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RPG Evolution: Older Than You Look

In my campaign I have two elves, two tieflings, a human, and a gnome. Their age difference comes up more than you think.

In my campaign I have two elves, two tieflings, a human, and a gnome. Their age difference comes up more than you think.


Chart by Lillegul

It Starts with Tolkien​

Of the various species ages, humans, dragonborn, half-orcs, and tieflings are roughly within the same lifespans. The above chart shows their comparative lifespans, with green being childhood, pink young adult, light blue adulthood, and purple old age.

It's clear dwarves, elves, halflings and gnomes live much longer than everybody else, with elves not reaching maturity until decades later. But what was the inspiration for these long lifespans in Dungeons & Dragons?

Tolkien of course. We've always known elves and dwarves lived longer, but just how long is startling when compared to other species. Does that mean elves are proportionately children for longer? Sort of.
By their first year, Elf children can speak, walk, and dance, and their quicker onset of mental maturity makes young Elves seem older than they actually are. Elves' bodies developed slower than those of Men, but their minds developed more swiftly. In their twenties, they might still appear physically seven years old, though the Elf-child would have mature language and skill, whereas Men at the same age are already physically mature. Physical puberty is generally complete by their fiftieth year (by age fifty they reach their adult height), but they are not considered full-grown until a hundred years have passed.
Dwarves have a similar experience:
Until they were around 30 years of age, Dwarves were considered too young for heavy labour or war (hence the slaying of Azog by Dain Ironfoot at age 32 was a great feat). By the age of 40, Dwarves were hardened into the appearance that they would keep for most of their lives. Between the approximate ages of 40 and 240, most Dwarves were equally hale and able to work and fight with vigour. They took on the appearance of age only about ten years before their death, wrinkling and greying rapidly, but never going bald.
And so do hobbits:
Hobbits had a life span somewhat longer than Men of non-Númenórean descent, averaging between 90 and 100 years. The time at which a young hobbit "came of age" was 33.
Add all this up and for most of the other species, adventuring likely doesn't happen until between 30 or 50 years old, much later than the younger humans who often begin adventures in their teens.

Outlook of Longer-Lived Species​

A popular meme positions the elven relationship with humans as a parallel for a human's relationship with dogs. Or to put it another way, the two can have a very close bond, but the elf likely sees humans as a familial line to be friends with and protect, while humans live entire lifetimes only knowing the same elf. With a lifespan of up to 750 years, elves could conceivably befriend over twenty generations of the same human lineage, with dwarves and halflings befriending proportionally less.

Living longer probably changes their outlook considerably. Dunbar's Number posits that the human brain can only manage 150 connections; assuming elves are similar, they may begin forgetting all the people they met after that, or alternately their Dunbar Number is much higher.

The speed at which birth happens matters too. Children that take longer to raise to adulthood take considerable investment on the part of the parents, such that risks shorter-lived species might take could be intolerable for elves and dwarves. Or perhaps they're simply better prepared, taking more time to ensure they don't die since they consider their lives that much more precious.

Respecting Your Elders​

Shorter-lived species may consider their elders to be mystical beings with accumulated wisdom -- or timeless enemies who never forget a slight. Humans who become immortal may decide that long-lived species are a much larger threat; human vampires who can live forever are competing on an entirely different level.

Going back to the pet analogy, it might not be unreasonable for humans to consider an elven patron as something of a protective ancestor who watches over them. In the Orville episode "Future Unknown," the ship's doctor Claire Finn accepts the marriage proposal of Isaac, an ageless artificial life form, after he makes it clear he will protect her entire lineage:
Claire was at first stunned and confused, pointing out among other things that she would likely die well before the end of Isaac's existence. She asked what he would do then. She was aggravated when he said that he might select a new companion, but then deeply touched when he stated that he would continue to monitor the well-being of both Marcus and Ty, as well as their descendants.

Role-Playing Age Differences​

Players bring their own experiences to their characters, so it's not easy to play an ancient being with centuries of life experience under their belt. One way we manage it is that the elves have not been out among humanity before, so their inexperience is due to unfamiliarity, not due to their age.

Conversely, our gnome character is the only child of a family that dotes on him. Due to their long lifespans, the gnome's "helicopter parent" (his mother passed away) is a constant presence working secretly and overtly to help his offspring get ahead.

Trances are an opportunity to give elves flashbacks to knowledge their players might not have from their long-lived experience. Even dwarves and gnomes likely have memories that come rushing back to them during a quiet moment (or my favorite, when a PC is knocked unconscious).

Of course, DMs can simply ignore the age differences. Most probably do. But it's yet another role-playing opportunity to distinguish characters from each other when on the surface an elven ranger and human ranger may have similar stats.

Your Turn: Does the age of your characters matter in your game?

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca


In our Wednesday night campaign, my son plays an elf archer who looks down in disdain at the shorter-lived races as mere "children."



My elves are immortal (and dwarves nearly so). Over time, the elves put old memories into storage, and may need to use their trance to awaken those old memories. If they get bored (say, around 400 years), they can choose to forget their past so that everything becomes new to them again - hence the 1st level elf. As before, if the need to draw on some ancient knowledge occurs they can enter trance to retrieve it for a short time. In other cases, some elves become so tired of life, they can choose to pass back into the dream realm, where they will be reborn as a new elf sometime down the road.

As for dwarves, over time as they grow tired to life they return to the stone from which they were made. However, should the age-tired dwarf regain their love of life, their state reverts - but they may loses skills or talents they possessed before their stony state.


He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
It's been ages since age has come up in my games. Usually, because my leaning away from D&D, but even in fantasy games its not really dwelled on. Kind of went away with racial discrimination role play. Im not sure when, but my RP focus has been pushed outwards. More into politics and factions of a setting. More about the larger than self story and less reflecting on individual character. Wouldn't mind getting a little of that back. Wish it was reflected more in character and background building.


In the 5e setting I pay in, Aasimar are nigh-immortal descendants of the archangels who overthrew the creator deity, and as a note, children of mixed parentage take on the traits of their mother. My character was the child of a human man and Aasimar woman, and her mother left when she was a child. She matured at about 1/5 the speed of her human half-siblings, which meant by the time of the campaign, her father and stepmother were dead, her younger siblings were in their 60s, and she had the general maturity of an older teenager (17-18) - physically and mentally - despite being in her 80s. One of the other PCs was her niece, and their juxtaposition between who was "older" and who was "more mature" was an ongoing thing in the campaign. It created a very fun dynamic throughout.


the Incomparably Shrewd and Clever
I have shortened the natural lifespans of most races in my games, especially elves, half-elves, and dwarves, mostly for worldbuilding/story reasons. It is hard to have big mysteries from hundreds of years ago if there are many folks around who lived through that time (the elf players say: "I will ask my parents and grandparents about the war between the elves and dwarves from 700 years ago. What caused the rift between them? What was the fighting all about?"). I could make the mysteries from thousands of years in the past, but that begins to stretch the timeline out too far, IMO.

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