Writing this as part of my World Map Project for the Storm King's Thunder
campaign. Chunks of it will go into the gazetteer handout for the players, but I'm also posting it here for my elfy players (lookin' at you, Plotline and laurie_robey
Elves are always a joy, and always a problem. Every campaign, and every edition, has treated them differently, to the point where it’s become a giant blurry mess. So for Orbis Leonis, my “grand unified D&D setting,” here is the definitive word on elves.
In prehistoric times, the elves were a single people. They have a variety of creation legends, but they are largely biased and contradictory. What is known is that there was once a wide-ranging high elven civilization throughout the region now known as the Marches, ruled from the great spiraled tower Elfspire. Before the foundation of Elfspire, even the elvish histories are lost, other than that the elves fled from some calamity across a seemingly-endless plain– a plain that would have to be where the Gulf of Irul Kinthé is now– only to stop in despair upon sighting the eastern reaches of the great desert of Xadar. The Elfspire was created, the story goes, when the Maimed King, Iearendir, prayed to Corellian Larethian, who appeared before them and commanded a unicorn to touch its horn to the ground. From that spot sprung a well of miraculous healing powers, and around it grew the Elfspire in “an echo” of the unicorn’s horn. This happened, according to the elves, “hundreds of centuries ago.”
For an indeterminate (but presumably very long) time, the elves ruled the region. How the elvish realm interacted with other ancient kingdoms is open for speculation. However, roughly 30,000 years ago, according to what elven records still exist, there was a bitter internal conflict among the elven gods, which was in turn echoed by enclaves of elves in the mortal realm. This conflict led to a massive event the elves call the Sundering, that splintered the elves into the eladrin, high elves, wood elves, and drow that the world knows today. (Some scholars point to this as also being the origin of the orcs. Orcs deny this. Often via manslaughter.) This event also ended the elvish dominance of the region and seems to have led the decline of the entire elvish race.
Note that this story seems to conflict with the giants’ tradition that there were no civilizations of note on the surface other than Ostoria during its heyday. Either the elvish record is incorrect, or the giants’ idea of what is a “civilization of note” is disputable. Which of those may be true is left as an exercise for the reader.
High and Wood Elves
Of the elven kindreds, high elves and wood elves are closest to each other, with their differences being purely cultural. A high elf raised by wood elves, is a wood elf, and vice versa. They are called "high" elves because they prefer to live on the surface, or even better, in trees or tall spires, but also because they did not follow Lolth into the Underdark. Although the stereotypical high/wood elf is of fair complexion, with very fine, straight hair, there is more variation than people generally think. In the Sea Kingdoms and realms further south particularly, elvish complexion ranges to a copper or deep brown color.
Eladrin ("noble elves" in their own language) are the most powerful of the high elves, with the strongest attunement to the realm of Faerie, to the point where they are infused with its magic. They are closer to elemental spirits to mortal beings, being tied to the passage of the seasons and the movement of the sun, stars, and planets. Although physically similar to their more terrestrial kin, Eladrin are readily discernible because their eyes are solid orbs of color with no visible pupils, and their bodies often radiate a visible aura. Tales say they can speak any language, and step between the mortal world and Faerie/Feywild at will, and while this may certainly be true of individual eladrin, it may not be true of all of them.
Drow, the "dark elves," followed their goddess into the Underdark. Before the Sundering, the elf goddess Araushnee was a patron of the stars, destiny, and craftsmanship, whose emblem of the spider represented her weaving of the fates. Her favored followers, although still high elves, would undergo a ritual transformation that altered their skin to an intensely dark blue and their hair to a shining white or silver as a mark of their devotion. During the great conflict that caused the Sundering, Araushnee forsook the light of the stars and fled the realms of light (or was banished, or simply left, depending on who you ask), taking her followers with her into the Underdark. From that small pool of common ancestors came the modern drow.
(Note: Araushnee's daughter Eilistraee, a high-spirited goddess of moonlight and dancing, shares her mother's appearance, and what few drow who have forsaken the worship of Lolth for its wickedness and cruelty, have generally turned to her as their new patron. A small cabal of drow worshippers of Eilistraee can be found in Myth Talminden, and it is something of a "promised land" for discontent drow of the Underdark who would flee their dark mistress.)
Orcs and Elves
How do the orcs fit in? The truth is that mortals don't know and the gods aren't telling, but there are clear signs of some sort of connection. First, is their shared mythology: the story of the battle between the orc god Gruumsh and the elf god Corellan Larethian, allowing some variance for which side you are rooting for, is remarkably similar in both cultures, and always highlights the famous cutting out of Gruumsh's eye. It is also worth noting that elves and orcs are both interfertile with humans and each other, unlike any of the other demi-human races. (It is rare in the extreme that an orc and an elf would have a child, but such a child would essentially be either a half-elf or a half-orc depending upon which parent they favored.)
There are two major elf holdings in Orbis Leonis. First, and oldest, is the Elfspire, in the southeastern portion of Thessalaine near the Gulf of Irul Kinthé. This consists of a massive, spiral conical tower formed out of a unique mineral reminiscent of mother of pearl, a dizzying fifty stories in height and crowned with an ever-burning beacon. The mountainside below the spire is also populated by houses and fortifications in the high elven style.
The second largest is the western seaside realm of Myth Talminden ("Silver Lighthouse" in Elvish), a fair and green country on the westernmost point of the mainland. The city of Myth Talminden proper consists of several large stone towers inlaid with silver from Argent, in a curving spiral style that echoes the Elfspire, but on a much smaller scale (the tallest reaching only seven stories). The towers are connected by a dizzying network of narrow, gracefully-arcing catwalks that not only provide walking access from one spire to the next, but also reinforce the overall structure like a lattice.
There are many smaller settlements across the land, usually referred to as "havens." These include the wood elf settlement of Starsong Hill in Elsir Vale, Mother Oak of the Westdeep, or Dimhaven and Mistvale in Thessalaine. Of course, the drow have their own cities in the Underdark, but the names and locations of these are not generally known to surface dwellers.