elves have to be fucked up, pt. 2

Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro’ soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.

(The second in a series about how either elves are the dominant humanoid species, or somehow screwed-up, the first of which is here.)

Possibility 1: Evolutionary Misfires

Elves are heavily K-selected.

Elves haven’t conquered the world because there are just too damn few of them, there are too few because they reproduce too slowly, and because they reproduce so slowly they are exceedingly risk-averse.

Roughed out for the gaming crowd, in ecological theory, r/K selection is the idea that organisms will converge on one of two reproductive strategies. An r-selected organism emphasizes speedy growth, early onset of maturity, production of many offspring, low parental involvement in the raising of those offspring, comparatively low survival rates of those offspring, along with smaller body size and shorter lifespans. Think rats, or goblins.1

Alternately, K-selection is a strategy typified by slower growth and later onset of maturity; production of fewer, but better cared-for, offspring; extensive parental involvement with those offspring leading to better survival rates; larger body size and longer lifespans. Think elephants . . . or elves.2

We know elves have a relatively large body-size for a humanoid.3 We know that they live a tremendously long time and undergo a childhood and adolescence the length of a long human lifetime; we can easily presume a parental involvement and investment in single offspring orders of magnitude greater than that provided by other humanoids. Elves are quintessential K-strategists. From what we know we can infer that elven children have superb survival rates and elven adults, exceedingly low reproductive rates. If an elven child requires a century of rearing, we can assume that each elven family—not just mothers, as that level of resource-investment likely requires the fathers, as well, or the community as a whole—spaces births in increments of scores of years.

When you have so much resource investment in each and every child, each of those children is tremendously precious. So many resources, in fact, that we could plausibly assume that any settled elven society has the majority of its resources invested in its people rather than anything material. Why would it then send those resources off—in the form of young men and women—to war for any reason short of an existential threat? Any elven society will consequently become incredibly risk-averse, perhaps to a self-defeating degree.

Even if elves overcome this risk aversion, the extremely slow reproduction rate means there just aren’t that many elves. Sure, an exquisitely trained elven swordsman may defeat a dozen orcs, but there are a dozen dozen more standing behind them. Sometimes quantity has a quality all its own.

Maybe elves haven’t conquered the world for no other reason than that there are too few of them, each is worth too much, and the elves are paralyzed thereby.

To be continued in part 3, “The Price of Purity.”

1 Actually, think of litters of rats under your floorboards. Or litters of goblins under your floorboards. Actually actually, don’t.

2 In unstable environments r-strategists tend to dominate, as survival becomes a numbers game when there is no clear superior adaptation to the changing circumstances. Conversely, in a stable environment, there is time for evolution to produce smaller and smaller incremental improvements suited to that specific environment, intensive—slow!—nurturing pays bigger dividends, and K-strategists emerge.

3 Your elves are taller than humans, right? Right?

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8 thoughts on “elves have to be fucked up, pt. 2

  1. I’ve always wondered how to reconcile elves having long lives (and thus mastery in many skills) versus their non-dominance of the world. I like the idea of them being K dominant, even more so than dwarves, and this is now canon in my games.

    I see you’re starting off the year strong with some solid posting. Don’t get burned out, I expect great things from you! =D

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    • Also, now that I think about it: what if elves are also beholden to tradition much more so than humans? What if their risk-averse nature also corresponds to a rediculously strong Chesterton’s Fence effect that hamstrings innovation and new ideas?

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      • Re: your second question: I think you’re already anticipating my next possibility, hinted at by the title “The Price of Purity.” What if there’s nothing wrong with elves qua elves, but rather that they found a societal structure they liked, and withdrew from the world/progress out of fear of corruption?

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    • I like the idea, too. A methuselah species asymptotically adapted to compete in an environment that no longer exists. (Which creates the question of when did it exist—did they used to rule the world?—and why that changed.)

      I’m going to try to dodge that question, actually, because my series is trying to come up with new approaches to elves, and “children of a fallen age” elves are about as bog-standard a mythos as they come.

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  2. Just stumbled onto your blog, liking what I see so far.

    My answer to the age-old (ha!) question has been to ignore racial lifespans and assume that all humanoids have about the same longevity as humans. It rarely matter in terms of gameplay because I’ve never had a party play their characters out to old age.

    If, however, this reasoning holds out… I can see the merit in adapting something into my game.

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    • That does solve a lot of the problems that come with the crazy demihuman lifespans. But I secretly like having them… I’d rather have to trace out the weird implications that the differences create in the world, and see where they lead us.

      Also, welcome!

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