The Elvish Empire
The grand, mighty, world-spanning Elvish Empire no longer spanned the world and war arguably no longer an Empire.
To qualify as an actual Empire, a nation-state must contain one or more Kingdoms and control one or more client Kings. The Elves had an Emperor – and he was a nice looking Emperor all combed and clean – but lacked the all-important qualifying client Kings. The Empire once had them, tons of them, up in everything, like cockroaches. Client Kings jumping from every alleyway yelling “gotcha” and crashing every party. They were annoying. Writers of old spilled gallons of ink begging the government to deport them back to their home hovels. But now they were gone. No one knew where. Perhaps the Client Kings disappeared between the couch cushions.
These facts did not bother the Elves.
“The Empire has been right-sized,” the Elves claimed. The Empire was svelte. More nimble. Agile. Lighter on its feet. Focused on the problems that matter. Easier to react to change. Elf-first.
Improved, the Elves said. Better than before. They like things this way. Honestly.
Some claimed the Empire fell and ceased existence centuries ago. The Elves weren’t so certain. They hadn’t gone anywhere. Their capital city was still the capital city. Elves were still Elves. They kept right on with historical continuity. They never lost their culture, their technological progress, or their sense of nationhood. Sure, the borders shrunk. This General lost a massive chunk of arable land to Orkish invasion and settlement. This other General lost an important food-bearing holding to a single massive dragon. This bit flaked off. Then this other bit. Borders collapsed. But the core was strong. They lived forever while the outside world collapsed.
Elves ceased paying attention to the lands they ceded to Human, Orkish and Halfling* settlement. Outside, kingdoms rose. Kingdoms fell. Men fought civil wars. Men conquered. Halflings conquered. They fought ugly battles among the dirty and dusty Elvish ruins. They crowned each other King. And not client King. King king.
The Elves turned in. They focused on their internal religious and political politics. They held symposia on art, music and science. They established schools. They built soaring Temples and centers for magickal study. They left the world of Men, Orks and Halflings behind and raided the rich Deep Elves and Dwarves of the Underdark instead.
The Elves built libraries. They wrote books.
They never went outside.
The two young functionaries watched as the Emperor entertained a visitor from one of the Empire’s once-held client states. The visitor, a heavily armored and bearded human, marveled at the mosaics, the wide boulevards, the soaring arches, and the causal displays of magic. The Elves showed off. They impressed their visitor.
Elves cultivated rumors about maintaining closed borders, allowing no visitors into their city, hating other non-Elvish races and closing themselves off from the outside. This was all nonsense. Elves loved stuff as much as the next race. They simply wanted stuff for cheap. If these new Kingdoms had stuff, and could sell them stuff, the Elves wanted to exchange cheap trinkets and toys in exchange for that stuff. They lured traders into their city with tales of obscene wealth, dazzled them with displays of magic, and then mercilessly fleeced them. Maybe, if the Empire bought enough stuff from a Kingdom, they’d consider an invasion to hold a monopoly on that stuff. But thus far, except for the Underdark, no visitors brought in anything invasion-worthy.
The Elves deeply loathed leaving the borders of their Empire. They didn’t want to go about invading. It was hard and messy. The Elves never forgot that they once owned all the land. They built cities on it. They controlled it. They still had detailed maps of what was where. But, if they could lure traders to their glittering city instead of going out into the mud, they weren’t going to leave home. Who knew what was out there? It was cold and wet with no books and no hot boozy drinks.
The two young functionaries watched as the Emperor showed the visitor a flock of coordinated half-magical, half-mechanical singing birds flying though magically produced rays of sunshine. The visitor commented on the Elvish mastery of magic and discussed trade terms. Wheat, food, for magical gear support in their wars. The Emperor, pleased, agreed and gave the visitor gifts – some magic scrolls, a few magic swords stolen from Dwarves, the birds – and sent the visitor on his way to spread the gospel of Do Not Mess with the Scary Elves.
The functionaries got the wrong message out of this exchange. Fascinated by the strange visitor and his entourage of heavily armed murder hobos, the functionaries decided to do the unthinkable. They wanted to know where the visitor came from. What was his world? Why would he trade wagon loads of valuable food for something as trivial as spells?
The Elvish functionaries would … write a travel guide! A travel guide about the Orks and the Halflings and the men. A disaster tourism travel guide. They’d return and be famous! It would be awesome!
They were young. They were dumb. They discovered the Empire had no actual laws or rules to keep Elves in. They asked the Emperor for permission to leave and he said, “If you really insist, sure. Don’t let me stop you.”
Taking that as permission, the young Elvish functionaries suited up with what they approximated as travel gear. They scribed into their magic books every travel spell they could find: a whole mess of cantrips including message, sending, tongues, mending, comprehend languages, charm person, identify, disguise self, unseen servant, locate object, zone of truth, knock, and Leomund’s entire known catalogue. They gathered all their cash. They bought warm cloaks and new boots. Then, they headed out with the visitor’s caravan to the great outside. In a year’s time, they said, they would return to publish their masterpiece! Adventure! Writing! Books!
And they went outside where it was, as advertised, cold and wet with no books and no hot boozy drinks.
The Travel Guide
The world was big. Really big. The Elves were not gone for merely a year. They were gone for decades. They learned many things, gained many levels, wrote about them and magically Sent finished pages back home – mostly as they ran away from something trying to eat their heads. And they learned the following while traveling through where the Empire wasn’t any more.
This was all included in their guide:
- Leaving to travel before mastering the third level of wizarding spells is a poor idea (at least according to two traveling Elves). While cantrips and first level spells covers most of the bases, Leomund’s Tiny Hut is a must. Because otherwise, traveling Elves writing travel guides end up sleeping in forests on the cold ground in the rain.
- The most powerful spell in one’s arsenal is Prestidigitation. Light a fire. Clean muck off food. Make a pretend knife. Scare off some bandits with the sounds of an army over the hill. Sure, Fireball can level a village, but Prestidigitation keeps a pair of traveling Elves alive.
- Mending keeps one’s underwear from wearing out. This is more important than it sounds.
- Sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and that includes most of the Elves’ gear. Don’t use magic when one doesn’t need it – showing off a wind-up device is enough to frighten the locals into giving up concessions.
- While the visitor to their Elvish Empire spoke the archaic forms of Elvish fluently, almost no one else on the outside did. Turns out, over time, invasions, and settlement, languages experience linguistic drift. While the Elves sealed themselves up into their protected cocoon of Empire and fought with like-minded Deep Elves, the world of Men, Orks and Halflings had fun with overlapping language families and loanwords. Comprehend Languages is a cheap and fantastic spell for understanding what people say but the Elves couldn’t answer basic questions like: “Do you want a room for the night?” Tongues only lasts an hour and takes a valuable higher level casting slot.
- Also, Peasants love to talk louder and slower when they sense Elves cannot understand them.
- The Elves tackled a “how to say X” guide first. Then they used it for themselves.
- However, settled village peasants don’t use written languages because they don’t need them. Peasants focus on subsistence farming, and when only three or four dozen live in a community isolated from the next, they don’t need to write letters. To complicate the Comprehend Language/Tongues problem, the Elves realized as they passed through the various Kingdoms of Men, Ork and Halfling, they had no tools to transcribe what they heard into their own language to use as a How-To guide. They invented tools, imposed their written alphabet, and tweaked it to work.
- Now they could ask “which way to the nearest town” or “who is the Lord of this land,” the Elves learned no one at the general peasantry population had any minted metal money. They used barter. The peasants were, in fact, quite savvy at fleecing Elves who had never bartered before. Minted metal money was the province of religious and high level political institutions – and anyone using money was a mark for theft. No one accepted a coin for, say, an egg.
- However, the religious and high level political institutions were always happy to take Elven money, even if they simply melted down the silver and gold coins into ingots. In fact, they were happy to take all the Elven money. All of it. At sword point. Yes, that coin, too. The higher level politicians had Murder Hobos and buddies to pay off in pure gold…
On the Wreckage of Empire:
- The old Elvish Empire was, in a way, still there. Rarely do cities simply disappear (although some were gone – wiped off the map.) While the top-level institutions changed, the people stayed the same.
- However, the humans who moved in as the Empire retreated harvested the gleaming white marble of the palaces, temples and monuments to build their own palaces, temples and monuments. Sometimes, all the humans left of marvelous ancient buildings were foundation posts. Standing in the wreckage were new buildings, often cruder, less stable, and smaller. Without Elven and Dwarven engineering, humans, Orks and Halflings reinvented the architectural disciplines from scratch – and in their own image.
- The roads were intact. Sometimes the Elves traveled broken roads, or stones overgrown with turf. But the Elves could still follow the lines on the ground from Kingdom to Kingdom.
- Occasionally, and much to their surprise, the Elves encountered Kings and Kingdoms who absolutely swore they were still part of the Elvish Empire. Kings sword fealty to the Emperor’s long-dead great-great grandfather. They clothed themselves in a bastardized approximation of half-remembered centuries-dead Elves. They gave themselves garbled Elvish names. They wrote their laws in (decent) Elvish. They claimed they were waiting for the Empire to rise again so they could rejoin its great glory.
- The Elves found this all super weird.
- The Elves also ran into shattered remains of religious institutions who claimed adherence to the original Elvish traditions. Like anything else, this had centuries of garbled drift. The Elves weren’t sure who these worshippers were worshipping.
- As an aside: Do not mess with Halfling raiders. The Elves underlined this twice on the pages they Sent back to their home city. Halflings might look small, but they can destroy a strip of coastal villages in hours. Easy to underestimate, the Elves marked the rise of Halfling Kings as a new and deadly risk stepping into the open void. The Halflings, the Elves wrote, were dangerous.
- Yet, they were also the most fun to travel with. They had the best stories, the fastest ships, and the craziest barbarians. And they were relentless traders. Following Halflings around got the Elves deep into far off otherwise inaccessible lands.
- Do not mess with them but… partner with them, perhaps?
On Humans, Orks and Empire:
- Humans, like Orks and Halflings, liked to establish Kingdoms, although they had a decidedly un-Elvish outlook about how to run them. Human Kingdoms were more like a Mafia Famliy than an organized government. Men liked to grab land and give land to their friends. And when they ran out of land to give to their friends, they went to war with each to kill and other to grab more land to give to their friends. Rinse, repeat.
- But these races weren’t a complete disaster. The Elves found threads of stabilization through tiny Kingdoms.
- A few powerful families had gathered enough resources and power to “try to rekindle the light of the Empire.” And the Elves found this marvelously strange, because the Empire was right there and hadn’t gone anywhere. When the Elves asked about rekindling the light of Empire, what with the Empire still around, the humans and orks both explained their religious institutions and their cities and their culture and the Elves said no no look the Empire is right there. And the humans insisted it was dead and it was up to them to restart it.
- Okay, okay, the Elves said. And it made sense why their Emperor kept receiving visitors. Visitors were taking bits and pieces of what they felt was the past and were building the future.
- And was this the future threat to the Empire? Two Empires, the old and the new one wearing the old one’s pants, fighting for who was the actual Empire?
The Elves wrote about many more topics including food, water quality, clothing, and the smell of pigs. They Sent back hundreds of pages of work on these topics and more, many more – although they had major issues once they ran out of paper and had to get intensely creative, better known as “raids on monasteries.” They leveled.
And what the Elves learned alarmed them. Wiser, smarter, and seasoned, the Elves approached the Emperor. They told the Emperor their concerns about the human ambitions right on their doorstep. The Emperor shrugged it off. The Empire had existed for thousands of years. It would continue. Besides, the Empire had running water. The humans didn’t even have that, let alone the Orks and filthy little Halflings (that the Emperor had begun employing as private guards because they’re so good at being vicious.) The Empire’s technological and magical advances would prevail. The Emperor was quite certain.
The Elves published their work. It sold well. They made enough to comfortably retire and send progeny into political service. Generations of proto-Murder Hobo Elves used the guide as a stepping stone to leaving the Empire, adventuring in the world of men, making money, and coming home. It was one of the first true best sellers.
The Elves grandchildren weren’t terribly surprised when, a century later, and out of nowhere, the world of Men and Orks arrived at the Empire’s doorstep with sword in hand and sacking on their minds.
* Do not mess with Halflings. Lord of the Rings is merely propaganda to underestimate them before they rise up and rip your face clean off.
Image Credit: Art by Jaydot Sloane of Vanity Games – http://www.patreon.com/VanityGames