There is not a single elven culture. Nearly every setting gives these mystical figures a unique twist. Not many approaches are as interesting as the one that Kathleen Rowen uses in “Elven Renaissance”. The anthropologist asks how the Elven culture adapts to modernity and what it truly means when past, present and future are mere words. I had the opportunity to ask her about the project that went live on kickstarter earlier this week.
Leronoth: Hi Kathleen. You are the lead author of The Elven Renaissance, an RPG supplement that is currently on kickstarter. Tell me a bit about the general Idea. What is the Elven Renaissance and how do we use it in our games?
Kathleen Rowen: Absolutely! I got married a few months ago and the woman who made my wedding dress specialises in Renaissance garb, but she also plays a lot of RPGs. While we were working on the dress design, she asked, “Do you want it to be more Elven or more Renaissance?” It made me wonder what an elven renaissance would look like and how it would have happened. I mean, elves are supposed to be timeless, at least in the Tolkien-inspired idea of them. What would have to have happened to suddenly transform their artistic, cultural, scientific, and even philosophical understandings of the world?
So, working with some collaborators, we decided that it was actually extended contact with the human realm that did it. The elven world, called Nuenadé, had incidental contact with the human realm, but something shifted and a permanent gate opened. Some elves went to the human realm and found that they lost some of their inherent magic and began to age and die. But in that mortality, they learned to appreciate the vitality of life, the beauty of a single moment. New art forms and philosophies formed. They interbred with humans to some extent. But then some decided to return to Nuenadé, and they brought these new values and ideas back with them. And the elves of Nuenadé began to change: some embraced these new philosophies, but some are strongly, even violently opposed to them. So the Elven Renaissance is an RPG setting that explores what that change looks like.
As for how to use it, the setting is for folks who want to play in a world that is experiencing incredible change and turmoil and to see how that impacts people. Or for folks who really like complex cultures full of political intrigue at every turn. Or for folks who just really like elves. :) It’s not aligned to any existing worlds or any particular RPG system, but is meant to be adaptable to any system or even used alongside other worlds that people play in. For instance, I mostly play using a homebrew system set in a world my husband and I built together. There are elves in that world, but no real explanation as to where they come from, so I can now say that they come from Nuenadé and that explorers from that world could wind up in Nuenadé. It could just as easily be used with 5e or other RPG systems. And it doesn’t have to be used in connection with any other worlds–it also stands as a world entirely on its own. We try to provide hints and tips for readers about how they can adapt it and make it work with a range of systems, though, to make life easier.
Leronoth: You mention that you are approaching the setting from your perspective as an anthropologist. I suspect that you don‘t study Elven history for a living. What is it, that you work on as an anthropologist.
Kathleen: I would love to study Elven history for a living. Or, actually, since I was just writing the section on that, maybe not. That’s a LOT of history. My anthropological specialty is political identity. I did my fieldwork in Damascus, Syria in the early 2000s, where I studied conspiracy theories. That’s actually not even a joke–stories about conspiracies and fears of conspiracies highlighted the complex interplay of political, religious, ethnic, and kinship-based identity that were part of everyday life in Syria at the time. It turned out to be a lot more salient a set of questions than I’d realized at the time.
Sadly, I don’t do much work on that now. Instead, more of my current job involves looking at technology and people–how people interact with new technologies, how technology impacts them, how they impact technology, things like that.
Leronoth: How does his background influence your approach to Elven renaissance? What was the starting point of your project, what questions did you have in mind, when you designed your version of an elvish culture.
Kathleen: A background in anthropology really drives a lot of my worldbuilding approach–I remember my first anthropology class in university where I learned that things that we like to break apart, such as politics, economics, religion, values, even cuisine are all inherently linked in cultures and societies. I actually run occasional workshops on worldbuilding for RPGs that rests on that approach.
Interestingly, both identity and technology research actually pretty strongly influenced the Elven Renaissance specifically. How we as a world are adapting to rapidly changing technology raises interesting questions about cultures in transition. And identity work–well, that’s in everything. So the team asked ourselves, What do elves value? Who do they see themselves as? How do they organize into groups of “us” vs “them”?
We decided that essentially immortal beings value life. Death shakes them to their very core and so they do everything to avoid it. They value grace in words and actions and praise the exercising of the mind over the body (mostly). Which sounds very pretty and idyllic, but then that question of identity comes in. Because with such long lives, elves get bored, and so politics is one of their favorite games. When assassination isn’t an option, how do you gracefully and adroitly build up alliances and take down enemies? Are there categories or castes among elves in some way? How do you use these half-humans who seem to be running amok all of a sudden as part of your games? And what do you do when there are pockets of elves who are willing to even go so far as killing these new half-humans to eradicate their ideas?
Leronoth: Can you give a good example for this? What is one of the more unique aspects of your elvish culture?
Kathleen: Oof, so many. I think one of my favorites, though, is currency. In short, elves have no currency as we know it. No coins, no paper money, nothing. What they have is a system of debt (this is a little inspired by what’s called wasta in Arabic). Keeping track of debt and not being rude about it is an incredible act of grace, delicacy, and intellectual acuity. At a local level, it’s not too hard. For example, if I am a potter, I may choose to make a bowl and give it to you. We would never say it aloud, because that would be gauche, but we both know that you now owe me something equivalent. Maybe you’re a mage, though, so perhaps you’d repay me by adding a magical sauna to my house. Or maybe an artist owes you something, so you ask the artist to paint me a picture that pays off both debts at once. Now imagine basing an entire global economy on that premise, with an entire caste of elves who are global traders. It’s wild.
But, you may ask, how does an RPG party use that? Well, maybe they start the game with a certain degree of debt and connections that they can leverage. Or maybe they travel to a new town and there’s someone who needs a fire spirit cleared out of their backyard and is willing to provide lodging and food in exchange for the party getting rid of it. It’s an awesome way to get side quests and even figure out how to get an adventuring party going–no need for a tavern meeting if everyone owes the same person a debt and they’re calling it in!
Leronoth: I already had a look at one of your chapters (see below for a free download), where you deal with elven souls. I have to admit that I did not expect such a discussion in a roleplaying supplement, but enjoyed the creativity. It is a unique world view that I did not find in other fantasy worlds. Maybe you can give us a short overview and can say something about your inspiration? I had the feeling, that you studied some metaphysics …
Kathleen: Haha, I’ve dabbled a bit in metaphysics, yes. The short, short version of elven souls, though, is that elves have souls that are comprised of eight elements. When an elven child is born, those elements come together to form a whole soul. If and when that elf dies, those elements disperse back to the “Soul Sea” and can be reincarnated in the future. Or the past. But the reincarnation isn’t direct–it would be incredibly rare for even two of the same soul elements to wind up together again in another life, so everyone alive is a curious mixture of many past and future lives. And sometimes, in their dreams, they get glimpses of those other lives. This has interesting implications for people with mixed elven-human blood, because they only get the number of soul pieces equal to their heritage (so four soul pieces if they are half-and-half, two if only one of their grandparents was elven, and so on). Which raises all sorts of questions about souls and ideas of purity.
My inspiration for this came partly from ancient Egypt, where it was believed that people’s souls had three elements that separated on their death. I’ve always thought that was a neat idea. But it also came from some other imaginings of elves where their dreams can show past lives or glimpses of future events. Having souls that are pieced together and exist outside of linear time was a way to account for that, create the potential for prophecy, and create tension between Spiritual purists and the part-elf/part-human population. Because no world is perfect–there is always darkness.
Leronoth: You decided to selfpublish the project by crowdfunding it. Will there be an option to purchase the product after the campaign? And what stretch goals are you most excited for? Do you also have plans to publish additional material in the future?
Kathleen: Definitely, we’re going to put it on DriveThruRPG (DTRPG) when it’s done (at a slightly higher price than the Kickstarter, so it’s worth backing now!) and probably also the PDF version on Itch.io on my side. I’m also part of a company called Worlds Unending that is working on making a digital platform for worldbuilding and campaign management, so when that’s ready, we’ll likely put The Elven Renaissance in the marketplace there.
As for stretch goals–that’s easy. I’m most excited for building out one or two short campaigns for people to use. I’ve been playing some Coriolis with my gaming group recently, and I love that they have campaigns for people to use to get a deeper feel for their world and how you can use it.
I’ll undoubtedly publish more material in the future. Even if we don’t hit all our stretch goals with the Kickstarter, I’d like to eventually get around to publishing those as additional supplements, probably also on DTRPG and Itch.io. And who knows, if this goes well, there could be a setting focused on another popular group like dwarves or orcs!
Outside of just supplements, once the world opens up more, I’d also like to get out to more conventions and do worldbuilding workshops. Plus there’s Worlds Unending. And I just started making dice as Mythscapades on various social media. Oh, and I make fantasy cuisines for people too (or help people make their own: https://katadriel.itch.io/quintessential-cuisine)! It’s a wonder I have any time for my day job.
Leronoth: Thank you for your insights. I wish you the best of luck for your project!
Want to have a glimpse? Take a look at this sample chapter on elvish souls: Download (PDF)
Directly to the kickstarter page? Go here!
Pictures and sample chapter: © Kathleen Rowen, 2022.