Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Problem with Elves

(Which is not the same as The Problem with Elvis, just so you know.)

Most fantasy settings have elves.  Or, if they don't, they have some other race that is very long-lived and intellectual.  For me, such beings have always been a real stumbling block when developing a setting.  How can the fallen Empire be a time of misty legends when you have people walking around who were there?  Also, how weird is it when you meet up with your new companions at the tavern at first level, only to realize that the elf in the party knew your grandfather when he was a boy?  And why is it that someone who spent five times as long on their apprenticeship as you knows pretty much exactly the same things?

The History Channeled

I ran into this problem when first developing my Seven Kingdoms setting, many iterations ago.  I wanted the past to be vague, largely undefined in the setting document, and largely unimportant to the current setting.  Then I realized that if I had elves walking around pushing the millenium mark in age, they could just tell the human historians what happened.

Imagine how the Dark Ages of Europe would have been different if elves who had been raised under the Roman Empire were present at Charlemagne's coronation.  Keep in mind that an elf born during the Black Plague could still be alive today!  Scholars wouldn't need to hunt down rare primary texts on how feudalism changed with the advent of the Age of Exploration, they could just ask the elves.

How do you fix this, or at least keep it from warping our human-centric view of how history works?  Well, you can't just say that the elves don't pay attention.  They are sages and intellectual beings.  Even if the average elf only cares about singing and prancing through the trees, someone is going to be writing treatises on the development of the human kingdoms.  You also can't really say that the elves keep that information away from the humans.  Your first elf PC will blow that out of the water, and it just doesn't make sense.  Kings would pay dearly for the elven insight, and there would be elves anxious to educate the poor short-sighted humans.

Can you just incorporate it?  Can you write the history in such a way that the lessons of the elves break, or at least delay, some of the classic historical cycles?  Maybe, but I doubt it.  It just requires too extensive a change in outlook.

You could put the elves at war with the humans.  In fact, they've been at war with humans for longer than anyone else remembers, for reasons that no human today understands.  The elves just keep coming out of the forest every couple of years and killing people.  If the elves are at war, then clearly they won't be working to give the humans the benefit of their knowledge.  But, that does put elf PCs in an awkward place.

You could make the elves rare enough that, while every king might have an elven historian in their court, they simply don't have the influence to make much headway against the prevailing nature of the humans.  They can warn the human king that he is repeating history, with a low chance of preventing history from being repeated.  This is probably the simplest and neatest solution, but it does restrict the kind of influence elves can have in your campaign world.

Tell My Grandchildren I Would Have Loved Them

Many other articles have been written about the unique role-playing challenges involved in portraying someone who lives several times as long as the average human.  So, I'll keep this section short.

How do you handle the interaction between ordinary humans and beings who can watch entire dynasties rise and fall?  I mean, a young, first-level elf is probably already over a hundred years old.  Odds are good that they view their entire adventuring career with the party the way we might view a two-year stint in the army or with the Peace Corps.  It's just taking a bit of time to explore the world before settling down to raise a family.  During which time the young, first-level human ages into a grizzled veteran who regrets never settling down to raise a family.

The simplest solution, of course, is just to ignore it.  Elves just act like humans with pointy ears most of the time.  Simple, but not terribly satisfying.  A more complex solution is to really play up their alien nature.  That often requires a pretty top-notch role-player, though.  It also often requires a fairly indulgent group, as playing with an alien who considers a year-long strategy to be "thinking in the short term" can be really annoying.

You Have the Strangest Learning Curve

So, an elf takes a hundred years to reach maturity.  During which time they learn as much as a human does in twenty.  They then go adventuring with the humans, where they level at roughly the same rate.  So, they learn more in the five to ten years of adventuring than in the previous hundred years.  And, yet, they don't seem capable of maintaining that pace, as you don't see many 500-year-old level 100 elves.

Basic D&D fixed that issue by making elves level at roughly half the rate of everyone else.  Well, it wasn't a total fix, but it at least addressed the issue.  Of course, then they level-capped the elves, which made no sense at all.

I recently ran into this again when noodling with another setting, in which PCs could play dragons who were effectively immortal.  But, seriously, how can you have a first-level immortal being?  I mean, part of the enjoyment of playing an immortal being, as anyone who plays Vampire can tell you, is being able to name-drop from centuries ago.  That would have to imply, though, that the immortal has centuries worth of knowledge.  Even if a big chunk of that is forgotten, and another big chunk is just obsolete now, that still leaves a few big chunks that really ought to impact play.  How can you make that fair to both the immortal PC and the other PCs?

Can You Solve For Elf?

There is one rather odd solution, that involves redefining some of how elves work.  Define that their biology really does reinforce this sort of learning curve.  It takes them a hundred years to learn what humans do in twenty.  Then, shortly after they reach maturity, elves enter a period during which they can learn skills at a radically accelerated rate, roughly equivalent to humans.  This period only lasts about twenty years.  After that, their learning slows to something like a 10 to 1 ratio.  Every couple of centuries, they experience another burst of learning potential. 

During these periods of intense learning, most elves leave the stagnant security of their villages for the faster-paced human world.  Most humans will only ever encounter an elf who is on one of these walkabout-type journeys.  They attempt to compress as much training and practical experience in as they can (and nothing gives you compressed practical experience like adventuring!).  Once that time passes, they retreat from the human world again.

This not only explains why elves risk their ridiculously long lives on frivolous adventuring, and why they can level at the same rate as humans, but also helps with that previous issue about elves affecting history.  Elves really are nearly ignorant of human history between their walkabouts.  And even when they are on walkabout, they are much more interested in learning than in teaching.  If a human wants to hear about a prior time in history, he has to travel to one of the hidden elven villages and convince one of the elves that was on walkabout then to talk about it.  Which is roughly as much work and as reliable as finding a book written by a contemporary human.


  1. Awesome article!

    I never really thought about how badly elves can screw up chronology, I think you've hit the nail on the head saying it should be as difficult as finding a relevant book :D

    I always had a bit of a soft spot for the way elves are handled in WFRP, I'm not sure if it's still incorporated but there was an old white dwarf article which said they basically dump large sections of their memory every night, deciding what they hang onto and what they discard, obviously being such a self centered race they tend to discard anything which doesn't paint themselves in a good light :D

  2. That is a pretty neat idea and a good way to explain adventurer elves.

    Does this means that the rest of their lives elves are very risk adverse though? All, "I am shocked I survived that dragon, now to live in comfort and safety for the next century."

  3. Thank you!

    That's an interesting angle. I'm not entirely sure how that would work, from a practical perspective. Would the elf possibly not remember an NPC she'd met, because she didn't think he'd be important at the time? Or does it tend to work on a FIFO policy, where she's mostly dumping stuff that happened twenty years ago? Hmm, does that mean the elf could choose to simply forget an entire relationship after a painful breakup? That would have some very interesting role-play possibilities.

  4. Personally, I think that elves would be risk averse. They have so much life at risk. Then again, I'm sure mayflies would think the same of us. Living a very long life in boring, tepid safety is probably not very appealing.

    I do think, though, that elves who are between their walkabouts would be at a severe disadvantage in a human-paced world. They would actually be incapable of adjusting to such simple changes as new construction in the city. Having to meet new people on a regular basis would be fairly terrifying. That's the primary reason they retreat to their mysterious, hidden cities, and why they are so isolationist.

  5. I've seen a couple of authors take the "not really in our world" approach.

    Elizabeth Moon in the Paksennarion books had the elves live in the "Ladysforest", which seems to have some geographic relationship to Lyona and yet not be the same thing. They sometimes visit, but really have nothing much to do with humans on an ongoing basis. They do know humans from previous generations ("it was always uncomfortable talking to him after he told me he watched my grandmother playing as a small girl... but he did say she was pretty") but tend to get only glimpses of the human world. Time between the two realms interacts oddly, also.

    Thomas K. Martin in his _Delgroth_ trilogy had the elven lands enchanted as well. Elves could live for a long time if the stayed in their homeland, or a more human-like time if they were in the wider world. Time behaved oddly in the elven homeland also, so that added to the 'elven longevity'.

    Mike Stackpole in _Once a Hero_ had the elves long-lived (somewhat more than 500 years -- the story is set in two periods 500 years apart and there were characters present in both, though they aged quite a bit). They had little to do with the human lands, initially considering humans to be little more than mildly dangerous animals they crushed last time they were out. They otherwise spent most of their time in their own lands and ignored the humans. Elves were generally more competent than most humans, but as I recall felt less... time pressure? I was going to say 'ambition' but that isn't quite right, they just tend to be okay with things taking a long time.

  6. Isolating the elves to a distant land is certainly one way to solve the issue with their effect on history and knowledge. It's certainly the tack I've taken with the Fae in my current urban fantasy game, in which one of the characters is 1000 years old but has only visited the mortal world maybe three times in that span (he is now exiled there).

    The temporal distortion effect is not something I ever want to deal with in an RPG again. Three utter failures was enough for me.

    Of course, it still fails to address the learning curve issue. It also doesn't really address the role-playing challenges of portraying someone for whom the entire campaign is a short break from their normal life. It's definitely one of the places where the concept works far better in the tightly controlled environment of a novel than in an RPG.

    It also makes a setting that is, for me, unsatisfying. One of the core races in the book lives in a distant realm and almost never interacts with any of the other races? That's bizarre. One has to wonder, then, what makes them a core race. I *could* build a setting/campaign that would justify all of that. Especially if it was nigh-apocalyptic, and the elf PC was the designated hero of the elven people. Or part of the setting conceit is that, just before the campaign begins, the barrier between the human and elven lands has collapsed, and one of the themes is the interaction between these radically different peoples. But, doing so tends to really put a lampshade on just how distorting the presence of a long-lived culture can be.

  7. Well to be honest I used to use it so I could convienently forget all the alignment infractions the party was forcing on me :D

    I think it did mention in the article that an elf simply wont remember someone unless they're either especially attractive, interesting, or they see them every day over a long period.

    I've just been flicking through some of my Kingdoms of Kalamar books, and I'm shocked to discover the elves in that only live about 400 years (Im running a game of hack master on Tellene at the moment), doesn't seem right to me only having them live that long though, so Im going to ignore it I think (even if it does solve most of those problems)

  8. Something I have tried at the table, which involves very little remodeling, is to change the idea behind leveling. Instead of "How the hell are you so old and so inexperienced", you can make it a matter of recalling certain information. Getting back into the swing of things.

    An elf might have the info, but seriously can't as quickly recollect as humans can. I don't remember the name of everyone I hung out with in highschool a little over 10 years ago. My Grandfather, who still has his faculties, has to think a minute to place the birth order if his siblings. Ask an elf who King So-and-So was, & he'll take days trying to remember where he lived all those decades ago.

    I also like the idea of reacquiring skills. Happens in video games all the time. Maybe 50 years ago said elf was a pretty fearsome warrior, but now "rusty" is an understatement. You ever play some sport/game you used to be really good at after just a couple years off? I think we all get the point.

  9. Okay, the gradual remembering works to a certain extent. It certainly makes the learning curve make more sense.

    Except, that pretty much implies that every elven PC is coming out of retirement. Or is a civilian that is trying to remember the lessons from university. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but is a consideration, IMHO.

    Also, making it so that elves have roughly the same memory capacity as humans seems to undercut the whole point of making them long-lived. I want elves to be tossing around stories like Duncan McLeod and Ramirez. The human wizard talks about the Golden Age when Mordenkainen ruled the Wizard's Council. The elven wizard reminisces about having tea with him. That's the fun of being nigh-immortal.

  10. Marshall, I use a similar solution in my games. The Elves encountered in my gaming world are exiles from the Fae Court, an ultra-tyrannical Kingdom in the Summerlands ruled by an immortal, amoral Goddess.
    Given how rare the elven race is in the mortal world, elves rarely gather in sufficient numbers to begin a viable society. Most die miserable, lonely deaths; having outlived generations of human friends, lovers and half-elven children. Exile, for an elf, is a truly horrific punishment. One the EverQueen uses to maintain an Iron Grip on her Court.

  11. So, how many elf PCs would you expect to see, then? I mean, it is an awesome setting element. But it would make any elf PC a subject of conversation, and a party with two elves would be nearly unique.

  12. Nice article! I'm the guy who linked it and commented in French.

    It got me interested because my sci-fi setting has "space elves", who live a millennium or so. I've toyed with many of the items you mention here and the difference in evolution between the more advanced, but slow-moving and very conservatives "space elves" and the fast-pacing Earth human civilization is the basis for the setting.

  13. Hey Marshall,

    awesome post, it's one of those thoughts that you know it's important but rarely take the time to actually try to find an answer to it. Very nice indeed.

    In my previous settings I used different strategies to adress the issue. First, I decided that elves in my world would age at the same rate as humans for their first 20-or-so years. After that their aging speed gradually decrease and they stabilise around 30 years old in apparence. That adress the issue of the 1 lvl elf PC having no experience or so.

    For the second part, I used to say that elves were a people of oral tradition, not writing anything down ( or not much anyway ), thus making the diffusion of events and history but also the loss of this history much quicker than in any civilization based on written tradition. It would explain that some history ( that might have been not relevant, or not interesting at the time for the elves ) would be lost because no one really took care of spreading it because it was boring or just plain wrong and was kind of taboo, or just because only a small village noticed and no one reported it afterwards. There's lot of reasons.

    I know that still not adress the issue of "why the fuck an elf would risk their centuries of potential lifespan just to go adventure" or "why do we not have cohorts of centuries old level 100 elves" ... Well ... "Shut up it's magic", that's why :p

  14. @Alias - Glad I could shake some things loose for you. Have you thought of solutions that I haven't? I'm working on a follow-up post that synthesizes some of the awesome ways other people have solved this problem.

    @vaeylon - My problem with the "oral tradition" solution is that elves are also supposed to intellectuals in most settings. Wizards, sages, bards, etc. Now, I could see that being explained away as the humans simply having more awe of the quantity of knowledge the elves have than is warranted. Because elves have so much ancient knowledge and have an innate knack for magic (and tend to be a bit poncy), humans assume that they are intellectual.

  15. @ Marshall

    In my games they're are rare as hen's teeth. In my current expeditionary game I have 26 players signed up (though only about 14 have made it to a session so far) and so far we have only one elf and one half-elf. That's pretty much the cap on those two races for the party at present. However, they're castaways on an island which the Mycenean Gods use to imprison those who have offended them. So I might raise my usual cap of 1 elf PC per campaign given the increased likelihood of bumping into an elf prisoner on the island.

  16. @Brian - Then I have to ask, why are they a core race? If they are as frequently encountered as medusa and lammasu, why are they even allowed as standard PCs?