So are Tiste just Elves? Fifth Edition D&D Design for the Malazan world
Updated: Jul 15, 2018
After looking at the major races on the continent of Genabackis and those from others that were needed to fill out the roster we come to this world equivalent of the three elf tropes, light, dark and wood and the problems that come with such long lived peoples.
The three Tistie races are not elves, let me make that perfectly clear. They don’t have pointy ears.
Well, there is a bit more to it than that. They honestly don’t read as elves. Due to the way they are introduced in the books, first with the black skinned Tiste Andii, who seen in isolation, just seem like otherworldly black skinned people. It is only latter as you meet their kin the grey skinned Tiste Edure and the white Tiste Liosan, that you make the connection that this is Eriksons Advanced Dungeons and Dragons origins to the books, coming through. Generally speaking it is easy just to say, “right, Andii are Drow/Dark Elves, Edure are Wood Elves and Liosan are high elves, done.” They are notably seven feet tall and posses much more tilted almond shaped eyes than humans giving them a clearly none human look.
One of the only peaces of art that helps to convey this none human looks is this illustration of a High Elf from Games-Workshops Warhammer. This is by far my favoured depiction of an elf as it really pushes home just with the position of the eyes that this persons is not human.
Apparently even their internal anatomy is different with their heart being more deeply buried in their chests.
The first problem I had is this. My players will almost inevitably not have read the books. I want my players to slowly discover the world with the minimum need for me to explain things. But playing as any of these races should really come with a whole bunch of world knowledge that I want the players to discover over time. Especially in the case of the Andii who are functionally immortal. You thought it was hard trying to explain to a player why their five hundred year High Elf was level one and didn’t know what a Otyugh was, try explaining that to someone who’s character is several thousand years old.
I was so confused as to how to work this out while I was planning my first campaign, that I ended up leaving it out. Every time I made a scene with some mystery in it, I needed up going “oh, but the Tiste would know this, so if there is one in the party, it is pointless.” This I think was largely due to my lack of experience as a Dungeon Master.
Eventually I found a way to make it work. Firstly I got to play through seven or so games as my first time as both a DM and playing in this world and realised it was not as much of a problem as I thought and I could find good racial reasons for why they would not know everything. I also realised that not having accesses to the ability scores given to elves was somewhat limiting when I was trying to make my pre-generated characters and would be a problem in future games. So without further ado the Tiste.
The children of Mother Dark. Black skinned, haired with colour changing eyes, this ancient race of dour faced humanoids is the first Tistii we meet in the books. They are also an excellent opportunity for players to use the Drow stats without having to come up with some explanation as to why they arn’t playing an evil character. Not to mention and everyone isn’t trying to kill you all the time. Because yes, this time they are the good guys.
The first an most notable thing about the Drow in Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition is their improved dark vision and sunlight sensitivity. The improved darkvison fits perfectly for the children of mother dark, but no where in the books do we see Anamander Rake, leader of the Andii, squinting in the sun.
But perhaps look at it this way. These people are essentially immortal and have been around for a very long time. All the adult ones are probably Challenge Rating nine or more. So perhaps they are attacking at disadvantage due to fighting in daylight, but they are just so badass that they kill everything anyway. And why are you, the player not so amazingly badass I hear you ask? Because you are one of the rare children that has been born. You might still be a few hundred years old but compared with the rest of your race they own socks that are older than you. This also helps explain why you are out adventuring. You are trying to find your own identity away from a race that has frankly lost all joy in the world. Sunlight sensitivity might be a problem for you, but it really makes you feel like a child of darkness does it not?
The only problem now is the Drow magic. The first spell they know is Dancing Lights and the second they learn is Faerie Fire. Two things which produce light. The children of mother dark who despise the creation of light aren’t very well going to know spells that produce light are they? At 5th level they learn Darkness however which is perfect. Unfortunately they can not see in this darkness, but their are flavourful ways to explain this.
So what can we replace dancing lights and fairy fire with that makes sense? Dancing lights is a cantrip and importantly to maintain game balance we don’t want to give them a damage dealing cantrip, which rather limits the selection. In addition we have to remember that the whole race will have this spell. It would look very strange and out of place to see a whole group of Tase Andii putting up their tents with all these mage hands floating around. Prestidigitation and Thaumaturgy have options of producing light and are also so commonly in use that it doesn’t really feel flavourful to give it to the Andii.
What I eventually settled on is a much underused spell but for which I have a great love, Message. You can point at another character within 120 feet of you and send them a quick message which they can respond to. It is undetectable and can pass through thin objects like doors and can even go around corners. This is a great spell for when you are being stealthy in the dark but also need to be able to pass on information. By making it a racial ability I can also happily remove the materials component. I could easily see a group of Andii in their silent camps sending the odd private message to each other, short and to the point which the rest of the world looks on a sees and hears nothing.
What to replace the first level spell faire fire with? Again a problem. I proffered to have it not being a damage dealing ability, but one that grants interesting mechanical benefit. With nothing Darkness bassed in the first level spell list I had to again get creative. I turned to the first time that the Tiste Andii appear in the books, the a rooftop chase involving a group of Tiste Andii assassin over the rooftops of Darujistan. All of them could levitate up and down over the buildings rather than having to climb them. So the Levitate spell? But is this too much of a power increase as it is a level two spell rather than one? To solve this problem I used the same balancing approach that Wizards of the Coast has regularly used for monsters or class abilities that they want to give a certain spell. You can only target yourself. Now for ten minutes a day you can levitate up and down by twenty feet under your own control, allowing you to get to unexpected places and hunt down people in unusual ways. I latter discovered that this is a common spell that Drow NPCs posses in the Monster Manual so it works out rather nicely, in that it fist within the expectations of players used to standard D&D settings as well.
We then come to the final problem. The stats bonus. Drow have plus two to their dexterity as do all elves but they get a plus one to charisma as well. This leads players to more often than not choose to play sorcerers and bards when they are playing spell casting classes. They are as mentioned dour and rather depressed. If anything they are too apathetic to even be depressed. Charisma is not their strong point. The Tiste Andii aren’t really one for bards. Due to their age almost all of them are spell casters, which means the aforementioned assassins might well have technically been rogues but they definitely all used magic. In my mind even a normal soldier knows some spells, hence the access to three racial spells. Really I would want player to be able to be able to play Arcane Tricksters and Eldritch Knights. Could I change their Plus one from charisma to intelligence? I think there is enough of an argument to say that it is a worthwhile exchange in order to ensure that the character of the race is maintained.
The Liosan are the children of Father light to the Andii’s children of Dark. Where the Andii are dour and apathetic the Liosan are impassioned, righteous, prone to outbursts and mood swings. White or ivory skinned, with blond, white or silver hair and golden eyes the Liosan fit perfectly with the high elves. I use the despiction of elves from Hellboy and the Golden Army as a quik refference to my players, they jsut seem to caputre the warm colours perfectly.
Also due to their very distinct character it is easier to push player to be more than just ‘a human with pointy ears’ as is often the case when people choose to play an elf. Most notably of which is that the Tisti Liosan are xenophobic isolationists who have cut them selves off from the rest of the world, quite literally in that they live in a different warren/plane. I one had a player ask me what was apparently his default question in every setting. “Who are this world equivalent of Nazis?” I pointed out to him that is own race were probably the closest making his Hexblade Tiste Liosan that much more interesting.
The lack of presence in the books creates a few issues for me in that only a pair handful of them show up in the setting. Make them fit I need to add some more presence to them in the world, but it does solve the other issue of some players possibly knowing too much. For Liosan I can simply say that you know some things, but their race has been so isolated for so long that most of the big things have been forgotten about their own past and the history of the Malazan world.
Mechanically I don’t need to touch them at all so I thought. But upon changing the Tiste Andii stat boost I considered the possibility that there might be a better fit. If the Tiste Andii now had the Inteligence boost could the Tiste Liosan have the charisma boost? What would this cause players to play more of? Sorcerers mostly, which fits well and especially with the new ‘Favour Soul’ sorcerer that was in Unearthed Arcana at the time of me working this, (which has since been released in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything) and allows the player to have been touched by some form of celestial being. Players might be more likely to play a bard, perhaps tell stories about how amazing Father Light and the Son of Light are, propaganda for their own race. Warlocks fit considering certain information learned at a latter point in the books and again fits very well with the Celestial Pact Warlock released in the aforementioned book. What it does do is make something very important more viable to players. Paladins. The Tiste Liosan in their white enamel armour riding white horses and promoting their devoted worship to the Son of Light makes wonderful paladins and once again this gives player the opportunity to play a race that they are used to, in a very different way than they might expect. Normally it is only strong people like me who don’t care about stats that try out these combinations, so making it more statistically viable should make games a lot more interesting.
The children of Shadow, the product of both Light and Dark suffered from much more of a fall from grace than their light and dark kin. Grey skinned with brown hair, wearing cloths made from hide, adorned in bone and shell fetishes and living in tribes the Tiste Edur are a good fit for the Wood Elves.
Admittedly they seem to differ enough from the standard Dungeons and Dragons way of looking at Wood Elves to put some people off. Due to a few players being missing the other week I had a few random people from another players online game join us. I forwarded both players that this was not the standard D&D setting and that they could choose from the pre-generated character sheets, hopefully making getting into the world from a role play perspective easier. One of the players assured me that he was an experienced enough player that it would be fine and he could just make one. I asked him to check the race with me just so I could tell him if there were any mechanical changes and warned him that I would need to discuss with him tweaks so his background etc would fit into the setting. He told me he would be a wood elf, so no changes there and we began. The problem was when I introduced him.
Me: “Standing beside you is a seven foot tall grey skinned woman-"
Player: “Wait stop, I’m seven for tall? I wanted to be a little dainty wood elf woman, perhaps at most five feet two.”
Me: “Well sure you can do that. You would just be unusually short for your race, which might be an interesting thing to inform you backstory.”
Player: “Well I guess so but Wood Elves aren’t that tall.”
Me: “I know but you aren’t playing a Wood Elf, you are playing a Tiste Edur."
Player: “Fine. Keep going.”
Me: “Though you have not seen one in poerson you recognise her by sealskin jerkin she wears and the numerous bone fetishes tide to her cloths, that she is from the race of raiders and pillagers who have recently begun attacking these shores, taking slaves back whole knows where across the sea. A few of you from the north might have seen them legitimately buying slaves in those cities where it is allowed.”
Player: (who has been making blustering noises up until now) “Slavers? Raiders? Those aren’t Wood Elves!”
Me: “I know, they are Tiste Edur, who use the stats of Wood Elves for simplicity and because they mechanically fit. You are free to come up with a reason as to why you might not like slavery, but it is something that happens in this world and is a big part of your race. The pre-generated character option you had, that is an Edure, is also a Ranger, just as you have chosen. It has the Noble background so it could have two slaves and a serf to bring around with it. It makes for an interesting role play shift to normal. And personally the wood elves I grew up with weren’t tree hugging hippies but more like “He stood on a daisy, KILL HIM!” There are lots of kind of wood elves out there. I’m sure you can make it work if you are creative and we can discuss how as we go. Your character can grow as we play today.”
Regular player: “So they are like Elf Vikings?”
Me: “Yep. Though viking was the culture more of an adjective, the Danes would ‘go Vikeing.’ That is besides the point. But yeah, more tribal, moccasin wearing, bone though the nose vikings then.”
Player: “That isn’t what I had in mind, I will be a human.”
Me: “Not a problem. ’Stood beside you is a very short woman….can you please describe yourself?”
This is what happens when you don’t have a chance for a session zero or know the players in advance. Most of what I described there covers them pretty nicely. Their extra speed and bonus to Wisdom for survival is enough show why wood elves fit. They live in the woods, they like to hunt and fight. They also worship a bunch of gods and goddess of shadow which makes their Mask of the Wild ability fit nicely.
So here ends all the races that exist in the major Malazan world that are of player level power, and have obvious fits with the races of D&D. That is five races. Only five.
In the next blog post I will cover what to do with some of the other Dungeons and Dragons races who don’t fit naturally into the Malazan world. Beware, for some fans I might have gone too far.