I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

All elves are half-elves

(A  brief detour from my DMG series, related to the most recent post; might be a good idea to do these from time to time).

I've heard that the next edition of D&D (6e, D&Done, or whatever) is banning "half" characters: no half-elves, half-orcs, etc. I will not discuss their motives (nor do I trust WotC enough to care about what motives they claim). This is not a big concern for me because I'm no longer playing WotC D&D. I'm playing my own games and running my own campaigns the way I like them.

However, I want to share a quick thought... or two.

Copyright WotC. Notice elf/gnome wizard, dwarf/orc warrior.

First, it's worth mentioning that the original D&D (1974) suggests that you could start the game as a low-level Balrog or dragon. On the other hand, elves and dwarves do not have infravision*, and even monsters lose it as they join the party:
In the underworld some light source or an infravision spell must be used. Torches, lanterns and magic swords will illuminate the way, but they also allow monsters to “see” the users so that monsters will never be surprised unless coming through a door. Also, torches can be blown out by a strong gust of wind. Monsters are assumed to have permanent infravision as long as they are not serving some character. 
- The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures, pg. 9. 
* They do on Supplement I and Chainmail; could be an oversight.

AD&D keeps infravision (and adds half-elves, half-orcs) but, as mentioned in a previous post, says this on "monstrous" PCs: 
The game features humankind for a reason. It is the most logical basis in an illogical game. From a design aspect it provides the sound groundwork. From a standpoint of creating the campaign milieu it provides the most readily usable assumptions. From a participation approach it is the only method, for all players are, after all is said and done, human, and it allows them the role with which most are most desirous and capable of identifying with. From all views then it is enough fantasy to assume a swords & sorcery cosmos, with impossible professions and make-believe magic. To adventure amongst the weird is fantasy enough without becoming that too!
For me, having monstrous PCs is a matter of taste and setting. But, in this matter, it is very hard to keep your cake and eat it too.

Having PCs with infravisions partly ruins the "light source mini-game", where PCs have to keep track of torches, monsters are hardly surprised, etc.

In a similar manner, having PC elves and dwarves robs these beings of some of their mystery (and weirdness). Same goes for orcs, ogres, minotaurs, and so on.

In this sense, I think all elves are "half-elves", as they are part human and part the fey elf of legend. Few people play elves as the dangerous, selfish beings of Poul Anderson or the semi-divine beings from Tolkien.

[Maybe you could have these watered down PC elves and also keep "authentic" elves and call the Sidhe or whatever. Other solution are changelings/foster children, etc. Humans raised by elves or vice-versa, so PCs can never fully grasp the mystery of elves]. 

The same pattern is observed in dragonborn (half-dragons), tielflings (half-fiend), warforged (half-machine), genasi (half-elements), centaur/werewolf/shifters/tabaxi/kenku/etc. (half-beast), aasimar/deva (half-celestial),  dhampirs/revenants (half-undead), and so on. They all stand halfway between human and something else

Even more: they are CLOSER to human than to something else, having rational thoughts, human desires and free will.

[Dwarves and Halflings are even more obvious, often being portrayed as caricatures of scots and merry Englishmen].

It might be possible to have, say, wolf PCs (actual wolves, not intelligent ones), but this is not common at all - and I think few players could pull it off. Gygax is right in saying "humans are the role with which most are [...] capable of identifying with".

So, "half elves", IMO, could be a decent compromise in a game that doesn't allow elf PCs. So, you could have some elven traits, but keep elves as a whole a bit alien and mysterious. Although I don't think I've ever heard of such a game. 

Elves became so familiar that they are now all half-elves. Orcs follow a similar trend. Once they stop being archetypal demonic (or piglike) creatures and become simply green-skinned humanoids (with an actual humanlike civilization), there is no further need for half-orcs. Or, worse, they might have NO specific civilization and customs: they can become paladins, mages, etc, exactly like humans. At this point, they ARE humans except for appearance and some vague generalizations (and even that is disappearing).

(This could be a motive for using race-as-class, BTW, if you want to keep races distinct).

In practice, I err on the side of letting my PCs choose whatever character type they want (and treat it as cosplay, playing them like humans). But I can feel that this detracts from my games (here is one example) unless I'm playing in a highly cosmopolitan setting (e.g., Ravnica). I might as well go all-human (maybe allowing "elf blood etc.") or all-weird (everything goes but nothing stands out in the crowd) in my future games, since it tends to work better in my experience.

(BTW, this is why Dark Fantasy Basic is human-only but a future version might have more races for my players, as exemplified here).

And, come to think of it, I can't recall a good fantasy book where non-human characters are treated as humans in costumes (except maybe some parts of Tolkien). The ancestry of non-humans (or "different humans") is always important, even if they go against it: think of Tanis, Drizzt, Hellboy, and even Elric, Geralt and Daenerys Targaryen.

I do understand, however, if elves and dwarves are so familiar to you that you want to allow them (and half-elves, etc.) while prohibiting tieflings, for example - as Gygax seems to suggest. D&D's elves, dwarves and especially Halflings are so human-like that allowing only these types of PCs is almost as natural as running a human-only campaign. And I can definitely see how having serpent-folk PCs ruins serpent-folk, or tieflings partly ruins fiends, for example.

Just something to keep in mind. In the end, it is your campaign; do what serves you best.

Recommended reading:

On infravision:


  1. I've always preferred human-centric games. I'm fine with dwarves and elves as NPCs (elves in particular make good antagonists) but just not for the players. And I absolutely loathe hobbits/halflings/gnomes. They have a tendency to make everything twee. I do like the idea of bloodlines though. Having a human with elven ancestors a few generations back can be an interesting roleplaying exercise and can even provide some mechanical advantages like immunity to certain diseases, etc. I look at it similar to the Dunedain in various more recent editions of Tolkein-based games. They have some non-human and/or magical lineage going back eons, but over time - and through interbreeding - have lost most of their distinctiveness and now are just physically impressive humans with slightly longer-than-average human lifespans.

    1. Yes, exactly - something between human and non-human might be a great exercise, without the downsides.

  2. Is this the reason why Star Trek's most famous "Vulcan" was a half-Vulcan?

    1. Yup! And he is often struggling with his heritage (IIRC).

  3. I don’t know whether Terry Brooks had played D&D, but his dwarfs, elves and so on in The Sword of Shannara put me more in mind of the game than of Tolkien’s peoples (themselves already significantly removed from faerie).

    1. I've read The Sword of Shannara, but it's been a while.

  4. The Sword of Shannara (the first book) released in 1977 . . . I actually thought it was earlier. Possible, though seems a little early for a strong case.

    1. Shannara feels more inspired by Tolkien than by D&D, I think.