I'm one of the generation of authors who learned about fantasy through the lens of Dungeons & Dragons. In fact, I owe my choice of profession to a bit of text on the back of the Moldvay basic boxed set that was my introduction to the hobby.
I'm also keen on doing my own thing. As much as I love the game, I have no desire to be dismissed as just another D&D author. I have been studying a variety of disciplines, everything from animal behavior to Historical European Martial Arts, all with a view to grounding my fiction in reality. I have also been diligently reading the literature of Appendix N from the Dungeon Master's Guide with a view to both better understanding the game and to see what has been done in my chosen genre before making my own unique contribution.
Dungeons and Dragons is full of homages to this literature. It's one thing to play a game, it's quite another to publish your own original fiction. To avoid inadvertently infringing copyright, I have been diligently studying the Appendix N literature. Which brings me to the thrust of this post.
From its earliest days, Dungeons & Dragons has featured a peculiar relationship between elves and ghouls. I will not summarize the numerous explanations I have seen elsewhere online.
Here's the rub. Ghouls have the ability to paralyze their prey. Elves are immune to this strange power. Why? As an author particularly fascinated by elves, it's important for me to fully understand the characters I write about.
It's important to note that the ghouls that inspired D&D were actually drawn from several influences: the ghouls (Romero used this term, not zombies) from the film The Night of the Living Dead. They also bear some resemblance to the zombies out of H.P. Lovecraft's Herbert West, Reanimator. Finally, much of their lore is drawn from Pickman's Model and the Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, also by H.P. Lovecraft. Another possible influence is the Ghoul-bear Thrang out of Mazirian the Magician, a short story by Jack Vance (later incorporated into his novel Tales of the Dying Earth). Particularly prominent is Thrang's strange paralyzing power.
The elves that inspired D&D were originally inspired by myths, fairy tales, and the appendix N literature, but a satisfying answer to the immunity to this paralysis remains elusive to this day. Part of the problem is that D&D elves straddle a nebulous middle ground of being modeled both on the older material and on Tolkien's noble depictions.
My own tastes run more towards Tolkien's portrayals. It is those elves whose immunity has perplexed generations. It was on a rereading of H.P. Lovecraft's Pickman's Model that I stumbled across what I believe to be the answer.
First of all, many are quick to note that Lovecraft's ghouls do not have this ability. What you discover upon reading, is that there are cleverly hidden homages to the Norse Draugr in this story. They very definitely had the ability to paralyze their prey. The original Arabian myths also speak of the hideous nature of the ghoul. Paralysis could be one possible interpretation.
It was a colossal and nameless blasphemy with glaring red eyes, and it held in bony claws a thing that had once been a man, gnawing at the head as a child nibbles at a stick of candy. Its position was a kind of crouch, and as one looked one felt that at any moment it might drop its present prey and seek a juicier morsel. But damn it all, it wasn't even the fiendish subject that made it such an immortal fountain-head of all panic--not that, nor the dog face with its pointed ears, bloodshot eyes, flat nose, and drooling lips. It wasn't the scaly claws nor the mold-caked body nor the half-hooved feet--none of these, though any one of them might well have driven an excitable man to madness. --Pickman's Model, H.P. Lovecraft
I think I was paralyzed for an instant.
The dog-things were developed from mortals!
I hope you gamers out there enjoyed this post. I hope to see you here again, whether you're a gamer or a fan of fantasy fiction. I've recently solved a couple of other mysteries of fantasy gaming that I'll be sharing over the next few weeks. Particularly as they relate to 5e.
Many thanks to Michael O'Brien at Chaosium, Inc. and especially to Loic Musy, the illustrator.
I would be remiss if I didn't add that I have also enjoyed the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game since its debut, for both its faithfulness to the literature of H.P. Lovecraft and also in helping to understand the character of Elves.
Have a great day!