Thursday, May 6, 2010

Race as Class

Up here in the Pacific Northwest, a progressive state income tax has long been considered the “third rail of Washington politics.” That is, it is the kiss of death to any politician that tries to broach the subject, even in an effort to do away with out regressive, archaic sales tax. In the past, I certainly fell into the group that championed keeping Washington free of an income tax, even voting down a good man who dared voice the idea in a gubernatorial election. Fortunately, he’s still in politics (he’s serving a position in Obama’s cabinet), and I have come around in my way of thinking. It would be nice if Washington joined the majority of states in the 21st century and stopped disproportionately taxing lower income folks.

I think that a similar 3rd rail analogy can be drawn to the “race as class” issue. But I'm going to step on it anyway.

I play B/X Dungeons & Dragons…that is my preferred edition of the game (and Labyrinth Lord is a worthy knock-off, for those not in the know). However, this was not always the case, despite B/X being the first version of D&D that I played. And I know that many people that may have started with B/X or BECMI (Frank Mentzer’s re-print and continuation of B/X) eventually moved on to AD&D or AD&D2 or 3rd edition or all of ‘em, despite B/X and BECMI being perfectly serviceable and (at times) much more practical and efficient game systems.

And the reason MAINLY is the “race as class” issue.

Really. Some people play D3/Pathfinder because they like the cool feats and consistent skill system (not the mention the lack of auto-kill poison and permanent level drain). I’m sure some people play AD&D/Osric because they really want those speed factors, spell components, and segments in combat (more crunch!). And some folks play 4E because…well, because they don’t know any better or their World of Warcraft account is down or because “everyone else is playing it and I can’t find anyone willing to play ‘old school’ D&D.”

But for most folks, the real thing that drives ‘em away from B/X and BECMI (or a FREE copy of Labyrinth Lord…sheesh! Free!) is those editions’ adherence to “race as class.”

I know. I used to feel the same way. My friends and I used to mock and ridicule “basic” D&D…and heartily!...specifically because of its “race as class” concept. The idea that dwarves don’t have clerics? That elves don’t have druids? The idea that halflings can’t become THIEVES? How ridiculous!

As with the state income tax issue, I’ve come around in my thinking.

Given that pretty much everything else can be ‘ported directly from AD&D (or even some D20 stuff) to B/X or BECMI with minimal fuss, I can only see this race/class thing as the major sticking point. So I want to write about it a bit.

Not in an effort to convince anyone of anything…you people know the games you like to play and you’re going to play ‘em I’m sure, regardless of MY stance. But hopefully I’ll get some brain synapses firing on the subject.

I think part of the issue stems first and foremost from our consideration of what “race” is in D&D. Even though the term isn’t supposed to mean one’s ethnicity or culture or color of skin (as “race” means in real world, human terms)…even though it is NOT supposed to mean THAT, I think that we still somehow DO equate fantasy “race” with real world “race.”

When what the word is supposed to stand for is SPECIES. The challenge is that there is no real world equivalent of “fantasy race” in the real world. I’ll come back to this in a moment.

When you treat race as culture/ethnicity, it becomes readily apparent why class as a separate entity becomes so damn necessary. Regardless of whether or not your culture is Italian or Nigerian or Japanese, the people of your nation fall into a variety of categories/careers. There are Irish priests AND soldiers. There are Haitian wizards AND rogues. In fact, while not all cultures may believe in MAGIC (and thus not practice it), ALL cultures have the equivalent of warriors and thieves…because war and theft are universal traits.

Universal to human culture, that is.

In the “real world” of today, there is no such thing as a non-human SENTIENT species. Not in the civilized, tool-using, literate sense of the term “sentient.” And without a real world comparison, the easiest thing for us to do is to imagine fantasy species as other cultures. Sure they are imaginary cultures, with no real world equivalents (or rather, a mish-mash of various human traits found in multiple cultures), but other than that…and a few in-game bonuses/penalties…they are nothing but humans.

Let me try an example to illustrate:

Take the AD&D (hill) dwarf. They have the entirely human traits of greed, dourness, pride, stubbornness, and loving attention to detail in their craft. Historically, they can be likened to a number of (stereotyped) northern European countries that shall remain un-named.

Except that they’re not human. And to reflect this IN-GAME you give them many mechanical deviations from humans: they’re short and have different movement rates. They have different saving throws. They can see in the dark.

Then you give them certain mechanical deviations based on those aforementioned cultural stereotypes. They have stone-working skills/bonuses. Why? Because dwarf culture is a stone-working culture. They have class and level limits. Why? Because dwarf culture has little interest in magic (yeah, right), and more interest in fighting than in pursuing the priestly arts.

In D20, WotC makes race even MORE of simply an “alternate human culture” (though with shortness or pointy ears). Dwarves aren’t limited to any particular class or level…just like a 21st century Irishman or Zimbabwean, if you are ambitious enough (and lucky enough) you can pursue any profession you want and reach any degree of expertise (i.e. level). As in today’s world, there are much fewer limits on what we can do. 20th level halfling paladin? Check. Dwarvish wizard? Check. Half-orc bard? Check-a-roo.

As in the real world, there may be some initial challenges to a particular race/culture on a particular professional path (like the half-orc bard or the villager from rural Africa becoming a MicroSoft programmer). But anything is possible.

That is, if one assumes fantasy “race” is little different from our normal, human concept of “race.”

I, however, prefer to think of fantasy races as something very different: alien, in-human species.

For one thing, it makes me feel a lot better about killing orcs and kobolds. If “monsters” are just humans with different faces (kobolds favored class: sorcerer!) than why the hell are we killing each other. Wow, is D&D teaching us to be intolerant of those who are “different” from us? Or that some cultures (orcs, kobolds, Islamic nations) are “inherently evil” and should be fought and destroyed?

That’s a pretty ugly thought.

On the other hand, if you choose to make fantasy race really, truly mean “alien, in-human species,” then the game goes back to just being a fun fantasy game. Orcs are evil because…well, because they ARE EVIL. They are brutish, nasty, creatures that eat people and each other and wage war for no reason other than a love of bloodshed. Killing orcs isn’t just a means to treasure; it’s downright necessary to preserve the world from Chaos.

And kobolds steal babies…to eat!

When the aliens are alien we can say “ah, these are a real and true threat, because they do not share a HUMAN PERSPECTIVE.” And my fellow humans, despite our differences (Irish Catholic versus Irish Protestant) are still on the same page when it comes to preserving our own civilization.

So back to the Player Character races. In B/X we have dwarves, elves, and halflings. AD&D expands this with gnomes, half-elves, and half-orcs. I won’t bother to list all the additional species included in later editions (I don’t know them all there are so many!).

Leaving aside the gnomes and semi-humans (the half-humans) for a moment, let’s consider the basic races: dwarves, elves, and halflings. The Big Three (those present in every edition, including B/X and the Little Brown Books) can be considered culled directly from Tolkien. All are present in Tolkien. All fight together against evil and the forces of chaos in Tolkien. And all are playable character species in every edition.

In Tolkien, these civilized aliens are NOT very alien at all…they have personality traits equivalent to distinct regions of the UK. With elves being a bit more enlightened (older = mature) and thus both “merrier” and “more serious” than humans.


Gandalf is not a human. He is a wizard (an Istari in the appearance of a man if you want to get technical). There are no human wizards in Tolkien…Sauruman, Radagast, Gandalf, Sauron…all come from “over the sea.” Elrond is wise, but he is a warrior. Magic in Tolkien is more of a higher degree of skill and craftsmanship (and even the dwarves work spells in their crafts, or lay hexes/curses over the troll hoard they find in The Hobbit).

All of the human, dwarf, elf, and halfling characters in Tolkien are sword-swingers. Period. Their distinction of species is ONLY cultural.

By contrast the faerie folk in Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts, Three Lions (the closest equivalent to B/X Elf I can find) is an alien species, much as they are in folklore…fey and chaotic, inherently magical, who knows what their motivation for anything is?

And that’s just it…IF the “races” of D&D ARE species and not just short, curmudgeonly humans, then why do they need to practice human professions AT ALL? Yes, you might find a German fighter, or a German cleric, or a German thief…but Germans are humans, just like the Chinese, the English, and the Haitians.

Dwarves are dwarves. Elves are elves. Halflings are Halflings. NONE of them are human. Who’s to say they practice ANYTHING equivalent of a human profession.

In B/X all elves know how to fight and how to use magic. Why? Because that’s the game. They are not humans, they are a species alien to humans. And unlike humans they are ALL brought up with sword-play and spell craft and know how to combine the two.

In B/X all dwarves are tunneling, tough warriors. Why? Because that’s how they’re defined. Why don’t they have clerics or thieves or wizards? Because they don’t. Call it a particular “blind-spot” of the species. Perhaps they DO have clerics…but the dwarf gods give them the ability to wield any weapon and do NOT grant the ability to cast spells or turn undead. Perhaps they DO have magic-users…but dwarf magic is limited to activities at the forge (dwarven hammers and axes). Perhaps they DO have thieves…what do you call an adventurer that breaks down a door, kills the occupants, and steals their goods? That’s home invasion, baby.

In B/X all Halflings are little, dexterous folk that never become great warriors, don’t bother much with religion, are too nice to develop thieving careers, and don’t use any magic worth mentioning (perhaps in the culinary sense). Why? Because that’s their species! They aren’t humans! It is the odd Halfling that wants to go on adventures in the first place…8th level is the limit of their ambition because it is the limit of their species…just like my beagle isn’t concerned about much more than kibble and squirrel chasing!

The only reason to “snub” the B/X-LL-BECMI “Race As Class” concept is because you consider the various species of D&D to be the equivalent of humans in rubber masks. Or real cultures thinly disguised in fantasy tropes. Or some other human equivalent.

To me, keeping the races as separate, different, ALIEN actually increases the feeling of “fantasy” in the game. It makes humans AS A SPECIES really stand apart from the other species…their high levels, their variety of class/careers. It also makes humans more dangerous than other species.

[regarding gnomes and the semi-humans: to me, gnomes are a kind of hybrid between dwarves and halflings, and as such I’m not sure they’re necessary for inclusion in the B/X game; YOUR mileage may vary. Half-human hybrids are a completely separate, thorny issue, requiring its own post]


  1. I think that there will always be the inherent conflict between what to include in rules and what to include in setting for fantasy RPGs.

    What if my elves don't *do* magic? What if my halflings are sneaky, thieving city dwellers that will sooner stab you in the back then cook a pie?

    Once the rules start defining/restricting things, they also then begin to define a setting. I really don't see a way to get around this, but it is something I have thought about, off and on.

    I guess the safest thing to do is admit to the implied setting up front, and leave it at that?

  2. The amusing thing about the race as class thing is that it's the same way that OD&D originally did things as well. The good thing about it is that it encourages more people to run human pc's.

  3. I have similarly come around to the idea od race-as-class. But my biggest gripe remains that the B/X demi-humans still resemble heir human counterparts too much.

    Dwarves and Halflings are still basically just Fighters with an XP penalty (of about 10% per level), a level-limit, and a few cool abilities; likewise, Elves are just Fighter/Magic-users with a few extra abilities and a level limit.

    I recently created some house rules to give them their won, special abilities, similar too yet distinct from the Human classes.

    One simple way I think this can be house-rules in B/X with Elves would be to give them their own, slightly water-down spell list (but buffed with more illusion and nature spells), and allow them to ditch spellbooks altogether.

    Simple changes like that really do make an Elf something different than just being a pointy-eared Magic-User in armor.

  4. Alan said:

    "What if my halflings are sneaky, thieving city dwellers that will sooner stab you in the back then cook a pie?"

    Oooooo...does that mean they pluck out a kidney for a stake-a-kidney pie?

  5. The Myth: Yup - and then leave the knocked out victim in a tub full of ice with a note stuck to their forehead informing them to get to a healing temple immediately... ;>

  6. The reason a dwarf would be a cleric I'd because I want that in my setting. Using race as class forces details into my story. Therefore, I wouldn't be able to use that system. I can always exclude a race or class from a setting so a race/class system is more open.

  7. Recently been going back and forth on this same issue. The main benefit to having race as class is in balancing humans and demi-humans, as the balance is baked into the class itself, instead of the race (which are typically bolt on mechanics). Also, the classes themselves do not need to be as tightly balanced, as they each excel in different ways and situations (if we are talking about old school style of play, and not the combat driven games of today). Races however do need to be balanced, otherwise players would all gravitate towards a particular race, whether power gamers or not.

    And balancing races in a simple system such as B/X is rough. There are not many mechanical systems to affect, and besides an XP bonus, I have yet to find a satisfying bonus to give to humans, which means the other races must have disadvantages to counter their advantages. You can fallback on movement and weapon limitations for the smaller races such as Dwarves and Halflings, but I have been hard pressed to find a reasonable disadvantage for Elves (the best I have been able to think of is slower healing due to the different metabolism a long lived race such as Elves would have).

    I am also against disadvantages which limit class choice either directly or indirectly (the Strength penalty given to Halflings under some systems effectively eliminates them as being effective front line fighters). If I am going to work hard to give a choice to players, I want it to be an actual choice, not a simple illusion. Otherwise I am better off just having an extra class called "Dwarven Cleric" instead of limiting Dwarves to just Fighters and Clerics.

    Just when I convince myself that race = class is good, I begin to waver because so many players are against it such as you mention in your post. It has been very difficult to convince any of my players to give an old school game a try when they are much more keen on 4ed and Pathfinder, I fear they may balk when they see the Race = Class.

    But...your post here opens me up to a different method of presentation, by embracing races as being more alien than human, thank you, it has given me good food for thought.

    @The Myth: I would love to see those house rules of yours for Races if you could post a link!

  8. Another great post, JB. Very well thought out and insightful. This is why I'm a follower of your blog.
    @Alan: I believe that there is, indeed, an implied setting inherent in the rules. It is the Tolkien-inspired vanilla fantasy that many people enjoy and expect in their games. As The_Myth points out, we an easily house-rule some fairly basic changes to shake things up and chuck those implications right out the window. Some DM's do alot of chucking and have very unique campaigns while others make minor changes to suit the imaginings of themselves and their players.

    That's the beauty of LBB or B/X D&D. You can do that house-ruling without worrying _too_ much about game balance or breaking something.

  9. An excellent post JB... May is looking good at B/X Blackrazor.

    I've never had a player complain about RaC... it's always other DMs. My players at least know what rulebook they are picking up. They also don't complain about the differing movement of the pieces when they play chess, or mumble about how it's unfair to the d12 that it can't roll a natural 20.

  10. Wrote on the same topic myself. I like Race as Class a lot, with the caveat that there ought to be several race as classes for each race.

    If all say Elves are innate magic users, then have a thief/mage, an arcane/archer and a standard fighter/mage -- whatever fits what your Elf stereotypes are.

    sane with Dwarfs and Halflings and whatnot

    This is kind of a best of both worlds solution in that everyone now has race classes.

    Its also compatible (using various class design systems) with AD&D 2e (my favorite version) and deals away with cruddy multi-classing too.

  11. If you want to talk about definitions of words like "race", you have to think about other definitions, too. A species, wikipedia tells us,

    "a group of organisms capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring of both genders, and separated from other such groups with which interbreeding does not normally happen."

    By this definition, humans, elves, dwarves, etc are multiple species in B/X, but one species in AD&D, though there are some inconsistencies, such as human/orc fertile pairings possible, and human/elf, but not elf/orc.

    So by looking at what "species" means, we also find a problem of differences between editions of D&D, which add to the confusion.

  12. This is a fantastic analysis. Of course I have a few specific comments.

    1- I especially was impressed by your analysis of Tolkien. Indeed, in that setting they are all fighters. The 'burglar' deal with Bilbo, was because he was sneaky, not because of nay thief skills. (Please note that the thief skills in D&D are most closely copied from the Gray Mouser, down to his ability to cast spells from scrolls but with a chance of mis-casting. There are no characters at all like that in LOTR)

    2-I fully agree with how in-human the races are (and should be). I remember the old days, there was always some prematurely PC guy saying: "Why do ALL orcs have to be evil???" The rest of us would roll our eyes...
    And then, TSR itself espoused this, with a certain Drow Ranger.... that is one of the HUGE factors that skewed most people away from the above assumptions: good drow, non-wizard, high ranger level...Here truly is a human with a dark-elf mask... His friends are human, his foes are human, his GF is human!! Let all my drow be EVIL ftr-magi-users, please!

    Anyways, thank you for this thoughtful post. It has made my D&D regression that much more enjoyable :)

  13. @ Everyone: Sorry, I haven't responded to your comments for so long. I want you all to know that I truly appreciate both your reading and your feedback. There just wasn't much more for me to say in response, except "thanks." Well...maybe, "keep on truckin'."
    ; )

  14. I'm sold on race as class because I find the AD&D method of race + class to be far too limiting. A dwarven cleric shouldn't be the same as a human cleric. A hobbit thief shouldn't have the exact same skills as a human thief. This requirement to balance all the racial bonuses and class features traps AD&D (and it's successors) in a lame world of minor benefits and half measures (half-orc, half-elf, half-orgre, etc).

    With B/X or LL, I can easily add an orc class, a minotaur, a centaur, a pixie or anything else. I, as DM, have complete control of every aspect of character design for a new class: hit dice, XP chart, hit tables, etc. And, each new class is a self contained unit which I can add or delete at will without affecting anything else in the game world. There won't suddenly be hobbit paladins roaming around out of nowhere.

  15. I love this article--well said. With D&D Next playtesting going around furiously, I keep looking at my Rules Cyclopedia sitting on the shelf and thinking about playing some old-school BECMI.

    The Gazeteer series actually did include some other class options for demihumans (including a Dwarf Cleric) who could only heal other dwarfs!

    I get annoyed in 1E-4E with the party, because having a human in the party is RARE. I have a guy who made a human rogue in my current campaign "because I don't want to be the same class as anyone else". Go figure!

    Oh yeah, regarding dark elves, I had a player ask me about playing a drow.



    While I LOVED reading the books Drizz't was in, I still hated that now every drow in every game is a "hooker with a heart of gold" (Pretty Woman analogy). Salvatore killed Chewbacca! I think that proves that Drizz't is a fraud.