On the Origin of Races

February 23, 2017

This is a…big question. Namely, what role do races play in D&D and how do we do them right? This is especially complicated by the fact that “race” doesn’t mean just heritage in D&D, it’s historically also meant cultural history. As an example, an Orc might have Darkvision in D&D thanks to being born an Orc, but an Elf isn’t genetically or magically gifted with proficiency with Longswords and Long Bows. That’s training. With the Dwarf and Halfling benefits to fighting giants, that was explicitly spelled out – children of those communities gain training in fighting giants.

Since you can’t call a product of training “racial traits”, since there’s no factor of birth there, I think we’ve got to split race in half – Heritage, the people you are born to, and Past, the culture you were raised in. Combined, these are, to borrow from Dragon Age, a character’s Origin. They tell us what kind of Hero the character can become, or at least where they’re coming from.

This also makes it easier to expand races dramatically since we’ve got two small things that combine into a huge number of potential “races”. Now, how do we balance them?

I think we need a unit of measurement for bonuses. Something that has a universal “value”. For now we’re going to use the placeholder name for a similar concept from 3.x, 4th, and 5th – Feats. For now, we’ll think of a Feat as being equivalent to a +1 bonus to an Ability Bonus, or a +2 bonus to an Ability Score, in the traditional D&D ideal.

Next we need to kind of define what Heritages do. They’re things that are restricted to an inborn sense, a natural or “genetic” capability that everyone of that group is born with. The most obvious example is Ability Score Adjustments, but this also includes things like Dragon-kin breath weapons, wings, Dwarf “stonecunning”, and the ability to see in places humans normally cannot. Each of these can be measured in a number of “Feats”, or even participles of a Feat. Like Darkvision may be half a Feat and a Breath Weapon may be 2 Feats. Everything else from a standard D&D race can be put into Past.

This makes me think of a niggling problem – half-races. When we’re writing Heritage, we’ll have to define what is intrinsic to a race. I’m thinking 2 Heritage elements are “Primary” and when you build a half-race character, you chose 1 from each of the two races and any number of secondary characteristics from both until you reach the total for a single Heritage.

Pasts will be simpler; there is no half-history. There’s some defining element of a character’s early life that molds them. While Heritage will need big splash pages with images, Pasts can just be block lists, simple things that show a background and influences. Merchant, Slave, Laborer, Noble, Vagabond; a Dwarf that was a day laborer in a town of Elves and Humans would never learn the Dwarven secrets to killing giants, but would definitely pick up on the flexibility of the Humans around them and, perhaps, the refinement of the Elves.

I’d like to have a full compliment of races to start with, so here’s my list. Let me know if you think anyone’s missing; Human, Dwarf, Elf, Halfling, Orc, Goblin, Gnome, Dragonkin, Gnoll, Kobold.

Pasts will be a longer list, I’ve got to think on that one still. Especially since I’m thinking there’ll have to be some that specify “From Human Lands” or something to that effect.

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