4e: The Elan

Look, don’t let the way I talk about 4e D&D (which is the best edition of D&D) leave you thinking that I think the game is flawless. It’s just much better than 3e and good enough that I don’t care to look at 5e. That excellence however doesn’t mean that the design within it is flawless, especially in those surprising incidents where I could find something I could do in 3rd edition that was more satisfying than when I tried to do it in 4th edition. Some ideas translated across really well, like making werewolf, werebear, and wererat characters into themes, allowing players to add that element to their character without it being an overwhelming drawback but also designed so that it was a meaningful cost.

There’s a place where I really miss the way 3rd edition handled things, or at least, I feel that 3rd edition did a better job than 4th did, and it was with the eerie little niche culture of The Elan.

(Art Source)

Glossary Note: Conventionally, the term used in D&D for this mechanical package is race. This is the typical term, and in most conversations about this game system, the term you’re going to wind up using is race. For backwards compatibility and searchability, I am including this passage here. The term I use for this player option is heritage.


The Elan of 3rd edition were a heritage introduced in the Expanded Psionics Handbook, probably my favourite 3rd edition book. Part of it was because the 3.5 psionics system was a refreshingly interesting and flexible system compared to the vancian magic system, but I’ve written about that before, but the worldbuilding the psionics implied was also neat: A world awash with magic, full of magical systems and species, with lands and gods and systems for magic, psionics is a thing that’s like magic, but crucially, doesn’t interact with magic in any typical way. It means that there’s this power that, one to one, gives you direct power over other people, but if you get attention, the existing system that has reasons to assert control is going to see you as a threat and come squish you.

The result is these cultures of people who have secrets, insular and quiet and dangerous and defensive. The cultures of psionics tend to be people who escape attention, who keep themselves to themselves, or who dwell in a place that’s isolated enough that they can then become a great power. The Mind Flayers and the Githyanki exist in spaces where almost nothing else can challenge them, grow in power there, and then, once they have an empire, assert themselves over the magical competition… but still keep separate. That means that the default creatures within these spaces tend to be individually powerful and served mostly by their own society, things that get to be mysterious and alien and yet still connected to this world.

So what if a player wants to play someone from a culture like that, with the mystery and the secrecy, but for whom those powerful heritages aren’t an option?

Elan were the solution. Elan were a level adjustment 0 heritage that started with bonus power points, and gave up the ordinary human starting package and 2 points of Charisma in exchange for some psionic abilities. The abilities ranged from cute (using psionics to resist a need for food) to pretty busted (you can spend your power points to resist damage on a 1:1 basis). The lore of them was that they were humans who had been somehow altered, by some psionic process. In Eberron, they were Quori criminals – Inspired that had been jammed into a powerless body for crimes against nightmares (and that is, yes, extremely sick). In the Forgotten Realms, they were altered humanoids created in the ‘before times.’ They’re long-lived, they don’t need to eat if they can rest, and they don’t even need to sleep if they can rest.

The Elan were an incredibly underdeveloped heritage, mind you: I have almost listed every piece of lore presented for them in their world. This blank slateness of them made them an interesting empty space for any given setting to fill in; any player could then explain why their character was the way they were. You could use the Elan to make a character who was literally unique, to be part of a secret cult, to be part of a strange cell, or to be even a mystery that the dungeon master can run.

Plus, they were a mysterious monstery people. They didn’t have a grotesque appearance, but there was something about them that was wrong. They were eerie and that meant that they were a good kind of character to make if you want to be unsettling.

I really liked the Elan. I don’t think I ever got to play an Elan, but I know I borrowed ideas from them in another game, later, and then we moved on from 3e. We moved on to 4e. Then, in Psionic Power, we were introduced to the way you could make an Elan in 4e.

And uhhh, it was bad!

It was really bad!

Particularly, the idea of the Elan was turned from a heritage (a base to build a character from) to a feat (a thing to build a character with). On the one hand, it did bring a cool idea to bear – the notion that any heritage could become an Elan, provided they were from an extant heritage that had the Natural origin. For anyone checking, Natural is your base default; so if you’re a fey (like an Eladrin or Pixie) or if you’re immortal (like a Deva), you’re not Natural, so you can’t become an Elan. I like that, but.

I don’t like the way that it throws away the unsettling nature of the host. I don’t like the way that it doesn’t do anything to change the way you ‘should’ interact with the world. There’s definitely some of the grab-bag of Elan-ness in that feat – you get telepathy, a damage reduction power, and you become immortal. You don’t get the unsettling wrongness, and, by dint of being a feat, it becomes something that can happen at some point between levelups.

Oh, I know I know, anyone can think their way around that – you could have a heritage that’s hidden until it evinces, it might happen to you between events during a character transition, it’s something that works. But it also needs to be balanced as an individual feat. The game then locks other followup effects behind other feats, and here’s the other problem: They’re not good.

They’re just not.

The 3e Elan at base isn’t a powerhouse of heritage – yes, turning power points into hit points is very strong, but that strength is primarily defensive. They could lose that just fine and I wouldn’t mind. Heritages in 4e usually have a single power that’s kind of nice. I personally hold the Halfling and Half-Orc heritage powers as good baselines for ‘pretty good,’ without being overwhelming, without being things you need to build the entire character around (like the Eladrin teleport), or just something that stands out in pure strength such that the heritage can be overwhelming (like the Dwarf and Dragonborn). If the Elan could turn power points in 4e to hit points, oh goodness that wouldn’t be good enough, because you get much fewer power points and they’re much more precious.

The thing is, that’s if the Elan is a heritage. That’s if it’s a platform to build class and feats off. In this case, the Elan is trying to mimic the behaviour of a heritage, but you are spending other resources to have the effects.

This is a real bummer! I really like the Elan. I like them as a character option.

If I was going to do something about the Elan, I would use it as a basis for a theme. The theme space for 4e is really wide open: The actual good themes are rare, and a theme is pretty easy to design; you need a level 1 encounter-level effect, a 5 and 10 passive, and a handful of miscellaneous, broadly applicable encounter powers. Theme powers need to be simple and elegant, and because you’ll have them, they can build off one another. What’s more, themes can have requirements. So rather than an Elan being a heritage that get power points, it could be a theme that requires you to have power points.

I really like the Elan. I like the idea of mysterious monster people, who exist in the world where they’re largely unnoticeable, but people remember them primarily because of ways they’re subtly wrong. I wish 4th edition didn’t do a terrible job of them.

Oh and by the way, any Elan I play is going to be unsettlingly hot.

Back to top