The Peanut Gallery Presents: What’s In a Race


pg_titlecard_029Hello All, and welcome again to The Peanut Gallery. Last month, I tackled the lazy use of magic items in D&D, and how plot hooks and stories can be created when you ignore the idea that something is ‘enchanted’, as if by a factory, to provide a bonus.

This month’s Peanut Gallery is a continuation of that thought, carried from last month and expanded upon. See, in the intervening period, I’ve been tinkering with various game systems and content, mostly Dungeons & Dragons. In between a secret project (shhh… It’s a secret) and managing Whatever Happened to the DCU, I’ve had to put it on the backburner for now. But while I was tinkering, my mind continued to turn over variables and connections. And a troubling thought occurred to me.

The Race of your character, be it elf, dwarf or human, has stood as a pillar of your character’s makeup in D&D for a very long time. And yet, as I look at the bonuses and options that are gained by choosing, I find many of them to be superfluous, or worse, poorly implemented in a way that forces players into particular choices, lest their characters become less effective as a result.

This, combined with a lack of flexibility in weapons and armour, and with the place of enchanted magical items, creates an atmosphere that I feel is detrimental to melding the role-playing portion of a game with game design. But to begin, we have to talk about the role that race played in earlier parts of the hobby.

One of the more famous sources from which Dungeons and Dragons draws its fantasy race archetypes from is, of course, Lord of the Rings. MIddle-Earth had very few fantasy races, but Tolkien was a man who focused very heavily on the makeup of the races in his books. It is from here that we gain at least the outline of the average Elf Race: At one with nature, immortal or at least long-living, and dwindling in number.

Dwarves and Halflings, of course, got a much lesser role in Lord of the Rings, although they featured more prominently in the hobbit. The fantasy realm of Middle-Earth was one of the many worlds that people wanted to visit.

In the end, Tolkien’s influence on the hobby of RPG’s can be clearly seen, and it’s this influence that creates problems. Because being a lithe, sickly elf who lives in the forest doesn’t just have implications with your backstory. It also affects how you interact with the game world.

I’m going to be using D&D 4th edition for comparison because I have the books here nice and handy, but this has general applications across most editions of D&D, and even a few derivatives such as Pathfinder.

The first and most obvious area in which your race affects your life is Ability Score Adjustment. These, of course, take your score and add a bonus to particular attributes, based on which race you are.

At first glance this makes sense. Elves are more agile than humans, and so get bonuses to dexterity. Meanwhile, Dwarves with their stocky, tough bodies gain bonuses to Constitution. So you’re accurately representing a race in-game, right?

While it does give a representation of a theoretically different rave, it’s not a good fit to the game. You attributes are the method by which you interact with the world, and if you choose to take something that isn’t supported, you as a character will suffer,

A great example of this is the glut of dwarven clerics, a staple of the genre. Dwarves have the natural ability alterations to make good clerics, but this obviously has detrimental effects. For example, Dwarves are ill suited to be rangers. This has the effect of drawing boundaries around certain archetypes: Elves are generally Rangers or Wizards; Dwarves are fighters.

What makes more sense, both from a game, and a flavour perspective, is to tie attribute bonuses into the class selection. A fighter is literally a person who spends time working out and swinging swords, it’s natural to assume that they would be stronger and more hardy than most people. On the other side, thieves and those who study magic would naturally gravitate towards their stat of choice.

In this manner, people aren’t hamstrung by their race into class choices. Dwarves could be Rangers or Rogues, and Elves would be quite capable of holding thier own in contests of strength.

There’s multiple other parts of character creation that are designed around your attribute scores, many of which I won’t talk about this month. This might actually turn into a series. But this idea, where various parts of your character concept have a marked effect on your actual in-game stats, is an example of a thought pattern that is interesting to me.

It’s designed with this idea that we have to accurately simulate and idea of a fantasy world, and while it’s a great concept, it doesn’t really work for a ‘kitchen sink’ style dungeon crawler like Dungeons & Dragons. It unnecessarily pigeonholes races behind these stat walls, and forces players to pick between being  effective in game terms, or having a character concept that is less original.

That’s all we really have time for, but tune in next month for another edition of the Peanut Gallery.