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According to the chapter on elves in Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes, as children, elves explore memories of previous lives during their trances, and as adolescents, these memories begin to appear during their waking lives.

However, this seems to me like a benefit - an ability that they otherwise wouldn't have access to, which has the potential to grant them information they otherwise wouldn't have access to, and which doesn't seem to cost them anything. As a result, it seems to me that playing an adolescent elf is strictly better than playing an elf at any other stage of their life.

Are there any disadvantages to playing an adolescent elf to balance this extra ability out?

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    \$\begingroup\$ I take it we should just assume that playing an adolescent Elf is an option in the first place, that this ability exists in the universe you're in (MTF was almost four years after the PHB), that the GM will have the ability give information that actually helps with the campaign and not information like what some ancestor ate for lunch several hundred years ago, and that these visions are not distracting in any way while they happen? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 24, 2021 at 12:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Medix2 It's one paragraph above the Adolescents header: "During a young elf’s first few years, the memories evoked during trance are drawn not from current life experiences, but from the fantastic past adventures of the elf’s immortal soul." \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 24, 2021 at 12:11

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Adolescent elves do not have past-life memories while awake.

In the question, you wrote:

as adolescents, these memories begin to appear during their waking lives.

This is a misreading of the lore. First, we see:

During a young elf’s first few years, the memories evoked during trance are drawn not from current life experiences, but from the fantastic past adventures of the elf’s immortal soul.

As a young child, the elf has trance-memories of their past lives, but as they age, we see:

Parents of young elves and priests of Erevan Ilesere encourage the youths to explore these memories and talk about them with one another, but they aren’t to be discussed with adults until a memory of waking life first intrudes upon a youngster’s trance.

And later:

elves in adolescence learn how to use trance to evoke memories of their waking lives, giving them opportunities to reflect on the joys of the mortal world and to reinforce the principles of any training or practice undertaken while awake.

An elf in adolescence reflects on memories of their current awake life while in trance. They do not begin seeing memories of past lives while awake. Nowhere do we see that they have memories of past lives while awake. In adolescence, the memories of past lives are totally replaced by memories of their own waking lives.

Narratively, there are probably downsides to being a child.

Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes states:

During a young elf’s first few years, the memories evoked during trance are drawn not from current life experiences, but from the fantastic past adventures of the elf’s immortal soul.

The time in the life of an elf when these memories occur is childhood, pre-adolescence. As noted in the previous section, these past-life memories end when adolescence begins. So to have these memories, you must be a child. The difficulties of playing a child are explored in this Q&A: GM Considerations for a Human Barbarian Toddler PC

Should you decide to play a child, this is a world building tool for the DM, not really an ability you have.

All of the abilities you properly have are those racial traits listed in the race description. As such, this piece of lore about pre-adolescent elves is completely out of your hands, resting in the hands of the master of worlds, the DM. Which is to say, the ability is only as useful as the DM wants it to be.

There are no downsides baked into it, because it's not actually a racial trait that usually comes with the race. This is lore, not mechanics. It is balanced by the fact that the DM has total control over the shape these memories take.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Perhaps worth quoting, the Lore isn't even always beneficial: "Some memories pull at the heart, weighing it down and holding it there as an anchor moors a ship. [...] Some memories lie in wait like predators, ready to leap out when the mind or the heart is vulnerable. Some linger like scars, not always visible but ever-present." \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 24, 2021 at 12:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ This "lore" also points to elves having a cultural habit of reincarnation (as a side note) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 24, 2021 at 12:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast That's the whole past-lives thing. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 24, 2021 at 12:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ Nitpick: If young elves are encouraged to talk with each other about their memories from past lives, wouldn't they have to remember those memories while awake for that? Unless they're meant to sleeptalk, I suppose... \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Commented Aug 24, 2021 at 21:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ThomasMarkov That's the point. It is true of every elf, so there's no reason for the OP to want to play a child (or adolescent). They won't wind up with greater knowledge that way. The adult remembers what they learned as a child. \$\endgroup\$
    – trlkly
    Commented Aug 25, 2021 at 3:56

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