Well, I've been kicking this setting idea around for a little while, and I'd be interest in feedback, both on the idea and my write ups thus far. Also, I'm highly interested in thoughts on how to take this concept forward; I've got the basics down, but I think there's potentially quite a lot here to flesh out.
Firstly, the basics. The basic idea, the
basic idea, is a drow take on the themes of A Song of Ice and Fire. However, one of the points about traditional drow that makes them unsuited to something like this is their 'Always Chaotic Evil' default society structure. To let SoIaF themes rise to the fore, a drow focused setting would need several major changes (to the point that calling them drow is stretching things a bit)
So, bullet points on the setting, before I share my (rather poor) current attempts at writing a few things up.
Low/no magic, at least by default. Mages exist, but they're rare. They've got quite a bit of power, but all of it's on a personal scale; they can fly, or attack individual foes, but wide ranging magic is well and truly out (even the humble
fireball). A smart wizard should focus on knowledge as much as magic. (Note; some great craftsmen use ancestral magical techniques, but again, that's rare)
Setting consists of multiple city states, each highly large, and pretty much self-sufficiant. There is interraction between the cities, but travel isn't exactly easy, regular people aren't likely to relocate
Geography is strange; the drow appear to be underground, but some areas appear to hold starlight, and ceilings that are impossible to reach. There are large lakes/oceans, and the occasional naval battle has occured.
(Note; leaving the 'shadowland' is possible, but only by a few people. Cause of this is unknown)
Church is less dominant (no magic, or direct intervention) but still a magor force. Faith emphasises community and sticking together, D&D wise, it'd probably be NG
And now, my rather poor write ups.
Firstly, a 'creation myth'
Come now, children. Listen to my tale, and perhaps you will understand our people a little better
The Time Before
In the beginning, the world was wrought, by the forging of rock and iron, wood and stone, fire and magic, all at the will of a single god, a being of unimaginable power who called the stars his friends, the Sun his blade, and the moon his court. Some say that he was a traveller, escaping the conflicts of beings yet greater than he. Others say that his existence was a by-product of the universe, that the dreams of the first mortal being summoned him into being. Many theories exist, but no proof. What story you believe is very much your own affair
What matters is that this divine Lord existed, and that the beings called the Tel-shir were his favouriate creation. They were near-immortal, living for many centuries, they held grace and art in abundance, and they were wise beyond all other races of the earth. To them, the Lord of the Stars entrusted the secrets of magic, and it was to these Tel-shir that he entrusted the world he had wrought. They were to safeguard it against any who would do it harm, be they mortal or Outsider come to disrupt his grand design. For this task they would seculde themselves in forrest homes and mountain tops, watching other races from afar and only interveining in their affairs when the world itself was threatened by them
And so the Tel-shir proceeded. Other races begun to emerge, flourish and decline, but none could ever hope to equal the beings that would later be known as elves for their wisdom and grace.
And, some would say, arrogance.
One act of Rebellion
There was a mage amongst the Tel-shir, a woman of great power and wisdom, who had seen her people through both harsh times and fair. Upon her death, the Lord of Stars took her into his court, and asked for her hand in marriage. She deserved to sit at his side, for all the noble works she had performed. Indeed, such had always been her destiny Thus did the woman become the Goddess of artistry and fate, sitting by the side of the God who had made her.
And yet... as she looked out across the world, her gaze could not help but linger on the other races. They seemed so... misguided, either wasting their time on simple, basic persuits, or making cruel war upon each other. The Tel-shir had passes such savagery long ago; if they chose to reach out to these other races, educate them, guide them as a parent or elder sibling, so much good could be done. Perhaps, in time, these other races could even rival the Tel-shir? It was not impossible
The Lady of Fate said all of this to her husband, but he grew stormy at her words. Finally, the Lord of Stars had had enough, and pounded his fist down upon the table. His people were to stand beyond, eternal sentinals, rewarded with their grace and beauty. He had decreed this at their creation. To let them so interfere would leave them rulers of the world, rather than it's guardians. Their true purpose would be lost; it must not be so.
And then, the Lady of Fate saw why her husband truly would not let his people interact with the other mortal races.
He did not want his creations spoilt. As things stood, the Lord could appreciate each and every one of the Tel-shir with an artist's eye, they stood alone and above all other beings. But if they interacted with the other races as equals, to any degree, the lower, baser traits of their nature might come to the foreground. The Tel-shir, for all their power, wisdom and beauteous grace, were mortals, not gods. They would be lessened by the experience, at least to the mind of their proud creator, the Lord of Stars. And that doting old god, safe in his impregnable fortress, could not bare to see his master-work so lowered
Three times the Lady of Fate charged the Lord of Stars with this truth, and three times he denied it. Enraged at his feeble self-centred nature, the Lady withdrew, vowing to take her truth to those amongst the Tel-shir wise enough to accept their own nature as a mortal race.
In some places, the Goddess was attacked by loyal followers of the Lord of Stars. In some, she was turned away. But in some few quiet, simple towns, that had long watched the outside world wishing to be a part of something greater, she found allies.
War for the Throne of Stars
With that act on the Mother's part, the first true war in history was begun. The Lord of Stars stirred from his white palace, and grasped the blade of the sun, leaving the world in perpetual summer; the finest season for conflict. He would have struck every single rebel down in the streets if he could, there and then, purely for daring to leave 'his' people dis-unified, But the Lady of Fate refused to let that happen. For every stroke of fire the Burning Lord brought to the world he had wrought, she offered a shower of rain to the poor people below. She would match her husband stroke for stroke, until he let his people have their freedom.
In the end, the two divinities warred across the heavens, each cancelling out the other, their struggles being mirrored by their followers on the world below. The rebellious elves, calling themselves the 'Ith'iyri' (literally 'the shade-dwellers') were few in number, but they fought as one, whereas the rest of the Tel-shir were an army of individuals, each aarogant warrior hoping that he would be the greatest. The war was epic, world shattering. The stuff of fairy-tales. Mountains were sundered by mystic swords, a rain of glass and thunder once fell upon a flying city, which held towers that could touch the sky. Proud warriors bore swords forged of a thousand shards of crystal, and armor made of dragonbone. To this day, the Ith'iyri still have many tales of the War for the Throne of Stars, and each one is told proudly. They stood against their creator and the majority of their kind, for a cause they believed right
They might have lost the war, in the end. Sheer weight of numbers can do that. But the moral victory remained theirs.
The final scene of the War is undoubtedly one of the most iconic. The last bastion of the Ith'iyri had been besieged, and at last, the 'valorous' Tel-shir had finally broken through. The last remains of the Ith'iyri stood their ground in a courtyard, ready to meet their killers in battle rather than surrender to their less than tender 'mercy'. But as the Tel-shir descended upon their cousins, the Burning Lord appeared in a flash of glory, and all were silent, Ith'iyri and Tel-shir alike. By the god's side stood the Mother, the elf-god's errant wife, chained in manacles forged of stars and dragon fire.
The Lord looked proud, as he descended, the leader of this rebellion broken and chained at his side. The true people had won this war, and the rebels could now be properly dealt with. But the only one truly to blame for all of this was his fellow divinity. Any of her 'children' who surrendered, the great god called out, would be spared. They could start again, be true Tel-shiri.
A single Ith'iyri stepped forward. One young warrior, who bowed before 'his' god, before charging straight towards the Creator, blade drawn, courage overcoming his fear. A look of distaste coming over the Burning Lord's face, he simply raised his sword and the lone nameless hero fell back, a charred skeleton
But the Mother of Shadows was calm, even then. And as she spoke the final words to her people, a sense of peace and serenity came to all, even the Tel-shir, just for that moment.
"You may have won the battle, and shed the blood of my children. But we shall never forget. And we shall never submit"
With those words, the true finale of the war begun. The chains that held the Mother shattered into a thousand pieces of starlight, as the greatest mage of all time begun her finest spell. The Ith'iyri begun to fade from sight, vanishing. Those Tel-shir blades that seconds ago would have cleaved flesh from bone found their 'cousins' now to be little more than ghosts. By the appearance of things, the Mother of Shadow had managed to ensure the survival of her children, despite all the odds standing against her.
Someone making such a judgement would have reckoned without the Burning Lord. The God of the Tel-shir drew his flaming blade, and cried out in rage and rebuke. He would not permit this final great affront. A storm of flame and mystic light tore at the Ith'iyri, burning them with the brightest dawn ever seen in all of time. Those present recoiled, their skin burning; mystical flames seeping past the Mother's protection. The gathered rebel elves could not hold their eyes open, in seconds, all they could do was listen to their fellows scream, and the thousand varied cries of the Tel-shir
But then, there is silence. When the Ith'iyri open their eyes, there is no great inferno of wrath blazing down on them. There are only distant twinkling stars, and a sea of blackness around them, comforting, welcoming. A cool breeze blew across their faces, as with blessed eyes, they looked out across their race's new home.
It was over. The Mother had gone, but she had saved them. And everything would be all right.
"And that is where it ends. The Mother saved us all from the wrath of her former lord. She brought us to this place, this sanctuary. Life is harsh here, true, but we live free, with no masters but our own, and no laws but those we make. The Tel-shir might have the sun, but we won the stars, in the end. Starlight and shadow; the gifts of the Mother."
And a little religious bit
The dark elves don't appoint saints as such, whilst great ancestors are revered, they are not generally worshipped. However, there are four figures remembered from the Fall and shortly thereafter, that left a strong mark in the history of their people, and now are regarded as perhaps minor gods, or saints if you will. They are not worshipped exactly, as they are always seen as ascended mortals, rather than the true goddess, the Great Mother. However, 'reverence' for the Guardians is widespread and accepted. Most temples of The Mother contain shrines to each of the four, with a small area for visitors to reflect upon the lives and deeds of the Guardians, hoping for the Mother to bless them as they once did their ancestors.
Some elves indulge in prayer targeted directly towards the four heroes, hoping for their specific blessing. This is not accepted doctrine by the church, and hard-line clerics persecute those seen as worshipping 'false idols'. This issue has been at the root of multiple wars in the past, one group calling another out as Cultists; even when religion is not truly an issue, it makes a useful excuse for war. However, on a more honest, day to day level, 'Cultisim' is a harder line to draw. There are monastic orders focusing on the lives of each of the Guardians, and whilst generally beneficial, most of these have been called heretics at one time or another. They're a common issue in Church politics, some priests are firmly against the Monasteries, and their continued existence, whilst some would like to see cult worship legalized (although the latter group never admit it outright) The current Grand Cleric is vaguely neutral on the matter; she is supportive of the monasteries, on the provision that they perform rituals honouring the Mother on a daily basis, in an attempt to assuage the critics as to the fact that they do not truly worship the four.
The Master is a consummate player of games. The youngest of the quartet, it is his webs that connect Drow families together, his designs that families wage war by. He is often depicted in myth as a self centred being and to judge by myth his abilities to trick and deceive others are only matched by his ability to be fooled in turn. Yet he is also the greatest artist in all existence, not just a scheming manipulator. His blessings are those of style and grace, in any medium, be it battlefield, ballroom or canvas.
The Champion represents the individual standing alone, and standing tall. She is the one who steps forward when an enemy issues a challenge to single combat, but is also often an envoy to other civilizations, as she represents the very best Drow civilization can achieve. She has a fondness for art, as it is the individual's statement on greater events. Her blessings are those of courage. The ability to advance, even when alone, to fight for something greater than yourself with passion and pride. To stand on behalf of your house, your city or all of your kind, and yet never back down.
The Wizened is the first Sage, a historian and magic user of amazing power. He is the one who studies the past, who places things in context, and advises the great and powerful. Whilst he is held in esteem by craftsmen, and revered by sages and wizardly folk, most commoners mildly distrust the Wizened, seeing him as a dark figure, little better than his fellow Tel-shir magi. His blessings are those of reflection and wisdom, the ability to see the wider truth of a situation, to understand it, and thus see the best path forwards.
The Commander is the only member of the Guardians known to hold an actual blood relationship to another; she is described in several early texts as the sister of The Master. The two siblings were supposedly the Mother's first servants, fighting side by side from the beginning of the war, right until the end. The Commander is the patron of those who embrace an ideal greater than themselves, sublimating their own goals and desires to those of a group. She stands patron of soldiers alongside the Champion; both being seen as necessary for an army's prosperity (although, unsurprisingly, the Champion tends to prove more popular). Her blessings are those of focus, discipline and quiet, modest excellence
And a couple of 'life within' segments
At their core, the Ith'iyri are a meritocracy, forged upon the principles of survival in the Dark. Those who help the people as a whole (as decided by the community at large) are those who deserve reward and are best fitted to command their fellows. Many offices are rooted in this practice, both Knighthood and the White Throne were created as community elected positions, rather than being decided by any kind of smaller oligarchy.
Over time, however, the dark elves have acquired a wider noble class. Whilst each house was at some point formed upon the efforts of someone directly elected to their position, today, many noble houses exist purely for the self-advancement of those within. However, a noble house's political position tends to be relative to how much good it does for the city as a whole. Houses can hold influence disproportionate to the good they do; playing the system is always a possibility, but a house must do something. An idle house will not last long.
A Noble House can be created either by the word of a city's ruler, or by majority vote of a city's other Houses. overruling their throne. A Knighthood can be decreed by any noble house in good standing, but the city's Lady or Lord can overrule it if needed.
Ith'iyri culture allows for multiple views upon conflict. On one side, the faith of the Mother frowns highly on disunity; the dark elves are supposed to stand as one to survive and prosper in the Dark. Dividing themselves is non-ideal, and fighting and killing one another all but heretical, threatening the survival of them all.
On the other hand... the Dae'row have come a long way since those texts were first written. They number many, and have spread far within the Dark. And fighting for what is right and true is the thing that led to the Mother standing up against the Lord of the Tel-shir. Righteous conflict is respected by the Church. And atop that, protection against the creatures that lurk in the darkness is undoubtedly noble. Even a good portion of the faithful look upon the prohibition against conflict as a relic of past ages.
Thus, the Ith'iyri are not strangers to the art of conflict. The great smiths remain every bit the equal of the Tel-Shiri arts before the fall, though they have not the magic of their cousins. Still, the dark elves possess all the items and tools of warcraft that one might expect from a great civilization, from siege engines to plate armour. There're even a few mystical swords still being forged, though those are rare beyond belief; each tending to establish a history pretty quickly.
The Ith'iyri have a wide artistic canon, along with a range of views upon art itself. Whilst most traditional art forms tend to focus either around portraiture or religious history, attempting to recreate a thing directly, a recent movement (calling themselves 'the Master's Own') have attempted to experiment with symbolism and interpretation, and have won wide acclaim, both within the church and nobility. Whilst many artists now seek to mirror this new style, or embrace it's philosophy by experimenting themselves, the members of the original movement have moved on to more intricate works, less seen by the wider populous.
Music and theatre are seen as closely intertwined by the Ith'iyri. Whilst it is possible for one to exist without the other, most notable theatrical pieces are intended to be accompanied by music, and most muscail pieces are intended to have some narrative behind them.
Also, in a hold-over from the days of the Tel-shir, there remains in many professions a focus on maintaining style and grace whilst retaining functionality. Just because a blade must cut deep does not mean it can not be elegant. Indeed, a well designed weapon reflects well upon the owner. This view is far from universal; many craftsmen focus more on the utilitarian side of things, but a majority of the great architects, smiths and carpenters subscribe to a belief in artistic creationism.
Gender is something of a debated topic within Dae'row society. Fundamentally, they are an egalitarian civilization; after all, to survive in the Dark, they needed to co-operate and work together. It is merit that determines social place above all other factors. Very little in the way of institutional bias exists, both genders my hold titles, act as individuals, and pursue any career they wish, in the main. Inheritance defaults to the oldest child, irrespective of gender, and the dominant partner in a relationship depends upon the couple.
However, their mythos has ended up leaving the dark elves with something of a cultural bias against males. It's not so much a matter of their ability, both genders are seen as equal in potential and thought. However, it's worth remembering that they worship a goddess, and their 'creation' myth involves being cast down by the Shining Lord. In most of the tales of the War, villains are written as male; imperious Lords and sadistic Magi. Noble, upstanding Knights are female, almost universally. The Master and the Wizened, the sole male heroic figures from this time, are both seen as at least somewhat untrustworthy, and an exception to the rule..
This has led to the impression that males tend towards cruelty and that abiding by ethical codes is harder for them. Most powerful nobles, thus, tend to be female (as few would leave their family in the hands of someone like the Master), although ennobled males are still fairly common, simply a minority. They are outright banned from the priesthood however, and there's a loose bar on them becoming Knights (It is acceptable, but only under 'exceptional circumstances') However, scripture does not outright support this bias, and there has been some argument about the issue recently. The moral status of males is currently a hot topic for society discussion,
The Dance of Shadow
How Power is maintained, won and lost amongst the Ith'iyri
The first thing to remember is that each Ith'iyri city usually functions as it's own unit. Whilst there is trade, travel and even war across multiple cities on occasion, it is rare for a House from Chessade to become involved in the affairs of Rael'tyr's political scene. No one house has the resources to operate in multiple cities at the same time, with the possible exception of the ruling houses. However, most of those focus on holding onto their current position, and thus, each city tends to stand alone (Araun'thar, as the capitol, is something of an exception to this, which I will outline further below)
Thus, the greatest figure of authority most Ith'iyri know is the Lady (or Lord) of their individual city. Each city has a single ruler, who maintains the watch and other civil organizations, taxes the Houses of the city, appoints officials to varying positions, and commands the city's army in times of war. They also generally have a house of their own to administer, although that is not technically required. Houses are also ruled by a Lady, they are seen as peers to the city's ruler, and any one of them in time could hold that post.
Araun'thar's Lady is a theoretical exception to this; she bears the title of Queen of the Ith'iyri, and in theory rules the dark elves in their entirety. Her edicts can apply to all cities, at least provided the cities choose to enforce them. This power has limits; the Queen has been disobeyed in the past, in times of war, but whenever the people of the Mother's City end up electing their Lady, nobility from across the Dark pay close attention.
Whenever a city's Lady dies, the Houses gather to elect a new ruler. Each House possesses a single ballot, in the case of a tie, the former ruler's house possesses the casting vote. Whilst in theory these elections are supposed to be decided by merit, potential favours carry much weight, naturally. Whilst it is generally the existing Ladies that run for office, anyone can attempt it, in theory. The Houses are bound to hear any candidate who has the support of fifteen fellow citizens of the city.
Within a House, the structure of power is much simpler. Each is ruled also by a Lady, who may leave the position to any family member as a matter of inheritance. Beneath the Lady, power is much more flexible, usually boiling down to who holds the Head of House's favour. However, direct family members generally hold more power, and the closer to Lady, the more power they hold. This is not universal, but it's a passable rule of thumb.