With the announcement of the next edition of D&D there have been many questions about what it will contain and about what tropes, rules, and commonalities make D&D, Dungeons and Dragons. Recently the discussion was about “Should a race in D&D have its archetypes supported by the mechanical aspects of the rules?”. Two of the camps felt mechanics supporting racial traits were important, others felt that this was just hamstringing players that wanted to play against type.
I come down firmly in favor of making the races distinctive through both fluff and mechanics. I feel this way for a few reasons. The first is that it makes each race distinct and allows for easily and succinctly explaining the core of what each fantasy race it. The second is that keeping the races clearly defined makes character generation faster because it requires fewer decisions to make. The third is that without distinction between the races why have them exist at all.
Races in D&D are something players familiar with the game consider common knowledge and with the popularity of fantasy being converted to movies classic tropes might now have a wider appeal but there will always be value in having easily identifiable molds for races. Dwarves are miners and smiths this means they tend to uses hammers and axes and are skilled with stonework and living underground. Elves are creatures of nature they live a long time and are lithe and beautiful if a little frail I could go on. This as written is fluff, it also sets the expectations that these aren’t the same type of elves that work for Santa. But why/how would that flavor be conveyed to a new player as they learn about a character they are playing for the first time at an organized play event? How will somebody returning to the hobby gain a better understanding of a race that isn’t as well established, something strange like the Shardmind? Well if the fluff doesn’t flow as naturally or easily for a description, one might start by looking at the racial powers and benefits. These are rules that influence and help shape the race. They provide a framework describing what the race does well and also help inform the player of what they don’t do well.
Moving on from first time players and one-off play experiences, lets look at how having well-defined racial traits and bonuses help at character creation. The process of building a new PC has a lot of steps. One of the first is choosing a race. There are many factors that can go into this decision how does the race fit into the DMs world, what will the PCs status be, as well as the more crunchy abilities modifiers, size, and racial traits. All of the story elements should be easily determined by knowledge of your DMs world. The mechanical reasons for choosing a race are relatively self-contained to the options available at the time of creation. This means that having easily categorized races and racial traits lends itself to a faster sorting of races and helps PC limit choices based on interest and desire during character creation. An alternative that was discussed on twitter was having a list of traits for each race that only a subset of which may be chosen. While that does provide greater flexibility it dilutes the clear definition of races requiring more time for players to sort through their options. Additionally it adds another step to character creation that of choosing racial traits after selecting a race.
Finally as touched upon earlier if a game has distinct races there should be a reason for them and they should be clearly and easily differentiated. Providing fun and different mechanical choices for players is a good reason. However, an argument has been made that encouraging stereotypes across fantasy races hurts players wishing to play a PC that doesn’t fit in with the basic expectations of that race. It requires them to ignore inherent bonuses or fit into a cookie cutter mold. A suggestion to break free of the mold is to make the choice of racial traits even broader. Taken to the most extreme level that means that any race can choose any subset of traits. This introduces a need to ensure that all traits are mechanically balanced against all other traits or turn the system into an even more complicated purchasing system. Additionally it means a player could select a race of Elf but choose all the orc traits making a character that seems very out-of-place in the world the DM has created. If such flexibility is possible it begs the question of why have races at all? Following that question one should ask without the need for different races why introduce the complexity for both pc and designers of have “racial” traits?
It seems clear to me, that people enjoy playing different races or Wizards wouldn’t have made as many books detailing new fantastical races and providing additional options for customizing the existing ones. Some of the option enhance the expectations of the race and other introduce new options and explore what might cause such a shift in a race’s traits. Ultimately it seems Dungeons and Dragons wouldn’t be the same without the variety of fantasy races and the trade-offs that come with them. If the penalties outweigh both the roleplaying and mechanical benefits then perhaps there is an alternative race to explore the character you want to play.
Given the views above I cannot fully understand why players believe that because they choose to go against the grain the basic rules of the game should support this and encourage it. If a table or player wants to diverge from the traditional types and roles of a race and is concerned about a feat/power/ability tax that would cost them effectiveness this is something that a player should talk to their DM about. A good DM and a good story should be able to trump the rules. But it does not need to be baked in the rules as an option that is appropriate for all tables and all styles of D&D. The rules to an RPG, especially one that has to cater to many styles like D&D, are there to explain and teach people to play the game. Once that is done and all parties are satisfied with a mastery of the rules then they can be changed, modified, completely ripped apart to allow you to play the game you want to play and have fun with it.