Last time, in the final installment of my discussion of the Four Principles for Game World Design, I discussed the non human races of D&D and how the demi-human races in particular failed to stand out as truly authentic cultures. In a follow up to that article I shall attempt to outline two elven culture groups, one wood elf and one high elf, which continue to reflect the game mechanics of the race, yet are as distinct, complex, and interesting as real-world human cultures. First though, for this article, I would like to consider some basic features of elves in general and some issues with their presentation in the current edition.
There are two elven qualities that I believe provide a profound insight into elven culture in general. The first of these, the longevity of elves, has little effect on game mechanics, but the second trait, the race’s proficiency with a number of particularly effective martial weapons, is both culturally and mechanically profound. Let’s start by discussing the effects of a long life span on elven culture and how it might force us to rethink some fundamental game mechanics assumptions.
The Elven Competence Conundrum
To really get this process going, let’s start with the feature of elves that most distinguishes them from other races: their life spans. A long life expectancy might not have much of an effect on the actual game mechanics, but I will not be the first fan of fantasy to argue that living for hundreds of years instead of for just a few decades must by necessity differentiate elves from humans in some fundamental ways. This change doesn’t have to be reflected in the game mechanics, but it might significantly affect the way DMs and players interpret those mechanics and describe their effects in the game.
First off, and I’ve seen this point brought up numerous times, it really doesn’t make sense for elves to be low level or even just ordinary folks. This isn’t just a factor of their longevity, but also a result of the kinds of things we generally think of elves doing. Elves don’t have peasants. I can’t recall a description of an elf that was a regular, common, ordinary fellow. I can hardly imagine an elf doing laundry or baking bread, much less grubbing in the dirt. Elves are mysterious and experienced, and each one is a repository of ancient knowledge and skill. I think the race loses something if it gets brought down to the mundane. It’s not too much of a stretch to argue that all elves probably have character class levels. Elves just have class!
And that realization is a great starting point for re-imagining their culture. Elves aren’t just regular folks. Each individual elf has a deep pool of talents and skills, acquired over hundreds of years, including class levels or else (for NPCs) equivalent actions and special traits. How could such a society exist? Don’t they need commoners to grow vegetables and wash their socks, just like everyone else?
I have two possible explanations for this seeming discrepancy, both of which might easily apply at the same time.
First off, elves might do many basic things, like getting their food and making their tools, very differently. Instead of growing a crop by plowing, sowing and reaping every year, a wood elf might have planted hundreds of trees and wild patches of herbs through the forest she calls home. She doesn’t farm; she gathers fruit from the trees she planted and husbanded through centuries; she hunts from a herd of deer that she has followed and culled for decades; she makes her own finely crafted tools, each one fitted for her hands and hers alone. She is self-sufficient and independent but not at all primitive or isolated. Other elves around her might trade with her if she has better nuts and berries but needs a bit more venison. I’m imagining here a hunter-gatherer society that has evolved to a pinnacle unmatched by humans and other races, but that seems a perfect fit with the elven race.
Second, a high elf family could easily use magic to accomplish most of those pesky mundane tasks. After all, every one of them has at least a touch of magic. Other high elves might employ servants, lesser creatures who depend upon the elf as their lord and protector and provide all the basic necessities in return for his protection or even just to appease his potential wrath.
Both of these paths, the self-reliant and the noble master, seem eminently suited to the elven personality — and could be easily combined. Perhaps the woodland huntress is also served by a primitive group of goblins who share her forest, whom she has trained though generations to do her bidding. From them she has selectively eliminated the most unsavory and antisocial characteristics. They treat her as a woodland goddess. They worship and fear her, bringing her presents of gathered vegetables and rude handicrafts.
In all of these examples, the elves described are likely to acquire levels of character classes as a part of their regular way of life. Perhaps the huntress gains a few levels of ranger in her first few centuries, and then also acquires some levels in druid as she becomes more in touch with the forest in which she lives and a vital part of its ecosystem.
Of course, following this logic leads naturally to another puzzle: Why aren’t all elves 20th level heroes? Well, first off, I would imagine that elves do take their time – they’ve got plenty of it – while gaining experience. For instance, a party of elven adventurers might be more inclined to take on groups of lower-level opponents than to seek out challenges that seriously threaten them. They’ve got decades to work on their class advancement, after all. Why take on a challenge that is just as likely to kill you as to hone your skills? Chipping away at it a bit at a time is the elven way. Leave the crazy risk-taking for the humans and other short-lived races. Also, they might well reach a point where they really can’t find many challenges that do in fact provide the opportunity to test themselves and learn. The world isn’t teeming with ancient dragons just waiting to give experience to top-tier adventurers. Eventually, elven heroes might run out of things to fight, or at least have to wait a century or two for a decent threat to arise.
A second reason elves aren’t all epic-leveled is that elves are not, as a rule, specialists. They are dilettantes by nature and by preference. It would probably be terribly boring to just devote all your centuries to one path or talent. It makes much more sense to try being a wizard for a little while, perhaps while also developing your gardening skills, improving your lute-playing, and studying the migration habits of local birds. When magic becomes dull, you then hone your martial skills while also mastering a range of culinary arts involving honey. When you consider that elves are often depicted as having somewhat flighty temperaments, this sort of pattern makes sense. Elves, being chaotic by nature, revere individuality and personal choice. Elves are encouraged from childhood to let their inner “freak flag” fly and be special little rainbows. They will follow their own path, probably multiple paths, often at the same time, with lots of encouragement and training. Many of the things they have dabbled in may never be represented on a character sheet because they’re not part of the “game balance engine,” but that shouldn’t stop a player of an elf character from writing down that she knows all of those migration patterns and tons of honey-based recipes. Elves are really good at doing many things, but because they don’t focus or specialize as much as other races do, they may gain class-related talents at a much slower rate than do those short-lived non-elf adventurers who live so briefly that they ignore the birds, the sunrise, and other little things to master one critical thing before they die.
With regard to elven children, one assumes they must be be fairly rare; if they were not, elven population growth would be staggering. According to the PHB, elves don’t become adults until they are a hundred years old. That’s a long adolescence. Imagine the elven helicopter parent taking a century to prepare his or her offspring to go out into the world. That kid is not going to be first-level. She is going to have a few levels, probably in a couple of classes. This helps explain the elven penchant for multiclassing and fighter-mages. Their chaotic nature makes them changeable, but their lifespan also gives them the chance to master multiple skills.
Still, there has to be a way to explain low-level elven characters, even if you shift your thinking and make all NPC elves high-level. Youth is the standard excuse. I’ve seen the argument that elves must learn more slowly because they have longer life spans, like a baby horse can walk minutes after birth and is fully grown in a couple of years, but human children take a year to walk and nearly two decades to reach maturity. So, the theory goes, it will take elven children a century to learn what an adult human can do. But that argument doesn’t work for me. It makes elven children pathetic simpletons who take decades to learn to walk. Right there, for me, it fails the smell test; it stinks. The even bigger problem with that argument is that, if elves develop slowly, then adult elves should be gaining levels only with glacial slowness. To accept that logic is to invite the argument that elves should have their own, tougher, experience point table.
My own solution to this dilemma, within my campaigns, is to encourage elven PCs as replacements for characters who have died, or as new characters in higher level parties. I like them to start out with a few levels under their belt and to be able to step into that elven mystique that is so essentially a part of their nature.
Still, I don’t want to forbid a player from running an elf at low level. I once hit on a tactic when I was assigned a low-level elf in a pickup game. I played him as rusty, out-of-shape, and out-of-practice from having been working as a bowyer for decades. He hadn’t been in the field in years and so needed some time to re-hone his skills. When he went up levels, he wasn’t learning new skills, he was remembering old ones. “Oh yea,” he’d say, “that’s how you shoot two arrows at the same time. I can’t believe it took me so long to remember!” (Note: Greggor Grip-Wight, an NPC introduced earlier on this site, is built according to a similar remembering-rather-than-learning concept.)
It was a great character hook, but it also struck me as a solid compromise with the problem of essential elven competence. This is an example of a “flavor hack,” a narrative explanation that recontextualizes a game mechanic or rule without breaking it. This approach allows for the elven PC to still start out at low or even first-level and yet gain in experience at the same rate as the rest of the party. The rusty elf is just regaining the skills he hasn’t used in a century or more, and it takes a bit of time and practice to get those reflexes back and train back up to his old level of proficiency.
No Elf is a Noncombatant
Another interesting feature of both the wood and high elf race packages is that they give proficiency with long and short sword and long and short bow. This is a nice bonus, to be sure, and reflects the racial weapons and the traditional pantheon of the elves. But I think it can also be used to explain a vital feature of elven culture as well.
Elves, in most fantasy worlds, are outnumbered, often dramatically so, by any number of nearby nasty monster races and also by humans and other potential threats. I’ve already argued that even “normal” elves are likely to be higher level than most races’ rank-and-file fighters, so that helps to explain how they might survive. Still, I think the racial weapon ability can indicate a fundamental cultural feature that also helps explain why elves survive and thrive in a hostile, monster-filled world.
We’ve already established that elves have long childhoods, during which they receive extra training. Some of that training is in the standard elf weapons of sword and bow. These weapons actually make a lot of sense (though rapier is probably a better fit than longsword) for a race with a standard +2 dexterity bonus. Shortswords can be wielded in each hand, adding Dexterity to attacks and damage (at least for the primary sword). Bows naturally use dexterity.
In fact, this leads me to another, combat related point–about elves and why they might almost universally have class levels–that dovetails nicely with their heritage of martial training. Elves live long enough that it will actually be quite rare for them to die from old age. If you live long enough you are eventually going to have an accident or a war or some other life-threatening calamity come along. Some short-lived races might forget this, neglecting combat skills and training, but every elf will have survived a war and faced the possibility of a violent death at some point in the first few hundred years of existence. Knowing this, elves don’t worry about dying of old age; they fear death by accident and violence. They can’t do much about the first, but they can all be prepared to fight when, not if, it becomes necessary to do so.
Additionally, elves remain fit and able to contribute to the fight for a long portion of their already long lives. Even if they only mature at 100 years of age, they maintain a youthful vigor and vitality for centuries. Old, veteran elves who have fought in a dozen campaigns are still physically fit. Ancient elves with centuries under their belts still remain vital and active, able to defend their homelands. This means that every elf, man and woman, old and young, is a pretty solid potential combatant. Just as elves don’t have peasants or commoners, they also don’t have noncombatants.
Elves can fight, survive, and win because every elf is a soldier.
This actually makes a lot of sense and can be seen in other outnumbered societies in hostile territories. Think of Israel and its standard military service for men and women. Elves have that, which is probably also another reason why they don’t have the same kinds of gender hang-ups other races might have. Sure, their main god is androgynous, but the fact that every elven woman is solidly capable of defending herself is going to really put a damper on elven misogyny.
This also likely means that, for elves, every war is a total war. They can bend their entire society toward the fight and they will certainly have had time to stockpile supplies. The cantrips of high elves and the stealth abilities of wood elves will also give them some pretty awesome advantages in the kind of hit and run, ambush-style tactics they are likely to employ. They are likely to use the same sorts of tactics that other highly outnumbered but more militarily competent cultures might. I can imagine an elven culture being much like that of classical Sparta. They are all highly trained and individually more powerful than their average opponents. They could conceivably hold much larger territories than their numbers might suggest or even, like Sparta, have entire subservient cultures doing their dirty work. Come to think of it, that plays right back into the idea that no elves are peasants.
Einolar and Kuehlan
Next time, I’ll expand on these observations about how the elven racial traits might affect the culture and the in-game expression of elven characters. To do that, I’ll describe two different elven cultures, one wood elf and one high elf, built around the traits of longevity and combat aptitude noted in this article and also on other extrapolations from the basic description. I’ll leave you with a brief teaser for each.
Einolar – The Wood Wardens – A Wood Elf Culture
The Einolar (eye-NOH-lar) are masters of the woodland realms they protect and preserve. A deeply animistic culture that reveres nature and the seasons rather than any sort of personified deities, they have raised hunting and gathering to art forms. Having spent millennia selecting and grafting trees and plants to create botanical wonders, they enjoy a rich cornucopia of foods and a plethora of raw materials upon which they can practice their passion for crafts and folk art. They live in family and tribal clans deciding what little policy they pursue by democratic consensus. They hold dominion over huge regions of sparsely populated forest, using a defense-in-depth strategy to preserve both their own lives and their sacred woods.
Kuehlan – The Appointed – A High Elf Culture
The Kuehlan (QUELL-an) are the hereditary noble core of a vast poly-racial nation state. Their rule is mostly benevolent, and allows some participation from the other races in their domain by way of a secondary elected assembly. They are particularly close to an even larger group of half-elves descended from the survivors of a decimated human realm that sought sanctuary within their borders millennia ago. Yet, the status and dominance of the high elven Kuehlan over the nation are guaranteed by their magical and martial excellence, which defend the borders of their realm against any and all threats.†