Rebuilding D&D, part 2: Races

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.

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6 responses

  1. I like the concept if it could be kept streamlined and sleek, but I know better – everyone and their dog will want to create a new “trait tree” to suit their desires.

    Now that’s not a shot at tinkering with the system, I’m not afraid of that – in fact, I advocate for it almost daily.

    But the end result that I’d be fearful of is that you’re just headed back to 2E AD&D with all the character and racial kits. You’d need to be mindful that a future “cool” tree choice didn’t essentially invalidate the reasons for a prior choice.

    If everyone realizes that taking the initial three traits from being an Elven WoodWarden means you’ve just been handed the win button, you’ve broken the game to some. And in like fashion, should ANY given option overshadow a specific other choice (e.g. Anything’s better than the simple fighter tree) then you’ve also presented the players with a worthless choice.

    That’s what I think went wrong with the 2E prestige classes and kits and such. Basically it made being a simple Fighter or Thief or etc. pointless because it was cooler and better to be something else.

    All that said, I like the idea of folding the race options into the same mechanic as the classes. It solves the problem of how to make them worthwhile choices.

  2. I agree. I mean, with the alternate traits in PF, I already know players who always swap out the free skill focus that Half-Elves get for the free Iron Will equivalent they can get. But I like the Skill Focus and keep taking it…

    That said, my system idea does suffer from the problem of being able to be “broken” in every new tree added to the system. Racial trees suffer that same weakness. Strangely, I don’t think that it’s impossible to build interesting choices that don’t destroy other choices… it just takes making that a design priority (and good work).

    And, if it makes you feel any better, one of the things I like a lot about PF is that it is actually cool to just be a fighter or a thief again — from level one to level twenty. Or not. And it all feels good.

  3. Yeah, the comment wasn’t a directed target at the idea, it was more of a cautionary tale (we’ve all seen the kewl-ness creep leading to the this-is-no-longer-a-valid-choice outcome of the 2E bloat before) to be mindful that you’ll have to be careful.

    As a storyteller, I wonder if you could take the concept of traits (as feats and other character bonuses) and redefine them in a less mechanical way where the nature of the impact that the trait grants a more descriptive, open ended answer as opposed to a simple +X to actions/events A,B and C.

    For example, Hardy would be described as generally more hale and healthy than others, being able to overcome health and survival hardships more often than those without.

    Which would open the door to DM interpretation as to what that means in their game – does it mean more HP, better saves, a higher CON, etc. (or perhaps all the above.) The option is there, but not defined.

    Of course, such an approach may need the DM to be on the same page as a player (depending on the game style) should they be aiming for Trait Y for benefit Z but find instead that they really got benefit Q.

    But it also allows for one trait to open the door to different interpretations that make more sense. Perhaps dwarves are indeed more healthy, taking Hearty would grant dwarves a bonus to CON whereas the Half-Elf who takes the same trait instead gains a bonus to HP and saves instead.

    Just brainstorming at the keyboard.

  4. Well, in many ways, what you are describing with that second idea is a part of how I’m setting up my diceless system. Not entirely, but close.

    Despite being a storyteller and a diceless guy though — I’m also paradoxically a RAW guy — and I believe in the value of games and their rules at the table, so, it’s awkward territory for me.

  5. in 4th edition they are starting to use themes with racial pre-requisites to help further flush out some of these aspects of player characters.

  6. […] Rhetorical Gamer goes into how he might change races if he were redesigning D&D.  Short form: your race should grow as you do, becoming “more […]

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