[Let’s Read] Elves of Golarion

Lesp

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Hi there. I’m Lesp, and I thought it would be fun to read through Elves of Golarion together. It was one of the first bits of material released for Pathfinder - it came out in October 2008, nearly a year before the core rulebook - and it’s just the second book in the Pathfinder Companion series, preceded only by Second Darkness, a book designed to get players up to speed on what they need to know for the adventure path of the same name.

The book was penned by freelancers Hal Maclean and Jeff Quick, both of whom have a variety of other Pathfinder supplementary materials under their belts, and Sean K. Reynolds, one of the primary forces behind the Pathfinder system.

Because the book appeared so early in the system’s lifetime, the only setting material it really had to work off of was the Pathfinder Campaign Setting book. It mentions nothing from the Advanced Players Guide or the Ultimate series by name, since those books did not exist yet, of course, and what mechanics it has are 3.5 mechanics, since Pathfinder itself didn’t even exist as a rule set yet.

Part 1: Cover and Inside Cover
The cover depicts Merisiel, the iconic rogue, fighting a squad of hobgoblins. I don’t know if Pathfinder had a fixed set of iconics at this point, but the character pictured is clearly Merisiel. It’s a dynamic action shot that makes the character look really cool. She’s a Forlorn, which is a type of elf we’ll learn about later, but in the art she’s just a sweet rogue, cutting up some hobgoblins.

The inside cover begins with a sidebar on elf names. Elves have four different names. Each, not total.
1) A personal name, that’s basically just a regular first name.
2) A secret name, that only people very close to them know.
3) An everyday name, which is a nickname that they pick out themselves
4) A family name.
In this regard, Elves are basically like cats from the musical Cats, but with one extra name.
We also get some sample Elven names, and the section notes that sometimes Elves are named after their ancestors. Regular humans do that too, presumably, but this section is about Elf names. Both Seltyiel, the iconic Magus, and Merisiel, the iconic rogue, have names that appear in the list.

The next sidebar (the inside front cover is just five sidebars) notes the locations where elves of different varieties are likely to be found, and also that elves tend to stick with other elves, which is a recurring theme in the book. It’s also one of the first indications that this is a 3.5 book - it refers to Elves by subrace names that Pathfinder would eventually phase out to some degree.

There’s a sidebar about languages, followed by a sidebar about typical Elven Deities. Three of these - Calistria, Desna, and Nethys - are core deities. The other three are Elven racial deities. We’ll return to those guys later.

Finally, there’s a section that recapitulates Elf stats. Because this is a pre-Pathfinder product, the stats are the 3.5 SRD stats. Between 3.5 and Pathfinder, Elves would pick up a +2 bonus to Intelligence to go with their +2 bonus to dexterity. They’d lose the free check to notice concealed doors that they passed within five feet of, a trait that never made sense to be anyway, given that Elves are not known for their abiding familiarity with conventional architecture. They’d also bag a bonus to spellcraft (used to identify spells) and to overcoming spell resistance. Along with the Int bonus, this makes Pathfinder elves the great wizards that they were made out to be in 3.5, but that their stats didn’t then support very strongly.

The Elven constitution penalty, which has existed as part of D&D for as long as race and class have been distinct, is a bit of a curiosity to me, as it’s rarely played up to the same degree as other racial stat penalties. Constitution is one of the more forgettable stats, but elves are rarely depicted as unhealthy, frail, or quick to tire. If anything, they’re usually depicted as unusually robust and hale despite their frames. This may be an artifact of the tendency to just depict elves as generically superior all around, but we’ll see if and how Elves of Golarion addresses elven frailty.

I guess we didn’t cover much ground in part one - we’re still not on page 1 yet - but this book is only 32 pages long, so I think we can afford to plod a bit.
 
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Evil Midnight Lurker

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I should point out that the book appeared so early that it is in fact considered not particularly canon any longer -- they really want to move away from the way elves were portrayed here.
 

Lesp

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I should point out that the book appeared so early that it is in fact considered not particularly canon any longer -- they really want to move away from the way elves were portrayed here.
That's interesting to know. Are there any specifics that they've mentioned with regards to that? I know that the portrayal of Elves has shifted a little over time, but I didn't know that any particular parts of EoG were considered non-canon. Maybe afterwords (or in the middle), we can check out the ARG and other books for updates on how the setting approaches elves. I'll skim the paizo forums to see if there's any specific dev comments about new directions as well. Thanks!
 

Evil Midnight Lurker

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That's interesting to know. Are there any specifics that they've mentioned with regards to that? I know that the portrayal of Elves has shifted a little over time, but I didn't know that any particular parts of EoG were considered non-canon. Maybe afterwords (or in the middle), we can check out the ARG and other books for updates on how the setting approaches elves. I'll skim the paizo forums to see if there's any specific dev comments about new directions as well. Thanks!
I can't remember many specifics, to be honest. Certainly things like the gods, Sovyrian, and so forth are still in place.

The one thing I do remember is that Pathfinder elves do need to sleep just like the rest of us filthy hairy beasts. :)
 
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Lesp

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Part 2: Introduction, Part 1

Elves are a tricky race to write about, in some ways. Like dwarves, the archetypical fantasy depiction of elves stems heavily from the portrayal of a handful of characters in Lord of the Rings. Lots of fiction, even gaming fiction, sometimes has historically presented elves as being basically just superior to humans in all regards. Setting design that’s trying to make elves an interesting race that has their own problems usually has to add flaws to the classic depiction. The fiction-writing maxim that a character’s greatest weakness is their greatest strength taken too far often applies here, as it’s a good way to generate weaknesses for a race that’s all strengths.

The introduction begins by describing the Elven people, using just about every adjective you can think of. They’re graceful, sublime artists and subtle. Their contradictory behavior - they care about friendship, but are aloof, they’re very wise, but they act recklessly, etc. - is acknowledged by the book, although kind of brushed away as something that elves do manage to understand. Elves are also so in tune with nature that it sort of becomes part of them.

The major pivot that much of the introduction - and much of the entire book - is built around is that Elves are really dang weird because they live a really long time. They’re slow to react to the present, because the present is just a blip on the radars of their entire experience. They’re distant from other races because those suckers die really fast, so it hurts to get close to them.

There’s a line to walk when making fantasy races distinct from another. Too far on one side and the race is just a slightly misshapen bunch of humans; too far on the other, and races that are supposed to be moderately familiar and relatable are total aliens. Generally, fantasy tends to slip more towards the former than the latter, so it’s nice to see the book going out of its way to make Elves a bit odd. The introductory section, on the whole, bends much more towards “Elves are weird and hard to understand” than towards “elves are better”, which is pretty cool.

Elven History

Because this book came so early in PF’s run, its history of elves omits several pretty critical details, which we’ll catch up with after we’re done with this book.

The history begins with elves being all chill and zen and stuff, existing presumably in their present form, but being so chill about things that they didn’t even really see the need to count “years” or anything like that, which presumably made it tough to know when an elf could legally get into a bar. Aside from that, the world was basically an elf paradise.

Eventually, humans show up, and because the humans were a heck of a lot better at reproduction than elves, they were overwhelming the elves, even though an elf is ten times better than a human. (The book’s words, not mine, and our first major instance of Elves Are Super Superior.) The elves apparently could tell that Earthfall - the apocalypse event where tons of meteors and stuff were going to smash into the planet - was coming, so they gathered from across the world, packed up, and shipped off to Sovyrian, which is either another continent, another planet, or another dimension. Elves don’t really remember which, but it’s the place they came from in the first place. Pathfinder, years after this book was published, did eventually establish that Sovyrian is on Castrovel, the next planet closest to the sun - more or less fantasy Venus. This makes elves aliens, which is at least as good an explanation for them being weird as anything else.

Some elves skipped out on taking the magical portal bus to Venus and instead hid underground, where they became drow. Some didn’t hide underground, and instead hung back to protect the portal stone that the others used to get to Sovyrian. Most of the old Elven cities were looted, which is not something that the elves appreciated. Almost eight thousand years after Earthfall, a demon named Treerazer got punted out of the abyss by his boss and decided to chill in the elven forests, where he set to work corrupting it. When he got wind of the portal stone, he figured he had to screw around with that, and his plan was to make it a portal to the abyss, which he could use to lead a demonic invasion. This was apparently too much for the elves, so thousands of years after the catastrophe that led them to peace out, the elves returned from Sovyrion to deal with Treerazer. Since humans had now advanced enough to be worth their time, the Elves decided to stick it out on Golarion.

They initially try to reclaim all their old stuff, but there really aren’t very many of them, so they’re forced to basically just settle for holding onto Kyonin, their homeland.

Also, Treerazer’s still around, and you can totally visit him in the Tanglebriar, the corrupted bit of forest south of Kyonin. He's a winged dinosaur guy with an axe, which is definitely not what I imagined when I was reading about him.

Next Time: Elves! What do they look like?
 
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Evil Midnight Lurker

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Treerazer and his Blackaxe were created by James Jacobs while he was... still in junior high school, I think? That excuses a lot of things. :)
 

junglefowl26

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Given that Azlanti humans have plus 2 to everything while the elves have that negative two to con and no bonuses to a lot of their stats, weren't the humans of that time the Super Superior Species?

Admittedly, this is probably before they invented that little detail, but still.
 

Crinos

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Given that Azlanti humans have plus 2 to everything while the elves have that negative two to con and no bonuses to a lot of their stats, weren't the humans of that time the Super Superior Species?

Admittedly, this is probably before they invented that little detail, but still.
Just the Azlanti, plus they kinda sorta got splattered hither and yon across the landscape by a giant meteor.

Actually, considering that, maybe the Elves had the right idea when they hightailed it out of dodge. Like a wild party and the last guy out gets the check.
 

Lesp

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It's not clear to me exactly what the humans that were swarming over the elves were supposed to be like. In addition to Azlant, I believe that Thassalon was kicking around at the same general time, and while they're no Azlant, I'd hardly say that their only advantage over elves was their reproductive rate. It's possible that the elves at the time were also super-elves, and both the ones that went off to Sovyrian and the ones that held back have degenerated to some degree since then, but the book gives no indication of that that I've seen.

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Part 3: Introduction, Part 2

The next section deals with the physical traits of elves, both how they look and how they operate physiologically. Appearance-wise, Golarion elves differ from generic fantasy elves in a few major ways. The first is that instead of having basically human ears, but a little pointy on top, they have significantly elongated ears. I don’t know the exact history of elongated ears on elves, but I associate it with with anime-style art, and also with the Warcraft franchise. In the latter case, I’d assume the long-ear style was chosen in part so the ears would be visible on the characters when depicted at the scale that people are shown at in an real-time strategy game, where regular human ears aren’t really visible at all, so pointing them wouldn’t make a difference.

Anime-style Elf
Warcraft Night Elf
Merisiel, the Iconic Pathfinder Rogue

No shortage of sketchy images were sifted through in the process of googling those first two. It's possible that elf-ear lengthening is part of a general trend; 3.5 and 4e depicted elves with ears of intermediate length, clearly larger than a human's ear, but not generally extending near to (or past) the back or top of the skull.

The second is that their pupils and irises are so large that the whites of their eyes aren’t visible at all, even though their eyes are pretty large. While I have no idea if the idea of elves being from another planet was part of the decision-making behind this art direction, it does give them something in common with the iconic “grey” alien. Additionally, elves (slowly) adapt physically to their surroundings, which gives them a greater range of fleshtones than some species.

The “senses” section offers up the notion that an elf’s larger pupils make it more perceptive (a trait that they would carry forward into Pathfinder from 3.5) and that elves are sensitive to pattern irregularities, accounting for their affinity for finding secret doors (a trait that would not survive the transition, aside from the general perception bonus.) There’s some nice setting detail in the notion that, because they have low-light vision, elves don’t bother to light their own structures all that well unless they’re entertaining human guests, and savvy human visitors can get a hint to how hospitable an elf is feeling based on whether they bother to light things up or not.

Elven food is basically unexciting; they eat more or less the same stuff humans do, although they don’t like the flesh of domesticated animals as much. Despite the fact that elven cuisine is one of the least weird things about them, it gets its own entire section later, so we’ll return to this. Elven attire is largely what you’d expect. They like light clothing, earth tones, and ornate-but-functional stuff. They also are more stylish than other species, because hey, why not. Elves live for a super long time, unless they get killed first, although after living for a millenium or so, some of them just sort of leave, going to some mystery place, rather than dying. The book once again goes with “Elves don’t seem to think you should care about this” when it comes to describing where exactly the old elves go.

This is also where the book tackles the “if elves are a thousand years old, why are they level twenty everythings?” question. The answer it goes with is that elves consider fighting and treasure hunting distractions from arts and crafts and from seeking enlightenment, so they don’t tend to focus on those things as much. Elves aren’t in a hurry to leave their mark on the world, since they’ll outlive the marks they’d leave anyway.

I don’t know if I love that explanation, but I also don’t think that there’s a single perfect explanation, or people wouldn’t still be talking about the “why aren’t elves all super accomplished?” question to this day.

Lastly, according to EoG, elves don’t sleep. This is something that was outright changed in the transition to Pathfinder from 3.5. Fortunately, no major facets of what elves are like is tied to them trancing as opposed to sleeping, so the change doesn’t open any questions. I've got no idea why this change was made, other than perhaps to simplify things and to pull them away from Tolkien elves, which I believe don't sleep. (
 
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