NEVERMIND, UNDEAD CAN WAIT
While I was brainstorming for this, Sarusama mentioned that his pet peeve was elves. The next day my roommate mentioned that he hated elves too. Here are my thoughts:
Elves are an excellent example of a fantasy race that gets portrayed many different ways, many of which make sense, but you also sometimes see an 'average' elf that represents an amalgam of conflicting traits. Elves are environmentally conscious, but great metalworkers, despite the fact that metalworking requires environmentally destructive mines as well as lots of timber to run the forge. (Unless the elves are burning coal, but that'd be even weirder, right?)
Elves like humans and trade with them, despite the fact that "Elven" is generally the highest grade of craftsmanship in any RPG. Are humans the elven equivalent of China, mass-producing low-quality goods? Is there an elven market for mass-produced low quality goods?
The settings where elves make the most sense to me, as presented, are Dragon Age and Skyrim, because in these settings there's been a massive war between elves and other demihumans. Humans don't normally ally with the competition, after all.
So, with that in mind, I ask myself: What are the really central traits of elves? I came up with:
- Pointy Ears
- Long Lives
- Inherently magical
- Likes nature.
Since we've already got a world where magical energy is very prevalent and important, we might as well use that. What if elves are migratory, based on the natural ebb and flow of magical energy? They need the magic to sustain themselves, because they're the magical race. Elves don't build cities because they don't stay in one place. Elves don't do much traditional agriculture because they're not around to tend fields in the long term, and they don't really need to because they instinctively travel wherever food is most plentiful. After all, if any area is full of water mana this year, it's also probably very lush and fertile and there's fruit everywhere. Their low birthrate, which was otherwise really weird, makes perfect sense if they're super long lived and trying not to overtax the land so that their hunter-gathering is sustainable.
Different regions have different opinions of elves, but most view them positively because the presence of elves correlates almost directly with prosperity: If they're around, it'll be a great harvest, or there'll be tons of deer or something. Elves are also master craftsmen, since they have long, long lives to practice, but they're limited by what they can produce without many permanent fixtures, so they're always happy to trade.
On the other hand, there's also a lot of room for tension. History shows that lots of people hate nomads, and it explains the conflict of deforestation- Instead of being concerned about forests on some sort of abstract hippie level, elves view every piece of nature as part of their home, because they have lived or will live pretty much everywhere.
Another part of the conflicting opinions about elves is that there are, as mandated by the RPG gods long, long ago, different breeds of elves, following different ley lines. Some of them are probably very aligned with elements, so you might have Earth Elves that are kinda swole and only hang out in the most earth-aligned places. Some might actually not migrate, but just maintain small communities that stick very close to a single node, so you can still have ancient elf temples. (Final note: I agree with Alex's diagnosis that elves need to be long lived, not immortal, and that 200-300 years is a good lifespan.)
Also, while we're doing demihumans, let's hit the others:
Dwarves are fine. I don't have any real nitpicks with them.
Gnomes don't need to exist. We've got kobolds as our kooky engineer tricksters! Or just play an anemic dwarf.
Half Elves... wait, what? Why would that exist as a race? That's not a race. Just play a human or an elf and write it into your backstory. Maybe this could be a proficiency.
Warforged: I love warforged! They're fun. I don't think they're a particularly good fit for this setting though. We've already got a lot of other things going on, and a construct race awakening is a big plot thing on its own.
ADDITIONAL NOTES, UPON REFLECTION:
The migratory path of elves is determined by their clan's seer(s) which practice a mixture of astrology and geomancy to attempt to predict where mana will bloom next. Because their entire society is based on this, their predictive abilities are better than most human astrologers and seers, albiet only within the specialized field of vague large-scale trends. TLDR: If an elf tells you Winter is Coming to the North, then you start thinking about whether to move south or invest in high, strong walls. He might still be wrong, just like a weatherman, but he's probably a really good weatherman.
Beyond that, most elves are untrained in the art of divination, and have only a limited magical sense of direction that will allow them to migrate towards an area currently blooming, but it's the difference between planning a nice family barbeque at a designation and simply walking hopefully towards the smell of smoke.
PC Elves should be able to build stable communities by tapping into ley lines and growing giant elfy trees whose fruit is rich with Vitamin M or something. I don't want to just exclude them from participating in the endgame. PC Elves are also not required to migrate; the elven need for mana is fairly minimal, and satisfied by rolling around (metaphorically unless the player so chooses) with the wizards and fantastic creatures and locales that are an adventurer's daily grind. Elves migrate mostly for the boosted natural productivity that enables their hunter-gatherer lifestyle, not because they're super mana addicts.
Also, it should go without saying that if some elves are elementally aligned, then Corruption-aligned elves exist, and do with that as you will. I'm not super invested in Drow.