Posts Tagged ‘character races’

So things have been quiet here at the Toolbox; a part of that is because I’m doing a lot of prep work for a thorough investigation of Pathfinder feats, but an even bigger part is boring “personal life” stuff, like a big move for work that I’m in the middle of.  Anyways, hopefully I’ll have interesting things to talk about here soon, but my “hobby time” has been pretty scarce lately.

But that’s for another time.  Today is Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day!

So, Swords & Wizardry is one of many game systems that are indicative of the “Old School Renaissance  movement in tabletop RPG gaming. The idea is that RPGs these days aren’t like they were “back in the old days,” and that we’ve lost something in modern games that we had back then.  I generally agree with the notion, with the caveat that I don’t think modern games are bad, just different, and there’s value in reviving this older style of play.  S&W itself claims to be a “restated” version of the “Original Game” written by Gygax and Arneson in 1974.

In a lot of ways, I feel like Swords & Wizardry matches up a lot better with my assumptions about characters and the world than modern interpretations of Pathfinder and Dungeons & Dragons – not because those games don’t match my expectations, but because they are more-general systems that allow for a wider range of experiences, and Sword & Wizardry intentionally restricts itself to the grittier core of fantasy RPGing.

So, let’s look at some of what S&W does and how it does it, and I’ll throw my thoughts in as well.


So while I’m working on a couple of longer-term projects (discussing Pathfinder feats at-length; comparing D&D3.5 and Swords and Wizardry, demonstrating that the systems focus on different scopes; discussing healing in D&D, particularly in D&D 5) I wanted to point you over to a really cool idea from LS at Papers & Pencils.

He noted (as I did this weekend, breaking in my new Swords and Wizardry books) that the fist experience new players have of D&D is “”roll these dice, record the resulting sum. Repeat this task five more times, then assign one score to each of these six abilities, the functions of which you probably don’t fully understand yet,” and that’s a kind of sucky introduction to a Fantasy setting.  Instead he suggests describing the Races (dwarves are strong but clumbsy, elves are graceful but frail, gnomes are weak but charismatic) and then weighting attribute rolls by Race, with take-highest and take-lowest rolls replacing flat bonuses and penalties. I haven’t chewed on the numbers yet, but LS claims that 5-take-lowest averages a 7 and 5-take-highest averages a 14 (and 4-take-highst/lowest is probably about 8 and 12 respectively), so you get the benefit of the flat bonus but eliminate scores above 18 at level 1. And if nothing else, I think I really like that result.

So check out his post and then leave me your thoughts in the comments; I’ll probably make another post on this topic once I’ve had some time to look at the implications.

I touched on this a little bit in my post about Wisdom, but one of my biggest complaints about the D&D Attributes is the designer’s apparent confusion over what Charisma is.

A high Charisma gives you a bonus on Bluff, Disguise, Diplomacy, Handle Animal, Intimidate, Perform, and Use Magic Device.  It also gives you a bonus when determining the followers you can attract (per the Leadership feat), and Charisma is used on any check that involves influencing others.  It describes a character’s personal magnetism and ability to lead.  A low Charisma penalizes these same things, making it harder to intimidate, persuade, beguile, or lead others.  In pretty much very case, Charisma is treated as a character’s strength of personality, their confidence, and their assertiveness.

But when describing racial traits, Charisma isn’t about confidence and assertiveness, it’s about likeability.  Dwarves are “a bit gruff,” Goblins are “unpleasant,” and both get a penalty to Charisma.  They got it right with Aasimar and Halflings and Drow, who are “Confident,” “Strong-willed,” and “Manipulative” but they mess it up with Gnomes and Tieflings and Catfolk who are “Agreeable,” “Unnerving,” and “Sociable.” Orcs get a penalty for being “savage.”  Sure, it makes sense for getting a penalty to Diplomacy for being gruff or unnerving or savage, but why should the samehurt Intimidate?  I agree that Goblins should have a CHA penalty, but it’s because they’re spineless cowards not because they’re rude or ugly.  Do people really believe lies if you’re likable (or, would you really be likable if you were known for being able to tell lies)?  Does a Magic Device really care how sociable you are?

So here’s a quick run-down of how I would recast the Races’ attributes:

Asimar: +2 WIS, +2 CHA; Insightful and Confident
Drow: +2 DEX, +2 CHA, -2 CON; Nimble, Manipulative, and Delicate
Dwarves: +2 STR, +2 CON, -2 DEX; Strong but Stunted
Catfolk: +2 DEX, +2 CHA, -2 WIS; Agile, Self-assured, but lacking Common Sense
Gnomes: +2 CON, +2 WIS, -2 STR; Hardy, Wise, and Weak
Goblins: +4 DEX, -2 STR, -2 CHA; Quick, Weak, and Spineless (or alternately -2 WIS for Foolish)
Halflings: +2 DEX, +2 CHA, -2 STR; Nimble, Strong-willed, Weak
Orc: +4 STR, -2 INT, -2 WIS, -2 CHA; Strong, Dim, and Unfocused
Tiefling:+2 INT, +2 CHA; Intelligent and Manipulative

There’s a couple of posts on here right now discussing Race in D&D.  On the one hand we have a discussion of Race As Class, and more recently I tried to address the issue of races that are Always Chaotic Evil. Both of these issues are hold-overs from the origins of D&D, probably inherited from Chainmail and now warped to some extent or another due to lack of context and the evolution of the game. So right off, I’d have to concede that both are probably a matter of taste to some extent, and your mileage may vary.  That being said, I think both issues stem from a common source, and I intend to demonstrate why it’s not a patently absurd notion.

In that latter post a commenter suggested that my argument is only a partial answer to the question of racial stereotypes in D&D, and that there are plenty of things to consider — like, what about an industrious tribe of Goblins?  What about a group of Orcs who built a sprawling metropolis and discuss philosophy in amphitheaters?  For that matter, what about hyper-industrialist elves carving a swath of devastation across the land in their all-consuming drive to produce and consume?

When it comes down to it, I think this is all a question of whether all fantasy races are just humans in funny hats or not. That is, are we all just the same at a fundamental level, or are there actual differences that are simply inherent in the races.  Why are goblins erratic and lazy?  Because that’s part of what being a goblin is.  You might as well ask why fire burns.  Maybe they fatigue easily, maybe they have some other biological quirk that makes focus and productivity difficult or impossible.  Maybe their neural chemistry produces a different kind of perception, in the end it doesn’t matter how deep you go or what kind of explanation you give, the final question you have to ask is: are goblins (or orcs or elves) just the same as humans, or not?  If the answer is “no, they’re just the same as humans” that might be a valid setting to play in, but I feel like you lose a lot of the potential that Fantasy brings us as a genre.  And if the answer is “no, they’re different from humans somehow” then at some level that’s your answer — goblins are like goblins because they’re different from humans.  You can go on to discuss the hows and whys behind that answer, and I could see a whole campaign built around an adventuresome researcher trying to understand the various Races, but in the end the question is already answered.

So, my goblins are lazy, my orcs are brutal, my elves are arrogant.  Some goblins may be clever, some orcs may be honorable, and some elves may be benevolent — there may be whole tribes of each of these — but there is something fundamental that makes them goblins, orcs, and elves and asking why they don’t behave like humans is partly missing the point.

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.