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Worldbuilding: Maturity and Age

Throughout history, we’ve treated people of the same age very differently. While generally the eldest have been venerated, different cultures have had different cut-offs for what counts as old, who is an adult, who can formally earn a living, and who is protected. Playing with age, borrowing historical concepts, or extrapolating current trends into the future can make for a very different feel to your world.

Non-humans alter this even more. Shadowrun does a particularly good job of having Orks mature faster, while Elves never have to worry about age. Many races in fantasy are wish-fulfillment; look at the extended lifespan of essentially every non-human race in D&D. Similarly, some science fiction novels delve into what happens when immortality–or something approaching it–becomes available. When everyone lives for 300 years, how old are the senior managers? How long do you have to wait for an opening to come available?

Who are you calling ‘kid’?

Historically, apprenticeships began young–even noble children became pages around age 7. Craft guild apprentices and squires were often working by 13 or 14. Two to seven years later, many apprentices graduated to day labor or journeyman status. At 15, many skilled journeymen wandered the land unsupervised, negotiating their salaries and conditions of employment.

Even 19th century America had youths earning a paycheck. Andrew Johnson was bound as a tailor’s apprentice at age 10, and James Garfield was supporting himself by 16 as a muleskinner on the Erie canal. My great(x4) grandfather was sent out to support himself at age 12; the family couldn’t make ends meet and he was old enough to earn his way in the world.

The last hundred years has greatly delayed what we consider adulthood. In 1910, the high school graduation rate was around 10%– work and apprenticeships were still drawing a lot of teenaged youths out of school and into work. By 1940 expectations had shifted and 50% of 17 year olds graduated from high school.

Today work among kids younger than 16 is quite rare and includes strict limits on hours. Work is more common for 16-18 year olds, but wages and hours for teen workers are usually low enough that supporting themselves would be difficult. Supporting a family is almost impossible.

Expectations for education have advanced dramatically. Marriage, childbearing, and setting up independent households have been similarly delayed. A 14 year old of the 1400s has more practical work experience than many 18 year olds today. Continuing those trends–for a science fiction future–seems completely reasonable. For many social classes today, marrying before you graduate from college is unusual; imagine extending that to “until you complete your PhD”, with higher social classes expecting to wait even longer.

Circle Back to D&D

With unhurried elves, who don’t fear aging, when does adulthood come? For D&D, it all depends on the edition. In third edition and Pathfinder, 125 years old was a common starting age for an elf. 4th Edition clarified that elves matured at human rates for their first 15 years, then dramatically slowed. Ages from Vita est ludus shows age categories for various races across D&D editions.

You’ll notice that most editions have more modern [older] ages for even their human adventurers. While many peers are already tied up in marriage and are completing their journeyman projects, our adventurers are just getting their start.

As a GM (or world builder in general), deciding on how to present age can be tricky. It’s pretty hard for many adults today to imagine 14 year olds going on quests and risking their lives–or settling down to marry. Even as a teenager, my characters were rarely younger than 18… because that was “ready for life” in my mind. Shakespeare adaptations often face this; do you cast Juliet as a 14 year old, or make her more acceptable as a modern romantic interest by making her older? Many adaptations (like West Side Story or other modern re-imaginings) make the main characters late high schoolers–so they have access to cars, if nothing else!

Baselines and Expectations

Adjusting “normal” ages for your historical (or future) world to match modern expectations is easy–your players probably won’t even notice. To make your world feel different from daily life, consciously adjusting expected ages up and down can have a large but subtle influence.

If your characters are 18 in a world where their peers are completing their journeyman piece and trying out for master, it can help their extraordinary accomplishments seem different in kind, rather than making them wunderkinds. Similarly, if your players’ PCs are 21, but can’t get hired without a parental consent form (because they really should be in school), that’ll play nicely against their expectations. Or when someone wants to attract venture capital, explain that the market would never trust someone under 75. You could even have a tradition of ritual suicide at a specific age, borrowed from Half a Life that emphasizes the society’s mores and references the challenges of providing for long lives.

Your Worlds

Have you ever played up age based expectations in your games? Let us know how you presented the world and how your players responded in comments!

About  Scott Martin

Scott is an engineer turned gnome and game store owner. He lies awake at night building intriguing worlds and plotting your character's demise.

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15 Comments To "Worldbuilding: Maturity and Age"

#1 Comment By Tom Coenen On November 9, 2012 @ 1:31 am

I had a character act as a dragonborn child. In reality she was an adult and part dragon.
There was a Dragonborn PC and she pretended to be his daughter.
This way she could easily infiltrate places.

#2 Comment By Hawkesong On November 9, 2012 @ 5:41 am

Age has become an unexpectedly important part of my long-running game! I had built a portfolio of nobles (the PCs constantly interact with a set of touchy nobles); in that peer book I had women getting married and having children at age 14. One of my players noticed this and voiced some questions. I pointed out pretty much exactly the facts you’ve discovered here: the average teen in the Middle Ages was a hard-working journeyman at least; there are records of one or two 15-year-old professors at medieval Italian universities.

For myself, I tend not to go with the Pathfinder method for elven aging. In longer lived races, immaturity lasts longer; of course, births are also (usually) rarer. An elven couple with more than two children is unusual! And I have a “rule of thumb” that says elves age about ten times slower than humans, so that an adventuring elf’s starting age is closer to 140; marriage is not allowed until age 100, and at that is considered marrying young. Then again, elves being a race that can live a thousand years – they’re in no hurry like you said!

Dwarves being a longer-lived race as well, some of these expectations are similar. I haven’t had an PC dwarf yet, so I haven’t fully fleshed out those concepts. But the main idea is that – since most dwarves prefer a nice, predictable life – youngsters might be betrothed in the cradle, but not be expected to actually marry for many years.

By contrast, I have gnomes being capable of longer lifespans – but they are completely opposite in attitude to elves and dwarves. They rush into most anything, they live life “in the fast lane,” and they are notoriously for their curiosity and unbounded (and shameless) sense of adventure. Gnomes also breed faster than dwarves or elves, and marry sooner. Though with gnomes, “marriage” may be too formal a term…*grin* My gnomes are wild, freedom-loving, fiercely independent beings who have no use for the safe path – therefore they *could* live longer, but generally die young, from adventures, experiments, or any number of other things. They make humans look sort of boring.

#3 Comment By Scott Martin On November 9, 2012 @ 5:32 pm

That sounds like a great way to play on expectations. I assume decent people had trouble attacking an apparent child. Devious!

#4 Comment By Scott Martin On November 9, 2012 @ 5:35 pm

Elves aging ten times slower is consistent and easy to apply–though it makes the terrible twos into the terrible twenties.

I like your gnomes; if a race is something more than humanity with fancy ears, they shouldn’t respond just like long lived humans. Your gnomes capture that!

#5 Comment By Riklurt On November 10, 2012 @ 5:16 am

I started playing D&D as a kid – I was maybe eleven or so, and played mostly with other people my own age – so we’d routinely make characters that were 15-16, reasoning that a character 15 years old was basically an adult and almost certainly mature enough to handle adventuring. Now in hindsight that’s pretty funny – but by the social mores of most medieval societies, it isn’t that strange, I suppose.

#6 Comment By randite On November 11, 2012 @ 11:52 am

Another thing to keep in mind, in medieval societies 14-16 year old teens wouldn’t just be married, independent, and competent craftsmen they were often in charge of shit. When the 29 year old Baron dies from an infection, his 14 year old son may suddenly be running the barony. This kid may decide man’s guilt or innocence in a capital crime. He may peevishly turn out a chambermaid with nothing but the clothes on her back or worse because she giggled when he tried to kiss her last year. He may wind up in charge of a bevy of 14-17 year old knights out “foraging” in a foreign nation during a war. The kind of unmitigated hell they could put the locals through makes O’Bannion and his Fah-Q paddle look like a saint in comparison.

Personally, I like to play in and run historically informed (not straight-jacketed) low fantasy settings. In my current game, the kingdom in which the action takes place has been at peace for the past 20 years, combining that with a burgeoning chemical industry (plus the scientific attitude its created), and some recent advances in medical thinking; most of the Kingdoms has been run by experienced men in their late 20s or early 30s for many years now. Recently, however, due to a serf’s rebellion a lot of younger sons have been left at home and in charge of things. This is mildly shocking to the players (modern sensibilities) and the PC’s (who are young enough to not know this as the norm).

#7 Comment By Kitchen Wolf On November 11, 2012 @ 12:38 pm

One implication of creatures with many times a human lifespan is that it becomes practical for them to train and breed humans like dogs (“and man created dog in his own image”). Jack Vance’s “The Dragon Masters” explores this a bit. Note that said humans may not be slaves in the way that we think of them. Going after the wrong immortal may involve facing warriors bred and trained from birth to fight for the king their grandfathers worshiped.

I always thought that one way to make goblins and other vicious humanoids prone to unintelligent behavior without being particularly stupid would be to have them age much faster than humans. There’s just not a high training level when the average combatant is 9 years old. Certain skills would not be present in their societies (surgery, law, engineering, open water navigation, magic from books) because they take too long to learn.

#8 Comment By mcmanlypants On November 12, 2012 @ 10:36 am

I once played a low-Charisma elf and noted in his backstory that anyone would be kind of a jerk if middle school lasted thirty years. 😉

I’m currently playing a Thri-kreen who’s in his prime at 13 (life expectancy of 30) in our D&D game. For him, next year is the far-flung future. When we talked about jumping the storyline of our little trading outpost ahead several years I objected on the grounds I would be rendered extremely elderly. It’s been interesting, as I notice other PCs occasionally treating him like the kid in the group and then realizing he’ll grow old and die before the oldest of their fellow mammalian settlers.

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#10 Comment By Scott Martin On November 15, 2012 @ 12:01 am

Yeah, “kids” in charge of government is kind of a chilling thought, isn’t it. I guess you don’t have to worry about terribly strained bureaucratic maneuverings when you’re facing even a well trained 14 year old. (Tad Williams’ Shadow series plays with youthful rule in interesting ways too. Hmm…)

#11 Comment By Scott Martin On November 15, 2012 @ 12:04 am

An excellent flipside of wish-fulfillment ages of the standard races are nasty brutish and short lifespans for your humanoids. I agree: a 6 year old kobold as full grown and fully mature is terrifying. You might wind up with a society of kender!

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#14 Comment By scott2978 On November 26, 2012 @ 2:59 pm

One thing to understand is that back in medieval times the average age was around 20. In 1346 at the battle of Crecy, Prince Edward of Woodstock (aka the black prince) led what amounts to a battalion of men and he was only 16. Plague, starvation, war, etc… the population of medieval England actually declined during the 14th century from 5 million in 1300 to only 2.5 million in 1400. In a time when most humans are around 20, doing stuff as a 14 year old doesn’t seem so young.

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