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Thread: Morrus on... Races
Sunday, 19th February, 2012, 03:55 AM #1
Time Agent (Lvl 24)
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Morrus on... Races
Over the last 20 years or so, my opinion on D&D races has fluctuated. I've probably held every opinion possible at some point or other. So I figured that now, while 5E is being developed, would be as good a time as any to attempt to summarize those opinions.
To be clear - this isn't a post about which races should be included. I certainly have opinions on that (less is more; kitchen sinks breed blandness - but that's another subject entirely). It's a piece on how important race should be.
As I see it, there are two schools of thought. I'm not saying that everyone subscribes to one or the other; rather that they form the two end points of a scale. You may be positioned anywhere on that scale.
Race isn't important
This school of thought resists large mechanical differences between races. That's not to say the proponents don't consider an elf and a dwarf to be different - but from a character generation point of view, the choice shouldn't be restrictive. So the world at large may be filled with tall, slender, dextrous elves and short, hardy dwarves - but a player character is one in a million and can be a tall dextrous dwarf, a short clumsy elf, or an attractive, charming half-orc if that's what the player wishes to play.
Generally - as far as I can see - those who hold this position advocate small initial racial ability adjustments, but nothing they'd consider a "penalty" (although I've long maintained that there's no difference between a lack of bonus and a penalty other than nomenclature to latch on to).
I'd go further. If this is the position, then I'd eliminate racial mechanics altogether. You generate your character, and then you describe it how you want. You can use your ability scores to direct that description - that fluff - but the description is up to you. So your character can easily be a charming, dextrous dwarf, a stocky, clumsy elf, or a mighty, weightlifting halfling. Whatever you want it to be. It can be an anthropomorphic dog, a saintly reformed devil, a quarter-dragon-half-tiefling-quarter-badger. Your race is literally a descriptive choice decided fully by you (with DM input, where appropriate).
There's a complementary side argument to this point of view. It doesn't come up often, but I've seen it. This argument advocates this position based in perceptions of real world racial and gender discrimination. It equates differentiation between fantasy races to discrimination between real world ethnic or gender-based groups. While I can see the case for no racial mechanics in D&D, I can't personally see it as based on this particular argument. I believe that discrimination against real people exists; differentiation between fantasy races is something else entirely.
Race is important
This approach says that your choice of race should be a fundamental decision. That a gnome should not be as strong as a half-orc even after a lifetime of bench-presses. That dwarves are hardy and drow are dextrous. You choose a race in the same way you choose a class: it's a predefined package which describes your character; it defines your character throughout its life, and is a major factor. It's a choice just like your class is a choice. The two together create a combined package which makes an archetype.
In this situation, I'd take the racial choice to the opposite extreme. It would be vital. If you're a half-orc, people are gonna darn well know it! So I'd make the initial racial bonuses and penalties +/-4 (or for those who hate being 'penalized' I'd make the base score 6 and give all races big bonuses except for some in certain areas - but that's just nomenclature, as I mentioned above) and I'd alternate class and race advances at each level. So you'd get something every level, but every odd level would make you more elvish and every even level would make you more bardish. Or whatever.
Furthermore, in this situation, I'd limit ability score adjustments by race. So the halfling couldn't work out enough to become as strong as a half orc in the same way an otter can't become as strong as an elephant.
What about a mid-point?
So the above two positions represent two points on a scale. Two extremes, if you will. And, if I'm honest, I would personally be happy with either.
I know many will disagree with me here, but I personally feel that a mid-point is just a copout. A compromise to no advantage. Giving a race a small bonus at 1st level and a couple of abilities which frankly don't matter after a few levels, assuming they ever did, is making neither decision. It's just saying "meh" - it doesn't matter. It is certainly far closer to the first position than the second; although some editions of D&D have used various mechanics like racial level caps, favoured classes, racial kits, themes, and feats to provide additional detail.
Optional details - kits, themes, feats - are, essentially, the first choice. They're fundamentally no different to a carefully selected loadout and some fluff. Your race doesn't define you, it merely gives you more stuff you can have instead of the stuff you can already have. I can't see a reason to not make all those those optional things available to everyone and just say "describe it how you want". Why shouldn't a dwarf character have developed an eladrin teleport power (taking 4E as an example)? An elf with a breath weapon? We're going "optional", right?
Mandatory racial level caps are a bad approach to the second choice. Everyone agrees with that, and they went the way of the dodo years ago. Favoured classes aren't terrible, but they're a weak approach to the second choice. Class limitations are compelling in the face of this argument, and - damn - they're a powerful flavour tool. But, yes, they're too restrictive.
So I don't feel that a midpoint is something I personally want to see. Of course, I know that's what I'll get - all indications so far are that 5E will have a +1 ability bonus for class, and a +1 bonus for race; this sounds pointless to me. But it's just an opinion piece.
I'd like to see one of the two above major choices. I honestly don't mind which. I like both, for different reasons. But I do feel I'd like to see a strong decision: race matters, or it doesn't (mechanically speaking). I'd rather not see a mid-point comprising of small bonuses at 1st level and the ability to detect secret doors. Because who's gonna care about that at 10th level? Your elf and your dwarf are identical by then in terms of race. Their class powers and ability scores overwhelm their racial identity. At that point, race is about role playing and fluff; so why not just state that from the start and stop fiddling about with teeny bonuses?
So one or t'other. Race is very important, or race isn't important at all. Either just fluff, or strong mechanics throughout the entire career. I frankly like both options. But I don't like the mid-point. And no racial level limits or class restrictions.
Am I totally off-base? What do you think? How would you like to see race treated in D&D?
Last edited by Morrus; Sunday, 19th February, 2012 at 04:11 AM.
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Sunday, 19th February, 2012, 04:30 AM #2
Acolyte (Lvl 2)
You are spot on in your assessment. The more that I see of what 5E and what it will be the less enthusiastic am about it. My initial giddiness has worn thin and now I really could not care less about what it actually ends up like. I am finally going to get off the edition treadmill. 5E seems to be meaningless in my opinion. I wish Monte and crew good luck with their endeavor but I have all the D&Ds that I could ever need. I'll be spending my money elsewhere( Dream Pod 9 I'm looking at you). Wotc will more than likely not get "races" right in 5E they will go for the middle ground and the result will suck.
Sunday, 19th February, 2012, 04:42 AM #3
Guide (Lvl 11)
You make a few good points, Morrus, but I do think that some compromise is possible. Or rather, I think there is a way to do both. The big key to that, I think, is to not make an equal amount of differentiation between all races. Some races are similar, and others are very different. It is very hard to take your latter approach for elves and dwarves, but it is easy to do so with the former approach. On the other hand, it is almost impossible to create pixies, vampires, and playable dragons with the former approach, but the latter approach makes them fun and interesting choices. In other words, the specific choice of race tends to drive the needed approach.
In a game where your choices are human, elf, dwarf, and halfling, the former approach works best.
In a game where your choices are human, giant, faerie, dragon, talking animal, and centaur, the latter approach works best.
In a game where your choices are human, elf, dwarf, halfling, giant, faerie, dragon, talking animal, and centaur, then you need something of a mixed approach. Elves and dwarves will work out to look very humanlike, and need minimal racial distinction, and other races will be very different, and need very high racial distinction.
Sunday, 19th February, 2012, 05:15 AM #4
The Grand Druid (Lvl 20)
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I've fluctuated on this continuum myself, but I've found myself firmly on the "races should have substantial and up-front mechanical differences."
However, I don't think they should come in the form of ability bonuses. I'd rather see them come via innate talents/powers/advantages and the like. Almost a cross between what we now think of as "races" and "themes."
Ability bonuses have the unfortunate tendency of working in both directions. For instance, if dwarves are blatantly the best fighters in terms of ability score, than not only do most dwarves become fighters, but most fighters become dwarves. I want the races to be blatantly and obviously distinct from one another, without making any given race a no-brain mechanical choice for anyone playing a certain class.
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Sunday, 19th February, 2012, 05:35 AM #5
Novice (Lvl 1)
I agree heartily with you. Race should either be a Major aspect of the character with significant mechanical influence or handled through interpretation of fluff etc.
Personally I think something akin to how the current 4E hybrid class options would be a useful concept. Part of your character is driven by your class, certain powers and abilities are as a result iconic. But likewise your race has certain powers and abilities, bonuses to specific scores or specializations and race specific options and benefits that could compliment class growth.
This approach could lead to thrings like. If your a Half-Orc or a Dwarf. You'll always have solid HP's due to the racial hardiness which might be nice in Dwarven Wizards if only that Dwarves wont generally have complimentary abilities to being a Wizard where an Elf would have maybe some affinity with magic but also help with being evasive and accurate while an Eladrin of the three be best having an affinity with magic and provide the most frequent or great boosts to Intelligence as well as perhaps additional spell knowledge.
Sunday, 19th February, 2012, 05:36 AM #6
Magsman (Lvl 14)
I generally like the idea of race being about 5-39% of your character, based on your decisions of whether or not to focus on race, class, or theme.
Taking the 4E model as an example, you start with your basic race goodies (maybe minus the racial power). You can then devote up to 1/3 of your power, feat, or ability choices to your race, or none. Themes would generally go about the same system. Class options would lack a limit.
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Sunday, 19th February, 2012, 05:51 AM #7
Novice (Lvl 1)
I definitely think that races should matter greatly, but the implementation should use several techniques already just mentioned. Pick a race that makes sense as "standard" and measure difference between the standard race and other races. Races that are a little bit different get small modifiers to ability scores, while races that are very much different get larger modifiers to ability scores.
The issue is that as levels are accrued, the racial differences between races that are only slightly different become unimportant. To prevent this, leveling benefits should then be decided by, or very much modified by the choice of race at character creation. So if you think of elven fighters as graceful and elusive while human fighters as more methodical and technique driven, the feats and skills gained from leveling should reflect these differences. A certain amount of crossover should be allowed, but ideally you should be able to tell, for example, a fighter's race by the way he fights.
Sunday, 19th February, 2012, 06:06 AM #8
Myrmidon (Lvl 10)
How about both?
What about Race matters for character "B" but doesn't matter for character "A"?
Just as I'd be able to build a sword-swinging simple-to-play fighter in 5e without worrying about skills, so should I be able to build a fighter where her race isn't important. And just as I could instead build a more complex, detailed fighter with specific skills and abilities and powers, so should I be able to build one whose dwarven race is super integral to her concept and her mechanical abilities.
Thus it seems to me that it works best as a player choice -- something that 5e is hopefully going to be good at managing.
Think back to the old Skills & Powers book -- you could be a 5-point dwarf and have like one dwarven ability, or be 50-point dwarf who almost invested more points in her race than she did in her class, and had a full range of dwarven abilities.
Sunday, 19th February, 2012, 06:23 AM #9
Superhero (Lvl 15)
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But racial abilities that aren't tied to ability scores can and should matter beyond level 1. Powerful abilities that make race meaningful. I'm on board with that.
Like elves always ignore difficult terrain and some other elven stuff too. Like elves always roll 2d20 and take the higher roll when making balance checks, etc. Or half-orcs always double their carrying capacity or get say +5 bonus on STR related checks.
Give each race multiple big bonuses that matter significantly at all levels of play and reinforce what those races are good at, but doesn't allow any one race to dominate a particular class choice.
Sunday, 19th February, 2012, 06:30 AM #10
Cutpurse (Lvl 5)
How about racial levels?
In basic D&D, dwarves, halfings, and elves were essentially a class. Dwarves and Halflings were variants of the fighter class. Elves were a fighter/magic user class.
In 3e, we had racial substitution levels which were 3 levels out of 20.
What about a dwarf class that has 20 levels, an elf class, halfling, etc.
These could be substitution levels, or perhaps a stand alone class (with support for multiclassing/prestige clases/epic destinies +).
We could also do something similar with themes.