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Elves again..


I saw several threads recently on elves, and I thought i'd share my spin. This was originally aimed at DnD players, but i think you could apply a lot of things in this article to Elves in a more general sense. I also have on on Dwarves, and I'm planning to write more.

The Elves have their own labours and their own sorrows, and they are little concerned with the ways of hobbits, or of any other creatures upon earth.” – JRR Tolkein

― Gildor Inglorion in The Fellowship of the Ring, “Three is Company

Foreward and fair warning.
The ideas presented below are my own opinions, shaped by forty years of gaming, running games, writing fiction and being an avid fantasy fan in all it’s wondrous shapes and guises. Your opinions may differ and that is wonderful. All I wish to do is present my own ideas and see if any of them strike a chord, or get you thinking in new ways about our amazing hobbies.

I adore tabletop RPGS, I have done since I was a wee thing picking up my first RPGs, Traveler and Runequest from the old Games Workshop in Manchester. You know, back in the day when GW sold other people’s games and were owned by legends like Ian Lilvingstone. But the game that really inspired me to begin writing my own campaigns and made me a decent GM was MERP, Middle Earth Role-Playing. In fact, my online name I use a lot, ‘Jedellion’, was the name of my first MERP character, a Half-Elven Mage.

Tolkein had some very distinct ideas about Elves and, in many ways defined the current ‘shape’ of elves in a lot of fantasy fiction. The long lived, or even immortal creatures of the forest, graceful, wise and skilled. But over the years, something has happened to elves. They have become… dilluted. In fact, I would dare to say that, for many players of modern TTRPGs such as DnD 5e, Elves are seen more as humans with different statline when planing your path of best fit with a class template.

What has got lost is the sense of wonder, the wisdom, the benefits and drawbacks living a long life would have. With a lifespan of several hundred years, just think about the different ways you would look at the world, even if you were a human living that long. It gives you time. Time to learn, time to think and reflect. Patience would be inevitable, boredom a constant enemy.

I adore Ginny Di, and recently in one of her videos she presented three elf NPCs to use in tabletop campaigns. I would argue, with the utmost respect to Ginny, that these NPCs could have been human rather than elven and it would have made literally zero difference to the NPCs in terms of character, personality or outlook. This is one my my big hangups with elven characters in a lot of modern fantasy, what makes them elven? Bear in mind these NPCs are tons of fun, but they just don’t seem very…. elvish.

If you are designing an elven character, or introducing elves to your fantasy world, spend a little time thinking about the culture of elves. If you live so long, how might things be different? They have so much time to use they could afford to use some on what would seem like senseless acts to shorter lived races. Imagine spending a decade watching a tree grow, or taking years to plan the perfect home, or devoting many years to perfecting a skill, only to change your mind and work on something else. You would have many lifetimes to devote to your dreams.

Do your elves have towns in traditional sense, do they have commerce, coins and shops or are they things they adopt to better deal with other races? What do their homes look like? Are they built into trees, or grown using magic to shape the forest to pleasing forms? Do they form large communities at all, or is the forest filled with small enclaves of family units? Imagine how large your family could be, even with limited births. You would have many generations alive at the same time. Imagine being able to sit and have a cup of wine with your great, great, great, grandmother who still looks only few years older than yourself.

How would this shape an elf’s upbringing? How would your culture interact with others. Would they view humans with amusement, wonder or concern? To Elves it might seem like humans breed and spread like locusts, devouring the land and pushing the elves further into their forests.

So you want to create an elf character, great! But here are some things to maybe think about:

  1. Did your character grow up among their own kind? If so you have to build up from that cultural perspective; growing up with a patient, slow moving lifestyle. How did it make them feel? comfortable? welcome? or did it make them restless and eager to escape?
  2. What made them leave? was it just that restless spirit, or do they have a goal? a job?, a task?, a desire?
  3. How do they interact with other races? The world beyond is fast paced, almost frantic. The short lived races have to cram so much into so little time. You took a hundred years just to be considered an adult! and you have another 600+ years to look forwards to.
  4. How much do you know about the world? Are you recently joined to the rest of the world, what concepts are new and alien to you. Imagine the fun to be had playing with naivity, or sheer cluelessness over some concepts.
    So I give three gold coins to this woman and she gives me a fine dagger, she will then use those coins to buy more steel to make another dagger? Would it not be easier to give the lady some steel and not the tiny gold coins? it’s seems a waste of time for creatures that have to little time to waste.

How would elves live and love with others? How painful would it be to watch your non-elven friends grow old, wither and die while you still look young? Would this make you more, or less likely to form such close bonds? What of love? Do you risk your heart with a short lived companion?

As a character option Elves have tons of advantages depending on the game system. In DnD it’s things like free cantrips, higher dex etc. But where are the cultural backgrounds that inform character development? How does a long lived child of an alien race end up a hedge witch in a human town?

So if you are considering playing an elf, consider these factors, how do you see elves fitting into the world, and start there. Think about your cultures, how they live, where they live, what drives them, anduse that to inform your characters.

Other thoughts

For some interesting takes on elves, I reccomend the following:

The Hound and the Falcon Trilogy by Judith Tarr – an elf raised by monks in Crusade era Europe.

Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry, Norse inspired lios alfar (light elves) and swart alfar (dark elves)

Elizabeth Moon’s trilogy The Deed of Paksenarrion, and the sequels… Tolkeinish, but still good.

An interesting article on Elven outlook.
Roleplaying an Immortal Elf


Huh, I could see that as an article on the site's front page.

Hmm... let's see, there's a lot of fun stuff to be had playing around with the mythic-ness of Elves like that, but as always it's a matter of doing what's right for your story. For all of flaws of elves as pointy eared humans they're still eminently relatable. If the goal is to focus on the wonder and immortality of elves then that could affect how readers relate to them. I'm not saying it neccessary will, but that's something that writers have to decide for themselves. Sometimes you just want a pointy eared pretty boy and there's nothing wrong with that.

Other things I'd recommend considering when it comes to Elves (or really any race) is whether there's a singular nation of them or multiple, and what's life like for an elf living in a nation whose population is dominated by another race or a nation that's a true melting pot without one singular race dominating it.

As for my own setting the major magic system provides increased longevity and eventually immortality. While that particular aspect isn't as important for elves it does mean that they’ve got equally long lived peers among the other races.
I agree that this could very well be an article.

It reminds me of a novel I wrote. I started writing the main character as a dwarf (because reasons...). About halfway through the story I came to the conclusion that my dwarves were actually just short humans, with no real reason of being dwarves. So, I decided to change it and simply turn everyone human. Which required surprisingly little changes to the story, other than changing the descriptions of certain places and changing some word choices in dialogue and sayings.

So, I agree with the idea given above. If you're going with other races, then make sure they really are different, and not just short humans, or pretty humans with pointy ears or green humans. They have different values and ideas. Though at the same time (at this is where it gets really hard), mono-cultures don't exist. Not all dwarfs will be grumpy, axewielding ale-quaffers, and not all elves will be aloof esotheric magic wielders.


My "elves" are actually Apsaras(f)/Ghandharvans(m), who are minor Hindu/Buddhist gods of the arts. They don't have pointy ears and are physically indistinguishable from humans, asides from having eyes with white pupils and shimmery irises, 2 to 3 times longer lifespans, and being universally attractive by human standards. So, they're just "better humans", which is a trope that I decided to deconstruct in my Buddhist cosmology-inspired world.

Humans (or aliens or some really, really good dogs) from the "earthly realms" reincarnate into apsaras (and other minor deities) if they have accumulated enough karma to ascend to the next plane of existence. It's also known that apsaras that they can potentially reincarnate back into a human (or worse) if something goes wrong in this life. So pretty much all apsaras are living an existential crisis where they know that they're only better humans, and the vast majority never visit the "earthly realms" (which suck anyways by their standards) because of it.