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I was looking into how to roleplay an elf in D&D 4e, when the kind folks in one of the chatrooms on this site informed me that elves in 4e are very different from those in 3.5e, which sparked my interest.

In what ways are elves different between these two editions?

Note: I'm referring specifically to differences in things like culture, personality, history, etc. I realize the combat mechanics / etc are very different between the two systems.


Background
Some friends and I have just started a D&D 4e campaign. One of the players has zero experience with RPGs. She has created a female elf (Seeker, though I don't think that's relevant to the question).

She asked me if there was anything she could read regarding "what elves are like", so she could roleplay better. Since she didn't have the PHB on hand, I was just going to send her a link to some information I found online about 3.5e elves (which, apparently, would have been a bad move).

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As an unrelated aside: I've found the seeker quite challenging to play (and especially difficult to play well). While it certainly may not be a problem in your game, it's something to watch for. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Sep 22 '13 at 0:02
    
Thanks, @BrianBallsun-Stanton. I have heard that as well. We haven't had trouble so far, but we haven't done very many sessions. I will keep it in mind, though. The folks in chat told me Hunter was a similar-ish alternative that plays better. –  jadarnel27 Sep 22 '13 at 6:55
    
Yes, I can absolutely recommend hunter as a more pure incarnation of the concept. It has less needless complexity. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Sep 22 '13 at 11:27

2 Answers 2

up vote 18 down vote accepted

3.5 elves are both woodsy and civilized, wild and cultured.

Elves are short and slim, pale-skinned with dark hair and green eyes (but no facial hair). Elves "trance" instead of sleep, and they live more than 700 years.

But the 3.5 PHB1 reveals a fundamental problem with elves which just gets worse as the edition continued to talk about them in other books. D&D elves draw on two primary sources: Tolkien and the Child ballads (though it's likely that the Child influence is mostly filtered through a handful of secondary sources). These two notions of elfness conflict, and so D&D elves are peaceful, but warlike. They are close to nature, but highly civilized. They have a broad perspective and rarely experience extreme emotions, but they respond to insults with violence.

This vision of elves is schizophrenic, totally different depending on who's writing them and just plain hard to nail down, so 4e wisely split them into two races. I'll mention the drow as well, for completeness and because their history is tied to the origin of elves.

Please keep in mind, though, that the 4e Points of Light setting is not firmly established. You will find variations and even contradictions in the lore depending on what you read where; they deliberately muck about a bit with continuity, because ultimately such things are in the hands of the GM. What follows is my understanding of the general history, based on trying to piece together disparate conflicting sources.

Eladrin are the Tolkien-like High Elves and drow are their disowned relations.

Civilized and regal and aloof, innately attuned to the arcane arts, eladrin are the flagship race of the Feywild. When the dark goddess Lolth rebelled against the other two Feywild gods, a group of eladrin joined her side in the ensuing war. Lolth lost, and her followers were cast out. They moved into the Underdark and became the dark-skinned, insane, spider-worshipping drow.

Eladrin are slim, often fair, with hair in pale metallic colors, pupil-less eyes in vibrant cool colors, and pointy ears. They have no facial hair and little body hair, and stand about as tall as humans. Eladrin "trance" instead of sleep, and they usually live over 300 years.

The elf is the eladrin's hillbilly cousin.

During and after this war, many eladrin left the Feywild entirely and settled in the Mortal/Material Plane. After generations, they became elves: closer to nature and slightly shorter-lived than their eladrin brethren (though neither race lives nearly so long as the 3.5 elf), they are hunstmen and craftsmen. Elves live in trees instead of spires and are more associated with primal magic than with the arcane arts.

Elves are slender, with tan and brown skin colors. Their hair comes in the colors of the leaves in autumn. Like eladrin, they have pointy ears, no facial hair, cool-colored eyes (though they have pupils), and are about as tall as humans. Elves sleep like humans do, and they usually live at least 200 years.

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Surely this isn't so much schizophrenic as it is taking direct cues from Tolkein, whose elves were all those things! Much like human folk, the race of elves has a great deal of cultural variety. –  starwed Sep 21 '13 at 21:20
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@starwed Not really. D&D elves borrow almost as much from Child's Ballad elves as from Tolkien elves, and that's hard to make compatible. To go further into it is beyond the scope of comments, but I'll say that Tolkien's elves were an exploration of his ideal Christian society and D&D elves... aren't. Also, 3.5 tries to make cultural variety the exclusive "hat" of humans, so elven variety becomes increasingly difficult to reconcile. –  BESW Sep 22 '13 at 1:20
    
Saying the Eladrin are Tolkienesque and the Elves aren't seems misleading to me. I've always viewed Elves as Lothlorien elves and Eladrin as the elves of Valinor or maybe Rivendell. –  DCShannon Jul 5 at 2:59

In your friend's case as she's playing a Elf and not a Eladrin she could still use the older material just by ignoring any reference to magic using civilised elves and using all the other facts, the reverse being also true if she was playing a Eladrin she would have to ignore the mud covered tree hugging ranger parts.

What 4E did was realize that the PHB elf race was trying to model a archetype which was far too wide it tried to model both the sophisticated spellcasting elves and the forest dwelling close to nature hunters.

It did that at least in 3.5 by giving stats which would indicate a archer but also made their favourite class, the one determined by how their society wants to shape people, as Wizard.

In 4E these two archetypes are separate into two races each much better suited to playing their role, the Eladrin are the mystical visitors from another realm magic users with teleportation while the Elves are the forest hunters and nature worshippers (Druid is still a accepted profession) with powers which model that.

Of course the story (and keywords used) show that the two races were initially one to be more precise Elves were Eladrin which adapted to the material plane.

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