The shallow answer is that fantasy races are sentient non-humans. But what I’m actually asking is “Why even have a game system feature called ‘race’ in the first place? What does it do that the broad upper-level feature ‘class’ and the narrower low-level feature ‘skills’ does not?”
The B/X and BECMI strains of D&D asked those questions and answered “Nothing, really.” So fantasy races just became other classes, classes with minimum ability scores and tweaked abilities compared to the human class closest in concept. AD&D answered the question another way, making races the source of ability score modifiers, which in turn affect both class abilities and skills. This becomes the main use of race in 3e, making certain race and class combos optimal and discouraging other combos as sub-optimal.
But in OD&D, each race has class and level restrictions paired with a handful of extra abilities. Elves get to combine fighting and magic-use, are better at finding secret doors, and get a couple combat bonuses. Dwarves get magic resistance and familiarity with the underground. Halflings get magic resistance and better missile attacks. Elves and Dwarves also get extra languages (… or do they?)
So OD&D fantasy races are modifiers to class, but not to ability scores. Or to skills, which didn’t exist yet. I prefer to keep that concept and drift further in that direction, rather than either the B/X “race as class” direction or the AD&D “race modifies ability scores” direction.
There should be two components to any race: the physical side and the cultural side. Language is clearly part of the cultural side, but so are the restrictions. Elves can’t be Clerics and can’t go above 4th level as a Fighter because Cleric and Fighter are defined in terms of human culture, but they get the benefit of freely practicing magic and combat side by side, or firing arrows while moving on foot, because these are things that fit elven culture. Their heightened senses, however, are physical differences. This matters mostly because elves raised by humans or vice versa should have the physical benefits of their race, but the cultural benefits of their adopted race. Notice that Thieves, which are more like a profession than an aspect of human culture, have no race or level restrictions. It’s something I think should be maintained for new professions, like the Apothecary and Leech classes I created.
Languages would also be based on culture as well. Elves raised by elves speak Elvish as their native tongue and Common as their second tongue. Elves raised by humans would not speak Elvish, in many cases. As a side note, I personally interpret the additional languages not as actual languages, but mutually intelligible dialects. Orcs, Hobgoblins, and Gnolls speak languages related to Elvish, while Gnomes, Kobolds, and Goblins speak languages related to Dwarvish. Halflings originally got no bonus languages because their native language is supposed to be unique or possibly related to Common.
All these things are points for me to keep in mind as I decide how to develop races for Liber Zero.
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