Elven Lifespans Should Be A Bigger Deal Than They Are

Elves are dicks. I wrote an article about it and I stand by it – in nearly every D&D setting, elves have been somewhere between moderately and extremely dickish (Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance, two of the biggest D&D settings around, lean towards the extreme side). So, when I say that elven lifespans should be a huge deal and that middle-aged elves should logically have crazy-high character levels even if they’re bog standard elven guards or the local apothecary or whatever, that’s not because I’m an ardent supporter of the “misunderstanding Tolkien” school of worldbuilding, it’s because being able to live for a very long time is a huge advantage which is pretty thoroughly underestimated by D&D. I use elves as an example here, but dwarves are quite similar.

So first, let’s talk about the whole 10,000 hours thing. It’s a popular idea (oversimplified but not unreasonable as a broad generalization) that you need 10,000 hours of practice at a thing to become a stand-out master of it. If you practice for eight hours a day, five days a week, fifty-two weeks a year, in other words if you dedicate yourself to learning a skill as though it were your only job, you’ll get a little over 2,000 hours of practice in per year and can master it within five years. How much better is someone with 10,000 hours of practice compared to someone with 1,000? Not ten times better. Practice isn’t linear like that. When you’ve already sunk in a whole lot of practice, it takes a ton more practice to get noticeably better at all.

Early on, you make progress very quickly. Ten hours of practice is a huge difference from just one. Someone with one hour of practice is still struggling to wrap their head around the fundamentals of a skill. Someone with ten hours of practice is familiar with the fundamentals and reasonably adept at basic tasks. In order to become a well-rounded beginner, you’ll need about 100 hours, which is about three weeks of practice as a full-time job. This is the point when you’ve first gotten the hang of it, and the rate at which you make improvements drops drastically from this point on. At a thousand hours (six months of learning just one skill as a fulltime job with weekends off but no vacations), you are reaching minimum professional competence, and at ten thousand hours you can stand out in your field. Going from minimum competence as a beginner to standing out amongst amateurs required going from 10 hours to 100 hours. Getting from stand-out amateur to mediocre professional required another 900 hours, and 9,000 more to become a stand-out professional.

So going from 10,000 hours to 100,000 hours is a big and noticeable leap even though it’s not actually ten times better, more like two times better. Still, it makes you a legendary grandmaster, because you’re still decisively better than people who are considered masters of the field, pushing the state of the art. You also have to work at it as a full time job for five decades (and most people who actually have a full time job not only retire after about four decades, but also usually stop learning and start just doing what’s always worked by the time they’ve got even a few thousand hours of practice, to say nothing of the fact that a lot of people spend a lot of work time on Reddit and as you get promoted or moved around laterally you will probably end up switching skills semi-regularly rather than pouring everything into one – even 10,000 hour people are seriously rare, let alone 100,000 hour people). Most people who reach this level of proficiency are taking a shortcut by having a natural talent that lets them squeeze more progress out of a single hour, and even then they have to pour in an enormous amount of time and effort.

You can see where this is going, though. If you’re an elf, you’re about 110 years old when your adventuring career starts. If you’ve been training a single skill for only four hours a day, five days a week since you were ten, you will be the equivalent of a once-in-a-generation legendary grandmaster amongst the humans. Most people stop training that hard somewhere between 1,000 hours and 10,000 hours, but even on a lackadaisical training schedule you are extremely likely to have the 10,000 hours necessary to be a stand-out professional at the top of your field just for being an elf and having a lifespan that is nutcase long. The crazy dedicated elves, the ones who keep training eight hours a day every day even when it’s decades or centuries of practice to achieve significant improvement, the ones who will be stand-outs even among elves, they can reach the impossibly high 1,000,000 hour milestone after 480 years. Elves can live to be up to 750 years long, so that’s possible. There are elves out there who make top-of-their-field stand-out professional humans look like (particularly good) amateurs.

I mean, there should be, anyway. But there’s not. And that would be really bad for game balance. Like, wow, elves being like level 12 at game start just because they’re a hundred years old? Old elf professionals, your captains of the guard and master blacksmiths and such, reaching level 20 (the highest it is possible for regular humans to ever possibly achieve if they are both dedicated and naturally gifted PCs who get to advance much faster than NPCs) just because they’ve lived an order of magnitude longer than their human counterparts? That’d be terrible for game balance. It would imply a radically different setting from what D&D actually provides. Even D&D settings in which elves are talked up as these awesomely beautiful and graceful creatures still have elven nations interact with human nations in pretty much the exact same way as human nations interact with each other. You don’t see elves conquering human rivals with ease because their soldiers are an order of magnitude better. You don’t see elven goods driving out human equivalents for as long as supplies last because masterwork quality is the norm in elven society, and elves thus coming to dominate the economy. It’s not like elves are super reclusive, either. They’re kinda reclusive, but the Misty Forest still showed up to help stop the Dragon Cult and it wasn’t a sign of the apocalypse. The Misty Forest is just in the Lord’s Alliance. You can’t claim that your lack of impact on the politics and economy of surrounding nations is because you’re an extreme isolationist after you’ve joined NATO.

Now, one thing I’ve brought up a couple of times is that it’s not just putting in hours at all, but that the hours have to be dedicated specifically to learning a skill. You can learn by doing, but if you’re faffing about on Reddit half the time, you’ll only get half the benefit (at best). Talent also plays into it, because a very talented person gets more out of practice than a less talented person (obviously this is way more complicated than just talent giving you a 1.5x multiplier to hours invested or whatever, but for purposes of a discussion of elf games I think that’s a reasonable approximation). So if elves are having about the same impact both as adventurers and as nations as we’d expect regular humans to have, but they’ve had way more time to hone their craft, then maybe it’s because they’re all lazy, talentless hacks. That would certainly explain why they’re such arrogant tossers. They suck at everything and are overcompensating with a collective self-delusion about being naturally superior, and of course they draw emphasis to “grace and beauty,” the one area that their +2 DEX bonus is actually giving them a genuine advantage in.

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