WHY ARE THEY ALL THE GODDAMN SAME!?
I know we have a thread on elves already, but I felt like this question required some....fresh debate. Mostly thanks to the Rocketeer's epic recounting of FF12's story including a glorious evisceration of the Viera, who are basically, Bunny-elves.
They aren't happy with us crashing their eternal hippie pillow-fight, though, and trying to talk to any of them will get you a variation on “Fuck off and die, human scum.”
So ideas can't get in, and people can't get out? Yep! Viera society is a cult.
As soon as she notices the party, she points straight at Ashe and tells her to keep away, screaming, “Power-needy hume!” and hauling ass down the passage with both hands. I've gotta say, the viera really haven't presented themselves very well, what with the surly cult and the racial slurs
Its a great read, but the reason the reason they were connected to elves is because we've seen these themes play out before with the in-tune-with-nature fantasy race. ....and play out and play out and play out. And never really get resolved. I mean it, the elves and humans always seem to be stuck having the exact same arguments they always have and never does a story end with any progress or change from the elvish society's isolation and dogma or the human society's destructive policies. I don't ask for much, just if you have to bring it up in your story then GO SOMEWHERE WITH IT. Don't just treat like you have to add a scene where the elf beats the reader over the head with a poorly-disguised allegory to deforestation or nuclear war or global warming in your world that doesn't even have fossil fuel or whatever, just to check it off your list and get it out of the way.
Feel free to expand this to any fantasy race you feel has turned into a bad cliche, especially because it got too far away from something about its roots that made it special that's missing in the "standard fantasy setting" that we all seem to play in and read novels about.
Now, lets observe what the elves are ALWAYS like, and talk about ways in which they could be better:
-They live in the forest in harmony with nature
-They are surprisingly prissy and seem awfully house-broken in spite the above fact.
-They are the cool, mysterious, agility-over-strength Robin Hood race and are renown archers, so much that in the second game, where more races than Orcs and Humans were allowed, the Warcraft series simply replaced the basic archer unit with an Elven archer. .....It was the only elf unit in that game.
-They are seen as magical beings, usually arcane magic, even though druidic magic would make a better choice because. (This is likely because the original elf was a fighting-man/magic user, of course it is also worth noting that the druid class didn't exist yet.)
-Sometimes their "in harmony with nature" shtick is taken to ludicrous extremes. From being environmentalists to animal rights activists to living lives of "rural simplicity" in a commune to holding a myriad of other modern liberal political values to being pascifists to being full-on ecoterrorists (even though half of those things didn't even exist in folkloric preindustrial ages fantasy is usually set it!).
-They are immortal, or at least very long-lived, which implies that any average individual is a font of wisdom and life experience.
-They have a sense of smug superiority, possibly for the above two reasons. Seeing humans as uncultured or living too short a life to matter or because they find humans harming the wilderness as barbaric.
-In spite of their long lives, they don't seem to accomplish much. 1st level elves are pretty much like any other PC, with the exact same number of skill points.
-In addition to being arrogant, mysterious creatures that you already "want because you can't have", they are also very, very pretty, and naturally graceful, and superb artists.
-Speaking of which, are their slightly shorter than humans, or slightly taller? They are close enough that when people wonder about a race deserving to be medium sized, they don't look at the elf. No, They look at the dwarf.
-There are a TON of subraces, mostly thanks to splatbooks from 3rd edition. They are all kind of bland and more of the same, with maybe a little quirk that mostly looks like ALL OF THE ABOVE POINTS, AND MAYBE, *MAYBE*, MINUS ONE. Wild Elves are not house-broken, Wood Elves aren't known for arcane magic use, Gray Elves actually aren't that pretty, so they double down on the arrogance, etc. Some of them are just a different stat bonus and bring nothing to the table. Seriously though, STAR ELVES?
-All of the above actually better describes the human-sized Tolkenesque elves, not the ....other kind. In folklore, elves are another group of "little people" such as dwarves, leprechauns, and fairies, and their size can range from Hobbit size down to fitting in the palm of a human hand. They also make shoes for lazy cobblers and toys for good little boys and girls on Christmas.*
So, given all of the above, elves seem to carry lots and lots of baggage nowadays thanks to these cliches. Its become a trope over at TvTropes.org: "Our Elves are the Same." I actually kind of had a different conception of elves when I was first getting into D&D-esque fantasy.
I hadn't had time to read Lord of the Rings, and the Hobbit had barely any mention of elves. There were the elves who were helpful and the ones who looked Thorin and crew into the dungeon for reasons. I just completely missed out any signs of elves being halty or immortal. Warcraft 2 portrayed the Elves as aloof and mysterious (but also respectful, if perhaps having to use brainy and exotic words about it. Elven Archer: "Your Eminence?") guys who lived in the forest. Every cartoon and its mother being about talking animals who lived in tree houses, the concept that there would be a thousand parodies equating Elves to Hippies, or even just vegetarians (a Longbow is a hunting weapon, you know!), just never occured to my young mind. They lived in the forest because that what they did. Dwarves lived in the mountains. Orcs lived in the swamps and wastelands. Trolls also lived in the forest, and probably hunted elf children or something, which is why they were enemies and used similar forest-guerilla tactics, only with throwing axes, so the Trolls ultimately became the Orcish Horde's "archer unit." All of these environments were big and mythic and could hide an entire world unto them, which is why, even in the fantasy setting, humans were distant from all of these races, which made them all inheriently exotic even to the local country they lived in.
Whoa....I forgot about that part. I might need to work that into a setting.
Anyway, elves just didn't have all this baggage yet. They lived in the forest, out of sight and uncountable, fighting an enemy that could regenerate their wounds, so they just had to hit with even more deadly accuracy. You can calculate how deep you are into their territory roughly by the number of arrows sticking out of your body. But it also read like a cute little tree village set in a children's storybook. Their children knowing the geography way better than you do because they just evaded a troll at that magic lake you're looking for yesterday. (Of course, this is a very bad practice to raise a child to 100 years old before finally declaring them an adult, but I was young and fanciful and hadn't read that little tidbit from the 3rd edition D&D PHB yet.) Their adults are already patrolling that forest and ready to lead enemies into a large, our-arrows-will-blot-out-the-sun ambush (Mass archers at a choke point was always my tactic of choice in WC2). Defensive warfare is kind of their thing.
What I'm getting at is that in place of being interesting because they were "perfect", my idea that elves were cool was because they represented youth and speed and wander. Not youth as in "Oh sure, she looks sixteen, but take our word for it, she's hundreds of years old", but more in the Guy Sensei "The Springtime of YOOOUUUUTTTTHHHH!!!" kind of way. Every human child lives in the city or the country and only plays pretend to be a knight saving a princess, (and often starving when their parents abandon them in the woods like Hansel and Gretel, ). Every elf child is already living in the forest, practicing with a bow, exploring and memorizing and becoming aware of every inch of the forest, because one day they WILL be an Elven Ranger. That lifestyle might have been similar to an aboriginal, but wandering far from the village to learn about the world is actively encouraged.
Every Elven childhood pans out like a play-through of Earthbound.
Although....I think that my other major source material at the time, Zelda series' Hyrule, populated by Fairies, goofy looking man-pig monsters, and eternally young Kokiri children made all of that worse, though.
Interesting Subraces that actually bring something to the table.
Drow= Excellent Bad guys, and great excuse for filling out the lower levels of a megadungeon. They also have the benefit of being one of the few evil humanoids with not just an absense of a penalty, but a BONUS to intelligence and charisma so now TEAM MONSTER has a competent Arcane spellcaster, and actually....now that I think about it, these underdark dwellers make better sense to be the Fighter-Magic User Elves, which I'm pretty sure all of the males of noble houses already are. The surface elves can be druids.
Sea/Aquatic Elves= Aquatic PC race that doesn't suck on land! Why didn't 5e remember these guys? The passage on Sahaugin mentions them and the Merendi mutants that are supposed to infiltrate Aquatic Elf communities, but their stats aren't listed in any of the three books... Anyway, Sea elves are also a breath of fresh air because they actually SHOULDN'T be using bows and arrows. Archery just doesn't work underwater, and the Aquatic Elves are more a fan of stabbing things that are trapped under a net.
These two being the only Elves available= FLAVOR! GLORIOUS, GLORIOUS SETTING FLAVOR!**
*-In truth, all Demihuman PC races could be small sized if a setting wanted it, making only Humans and possibly Half-Elves as the only medium-sized creatures, making the Race of Man actually the most physically imposing, and humans' response to people asking why they are still around goes something a little like this: "I'm sorry, shorty, did you say something? BWAHAHAHAHA!"
**-Seriously though, imagine an island setting, where lots of human cities are sprawlled all over the islands, but then there are mountains. The mountains are large and rise high above the sea, and within them could be dug out more space than the surface of the island itself. Each one might contain a dwarf mountainhome...or a dungeon that leads to the underworld where the drow live. If sea elves are viking-like and raid ships, then elves as a whole might be a stigma as a menace to society!