Your Guide to Playing an Elf in Dungeons and Dragons 5e
What are the best elf builds? How long do elves live in D&D?
Read our guide to answer all your questions for elves in Dungeons and Dragons. The elf isn't going to be a strange race to anyone who has spent much time in the fantasy adventure realms. In fact, they might be the most widely known and recognized race outside of humans. Elves can be a mixed bag as far as reputation goes. There is no denying the wisdom that comes from up to 7 centuries or more of life, and the love of art, beauty, and nature are traits that many of the other races appreciate and even share. However, their obviously graceful and otherworldly nature that comes from Fey bloodlines and measured approach can often be seen as aloof or even arrogant...and not always unjustly so!
With so many centuries to master and hone their crafts and passions, only a fool would take any elf opponent lightly. While more reserved than many of the other races it is still fair to say that elves have a reputation for loyalty and fierce determination. While rare is the story of an excited elf, once an elf sets their sights on a goal or task, they will pursue it with an unrelenting focus that even a dragonborn would admire. Though slow to make friends or enemies, an elf friend is purely loyal for a lifetime, and an elf enemy will haunt a target's dreams - likely for a very short and cut-off life.
Overview of Elves
Because of their long lives elves view time very differently. An elf might mature relative to a human when young - they are fully capable at a couple decades of age and yet they are considered a child until they are at least 100 years old. Individual elves are responsible for declaring themselves an adult, and names play a very interesting part of this in elven culture.
An elf chooses a new name for themselves. They choose a name for themselves to be used to distinguish themselves as in their adult stage of life. The family name could be kept in elven, or some will translate it into common when traveling. This depends on the individual preferences of the elf.
Mechanically, there's a lot to like about this race. Right off the bat all elves get +2 to their dexterity stat block. They come with darkvision and automatically have keen senses meaning all elves are proficient in perception - a pretty important skill in 5e D&D. Because of the Fey ancestors from the elf bloodline, all elves have advantage on any saving throws against being charmed and they can't be magically put to sleep. It's also worth noting that a full blooded elf is the only race immune to the ghoul's paralysis attack. A long rest for an elf is only 4 hours as they meditate/trance instead of sleep.
3 Sub-Races of Note
While it is easy to imagine the elf as one group, there are actually three sub-races of elves noted in the Player's Handbook and each sub-race of elf slants things towards a different set of classes. Choosing between these three classes should be done with great care to get the most out of any elf character.
High elves take many forms. Some can be quite friendly, and some can be quite arrogant. High elves are synonymous with understanding basic magic, and that tends to hold true. As such all high elves get a +1 to starting intelligence as well as a free cantrip from the wizard's list of spells regardless of what class the character plays. High elves are scholars who in addition to common and Elven, will also know one more language of the player's choice. This sub-race still has all the weapon proficiencies that are generally associated with the elven race and can be seen in the Player's Handbook.
This is likely the sub-race that most people have in mind when they think about the traditional elf. Deeply tied to nature and the natural world, they know how to move lightly and quickly which is why their base speed is 35 feet instead of the normal 25 or 30. Members of this sub-race also received a +1 wisdom bonus to their stats on top of the +2 to dexterity all elven characters receive, which also makes them absolutely made for the ranger class. This connection to the wild even gives them a useful ability known as "mask of the wild" which allows them to attempt a hide action even when the only things around are natural things like foilage, heavy rain, falling snow, or poor weather. This is enough for a good wood elf to attempt to blend in seamlessly from searching foes or predators.
Popular as a creative option, and in large part because of R.A. Salvatore's famous character Drizzt Do'Urdern, almost every single drow is evil, and even those who don't wish to be will find massive racism and difficulties because of the pain and suffering the drow consistently afflict virtually everyone with. They are often considered enemies rather than a playable class - so even the Player's Handbook instructs potential players to ask a DM if this is acceptable rather than just assuming it is.
However, the drow do get a +1 charisma boost to their stat block and their darkvision is exceptional reaching out a full 120 feet instead of the 30-60 feet limiting most creatures. All drow know the dancing lights cantrip, can cast faerie fire once per long rest at level 3, and at level 5 learn to cast darkness once per long rest. Weapon proficiencies tend to be for sneakier weapons: hand crossbows instead of bows, rapiers instead of longswords, etc.
Also notable: the drow have a distinct disadvantage in sunlight. Literally, in fact. All sight-related attack rolls and perception checks are at disadvantage when the drow or the target or the area is in sunlight.
Best Elf Classes
A lot of this depends on which sub-race a player goes with, but there are several obvious ones. Mechanically, as well as thematically, wood elves are great choices for both rangers and monks. This takes advantage of the natural stat boosts and these are classes that fall in very neatly with this race's perspective on the greater world. A dex-based fighter (read: archer) is also an excellent choice for this race, and while a bit more uncommon for someone willing to weave an interesting backstory rogue is another class worth looking at. Thematically druid makes perfect sense as well.
High elves are a great choice if you want to go the wizard route, and although maybe not as min-maxed as wood elves they still make great rogues, rangers, and monks. An elven bard is a bit hard to imagine, but once again, an intriguing character with the right backstory in play.
While not ideal for barbarian, paladin, or cleric, this doesn't mean that they can't be done - the player is just reliant on a slightly better than average stat roll to get the most out of any setup like that and an elf barbarian...there has to be a story behind that character!
Drow have a plethora of options as well. A drow trying to be good makes perfect sense as a gloomstalker ranger from Xanathar's Guide, and players wanting to take advantage of that charisma boost could look at sorcerer or warlock. Warlock could make a lot of sense thematically with a drow who defies Lloth, the drow spider queen (goddess) as they search for a patron to give them the power to escape and pick a wildly different path.
Whether looking for something creative or just having an itch to play that traditional druid or ranger, the elf race is one that has plenty to offer new and veteran players alike.
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Last updated: January 27, 2019
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