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Aldaran Races and Culturesby Geoff Gander
Before I start posting, I thought I'd outline the major races in brief, and discuss the differences between what was originally in there, and what I am about to share...
First off, non-human races are more prominent in Aldara that they are in the Known World. The dog-like Stephonii were the first great culture, and they were followed by the High Elves. Humans have arisen as a vibrant race only within the past few thousand years - before then most were vassals of the elves. The Desert Elves are also a relatively young power, but they are poised to become more dominant. Less prominent races are the Sordans (a lizard-kin race), the beastfolk, the dwarves and (as a sub-race) the Frost Elves.
The setting also originally included halflings and drow (Drizzt was cool back then), but I soon dropped them because they were unnecessary (how would halflings have got there?) and (in the case of the drow) a little silly. The halflings were a marginal, declining race in Aldara anyway, so removing them wasn't disastrous.
Desert elves are descended from the high elven colonists sent to the semi-arid and desert territories in the southern provinces of what was once the empire of Dryfast, roughly 7,000 years ago. They had been sent ill-equipped (the authorities had in many cases not studied the desert ecosystem sufficiently to know what would be needed for survival), and had simply been told to make the region productive. Many of them died during the first years of settlement, but those who survived learned to adapt to their new homes, gradually building settlements and new ways of life. For well over 3,000 years the imperial government left the colonists to their own devices, but such was the pace of life for a long-lived race, that such a length of time meant little to either group.
Fortresses were soon built in the south, and fresh soldiers and settlers from the northern provinces were brought in to strengthen the elves’ hold on these lands. Within a millennium, it became clear that the colonists and their descendants had changed – so much so that in many ways the two groups were almost different peoples entirely. The desert elves, as they began to call themselves, began to keep to themselves, living in the wilderness and their own rural settlements. The high elven colonists and garrisons kept to their fortresses and coastal towns and cities, rarely venturing far into the interior. As the decades passed, the desert elves became convinced that their empire’s policies were becoming more erratic, and its officials were becoming more corrupt. Extensive magical and monetary resources were being allocated for such frivolous things as luxurious southern retreats for the nobility. All the while, the soldiers of the Imperial Legion were growing lax in the face of increasing enemy activity along the fringes, laxness which was costing desert elven lives in terms of slow responses to sightings of raiding parties.
Several desert elves began to protest to their provincial governors, demanding more support in their efforts to settle and explore the wilderness, while ensuring the integrity of the empire in the south. While some officials heeded the call, many did not, either dismissing the concerns, or imprisoning the petitioners. Tensions and anger rose, until, 1,000 years ago, Deriin Tar-Felmanthyr led his town in a successful revolt against imperial authorities, and soon built up a sufficiently large force to take over the provincial capital of Lightland, making it the capital of the new nation of Sundalfhyme (or, “Southern Elvish Homeland”). Within 50 years, almost all imperial lands south of Lake Maha were under desert elven control, with most of the high elves fleeing north or west. A civil war ensued, with Dryfast maintaining a tenuous foothold in the south until 597 BL, when its southern armies, largely unskilled in desert warfare, were routed, and Sundalfhyme began its northern campaign. Were it not for the rebellion, and subsequent independence, of the humans of Aylmeer in 612 BL, Dryfast might have had the resources to prevent this.
The northern campaign was long and bloody, but the more disciplined desert elves slowly pushed along the northern coast of Lake Maha, destroying several crucial fortresses in the process. The campaign was halted in 300 BL, as the high elves, their military leaders finally purged of the incompetent and corrupt, pushed their enemies back to the borders they occupy today.
In terms of attitude, desert elves (even those who no longer live in the southern deserts) have been shaped by their homeland – they accept life as being harsh and unpredictable; there is no such thing as entitlement, and one must work hard for anything desirable. Such attitudes arose from centuries spent in the harsh deserts, where there was no time for fanciful daydreaming, or wishing that things were different from how they actually were. This extends to their attitudes about their own lifespans – they realise that they are effectively immortal in the eyes of other races, yet so many have been killed by the dangers of the wilderness, or the threats that they face from their neighbours, that they no longer take this for granted. Every desert elf is taught to treasure every day as though it were their last.
Relations with Other Races:
The desert elves get along fairly well with the humans of the Tarkanian Empire and the Confederacy of Aylmeer – the former because they have never been hostile towards the desert elves, and have helped put down threats along their shared border; the latter because, like the desert elves themselves, they rebelled against the high elves and won. The humans of Sukranah, against whom the desert elves have warred many times, are considered blood enemies. The desert elves are well aware of the atrocities committed long ago in that nation against the now-vanished stephonii minority, and they despise the tolerance of black magics on the part of the ruling mages of that land. Little or no contact has been established with other lands.
Overall, the desert elves still see humans as limited beings. Certainly, they fight well, and their nations can be strong and orderly, but their lives are far too short for them to truly learn about life or the world around them – they will likely never gain the insights learned by desert elves themselves.
The elves of Sundalfhyme have a deep and abiding respect for the odd denizens of Stephoniia. They recognise that these bizarre dog-men established their nation centuries before the elves came to Aldara, and that their way of life is a fundamentally peaceful one, for the stephonii long ago learned to channel their destructive energies into productive uses, and now focus themselves on the accumulation of knowledge. That, and their tangible sense of peace with the world almost awes the elves.
The desert elves have some contact with dwarven enclaves located in Stephoniia and the Tarkanian Empire, and so are aware of their history and culture. Although they are but a fragment of what they once were, the dwarves are still recognised by the desert elves as being competent, honest warriors and beings of order and discipline – something with which they strongly identify. As a result, Sundalfhyme is sympathetic to dwarven interests, and would support them in their bid to establish a new homeland, especially if it disadvantaged one of their enemies.
The races that have earned the desert elves’ dislike are sordans, beastfolk, and high elves. Sordans, although respected for their tenacity against the foul sorthans, are seen as little more than lapdogs to the high elves of Dryfast. For millennia, the sordans of Darnath have stood by their elven allies, seemingly receiving nothing in return for their loyalty, and considering the desert elves’ opinion of their northern cousins, that is not a meritorious thing to do. Beyond that, however, the desert elves do not think much about the sordans, having little contact with them. Desert elven hatred of beastfolk is born of centuries of fending off ferocious raids along the fringes of their lands, and that is easy enough to understand.
Their true hatred, though, is reserved for the high elves, largely because of the ill-treatment they received from their former masters. They are also despised for their apparent attitudes towards other peoples (seemingly uncaring; other people are tools to be used or discarded as needed, in their view). The desert elves neither know nor care that the Imperial Elven Church had been subverting key officials over many centuries to serve its own aims, or that many of the provincial officials in the south were corrupt to begin with, as opposed to the system as a whole (which became corrupt later on). To them, all high elves are amoral and decadent, and any attempt on their part to restore their old empire must be stopped.
High elves, once the dominant race of Aldara, are now largely a shadow of their former selves. For roughly 8,000 years their empire, the grand nation of Dryfast, dominated the lands surrounding Lake Maha. Great cities and monuments dominated the countryside, and paved roads linked them all together. Grand aqueducts brought water from the mountains into the populated regions, and, it is said, the elvish engineers had developed plans to irrigate the deserts of the southwestern provinces.
All this changed with the rebellion of the desert elves, who wrested away the southern provinces of the empire, and proceeded to wage war upon their northern brethren. Many other peoples were inadvertently caught up in that conflict, leaving many nations weakened to this day. Following this civil war, Dryfast collapsed, leaving only the capital city and its surroundings as testament to the empire built by the high elves. The modern nation of Dryfast is quite densely populated, almost entirely by high elves, and most of those live in the ancient capital city, which bears the same name.
This long history has shaped the high elves’ attitudes to life in general. Being heirs to an ancient empire (many institutions and symbols of which still survive in modern Dryfast), they see themselves as the natural leaders of all civilised peoples. If it were not true, then why did their empire last so long, and why is the common language spoken by many humans today derived from the high elven dialect? These things, and others, are proof to many high elves that they are naturally superior. This belief in their own superiority also colours their view of the downfall of their empire – they see it as a setback, nothing more. Their empire rose once, and prospered; someday it will again, and the next time it does, Dryfast will be mightier than ever, and elven wisdom will once more bring light to the uneducated, teeming masses of Aldara – whether they want it to or not, some of the more militant high elves would add. It should be noted that not all high elves are this extreme in their thinking; many of the younger elves, who did not experience the elvish empire at its peak, feel that arrogance is what cost their people the empire in the first place. These high elves have a little more humility, and are less likely to be as dismissive of other races, but many still feel they are better.
Relations with Other Races:
High elves are rather arrogant towards other, shorter-lived (and in the few of many elves, inferior) races. The high elves had brought civilisation to many of the human tribes that they had conquered, and therefore the humans’ subsequent rebellion and independence strikes them as being ingratitude of the worst sort, even though those same humans improved upon many of the high elven institutions that were forced upon them – something that many high elves choose to ignore. The high elves also tend not to distinguish between the various human nations – humans are humans, in their view – and therefore they see no difference between the people of Aylmeer (who were once elvish subjects) and those of the Tarkanian Empire (who were not). Despite this, however, many high elves can be found in the larger cities of the greater human nations, though frictions do arise frequently.
The race whom the high elves consider their friends, and equals, are the sordans of Darnath – a nation that has been allied with Dryfast for as long as most historians can remember. The elves look upon the sordans, and admire their courage in facing their evil kin, the sorthans, in numerous battles, and even though great horrors are inflicted, still they press on. They also admire the spirituality of the sordans, and the depth to which they adhere to their philosophies.
The dwarves are another race who have earned the high elves’ admiration, but also their pity. The elves of Dryfast have long admired dwarven craftsmanship, and saw the dwarven kingdom of Quenna as being well-run, orderly, and just. When that nation fell in 333 BL, the dwarven race was scattered far and wide, and now they survive in enclaves throughout western Aldara, a stateless people. Many elves have expressed concern that the dwarves should suffer such a fate, but at the same time are content that it did not happen to them – at least they still have a part of their empire.
The races that have earned the high elves’ hatred are the beastfolk and desert elves. The former were more of an annoyance than anything else during Dryfast’s imperial heyday, staging occasional border raids in remote provinces that few elves cared about (which most of the time were populated largely by humans, anyway). During the empire’s decline, a number of beastfolk tribes fell under the rule of more organised chieftains, and daring assaults were staged, some of which even succeeded in sacking major cities and defeating the Imperial Legion (which was more concerned about the desert elves) on a number of occasions. Now that the empire is no more, the high elves have little contact with beastfolk, and when news reaches them of raids staged on human nations that were once part of the imperial fold, many elves cannot help but smirk. Still the memory is there, and one day, the high elves declare, the Imperial Legions will march forth once more, and wipe out the beastfolk menace once and for all.
The desert elves, who were themselves high elves at one time, are the only race that has earned an undying hatred. It was the desert elves who revolted roughly 1,000 years ago, and eventually took with them half of the empire. The subsequent civil war sapped much of Dryfast’s remaining energies, until it collapsed under the pressure. Since that time, Sundalfhyme (the desert elven kingdom) has expanded, acquiring new lands in the southeast and far south, and establishing trade links with other nations – even those lands rumoured to exist beyond the seas surrounding Aldara. Part of the hatred derives from the fact that the desert elves were victorious rebels who proved that the high elven military and governmental system was too bureaucratic and corrupt to be effective, and another part of it arises from the undeniable proof that, while Dryfast collapsed, Sundalfhyme has grown, and seems to be poised to grow even more. To the high elves, heirs to a glorious 9,000 year old imperium, this is simply unacceptable – a veritable insult to their ancestors and to their history. So intense is this disdain for the desert elves that few high elves will even acknowledge seeing one in public, and the history of the “faithless treachery” of the desert elves is drilled into every high elven youth. It is not uncommon for fighting to erupt when both peoples are present in any number in one place.
Of the stephonii – the high elves know little, as they have historically had little contact with them. Most consider them to be overly introspective mystics, who speculate on things too abstract to be of any value.
History: The stephonii (who call themselves ïrrullh’rrukkh in their own language) are a short, stocky race of “dog-men”, who have inhabited Aldara for well over 10,000 years. In ancient times, before the high elves arrived in these lands, the stephonii had built themselves a powerful empire, which they had won from the fierce, but primitive, beastfolk hordes, who then ruled much of Aldara. Despite their short stature, the stephonii were very agile and intelligent, and reacted very quickly to their enemies’ attacks. They had also developed and mastered many forms of unarmed combat; even stripped of his weapons, a stephonii warrior was still a deadly opponent, capable of inflicting lightning-quick blows to an opponent’s vital areas. As the centuries passed, and their borders grew more secure, the stephonii focused their energies increasingly on the pursuit of knowledge – especially knowledge related to the magical arts – and so their attention to military matters dwindled, save for the few dedicated warriors of their race.
As they grew more confident, the stephonii sought to reshape the continent according to their own desires – by making deserts grow lush with vegetation, by raising great mountain ranges in the north to shut away the remaining beastfolk tribes, and by melting away the Rathrah Ice Sheet (which was much larger in ancient times than it is now). Despite their confidence and their pride, however, the stephonii made errors in their calculations, and the spells they cast misfired. The resulting changes they wrought were catastrophic – the great Iirtunë Valley of central Aldara was wracked by earthquakes, and tracts of land to the south sank into the sea. The resulting surge of water flooded the once-beautiful valley, creating what would later be known as Lake Maha, and drowning many stephonii cities.
Having lost so many people, and suffered so much destruction, the stephonii were unsuccessful in holding off the resurgent beastfolk, who quickly overwhelmed the remaining eastern and northern territories of the empire, leaving looted and burning towns and cities in their wake. Many of those who survived the onslaught fled to what is now Stephoniia, which was then the heartland of their empire. It was at this time that a great split arose from within the stephonii. Seeing the destructive outcome of their ambitions, most stephonii wanted nothing more to do with the outside world, and wished to remain safe within what was left of their homeland, in order to preserve what they still had. These stephonii would eventually focus more on spiritual matters, and meditate upon the lessons their people had learned over the centuries, and what role they should play in Aldaran affairs in the years to come. The remainder could not accept this course of action; for them, the loss of so many stephonii, and the apparent victory of the beastfolk, was unacceptable. Many of these stephonii had kept alive the military traditions of their people, and they pursued these once again with vigour.
The majority, however, could not accept such anger within their homeland anymore, and demanded that the warriors leave to pursue their vendettas elsewhere – and such they did. Although few in number, these militant stephonii engaged in a ruthless campaign of extermination against the beastfolk, pushing them out of southern Aldara once more. Eventually, they settled in what would eventually become the nation of Soldanya, and it would be many centuries later that they would suffer from the treachery of their neighbours. Those stephonii who remained in their homeland grew more introspective as the centuries passed, and, though they had dealings with the various nations that would arise, they would not involve themselves too closely in foreign affairs, save for when their cousins in Soldanya were massacred by their human countrymen, after which they proved that not all of their ancient knowledge had been cast aside.
In terms of attitude, stephonii have the outward appearance of being passive and almost fatalistic. They tend to see all things in life and the world as being part of a great cycle, in which the various races of Aldara are mere participants. Each individual has a role to play in the so-called “great fabric of history”, and no matter how great or small that role happens to be, it must be played out, and once completed, that individual has accomplished his or her purpose in life, and what they do afterwards is immaterial, for they can do nothing to alter the flow of time. They do recognise, however, that the forces of evil do not follow the dictates of time and history, and it is possible for them to prevent those of virtue from fulfilling their purpose. When such a thing happens it is tragic, and must be rectified at all costs, otherwise the fabric of history might unravel, dooming all to destruction. Thus, it is not uncommon for stephonii to comment upon events as being “meant to happen”, or “part of the grand plan of time”, but at the same time they are more than willing to fight for the lives of their friends – it is all about restoring balance.
This attitude has developed from centuries of introspection. The stephonii had always taken meticulous records of their activities, and recorded much of their knowledge, and in the many years since the collapse of their empire, they have meditated long upon the nature of their actions, and why events unfolded as they did. Retreating into their homeland since those times, they have developed a complicated philosophy about the meaning of life and one’s role within it. The main lesson they learned was that their ancestors thought themselves, in their newfound power, to be the equals of their gods, and therefore free to alter the world to their whims. The disasters that followed were, to many stephonii scholars, proof that no individual or culture should seek to break outside of its assigned role within the flow of time. Naturally, this colours their view of other races.
Relations with Other Races:
The stephonii view the elves as both wondrous and at times disappointing. Blessed with long life and magical prowess, the elves should use their longevity for the pursuit of knowledge and the perfection of their own selves, in order to help push back the forces of darkness and allow the passage of time and history to go as it wishes. Unfortunately, most elves seem unmotivated (to the stephonii) to pursue these noble goals – some even go as far as to say that the elves squander their gifts in pursuit of their own pleasure. Many stephonii see the high elves, in particular, as being irresponsible: they had built themselves a mighty empire, which later collapsed, and yet they seem to have learned nothing from their experiences. They treat other races much the same as they did beforehand, and they appear to be setting themselves up to make the same mistakes over and over again.
Humans, in all their shapes and forms, are so young as a race, with so many lessons yet to learn on their road to enlightenment, that the stephonii, looking back on their millennia-old civilisation, cannot help but see them as children. Thus, they both envy them for their “innocence” in this regard, and fear them for their potential. Many humans have shown themselves to be very adept in the magical arts, and in the pursuit of knowledge; many stephonii fear that it is only a matter of time before they become arrogant, and make the same mistakes they once did. Still, although capable of great evil, humans are also capable of furthering the cause of justice and goodness. In the years to come, the humans may become essential allies. The one human nation that has acquired the hatred of the stephonii is Sukranah, which was once known as Soldanya; it was here that many stephonii were slaughtered by the will of the human king, and that evil perpetrated by that deed continues to this day.
The dwarves are at once admired as being noble, and pitied for their tragic history. The stephonii had long had contact, albeit distant, with the dwarven nation of Quenna, and many fine dwarven crafts now grace stephonii homes and public buildings. Quenna was also a very active member in the ancient alliance against the dark sorthan hordes, and it was seen as an island of order and stability in an otherwise chaotic region. When Quenna was overrun in 333 BL, and the surviving dwarven population was scattered throughout western Aldara, the stephonii were utterly shocked. It was the least they could do, they thought, to open their borders to some of the refugees, who then settled in the larger towns and cities. Since that time, the stephonii have seen the dwarves slowly retreat into their enclaves, trying to maintain their own culture and traditions. They seem a shadow of their former selves.
The stephonii have had relatively little contact with the sordans, although they do respect the latter’s devotion to spiritual matters, seeing in them a kindred folk. The sordans fight against darkness, as all virtuous races must do, but they do not seem to accept the supremacy of time and history. They are too full of reckless passion.