D&D is famous for the many and occasionally esoteric kinds of elves its worlds are populated with. However, of these subraces, the sea elves (also known as aquatic elves) are vastly underexplored in D&D 5e’s version of the Forgotten Realms. This subrace has been around since the first edition of D&D, and it’s obvious why. The aquatic variation of a species famous for hanging out in forests (thanks mainly to Tolkien) is undeniably thematically interesting.
However, sea elves only have a few passing mentions in the source book, and this is likely because not a lot of D&D games go aquatic. Regardless of the reason, sea elves are fascinating beings with a culture and potential plot significance that deserves to be explored. Besides, if you’re at all interested in an underwater adventure, sea elves are likely to come up. So don’t get caught flat-footed! Read all about elves that are more at home in a forest of kelp than among the leaves of the forest.
Sea elves were also known as the Alu’Tel’Quessir in earlier editions. It’s their name in Elvish.
Who Are Sea Elves?
The sea elves are a seclusive and tightly knit offshoot of elves having moved to the oceans of the Material Plane and the abyss of the Elemental Plane of Water a long time ago. Since their move to the water, sea elves have adapted themselves to the conditions of the ocean.
The details here can get sketchy; 5e, in fact, doesn’t really describe any specific features beyond being able to breathe water and having a swimming speed, but sketchy details are just an opportunity for flavor!
I recommend leaning into the tropes and aesthetics of deep-sea fish. Sea elves might be very strange indeed, built squatter and tougher than their land counterparts to survive the pressures of the ocean. Maybe their eyes are pure black, like deep-sea fish that struggle to take in light. Maybe they even have bioluminescence that they use to display their emotions.
Whatever direction you take, sea elves should clearly be adapted for the sea; earlier editions even had them occasionally suffer side effects from being on land.
Culture & History
Sea elves’ culture is reflective of their physical location. Living secluded in the ocean under the crushing weight of all that water, they have formed insular but tightly knit communities. Some sea elves might not know about the surface world at all, while others are unlikely to care.
In a campaign, this could display itself as a tendency to be hostile to outsiders while being fiercely loyal to those with whom a sea elf has formed its bonds. That said, sea elves are not likely to venture to the surface at all, so if you see one on land, it’s a pretty significant event.
Allies & Enemies
The world under the ocean has a lot more sentient life (in D&D) than you might think. Despite their insular nature, sea elves do have a couple of species to contend with down there.
While this is generally another opportunity for flavoring and campaign-specific plot elements, there is one key relationship that Wizards of the Coast made sure to tell us about. Sea elves live in a perpetual state of hostility with the sahuagin, monstrous fishy humanoids who occasionally have more than two arms.
Sahuagin are extremely territorial creatures, the raiders of the ocean, who often attack the other sentient species underwater. Their animosity toward sea elves is particularly strong, however, as sahuagin worship Sekolah, the shark god, while sea elves worship a deity who is the sworn enemy of all sharks.
This religious conflict frequently puts the sea elves and sahuagin in direct conflict, though it is not the only reason for the clashes. Likely, the sahuagin would consider the sea elves to be continuously trespassing on their territory (the ocean) like all sentient creatures that live there, regardless of the religious differences.
Sea Elves vs. Tritons: What’s the Difference?
The tritons are another race of ocean dwellers, and while there’s little information out there about the relationship between the two, it seems obvious they would know about each other. However, before I speculate, it’s worth mentioning that sea elves often get confused for tritons by players new to the creatures; don’t get confused.
The species are entirely different. For one, tritons are native to the oceans, while the sea elves moved there due to a love of the sea sometime in the distant past. Moreover, tritons are more actively combative, serving as champions of good and defenders of the Material Plane from the creatures of the deep water.
They’re also insufferably arrogant and believe everyone loves them due to the sacrifices they make to protect the world.
Sea elves are likely familiar with tritons, but being as insular as they are, they are unlikely to have a strong relationship with them. Still, the dynamic between these three races and the creatures that live in the darkest depths of the ocean and Elemental Plane of Water is simply overflowing with potential plot, regardless of what the three groups want.
While most of the information available on sea elves is about their watery lives, you can actually play as a sea elf yourself if you so wish! To start off with, sea elves have a lot of the standard features of all elf subraces. They trance instead of sleeping, they have long lives and odd notions about when you become an adult, they have advantage against being charmed, etc.
However, being sea elves, they also have some special abilities primarily useful in the water (one disadvantage to sea elves is that if you don’t have a campaign that takes place in or on the water, a lot of your character’s features are likely to be wasted).
In addition to being able to breathe underwater and have a swim speed (30 feet, like their land speed), they also get proficiency in the spear, trident, light crossbow, and net. Presumably, this is because they use these weapons under the ocean, but how a crossbow functions underwater is beyond me.
All sea elves also get Aquaman powers; they can communicate simple ideas to any creature with an innate swimming speed, though they have to use sounds and gestures to do it. If you’re underwater (and not afraid of looking silly), this can be very useful. Lastly, sea elves have an innate resistance to cold damage, which makes sense given where they live. This ability is probably the most useful outside of aquatic environments.
Sea elves are unlikely to be very effective at combat on land. They aren’t incompetent, but they will lack a lot of the instincts that fighting on land requires. They might be a little uncoordinated, spend time watching sightlines that no enemy could appear from, or get frustrated when they can’t approach their target from any angle.
On the other hand, underwater sea elves are ferocious. Underwater combat isn’t just about having a swimming speed and being able to attack without penalties. You can move in any direction while underwater, and accelerate up or down by changing your buoyancy. Humans need external tools to accelerate downwards in water, but the same might not be true for sea elves, who might have internal organs to manage their buoyancy, allowing them to move at a constant rate throughout the ocean.
Underwater is all about outmaneuvering your opponent by attacking them from unexpected angles, like below them or from the side. There’s little reason a sea elf couldn’t attack you while oriented perpendicular to you if it would allow them to use their weapon effectively.
360-degree combat is its own skill, and the benefit of practicing underwater means that sea elves are likely to be effective aerial combatants as well when using magical means of flight.
Finally, sea elves will naturally want to make use of various ways to entangle and trap opponents. Their ability with nets is key to this, but there are a variety of ways in D&D to restrain someone. This tactic’s effectiveness is magnified in water, where movement can be difficult, so sea elves will already be thinking along those lines even on land.
Of course, predictable tactics mean tactics that can be prepared for, and restraining an enemy isn’t always the best choice on land. Escaping nets can be as easy as a few points of slashing damage, so keep a spare dagger on you if you get caught in one!
Sea elves aren’t common either in the D&D universe or as a character pick. That’s not because they aren’t deserving. Sea elves have a long-standing history of lore as well as established relationships with other cultures; they fit into pretty much any world with an ocean and are easy to characterize if you draw on existing tropes of underwater dwellers.
However, there simply isn’t a lot of content for sea elves out there. Maybe that’s because aquatic combat is difficult to manage in 5e; maybe there’s another reason, but I believe that the lack of firm rules creates more of an opportunity than a hindrance.
Besides, now that you’ve read this article, you have all the information you need to start building a story about a full war between the sea elves and the sahuagin or a calamitous event that requires all three races discussed here to become allies against a greater threat from below.
If you’re willing to play around in the unfamiliar, these loosely structured points of lore and flavor can open the door for a suite of new tactics, cultures, and potential plots.