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?
Last edited:

log in or register to remove this ad

Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca


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.

That very much depends. Tolkien elves are immortal but mature at roughly the same rate as humans, so that a 20-year-old elf is the peer of a 20-year-old human. If elves do mature at the same rate as humans, then starting PC elves should be close to the same age range as starting PC humans. The implication of the D&D system is all PC's are at the beginning of their career in some fashion, so it is a bit weird but hardly impossible that a 50 or 100 year old being (of whatever race) has been doing nothing for all that time.

But it's implied in D&D that elves live a long time because a god of time blessed them so that time wears slowly on them. It's implied in most D&D settings, and certainly in my own, that not only do elves live longer than humans, but mature more slowly as well. So that 20-year-old elf may still have trouble dressing themselves and functionally be like a human toddler in many respects.

It appears that 5e, in its "wisdom" changed all that somewhat. But in my campaign world, which extends back to 1e, a 70-year-old elf still hasn't hit puberty or it's full adult stats and as such may not even necessarily be eligible to gain levels and may be stuck as a 0th level character.

In fact, because on one of the longer running campaigns we played where players started getting spouses and children, we started thinking about dynastic play and worked this out to some degree. Average elves in my game world may well be over 100 before they are able to hit 1st level and even start gaining levels. And consider the implications of that in terms of rebuilding a race after it has suffered casualties from some tragic event, whether war, pestilence or disaster.

log in or register to remove this ad

Whizbang Dustyboots

Gnometown Hero
That very much depends. Tolkien elves are immortal but mature at roughly the same rate as humans, so that a 20-year-old elf is the peer of a 20-year-old human.
I wish D&D used that model. As it is, we get a version of the Twilight problem* where someone in their 80s, or older, might end up in a romantic relationship with an 18 year old, and it gets ickier the longer you think about it.

* Alternately, it can be the "Leonardo DiCaprio problem"


In the games that I've run over the years, I've generally shortened the life spans of most of the longer-lived races to around 150 years for halflings, 250-300 for gnomes and dwarves, and about 500 for elves. And I try to give older characters a number of minor things to indicate their greater life experience, such as starting with whatever regular gear they want, having greater knowledge of the geography and lore of the campaign world, etc... And if their narrative backstory justifies them having some minor mechanical perk like an extra language or proficiency in something, I'll usually let them have it.

I currently have a couple of my characters who started their adventuring careers later in life, and the current game system doesn't really model them well...

One is a human druid/warlock who, as a young druid in his twenties, got shanghaied into the Feywild after joining a fairy revel and ended up spending X number of decades/centuries/(DM fiat) working as a diplomatic envoy (fey pact warlock) for a Fey Lord before being released from his service.
If I ever get to play him at some point*, regardless of how long the DM decides the character's been in the Feywild, his story is that he returns to the campaign world as a man who physically appears to be in his early 60's, and has at least that many decades of life experience under his belt... By the game rules, where he is in his life narratively at the start of his adventuring career won't be backed up by his actual mechanical game stats until he hits third level (druid 2/warlock 1)...

*(I briefly played him in a PbP game in another forum, and the DM let me have a custom background I made up called "Underhill" which gave him two extra languages and proficiency with two different tools to represent his extended time in the Feywild.)

The other is a gnome illusionist/warlock who's recently started adventuring after being forcibly retired due to old age from his previous career as a squad mage for a legendary gnomish mercenary unit of sappers and siege engineers.
Given that gnomes live 350-500 years according to the PHB, that's going to be something like 200 years of military service... Despite the fact that a big part of his physical appearance is that of an old soldier wearing beat up worn-out armor and carrying an old sword, by RAW, he's never going to actually be proficient with the shortsword he carries, and until he hits 3rd level (wiz 2/war 1) his armor isn't an actual item on his character sheet, just a narrative fiction - he's "...wearing what seems to have once been a sapper's traditional leather armor, but is clearly so old and worn that it's long since ceased to be functional as any sort of protection." :rolleyes:
Last edited:

If some humanoids can live more time, then succession to the throne and marriage alliances would be slower, and complicated. Here the human kingdoms could merger faster.

And too long life may be an evolutive handicap. How? It is not only lower birth rate against demographic crisis (wars, epidemics, natural disasters) but also the evolution would be slower to face the mutation of new epidemic strains. Here goblins, gnolls and kobolds may enjoy the best immune system (this is normal in the carrion-eater animals from the real life).

Could a 40y dragonborn marry a 14y kobold if this is the reincarnation of his former lover?

In the real life soldiers and police have to train with firearms usually to not lose the skill.

Do you rebember everything studied at school? Some things could be forgotten, but after a review you start to rebember something, and it would be faster than starting from zero.

Maybe some temples could give "free" younth potions for their best worshippers but really with these they wouldn't be longer lives, but only a better health. Then a human of 90y would look like somebody of 50.

Other point is rich people could pay for an "reincarnation" spell, but this could cause potential conflicts. Let's imagine a rich nobleman pays for the reincarnation of his killed wife. The firstborn and older children could reclaim the babies born after this reincarnation shouldn't be allowed to be heirs because they aren't the "pureblood", not the original bloodline, or the reincarnated wive has got a new body, more beatiful, but also too similar to husband's first love from his teenage years. And then some rumors tell the reincarnated wife isn't the original one, but a husband's lover killed out of jealousy or "to clean the family honor".


Again, this is all for me.

Let's take this in a different way. Let's say typical races are scooped up and put on a new world to populate. That race that doesn't mature for three hundred years would have to live in fear and hide from all of the short lived races. Three hundred years could be an advanced empire to a shorter lived group, or maybe the coming and going of several kingdoms. Think of the advances these races have made while the long lived ones seem stagnant in comparison.

If they were on an established world, the long lived but not eternal races would have to have a low birth rate, imagine having to raise a hundred kids for three centuries! So, I posit there are fewer of them. Any loss, as someone else said, is that much worse. Did they lose their historian? Everything they knew is gone. Entire histories, genealogies, and magic, are all wiped out. Maybe the history doesn't matter for them going forward but magic? Technology? The only one who knew how to build a plow?

I personally don't see how that extreme could work in a fantasy world with faster maturing groups with magic, much less technology. So, for myself, I have long lived races mature faster, then slow down. That's my preference.

The other side of this is that when my players do write up first level characters, I remind them of that fact. I put it as someone who just finished their apprenticeship (US high school? Maybe some college?) and they know theory but not reality. I ask they not write up someone with an adventuring past, but again an artisan past is fine because I can work with that and DND/PF doesn't emphasize those skills. In other words, don't write that they won the all Waterdeep archery contest, write that they won their small villages contest and then they get to find out what Waterdeep has to offer!

Again, I'm all about the fun and lean toward that. For my own FR, I still don't see that age matters because, and I'm glad I'm not alone in this, adventurers go from starting to epic in a game year, or less. The only thing that matters at that point is age category, almost same as dragons, and what I and the player wants to do with their character.

Level based games like DND/PF are my staple. When I do get to run skill based (Alternity, Shadowrun, etc.), I like that their backgrounds can vary and their starting skills can back that up. It feels different and both are fun for different reasons.

Thanks for the discussion!


Community Supporter
One of the issues with age in D&D is the word "experience points." Because it has the word "experience" in it we reasonably assume that includes life experience. Except for most of D&D's history, that was almost never true: killing monsters, carrying out treasure from a dungeon, solving challenges. It's more like "adventure points."

But because it's experience points, there's an expectation that lived-in experience (old age) implies you get experience points simply by living. D&D just doesn't model that well. Unfortunately much of the game's nomenclature implies that it DOES, in part because D&D's combat roots bias experience towards combat even though the game encourages all sorts of non-combat. And yet the system doesn't support the other two pillars in the same way. Without DM intervention, there isn't a challenge rating/experience point award for social interaction and exploration.

And thus the "if you're so old, why aren't you 20th level?" question. The flip side of this is the game doesn't model prodigies and kids with destinies particularly well either. Harry Potter/King Arthur types with massive (but uncontrolled) power at a young age seems like a cheat in D&D when that character would normally be 1st level because of his age.


A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
Regarding quick jumps in levels in a short amount of time. In my personal experience, when people are put in an intense work environment with diverse challenges and high-performing teams, their skills leap-frog over those who have a more moderate environment and rote processes. Also, certain people, whether because they are prodigies or just have the benefit of youth and opportunity, have achieved incredible things in a short amount of time.


He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
Regarding quick jumps in levels in a short amount of time. In my personal experience, when people are put in an intense work environment with diverse challenges and high-performing teams, their skills leap-frog over those who have a more moderate environment and rote processes. Also, certain people, whether because they are prodigies or just have the benefit of youth and opportunity, have achieved incredible things in a short amount of time.
Sure, there are many ways to rationalize the leveling system. I think the issue is when folks want a universal answer. I dont think its a good idea to have one. I think leveling is best kept under the hood as the game part of the RPG. If the campaign takes 10, 20, 30 years of in game time to complete, then that is the length it required to go 1-20. If the game takes 10, 20, 30 days of in game time, then that is the length it takes to go 1-20 in that game.


Could a 40y dragonborn marry a 14y kobold if this is the reincarnation of his former lover?

The ethics of interspecies relationships are not obvious, much less the ethics of relationships that extend beyond death. In general, I feel most interspecies relationships are immoral and that death is a reset button, but there could be reasonable exceptions. Even in Tolkien, the interracial relationships between male humans and female elves that reoccurs a few times feels dodgy, short-sighted, and selfish at times and justifying them is complicated. Arwen in particular seems to have not considered the relationship fully when she entered into it, and its hard for me as a man to think about putting a loved one through what he is asking of Arwen especially given that Aragorn has no assurance at all of any existence after death. Is it really love or is it lust at that point? Maybe they should have just stayed friends?

Probably the healthiest example we have in popular canon is actually Sarak and Amanda, whom seem to understand what they are getting into and solemnize their unusual relationship in a completely healthy manner by creating artificially a child that is the genetic heir of both of them. However, even this has problems of seeming selfish since by one perspective Spock is the only member of his species "Half-Vulcan" and this doesn't seem very fair to the child. (On the other hand, Spock eventually seems to both be accepted as and accept himself as a full member of both species, resolving the conflict positively.)

There are extremely unhealthy examples such as the parasitic relationship of the Asari in Mass Effect although it should hardly be surprising that Mass Effect is uninterested in the ethics of sexual relationships considering the demographics it is appealing to and the way it treats "romance" in the game.

In any event, I think that we can sort of guess at the ethics involved based on what we think the ethics are of humanity, but it requires reflecting on why we think those are the ethics and not relying on unreliable feelings or squeamishness. For example, in my game there was a romance between an 80 year old half-elf and a nearly 400 year old elf. The intuition on this is that this is suspect. She's emotionally a 20-year-old, and he's emotionally a 40-year-old, and he's five times her age. But if we step back a bit, their remaining lifespans are reasonably similar, and none of the motivations that normally make age difference relationship suspect are present. He's not attracted to her because of a transient aspect of her being that when it goes away is going to end the attraction. This is a relationship that logically makes sense as a life partnership for both of them, given her inability to find peers, his failure in romance thus far, and their ability to produce viable offspring that in many respects would be better adjusted and healthier and less risky than the relationship of her own parents (which was ultimately tragic).

So who knows, maybe relationships between kobolds and dragonborn are healthy? Maybe the match makes perfect sense.
Last edited:


Dusty Dragon
I recommend you consider something else:


How do their teeth last so long!?

Dwarves: Dwarven tooth are, like everything dwarven, extremely tough.
Gnomes: No better than human teeth. Nearly every gnome you meet is wearing dentures
Elves: They grow rows upon rows of teeth, like sharks.

Remove ads

Latest threads

Remove ads


Remove ads

Upcoming Releases