Thursday, November 24, 2011

Worldbuilding: Classes limited by race as a feature, not a bug

I few years ago, during the 3rd Edition’s heights, I created a new race for a brazilian site and the Chronicles of the Seventh Moon setting. This new race was my take on the half-dwarf theme. I created it to be the antithesis of the setting’s half-elves.

Half-elves of the 7th Moon are innate sorcerers (and usually insanely powerful), thus half-dwarves are the anti-magic race. Because of this trait I restricted their access to spellcasting classes (although they still could be psionics). At the time, my choice was criticized by some of the most frequent posters as “bad design” solely because of class limitation – the concept of an anti-magic race in itself was never mentioned or even discussed. The word “limitation” was synonymous with “broken mechanic” for most players of the D&D 3rd Edition era.

What irks me immensely is that people seemed to have forgotten the game’s history and the reasons behind most choices taken by the 3rd Edition creators. Before its release, when all we had was just a small number of previews, I remembered reading at DRAGON that class limitations were removed to allow the DMs a greater control of their games (and home settings). The same idea was used – originally – for prestige classes: they were optional classes established by the DM to adjust and highlight unique elements of his campaign setting.

It’s funny to see how both principles were distorted. A few years after the 3rd Edition’s release, if you created a race restricted to a few classes, you’re automatically “wrong”; if you banned prestige classes (or removed a few) you’re removing a player’s “liberty of gaming” (whatever that means) and, theoretically, the fun of the game. That’s ridiculous.

As I mentioned in previous posts, if there’s something that I learned from settings like Dragonlance, Dark Sun and Birthright is that it is exactly their limitations (and the reasons behind them) that add flavor to the game.

What the 3rd Edition finally gave us was the (unnecessary) permission to tinker with the traditional notions of races and classes whenever we liked; and that’s a design principle that I think few people noted. Instead, they defended – fanatically – a full liberty of choice in character creation without any consistence excuse besides (99% of the time) character optimization. The result is the usual “freak show” adventuring parties of D&D 3.0 and later (and much worse) 3.5 – characters half-fiend/half-dragon/one-quarter aberrant that better fitted World of Synnabar than D&D*.

Anyway, I mentioned all of the above because restricting character class access through race can be a strong design tool. Imagine if only humans and half-humans could be divine casters? (Like in O&D). What if the gods were really a human invention? What were the metaphysical consequences of that? How would your world work if only elves (and half-elves) were true wizards, with humans being sorcerers and following tyrannical outsider-bound empires? Maybe a few elven-trained human wizards could exist. These rare arcanists could be something almost like the Istari – lone servants of the bright and hidden elven realms, preaching that the world could be more than iron and blood. Or you could establish that the only way for humans to learn magic was through sinister or taxing allegiances. For example, you could create “the Three Harrows” – legendary lich-kings that demanded obedience from their “black mages” and fought against the sorcerer-kings of the human realms. These undead sovereigns probably wouldn’t like elves either. As you can see, restricting and customizing class access can create an easy source of conflict and, consequently, of drama.

You can always go further. Perhaps bards are actually a secret brotherhood of the western lands, with access to knowledge and maybe diplomatic immunity from nobles (almost like the maesters from A Song of Ice and Fire). A more drastic change would be to limit bards to maybe just halflings or gnomes, but creating a tradition where bards are seem as inoffensive and harmless “false magicians” and so are usually greeted with open arms (and free food and shelter) – more important, monster races would rarely rarely kill bards (they’re more useful telling jokes and playing the fool for their barbarian overlord’s “courts”). You could even establish that few outside the halflings and gnomes communities knew that bards were true spellcasters. There’re plenty of roleplay opportunities here.

If you’re running a freeform campaign, then, by all means, hear your players and ask their opinions on such topics. In my Chronicle of the Seventh Moon game, the idea of an anti-magical metal alloy and the entire role of Archmages (and their mythical demesne, the Tower of Impossibilities) were created by players’ contributions.

You can also go the other way: instead of limiting classes, limit the races themselves. This is what we call these days “reskinning”. Imagine if orcs were not a true race, but humans and half-humans captured by a dark lord (or our Three Harrows from the example above) and forced to drink a dreadful alchemical formula that transformed them into monsters and removed any arcane spellcasting ability. Again, there’re plenty of roleplay opportunities for this type of characters (especially if that orc barbarian PC was once a great royal wizard).

I used a similar approach with gnomes for a home setting that my gaming group once tried to create (the project unfortunately didn’t go far). In this shared world gnomes were really fey and alien beings (almost like the gnomes of Golarion). They couldn’t reproduce without using magic and children stolen from other races (the famous changeling myth). This small change gave a very creepy look to our gnomes.

Stealing now from James Maliszewski’s awesome Dwimmermount – in this OD&D setting dwarves are literally carved from stone by other dwarves and granted life. There’s even an implication that a might eldritch empire of old could “manufacture” dwarves.

Well, that’s it for now. Tinkering with a race and classes is almost as fun for me as tinkering with its mechanics. I hope this article inspired you to surprise your players.

*Please, don’t take this as a criticism. I love gonzo-style games (especially after reading Encounter Critical), my problem is that most D&D players created those abominations thinking about playing “serious”.