On the go? Listen to the audio version of the article here:
When I first started playing Dungeons & Dragons, I had some expectations about elves. I assumed that they were mysterious, otherworldly, deeply magical… and immortal. While the first three are in the Player’s Handbook (PHB), the last is not. Elves can be killed in battle – if they couldn’t, the game would be broken. Elves that don’t age, though? That seems more reasonable. Could ageless elves exist in D&D?
According to the 5th Edition Player’s Handbook, “Elves can live well over 700 years, giving them a broad perspective on events that might trouble the shorter-lived races more deeply.” That makes it clear. They can live a long time, but D&D elves will eventually die. They are not immortal.
Why they die proves to be a trickier question to answer, though – and there are ways to become immortal!
What does the Player’s Handbook say?
Wizards of the Coast (WOTC) has given no official word on why their elves age. Prevailing theories range from the inherent balancing issues of making something undying, to elf PCs being more relatable if they are mortal.
Of course, any Dungeon Master (DM) can choose to ignore these rules and make their elves as Tolkienian as they desire, though it’s worth weighing the consequences before you do.
Things can get unpredictable when characters won’t die unless someone actively kills them, especially if those characters are controlled by players.
Frighten Your Players
In a dark room, Jon is on the edge of his seat. He’s afraid his next act will be his doom.
Everyone holds their breath—except you, the DM. You enjoy watching them sweat as tension comes to a head.
“Do something!” Sara shouts, causing everyone to jump. Rattled, Jon does something stupid.
For less than a Starbucks coffee, gift a thrilling night for you and your crew;
Check out Weeping Walls, our haunted house intended to fit into any campaign.
How to make NPC Elves Effectively Immortal
A clever DM can maintain the flavor of elves being immortal – without actually changing any of the rules.
To the average human, an elf would seem immortal. A community of people who barely live to 100 would probably call elves immortal if the ones nearby had been alive when their great-great-great grandparents were born.
Your elves could be unnaturally patient or slow to trust. They might consider all of humanity to be a momentary nuisance in their lands – one which they anticipate will show themselves out. Perhaps humans are enemies from a long-forgotten conflict. Elves haven’t stopped fighting just because their foes are too foolish to remember that there’s a war on.
You could have your elves speak the Common Tongue in an antiquated tone, reference long-dead kings as if they’d talked the day before, or refer to a great and ancient human empire as “upstarts” who are “really trying to do too much too quickly” for their tastes.
There are many ways to make elves seem immortal without creating problems for yourself. It takes a subtle touch, and you can allow them to give the impression. Elves can be slow to trust, so they don’t need to explain their situation openly.
Of course, if your setting is bleak, you might twist things in the opposite direction. Perhaps, even though elves can technically live that long, none ever do. Maybe so many die from battle or disease that the idea of a centuries-old elf is laughable. Mythical.
There could be some elf mages that have secreted themselves away in remote strongholds or towers for the past half-millennia. These few, truly ancient ones are even more preternatural for their rarity.
Other Misconceptions About Elves
Many new players will think of their elf character as having great stature, towering over the lowly human peasants. This is not so.
Though they are elegant and slender, the Player’s Handbook describes elves as “slightly shorter than humans on average”. While they are certainly graceful, elves are not willowy giants that have risen above us mere mortals.
While elves do not need to sleep, that does not mean that they don’t need to rest. Every day, elf Player Characters (PCs) must meditate at least four hours in a semi-conscious trance. If they don’t, they won’t benefit from short or long rests, and they will start to feel the effects of exhaustion.
Finally, elves are often thought of as magical, and their close connection to the fey does nothing to dissuade that idea.
It is not true, though, that all elves can perform magic. In 5e, all magical capability is determined by your class, not your race. An elf fighter will be just as mundane as a dwarf or an orc would be.
Discover Ancient Treasure
The party is tired, hurting, and in need of shelter when they discover a mysterious, ancient stone crypt.
The dusty tomb could hold immense treasure, danger, or both – depending on how they approach it.
Perhaps they’ll foolishly wander into this setting-agnostic, densely-written classic dungeon that provides plenty of unique choices and twists on old favorites.
Check out the promotional version (on the product page) before you buy the Mound of Harald the Conqueror!
How Do I Make an Immortal Character Then?
Oh, so that’s why we’re here? Fine, fine.
You should know that WOTC is wary of this sort of thing, having published only one official path to immortality, and it ain’t pretty: Lichdom.
Liches are profoundly evil spellcasters that have learned how to trade their humanity for life unending.
Becoming a lich is difficult. First, you must acquire the Book of Vile Darkness, a tome so full of wicked power that its procurement alone is a gargantuan task. You will then use the book (and the many foul deeds that the ritual requires) to shape your phylactery: the magical vessel that will hold your soul.
Ever after, death will be unable to hold you. If your body is killed, it will rise again. If it is destroyed, it will reshape itself from pure animus. So long as your phylactery remains whole, you will walk the world in undeath—the only of your kind to retain your memories, personality, and skills.
Of course, your phylactery can be destroyed by someone sufficiently powerful, but surely you’re clever enough to think of a hiding spot that no one will ever find.
If all of that “becoming unrepentantly, utterly evil” business is distasteful to you, there are some other possible paths to immortality, depending on your personal ethics (and the patience of your DM).
- Use Spells or Magical Artifacts:
- Find the Fountain of Youth, also known as Evergold (More discussion here)
- Use the spell Clone (PHB 222), assuming you are willing to get new gear
- Use the spell Magic Jar (PHB 257), so long as you don’t mind a new body
- Find the Philosopher’s Stone – not technically in 5e, but you can base it on the 3rd edition. It can revive the dead, though not prevent being killed.
- Have a Cleric or Bard on retainer to cast Resurrection on you, a Cleric or Druid cast True Resurrection on you, or a Cleric or Druid Wish you back to life.
- Become a monster:
- Deal with Higher Powers:
- Win a contest against a God of Death
- Kill a god and Apotheose (aka become a god)
- Make a deal with a devil
Elves generally live 100-750 years, though some may live to over 1000. They can be killed through various means, not the least of which is enemy combatants.
It is possible to become immortal or unkillable, but that will take effort and likely months of in-game time. As a DM, you could work to give the appearance of immortality – 750 years is a long time after all, before considering literal immortality. As a player, you can seek out some of the ways mentioned above, proposing them to your DM first.
All of these options, of course, require effort, DM approval, and each of them come with drawbacks.
Maybe it’s best to just stick with elves and call 700 years good enough, eh?