Today I’m going to step on some toes, but it is something that I feel needs to be addressed. The game as it sits is fundamentally flawed in regards to races, and for whatever reason later editions chose to further widen this gap instead of tightening it. I speak of course of Elves and all of their super powers that they never really have to pay for. The other demi-human races have their own bonuses, but they are limited, and appear to be in balance with the system, but elves, for whatever reason, are seriously overpowered! They get way too much for free, and there doesn’t seem to be much incentive to not play them.

Munchkin power-gamers always go right to the elf, and considering that in most of our DM worlds, the Elf is getting pushed out by men, in a death heavy campaign you’d think that eventually you’ll have all of the elves accounted for in the world. In my opinion, those that choose to power-game with the elf are never role-playing them, and just chose them for the crazy amount of bonuses that they get.

Elves were in the original CHAINMAIL rules, and have stayed with us through every edition of the game. In the early rules there was a nice restriction placed upon them which defined them not as a race, but as a class. Say what you will, as a mechanic this works! At the start of a gaming session, a PC elf could choose to be either a fighting man or a magic-user, this was changed in later updates: More powers were granted to the race, and the disadvantages were minimized. In the 2e rules, the only mechanical disadvantages are class restrictions (which honestly don’t effect them much), and level restrictions (which also aren’t very restrictive, as not many campaigns even get to high levels of play). In later editions, even these small restrictions were lifted, completely removing any incentive to play humans who are supposed to be the dominant race.

What do humans get in 2e? Humans can advance 5-8 levels higher than elves, and humans can be “Duel Classed” instead of the multi-classed options given to demi-humans. Duel Classing is a very strange rule, and one that most tables choose to ignore because it is confusing. A human cleric can choose to become another class, but he can not use any cleric abilities until his new class is higher than his previous, and he can never go back and improve his cleric abilities. There is a strategy to creating a Mage/Fighter, but WOW does that take a long time! I would be interested to hear from folks who have actually done it. I tried once but found the whole process to be frustrating; but I’ll probably touch on this in later posts.

The goal of this article is to “Fix” the elf, and balance it out. The danger with this is obvious, it will affect the NPC elves and the Monstrous Manual: We don’t want to over-correct, but as things sit, the elf is just too imbalanced for me.


Sub-races of elf are within the domain of DM control. We are the ones that place them, thus the easiest method of controlling the over-balance is to keep them where they belong, and don’t let them stray away. If your adventure is started 8,000 miles away from the nearest elf village, PC elves are not possible.

The problem with this is that players might get mad, and the other demi-human races would suffer as well, however the other demi-humans do enjoy more trade with the humans than elves do.

Another possibility is to have those that really want to play elves create a very good back-story and be subject to very critical Role-playing judgments. This would require a Dungeon Master being very precise as to how the Elf sees his world and what his function is within it. It would also be desired to have better control over the elf’s alignment.


Player may pick a few special abilities from the list of bonuses given to elves. This of course would alter the NPC elves if you let it. Probably the preferred method would be to equally distribute the abilities between the sub-races of elves. Drow would get infravision, wood elf a bonus to bow, high elf an automatic chance of finding hidden doors . . . etc.


We can create an alternative XP system for elves which dramatically slows them down. I’d say that it would be fair to double or triple the XP needed to gain a level. This would be harsh if an elf is multi-classed, so perhaps the best fix would be to force all elves to multi-class and just run it that way.


This is another possibility. I know that many DMs have allowed high ability scores to affect the level that an elf can max out at, if we lower the level limit to 9 and allow a system of ability to raise the number fairly, this would keep the elf in check.


Demi-humans must pay for bonus abilities by taking specific non-weapon proficiencies, such as cooking, singing, instruments, etc. Alternatively, the DM can create a list of NWP that are only available to elf races; strip all powers away and add them as NWP so that a player must spend his slots on them.

Or, we can go the other way, Humans get bonus proficiency slots or alternatively, their available proficiency slots can equal 3, non-elf demi-humans count as 2, and elves only count as 1; this wouldn’t give more bonus proficiency slots, they just count as more when checking them during play.

These things won’t make munchkins happy, but they might even the playing field a bit. The core rules didn’t specify too much in regards to their place in the world, which leaves this job up to the DM, to develop them in a more advanced way that reflects their cultural differences. One thing that is evident, or implied, is that the elves of today are mere shadows of what the race used to be. It was probably them that had built much of the advanced technology, which is evident in the ruins, but was lost from unknown tragedy. Elves aren’t just humans who don’t need sleep and can see in the dark; they demand to be role-played differently, with more power comes more difficulty in playing that individual, and it isn’t cool for munchkins to refuse to role-play them. If players are capable of running them as they were intended to be ran, and the DM treats them as elves instead of just another adventurer, then there probably isn’t any problem with the system as written, but alas, if only we lived in a perfect world.

Some things don’t make all that much sense when we look at it, though much of that could have something to do with the old Appendix: N, but this would imply that we are playing like Gygax, which we might not be. Perhaps we want to play elves as more Tolkien flavored, or play a breed that is more fairy in nature? While the rules over elves are considered as CORE, there is nothing stopping us from modifying them and asking exactly why a mechanic is there.

I’m not going to go through the entire list, just some of the things that glare at me.


While I can see a Drow needing this ability, as well as dwarves, and other demi-humans that prefer living underground, the normal elf lives above ground and doesn’t care too much for the confinement of the underdark, so why would he be able to see in the dark? Elves get a bonus against being surprised, and an auto-bonus to find hidden and secret doors; I think that it is safe to say that we can remove this power from his innate abilities.  


This is a hold-over from Chainmail rules that people have just kept putting in there over and over. It isn’t even a true MR so we can get rid of that too.

+1 While Using A Bow

Why is this even here? The elf should have to buy specialization like everybody else, no free-bees, this one can go too, or at least give all elves the ability to spend weapon proficiency slots on specializing if they wish, but only for the bow.


If we remove these abilities (or even just a couple of them), then the elf becomes more balanced with the rest of the races, but one can also look at the other races and make them more or less appealing as your campaign world dictates. Perhaps the problem isn’t that the elf is over-powered at all, but the rest of the races are under-powered?

Further Reading:


Brooser Bear said...

D&D inherited the Elves from JRR Tolkien, who was a product of the British colonial culture in Africa and who perpetuated some of the colonial racism in his writing, with sub-human Orcs and the master race Elves. Tolkien was a big fan of Wagner, and the advent of Naziism had severely embarrassed him. After WW2 Tolkien said that the Nazis had perverted all of his ideals about the European Golden Age.

For whatever reason, probably mostly ignorance, TSR perpetuated Tolkien's colonialist views by keeping Race as class and Race as Personality trait, and furthermore, by defining sub-human Humanoids and, often, super human Demi Humans. Funny thing is, when Nazis were in power, they tried inventing their own Nazi culture, and part of it was Nazi Literature, which is not all but forgotten. The defining feature of the so-called Nazi Literature was Racial and Ethnic Stereotype as Character. Of course, instead of Elves, Dwarves, Hobbits and Men, Nazi authors invoked Jolly Bavarians, Idealistic Prussians, Westphalians, Berliners, also Frenchmen, Poles, Slavs, Gypsies, Jews and others, as purely negative stereotypes. The only place where this literary form survives is in D&D and D&D inspired fantasy.

When I was setting up Midlands, I decided to do away with racism and colonial stereotyping in my game. Then I realized, that like magic and supernatural, multitude of sentient races competing with humanity will make the game experience richer, so I kept the Elves and others, but made them off limits to players, as well as some other human ethnicities and character types, which will give away most secrets of the setting, since these types know most of what the players need to win the campaign.

Having said that, here is my rationale for the power of the Elves and why non-human player characters are limited in how high they can advance in levels.

The level restriction, simply reflects the fantasy's equivalent of the glass ceiling. Demi humans are outsiders in the fantasy world, regardless of how powerful they may be. Compare the odds on Wall Street of a woman from the street versus those of a WASP male with the right Ivy League education and proper pedigree.

Regarding power of Elves, consider that Elves can live for over 1000 years, Gray Elves for 2000 years. Let us take a Mature 700 Wood Elf and 1800 year old Gray Elf. The first one would have been born before Columbus discovered America, and would have lived through the discovery of the New World, Renaissance, Mercantilism, Napoleonic Period, Colonialism, Both World Wars, Cold War. The Gray Elf would be older than Western World, His father would have known Moses, and his Grandfather would have seen the rise of Mesopotamia. Considering the accumulation and inter-generational transfer of family wealth and knowledge, had Elves lived among us, according to our economics, Elves would have been the wealthiest people on earth, and with Wisdom and Money buying influence and power, Elves would be ruling humanity.

For that reason, Elves are seldom seen in Midlands. Individuals Elves can be seen among men, but Elven cities and communities are a thing of legend. Elves have their own enclaves in big cities, but they are closed and clannish, isolated in their mansions and pent-houses much like Vampires and Liches would be, with a large number of hirelings and followers conducting day to day business with the humans on their masters' behalf.

RipperX said...

Elves are a solid staple in fantasy, in some form or another, they are there. As far as "The Lord of the Rings" elves go, they inspired all players of this game in some form or another.

I personally like racism in games, it adds that element of complexity to travel, and an element of surprise. Through racism we can isolate the players, even in town, and it does show us our history in a none preachy way.

The funny thing is to ponder how our Politically Correct Culture would attempt to treat Orcs if they were real. Maybe if we just show them some understanding and teach them to fish then we can get them to integrate and serve our peace loving communities? Can you imagine the political candidates going after the Orc votes?

And THAT is how fast I get distracted.

Perhaps I just find it offensive that the guide tells me what I have to do. Most of the core rules don't limit creativity, but the definitions of the races do.

Most of my investigations under the hood suggest a game that can be ran as written, but this is clearly a check against the stability of the core rules. It tells the players that THIS is in the world and it should be, but when it isn't, then you can make the claim that the DM is cheating. I hate changing core rules because of book keeping. I've got a folder with the few rules I've changed, but the thing is, that for the most part, those rules only effect me as a DM, this one effects the PHB. Needless to say, this article isn't finished, not until I've heard more opinions about it.

Brooser Bear said...

Political Correctness has nothing to do with it. Introducing racism into D&D as a theme will add complexity to your game. Taking at face value the tropes of colonial racism inherent in D&D will only perpetuate them.

The ultimate irony is that Tolkien's conservatism was unique in 1920's UK and it flew in the face of the American sword and sorcery authors, such as Fritz Lieber, and ghostwriters of children's series such as Nancy Drew, who were extremely progressive. In England after trenches of WWI, the overwhelming majority of Tolkien's generation were anti-war and Socialist, and none wanted to go back to the bad old days of serfs and feudalism. Along comes Tolkien and the Inklings, who pretty much wanted to bring back the good old days of kindly Kings and knights and bishops and of grateful unquestioning peasants, who knew their place in society.

None of Tolkien's writings would have survived or been remembered today, had it not been for his extreme popularity of it with the American gamers of the 1960's on college campuses, who kept up the market demand for Tolkien's writings.

Here is the supreme irony, while gamers may dismiss all this as mere political correctness, most persons of color are painfully aware of any negative stereotyping, having to live with it, and were not fans of fantasy in general or Tolkien in particular. That is why, D&D Second Edition introduced Humanoids as player characters, and D&D 3rd edition onwards introduced diversity into game illustrations, and 4th edition changed Halflings into Kender, making them slim and svelte, vaguely elfin.

If Orcs were real and lived in a Democratic society, they would be entitled to a proportional representation of their interests. Since Elves have driven them out of the forests and into the crags, swamps, and wastelands, much like the white American settlers did to the indigenous people here, Orcs will be entitled to arable agricultural land, better living and hunting environments, likely taken out of the Elven holdings.

Which begs another question, does anything in your knowledge of history lead your to believe that Elves, with their huge life spans and their tremendous power, will (1) go for democratic rule of law and (2) Would tolerate Orcs (or men for that matter) settling on their pristine preserves?

RipperX said...

Elves are interesting creatures, I think that humans frustrate them; In elven society a lovers tiff can last longer than most kingdoms. They see us as having a glimmer of sentience but we are too short lived and have terrible memories. When elves speak to humans, they expect their words to be remembered through our generations, which is how they work, and they become extremely agitated when we don't comply to this simple order.

Humans have taken from both elven and dwarven cultures, we are capable of creating great beauty, and we have perpetuated the dwarven money system, which elves probably wouldn't even be interested in. We fight and kill seemingly without thought, and we don't appear to be able to control our populations, or perhaps the elves just don't want to bring more elves into this world that we've created.

Elven lore practically writes itself!

Brooser Bear said...

I absolutely agree with you, but you seem to anthropomorphize them and put more trust in them, than I do. The real world counterpart are the Aristocracy of old, and Royal Nobility at that. Dwarves are based on the gold-smiths and silversmiths of the Feudal Europe (two separate animals those two). What is your take on Gnome vs Dwarf, culture wise.

Elves have their own baggage and issues, not apparent to most gamers. Elves who run with men, like Aristocratic gentlemen of old they despise death and at times stake their inheritances on a single poker bet, fight duels at a drop of a hat, and they have this unique manner of death, called falling into human hands. A couple of good examples, if you ever get a chance, read Christopher Isherwood's Good-Bye to Berlin (the heir to the supermarket chain), and Walter Tevis' The Man Who Fell To Earth. Profiles in Elven downfall.

RipperX said...

Dwarves prefer gnomes over all other races. They have a lot in common, both are secretive and perfectly respectable of each others space, they work two different arts, the dwarf works metal, and the gnome works precious stone, both are artists that know no peer, but when they work together, it forms a sacred marriage and union. The need each other.

Man considers gnome to be more rare than the dwarf, but this isn't true. The thing about gnomes is that once they find a nice vain they never leave it until it is exhausted, if they want more materials they primarily only trust dwarves.

Now that is just a general assessment of my racial template, complete lore depends on the mines themselves. I also like my gnomes to be keepers of lore, they always know more then what they are willing to give. They are very fay and protect the gates and entrances to the underworld secret. One only sees a gnome out in the wild if it wants to be seen . . . which is rarely. Powerful wizards can find them, and use their lore to travel vast distances quickly, but these gnomes are way beyond the scope of PC characters, unless the gate that they were charged with has been compromised, I suppose.

Brooser Bear said...

Thanks for the excellent breakdown of Dwarves and Gnomes. I didn't have much interest in either, nor in Halflings, Elves are a presence in my campaign. A sinister, seldom seen presence. Thieves, who steal their magical items end up getting skinned alive. That kind of lore. Now that you explained the Gnomes to me, they too should have an interesting role in Midlands. I have seen gnomes portrayed as watch makers, mechanical device crafters, messing around with gears and clockwork mechanisms. Where does that come from and what do you make of that trend in Gnome culture?

RipperX said...

Tinker Gnomes! I'm no expert on them, but I think that they first popped up in Dragonlance, either that or Warhammer.

Ticktock men, automatons, bizarre prehistoric robots, a strange mixture of metal and magic, these things are definitely old-school!

Most of their inventions are junk, but like magic, some of it isn't. From a creative standpoint, these kinds of gnomes can really push a fantasy setting.

As PCs, Tinker Gnomes suck, but as NPCs or evidence of a weird culture now left in ruins, you can really let your imagination flourish.

RipperX said...

Speaking of strange advanced technologies being where they shouldn't be, I love listening to AM radio in the middle of the night, and my personal favorite program is Coast to Coast AM.

On that program we talk about lots of interesting things, one of my favorites is Mars, there appears to be a lot of wreckage in photos taken by the rovers, one showed a picture that could either be a human skull in a helmet, part of a robot, or just a funny looking rock, but stuff like that, coupled with the theories of Zacharia Sitchin are very influential on my game.

Brooser Bear said...

You have a gothic setting with extra-terrestrials? Unfortunately I work the 6AM to 2 PM shift and I can't be up in the middle of the night. I used to listen to Art Bell when I was in high school. If you like Sitchin, try Rerikh.

RipperX said...

Well, I could, but no. Gothic Earth is a completely different setting than my fantasy stuff. All of the magic in Gothic Earth is highly occult in nature.

What I mean by Sitchin is that I like to put together elements that are totally insane until you can stand back and look at everything as a whole, then the brilliance hits you.

Finding an ancient battlefield in the Sahara, recently exposed by a sandstorm, and then disappearing again just as fast is very GOthic Earth.

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