Friday, May 30, 2014


There are going to be a few of my long-time readers who won't like that last post at all, who shake their heads wondering why I write these screeds when they serve so little purpose.  Not that the disagree with me. It's only that, why bother stirring that kettle?  The beer on top was perfectly good until I spoiled it with precipitate.

Very well, letting the beer settle again . . .

I was asked yesterday how I handled the age limit on elves and other non-humans in comparison to humans, where it came to learning skills, and I answered rather flatly - perhaps too flatly - that I didn't use them.  And that I haven't had a player that missed them.

There are several problems, I note, with running characters of old age - particularly extreme old age, say of 1,500 years or more.  At present, I am coming to grips with the fact that the 30-year-old 'me' seems to have been pretty stupid, even as that 'me' was so clear about how stupid was the 18-year-old 'me.'  No doubt, at 70, I'm going to look back and just know that I was such a moron when I was 50.

This is how it goes.  Can you imagine what it must be like to be 350 and look back on those first hundred years?  No, in fact, none of us can.

Most of the time, when someone older than 150 is depicted in a film, they are shown to be terribly emo. Not that long ago I saw Byzantium, which is about a 200-year-old girl who is so hopelessly bored with life she can't think of anything to do with all that time.  I suppose this must be conceived from the minds of writers who are themselves terribly bored at 46 (the age of Moira Buffini when she wrote Byzantium, presuming she wrote it a year before the film came out).  For some of my generation, I know, the years spread out in front like a great, long badly-lit hall, ending in darkness, with a carpet that should have been replaced a generation ago.  Part of this feeling comes from recognizing that the body has passed 'starting' to break down - it actually is corrupted, now, and that corruption is getting worse.  This makes one feel there's little point in taking up anything new, since a) it's going to be made difficult by the present cruddy body, and b) there isn't time to get good at it before total crud sets in.

I admit, I recognize those sentiments.  There are other aspects of the film, too, that undermine the hopefulness of the characters, but then I said most of the time that this is the depiction.  The future is boredom.

Tolkein's elves are horrifying.  They sit and sit and wait and occupy themselves with unaccountable tasks - singing, I suppose, or other art forms that are only obliquely addressed.  Over 1,000 years, it doesn't seem like much of a life.  Why they don't develop the technology and skills mankind invented within 800 years after the re-education of Western Europe is never explained.  If we are going to talk about skills, it doesn't take 800 years to learn to use a sword better - it doesn't even take 800 years to replace the sword entirely with gunpowder, cannon and rifles - but the elves seem uncommonly maudlin, unambitious creatures.  We're better off without them, really.

I would like to think that Heinlein had the idea better handled with his Lazarus Long, who doesn't truly become tired of living life until he's past 2,000.  But then, he was 66 when Time Enough for Love was published, and he'd written the character the first time in 1941, so he'd had time to consider the relative issues.  Lazarus never takes over the universe, despite all his skills, but then part of Heinlein's theme behind Lazarus reflects upon Yeats, that the centre does not hold and that all that we build ultimately becomes flaky. Heinlein, born in 1907, seeing the WWI, WWII and the Cold War had ever reason to believe that America was going the way of the toilet, a theme he stuck to all his life.  He would not approve of me - my manners are far too poor to suit him.

I don't accept his argument that things don't get better, because I am ultimately a progressive.  Every very bad part of the 20th century was in fact better than the 19th, when mass murder was so common that millions who died in Russia, Africa, India, China and so on don't even have the benefit of labels to describe their tombs like 'the Holocaust.'  We'll never know for sure how many coolies the British Empire worked to death, or how many Africans died on plantations the world wide, or how many native warriors with spears and animal skin shields were mown down by rifles and machine guns.  As awful as it is now, it is better.  And as awful as it gets in the future - and I'm convinced it will - whatever the total destructions wrought by climate, nuclear winter or the zombie plague, unless every last one of us die, then things will be better when society is rebuilt on the ruins of that mighty history lesson.  One has to take the long view.

The elves could, the reader must understand.  The elves would have time to take the very long view, which would mean they'd be all the more evil for not making the effort to settle the hash of the present in the way that only they could.  But they don't.  They are Emerson's worst nightmare.  They sit and do nothing.

To retain the history I wanted for an Earth-like world, I had to impose the same age on all player character races that humans had.  Having one player character who, in the 17th century, could remember the vikings or the end of the Roman Empire sounds all very fun and fanciful, but the players weren't going to be up to that role-play.  They just weren't.  There are those reading me now who will think, "I could," but no you couldn't. You have trouble conceiving that you're a 75-year-old man, or 90, and if you don't believe me pack yourself up and spend a couple of weeks working in an urban titty bar, where the clientele and the staff are mostly all 25.  See how long you last before you just hate these people.

Of course, the reader may be 25.  In which case, I have no advice for you.  I promise that you cannot have any idea what it is like to be 75, at all.  You just haven't lived long enough.  Sorry.  Them's the breaks.  I hope you get the chance, though.  We should all have the chance.

My point is that anyone who was more than several hundred years old would look back on our lives, our problems, our approach to solving those problems and so on with nothing but disdain.  God, how could you not?  Time offers perspective, and perspective makes all this shit we worry about day-by-day look absolutely ridiculous.

Suppose I could live another 400 years, and suppose that I were living in a culture where that was practically a guarantee - like this one.  Would I worry about how well my book was doing today?  Would I worry that any of you understood my perspective?  God no.  I have plenty of time.  I'll figure out the book that will convince you eventually.  And in the meantime, I'm not going to sit about doing nothing.  I think I could work my way up through medical school if I had, say, three or four decades to get used to it.  And then work as a doctor somewhere awful for fifty, sixty years, until I got bored of that and decided to try my hand at politics.  Or engineering.  Or farming for a century or so.  Raise five or six families from five or six wives, etcetera, etcetera.  And meanwhile, work on this endless silly problem of people being what they are.  I'm sure, given four centuries, I could figure it out.  The solution might have to be drastic.  That's an understood possibility.

No player running a 653-year-old elf is going to approach the world with the disdain or contempt that the world probably deserves . . . and who would want to?  What would be the point of that?  We wouldn't do it in the right way, anyhow, since none of us are going to live to that age.  Who knows, maybe we would become the pathetic, do-nothing elves that Tolkein proposed.  Maybe Buddhism in the extreme is inevitable. In which case, why would a nirvana-seeking elf ever adventure?

No, better to keep the players running ages they can at least meet in ordinary life.  They still can't do 61 very well, but at least they can pretend being 61 is like it is in the movies.


Barrow said...

I had the same thoughts a few months back, how can I speak for an elven NPC that is 400 years older than me? His intelligence/wisdom would dwarf my own. Then I had the realization that I had already introduced his father and grandfather into the story. Their surroundings made little sense when considering the number of lifetimes they each lived.

My solution was to kill the three of them and reduce the number of elves in my campaign drastically. I turned them into shrewd tradesmen who live in isolated, small villages or family tribes. They spend their time cultivating and guarding profitable trade secrets or monopolies. To further reduce their numbers, I have other races value them as servants or slaves due to their long shelf-life. A single elf servant could span over multiple generations of a noble family. So I fancy them as stewards of Nobles. This way social status keeps their education to my level or below, but they may have historical knowledge needed by the group.

This concept of long life-spans did throw me for a loop. I am increasingly interested altering the canned storyboard and lore from the WOTC 4ed books that I adopted for my campaign. I find it to be full of fluff and overly accommodating to all interpretations of fantasy.

Dave Cesarano said...

Look at the Nonmen in R. Scott Bakker's The Prince of Nothing trilogy. Basically, they're elves who bartered for immortality with a powerful alien race that genetically engineered them to never die of old age. Their women all died of a plague as a side-effect. Now, thousands of years later, the brains of the Nonmen are crammed with millennia of memories making the vast bulk of them insane.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Well, there's a lot of sci fi out there dealing with the topic, Dave. But none of us can really know anything - we're shooting in the dark. Worse, players and DMs together are shooting at a lot of different targets, which means that a DM telling a 400-year-old player character how they have to act in order to 'fit' with the campaign's motif about how 400-year-olds act.

It's a bad deal, and better avoided.

NPC's on the other hand, don't matter. I have NPCs who have existed since the origin of time, after all. Those don't make any difference to the player's perspective, and so how they manifest doesn't matter. I was mostly concerned about PCs, or major participants in the social structure that PCs belong to.

Jomo Rising said...

Thanks Alexis. That makes a lot of sense. Now I will depart from the mind of my ancient and insanely bored lich.

lars_alexander said...

When we started playing AD&D2 back in 1992, I forbade my players to play elven characters, "Because," I said,"none of us can know how it is that elves several hundred years of age think, or feel; and therefore we cannot roleplay them."

I later came to realize, that elves were fictional characters. ;-) Tolkien didn't know how elves thought, or felt with all their age, and supposed life experience. He just wrote something up. Like so many other pulp-fantasy writers.

Old characters may make different choices based on their experience. Or not. Fools get older, too.

I like the idea of do-nothing-elves. This is how they are presented in the books by the travellers who meet them. Like Sam Gamgee, they know them from stories, and tales, all intertwined with hopes, and exotistic fantasy. The elves the travellers meet are usually of the nobility. And who wonders, if they are portrayed similar to today's nobility, and celebrity? All glamour, and lush life. ;-)

I don't know what 61-year-olds do in the movies, but pretending to be 724-year-old-movie-elfs leads to players shooting orcs while shield-boarding down a mountain-side...

Alexis Smolensk said...


In other words, acting like a 17-year-old skateboarder (whom I quite like as a group, actually - thinking of writing a novel). Not, however, like a person who has grown over time to appreciate life, experience, mortality, broken bones, pain, illness, etc.

Clovis Cithog said...

“The common belief that medical science has greatly lengthened life is a misconception, arising from the failure to distinguish between life span and life expectancy. Life span is the average duration of life in persons who have avoided all disease and accidents. . . The span of life is fixed biologically and has been so for millennia. For most persons, the clock runs down by the 85th year, and it seems to make little difference whether one inhabits a luxurious urban apartment or a primitive hut. . . actuaries have shown that a maximum life span of 115 years is an extreme rarity, occurring only once in 2.1 billion lives.”

Adams & Victor, Principles of Neurology, 1993

JB said...

@ Alexis:

You are already taking the game a step farther than many, many gamers by setting your campaign in a real world time period with an actual context of history. Most D&D tables aren't nearly so sophisticated, taking place in a "never when" fantasy period where the same technology has existed for centuries (or more) and will presumably continue to last on into the inconceivable future. Where things like "ancient magic plate armor" exist side-by-side with "no gunpowder/firearms EVER." The non-setting fantasy landscape of D&D is like some strange, ever-stunted the R&R/OCS planet in Heinlein's book Starship Troopers (since you bring up Heinlein).

Yeah, there are published campaign settings that postulate fictional histories, but only as a means to explain why dungeons X, Y, and Z are present and how the current political landscape was set in place. There's no real cultural, societal, or technological changes or transitions to be found...things that have greatly affected our changing world history.

In a campaign setting without change, what does the extreme age of elves matter? Kingdoms rise and fall, swords are forged and broken, and they all look the exact same. In a species that lacks ambition (one of the given reasons for level restriction), why would they have much interest at all in doing anything besides the same-old-same-old. How many of us if given a super-long lifespan would spend the majority of it parked in front of a television watching the latest cable series?

Alexis Smolensk said...

"You are already taking the game a step farther than many, many gamers . . ."

Sorry, JB, are you saying you want me to pat them on the head and send them on their way?

I was watching a Ted Talk this morning that suggests that clinical depression is something that may approach as much as 50% in the present generation by the time they're 50; perhaps the elven solution to stress is to do nothing, to adopt a deliberate primitive social state as a means to lower their depressive rates past 150, and that I've been wrong about the whole thing from the start. This is something I just realized this morning.

This would seem to support your position. Thought you might enjoy that.

JDJarvis said...

Of course the elves over their long years may in fact be up to a whole heck of a lot we brutish short lived monkeys can't comprehend.
Elven PCs may in fact be mental defectives, or very insane compare to the population of elves at large.

Alexis Smolensk said...

But remember what I said, JD. No one will ever agree on it. Which means that whatever you invent for what you're elves think, or their motivations, or the motivations of PC elves, you're forcing that conformity on your players.

It isn't worth it.

Anonymous said...

This debate became embarrassing at the time that 'conformity' was made explicit as an end goal.

'Conformity,' like 'clarity,' so often is a tool to mitigate intellectual effort. One might presume that people, who spend four score and seven years individuating, would only continue that process through longer life spans, rendering all characterizations equally valid and equally potentiating of conflict. In particular, some elves might take on a mindset of radical acceptance; others might determine that their own responses are the only valid responses. If you want to say clearly that this particular twist of conflict is too tangled for you to unlay, please do so. Otherwise I see no reason for you to deny others' imaginings of how a person might evolve over centuries.

Alexis Smolensk said...


At the most, I'm warning against. I don't expect anyone to take my advice.

I'm directly saying: a) players don't really care; b) if the rule is that age has not specific influence, why have an extended age?; and c) if it has a specific influence (and real age does), then it is a means for the DM to force 'characterization' upon the player who choses to play an elf.

I'll throw in one last point: d) it's a non-issue. Let's not conflate the thing by making it something I'm 'denying.' Go your own way. I don't really care.