Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Of Elves and Men

I love to play elves when I roleplay.  Yes, I'm one of those people, the ones who think elves are more fun to play than any other playable race.  Whether I'm playing D&D/Pathfinder or The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, my first choice is always to play an elf. 

I'm not going to go into a long discussion here about why I like playing elves, though.  Instead I want to talk about the elves as created by JRR Tolkien, which are largely the inspiration for elves in most fantasy roleplaying games, and how they differ from the elves in those RPGs, especially in D&D and its offshoots.

I'm a big fan of Tolkien's elves.  I love the idea of these ethereal, fey people populating a world.  But the elves Tolkien created are not the elves that got into D&D.  The elves of Middle-Earth are for all practical purposes immortal.  Unless they are slain by accident or violence, their lifespans have no limits.  They don't show any external indication of aging and are never subject to death from extreme age.  They are also the firstborn of Middle-Earth, the first sentient creatures made by the god Eru and given free will.  They are halfway between the angelic Valar and Maiar, which could be equated with celestials in D&D terms, and the mortal races: Dwarves, Hobbits and Men. 

If modeled in D&D rules without any change, they'd probably be more like the eladrins, which are a type of celestial elf, though perhaps without some of the magical abilities given to the eladrins.  Elves of Middle-Earth are clearly magical - Galadriel seems capable of telepathy and clairvoyance, Legolas can walk on top of deep powdery snow - but their magic doesn't run to the same variety as what is assigned to the eladrins. 

I understand some of the reasoning behind making D&D elves so much less powerful.  D&D elves are naturally good at using magic, but they aren't innately magical beings.  They aren't celestial, either.  If they were more magical, or celestial, it would create an imbalance in the game.  Much of the rules of D&D and similar games are designed to make sure no one player-character is significantly more powerful or skillful than any other character.  So the designers of roleplaying games have lessened the elves, taken away much of the power and majesty Tolkien gave them. 

Another important feature the elves lost in translation was their immortality.  This one I miss somewhat, just for roleplaying reasons, though I understand how hard it is to model that in a game with rules like those of D&D.  Although D&D and its relatives have rules for aging, they seldom come into effect.  I've never met anyone who played the same D&D character long enough for the character to grow more than a few years older.  In some past editions of D&D there were magical effects that could cause a character to age unnaturally, but those have largely been lost by current versions of the game.  In practical terms age doesn't mean much in the game.  A character is much more likely to die by violence or accident than to die of old age. 

Why, then, can't D&D elves still be ageless?  Because when you're trying to show a character's level of knowledge and experience in a game like D&D, you have to represent those things with concrete numbers.  Every character gets a different set of numbers to work with, but only within a certain range.  Like many console games, characters in D&D have levels to represent increases in their knowledge, experience, skills and special abilities.  It's typical for all characters in a group to start out at the same level.  To represent a character who is a thousand years old, you'd expect that character to have much more knowledge and experience than other characters that have lived far less.  A thousand-year-old elf would be many levels higher than a 20-year-old human.  But a character of higher levels in D&D has more of everything:  more skills, more abilities, more weapons, more magic, more wealth.  One high-level character can do things that would take three or four characters of a lower level to achieve.  It wouldn't be very fun for the players of the lower-level characters if every time they faced a challenge, the higher-level character stepped in and stole all the glory.

I've tangled with this age issue in the past with elf characters I've played.  If my elf is 175 years old at the start of a new campaign, why is she still only a first-level character?  What was she doing with her time?  I have to rationalize that if she's a wizard, for example, she spent most of those years learning magic.  That rationalization still doesn't quite work, because another player could play a human wizard who's only 21 years old and yet be just as good or even better at magic than my elf.  I've never found quite the right way to explain this disparity.  I just have to overlook it. 

I still wish there was a way to make D&D elves a little more like Tolkien's elves. I suppose much of that will have to come from my imagination as roleplaying rather than from the game's rules.  The minor frustration of not being able to realize my dream won't prevent me from enjoying playing elves for a long time to come.