Sunday, January 24, 2021

Race as Class: Why I Use It.

Demihumans by Larry Elmore 
From the Basic Dungeons & Dragons Player Rules Guide
Dungeons & Dragons Basic Rules Box Set, ©1986 TSR

My favorite version of Dungeons & Dragons is the Rules Cyclopedia version of BECMI. As I have rolled over Editions, I have gotten rid of my old books. (I move a lot and often have little space.) But the one book I have always held onto is that Rules Cyclopedia. There is no version as complete and useful, in my opinion. For several reasons:

  • No other version of Dungeons & Dragons I have read has thorough rules for both building and maintaining a Stronghold... With a system that rewards wise rule and turns a stronghold into an adventure-generating tool (aside from Birthright) 
  • No other Version of Dungeons & Dragons has as crunchy a system for mass combat.
  • Combined with Wrath of the Immortals, it has the complete arc of a character from poor nobody to hero, to king, to god.
  • The Rules Cyclopedia includes a totally divergent set of rules for Proficiency and weapon specialization that did far more for adding interest fighters than AD&D ever did.
  • All four of those subsystems can be ported into AD&D without modification. 
  • The stronghold and mass combat rules can work with some tweaking in Dungeons & Dragons 3rd and 5th edition as well, 
  • It has a 5 minute character generation time.

It isn't perfect, and I am open to reading any OSR compatible or OGL system that does a better job. But since 1991, the Rules Cyclopedia has come out for every long-running D&D and Pathfinder campaign I have ever run. 

Cover of Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia, 
by Jeff Easley; ©1991 TSR

But it is also the version I can never sell on my players because of one detail. Race as Class; pelayers live to hate the idea that they must play a human unless they are willing to accept a limitation to the class choices.

Race as Class: The Basics

If you are not familiar with it, Race as Class is an element in the design of early editions of D&D where each character race other than human is expressed own class that either mixes human classes together, or severely modifies an existing class. In the original B/X D&D there were three Racial Classes:

Elves - could wear armor, use any weapon, and could learn and cast spells just like a wizard.

Dwarves - were not quite as skilled in combat as a fighter, but had just as many hit points, were more likely to have a Constitution bonus to hit points (you could not play one if you had a CON  under 9) and had far better saving throws.

Halfling - were extremely stealthy outdoors, and better than a Thief at hiding indoors at low levels, and have saves that start as good as a Dwarf's, and keep pace until their highest levels.

These characters levelled slowly and had a maximum level of experience much lower than the 36 possible levels for human beings, although they gained some of the Dungeons & Dragons Master Set combat abilities of fighters at higher experience totals.

Elf Class Illustration, by Terry Dykstra; ©1981 TSR

When Advanced Dungeons & Dragons came out, it partially decoupled race from class. If you chose to play a demihuman character, you could choose from a range of classes, each with a maximum level, that suited the race's fantasy archetype. Or, unlike humans, you could have two classes at once, with a slowed level progression. Your race itself became a few stat modifiers and a couple of unique powers. 

By Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 all links between race and class had ostensibly withered away, except in Unearthed Arcana, which offered a set of exclusive "racial paragon" classes that pretty much mimicked the original racial classes from B/X. 

The Perception of Progress

TSR made no bones about the idea that AD&D was intended to be the definitive version of the game, and fuelled a general perception that it was "better". This definitely bled over into the player base. Lots of players I have sat at a table with would cite "Race as Class" as being a major reason to disregard "BD&D".

I often found this ironic as usually, if they chose to play a demihuman, they still played to type: Elves were Fighters, Magic-Users, or Fighter/Magic-Users, Dwarves were typically Fighters, with the odd Cleric, and Halflings were either Thieves or Fighter/Thieves. An AD&D Elf Fighter-7/Magic-User-11 is functionally not very different from a BD&D Elf-10, save a 6th level spell slot, 13 more hp, and having 175,000 fewer experience points.

It was possible to make characters that you couldn't have before, like a elf with thieving abilities or a Cleric of any race, but they were taken at the price of limited character growth. 

Dungeons & Dragons 3e did away with any meaningful link between race and class except the Favoured Class trait, which named one class your character could multiclass in that would not count towards the experience penalty that PCs suffered from having more than one class. So, for example, as Wizard was an Elf's Favoured Class, an Elf Bard/Rogue would suffer a-10% experience penalty, while an Elf Wizard/Rogue would not. 

This was seen as incredibly liberating when it first came out, and I will admit that when I first got the 3e Player's Handbook I was excited to finally play a Halfling Wizard ("Willow" is one of my favorite movies). But it came with a major shift in the way D&D was played. 

The Shift of Meaning of Race

Dungeons & Dragons 3e freed players to use whichever class and race combination they pleased, but in the process, the races lost a great deal of their uniqueness. They offered nothing other than a (Now much larger) ability score boost, a few proficiencies, possibly a better way of seeing in the dark, and some saving throw bonuses. They had no defining limitations, no blind spots. There was little relationship between what your character is and what he does. This there was no reason to see them or play them any differently than you would a human of the same class. The difference between a human Wizard and a Dwarf Wizard was pretty slim at most tables. 

This is a problem that has metastasized in Dungeons & Dragons 5e; Race no longer comes with a culture, identity, or role-playing prescription that is meaningfully reflected in the structure of the character . It is a set of attribute bonuses and a cosmetic modification on characters that no longer have a special place in either the Campaign world or the structure of the game. 

With Tasha's Cauldron of Anything, we have even dropped the pretense that the character race is much other than a bundle of mechanical bonuses. 

This is not to say that Dungeons & Dragons races were particularly rich to begin with. Halflings have only The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings to work with, which makes them essentially reclusive 17th century Anglo-Saxon farmers. The Elves of Dungeons & Dragons also owe a lot in presentation to Lord of the Rings in their initial appearance (10th century Sami foresters mixed with Norse folklore), although they start to feel more like the elves of Michael Moorcock's Melnibon√© in AD&D, before they dialed everything back in AD&D2e. Both cultures never gain much depth beyond the source material.  However, even those distinctions are heavily faded by D&D3e

The Return of Race as Class

With the explosion of B/X based retroclones, we have seen a resurgence in games including Race as Class. Some, like Labyrinth Lord, Blueholme, and Swords and Wizardry include it as a matter of maintaining the purity of the emulation. A notable few, like Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG and Lamentations of the Flame Princess, instead go about improving the racial classes to offer a more unique character option. 

Many retroclones, however, see it as a weak point of the B/X system and try to eliminate it. Basic Fantasy RPG, for example is pretty faithful to B/X except a 20-level scale, ascending AC, and separate Race and Class. 

Old School Essentials keeps Race as Class in its core rules, while offering both additional racial classes and rules for separating class from race. Advanced Fantasy: Genre Rules

Interestingly, we also see echoes of Race as Class in a few modern, decidedly not-D&D RPGs recently, such as Overlight: A Roleplaying Game of Kaleidoscopic Journeys

Accordingly, the value of Race as Class as a system is now a point where some of the most interesting dialogue about game design is being explored. As I have been following the discussion of Race-as-Class, I have noticed that the perspective I have always held on demihuman characters is rarely part of the dialogue, so I thought it stood to be presented here.

Demihuman are Something Beyond Human

Elves are fae creatures: Immortal spirits of Elemental force made flesh. Dwarves are strange and powerful beings made of stone or the flesh of giants, full of greed and cunning. Halflings are pure creatures so tied to the Earth that the Earth herself will hide them, and Lady Luck blesses them.

At least this is what they are in the myths and literature that they rose from. And that is a far more interesting thing for them to be in Dungeons & Dragons as well,

Every racial class in the BECMI represents a character whose body, culture, and mind lets them do things humans can only aspire to:

Only elves have the patience, long lives, and innate power to master the Sword and Magic at the same time.

The strange make-up of the Dwarves, their strong bodies, a culture of hard work and deprivation to feed compulsive greed tempers them. Even the softest Dwarf  has a toughness most human warriors can never hope to attain.

Halflings really are blessed. They have a divine luck that carries them through even the most lethal of situations. Centuries of needing to hide themselves from bigger, stronger enemies and their ties with the earth has given them a capacity for stealth that can put master thieves to shame. 

To play one of these characters is to play someone whose body and whose ways have combined to give them something a human just cannot have. Why would they fit into classes made for humans?

Why would a tough-as-rock 50 year-old Dwarf who spent a lifetime working a Forge and protecting a mine from giant rats need to train like a teenaged human fighter? Or an elf who has spent their whole life with Magic all around them learn spellcraft in the same way as a wizard's apprentice? It seems like making them rely on the same classes as humans makes them less exotic and fantastical.

Of course, there are naturally going to be downsides to this. There needs to be, if you want the game to feel fair. Having the demihuman characters posess abilities that human characters cannot and making them start off better in things like saving throws demads that they have some sort of downside. This is why they require a much higher XP to advance: if you are going to play a character who can do more, you will need to play more to advance them.

Dwarf by Larry Elmore from the
Player's Rule Guide, Dungeons &
Dragons Basic Rules Set; ©1986 TSR

Where Dungeons & Dragons Failed in Designing Racial Classes

I would suggest that, aside from the fact that Halflings look nothing like the source material, the biggest problem in making a Race-as-Class is making sure that the characters feel sufficiently unique and fantastical to be worth including in the game. We are, after all, talking about characters that are supposed to be both physically alien, and the product of a non-human culture that together give them abilities humans do not.

The Elf as someone with both mastery of magic and martial arts, and who has the ability to blend them in ways humans cannot. This worked fine to make them exceptional. Who doesn't like a gish? 

But the other two classes? They fell a bit flat.

The Dwarf has solid hit points, good saves, and better perception than a fighter, plus all the same proficiencies. At low levels they are a slightly better meat-shield. But their offense progressed slower. At high levels, their saves make them feel as close to invulnerable as a BECMI character could be. But that's it; they are a slightly tougher fighter that sees in the dark and can find some secrets more easily, but don't hit as often. It lacks a lot of the flavor and flare of the creatures of Norse Myth (who were often shape changers, tricksters, and makers of magic items,) let alone the characters of Lord of the Rings

The Halfling is a one-trick pony. They can become effectively invisible while holding still: 90% outdoors or 33% indoors. It is a good trick, sure, but it is hardly the full suite of what we saw Bilbo Baggins pull off in The Hobbit. They also are harder for creatures bigger than themselves to hit. Without at least a Move Silently option, they aren't even a viable alternative for a Thief. 

If you are going to build a class option that does things humans can't, it pays to make sure they feel very hard to turn down, even if the XP requirements hurt. 

Getting it Right

Making sure a demihuman class captures the fantastical archetype of the race is key to making Race-as-Class work well. A prime example is Dungeon Crawl Classics RPGDCC RPG went back to the Appendix-N source material to find ways to make each B/X D&D class feel unique, and fit in with the pulp that inspired it.

Elves in DCC owe more to Michael Moorcock's Elric than to Legolas. They start with the knowledge of how to make bargains with otherworldly beings as part of their character design, allowing them to fill their magical repertoire through fiendish pacts. They are fair combatants, but are allergic to iron, forcing players to get creative in arming them. Magic itself can be corrupting and slowly turns those who misuse it into monsters. 

Dwarves in DCC are still tougher than the Warrior class in terms of saving throws, but a little lighter in hp. They also get the same Mighty Deeds of Arms ability as the Warrior, letting them improvise in combat with cool tricks and clever stunts. But what sets them apart from Warriors is a mastery of shields that humans don't get, including free shield bashing every roind. They can see in the dark, and all have special detection abilities related to stone, but to make them feel more like the greedy maggots-made-men of Norse Mythology, they also can smell gold and jewels and track down treasure hoards by smell.

DCC Halflings have great saves, as in D&D, but it's take up another notch by letting them regenerate their expended luck, and getting +2 to a die roll for each Luck spent. One Halfling in each party is the party's luck and may spend their Luck on other players' die rolls. In a nodd to Samwise's fearsome pan-wielding, they also wield two weapons as if they have an Agility of 18.

Each of these racial classes feels unique and flavourful. They have abilities no human class does. You get a clear idea of how they are different from an everyday human being. None of these improvements are game-breaking, however. Reduced movement and gear restrictions give humans their own advantages over these classes.

Demihumans Ought to be Special

Demihuman characters are not human. There is very little point to playing them as merely humans who can see in the dark. It adds little to the gaming experience, and a lot of needless complexity to the game. 

Where they are included in an RPG as playable characters, their main abilities ought to be something that the average human could only aspire to. And they ought to have drawbacks a human does not have to contend with. Making them progress in the same classes with the same capabilities doesn't serve the purpose of their inclusion in the game.

Race-as-Class, done thoughtfully, does a far better job of this than making race a set of modifiers on a character's statistics.

I think there is a case for the approach of Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition and Pathfinder 2nd edition where one's race grants access to better abilities as they level, which are exclusive to that character race, almost like a secondary class ... But the execution of that concept in either of those games doesn't do it justice.


  1. I think the issue is in the settings, tbh. You couldn't do Eberron in any D&D before 3rd, for instance. And if your setting doesn't make elves interesting or your players ignore that setting info, well race as class fixes none of that. To me the old system did not allow the races to actually work in a believable way. Do elves not have gods? Do they not have rangers or thieves? Every single one of them is exactly the same? That strains disbelief to the max. Especially when the source books don't even describe them that way, such as in Mystara.

    1. Hey :) lovely article at first.
      Then, answering to Jason: I can't see what you say and as an Eberron fan and a hater of 3.5, I admit there was a time where I couldn't separate the two.

      That is a false assumption, especially because I do have a few OS Eberron hacks and I know they work. :)

      The topic is enormous, but the fact that Eberron has seen a lot of renditions and in depth analysis from the creator himself, demonstrates that setting and system are not necessarily linked as one might think.

      Phiarlan Elves are easily playable as a race as class. As any other House: those alone demonstrate what I mean.

      And, note that racial classes include variants (i.e. Warforged cleric).

      Difference is, in OS gaming you don't have pre packaged templates.

      I play Eberron using Fantasy AGE right now and it just works. Because it's about the narrative, not the system.

      Even more, as Keith said, each Eberron is different. I know a lot of OS Eberron iteration and they just work.

      1,500 options are actually less than zero.