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RPG System 2: Race/Species

April 5, 2014

A brief interlude here… Before I get to skills let’s delve into race (note that I realize species is likely the more appropriate word here, but I will stick with race to match the RPG terminology we’re familiar with) and my desire to break one of the sacred RPG cows that has been in place since AD&D in 1977:   racial attribute bonuses.

The drill is familiar to us all: pick a race, pick your class (or choose your skills), a few other things, and there’s your character. That racial choice is first, and from that choice you get a host of things, such as perhaps better senses, a knack for finding out where you are underground, maybe a simple spell or two, and… the all important attribute bonuses (and/or penalties). Few of us would think twice about it, it has become such the expected norm. Your half-orc gets a bonus to strength, your elf a bonus to dexterity, your dwarf a bonus to constitution. You may even have a max or minimum imposed.

It seems like a great way to differentiate between different races, but… is it really? What’s really going on here… and what is the intent of picking your race? How would that intent best be served?

Let’s get to the reason why I’m souring on the idea of racial attribute bonuses.

Firstly, in a game where attributes matter (and most do, even in AD&D that high strength is going to help you hit and do more damage) there’s an unintended impact or consequence to having racial attribute bonuses. Right out of the gate, you’re making certain races better for certain classes or skills. This creates a context:   “if you have any thought for your PC’s in-game effectiveness, your stat bonus will play a role in that.” Put another way, “if you chose something out of the ordinary, prepare to potentially be weakened.”

The upshot? “If you pay attention to effectiveness, you should only play certain races.”   An extra 5% to hit and an extra +1 of damage can be very compelling – hitting more often and hitting harder. Racial choice becomes at least partially (and potentially entirely) based on that race’s stat bonuses.

The RP side of what kind of character you want to play can get displaced by how effective you want to be. And I’m not a fan of that. I would prefer to encourage a great backstory by not having it have to come saddled with a less effective character or an extra hurdle (necessarily – if a player wants to be saddled, great, they can craft that story).

Secondly, attribute bonuses are a boring way to differentiate between races. What’s the difference between a dwarf fighter and an elf fighter? The fact the dwarf has higher CON and the elf has higher DEX? Ok – how does that show up in the game? The elf has a higher AC and the dwarf has higher HP. It doesn’t seem all that thrilling to me.

Thirdly, let it be noted that I am not against the idea of an “average” for each race. Average racial norms are great, and can form a starting point, but by their definition PCs are a cut outside of these norms. In addition, the average is a value in a range: the average Klingon may have more muscle mass than your typical earthling, but there are some frik’en muscled-up earthlings.

Fourthly, if attributes in my system are more than just “raw body potential”, then that lessens the impact of any physiological differences different races may have.

Ok. Let’s now look at what about racial choice is interesting? If not for an attribute bonus, why choose a particular race? The answer, I say, is pulled from your favourite fiction: culture, style, worldview, way of life, way of building things, way of dealing with things. In short: character. Each race has a particular flavour, and if the world is developed to a certain depth, each species will have different races and or cultures, each with their own particular flavour (much as “human” on our planet has many variations of cultures/races).

The intent of my system is to allow each player the freedom to choose a race based on the character they want to play. Each race therefore must provide mechanical aspects that support that racial/character flavour, providing more options to support that flavour while at the same time avoiding mechanical aspects that are out of scale overbearing.

To begin, of course, this means no racial attribute bonuses or penalties, leaving a stat system that allows each player to craft their stats (ie train their PC) to suit what they want to do. Racial averages are a suggestion, a starting place, and that’s the extent of it. I’m hesitant to even place a cap on attributes, both because again the attribute system in this system is not just pure raw physiology, but also I think that is better left in the GM’s hand for what kind of world they want to create.

Next, I would have two segments of flavourful traits and talents for each race: inherent and cultural. The former deals with things that are part of the base physiology of the race. The latter is what comes from growing up in a particular cultural background. As a bonus, this split also nicely handles the familiar “X raised by Y” trope.

Inherent traits would include things like an elf’s low light vision, the extra movement rate of a centaur, or the poison resistance of a dwarf. Each race would have a few of these. In addition, I think it’d be nice for each race to have some sort of “power” type trait, something unusual and flavourful that acts like a low-level ability. It could be a minor spell, an ability that gives a bonus to defences, or a unique attack based on the race’s physiology. Ideally each race would have a few of these for a player to choose one from.

Cultural traits are certain knacks and background/basic skills or traits that are learned as part of growing up within a society. Skills are the easiest to grasp, with either a few ranks of certain skills or a more broad aspect bonus to a range of skill check types. Knacks would include the dwarf’s underground location/angle knowledge, a gnome’s tinkering, or an elf’s ability to pass without trace. Certain weapon proficiencies would also be part of the culture trait. As these are cultural, you can have the effect of the base Dwarf race each having the same physiological options, but the hill dwarves get different cultural traits than the shield dwarves who get different cultural traits from the mountain dwarves. And, as mentioned above, if your dwarf was raised by humans, again you’ll get a different set of cultural traits.

There we go. That’s my thoughts on removing the detriment element of racial bonuses and the emphasizing on more evocative and interesting racial abilities. What are your thoughts? What have you noticed in your gaming experience, how has race played, or not played, out?

(As an aside, one major impetus for my new view on racial bonuses and on what makes race choice actually interesting came in a recent 4e D&D campaign, where the DM had us choose an RP race and a mechanics race. It was pretty much as it sounds: your character was built as normal, using the mechanics race. But you played as your RP race. If your mechanics race had some interesting ability – say the dragonborn’s fiery breath – you had to find a way to RP fluff it to make sense for your character. Playing an Elven mage using the dragonborn as your mechanics race? Your “dragonbreath” is another of your spells. Playing an elven swordsman with dragonborn as your mechanics race? Maybe it’s a special elven flame blade spell you learned as a child, as the elves are a very magical people. Playing an elven paladin with the dragonborn as your mechanics race? It’s a version of your holy smite ability, one that bursts out from your weapon when you strike. It was delicious built in extra flavour.

I found this dual race idea both brilliant and liberating. You could play whatever and however you wanted, and removed that concern for being unoptimized by not choosing a particular race with racial attribute bonuses. We had a kobold in our party that simply used a halfling for the mechanics race. Perfect. Easy. They played a kobold, seamlessly. The mechanics race became more of an archetype template, and the RP race was what you wanted for style and character.

I’d recommend this as a houserule in any D&D game. What I want for my system takes it even a step further.)

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