Are D&D Race Mechanics Necessary

Image Courtesy of the D&D Wiki

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.

7 thoughts on “Are D&D Race Mechanics Necessary

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  1. Sigh, no ‘If such flexibility is possible it begs the question of why have races at all?’ Doesn’t beg the question at all. Begging the question is a term meaning ‘ The assumption of an unstated and thus non-contradictable premise. What you mean to say is that it brings up the question.

    As for the rest of it, there are plenty of other systems where race is an add on. You trade out other options for a package. Example: If the default character is human and has 10 options to fill in for their background then there could be an ‘Elf’ package that has +1 to woodland/nature skills, +1 to light armour, +1 to stealth, -1 to Constitution and 8 background options instead.

    Now a default character could pick those self same options and not be an ‘Elf’ or they could decide to call themselves an Elf and automatically take those options.

    In the end race is a framework, it only becomes an issue when interacting with others. Example: Should a default character take the ‘Elf’ package above and then try and interact with an other character with the ‘Elf’ package then the GM will likely respond as though they have some relation as they have similar backgrounds weither it be youth experience, area born ect. On the other hand Should the Worlds most Ornery ‘Elf’ Package Chaotic stupid err Evil character encounter the World’s most lovable ‘Orc’ Package Pet Bunny Rancher and Patron of all Orphans who is ‘Lawful Good’ you can see how hilarity might ensue. The ‘Orc’ Package character sees an ‘Elf’ Package Character and assumes they They will be ‘Good’ like themselves, where as the ‘Elf’ Package character sees an ‘Orc’ Package character and assumes they will be ‘Evil’/ Selfish/ whatever like themselves. If both characters were default packages then there would be no assumptions made about what kind of person the other is.

    Lastly damn you for making me type the phrases Elf Package and Orc Package so many times.


    1. Should D&D be trying to be like other systems though? D&D is going to have a hard enough time trying to be all editions of D&D under one system, much less trying to be like other completely different systems.

      As for me, I do not want a human being like an elf or an elf being like a dwarf from the mechanics perspective. This is different than a player playing an elf that wants to be familiar with mining intend of the forest though. Go for it! Realize it is going to be a bit of a struggle though to do so as it is not what typical elves do, so you have to work harder to do so. I see more roleplaying opportunities for an elf trying to work against their typical racial traits than just letting them pick the options they want. That’s too easy.

      With that said, if a character comes up with a good backstory, then the DM should feel free to allow swaps as he or she sees fit. Maybe swap a racial attribute out here or there if it seems appropriate. I do not need a complex set of rules to do this though, just the ability to make a decision as a DM. We’ve been doing it for years.


      1. Jeffrey, You said: Should D&D be trying to be like other systems though? I was trying to be generic in my statements, but if you are old enough to remember you will find that what I described is pretty darned close to the way things used to be. In fact Elf used to be a class.

        WotC will never be able to unify all of D&D under one roof, two or three roofs, maybe; one, no way. There are simply too many contradictions and retcons over the years.

        As for me, I do not want a human being like an elf [snip]from the mechanics perspective. See my comment above, this is exactly how things used to be.

        Philosophy note: I am a Grognard. This means, amongst other things, that I am old and stuck in my ways.


        I know today there is the continuing trend of post modernism where everything is equally relative, relatively equal, and every snowflake is special. For an old fogey like me however this is silly. There are physical differences between races in fantasy, and physical differences between individuals.
        Example: I am a 6’6 white (by all appearances) and male. While I could learn the art of desert survival, the simple fact is that an Australian Aborigine is better suited to such an environment than I, and we are both of the same race. I could train to be the best desert survivalist I could possibly be, but an Aborigine, by virtue of his lower caloric needs, smaller frame, wiry hair, lower surface area and darker skin given the same training and effort will be a better desert survivalist. At the same time, It takes far less energy for me to float my fat but in the water than it would this Aborigine.

        So, split the physical traits from the environmental ones. Elves have lower con scores by virtue of being genetically elves, but one raised in an elven city may have the option to have a bonus to statecraft or mercantilism or such as opposed to wilderness survival.


      2. Good points on elves in the early editions. I certainly remember those days, though it has been a long time since I have played using those editions. But yes, they used to be race and class all in one.

        In the example you used of an aborigine versus city dweller. To me the race starts with a base set of racial traits. The option to have bonuses in skills and such comes more from the skill system or even how the initial ability scores are placed. So the city dweller would put ranks in diplomacy and the aborigine would put ranks in survival. That helps make the difference between the two’s environment despite starting from the same racial traits.

        I suspect that I would also be open to the idea of cultural archetypes for races as well that might tweak things depending on which region you came from. Sort of like how there were different elf types in Forgotten Realms and such.


      3. R.K., I don’t understand your point about Elf as class. I see it as running directly counter to your point, not supporting it. It was the ultimate in monoculturism, in that every elf, whether king, beggar, soldier, or thief, was an accomplished mage and swordsman.


      4. Lugh, thats because you were reading it backwards.

        What I was replying to was Jeffrey’s comment about D&D trying to be like other systems. I was pointing out that D&D is far from being homogenous itself, that race and class have been inverted or subsumed at various points. I say you read it backwards because You go on to list a number of archetypical classes, for an elf in early D&D there was no beggar, soldier, thief, there were elves.

        Now I started out on D&D in the late 70’s and I have played plenty of other systems and I will agree that I have my prejudices. My personal favourite system starts off with race, then adds culture then profession and does it quite well. So it is entirely possible to play a dwarf who’s parents were killed in a goblin raid on a boat and was the sole survivor and was the discovered by a group of elves who raised him or her and not have that break the game in any way. Simply they would have dwarven racial bonuses, Elvish Social bonuses and would then select from available Elven Professions, which the knowledge that there are some things the dwarf would be particularly unsuited for like a bow using mage. Dwarves in this particular system which shall remain nameless use a different kind of magic than elves and elvish bows would be too large for a dwarf to use. That doesn’t mean that said dwarf couldn’t be a bow wielding mage, it just means his/her bows would be more expensive, less well made and he/she would never be a particularly good mage because dwarves were built differently.

        Heck there are some things that the dwarf would excel at in Elvish life, beyond what the elves could. But go back to my The Aborigine and Me example, sure I spend my summers on my grandparent’s farm, helped care for the hogs, work with the corn etc, never walked on the road back from school, I always walked the creek and it was a big creek, but that in no way compares to what I would have been exposed to if I had been raised my a traditional Aborigine family. Those are social issues, but my base genetic makeup does not make me anywhere near as suited for the desert environ as an Aborigine, just like they are less suited to the extreme latitudes that people like me who glow in the dark when we take our shirts off because we are so white. So I make more Vitamin D, he has less of an issue with skin cancer.


  2. I agree with the OP.

    Race needs to have mechanical support because the fantasy races do actually differ from one another by at least a single standard deviation.

    The mechanics within a race’s description help to define it.

    If the player wants to play a member of the race that is so radically divergent from the norm that that definition no longer applies, she should talk to her DM about it. First and foremost, to see if it is allowed. Second, to see what can be done. There is no need to destroy the baseline of the race to accommodate extreme outliers.

    Personally, I don’t hold much with the idea of separating physical traits and social traits. We have more than enough trouble doing that with humans. How can you tell if a dwarf’s stonecunning is the result of being raised underground, or is a genetic trait (or the result of ancient cross-breeding with dao)?


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