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The PHB of D&D 5e says that elves can't be put to sleep by magic (see under "Fey Ancestry"), and that they "don't need to sleep" (under "Trance".) Note that neither of these statements deny their ability to sleep: people can be put to sleep (or knocked unconscious, for that matter) by non-magical means, and "don't need to" doesn't mean "can't".

Am I reading the rules clearly here, or have I missed something?

Are elves capable of sleeping, and if put into sleep (or a state close to sleep), do they dream?

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is probably a "well, how do elves work in your world?" type of thing. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Sep 22 '14 at 15:34
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The rule you point to is listed as a Racial Trait, and reads as follows from BD&D

Trance: Elves don't need to sleep. Instead, they meditate deeply, staying semiconscious, for 4 hours a day (the Common word for such meditations is "trance.") While meditating, you can dream after a fashion; such dreams are actually mental exercises that have become reflexive through years of practice. After resting in this way, you gain the same benefit that a human does from 8 hours of sleep. (p15)

The first line of this, "Elves do not need sleep", is a bit nebulous. If they don't need to, can they? From the reading, I took it to mean that they can indeed sleep, as trance (while a racial trait) must be learned. After all, a new born elf wouldn't know how to meditate yet, would they? But they still would need to sleep.

Also, if they never dreamed while sleeping, they would not know what dreaming is as a race - they would only know it through descriptions from other races. Without that context, why would they develop it as a part of their trance?

I know this is a lot of conjecture, but it is based on both a reading of the rules and some meta considerations of the race.

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Although the language is probably not definitive, the Dream spell description indicates elves do not sleep.

... Creatures that don’t sleep, such as elves, can’t be contacted by this spell. ... (PHB, p. 236)

It stands to reason that if elves could sleep, then they could be contacted by the Dream spell, particularly because (as other answers correctly note) elves "can dream after a fashion; such dreams are actually [reflexive] mental exercises." PHB, p. 23.

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According to Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes (p. 38), in the "Dreams from Beyond Memory" sidebar: Yes, elves can sleep, but find dreams to be mysterious and weird so they generally choose not to.

Elves can sleep and dream just like any human, but almost all surface elves avoid doing so. Dreams, as humans know them, are strange and confusing to elves. Unlike the actual memories of one's primal soul, present life, or past lives, dreams are uncontrolled products of the subconscious, and perhaps the subconscious minds of those past lives or primal souls as well. An elf who dreams must always wonder whose mind these thoughts first arose from, and why. Priests of Sehanine Moon bow are an exception: they sleep and dream to receive signs from their god, and elves consult such priests to interpret their own dreams.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Could you cite where in Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes it says this? A chapter or page number reference would work. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Jan 6 at 18:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ @V2Blast Your D&D Beyond link sends me to a 403 error page, and while rightfully so (I don't own their digital copy of MToF) I imagine it being a bit confusing for someone who, for example, doesn't really know what D&D Beyond is. Would a link to the store page be better, or is there one that redirects non-owners to the store page? \$\endgroup\$ – Maz Jan 13 at 20:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Maz: Weird. I tried opening it in an incognito window and D&D Beyond just sent me to a page asking me to login or make an account (which is the normal behavior). \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jan 13 at 21:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ @V2Blast Oh, indeed. I can confirm that when logged out. Seems to be broken when you're logged in but don't own the book... \$\endgroup\$ – Maz Jan 13 at 21:57
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The Rules say

The Elven description includes (PBR 15, PHB 23):

Fey Ancestry. You have advantage on saving throws against being charmed, and magic can’t put you to sleep.

Trance. Elves don’t need to sleep. Instead, they meditate deeply, remaining semiconscious, for 4 hours a day. (The Common word for such meditation is “trance.”) While meditating, you can dream after a fashion; such dreams are actually mental exercises that have become reflexive through years of practice. After resting in this way, you gain the same benefit that a human does from 8 hours of sleep.

Interpreting this

Elves explicitly do dream, but not in the same manner as non-elves.

Elves cannot be magically put to sleep.

None of this precludes elves being able to sleep. Nor does it say they can sleep.

Note that dreaming is not natural, but is a learned behavior based upon the above quote. The trance state may be learned, or may be innate, but the mechanics do not indicate one way or the other. And note the caveat: it's mental exercises, not true dreams.

There are thus 3 key DM decisions left to make, then.

  1. Is trance natural or learned?
  2. Is willing sleep different from magical sleep?
  3. If willing sleep is different from magical sleep, can an elf willingly sleep?

The answer can be picked as desired.

For myself, I pick "Natural" and "different", and "only with wilful effort."

As for unconscious:

Unconscious and Asleep are not synonyms. While it's true that everyone asleep is unconscious, not everyone unconscious is asleep. And normal people don't generally dream when unconscious for reasons other than being asleep.

And, given that the elven dreams are due to mental exercises, it's reasonable to conclude they should not occur except when in trance.

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RAW does not prohibit elves from sleeping and therefore dreaming.
(Obviously I can't cite any references :))
This presumes that there is no specific reference to this point, which is the case as far as I can tell.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ unless im off, OpaCitiZen is not asking if they can or cannot mechanically sleep to rest vs. the trance but rather if they dream at all, probably for a story purpose. \$\endgroup\$ – Joshua Aslan Smith Sep 22 '14 at 13:38

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