... now with 35% more arrogance!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Racial Effects

Trollsmyth asks us "how do you make character races feel like something other than an extra set of combat bonuses?" There are some good ideas in that post. I feel pretty much the same way about race, and have a similar proposal: race should transform class abilities, rather than add new abilities. It's sort of an elaboration of some of my previous thoughts on race.

The way I figure it, races provide one to four kinds of modifications to the standard classes:

  • Racial Background: stuff members of the race is trained in; stealthy woodland archers (elves) or stalwart berserker-miners (dwarves.) This shouldn't be automatic, but is a feature of the way the character was raised; a dwarf raised by humans would not have the miner-related talents of other dwarves.
  • Cosmetic Tweaks: stuff that makes members of the race look different than humans. Each such difference should be "self-balancing", with good points and bad points, so you can include as many of these as desired, although it's probably best to restrain yourself to one or two differences.
  • Class Transformations: stuff that changes for members of this race. Assign at least one base class to each race and replace no more than one thing per class to make it distinct for that race. 
  • Cultural Transformations: stuff that the race as a whole can do that is not normally possible for other races. Make woodland elves able to grow trees into any shape desired, for example. PCs don't get these talents, since it's not a feature of individuals, but the culture as a whole; it makes encounters with settlements of non-humans feel distinctive.

The first two modifications are situational; sometimes, you get a bonus, and sometimes, you get a penalty, depending on whether the GM thinks the distinctive features of the race would apply to the current situation. Thus, there's no real limit to the number of modifications, although more than three distinctions per category is probably too much; you want to be able to sum up the racial background and appearance with just a couple words each. There's no hard limit because humans and human cultural backgrounds can provide the same sorts of modifiers, so there's a rough "balance".

Similarly, each race, as a result of its unique nature, may be able to produce one or more items that can provide bonuses in some situations, but these items could be used by anyone able to obtain them. Thus, cultural transformations can be unlimited, but should be restrained for the sake of making the cultural identity easy to grasp.

The only type of modification that provides a flat bonus, no penalty, is the class transformation, which is why you should set a hard limit (one per class) and require a sacrifice, replacing a standard class ability with the racial modifier. The original rules tended to do this with level limits, but actually replacing abilities might make for more interesting races.


  1. This is good, in trying to make races in Ganth feel different, this is the kind of info I needed to get inspiration from, Thanks!


  2. Once again you've hit the mark squarely and well. We've experimented a bit with this sort of thing and what you're presenting here is a nice alternative to the +This/-That, bonus/penalty back-and-forth that this can boil down to in a lot of instances. Culture should matter, otherwise there's no point wasting time on it. We sometimes assign one Prime Attribute in place of a hard and fast bonus, and that can work pretty well. Assigning specific classes seems to be a nice start, and works well for NPCs but players always want to be the exceptions--design a race/species that are all warriors, and someone will want to be the one poet or spell-caster in the lot, and so on. Options are real nice...you've given us a good deal to consider and re-evaluate as we move forward. Thanks!

  3. @garrison: to clarify, when I talk about assigning classes, I'm not talking about limiting the race to those classes, which is a separate issue. I'm talking about making one or two classes unique for that race by changing one class feature.

  4. Yep. I got that loud and clear. I was pointing out one of the pitfalls of the usual approach--restrictions aren't nearly as much fun as options. Your idea of tailoring each class to better suit/express each race/species is a very good, and very simple, even elegant solution. A minor tweak in one of the class abilities and you give these alternatives something special without upsetting the applecart. We have been doing something similar in regards to the Thief class for a few years now, allowing them to swap-out one or more of their skills to make them more in line with the role they were taking on, like a bandit versus a scavenger versus a pirate, etc. It works fine.

    As for limiting any one race/species to certain classes, that never really appealed to me and seemed like a waste of time--there's instances where a particular race/species might be culturally prone to a specific role, or a class in which most of a culture is 'expected' to do well, etc., but there are always exceptions.

  5. What if, instead of your class determining your hit point die and progression, your race did? Leaving your chosen class to give you a penalty, or bonus depending on what you chose? I know it's a mechanical thing, but it is something that always bugged me about any of the d&d's that your health level was determined by your profession, and not race.

    what say the assembled?