Sunday, February 05, 2012

Racial Disharmony

Over at WotC’s “DnD Next” page, Monte Cook has written a second article kinda circling around how to handle PC races. Basically, Mr. Cook is wrangling with the question of how much mechanical impact your choice of race should have. Since I can’t seem to figure out how to post over there, and since I don’t have time to write something brief and pithy, blog post!

If you’re going to separate race and class (and we know they are for 5e) and class is going to dictate the lion’s share of your character’s abilities, what does that leave for race? Traditionally, race has offered a few small tweaks to your character sheet: a few bonuses or penalties to stats (which vanished in importance fairly quickly in every iteration of the game) and a handful of special abilities and bonuses (which also often got swamped out by escalating bonuses and abilities as the characters approached mid-level). In 1e, the big bonus you got from choosing a non-human was the opportunity to multi-class, and it was fairly similar across the races.

If you’re going to bother having character race be a choice, what do you want to accomplish with it? Or, rather, as is the case for 5e’s design team, if you’re stuck with including elves, dwarves, halflings, etc. in your game, what opportunities do they give you?

What pops foremost in my mind is the chance to create a new experience while playing a familiar class. The basic mechanics of the class might still be the same (still rolling a d20 to hit with your weapon or still picking spells in advance via a Vancian system), but the race should offer a wrinkle that fundamentally changes how you play that class. That means more than a simple +1 when using certain weapons or the like.

What you’d look for are frequently used but seldom modified sub-systems that can be adjusted by your choice of race. One of my favorites is inventory management. The dwarf’s extra carrying capacity in LotFP’s encumbrance rules or my own pixie’s equipment costing half as much as normal are examples of this sort of thing. A race that received extra benefit from clerical spells would play very differently than norm for just about every class, as would one who was highly resistant (or even nearly immune, even to beneficial clerical magic). A race that reacted very differently to dropping to nearly, or below, zero hit points might also offer some interesting differences (assuming the PCs in your game did that frequently enough). So might a race that couldn’t wear armor but offered alternative options for adjusting AC.

That’s just off the top of my head. I’m sure there are enough interesting sub-systems in 5e that they could come up with a fun and interesting tweak for every race that would alter how you play nearly every class enough to make playing a fighter of one race very different from playing a fighter of another. Keeping it all balanced would be a headache, but as I’m a “combat as war” kinda guy, I’ll admit to not being terribly interested in that aspect of it.


Pat said...

I'll tell you what kind of impact it should have. It should give you a level cap, that's what!

Orsobuffo said...

I strongly agree! Even one, significant, though limited special skill would be cooler than +1 to one ability score. Dragonborn (which i'm not so fond of) breathe fire. Gimme flying gnomes! Never sleeping elves, mindreading insectmen..

Unknown said...

Yup. However, I don't really like the whole messing with subsystems with bonuses thing at all. I want races that can do different things than humans, but have a hard level cap:

Dwarves: Darkvision (level limit 6th)
Elves: Never sleep (4th/8th)
Halflings: sucking(4th)

trollsmyth said...

Orsobuffo: Agreed! Though flying gnomes in particular are a dangerous subject to broach at my table. >.>

Pat & Ian: I'm curious about the love of the level-cap. I can take it or leave it, but the whole balance-over-the-spectrum-of-your-careers thing has never really worked for me.

Will Mistretta said...

Great as an optional approach, but I don't see how classic (pre-Unearthed Arcana) D&D fundamentally got anything wrong. If D&D 5E is to have any value to me, it will need to be a reverent return to form, not an exercise in wild experimentation. Such is appropriate for the Raggis of the world, but not the people in charge of "Dungeons & Dragons" proper.

I agree with returning to fixed roles for demihumans (no dwarf magic-users) and level caps. D&D was overtly meant to be humanocentric, with demihumans and semi-humans relegated to the role of novelties and sidekicks in various orbits around "the sun of humanity" (one of my favorite DMG quotes).

faoladh said...

I don't think that the level cap is about "balance". Instead, from the game-rules point of view, it's to discourage nonhumans, so that they don't come to dominate games. The in-game justifications vary, but I like the Polyesian mana one.

If someone wants to have a game where nonhumans are more common than humans, they can have that easily: just remove the level limits from the game. But for those of us who prefer a humanocentric game, level limits are an excellent way to do that without having to "balance" things artificially.

faoladh said...

Er, "Polynesian".

Necropraxis said...




I'm really against messing with PC race sleep cycles (seriously). It tends to lead to annoying mini games where exactly one person is having fun while all the others twiddle their thumbs (as their characters are sleeping). This was a problem in 2E when elves had that reverie thing that only required 4 hours or something.

Also, regarding level limits, anyone who has an opinion on the subject but has not read this jrients piece should go do so:

Philo Pharynx said...

DnD Next is specifically designed to support multiple playstyles. You may like a humanocentric game with other races relegated to sidekicks, but that's just one way to play. faoladh has it backwards. They shouldn't have level caps and if you want to play the other way, then you can add them. Or use any of the hundreds of other rules to make humans more popular and demihumans less popular. Likewise if you don't like Dwarf wizards, then rule that at your table rather than ruling that for everybody.

Aaron E. Steele said...

You have it backwards. Level caps standard with no level caps as an option should be how it is set up in DnD next.

Philo Pharynx said...

And this is why 5e won't be successful. All sorts of people from all editions being upset that the game doesn't default to what they want.

Old schoolers will be upset that huge chunks of the book will be based on rules they won't ever use. New schoolers will be upset that their perfectly balanced game is now subject to all this randomness.

As for making level caps a default, even a lot of old-schoolers don't do this and new-schoolers don't want them.

I have no problem with you doing this in your campaign, but I have yet to hear any part of it that would make the game more fun for me.

Will Mistretta said...

Bottom line is: The Arneso-Gygaxian editions came first and defined not just the game, but arguably the whole hobby. Thus, they rightfully form the "default", and anything that deviates should be the option, never the other way around. It's simply proper, respectful, logical, etc.

Philo Pharynx said...

I should have known there were trolls by the title of the blog. :)

I wonder who translates your cuneiform script so that it can be posted on the blog? After all, it was the original written communication and it wouldn't be proper, respectful, logical to use other methods.

richard said...

so. We've got the disharmony right here. Awesome. Ignoring caps for a moment (by an effort of will...) I wonder if there's some way ignorant exoticism can be used creatively to help define the races? Like Elven language is too complex/allusive for humans to learn, or elves can detect magic by touch or spin simple illusions as a racial ability, or dwarves can communicate (ONLY with other dwarves) through solid rock, or their beard hair can be used as candles or they can store maps and memories in their axes (little classical reference there) or hobblings can eat anything and get wildly boosted saves to poison and/or smoke-based magic (inhaling vampires in gaseous form), or dark elves and tieflings are natural liars but can't lie convincingly to each other... Take all the things people love or hate about the stereotypes and celebrate it all.

...and if you don't want nonhuman PCs, don't allow them. Or have them backwards.

Zzarchov said...

I am only cool with level limits if humans have them too. If they don't, it leads back to 2nd ed.

Humans suck, so it was very rare to see a human in a party unless it was a "human only" class.

The party would play, maybe get to high levels, and then want to restart because for half the party they were done. This was very common.

Besides, if the point is to add flavour, add flavour!

Humans can't become a MU above level 9, Elves have unlimited levels in MU (after all, elves are beings of magic, humans are meat puppets mucking around).

Necropraxis said...

I've been reading ACKS, and it handles this very nicely (probably the best treatment I have seen so far; ACKS defaults to how I have house-ruled B/X). All classes have limits, ranging from 10 to 14. Many of the classes are the same as in B/X, but there is more than one elf class (they added the nightblade, a thief/mage to go along with the classic B/X fighter/mage, which they call a spellsword). There are two dwarf classes also.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...


So just to make it clear, what your saying is a bit of what we have in 4E with race features, you're just saying "make it bigger!!", right?

About demiraces. Why so much hate? Why should we play a humancentric fantasy world? Never quit got that. All races should have their own full set of amazing and fantastic abilities. If anything, humans should be differentiated by having something cooler than "one more feat at level 1".

Why the human centric approach?

Unknown said...


I'm sorry for the terrible english. Kinda tired. I'll stop posting now.

Necropraxis said...


I can't speak for everyone, but the main reason I prefer a human-centric setting is that it allows fantastic elements to retain some of their mystery and creepiness. As soon as the drow became a relatively common PC race, for example, they lost something. Also, fantasy race nations too easily become analogues for our modern nation-states, and I find that boring.

Lots of PC races also doesn't model the Sword & Sorcery inspirational literature very well, though that is not a concern shared by all (as many people would love to play in a Tolkien-flavored setting, which encourages a diversity of protagonist races).

Philo Pharynx said...

I can understand why some people want a humanocentric game. It's not my cup of tea, but I understand it. I just don't think the rules should be written around that type of game.

trollsmyth said...

Heh... I'm not sure any non-human races should be in the default rules. If the default is going to be the bare minimum, then it should just include humans (because they are included in 99.999999% of campaigns) and all the rest should be modular editions. That way, you can play without halflings, or with 4e style river-gypsy halflings, or kender, or Dark Sun's cannibal halflings, or Eberron's dinosaur-mafia halflings...

But then, I'm also of the opinion that the default level should be so bog-simple as to be nearly unplayable, and that every campaign should take advantage of customizing the rules set.