Half-Elves are a hybrid fantasy race originating with - or at least associated with - Dungeons & Dragons who, alongside gnomes, have the dubious honor of being regarded as one of the most superfluous and "do we really need this race?" races in fantasy gaming. As their name suggests, half-elves are born of the union of human and elf - unlike most D&D races, they have only the most tenuous and marginal of claims to an origin amongst the works of Tolkien; whilst Middle Earth does allow for humans and elves to interbreed, the fruit of such unions choose whether they embrace their elfin blood or human blood, and through this decision become functionally identical to either humans or elves.
In contrast, the D&D half-elf is basically a watered-down elf. They have some semblance of elven vigor and longevity, but their lifespan is nowhere near as long as an elf's. They have an innate knack for magic, but it's not as strong as an elf's. They do tend to be physically stronger and heartier than elves, but they're noticeably physically frailer by human standards. All in all, they just generally tend to come off as either humans with a dash of special snowflake or less fancy elves, so they mostly survive in D&D due to weight of tradition.
Much like their fellow old-school halfbreeds, the Half-Orcs, half-elves originally labored under a presumed grimdark backstory. The expectation was that half-elves would be outcasts, shunned by their elven kin and yet unable to fully integrate with humanity either. It was even supposed that, just like half-orcs, most half-elves would be conceived through rape (remember, D&D was invented in the early 70's, so interracial relationships weren't as widely accepted then as they are now) - although in their case, humanity would be the rapist rather than the victim. In fact, the most iconic half-elf character during the days of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Tanis Half-Elven, was a wangsty bastard born when a female elf noble was attacked and raped by a vicious human mercenary as she went about her business in the forest.
But... this idea didn't last. Those might have been the days before monstergirls had truly taken root in the budding D&D group consciousness, but even so, the idea that half-elves had to be rape-babies made no sense; unlike the slavering, porcine-featured orcs of those days, elves were handsome, charming and elegant figures, easily believable as seducing humans voluntarily. And, this time inspired by Tolkien's writings, many players could easily see tragic love blooming between virtuous human adventurers and female elves. And as half-elves lost their assumed origins by rape, they also began to lose their outsider status, until their abilities began shifting to represent their new depictions as possessing unparalleled flexibility and a natural diplomatic streak that allowed them to bridge their two races.
Half-Elves in Tolkien
As with most things with Elves, the idea of a Half-Elf-Half-Human has its origins in Tolkien. The thing is in Tolkien, they sort of exist, sort of don't exist, at least as we know them today. It's complicated.
Half-Elves in the World
Though the above is the most common description, half-elf fluff is all over the place when it comes to setting specifics. In Dragonlance and Dark Sun, for example, the old lore of half-elves as unwanted outcasts remains true, thanks to elves being racist elitist pricks in the former and shunned, treacherous, backstabbing thieves in the latter. In the Forgotten Realms, half-elves tend to be more neutrally regarded. In Eberron, half-elves were born of noble elves marrying into wealthy human families for increased financial power, only to realize, whoops, they were actually compatible after all, leading to a distinct "upper middle class" origin for half-elves as a whole that blends well with the Khorvairian tendency to regard nation as more important than species. Unlike most settings, there is an emphasis on half-elves with two half-elf parents as these individuals are the majority of House Lyrandar and House Medani. In the Nentir Vale, half-elves are valued and respected for their status as living links between humans and elves.
Half-Elves through the Ages
Half-elves were pretty much invented for Dungeons & Dragons. However, they weren't originally a part of OD&D, or BECMI; this was partially due to the "race as class" assumption that those versions of D&D operated on, but may have also had something to do with the way that half-elves operated in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, where they basically chose whether to embrace their human or elfin heritage. Gary Gygax invented the half-elf for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and they hit the ground running; they've been in the Player's Handbook from AD&D 1e through to D&D 5e, and probably won't be going anywhere any time soon.
Whilst half-elves didn't begin in OD&D/BECMI, that didn't mean they weren't added in later.
The first version of the concept was the Forester; a gish class introduced in [Known World Gazetteers|Dawn of the Emperors: Thyatis and Alphatia]]. The basic idea was that this was a human who either had enough elfin blood to inherit the ability to wield magic and martial skills together, or else who had trained in the elfin fighting styles. Mechanically, this was handled by taking the Elf Class and forsaking the Infravision and Immunity to Ghoul Paralysis. Simple, easy to understand, and effective.
The Elves of Aelfheim splatbook claims that half-elves in the AD&D sense do not exist on Mystara; humans and elves are interfertile, but the child fundamentally takes after one race, though its appearance and its innate abilities may not match. To quote the segment of the book itself... "As far as can be told, the elven traits are inherited through the female line. The product of a union between human female and male elf is always human. Moreover, the male children are always stillborn. When female elf mates with male human, the male children are always elves, the female children always human. Of course, all of these female 'human' children have the potential for growing up to bear elf children of either sex." If you need a little help deciphering this, you're not alone.
The second version of a Mystaran half-elf, and the one closer to the AD&D "human-elf hybrid" in lore, appeared in the serial "The Voyage of the Princess Ark". Debuting in issue #178 of Dragon Magazine, the "true" Mystaran half-elf is native to the land of Eusdria on the Savage Coast, and is the result of divine meddling by the Immortals Fredar and Fredara (better known to other lands as Frey and Freya), who created them in an effort to promote and increase homogeneity in the land that worshipped them. The trait is mostly dominant - a child with a half-elf parent has a 65% chance of being a half-elf itself, although it doesn't clarify if this only applies to half-elf/human couples, or if it means a half-elf/pure-elf breeding has a 65% chance of a half-elf and a 35% chance of a pure elf. Mechanically, half-elves are treated as humans, allowing them to take any class open to humans and achieve unlimited levels - their elven ancestry manifests in having the Elfin Infravision racial trait alongside increased longevity (they use the halfling aging table instead of the human one), bonuses for which they pay by suffering a -5% penalty to their Experience Points.
- Ability Score Minimum/Maximum: Strength 3/18, Dexterity 6/18, Constitution 6/18, Intelligence 4/18, Wisdom 3/18, Charisma 3/18
- Ability Score Adjustments: None
- Racial Class & Level Limits: Cleric 5, Druid Unlimited, Fighter 8, Ranger 8, Magic-User 8, Thief Unlimited, Assassin 11
- Half-elves can only achieve 8th level as Fighters or Rangers if they have Strength 18; Str 17 caps their level at 7, and a Str lower than that caps their level at 6.
- Half-elves can only achieve 8th level as Magic-Users if they have Intelligence 18; Int 17 caps their level at 7, and an Int lower than that caps their level at 6.
- Racial Multi-Class Options: Cleric/Fighter, Cleric/Ranger, Cleric/Magic-User, Fighter/Magic-User, Fighter/Thief, Magic-User/Thief, Cleric/Fighter/Magic-User, Fighter/Magic-User/Thief
- 30% Resistance to Sleep and Charm Spells
- +1 bonus language for each Int point above 16.
- Infravision 60"
- 1 in 6 chance to detect a concealed door when passing by, 2 in 6 chance to detect a secret door when actively searching, 3 in 6 chance to detect a concealed door when actively searching
Unearthed Arcana used the new rules for extraordinary ability scores (18/00 to 20) to heighten some of the half-elf's level limits; by having the right stats, they could reach up to 12th level as Clerics, 13th level as Fighters, and 15th level as Rangers.
In the change to 2nd edition AD&D, half-elves remained mostly the same as before, just with a few minor tweaks:
- Now, half-elves could become specialist wizards, when they had been denied access to the Illusionist class in 1e.
- They lost their favored classes in the Druid and Thief; ironically, half-elves now capped at as 9th level druids (compared to 14th level clerics) and 12th level thieves. Instead, they gained the ability to become Bards of any level. Their other class limits were set to Fighter 14, Mage 12, and Ranger 16.
- Finally, half-elves had a slight tweak to their innate ability to detect secret/concealed doors:
- Merely passing within 10 feet of a concealed door (one hidden by obstructing curtains. etc.) gives the half-elven character a one-in-six chance (roll a 1 on Id6) of spotting it. If the character is actively seeking to discover hidden doors, he has a one-in-three chance (roll a 1 or 2 on Id6) of spotting a secret door (one constructed to be undetectable) and a one-in-two chance (roll a 1, 2, or 3 on 1d6) of locating a concealed door.
Much like the Half-Orc, the half-elf of 3e is generally regarded as being... really, really shortchanged. Really the only use for Half-Elf is qualifying for Elf-only stuff without a Constitution penalty.
- No ability score bonuses
- Base speed 30 feet
- Immune to magical Sleep.
- +2 racial bonus on saves vs. enchantment spells and effects.
- Low-light vision
- +1 racial bonus on Listen, Search and Spot.
- +2 racial bonus on Diplomacy and Gather Information.
- Elven Blood: Half-elves count as pure-blood Elf for effects that specifically target race.
- Favored Class: Any
Like half-orcs, in comparison to their under-powered 3e versions, half-elves enjoy a lot of the versatility of humans in Pathfinder, with a floating +2 bonus to any stat they like, free skill focus in any one skill, and the ability to select multiple classes as "favored" for the purposes of multiclassing, while getting elven bonuses to their Will saves and low-light vision. One particularly cool alternate ability lets them trade in skill focus to gain training in any one exotic weapon they like, just in case you always wanted to try an urumi or falcata but didn't wanna spring the feat for it. Another alternate racial ability is Blended View, which trades their multiclassing bonuses for darkvision. Since the excellent Eldritch Heritage feat (gives a bloodline like a Sorcerer, even if you already are a sorcerer) requires skill focus and a high charisma, half-elves are commonly seen in charisma based classes.
Since half-elves are immune to sleep (which is very bad for a summoner as it unsummons their eidolon), can trade their favored class bonus for extra evolution points, and (as mentioned above) have easy access to Eldritch Heritage, half-elves are by far the best race for Summoner. This is pretty much the only time in the game humans aren't the best race for something that doesn't require another race.
A survey of characters determined that Half-Elves were the second most common race in the game. Unlike the third and fourth (Elf and Half-Orc, which were overwhelmingly concentrated on intelligence based classes and beat stick classes respectively), Half-Elf characters had a respectable spread of class focus. Like humans they occupied roughly the same percentage of characters on every class with the exception of, oddly enough, the classes where full elves were viable options.
4th edition half-elves took a serious level in badass compared to what they were working with in 3e. This edition really sold the image of the half-elf negotiator and diplomat, but also gave them a certain jack-of-all-trades feel.
- Ability Scores: +2 Constitution, +2 Wisdom or Charisma
- Size: Medium
- Speed: 6 squares (30 feet)
- Vision: Low-light
- Skill Bonuses: +2 Diplomacy, +2 Insight
- Dual Heritage: You can take feats that have either elf or human as a prerequisite (as well as those specifically for half-elves), as long as you meet any other requirements.
- Group Diplomacy: You grant allies within 10 squares (50 feet) of you a +1 racial bonus to Diplomacy checks.
Initially, half-elves had the Dilettante racial trait, which let them pick an at-will power from a different class and use that as an encounter power. But, after Essentials rolled out, half-elves could switch that racial trait/power for a new one; Knack for Success, a racial encounter power which can affect either the half-elf or an ally within close burst 5 (25 feet); the target can either make a saving throw, shift up to 2 squares as a free action, gain a +2 power bonus to his or her next attack roll made before the end of his or her next turn, or gain a +4 power bonus to his or her next skill check made before the end of his or her next turn.
In 5e, the dev team got out bottles and bottles of anabolic steroids. They are easily the most powerful race in the base book, and just for comparison, look at what they get compared to the poor dragonborn:
- Ability Score: +2 Charisma, +1 two ability scores of choice
- Typical Alignment: Favor any Chaotic alignment
- Size: Medium. Range from 5 to 6 feet tall.
- Speed: 30 feet walking.
- Fey Ancestry
- Skill Versatility: Immediately gain proficiency with two skills of your choice. Can be swapped out with Sword Coast Adventurers Guide Variant rules for one Elven Trait.
- Languages: Common, Elvish, one bonus language
SCAG Variant rules for half-elf provide rules for swapping your Skill Versatility for the following:
- A half-wood elf can take Elf Weapon Training, Fleet of Foot, or Mask of the Wild.
- A half-high elf can take Elf Weapon Training, or a know any one wizard cantrip
- A half-drow can take Drow Magic.
- A half-sea elf can take a swim speed of 30 feet.
- Any half-elf can take Keen Senses. (Because this does literally nothing but grant proficiency in the Perception skill, and Skill Versatility grants already proficiency in any two skills, including Perception, this is literally trading down in every way and no one does this.)
You may be curious; given that the drow are still elves, even if they are evil slave-taking bastards, can they interbreed with humans too? Well, ironically, D&D never really gave that angle much attention - even though Gygax probably would have agreed if you'd pointed it out that half-drow would make far more believable PC options than pure-blooded drow, being neither as overpowered as old-school drow were nor able to advance in the drow's twisted society and thus less likely to drink the kool-aid & be evil themselves. So, for the most part, half-drow have been ignored throughout D&D's history.
The very first mention of the idea was in Unearthed Arcana for AD&D 1e. Here, half-drow were described as literally nothing more than standard half-elves, but with the drow's sunlight vulnerability trait slapped on top (in short, whilst exposed to sunlight, you suffer -2 dexterity and a -2 penalty on your to-hit rolls, and your foes get a +2 bonus to their saving throws against your attacks - this decreases to a -1 to hit penalty and a +1 save bonus if you're in shadow but your victim is in direct sunlight). Not exactly the kind of thing to make people interested.
Half-drow appeared in 3e in the Forgotten Realms splatbook, Races of Faerun. Here, they are treated as half-elves who have Darkvision 60 feet and the trait "Drow Blood", which causes their race to be treated as Drow for the sake of any special effects or abilities that specifically target or otherwise key off of race. It's unclear if this supplements the normal Elf Blood racial trait (meaning half-drow can thusly use human, elf, and drow items & classes), or replaces it entirely; most DMs will probably come down on the latter side, though.
Perhaps the best the poor half-drow have ever had it has been in 5th edition, where a half-elf can trade their two free skill proficiencies for the drow's racial spell-like abilities; it's not much, but at least it's something to represent drow ancestry, and it's decently beefy.
The half-elves of Ravenloft mix the styles of their human & elven lineages.
|Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition Races|
|Core:||Dwarf - Elf - Gnome - Half-Elf - Half-Orc - Halfling - Human|
|Dark Sun:||Aarakocra - Half-Giant - Mul - Pterran - Thri-kreen|
|Dragonlance:||Draconian - Irda - Kender - Minotaur|
|Mystara:|| Aranea - Ee'ar - Enduk - Lizardfolk (Cayma - Gurrash - Shazak) |
Lupin - Manscorpion - Phanaton - Rakasta - Tortle - Wallara
|Oriental Adventures:||Korobokuru - Hengeyokai - Spirit Folk|
|Planescape:||Aasimar - Bariaur - Genasi - Githyanki - Githzerai - Modron - Tiefling|
|Spelljammer:||Dracon - Giff - Grommam - Hadozee - Hurwaeti - Rastipede - Scro - Xixchil|
|Ravenloft:||Broken One - Flesh Golem - Half-Vistani - Therianthrope|
Book of X:
| Alaghi - Beastman - Bugbear - Bullywug - Centaur - Duergar |
Fremlin - Firbolg - Flind - Gnoll - Goblin - Half-Ogre - Hobgoblin
Kobold - Mongrelfolk - Ogre - Ogre Mage - Orc - Pixie
Satyr - Saurial - Svirfneblin - Swanmay - Voadkyn - Wemic
|Dragon Magazine:||Half-Dryad - Half-Satyr - Uldra - Xvart|
|Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition Races|
|Player's Handbook 1:|| Dragonborn - Dwarf - Eladrin - Elf |
Half-Elf - Halfling - Human - Tiefling
|Player's Handbook 2:||Deva - Gnome - Goliath - Half-Orc - Shifter|
|Player's Handbook 3:||Githzerai - Minotaur - Shardmind - Wilden|
|Monster Manual 1:|| Bugbear - Doppelganger - Githyanki |
Goblin - Hobgoblin - Kobold - Orc
|Monster Manual 2:||Bullywug - Duergar - Kenku|
|Dragon Magazine:||Gnoll - Shadar-kai|
|Heroes of Shadow:||Revenant - Shade - Vryloka|
|Heroes of the Feywild||Hamadryad - Pixie - Satyr|
|Eberron's Player's Guide:||Changeling - Kalashtar - Warforged|
|The Manual of the Planes:||Bladeling|
|Dark Sun Campaign Setting:||Mul - Thri-kreen|
|Forgotten Realms Player's Guide:||Drow - Genasi|
|The Races of Pathfinder|
|Player's Handbook:||Dwarf - Elf - Gnome - Half-Elf - Half-Orc - Halfling - Human|
| Aasimar - Catfolk - Changeling - Dhampir - Duergar |
Drow - Fetchling - Gillman - Goblin - Grippli - Hobgoblin
Ifrit - Kitsune - Kobold - Merfolk - Nagaji - Orc - Oread
Ratfolk - Samsaran - Strix - Suli - Svirfneblin - Sylph
Tengu - Tiefling - Undine - Vanara - Vishkanya - Wayang
|Bestiaries:|| Android - Astomoi - Caligni - Deep One Hybrid - Gathlain |
Gnoll - Kasatha - Munavri - Naiad - Orang-Pendak
Reptoid - Rougarou - Shabti - Trox - Yaddithian
|Adventure Paths:||Being of Ib - Kuru|
|Inner Sea Races:|| Ghoran - Monkey Goblin - Lashunta - Skinwalker |
Syrinx - Triaxian - Wyrwood - Wyvaran
|Ultimate Wilderness:||Vine Leshy|
|Blood of the Sea:||Adaro - Cecaelia - Grindylow - Locathah - Sahuagin - Triton|
|Planar Adventures:||Aphorite - Duskwalker - Ganzi|
|The Races of Starfinder|
|Core Races:||Android - Human - Kasatha - Lashunta - Shirren - Vesk - Ysoki|
|Legacy Races:||Dwarf - Elf - Gnome - Half-Elf - Half-Orc - Halfling|
|Expanded Races:|| Aasimar - Astrazoan - Bantrid - Barathu - Bolida - Borai - Brakim|
Contemplative - Copaxi - Damai - Draelik - Dragonkin - Drow - Elebrian
Embri - Endiffian - Ferran - Formian - Ghibrani - Ghoran - Goblin
Gosclaw - Gray - Haan - Hobgoblin - Ikeshti - Ilthisarian - Kalo
Kanabo - Khizar - Kish - Maraquoi - Morlamaw - Neskinti - Nuar
Orc - Osharu - Pahtra - Phentomite - Quorlu - Reptoid - Ryphorian
Sarcesian - Screedreep - Scyphozoan - Selamid - Seprevoi - Shimreen
Shobhad - Skittermander - SRO - Stellifera - Strix - Svartalfar - Tiefling
Trox - Uplifted bear - Urog - Verthani - Vilderaro - Vlaka - Witchwyrd
Woioko - Wrikreechee