Unearthed Arcana is back with a few more subraces. And this one’s for the elves. Specifically, we’re looking at the Avariel, the Grugach, Sea Elves, and the Shadar-Kai.
Special note, I’m not really going to talk about the racial features of each subrace presented here. They’re fine, for the most part. What I’m interested in is the roleplaying and worldbuilding potential of each of these subraces. If you’re looking for more of a statistical analysis, then I’d suggest Brandes Stoddard’s Take on Tribality, or The Kind GM’s Take on their blog.
So, understanding that, let’s dive in!
Download it here: Unearthed Arcana: Elf Subraces
I have a secret: I hate the avariel. I’ve tried to like them, but they’re just SO BORING. They’re elves, but with WINGS! OoOoOoh! But really, that’s it. There’s some lip service in previous editions about them having a definitive split in their culture—one half being warlike while the others are peaceful—but that’s about as shallow as creating an orc subrace and calling them the “good ones.” It’s artificial drama that exists as an excuse to put wings on elves.
And Mike Mearls doesn’t seem to know what to do with them, either. It’s stated that they’re rare due to conflicts with dragons, but no information is given regarding their culture, leaving you with…well…
Elves with wings.
And this is too bad, because there’s a lot that CAN be done with the avariel. Off the top of my head, a race of fey with elegant white wings whose prevalence in the world has been reduced due to constant war with dragons? I get the impression that a few folks on the ground are going to mistake them for angels. What if they took advantage of this? What if avariel culture was influenced by this simple misunderstanding, and they began teaching their children how to be charismatic and deceptive at a young age? They start practicing public speech and debate so that they can take on “missions” for the state to influence the so-called “lower beings” below, creating armies of zealots to fight their war with the dragons for them. Their manipulation of the religious systems of others drives their society to become almost entirely atheistic. I imagine an entire culture of haughty, winged philosophers who hold public arguments and debates to roaring crowds of their “enlightened” peers. An entire society of jerks who love nothing more than directing a finger at someone and declaring “Argumentum ad hominem!” before smirking and spreading their wings in apparent victory.
See, I love that. I find that interesting. And there’s a lot of cool, neat features that you can add to that. And I encourage anyone who decides to use avariel in their game to think about these sorts of things. You don’t have to use my (admittedly ill-considered) idea, but think of SOMETHING, because the alternate is just…
It’s elves with wings. That’s it. I really don’t know how else to say it.
Moving on to things I absolutely LOVE: the Grugach. Oh, man! These elves are so WEIRD and COOL and INTERESTING! I’ve never been that into greyhawk, so this is honestly my first time hearing about them, and I want to dive deep into the D&D backlog to find out more.
Let’s start with the name. I mean, that NAME! So often, elven cultures have these flowing, serene names: Avariel, Eladrin, Aryvandaar, Lythari. But Grugach. It’s weird and harsh and german-as-hell. It’s the kind of name you’d give to a dwarven or orcish culture. But given to elves, it takes on this new and intriguing context. It’s the kind of name a culture who don’t give a damn what other cultures think of them would have.
And that’s exactly what the Grugach are. They’re isolationist wilderness elves. Wood elves on steroids, with WAY more staying power. All of their features are evocative of the culture they came from.
I mean, they don’t even speak common! That is SO COOL! I love the idea of this short, grumpy elf picking his toes with his toe-knife, flicking the remnants into the campfire, and the other party members are just staring at him in disbelief.
I also love the idea of comparing the grugach to normal high elves. High elves are often viewed as these sort of holier-than-thou jerks with a penchant for magic who are compared to the more down-to-earth, community-driven wood elves. But if the wood elves refuse to bathe and don’t speak the common tongue? Suddenly, to the normal citizen of [INSERT CAPITOL CITY HERE], they become a societal problem.
“They’re stinking up the whole street with their filth.”
“Why don’t they speak the common tongue? If they’re going to live here, they should learn the language.”
“The city council should round them all up and send them back to the forest.”
I mean, the narrative arc writes itself. Outsider elf in the big city, initially hated by the local populace. Saves them from a disaster, and suddenly they begin to soften. Someone on the street smiles and greets them in Sylvan. The local bar starts importing a traditional elven wine. Kids start running around with toy bows-and-arrows and toy spears, emulating their favorite grugach hero.
That is the kind of campaign I want to be a part of.
I admit that I never really “got” sea elves—or Aquatic Elves, as they were once known. I always found other aquatic races—especially the whale-like darfellan or the ever-demonized sahuagin—to be more interesting and unique than sea elves. I think a part of me always felt like the ocean should have its own uniquely-evolved races, rather than just sticking the land species in the water. And looking at the 5e update of the sea elf? I feel the same way.
They’re essentially the wood elves of the water. They “fell in love with the wild beauty of the ocean” and decided to live there. And that apparently gave them gills and the ability to talk to fish. I guess, even more than the avariel, I don’t really understand why sea elves exist? I think there’s a lot of potential behind the idea of seafaring elves, but I find the idea of actual aquatic elves to be pretty boring.
They’re basically Zora from The Legend of Zelda. Except that the zora are interesting and have a unique culture based around caste, and their royalty always seem to grow to ridiculous sizes for some reason.
Sea elves are just wet.
So, full disclosure, the Shadar-Kai were one of my favorite things in 4th Edition D&D. They’re kind of boring in 3rd Edition: basically just fey that are spiritually-tortured into being villains. But in 4e, they got this bold new makeover.
Instead of fey, they were some kind of mysterious new humanoid race, born to the humans of Shadovar and cursed by some sort of dark agent to sacrifice their souls to the shadowfell. This led them to either live their lives in chilly melancholy or become pleasure-seeking daredevils. They were this interesting manifestation of anarchic punk culture in D&D. They didn’t give a damn what anyone thought of them, and would try just about anything as long as they left behind a good story when they were gone. They had no fear of death and considered things like comfort and safety to be banalities not worthy of their time.
In short, they were PERFECT adventurers, and I adored their style.
Now, they’ve been given another makeover for 5e and…huh. I’m pretty unimpressed. They’re servants of the Raven Queen who might have been elves once, but now inhabit a strange space between life and death. Oh, and they have tattoos and piercings. Because reasons.
See, this is kind of the worst result. They work for the Raven queen and…don’t really have a personality beyond that. They have tattoos and piercings, Just as they did before. But instead of those tattoos and piercings being symbolic of the pain-as-pleasure counterculture they represented, they now just exist. The text literally just states “their skin is pale and their bodies [are] marked by piercings and eerie tattoos.”
In short, they’re boring. Their racial features are fine, I guess. A free spell and a nifty shadow jaunt. And a +1 to Charisma, which fits really well with the outgoing daredevils of 4e, but mostly just feels like a holdover with this new interpretation.
I don’t know. If I use Shadar-Kai in my games, it’s going to be a variant on the 4th Edition version. This new one just doesn’t capture me like the other did.
And that’s it. This Unearthed Arcana was…fine, I guess. Nothing compared to the last one (dem fiendish options, tho), but it obviously wasn’t intended to be the same kind of document. This one was obviously made for the fans; the people who loved these races in previous editions will probably love that this document exists.
For me, though? Three out of the four were duds, in my opinion. But that fourth subrace—the Grugach—makes the whole thing worth it. They are by far the most interesting and story-rich character option I’ve read about since the Shadow Sorcerer. And I can’t wait to start my deep dive into their lore to learn more about them.
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