Racially Motivated – Or Not?


January 26, 2012 by deadorcs

Copyright J. Sloane 2012

Race issues. There’s a topic charged with energy.

Not in the way you think, but there is still a very enthusiastic debate going on among Dungeons & Dragons players on how race should be treated in the developing new version of the game. There have been several articles mentioning this topic, too many to post links here. A quick search of various DnD blogs will give you a great list to read from. Regardless of the article, most of them are trying to answer the following question: Should races be fixed, with specific bonuses and/or penalties? Or should races be more free form, treated like guidelines to “skin” your character into a particular shape or culture?

It’s a real issue, because for every player that wants to play a stereotypical Dwarf (for example, Gimli, from Lord of the Rings), you have a player that wants his or her Dwarf to be something completely different – a character that would rather shiv you with a dagger than hew you with an axe.

I’ve been watching the debate for several days now, and I think the argument boils down to the difference between species and culture. Race is a term Dungeons & Dragons has traditionally used to describe what amounts to a blending of both of these features. I’m wondering if for the next iteration of the game, this should change.

You see, I believe there’s a simple way to have that tasty Stereo-Dwarf cake and eat it too. What I propose is a little taste of how something like choosing your race (in reality, your species & culture) could be written into the game. I’ve done the example as though you’re actually reading a Player’s Handbook (or Guide) or whatever the new rules will be called.

Step 2 – Creating Your Character


While humans dominate many parts of the world, there are several other species that call it home as well. Dwarves, Elves, & Halflings all share in the bounty that the world provides. Now that you have your ability scores determined, it’s time to choose a species. Each species has several traits. As you create your character, choose a species and then one of the traits of that species.





Dark Seer Night Seer Silent Walk Precious Eye
Long Life Green Heart Short Stuff Long Life
Earth Heart Long Life Animal Friend Trader Heart
Precious Eye Silent Walk Trader Heart Diplomat

Dark Seer – You can see in the dark as well as others can in bright moonlight.

Long Life – You live 25% longer than other members of your race.

Earth Heart – You know instinctively how to find your way around underground. It is difficult for you to be lost.

Precious Eye – You have an eye precious items. You earn an additional 10% on the trade of gems, jewelry, or art related items.

Night Seer – You can see in the moonlight as well as others can see in the daylight.

Green Heart – You know instinctively how to find your way around in the wild places of the world. It is difficult for you to be lost.

Silent Walk – You instinctively move more stealthily.

Short Stuff – You are considered small sized and can get into places others can’t. Others can fire ranged weapons over your head (you do not block their line of sight).

Animal Friend – Animals do not spook around you. It is easier for you to train them to perform simple tasks.

Trader Heart – You always no how to make a great deal. You gain an extra 10% on the sell or trade of ordinary goods.

Diplomat – You are really good at relating with other peoples and cultures. Their reactions to you & your party are 10% better than usual.


Now that you have chosen your species (and your species trait), you should pick an appropriate culture. Not all Elves are from the forest, just as not all Humans are from quaint towns in the middle of Happy Valley. Folks of all different types comes from different places. Find the location that most closely resembles the environment your character was raised in. Choose one trait from that environment.






Seafarer Distance Runner Distance Runner Tree Born Cliff Born
Water Born Long Sight Sun Born Forager Boulder’s Endurance
Beachcomber Forager Navigator Canopy’s Shadow Glacial Patience

Seafarer – You are 10% less likely to be lost while navigating the open ocean. While in sight of land, you can never be lost.

Water Born – You were born to swim in the surf and dive beneath the waves. You automatically know how to swim, and are 10% better at being able to endure rough swimming conditions.

Beachcomber – Your ability to find a useful item on any stretch of beach or shore is unsurpassed. Food, tools, or even improvised weapons can always be found.

Distance Runner – You can travel 25% further during a travel period than ordinary folk.

Long Sight – You can see 25% further over open terrain than ordinary folk.

Forager – You always manage to find food on the Plains, even if it’s nothing more that tough roots or a few berries.

Sun Born – Your body uses 25% less water that ordinary folk.

Navigator – As long as you have a cloudless sky at night, you can navigate true by the use of the stars in the sky.

Tree Born – You have a climb speed, and can travel 25% faster if moving through the canopy of a forest.

Canopy’s Shadow – While in an area of heavy vegetation, you are 10% less likely to be spotted.

Cliff Born– Your steady gait makes you 10% less likely to fall or trip.

Boulder’s Endurance – You are 10% heartier than ordinary folk.

Glacial Patience – You have studied the “big picture” and have received wisdom. You are 10% more likely to accurately perceive the world around you.

What Does This All Mean?

First, before anyone freaks out, the attributes or abilities shown above are JUST FOR SHOW. They’re not meant to reflect what I think real rules should read. However, they are designed to show the kinds of things that can be attributed to both Species and Culture identities.

A player selecting one ability each from a Species and Culture can pretty much customize his character as he or she sees fit. At the same time, those players that wish to have a character more in line with the historical stereotypes for a certain race, can choose those attribute that best fit that stereotype.

One of the advantages of this kind of division, is that different campaign settings can “bolt on” additional cultural categories. Eberron might have a category called, “City Dwellers”, Dark Sun might have “Slave Quarters”. You get the idea. The system is modular, but still allows folks to choose attributes in keeping with more traditional models.

What’s Left Out?

I’ve left off some things here. The first, is that I don’t think we need ability score bonuses or penalties for species anymore. PCs are exceptional in any event. Who’s to say that a Dwarf has a better constitution? After all, “Sleepy” (a pretty iconic Dwarf) would probably have a really low constitution. There are no combat bonuses here, either. I’m in favor of dropping them altogether. Every culture uses its own environment in which to evolve weapon styles. Why second guess whether or not Elves are suited for archery? Why?

Dropping those burrs allows for a more open way to apply classes to the species/culture you select. Min/maxing based on race is thus eliminated. A more level playing field.

And So…

As these discussion of what the rules for DnDNext might hold, let’s remember that at this point, it’s all conjecture. We (as of yet) have no idea on how Races will be treated in the next edition. Clearly, though, Race is an important issue, and the designers will need to be careful about what is truly desired by the community.


My name is Randall Walker and This Is My Game


10 thoughts on “Racially Motivated – Or Not?

  1. Vuumbleman says:

    Why not keep races similar to how they’ve been in 3.5 and 4.0, but instead of giving them some weapon proficiencies or conditional bonuses allow them to select a racial bonus feat instead? Humans will remain relatively the same and unique, being able to select ANY feat they meet the prerequisites for. Other races would get to be unique without stepping on the toes of humans, have an element that OUGHT to be sufficiently dwarfy or elfy or whatever, and still be relatively unique.

    Though, the downside to this is, if there is a particularly powerful racial feat, then it risks becoming a non-choice for each given race. For that to really work, the feats would need to be very balanced for each race.

    It would be an option. Default dwarves and elves would keep their proficiencies, but if you wanted to you could opt for the feat to make your particular dwarf or elf more unique.

    If that method were implemented, then I would HOPE that would also encourage more racial feats to be produced, but perhaps that is too much to hope for.

    • Philo Pharynx says:

      Racial feats would be a way to convey the cultural part of the racial package. Actually I like traits from Pathfinder. They give smaller bonuses than feats. And one of them is “adopted”, that lets you take a trait from another race.

      I still think some of the changes should be part of the race package, like low-light vision.

  2. Philo Pharynx says:

    I like the idea, but think that some species traits should be a package and mandatory. For example, here you have long-lived dwarves and dwarves that can see in the dark. But none that are both. As for balance, some benefits might be tied to a drawback. For example, drow see better in the dark than most other species, but they are sensitive to the light.
    I’d make a racial package out of the traits that are inherent in their body and then let the player choose from a group of cultural packages. Some of whcihc are racial, some environment based and some social. Somebody who wants to play up the dwarven sterotype would pick dwarven weapon training, underground dweller, and blacksmith. Somebody who wants to fight the sterotype would pick others.

    As for 4e characters being made in combat, don’t you know that 4e characters can’t be killed? 😉 Actually I like complex character creation. I like to spend time going over both the crunchy and fluffy options. (I often work on the rules first, which inspires a backstory, and then I need to change the rules part to fit with the new backstory.) I am usually not so connected to the characters when I slap them together quickly.

    • mmaranda says:

      Well the PC I slapped together I thought would be goofy and a one off for the rest of the run. I wound up with such a fun personality on the PC I sort of wanted him to be playable longer. Unfortunately he died at the end of the session because I did something reckless and stupid which was in character but might no have been necessary.

  3. Cascadian says:

    I created a similar system myself a few years back, though I never used it. I split it into culture and lineage. Lineage included inherited traits and could vary by bloodline. I kept stat bonuses but they were by player choice, assuming different clans or families might have different capacities even in the same species. One idea I had was that culture was all the learned traits currently associated with race, rather than inherited. So conceivably these traits could be advanced with time spent within a culture. This could also provide a benefit for people choosing to play older characters because they would have more years within a given culture.

    Any new system like this would have to be modular, allowing a default package of lineage and culture for people who just want to play a traditional dwarf or whatever.

    I do think that any advancement of cultural traits or expression of inherited traits that develop over time should be structured within the class and level system if possible, rather than just another subsystem.

  4. Quirky DM says:

    This is a pretty well thought out idea that makes a lot of sense. But I wouldn’t want in my game without more restrictions. See, I like the stereotypes.

    The idea of races in fantasy and sci-fi has always been as a way to indicate their culture. Besides Tolkien, you can look at Star Trek. Klingons are warriors, Vulcans are logical, Ferrengai are opportunists. Literature, TV, movies, video games, they all prescribe to this model. It makes the game much easier to grasp and wrap your head around. It’s an instant method to introduce culture in a physical, familiar format.

    Still, there are a few things that could be done to use the flexibility in your idea and still use stereotypes. I still like the idea of ability score modifiers, but maybe they should only apply before point buy is done. Or max out at 18, or even 16. That way dwarves might have a leg up on the rest of the races in Con, but anyone has the potential to match them.

    Second, you can still go with the above model, but there should be some incentive for types. Either there should be good synergy between races and backgrounds to encourage the stereotype, or there should be a minor perk if you pick a matching race/background pair. This way, while any race can come from any culture, there should be a slight inclination towards one pairing, even if it’s very small. If the rules don’t show some reason why the stereotypes exist, they won’t exist and in fact may even make the world unrealistic if you try to introduce it.

    The nice thing about the last option is that DMs can change the perks around however they want to make the races fit into the environments they choose for the world.

  5. catastrophe says:

    You’re adding complexity, and that’s not going to suit everyone. Why does everyone have to be defined by biology, where for many, it’s background or origin which would play a more major role?

    If Race was replaced with Origin, we could have Elves and Dwarves, as well as other options like Archmage’s Apprentice, Raised By Wolves, and Out For Revenge.

    And if these options had simple, interchangable qualities, they could be mixed and matched as hyrbids quite easily.

  6. mmaranda says:

    There is merit in systems like this. But one thing should be noted is that all the racial and cultural traits should all be balanced against all the other traits. Even then certain things will be inherently more useful in one style or DMs campaign than another.

    But my biggest concern with adding more choices is barrier to entry at character creation. These all add a few extra steps to character creation though, which is already a complex and time consuming process. So where do you propose shaving a decision off? A good rundown can be found here: http://wizards.com/dnd/Article.aspx?x=dnd/4ll/20110308

    While not immediately a big problem, having a quick character creation is incredibly useful. An anecdotal experience is my PCs was killed during a combat in an AD&D game (I was playing just a few weeks ago). After my PC died I was able to generate a new character and be playable to jump back into the fight as a second wave of combatants entered the fray. In 4E if my PC had died it is unlikely I could have been able to rejoin the game during the same battle.

  7. J. J. Sloane says:

    stereo-dwarf cakes. Lulz.

    I don’t wonder if the idea that one’s stats aren’t inherent in one’s race isn’t somehow progenated by the changing ideas of race in real life. IRL we are moving further and further away from the race-based stereotypes that were firmly entrenched when D&D was created, and it’d be a neat quirk to see D&D parallel these social changes.

  8. @jasonseas says:

    This is a train of thought I could be on board with, since even back to 2E when describing the races, they talk about subcultures, but that was it. But it does make some sense to give a character an inherent power or skill based on how they were raised or where they are from. Just like people from Virginia are not the same as people from Iowa. An attribute bonus based on a race I don’t think I have an opinion on yes or no, but I will admit I have chosen a race for my character strictly to use the bonus to make up for some poor dice rolling in character generation.

Comments are closed.


%d bloggers like this: