We’re examining the longer-lived races of D&D and discussing exactly how to make sense of their lifespans in the context of a world that we as humans seek to navigate. Having fully sapient beings with lifespans of hundreds of years is challenging to handle from a worldbuilding and roleplaying perspective.
I maintain that there is a simple tool that can help us reconcile this longevity with the worlds we want to build and the games we want to run, and that’s a robust understanding of the limitations of Memory. Last week we discussed Dwarves. Today, we discuss Elves.
Mastery Of The Mind
The mind of an Elf is no more robust than that of a human. Memory degrades. A human at the end of their natural life may already struggle to remember events from its start. An Elf is truly no different, and on top of they may live the equivalent of 10 natural human lifespans. An Elf at the age of 200 will no better remember being 120 than an 80-year-old human remembers being 10. Remembering the century prior may be all but impossible.
But nonetheless Elves do remember. Not perfectly, but functionally. This is by no accident. Elves are aware, perhaps more than any other race, that memory is an imperfect function of a naturally limited mind.
Elves have, from their very earliest days as a people, sought to mitigate this limitation. Much as a human may see it important to maintain their physical capability across their life, an Elf seeks to maintain their mental capability such that it may serve them well through the long centuries.
A series of mental exercises help Elves maintain as much mental acuity as possible. Added to this are a series of mental ‘tricks’ they use to better solidify important memories. Indeed it is worth noting that an Elf does not reach adulthood until around the time the longest-lived humans would die (roughly 100 years). This is no accident, as it is only until this first century has passed that it can truly be tested whether an Elf has learned the mental skills necessary to remember events many decades or centuries in the past.
Elves and Dwarves, much as they may choose to not see it, are unified by a cultural ideal of perfectionism. The difference is in the origin. The Dwarven approach is a perfectionism originating from function, hence the cultural emphasis on mastery of a craft or trade. For Elves, however, perfectionism originates from beauty. A thing does not need to be a percentile more efficient if it is aesthetically displeasing in the first place. Instead, its form must be perfected before its efficiency is further improved from a base form of functionality.
At first this may seem shallow, vapid or somehow pretentious. However, when one considers that when an Elf creates something they must bear with its presence for up to 700 years this desire for things to be aesthetically pleasing begins to make more sense. A human may bear an ugly timepiece for their entire adult life as it is functional and that life may only have 40 years left of it. For an Elf, they would be stuck with that timepiece for some 600 or more years if they were the same age as the human when it falls into disrepair.
A Percent Of A Percent
So having mastered the art of remembering what then does an Elf choose to remember? Memory, no matter how solid, is still finite. One simply cannot seek to remember everything. Instead, an Elf must choose where it will focus its abilities of remembrance.
There is a saying among scholars that the more advanced your specialised knowledge, the less you know. This is a natural function of seeking depth over breadth of knowledge. A generalist may know a little about a lot of things but a specialist, which most scholars are, will know an extreme amount of a very limited subject matter.
Elves are this exemplified. If one can only choose to solidify only a few critical memories across their extreme lifespan then they may not waste those memories on frivolous extras. They must be entirely focused on their chosen field of expertise. If something seems unimportant to an Elf it is because they have chosen for it to be unimportant. It is not a rudeness, or a lack of sympathy, it is a natural utilitarian function of how they must manage their memory across their lives.
And so the Elven reputation for extreme levels of mastery is born. As a combined function of perfectionism and specialisation, a single Elf will be far more advanced in a single skill than any one master of any other race, but their skills in other areas will naturally be lacking in the extreme. This second piece is often not so apparent to outsiders, as Elves tend not to engage in activities that will require their deficient skills to be on display. A master Smith will simply not dance if they have not the mastery of it.
An outsider, however, sees an Elf who is a smith beyond compare, then the most exquisite Elven dancer they have ever seen, and conclude that all Elves are excellent at everything.
Where Memory Fails
Elves, above all else, have one final trick up their sleeve should memory prove to fail them or become too limited. Elves are by their very nature tied to supernal, exterior forces, meaning their powers of intuition far exceed those of most other sapient races. An Elven smith who does not truly remember a technique they learned centuries ago can still feel their way through the process, following their instinct for metallurgy in the gaps between robust memories. Indeed, an Elf chooses their calling based off what comes most naturally to them for precisely this reason.
The rare Elven dilettante may have a broader scope of intuition than their peers, but even so they will choose to Specialise. Knowing a little bit about everything leaves one’s mind too full too quickly, and living for centuries being unable to learn more without forcefully forgetting is truly a curse beyond the imagination of the short-lived folk of the multiverse.
The Oldest Enemy
The true enemy of Elves, above and beyond all material or magical threats, is their own propensity for hubris. Indeed when every Elf is a once-in-a-millennia master of their chosen skill or craft it is easy to develop a high opinion of oneself. This is the rot that takes hold in so many Elven societies through the endless ages. Everywhere it manifests it precipitates a catastrophic collapse if left unchecked.
Self-obsession and self-importance lead inevitably to an under-appreciation for external events. The stories of Elves who ignored apocalyptic warning signs are endless across the multiverse. This is true even to the extent that it is categorised as the single most common way for an Elven society to come undone. Where a Human kingdom way collapse due to war, or famine, or natural disasters, an Elven society most often collapses because it begins to think itself impervious to externalities and is so sure of the importance of its own internal pursuits that it believes all others to be frivolous, meaningless and non-threatening.
Much as Elves must actively learn to manage their memories so too must they learn the importance of humility. Elven arrogance is far too easy to fall into and must always be actively warded against. Truly successful Elven societies maintain a habit of never tolerating arrogance and actively engaging in modesty.
Elves On Your Shelves
With this all in mind let us now consider how to build Elven societies into your settings.
Why don’t all Elves remember everything? How do events get lost to time? How do locations that will eventually become dungeons get forgotten about in the first place? Because not all Elves remember everything. In fact, only the select few Elves that have dedicated themselves to the remembrance of History will know of these things.
There may only be a handful of such Elves at any one time, and then their areas of remembrance will be far more specific than just ‘history’. One may remember political history, while another remembers cartographical history, while another is entirely focused on the history of metallurgy. Asking the political historian the secret to a long-lost smithing technique is equally as fruitless as asking the metallurgical historian who the King of Belgraire was during the time of the Atlan Empire.
As your players come to require extreme specialised knowledge, have them have to journey to seek out the one living Elf who knows exactly what it is they’re trying to find out.
This also allows you to explain why these things get forgotten. If only one living Elf remembers why all the Valkyries disappeared then even if some adventuring party a hundred years ago sought them out that party may well have died before they could pass on the knowledge to anyone else. Alternatively, they found out, told an Empress, the Empress told their scribe, the Empress died, the Scribe died, and the book it was written in got lost when the new Empress moved to a new palace.
Worse still, maybe that Elf finally dies and no other Elf took up the mantle of remembrance for that particular discipline of history.
Indeed, if the rest of the world becomes too reliant on these Elven specialists of memory then when such an Elf dies entire centuries of history may be lost at once. Sure, the most recent few events may still be somewhat remembered by other races, but the causes of those recent events that happened some 500 years in the past? Gone forever.
“Why do we maintain the wards against the sea?”
“Nobody knows, but it was important once. Maybe it’s not so important anymore…”
Now it’s time to talk about players. Playing an Elf with this idea of specialisation in mind is extremely straightforward as classes are inherently specialised. You are a Wizard because you have dedicated your life to learning magic. You are a Cleric because you have devoted yourself wholly to the worship of a God.
The explanation for why a Human Wizard at the age of 80 knows just as much advanced magic as an Elf at the age of 700 comes from that other pervasive tenet of Elven society: Perfectionism. The Human Wizard learns the ‘good enough’ fireball. The Elf learns the ‘arcanically perfect’ fireball. It is flawlessly cast, perfectly spherical, and exactly replicated on each and every spellcast.
But there are other opportunities for Elven characters that break the mould of either Specialisation or Perfection (or potentially both). A Bard is a rare Elven Generalist, and as much as their skills may be incredible in the short-term they have ultimately doomed themselves to a future of not ever being able to learn more as they age through the centuries. What they know now is pretty much all they’ll ever know about anything. These people are powerful, but they are tragic.
An Elven Sorcerer on the other hand may eschew Perfectionism. There is power in flexibility and inexactitude. By learning magic from a standpoint of intuition rather than of rigour the Sorcerer is far more predisposed to discovery. The Wizard casting the perfect fireball with excellently pronounced verbal components would never find themselves casting the subtle fireball with entirely masked verbal components.
But what of Elves that never learn that mental discipline? Perhaps they are unable, or perhaps they are unwilling. What of them? Are they cursed to a life of being mentally trapped in the most immediate decades of their past?
Most likely, yes. But for those that wish not to suffer that fate there are… other ways one can become skilled. A bargain is struck, power is acquired, and should the Elf ever need to recall the events from deep in their past they can read the arcane Tome they were gifted, or even consult with the deep, ancient thing they do the bidding of. Indeed, the types of beings that would patronise a mortal absolutely love having Elves as their thralls. A sapient, powerful creature that will live for centuries at a time is perfect for furthering the millennia-long schemes many of these creatures carry out.
Elves In The End
Elves, just as Dwarves and Humans, are limited by memory. However, their lifespans necessitate an active and purposeful approach to the use of this memory. Space in the mind is still limited, and the Elven way of life is entirely a product of this fact colliding with their extreme lifespans.
Explore, then, the wonder of the extreme specialisation Elves achieve, or the deep tragedy of Elves who fail to carefully manage their memory, or the hubris of Elven societies who fill their heads with knowledge and fail to remember humility.
Again consider how memory and the mitigation of its limitations informs your societies when you worldbuild, and as a player consider how they inform your character’s personality and choice of pursuits.
Still to come are the pieces on Gnomes, Halflings, Half-Elves and more! Keep your eyes peeled for those, and thanks for reading!
4 thoughts on “Memory and Longevity: Elves”
Good writing, and this take on elves and dwarves is very agreeable. I had similar thoughts but did not develop them in the same direction. A concept I suggest is memories by proxy.
There is a limit to how much can be stored in memory, even with all the tricks of the elves, but there is a cheatcode that allows effectively infinite memory.
That cheat the encoding of thoughts in external media. Not just books, because as elves know papers are fragile and dwindle with age. Not just text, because the fey folk quickly learn that it is often the intentions and motive that matters, much more than the actual pieces of information themselves. They create their Houses to restore not just knowledge but also the person who wore that knowledge. For this reason they become expert artists, capable of evoking in themselves again the person they wish to become.
In addition to walls and plaques of runes the elves create intricate carvings of scenes and statues of people, to remember them and by proxy to remember knowledge associated to these things. An elf who was once a smith may preserve their smithy in an obscured abode away from civilization, to ensure that even should they forget that they were once a smith they will be able to rediscover that knowledge by revisiting their smithy, where manuals and expert teaching texts will allow them to pick up their craft once more.
All elves learn to sing, because in the songs they encode the locations of their Houses, so that even if all else is forgotten they will still be able to follow the clues and find their place again.
And none of these things come naturally to elves. It is a skillset honed by millennia of tradition taught to young elves over the course of their first century.
Not all elves are this lucky. Some never pick up the skills. These elves are indeed subject to the whims of faded memory, and tend to instead need to depend on human society, to which they feel more kinship than that of the elves which they are severely stunted in interacting with. In human society they find themselves highly regarded, despite their deficiency in the eyes of the elves of the culture.
I wanted to take my time replying to this. It’s practically a whole essay on its own (and you should consider posting it in other places too if you haven’t already).
As it happens, at the end of this whole series I have a piece coming on ‘External Memory’ as a way to get around the limitations of the mind. I come to similar conclusions about oral history (and related non-tangible art forms like song, dance and poetry) being essentially the only truly timeless format. Where short-lived races seek preserving knowledge physically beyond their lifespans such that it may outlast their societies should the worst happen, Elves and Dwarves recognise that preserving their knowledge is only useful if it is other Elves or Dwarves that will be using it. They can rely on an endless thread of oral tradition, and should that thread ever be broken it is because their society has collapsed at which point maintaining the knowledge is meaningless.
I won’t go into more than that here, but I love your interpretation and you should definitely share it around.
Fantastic article 😊
I’m surprised you didn’t mention trancing in here as a mechanism for memory, especially since those memories can be of previous reincarnations.
Since elves don’t rely on sleep, but instead rest and meditation, there is definitely an argument to be made that by reliving or revisiting the most important moments of their life they make stronger connections.
I do mention it, just a little abstractly. The ‘memory preservation tricks’ I mention are (in my games) Elven Trances. In the interest of not being too prescriptive I left the exactitudes of those ‘tricks’ vague so that DMs can come up with whatever they want.
But yes to my mind Elves use Trances to essentially sift through and sort their memories of the day, actively filing away the important ones, and on subsequent Trances can re-explore the memories stored in this way. This is how they keep memories fresh and present over their lives in my settings.