Worldbuilding: Customizing the D&D Elf and Elven Culture

Flavour Shots: Skill Contests for Fighters in D&D
Philosophy of Pen and Paper Roleplaying Game No. 2

Whats is an elf?

If you’re familiar with my post about dwarves you know from my perspective the issue with integrating them into my game world was a lack of information. I spent a huge amount of time trying to understand what a dwarf was (really) and how I could answer some of the often unaddressed questions about them. It turned out to be a lengthy project and addressing all the quandaries I found, as well as creating a vision I felt comfortable with, took some time and a good bit of reading. The elf was completely contrary to any experience I may have had with the dwarf. I felt not just overwhelmed but dizzy with all the varied concepts.

To thine own elf be true

I knew what I wanted out of this was to preserve the dream of the elf. I want to stay true to the most well-respected and well-loved envisioning of the elf. Even after sourcing everything I can imagine (including the Elf Quest comics!) I cant draw more than a few limited conclusions. Normally I would describe time spent being creative as exhilarating, but here, with so many false steps possible, I dreaded moving forward. I decided to start simple and build from there. What’s an elf look like?

Elven appearance

elf D&D elvenElves are everywhere, and I mean everywhere. There are hundreds of incarnations of them stemming from modern culture and into distant history. Are you aware that the original elves of D&D were actually rather short with an average height of about 5’6? How about this – the first time we officially got a “tall” elf was in the original Dark Sun expansion for second edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which was a stark contrast at 6-7 feet tall. I cant speak for others but I always assumed they were tall. Really, even in the early days of playing I simply imagined that my elf was of sufficient height to be just over that of an average human. It just seemed right, right?

My approach

I decided elves should be of a multitude of complexions, diverse eye and hair color, and a height of roughly the same as what we see in humans with a trend toward the taller end of the scale. Pointed ears are a must but with a Tolkien style, proportionally scaled ears ending in a gentle tip, nothing exaggerated or over the top (looking at you Final Fantasy and World of Warcraft). Given all the options I decided the lithe or gently athletic build is another easy choice and ran with it. With a propensity toward healthy builds, enchanting eyes and unnaturally perfect skin it’s easy to capture the vision of an uncompromisingly beautiful people without being forced to get magic involved. This felt like an important point to me as I moved forward; an elf would only be defined as a fey if it was called for and it was far too early to make those kinds of choices. For now, elven folk were just pretty. Done.

Is an elf fey or mundane?

What about their position in the circle of life? Are they fey in the sense of a fairy or dryad or is this term, when used to describe an elf, some far-removed distinction? In many works predating your favorite role playing games the elf is in fact a fey in every sense of the word with innate magical abilities and in some cases, possessed of uncommon and unearthly beauty.

In certain stories elves would perform wicked deeds or kind gestures based entirely on whim. There is a play of note by Shakespeare that includes a diminutive little fellow named Puck who is an elf and serves as the jester to a great fairy king Oberon. Surely this is an elf anyone would consider as true a fey as a sprite.

In the modern incarnation of D&D elves are a race, not a class (they were at one point), and the line between the two is extremely clear. There are exceptions however, if you played a drow for instance (AD&D 2E) you may have some magical abilities with the package, rather than from a class. This concept of innate magical ability seemed to apply to elves for a time and slowly vanished either in favor of balance or because every single elven farmer being able to crack off a magic missile just didn’t make sense. To me, I never saw the elf as a magical creature. Long life and incredible good looks, sure, but not inherently arcane. This concept of innate magic and how it connects with the idea of them being perceived as fey allows for a great deal of storytelling, something I tap into later.

D&D elf
An elf as seen in the fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook. [Image courtesy Wizards of the Coast]

My approach

Addressing innate magic without handing out daily magical powers became more plausible when I started to look for indirect methods of enchanting these people. Sleep, which seems to be a point of interest in a number of incarnations of the elf, is far less critical for an elf. Elves require much less sleep in my vision and, needing to sleep only once every three or four days requiring only a few hours at that. In the final draft of this project they would have some form of benefit to short-long rest times. I treat eating similarly which helps explain their natural tendency toward balance with the natural world. Elves require comparatively scant amounts of food and water, the amount you or I would consume in a single day, is all an elf would need for a week.

The elven people have formed a harmonious relationship with the natural world and druidic tenants are a perfect foundation to both culture and industry. Druids become the equivalent of scholars in elven culture, both a pragmatic and functional utility to there people. Beyond this they have formed and continually explore theirunion with nature, not in the sense of deep spirituality or worship, but rather much the same way a modern person of science would study in hopes of innovation and discovery. The elven culture, like early human civilizations, see themselves as a part of the whole and seek to live in unison with the natural world, rather than by taming it.

Industry of a civilization

What about technology? I know it may seem like a strange thing to bring up when discussing elves but it really should be addressed. Some modern portrayals of elves, in equilibrium with their world, or completely counter to it, sport incredibly advanced armor, weapons, and architecture. The elves of Tolkien were extremely advanced craftsman, creating individual pieces of work that could easily be considered masterpieces by any human observer. These crafts ranged from nearly legendary wine to weapons of war, meant to last centuries. Of the greatest blacksmiths to ever live, what would their works be like if they had lived and plied their chosen trade for centuries, not decades?

In the Dark Sun setting elves are a close knit tribal people, distrustful of most outsiders and with extremely limited technology. Forgotten Realms elves seem to be rather similar to Tolkien elves in technological aptitude with drow wildly divergent in advanced use of magic in nearly every blade they produce. Warhammer elves are again, much like Tolkien or Forgotten Realms elves, very skilled craftsman capable of massive architectural wonders and insidious tools of war.

My approach

I feel like the equilibrium so prevalent in many forms of elves is achieved, yet still, at this point in the work, I hadn’t quite wrapped my head around the concept of industry when it comes to these people. Certainly homes could be grown rather than built, enhanced by the will of even the lowliest of druids.

Elves would no doubt be natural farmers and prefer, but not require, an almost entirely vegetarian diet. I imagine since demand would be so low the kind of farming the elves could do would naturally embrace the world around them. A group of foreign scouts, unfamiliar with elven territory, could march through a wooded area and perhaps notice a few fruit trees or berries but never realize they stood within the very heart of an elven farmland. This non-invasive method of farming would stem out into other elven cultures and rather than being based on some deep-rooted belief in the natural world, simply be the result of many thousands of years of cultivation in a manner that follows reason.

An elf of Athas, from the Dark Sun campaign setting, looking amazing because it’s Brom. [Art by Brom]
Beasts of burden, something I am now growing accustomed to dealing with when creating my version of a race, were easy to address. I can’t imagine an elf whipping her mount to ensure it tread faster. I can imagine the elf whispering in the creatures ear, gently requesting its assistance in a given task. Much as we saw in the Tolkien movies, she asked for the creatures help and the beast responded, out of respect or duty we can’t know, but surely the creature could be considered heroic.

I imagined a young elf, chatting with his great stag as he feeds it fistfuls of grain, trying to convince the creature an exciting and no doubt exhaustingly fast romp through the wilderness sounds like fun. Like one sibling encouraging the other to play, the encouraged not yet convinced, there is fun to be had. I imagine a simple, empathic form of communication all elves are capable of with any wild creature willing to listen. Perhaps this is a result of fey lineage, or perhaps the result of endless millennium spent living in unison with nature.

Rather than gathering fuel the blacksmiths summon heat to stone in artifact-like forges, druidic chants beseeching the earth for precious metals, the finished steel quenched in the clearest calmest spring. While many versions of the elf have them crafting weapons and armor from more exotic materials I feel the skill of the craftsman and clarity of vision could turn simple steel into something exotic. While elves most assuredly work with small amounts of more exotic metals these items would be extremely rare and, true to there definition, decidedly exotic.

I decide at this point most elven armor would not be made entirely of metal but rather crafted from the world around them. I don’t by any means mean bark, branches, and vines or these elves comport themselves in loin clothe” or dress like savages. Samurai armor, not made entirely of steel, is instead a meticulous composite of materials combining to create a lightweight, flexible and effective armor. For craftsman of the elven caliber this would undoubtedly be some of the finest and most effective armor in the world.


At this point I am satisfied with the final product. Magic, rather than something required and intrinsic, is instead a fact of life and a requisite of their lifestyle. Industry exists in the elven world as a fact of life rather than a tool of progress. Finally the image of the elf stays true to a whole host of versions that existed long before I wrote this article. I feel like I have maintained the vision of the elf.

Of course, there are still a few questions that aren’t for me to answer. Would you consider these fey? Does my interpretation of the elf feel like an elf to you? With all the material available to draw from like books, games, and cartoons, did I miss something? Let me know what you think in the comments below and if you’ve made your own version of the iconic elf I would love to hear about it!

From the Nerditor’s desk

The Tome of Adventure Design from Frog God Games is available in their online store right now. Click the image. Go on. Click it.

If you enjoy deep dives into worldbuilding and adventure creation, check out the Tome of Adventure Design from Frog God Games. Useful for a multitude of game systems, this book contains tried-and-true random tables to spark your imagination, help Game Masters prepare and gives creative resources to make your adventures come alive. It also comes with a clever on-brand acronym totally free!

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