My conversation with Gav: Dark Elves and "cartoon evil&

How to beat those cowardly High Elves?

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My conversation with Gav: Dark Elves and "cartoon evil&

Post by Uberskooper »

For those of you who were not aware, former GW designer Gav Thorpe has a wonderful Q&A on his work with the Dark Elves on his blog.

http://mechanicalhamster.wordpress.com/

A while back, I asked him a question about some background material that has interested me for a while. I wanted to share it with you and hear your opinions on this issue.

I wrote:
Hi Gav,

This Q and A is really amazing. I’m glad I found it. I have listened to a couple of interviews you did with various Warhammer podcasts and really enjoyed them. There has been something that has been on my mind:

I don’t quite understand how Dark Elf society works. If every member of their society is selfish and disloyal, how do they stick together?

Even though they are kept together by fear/hatred/etc, it seems to me that things would eventually reach a boiling point and they would be torn apart by civil war and factionalism. This is quite a contrast of their image as elite, organized, and professional warriors (at least this has been my impression from the 4th and 6th edition books).

It seems to me that their background has changed a bit from 6th edition. I got the impression that still saw themselves as the proud descendants of Nagarythe and rightful rulers of Ulthuan who had been terribly wronged by their kind. They see all of the bad things they do as justified by this betrayal and over the centuries all of their wickedness has corrupted their society. This made them somewhat sympathetic and interesting to play.

In the 7th edition book, the Dark Elves are just evil. Cartoon evil. It makes them seem much less believable.

Am I interpreting the background right? Is this change in tone simply a shift in perspective (first person in the 6th ed book and third person in the 7th)?


Gav replied:
I would, naturally, disagree with your assessment that the latest portayal of the Dark Elves pictures them as cartoon evil. To our eyes, the Dark Elves are utterly immoral and self-serving, capable of acts of violence and debauchery that are beyond anything we might contemplate, but that is not their only driving force. They value independence and strength, whether physical, magical or political, and in the harshest regime possible they support a meritocracy. Cunning and bravery are highly valued, as are martial expertise and political intelligence. Weakness is not tolerated, and so Dark Elf society is made up of, and dominated by, those individuals capable of excercising their will and achieving their ambitions. A good example are the corsairs, who risk life and limb on highly dangerous raids in order to gather physical wealth and politicl influence. One big haul can set up a dark elf for life, creating a new dynasty for future generations.

Yet for all their individual efforts, the dark elves are also united as a society by their hatred of their high elf cousins, their disdain for all other creatures and their overwhelming desire to become the most powerful culture in the world. While loyalty may be temporary, resulting from expediency, the system is self-regulating to ensure that no one individual becomes too powerful – all under the watchful (and insane) gaze of Malekith.

Were the spartans cartoon evil for having a heavily slave-dependent society dominated by a martial class and steered by mystical seers and prophets? The interplay of the cults, ruling dynasties and other institutions continue to keep dark elf society moving along rather than imploding, bound together my mutual self-interest.


I wrote:
I have been thinking about this again recently and I think you make some great points. I particularly like you comparison with Sparta.

To me, the High Elves borrow a lot of their image from ancient Athens. Like the Athenians they are poets, artists, scholars, philosophers, seafarers, and traders. They also have a king that’s elected by his peers (not quite like Athens, but at least there is some degree of consent about who rules)

The Dark Elves borrow at least some of their image from ancient Sparta. Like the Spartans they are war-like, martial, disciplined. Their society is geared almost entirely towards military discipline. Also like the Spartans, they have a slave class (Helots) that support the society and they engage in ritual brutalization of the slaves in order to ensure that they remain docile.

I particularly like this comparison because the Spartans and Athenians were bitter rivals, just like the Dark Elves and High Elves.

You probably thought about all of this as you were creating the image for the army book.

I guess my “cartoon evil” comment came about because I think that the Dark Elves lack subtlety.

I like the image of the Dark Elves as fallen, bitter, and corrupted. They have always been proud and disciplined. After their leader was betrayed and they had to flee their homeland to settle in an hospitable land, they also became hateful and pragmatic.

The Dark Elves want revenge for what happened to them and they will stoop to any level to get it. In that way they are a lot like many antiheroes.

To me, the Dark Elves are like Batman or the Count of Monte Cristo.

Some of the armybook background detracts from this somewhat by making them do evil things just for it’s own sake. For example there is a bit about Dark Elf merchants keeping enchanted bones of dead slaves in their bedchambers so that they can listen to them wail as they sleep. This is not only unnecessarily evil, but also probably quite distracting!

To me, this lacks subtlety. It makes makes them seem less like the Count of Monte Cristo and more like Skeletor. It’s “cartoon evil.” Evil for it’s own sake.

This was really long, but it’s my two cents.


What do you think? Do you agree with my take on this?
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Post by Phierlihy »

The Count of Monte Cristo was hardly evil. He was a man who suffered a grave injustice and, during his weakest moment, vowed revenge upon those who had wronged him. While his methods were both subtle and effective, he took pains to ensure only those who wronged him were brought to ruin and went out of his way to help those whom he felt kindly towards during the early stages of his life, even often helping them anonymously. I believe your characterization in this instance is far from accurate.
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Post by Saintofm »

I have some of the same feelings, but I can also add in the ancient Romans who were very simalar to the Spartans in many aspects, but were conquerors threw and threw, and lived a life of debotcery so intence that any R rated film on them is G comparison
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Post by Uberskooper »

phierlihy wrote:The Count of Monte Cristo was hardly evil. He was a man who suffered a grave injustice and, during his weakest moment, vowed revenge upon those who had wronged him. While his methods were both subtle and effective, he took pains to ensure only those who wronged him were brought to ruin and went out of his way to help those whom he felt kindly towards during the early stages of his life, even often helping them anonymously. I believe your characterization in this instance is far from accurate.


That would be my bad. I only know the gist of the Count of Monte Cristo.

My point was that the Dark Elves weren't always bad. They weren't necessarily good in that they were always hardened, brooding, and emphasized martial training over everything else, but they didn't enslave or torture people. They saw themselves (and in my mind still see themselves) as the heirs of the greatness of the Elven Legacy.

After their leader started a civil war (or in their mind was "betrayed") they got kicked out and their prestige was stolen from them. They have to live in a crummy cold land while their enemies are having a merry time ruling the land that they believe belongs to them and their king.

Now they have been hardened and embittered by their experiences. They see themselves as worthy and noble, while everyone else is beneath them. Everyone else is a tool to be brutally exploited so that they can claw their birthright back with blood fingers.

To me this is a more subtle and interesting characterization of them. This comes out really well in the 6th ed army book. In the 7th ed book, the background shifts more towards Skeletor-level evil.

Dark Elves are so evil that they put enchanted bones in their rooms so that they can listen to screams while they sleep. Really? That's about as far from subtle as you can get.
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Post by Dalamar »

Where did you get the bit about merchants listening to wailing of dead slaves as a lullaby from?
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Post by Uberskooper »

Dalamar wrote:Where did you get the bit about merchants listening to wailing of dead slaves as a lullaby from?


It's in the description of Karond Kar (or whatever the slaves first arrive). Dark Elf merchant lords put magic bones in their rooms so they can listen to screaming all night. Like white-noise, but evil.

It's really just one example and it was also from the 4th edition book, I believe. There are other similar examples of Dark Elves being too evil, greedy, selfish, and untrustworthy to live together in a society.

At least in the 4th and 6th ed books, they were organized and disciplined. In the 7th ed book formations of city troops don't even get organized until right before the battle, otherwise they might plot too much. It makes them seem really incompetent and not at all like the excellent warriors that the background says they are.

To me, this really clashes with their image as the proud inheritors of the elven legacy that they claim to be and makes them sort of cartoonish.

You know how Skeletor keeps trying to trick He-Man and claim Castle Greyskull? He has a new seemingly foolproof plan in every episode and he always somehow loses. It kind of reminds me of how the Dark Elves keep invading Ulthuan and are always on the verge of victory, but then they always somehow lose.

I realize that the can't win or else the setting would end, but their portrayal as incompetent and evil doesn't help. It makes them less cool. They turn from a cool anti-heroes into Skeletor.
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Post by Clockwork »

Interesting stuff. Reading Gav's words, does anyone else come away with the impression that he would have liked to emphasise subtle evil, but was leaned upon for the cartoonish stuff?

Speaking of which, I'm hoping that the next 8th edition book retcons a whole swathe of dark elf fluff. 50%+ of their background should not revolve around attacking Ulthuan and failing time after time because... High Elves are awesome? Compare this to other army books that routinely emphasise great victories and triumphs. Roll the invasion stuff into one big offensive and a few smaller skirmishes, and use the space to refocus on other exploits elsewhere. I'd like to hear something about a huge slave rebellion that was then put down violently and bloodily, ala Spartacus, for example - or more about the caves beneath Naggaorth or its strange natives, or about that huge mass of Beastmen in the north-west (go check out the map in their army book).
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Post by Dante valentine »

I agree, it would be nice to see a little more of our victories against our hated kin. Obviously GW will never give the any faction a major victory (Chaos always fail to invade the Empire despite outnumbering them a gazhillion to one, Skaven and Goblin's were able to topple the greatest Dwarf strongholds during a time of power but can't finish off the few that are left, etc etc).

It would also be nice to see a little bit more about our interactions with the chaos lad's and lasses in the north! I see this as a kind of ancient Rome Barbarian relationship - when they weren't killing each other, Rome would happily recruit them as merc's!

Still, it was nice to see some of Gav's thoughts and method behind the madness!

Now all we have to do is wait and see who they give our book development to!

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Post by Archon_matt »

I, for one, am sick of hearing "The Dark Elves invade Ulthuan and almost win BUT".
For instance:
"The Dark Elves invade Ulthuan and almost win BUT Griffon/Dragon/whatever GATE!"
"The Dark Elves invade Ulthuan and almost win BUT TECLIS!"
"The Dark Elves invade Ulthuan and almost win BUT THEY SCREW UP AT THE LAST MINUTE FOR IMPLAUSIBLE REASON!"

I'd rather hear "The Dark Elves invade Arnheim and WIPE IT OUT" or "The High Elves launch an invasion of Naggaroth but are repelled by the Dark Elves." The current army book (falsely) implies that our warriors are useless fanatics who will run at the first sign of trouble (see: the battle with Teclis). I understand that Dark Elves are meant to be consumed by hatred for their cousins, and rightly so, but that shouldn't mean that they are no longer able to fight or plan effectively! Hopefully, in the next army book, we'll see less cartoon evil, less "THE DE ALMOST WIN BUT-". Bitterness, hatred, civil strife - fine - but the fact that Druchii are a highly professional army of Elves needs to be remembered as well.
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Post by Archon_matt »

Sorry to double post, but:

When I look at the Dark Elves, I see a society of social darwinists, a meritocracy fueled by betrayal and contempt. Dark Elf society is filled to the brim with traitors, liars and murderers, but this constant competition makes the surviving Druchii strong. The uniting factor in this society is Malekith, an Elf so consumed by bitterness and hatred that he drives the Druchii into long, bloody and unnecessary wars against their hated kin, the Asur. In this way, the Dark Elves are less "Skeletor" and more "Hamlet" - so bitter, so bent on revenge, they would sooner see the world burn than the High Elves rise again.

In contrast, in the 7th Edition army book, I see a race of Elves entirely motivated by greed and villainy. They put screaming bones under their beds, drink blood and kill stuff because hey, why not, we're Druchii! There are a few moments in the fluff that I really liked - for instance, the emergence of Malekith from the Realm of Chaos, his bitterness turned to cold ruthlessness - but overall, the tone is very much that the Dark Elves are evil for the sake of evil.

Don't get me wrong - I do think the Dark Elves are capable of tremendous wickedness, but I think they do it for their own benefit, not just because they like killing. A Corsair kills a slave in the 6th edition book because he is slowing down the chain-gang - ruthless, but motivated by reason. Lord Yearl kills all his slaves so that he can win a battle against the Bretonnians, not just because he wants to see them die.

There's a lot GW could do with the Dark Elves, if they just broke away from Skeletor and cartoon villainy and took up the line of bitter warriors with a tragic past.
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Post by Lazarus »

I would really like to see a Warhammer Forge type book that gives proper attention to all of the major cities of the dark elves to include the northern watchtowers and even the different cults within their society ie. Khaine, Slaanesh, etc.
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Post by Saintofm »

Or the shades. If the Malus Darkblade books are still good fluff wise, they are the most independent of the dark elves, to the point of considering themselves separate form the main DE forces.

It would be interesting to see what each of the tribes are like, and how friendly they are to city folk (which from the Malus books are concern ranges from they have our paycheck to they go well with BBQ sauce).
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Post by Subutai »

That was a great read, thanks for posting. Its quite funny, actually: I was partly swayed to collect Dark Elves by the similarities with Sparta. I am doing a module on ancient Greece at university right now, and while learning about Spartan society I drew comparisons with the Dark Elves that captured my imagination. I'm glad to see I wasn't reading too much into it by doing that!
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Post by Uberskooper »

Here is a continuation of my conversation with Gav.

Gav wrote:
I can’t take all of the credit for the Sparta and Athens angle, as that was passed on to me by Rick Priestley.

The problem, as I see it, is that the Dark Elves are not Batman or the Count of Monte Cristo, because they really have got little justification for their maliciousness. While they might once, at the outset, have had a genuine aggrievement about the throne passing from Aenarion’s son to Bel Shanaar, Malekith and the Druchii’s subsequent behaviour puts them beyond any kind of atonement or redemption. They are spiteful, hurtful beings, driven by a need to prove their superiority. They do not seek justice, or even revenge, they have come to a point where they simply want to inflict pain on other creatures as an amend to their own hurt. They are bullies and torturers, who not only commit heinous acts against each other and their foes, but take a great deal of pleasure from doing so.

While I understand that many Dark Elves fans would like to see them with a more sympathetic edge, that’s just not what they’re about, or for that matter what Warhammer is about. They are evil. True evil is a knowing evil, and that’s what the dark elves are. They are bad to the bone and luxuriate in their depravity and infamy. The reason they can never be Batman or the Count of Monte Cristo is the nature of their elven heritage and personality. As elves, they experience the extremity of everything the world has to offer, so they cannot simply dislike their foes, they must hate them. They cannot be untrustworthy, they have to be treacherous and backstabbing. To render them any other way is to make them naughty people, bad by a human standard when they need to be bad by an elven standard.

Whether that evil is cartoony or not comes down to portrayal and individual taste. A race of beings that work slaves to death in their mines and then enchants their bones to keep working after death is not cartoony, it is vicious and unrelentingly nasty. I once described the elves to games dev in the following way: High Elves are moral, Wood Elves are amoral, and Dark Elves are immoral. Whatever gripe they might have against the phoenix king and their cousins on Ulthuan, there can be no justification for enslaving a whole town and burning them to death on the altars of their vile gods; gods they chose to worship rather than abhor.

All-in-all, we can each take of the background what we want, and develop the characters and stories we like best.


I replied:
Those are good points. From the very beginning the Dark Elves were portrayed as completely nasty and spiteful entirely for it’s own sake. I did like the bit in your 7th ed book about enchanting the bodies of slaves so that they can keep on mining after they die. It was vile and badass at the same time.

I guess I want the Dark Elves to a sympathetic edge because I think that being relatable makes for a good villain. Most evil people, either fictional or real, have some great tragedy that makes them that way.

There is a great quote by Wordsworth that goes: “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”

A good villain is at least somewhat sympathetic because I can see how he got to be the way he is. In my mind the Dark Elves are completely evil, they know their evil, and they enjoy torturing ‘lesser’ others, but they were not always that way. They started off being outraged that their leader wasn’t chosen to be the king and their hate simmered until they started a civil war. The Dark Elves wanted victory so badly that they slowly committed more and more atrocities until they blew up their own beloved land. Now they have to live in a cold crappy land where basic survival is a struggle. Through the centuries their initial outrage turned into a burning hate that permits them to take joy from the suffering of ‘lesser’ others to achieve their goals. However despite all of their gleeful wickedness they still see themselves as the proud inheritors of the Elven legacy and the true heirs of their old home. It’s this last bit that I really like because it’s a great contradiction.

The way I read your reply (I could be wrong) is that the Dark Elves might have had a genuine gripe at one point, but now they are just evil and happy being evil for it’s own sake. They don’t necessarily see themselves as the “true elves” anymore. They just capture and torture people not because they want to repay the evil done to them a thousandfold, but because it’s fun.

This sort of makes the Dark Elves out as sociopaths. A bit like H.H. Holmes and Carl Panzram, who from early childhood were wicked with no attributable external cause. Sociopaths are neuro-chemically broken and so are pretty hard to sympathize with. H.H. Holmes was an affable man that built a maze-like murder hotel with money he sweet talked out of a widow that he later killed. He is literally cartoonishly evil. Skeletor without the charm of constantly failing.

I don’t believe a society of sociopaths can exist, since they would cajole, betray, and murder each other into swift ruin. That’s why I asked my original question. Is there more to the Dark Elves than “screw you, got mine” or “listening to wailing bones is lovely?” Do they see themselves as the tenuously united heirs of the Elven legacy and want desperately to avenge themselves?

Anyways, I think I wrote way to much about my thoughts on the inner workings about an imaginary society from a game of plastic men. I feel a bit silly, but for some reason I was compelled to write it anyway.

I thought our conversation was extremely interesting and I shared it on Druchii.net.

http://druchii.net/viewtopic.php?t=69567

Have a look if you’re interested.

Thank you very much for taking the time to read and answer all of my inane questions. I really enjoyed being able to chat with the one of the creators of a game that I enjoy very much.
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Post by Omnichron »

I must say that Gavs words about the Dark Elves are exactly the impression I've always had from the early fluff I read about them. I'm also happy that the Dark Elves will keep that sharp edge of evil in the future as well... and I don't think it's cartoonish. Just look at what kind of evil things people have done in the past... many wars has been because of hate and cultural crash.

However, I want to take a couple of minutes and thinking about the whole "Evil" view and try to get into the mindset of the Dark Elf society toward other races (without becoming a raging murderous madman).

The other races, the non-elves, can be viewed upon for the dark elves as animals would be for us humans today. They can have their uses, animals which do the physical work for us (slaves), and then thrown away/eaten/sacrificed as we humans have done in both old and modern history. Animals can be pets, and I guess the dark elf could have pets of the lower races as well. If the dark elf look upon the humans as we look upon monkeys, we might see why the dark elves behave in such a cruel way. If a monkey gets in the way of a human or attacks humans, it's put to sleep/killed or locked up in a cage.

The only problems for the Dark Elves, is that the animals they fight, are more dangerous and have even been given technology and the teachings of magic from the High Elves (to some extent of course). Since these animals they meet (All the other non-elf races) oppose them so, they just have to bring them down in the best way they can.

The high-elves would then be the hippies trying to protect animals (While they get eaten and killed by them at the same time), and the Wood Elves would be some of those craziest people, living together with wolves and actual animals. :P
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Post by Archon_matt »

Yeah, but we don't kill our pet dogs and then put their bones under our beds just so we can fall asleep to the sound of howling canines in immense pain.
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Post by dreadlord7476 »

Archon_Matt wrote:Yeah, but we don't kill our pet dogs and then put their bones under our beds just so we can fall asleep to the sound of howling canines in immense pain.
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