Monday, October 4, 2010

The Elven Theme

In OD&D Vol-1, all elves are multiclassed fighter/wizards (or, to be specific in the language of the time, they can "freely switch class whenever they choose, from adventure to adventure, but not during the course of a single game" [OD&D Vol-1, p. 8]). They're also the only character type formally allowed to multiclass -- in math terms we'd say "a character is multiclassed if and only if they are an elf".

Sup-I Greyhawk switches this up a bit. It introduces the Thief class (available to all racial types), and other races can now multiclass (i.e., dwarves can be Ftr/Thf or NPC Ftr/Clr, the new half-elves can be Ftr/Wiz or Ftr/Wiz/Clr). At this point, Elves can explicitly be one of the following class combinations: (1) Fighter/wizard, (2) Fighter/wizard/thief, (3) Thief alone, or (4) NPC-only Fighter/wizard/cleric.
Elven thieves work in all three categories at once (fighter, magic-user, and thief) unless they opt to never be anything other than in the thief category. [Sup-I, p. 5]
Now, this seems like a truly odd asymmetry to me. Elves can be Ftr/wiz/thf, but they can't focus to the extent of being just Ftr/thf or Wiz/thf. They can't be a fighter or wizard alone. It seems like "fighter" and "wizard" are glued together and only come as a joint pair (unlike any other race) -- particularly odd because in Vol-1, elves could in theory just ignore one of their classes and never "switch" to using it at all. (Obviously in AD&D the options were expanded to any mix of one, two, or three of the core non-cleric classes; but by then, elves have lost anything particularly special in their multiclassing.)

So I'd like to pose the following as a question: If we look at the critical moment when Thieves are being added to the game as the 4th core class, what exactly is the OD&D elven multiclassing specialty really communicating? Are they simply "special" at picking up extra classes in general? Are they exceptionally gifted at fighting, such that they get that class for free? Are they supernaturally gifted at magic-use (wizardry), such that they get that class for free? How would the Vol-1 rule be best extrapolated to maintain the "elven theme" at the point when we add Thieves? What would fit best for the way you like to play? (See poll results here.)


  1. I don't really see any need to generalize. I'd either play it as written, or make Elves stick to Fighter/Wizard. Thematically Thief seems wrong to me for Elves, even more than Cleric, at least for Elves that have been brought up in Elven culture.

  2. My impression was always that they were supernaturally gifted and that Wizard was an inherent (freebie) class. Not that I ever liked it or played that way.

  3. I'm in the "naturally magical" camp. Elves can hardly not cast spells.

    @Joshua: their association with thievery is very strong in folklore.

  4. Yes, to me elves are magical creatures. They're not wizards like human magic-users, but they can put on their pointy hat when they choose.

    @Nagora: I'd say the folkloric elves are sometimes tricksters, but I'm not sure that's the same thing as a D&D thief.

  5. I'd say: Elves are a Thief-Ranger-Magic combo, where the magic is more druid like.

  6. If you want a more Folkloric Elf Illusionist/Thief seems a pretty good fit.

    Glamor and Trickery for later Elf ideas .

    More Tuatha De Danu types fit better as Fighter or Berserker (Warp Spasm anyone?) Wizards

  7. I thought the same thing.. Wizard = throwaway class.

  8. If you look at chainmail, elves are not listed as being particularly spellcasters. Yes, they remain invisibile until they attack, but that following the, "hide in the forrest" meme. Most notibaly they do a lot of damage to goblins, orcs, and ogres, but the assumption there is physical damage from a legolas type character aka mirkwood elves.

    The only mention of fighter/wizards is in gygax's use of the word, "combination characters" for use as heroes, with the warning that such characters can become overpowered, specifically citing Elric of Melnibone as the prototypical "combination character".

    The fighter/magic-user could very well be Elric (pasty, thin, physically weak) as an "elf" type character. So too, the Drow elves have a very Elric quality to them and were soon invented not long after D&D started rolling.

  9. @UWS guy: For what it's worth, I read the Chainmail text as saying that elves are "really" invisible (same term & mechanic as for Sprites, Pixies, and Wizards), and the "hide in woods" trope as a later down-shifting of that idea (compare to Halflings' "blend into the background"). They also all have magical swords.

  10. A bit late here, but I'm seeing fighters/wizards glued as something like "elven culture". An elf can grow learning the ways of the elves (a fighting/spellcasting mix) or grow in the streets of human cities, never being accepted and allowed to train as fighters or wizards (implying a xenophobe humancentric medieval world).

    1. That's a pretty good take, thanks for that! One thing I noticed later on that stick in my mind now is how in Anderson's "Three Hearts and Three Lions", start of Ch. 7, when the sinister land of Faerie is entered, the elves are described as, "All of them seemed to be warriors and sorcerers..." which I assume is where to original trope came from. I suppose in Chainmail terms one is saying, "they've got everything".