them.  When you get right down to it, from an elf’s perspective most non-elves can’t even talk very well.  It’s a bit like trying to imagine that someone who always talks like a small child, and will never talk like anything but a small child, is a fully reasoning being.  Some elves feel the connection, more elves can intellectually make the connection even if they don’t experience it, and some elves just never care much about ‘the childlings.’

But in the setting’s present very few non-elves routinely interact with elves; with the end of the great war the various warring camps divided into roughly two groups, each resettling themselves in a territory delineated by the ceasefire agreements and mostly cutting off contact with the outside world.  Non-elves, viewed as contentious trouble makers by many, were mostly expelled from Elf-home (Africa) by the so-called Good Masters, those who had adopted manumission for their cause (though whether the adoption was heartfelt or just a convenient tool is unknown to any but them).  The Enlightened Ones (also known as The Slavers by manumitted slaves who disliked their rejection of ‘childling’ self-determination) retreated with their still-loyal servants to the central Asian steppes, the Himalayan foothills, and the Tibetan plateau.  Some strictures were placed on the creation of new races of servitors, though lines that had been in development at the time of the war were permitted to be more or less completed.

So it is because of this retreat from the rest of the world that contact with elves is quite limited.  In the centuries following the end of the civil war a number of individual elves returned to the Freed Cities, those city-states which were abandoned to the care of the manumitted, but the returning elves almost never declared an allegiance in favor of the Good Masters or the Enlightened Ones.  Instead, they began what was to become an ongoing cold war of the elves, a struggle for supremacy amongst the various city-states and federations for their preferred factions and for themselves.  These quiet political struggles have continued for more than a thousand years at this point, and a number of elven clans have more or less claimed various city-states as their cat’s-paws for their own political and paramilitary conflicts.  The situation is perhaps analogous to our own Cold War’s competition for influence over smaller nations, but with more (and less clearly defined) poles of political orientation.

Remember what I was saying about how competent elves are, or can be?  Now consider this: the only elves to visit or live in the outer world (not Elf-home, not the realms of the Enlightened Ones) are those who are in some way ambitious or dedicated to their causes, with a tiny smattering of others who just like it out there or can’t stand other elves.  Elves living in the free city-states are almost definitionally go-getters, and have almost certainly been mastering new skills for as long as they’ve been alive.  It’s a safe bet that they are hyper-competent, intelligent, and in many other ways deeply scary individuals.  Most of them have been pulling the strings of those around them for centuries or perhaps even over a millennia, and their plots encompass everything from short-term high-impact operations to the long-term cultivation of any advantageous position or edge that they can find.  They cannot be everywhere and they cannot foresee everything, but they often have both knowing and unwitting agents on the ground when it matters, they are rarely surprised, and they’re nearly always in for the long game.  The oldest of them have survived more horrendous mistakes than most people ever make, and their backup, contingency, and go-to-hell plans would be an intelligence operative’s wet-dream.

This is not to say that every elf in the outer world is a terrifyingly competent badass; you have to start giving your perfect-operative-to-be experience sometime, and there are relative newbies out there.  But they are generally backed up by a powerful childling staff, well trained retainers who are ready to pass their skills on to their new leader.

Ok, that’s probably enough for this lore-dump.  I’ve got far more that I still need to share, but if I start explaining further this post will be delayed again, and I don’t want that.  If you haven’t read my stories, you can find them with these links: Paying the Tab, Jerome Goes North, Jerome’s Tropical Vacation, A Simple Misunderstanding, and Rum Luck.

I hope you’ve been enjoying these posts, please ‘like’ them if you have.  I want to know whether I should keep putting them up!

Next time I’ll probably address some of the creepy racist paternalism of the elves, how it might make sense for a millennia-old being to believe that they know better than you, and how that argument got many elves nowhere during the civil war.

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