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Races in Fantasy Gaming: The Human Condition

In the great majority of medieval fantasy games, the first or second choice a player makes when creating a character is that character's race. Depending on the game, this choice may or may not make a large difference on a character's mechanical outcome, but it is probably the biggest single defining factor of the group's mental image of that character. I haven't gotten around to delving into fantasy games that aren't D&D, but they're largely irrelevant to my ultimate point, so... maybe some post in the distant future. As I so often do, though, I'll kick this off with some history.

Basic D&D

This edition gives characters one notable descriptor and calls it "class." This might be "fighter," or it might be "elf." Elves gain experience and levels in "elf." This was, bluntly, the source of much amusement among gaming groups of the mid-90's that I was in that even heard about it; many of us had no particular awareness of how editions prior to 2e did things. As a result of this design, there's not all that clear of a way to compare the different player races, except to say that elves are kind of just better than everyone else, but have to earn more experience points to advance. Halflings, as best I can recall, are significantly inferior to any other comparable class option, unless your thing is just getting to your race's level cap quickly and ditching that character for a new one. I don't really understand that argument, but I have seen it made.

AD&D (1e)

NB. I do not have a 1e PH; my primary resource here is OSRIC.

"Class" and "race" are separate pillars of character creation in this edition, and races have level limits in certain classes. Humans have level limits in only two classes, the assassin and the druid (because these classes simply have no advancement mechanic available past 15th and 14th levels, respectively); other than this, the sole benefit to being human is the ability to advance without limit. Other races cannot advance beyond given levels, if they can enter a particular class at all. Halflings, for example, may be only druids, fighters, and thieves, and while their advancement as thieves is unlimited, they can advance to only fourth level as a fighter and sixth as a druid.

Admittedly, these level limits are low enough to make a halfling fighter potentially feel that pinch. When defending 1e's and 2e's rules for level limits, players usually point out that the game didn't continue long enough to reach those levels anyway. If level limits do matter, the demi-human races stop having fun and start over in a party with high-level characters. If level limits don't matter, the advantage to being human never comes up.

These rules also spell out that humans are the dominant race in the game's setting, and humans get along with everyone more or less equally. Though it does not enjoy a rules usage in this text, human ubiquity is, I think, intended to be an advantage in play. Unearthed Arcana offers a table clarifying this; while demi-human subraces enjoy either preferential or antagonistic relationships with one another, everyone views humans neutrally, except for slightly better relations with half-elves and preferential relations with other humans.

Oh, and one other advantage: you can never be barred from playing a human by having starting ability scores that are too good or too bad. I am utterly mystified as to why races have both a penalty to a stat and a maximum starting value for that stat. Anyway, I have a hard time seeing this as an advantage - it certainly means that humans are the race that is permitted to suck. Races other than the half-orc are generally able to put good stats in every ability score, if not quite an 18 in all cases. A few races have starting maximums that reflect their racial ability score adjustments, so they truly are allowed to excel.

The demi-human races have a variety of interesting and often quite powerful abilities. (Brief digression: elven near-immunity to sleep and charm effects is only balanced because those effects are low-level, and everyone is immune to the sleep spell after a certain point. I will never understand why D&D, from OD&D through 4e, made these incredibly powerful and versatile abilities low-level, and only rarely gave them higher-level cognates to keep them in the game.) These range from bonuses to hit to superior perception to ability scores that make them better at the only classes they were permitted to be in the first place. Elves? Still the best. But another thing I'll never understand is why they weren't permitted to be druids. You know who wouldn't reasonably be invested in revering nature and balance and all that crap? Elves.

AD&D Second Edition

Okay, good, we're finally talking about games I have personally played and for which I own the books. Here again the rules call out human advancement potential in every class, and ease of interactions with other races, as their only racial advantages. Not that the Player's Handbook breathes a word of specifics about demi-human level limits, but I don't think it's reasonable to assume that DMs planning to enforce level-limit rules also refused to inform players of these restrictions - even the most self-sabotaging DMs would like to still have friends at the end of the night. Well, most of them. Also, and I'm not sure why the human race entry doesn't call this out, humans can dual-class but not multi-class.

In the DMG, at least, the details of demi-human level limits are available, and the limits here are somewhat less restrictive than 1e. Racial abilities are at least as potent, though half-orcs have been cut from the text completely. This dilutes the human "advantages" still further. Then there's Table 27: Thieving Skill Racial Adjustments, which explains that humans are also the worst thieves in the setting; every other race receives a net gain of percentage points in thief skills. Of these, the dwarf is the worst off, receiving only ten bonus percentage points; every other demi-human race receives 15, 20, or 25.

The paragraphs upon paragraphs of descriptive text for the demi-humans, though... that's what really gets me. The demi-humans have cultures, virtues, flaws, preferences, and friendships with other races. They have, in short, some actual character. The game assumes that you know what humans are like in an unfamiliar-yet-generic setting. Humans, it seems, are "more social and tolerant" than other races, and don't complain about keeping company with them... even though the description of elves specifies that they are distant and unfriendly toward humans (and everyone else, to be fair). What I'm trying to say here is that the writers specify deep details about all of the demi-human races, but stop short of mentioning any characterizing detail about humans beyond "they are the dominant race of your setting." And, well, if you wanted to run some weird setting in which humans aren't dominant, they're an even worse choice.

Skills and Powers

Skills and Powers  is an interesting footnote on this topic. This alternate 2e rules set breaks classes and races down to point-buy systems, where all of your old options are available, and new options are roughly within the same themes. Unsurprisingly, elves and dwarves operate on a much larger point total than humans, but the really interesting part is that humans are not a zero-point race, and humans do not have to buy their open access to all classes and levels. Spending your 10 race points as a human cannot make a human identical to the core-rules human. I can't help but see this as an acknowledgement that core humans are painfully boring. The options offered to humans here aren't exciting in terms of flavor - they don't express anything about culture - but they are appealing in simple power, and you could use them to differentiate human cultures or subraces if you wanted. (But seriously, be careful about ever talking about rules for human subraces - the chasm of racefail yawns before your feet.)

D&D Third Edition

This edition of D&D drops all concepts of level limits, and of restricting race/class combinations. Though this opens up lots of new things, the question of optimization is still on the table, so you'd really never want to play a half-orc wizard or sorcerer if power is a concern for you. I seem to recall that a few suboptimal class/race combinations saw some assistance from prestige classes and, in more obscure 3.5 texts, alternate advancement options. An option that made "dwarf sorcerer" reasonably strong is the one that I recall, and I'm sure there were others. The Player's Handbook non-human races, and the majority of races thereafter, follow some distinctive patterns: ability score bonuses in one of the physical attributes, ability score penalties in basically anything except Dexterity or Wisdom. Since one can readily build a fighter that focuses on Dexterity over Strength, or vice versa, and arcane casters need either Intelligence or Charisma, each non-human race except the half-orc has access to the core concepts of warrior, rogue, arcane caster, and divine caster.

This is definitely the best support for "anyone can do anything reasonably well" we've seen - I would go so far as to say that this is the only edition in which that seems to have been a serious goal. (Again, apologies to the half-orc; the rules show just as much sign of despising you, in their total lack of support for varied options, as the society of the default setting does.)

Humans gain actual racial abilities for the first time in this edition. An extra skill point (four at first level) and an extra feat are powerful enough to make humans an appealing option mechanically. What it doesn't do is communicate anything specific about characterization or stereotypes. The rules still won't move past "humans are adaptable" as their sole theme. The other races are described with broad stereotypes rather than a nuanced view; this is completely reasonable as a way to communicate their concepts quickly for ease of use. It's not like players want to read a 128-page splatbook just to get started. These stereotypes regard each race from an outsider's perspective - specifically, a human perspective. This is eminently logical and gravely wrong-headed at the same time. Its logic is that the player is necessarily human and understands the character of humans. Its error is that it makes all humans the same, and utterly bland. What is it that humans are good at doing? Being a little better at core class functions than other races of the same class. Without ability score adjustments, though, humans can't start with a 20 in a stat (or a 17 if you assign the 15/14/13/12/10/8 array). This is important in 3.x, but nowhere near as important as it becomes in the next edition.

3e is also the first edition that looks in the direction of supporting subraces of humans, even though it does not call them that. In the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting, there are "Regional Feats," available to all characters, but much less of an opportunity cost to humans thanks to their bonus starting feat. Many of these feats are of the "+2 to two skills" variety, and I would be surprised if those ever saw broad use. Others, like the original Cosmopolitan feat (granting one additional class skill), are a workaround to existing restrictions that many characters would find useful. Still, they made an effort to allow humans some cultural specificity with mechanical underpinnings, so that's a welcome change.

D&D Fourth Edition

In my estimation, 4e did one thing very right and one thing very wrong in making most or all concepts available to all races, and then took an uneven step toward correcting the latter. The racial powers (typically encounter powers or utility powers) are a definite positive step, since they don't typically favor any one class over any other. They do sometimes synergize well with particular classes, such as the exceptional usefulness of a dragonborn's breath weapon to a fighter looking for a way to mark a whole mob of opponents, but even without that synergy they tend to be quite good. Every class needs defenses, movement, healing, temporary hit points, damage bonuses, and so on.

The downside shows up in ability score bonuses. I've talked about this before, so I don't intend to beat this dead horse too heavily here. Briefly, it feels very important to have an 18, 19, or 20 in your class's attack stat, because you can't catch up - if you pour all of your effort into it, you will stay behind by the same amount. (Side note: I think that this right here is why it's good that D&D Next caps ability scores at 20: so you can catch up with other characters in the party. Diminishing returns also might have some potential, but that's a topic for another day.) Races introduced later in the game's lifespan get +2 to one stat and +2 to one of two others; even this limited choice point significantly broadens the options for matching up bonuses with a class's demands, but it's still not enough.

The "uneven step to correct" is in feats. I can only guess as to the design thought behind particular feats, but I have always believed that it went something like this: the most traditional class for dwarves is the fighter, but nowhere in a dwarf's ability score bonuses does "+2 to Strength" appear. (Actually, this may not be true anymore; I'm not sure what dwarves got out of the Essentials revamp. My point here applies only to original release rules.) To make dwarves appealing to Player's Handbook melee combatant classes (fighters, paladins, rangers, warlords, clerics... not so much help for rogues), there's Dwarven Weapon Training, which grants proficiency and a +2 damage bonus with all axes and hammers, including superior axes and hammers such as the executioner's axe and the mordenkrad. This is more than enough help, but is still available to classes that don't need the crutch. I think the designers would have been better off to actually limit feat access to dwarves of the intended classes, rather than leaving the door open to unintended consequences.

In any case, races do still feel pigeonholed into certain favorite classes. Humans, of course, are still intended to be good for any class, and this does work pretty well. With a discretionary +2 to any one ability score, humans can do any one thing well. Their abilities are once again generic, literally "more of the same" added to existing class abilities. I never dug into 4e Forgotten Realms to see if regional feats were part of the game once again.

It's interesting to me, though, that early marketing material for 4e discussed the problem of human blandness, and discussed how they were going to address it. "Humans are easily corrupted" was their stated theme; I think I can safely say that that did not come across in any meaningful way in the rules, but I wish it had, just to see what that meant to the designers.

D&D Next

This finally brings me to D&D Next, which is if anything worse than any prior edition when it comes to making humans bland. +1 to every ability score and +1 to an additional ability score of the player's choice is mechanically desirable. This means that humans are very slightly better at every skill and saving throw. None of this really reflects the paragraphs on human theme (adaptability and openness to change) in anything but the most generic way. The other races get interesting, often blatantly overpowered abilities (yes, I'm still on about dwarven poison immunity and elven immunity to sleep and charm).

Because of the four-pillar approach to character creation (race, class, background, specialty), the current races and subraces look like any class/race pairing should be at least reasonably good. It helps that the +2 racial bonuses to ability scores of earlier editions have been split into one point from subrace and one point from class, with several options from class. On the other hand, I think it would be a serious oversight to play a wood elf or a lightfoot halfling without a background that granted training in Stealth, and their Stealth abilities are almost good enough that it looks wasteful to play a rogue that isn't a wood elf or a lightfoot halfling. Other than ability score bonuses, races are defined (much as they were in 3.x) by their advantages as fighters or rogues, but there are no benefits to spellcasters.

My Take

I would like to see every race cut down to three or maybe four abilities. It's fine if one of them is always using larger damage dice for racially-appropriate weaponry; I would like it if sets of culturally-appropriate weapons were specified for different groups of humans. This could be as specific as longbows for the Welsh-based humans or as broad as spears and polearms for the whole race. I would like it if humans were not the worst possible case for all five senses. Start by focusing on how the other races view humans, possibly including both positive traits and negative stereotypes. I'm fine with none of the human abilities being overtly magical; I would, on the other hand, think it appropriate for at least one culture to possess magic-directed racial abilities. As much as possible, all races should avoid things that push them toward one or two classes and make them significantly suboptimal choices for all others.

I propose, then, that other races see humans as hasty to act and willful or hard to sway. My other thematic choice is appropriate to Aurikesh, but less so to other settings: humans in Aurikesh have adopted firearms ("starlocks" in the setting parlance) in much greater numbers than any of the other races. Other settings, as I've suggested, might want other sets of weapons, or might want to do something completely different, like granting advantage on all rolls of a particular interaction skill: animal handling (humans domesticate animals!), diplomacy (humans can at least kind of get along with everyone!), streetwise (humans are more inclined toward city life than Tolkien's pastoral races!)... whatever, really.

Humans of Balioth (Aurikesh)
And yes, I know quite well that this stat block for humans is only fair and fun because I put it up against kagandi and veytikka, which are badly underpowered compared to elves and dwarves.

Beruch and Parthé are still in progress, as of current writing. Comments welcome!

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