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Thursday, March 26, 2020

Thoughts on Fantasy Races II

Continuing with my thoughts on fantasy races… Previously, I talked about what different editions did with races functionally, what races do mechanically, which we can summarize as:
  • 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.
But what are races actually for, from a player’s perspective? Why do players choose to play a fantasy race, instead of a human?

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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  1. I would argue that the advantages of dwarves and elves in OD&D are not slight especially in context of dungeon exploration. Being able to detect secret doors, etc. and being able to know the native languages of dungeon denizens are much more valuable in the dungeon than you let on, especially in the hands of creative players.

    1. Languages aren't a racial advantage, because potentially anyone can know the language.

      By the book, that leaves elves in OD&D with just two advantages (secret doors and better hearing.) Three, if you pull in split move and fire on foot from Chainmail (something few people do.) Useful, but applicable only to limited situations, which is why I call it a slight advantage, especially when comparing it to B/X or AD&D. Same applies to dwarves, although the four-level bonus to saves is arguably better than the elven racial advantages.

  2. I was raised with the BECMI version of D&D with "race-as-class" like B/X. I never had the feeling to chose a race -nor that my players did- for teh benefits of the class per se.
    Having kids introduced to the game is ice because they are not into the game for character optimisation. When I explain the class, I put the accent over what the class is not what a class can do. A fighter "is Conan or King Arthur", a magic User is "Gandalf or Merlin", a cleric "is friar Tuck or archbishop Turpin". An elf is "a member of a race of magical knights", a dwarf is "a stubborn mine-dwelling warrior, etc.