- OD&D gives races minor additional benefits and serious limitations.
- B/X drops the limitations and treats races as specialty classes.
- AD&D turn races into ways to optimize ability scores, which becomes the dominant post-AD&D paradigm.
For OD&D, where the benefits are slight, players mostly choose fantasy races for fun. They want to be an elf because one of their favorite characters is an elf, or they have an idea of how to play an elf that seems fun. Or it’s not a specific race, but specific abilities they like: they want to fly and breathe fire, so they get GM approval to play a balrog. Or they just want some variety, because they’ve been playing a narrow range of characters and want something different. In some cases, players might ask play fantasy races that have no special features at all, such as goblins.
The same can be true for other versions of D&D, but since B/X and other “race as class” versions start to focus a little more on abilities, you start seeing more people choosing races for the benefits they get. This trend gets stronger in the AD&D line and the WotC versions of D&D or their descendants. Many players in this branch of D&D pick races that provide the best benefit for the class they want to play, or to help balance the party, for example to guarantee the party has someone who can see in the dark (in contrast to OD&D, which doesn’t allow PCs or their companions to have infravision as an innate ability.)
Now, different people like different things, so this isn’t a judgment of which path is “right”. However, as I brought up in a comment when I discussed my feelings about “race as class”, I have specific needs and desires for what I want out of a race. I see fantasy races from the “play something different for a change” perspective that I associate with OD&D. I do not want to promote fantasy races as an optimization technique. I’ve probably ranted enough about system vs. fiction that this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. I don’t want players to think about the rules first and then imagine a situation that fits the rules. I want it to be the other way around… so I definitely don’t want players to pick the best race for their class, or the best race to fill a niche in the party’s abilities.
I want players to play the races they think would be fun. I want them to have variety.
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