Roleplaying Long-Lived Races

“Wait, you’re only 21? Geez, I’m 43, why the heck am I letting you call me “kid”?”
“It’s not the years, kid, it’s the mileage.” 

— Pompey and Nail, Order of the Stick #258

Ever since the 3rd edition supplements Races of Stone and Races of the Wild came out, it has been an established fact that races such as elves and gnomes do not take centuries to grow to physical maturity. In fact—and as explicitly made clear in the 5th edition Player’s Handbook—they mature at about the same time as humans.¹ We could rant all day about people making 100-year-old 1st-level elves (as opposed to elves in their 20s through 90s adventuring to gain worldly experience in order to declare themselves adults) or 40-year-old 1st-level gnomes (as opposed to gnomes in their 20s and 30s living a life of adventure before settling into an adult life), but we promised ourselves that we wouldn’t. Instead, we’re going to talk about some motivations you might consider when roleplaying characters who live for centuries.

But before we get into those suggestions, we’d like to quickly let you know that we have a Patreon. If you enjoy this article, please consider becoming a patron to support our efforts. Your patronage helps us continue to produce new content for everyone’s enjoyment.

Now, on to some things you might consider when making a young member of a long-lived race.

Rite of Passage

Many members of long-lived races may start adventuring in order to earn their name (as with elves), prove themselves worthy to assume the clan’s mantle (as with dwarves), or to otherwise become mature, rather than starting up an adventuring career when they’ve entered the equivalent of their middle age. Consider what kinds of trials your character may be expected to endure before becoming an adult. For races with reduced lifespans, this often involves leading a successful hunt, becoming a journeyman in a trade, or some other milestone that demonstrates their grasp of something that defines adult life. For longer-lived races, perhaps they need to master a trade, or perhaps make a pilgrimage to a distant homeland from which their people made an exodus long ago, or something else that might be considered a once-in-a-lifetime achievement for a member of a younger race.

The Meaning of Life

Consider the perspective that many longer-lived races would gain from their longevity. A dwarf is considered young until the age of 50;² long enough to see most humans they meet grow old and settle into retirement, or maybe even die as they become unable to fight off fevers and disease as they grow older (really, without modern medicine a lifespan of 60 is asking for a lot). An elf would see the rise and fall of entire eras before becoming an adult! Imagine having had to live through the entire reign of Queen Elizabeth II (and her father) before your peers recognized that you had wisdom to add to a serious discussion. Now imagine actually having lived through those 70 years, and possibly having ten times that long yet to go if you eke out every year you can.

Even a relatively young member of a longer-lived race would start to appreciate this. Imagine you are a dwarf who has adventured for 10 years with a group of humans, watching them grow noticeably older while, by human standards, you’ve barely aged a day. How do you think it would affect your life philosophy to see friends change so quickly? How would this impact—or even shape—your culture?

Knows Everything and Nothing

Taught by centuries-old sages growing up, a young member of a long-lived race may think that they are better than their companions. Some may consider such associations to be along the same lines as 19th-century anthropologists, observing “savage” cultures up close. Don’t forget the roleplaying opportunities that could arise from such interactions. It could be a great character-building moment when the hubris of the haughty elf is checked by a “lowly” human, or when they learn through the deeds of their “lesser” companions the true meaning behind words of wisdom they’ve learned to recite from venerated elders. Perhaps the elf learns from their human friend how to accept that other races produce worthy specimens; or perhaps your character simply considers this particular dwarf to be an exception among their kind. Don’t be afraid to invert the old trope that elves know everything; being wrong can be a fruitful experience that helps your character to grow.

Putting It All Together

Every race in the Player’s Handbook becomes physically mature enough to adventure somewhere between their late teens and early 20s. Waiting for an elf or a dwarf to stop being ‘young’ is to give up some of the most interesting years of your character’s life and gloss over the formative period of their lives where they learn who they are. While there is nothing stopping you from making your 1st-level character a 50-year-old dwarf or a century-old elf, their motivations would have to be different than a younger adventurer. At this point, you’re more like Bilbo Baggins departing the Shire at the age of 50 to stave off ennui than you are the more usual young adventurers like Rand al’Thor (Wheel of Time), Ged (A Wizard of Earthsea) or Tavi (Codex Alera), who learn their place in the world through epic trials.

It’s up to you what you want your character to get out of the campaign, but their age is certainly going to be a determining factor, so consider wisely.

To see how this all works in practice, we have included a sample backstory for an elven wizard for you below.


Sample Backstory: A Mystery of the Ages

Ennil Amanodel, son of the royal house of the elven realm of Brocelian, is ninety-third in line for the Evergreen Throne. Born to a lesser branch of his very extensive family, Ennil spent most of his early years in what he describes as a ‘gilded cage’, surrounded by the empty pomp of aristocracy. His father, not important enough for a position at court, was nonetheless a distinguished negotiator and would occasionally be sent abroad as an ambassador. Those journeys were the highlights of Ennil’s youth, and he revelled in the escape from the burden of elven tradition. 

When Ennil was seventeen, he travelled with his father to negotiate with a human city near Brocelian where the recent discovery of a nearby deposit of gold had raised a border dispute. During the negotiations, the parties surveyed the area and discovered a labyrinthine system of caves that showed evidence of prior occupation by some unknown group. In many of the chambers, breathtaking murals had been carved into the rock face, the subjects and meanings of which defied easy interpretation. While the diplomatic situation kept both parties occupied, Ennil was transfixed on these relics of the past and could not put them from his mind. That night, after sneaking down to examine the murals again, Ennil found the greyscale of his darkvision wanting and mustered magical light to examine the reliefs in full colour. To his surprise, the light revealed beautiful silvery runes. The runes themselves were completely unreadable, and yet staring at them conjured meaning in Ennil’s mind. It became clear that the entire complex was but one piece of a larger puzzle, the purpose of which Ennil could not yet guess. 

Hastening back up to the surface to share his findings, Ennil arrived at the scene of a bloodbath. Under the cover of darkness, a band of orcs had descended on the camp, set on claiming valuables and slaves. What happened next, how he escaped, Ennil can now only recall as a blur of fire and blood, and there are still nights when the memories interrupt his meditation. He returned to Brocelian afterwards to carry his father’s bones to the family crypt and mourn.

In the years that followed, he focused his attention on attempting to solve the mystery of the runes. After collecting many clues about lost civilizations from the greatest of Brocelian’s libraries and learning all he could about magic similar to what he witnessed in the caves, Ennil petitioned his great grandmother, the matriarch of his family branch, to allow him to travel abroad and attempt to solve the mystery. Seeing it as an opportunity for Ennil to grow and become more mature so as to one day declare himself an adult in elven tradition, the woman gave her blessing.

And so, a month after his twenty-sixth birthday, Ennil set out from his homeland for the first time without his father, seeking to make his mark on history. 


Update: Well, it seems that the folks at Wizards of the Coast have gone and done something silly and retconned the official lore for elves. For more than a decade (since Races of the Wild was released in 2005), it has been firmly established (and was part of the lore well before) that elves have been fit to embark on an adventure as early as their mid-20s. Those who have purchased Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, however, may have noticed that the psychology and spirituality of elves has been drastically revised in its pages. Talk to your DM about what is the case for your campaign. If you like the reincarnation and Reflection concepts, we recommend moving the start of adolescence (the First Reflection) to around the age of 10 and the Drawing of the Veil to the middle of the third decade (around 25) so that you don’t have to reconcile these changes with decades of lore and, more importantly, don’t have to deal with the question of why a 100-year-old person who is still physically in their prime would still be a 1st-level character.


Footnotes

¹ “Dwarves mature at the same rate as humans” (PHB 20), “elves reach physical maturity at about the same age as humans” (PHB 23), “Gnomes mature at the same rate as humans” (PHB 36), et cetera.

² PHB 20, not meaning that they are physically children until that age, but that they are just young. This is an important distinction.


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Feature Image: “Warlock” by Dai Nguyen

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