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

Not a day goes by where someone doesn’t voice age-related skepticism while 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), wondering just how it is that their character is many times older than some human warlord or archmage and yet has only a fraction of the experience.

In this article, we’re going to look at how longevous races actually develop as well as 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.

Physical Development vs. Maturity

Ever since the release of the Third Edition supplements Races of Stone and Races of the Wild, 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 Fifth Edition Player’s Handbook—they mature at about the same time as humans.1 There are no 40-year-old elven toddlers running around, and teenage gnomes are well past their swaddling clothes.

Youth & Adulthood

Where many people become confused is in respect of adulthood. Just like among human cultures on Earth, adulthood is a nuanced concept that transcends physical development. Consider that in the United States, one might reach full growth at 16, but can’t obtain a credit card or enlist in the armed forces until the age of 18 and be legally prohibited from drinking alcohol until the age of 21. And even adulthood doesn’t mean one isn’t still young. Only a handful of publicly traded companies have CEOs in their 20s, and no one under the age of 35 can be elected President of the United States.

It follows that races in D&D are similarly nuanced. Gnomes, for example, usually “settle down into an adult life” sometime before the age of 40,2 rather than reach physical maturity at the age of 40. A gnome adventurer is most likely to be in their 20s or 30s, as they haven’t yet started to face societal pressure to settle down and start a family or assume responsibility in the community. Gnomes in their 40s and 50s, on the other hand, are likely to already have roots in the community that make it harder for them to answer the call to adventure.

Likewise, dwarves and elves “mature at the same rate as humans”,3 but are considered young for many decades after reaching full growth. During this time, there are fewer expectations of them, making it a prime period of their lives to go off on an adventure—far more so than when everyone is expecting them to be establishing roots and giving back to society. Adventurers of this age are potentially not uncommon, but it’s likely they’ve already spent most of their lives in this lifestyle, rather than are simply starting out.

Rite of Passage

Many members of longevous races likely start adventuring early 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 regular 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;4 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 to live through the entire reign of Queen Elizabeth II (and her father) before your peers recognize that your opinion was worth listening to!

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. 

Sample Backstory: For Old Times’ Sake

Caelynna Mellaryn is a respected member of her village. Well into her fourth century, she is keenly aware that her reflexes are growing slower, though she remains as healthy and fit as she was hundreds of years ago. An adventurer in her youth, she hung up her sword shortly before her hundredth winter and settled down into a more respectable lifestyle, marrying an artist from a nearby village with whom she raised twenty-three children. Their life was good until, one autumn, a great storm toppled part of their treetop home, sending her husband plummeting to an untimely death. 

Grief-stricken, Caelynna gathered her husband’s ashes and set off for a sacred mountain where the couple had gone on pilgrimmage long ago seeking divine blessing to help them conceive their first child. The journey had become a tradition each time they sought to conceive again, and they had decided long ago that their ashes should be scattered from its peaks. It was the first time in over thirty years that Caelynna would make the journey, and the old roads to the mountain were no longer as safe as they used to be. So, clad in her old mail, now a little tighter around the hips, and girt with a sword that seems much heavier than it was when she had wielded it adroitly against all manner of evil, the elf set out on her first real adventure in centuries. 

After an arduous journey of several days and great danger, Caelynna at last ascended the mountain and released her husband’s ashes. But her journey was not yet over, and while making her way back home she found the way blocked by a warband of orcs, forcing her to take a lengthy detour around the mountain. To her great surprise, this path brought her to a flourishing human fiefdom, not yet a century old but already with many generations of history. 

A day’s stay in the village became a week as the residents gladly offered their hospitality to this new visitor and her seemingly inexhaustible supply of stories, recipes, fencing and archery techniques (though she was woefully out of practice herself), minor spells, and other sources of delight. After centuries of living in a small cluster of forest villages, Caelynna was reminded of the excitement of her youth, of overcoming new challenges and meeting new people. The flicker of an old flame began to stir, and when the growing orc threat placed the village in danger, Caelynna was ready to help get to the bottom of it. Just like old times.

Update (July 28, 2018): 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, including in ways that completely contradict the Player’s Handbook!

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.

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Feature Image: “Warlock” by Dai Nguyen

  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 36
  3. PHB 20; PHB  23
  4. PHB 20, not meaning that they are physically children until that age, but that they are just young. Again, youth is relative; when compared to a 300-year-old great-grandsire, even a 100-year-old elf is comparatively young.

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