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Every popular charop class handbook I read seems to indicate that Elf is a terrible race choice, or at best "okay" (but sub-optimal) for some of the sub-types of elf. It seems to me that they actually get some nice bonuses, like the +2 Dex, some improved saves, immunity to sleep and resistance to charm, bonus automatic weapon proficiencies, low-light vision, and a special ability to find secret doors. All that, with only a -2 Con as a penalty—and a mere 1 HP less per level and -1 to Fort seems like it shouldn't make much of a difference in the grand scheme of things.

So why are elves considered suboptimal choices by charoppers?

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3 Answers 3

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Constitution is everyone’s second-most-important ability

That’s it, that’s all it comes down to. Even if Dexterity is your most-coveted ability score, you can get +2 Dexterity without taking a −2 penalty to Constitution, and since that is an option, you will want to do so because even if Dexterity is more important, Constitution still is important.

And it is really important. A +2 to Dexterity means you get +1 to some rolls. They can be some important rolls, initiative, attack, stealth, maybe damage if you work at it. But it’s still just +1.

But Constitution, unlike most other ability scores, has a multiplicative effect (Intelligence does too, with skill points, but that only matters to some characters; HP matters to everyone). You don’t lose 1 life with a −2 to Constitution, you lose 1 life per level. And that winds up being a pretty big chunk of life.

Also, and this is admittedly very much secondary, Fortitude saves tend to be (much) more important than Reflex saves. Reflex saves tend to halve some HP damage, and direct-damage, particularly magical direct-damage, as in the sort of thing you can halve with a Reflex save, tend to be kind of mediocre. Fortitude saves often ward off very unpleasant things, like ability damage (disease, poison) or straight-up death. All else being equal, Fortitude tends to be the more important saving throw. Will tends to be even more important (because a failed Will save also often involves death or ability score damage, or worse can mean possession or mind-control).

The rest of the elf racial features are just... minor

The rest of the elf racial features are nice, but niche or minor. They just do not measure up to the sheer loss that the −2 Constitution represents.

  • The trance thing rather than sleeping is cool, but ultimately it doesn’t represent a dramatic advantage; rotating guards are still a really good idea, as are alarm spells and the like. Outside of very-low levels, sleep is not a major danger. Note that trancing does not reduce the amount of sleep that arcane spellcasters need. If it did, that would be a really big deal (possibly too good but really, I doubt it), but it doesn’t.

  • Automatic searching is cool, except if it’s really important you’re probably already searching for it (so the racial ability often just winds up being a minor thing the DM threw in to give the elf player a bone).

    • In most games, it’s the kind of thing that, if no one was playing an elf, somehow just magically wouldn’t have been an issue in the first place. DM-time is a valuable thing to be spent wisely, which means it’s usually a bad thing for a DM to give much thought to a room the PCs are never going to find. If the players need to find the room and don’t have an elf, the DM is going to find some other way to hint at it, or just move it somewhere that they’ll find it. DMs often do similar things for parties that lack trapfinders or trackers. The lack of these things may, in theory, reduce the party’s effectiveness at a particular task, but the more important the thing to be found is, the more likely the DM is to make sure the party finds it.

    • In really sandboxy games, the DM might give some thought to random rooms, trying to imagine where those rooms would logically be from the perspective of the building’s designers. Or, if you are playing a pre-made module, it’s entirely possible that the authors of the module threw in random hidden rooms just because someone might be playing an elf.

    • In other words, this feature can, and possibly will, occasionally get you a nice little thing. It might provide a short-cut, an extra bit of treasure, whatever. Those are nice things. However, even when there is something to find with auto-search, the room still cannot be crucial if it’s unlikely to be found by parties without elves (or the party elf just doesn’t have a lot of ranks in Search or just flubs the Search check). Because if the room is crucial and the party is unlikely to find it, there’s a high risk of the game suddenly grinding to a halt while party has no idea what it is they need to progress. And no matter how you slice it, that’s pretty bad for the game. So this feature will just about never make-or-break the campaign, or a character’s success, unless the DM very artificially forced something in just to make the feature important (see This Looks Like a Job for Aquaman).

  • Weapon proficiencies are cheap and easy to come by for almost everyone who cares. After all, players don’t play commoners. If you actively use weapons as an adventurer, you almost-definitely already have proficiency in the weapons you want to use. Very few classes swing weapons regularly, yet don’t have proficiency in the weapons elves are automatically proficient in. And even when that does happen, they usually have something almost as good (a Simple variant of the same weapon, for example; the difference is a minor +1 to damage, on average, for having the Martial version).

    • The one sort-of major exception, wizards who cannot cast spells, still isn’t really a great example, for a couple of reasons.

      • First, between all the methods wizards have to maintain their spell slots, the quantity of spell slots they have available, and their own ability to decide whether or not to put themselves at risk of needing spell slots they don’t have, most cases of this are fairly contrived.

      • Second, a wizard spending any significant amount of time where he has nothing better to do than shoot a bow he’s crap at shooting is an indication that there is something seriously wrong with your campaign. In essence, a player who has chosen to play a wizard did so in order to cast spells, not to be a piss-poor archer. He is not good at shooting a bow, be it a crossbow or a longbow, and it’s not what he’s here to do. Which means that, if you as a DM are doing your job right, it should be very rare that the wizard is reduced to plinking things with a bow. The wizard should have better things to do be doing the overwhelming majority of the time, because otherwise you’re being fairly rude to the player in question, invalidating his choices and wasting the time he put into building the spellcasting abilities of the character. Having “better things to do” might not be casting spells; throwing characters outside their forté can be interesting if done right. But having the player sit there going “well, I guess I’ll take another pot-shot with my bow; can’t really do anything else,” means you, as a DM, are failing that player for as long as that goes on. If it’s brief, fine: not everyone needs to have the spotlight at all times; that’s impossible. But if this is going on a lot in your campaign, you are doing something very wrong.

      • Finally, if I as a wizard really care about this, I can always just be Human and take Martial Weapon Proficiency as my bonus feat, or swap Scribe Scroll for it using the Unearthed Arcana variant, or whatever. I don’t get the +2 Dex, but I avoid the −2 Con, which is going to matter to me more and more often. Even if I’m worried about being reduced to plinking away with a bow, I don’t need four proficiencies, just one. I definitely don’t want to get into melee with a d4 HD, a −2 Con, and a rapier, that’s for damn sure.

So, ultimately, those racial features, while kind of nice, just aren’t worth it for −2 Constitution.

There are exceptions, of course, particularly for elf subraces.

  • Several elf subraces have bonuses to Intelligence, which are otherwise very difficult to come by (though the same argument about Dexterity applies to Intelligence, with a limited set of books you might not be able to get +2 Intelligence without taking −2 Constitution).

  • There are a select few feats and prestige classes that require proficiency in particular weapons, and are designed for classes that wouldn’t ordinarily have them. Sometimes being an elf can help with that and the −2 Constitution is a price worth paying if it means not wasting a level in an otherwise-worthless dip, or burning multiple feats, on those proficiencies. Though for the life of me, abjurant champion is literally the only case of this that I can think of.

  • A few elf-only options are quite good, like the Elven Generalist Wizard ACF, or the Eternal Blade prestige class.

So elves sometimes do have things to recommend them, but they are few, and playing an elf is literally a cost to entry. The thing you get might be worth it, but if you could do it as a not-elf you would.

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6  
This is rather interesting, especially where it hints at historical changes in playstyle and other parts of the system; 3e elves aren't really mechanically different from pre-3e elves, but prior to 3e are almost always strictly superior to other choices. It used to be that weapon proficiencies were hard to come by; less sleep is a killer feature for wizards; and HP totals had less spread. The playstyle stuff (like "it’s a waste of the DM’s time to even think about some room the PCs aren’t going to find") are very useful, as they indicate that elves' value varies depending on the game style. –  SevenSidedDie May 6 at 20:04

CharOpers Love Constitution

And who can blame them? It provides a bonus to a statistic everyone benefits from (HP) and does so at every level. It's also the key stat for Fort saves, and all the best Save or Die effects target Fort. The types of classes that traditionally fall under the scope of Elves tend to have low HP and poor Fort saves, which in the CharOper's mind makes them a terrible choice for those classes. That said...

CharOpers Place Outsized Value On Constiution

While every character benefits from extra HP, many characters don't really need the extra HP. Ranged characters and spellcasters especially have a ton of tricks to save themselves from damage. Taking damage is what all the peasant melee characters are for. I've had a number of characters (including a melee Incarnate) that made Con a dump stat and generally had no issues with survivability. CharOpers would have called these characters unoptimized and they'd be right. But unoptimized is a very different thing from "terrible".

CharOpers Don't Particularly Care About The Elves' Other Abilities Either

This has been covered in better detail than I could ever manage in KRyan's answer, but to sum up, even the abilities that are useful are only so at lower levels. Low-light vision is only handy until everyone can blow pocket change to get better forms of vision, after all. And this leads us to the dirty secret of CharOp.

Most CharOpers Start At 20

The thing about leveling up in D&D is that you're presented with numerous options, and oftentimes your choices boil down to weighing long-term benefits against shorter-term power. The theoretical CharOper never has to make that choice, because they always have the benefit of long-term planning. They're not thinking of the level 4 Elf that takes one fewer average longsword swing to drop. They're thinking of the Elf that could have 20 more HP if they'd just had the foresight to be born a "better" race. They're attracted to the races whose features still have value at level 20.

CharOpers Serve A Useful Purpose

Lest this whole answer come across as anti-optimizer screed, there's a reason why CharOpers are as respected as they are. They have a level of system knowledge and mastery that is second to none, and if you are interested in long-term planning or even just an answer on the relative merits if different options, that is exactly their area of expertise. But as had been pointed out, there are many, many, many different types of campaigns, and the ones most CharOpers operate in don't always bear much resemblance to the ones you might be playing.

Ultimately, Unoptimized is NOT the Same as Terrible

Odds are, take any Elven character you might want to create, and a CharOper will find at least five races that'll mostly be able to do the same things without giving up a hit point per level. And at level 20 your Elf will be, by most objective measures, "worse" than theirs. But the difference won't be as dramatic as they might make it seem, and finding ways to overcome the lack of survivability might create a more fun experience for you over the course of that character's lifetime. Or you might be miserable over how often you seem to get knocked unconscious. After all, "Optimal" means different things to different people, and "Sub-Optimal" can still be pretty damn good.

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I really don’t start at 20. I’m thinking about what’s true at the majority of levels. 1st level is as much of an outlier as 20th. If elven racial features were only invalidated by 9th-level spells, then for 16 levels they’d be good and that would be a huge chunk of the game. But most of their features are minor and easily replaced quite early, so that they are fairly irrelevant for considerably more than half the game, often as much as 75%. I more-or-less agree with the rest, though. –  KRyan May 9 at 1:06
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(in short, I think it would be more accurate to say that char-op folk consider all levels equally-likely, even if there are a lot of campaigns that never get past level 3, or whatever.) –  KRyan May 9 at 1:12
    
I have mad respect for CharOpers who take a level-by-level approach, especially when retraining options are taken into account (like spontaneous casters swapping spells known). I've been reading a lot of CharOp lately though and a lot of it misses out on this perspective. I still genuinely believe it's the chief reason why so many inflate Con's importance, and hence, curse the Elves. –  agradine May 9 at 1:21
    
Don't agree; at level 20, damage has so far outpaced HP that even 20 HP is unlikely to make the difference between living and dying. And at 1st, 1 HP is really unlikely to, because most everything that can hit hard can drop you in one. But for the like... 2, 3, to like 13, 14 range? I call it really important. –  KRyan May 9 at 1:36
    
That's an interesting perspective I haven't really seen before. I don't really agree still, but that's mostly based on my own experiences with low-Con characters at that level. –  agradine May 9 at 3:31

Elves are suboptimal mostly because people play games in which they are suboptimal.

There are several factors that help make use of the advantages of elves:

  1. Playing at lower levels, where:

    • If you care about your armor, +1 DEX is on par with +1 CON, if not slightly better (this mostly holds for levels 1..2 and is downhill from there).
    • You cannot just teleport back to base / deploy your instant fortress / use rope trick / etc. in order to have some peaceful sleep.
    • The equivalents of elven racial advantages such as immunity to sleep and low-light vision are not easily bought.
    • You can really benefit from your weapon proficiencies because base weapon damage is not dwarfed by bonuses to it, and your chances to hit with it are mostly determined by your stats, not by you belonging to warrior classes.
  2. Playing games where you can really do stuff in the wilderness, especially during the night. You do not benefit from your night vision while navigating through that hole in the ground, but shooting arrows over 200+ feet from hillside, clearly seeing your target with virtually no chance of being seen... I would not call that being weak.

  3. Playing all elven party, where you do not have those everpresent guys with torches betraying your presence, nor those short stocky guys without torches who try to drag you into some hole just because they can neither shoot not see farther than 60 feet anyway, and no one is to go to sleep when it is time for some action.

The question is, how often can you have all three of these?

So, elves are suboptimal because they force the GM to restrict the stories she can tell in order to make the elves less suboptimal?

That is correct, to some point. Another statement that is similarly correct is that humans are suboptimal because they (until sufficient gear is bought) are incapable of optimal tactics and so they force other players to restrict the tactics they can use in order not to leave them sitting there doing nothing during that no-torches night op. A good example of this problem is being mounted (or even aerially mounted) in an otherwise pedestrian party - you are not allowed to employ your main tactics. That's it. And at higher levels... yes, minus a feat, minus X hp, all else equalizes.

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Do not argue in comments. –  mxyzplk May 8 at 19:07

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