Friday, May 27, 2016

Rules Cyclopedia Oddities Part 4: Race as Class

I know, I know, other posts have been promised (about combat in The Grind and the RC light character sheet variant) and I assure you, they will happen very soon. But this one has been long coming: me entering the fray about the decades old discussion if "race as class" is a good concept or not. It is not really a phenomenon solely associated with the D&D Rules Cyclopedia, but AD&D was long done with the idea when the D&D RC set the exclamation mark for 1e. So let's talk about that for a second or two ...

Race as Class?

See, I never got the argument that Race as Class is restricting, because the whole idea that humans are more diverse than the other races never was the main focus to begin with. It's rather about giving a DM a vanilla assortment of choices and the fiat to make his own campaign out of it. So if anything, by not seeing the possibilities you'd not only end up restricting yourself, you'd also missed the point of making the game your own.

The flood of material back then, with all the variant classes and what not could have given you a hint or two and one argument that comes up very regular (justifiably so) is that you could just as easy exchange halfling with, I don't know, pygmy or mushroom people, getting a new option for your game just like that and just as your campaign needs it. It's a nice exercise if you haven't done it yet, rename all the classes and change from default to, I don't know, weird.

Or why not make it a Blinkling? [source]
Or go one further and experiment with the advantages. So the halfling gets a great advantage hiding in natural environments and I'd keep that for the mushroom folks. Maybe the indoor advantage, too, because they are as small. But I'd make Constitution and Wisdom the main ability scores and give them a +1 for saves versus magic instead of that attack bonus (and keep the bonus to AC and initiative. It's little things, but they make a difference.

For the next stage after that you will need some experience with the system or at least some major play testing. But it is possible to make that dwarven cleric or a elven barbarian as class options and at it's base not that different to taking the bonus a class gets and relabeling it (like with the bonus to saves versus magic above), only now you take a close look at what other classes do and extrapolate it towards what you want.

You'd have to test a bit with the xp range here to keep it balanced, but you'll usually find out fast enough if it works or not. D&D can take a lot as a system and as nice as it is to have it all balanced, I'd always prefer to tinker with it and re-calibrate if it doesn't work.

But you don't actually need to do that if you are reading this right now, because there is a guy out there who did all the heavy lifting, broke all the classes into little pieces and made a huge LEGO kit for you to build your own stuff with. That guy is +Erin Smale and you'll not only find all you need for

on his blog Breeyark!, he also went ahead and revised his (perfectly working) concept recently with the post Building A More Perfect Class, at least streamlining it a bit and working on some of the problem he saw with the original (which I've used for years without any problems, so YMMV). Seriously good stuff. Guy needs to get an Arneson Award for that, or something. Genius.

It illustrates two major points for the Race as Class concept rather well, in my opinion:

1. It's not about what you play ...

... it is (and this is really important) about how many xp you need to get to the next level (and how many levels there are). It's a part of D&D that really got the boot from D&D 3e onward, but I think it's a brilliant design choice. Capable characters don't just need more xp to achieve their next level, they need experienced players, too, if it was to work at all.

See, this is crucial. At least in our campaign it was. You sure could play an elf or a barbarian with all their special abilities and what-not, but you really should be up to the task. Conversely, if a very able player chose to play something like, say, a thief, he'd get very powerful very fast (if you award player skill as per pages 127 to 129  of the RC, that is*), as they gather xp for role playing and exceptional actions with ease and help gathering more gold and kills on average while needing less to advance further ...

So the xp-range of a class gave, to some extent, the level of player skill needed to play a class effectively, getting more difficult the higher it was and made it easier on the other side for inexperienced players the lower it got. I think that's brilliant. In the end we had some very low entry classes that proofed too easy on experienced players and just about right for newbies (the Noble, the Pilgrim and the Goblin Soldier) and some very high end classes (not as high as the classic D&D elf, though) like the Barbarian, The Dwarven Elite or the Prince Charming (who is at the end of this post) and they worked very well for the experienced players at the table.

But level limits are another important aspect. This is not about finding reasons to make them work in a game, it's about math. With a lower level range (or in other words: other classes being able to get higher in level) the average xp needed for the next level will also be lower, because the class is actually weaker than others.

So it is very well possible to have human character classes with level caps. The Noble, for instance, would travel the world until he reaches name level to assume his title and the Pilgrim would end his pilgrimage at name level (which an option to become a saint, but that's another story).

But back to the original point. Level limits allowed players to have characters with lots of powerful abilities (those saves alone!) with acceptable xp ranges by limiting the level range. I honestly admire that design. And it's one argument less against Race as Class.

Think about it! [source]
2. It's also about customizing your campaign

I have to thank +Edward Ortiz at this point for pushing me in the right direction here (he's also doing a tremendous job in world building over at his blog Dungeons and Dutch Ovens ... highly recommended). Race as Class, or really all the vanilla options you get as basics in the D&D RC, are just options to expand upon.

You got the first prestige class with the Druid, there is a Mystic to loot for abilities and a complete bestiary of humanoids to loot for ideas, with guidelines how to give them magic and what the'd be able to cast. And that's just going by the book. Add Mystara or Hollow World options or whatever the  (still striving, btw) fan base came up with and you'll have hundreds of options.

But do it yourself and the sky is the limit, really. You customize your campaign from the very beginning, just like described above, and you'll have the very individual voice of the game supported by the system you use.

You could say now that you'd be just as able to do that with later editions (or other games, for that matter). And I agree. But, as always with the generic versus the specific, if anything goes, you'll have to limit options to get a specific result and that's never popular (also thousands of splat books from AD&D on would try so nonetheless, often by allowing way too powerful options to make it appealing**).

Seeing race as another LEGO piece, on the other hand, just opens up lots and lots of options. You add instead of limiting and you add within the terms you set. We had a gimmick of "unlocking" classes in our game. One day the group managed to befriend a tribe of goblins and goblin warriors where willing to join the group from then on, so the Goblin Warrior class was unlocked.

You make it as you go along in the campaign and the result will always be more personalized than anything you could have bought. Your players will thank you for it.

So: Race as Class? Yes, please!

It seems like an odd thing to have in a game and I'm pretty sure there aren't many games out there doing that the way they did it here. Actually, it got changed because it wasn't popular, not because it was bad design and I think it's, to this day, one of the most underrated and misunderstood system choices in early D&D.

The more I get exposed to this version of D&D, the more I appreciate the thought that was put into the designs here. I know, all of this is a matter of taste and some of it a matter of debate. But you'll have a hard time arguing that this isn't good design.

If you liked this post, you might want to check out the other oddities in this series. Comments are, as always, very welcome. Especially if they praise the Rules Cyclopedia :)


* Player skill would have a capable player score far more often than not multiple times per session in all categories. Here is another oddity for you: a character will earn 1/20 of the complete sum he needs to reach the next level every time he scores in those categories. So a great player should be able to achieve another level with ease within, say, three sessions (maybe faster), even without gold as xp and killing monsters. Furthermore (and this is where it really gets interesting) having the value they earn not as a fixed rate but depending on the level a character is on, shifts the game on higher level dramatically from killing and looting to, I kid you not, role playing. How about that ...

[Edit:] Another thought supporting this theory just occurred to me: You can't earn more xp than you need to gain your next level and that's a great benefit to a skilled player going for a huge xp range. In other words, the huge amounts of xp a skilled group could gather is no use to those playing with a lower xp range, since they'd have advanced just as easy with less ... And if you look at the numbers, you can see what Gygax meant when he said the character gets a soul (or some such thing) beyond level 6, because that's around the time where playing the character will net you more xp than killing and looting!

** Damn, this fits very well into the whole frame of mind that is commercializing the hobby: rather break the game to make another splat book than to actually think about a proper design. I think it explains a lot.


  1. This why I often call Tom Moldvay the Sphinx. He made a lot of changes (I believe race as class was one of them) which seems kinda stupid on the surface but works surprisingly well in the end. I still don't know if he had planned it all along or if he had simply gotten lucky while trying to find ways to shorten up the BX book.

    Sometimes it makes me wish you could click on Designers Commentary with a rule book the way you can with Directors and a DVD.

    1. Yes, I'm always surprised how all of that makes more sense the closer you look. Such a well crafted machine :)

      And a designer commentary option would be priceless. I mean, digital books can do that now, so it could be done ...

    2. Perhaps you know something i don't, or if i've misunderstood that statement, but as far as i'm aware Moldvay didn't change race as class, that was already present in OD&D i'm pretty sure.

      I've not read the little brown books, but i've read and run the Big Brown Book OD&D clone and it had race as class, a feature which was carried on by Eric Holmes in his Basic edition, then Moldvay and Mentzer, then the RC. Everything i've read about it indicates this as well.

    3. I got a comment on g+ that the first three books didn't have it and to my knowledge it happened at least with B/X, not sure before that. But Men & Magic had them separated. I'll go and check tomorrow (if no one else beats me to it).

    4. Alright, I did some research and found an article that sums up nicely how this developed through the first edition (good post, worth reading):

      So Moldvay seems to be the culprit here after all.

  2. I like the idea of race as class, or at least the AD&D method of racial restrictions on class. To me, it's not a matter of race at all, but of cultural distinction. How the races perform says something about the world they live in, how the setting is structured, how things operate. Instead of looking at it from a perspective of "this game is stopping me from having fun for irrational reasons", look at it from the perspective of "this world works a certain way that is distinct because of what races will or will not do as opposed to the completely generic everyone-can-do-anything approach of later editions".

    Suddenly i find myself asking why elf adventurers have both martial and magical skill? Why are halflings and dwarves capable fighters who don't progress as far as humans? Why aren't there halfling thieves? Why not elf clerics?

    That being said, i've dissected the exp charts from the B/X D&D books and found that the Elf exp table made a reasonable progression for any dual class combo, a rationale that could be applied to any two classes. Dwarves weren't that far off from another class and could easily be adapted to allow for any class ability other than fighter, etc.

    1. Thanks for commenting! Funny thing is, the math doesn't only hold up for the elf in the calculations I linked to above, it also shows that those of the wizard are way to high! He'd end up at around 1600 xp to level 2. There is some evidence that they raised the value on purpose to keep wizards from advancing too fast, which totally contradicts what they did with the rest, including the elf. We played it with the lower xp variant for the wizard and it turned out to be totally fine. Not too fast at all ...

      And yes, I definitely agree on the culture argument you are making here. In my campaigns halflings went on adventures to get the funds for their own business, dwarves only got their names when they earned a certain amount of experience and elves had been from another realm, so they appeared disoriented in this world (inexperienced) and had to go back after some time or they'd loose that connection to their realm (becoming dark elves) ... Stuff like that.

  3. What a great article! I kinda wish that race as class was in AD&D too, I find it to be a brilliant mechanic. The way that it sits in AD&D, multi-classing is confusing. An Elf can be a fighter/mage, the level system stops working at around 5th level, the single classed PCs are 10th and they are mid-level at best making it incredibly dangerous for them, else too easy for everybody else. It is a huge hole in the system! Thankfully, it is one that discourages use. Race as class is the way to go if you want something different and it gives the player simple options.

    Customizing the races? Even I could do that! It would be a better way to play unusual characters. I LIKE IT!

    1. Thanks, Ripper! Yeah, I agree, they changed it and never really managed to gain that high a standard again (if I may say so). Actually, I think it got worse from then on, with 3 really jumping the crocodile there big time, IMO :)

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. Hi Jens - Thanks for the kind words and for sharing the link to Building the Perfect Class.

    Moldvay was the first version of D&D I played, and the race-as-class convention bothered me for a long time (usual arguments: why do all elves cast magic and fight? what about a halfling thief or dwarf cleric?). But I ultimately realized that RaC had very important implications for the setting and the races therein, right down to their attribute scores (some musing here:

    I prefer RAC - not only for reasons you mention above (great job explaining how this affects level progression, BTW), but also because it's just easier to bolt any ability onto a race and make a new class - it's the fastest and perhaps most engaging way to customize one's campaign (and I love your idea of "unlocking" classes as the campaign progresses - brilliant!).

    The other thing I like is that you can differentiate how different races approach different "professions." For example, a halfling makes a pretty good wilderness scout right out of the box. But if you wanted a human scout, maybe you'd come up with something different, or more "dedicated" to, well, scouting (like here, for instance:

    Great job, and I'm eager to check out the rest of your RC articles. Cheers!


    1. Man, did I forget to reply to your comment! I'm sorry, it'd been right about that time I got sick with a bronchitis ... Anyway, here I am, replying :) First of all, I love "Building the Perfect Class". So much fun! And it really comes together quite well. Good stuff!

      Actually, it was exactly your approach to breaking all of that down into little pieces that helped me getting an understanding of what that RaC concept really means. But the first thing I did when we went back to using the RC was finding a narrative for those limitations, so Elves are from the Realm of Fairy and only to stay for a short period in the mortal realm (explain them being old but inexperienced, makes then Drow if they stay and adds some adventure seeds as they visit their home realm in their dreams to communicate with their families and friends). For dwarves it's about their name (they only get a name and position in their clan when they are experienced enough and they can't bear having none of that, so they are grumpy and they sure as hell won't wait any longer than they have to). For Halflings it's all about business, so if they go on adventure, it's to get the funds for a tavern or a fleet of trading ships or a farm. Stuff like that. And it worked :)

      But seeing why it's done and how helps in all kinds of different ways and I can say now that those rules are fair and balanced and well thought through. Just not well presented, I think.

      I hope you liked the rest as well!

  6. Hey - no worries! Hope you're feeling better.

    I really like your campaign rationales for the elf, dwarf, and halfling. This is precisely the kind of brilliance that makes RaC such a great tool for setting flavour.

    The Druid is a good example. As written, the RC says a neutral cleric has to name level before "unlocking" druidic powers, and you can draw a lot of inferences about the campaign's nature gods from that. But if you want low-level druids (because maybe your campaign is centered on its nature gods), "Building the Perfect Class" gives you a way to start create druids right off the bat. Same with knights, avengers, or cavaliers.

    The focus on RaC also lead to thoughts about the importance of a character's prime requisite in the campaign. I came to the conclusion that it said a lot about the core strength of each race, and perhaps more importantly, how they approached life in the world around them. One way I was able to stress this AND solve the level "problem" was to simply state that their maximum level was capped at their prime requisite score (e.g., a magic-user with INT 14 could only go up to 14th-level).

    This also applied to attack ranks for demi-humans. So a halfling with STR 14 and DEX 17 could easily surpass the 8th-level halfling cap, but could also achieve 6 additional attack ranks (STR 14 - 8). I started this when playing B/X (where level capped at 14), but it was also successful with RC (though I should admit that none of my RC campaigns ever went beyond 12th-level anyway).