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I've been laying the groundwork for a New World Campaign based off of works like Powdermage, Greedfall, and Colonial Gothic (and the Witcher- nothing beats the Witcher), and one of the integral elements of the New World is its inhabitants.

I have yet to make a full listing of native species and races for this strange land, but I have figured out the 'dominant' one: Elves.

See, the land is quite ancient, and the fabric between the material world and the feywild is weakened to a degree where Fey would likely be comfortable living amidst the mighty oaks and tall pines. This has resulted in druids having more effective control over their abilities, and an increase in the sheer power of their- spells, I suppose? I've never played a Druid, so I'm not sure what to call their power.

Regardless, with a natural affinity for magic, and the breeding population and intelligence to outlast stronger, tougher beasties, the Elves grew to possess a mighty civilization- Ivory Towers, Marble Arches, Stag-Jousting Coliseum, even a university of sorts.

Now, they're naught but primitive aboriginals, trading fine silken robes for deer-skins, proud lances for sturdy bows, the protection of strong walls and steel for high branches and swift feet.

What could bring such a proud civilization so low?

Bonus Question: Considering I'm basing this World off of North America and a teeny touch of Celtic myth, what other sentient creatures should inhabit my deciduous woodlands? I was toying around with Greek Critters; harpies, centaurs, satyrs, maybe some beast-men, Warhammer style.

Edit:For the sake of clarification, I will list some Important information pertaining to the past and current states of the Elves of the New World.

These Elves live within Tribal Groups which are more or less at peace with one another, more so out of necessity than mutual respect or camaraderie. These tribes are a crude reflection of the previous order, wherein the Elves were divided into Principalities who fell in line under a High King, chosen by a council of wise-elves, who consulted the Fey and searched for signs in the stars and nature which would point them to their promised Monarch. There were Seven Principalities, one of which was destroyed by another for betrayal, and another which was overcome by a horde of mutants (read 'Beastmen') during or shortly after the collapse. The remaining Five were driven from their cities and became nomads, though they often return to the ruins in time of trouble or for 'moots'.

The Elves were Polytheistic, but their worship was centered mainly around Nature and Knowledge. Reverence for the former decayed over time, but has since become the ONLY significant proponent of their daily lives and culture. They still erect totems to Gods of War, Wisdom, Storms, and the like, but Nature takes precedence over all.

The Mutant Beast-men are the New World's equivalent to Orcs and Orges, and they are a threat to all who inhabit the land. It has become the de-facto responsibility many elves and centaurs to keep track of their herds and thin out their numbers. Centaurs and Elves have much in common, and often trade commodities and information with each-other. A race of Felnids also inhabit the land, but are rarely seen and do not live in large groups. Giants also roam the edges of the woodlands, hunting for trolls and bears to eat while tending to their Mammoths.

Humans do not exist in the New World- not in the North, anyway. The Men from the East, the Colonizers, have advanced to a 17th Century Technological Standard, and are distrusted by the Locals.

The Fey used to be allies of the Elves- now they only reveal themselves to Druids, and on specific astrological events, such as the solstice.

For the sake of clarification, I will list some Important information pertaining to the past and current states of the Elves of the New World.

  1. These Elves live within Tribal Groups which are more or less at peace with one another, more so out of necessity than mutual respect or camaraderie. These tribes are a crude reflection of the previous order, wherein the Elves were divided into Principalities who fell in line under a High King, chosen by a council of wise-elves, who consulted the Fey and searched for signs in the stars and nature which would point them to their promised Monarch. There were Seven Principalities, one of which was destroyed by another for betrayal, and another which was overcome by a horde of mutants (read 'Beastmen') during or shortly after the collapse. The remaining Five were driven from their cities and became nomads, though they often return to the ruins in time of trouble or for 'moots'.

  2. The Elves were Polytheistic, but their worship was centered mainly around Nature and Knowledge. Reverence for the former decayed over time, but has since become the ONLY significant proponent of their daily lives and culture. They still erect totems to Gods of War, Wisdom, Storms, and the like, but Nature takes precedence over all.

  3. The Mutant Beast-men are the New World's equivalent to Orcs and Orges, and they are a threat to all who inhabit the land. It has become the de-facto responsibility many elves and centaurs to keep track of their herds and thin out their numbers. Centaurs and Elves have much in common, and often trade commodities and information with each-other. A race of Felnids also inhabit the land, but are rarely seen and do not live in large groups. Giants also roam the edges of the woodlands, hunting for trolls and bears to eat while tending to their Mammoths.

  4. Humans do not exist in the New World- not in the North, anyway. The Men from the East, the Colonizers, have advanced to a 17th Century Technological Standard, and are distrusted by the Locals.

  5. The Fey used to be allies of the Elves- now they only reveal themselves to Druids, and on specific astrological events, such as the solstice.

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    $\begingroup$ Have you ever heard of the Bronze Age collapse? Or about the Classic Maya collapse? Or about the vanished Indus valley civilization? The point being that real world history provides good examples of civilization failure. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Aug 15 '20 at 21:12
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    $\begingroup$ You know what would be a nice addition? Large extinct mammals from Earth's history. It would add a nice primeval vibe to the world. Entelodonts anyone? $\endgroup$ – Daron Aug 15 '20 at 23:32
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    $\begingroup$ Well, North America suffers from a severe lack of diverse mythological species, so I've opted to populate this current iteration of the New World like C.S. Lewis populated Narnia $\endgroup$ – Luke Aug 17 '20 at 13:55
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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps there was a sundering of some kind and they lost their affinity for magic or whatever it is that allowed them to dominate so thoroughly previously? $\endgroup$ – TylerH Aug 17 '20 at 14:00
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    $\begingroup$ @Luke Um, what? Perhaps do some quick google searches for legends and myths of the Americas? There is a plethora of diverse mythological species available. $\endgroup$ – Michael Richardson Aug 17 '20 at 14:50

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Plot Twist: It's Still There.

The reason your Feywild and mortal world are so close together is they used to be one plane. This was in the distant past of course, before the gods had hammered out their cosmology.

When the two planes were separated (I believe it is customary to call such an event the Sundering) the Elves had to choose which side to attach their civilization to. Obviously most of it ended up on what would become the Feywild.

Some parts stayed on the mortal realm. But the owners eventually moved back to civilization. This created what looked like ruins. They're more like boarded up houses.

Since then the planes have been moving further apart. It's still relatively easy to hop across onto the first layer of the Feywild. But reaching the Elven civilization is a perilous (and possibly campaign ending) journey into the Deep Feywild. Most mortals aren't aware it's there and the Elves tend not to tell them.

So what about these hunter-gatherers? Well they've always been there too. There have always been High Elves who prefer their cities, and Wood Elves who prefer their forests, and voluntarily live primitive lifestyles. It's a style thing you see. These guys can move back to civilization whenever they wish. They probably will in a few decades or centuries. But you won't notice because they will be replaced by different elves when they do.

In any case the High Elves are somewhere else and some of the Wood Elves are still here. Since humans only have reason to encounter the Wood Elves, it gives the impression of a lost civilization. But that's far from the case.

Edit: The reason these primitive elves don't get guidance from the Fey, is the Fey find the mortal realm hostile. They can only cross over during the solstice etc when the planes get closer together. Likewise a druid can create a summoning circle that is safe for a Fey to exist within for a short time. Other than that, if you want to talk to a Fey, you need to journey back to the capital.

Edit: As for other sentient species $-$ since your world is based on North America $-$ one idea is to take distinctively American animals and make them anthropomorphic. For example the Racoon, Bison, Prairie dog, Turkey, Skunk, Armadillo, Bears, Beaver. The Beaver in particular sounds really interesting. Normal beavers have a huge impact on their environment as they flood sections of a forest to create lodges. What changes if the beavers are bigger and smarter?

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  • $\begingroup$ Is an initiation ritual to go back to the roots of your race and live as "Wood Elves" for a few decades.. This is the only way to come to truly appreciate the benefits of the high civilization. Pride comes before a fall (of our civilization). So let's fight the pride of our race! $\endgroup$ – T-Me Aug 17 '20 at 10:45
  • $\begingroup$ @T-Me Perhaps. I leave it up to your imagination exactly when and why someone swaps between the two types. $\endgroup$ – Daron Aug 17 '20 at 12:34
  • $\begingroup$ My intention was quite clear, I think- they've already succumbed to their pride, and this primitive state is their punishment. $\endgroup$ – Luke Aug 17 '20 at 17:05
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    $\begingroup$ @Luke I didn't get that impression at all from the question. $\endgroup$ – Daron Aug 17 '20 at 17:30
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    $\begingroup$ @Luke: I think my answer is still valid. The principalities and king and all that still exist back home. The tribes remember which they belong to but don't have much contact with the wise elves back home. $\endgroup$ – Daron Aug 17 '20 at 20:08
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I would say there is an almost infinite amount of ways things can go wrong. So I will discuss certain general ideas because your question lacks more context into the empire and it's structure.

For example a single dominating family type empire, think Ottoman empire, would have a devastating power vacuum if the ruling family all died.

On the other hand a feudal monarchy, like a lot of European monarchies at certain times, would not care much if the king got beheaded as the duke/jarls/lord...etc hold enough power to be able to function on their own.

Even better is a stable empire with stable power transition, think current democracies, and stable enough economy and institutes. You will have to go out of your way to bring that one down.

Anyway to actual ideas.

The fall of the Eldar, from Warhammer 40k.

Having grown so much and dominating the entire galaxy they messed things up too much because of how advanced they are. It's quite interesting.

Magical pursuit

Not far off the first one. But in this one the most powerful wizards of the elven race did nothing but push and push and push their own magical powers to the point that something horrible happened.

I mean call a demon with enough ability to flatten the capital, or conjure up a strong enough curse to wipe out 90% of elves, or have your magically connected cities all get burned or frozen or something similar.

Again knowing more about them can provide us with enough to create a specific doom or fall for that empire.

But anyway like I said magical pursuits gone to far seems an obvious one

Famine

Lets assume your elves grow most of their food in one valley or country. And let's assume it gets wiped out.

This is basically the USSR or China all over again, not politics just referring to things that did happen.

Have one terrible harvest and then the government ignore the thing. Next years things are worse and in 5 years your empire can be brought to it's knees as people don't have food.

Bonus point if they control most of their landmass or even they drove out the weaker states around them thus making trade a problem.

You can describe a famine of such a magnitude that the royal guards new duty becomes trying to secure enough grain for the royal palace.

Heck. Add dangerous magical experiments to further ruin the soil and ability to grow crops in the whole empire.

Rebellion

Oh boy. Ayleids like control of the empire. Humans are mistreated for so long then stuff gets real. Humans are rebelling in every single settlement. And for extra points your ruling elven overlords take a page out of the bad rulers book and handle it with excessive violence. Rows of gallows, rape, confiscation of property, and just total brutality.

Congrats. The first wave is done. The what?

Yes. The second rebellion is worth. Humans gathered around leaders who target local elven centers of powers. The overwhelming numbers and good coordination means that they can actually manage to overthrow enough places to start being a problem. Now this is mostly in remote or small towns and cities. But few extra ordinary human figures can indeed threaten an empire.

Have this rebellion, just saying, be as brutal and intelligent as it needs to be. Humans who cooperated with the elves are brutally tortured to death, elves are subject to good old murder and rape and their wealth is also taken to be redistributed, think Communism or Roman republic political cleansing.

I won't bore you with the details as I'm sure you can describe a good rebellion. With the good here meaning successful.

Economy

USSR or Roman empire basically.

Roads degrading, currency is inflated, grain collection is messed up, good administration is completely gone...etc. Maybe you don't have a long list of civil wars.

But undermine the economy and your empire starts to degrade until it falls apart. This takes time depending on the strength of the empire. But they all fall.

External opposition

Duh. Maybe your elves just thought to declare war on god.

Maybe your version of Normans landed on the shores and thought: hmmm. This place needs to know of our peaceful ways by force.

Whatever it is the conflict destroyed the empire.

Human/Elven marriage

It's no surprise that marriage is mentioned in the death of nations.

Here is my little theory.

So with time humans in the empire existed like just little upstarts. Like a newer middle class.

Fast forward 4512 years, or whatever, and not a single elven bloodline is pure. Perhaps they are so darn hot that humans prefer them. Perhaps they like us.

Or, more likely, that smaller and less powerful elven blood lines mingled with humanity to gain more influence. Those were shunned but after they added wealth to public office or noble right then they started to eclipse their fellows. So the older families join the race and in few generations there are few pure elves left.

So maybe a strong enough noble just marries a girl or a boy with ties to the thrones and starts pushing it. Secession war, they win. Elves are a thing of the past.

Perhaps it's a civil war at a certain point. Heck. The half bloods, can't find a smarter name now, don't need to win. if they simply establish themselves enough in the state they can gradually gain more power.

Or maybe it was more natural with no wars. Just humans breeding and gaining too much power

Humans oppressing elves seems like a stable in some stories like The Witcher or Dragon age. So I though to add this.

I'm only focusing on the initial fall as it is the most vital. The rest is easier.

Anyway with more context we can provide more detailed and tailored answers.

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    $\begingroup$ the plot of the witcher specifically, although I haven't read the other sources, is that humans come to the new world and find elves + some other races there. Many of your ideas seem to have the fall of the empire be related to humans, or conquest, when OP is asking for reasons the empire would collapse pre contact/conquest/colonialism. Is that intentional? $\endgroup$ – user2754 Aug 15 '20 at 23:29
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    $\begingroup$ @user2754, Actually you can replace humans with a different type of elves, like dark or wood elves, or even dwarves or the opposition can be any race. But like I said he mentioned those worlds so I thought he lets add the humans as a power hungry race. If it fit the bill. And to be honest I'm totally sure of OPs question so I was more general in my answer. Like if he built an empire around magical growing crystals we can figure out an interesting downfall. Besides. Power hungry invaders, Huns or Normans or Ottomans or whatever, are boring compared to flawed empires on their own. $\endgroup$ – Seallussus Aug 15 '20 at 23:51
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    $\begingroup$ 40k eldar specifically: They descended into hedonism and sadism and thanks to being massively psychic, managed to accidentally create a god..the creation of the god ripped a hole in reality covering thousands of lightyears centred on the middle of Eldar territory, pretty much tearing the heart out of their civilisation. Said god then hunted and ate the souls of most of the rest. The survivors are largely wanderers with No Fixed Abode. $\endgroup$ – Ruadhan Aug 17 '20 at 8:19
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    $\begingroup$ It's a relatively minor typo, but in the interest of hopefully being helpful to you, a civilization is not "whipped" out, it is "wiped" out. Similarly, the cataclysm will not "whip" out the elves, the cataclysm will "wipe" out the elves. I hope my advice is not unwanted. You have a nice answer. $\endgroup$ – Onyz Aug 17 '20 at 13:34
  • $\begingroup$ @Ruadhan, I know. The joke is that they partied so much to the point of creating a god, she who thirsts. I find it interesting as it continues the theme of how messed up things in the warhammer 40K universe. And application about moral compass or control of power...etc are obvious too much. $\endgroup$ – Seallussus Aug 17 '20 at 22:20
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No disaster - a return to the true path:

These are elves we're talking about, and super-druidic ones at that, right? Do you think druids are going to go for white columns and coliseums? There was no disaster. The elves decided that ultra-civilization was corrupting their collective spirit. The ones that couldn't give up civilization went elsewhere (another land, another dimension, transcendance - whatever). Classical AD&D has High Elves, Grey Elves, Drow Elves, and most critically Wood Elves.

  • High elves can be the ones from where your colonizers are from.
  • Grey Elves are those that moved on from your elvish paradise - maybe there's a lost civilization somewhere like Atlantis with these folks. Make them evil-ish, and you have your Aztec equivalents. I love the idea of an elf with a macuahuitl.

Macuahuitl

  • Wood elves are the ones who decided to chuck civilization out the window and return to oneness with nature. Who knows, maybe they could have fought the Grey Elves and driven them out, but they're elves - everyone decided to part ways.

Your new world isn't filled with piles of magic junk because the Grey elves took the good stuff with them, and the Wood elves said good riddance. The buildings were simply abandoned, and are slowly crumbling as nature intended. The Wood elves don't value all the treasure and stuff, but traditionally they were fairly xenophobic. They ARE elves, and remember the civilization, with the greed for wealth and power, so when they meet folks who think that way, they don't respond well. Still, they are elves, and can retain as much civility and tech as you care to give them. Beyond that, it's entirely up to your storyline. enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ This is good. Imagine you can feed yourself, live for 1000 years, camp out in beautiful trees. Why, again, do you want stag-jousting arenas? Egyptians live next to the ruins of the pyramids, but they aren't "less advanced" or "fallen". The pyramids where stupid and made life worse for the people. $\endgroup$ – Yakk Aug 17 '20 at 4:05
  • $\begingroup$ @Yakk In what ways? Also, the actual ethnicity of the "original" Egyptians is not known, though it is much more likely to be of African stock rather than Middle Eastern. The connection between the current Egyptian civilization and the pyramid builders is the location. $\endgroup$ – Michael Richardson Aug 17 '20 at 14:59
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelRichardson I don't understand your question, nor why the rest of your comment is relevant. Are you asking how spending your life laboring (and, presumably often dying or getting injured) to pile a bunch of rocks up could make your life worse? $\endgroup$ – Yakk Aug 17 '20 at 15:39
  • $\begingroup$ 1. Ancient Egypt was comprised mainly of Eastern Africans and proto-Arabs, living in a sort of plurality. Bronze Skin was the norm, and once the Greeks took over, the Caucasoid share of the population exploded, while 'blacks' took the sidelines. The Islamic Invasions of Egypt put an end to both groups, leaving only Arab stock. Egypt was diverse, and changed demographically over time. 2. This is irrelevant to the present conversion. $\endgroup$ – Luke Aug 17 '20 at 17:17
  • $\begingroup$ Oh, and DW and @luke -- one thing you could note. Elves, having wiped out the rival civilizations on the continent, could have collectively decided to disarm and depopulate, so to have better lives. They might even have a continent-wide government aimed at maintaining the disarmament treaty (which is 10s of thousands of years old, aka a few generations). This could leave them vulnerable to colonization, as the colonizers are an outside context problem. It would also give a twist, in that the elves might actually have the ability to rapid-scale-up magic-tech. $\endgroup$ – Yakk Aug 18 '20 at 1:00
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Eggs in one basket

Isn't all this free food and energy we get from the magic mountain great? We can spend all day dancing and hunting for fun, we don't need to develop agriculture, teach anybody to read or write, or develop transport or breed horses. We can travel anywhere in our kingdom instantly, and we can have hundreds of children knowing they will be fed forever.

What do you mean its running out? Ridiculous! Its been working for three thousand years. Why would it stop now?

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  • $\begingroup$ Did someone say oil or did I mishear climate change? Or were you just talking about ocean acidification? I forget. $\endgroup$ – user253751 Aug 17 '20 at 17:12
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Invaders come, and they brought diseases.

The Aztecs were invaded by the Spanish, the Spanish had a technological edge but the diseases they spread were far more dangerous in the end.

In your case the invaders are less technologically advanced, but bring a dozen deadly diseases previously unknown to the Elves. By the time the Elves realize something's up it's too late: large swathes of the population are already infected, the magical cures available only remove the sickness and many people are re-infected before they even leave the temple. The mages are simply exhausted and incapable soon and the population is decimated by the diseases.

Perhaps there was a chance to rebuild, but the Elves could have seen this wide-spread decimation by sickness as a sign from the Gods, or magic, or they think it has to do with too much populace in one place and refuse to build large settlements as a way to protect against disease spreading again. In the end they ended up as an almost Barbaric race... even though to them it might seem as the only natural way to have a society.

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    $\begingroup$ The effects of imported diseases on the American inhabitants is usually greatly underestimated and minimized. Part of the reason for this is that the diseases moved faster than the colonizers. Some estimates put the death rate at 90-95% over the entire continent(s). By the time explorers reached some areas, the populations had already been decimated and had moved elsewhere. There are some journals that make mention of the park-like nature of the territory and how it seemed ready made for settlement, not realizing that it literally was, but that those that did so were no longer there. $\endgroup$ – Michael Richardson Aug 17 '20 at 15:08
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelRichardson since I'm rather lazy today, can you provide a link that I can put in the answer? $\endgroup$ – Demigan Aug 17 '20 at 16:13
  • $\begingroup$ @demigan theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2002/03/1491/302445 $\endgroup$ – Mason Wheeler Aug 17 '20 at 21:48
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The forest dwelling elves are spirits.

My favorite scene in Guardians of the Galaxy was when StarLord landed on Morag and used a hologram device to view what had been. He could see the old city. He could see people walking along the old paths. The things that had happened left traces, and in some way still persisted. Were they still happening? It is also shades of Stranger in a Strange Land; the Martians could perceive what was but also what had been, because things never really finish, only change.

The aboriginals have been there a very long time. They are the spirits of the most ancient elves who once lived that way. In their heyday, the High Elves would sometimes visit these ancient spirits to learn and be renewed. The High Elves are gone but these even older spirits remain. There are things older yet.

These spirits do not think of themselves as spirits. They can be killed, but they will return after an hour, or a day, or a century. They can hunt and they can eat and they can love and hate. They have names. If you ask one why it persists in the world while other things are born and then die, they might ask if the questioner is sure about that second part. They might point out that seasons don't fear the Reaper.

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  • $\begingroup$ This does remind me of Shadow of Mordor, in a way. It would be interesting if at least some of the Elves were reborn incarnations of ancient spirits, though I'd seen it more like an Avatar: TLA thing, where the past lives of an Elf speak to them and pass on knowledge through meditation trances. $\endgroup$ – Luke Aug 16 '20 at 22:01
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Cataclysm

Something, either elf-made or natural, happened and it was so utterly and incredibly devastating that out of sheer psychological shock power was invested in extremely conservative, survivalist attitudes. By the time the effects of the cataclysm receded, those cultural mores were deeply ingrained and resistant to change - the past was viewed as semi-mythical, and those who venerated it or sought to bring it back were viewed as best idiots and at worst as revolutionists. Mostly, they are ignored, which means any technology or power they bring back dies with them.

Twist: The elves took greater shock from this than other races that exist in this land - the gnomes, centaurs and bescriddni (the scale men) tried to reclaim the technologies of their own lands which while considered lesser to the elves were not that much worse, but were stopped by consistent and relentless raiding by the elves. The elders of the elves, longer-lived than other races, were still shellshocked and eventually such dogma became part of elven culture - that the gnomes and bescriddni would resurrect great evils from the past if given the chance and must be watched, and guided, away from such things. The centaurs can be trusted more (having embraced the elven ideals to make the raids stop) but still must be watched just in case.

It Loves Us

Elven civilization didn't end, it was ended. Only through luck and great sacrifice did any elves survive the gaze of the thing they, in their hubris, woke up. It still lives. And it waits for the first sign of the magics of old, to find the race of elvenkind and show them its boundless love. Horrifying, deadly love.

Naturally there are quite a lot of elves who really, really don't want this to happen. Largely they are known as the order of druids, and they don't share this information with regular elves because it's so horrifying that it is hard to live life knowing that only a paper's width separates you from a fate far worse than death, and in fact claims elves yearly (a fact which is hushed up with grave secrecy and deadly seriousness by the elves who know).

Twist: During colonialism there is a shadow war going on amongst the elves, of those who want to turn the thing on their colonialist oppressors and those who think that even if they all die they absolutely cannot let that thing loose intentionally. Little do they know that the humans already know about the thing and that is why the empire came here to colonize them - a cabal of secretive mages who sought to harness the 'great power' of the 'eldritch beast' and to some degree succeeded, although, probably, not for long.

Elves? More Like Schmelves

Elves are actually fairly alien rather than just being humans with really, really, really amazing hair. When something becomes passe, they simply lose all interest in it. Civilization was a grand experiment rather than something that truly benefited them, and returning to the wilds makes perfect sense to them. That's not the only place where there's a discontinuity when compared to human thinking - it permeates almost any interaction humans have with them, falling directly into the uncanny valley that makes humans uneasy as all hell. This is why, generally, everywhere the colonial empire goes.. elves die.

Twist: Elves are alien because they aren't elves. Something took over the elven race a long time ago, by whatever means, and changed them into the form they currently take today. The purpose of doing so, or what was achieved by doing that, is not known.. but may become relevant when the process of colonialism disrupts the elves' 'traditional' way of life.

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There's a fair few other options. They ran out of some resource that was essential to their civilization and collapsed so hard it threw them back into the stone age, something killed off all elves beyond a certain age (continuously) for a period throwing them back into the stone age, there was a big war they comprehensively lost against a much more powerful enemy that mandated they never again use their civilization-enabling magic, their religion demanded they forsake technology so they did, so on. Generally what you're looking for is something forcing people to give up nice things, or some kind of frame challenge - they don't think of them as nice things.

Then you want to make that interesting. Generally you do that with a 'but' or an 'except', although it can also be a 'why'. They lost the war, but unbeknownst to them their war foes collapsed due to unrelated reasons and the rules they are still enforcing are not actually still required. Their religion demanded they forsake technology but actually it was a mistranslation etc. You can start with some pretty boring why's if you then expand it with further questions that make a more complicated (and thus realistic) situation.

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A mighty empire has to encounter a mighty end which makes its cities unlivable. Any kind of war or afflictions like drought and tidal waves, earthquakes and meteorites, locust plagues and ancient feared cataclisms can scatter a people... at 1300bc there were the boat peoples that ravaged the greeks and egyptians, in 1600 there were the conquistadors who emptied the mayan cities and sent the mayans fleeing for the deep wilderness, where some of them still hide from us, like in the marshes of the Orinoco delta.

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  • $\begingroup$ Indeed. One very common cause in the real world is climate change, especially desertification — large areas of both the Sahara and the Arabian desert used to be much more fertile, and hosted great empires, which collapsed with the expansion of the deserts (which, as I understand, was often partly due to agricultural overuse from the empires). An elvish empire might be prone to a magical equivalent — they drained the mana-aquifers, and natural mana regeneration was nowhere near enough to sustain their needs. $\endgroup$ – Peter LeFanu Lumsdaine Aug 16 '20 at 20:07
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You may be thinking about this the wrong way.

What make you think that something special need to happen for a mighty empire to go down? Maybe the ivory towers and marble arches were the singularity that could only happen due to a very fortunate conjunction of unlikely events, rather than the side effect of a steady stable state of your elven empire.

Imagine a short lived golden age allowed by great leadership, peace and widespread cooperation toward the goal of building these impressive display of power. However, once the leaders got old and died, dissentions emerged and no one could foster the needed ressources towards these projects. They may have been beautiful, but the people had simply other priorities than moving marble blocks over thousand of kilometers to build arches that they did not really need in the first place. Slowly they stopped to be maintained and fell out of use.

The elves went back to they old ways. Not because they explicitly rejected the glorious constructions or because the empire was destroyed by some external force, but because no group of sufficient skill ever had the will to reproduce it. It takes way more collective efforts to keep your university running and to build coliseums, than to live in harmony with nature in small communities.

Now the elves looks at this ruins with irony, they know they could do it again but despite the sympathy they have for them, they can not understand what kind of madness pushed their ancestor to do it. More importantly even, they do not consider themselves to have fallen, their life is good, albeit simple.

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Through vast expanse of time gone by the elves notice that with the accumulation of knowledge, a culture begins to degenerate. (not 'degenerate' as in a moral term, but as in a 'de-evolution')

To counter this they move their culture to a structure more in tune with nature... and distributed to avoid extinction from natural disaster.

Add a couple repositories of knowledge that only a few can understand...

To the question of other species...possibly artificial life (not mechanical but possibly magical/obscured genetic technology?) that looks just like natural life with some role in preserving the knowledge and culture of those before.

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Agricultural Collapse

A somewhat more mundane explanation, but nevertheless a potent one. Elves had such great control over nature and druidic magic that they were able to push their agricultural productivity well beyond what non-magical techniques would allow. Their population exploded (slowly, perhaps, since they are elves after all), and with it, so did their power, influence, and prestige. Eventually, however, the source they tapped into began to run dry. Perhaps the climate changed, or perhaps there was some disruption in the magic they used, or perhaps it was simply the natural result of overusing that magic. They put more and more of their resources into learning and wielding druidic magic; whereas a thousand years before you needed only one druid in a village to feed everyone, now everyone needed to know at least basic druidic magic just to feed their own families. Families which, due to the scarcity, became smaller and smaller.

The empire's end didn't come from some apocalyptic war, but an exodus; with food becoming more and more scarce, most elves fled their homeland and mingled with natives in other lands. They realized that their magic was the cause of their decline, and decided to abandon it to avoid repeating their mistake. By the current generation, it's not uncommon for non-elf locals to have slightly elven features, even if they've stopped noticing it. The elves that stayed in their homeland, however, tirelessly weave their magic simply to keep it from turning into a barren desert.

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Shorter lifespan

The high elves were a simple yet wise society who lived in incredible harmony with the lives of the forest. They lived for hundreds of years, just as long as the most ancient trees of their mighty land, and actually, their whole society was in peace no thanks to complex hierarchy and balances between tribes, but because the savyness of the elven leaders prevented them from unworthy business like war.

Then something happened, that made drained away the magical life breath of elder elves, elven society fell apart completely as the youngsters couldn't take advantage of the better judgement of their elders, especially as it used to be so important before.

Why did this have to happen? Maybe a magic cataclysm, or an environmental disaster caused by the elves losing their old way of life, or an incident of the kind, caused by a greedy hidden society of sorcerers.

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