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.

lifespans.png

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

Rare fantasy worlds spare any thought to their people living for hundreds of years...

Like, in elf societies, if your higher-ups will never die (to leave an opening for you to advance), either you accept that you are a pleb for life, you leave your society and try to luck out as a stranger somewhere else... or you arrange accidents. This also leads to a pretty stagnant society, though with magic replacing technology, that might work out (you just won't get any new civil rights ever again).

You can get around this if you heavy-handedly say something like 'oh but they are all Lawful Good', in which case it makes sense that they step down from their position after holding it for a few decades, but... then they better not act like regular humans about other things, either. Except ennui, because that actually makes sense - perhaps all of this elven poetry business is just desperate antics to give themselves something to do so they won't off themselves.
 

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Celebrim

Legend
The question is how the advanced culture came about in the first place when it's members are prone to faffing about for centuries without learning or building up their skills.

If it takes a decade for a human to pick up a skill and a century for an elf to do so, where is the knowledge base for the great elven works of art?

To use D&D elves, you almost have to give them thousands of years more history than the shorter-lived races just to make sense of how such slow-maturing similarly mortal creatures could possibly compete on an even playing field.

There are a ton of assumptions floating around there that I don't think actually apply to the consensus D&D universe.

First, in D&D advanced culture comes about because early in the history of the species one or more gods teach the species how to be an advanced culture (whatever that means because it certainly doesn't mean high tech or industrialized or whatever). In many cases, the species seems to be born with inherent knowledge and ability, such as the elven aptitude for bows that doesn't seem to require any particular culture or training. Culture in D&D tends to be gifted to a species in other words. It's not something that they normally work for or which evolves and progresses over time. Indeed, since the basis of D&D is in Western European myth, then it tends to be grounded in the idea that the most advanced cultures were lost sometime in the past, presumably as violence and tragedy led to the species forgetting the knowledge that they once had. (D&D probably gets this most directly from Tolkien, where it is a big feature of his cosmology.)

Secondly, D&D rules are focused on the lives of individuals as heroic adventurers. There is no particular reason why hacking up chimeras, owlbears, and mummies should result in the ability to make great works of art or administer a kingdom. In D&D theory it could, which defies logic especially if the character practices no art while doing his hack and slash and the time frame of the adventuring involves leveling up many levels over the course of a few days. You'd have to really stretch to make that seem plausible. The D&D rules are almost completely silent on how if at all anyone acquires skill if they aren't an adventurer. But it stands to reason that NPCs might acquire skill without levels in any adventuring class that brings them hit points and combat ability, or you could happily suggest as 1e D&D does that they never level up at all. They aren't doing nothing, they just aren't gaining levels as adventurers that give them better saving throws and the ability to kill things. How that works isn't something D&D normally addresses or expects anyone to care about much, because it's external to the game. If D&D players were expected to go about ordinary mundane lives, then there might be rules for what ordinary skill acquisition looked like and gaining levels in classes that don't increase ones hit points or what not, but that's not what D&D players are expected to do during sessions.

Thirdly, I don't know that we need to care much about the even playing field you mention. Exactly what that playing field looks like is so campaign specific that it's hard to talk about it, and I suspect most tables don't care that much. Again, these are things that tend to be external to the game, and they are mostly interesting to GMs from a world building standpoint when those GMs have a more sandbox sort of reality and are using simulationist concepts to inform them what the unpainted portion of the world probably looks like when a door unexpectedly opens and they have to quickly paint some new scene. This is a common approach, but hardly the only approach even if you are trying to be a neutral referee.
 

Celebrim

Legend
Rare fantasy worlds spare any thought to their people living for hundreds of years...

In a fantasy world, this isn't just an issue with long lived species.

What happens when the rulers of your nation are a council of liches? A group of alchemists that quaff elixirs of youth in an effort to never grow old? An intelligent magic item? A gold dragon? An immortal demigod? A vampire aristocracy? A theocracy that make all governing rules after consulting a deity? A parliament of ghosts? A centuries old wizard? Nine hundred year old ascetic monks?

I think relatively stagnant society is actually probably the norm in a fantasy world.
 

Thunder Brother

God Learner
One of the many things I like about Adventures in Middle-Earth is that each race has a recommended "Adventuring Age". For example, dwarves typically adventure from years 50-100 and then settle down with their families afterwards. I think it puts everyone in a similar position in terms of cultural expectations and helps avoid having 2000+ year old elf adventurers, a real possibility in Middle-Earth.

The Asari in Mass Effect have a similar concept in which "young" Asari are expected to travel and experience the galaxy before settling down.

Although, I've never had age really matter in any of my campaigns, since none of them have, in-universe, lasted over a year.
 

There are a ton of assumptions floating around there that I don't think actually apply to the consensus D&D universe.

First, in D&D advanced culture comes about because early in the history of the species one or more gods teach the species how to be an advanced culture (whatever that means because it certainly doesn't mean high tech or industrialized or whatever). In many cases, the species seems to be born with inherent knowledge and ability, such as the elven aptitude for bows that doesn't seem to require any particular culture or training. Culture in D&D tends to be gifted to a species in other words. It's not something that they normally work for or which evolves and progresses over time. Indeed, since the basis of D&D is in Western European myth, then it tends to be grounded in the idea that the most advanced cultures were lost sometime in the past, presumably as violence and tragedy led to the species forgetting the knowledge that they once had. (D&D probably gets this most directly from Tolkien, where it is a big feature of his cosmology.)

Secondly, D&D rules are focused on the lives of individuals as heroic adventurers. There is no particular reason why hacking up chimeras, owlbears, and mummies should result in the ability to make great works of art or administer a kingdom. In D&D theory it could, which defies logic especially if the character practices no art while doing his hack and slash and the time frame of the adventuring involves leveling up many levels over the course of a few days. You'd have to really stretch to make that seem plausible. The D&D rules are almost completely silent on how if at all anyone acquires skill if they aren't an adventurer. But it stands to reason that NPCs might acquire skill without levels in any adventuring class that brings them hit points and combat ability, or you could happily suggest as 1e D&D does that they never level up at all. They aren't doing nothing, they just aren't gaining levels as adventurers that give them better saving throws and the ability to kill things. How that works isn't something D&D normally addresses or expects anyone to care about much, because it's external to the game. If D&D players were expected to go about ordinary mundane lives, then there might be rules for what ordinary skill acquisition looked like and gaining levels in classes that don't increase ones hit points or what not, but that's not what D&D players are expected to do during sessions.

Thirdly, I don't know that we need to care much about the even playing field you mention. Exactly what that playing field looks like is so campaign specific that it's hard to talk about it, and I suspect most tables don't care that much. Again, these are things that tend to be external to the game, and they are mostly interesting to GMs from a world building standpoint when those GMs have a more sandbox sort of reality and are using simulationist concepts to inform them what the unpainted portion of the world probably looks like when a door unexpectedly opens and they have to quickly paint some new scene. This is a common approach, but hardly the only approach even if you are trying to be a neutral referee.
When I refer to culture, I'm referring to things like traditional lifestyles, artistic traditions, crafting traditions, magical traditions, martial traditions, culinary traditions, religious traditions, horticultural traditions etc. as reflected by the outputs of those traditions through the course of history. When I say "advanced" in these respects, I am referring to a level of mastery achieved or expected within the population as a result of these traditions.

I would expect this mastery to be reflected in a variety of ways. But, at a minimum, I'd expect to see some growth in proficiency., even if only for a limited set of skills.

Now, as you say, D&D is mostly silent regarding skill growth outside of adventuring. What we do know, however, is that long-lived race PCs can be any age when they start adventuring, but no matter the age, they will begin their adventuring career with no more than a +2 proficiency bonus in any skill or tool (absent feats/class features). In, possibly, centuries, they've gotten no better at dancing, singing, knowing things, handling animals, noticing things, finding things, or using any of their tools.

A lack of skill growth is strange enough that you were willing to question how many PCs start their careers at 55 rather than as a teenager. Assuming all races' existential experience of the world and the age of physical maturity is more or less consistent, it's even stranger to start your career at 130 than it is at 55 no matter your natural lifespan.

You wind up in this weird space where you kind of have to choose from a few paths.
  1. The long-lived PC is a real wastrel who has just squandered every opportunity for growth until they finally decided to start adventuring
  2. The long-lived PC had more skill, but lost it for reasons that are unsupported by game literature.
  3. There is something about the long-lived race that results in severe skill stagnation compared to other races, yet somehow that race is still a mostly healthy equal-ish contributor to the setting, maybe even a prominent one.
Choosing between 1 and 2, doesn't feel too bad for an "old" human PC; it probably the story you want to tell by making them that age. It feels weird to choose one of them for a "young" long-lived PC. But choosing #3 admits a bit of unexpected behavior in the setting to explain how stagnant/slow-learning societies survive under threat from societies without this disability, whatever it is.

It certainly can be done, but it is strange. This was, I think, the point about the 500 year old level 1 PC.
 
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We should remember the hypothetical social impact of coexistence with longer-lived breeds. A recent graduate can't find a job if everyone asks for decades of prior experience, and the better jobs could be for the workers who can be in the company for centuries.

Richest humans could spend a lot of gold for a magic ritual to become member of a longer-lived lineage (and this was in the sourcebook "Savage Species" showing as an example an ogre becoming an elf). Some churchs could use this as a reward for their best preachers.

But people with shorted lifes would be more willing to live in zones with higher risks, by wars or natural disasters.
 

Celebrim

Legend
It certainly can be done, but it is strange. This was, I think, the point about the 500 year old level 1 PC.

Well, you can sort of deal with it but understand D&D really was not meant to tell the story of a character with a 500 year backstory. If the character had been doing interesting things in the past, and isn't therefore level 1, then they shouldn't be level 1. The fact that they are level 1 creates as a precondition that they haven't done interesting things in the past.

If in fact it is possible to acquire skill at ordinary and mundane things by doing ordinary and mundane things, then the character in question probably isn't a 'Fighter' or 'Rogue' or 'Druid' or whatever. The character has had a career in ordinary things and so is probably something more like a 3e Commoner. In that case, a 500 year old character is probably a commoner of level N.

Therefore one of two things is probably true.

Commoners can acquire XP by doing mundane things, but the amount of training XP needed to go up in level increases exponentially as you go up in level. Suppose a commoner can earn 200 training XP per year, and so after 5 years hits level 2. But then it takes twice as much XP to reach level 3, so they hit level 3 commoner after 15 years, level 4 commoner after 35 years, level 5 commoner after 75 years, level 6 commoner after 155 years, level 7 after 315 years, and our 500 year old NPC hasn't quite made it to level 8 yet and won't for another century.

Or else, training XP is acquired by doings things that are relatively hard for you. So perhaps our commoner gains an XP point on every day he successfully completes a task related to his profession that is DC 20 + his level. At first, our commoner levels up fast like above, but over time the number of days in which the commoner is doing something that isn't already a rote and well-rehearsed skill for them decreases. Eventually, opportunity to make a DC 26 animal handling or crafting check on days when he's just trying to make a living dry up. Despite still practicing a profession, he's just not learning anything new. And again, perhaps elves do get a bit higher level than humans by living longer and trying harder things, but just as above ultimately, they are going to only get a couple levels beyond where human commoners get.

Would you want to start play as a 500 year old 7th level commoner rich in life experience but with largely wasted potential? Maybe, maybe not, but the fact that a particular PC starts out as a 500 year old 1st level wizard in no way implies that most of his peers by age and social standing aren't 7th level commoners. It's up to you to decide why his stats fit his background. D&D isn't interested in telling you that the way say Traveller with its "Your background is your stats and you could die in CharGen" system is. D&D is only really interested in your fore story. It's not a backstory generator.
 

Celebrim

Legend
Richest humans could spend a lot of gold for a magic ritual to become member of a longer-lived lineage

This posits among other things that most people don't want to die and move on to a more spiritual plan and the immortal life of a soul or perhaps reincarnation as the case may be.
 

Ancalagon

Dusty Dragon
The effect of very long life was extensively explored in the Memory Sorrow and Thorn "trilogy" by Tad Williams. It was called "unbeing" . Extremely long lived "elves" found life unbearable, but even more so found the idea that life would go on without them after they died even more unbearable. So...
 

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