“My name is Eildonas of Hulda Hoo,” I tell him as we walk.
“I take you to be one of the Grey Elves,” he says with a sidelong glance, provoking in me a short laugh, since such categories have meaning only to mortals.
I recently quoted that (a line from the elf’s story in Heroquest book one, The Fellowship of Four) when somebody was telling me about their game: "The other players assume my character's an imp, which is funny because actually I'm playing a sprite."
It’s the sort of distinction that probably makes sense in a D&D campaign, where the Monster Manual is treated as a diegetic text. (“It’s a ghoul.” “No it’s not; it’s a shade. Ghouls have red fingernails and regenerate.” Something like that, anyway.) It would make no sense in Legend, the setting of the Dragon Warriors and Jewelspider RPGs, where the peasant warning you about that damned thing out on the moors might call it an imp, pixie, sprite, goblin, redcap or elf all in the same breath.
Another gamer I know, after reading the blog post in which I elaborate on that theme, singled out this line:
“The point is: you don’t need player-character elves or dwarves.”
He asked the other players in his campaign:
“What's your take on the tendency to play 'furries'? I include the Dragonborn (half man, half dragon playable creatures in D&D) and the Tieflings (humans tainted by demonic heritage in D&D) in this. I think it's the same impulse. It's a very millennial thing, perhaps? How does everyone feel about playing nonhumans? Does it appeal? What's the appeal? Does it repel? Could there be a race that would be enticing to play? What would that be like?”
By the way, the faerie folk in Legend never say “human” or “nonhuman”. It’s a bit too Desmond Morris, that. They say “mortal”, stressing their own point of superiority but perhaps also betraying their envy of the part they don’t share, the immortal soul.
Naturally, like for anything else in roleplaying, everyone's mileage is different. For me, those elves and dwarves and trolls aren't “races” in the D&D sense. They are the very embodiment of the Other. So it makes no sense in a Legend game to have player-character elves or whatever. Elves don't have souls, nor goals that we could ever relate to. There's nothing about them that's human except in the glamour that clothes them in a form we can perceive.
But lots of people like playing exotic aliens and races, and if that's the style of fantasy they enjoy then why not. I guess it's a kind of role-cosplaying. They do then get tied in terrible knots over issues like “Drow -- oh dear, are they racist?” Well, maybe, if you're interpreting them as another Homo racial line, ie a sort of mutant humankind. But if they are simply manifestations of how we conceive these debased and residual spirits called faerie folk, then no.
One of my gaming friends likened it to picking avatars in computer games. Avatars (and an avatar is clearly not the player; think Gordon Freeman or Geralt) must have influenced players’ choice of character types over the last few decades. I notice that players very often refer to their characters in third person these days, as though they were avatars that the player controlled rather than personas that they put on. Roleplaying has become the middle-aged man's version of playing with dolls. But as for those dolls being nonhuman, there were plenty of halfling thieves scampering about in D&D games back in the ‘70s, so maybe the trend was set by Tolkien rather than by World of Warcraft.
I also discourage players in my Tekumel games from taking nonhumans, even though those are simply alien species and not mythical beings. The reason for that is they always end up bring played as stereotypes, extreme versions of human types. Then the game almost becomes an allegory with characters standing for Aggressiveness, Greed, Pedantry, etc. Now if a player could portray a truly alien mindset then I'd be intrigued to see them explore that, but it would have to be a lot more out there than the likes of Worf or Spock.
David Kajganikh, creator of The Terror, said he wanted to appeal to the viewers “who would watch the show if it didn’t have monsters”. That’s where my hand goes up. Unfortunately, Mr Kajganikh meant those who would watch whether or not it had monsters. For me, there’s a fascinating story of ambition, egotism, stupidity, bravery and resourcefulness in the Franklin expedition. It’s not only quite unnecessary to tart it up with Eskimo demons, it’s an insult.
Eliot believed that “anything that can be said as well in prose can be said better in prose.” He wasn’t against poetry (obviously), nor am I am against fantasy when I say that whatever can be done as well with human characters is better done using human characters. Legend is a low-fantasy world not because I want to sweep fantasy under the carpet, but because fantasy is a powder worth keeping dry. That way it counts for something when you do use it. High fantasy adventure is a different style, and in a long-running campaign it leads to diminishing returns; eventually even mainlining the pure stuff isn’t going to give you a kick.
But now I’m mixing metaphors, so perhaps it’s time to wrap up and hand over this over for discussion. Let's close with a typically thought-provoking line by Ursula K Le Guin:
“Fantasy is the language of the inner self.”
At its best, fantasy isn't taking us out of ourselves into dressing-up and escapism. It's taking us deep into our dreams where logic cannot go.