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Thread: Morrus on... Races
Sunday, 19th February, 2012, 03:55 AM #1
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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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