I’ve written a little bit about the philosophy of mechanics used to differentiate character races for PCs before — as well as my thoughts on a missed opportunity in the Dragon Age RPG. Overall, I find that character race is a really underrepresented portion of character in D&D. I mean, why do I choose to play a Human? What makes being human special? Why would I play an elf, or a tiefling instead of a human?
Is it purely the mechanical bonuses associated with the races? I’ve played more tieflings in D&D4e than anything else when I have the chance to play — despite the fact that everytime I sit down with the character builder just to tinker it’s always an exercise in how awesome dwarves are…
I’m also a big fan of Goliaths but I’ve never played one — for more than a one-shot — because I don’t like being creepy and rocky and covered in weird, bruise looking patches…
My point — sometimes I am looking for a mechanical advantage, and the mechanics of the race matter — but sometimes, no matter what I think of the race, I just don’t wanna look like that…
So what would I do differently if I were writing D&D? How would I develop races?
First, I’m a big fan of the 4E innovation of flex-stats. I like the idea of playing a Dwarf and always getting a +2 to Con, but getting to choose Str or Wis for my other stat. Good stuff. I’m also not a fan of negative stat modifiers. I never play tieflings in 3.5 or 4E because they take a penalty to Charisma — but I love them in 4E (where they get a bonus to Charisma). Ultimately, that negative really makes me feel punished for wanting to play a cool race and mix it with a class where Charisma is important.
By the same token — Halflings and Gnomes are tiny little fellas and probably need a strength penalty, right? Well, maybe. Being small is a big problem (in my opinion) in both 3.5/PF and 4E. I don’t have all the answers but I know that it’s tough to convince me to play a halfling in either system because as much as I like the fluff, I feel really punished for playing one.
I will admit, I don’t have a good answer to the small problem. That one still evades me. I’m sure if I thought on it for a time I’d be able to come up with something workable, but for now, I want to talk about something else that the talent based system employed by the SAGA system can do for your game.
One of the design successes – again, my opinion – of 4E was that races were “cool” again. I didn’t just play humans all the time for their extra feat like I did in 3.5. I was invested in the weirdness of being a tiefling – I really like them, okay – or the nobility of a dragonborn. I loved the Shardminds, the Deva, the Goliaths… it was all pretty cool, right? And with the removal of Level Adjustments (didn’t LA suck?) it became palatable to play pretty much whatever you wanted and just really enjoy it. I mean, I’ve even played a hobgoblin and had fun, despite their overall weaker mechanics.
Ultimately, the game just made playing weirder stuff much easier, much more exciting, and downright fun. My girlfriend plays genasi all the time… I mean really.
And ideas like racial paragon paths, prestige classes for racial paragons, and race-related feats and traits really show is that it might be just as much fun to tinker with your race as it is with your class. Heck, this even has some appeal to the old-school, “race as class” idea when you just played an “elf” or a “dwarf” but removes those pesky level limits.
I would propose that as you level you also have the option when you earn talents to explore racial talent trees just like class talent trees. This would give you a model for preserving and exploring your inner “elfiness” or a way to increase things like the Eladrin’s link to the Feywild or just nature without trying to tack those abilities on as afterthoughts to other class’s stuff. This way, you don’t have to presume that my Eladrin is probably a wizard or a warlock – you can presume as a designer that my eladrin is an eladrin – and then I can be a class too – go figure, right?
Now I can hear the objection – I mean, look at the minotaur in 4E and the arguments about how it forces players into melee roles or has useless abilities, right? So you’d have to be aware of this and try not to build talent trees that are so focused – but with a decentralized class focus this should also be easier than it is in 4E with its massive power lists and clunky hybrid system of multi-classing.
This is long enough that I don’t want to keep belaboring the point, but I hope the basic idea is there – make enhancing your PCs race an interesting choice in its own right and preserve the innate “differentness” of being an elf or a shardmind…
Just a thought. Thanks for reading.