We have been discussing the long-lived races of the D&D multiverse. They bring with them a fundamental challenge of reconciling the length of their lives with the need for a timescale approachable to our mere human selves, both narratively and historically.
We have used the anchoring concept of memory, its limitations, and how those limitations must be overcome and managed. This concept has provided us insight on how to worldbuild around these races, as well as play as them for our characters.
We’ve covered Dwarves, Elves, Gnomes and Halflings. All that remains of the long-lived PHB races are the Half-Elves.
The Genetic Anomaly
Fundamentally, Half-Elves are non-standard. The union of human and human creates a genetic cocktail-mix offspring wherein one parent imparts hair and bone structure and the other imparts eyes and congenital illness. The union of Elf and Elf is much the same.
The union of Human and Elf still involves the mix-and-match of these same genetic traits, but added to the jumble of inheritable genes are those that dictate lifespan. The usual outcome is a genetic ‘splitting of the difference’ that results in a fairly predictable range of ages (roughly 180 to 220 years) but genetically Half-Elf lifespans exist on a bell curve with each end separated by spans of centuries.
As such, before we even begin to discuss reconciling the lifespan of a Half-Elf in the context of our games we must first define those lifespans. The result is that we must split this discussion (quite fittingly) into two halves. On one front we will discuss the more normative lifespans of roughly 180-220 years, and on the other we will discuss the anomalously long-lived Half-Elves.
While on the subject of genetics, there is also the matter that Half-Elves are a ‘crossbreed’ of sorts. A Half-Elf and a Human will produce a Human child, while a Half-Elf and an Elf will produce an Elven child, almost like a recessive gene. The only caveat to the likeness to a recessive gene is that two Half-Elves will not produce Half-Elf children. Instead their child will be a further genetic dilution of the original Human and Elven traits. This child will likely have a lifespan that trends shorter (closer to a Human’s), and may even in other ways appear more outwardly Human, to the point where many simply live as Humans with a weak splash of Elven blood.
The People Between
Half-Elves already exist culturally as an outsider to both Human and Elven societies. This is both their biggest strength and their greatest tragedy. Similarly their lifespans exist in between these two things, and this leaves them mentally isolated in a completely different manner.
Half-Elves lack the Elven powers of trances and the exploration of memories therein, and as such they do not have access to the same mechanical tools of memory management. However, what they have access to that full Humans don’t is the discipline of memory management. One can actively endeavour to keen their mind as sharp as possible, and among Half Elves are those that have learned from their Elven brethren how to do just that. Such regimen would not be sufficient over the millennia-long lifespan of a full Elf, but for a Half-Elf it is perfectly serviceable.
Indeed, the first thing a Half-Elf must come to a decision on long before they choose which world they will walk in is what they will do about their faculties of memory over the course of their lives. Many Half-Elves make their decision on this matter without even realising it. Indeed those that choose to live predominantly in Human societies will likely not even realise their memory must be managed until their earliest ones have started to fade some hundred years into their lives. From there it may be too late for a Half-Elf to begin learning how to preserve their remaining memories as well as the ones they are to make over the coming decades.
The Half-Elf that walks truly between may be the most successful here. Recognising that one is neither Human nor Elf and as such the habits of either are not wholly suitable for a Half-Elf already demonstrates a level of self-awareness and self-acceptance that will serve a Half-Elf’s mind well throughout its life.
An Absence Of Structure
In discussing every other long-lived race we have unveiled how their entire societies will be shaped by the nature of memory and in turn how that societal structure inherently supports the unique challenges of memory faced by that people.
Half-Elves at some point will always find themselves outside of these structures at some point in their lives. This essentially forces all Half-Elves to develop some bespoke personal structure for themselves that supports their personal mental needs. Some, as mentioned above, may take useful pieces of the Elven structure to suit themselves. Others may simply cultivate mental ‘tricks’ to preserve memory. Others yet may simply recognise that all things will fade and as such being focused on the here-and-now is a worthwhile pursuit.
For that last group there is an acceptance that the curse of losing memories is offset by the gift of living longer than regular Humans, and many as a result choose to live predominantly among Humans. These are the Half-Elves with a reputation for serving as apparatus of government, or indeed any institution which seeks to preserve a multi-generational longevity. The fading of memory isn’t a complete thing, and while a Half-Elf may lose certain personal memories of the prior century they will see the long-term repercussions of past events they bore witness to. Indeed, much of their memory is focused on the overall flow of time, the connection of causality as witnessed on a scale a Human would envy but with a particular bend of Human-level empathy other long-lived races often lack. This is the sole trait that makes them such valued advisers.
Indeed, despite being the peoples for whom there is no suitable encompassing societal structure they are often the peoples who provide the most structure to other societies – especially Human ones.
Just as Half-Elves are the perspective bridge between Humans and the flow of time itself, they can be the perspective bridge between other races and Humans. A Dwarf may struggle to see the Human angle on a thing, while the Half-Elf can see both the Human angle and the reason why the longer-lived Dwarf cannot see it. It is from this that the Half-Elf reputation as the great negotiators is born.
Half-Elves make excellent diplomats in great part due to their unique perspective on time. This often goes so far as to assist in bridging gaps were Humans are not even involved. Elves, Gnomes and Dwarves all equally value the Half-Elf perspective on matters of both diplomacy and enterprise.
This, therefore, is the great gift a Half-Elf is afforded. Though their lives may be lived culturally adrift they have great ease reaching stations of great status, influence and wealth.
There are those other Half-Elves, however, who are perhaps more cursed than gifted. As we come to examine the greater deviations from the norm in terms of lifespan we enter the realm of tragedy.
Firstly it must be noted that those Half-Elves whose lifespan trends closer to the Human norm, living to perhaps 100, are spared the majority of this tragedy. Indeed for them the only tragedy is the loss of potential afforded to a longer Half-Elf lifespan. It is the other kind of anomaly, the one that trends longward, that is the more frightening of the two.
Elves, as we discussed, have a great wealth of tools they use to carefully manage their memory across their extreme lifespans. A Half-Elf fundamentally lacks access to these same tools, but there is still the possibility that a Half-Elf may live to 500 or more. Such an individual is far more adrift than their shorter-lived Half-Elf brethren. Events from their earlier decades will be entirely gone save for the strongest few imprints on the mind. With little linking each such memory to the ones around it the entire faculty of memory is left untethered in time. One may have the clear distinction that one thing happened after another, but the span of time between may be impossible to pin down. Could it have been no more than a decade? But a different king was on the throne at the time. It must have been longer, but then it would be too soon before the fall of the kingdom…
And so the Half-Elf will fast lose track of the past and the efficacy of their advice on such deep-time will be diminished to the point of uselessness. This will likely fail to be understood by their Human brethren, with many a Half-Elf hearing the phrase ‘But you were there!’ uttered with incredulity.
Their immediate memories will still prove reliable, so a longer-lived Half-Elf’s ability to serve as a diplomat or adviser is not inherently diminished, but such a Half-Elf will bear the burden of a far less grounded life. Indeed it becomes easy for such a Half-Elf to fall into the trap of feeling their advice on potential future events is pointless as it will all get lost to time anyway.
Lastly is the trouble of not knowing exactly how long one has to live. Granted one can observe the general trend of aging and give a ballpark estimate of when their time will come, but the specifics are uncertain, and a young Half-Elf will have no idea whether they will live to 200 or 400 until the day comes that they pass the former and feel no worse for wear physically. To live life with such uncertainty hanging over you is truly the greatest curse of all.
Being (Half) Elvish
When we make our Half-Elf characters we are already preparing ourselves to make an anomalous character. We are naturally inclined toward answering questions like ‘Did they grow up around Humans or Elves?’ and ‘Have they outlived their Human parent yet?’. We need only add the question of ‘Do they have a standard lifespan or an anomalous one?’ and then continue down the chosen thread to examine how time and memory have shaped our character.
Indeed we are already well-versed in the art of making standard Half-Elves, so instead let’s look at the non-standard ones in character creation. Are you already past the normative length of Half-Elf lifespan, wondering how much time you have left? Are you resentful of your lifespan or grateful for it? How do you handle the degradation of your memory both mechanically and emotionally?
Indeed perhaps your Half-Elf has found solace in the Halfling way of things seeking the simplicity of Joy. If they will only remember scattered things with little connection to surrounding times and events then better to make sure those memories are pleasant ones. Maybe they have followed the Dwarven mould and are in the midst of their life’s second or third journey to mastery. Maybe yet they have focussed themselves so singularly on a craft or field of scholarship that across their lifespan they achieve what no Human can at the cost of all other long-lasting memories.
Half-Elves characters provide a great spread of opportunities, but are also unified by certain limitations. You simply can’t play them the same as you would a Dwarf, or Elf, or Gnome, even if you seek to emulate one such people. Instead seek to follow the cultural modes of those races in a distinctly Half-Elven way.
We Live In A Society
As much as we tacitly accept that Half-Elves are inherently outsiders both of the societies of Humans and Elves, we are also presented with certain other worldbuilding opportunities. Perhaps Half-Elves intentionally seek each other out, creating pseudo-societies that exist concurrently alongside the other societies of your world. Indeed, this can provide excellent avenues for allegories that involve one being introduced to a secret, underground community of their peers having been inherently estranged from the rest of those around them by things they were born with (do I need to be more explicit?).
There is also something to be gained from examining the sort of society that might produce Half-Elves. We often accept simply that at times there is the instance where a Human from a Human society might pair with an Elf from an Elven society and so a Half-Elf is born, but there are other options of inherently mixed societies.
One such example from my own campaigns was a noble peerage that included both Elven and Human families wherein the matter of inheritance was a common disruption to house stability. As a result it became common to keep the heir to the family a ‘purebreed’ as it were. A Human noble would marry their eldest son to another Human family and all their other sons and daughters to an Elven family. As a result the offspring of the firstborn would be Human while the other children would bear Half-Elves and so the line of succession was kept clear. Half-Elves would, by sheer distinction of their racial make-up, never have any claim to family inheritance.
Now I don’t have time in this piece to unpack all the implications of that (indeed that was a big part of what the campaign entailed), but take from it the surface-level lesson that we can create societal structures that both inherently create Half-Elves and also inherently recontextualise the experiences of Half-Elf characters within your campaigns.
With that we’ve covered off Half-Elves, perhaps the most difficult to tie to this unifying concept. I hope you’ve found it helpful for introducing Half-Elf characters to your tables both as players and DMs.
That brings us to the end of the long-lived PHB races! I have one more Patreon-exclusive piece coming out shortly on what I call ‘Anomalies’, or individuals that have an unusually long lifespan for one reason or another. Please support me there if you’ve enjoyed these pieces so far.
I may yet tackle some of the non-PHB races that have longer lifespans, (such as Firbolgs, Eladrin, Loxodons, etc) as well as discuss the experience of the shorter-lived races of D&D. Keep your eyes out for those!