I was reading Are Half-Elves immune to the paralyzing property of a Ghoul's Claw action? and it struck me that I have no idea as to why elves would be immune to the paralyzing touch of a ghoul, but it has nonetheless been part of D&D lore since Monsters & Treasure. Is this based off of Tolkien? Traditional lore? Gygax and Arneson's shared world?
Gary Gygax (2007): Elves' positive energy makes them immune to paralysis from ghouls
Gary Gygax answered exactly this question on a forum in 2007, (typo original):
When I devised the ghoul for the D&D game it was most assuredly with non-living energization, that is undead status, that enabled these creatures to exist and hunger for the flesh of dead humans and their ilk.
The negative energy of the ghoul is the rason for its paralyzing ability. Elves, having great positive energy, are thus immune to the effect.
What we are to make of such a late reminiscence is another question, but this is at least "from the horse's mouth".
As Gygax said, this was for the D&D game. Chainmail has different ghouls
Contrary to popular internet belief, elven immunity to a ghoul's touch is not derived from Chainmail. In Chainmail Ghouls are considered to be in the same 'class' as Wights, along with Zombies.
WIGHTS (and Ghouls): Although they are foot figures, Wights (and Ghouls) melee as Light Horse and defend as Heavy Horse. They cannot be harmed by normal missile fire. Wights (and Ghouls) can see in darkness, and must subtract 1 from any die roll they roll when in full light. If they touch a normal figure during melee, it becomes paralyzed and remains so for one complete turn. A paralyzed figure is considered to be able to strike a blow at the Wight just prior to paralysis taking effect, so melee can occur but only one round. Zombies are in this class but attack as Orcs and move as Goblins. (Chainmail 3rd Edition, p. 37)
The meaning of 'a normal figure' is somewhat obscure. And elves could go either way:
- Elves are 'normal figures' as they are 'normal size', and so not immune
- Elves are 'fantasy figures', and so immune. (The citation below suggests that they are fantastic creatures which may well have been the same as fantasy figures.)
But in any case, there is no specific immunity for Elves in Chainmail.
And different Elves...
Quoting the whole entry for Elves:
ELVES (and Fairies): Armed with deadly bows and magical swords, Elves (and Fairies) are dangerous opponents considering their size and build. They can per form split-move and fire, even though they are footmen. When invisible Elves (and Fairies) cannot attack — or be attacked unless located by an enemy with the special ability to detect hidden or invisible troops — but they can become visible and attack during the same turn. Those Elves (and Fairies) armed with magical weapons add an extra die in normal combat, and against other fantastic creatures they will perform even better. [There follows a combat table] (Chainmail 3rd Edition, p. 29)
Note that Elves and Fairies are also conflated into one 'class'. In any case, though they have several special abilities, immunity to paralysis is not one of them.
I've seen three (4, now that I've seen harlandski's Gygax quote) reasons for Elves being immune to a Ghoul's paralysis ability:
Per the Gygax quote, elves are suffused with positive energy, rendering them immune to the negative energy which powers a Ghoul's paralysis.
Tolkien Immortality (and historical inertia)
Apparently, an old source book (PC1: Tall Tales of the Wee Folk Pg 24) states that Ghouls' paralysis is caused by the victim's fear of death; Elves (who are immortal, in the Tolkien Immortality "can't die of old age" sense) thus have a sufficiently different vision of death that they're immune. (source)
Chainmail, on which D&D was (in large part) based, made Elves immune to Ghoul paralysis as a balance mechanic: Ghouls were cheap, Elves were expensive, and the immunity prevented Ghouls from zerg-rushing Elves. (source)
In Golarion (the default Pathfinder setting), the first Ghoul was an Elf, and the elven immunity to their paralysis is a manifestation of that.
The fact that elves have an unusual immunity to this paralysis is curious indeed, but most point to Kabriri’s form (and to the almost elven features of most ghouls) as the answer. They say that before he succumbed to his cannibal urge and became a demon, Kabriri himself was an elf. The long ears and slender bodies that most ghouls develop, despite their original race, is thus an echo of Kabriri’s legacy—and the fact that their paralytic hungers have no effect on elves is but another manifestation of this strange bit of history.
Significant Limitation/Caveat: all of these sources are second- or third-hand, and some are definitely retroactive and/or campaign-world-specific explanations.
Rules Compendium for D&D 3.5e includes a sidebar by David Noonan, Birth of a Rule, on page 13. In the discussion, it includes this bit:
Ever wonder why elves are immune to paralysis? As far as we can figure out, that immunity came from a game-balance issue in the original Chainmail rules, which mostly covered medieval warfare (with a fantasy supplement that spawned the game we all play today). Masses of low-cost undead troops were beating up high-cost elf troops, so the “elves are immune to paralysis” emerged as a balancing factor. More than thirty years later, we’re still using that rule.