I’m moving next month so I’m trying to keep my D&D 5E playtest games on schedule (and resisting any irrational but constant impulses of starting anything else). D&D 5E was never my system of choice. As you probably read (a lot) in previous posts, my favorite d20 RPGs are DCC and 13th Age. But my tables love 5E, so let’s give them 5E.
OK, before the current playtests I attempted two other games. One was a small 5E sandbox, as RAW as possible, in the Savage North (Forgotten Realms). But before that, I attempted to create a home setting tailored to 5E’s mechanics (I really like this approach and usually hate just “converting” previous settings to new editions… but let’s not start a rant).
When I wrote my home setting I tried to create a flavorful trait to each of my races. Usually not something very “mechanical” (or crunchy). That isn’t the first time I tried this approach, as you can see here, here and here, so I started wondering why. Here’s what I came up:
First, in most 20 games Race matters only on the first levels. After that you can’t care more about it. Lots of RPGs tried to correct that, for example, Dawnforge for D&D 3rd and the more recent Pathfinder 2E (you can see the racial feats in 5E Volo’s Guide as another attempt).
Second, because Race usually doesn’t matter after a few levels today I usually don’t like lots of racial stats or rules. In the end, as the campaign goes, they are yet just another bit of annoying mechanic to remember (and the players themselves forget them a lot).
That’s when it hit me: Race should only matter if that’s what your character is about. For example: if you’re Elandryel the Fighter, not Elandryel, the Elf, then the ‘elf’ part shouldn’t be the focus of your PC. And that’s (IMHO) the catch: Race should only be, in most situations, a flavor. Ironically, that means that the older editions were right: if your character is defined by his “elveness”, then please play with an Elf, not a Fighting Man or Magic User.
I’m completely aware that my opinion on this goes against players that love the “character building/optimization” bit of the game. And that’s completely fine! I’m getting older and game time is getting harder to manage, so I prefer RPGs with less prep time and more table time. This usually means playing with systems that help the GM on both aspects - which is why I love DCC and 13th Age, and really enjoy games like Savage Worlds (I still love Pathfinder and GURPS, but if any of my players ever saw my GM notes “behind the screen” they would see something a lot like 13th Age and Savage than Pathfinder and GURPS… I just don’t have the luxury anymore of losing time with tons of rules and NPCs’ stats).
Following that idea, I found that the RPG that gives you the best of both worlds is the Freeport Companion for FATE Core. And that is because of Aspects. Your Race in Freeport is just as important (mechanically) as you want. If your Race is just flavor, you won’t waste an Aspect on it (but it will still matter for roleplay and interaction). If you put an Aspect on Race (for example, “the last Elf Swordmaster”) then you’re telling the GM that you want to use your Race to gain bonus and penalties on your rolls. Now, if you buy an Aspect and a Stunt (for those that don’t know FATE, Stunts are like Feats), then you’re really declaring that you want to play with “THE ELF” (all capitals).
However, the funny thing is that you don’t exactly need a different system to that. A good friend of mine (with a better grasp on 5E than me) proposed the “Tolkien Elf Character” in D&D 5E: pick your favorite elf race (Wood Elf) from the Player’s Handbook, get a cool Background (like Outlander, which is perfect for traveling in the wilderness and helping your party) and - finally - pick the Monk class. No, you aren’t a Monk “in game”, that’s just the mechanics. Your character is actually an elf warrior and wanderer, from the “old blood of the West”. Other elves call you “Eldar” and respect your lineage because of the deeds (and losses) that your kind suffered in the past (if the GM doesn’t mind, you can even be ageless… I never saw that trait as an advantage in most tables I run).
Why Monk? Well, a 5E Monk at the 1st level can fight unarmored, which is a perfect elven trait. Also, you get Strength and Dexterity saving throws, besides skills like Acrobatics, Athletics, History, lnsight, Religion, or Stealth. It all screams “Elves!” for me. At 2nd level your movement improves and you can spend Ki Points (let’s call it “Elven Points”) to use Dodge, Disengage and extra attack actions - that’s all “Legolas’ stuff” for me. Wit a little bit of reskinning you can go “full LotR” with the Monk class, easily emulating the stunts that Legolas did in the movies. And that’s great! (in fact, I remember an article a few years ago, here in Brazil, here the author used elven stats and the 3.5 Monk class to create a perfect ThunderCats class).
So that’s the idea of this post: focus on your character’s main theme and built from there. That’s nothing new, but my recent 5E playtest remembered me how important that approach is.