Designs for some sea elves with some custom worldbuilding by @aiffe. Both top and bottom pictures have the same people. Marel – the upper class and most resembling common elves who are able to breathe both under and above water and malenti – the lower class who are covered with scales and can only breathe under water without assistance.
So, I thought I might elaborate on these! A lot of my homebrew stuff is tweaking what’s already there–and sometimes I take the perspective that the lore that’s in the handbook is what people say about X, but not necessarily what X is.
Aquatic elves have so much damn potential to be cool, but they never quite resonated with me. I think some of the many elf variants (aquatic elves, snow elves, desert elves, etc etc) just felt like the palette swap monsters in the early Final Fantasy games–just a way to get more mileage out of the same amount of effort. You’re already used to elves and dwarves and orcs and so on on land–so the same thing repeats in the water, and in the Underdark, and wherever else. Which steals a lot of the wonder of going someplace new? So I just didn’t do aquatic stuff for a while. But then…well, I can’t resist elves.
Another peeve of mine is racial alignments, especially with obvious good/evil coding. We have Tolkien to thank for a lot of that, but a lot of D&D lore takes that uncritically–the “faerie elves” frolic and love nature, and the “evil” elves like drow have no word for love. Really, all I want to do is smudge those lines until there’s nothing but blur. So a lot of the bad things the manual tells you about drow are essentially just slander from surface folk in my book, for example. Likewise, I figured that land folk would not necessarily have the strongest handle on what’s a scaly elf and what’s another type of scaly ethereal water creature–and that they might tell tale of wonderful nature-loving frolicking elves when they got what they wanted, but of some other, evil species when the elves were not so accommodating. And that, in addition to these biases, they might also judge by appearance more often than not. So…here’s my story of the aquatic elves.
Long ago, the Valley of Fallen Stars had a thriving elf city in it. But it was well below sea level, and over time the landscape changed, flooding the valley with more and more water. First they built dikes to keep the water back, then they transitioned to a Venice-like city of watery streets and boat travel, then at last, the flooding became so serious it seemed the elves would have no choice but to leave, though their hearts broke at the thought of leaving their only home. It was at this time that some of them began to have visions of a new god, Sashelas, who promised them if they stayed, they would be given the ability to breathe water. Some trusted in this new god, while others fled.
Contrary to the beliefs of outsiders, Sashelas was asking the elves to abandon their pantheon rather than being part of it–elves are polytheists, but Sashelas was jealous, and would not share his followers. The elves who stayed became heretics by the standards of other elves, but were granted the ability to breathe water as Sashelas promised. They were still able to breathe air as well, though they would tend to wear a damp scarf to protect their delicate gills when out of water.
As for the elves who left, well, some of them turned back and saw how Sashelas had blessed their kin, and regretted their choice. They returned to the watery city, pleading with the new god to take them. Sashelas found this hard to refuse entirely, but decided to make an example of them for their lack of faith in him earlier. He gave them the ability to breathe water, but not air, and marked them with scales.
This mark became a sort of generational curse, passed on to any child of those who had returned. And though they had once been one people, a mark of disfavor from their god was a powerful divider. Though so many generations passed that the people would have forgotten whose ancestors stayed and whose returned, the god would not let them forget this old grudge.
Most surfacer dealings are with the marel. (Note, in D&D lore, marel are a separate race from aquatic elves, an attempt to make a good/evil distinction such as between the standard elves and drow. I reject this, since good and evil depends a lot more on the individual you’re interacting with, and also your own standards.) This is for the fairly basic reason that they’re the ones who can breathe air. Malenti encounters with land folk aren’t unheard of, though. They can make up for their inability to breathe air with magic, much as someone without gills might use magic to breathe underwater. The comparison to sahuagin is nothing but a slur, of course, most likely overheard from the mouth of some marel and taken as fact. What outsiders might take for different “types” of elves or even different species are in fact one people, with a shared history and superficial difference imposed by a petty god.