D&D General Does Character Lifespan Even Matter?

CleverNickName

Limit Break Dancing
In just about every D&D edition that I've read or played, I've seen rules for a character's maximum lifespan. Like in 5E, humans live up to X years, elves live up to Y years, and once you hit that limit you are done--game over, no resurrection can help you. Once you hit that limit you go straight to the afterlife, do not pass go, do not collect 200 gold pieces. And in 3rd Edition, you had all of that plus your stats would change as you grew older.

But has this ever been an issue at your table? Has anyone ever taken this into consideration when creating their character? Has your campaign ever run long enough for lifespan to matter? Has a character ever been artificially aged by magic so much that they were worried about their expiration date? Has a player ever deliberately shortened their lifespan (by choosing to play a venerable-aged character) just to get a better Wisdom score (back in 3rd Edition)?

I've been playing for decades, in several different editions, and I've never seen it matter. Not even once, and not even a little bit. I'm wondering if I'm the only one.
 

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CleverNickName

Limit Break Dancing
It mattered for 1st ed Ghosts and some spells and magic items over the years.
Yeah, I remember there was a potion of longevity and a staff of withering in BECM, too. Pretty handy to have, in a world where ghosts could age you just by looking at you!

Have you ever had a character die of old age, though? Or even get close to it?
 

Yeah, I remember there was a potion of longevity and a staff of withering in BECM, too. Pretty handy to have, in a world where ghosts could age you just by looking at you!

Have you ever had a character die of old age, though? Or even get close to it?
No PCs no, but I am a forever DM. So for me, lifespans matter more.
 

Levistus's_Leviathan

5e Freelancer
I've had it actually matter like one time in my 6ish years playing D&D. Once a character's age became negative and they died, and another time a character's age increased so much that they died. Otherwise, it has never come up other than through roleplay and character descriptions.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
For the most part it doesn’t really matter any more than other descriptive details like height, weight, hair, and eye color. It’s just there to enable interactions where the 500 year old elf comically overestimates or underestimates a human’s age, and other such light RP stuff. Maybe if you fight a LOT of ghosts or spend decades at a time on downtime it might come up, but I’d consider those pretty exceptional cases.

I did once run a campaign that was done as a series of flashbacks, each having occurred a decade or so apart. Even then, age only really mattered for roleplay purposes, as different characters’ appearances changed more than others’ from one flashback to the next. But no one was ever at risk of death due to old age.
 

James Gasik

Legend
Supporter
I've had it actually matter like one time in my 6ish years playing D&D. Once a character's age became negative and they died, and another time a character's age increased so much that they died. Otherwise, it has never come up other than through roleplay and character descriptions.
Wild Magic Sorcerers, amirite?
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
But has this ever been an issue at your table?

Once, a long time ago. A GM I played under had two campaigns, both set in Greyhawk, several centuries apart. At one point, when the second campaign was reaching up to "name level", he stopped and thought about the Grey Elf wizard I'd been playing in the first campaign, who had a nominal lifespan of a couple millennia. He decided to start involving that character again (now an archmage) and one other long-lived character from that previous campaign.

Other than that, it matters when considering the role the race plays in the campaign world, and thus some general attitudes likely in characters of the various lineages.
 

It matters somewhat in my game, but mostly for NPCs and far-future concerns for PCs.

That is, our party Bard has, for legitimately only heroic reasons, absorbed a bunch of devilish power originally coming from his powerful devil ancestor on his father's side (identity remains undetermined, but the narrowed options are scary), and also a bunch of demonic power from his now-former-succubus great-grandmother, who is his maternal-line ancestor. As a result, he is now effectively half-human, half-devil, half-demon. (The player likes to joke that he's "broken math," but this whole fiendish-heritage thing does concern him, rather a lot.) As a result of being what is essentially a souped-up cambion, his lifespan has just grown from "several decades" to "multiple centuries and possibly indefinite." That's...a lot to think about.

Elves live to be 2-3 centuries old, dwarves the same or a little less, while most other sapient races don't tend to live past 100 (and that only with excellent medical care, nutrition, etc.--few common folk make it to that age.) So super-long lifespan isn't generally a problem for them.

On the flipside, however, noble genies have lifespans measured in thousands of years rather than decades or even centuries. The eldest tend to become reclusive and retreat from society, however, so it's not clear exactly how old they can get.
 

tetrasodium

Legend
Supporter
I havent seen it matter since the old editionz where you adjusted physical/mdntal stats after middle /old age or whatever it was.

I do occasionally make use of it as a gm to tell players things that their elf(or whatever) would have experienced decades or centuries before when it's convenient to me as gm ut almost never see players try to think that way.
 

Most of the time, it does not. It did in my all elf campaign where adventures were decades and even centuries apart.

It did when haste could age you a year or the touch of ghost (or even it's sight) could.male you an old man/woman.

Yes I have seen characters die of old age and seen the player take the children of the deceased and continue on the family tradition.

But most of these were in 1ed where these thing could matter. In 5ed, nope.
 

James Gasik

Legend
Supporter
So I guess the question is, how do you make it matter, unless you can somehow run a game for many years? You could say that months go by between adventures, for example, and have frequent timeskips, especially in the high levels, but at some point, your Human characters are going to slow down and get grey hair, while the Dwarves are fine and the Elves are still spring chickens.

Meaning you either have to make life-extension magic available, or the players will become annoyed that somehow, their race choice is bringing them closer to an inevitable doom.

Now some might say "well that's fine, it's the advantage of playing an Elf", but I will point out that Elves don't pay anything for their long life. Longevity isn't even spelled out as a ribbon ability of the race. It's something they get for free "because Elves".

The game hasn't been balanced around this for a long time, back when you couldn't use raise dead on Elves. I guess you could make those changes, but by default, without making house rules, how do you make longevity matter?

I'm asking sincerely because I have wrestled with this issue. As a DM, I want to make it matter, but I can't think of a way to do it without unduly punishing a player. Especially since there's always that one odd race with a very short lifespan out there. I don't know if 5e has one, but in previous editions there were things like the Thri-kreen, that are lucky to see more than three decades of life.
 

delericho

Legend
The changes to the ability scores have very occasionally mattered. The maximum lifespan has never been an issue.

But like the height and weight tables (which likewise have never had any meaningful impact), having that information in some form is a good thing, IMO - it's one of those "nods to realism" that helps give the game a bit of grounding at very little cost.
 

Hussar

Legend
In just about every D&D edition that I've read or played, I've seen rules for a character's maximum lifespan. Like in 5E, humans live up to X years, elves live up to Y years, and once you hit that limit you are done--game over, no resurrection can help you. Once you hit that limit you go straight to the afterlife, do not pass go, do not collect 200 gold pieces. And in 3rd Edition, you had all of that plus your stats would change as you grew older.

But has this ever been an issue at your table? Has anyone ever taken this into consideration when creating their character? Has your campaign ever run long enough for lifespan to matter? Has a character ever been artificially aged by magic so much that they were worried about their expiration date? Has a player ever deliberately shortened their lifespan (by choosing to play a venerable-aged character) just to get a better Wisdom score (back in 3rd Edition)?

I've been playing for decades, in several different editions, and I've never seen it matter. Not even once, and not even a little bit. I'm wondering if I'm the only one.
Honestly? No. It almost will never matter to a given campaign.

Although, that being said, Ghosts can age characters in 5e. So, it did actually matter recently in my Candlekeep game when a couple of lucky attacks left our Tiefling Bard in a pretty geriatric state. At least, until we got some Greater Restoration effects anyway.

But generally? No. It's one of those things that has just kind of stuck in the game like a limpet and no one's really bothered pruning it out.
 


Quartz

Hero
But has this ever been an issue at your table?

Way back when? Absolutely. In 1e and 2e Haste used to age you a year. Not a problem if you were an elf, but a real problem for humans and half-orcs. And Wish used to age you 5 years. I vaguely recall other spells having aging effects but those are the two which stick in my mind. Then there were monsters that aged you, like ghosts.

But not for many years.
 

DND_Reborn

The High Aldwin
But has this ever been an issue at your table?
In AD&D when casting some spells, being affected by them, or using some magical items actually aged your character, it was most definitely an issue depending on the race.

I clearly recall a few times where characters aged into the next age category in 1E and had their ability scores adjusted because of it.

I have also had characters die of old age in campaigns, live to see their descendants rise to power, etc.

So, yes, in AD&D it was-- since then, it has never mattered.
 

Have you ever had a character die of old age, though? Or even get close to it?
I once made a half-elf who was at the very edge of being dead, think life expectancy table was 700 y/o so I made him 699 y/o. He was a mage named Doderdum Gibb, he only knew two spells, dancing lights and ghost sound. First encounter he tried discoing passed a Tan'nari and got eaten.
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
My memory is foggy from my 1e days in the 80s. I've been playing 5e since it came out and it really only matter in my first, homebrew campaign. My sense is that most players of 5e are playing WotC or third-party adventures that maybe take them to Tier 3 at most--and the amount of in-game time to get to Tier 3 is pretty crazy short if you try to take is seriously.

In my first campaign, though, it mattered. We did milestone leveling. I created my own world and then for each adventure the group would start at the next level. One adventure would last one or two sessions, three at the most (sessions were 8 hours long). The conceit of the campaign was that a period of time passed between adventures (...once again, you are called together...). So the characters did significantly age through the campaign.

But there really are no mechanical reprecussions in 5e for aging. So it was all just flavor. And the period of time still spanned a "humans" span of productive adult years. So, it really had no meaning to the dwarves in the party. Where it really mattered was with NPCs as the campaign was in a world where elves were all killed and driven away but some important, very old elves, could be found hidden away in forgotten places and we a major part of the story arc.

When I ran Curse of Strahd, it mattered not at all.

In my current campaign, only like 5 years or so have passed in over 3 years of real play. It only matters in terms of various aging affects that certain monsters and magic items can cause. I.e., much more deadly to the humans. Which is why, we have only a single human and a single halfling in a group of 12 PCs (all players have backup characters at their stronghold, in case their main one dies). Yet, darkvision is more of a factor than age in race selection.
 

I have seen it matter back in AD&D, when several spells were offset by aging effects. The most notable one was a human fighter who was regularly targeted with Haste, but then got mauled by some Ghosts. Since I usually played Elves, I've never had a character "age out," but I've had a few come close.
 

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