IFAQ: Elven Miscellany

My last article discussed the impact the long lifespan of elves has on the elves of the Five Nations. This brought up a few other points I’d like to discuss.

Elves are Old for a Long Time

The elves of Aerenal devote decades or centuries to intense, focused study. In the previous article I said that the elves of the Five Nations don’t do this because the infrastructure doesn’t support it; a Brelish elf is going to the same school or university as a Brelish human, and there’s no decades-long classes in the Brelish core curriculum. This raised the question of whether that means the elves of the Five Nations are more versatile than the Aereni… and if so, if combining greater versatility with longer life meant that they dominated the study of arcane sciences in Khorvaire. The answer to this is NO. It’s not just the culture of the Aereni that’s the issue; it’s the fact that elves mentally mature at the same pace as humans and then are OLD FOR A VERY LONG TIME. Here’s a quote from a previous article…

This ties to the idea that a seven-hundred year old lifespan is both a blessing and a curse. Our fluid intelligence – which fuels our ability to adapt to entirely new things – peaks in young adulthood. You grandfather may be a brilliant doctor, a skilled mathematician, and still have trouble learning to use an iPhone that a three-year-old masters in three days. The child is running on fluid intelligence, which allows them to quickly adapt to new things. You grandfather is working off crystallized intelligence, the concrete skills he has perfected over time. For me, this is the fundamental difference between elves and humans… because in my Eberron, both elf and human peak in fluid intelligence at the same time. An elf’s mental facilities don’t deteriorate due to age as a human’s will, so the 110-year-old elf is still sharp and alert… but they’re is also just as firmly set in their ways as a hundred-year-old human, and it’s difficult for them to adapt to entirely new things.

Eberron Flashback: Aereni and Tairnadal

This follows the principle that older people tend to be more conservative than younger people, and the point I made earlier that Brelish elves are more likely to support the monarchy because they don’t like change. Aereni society is built with this in mind, but the general idea is that elves are more likely to specialize than to be diverse in their skills because it’s harder for them to learn entirely new things—and, just as I don’t remember much of the Latin I learned in college, if an elf doesn’t USE a skill for 50 years, it will atrophy. Focusing on a few skills ensures that they MAINTAIN those skills. So if you go to Arcanix, the 500 year old elf professor is more likely to be the one who’s been teaching the same Siberyan Principles course for 300 years—and who is AMAZING at it—than the young hotshot teaching the course that challenges all established principles. There are always exceptions; Mordain the Fleshweaver is a remarkably innovative elf, though it’s questionable as to whether you can still call him an elf. And your player character elf can certainly defy this pattern. But generally, elves are old for a long time; a 200 year old elf has the same general outlook on life that a 200 year old human would if they could live that long, and they aren’t as flexible in their outlook as a 20 year old human.

Where Did You Get Your Training?

Throughout many editions of D&D, elves, dwarves, and other races have had features that feel more cultural than genetic. All elves have “Elf Weapon Training” with longswords and longbows. All dwarves know how to use axes and they’re either brewers and smiths; in third edition, all dwarves had a bonus to fight orcs. It doesn’t matter if they’d never SEEN an orc or ever picked up a hammer: ALL DWARVES HAVE THIS.

This stems from the same monocultural impulse that says “All orcs are evil,” and from the beginning we pushed against this in Eberron. In third edition we largely just ignored it. In fifth edition we’ve more actively challenged it. The Aereni elf subrace in Wayfinder’s Guide and Exploring Eberron removes the Elf Weapon Training trait, because elves in Eberron DON’T all know how to use swords and bows. In Wayfinder’s and Rising From The Last War we suggested that assigned racial languages could be changed, because dwarves aren’t born knowing Dwarvish; if you’re a dwarf born in the slums of Sharn, you might know Goblin instead of Dwarvish. Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything expanded on this with the optional Proficiency Swap system; they specifically call out the example of an elf who swaps longsword proficiency for an instrument proficiency. So Maza Thadian, the best cook in Sharn, doesn’t know how to use a longbow—because she traded that proficiency for Cook’s Utensils.

So the key point here is that Elf Weapon Training—or Dwarf Weapon Training, or similar features—don’t represent some sort of genetic talent. Which means that if you’re playing an elf and you choose to KEEP Elf Weapon Training, it’s up to you to decide how your character acquired that training. In Exploring Eberron I note that Mror dwarves can base their racial Weapon Training and Tool Proficiencies on their experiences in the War Below. This is an equally logical approach for dwarves and elves of the Five Nations. The Last War lasted for a century. Even if your background is entertainer, you can still say that you served in the last war for a decade back eighty years ago. It didn’t because the focus of your life, which is why you’re a bard instead of a fighter, but you still retain that basic training. On the other hand, if your background is ENTERTAINER, perhaps you worked archery into your act. Or, even if you don’t worship the Silver Flame NOW, perhaps you spent a decade as part of a devout Thrane militia fifty years ago and received your training then. Or you could say that your elf character never touched a bow until yesterday—but YOU have an ancestor who lives in your memories and who’s been training your while you trance. Essentially, the fact that you have skill with these weapons is part of your character’s story, and I want to know the STORY behind it. Three Brelish elves may all have Elf Weapon Training—but HOW they got those proficiencies may be completely different for each of them, and it’s certainly different from the training a Tairnadal ranger received.

Potential Lifespan is Just That

In the last article a question was raised as to whether elves would have a different outlook on the Blood of Vol, because the religion evolved as a reaction to the brutality of life and elves are less likely to see life as brutish and short. Well, the Blood of Vol evolved in the cold, harsh regions of Karrnath and the northern Lhazaar Principalities. It evolved among people who were fighting famine and plagues, and who were oppressed by tyrannical rulers. It is a reaction to the basic question what just gods would allow death and suffering… and SUFFERING is an important word to remember. Because just because an elf can POTENTIALLY live to be 700 years old doesn’t mean they WILL. Elves have no special resistance to cold or disease. They may not sleep, but they still need food and water. They can suffer from the cold, and they can suffer the agony of watching their starving children dying from diseases. The long lifespan can seem like a curse on two levels: first, when an elf child dies of a fever when they are ten years old, it seems more unjust because they COULD have had centuries of life. Second, the elf who does live for centuries while enduring starvation and disease and who has to watch their friends dying around them may well feel that another century of life is just more time to suffer.

Aerenal is in many ways a utopia. It is a peaceful, advanced nation where people DO expect to live out most of their natural life in comfort and health. And yes, the Blood of Vol won’t find much purchase there. But it won’t find much purchase ANYWHERE where people live long and comfortable lives. It takes root in those places where people are surrounded by suffering and loss, places where the cruelty of mortal life is made manifest. And just because elves can potentially live longer than humans doesn’t mean that they will—and it doesn’t protect them from starvation, poverty, plague, or any of the other tragedies that humanity endures.

My Patreon backers have posted a lot of good questions on other topics, so this is all for elves for the moment… I’ll try to get back to it in a century or so! Thanks to my Patreon supporters for making these articles possible.

18 thoughts on “IFAQ: Elven Miscellany

  1. Is it something that happens to all elves, not just the tairnadal that they have visions of their ancestors in their trance? And what sort of information could be gained from these visions? Could a elf understand a few words of ancient giant from these visions, or the location of a giant facility?

    • Is it something that happens to all elves, not just the tairnadal that they have visions of their ancestors in their trance?

      Trancing is a form of guided meditation and can draw on memories. So any elf could effectively reminisce about a lost friend or ancestor while trancing. SOME elves—notably the Tairnadal—cultivate this and are further able to touch the spirits of their patron ancestors through it, but remember that the Tairnadal believe that the only reason their patron ancestors survive in this way is BECAUSE of the intense devotion and dedication of the Tairnadal, and it’s why the Tairnadal all so strict about their religious practices; as a Tairnadal, it’s your DUTY to sustain your patron ancestor.

      So no, it’s not remotely something that just happens to all elves. And it’s not something that just happens to the Tairnadal, it’s something they have to actively cultivate. So most Brelish elves aren’t going to get Weapon Training from visions of their ancestors. But PLAYER CHARACTERS ARE REMARKABLE. So it could be that YOUR Brelish elf is descended from Tairnadal immigrants (who could have left Aerenal thousands of years ago) who abandoned those traditions, but a patron ancestor is still managing to reach you in your trance, and you are learning how to access this. It’s not something that happens to all elves, but it could happen to YOUR elf.

      • Are there other elven cultures that have cultivated their trance? While Tairnadal is the most noted practitioners, by description the heirloom performance by the houses of shadow seem to be similar or a branch of the practice.

        But would any of the drow try to reach their ancestors with their trance, to learn the drow weapon training or similar? Like the Umbragen or Sulatar or a unknown tribe deep in xen’drik?

        • Are there other elven cultures that have cultivated their trance?

          I think ALL elven cultures cultivate their trance. But to me the point is that they’ve cultivated it in different ways. For the Tairnadal it is a time to commune with your ancestors. I’d expect the Qaltiar drow to experience trance as a more primal experience—communing with the totem spirits of their surroundings—rather than interacting with ancestors. A deeper look at trance and the role it plays in different cultures could be the subject of another IFAQ, but for now I want to move on to other topics.

  2. If the Five Nation elves don’t have the same approach to learning as the Aerenal elves due to the infrastructure not supporting it, what would it be like for the drow of Xen’drik, and specifically the Vulkoori?
    I’m guessing the fact that they live in harsh conditions and don’t have that much leisure and infrastructure in the jungle has to be taken into account, but it still feels like their lifespan should have some sort of an impact besides reinforcing their fixed tribal traditions.
    What’s your take on it?

    • Vulkoori culture is completely unlike the cultures of the Aereni or the elves of the Five Nations. First and foremost, the Vulkoori don’t live in big, secure cities; they live in an extremely dangerous environment and they’re right in the middle of it. This is VERY much the case that while a Vulkoori elf CAN live to be 700 years old, I expect very few DO, because their face constant dangers—while the typical Aereni artisan is almost NEVER in any sort of life-threatening situation. So that Aereni artisan can afford to spend fifty years working on needlepoint because they aren’t worried about putting food in the stewpot or about the savage giants that are roaming around the region.

      A second point is that Vulkoori civilization is based on Primal magic, not Arcane magic. This is reflected in their daily life and general cultural outlook. They value INSTINCT and EXPERIENCE more than reading about something in a book. You don’t learn to hunt by sitting in camp and going to hunting camp for decades, you learn to hunt by HUNTING.

      Once you have these points in mind, then the others come back into play. Vulkoori are very likely to perfect specific skills and to follow established traditions as opposed to innovating or trying to be jacks-of-all-trades. They are still using some of the same technqiues they have been using for tens of thousands of years, and they are EXTREMELY GOOD AT THEM. But this is also why they ARE still hunters rather than having built big cities: because they have established their traditions and they’d rather stick to them than to completely change their lifestyle, even if change could be a significant long-term improvement. So assuming he’s good enough to live that long, a 300-year-old Vulkoori hunter will have been hunting for hundreds of years, and they will be VERY GOOD at it, but they aren’t going to suddenly borrow your spellbook and learn some arcane cantrips.

    • Something to note: hunter-gatherer communities tend to have *more* non-work time than heavily agriculturally based communities, it’s a lot of work.

  3. How aware are the various elven cultures of Eberron about their Thelanian fey heritage (Shae Tirias Tolai, specifically), and how much do this Thelanian fey heritage and the feyspires actually matter to them? What are the general thoughts of elves on the eladrin of the feyspires?

  4. It seems to me that a pervasive theme across Eberron is that long-lived creatures and immortals are stable yet stagnant, whereas shorter-lived mortals have societies that are chaotic yet ever-advancing. Whether it is elves, dragons, fiends, quori, or extraplanar immortals, either their societies have a fixed status quo that does not change much (e.g. the planes) or they deliberately try to enforce a timeless and unchanging society (e.g. the quori and Riedra). Meanwhile, Khorvaire is a wild and turbulent land, yet it has been making leaps and bounds in arcanoscience.

    Is this supposed to be a recurring theme across Eberron? It seems like immortals are touched by Risia, even: stable, yet stagnant.

    • Absolutely, these are intentional recurring themes in Eberron.

      First and foremost, we knew from the start that we wanted the primary focus of our stories to be Khorvaire, which would be a human-dominated continent advancing at a pace that feels analogous to scientific progress in our world. Fiends, celestials, dragons, elves all exist and are all by some measure superior to humanity. But we weren’t designing a world about the fantastic, perfect civilization of the elves or about the the amazing achievements of the celestials. As a result, we needed to find explanations as to why these creatures—superior to humanity in so many ways—didn’t make humanity completely irrelevant within the setting. Thus, the dragons are hobbled by Tiamat; the elves are chained to tradition; immortals are incarnate symbols that don’t have the ability to evolve as humans do. Elves, dragons, and fiends were never meant to be the main players of the story. The story of Eberron—as it was designed as a campaign setting—is driven by Khorvaire in 998 YK, a land that is both wild and turbulent but also making leaps and bounds in arcanoscience. ​

      This is also why many of the powerful benevolent NPCs are handicapped in some way. Jaela Daran loses her power if she leaves Flamekeep. Oalian is a tree. There IS a great druid, there is a Keeper of the Flame, but there are reasons that they can’t solve all of the world’s problems.

    • I’d say that they’re less stagnant than constant. Balanced between Risia and Fierna

      Of note is that outside the planes (which are ruled by constants) the other non-planar long-lived or immortal creatures aren’t necessarily stagnant as SLOW. On a different scale from human timeframe

      • I’d say that they’re less stagnant than constant.

        This is the key point. They aren’t stagnant, because THEY WERE NEVER MEANT TO CHANGE. They were designed to perform a specific function, and they continue to do so. If I design a cog for a machine that keeps a system running, I don’t WANT that cog to change shape over time; and immortals are those cogs. Exploring Eberron notes:

        The most important thing to understand about the planes is that they’re ideas. Each one is a pure, iconic concept. War. Peace. Chaos. Order. They are eternal, and with few exceptions, unchanging. Eberron is the Material Plane, where these concepts come together and interact. It’s a world that feels the passage of time, where life can change and evolve. The planes of Eberron are archetypal ideas. The precise details can change, but there’s always been war in Shavarath, and always will be; that’s what Shavarath is.

        “Stagnant” implies that progress that should occur is being blocked. The planes were designed to be constant and unchanging, and they and their immortals have performed the roles they were designed to fill since the dawn of creation.

  5. In terms of weapon training I had a Thrane elf in my 3.5 game have their proficiencies from serving in a peasant militia. Thrane drills the longbow religiously, it seemed right that cut off from Aerenal the nation matters more. Good to see that was in the right area

    Are the drow noted for use of the hand crossbow in Eberron? I often refer to the hand crossbow as the “Breland bow” in my games due to a popularity with rogues, but was the design imported from interaction in Stormreach or should drow weapons training change in Eberron?

    • Are the drow noted for use of the hand crossbow in Eberron?

      The Qaltiar and Vulkoori definitely are not; they primarily use throwing weapons. It could be that the Umbragen or Sulatar use them, but they are so obscure that it’s DEFINITELY not the origin of the weapon. I think the hand crossbow as “Breland Bow” is a fine way to handle it. For Vulkoori or Qaltiar I’d do a proficiency swap.

    • Sure! I am in no way a scientist and nothing I ever say in any of these articles is supposed to be an accurate observation about OUR world. Rather that “the principle” perhaps I should have said “the common belief”– because it’s not necessarily something *I* believe, just something I know to be a common assertion.

      With that said, the principle I’m basing the article on is the scientific principle of fluid intelligence versus crystalized intelligence, which is something I myself have definitely experienced as I’ve grown older. I am certainly not a conservative person by nature. And yet when it comes to day to day life, there’s a strong push for me to rely on the things I currently understand and have confidence in rather than picking up a new tool. When it comes to game prototyping there have been many times when I’ve used some sort of old fashioned analog system as opposed to a new, more effective app because I know my old system works and it’s less stressful that trying to master something entirely new… even though in the long run, the new system is surely more efficient. That’s what I’m suggesting for the elves on a grand scale. It’s the Arcanix professor who’s been teaching the same class for 300 years — and he is the best teacher of those basic principles you will ever encounter. But he’s not the one doing the innovative, game-changing work.

      Again, this is about general principles; everyone is unique, and YOU could play an edgy, innovative 500 year old elf. It’s just working off that general principle — that your grandfather could be both a brilliant nuclear physicist and have trouble with the DVR — because of that shift of balance between fluid and crystalized intelligence.

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