After what certainly feels like ten thousand years, let’s look at the other side of the “timespans” problem in fantasy – namely the increased lifespans of many fantasy races when compared with humans.
This is a continuation on our discussion on the absurdity of “ten thousand years” as a timespan, but it can easily be understood on its own.
So without even more ado, let’s begin!
(This post is appropriate for all ages unless you’re a dragonborn – in which case if you’re under age 10 you might not be able to read. I guess?)
Readin’ Out the Years
To begin, let’s just list out some “average lifespans” for different races. Each entry will list the race, its average lifespan, and when individuals are considered “adults.” I’ll also be including the same info for races found in Lord of the Rings if it’s available (since most of D&D is based directly on LotR).
Average Lifespan: 70 to 80 years
Adulthood Age: ~20 years
In Lord of the Rings: Unchanged (but see “half-elves” below).
Notes: While actual medieval life expectancy was lower, this is rarely reflected in fantasy works. So I’m just using “70 to 80 years” as a rough estimate of human lifespan without access to advanced medical technology. Basically, this is how long a human could live without needing any major medications or procedures.
D&D Lifespan: 750 years
Adulthood Age: 100 years
In Lord of the Rings: Immortal, with no “accepted adult age” specified.
D&D Lifespan: 180 years
Adulthood Age: ~20 years (same as humans)
In Lord of the Rings: All half-elves age either as humans or as elves, but those who choose to be mortal still have greatly extended lifespans compared to normal humans. Even Aragorn, a distant descendent of a half-elf (Elros), lived to be 210.
D&D Lifespan: 350 years
Adulthood Age: 50 years
In Lord of the Rings: Dwarves are mentioned living for around 250 years, and similarly are “young” until what would be middle-age for a human.
D&D Lifespan: 250 years
Adulthood Age: 20 years
In Lord of the Rings: Hobbits seem to live to about 100, but it isn’t unheard of for them to live longer – Bilbo’s age at 111 was only odd because of how youthful he looked, and it’s mentioned that the Old Took died at around 130 years old.
D&D Lifespan: 40 years
Adulthood Age: 12 years
In Lord of the Rings: It’s really never addressed, but I’d be tempted to say they live at least as long as humans if not longer, since orcs are originally of elven descent.
Notes: This one is a bit inconsistent in D&D. Older editions attribute this massively lowered lifespan to the “inherent violence” of orcish culture. Modern D&D, trying to ditch the more racist undertones of orcish “savagery,” instead says orcs just age faster than humans. So it’s unclear what their true biological lifespan is.
D&D Lifespan: 350 to 500 years
Adulthood Age: 40 years
Notes: This is the most absurd lifespan out of all of these races. They average anywhere between 350 to 500 years, which is a variation of 150 years. A 50-year-old gnomish parent of a gnomish child will be 400 years old when their child hits 350, which is the low end of the lifespan variance. So if the parent lives to be 500 and the child lives to be 350, both totally normal ages to die at (apparently), then the parent will have naturally outlived their child by one hundred years. That’s just… insane.
Many Other Races
In general, most other races either live “slightly longer” than humans (tieflings, aasimar) or “slightly less” than humans (dragonborn, half-orcs). Those that live longer than humans generally reach adulthood at the same age, while the others generally reach adulthood in their teens.
As a note, some of the D&D lifespan choices are… complicated to say the least. In addition to the absurdity of the gnomes’ 150 year variation in lifespan, you also have a lot of cases where children of two species have dramatically different lifespans from at least one of their parents’ species. For example, some half-elves are raised by their elven parents. They only live to around 180 years old, so… are they treated as “children” up until 80 years from their death? Then there’s half-orcs – if raised by their human parent, then a half-orc will reach adulthood a whole four to six years before their human peers. That’s just bizarre.
It’s also unclear if these “age of adulthood” figures are socially/culturally based or if they’re grounded in some biological factor. I chose to put humanity’s adulthood age at “around 20 years” as a compromise. Human brains don’t fully mature until the mid-twenties, while the cultural age of adulthood (in the U.S) is anywhere between 18 (age of legal autonomy) and 21 (age when
you can get drunk it’s expected an individual will be “out on their own” for good). This is an important question though – is an orc just “considered” an adult at age 12, or are they actually equivalent to an “adult” human (age 20ish) at that age?
This all might seem unimportant, but it can’t really be ignored if you have a multi-species society. Can a rebellious young elf move to the human city at age 25 to claim independence? Can a 16-year-old orc who’s been seen as an “adult” for four years travel to a nearby human settlement and be seen as an adult, or will they outwardly still look like a teenager? You can make this the basis for an interesting character concept – such as an eladrin I had who was raised by humans, leaving the party’s elf scandalized that a baby (age 25) was out on a dangerous adventure. But it also raises a bunch of questions.
And that is what we’re going to discuss today.
There are many ways to handle these discrepancies. One is to simply say that all species age at the same rate relative to their maximum lifespan. This is a very easy answer, but it leads to some bizarre situations – such as the 13-year-old dwarf toddler or the elven mother who has to breastfeed her child for 28 years.
I’ve also seen the idea that longer-lived races mature at the same rate as humans but simply spend longer in each mature age state. So an elf develops identically to a human up until age 20 or so, then simply doesn’t age for another 150 years. But if that’s the case, shouldn’t it also be that an orc, with half the lifespan of a human, would hit middle age after just a decade of youth?
Neither of these options sit well with me. I’m fine with the possibility that longer-lived races could spend longer at each age category than a human would – if not, then it would suck to be an elf stuck as a geriatric for a hundred and fifty years. But as far as maturity goes, I think there has to be some sort of parity. A species that spends over two years as a “newborn” (up to 3 months in a human, or 2.3 years for an elf) would have more significant biological and cultural differences from humans than most fantasy species do.
Instead, I prefer a cultural model of maturity. For this, all longer-lived races physically mature at the same rate as humans. Thus a 20-year-old human, a 20-year old dwarf, and a 20-year-old elf will be at the same point in their biological development. The difference comes in what their culture views as “mature.”
This is a great opportunity to explain away how humans view these other species. Elves are seen as graceful and tranquil – and that’s because, compared to the human, an “adult” elf has had eighty years of physical maturity with which to practice grace and tranquility. All dwarves are “master craftspeople” as far as humans are concerned, and that’s because any “adult” dwarf they meet has at minimum the same experience as a middle-aged 50-year-old human artisan.
So let’s take a look at what different cultures might use to define “adulthood” and how those things can help explain the outsider (IE real-world human) perspective on those species. And of course this is just my own opinion – a suggestion to help undecided DMs. If your world is different, then make it different! This is just what I do.
To begin, let’s look at the elves.
In D&D, elves reach adulthood at age 100. If they mature physically at more or less the same rate as humans, that means elves have eighty years of maturity in which to “earn” their adulthood according to their culture. We’ll be looking at three different types of elf – the high elves, the wood elves, and the half-elves and other “outsiders.”
And remember, these are just suggestions based on the default qualities of these different subraces as presented in D&D 5e. Specific settings, such as Eberron, have their own explanations of why cultures define adulthood the way that they do. But let’s look at my own personal version.
All elves spend their early childhood much the same as humans. They learn to walk, talk, read, and play. Their teenage years are spent learning the basics, such as math or practical life skills. Then, around 18 to 20, they transition to a different learning environment.
Generally speaking, high elves are defined by an austere calm paired with extensive knowledge of ancient and obscure lore. They also begin with one cantrip, one bonus language, and a few extra weapon proficiencies. For me, all of this can stem from one place – boarding school.
When a high elf reaches 20 years old, they leave home to advance their knowledge with professional teachers and lecturers. At boarding school, high elves learn about elvish history and culture (lore), other cultures (bonus language), and the basics of magic (cantrip). They also practice with traditional elvish weapons (longsword, longbow, etc.) as a sort of martial art.
This is a great opportunity to add some characterization to an elf character as well. What courses did they take? What subjects did they excel at, and which ones proved difficult to them? Did their boarding school have any rivalries or special traditions? None of this is required, of course, but it can vastly improve how “real” a character feels.
Also… while a human might look at “eighty years of boarding school” with confusion and/or horror, for the elves it just isn’t. Keep in mind that though we’re calling it “boarding school,” it essentially encompasses all of college, graduate school, and probably even the equivalent to a doctoral program. A human doctor (of anything, not just medicine) might have more specific knowledge, of course, but the elf will have a very broad array of knowledge.
And that is why humans see high elves as refined, graceful and wise individuals. Because if you’re meeting with an “adult” elf, that elf has had the same amount of education and learning as a human doctor after four years of college, four years of medical school, six years of residency, and several years on the job independently. And while that doctor might know more about medicine than the elf does, the high elf also knows magic, cultural history, and linguistics at a graduate or masters degree level.
The general stereotype of wood elves is that they are insanely in-tune with forests and the wilds, especially those of their homeland. They’re also fleet of foot and masterful at concealing themselves, in addition to being accomplished experts in the favored weapons of their people. But imagining a wood elf going to boarding school just feels wrong.
Instead, wood elves take a more hands-on approach. At age 20, a wood elf still leaves home to further their education… but rather than a school, what they do is join a hunting or foraging party. These groups move about the domain of the wood elves with a few novices each, giving plenty of time for the experienced members of each party to carefully tutor them in various subjects.
And because this is a hands-on approach, there’s plenty of opportunities to add personal characterization with this method. A wood elf might still sing an old song while caring for their bow as it was taught to them by their tutor (who, in turn, likely learned it from their own teacher). One great opportunity is to have a wood elf display a significantly advanced knowledge of their homeland, like remembering the precise location of a specific campsite with a particular tree trunk – and then, when getting there, being greeted happily by an old bear who remembers the elf from when it was a cub.
Unlike with high elves, I think it’s a lot more understandable how an elf could spend eighty years with a hunting or gathering party. But even so, this difference between the subraces could still be used as a good narrative hook – perhaps a wood elf’s idea of “adulthood” is much more fluid than a high elf’s. A high elf might have to pass a specific set of exams before being acknowledged as an “adult,” while a wood elf’s maturity is judged on a subjective basis by their companions. This can help explain why a high elf’s haughtiness might still apply to other elves.
The end result of this is to make wood elves seem almost uncannily knowledgeable about nature, at least to outsiders. A human would view wood elves as master trackers and hunters even as high elves might still hold themselves as being more “mature” regardless.
Half-Elves and Others
Children of two species are always one of the more confusing aspects of having such wildly different life expectancies between different species. A half-elf’s lifespan is much closer to a human’s even despite being almost twice as long. So, in general, half-elves follow a very humanlike path through their early lives. A half-elf raised among humans is probably more likely to pursue higher education simply because they can afford the time expenditure easier. Meanwhile, if raised in an elven community they might delay their “adulthood” by a few years to learn a bit more of their people’s knowledge.
Ultimately, though, half-elves are defined by a wanderlust and curiosity. Humans view half-elves as oddly detached from human society (because they’ll outlive this generation) while elves see them as being easily bored just like humans (because they can’t afford to spend forty years learning elven table manners). In this case, the half-elf lifespan helps explain why a half-elf might feel out-of-step with their home culture.
Finally, I think it’s vitally important to look at how elves behave when living among humans. Most fantasy settings have humans as the main race of city-dwellers, so what happens with elves who live in a human city?
For high elves, the real question is financial. If a high elf family can afford it, they’d likely send their children away to a traditional elven boarding school. The kid might have a bit of a culture-shock upon arrival. But what if they couldn’t afford it? The only option left would be human institutions of higher learning… but not only are those unlikely to offer traditional courses on elvish culture, they also are timed out on a human scale. A high elf could easily get eight different degrees and still have decades of “childhood” left.
Such a character would be less well-informed on elvish culture and similarly less broad in their experience. A traditionally-educated high elf would likely see them as impolite or immature, while humans might see them as “more approachable” than a typical high elf. Again, these are all interesting dimensions to expand into, adding personality and realism to the character.
For wood elves, there’s a simpler answer – cities are often compared with jungles, after all. So for a wood elf living in human society, the city is their forest. Where another wood elf knows all the safe water sources in the region, the city-raised wood elf knows every back alley shortcut and all the best places for food or drink.
This could even be used to explain why a wood elf from a relatively affluent family might have the urchin background – sure, they were raised wealthy, but they still spent a lot of time on the streets. Additionally, how would a wood elf raised in a traditional setting feel about all this? Would they be dismissive? Or would their kin’s intimate knowledge of human society and man-made environments amaze them just as much as their own woodland knowledge astounds humans?
One final note – always keep in mind that no matter what tradition says, some environmental factors will always override conflicting cultural trends. An elf raised in a human city is going to have a lot more freedom at age 20 than one raised in an elven community… simply because elves can tell the difference between a 20-year-old and a 100-year-old. Humans, meanwhile, cannot. And so no matter what the elven culture might demand, a city-born elf raised among humans will experience more freedom.
A Note on Memory and History
This post has stretched on a little long, so I’m going to split it in two. To close out this part, however, there’s something else I want to look at: the issue of history. If elves live for 750 years, then how could anything that happened less than half a millennia ago ever be unknown? You have people who were adults when it happened five hundred years ago and are still adults now.
Of course there’d still be gaps, since no single elf could know everything about a given event, but having still-living witnesses to an event fundamentally changes how it’s viewed, even to those born well afterward.
There are a few solutions to this. The easiest is to simply make the more long-lived races progressively more insular the longer their lifespans are when compared to humans. The elves don’t remember a thing because they hate talking to outsiders, while the dwarves only remember the basics since they mostly don’t get involved. The gnomes, presumably, didn’t notice because they were too busy pulling pranks and/or mourning the loss of their children to natural causes a hundred years before the parents’ deaths (yes, really – check it out below).
While I’m not really fond of that explanation, it’s difficult to come up with good alternatives. Actually accounting for the existence of 750-year-old individuals when constructing a fantasy history seems near-impossible, since the real world doesn’t have any 750-year-old people in it. You could also say that the elves’ records are biased towards whoever their allies are, but using that too often would get annoying.
Of course, there’s also the question of how memories would even function with a 750-year-old mind. Could a physical brain ever contain over 500 years of functional memory? It seems like the answer should be no, but we don’t even understand how our own memories work, so who knows. But simultaneously, just saying “everyone forgot” also feels weak.
So despite not particularly liking it, I generally stick with the “long-lived races are more insular” explanation and call it a day. But at the same time, I’d love to find some other, more satisfying answer.
Come back next time for a look at the dwarves, gnomes, halflings, orcs, and dragonborn! And, like always, let me know what you think!