The Trouble with Elves

Fantasy gamemasters attempting to create historical plausible game worlds are faced with a major problem whenever and wherever they include elves: The elven lifespan. Tradition dating from the middle ages carried into D&D by way of Tolkien has elves as immortal, or nearly so; the 1st edition D&D had lifespans as long as 2,000 years from some elven sub-races.

Now consider that, for a race with an average lifespan of 1,000 years, the Viking Age was 1 lifespan ago, roughly the equivalent of how we think about the 1940s - elves today would look on dragon-ships and Odin worship the way we look on Panther tanks and big band music. Thus, in order to have “ruins forgotten to history” and other staples of D&D, the world builder must do one of three things:

  1. Lengthen the historical timeline.
  2. Make the elves forgetful
  3. Shorten the elven lifespan

The first option is implausible simply because of the nature of archeology. The ancient pyramids are believed to be 4,000 years old. If Elves have a lifespan that is 30x human, the same pyramids would have to be 120,000 years old to achieve the same effect. Few man-made structures survive for even a thousand years; none at all have survived for more than 20,000 or so. One can introduce magic to explain this, but that means the world is perhaps more magic-rich than one might prefer. It’s always easier to add more magic in if you want, so I prefer to keep my baseline assumptions as mundane as possible.

The second option, forgetfulness, is more workable. It’s the route chosen by R. Scott Bakker in The Prince of Nothing series, for instance. But it requires a very specific sort of campaign, with all sorts of contrivances to explain amnesiac elves or historical catastrophes that caused racial memory loss. It doesn’t seem like a good default choice.

The third option seems to me the best one. Dragon Age adopted a wonderful notion that elves once had nigh-immortal lifespans, but through interaction with humans had lost this gift. But why even claim that? There’s no particular reason elves have to have 2,000 year lifespans except insofar as "Tolkien said so. What if elves have a lifespan of around 180 years - three times human - but with ageless bodies? Once an elf reaches adulthood, he looks more or less the same throughout his adult life; death comes to elves because their spirits grow weary, not because their bodies age. From the perspective of humans, an elf who looks the same for 180 years is going to seem immortal. An elf will look the same for three entire human lifespans - he could have been photographed with Robert E Lee in 1865 and with Paris Hilton in 2010 and look just as chipper.

Also consider that children tend to look very much like their parents, particularly if both parents are of the same race. (Because nowadays we see more TV families than real families, TV fools us into thinking families don’t look as much alike as they really do; in real life, children can be virtually identical to their same-sex parent, as my brother Theo is to my late father). If you remove the age difference between, e.g. father and son, because both are ageless elves, this resemblance would be even greater! Further consider that humans tend to be less discerning of appearance differences in people of other races, and it’s virtually certain that humans would think, e.g., an elf and the elf’s son were the same being. If elven society is distinct from human society, with interaction limited, humans could almost certainly believe that elves are “immortal”, even if in fact their lifespans were not even two centuries. Thus peasants folk lore speaks of the immortal fey, but the learned know better.

Note that agelessness rather than longevity solves a few other problems as well. First, it explains why elves might adventure. It’s very hard to understand why an elf with a thousand or two thousands years of life ahead of him might throw it away on a reckless adventure. But the same being enjoying endless youth for a limited time might very well be an adventuresome sort, particularly if he’s growing weary of life and needs to find some justification to keep going. Second, it makes human-elf marriage far more plausible, as they can share at least some portion of a life together, while retaining the inherent tragedy of the relationship, that one will age and the other will not.

This is the route we adopted in the rules. Elves in ACKS are assumed have more-or-less ageless bodies, but lifespans of two centuries or less. It’s easy enough to change if you prefer your elves to be of the immortal variety, of course, but we think it makes more sense from a world-building viewpoint.

Working off of traditional folklore, I put the lifespan of elves in D@D at double that of humans - bout 240 max. 'Been a while since I looked at the sources for that or I’d cite it for you.

But I don’t agree that there is any problem with those who prefer long lived elves. To quote Arneson, “Elves will only have dealings with humans in their own interests and for a limited period of time.” (AiF, Book III, p 38)

It doesn’t matter that the aloof and mysterious elves know perfectly well who or what used to live in that ruined citadel, to the human population, its an ancient mystery.

Hi. I found my way here through Beedo’s “Tales of the Lich House” blog. I like what you’re doing, and am enjoying the passion you all bring to your work.

I appreciate your desire to base the game on a historically accurate medieval setting. There were a few times when my 1980s/1990s D&D games bogged down when someone realized that the setting didn’t make sense.

I think you’re being a bit harsh on elves, though.

Sure, immortality has it’s difficult implications for the setting, but I don’t think it has to break the historical feel. At least, it doesn’t if you abandon the assumption that elves are common in human lands and that anything the elves know is something to which the PCs have access.

First, what’s wrong with the pyramids not being mysteries to the elves? Humans have long forgotten who built them and why. Going to the elder elves for information about lost kingdoms and ancient riddles seems like something that could fit in with epic fantasy just fine. Doesn’t mean they’ll tell you. For that matter, just because Uncle Fingolfin was there when the ribbon was cut means he told the elven PC. Or that he didn’t embellish the story.

Second, folkloric elves lived apart from humanity. It was hard for humans to find or contact elves, and when it happened it was almost always on the terms of the elves. If you shift the assumption away from the D&D standard that elves are everywhere, that there are “elftowns” in major human cities, that you can just run into them in sleazy adventurer bars, then many of the problems with immortal elves don’t matter anymore.

Hi guys - thanks for the responses. I think you are both correct insofar that the problem is as much the commonality of elves as the immortality. To paraphrase something my chief technology officer said to me once, “your elves can be immortal, common, or wise – pick two.”

I’d rather have elves available to players as player characters, with a shorter lifespan, than awesome immortal beings that can’t show up in game much without revealing All The Answers.

But it’s a very easy change to make if you disagree.

I like the forgetfulness elves.

But, not because of “magic” or “cataclysms”. Instead, because it’s hard to remember stuff from a long time ago!

I can barely remember what house I lived in when I was a kid (we moved a lot). I have vague flashes of memory of kindergarten. It’s damn near impossible for me to remember what I ate last week.

Now, imagine trying to remember something that happened 100s of years ago. What??? No way. Even if elves had decent memories, it’d be vague recollections.

Have you ever seen The Man From Earth?

It’s about a long-lived human who touches on this aspect of memory and living for thousands of years.

As for skills and powers and whatnot, if you don’t use it, you lose it. An elf may have been an expert baker 200 years ago, but if it’s been that long since he picked up a bread pan, well, I don’t imagine they’d be as on the ball.

Anyways, just some thoughts.

I have some fondness for that approach, as it was basically used by R. Scott Bakker in The Prince of Nothing series, which I love.

That said, I do reckon that even with amnesia from long lives there’d be longer institutional memory, but perhaps not. One could say that they take the attitude that it’s all dust in the winds, or something.

I like the elves proposed in your blog post. It’s a lot better than other propositions I’ve seen. I think the silliest of those were “elves are lazy” and “elves are mentally handicapped”.

I took the second option in my last game. Elves were effectively immortal, and for the past thousand years they had been losing their memories every 20 years. Also they could not have kids because of the same curse.

gave them a nice doomed-race feel.