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Thursday, June 4, 2020

Behind Custom Races

Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at custom races and their variants. What was I thinking?

What’s a Race?

Most modern versions of class-and-level exploration fantasy games have moved towards a standard formula: Ability Scores + Race + Class = Character. There may be a few additional steps in some games (Feats, Skills, and Backgrounds.) Every single step is necessary, and every single step makes the final character better in some way.

I reject that approach.

Races aren’t necessary. You could play elves and dwarves without any rules for race at all, but by just saying “I’m an elf” and acting like an elf. The rules come second. Races are built on class combos. In a sense, the race doesn’t exist at all, but is the name we give to that combo. The culture is then built around that concept.

Level Limits

In exchange for having access to two classes more or less simultaneously, the race by default can’t advance as far in either class. I based races on OD&D elves, limited to M-U 8/F 4 in terms of levels. I generalized this to Primary 8/Secondary 4 so that you can swap in other classes to make new races.

Orcs, you will notice, are basically the inverse of elves, with Fighter as the primary class. Since bookish magic-users seemed like a poor fit for the orc concept, I created a custom class, Shaman, as a better match.

Racial Abilities

I split racial abilities into two types, innate and cultural, for two reasons:

  1. To shift the focus to cultural abilities, which have fewer limitations;
  2. To allow cultural ability swaps for more variety (“raised by dwarves” granting dwarven cultural abilities to non-dwarves.)

Innate abilities are usually paired with disadvantages, to make them less of a focus. In fact, I’m tempted to increase the limitation, requiring any strong ability to be paired with a disadvantage. Players should not be taking races as part of a build strategy to get bonus abilities.

Exceeding Limits

Fantasy races are restricted to two classes at the start and have level limits, but I stated that these are perceptual limits. No non-human can become a name-level Fighter because humans don’t want to be ruled over by non-humans. No elf can be a 9th level M-U because humans think of themselves as better at everything and impose this lack of confidence in non-human abilities on the non-humans. No dwarf can become a druid because dwarven culture doesn’t have druids. No halfling can become a 5th level fighter because humans don’t think of short people as intimidating.

However, I hinted at a procedure for breaking those restrictions as part of role-playing. Characters can attempt to persuade NPCs to train them in a “forbidden” class. Characters can make the local population feel confident in their ability to excel.

The process is the same for all cases: do something to win over the NPC or the general population and make a reaction roll. In the case of level limits, roll every time the character increases in level, or once a year after hitting the level limit. On Good or better, they break the limit.

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  2. I remember having the same thought looking at the B/X Elf decades ago and wondered what other combinations might give us. I suck at math, so had to draw lines connecting the four classes on paper to find out that gives us six possible combos. I remember thinking that was too many races to include in my game. I only remember mapping Gnome to the Magic-User/Thief combo.
    With your use of the Level limits as Primary and Secondary classes means we can have TWELVE races available, which is a clever idea. I do something similar with my own game, but I use Primary and Secondary Ability Scores instead of Level limits.

    I also use your "soft" level limit idea; mine is 9th level. You want to advance beyond that, you need to focus on grandiose goals, fight gods, destroy the Worldstone, etc.

    I like the idea of races NOT giving bonuses or changing the mechanics; it SHOULD be flavor and let the player flesh it out. To me, THAT is role-playing.

    Fertile thought...


    1. My combos are a little simpler, since I only have four: Fighter/M-U, Fighter/Cleric, M-U/Fighter, Cleric/Fighter. Thief isn't included because it's treated as a profession, open to anyone, but you could emulate a stealthy race concept by including 1st level Thief abilities. The Thief class would still be available for players who want to advance beyond first level.

      On the other hand, any of the three classes can be replaced with a variant. A Witch class that "casts" spells in the form of potions and uses a familiar instead of a spellbook, for example. That makes the number of race concepts potentially infinite. This is why the concept should come first and mechanics to support that concept second. It's a lot easier to ask "what kind of races do I want in this setting?" than it is to go through every possible mechanic and build a race around it, and it's a lot more rewarding.