Fantasy Racial Tensions

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 27 January 2012

Some of you may have seen my tweets regarding the importance of race-based mechanics in D&D, and, if we had to have them what form they should take. My thoughts came as a result of a D&D Next blog post that Monte Cook posted last week. To me, the important part was the following.

Do dwarves have to have special familiarity or even a bonus to use axes for the statement “dwarves favor axes” to be true? Without some kind of mechanical benefit to using axes, many players will ignore the flavor. Others will use axes based only on the story aspect. And if most dwarves end up with longswords because there is no mechanical incentive to choose axes, is that so terrible?


In my experience, this paragraph highlights fault lines in the D&D community that goes deeper than any edition division ever does.

Resource Management and Storytelling
Part of the desire for race-based mechanics comes from the games long-standing war gaming roots. War games tend to model combat, real or imagined, and these models require doing away with the individual differences between units to create a mechanic to represent people or unit of any particular type. You then combine these units to overcome a challenge, usually another opponent but sometimes a specific scenario such as the Battle of the Bulge. Each choice, then, needs to have meaning and have defined pros and cons. We can see these sorts of war game mechanics in many games including Civilization, Age of Empires, and SimCity.

However, much of what made D&D different from war gaming was the shift of emphasis on the group to the individual. As a player, you no longer controlled legions; you played just one character. As players explore this new game, people became attached to these individuals in ways that they hadn’t with war games. They wanted their character to be able to go from scenario to scenario while still retaining what he had learned. They wanted a character growth track. They wanted to know, in more detail, what the life of their character would have been like.

Optimizers and Game Balance
Some people are really good at taking a bunch of rules and finding the combination of rules that let them do incredible things. Often, but not always, it’s a product of having a fantastic memory, solid knowledge of the rules, and some time to read everything. One of the reasons we often don’t let players pick from everything is the fear that people who are good at this will create characters that seem like gods when compared to the rest of the party.

Stereotypes and Outliers
Race-based mechanics have been part of D&D for a long time. Originally, they were just classes, along with fighting-man, we had elf and dwarf. Eventually, the designers decided that elves and dwarves could have classes too, and full equality was achieved. Well, almost. For many, the unique flavor of each non-human race is something that they love and feel needs to be preserved. A dwarf with a sword is, well, no dwarf at all.

Yet the game has changed over the years, as has our society. Fantasy monocultures were brought to us by the same game that had gender and age-basd rules. For some, it feels wrong to summarize an entire race with a few attributes here, maybe a power or racial feats there. Any group of people might lean a certain way, but even within that group there are likely to be outliers. The protagonists in many fantasy stories are often the outliers, they just haven’t always figured it out yet.

Support for outliers also has been around for a long time. Dark Sun turns around many of the tropes of D&D. Instead of being lucky and happy, Halflings are feral, cannibalistic creatures intent on making a meal out of your character. Even within core D&D, someone inevitably provides a way to get around the race limitations, often by creating a new sub-culture where things are just a little bit off. Steve Winter describes this on his blog post about illusory math:

  1. Dwarves get +1 to hit with axes.
  2. Some people who like dwarves want to play against type and use spears, but they feel they're being punished for not using axes (as, in fact, they are). So ...
  3. The rules inject a slight tweak that lets dwarves get +1 with spears if they never braid their beards.

Checking the Community’s Pulse

The D&D Next post also had a poll asking readers to choose between these options:

  • Flavor stands independent of mechanics.
  • Flavor should be backed up by game rules.

Each time I’ve checked the results, the second option had the most votes, with about 60-62% of the total responses. It’s easy to say, well the second item “won” the vote, so that’s what we are going to get. However, I feel that’s too simplistic of a view to take. If the goal is to unite the most fans as possible, we can’t leave out approximately 40% of the audience. Besides, there might be a large, middle of the road audience that this poll fails to capture but should have their needs met as well.

Instead, this poll went to the extremes for a reason. I think the designers and others wanted a gut check to see whether what they thought they should do when they had to choose one over the other. At least, that’s what I use polls like this for in my day job. And if I saw a split this close over a question that should drive people one way or another, I’d be looking at new solutions that would work for both groups.

This post is long as it is so I’ll write about my suggestions for race soon. I’m also interested in what you think of this look at the tensions in the community and the results of the poll.


I find value in both a monoculture race and a multicutural race. It all depends on the story of the setting. If you want some inspiration to add culture to your races in D&D then you should look at Decipher's Lord of the Rings rpg. Like D&D it has race, classes (named orders in that game) and levels. Each race has a series of cultures that adapt the race to a specific culture. I'd see using a background or a theme to create a culture for a race in D&D.

Please note that I can see a monoculture race in a fantasy setting because you can have the myth that a deity created that race and implanted those abilities in it. Moradin forged the dwarves with the abilities to be good with hammers and axes because he is good with those weapons and his people shall be so. With that all dwarves can use a hammer or axe as easily as breathing. That works in a fantasy game.

Alternatively, if you want several cultures of dwarves like Middle-Earth does, you should have means to provide that.

As for the vote on mechanics supporting flavour, I view mechanics very broadly in that question. I also want character choices to matter. In the heroes of the feywild, the skald has several flavourful abilities that have mechanics attached to them. There are no math involved but they are still mechanics. I'm talking about those optional abilities which a bard can automatically get an audience with the leader of a community or to get free room and board for the bard and companions. Those are still mechanics. To borrow from other games, FATE's Aspects and Stunts are also falvourful mechanics with some light math to it. If you put an emnity between dwarves and orcs, to keep the flavour you have orcs target the dwarf first.

Hi Sarah, great article. You're touching on a point which I consider to be a great weakness of modern RPGs. In the interests of the holy grail called Game Balance, we have discarded a lot of flavour over the years. I'll admit up front that I don't have a clear answer to the problem, other than that it shouldn't be a problem if role playing comes before meta gaming.
Should mechanics support supposed preferences? Probably not (though I wouldn't make such a moral issue out of it), but I firmly believe that the classic literature differences between the races would be better reflected by more significant stat differences between the PCs, but the larger gaming community would never accept such stats as it has the potential of creating huge imbalances if not handled maturely. I'm not necessarily talking about orders of magnitude of difference, but I'm definitely talking about differences of up to a factor of 2 or even more.
It is notoriously difficult to emulate things like culture, tradition or cultural prejudice even at the game table. This is where good role playing comes in to it. This can be supported by systems whereby players are encouraged to accept voluntary restrictions on their characters, but such elements are as good as impossible to enforce.

I've often wanted to break races down into racial bonuses and cultural bonuses. For example "Dwarves are slow, but hard to knock down, because of their physical build. They are good with axes because of their cultural training." Ideally, cultural bonuses would be equal among cultures (so if a Dwarf was raised by an elven culture, he might be +1 with bows), and cultural options could be given in specific settings. But even without that, know what is supposed to be physiological and what psychological would let GMs have a basis for house rules to help them run outlier PCs.

I'm a big fan of this as well. In addition, it gives a nice way to chunk these decisions both for the DM creating his or her own races and for the player who has a DM willing to do some swapping.

I recently subverted this issue somewhat in my campaign world. After reading an article deriding the use of "half-races" as unrealistic and racist (I don't remember where and can't seem find it), I changed my half-races into "pick a race", if you want to be a half-elf, you pick either human (and say you look a bit/lot like an Elf) or you pick Elf (and say you look more like a human). And leave the rest up to the player's imagination. They can pick the cultural / racial bonus they like and the look they prefer opening up the possibilities of all kinds of mixes instead of the codified ones.

Maybe a possibility could be to split each race in one or more "cultural" packages and a "genetic" package. Cultural packages could have slight advantages and disadvantages, allowing someone to pick a "generic" package with neither. This allows both sides of the community to pick what they want and a GM to modify or add his own cultural packages to colour his world.

Too bad you cannot find the article, I would think that not allowing half-races would be "more racist" than allowing "them" as in past history when half-races were frowned upon it was never for a good reason.

Was there as specific reason why they felt that way?

Put me down as someone else who'd like to see a split between physical and cultural traits for races. It would let people keep the basic archetype of the race intact, but allow for the trading off of some abilities without needing to create yet another subrace.

On the question of whether there should or shouldn't be rules to back up flavour, I'd be happy with an intermediate option: rules shouldn't contradict flavour. I know it's not as much of an issue in recent editions, but I still remember being puzzled in 1st edition when I realized that dwarves and half-orcs were, despite their reputations, not really that good at being fighters. If you're going to include flavour text that gets a player excited about a race, you should make sure that she can create a character who lives up to the description.

I will second the "rules should not contradict" feeling. I don't necessarily want the rules to lock me in to what a race can or cannot do, but I REALLY don't like feeling like I'm intentionally punishing myself by trying to play against the established racial stereotype. 4E does a great job of this-- for example, a half-orc might not have an integral bonus for wanting to be a wizard, but the player of that half-orc wizard (who has obviously made this choice because of the story he wants to tell with the character) isn't being punished for playing a fun character idea.

I like this article.

I like the idea that if your race gets a bonus you can choose where it goes and you can explain it with a background. If my dwarf wants to use a longsword as opposed to an axe or hammer I should be able to say that is what he is using.

I know it's an unpopular decision but I'm rather favorable to stereotyping other races and locking them in a bit more mechanically.

The reason being this: This is a human made game where humans have the opportunity to be non-humans. In the setting humans are portrayed as the most malleable and adaptive race, also the quickest to breed with other races (or the only race in some cases)

So in the end I feel like the more ancient races, Dwarves especially, who are known for their adherence to tradition and family, should stick a bit more to the median than be an outlier as a rule. That said everyone playing a character in D&D is aspiring to be a hero and so they want to feel heroic and unique.

My argument for stricter racial limitations in non-humans I feel would just exaggerate a non-humans heroic prowess because *gasp* they're stepping out of line. They wouldn't be able to step as far, as freely, and not without penalty as humans, but if that's how they envision their character I feel it would come out very strongly.

By having every race and subrace be as unique as a snowflake it becomes difficult to find a meaningful way in which those races are different from each other at all. We all know Humans can grow to be as tall as a half-giant, round and stocky as a dwarf, and lithe and fair as an elf, but if we have dwarves as tall as humans and elves as stocky as dwarves then it becomes a muddled soup where no real lines are drawn.

Which might be fine in a given campaign, ambiguity is a beautiful thing. But for a game of fantasy and storytelling it might be just plain confusing.

If you want that in your game, you can have it. Others want other things. Both could be reasonably accommodated unless one group's desire is that the other group not play the same game.

"Some people who like dwarves want to play against type and use spears, but they feel they're being punished for not using axes (as, in fact, they are). "

I never quite understood this thinking. ("If I don't get a situational bonus, I'm being punished")It doesn't really make sense. This is like saying Magic Users get to use spells, So If I choose a fighter, they're punishing me for not choosing Magic User by not letting me use spells.

Lets look at the math. If the base attack bonus for every race with every weapon is +1 and that's what everyone gets all the time, and then dwarves get an additional +1 for using an axe, you're not being punished if you choose not to use an axe. If this were the case, then every character who chose to play something other than a dwarf and was getting just the base +1 would also be getting punished for not choosing a dwarf with an axe. Fiddlysticks. That's not a punishment. That's called a baseline. The +1 is just meant to reflect that dwarves are better with axes then other races. This could easily be due to their unique physique (short squat and powerful with short heavy bladed weapons) The're also WORSE at certain things than other races (or they should be for the same reasons, like at climbing, or sprinting). This is the essence of diversity and as it should be, otherwise, race becomes meaningless (mechanically). Which takes us back to Montes question, should mechanics support the "story" or more appropriately should mechanics support the "reality" of the game world?

Not everyone agrees that the races need to be different mechanically.

_I_ don't even agree that races "need" to be different mechanically. But that wasn't really what I was commenting on. I just don't understand the idea that if you don't get something someone else gets or if you're not fully optimized, you're being punished. I think it would be hard to imagine a game where certain options were not situationally better than others. If someone chooses one of those options for whatever reason, I don't see how they can think they're being punished.

Great blog as always.

I have two comments.
The first is on races. I think you need to establish the baseline first, especially in a Core/Basic book. You cannot have an outlier if there is no baseline. There should be modularity in racial abilities, possibly related to culture or society (as DeadOrc suggests). But you need to establish your terms first, as it were.
If there are no racial bonuses they become humans with funny names. And if outliers become the baseline you lose the foundation of the class, like Drow who are quickly becoming an entire race of goid-aligned rebels fighting against their roots. And while everyone knows what a "dwarf" is (because of non-outlier characters) newer races like dragonborn or teiflings are only defined and established by their baseline.
Outlier protagonist also tend to crop up as exceptions, after the stereotypes and conventions have been established. You have Gimli and Legolas standing tall as archetypes of their race. Or, in a more D&D sense, you have every character in the initial Dragonlance trilogy beginning as an archetype of their race (or class in the case of the humans). But they're all still memorable because they had personality: they didn't define themselves by being the "exception" to their people , basing their while existence around being "the only gay in the villiage".

Second, flavour. I like being able to reflavour. I wrote the book on reflavouring (albeit the very small digital "book"). Okay, i wrote the pamphlet on refavouring. But it's nice when description can be backed-up by rules.
It's one thing to say your character can play the flute but it's another to get a bonus reflecting that. It's a little odd to describe your character as being really good at something ("My paladin is a knight, and he's great on a horse! He's won dozens of jousts.") only to have other characters able to be just as effective in your chosen sphere. ("My warlord was raised in the slums and has never seen a horse, but hey, I can ride just as well as you.")

The baseline doesn't have to be established or enforced for player characters. Let the NPCs match the baseline instead.

But players never see the math of NPC, that would be invisible.
And NPCs often don't use the same rules. Dwarves getting a bonus with axes means nothing when NPC attacks are level+3.

I totally agree that there should be choice. Like the sub-races in neverwinter where you can swap out some options to play a different kind of dwarf. That's fun.
I like what Pathfinder did, with the first big player update having extra racial options (and a big book focusing on all the races coming in May). So it's not extra option in the base game overwhelming a new player, but it's there quickly for experienced players who want something different.

But I'm against taking things away from races unless it's replaced. Races are such a big part of character selection, they need to be more than a single power and choice of skill bonuses. With the potential for a character to have so many powers, one more just blends in.

That assumes we need mechanics to reinforce flavor, which, in my opinion, we do not. However, players will see if all the NPC dwarves carry axes, thus reinforcing the flavor of the game world while allowing PCs to pick whichever weapon they thing best match their character.

As a new player, I couldn't have cared less if dwarves favored axes. That's really something that existing players care about much more than new players.

90% of the mechanics in the game come down to flavour,

Sword different than an axe? Flavour.
Magic damage different than weapon damage? Flavour.
Fire damage different than acid? Flavour.
Multiple powers beyond the basics (melee, close, ranged, and area with mix-and-match status effects)? Flavour.
Power sources? Favour.
More than four classes (defender, striker, leader, controller)? Still flavour.
Monsters that are different than their type (soldier, lurker, etc)? Complete flavour.

Even the game could be soooo much simper if you pulled away from the traditions of the game.
Adding bonuses instead of just rolling a d20 with 10 or higher being a hit. Pretty much flavour. Ability scores are pretty much descriptive flavour and success for ability checks and skills could also be 10+ on a d20.

You make an interesting point. In a world where you don't need mechanics to support flavor, there is no point in more than one weapon or one weapon damage stat existing. Every weapon should simply do "weapon damage" whatever that may be, 1d4, 1d8, 1d12, whatever. Then you simply describe the weapon as you choose. Also, you would only need one monster stat block per level. Because having different weapons do different damage and different monster types having different attacks is the essence of mechanics supporting flavor. Having one orc who does 2d8 and has 60 HP and another who does 3d8 and has 40HP is simply mechanics supporting flavor. I think if mechanics don't support flavor, both lose their meaning. On a more personal note, I've little interest in playing characters who are outliers in their race. I'd rather play a character who is a bright shining example of their race, showing the greatness (and battling with the weakness) that is the fabric of that race. Each race is designed to be great and designed to have interesting challenges.

And we have people who want to play outliers. We can serve both, but only if racial modifiers are limited in scope or are customizable.

I actually think you could play both in either case. While I don't prefer to play an outlier, I've never found that ability limited by the existance of racial modifiers. Even with a racial modifier, the stats can still be well within the realm of workable for any class you would want to be in. Especially the way they're describing DnDNext. It sounds particularly conducive to playing iconic as well as non-traditional specimens of any race. They mention that class will also impart a stat bonus that could conceivably cover up a racial weakness (Charming half-orc bard was the example).

Here's a question for you:

You're talking about taking a situation where the weight of the story says "Dwarves are good with Axes". This presumably is true (in the world) for a reason, whether that is something like "Moradin made it so", "short, strong arms and exceptionally strong grip strength prefer heavy chopping weapons", or "Axes were the favored weapons of Clan Stoneblood, whose line created Underhome and lead the dwarves for nine hundred years."

If there is a reason in your game world for dwarves to be good at axes (talent, physiology, culture, training, etc), then shouldn't dwarves in the game world that use axes have some sort of benefit? Conversely, shouldn't an outlier be an outlier for a *reason*? What I read from the position you're suggesting above is basically "everyone gets to be a beautiful and unique snowflake, exactly like everyone else, and the mechanics shouldn't bias any choice in any way". While that certainly sounds egalitarian, I personally think it also sounds pretty bland.

For what it's worth, previous editions of D&D have addressed this problem with flavor and mechanics: Shield Dwarves, Hill Dwarves, Gold Dwarves, Deep Dwarves, etc.

Also: original D&D had human, elf, dwarf, and hobbit as separate races (so you could be a dwarf fighter or an elven wizard). The move to `elf' as a class came later. It also used almost exactly the same mechanical stats for all weapons (specifically, all weapons do 1d6 damage.) I just played it this weekend at DDXP. :-)

If you think it's important for your dwarf to get a bonus to using an axe, then give him a benefit for using the axe. Don't make me spend a feat to get a benefit for using a spear if it makes no sense that she would get a benefit for using an axe.

I don't see how that's addressing the idea of `dwarves' at all; it seems like you're just talking about `characters'.

If, in your world, the story says that dwarves are better than elves with axes, and elves are better than dwarves with bows, then "+1 to hit with axes/bows" for dwarves/elves is a perfectly good way of representing that. Players in that system who then choose to play bow-wielding dwarves are playing outliers - and more's the power to them (I do this myself all the time). When I choose to play an outlier, I don't expect the world to re-arrange its reasons to make being an outlier every bit as supported as playing in the mainstream; that's exactly why I'm playing an outlier.

If a player wants to be an outlier dwarf, but doesn't like not having the extra bonus with axes, then either talk to the DM (surely the idea that got us shield, hill, gold, deep, etc dwarves in previous editions), play up the weakness (weaknesses and flaws are excellent ways to distinguish a character), or pick another axis upon which to be an outlier - play a beardless, friendly, outgoing, slight, and/or graceful dwarf, for example. For my part, I don't think it's reasonable, flavorful, or desirable to have every choice rewarded exactly the same.

Are you saying that you kind of cease to be an "outlier" once you alter the math such that your choices are just as viable as if you were NOT an outlier? If so, I kind of get that. I think, however, that people not only want to play an outlier, but they want it to be just as viable as a fully supported choice. Does this mean we'll be seeing more halfling barbarians and kobold paladins? Maybe. The thing is, I don't think dwarves getting a +1 for axes impacts this situation at all. Lets say you choose spears for instance. Sure, you're not getting that plus one, but neither is anyone else using a spear? So technically, you're just as good as using a spear as the next guy would be, which makes sense to me. You're certainly not being punished for picking a spear. Being punished would mean that you do NOT use a spear as well as everyone else, making it a "wrong" choice.

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