View Full Version : What might nobility mean in an elven society?

2016-03-02, 06:40 PM
One of the locations in my setting is an elective monarchy called Northwood; it is populated and ruled by elves. New monarchs are elected by and from the nobility of Northwood, whenever the previous monarch dies(a rare event as you might imagine).

However, given their chaotic nature as a race, what might elves consider to be nobility? Just how loose are they going to play with the concept of nobility?

I played with the idea that elves might consider nobility to be having something worth protecting from someone or something that wishes that something harm of some sort.... then quickly reconsidered after confronting the implications of that idea.

2016-03-02, 07:43 PM
So here are some ideas for your consideration:

Instead of an elected monarch, what if there is a council? Their members could be those who are the best in their line of work. So there could be annual competitions to prove they're the best of the best.
The monarch could be someone who shows signs that they are most connected to the fey or nature in general.

2016-03-02, 07:46 PM
Proportion of godly blood they possess if their god is a philanderer or decided to make his first Kings directly.

Social prominence, so the wealthy, the landed, celebrities, trendsetters, and anyone handy at leveraging a charisma score.

Power, whether temporal or magical.

Beauty, often the result of deliberate breeding programs.

Great deeds or mastering specific skills instead of being a dilletante. So the one elf that has mastered the art of baking instead of getting good enough at it and getting bored might be a noble, for instance, the same as the elf who slew a terrible red dragon that was laying waste to their cities or another elf who seduced a green dragon into settling down and living peaceably to raise a bunch of half-dragon children.

Mark Hall
2016-03-02, 07:59 PM
Default would be closeness to their deities... direct descent, traced to a certain degree, with less outbreeding and no corrupting blood (i.e. can't have a human somewhere in your woodpile).

If you want to play with it, as a CG society? Have the nobility be those who have excelled at some art... the premiere practitioner of any one art is counted as noble. Want to be a noble? Either get better than the current noble of the House of Lutes (or whatever), or convince them that the art you ARE pre-eminent at is worthy of being considered noble. Sure, you've got your Lutists and Basketweavers and Potters as noble houses, but you also have Bladedancers and Archers and Wizards and, if your society is weird enough, Assassins. Maybe have the clergy stand officially outside it, judging what is worthy of being an art, but with their own preferences and some members of the clergy being nobles themselves.

2016-03-03, 12:29 AM
And here I am thinking "power directly correlates with age" :smalltongue:

2016-03-03, 12:55 AM
In any good high Elf society, Art/science/magic should all be different sides of the same coin. An elven noble family would embrace all of these.

For the stars-one family might be prominent astronomers, but also diviners of the astrological signs, and conjurers of the void of space. They know the distance(to the centimeter) of you to the constellation Cygnus, what it means when it lowers in summer, and the ability to send you there in an instant.

For plants- a family would be prominent farmers, flower arrangers, and have an army of awakened trees. They Coax bountiful harvests out of barren soil, that produce a cornucopia of colors, and can turn the fields against invaders.

2016-03-03, 07:33 AM
Tolkien appeared to award leadership among the Elves the same way - ability to excel in some craft or art, with the King (if they had one) excelling in leadership.

2016-03-03, 08:00 AM
I've never really seen Tolkien-ish elves as chaotic, and that seems to be what they're going for. Sure, they wanted to make them chaotic so they would be more different from dwarves, but I don't relay seer anything to back that up. Living in harmony in secluded woodland cities seems lawful to me.

2016-03-03, 10:22 AM
I always enjoy portraying elves as just one step behind the other races in social progress. If everyone else is a modern democracy, the elves invoke medieval monarchy. If everyone else is in medieval monarchy, the elves' government might look like Athenian democracy.

2016-03-03, 11:16 AM
In one of my current campaigns, one elven culture has nobility as something close to meritocracy. A family rises to greatness due to the qualities of its most important members. They become what in human parlance would be 'nobility', closest to the king, with an elder of the family chosen by consensus holding the equivalent to the title of that noble house. These elves don't age after 20, so once a noble, you tend to remain that way, and even grow in stature steadily. Technically, the ruling king or queen can strip someone of their nobility, but this culture has actually never seen this happen. They broke away from their former culture because this failed to happen for political reasons. They moved away, cleaned the slate, and new families rose to produce elders to fill the ranks of nobility.
The monarch in this sense is merely the one among the noble families the elders decided to elevate to rulership. Should they choose to withdraw their support, the monarch must step down, and might even have their status as noble taken from them by the next chosen monarch, if the collapse of confidence was sufficiently grievous.

This isn't particularly chaotic in nature, although it does stress the importance of individuals and their willingness and ability.

2016-03-03, 11:36 AM
With my campaign demographics, baseline assumption is that 50% are 1st level, 37.5% are 2nd level , 10% are 3rd level and the rest (1.5%) are 4+. So you could put the threshold for elves earning "noble" status as 4th level. Or, a little less metagamey, 4th level ranks in some chosen field. Maybe the Great Council has to recognize and approve your DC 30 masterwork. (4 levels + 3 in-class + 2 ability + 2 masterwork tools + 2 assistance = + 13, there are ways to boost even without spells like Wieldskill or Guidance of the Avatar, which probably won't have the duration required.) You need a 17 on the die, but you're an elf, you've got time to try again.

2016-03-03, 11:38 AM
I feel like a monarchy based on being the best at fighting/magic/crafting makes perfect sense in an elven society. In a human government, a system where the best fighter/craftsman can become king if they defeat the current king doesn't make a lot of sense, because the king might become too old to fight/craft while still providing effective leadership. However, elves don't age in most settings, so the best fighter in the land would remain effective for centuries. Elves also are typically portrayed as egotistical, seeing themselves as superior to other races, so it would make sense that the elven King/queen was the elf superior to the rest of the race, with an ego to match.

2016-03-03, 11:41 AM
"Nobility" is generally determined by family lines. They start out, historically, as either the group of thugs that beat everybody up and set themselves up as in charge, or as skilled leaders and warriors around whom everybody rallied and whose leadership they accepted. Then, as heredity is a thing people respect, the heirs of those people become the next generation's rulers. Thus begins nobility.

Roman "nobility" was really just citizenship, to an extent. After the Emperors became de facto dictators, there was a hidden stratum of nobles who enjoyed patronage from the Emperor in exchange for their political, financial, and military support.

Feudal nobility is strict patronage: the King owns the land, and parcels it out to his Dukes, who sublet to Counts and Earls, who sublet to Barons, etc. etc. Nobility is conferred by the King and is usually inherited (though sometimes the lowest ranks of it were not).

China had a bureaucracy that was the de facto nobility; you could get into it through stringent academic tests.

I will avoid commenting on America and whether or not there is a de facto nobility for fear of sparking a political argument that is not on-topic for this thread.

For your elven culture, it could be any number of things that started off as the justification for "nobles" being "better" than other elves. Is it a meritocracy based on tests or acclaim for their skills in a field? Is it hereditary? If it's hereditary, do you NEED an explanation other than "they're nobles?" In a game I ran, High Elves were the nobles, and Wood Elves were the commoners.

Nobility tends to evolve because power is attractive, and people with it don't like giving it up. And pride is a strong temptation; when you have power, you want to also think of yourself as deserving it more than those who don't have it, as this justifies you keeping it. So those who don't have it are either worshipful of you or are upstart/stupid/other negative adjective jerks who are undeserving of control over their own lives, because they're not as smart/special/brave/awesome as you. This tends to lead to a certain amount of insulation: the powerful don't want to mingle with the hoi paloi. This insular subculture of nobility now tends to look down on those who are not part of it. They don't share the same experience as the commoners, and thus "know" that the commoners are wrong when they disagree with the nobility. Since the commoners clearly are wrong, they can't be trusted to lead, so can't be allowed to gain power. It is important the nobility be kept pure and separate and that they never share power with the foolish simpletons who are the ruled.

Nobility as an ideal, on the other hand, evolves because the kinds of people who are good leaders attract others to their leadership. They recognize the value of those they lead, and often are willing to accept that being a leader means greater responsibility to the led. Courtesy to each other AND the non-nobles is their wont, because they recognize that it is only by virtue of others' efforts that their leadership means anything. These sorts tend to be more welcoming of capable leaders in upward mobility, though they don't have to be. Such "nobility" tends to be much more flexible and less rigidly defined, though in a well-engrained hereditary nobility structure, it could be an attitude that has re-evolved with time despite the insulation from the common folk. (Such nobles, at least, tend to want to mix with the commoners, more, though, if only to truly understand them better and better lead them.)

2016-03-03, 11:43 AM
I always enjoy portraying elves as just one step behind the other races in social progress. If everyone else is a modern democracy, the elves invoke medieval monarchy. If everyone else is in medieval monarchy, the elves' government might look like Athenian democracy.

Given their lifespans, I think having elves with Bronze age chieftain systems is fair. Check out the Old Testament Book of Judges, the Homeric era, many American Indian tribes in the US colonial era, German tribes around Caesar's time.

And if you want to increase the cultural distance between elves and humans in your campaign, decide and imply that for elves, King isn't the most important thing to be. The King that gets trotted out to meet diplomats and lead the armies etc isn't by any means the most important or most respected person in the society.

Imagine that 90% of our world was broken back to 1800's level tech and conditions, except for a small geographic area. In Bandit Country, disease and lack of sanitation are killers, but power is held by warlords. Inside the Wall, the Minister of Defense is a big player, but he/she's not nearly as important as the Commissioner of Health and Sanitation.

That sort of perspective shift. Little elves more often grow up dreaming of being the Greatest Bard EVAH than of being King of the Elves, Grand Captain of the Warbands.

2016-03-03, 11:52 AM
Elves might have some traditional nobility, like knights.

While most elves would spend at least a little time on martial education, an elven knight would dedicate all his centuries to the arts of warfare. So much experience and training could produce a warrior of unparalleled skill, discipline, and cunning. A knight or soldier from a younger race (having a scant 10 or 20 years of training) simply could not compare with that level of mastery. As such, elven knights enjoy a politically valuable role in society, being the elves' greatest protectors and the strongest warriors in the world.

Naturally, due to the enormous resources it takes to breed such a soldier, only the most physically robust, healthiest, and most psychologically resilient elven children would be selected to become knights. After all, you don't want 500 years of intense training to go down the drain because your knight caught a disease or got spooked by a troll.

2016-03-03, 01:08 PM
I've never really seen Tolkien-ish elves as chaotic, and that seems to be what they're going for. Sure, they wanted to make them chaotic so they would be more different from dwarves, but I don't relay seer anything to back that up. Living in harmony in secluded woodland cities seems lawful to me.

I think the idea is they live in secluded woodlands, and don't for the most part have any particular leaders. Whoever leads currently is the leader, and that's that. I mean if you look at Rivendell Elrond is the leader because he founded the place, not because he's necessarily the best one to do so. So other elves show up, Elrond doesn't do anything to make them leave so they stay.

2016-03-03, 01:33 PM
If you are committed to elves being "chaotic", then I feel their society would be one without institutions or beaurocracy that dictates rulership. A "chaotic" society, to me, would be basically a pre-state style chiefdom.

A "big man" or "big elf" takes control by means of their own abilities. As long as they are alive and can keep things stable, they are in charge. When they die or get old or weak, things get chaotic as different people and groups vie for control by whatever means (there are no rules about who gets control or how they get it, that would imply a lawful people/society). Eventually, a new "big elf" comes out on top, and things settle down for a while. With elves living a thousand years or more, it may make sense that their society has never bothered to develop beaurocracy and institutionalized leadership.

Their culture is stable under a strong ruler for most of a millenium, then experiences a period of chaotic scrambling for power that might last decades or even a century or two, then it settles down again when a new chief gets control. With elves, the scramble for power might not take the form of physical combat, necessarily. They might value different abilities in their leaders: knowledge or magic or beauty or whatever. Of course, each time leadership changes, different values may come into vogue based on the state of the world at the time (assuming they have contact with the outsude world).

In such a society, you will generally see the chief and their family and chosen allies with more power or perks/luxuries. A few will feel dissatisfied with the leadership and will be constantly "testing the water" to either gain enough allies to claim leadership themselves or even consider breaking off to start their own tribe (if that's possible). Most will just do what they do and don't want to shake things up.

2016-03-03, 05:56 PM
Okay, I have thought about it myself. Here is my apport:

-First, I think many elves wouldn't have a nobility as such. People like Wood Elves/Wild Elves/Green Elves whatever, wouldn't have nobility. Their leader would probably be some powerful and wise Cleric or Druid who is respected because of the protection he or she offer to the community, and because he or she speaks with the voice of the gods. Or maybe some hero, some powerful Ranger who has saved he community many times. In short it would be a meritocracy.

Only High Elves/Grey Elves/Sun Elves/Moon Elves whatever would have a nobility as such.

-Second, I don't think that elven kingdoms, dinasties, royal families and noble families tend to last too long. I got the impression that they only endure a few generations, but they look ancient because each elven generation spans centuries. A very ancient kingdom (by human standards) may have been ruled by four kings or queens only.

Hence, many "ancient" noble houses may be upstarts by human standards (they have been nobles by around three or five generations only).

-Third. What kind of wealth and power those nobles have? Elves don't work the fields in most settings, they don't have mines, their industry is in the hands of artisans that work painstakingly slow, and there is no mention of taxes and often, there isn't even mention of the use of money; a large part of their society seem to spend their lives hunting and dancing and singing under the moonlight, and the rest live in hidden enclaves deep in forests or in remote valleys...

I think the only really relevant power and wealth in elven society is magic. Magic allows High Elves to live like civilized folk and have nice stuff despite lacking agriculture, mining or advanced industry. Powerful mages have a high position in their society, they make the magic items that are the only form of productive wealth that is pased down from generation to generation (as I said, no farms, no mines, no factories...). A family that has produced powerful wizards for generations has a gigantic treasure of magical items, not to mention the accumulated knowledge of all those researched spells. The other elves need them, go to them for help and follow their guidance.

-Fourth. As chaotic people, while elves may need the patronage of powerful mages, I doubt they would feel bound to them. An elf would ditch a patron and go join another one if he didn't like the first, or he thought that he was getting the short end of the deal.

The only people among elves who would receive unquestionable loyalty and devotion would be those who are seen as representatives of their gods, be it because their high level as Clerics, because they carry the blood of a god or proxy, or because they were born with some kind of template that marks them as divinely touched.

-Fifth. Elven kings and queens and princes are rockstars. Elves are chaotic people they follow their emotions. They may need of the power of a mighty Wizard, but they won't offer loyalty in exchange unless they really like him. They may deeply respect the High Priests and Chosens of their gods, and may follow their direct orders without question, but they are perfectly able of avoiding them and ignoring their existance (by living far from them and never going to seek them) if they don't personally admire them.

An elven leader needs to be admired. Needs to be charismatic, like rockstar, like a Hollywood star. Needs to be able to attract the masses, to have them following their every move from afar, willing to do anything to gain thei approval. It is the only way elven leaders can really get any real work done, and that's the reason elven kingdoms seem to be so passive, and they have so few powerful, enterprising leaders... most elven leaders just can't make their people do what they want, because they aren't charismatic enough.

Just think of the iconic elven leaders: Galadriel, Queen Yolande of Celene, Queen Amlaruil Moonflower... which is their main trait? They are inmensely charismatic. Their people is in awe of them, and even foreigners who meet them only once get stunned.

Jay R
2016-03-04, 10:45 AM
In human society, it's a combination of family lineage, which pretty much boils down to how much wealth, land, and/or power your ancestors have amassed in the last few hundred years. (Wealth, land, and power cannot be separated, of course.)

That doesn't work as well for elves - you are the last few hundred, or thousand, years of your lineage.

In Tolkien, a crucial consideration was the Two Trees - was the elf old enough to have traveled to Valinor to see the light of the Trees? In Lord of the Rings, that includes only Galadriel and Glorfindel. That's why Glorfindel had the power to withstand the Nazgul near the ford. And that's why Galdriel is so much more important that her husband Celeborn, even though they rule together.

But in a D&D game, why do you need to figure it out? Those people are the nobles for reasons that occurred thousands of years ago, and that humans probably wouldn't understand anyway. [Do humans really care who saw two trees that existed before the sun and the moon?]

2016-03-04, 10:48 AM
But in a D&D game, why do you need to figure it out? Those people are the nobles for reasons that occurred thousands of years ago, and that humans probably wouldn't understand anyway. [Do humans really care who saw two trees that existed before the sun and the moon?]

They might, if they're playing elves and want to know how they should react to the news that the elf over THERE is "noble".

2016-03-04, 10:49 AM
Close interaction with elf nobility would require it.

Or... if it's a political campaign and at least one of the PCs is an elf noble!

2016-03-04, 11:36 AM
In human society, it's a combination of family lineage, which pretty much boils down to how much wealth, land, and/or power your ancestors have amassed in the last few hundred years. (Wealth, land, and power cannot be separated, of course.)

If you get enough, you can become a noble in your own lifetime. Like you could lead a bunch of raiders, kill a lord and take his estate, then if you're cooperative enough that people don't get rid of you, you'll probably get recognized as the new lord of the place. Might makes right and all that.