Elves have always been present in D&D. Originally somewhat sub-optimal racial choices that limited your abilities to an extent, nowadays they are mainstream members of society, capable of any class. 4e changes them a bit from ranger-mage favoring to just favoring ranger. Still, woodsy folk that hang out in forests and shoot arrows at things.
I suppose that's as far as some people take it. Elves are pointy-eared humans that like trees. Possibly they have a innate affinity for the bow. They are dainty and tend to be smaller than humans. Perhaps they are immortal, but almost certainly they are at least long-lived. Of course, they don't hesitate to throw themselves into the same stupid situations that the supposedly more brash humans do.
As is my wont from time to time, I am going to think a bit on elven psychology and culture. Now, the way I see it, the primary difference between elves and men, men being our inherent baseline for judging other species, is that they are exceedingly long-lived. Let's say, for the purposes of this article, that elves live roughly a thousand years. That would, of course, affect their culture and ways of thinking significantly.
Think about humans. A human can reach the height of his skill in any craft in a few years of training. Some talented folk can get better with more time, perhaps becoming grand masters of their craft in twenty years. Twenty years is a long time for humans. If you live in a medieval/renaissance era, like D&D lazily half-represents, you might get 40 years of life. If you are wealthy or magical, you might get more. Humans do everything quickly and rushed, because they don't have long to do it.
Elves, on the other hand, live comparatively forever. Have you ever wondered why elves like trees and forests? Consider that the elf of adventuring age, say his early 130's, has probably seen all the trees in his home forest grow from seeds to full, ancient oaks and elms. He's walked the paths of his homeland for over a century, and he knows every leaf and stone along them. His race has time to coax a branch to grow into the proper shape for a bow, and then only break it off from the trunk after cutting off food to the single branch. The tree is not harmed; the beauty of the forest endures. Elves have the time to spend ten years on a single engraved door, making it absolutely perfect, that every time they open the door to their home, they can smile at it's appearance. Ten years equates to a couple months of a human lifespan. Certainly humans spend months on a single building or garden to beautify their home. Wouldn't elves do the same?
Elves certainly have seen 'developed' lands. However, they've been around long enough to see what happens. Humans, until recently, haven't lived long enough to really see ecological changes. Nowadays, modern technology makes them happen quickly enough that anyone can see it. Back in the fantasy world, however, humans settlements cut down trees to build buildings, but there's still plenty of forest left. They will never run out. Yes, the grass in the town square is dying, but that's ok, we'll put down cobblestone. As the children of the children of the original settlers grow up, they are used to a lack of greenery in the city. They are used to gray stone and dead wood being the normal color of all existence. They've grown accustomed to the river running through a stone-walled canal, at man's behest. Sure, the water is a bit dingy and the smell of people, animals, and refuse hangs over all the streets, but that's just life.
Elves have seen it all happen in less than one child's coming of age, however. The trees that they cared for over decades were cut down and planed into boards within hours. Humans have settled, moving and killing like the world will end tomorrow. Always rushing to get everything done. Constantly, it seems, they are killing more and more trees and animals, not planting or breeding new ones to replace them. The humans see the forest as huge, and that they won't possibly run out of resources. The elves notice that in only the past hundred years, the humans have leveled a quarter of the woodland. In only four centuries, less time than it takes a child to grow to middle age, the forest will be gone. Not only will it be gone, but the only nearby place to live will be the fetid, rotting human city. There, the once vibrant trees are now dead bits of graying wood, clumsily carved by rough human hands into beams and girders, or engraved hastily into a slipshod decoration here and there. Elves remember the fresh air and sunlight, the wild life of the woodlands, and the serenity of a life lived simply. Now, instead, they are forced into human society. Forced to work all day, every day, just to support themselves. Turning out crafts daily that are terrible garbage compared to what they could have done had they spent the proper three years to make that shoe, or sew that shirt. Everything is so fast and so cheapened, that they pine for the forests of old.
Think, now, about how elves would view humans settling in their lands. Certainly, even a human town that had been settled over a century ago, would still be "new" to the elves' perceptions. Why are the elves always the peaceful, laid-back peoples that guide and help the poor, upstart humans?
I prefer to think of elves as perhaps seeming haughty and hostile, from a human standpoint, but truthfully being remarkably patient, considering the circumstances. They are completely justified in attacking human towns, but they realize that humans are short-lived and that it takes time to make them understand. Still, the elves are pressed into action from time to time. The plead with the humans to at least try for sustainable methods of forestry. They don't want to kill the humans, since the elves realize that humans are still people, but they are doubtlessly tempted.
As another note, don't make elves too quick to kill things. Think about it. If a human dies at 25, we call it a tragedy. They have missed out on probably another fifty years of life! If an elf dies at 400, it's hard for humans to care that much. It seems he's lived a long life, certainly there wasn't much left to do after four hundred years. However, to another elf, it's an unthinkable loss. His kin could have spent another six centuries perfecting his skills at crafting and walking through the sunlit glades. He could have known generations upon generations of creatures and trees. He could have seen the slow shift from oak forest to pine as the centuries passed. Now, he lies cold and dead, beyond saving. He's gone. Elves should be loathe to kill anyone unless sorely pressed, but they should avenge murder with passion and hatred.
Anyway, give it some thought. Elves don't want money and quickly constructed human garbage. What use is a hastily stamped gold coin? Elves are interested in knowledge, in freedom, and in the perfection of something that took a hundred years to complete. They love nature, having seen all of it's cycles and beauty over their many years. They don't want to live in some dirty human hovel that shuts out the world. They want the freedom to move through the trees, grasslands, or mountains of the world, happy in it's long-lasting and slow-changing essence.
Work to make elves more interesting in your next campaign.
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