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.


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

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Whizbang Dustyboots

Gnometown Hero
Mostly, in how I reveal information that they might know.

The elves get more opportunities on checks about history, but because they've been isolated, they don't overlap with human/dwarf/gnome/tiefling history. The tieflings are young and both suffer from some delusions (one talks to his weapon because he grew up in Oz, where everything talks, the other is a pyromanic because she was raised by fire beings). The gnome is very family-oriented so his father is very protective and involved in his life, at least in part because of their long lifespans and children being rare among gnomes. The human is something of a fanatic with little comprehension of the world outside his homeland, so he is usually confused by the events around him.

When it comes to sharing plot, the longer lived species are my opportunity to share more about (certain parts of) the larger world, and specifically it's history. Previously, we had a dwarf character who filled a similar role as a walking library of knowledge. The player of course didn't know everything, but the character was given lots of opportunities to use their knowledge.
It seems like you DM in a similar fashion to me. Therefore, I approve!


Dusty Dragon
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.
Altered Carbons had some interesting thoughts on that. The "too long, didn't watch" is that "rulers living forever is bad".


My first thoughts on this were that I don't like long lived races. I'm currently using (modified) Forgotten Realms as my world and the fall of the great human kingdom of Netheril was "only" ~1700 years ago, depending on which version of FR you use, 1E, 2E, 3E, 5E starting dates. Even if the thousand year old elf doesn't remember the kingdom itself, they probably remember the off shots, splinter kingdoms, and migrations of it. Further, Paizo's GMG 1E said not to do more than a couple thousand years of history because longer than that is meaningless. (Of course, then they publish Golarion with a > 10k year timeline! :D ) I think several DMGs have also suggested to keep timelines smaller.

As I read through the thread, there were some excellent responses on how age disparity might work. That 300 year old being is good at something but it's not adventure related. DND/PF, as a generic statement, focus on skills and abilities that help the character adventure and as noble as an artist's or artisan's pursuit is, it doesn't help in a dungeon. Further, DND/PF then says that someone who hasn't adventured before is a level one character. An NPC would have levels of commoner or expert (DND3E/PF) but the PC is level one. Then, as others pointed out, gain twenty levels in six months. :D

Thinking about my recent campaigns, I have players playing characters who are 55 and 18, while the players are both in 50s. The 18 year old character is a typical starting character. The 55 year is someone who worked as a bartender in Waterdeep and wanted to start adventuring after saving up enough coin to apprentice as one. I then realized that I prefer the character concept. I do give bonuses or straight up answers if the character has a background with a non adventuring skill, like bartending.

I also realize that I could say to my group that the 55 year old character wakes up after sleeping wrong and feels awful, until they take a potion of healing. All of the players would understand it being closer to that age compared to thirty or forty years ago when we gamed.

I now realize that for the most part, there are aspects of characters I ignore for a given DND/PF campaign and other things I use. I'm glad to see age in a new light due to the article, and discussion, and will use that in my games. Thanks!

A few more points. Language does matter to me. I got rid of common, although FR has regional common but not universal common.

This is DND/PF specific. Modern, cyperpunk/shadowrun, SciFi games I would look at it differently.

In the Nature of Middle-Earth, we see Tolkien's very exacting drafts of the aging cycle of elves. It's fascinating stuff, seeing just how much thought he put into his writing.

With lifespans as long as they have, elves and other long-lived people would naturally forget how to do certain things. I used to be able to classify a book using the Library of Congress system, but I haven't done so in years and as a result have forgotten most of what I knew beyond the generalities.

They might have centuries to live and learn things, but if they take a decade or so off from practicing, they're not going to have that same level of skill. And for all their years, they can't change how many hours are in a day.

The funniest solution I've seen, was to say that the long-lived race just focused on perfecting their one life goal to perfection. That one thing is just always something extremely niche and useless, like making the perfect letter F in old elvish script or managing to raise a tree where just one leaf at a time is a different color. Now that they have achieved their goal in life, they are free to start doing all this other stuff.

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.
While I appreciate potential considerations for how NPCs could increase their skills over time, the discussion is largely beside the point unless we're trying to land on differential rates of growth for long-lived races vs others.

The point was that, even the young adults (100 years by elf standards) have enjoyed one or two human-length lifetimes in-setting. Their peers, by age, are other long-lived adults, some middle-aged halflings, and likely deceased or artificially preserved short-lived races.

What this means is that your life of wasted potential, degraded skills, or racial disability are present even within the population that we would normally expect to be level 1 (whether commoner or adventurer) based on what the game has told us about those races. These are not your 55-year-old equivalents; these are your 18-year-old equivalents.

I think reason for some of the strangeness that I perceive is the idiosyncrasies between physical maturity and racial "adulthood", and the, to me, expectation that adventurers "should" be "adults". In 5e at least, most of them "mature at the same rates humans do" and then you see adulthood between 40 and 100 years old, so you get this 20-80 year span of full physical maturity without being an adult where these folks are kind of just around. You don't really expect a ton out of them since they're still "children" but presumably they are spending that time doing something..

Perhaps it's my own isolated experience that suggests that adventurers are expected to be "adults" while the broader D&D population is rife with juvenile (whatever that may mean) adventurers of all stripes..

This reminds me of one of my most favorite parts of Deep Space Nine - Dax.

I love when the crew is first assembling, and Bashir is smitten with Jadzia - she's a smoking hot twenty-something human, of course he's smitten. And Sisko chuckles and says he wonders what he would think if he'd seen the last body.

I thought having an older character, even as a PC for a game, can be interesting. Dax had had many interesting loves and adventures, but Jadzia was also just a young woman wanting her own path. In a game, I could see having an older PC be useful for identifying lore and items something along the lines of identifying Sting immediately in LotR and knowing the whole backstory and purpose, or being able to say 'Well, two hundred years ago, (city X) wasn't the trade hub of the world, it would be the long-ruined (city Y), lost to time. Now, I haven't been there since I was young but...'

Whizbang Dustyboots

Gnometown Hero
The funniest solution I've seen, was to say that the long-lived race just focused on perfecting their one life goal to perfection. That one thing is just always something extremely niche and useless, like making the perfect letter F in old elvish script or managing to raise a tree where just one leaf at a time is a different color. Now that they have achieved their goal in life, they are free to start doing all this other stuff.
"I spent the first part of my life being a family man."

"Wait, you have kids?"

"Oh, sorry, that didn't translate well. I spent the first part of my life raising a whole people, teaching them how to create fire, how agriculture works, how to establish a basic government, but now their civilization can stand on its own, and I'm free to reinvent myself."


Community Supporter
It seems like you DM in a similar fashion to me. Therefore, I approve!
It's a fine line as others have pointed out. The elves in particular are still "newbies" even though chronologically they're much older. The idea being they are inexperienced in the outside world.

What becomes challenging is how you express this in-game. For me, it's a matter of giving the players more opportunities to make historical rolls to represent their experience.

For example, they know their woodlands well, and in our campaign they're facing some very weird mutated animals. In their extensive lifetimes, they may have heard of or even encountered SOMETHING like it, so they get to roll where other characters won't even have a frame of reference (and will probably just kill it, that's what the tieflings do!).

In short, I'm not telling players "act like you're an ancient being." I'm trying to give them opportunties to feel like they are older as expressed through game mechanics, without making it about experience points.

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