There’s been a bit of discussion lately, mainly brought upon by this tweet by Adam RK who runs RPG Kitchen. I thought that I would throw my hat in the ring, as it seems I have a lot to say on the matter.
By the way, Adam is super kind, and is doing great work by putting together a website about Tabletop games and using the hobby to feed the hungry! So please check it out, and tell him that Dugan Games sent you.
The Races in RPGs
In the beginning, there was a gentleman by the name of J.R.R. Tolkien. He wrote a lovely little tale called The Hobbit which went on to be one of the greatest children’s fairy stories of all time. In it, there were these magnificent kingdoms ruled by the races of Elves, Men, and Dwarves. There were terrible armies of Orcs and Goblins, and a happy village of pot-smoking little people called Hobbits.
These races and other creatures from Greek and Egyptian mythology became the building blocks with which Dungeons and Dragons was created. The races of D&D were Humans, Elves, Dwarves, Halflings, and so on. They fought Orcs and Goblins, and the whole thing was quite similar to Tolkien’s magnificent books, including the races each being treated as separate cultures with their own languages, traits, and styles. This was incredible! The diverse peoples and contrasting styles were so well fleshed out. But in Dungeons and Dragons, those different races became more balanced. The races feel more like different kinds of people than entirely different species.
I Don’t Love RPG Races
In 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons, race is a defining feature of each character. It gives you a special stat bonus, unique racial abilities, and defining traits, letting you feel like one of the iconic heroes in fantasy films and books. But in my opinion, the race mechanic somewhat pigeonholes players into specific character models, for fear of not being optimized enough for the tasks at hand. Not all players care about being as effective as possible, but for a large majority it really is part of the fun.
I find this problematic, and here is an example of why: Kobolds in 5th edition get this ability when they make a new character at 1st level.
Grovel: Once per encounter, can use an action on your turn to beg, plead, snivel and otherwise humiliate yourself; until the end of your next turn, all of your allies gain Advantage on attack rolls made against enemies within 10 feet of you and who can see your pathetic display.
Anybody who wants to play a heroic Kobold, an inventor Kobold, or even a thief Kobold just has this one ability that is frankly embarrassing. Why is this not just something all players can do? It’s not a written rule in the game, but if a player was groveling to a villain, I would let them roll to see if the villain was distracted. That’s an example of clever ideas and creative ways to play!
The idea that players who want to be effective and interesting when they make characters can be punished by the mechanics for doing so is just not fun. They should be able to mix the two together.
But that brings up a question. What exactly do these mechanics represent? Is the purpose of race the representation of where you came from in the world, or is it your species and your culture? If it’s where you came from, why does the background mechanic matter?
Races and Backgrounds
The background mechanic in D&D 5e is inspired. It gives you a small ability that makes you useful in specific situations that fit in with your character, a small amount of equipment that represents your life before you started this quest, and little benefits and bonuses to increase your effectiveness at the skills you would have learned before the adventure starts. This is a small and personal mechanic that feels good. There’s no detriment because you were into cooking, not swords. It just gives you the skills to be a great baker and sends you off on your quest with a frying pan and 10 gold in a little leather bag.
Meanwhile, the race you choose gives you benefits and powers that won’t be useful for everyone, and also don’t make any sense if you don’t design your character around them. Why does every High Elf learn a spell at 1st and 3rd level? Who taught them? Is every single one of them inherently magical? Why can’t someone play an Orc wizard without feeling like they’re making a mistake?
While Wizards of the Coast may say that you can be whatever character you want,
In their games sort of force you to either go with what works or try to fit a square peg into a round hole. I’ll explain what I mean by this with how they handle Orcs. If you want to be an Orc wizard, you have to deal with a -2 to Intelligence right off the bat. In some cases, this could be a cool way to represent a character growing beyond natural limitations, but it feels weird. Why does every single Orc have a -2 Intelligence?
This means every Orc character that runs with the official rules is going to have a big late start that never really evens out with the other characters. If you want to fix it, you’ll just end up spending your ability score improvements on it, and then you’re still behind the Elf ranger and Dwarven cleric who gain a very clear advantage for going with the usual choice for the setting. This can feel like you’re making a bad decision, and isn’t fun.
Dragonborn have their breath weapons. Eladrin can teleport. Kobolds have built in cowardice. There are useful powers, weird powers, and fun powers all throughout the racial options in Dungeons and Dragons, no matter which edition you look at. Each race having a handful of abilities that are inherent to their entire race seems silly to me. All rock gnomes are able to create small clockwork toys. Why? Who taught them? That’s not exactly genetic, so how do they all know how to that? The idea that whatever species you’re from makes you such a specific type of adventurer is baffling to me, and honestly feels like it goes against the goal of RPGs. Isn’t the point to be whoever you want? Why do you have to feel like a gimmick when you make a fresh and exciting character?
Before I continue, I have to be clear that I like 5th edition. Truly. I just think that the way races are handled are too tied to how older editions of Dungeons and Dragons did it, and that has caused me unending frustration. I think it also teaches DMs some bad habits.
When a DM plays D&D and then moves on to other games, they still keep this idea that each race has one thing they’re incredibly good at, but in different ways. This leads to boring worlds where the race varieties are just different subraces that are all about as varied as the types of milk you get in the supermarket.
High Elf, Wood Elf, Eladrin, Drow.
Whole Milk, Low-Fat Milk, Chocolate Milk, Almond Milk.
Don’t agree? Lets do it again.
Mountain Dwarf, Hill Dwarf, Gold Dwarf, Duergar.
One is normal, one is a variant, one is weird, and one is evil.
Or there’s just humans, who aren’t exciting in any way, yet naturally better than everybody at everything. This is because (apparently) humans are completely without the innate cultural mechanics and special power sets that these other races are somehow born with. A gnome can make a neat toy as soon as they are born, but a human can just do everything better. A different kind of gnome can talk to animals their whole life, but humans are still just better at the same six base skills and every single one of them gets the same boring bonus right off the bat.
I think that races shouldn’t grant your character set stat bonuses or special abilities. I think we can solve this problem by combining the backgrounds mechanic with race
Say you want to be an Elf.
- You pick where your Elf is from. This gives them a set mechanic they would have picked up from that area. High Magical presence? Resistant to magic, or a free spell at 1st level. Something small and simple.
- You pick what job or trade they had. This gives you a bit of equipment, a small ability akin to the abilities that the normal 5e backgrounds give you, and proficiency in some skills.
- You roll for a trinket. This lets your character start with a mysterious item that they must explain the background of. It lends itself to asking important questions about your character, which leads to better understanding of who you’re playing.
- Pick two stats to increase, and explain them with hobbies or other interests the character would have spent their time doing. This leads to more control over the character’s class choice.
- Continue as normal. Determine stats, pick a class, and do your equipment.
Two games I love handle race in really interesting ways. Whitehack by Christian Mehrstam allows you to pick which stats gain benefits from your race. What it also does, is give the Game Master the ability to give you disadvantages when they feel its appropriate due to your race. The GM can rule that your race is holding you back from a specific task. This leads to collaborative world building, through collaborative race design. (ex. The player thinks Dwarves give bonuses to Intelligence and Constitution, and I as the GM think that they cant swim very well.)
Another game, Dungeon Crawl Classics by Goodman Games, rolls with the old style of Elf, Dwarf, and Halfling being classes instead of races. This means that if you’re a Human, you can pick from four classes to play, but if you roll up one of the Demi-humans you are assigned a class most befitting its qualities. This does force the player to play a certain way if they wish to be a certain class, but it makes no allusions about it and simply tells you what that means. Ultimately, you choose which race you want to be, and no matter what you pick, they are good at what they do.
As someone who’s constantly working on RPG game ideas, I have thought about the mechanics, setting implications, and intertwined results of both far more than any person should. When I think about this sort of thing, though, I always come back around to one point. Hack these games so they work better for you. Don’t be afraid to do it. It’s going to be unbalanced at first, and there’s nothing wrong with that.