A long time ago, Classes in D&D were a lot different than we know them today. My understanding, gleaned from no source more reliable than Wikipedia, is that the original D&D just had Fighter, Cleric, and Magic-User. The races were humans, dwarves, elves, and halflings, and the non-human races had restrictions on what classes they could choose (ie, there was no such thing as a Dwarf Magic-User or an Elf Cleric). Then, the ‘Basic’ set of D&D added a few classes and shunted non-human races off into their own individual classes — there was no longer even “Elf Magic-User” there was just “Elf.” the game gradually moved away from that to the duality of Race and Class as we know them today — race determines certain attribute bonuses and penalties, maybe some special abilities, but the bulk of the character is his Class, and the difference between a Human Fighter and an Elf Fighter is little more than “one has pointy ears, and on average will be more agile and frail.”
The argument has been made that the way we have things today is dumb because elves and dwarves and gnomes and so on are not just humans in funny hats. They are, the argument goes, utterly alien beings that do not approach the world the way humans do, and anyone who says Race-as-Class is dumb is being unimaginative and a little racist.
The argument has also been made that Race-as-Class is dumb because it assumes that all individuals of a given race are formed from the same unbending mold, that each one that adventures does it in the same way without variation. Anyone who says Race shouldn’t be separate from Class, the argument goes, is at best being obtuse, and probably a little racist.
I don’t claim to be an expert on either argument, and I don’t know that I really have a horse in that race (er, speed competition?). If you want to play in a game where Race is a class unto itself, I can see where that makes sense, and even adds a special tone or quality to the setting, underscoring that “these are not beings like us.” If you want to play in a game where race is a factor, but Class is the real defining trait, I can see how that makes sense, too — instead of dwarves all being bound fundamentally to some caste, they have similar freedom of choice and individuality as humans do. If that offends your notion of what it means to be a dwarf then the problem is really one of defining what a dwarf is. And I’m not sure any definition is inherently better than another.
There was a post on Papers and Pencils that I really liked, though, that I feel finds something of a comfortable middle ground between the two. Pathfinder has Races and Classes the was current D&D does, but it also has the notion of a Class Archetype, where certain features of the class get altered or traded for other features that better fit a given theme; a Rogue can be a Rogue, or they can be an Acrobat, a Rake, a Swashbuckler, or a Trap Master, and so on. P&P suggested that we use this structure to make racial Archetypes, so that you could have a Rogue, or an Elf Rogue, or a Halfling Rogue. I like this because it gives Race more meaning than it generally has in current D&D; a Human Rogue and a Halfling Rogue aren’t just taller or shorter versions of the same thing, they are fundamentally different things fulfilling a common role.
I may still qualify as an unimaginative blasphemer to some, but I think I buy both arguments that non-human races are non-human and that it doesn’t make sense for all elves to pursue exactly the same ‘career path.’ I think this idea satisfied both desires, and it’s an idea I’d like to look in to developing more. (Though, I’m kind of afraid that it may border on a full redesign of the system, and I don’t know that I’m up for that.)