Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Of Races and Classes

Recently, Erik over at Tenkar's Tavern has been writing a series of posts about the new Adventurer, Conqueror, King RPG system, which is, to my understanding, roughly based on the Labyrinth Lord mechanics, but is designed to be more specific to characters rising in level and gaining political power by running kingdoms, guilds, etc.  It actually sounds like a pretty neat system. 

One of the things that really caught my attention was the system's inclusion of racial classes - not "race as class" like in Original and Basic D&D, but instead classes that are designed only for certain races. The ACK system includes four such classes: Vaultguards and Craftpriests (for Dwarves) and Spellsword and Nightblade (for Elves). A supplement for the game includes three more racial classes: Dwarven machinist, Dwarven spelunker, and Elven ranger. 

The idea of having racial classes really intrigues me.  It's something I've thought about in the past during my campaign world design - specifically, once you "file off" the mechanics of dwarves having mining knowledge and elves being immune to sleep spells, what makes a dwarven fighter different from a human fighter?  Not much, really. And that does create some difficulty, I think, in trying to portray a character from a different race in an RPG. It's already hard enough to try to pretend you're a dwarf or an elf, so why not throw a bone or two at players and give them unique classes for each race that help define them.

When I developed my World of Samoth campaign, one of the things I did was write a short paragraph of each class for each race, explaining how members of that particular race approached the class.  For example, here are two entries for the "Wraith Elves" (aka "Dorai") in my world, below. The "suggested skills" and "suggested feats" are for 3.x/Pathfinder, but they could really be used with any version of the game.

BARD: Herald of the Children: A Dorai Herald takes great pride in crafting lyric poems to celebrate the birth of a new child, particularly since wraith elf birthrates are so low.  The Herald of the Children is responsible for planning all of the festivities that surround childbirth, including parties, meals, gifts, and the Ceremony of Naming, at which the Herald recites a specially prepared poem for the new child.  Heralds also assist the actual birth of the child, sometimes acting as midwives.  For this reason, the vast majority of Heralds are female.
     Suggested Skills: Heal, Perform (lyric poetry), Knowledge (local)
     Suggested Feats: Obscure Knowledge, Prodigy

FIGHTER: Ca Rier Defender: A wanderer without a family, the Ca Rier was adopted into an established Dorai house and is now a part of them.  She will go out of her way to right any wrong, real or imagined, done to her new family.  She spends much of her free time crafting elegantly scripted and illustrated family trees as gifts for her new family members, as well as ancestral weapons to pass down to her descendants in the family.
     Suggested Skills: Craft (Bookmaking-Family Trees), Craft (weapons), Knowledge (local), Perception
     Suggested Feats: Alertness, Combat Reflexes
In this way, I tried to use the different classes to help define what the race itself it like. This is one of the reasons that I love class-based systems and I really like new classes - I like trying to stretch my imagination to see how such a class could fit into my world and how each race would approach it.

When I wrote the Quintessential Aristocrat for Mongoose Publishing, I snuck in a racial prestige class for each race in the game in an attempt to show how a prestige class could be a fun and unique way to help define a race. I included some semi-offbeat ideas, such a the Gnome Representative, Elf Councillor, and Orc War Chief. The last one did get a few comments, but overall in the reviews for the product, most people pointed out that the racial prestige classes were unique and more than just the usual same-old-thing.  
As I think about it, I really do like the idea of just having different classes for different races.  The one thing that holds me back, however, is that racial classes tend to actually be a bit limiting.  As I look at the racial classes for the Adventurer, Conqueror, King system, they fall into the standard fantasy tropes for dwarves and elves. The dwarven classes (vaultguard, craftpriest, machinist, and spelunker) all provide good role-playing hooks around the familiar territory of "dwarves are underground miners" and that's fine if that's the kind of game you play.  But what if your dwarves are different and aren't actually miners but instead live in the desert or even in an urban, above-ground kingdom? Of course, you could create your own classes for them, but then that means all of the racial classes in the ACK system are of no use to you.  

I don't really have a solution. I'm just kind of thinking off the top of my head.  While I do like the idea of racial classes, it seems that it might create more problems than it's worth, especially if, like me, you have decided that your races don't necessarily conform to the standard Tolkiensian definitions.  

Also, as I've mentioned before, I don't subscribe to the theory that races in each campaign world act exactly the same throughout that world.  That is to say, in most campaign worlds, all dwarves act the same, no matter where they come from.  There is a "dwarven kingdom" or an "empire of the dwarves" and they all follow one banner, follow the same gods, and have the same exact characteristics and outlook on life, no matter where on that world they live.  Other races are treated in a similar manner.  Sure, there might be different clans or villages or such, but they are all treated pretty much the same.  Humans, on the other hand, are usually depicted as having a great variety of different cultures, following different religions, having different alliances, different agendas, etc.  I've always thought that was a major failing of most published campaign settings to not account for having as much variety among their demi-humans (or humanoids, if you prefer that terminology) as they do among their humans.

How do you all handle races and classes in your games, and on a broader level, how do you account for racial diversity?


  1. I'm torn on race-as-class because while I agree that it seems insufficient to say that all dwarves or elves -- or at least the adventuring ones -- are of a single type, I do like the simplicity of it as a mechanic.

    That's specific to D&D though, and I don't tend to create game settings for that. Most of the time, if I'm running a fantasy game it's in an existing setting, so I run with what's there. If I were to create a setting of my own again I doubt I'd have the standard fantasy races -- not least because "standard fantasy" strikes me as self-contradictory -- and I would have diversity of culture within the races, unless a lack of diversity was the point, in the case of a hive mind or somesuch.

  2. "not least because "standard fantasy" strikes me as self-contradictory"

    That's very well-put.

    "and I would have diversity of culture within the races, unless a lack of diversity was the point, in the case of a hive mind or somesuch."

    I find it so odd that while this seems so simple to me, it's very rare that it's actually done in published campaign settings. I guess you could make the argument that the different sub-breed of elves do this (High, Grey, Wild, Wood, etc.) but for the other races, it really just seems like "lip service." There are Mountain Dwarves and Hill Dwarves in AD&D, but I honestly can't remember the difference. There are also three breeds of halflings, but again, other than physical appearance, I have no idea how their cultures differ.

    I've also thought it interesting that nobody has ever explored the effect that humanity would have on the cultures of the other races. It's stated many times throughout most published D&D works that humanity is supposed to be the standard and that the majority of adventurers are all human. When you look at a campaign setting guide, you'll see dozens, if not hundreds, of countries with humans in all of the main government positions. Yet, it's never really discussed how the other races feel about this. The "good" races (elves, dwarves, halflings) just go along with it, I guess. The "evil" races just sit and wait for the humans to take over their land, while sometimes striking out to attack a small village or steal cows or whatever.

    Wouldn't it be interesting if a group of orcs approached some humans under a flag of truce and said, basically "leave us alone and we'll leave you alone." It might not work, but doesn't it seem reasonable that at a certain point, that might have happened?

    What about a group of dwarves that stands up to expanding humanity and says, "Uh, hang on there. These are our ancestral lands. You can't just move in here."

    It would create a completely different dynamic.

    That's what I've tried to do in my World of Samoth campaign.

  3. I did some of this back when I had a 3.5 campaign going. I don't remember all of them, but one restriction set I do remember: only elves or half-elves could be druids, bards, rangers, or monks. I may have had sorcerers in there, too, but along with gnomes and those with dragon blood. It's a good idea, if it helps flesh out the assumptions of the setting and you can get player buy-in, which I had.

  4. I seem to recall that both RuneQuest's Glorantha and the world of Earthdawn have more varied non-human cultures and more interesting interactions between them and the human cultures, but then both games are -- to a certain extent -- reactions against D&D and its core assumptions. Shadowrun too makes much of species relations, but that's deviating even further from D&D.

  5. @Theodric - interesting ideas. Sounds like you're going more along the lines of the original AD&D route by restricting a few of the standard classes to certain races, rather than having new/unique classes that are only available to certain races. I've toyed with both ideas.

    @Kelvin - I'm going to call myself out here, but sadly you just named three old-school games in your comment (Earthdawn, Runequest, and Shadowrun) that I have never played and about which I know next to nothing in terms of their setting. I feel like I have a decent gaming background but every once in a while I read something like this and realize that it's not as broad as I would like.


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