Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Monoculture and Race-As-Class

In the comments of yesterday’s article on Gnomes, Zzarchov mentioned “mono-cultures”, and how he never liked them. I agree with him—as much as I dislike the practice of divvying Gnomes/Elves/Dwarves into countless sub-species (High Elves, Wood Elves, Sea Elves, Dark Elves, Blood Elves, etc.)—I am guilty of this myself at times, to include my current campaign world of Irrin. Why? Because it’s a quick identifier, a way to say “these aren’t those kind of Elves, they’re these kind of Elves”. It’s a crutch, but if it works, hey, great (and if your campaign is anything like mine, if you pulled out all the crutches, you wouldn’t have much left!).

This is where I think the practice of Race-as-Class (your Race working as an effective definer/limiter of ability, ala Dwarves, Elves, etc., in Basic D&D) possibly clash with fighting monoculture. You’re effectively limiting the definition of that race via Race-as-Class. There are many good reasons to do this—to set demi-human characters apart as something fey and alien, and to line up the expectations of that race with common fantasy literary sources—but it also puts an expectation that only a single type of representative of that race will be seen while adventuring. For some games, that might work to perfection. For me, it’s always been one of the things I’ve struggled with when it comes to Race-as-Class, which is why I generally prefer a more open-ended approach from later editions. I want that variety—I want the full representation and possibilities of Elves, Dwarves, etc. The drawback to no limitations, of course, is that these races tend to be played as pointy-eared or stout humans with merely different stat bonuses.

For me, I think the best way through this is Favored Classes or simply playing the stat bonuses as they are—a bonus or hindrance for playing a certain type of class, but few in the way of absolute limiters. The races have different abilities, but all societies will have their warriors, their healers, their sages. It’s about interpreting what those are for each race and culture. For myself, I favor the wide-open approach of many cultures within a demi-human race for my campaigns. I know others feel differently, and I’d love to hear some examples of each working well (or not) in your campaign.


Rob Conley said...

Race as Class is not one of my favorite rules in the different editions.

For a long time in running the Majestic Wilderlands it was easy to get human dominated parties because of the point based system I used (Fantasy Hero & GURPS) simply because you have to pay points to play a different races (well sometimes depending on the race)>

When I returned to D&D in the form of 3E around 2000 I was surprised how easy it was to keep the parties human dominated. The main reason because of all the cultures I developed and the interesting organization and rules surrounding them.

And that was pretty much the main deal for players. Is that they want to play something cool. It doesn't even have to have super powers although that is an easy way to address this issue for a game designer.

It just needs to be distinctive, interesting, and most importantly fun to play.

While I have a variety of demi-human cultures in the Majestic Wilderlands their variety is less mainly from the fact that they are much longer lived than other races. Plus the elves culturally dominates the interactions between the races. As elves are immortal in the Majestic Wilderlands this further retards the changes between generations.

I am not saying this THE answer but rather one of many things to account for when creating your own mix for your mileau.

Anonymous said...

Have you thought of making a base "gnome" race and then adding prestige class like "racial levels". So every adult gnome in a community of tinker gnomes would have one or three levels in tinker, while a sylvan gnome community would have sylvan gnome levels?

A Paladin In Citadel said...

I recently solved this problem by prohibiting players from playing anything other than humans. Voila, problem solved.

I enjoy keeping the demi-humans mysterious and alien, something that is difficult to do when the players are role-playing them.

Zachary The First said...

@Rob: You make an important point there. Longer-lived races are generally assumed to have less flexibility and change by way of their static culture and marked decrease in generation gap.

@Anonymous: Sure, that could work! I believe Jeff Rients once proposed something similar, but I can’t find it now.

@Paladin: I think part of the problem is to play characters with what you know. We project our humanity onto characters. It’s not always easy (or fun, or desirable) to try to constantly work within an alien mindset.

Tim Shorts said...

Monocultures make for a boring setting. With any non human races I try to look at the environment they are exsisting in and that determines a culture's identity more than any other factor. You can have Dwarf X from this section of the world were it is brutally hot would be completely different from Dwarf Y who lives in a frigid tempeture zone and so on.

Carpe Guitarrem said...

I'm definitely liking the idea of "racial levels", of a sort. I think that "race" should definitely define the basic rules and parameters, the simple facts of reality, about your race. Halflings are small, dwarves are tough, and orcs are strong.

That should be where the fluff stops. What you need then is to define cultures within the race, which give a tiny little tweak to your character. Essentially, templates. Any race is bound to have many different tribes, etc., etc. Play it that way.

This is where the DM comes in, too. Only the DM can make this work. When players come up to a colony of gnomes and say "Oh, they're all pesky little tricksters.", it's the DM's role to say "Well, actually, that's not how all gnomes operate...."

Barking Alien said...

The reason Race-As-Class doesn't work for me is that I try not to mono-culture my Species (yes Species! Elves and Dwarves are not types of Humans. They are different creatures in my game and most others I've seen).

For example, Elves are a species and what most people would call Wood Elves, High Elves, etc. are actually Human terms for the cultural sub-groups of the Elves.

There are minor physical differences between them (stemming from their origin in my campaign universe) but for the most part they are seperated by their cultural background.

Few of my PC parties over the last thirty years are Human dominated.

Zzarchov said...

The base system I use is close to "Barking Alien", the different "types" of elves are just different cultures.

Wood elves and Dark Elves and all the elves are physically indistinguishable. But they are from different places with different cultures (and different languages).

I also make sure that alot of stereotypes are broken by at least one culture.

Dwarves are concerned with honour and family in most cultures, they are generally technically skilled and look at high workmanship, with a small and declining population (though the degrees are varying). But if you head east you find the Cave Dwarves, deep in the himalayans they are polygamous, crude and neolithic. They swarm and breed in great numbers as a constant and worrying threat to the dwindling human populace.

Likewise, the halflings are usually fairly predictable in their ways..unless you reach the "Golden Khanate of the Hunlings".

Likewise there can be no shortage of smaller cultures, in the same manner as humanity. Even within say an elven kingdom, the coastal High Elves may be different than the High Elves of the neighbouring valleys.

This can cause a problem though at a certain point, if each race is as differed in culture as any other, what is the real difference between the species?

Those are things you should let biology determine.

I make it for example that elves cannot handle eating much meet, thus ranching and large amounts of hunting are not used. How does that impact both an agrarian and a primitive culture?

Dwarves cannot see colour, save gold and gems. Thus while many dwarves are greedy for these materials, there is a reason beyond culture.

Orcs and Goblins breed by laying eggs, some species may be only able to have young once (in a large batch), all of these would produce underlying common themes in cultures across a race, without being a straight jacket "mono culture".

But thats just how I roll.