The Evolution of Role Playing Games Part 3: Races

Another offering from the Big Iron Vault. It’s been a year since I posted the last one.

Role-playing has been part and parcel of every child’s life from the games of let’s make believe. Role-playing games are just make believe with a framework of rules to handle random events and prevent “yes I did!” “No you didn’t!” arguments. Live action role-playing if anything is closer to the form we played as kids back in the days before video games and computers. A towel pinned to your shirt made you Batman, a baseball cap a ball player, and a hat and tin pistol a cowboy. As a child 80% of my summer was spent outside. The rest was curled up to a book. Make believe was our most important game and I never really got over it.

I grew up as the last generation before video games and home computers. We didn’t wear helmets when riding our bikes. We spent most of our time unsupervised and unscheduled by adults. We made up our own games, invented our own fun, and were expected to amuse ourselves.

How do I explain an environment were I made a great many of my favorite toys? My father had an extensive set of tools and taught me to use them. What I didn’t have money to buy I made. I was encouraged to find my own solutions. As a result I learned carpentry, metal work, sewing and needle work, drawing, painting, and model building. Not just assembly of kits, but taking an idea and making a model reality of it. I learned the tools and respect of the tools. It has made me unafraid to tackle anything I put my mind to. I’ve taught myself everything from building computers to pewter casting. I built the machine I’m typing this on.

Role-playing itself has added an extensive reading list, cartography, and other arts to my repertoire. While it isn’t much for keeping you active (unless you LARP) role-playing is a good mental stimulant and social grease.

One of the standard trops of fantasy role-playing is the idea of races other than Human. Sources derived from Norse myth, the Fairy Faith of the Celtic regions, Greek myth, and frankly everyone’s myth. D&D historically has mined omnivorously for anything and everything, with little regard for anything resembling accuracy to the source.

One attraction of the game is the ability to play something other than yourself, role-playing at the most basic. D&D reaches mainly into the primary source for player races, The Lord of the Rings

As before we are looking primarily at the core books. I realize that other races were available in supplemental books, but that isn’t the subject here.

D&D Zero edition: You are presented with four races. Human is assumed, Elf, Dwarf or Hobbit. Yes the Lord of the Rings connection is that obvious. The Tolkien estate had a few choice words over the matter. What you don’t get however, is so much as a single word as to what that means for you character; it’s a label. There is no description, no abilities, no adjustments. This paragraph says more about the matter than does Men and Magic.

Last is the vague sentence that states that any creature can potentially be played as a PC. You are on your own Bucky. Have fun.

The Greyhawk supplement goes into a little descriptive prose about the appearance of the various races. Half Elves are seen for the first time. Greyhawk goes into more prose about how crippled anything but a Human is. To me at least, ridiculous things like restricting the maximum level of Dwarves as Fighters, and Elves as Magic Users. What? Fighting is what literature Dwarves are all about, and Elves are magical by nature? Level limits were the first thing house ruled out of existence in my house. This is where D&D begins to show its bones as a “No” system. The thing that fully comes out in AD&D, “That which is not permitted is forbidden”. From a total openness to hemming you in with restrictions from the get go. I was not the only one to buck the system and simply say no to no.

AD&D: The official selection widens and changes. Dwarf, Elf, Gnome, Half Elf, Half Orc, Halfling (a result of those few choice words), Human. We now have some charts and at least a few paragraphs of description. In most cases you are referred to the Monster Manual for physical and cultural descriptions.

AD&D is heavy on you can’t. Races other than Human are hobbled out of the gate. Most are permitted only a couple of the classes, and with level limits at that.

Dwarf: A Dwarf can’t be any class but fighter, thief and assassin, and has limits on the level of fighter they can be. The Hell? Dwarves are the fighters of high fantasy. To me that is like telling people over 7 foot they can play basketball, but not at the professional level, but can advance as far as they want as jockeys. Lastly Dwarves are tossed the bone of minor special abilities regarding stonework.

Elf: The mystical magical race of Elves. Classes available? Fighter, magic user, thieves or assassins, and level limits on all classes. They live 1500 years and the best they can do is 11th level magic user. However they get to multi-class. A matter of dubious value. Often described as the worst features of two or more class combined to absolute uselessness. (I’ll go into the wonders of multi-classing in the next section.) Elves get the small advantage of being 90% resistance to charm and sleep spells, but cannot be resurrected. (Note this restriction is not in the race description, but under the “raise dead” spell description. Oh and you get to see in the almost dark and find secret doors.

Gnome: When the average non fantasy fan thinks “Gnome”, that stupid spokes-sculpture for Travelocity is doubtless the thing that comes first to mind. In literature the Gnome is an Earth connected creature; some times a miner or a hoarder of gold. In general (a dangerous thing to use) small fairy folk of well grounded nature closer to the domestic spirits such as brownies and not as flighty as Elves. Gnomes are seen as workers and inventors. It appears to be wholly the invention of the 16th century.

AD&D hews fairly close to this view. They make them a lot larger that the usual depiction of Gnomes in folklore. Class-wise the Gnome is again restricted. Fighter (6th level maximum), Illusionist, (7th level maximum), Thief or Assassin (8th level maximum). Gnomes can also multi-class. Ability wise they are very close to Dwarves both in resistances and stone work abilities.

They get to see in the almost dark. In addition they get a favored enemy +1 bonus against Goblins and Kobolds. There is no small guys club. And a -4 on the to hit roll of a raft of larger creatures. A very substantial bonus for AD&D which gives out plus ones like a miser.

Gnomes come off as smaller Dwarves with more restrictions. They have never been popular in my game. I can only recall two PC Gnomes in 34 years of playing.

Half Elf: A classic Tolkien invention. A word on the “half” this and that if I might. Why Elves and Orcs? No Half Dwarves. There are no crosses between two things that are not human, a Halfling-Gnome for example. When you see a “Half’” race you know that one half is Human, it is automatic. Humans are the worlds greatest sluts and will cross breed with anything. Or is it that because Humans are the golden race everyone wants one? I don’t know, but that is the case in AD&D at least.

Half Elves have similar class and level restrictions as Elves, They can multi-class in many combinations. They do get to be 30% resistant to sleep and charm, see in the almost dark and detect secret doors.

Half Orc: Again something I have to refer to the books. I never had half Orcs in my own game. It is a matter of Orc culture. Half Orcs have the cosmic kick me sign. No one “prefers” them. The restrictions are telling as well. The classes are Cleric at a crippling 4th level, fighter at 10th level, thief at max 8th level, or assassin with no limit given. They can multi-class these as well and see in the almost dark.

Halfling: The reimaged (ahem) Hobbits (lest TSR be sued) are the most restricted race of all. They can be thieves and fighters, but no greater than a 6th level fighter. Don’t despair however, they can be fighter/thieves too! They get a dexterity bonus, gain a Constitution bonus on saving throws vs magic. They get a resistance to poison and see in the almost dark.

Human: The Golden Race, the people that can be anything and can advance without limit. The problem with making the Humans special is that they limit all the other races in order to make Humans shine. They don’t shine, they are normal. Everyone else is subnormal, or demi-normal if you prefer.

AD&D 2ed: The races given are Dwarf, Elf, Gnome, Half Elf, Halfling, Human. The half Orc was thrown under the bus.

This was historically the point in time in which TSR had decided that the best answer to those shrill and uninformed voices that claimed the game was Satanic and evil was to totally cave. The aggressive “family frenziedly” make over was in force. D&D’s own Cultural Revolution. About as successful to this writer as the mistake of the same name in China. The idea that PCs could be or do evil was, if not expressly forbidden, strongly discouraged. Devils and Demons got renamed lest sensitive ears and sensitivities get bruised. The writer’s agreement of the time had restrictions that made the comic code of the 1950s look permissive by comparison. No sex, slavery, inequality, or evil, at least from non-player characters that are considered admirable or player characters. This was so repugnant in terms of making what I saw as a world with some teeth and conflict outside of the artificial “alignment” that I decided I would never submit a thing to TSR. My ego would like to think it led to the death of TSR, however reality is quite different.

The abilities and restrictions on the various races are similar in most respects to AD&D. While the introduction to the races mentions level limits there are no limits in either the racial descriptions or the class descriptions. The phrase must be an editing orphan.

Racial descriptions get more page space. You are no longer referred to the Monster Manual, or Monstrous Compendium now, for descriptions of the races. They are a bit better in describing what the races can and cannot do. I personally found the Dwarven restrictions on magic items a fair way on the stupid side. That generally means it didn’t get used.

In general AD&D Second Edition is a better organized and presented AD&D. the rule changes as per the races are not great or remarkable save the mentioned but vanished level restrictions.

3rd Edition D&D: With the change from TSR to Wizard’s of the Coast there was a change in the basic philosophy of the company running the show. Times had again changed and the kow-towing to hysterical extremists stopped.

The races are Dwarf, Elf, Gnome, Half Elf, Half Orc, Halfling, Human. For every race except Human we see ability score adjustments. This balances out. -2 here is equaled by +2 there. Instead of restrictions on class we have the favored class. We also see some nice graphics of what the various races look like in all major genders, abet G rated. We get information on personality, society, and even naming conventions.

3e D&D used the philosophy “few rules, many exceptions”. Absolutely maddening at times. The races are no different. A run down of all the abilities and exceptions would require use of a good deal of the SRD chapter on races. The themes of the previous editions get repeated, but in 3e terms. Dwarves work stone, Elves don’t sleep and so forth. What you do see for the first time is that Humans get something special. Instead of limits on the other races to make Humans special they get something that showcases their generality; extra feats and skills. Indeed, 3e doesn’t pound the drum of Human superiority. Each race has things they are are good at. Humans are good at being flexible.

3.5 D&D doesn’t change anything about the races. And I’m not even starting on 4th Edition.

Other books in every edition give one options other than the core races. Some are good some not so good and some frankly break the game. I have my own races particular to my world and still do. Some effort has been made over the years to balance them out. I believe I have succeeded in that respect.

The evolution of the character race has mainly been in the direction of more information, from none, to a decent amount in the limited space available. The abilities, outside of class, of the core races have not changed significantly from the time of AD&D forward. The game terms have as have the rules themselves. Next time we look at the evolution of the Character Classes.

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I have one more article in this series that I am still writing. Big Iron Vault folded like a pair of twos when I was in the middle of writing it. It got shoved aside. I’ve decide to finish it to post here. Saying I will gives that a better chance of happening.

Meanwhile, if anyone from the Big Iron Vault is posting here I would love to know what happened. I liked writing for the publication.

You know, I never really thought it it in those terms, or really even considered the reasons behind some of the 1e to 2e changes. But on reflection, they did make those changes, and yours seems like a very likely reason. Do we have confirmation from the old masters that’s why they did it?

I was still very young - 14 or 15 - the first time I was flipping channels and came across one of those preachers speaking in their grand voices as if everything they said was direct from God, talking about the insidious evil, showing illustrations from the Monster Manual as if it was that dating circuit in Logan’s Run that players could chose which devil to bang or something… I was very confused. Was he talking about the same game?

But then it faded into the background. I guess really it always was pretty fringe. It had its moment in the Sun, but like most thing exposed to the disinfectant of natural light, it seemed to dissolve. Was it really because they moved Half-Orcs to the DM’s Guide?

This is damning with faint praise. :stuck_out_tongue:

How do you see the evolution of game design as informing this process beyond reactions to fringe-types? D&D and AD&D 1st Ed really show their roots as unit-of-one tactical wargames to my thinking, while later editions progressively seem built with considerations to telling a story baked into the rules. It was also when my tastes split off, so I can’t really say how well 3rd edition did with that.

They said at the time that they removed demons and devils because of the complaints. They also bumped the power of dragons to make them the “end boss” creature. The PHB had a picture with adventurers having killed a small dragon. We joke that was the only one they would be able to kill.

Ed Greenwood said in a video one of the things TSR complained about when getting information about Forgotten Realms was that he listed all the whorehouses on the city maps.

Frankly I loved 2e. It consolidated the rules we used and got rid of the rest of the stuff (or made them optional). They did bring back the demons and devils even if they used a different name.

I decided the Satanic Panic needed its own essay.

Wargame is all over AD&D and D&D before it. You don’t even get rid of it in 3e. Forry attempted to make it a tabletop MMO and 5 is back to wargame like rules.

3e detailed miniature movement rules for example. Tactical wargame. If anything more so than AD&D either version. You go from miniatures are nice to absolutely required. My group played for years on the basis of theater of the mind. No figures at all. 3e rather stopped that.

There was the hot mess that was A&D system wise. Every single thing was a different mechanic and a different set of dice. 2e was better organized hot mess. We didn’t think much of this because every other RPG was more or less the same way. The moment of clarity came when Lizards wrapped everything in the d20.