D&D General No More "Humans in Funny Hats": Racial Mechanics Should Determine Racial Cultures

Helpful NPC Thom

Adventurer
For some reason, "kitchen sink" is looked down on and "carefully curated" is highly praised as peak DMing. Thus, every option must justify it's inclusion into the walled garden or into the rubbish bin it goes.
yeschad.meme

I dislike kitchen sink settings because they're disjointed, like a meandering stroll through an amusement park of gonzo. Step right up and see yer elven cowboys! Experience the thrill of halfling dinosaur riders! Dare you to gaze upon the cybernetic dwarf stronghold?
There is a common saying; that if something looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it's probably a duck. The same applies to an extent for fantasy races in D&D, especially with the recent removal of racial ability score modifiers and cultural proficiencies in racial stats. If it looks and acts more or less like a human, it may as well be a human.
This is largely unavoidable with the Tolkien races as a whole because they are written to be analogues of humans. Burning Wheel does a fair job of portraying them with its emotional attributes, as does Torchbearer's Nature. If I wanted to impress upon the players the importance of their differing psychologies, I would use a simplified version of Pendragon's virtues and flaws system.

Each race gets one cultural virtue and one cultural flaw. Both are opposed and in tension with one another. Stereotypically, elves might have Haughtiness and Benevolence. These are expressed as a number from 1-20, so for instance, a Haughtiness/Benevolence might be 9 to begin. In dramatic situations, the player must roll 1d20. If he rolls under or equal to the score, he acts in accordance with his flaw; if he rolls above it, he acts in accordance with his virtue. In this example, let us say the elf player comes across a filthy human beggar asking for bread. If he rolls his Haughtiness, he will act arrogant, cruel, contemptuous, sneering at the beggar and maybe even kicking or shoving him aside. If he rolls his Benevolence, he is moved by a compassionate impulse to comfort the short-lived wretch before him.

These scores would change over the course of the game representing shifts in personality and perspective.
 

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Remathilis

Legend
I dislike kitchen sink settings because they're disjointed, like a meandering stroll through an amusement park of gonzo. Step right up and see yer elven cowboys! Experience the thrill of halfling dinosaur riders! Dare you to gaze upon the cybernetic dwarf stronghold?

"When consistency gets in the way of samurai gunslingers riding on dinosaurs, it's time for consistency to take a day off." - Barsoomcore.
 


Steampunkette

Rules Tinkerer and Freelance Writer
Supporter
"When consistency gets in the way of samurai gunslingers riding on dinosaurs, it's time for consistency to take a day off." - Barsoomcore.
"When you add elements to a setting without consideration for the story you wish to tell, the story you wind up telling will be drastically different."
-Steampunkette-

What a profound quote! And the person quoted, so stylish, wise, and dedicated!

More seriously: Some people have a story they want to tell. A story that they think a setting should carry. So adding everything there is to the setting isn't conducive to that. Fortunately you can make your "Kitchen Sink" setting while I make my carefully curated setting, and we can both take inspiration from the other for various ideas and situations while maintaining what we, personally, want from the game.
 

In 5th, I find the arguments against decoupling ability score bonuses from race/lineage ultimately pointless. Any PC can, given enough levels, get a 20, the highest possible baseline score, in any ability. The bonuses just determine how quickly that happens. Decoupling ability scores just removes system based punishments for people making otherwise suboptimal class/race combinations. Just give everyone a +2 and a +1 or three +1s and call it a day. (I'm looking at you Mountain Dwarves...)

Or... Don't. I'm even more tired of grognards pulling at their neckbeards and bemoaning how they are aggrieved. Work out how you run your game with your group.
 

Stalker0

Legend
I don’t think racial stats are a needed area of differentiation, but just as a good accent can make an npc memorable to players, I think some solid racial abilities can help give players hooks to aid with their role playing.

In my game i gave dwarfs a simple mechanical benefit…they sleep standing up. It made sense with their prone resistance, but it was mainly a ribbon.

i gave my dwarf player license to tell us of their homeland, and they went to town with this feature. Dwarf rooms were really small with no beds, in favor of large communal spaces. They called humans “short sleepers” in dwarven. In some areas dwarves would use sleeping dwarves as support pillars for great machines run at night…just lots of fun stuff.

i find just a few mechanics can really shape the imagination
 


CleverNickName

Limit Break Dancing
Or... Don't. I'm even more tired of grognards pulling at their neckbeards and bemoaning how they are aggrieved. Work out how you run your game with your group.
Absolutely. The worst part is the groaning.

I think this is how I'm gonna "work it out" with my game group, the next time I launch a new campaign.
  • First, determine your ability scores and distribute them however you like. Let's say you ended up with Str 15, Dex 14, Con 13, Int 12, Wis 10, and Cha 8.
  • Each ability score is now capped at 10 + the starting total you distributed. Your character's Strength is now capped at 25, your Dex is capped at 24, your Charisma is capped at 18.
  • Now, choose your Ancestry. Your Ancestry (or Race, if you must) will give you a +1 bonus to a certain ability score. Dwarves, +1 to Con. Elves, +1 to Dex, Humans +1 to any score you like, and so on. Subraces, if any, don't grant ASIs.
  • Next, choose your Background. Your choice will give you another +1 bonus to an ability score. Soldier, +1 Str. Adept, +1 Wis. Sage, +1 Int. You get the idea.
  • Finally, choose your Class. Your choice will give you a third (and final) ASI to a specific score. Barbarian, +1 Str or Con. Bard, +1 Dex or Cha. Cleric, +1 Wis or Cha. Et cetera.
  • Buy equipment and start your adventure.
It's a bit more fiddly than most DMs would like, but I think my gaming group will love it. Every character starts with a total +3 ASI, and they get to control where they go and how high they can grow. Right up our alley.
 
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Bolares

Hero
I will admit I will never understand the argument that getting rid of racial modifiers waters down the races into the same thing. The game is much more than any stat. Flavor and fluff matter, because it literally tells you the differences between the races. Anyone who says getting rid of the ability modifiers for an elf just makes them no different than any other race is completely ignoring this, which absolutely is unique from humans or other races:
I want to prin this and put it up in my wall in a nice frame
 

MGibster

Legend
I can't think of a single PC race in D&D that isn't just a human with a funny hat but I don't see that as a bad thing. The truth is that I could replace just about any race in D&D with human and tell the exact same story. But the game is a fantasy so I get to replace humans with other people like halflings or orcs.
 

Remathilis

Legend
"When you add elements to a setting without consideration for the story you wish to tell, the story you wind up telling will be drastically different."
-Steampunkette-

What a profound quote! And the person quoted, so stylish, wise, and dedicated!

More seriously: Some people have a story they want to tell. A story that they think a setting should carry. So adding everything there is to the setting isn't conducive to that. Fortunately you can make your "Kitchen Sink" setting while I make my carefully curated setting, and we can both take inspiration from the other for various ideas and situations while maintaining what we, personally, want from the game.
That's one of the few ENworld quotes I've saved from before the crash for moments like this. @barsoomcore hit the nail on the head for me. Ymmv.

That said, I have nothing against walled garden games. I have a problem with the two corolaries that come up when discussing them.

1) they are inherently better than a kitchen sink
2) D&D's rules should cater to this by keeping everything DIY, generic, and limited and it's the role of supplements to add all the necessary connective tissue.

But this is a tangent so if you want to discuss the merits of walled garden vs kitchen sink, we can do that elsewhere.

One more thing:

"I'm inherently suspicious of people who quote themselves As if they were a third party." - Remathilis
 

...who are YOU calling, "you people"?!?!?!"



Oh, Elves? Nevermind. Totally cool. Carry on!




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I am an elf. I am a 24 hour party person. I like to cruise and swing successfully in tight slacks.

You never need to sleep, because of TRANCE
 

Steampunkette

Rules Tinkerer and Freelance Writer
Supporter
I can't think of a single PC race in D&D that isn't just a human with a funny hat but I don't see that as a bad thing. The truth is that I could replace just about any race in D&D with human and tell the exact same story. But the game is a fantasy so I get to replace humans with other people like halflings or orcs.
Thri-Kreen.

Created from the start to have an alien mindset, to be a hunting animal with humanlike intelligence and a wildly different culture.

The result is: Most players either play them as a Human with a Funny Hat and a fixation on a few words that describe their cultural identity. Clutch being a key one.

And those who -do- play the wildly different from human alien psychology are incredibly hard to play with. Both from a player to player perspective (Talking to someone who does their best to have no shared frame of reference) and from a player to DM perspective (It is super hard to get a Thri-Kree that is sincerely alien to do anything to carry the story forward).

The most we can reasonably do is do "Humans" with different cultural traits and identities. In short: Different hats.

But as noted in the previous thread: You can do a -lot- of hats.

Lifespan as a narrative trait/outlook.
Types of Vision and resulting societal/technological changes.
Cultural traits lifted from real world societies rearranged mad-libs style.
Height differences and the resulting architectural differences.

On and on and on and on.

The issue comes from the players. How many hats they're willing to keep track of. Most are happy with 2-3 hats. -Maybe- 4 or 5.

But once there's more Hat than Elf under it, once it becomes a new psychology, it becomes incredibly hard to keep it all together.

That's one of the few ENworld quotes I've saved from before the crash for moments like this. @barsoomcore hit the nail on the head for me. Ymmv.

That said, I have nothing against walled garden games. I have a problem with the two corolaries that come up when discussing them.

1) they are inherently better than a kitchen sink
2) D&D's rules should cater to this by keeping everything DIY, generic, and limited and it's the role of supplements to add all the necessary connective tissue.

But this is a tangent so if you want to discuss the merits of walled garden vs kitchen sink, we can do that elsewhere.

One more thing:

"I'm inherently suspicious of people who quote themselves As if they were a third party." - Remathilis
1) They -are- inherently better than kitchen sink settings... at telling a specific story. Which is what the people who tout them as being better than pretty much always portray.

2) I haven't really run into that. I believe you, of course, our experiences differ, there... But doesn't a "DIY Generic" setup -benefit- the Kitchen Sink setting way more than the Walled Garden?

If I'm making a walled garden I want -specific- things that fit into it. Having a gummy paste of bland melange doesn't really work. But that simpleness of narrative lends itself well in settings which don't have a particular narrative to carry forward... Doesn't it?

Or, perhaps, it doesn't benefit anyone, since the Kitchen Sink relies on external narrative sources and the Walled Garden has no issue overwriting something they don't like to fit something they do like into their setting... like Athasian Elves being -vastly- different from the elves of other settings.

I think the bland melange is just WotC's way of trying to avoid controversy in the most basic and corporate way possible: Make everything flavorless and hope no one complains about the spice.

Rather than, y'know, giving things their own flavor -without- the loaded real world politics tied to it in order to make a truly exceptional dish.
 

I can't think of a single PC race in D&D that isn't just a human with a funny hat but I don't see that as a bad thing. The truth is that I could replace just about any race in D&D with human and tell the exact same story. But the game is a fantasy so I get to replace humans with other people like halflings or orcs.

I repeat my citation of the 1e PHB from the other thread:

All of the non-human or part-human races closely resemble humans in many aspects. It is assumed that similarities are sufficiently apparent so as to warrant no further comment, and only special racial characteristics which are dissimilar to humans will be dealt with. Characters differ slightly within their respective races as a whole.
 

Undrave

Hero
I dislike kitchen sink settings because they're disjointed, like a meandering stroll through an amusement park of gonzo. Step right up and see yer elven cowboys! Experience the thrill of halfling dinosaur riders! Dare you to gaze upon the cybernetic dwarf stronghold?
Just because everything is available to the player doesn't meant it's all there in the setting. And just because there's lots of stuff in the setting, doesn't meant they're all in the same place. The lone Dino Rider could be far from home.
 



Yaarel

Mind Mage
@AcererakTriple6

Well said original post!

I realize I have been doing this to make the elves feel less like humans.

The emphasis on their concept as an innately magical people, and on the mechanics of their magical traits, helps them feel nonhuman. But just as important, their entire cultures are magical. They solve all problems by means of magic. Every aspect of their culture trains, celebrates, and rewards magic.

A culture that is of magic, by magic, and for magic, makes the elves feel "other".
 

In 5e, when it comes to character creation you have three groups. Let's replace the terms race, class, and background with Groups A, B, and C, respectively. In terms of design, if those groups were all concentric circles, how large should each one be, and how much should they overlap? Right now, Group B is by the far the largest, and had considerable overlap with Groups A and C. Ability score increases come mostly from B, but can also come from A. Skill proficiencies come from B and C, but can also come from A. Cantrips/spells mostly come from B, but can also come from A.

So to make race more distinctive, you don't need to make it a larger circle necessarily, but just have it overlap less with class (and background). The current logic for race is that you can simulate the archetype by using features of the game that are available to other circles (class and background)--ASI, skill, armor, and weapon proficiencies, and cantrips. But this actually makes them less distinctive at the table. Instead, to make them distinctive, race should be given abilities that cannot be gained from the other areas.
 

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