The first elven culture I’m attempting to engineer is a version of the wood elves, based on my previous discussion about what the game mechanics tell us about elves in the new edition. I want to create a nonhuman culture that’s culturally distinct, and I want that culture to be a logical extension of the existing rules and mechanics.
Often, other depictions of wood elves strike me as driven by simplistic stereotypes, usually fusing Legolas and Santa’s helpers. They’re tree-hugger hippies with pointy ears, an archery fetish, and a slight attitude.
The wood elves below are quite different.
The Einolar, as they call themselves, are part of nature, and can be chaotic and brutal. They believe deeply in the spirits of nature, but instead of being pacifists, these fierce and protective hunters may be as likely to eat you as to talk with you. Bound to their forests by ties of kinship with the trees among them, the Einolar believe, perhaps correctly, that their ancestor’s spirits are still present in the trees nourished by their fallen corpses. They have no central government or nobles — only family ties and an exotic kind of democracy, one characterized both by tradition and the fierce independence of a chaotic species.
What the Mechanics Mean
What the official rules tell us about wood elves is fairly limited:
- They are dexterous and wise, fast and excellent at hiding in the woods.
- They have the standard elven weapon proficiencies as well.
Those traits tell us that they are going to be a fairly lethal group of hit and run archers, which is exactly how most of us envision wood elves, so it’s nice the mechanics bear that out. The Wisdom bonus means they will have an edge in clerical or druidic magic as well. In fact, given their stat bonus, religion should be a big part of their culture.
Beyond those basic features, there are hints that they are self sufficient, may be slightly isolationist, and tend a bit toward the chaotic, though they also are essentially good. It’s not a lot to go on, but it’s enough to form a foundation on which to build a distinct, specific, and fully realized culture.
Overview and Physical Characteristics
The Einolar (eye-NOH-lar) are a significant wood elf culture, one that has successfully spread throughout several regions of the Vault. They are not unified into anything like a nation state. Nations are fairly uncommon among the chaotically inclined elves anyway and practically anathema to the Einolar. Instead, there are many independent Einolar communities, usually referred to as tribes, which are themselves divided into a variety of clans — most often operating under some form of consensus-seeking council.
Einolar are devotedly animistic, believing everything has a spirit. This belief makes them both deeply protective of the natural world around them and also closely tied to its patterns of life, death, and rebirth. Nevertheless, these are not tree-hugging hippy elves. They love their woods and protect them ruthlessly, but they see themselves as the apex predator in their environment. Nature is sacred to them, but an individual life is simply part of nature, and nature is red in tooth and claw.
In short, the Einolar are hunters, believing that they take in the spirits of that which they consume. Some may even consume other sentient beings.
Einolar stand a bit taller than other wood elves, about as tall as humans, and tend toward wiry builds rather than bulk. Tribes of Einolar have their own ethnic diversities, varying considerably in coloration. In fact, it seems that they somehow adapt to the environment around them and harmonize with the local palette. In more temperate climes they tend towards fairer skin and hair coloration, while in more tropical regions they often take on darker pigmentation and hair color. One feature nearly universal to all Einolar is eye coloration. With only a very few exceptions Einolar have deep green eyes. Some do have blue or hazel eyes which are seen as marks of two of their seasonal deities, Lahn and Pahl respectively. Such individuals almost always become priests in their cults.
Family and Daily Life
The Einolar recognize an extended family structure known as a clan. The clan comprises many generations of related nuclear families who live within a specific region of a large Einolar domain. Often the clan is led (admittedly, a loose term with the Einolar) by a matriarch. From her, most of the families within the clan are directly descended. Traditionally, the matriarch holds as a personal possession a grove of Pillar Trees, the massive forest giants in which many Einolar make their homes, which are handed down from mother to eldest daughter. The rest of the clan are granted portions of the grove for their own use, but many – particularly the men – also maintain a separate household elsewhere within the Einolar territory. This second home is traditionally used during the warmer spring and summer months. The two-home tradition suits the Elven need for independence while also fostering close family ties. As clan membership is inherited through the maternal line, Einolar women will hold title to the clan home while Einolar men will tend to own independent households.
Einolar never have intimate relationships with those of their own clan. This is akin to the incest taboo in other cultures. Aside from that singular restriction they are quite permissive in their attitudes towards sex and gender. Marriage customs among the Einolar are quite different from other races in that they do not expect relationships to last forever. They recognize that very few creatures in nature bond for life, and since an elven life may be very long indeed, it would be almost foolish to expect a pair to remain together for more than a few decades. Indeed, most Einolar couples wait until a child is born to them before making a more serious (if temporary) commitment to each other.
Children are not as rare among Einoalr as they are among most other elven populations. Nevertheless, their relatively high rates of mortality from hunting and living in a somewhat less than fully pacified forest mean that their populations still grow slowly. As a result, a child is quite precious, and most couples so blessed will make what is known as a Raising Bond to remain together until the child is of age to receive his or her own bow and become a full-fledged member of the clan and the tribe. Couples who cannot have children or same-sex couples may adopt an orphan Einolar child.
Some Einolar do form ties as lasting as those of Swans. The most binding form of marriage is known as Spirit Bond. This ensures that the two so bound will be buried next to each other, though they may pass away at different times, and only a single Pillar Tree seed will be placed in the grave. According to the Einoalr traditions, this ensures that the spirits of the two will quite literally become fused and form a single entity. This is a very rare compact, and is seen by most Einolar as a bit extreme, though respected.
Society and Government
Most Einolar live in tribes consisting of a few extended family clans. Such Einolar communities are surprisingly small considering the large amount of territory they claim. It is not uncommon for a tribe of only several hundred to a few thousand Einolar to claim an entire forest spanning several hundred square miles or more. Their claims are somewhat more flexible than those of human cultures, in that small tribes of other allied or even subjugated races may live within the sphere of an Einolar tribe. However, it is always quite clear that those living within an Einolar domain are entirely beholden to the elves for their sufferance.
The Einolar have a curious form of government that fits their fiercely independent and somewhat chaotic nature.
Any adult member of the tribe may call a Moot, a council attended by all who are interested. At a moot, any tribal member can put forward proposals, ask for a legal judgment or request community action. The trick is that any decision requires full consensus by all who are present. This can make moots last for days and can lead to sometimes infuriating inaction on the part of the Einolar. Yet, they are also adept at building such a consensus, and when serious issues threaten, such as an invasion or a famine, they can react quickly and with the total commitment of the entire tribe. Individual clans use an internal version of the same procedure for domestic matters.
An interesting aspect of the Einolar’s tradition of seeking consensus is that even a single individual can hold up or derail the plans of the community. The Einolar culture has developed an adaptive custom to deal with such a recalcitrant, a practice known as Dismissal. When a single obstinate voice or even a very small minority refuses to join the consensus, the rest of the Einolar community may begin a process of shunning the intractable members. This usually begins with mild rudeness and the Dismissed being left out of social events. As time goes on, the Dismissed may find it hard to trade or conduct business with other members of the tribe. Eventually, Dismissal may result in a refusal to talk to or even acknowledge the presence of the obstinate member. Culturally, this is seen as a source of great shame, and eventually most Dismissed leave the tribal forest and make their own way into the world.
There is one last catch to this tradition. After a score of years have passed, the Dismissed may return home. If, in hindsight, the outsider’s position is deemed to have merit, the Dismissed is welcomed back and treated as a hero. He or she is often accorded special status in future councils and is seen as a particular asset to the community. If, on the other hand, the dissenter was wrong, or the merits of his or her position are not obvious, then the outcast Einolar is expected to make a gesture of contrition, gifting the tribe with some valuable resources acquired during his or her time of exile.
Dismissal can also be practiced on whole clans when serious disputes arise. Often, when this takes place, the offending clan will separate from the tribe and leave the region to form a new tribe of its own. This is a traumatic experience for all involved, but even when there is significant enmity, the departing clan will usually be gifted with significant resources in exchange for the property they must leave behind. This serves to give the departing group a fighting chance and it also has the additional benefit of helping to propagate the Einolar as the new tribe will often travel a significant distance before finding a suitable home.
Design Note: The practice of Dismissal provides a reason for Einolar to be found away from their culture group. For an Einolar character, the cause for the Dismissal can be a fantastic character hook, and for the GM, it is a tailor-made plot device. It enables the character to be separated from his or her community, but still have a hope and a chance of regaining the lost status and even improving it.
The Einolar practice regular trade and other commercial relations with neighboring cultures, though their relative self-sufficiency makes these acquisitions more a matter of convenience or indulgence than a necessity.
For their part, the Einolar are particularly renowned for their bows, their furniture and woodcarving, and their basketry. They are quite aware of the quality of their crafted items and will insist upon being well compensated for those they do give up. Making trade even more challenging is that fact that the Einolar have little use for minted currency. Most clans keep some store of coin for emergency use, but individuals rarely have a use for it in the sharing and barter economy that serves the Einolar at home. The one truly significant exception to this rule is the Einolar’s willingness to trade for steel blades, particularly short swords. They treasure such weapons. Most Einolar carry a pair of short swords, preferably crafted by dwarven or (even better yet) Kuehlan smiths.
Einolar relations with neighboring cultures are often distant at best and downright frustrating even when there are shared interests. The Einolar tradition of seeking consensus makes it quite difficult for them to form a unified foreign policy, or even to act effectively as allies. Some Einolar groups do make pacts for mutual defense, which, once agreed upon by a consensus, are quite binding. Generally, though, the Einolar tend to remain neutral even when it may seem that their own interests would be served by alliance. Sometimes this neutrality works in their own interest as many cultures have come to realize that they can avoid confrontation with the Einolar simply by avoiding their domains. Occasionally, this passivity is taken as a sign of weakness, and it is indeed a risky strategy for a race that is almost always going to be terrifically outnumbered by its adversaries. Still, those who wake the sleeping ire of the Einolar should be wary.
Design Note: Elves are often depicted as aloof and distant, as difficult to work with. When their reasons don’t make sense in literature, those scenes can make elves seem oddly irrational or proud for a “wise” and long-lived race. I wanted to give the Einolar a culture that explains this attitude, one that is internally consistent and predictable to those who understand it. Hopefully, the above culture makes them a challenge to deal with — without simply making them elitist jerks.
Both their isolationist nature and consensus-based political system make aggressive war almost unknown to the Einolar.
The Einolar only fight in defense of their own land or, in very rare cases, on behalf of close allies. This means that all Einolar war is predicated on defensive strategies. They are experts at ambush, tactical retreats, guerrilla tactics, and making an enemy pay for every inch of ground. A rich culture of active hunting ensures that the martial skills of all Einolar are proficient and honed. Their forests are not sanitized hunting grounds, but dangerous preserves filled with all sorts of carnivorous beasts. Einolar who have survived in their woods for centuries are all proficient and habitually alert combatants with an innate sense of the home terrain born of hundreds of years of experience.
All Einolar are proficient with the longbow because it is culturally significant to them. No other weapon comes close to the longbow in terms of reverence and significance. It is a difficult weapon, but archery practice is viewed by the Einolar as a form of entertainment and a matter of personal pride. Some of the greatest internal clashes in Einolar society are the result of archery competitions, which are a regular occurrence at tribal gatherings. The longbow is so central to their cultural identity that the weapon also serves as a mark of adulthood. When an Einolar child is deemed an adult by his or her elders in the clan, a bow is presented to the new clan member in a ceremony known as the Stringing. From the moment the child strings the bow, he or she is considered a full member of the clan and of the tribe.
Once the bow is strung, it is shot as far into the woods as possible and the whole clan seeks out the arrow to discover what was struck. The results of the shot are interpreted by the clan tree priests, who seek omens from the object struck and the attitude of the arrow. For instance, if the arrow bounces off of an object, that is considered an omen of adversity the new tribal member will face and should be wary of. If the arrow strikes and sticks in a tree, the species of the tree is thought to represent the new member’s character. If, rarest of all, an animal is struck, it is considered an ill omen unless the creature is slain, in which case it denotes that the archer will be a guardian for the tribe or a great hunter. The worst possible result is a lost arrow which is a dire omen indeed, though it is very rare that the clan fails to find the missile.
After the longbow, the most revered weapons are the paired short swords, which Einolar refer to as the Tooth, for the main-hand weapon, and the Claw, for the off-hand weapon. Most of these swords are received in trade with outside sources or handed down from generation to generation. The Einolar prefer slightly shorter and thicker forms of the short sword with slightly curved blades. Some look more like very long knives or machetes than like swords and are as useful for clearing trails and skinning game as they are for combat. Axes are another commonly used weapon, and some Einoalr tribes have even replaced their preference for paired short swords with a set of two hatchets.
Design Note: In the current edition, paired short swords will actually be a better, more effective weapon choice than a longsword for most elves. The decision to have the Einolar focus on the short sword is, in part, a response to this fact. But paired swords also feel like a better cultural fit for a society whose warrior ethos is based more upon hunting than explicit combat. Shortswords are eminently practical weapons and much less cumbersome to carry in dense forests than a longsword would be.
There are two distinct features of Einoalr warfare that bear discussion.
The first is their reliance on a defense-in-depth strategy. The few visitors to Einolar realms note the relative scarcity of population, especially in comparison to the vast forest regions they traditionally claim and defend. This is a vital part of the Einolar stratagem, as the low population density gives them ample room to retreat to increasingly central and more defensible positions. As part of this policy, they rigorously defend against any unwelcome incursions into their territory. This sometimes puts them at odds with even civilized neighbors who view their territorial claims as unwarranted and even restrictive. They very rarely give away any territory, and if they do it will only be for iron-clad and absolutely vital concessions.
The second feature of Einolar strategy is that they can use the whole forest and its inhabitants against intruders. Over the millennia, the Einolar have bred three specific companion species to enhance their hunting and combat capabilities. The most common of these are the Cushael, large canines that look something like a cross between a massive wolfhound and a dire wolf. They are leaner and more agile than worgs, their most habitual and hated foe, but just as intelligent. They work in packs both independently and directed by Einolar companions, and they employ tactics honed over years of hunting together. Cushael are also a rarity among canines in that they have significant claws and can even climb trees.
Less common, but still significant, are the Cathael — large leopard-like beasts with dark, tawny coats. They are distinguished by the fact that they have six legs instead of four, and there are other subtle characteristics that mark them as distinct from traditional felines. They are cunning and intelligent, capable even of understanding basic speech, though they can’t effectively communicate themselves. They are just a bit sinister in reputation and do have a slightly malevolent and cruel streak, though Cathael that have lived in Einolar domains for generations tend to be more mischievous than malicious. They relish the protection and camaraderie provided by the Einolar and work with them to protect the woods, acting as an additional layer of sentries and scouts. Some Cathael even bond with a particular Einolar and become lifelong companions.
Finally, the most enigmatic of the companion species are the massive Melchyn, or slow bears. These huge creatures can grow to a height of twenty feet and are equipped with truly awe-inspiring claws and a dense furry coat, within which lie bony plates as strong as any armor. Melchyn are not bears in fact, but rather a variety of giant sloth and entirely herbivorous. However, they have been instilled over the generations with a fondness for the Einolar, whom they instinctively protect as if the elves were part of their own family. The Einolar are loath to commit these creatures in battle as they are perishingly rare and by nature quite docile, but when pressed, the Einolar druids have an alchemical herbal concoction that can turn the Melchyn into raging juggernauts of destruction. They are only used in direst emergency as very few survive for long after the transformation and may even go rogue once out of the sphere of the Einolar, but few creatures can stand against these titans once they have been transformed.
It is finally rumored that the tree priests of the Einolar can awaken the forest itself — the very plants and trees — to defend their territory. It is well known that animated trees and other vegetative creatures do reside within the woods of the Einolar and serve with them in times of conflict. Additionally, the deep woods of Einolar realms are prepared with layers upon layers of traps, deadfalls and countless perils that can be activated almost instantly. Though Einolar realms have fallen to invasion, a maxim holds that for each Einoalr that is slain, a hundred of their foes will pay with their own lives. The few accounts of extended campaigns against the Einolar seem to indicate this is a cautious estimate.
The Einolar are animists, believing that all living things, and even many quiescent objects, have a spirit.
Trees and plants are believed to be as alive and aware as animals and even sentient beings. This does not, however, make the Einolar pacifists or vegetarians. In fact, they see little difference between eating meat and eating plants. For that matter, they make little distinction between eating animals and eating sentient species. There are tales of Einolar eating the flesh of their enemies, and the legends of cannibal elves are not without some basis in fact. The Einolar do believe that spirit can be transferred through consuming the physical substance and that this is a natural and healthy part of the animist cycle. They never eat their own clan members, but that is only because they plant them with their great Pillar Trees to become part of the forest itself. They will eat other sentient species if starving and cannot quite comprehend why other races are loath to do so. Still, such behavior is rare as they hardly ever find themselves scrabbling for subsistence and they will not eat the flesh of unnatural creatures or evil humanoids they disdain for fear of polluting their spirit.
Einolar also believe that death is only a transitional experience — not an end or a cessation. This makes them sympathetic and careful but unrepentant hunters. They are also not terribly sentimental about corpses or fallen trees as they believe the spirit of the deceased lives on. Specifically, Einolar believe in reincarnation and may have good reason to do so. Though the knowledge of this is not often shared with outsiders, the massive Pillar Trees that that Einolar make their clan homes in are each planted on top of and fertilized by the body of a deceased member of the clan. They believe that the fallen clan member’s spirit is absorbed by the tree and that his or her knowledge is retained. It is true that Pillar Trees appear to only be able to grow when planted with or very close to the corpse of an Einolar. Additionally, the priests of the Einolar do seem to be able to converse with the Pillar Trees and glean information from them known by deceased clan member upon whom they are planted.
The Tree Priests, as they are somewhat derogatively called by outsiders, are known to the Einolar simply as the Speakers. Their druidic order serves as the main religious authority for the Einolar, acting to preserve the elves’ larger culture and maintain contact between different tribes. The Speakers will work with druidic traditions from other races, so they sometimes provide a link to the outside world for the somewhat isolationist Einolar. Their devotion is intensely animistic, but it includes elements of ancestor worship centered on the great Pillar Trees.
Led by the Speakers, Einolar revere four minor deities associated with the seasons and the elements. Some of the most ornate masks crafted by the Einolar represent these revered culture figures, and are featured in their seasonal religious festivals.
The first of these seasonal deities is Lahn, the avatar of spring and water, depicted in masks as a beautiful young maid composed of budding leaves, with eyes formed by blue flowers. She represents rebirth and healing.
The second is Pahl, the avatar of summer and fire, depicted as a mature man made of knurled wood and bark with yellow flame eyes. He represents craftsmanship and is the spirit of consensus.
The third is Cernos, the avatar of autumn and earth, depicted as man whose face is made of turning leaves and from whose brow project the antlers of a mighty elk. He represents the martial spirit of the Einolar, the ethos of the hunt, and the defense of the forest.
The last is Krun, the spirit of winter and air, depicted as a woman made of frost and ice crystals. She represents death, weather, and wisdom gained by experience.
These beings are not so much worshiped as they are respected and honored, though each figure does have a small but dedicated cult that seeks to emulate and embody his or her principles.
Design Note: I wanted a hook to make the Einolar religion distinct and I found it in animism, with a slight twist. The version of animism that the Einolar practice is probably much closer to the often bloody and somewhat frightening animistic practices of many actual tribes, as opposed to the more politically correct version we see espoused nowadays. To really make them stand out I made them potential cannibals, which really is quite common among animistic societies, and even logical from an animistic perspective.
Clearly the Einolar are primarily druidic, but I wanted to create options for those who wished to instead play priests of one sort or another. Lahn’s priests might specialize in life and healing while Pahl’s priests would be the equivalent of sun priests or focus on crafting. Cernos’ followers would be martial priests, and Krun’s devotees could be priests of death, weather, or knowledge.
Finally, I left the matter of the Einolar’s cannibalistic tendencies intentionally opaque. Most Einolar tribes near more “civilized” cultures will, as a practical matter, shy away from such practices. However, I really like the notion that they don’t inherently consider other sentient beings as being “off the menu.”
The above details give them a slightly menacing and alien edge, which I really think the all-too-familiar elf needs.
Almost everything the Einolar make or use is derived from living material. They have almost no metallurgy, pottery, or stonework except what they acquire through trade.
Instead, the Einolar have a very rich tradition of woodcraft, for which they are renowned. An Einolar longbow is made from the wood of a yew tree shaped and cultivated over a period of decades to grow in exactly the correct manner to enhance its strength and tension when carved into a weapon. On a more domestic note, they also make exquisite wooden furniture, chests, carvings, and elaborate hunting masks, for which they are particularly known. These ornate masks are carved with subtle and curving solid, geometric shapes that combine to form life-like representations of animals and monsters, sometimes representing multiple creatures at once, in such a way that the face on the mask seems to shift with the viewer’s perspective. Even though they are called hunting masks, the masks are used not for hunting, but for warfare. The confusion arose from an early mistranslation of the Einolar word for “going to war,” which is quite similar to their word for “hunting.”
Perhaps the most remarkable achievements of the Einolar are not their crafted objects but the organisms they have cultivated over millennia. The Cushael, Cathael, and Melchyn exemplify both the animal husbandry skills and the power of selective breeding that result when a race can witness a hundred generations of a species. Even more impressive are Einolar horticultural developments. Unlike other races that focus on cultivating crops with an annual life cycle, the Einolar have spent millennia shaping the trees of their forests. They may be one of the only species with both the time and the inclination to work with the slow growing species of oak and pine as other cultures would with fruit trees. The handiwork of the Einolar has spread far beyond the borders of their own woods, and many beneficial species of fruit and nut trees were originally their cultivars. Yet, in the depths of Einoalr woods can be found even more amazing examples of their dendrological talents.
To be continued…
End Note: The next article in this series will explore the trees and plants domesticated by the Einolar over millennia of horticultural endeavor and how the elves interact with them. If they are called Wood Elves, then their woods should be as compelling and distinct as their culture!