Too Complex and Slightly Creepy

Wendy and Richard Pini’s Elfquest comic, a landmark of independent comic publishing, emerged in the 1970s alongside the rise of tabletop RPGs, but as Richard Pini notes in his introduction to the 2nd edition Elfquest RPG rulebook (comprising the core Elfquest rules and the supplemental material previously issued in the Elfquest Companion) at first the married creative team didn’t give much thought to RPGs, not seeing the point of using dice and rules to constrain creativity. With the passage of time and increased exposure they came to the conclusion that RPGs were a valid creative field in their own right, and when Chaosium came a-courtin’ to seek the RPG licence a deal was soon reached.

However, the Elfquest RPG isn’t as fondly remembered as other Chaosium RPGs of its vintage. In more recent years Sandy Petersen has gone on the record about some of its issues; apparently, far from the impression given in Richard Pini’s introductory comments, it wasn’t Chaosium who approached the Pinis, but the Pinis who came to them – and at first Wendy Pini was very uncomfortable with the idea of participants in the RPG being able to bend, fold, mutilate and destroy the canonical Elfquest characters until she eventually got the idea that Elfquest RPG adventures would be, in comics terms, “what-if” stories rather than canonical tales.

The result of this was that the RPG was not a product of passion on the part of Chaosium; in effect they were working on commission, with none of the design team having a particular passion for the material. Another issue that Petersen identifies is that the design job was handed over to Steve Perrin, who as creator of RuneQuest had a reasonable claim to being Chaosium’s most respected system-wrangler at that point. However, at that point Perrin was deep into the major project of developing the third edition of RuneQuest, which was eating much of his time at that point, so he made the fateful decision of making Elfquest a testbed for the ideas which he’d later use there.

I can certainly believe that reading the book, and I tend to concur with Petersen that this was the wrong call for the project in question; what was called for with something like Elfquest, with a strong potential crossover audience with a demographic a little different from the norm for RPGs at the time, was a substantially simpler system that could be a suitable introduction to RPGs for Elfquest readers who didn’t have prior tabletop gaming experiences but had become interested thanks to the Chaosium game. For that matter, the current regime at Chaosium in their design notes for the new RuneQuest edition seem to have spoken about RuneQuest 3‘s substantially crunchier take on as being a mistake in their opinion, and it’s certainly far too crunchy for the material here. Petersen blames this for Elfquest‘s poor sales, since it effectively doomed itself to being of interest only to those who were simultaneously serious RPG fans and invested in Elfquest too, making it a niche product when it could have been a breakout.

The combination of a lack of passion for the setting and a rules set that’s too crunchy for the subject matter at hand also seems to make the product itself suffer. To my eye, the balance in the book between crunch and fluff is all wrong; too much is taken up with rules stuff and not enough is dedicated to getting across the flavour of the setting. Indeed, I’m not sure from the setting text and the few comic snippets we get what the flavour of the setting is actually supposed to be, which is a bit of a problem for a core rulebook. It’s probably even worse in the original set, which wouldn’t have the extra setting details provided by the Companion.

Incidentally, as far as second editions of games go this seems like a pretty damn lazy one – there’s a chapter detailing errata and rules additions added to the game to take into account issues 19 and 20 of the comic, which completed the original Elfquest saga and which hadn’t come out when the 1st edition was released, and for the 2nd edition they could have clearly just integrated those additions into the appropriate sections of the text but simply didn’t bother.

I think another issue with the game, though, is that there is at least one very important respect in which the elves of Elfquest aren’t actually particularly appropriate for play in a tabletop RPG. There is one setting element which I strongly suspect that many groups these days would find unacceptable, or at least sufficiently unappealing as to turn them off running the game with the setting as written (and if you seriously dislike an element of the setting as written, why would you run Elfquest at all?). That element is Recognition.

In the Elfquest comic Recognition is a powerful mating instinct within elves. Elves haven’t overrun the world despite their extremely long lifespans in part because they have serious fertility issues; Recognition is what makes elven reproduction possible at all. When two elves who are sufficiently biochemically compatible to make viable offspring encounter each other, Recognition kicks in; this is a powerful sense of attraction which, so far as I can tell, is supposed to override rational thought (there’s a subrace of elves who have suppressed the instinct to an extent, and it’s said that for them it’s just a really strong sense of lust, so the full-fat version of Recognition is presumably way beyond that). Those who share Recognition do not have to like one another at all – but their desire to reproduce is extremely strong. According to Richard Pini, apparently you can resist it, and doing so isn’t fatal, but it is incredibly difficult.

This is a setting element which can, to say the least, go in a decidedly dubious direction. Having not read Elfquest I cannot pass comment on how it’s handled in the comics, though I find it a rather creepy addition to a comic book with the art style of Elfquest – the elves have got these extremely idealised child-like faces for the most part whilst having very developed bodies, which is already an incongruous mix, and throwing involuntarily mutual lust into that makes me really dubious about the entire thing. Still, in a comic context you have perfect control about who Recognises who, so as authors the Pinis are at least in a position to make sure it doesn’t go into a weird or disturbing area unless they specifically decide that they want to go there.

However, in the game you have an actual Recognition check that elves who are not yet Recognised must roll whenever they meet each other, and the GM is specifically encouraged to straight-up overrule it and declare that two elves have Recognised each other if the GM wants it to happen for plot purposes. This feels like an integrally inappropriate intervention in a player’s portrayal of their character; there’s frankly already too many horror stories in RPGs about skeevy players or GMs using the whole “love potion” or “charm spell” thing to take the game into a sexualised direction that a participant or participants are not happy with, so we really don’t need a game which overtly encourages doing that.

Like I suggested above, you could conceivably ignore Recognition as a plot element, though it sounds like it’s a big enough element of the original Elfquest that doing so would largely miss the point of running a game in that setting in the first place. I am sure there are groups out there who are comfortable enough with each other that they are absolutely fine with having this game mechanic and setting element in a game, mind, and for them the Elfquest RPG might be perfect. At the same time, I think there are enough gamers who would be uncomfortable about that whole thing that an Elfquest RPG revival is deeply unlikely – it’s enough of a hard “no” for enough groups so as to doom the game to being the purview of the extremely limited subset of people who are both very keen on the Elfquest setting, embrace RuneQuest 3 level of crunch, and are comfy with this Recognition stuff. And my gut feeling is that this is too few people to keep an Elfquest RPG community going.

2 thoughts on “Too Complex and Slightly Creepy

  1. I am huge fan of ElfQuest, so reading your post about the challenges of using the EQ framework in RPG is very interesting. Recognition could be skevy if used inappropriately.

    1. Yeah, I think the game as written has a dual problem:

      a) The way it describes Recognition sounds, to me, rather skeevy – it might be handled much better in the comic for all I know, but having not read it I don’t have that context to go on.

      b) The sort of stuff it specifically suggests you do with Recognition (like basing it on a random dice roll) shoves it even further into dodgy territory. Ideally in an RPG you wouldn’t make something like that subject to a dice roll unless you are sure that you and the other participants would be just as happy whichever way the roll went.

      I can sort of see the point of something like Recognition as a component of a speculative exploration of a non-human psychological makeup. But it would be very, very author-dependent whether it came across like that or just resembled a big pile of skeeve – and given that even quite good authors can struggle with that, I suspect many gaming groups (who are improvisationally authoring stuff on the fly) would trip up sooner or later.

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