Point/Counter-Point: Elves

Here is my next installment of Point/Counter-Point, and it wasn’t easy…

Why I Love Elves

I tend to not care for elves the way they are typically played. I don’t know that this is anyone’s fault, and I don’t know that I could play one any better because I avoid playing them as a rule. I feel like  a lot of what makes elves interesting also makes them a challenge to roleplay well. Being immortal, or nearly so, elves can have priorities and goals that may seem alien to shorter lived races. In most cases, elves will be only one or two generations removed from what most other races would consider ancient history. That’s pretty cool. This long-view of time, combined with the impulsiveness of faerie-kind, can make elves fun and challenging to play. Elves may be fiercely passionate one moment and ambivalent the next. They can be brooding or sprightly, perhaps switching from one to the other and back again rapidly. The Elven race is ancient, and their origin stories are often closely tied with the very creation of the world. All of this is rich ground for roleplaying. If you want a character whose personality combines worldly wisdom with a childlike whimsy, play an elf.

Why I Hate Elves

In my experience, none of that cool stuff from above is ever considered when someone takes an elf. Elves are taken for a dexterity bonus, and possibly a boost to thief skills. There’s also a load of other cool stuff that comes with that dexterity bonus, like nigh-immunity to sleep, charm, and paralysis, as well as infravision, secret door detection bonuses, and even a bonus to hit with what are typically the most popular weapons. Elves are a munchkins dream come true. When it comes to roleplaying, elves tend to come across as a combination of Smokey the Bear and some guy that really likes sleeping in trees for some reason. I got so sick of elves that when I designed my own campaign world “no elves” was a central design concept. Like I mentioned above, this deficiency in the roleplaying department may not be anyone’s fault in particular. I think the problem stems from elves being so alien to what we as humans know. It’s hard to imagine how knowing your father, or at least grandfather, was around when The Colosseum was built would shape your world view. Doing an elven character justice is a hard thing to do, but most people don’t give any of this a second thought; they are too busy eyeballing that dexterity bonus to care about any of that.

Note:

Please don’t take this as me saying “I know how to play such-and-such and other people don’t.” I’m just thinking back on my years of gaming and ranting about some recurring themes I’ve witnessed over the years. I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t guilty, especially in my formative role-playing years, of doing everything I just bitched about.

Related:

Point/Counter-Point: Dwarves

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10 thoughts on “Point/Counter-Point: Elves

  1. Elves are tough, I try to play up the long term planning and extensive memories aspects. They are not just humans with bonuses. As you point out they are alien and they take the long view for everything, because, well, they have to.

    1. I’m glad to see other people putting some thought into this! I’m sure there are lots of other gamers out there who don’t fit into the stereotypes I was railing against, and that’s awesome.

  2. The character I want to play the next time I am a player is Lyril Alwen an elf bard or swashbuckler who worships Garl Glittergold because “Elf Gods are no fun.” More or less the antithesis of what is seen here.

    Immortality shouldn’t necessarily deny to elves the same range of personalities everyone else can exhibit, I say. Even though most do play elves as such.

    1. I’m always intrigued by any character concept that breaks the mold. And while I’ll be the first to admit that I’m hypercritical of elves (it’s a condition I’m working to overcome), I try and be supportive of anyone who is role-playing a personality and character concept they enjoy instead of roll-playing a package of mechanical advantages.

  3. I’m a big fan of the Silmarillion, so that’s what usually influences my take on elves, more than their fey origins. But taken from the Silmarillion we get a much more prideful and flawed view of elves than a lot of fantasy gives us. There’s always an inherent menace to elves in the First Age. They had a vast array of attitudes.

    Also, while they love nature, it’s more as something they sculpt and control. Tolkien elves aren’t really “one with nature”, they own it.

    1. I like the Silmarillion elves as well. It’s been my experience that far too few people have read that though. “Prideful and flawed” is an excellent way to describe Tolkien’s elves, and an interesting place to approach character design from.

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