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Elves: A Near Immortal Race

Pointy-eared, near immortal, and generally beautiful are the elves of Dungeons and Dragons. This race, first popularized by Tolkien's epic Lord of the Rings trilogy, is one of the most well-known fantasy races, and an important part of the Dungeons and Dragons multiverse. From their mysterious and majestic fey ancestry to their polarizing worship of Lolth, elf history is rich. Due to their density, the amount of possible plot hooks and character ideas stemming from elf history is immense. Yet, there's always more to learn!

This week, in preparation for the release of Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, we’ll be going over the history of elves by edition, in addition to looking at interesting ways to utilize elves as both a player and dungeon master. Elves are the main topic of Mordenkainen’s second chapter, and I’m excited to see how they expand upon them in D&D's fifth edition.

As always with this interim series on Mordenkainen's, let’s start with a brief history lesson. 

Elves by Edition

Elves have been a part of Dungeons and Dragons since the RPG's inception. In the original, 1974 version of D&D, they were a player character class. Most of their abilities, such as being immune to paralysis were transferred over from Chainmail, a war game that spawned D&D first iteration. However, this powerful ability would eventually be related to the race's mystical fey ancestry...

In D&D’s next, and ‘first’ edition, elves made the leap from class to race. With this jump came a variety of subraces, such as high elves, gray elves, black elves, and wood elves. Three of these would remain mainstream in the current edition, and one would become one of the classic villain races of this wonderful hobby.

Second, third, and fourth edition saw the expansion of elf lore, from the tribalistic and savage elves of Athas in the Elves of Athas to the graceful elves of the Forgotten Realms in Races of Faerun. In fourth edition, elves were split into three subraces: drow, eladrin, and sylvan, a design choice that didn’t transfer to the current edition.

Now, in fifth edition, elves remain a playable race with a variety of subrace options: high, wood, and dark, with more set to come with Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes. I'd speculate that the book will include player favorites such as winged and aquatic elves. Both will make a great addition to 5E's growing list of interesting PC races. I think that Mordenkainen's will also expand upon the conflict between the drow and other elves, as well as the mysterious fey ancestry of the race.

Elves as a race have fey ancestry but were created by a singular god. From their point of creation onward, their race experienced a series of tumultuous events, from the banishment of the drow to the Underdark, to the slow disappearance of the eladrin.

Luckily, from this rich history, there’s a lot of play on as both a player and a dungeon master, which is what I’m talking about next!

Using Elves as a Player

Elves are already a prominent player character race, but they’re often portrayed as mysterious rangers who emerge from the wilderness, or incredible spellcasters invested in mortal affairs. Here are a few ideas for unconventional but interesting elf characters connected to elf history.
  • You grew up in a noble house, left there by your parents who claimed they could not protect you. The noble family, humans, taught you the ways of the wealthy and privileged. You learned to sing, dance, and play the flute. Thankfully, you were a natural. Words peacefully flow from your lips, and your music makes even the hardiest man melt. Your life has been wonderful, thus far. During your weekly performances in the amphitheater, though, you’ve noticed an individual intently watching you, always in a different spot, always with the same blood red eyes. Their presence makes you uneasy, and, strangely, causes your parent’s words of warning to echo in your mind. Could this being be the creature they were terrified they couldn’t protect me from?
  • You are a dwarf raised by wood elves.
  • You are a wood elf who’s lived in the Feywild your entire life, surrounded by mystical imagery and explosive, random magic. You’re attuned to this way of life, but something has been off recently. Dark vines and bloody flowers are creeping up all around your serene home, along with indestructible, pale spider webs. Something is awry.
Remember: Your character need not be an elf to be connected to elves, and not elves need to be from the deep forest.

Using Elves as a Dungeon Master

Elves can be allies. Elves can be enemies. Elves have thousands of years of history. Elves are an unlimited font of content for dungeon masters.
  • The mountains to the west where the ancient relic is hidden were once ruled by giants, then orcs, and then dwarves. However, now they are controlled by the ruthless wood elves who were driven from their nearby forest home by a tribe of vicious gnolls. The elves have taken to slaying any who dare travel in their newfound territory until the gnolls are driven from the nearby woodland. This gives options for the adventurers: Face the fury of the mountain elves to find the artifact or delve into the gnoll-infested woods beforehand to gain the favor of the elves.
  • During the first stirrings of elves, their ancestors wove an immense tapestry depicting the story of their creation. Days turned to months, and months turned to years and the majestic cloth was lost to villainy or carelessness. Now, an eccentric elf priest is on the hunt for this relic, seeking to confirm their race’s creation story once and for all. Perhaps pieces of the tapestry are scattered across the land, in the hands of various factions. Maybe the cloth is hidden in the ruins of a decrepit elven metropolis, overgrown in a serene woodland. That’s for you and your players to discover!
  • Giantkind is being manipulated by an outside force. Something dark and sinister. Hill giants are moving to assault once safe farms, frost giants are raiding lumberers in peaceful snow lands, and fire giants are destabilizing volcanos to demolish nearby cities. It turns out, all of these giant factions are working in cohesion. They are working toward a greater goal; they are preparing the world for her arrival. Deep below the ground, the drow are stationed, using giantkind as puppets to prepare the world for the greatest show imaginable: The arrival of their queen, Lolth. What I’m not so subtlety hinting at here is Against the Giants, a fantastic adventure that can easily be adapted for fifth edition! In this mega-module, the dark elves are the masterminds, and giantkind are the puppets.

Elves are interesting, whether as a race or a piece of your campaign. Use them, and get ready to learn even more about them in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes!

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