My second inspiration for alternate elves also comes from science fiction, not fantasy. In fact, this inspiration treats elves as martians. Specifically the martians from In the Courts of the Crimson Kings by S. M. Stirling.
If you haven’t read the series give it a shot. There is a long out of print rpg by Chaosium using BRP. It had a boxed set and three supplements (although if I understand correctly a later hardback included the companion supplement’s material). The most interesting supplement, Sea Elves, included the tribe long before they appeared in the comic (I’m not sure if they were invented originally for the RPG or not).
One of the biggest complaints about a lot of fantasy (novels and RPGs) is elves and dwarves. The big complaint is they’re straight out of Tolkien. Actually, they are more straight out of what people think is Tolkien (a huge complaint about AD&D in the Golden Age was the elves weren’t Tolkien enough).
In working on The World After I tried to do a different take on elves. My primary inspiration was Marvel’s Weirdworld with Elfquest as a secondary influence. ElfQuest, especially, is an excellent source for a variety of hot elf chicks.
The World After was also influenced by my take on elves from a stillborn AD&D2 campaign. I was cleaning up some computer files and found the notes on those elves.
The Bidden: The Elves. Little is know in the north about how they organize themselves or their history. What is known is 1000 years before the coming of The Tribes and about 500 years before the coming of the Kindreds they departed the world. The reappeared a little over 1000 years ago and almost immediately made war upon the Adeuian Empire, a human dominated state the occupied most of the known world.
The idea behind The Bidden is the Elves had moved and were sent back to the world to punish and rein in humanity. The Adeuian Empire, as well as other human cultures, was killing off dwarves and gnomes as well has halflings to a lesser degree (because unlike The Kindreds of Stone halfings were among the Tribes of Earth with men). This idea was taken not from fantasy novels but a science fiction story by Ben Bova, “Stars Won’t You Hide Me?” It is anthologized in Escape Plus which Tor offers as a free download).
*Spoilers (go read the story, it’s free and it’s interesting)*
So, the idea that the last man is running from aliens who had been forcefully returned from somewhere (heaven?) to punish mankind a second time for a crime they committed really struck me. Elves are ancient, mysterious, and powerful. Their peak, however, was in past. Instead of a decaying races leaving this world, a la Tolkien and D&D canon in the Forgotten Realms I decided to run with Bova’s aliens. Elves, in this world, are not the long time enemies of dwarves, but their allies and protector against the crimes committed by humans. In the end, the campaign world was to have two kinds of elves: Royal elves who decided to reform humanity by ruling them and Vengeful elves who are still human hunters. The Royal elves fill the traditional elf role somewhat. Their royalty would intermarry with the last Emperors and the new empire spreading across the world is ruled by half-elf linages. The rest act aloof and tend to lecture and instruct humans using their superior wisdom. The Vengeful elves fill the “evil” elf role taken by the Drow but are more Lawful Neutral and driven to punish humanity so they may move forward on the cosmic wheel.
I have recently read a short story and a novel that have each inspired other “new takes” on elves. I’ll write them up as I get the time. My broader point is that what is in the D&D books is just a starting point. You can make elves (and dwarves, gnomes, and halfings) much more alien while still having some broad outlines that fit the rules and player expectations. Elrond, especially Hugo Weaving’s “Mr. Baggins” interpretation, would be right at home as a Royal elf and is only a tweak away from being Vengeful yet both concepts are far from Tolkien.