Welcome back! My last post on fantasy lifespans ended up running a bit long, ironically enough. So here’s the second half of my breakdown of what I, personally, use to explain away the various different “coming of age” ages for different fantasy races. Last time we explored a bit of the problem and then looked at the elves, one of the most troublesome species given the sheer length of their “childhood” century.
This time around, however, we’re going to look at some of the shorter long-lived species: the dwarves, the halflings, and the gnomes. We’re also going to take a short look at shorter lifespan species like the orcs and dragonborn, to help make their maturity progressions a bit better.
With that said, let’s begin with…
A Recap of Fantasy Lifespans
For ease of use, I’m going to include the most basic numbers here. But if you want the full rundown, check out the second post in this series for that. Right now, though, all we need are the basics.
Average Lifespan: 70 to 80 years
Adulthood Age: ~20 years
In Lord of the Rings: Unchanged (but see “half-elves” below).
Notes: This is a rough estimate since fantasy narratives, despite taking place in vaguely medieval-esque time periods, often don’t use that period’s normal life expectancy.
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.
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, just a bit over 100 seems normal.
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.
D&D Lifespan: 350 to 500 years
Adulthood Age: 40 years
Notes: As stated before, this is an absurd variance. One gnome could die at age 500 and another at age 350, both normal ages to die at, except the 500-year-old is the parent of the 350-year-old child – who thus dies one hundred and fifty years before their parent does. Absurd.
From an outsider’s perspective, all dwarves are master artisans of one kind or another. Some are smiths, some are warriors, some are merchants, but they all have a core knack for crafting and stonework. There are less differences between hill and mountain dwarves than there are between high and wood elves, so instead we’ll look at different life paths – artisan, warrior, and merchant.
For a dwarf artisan, “adulthood” is equated with independent practice in their field. A blacksmith becomes an adult the moment they can work on their own – they may still work at their master’s forge, but they can now oversee projects of their own without supervision. Luckily, there’s a real-world concept that maps onto this quite well, namely the “masterwork” and the concept of guilds.
While guilds in real world history are quite exclusive (making it difficult to become a “master” no matter how talented you are), the dwarven concept of “adulthood” has to be a bit more broad since everyone, eventually, should become an adult. So by ditching the exclusionary practice of guild membership, we’re left with the idea of a “masterwork.” This is a piece of crafting which displays the skill necessary to be an independent artisan.
So a dwarf from an artisan background becomes an “adult” after they craft their first masterwork. Given that, a dwarf’s first masterwork should be a vital, precious keepsake – a memento of the transition from childhood into adulthood. You can show this in a myriad of ways. Perhaps a dwarven warrior wields the Axe of Ultimate Strength… but their most precious belonging is still their pocket knife, the first thing they ever forged on their own.
Given how the artisans work, it would follow that dwarves from a martial background would come of age with a fight. What that fight is would depend heavily on what situation the culture finds itself in. A society on the frontiers might have solo animal/monster hunts, while cultures at peace might have formalized duels. It could even be unplanned – a singular act of bravery during a time of crisis might earn adulthood.
Much like with artisans, a dwarf could keep a memento of their first solo battle. If it was a hunt, this keepsake might be a tooth or claw from their fallen foe. A duel might end with a traditional exchange of some object, showing their master’s acknowledgement of their skill. You could even have a dwarf with a prized, goblin-made necklace – a war trophy claimed from that first fight.
I’m always a fan of making sure societies don’t have just one (or even just two) coming-of-age tradition. And so what about merchants? Alongside combat and craftsmanship, the other most common dwarven stereotype involves trading. But a “first trade” isn’t as impressive as a “first masterwork” or “first triumph in one-on-one combat.”
Instead, a dwarf merchant becomes an adult with their first trading journey instead. From that point, the dwarven merchant introduces themselves as being “of” both their home and their first destination – making it a “second home” in a way. So a dwarf from Stoneholm whose first journey was to Riverside would introduce themselves as “of Stoneholm and Riverside.”
To outsiders (IE humans) this could become incredibly confusing. But to other dwarves, this could provide a wealth of information about the dwarf in question. Perhaps Stoneholm and Riverside are relatively near to one another, with a strong tradition of friendship between the two settlements – thus that dwarf’s first journey was part of an honorable relationship between cities. Another dwarf might list two cities that are worlds apart, showing both boldness and accomplishment in having such a long journey as their first. Or you might have a dwarf whose “second home” isn’t even a dwarven settlement – showing open-mindedness to dwarves who enjoy the company of other species (or disrespect to more insular dwarves).
Halflings and Gnomes
Now we have the small races. Both halflings and gnomes are generally characterized by being more “silly” or light-hearted than other species. Elves and dwarves measure maturity with wisdom or skill in combat. Halflings show maturity by organizing tea parties.
And that’s fine! It’s what gives the two species their charm.
Both halflings and gnomes are usually a bit more “silly” than other races. And that’s fine! It gives them their charm. And so here’s what I’d do for them.
For halflings, “adulthood” is the moment when the halfling’s mother no longer treats them like a little kid when they return home. It’s as simple as that.
The traditional way for this to happen is through marriage – when a halfling first visits their mother after having wed, the mother must receive the new couple as adults. But there could be other scenarios too. A halfling returning from a great journey could be treated as an adult in recognition for their deeds. Another halfling might choose to break with their family, or their family might choose to disown them – thus on their next meeting, the halfling is treated as a stranger, not a child, which makes them an adult.
And the best part about this is the potential humor it allows. A halfling and their adventuring party visit the halfling’s family, only for their mother to greet them as her child and “their little friends.” It’s funny and, to me, fits the species perfectly.
As I’ve mentioned previously, I believe gnomes have the most ridiculous listed lifespan. And so, accordingly, they should have the most ridiculous notion of when someone is an adult, namely…
A gnome becomes an adult when they pull their first “true” prank.
Gnomes are pranksters in most settings, so it would be expected that most gnomes start pulling pranks almost from birth. But those are “child’s pranks” – not true pranks. And adults can still pull child’s pranks, of course. But by pulling a true prank, a gnome is showing they’re ready to become an adult.
The best in-game use of this, though, is in a gnome trying to explain this system to a non-gnome. Because while the difference between “child’s pranks” and a “true” prank is near incomprehensible for non-gnomes… all gnomes unfailingly agree on what is and is not a “true” prank. An outsider struggling to understand this could grab any old gnome off the street and ask their opinion on a prank, only to get the exact same answer as the first one they talked to.
It’s silly, but so is having a race that can completely naturally outlive their children by one hundred years.
Short End of the Lifespan Stick
With all that taken care of, I want to take a short moment to look at the less long-lived species in D&D. I have a few issues with these.
Firstly, there’s the problem of implications. Take the orcs as an example here. Much of fantasy fiction inevitably portrays “longer lifespan = more powerful/wise” due to the great wisdom of the elves and the masterful crafts of the dwarves. Humans are always “lesser” to these species, and make up for their innate deficiency with passion and creativity. That’s a great narrative, but it has some awkward implications when you apply it in reverse. If elves and dwarves are “superior” to humans due, in part, to their longer lifespans… what does that say about orcs with lower lifespans? It isn’t a huge deal, but it definitely makes me feel awkward about the whole deal.
(You can also see this, by the way, with how other “half-human” races are treated. Half-elves live longer than humans and are more graceful/understanding. Aasimar have divine blood and angelic powers, including a longer lifespan. Tieflings, who are supposed to be seen as evil but inevitably are loved by players regardless, also have a longer lifespan. The only real races with shorter lifespans are the orcs and the dragonborn – and while the dragonborn, at least, are associated with positive elements, both they and the orcs are also often shown as more “primitive” than humans, elves, and dwarves.)
Secondly, and much more critically, is the issue this creates within the world. I just can’t get over the issues that drastically different lifespans and ages-of-adulthood would cause within a logical world. This has been parodied before with the common joke of a bartender pulling out a big tome in order to check drinking ages for a multi-species D&D party, but seriously… it just doesn’t make sense to me. An orc is an adult at age 12, so do they just look like and act like an adult human? Why are they able to develop so much faster? And if they don’t look like an adult human, then that creates even more questions!
Personally, I’d prefer to standardize most species to use, at minimum, the human age range and aging progression. But a little variety is still good, so we don’t want to lose that entirely.
For orcs, I’d say that they live to be 70 to 80 years old and that they reach adulthood around 20 years old. However, humans have the perception that orcs live shorter lives, and mature quicker, due to the following factors:
- Orcs have a reduced “elderly” period. Whereas a human will start to slow down at age 55 or 60ish, an orc can maintain a typical “adult” physique and level of activity well into their sixties, and some only begin to struggle with “old age” a year or two before they die. This also applies to physical appearance, so that humans mostly can’t tell the difference between a 30-year-old orc and a 60-year-old orc.
- Orcs mature at the same rate as humans, but culturally expect more from their children. An orc could be 16 years old and not considered an “adult” but still be expected to hunt and/or fight alongside the adults more-or-less equally. There could also be a larger focus on “hands-on” learning (like with the wood elves) which means even “children” will get combat experience before becoming full adults.
- Orcs have a strong belief in the wisdom of their elders, thus as an orc gets older they’re more likely to stay back from active combat or danger. This is treated as a responsibility – an older orc who reaches 60, 70, or even older has a powerful cultural expectation to stay home, stay safe, and give wisdom and advice to the younger generations.
Together, this means that humans would rarely see “old” orcs, thus coming to the conclusion that they must not live past 50 or so. Humans would also see much younger orcs, teenagers essentially, working side-by-side with adults – leading to the misunderstanding that orcs mature faster. I like this setup a lot better.
For dragonborn, I’d say they again have the same lifespan – living to be around 70 to 80 years old and becoming adults at around age 20. The perception that they live shorter lives is simply due to the difference in biology between humans and dragonborn.
Essentially, dragonborn don’t show wrinkles. They lack most of the “old age” signifiers shared by humans, elves, dwarves and others. Rather than becoming wrinkly, dragonborn scales dull and become more weathered. Their voices become more gruff, but most humans already think they sound gravelly. Other dragonborn can easily tell each other’s ages, as can humans that pay attention. But most humans don’t know, and just can’t see it.
As for them maturing sooner, again you could link this to their biological differences. I can’t remember if dragonborn hatch from eggs (I think the answer is maybe?), but even if not you could always portray them as being clutch-based as young infants. And so a human visiting a dragonborn settlement would likely never see any actual infants, as they’re all kept safe far from outsiders. Instead they’d just see kids from 5 to 12, and assume that’s the only childhood developmental stage that dragonborn ever have.
There are other options as well, of course. Perhaps the dragonborn molt, but do so less and less as they get older. Older dragonborn will have older scales, while young dragonborn develop in fits and bursts so they aren’t constantly outgrowing their skin. You could even confuse things further by adding in egg gestation time – perhaps the dragonborn reckon age from when their egg was laid. This would be confusing to humans, and could cause misunderstandings.
A Long-Awaited Conclusion
Time in fantasy stories is always a bit of a toss up. We have only one functioning system of time in our own world, and only a single way of comprehending time. Despite this, our sense of time isn’t absolute – it’s often a struggle to envision people from the past as being different from those today. This is even a trend in art, where figures from historical periods are shown wearing the common clothing of the time in which the painting was made, rather than the time when that person actually lived.
Plus, I mean… it’s fantasy! It’s no fun to have everything be exactly like reality, otherwise we wouldn’t be making something up, would we? But it’s important to strive for realism when possible, and to consider things carefully. Doing this helps make the world feel more complete, and it adds to the richness of the experience.
So these are my own suggestions for doing just that – considering why and how certain things happen. Not because there’s anything “wrong” about not doing that, but just because it enhances the experience.
At least in my opinion. So, like always… let me know what you think!