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Part 1 of a series of questions.

Generally, in fantasy humans are always disadvantaged when compared to other races (short lives, less fighting skill, weaker with magic, etc). I want to avoid this, by having all the races have some advantages, and some disadvantages, when compared to humans as a frame of reference.

World information: There are 7 sapient races. These are human, elf, dwarf, orc, goblin, reptilian (lizard men) and avian (bird people). The races were created by the gods as entertainment, and as a competition of whose race is superior. As such, no race should be completely advantaged. The world is set within the medieval ages, different races and cultures can be more or less advanced, but none are more than the 13th century level. There is also a medium amount of magic present.

Magic System: Magic comes from the echos of creation, similar to how we have Cosmic microwave background radiation. When passing through the Soul Reservoir into this plane of existence, some beings are affected by the Creation Echos, and will be capable of using magic. The use of magic is powered by an individuals willpower, and belief in the effect. All races use the same magic, but with different methods and purpose. Orc shamans for example draw out their magic through war dances and songs to make themselves stronger. That is how their ancestors taught them to do it, and it is as the great god Durnak decreed it, which has worked out so far. A human uses magic by chanting in an ancient language, and a fireball shoots out. The Order of the Great light taught him so. However a human that is brought up in an Orcish stronghold, will use magic with dance and song, to strengthen the troops.

Info about humans:

  1. Lifespan of 50-60 years.
  2. Height of 5.6 to 6.2 feet (1.70 to 1.89 meters)
  3. Human tech is based on European 10th century.
  4. Humans capable of using magic are born approximately 1 per 1000.
  5. Population type is typical of the time period, large capital cities, medium towns and small farming villages and homesteads.

Info about elves:

  1. Lifespan of 500-700 years.
  2. Height of 6.5-7.5 feet (1.98 to 2.13 meters)
  3. Elven technology is around the 9th century of East Asia. No gunpowder and explosives.
  4. Elves capable of using magic are born approximately 1 per 100.
  5. Population is comprised of capitals with 1 to 5 thousand inhabitants, and small communities of 50 to 300 elves. These are spread out through several large forests.

The advantages that Elves would have are a long lifetime in which to improve and perfect their skills, making them deadly warriors. They also have a great amount of magic users and power. The elves are also bigger and stronger than humans, as well as being faster (more dexterous). While number balancing can work a bit, it does not always mean a disadvantage. Real life examples are how the British empire ruled a fairly large portion of the world, in South Africa at the Battle of blood river, 470 Voortrekkers defeated an estimated 10-15 thousand Zulus, while during the Anglo Boer war, 600 000 British troops where held off for a long time by 55-60 thousand Boer forces.

One method of nerfing the elves a bit, is based on a previous Q/A I read, which is that elves are only able to reproduce after 100 years. After giving birth, a female will only become fertile after another 50 years. Another nerf I am giving them is that due to their long lives, they do not have the same rushed and frenzied mindset that most humans have. They are more than happy to spend a whole day collecting herbs and berries, because they have so much time to do other stuff.

The Question: What other methods and disadvantages could I use for balancing the elves to a human. This does not have to be one elf equals one human, but rather, in a battle between an elven nation and a human nation, neither side should have an absolute advantage.

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  • $\begingroup$ Are the gods specifically creating inter-species war for the fun of it? Just want to clarify. $\endgroup$ – cyber101 Aug 1 at 9:48
  • $\begingroup$ The races are normally balanced by numbers. An elf may live 10 times as long as a human, but there'll be 10 humans for every elf. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Aug 1 at 9:53
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    $\begingroup$ this is only up to you, but I found odd that a race with several centuries lifespan have a technological backwardness. I expect them to be more developped, at least in some fields, maybe non-martials such as philosophy if you want to keep the balance $\endgroup$ – Kepotx Aug 1 at 9:55
  • $\begingroup$ @cyber101 Yes, just for the fun of it and for bragging rights. $\endgroup$ – Umbra Aug 1 at 9:57
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    $\begingroup$ two things to note, your elves technology and especially society will only advance at a crawl. one of the upside of having a short lifespan is old ideas die out fairly quickly if new people fail to pick them up. Imagine the US with elves people who kept slaves would still be running the place. Elven social norms should be several hundred years behind the times at least. $\endgroup$ – John Aug 3 at 1:46

11 Answers 11

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Role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons generally take great care to balance all races. You could look to them for inspiration.

Typical advantages conferred on elves are night vision, longevity, superior dexterity, and the ability to hide in natural environments. Typical disadvantages are physical frailty (they aren't as strong and tough as humans), low fertility, and less flexibility (in D&D, humans often get an extra skill and feat (broad ability) to compensate for the lack of special racial abilities).

Longevity may confer as many disadvantages as advantages. Being very long-lived, they stand to lose more if they die, possibly making them more risk-averse, even timid. Longevity is also typically married to low fertility, with few new elves born every year. This means that losses incurred in a war will take far longer to replace, making elves very reluctant to go to war.

Smaller youth generations may lead to less innovation, since young people tend to be more open-minded and inquisitive than older people. Elves might not be very fond of change, either, given that they live for hundreds of years. Both these factors may slow technological development, with a greater focus on refinement than radical innovation.

Having all the time in the world (or so it might feel) may make elves rush less in learning or building new things. Better to do it right than do it quickly. Elves may hence have fewer skills than a human, but will be very good at the skills they have - which may be artistic skills rather than survival skills. Similarly, elves may be slow to make decisions - they don't rush things, especially important things. This can be a disadvantage in a crisis situation.

As for magic: There may be more elven magicians per capita, but their magic could be of a different sort. Human magicians may cast fast and deadly elemental spells, while elven magicians may deal in fey magic, which may be just as powerful, but subtler and slower. This could e.g. putting a glamour on a piece of land that make people avoid it without being aware of it, or make plants grow more densely, making passage more difficult. They may summon sprites to perform light tasks like delivering messages and playing tricks on invaders, but they will not (or cannot) summon destructive fire elementals. Misdirection may play a bigger part than walls in defense.

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  • $\begingroup$ I am not to familiar with D&D, having never played it before. I know most types of games work hard on having a balancing system, however most of them focus on being completely balanced, especially first person and role playing types. Off the top of my mind is Elder scrolls for example, no race has a definite advantage over the entire game. Also your idea for magic does not fit my system idea. I will edit my question to include my magic system. $\endgroup$ – Umbra Aug 1 at 12:12
  • $\begingroup$ Longevity isn't generally considered an advantage in D&D since campaigns generally take place over less than a single human lifetime so it's virtually ignored during balancing. In a campaign intended to span 2000 years, you would have to completely rebalance the races to take longevity into account (Or just exclude humans as completely useless) $\endgroup$ – Bill K Aug 1 at 18:53
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    $\begingroup$ Eeeeh... as the currently-highest-rated member of RPG SE, I’d say that most RPGs tend to balance races only to a first-pass level of scrutiny, and even then, they tend to concern themselves with combat balance, not cultural balance. D&D elves live a thousand years, but this is irrelevant to an elf’s career as an adventurer and so doesn’t get “balanced” by anything. (Also, ironically, in most editions of D&D, humans are one of, if not the, strongest races mechanically.) Still a good suggestion, but you might be overselling how much balance it really offers. $\endgroup$ – KRyan Aug 1 at 19:41
  • $\begingroup$ In Old D&D, to reflect the long life span and elves has a separate xp progression, requiring a lot more than a human, at the same time halfling needed a lot less and are limited to lvl 5. Note in that game races are unbalanced, elves are OP while halfling too weak $\endgroup$ – jean Aug 1 at 20:30
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The longevity issue is a disadvantage to elves (in this context).

An orc (lets say) lives to 20 years... is going to go out in a blaze of glory with little regard to himself. live fast, die young because he's going to die young anyway.

An elf, who'll live for hundreds of year, has better things to do that fight and die. There's art, sculpture, romance, food, wine, all the things that make life worthwhile. Fighting puts all that at risk, and you have a lot to lose if you live a long time. You can see this in real history, ancient peoples wiuth shorter, unhealthier lifespans were more concerned about their memory than those of us living today who would rather virtually fight from the comfort of a sofa than on a real battlefield.

So how many elves will become expert warriors? Hardly any. A few might out of a sense of patriotism or some sort of madness, but the majority will not want to fight at all, and will do all they can - in terms of diplomacy and similar - to ensure they never have to.

So elves are more likely to be expert musicians than bowmen, diplomats than warriors. Their approach to physical conflict would be more defensive.

That makes the competition between the races much more interesting, they're not fighting in a "which is better - axe or sword" for example, but using totally different ways and means.

So maybe Elves are diplomatic, dwarves are traders, orcs are warriors, humans are adaptable. Makes for more differences than treating the races like a Top Trumps card game.

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Quantity verses Quality

The elves long lifespan is a blessing and a curse. If you think what a human can achieve in half a century, just imagine what an elf can do in half a millennium.

A bowman with the practice of numerous human lifetimes can outshoot any mere man. An elvish bowman is worth a hundred human bowmen. An elvish swordsman is the same and the quality of his weapons and armour surpass anything made by men.

The curse is every elf lost is virtually irreplaceable. Human civilizations rise and fall in the lifespan of a single elf.

Elves in stories also have the ability of superior eyesight and the ability to see in the dark. Human might try and burn them out of their forests but when they come at night, human can do little to stop them.

The advantage humans have is they get ten generations of offspring to every elf.

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  • $\begingroup$ +1 quantity is a quality of its own $\endgroup$ – Jeutnarg Aug 1 at 18:24
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There are numerous things you could do.

When someone is stronger than you like an Orc that strength has to come from somewhere. Comparing humans to Gorillas for example the Gorillas have a higher strength per muscle quantity than humans. But this comes at a cost. The muscles of Gorillas are less precise and also tire out faster. So when orcs and humans fight the humans want to extend the maneuver phase as long as possible to ensure the Orcs are tired, while the Orcs have to be their typical hyper aggressive murder machine both because they will tire quickly and because it is a good demoralization to their opposition which could cause a route. The humans might lose out in the opening moments of the fight but the moment the Orcs start tiring the humans will be able to press their advantage.

Against elves its a matter of resiliance to lost members of their society. A hundred lost humans is a small loss compared to a hundred Elves with all their experience and the length of time it takes to get new children and raise them to adulthood to replace the lost members. The humans could simply outbreed the Elves and use the industrial capacity of the extra hands to outbuild the Elves in large scale projects like building fortifications. Great job Elves, you just build the best fortification ever designed! But it took you a massive portion of your society to do so and its very small due to the lack of people to man it. The humans in the meantime build several fortifications of much larger size and a large amount of siege and anti-siege equipment to boot!

And what about food consumption? Elves are bigger and stronger, but would undoubtedly require more food to keep the same amount of soldiers alive as humans. And with a more limited amount of elves available their supply trains are much more vulnerable to attack. Arson and industrial sabotage of elf foodproduction would also cause much more famines and problems for their soldiers than if you did the same for humans or Orcs who might be able to live off basically garbage or spoiled food more easily.

This way you can easily balance things out. Maybe the humans are more inventive than more morally bound elves? Lets say the Elves never came up with the idea to dip your arrows in a pit of dead animals and feaces as an early form of biological warfare, or that dumping boiling tar from a rampart would be too cruel for Elves while humans have no problem using it. Maybe a species limits itself like the Dwarves that have lots of precious metals to work with but no woodworking to support themselves easily in the field by building simple palisade walls or something similar?

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I don't think you need to introduce any other balancing factor on top of the characterization you have already done. Humans are better then Elves in technology, they reproduce faster and have more developed social skills. Come back to your world in a few centuries and they will have likely taken over the world while the stronger but bored elves live in reservations.

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Long lifespans allow for a lot of procrastination

Many fantasy settings assume that, because elves have long life spans, they will be far more experienced as they have more time to learn. However, you could also argue that their long lifespans would allow them to delay things far into the future. Where as a human might delay something for a couple of weeks or months, elves might delay something for a couple of years or decades. Their philosophy may be something along the lines of “our lives are so long that theres no point burning yourself out trying to do everything now”. Humans on the other hand may take the approach of “our lives are so short that we need to fit as much into them as possible”.

What this leads to is human militaries having strict training regimes where soldiers spend months at a time continuously training. Human society develops deadlines and schedules where things must be completed on time for fear of punishment (“this building must be constructed this date”, “the delivery needs to be here at this time before this day” etc.)

Elven militaries however may train their troops over much longer periods of time, a few weeks here, a few weeks there, but nothing continuous or adhering to a tight schedule. The same can be said for their societies, there is not a specific date something must be done, instead its “within the next few months” or even years.

You could amplify this contrast further with clocks. Humans develop sundials and clocks which show the hours, minutes and even seconds of the day. Elves however may not even develop clocks or sundials, “our lives are so long, whats the point in worrying over something as small as minutes or seconds?”. They instead may be content with things like sand timers. If they do develop clocks, they may only have one hand to show the hour, they may even have less numbers on them.


So, linking this back to your question, elves and humans can be balanced out as:

  • Although elves theoretically should be better warriors as they have more time to train, the elves train less often and less regularly than humans do.

  • Young elves are less concerned about leaving a legacy as they have hundreds of years to do that yet, making them less willing to die a hero in war, reducing the number of recruits.

  • Builders do not adhere to strict deadlines, meaning many fortifications are half built or have not even been constructed yet.

  • Officers and generals on the battlefield may take weeks or months to make decisions.

All of this and more would easily balance out elves against the humans who are substantially better at getting the same things done in a shorter period of time. Whilst one might argue that, in times of war, the elves would drastically speed up their training time, decision making, construction efforts, etc., by the time the war has started, its too late. For a modern day analogy, its like only revising for the test the night before it starts, by that time its too late and any revision will hardly affect the outcome.

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Elves are not creative. Humans are.

Elves have ritual and learning. They practice the basics their entire lives. They know the routines. They are masters of method and they do it the same way every time, because that way has been proven over the centuries to be the best way. Elves appreciate familiarity because their ways are the best ways and any change must be for the worse. Their songs are amazing and beautiful and all of them are thousands of years old.

Humans are scramblers and inventors. They learn the basics and then riff on the basics. They know the routines and they break them routinely, in unexpected ways. Humans appreciate innovation and novelty. Humans like the elf songs, and then they improvise on them and mash them up, which the elves find abhorrent. And the humans find that hilarious.


I think a corollary to this is that elves would have stone age technology, and their only domestic animal would be dogs. They are not innovators and not adopters. But they would have really really good stone age technology, and really excellent dogs.

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Senility/forgetfulness for elves and endurance for humans.

Two separate ideas here: First, you could have the elves get a little batty as they get older. Which would be kind of funny to be honest. As an and/or you can also factor in forgetfulness. Over time, elves my simply get rusty and lose some of the skills that they were once masters of. An elf might be a master sculptor, poet, warrior, and politician during their long life, but not all at the same time. "I used to be able to take a human's head clean off with a single stroke... but that was 300 years ago and my skill with a blade just isn't what it used to be. Ah, those were the days." etc.

The second idea is a "buff" for humans. I came across a silly manga called "delicious in dungeon" which has much better world building in it than I expected. In that setting the dwarves are short but powerful and strong, however, they tend to overheat and get tired quickly as a result of their dense musculature. The humans are stronger than say elves or halflings because of size, but can't compete in terms of magic or enhanced senses. Their real advantage is the same one as real-world humans: endurance. Compared to the other fantasy races they don't tire out as quickly and can last in fights longer or travel farther without needing to rest. I really liked this idea because endurance is one of the few physical advantages real humans have over other animals. A well trained human can outrun a horse over long distances. Well, if it's hot out (being hairless and sweaty is actually good for something!), otherwise the horse will still win. But it's surprising that it's a close race either way.

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Elves are Superhuman

Generally speaking, I agree with the other answers which come down to the fact that Elves are practically "better Humans".

They're stronger, faster, eat less, can see in the dark, have better aim, and live a lot longer. However, they have much lower fertility than Humans, so their numbers are far smaller than the ever-reproducing Human species.

Elf Disadvantages are a Choice

What I'd like to add to this, which could stand believably on its own, is culture. Elves are super-human, but only by like 20-50% (otherwise they'd be demigods). Their disadvantages seem to almost always be cultural decisions.

Culture plays a large role in the typical "fantasy races", which are in lots of ways just representations or interpretations of existing (or previously existing) Human cultures.

Elf culture is traditionally described as standoffish and disconnected. To add to Elven disadvantages, their culture can be described as standoffish and isolated with a disdain for outsiders.

A superiority complex toward other races and general cultural and technological stagnation can make for an interesting faction of otherwise "good" characters. A rigid caste system can also restrict fertility (and therefore balancing out the races) by forcing certain castes to adhere to strict reproductive rules.

Useful references: Byzantine nobility, ancient Sparta, the Sivlan Elves (Lord of the Rings), High Elves (Warhammer Fantasy), Dwarves (Dragon Age), Altmer (Skyrim)

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Elves are hedonists and esxapists who easily get addicted to whatever. Poor self control will take care of preventing elves from taking over the world.

Take a page from the Overlod series of videogames, wrotten by Rihanna Pratchett (yes, she is related to Terry). Some elves are into weed, so while they might have been bright someday, they are not so smart anymore.

Florian Greenheart

Seriously, look at his battle stance.

Some elves indulge in saturated fat instead. So they may have agility in their blood, but their overall health prevents them from using it.

Elven priestess

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Make elves dumb

It is not a problem for elves to have to repeat a quatrain a hundred times to memorize it - they have hundreds of years to study! So they can accumulate experience, but a 500 y. old elf is no more experienced than a 40 y. old human. And a 100 y. old elf can just barely do math and reading (but a 600-700 y. old elf is a wise old elf).

It will be a funny setting after all. :)

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