Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Do Elves Have Souls?

I intended to answer the Top Ten Troll Questions in order, but one of the questions seemed particularly troublesome; Do elves have souls?

It caught me off guard that some readers did not know the history behind this question (and who could blame them as it is from discourse circa 1980 in Dragon magazine). Searching through the Sage Advice archive, it appears that the question first appeared in issue 33 from January of 1980.

Although the Players Handbook does not include them in the description of the Raise Dead spell, may elves and half-orcs be raised from the dead?

No, they cannot. They do not have souls, and therefore a wish must be used to bring them back.

I find that a strange stance, but Advanced Dungeons and Dragons was filled with such oddities. One could read the book over and over again, and still find strange one off rules such as these. But this was one of those troublesome rules that people tended to let slide (or not even know about in the first place). Apparently, Gary Gygax was very adamant about this ruling, as the topic comes up again in issue 36

Why can’t half-orcs be raised, especially if they are 90% human as the Players Handbook says?

The Players Handbook does not say that half-orcs are 90% human. It says that 10% of them (from which player characters are drawn) resemble humans enough to pass for one under most circumstances. Genetically, a true half-orc is always 50% human. Half-orcs cannot be raised simply because they do not have souls. I went right to the top for the answer to this one, and according to Gary Gygax himself, “Half-orcs cannot be raised-period.”

But that is not the end of the questions! A couple of years later, a clever reader puts forth this question in issue 52 of Dragon magazine.

In previous clarifications in this column and from the DEITIES & DEMIGODS™ cyclopedia, we know that elves and half-orcs have no souls and therefore cannot be raised from the dead or resurrected. Since Raise Dead and Resurrection return the soul to the body, it must reasonably follow that the reverses of these spells (Slay Living and DestructIon) release the soul from the body. Does this mean that elves and half-orcs are not affected by the reverse spells, since they have no souls to release?

Good question, but your reasoning isn’t quite sound. The unreversed forms of those spells do indeed “return the soul to the body” — but they also do a lot more. They reintroduce biological, physical life into a body; otherwise, a lifeless body with a soul inside it would be just that — a lifeless body. The physical trauma that the recipient of a Raise Dead spell goes through is considerable, so much so that the revived person is “weak and helpless” and must rest to regain his former vigor. So, it is reasonable to assume that an elf or half-orc struck by a Slay Living spell would undergo physical trauma to the same degree, and in this case, the trauma is great enough to kill even a soulless being. Likewise, the trauma caused by a Destruction spell, which turns the victim to dust, is something which no creature could endure and remain alive. The reasoning which suggests that a creature can’t be affected by the reverse of a spell if that creature is immune to the unreversed form breaks down under a bit of examination. Many reversible spells are defined in such a way that a figure cannot possibly be immune to both forms of the spell at once. For example, should a blind character, obviously immune (at least for the moment) to Cause Blindness, also be unaffected by Cure Blindness? Of course not. There is no general rule which indicates that someone who is unaffected by one form of a spell is automatically unaffected by the reverse as well.


  1. Hah! It would be so much cooler if the reversed spells did not work on Elves and Half-Orcs.

    1. I agree. I think part of the charm of Gary's 1st edition AD&D was all the corner cases he wrote into the game (even if they do cause strange problems).
      I think it adds to the other worldliness of elves and orcs if death ray and power word kill did not work on them because they do not have souls.

  2. Interesting! So this is were it came from. It's not an issue in the Rules Cyclopedia. Raise Dead works just fine on Elves, Dwarves and Halflings. And there is a level 7 cleric spell to raise everything else.

    Now I wonder how consistent official AD&D publications were with that. There are undead elves in Ruins of Myth Drannor (the Baelnorn, I just checked). But that would be 1993, not 1980. Do you know if this went into the AD&D settings somehow?

  3. One of my favorite rules from 1e AD&D, which I enforced back in the day. It certainly made players think twice about playing elves (who are otherwise the best all-around racial choice). To answer JD's question, 2e takes a curious stance -- it retains the race list from the 1e raise dead description but adds a fuzzy wiggle-room qualifier in parenthesis (something like "other races may be affected at the DM's discretion"). Then the 2e resurrection explicitly adds elves as affected. Not until 3e do elves unambiguously become raise-able.

    One incoherence from 1e, however, is the rod of resurrection, which allows elves and half-orcs at a greater cost of charges.

    I don't have a problem with the Sage Advice reasoning about physical damage caused by slay living/destruction. On the other hand, in the absence of a general rule for reverse effects, altering the effect for the soulless seems also justifiable -- after all, slay living presumably does not affect golems or what 3e would call constructs or outsiders.

    It is also interesting (though now probably unanswerable) to wonder if this distinction was a Tolkien-inspired one. The Celtic mythology of the sidhe could have inspired a "soulless" view of elves through many routes, of course, but to include orcs in that category as well hints at the influence of The Professor.