I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Saturday, September 25, 2021

"Race requirements" (B/X) might be the best mechanic for fantasy "races"

I recently wrote a post about adding fantasy races to Dark Fantasy Basic.

Since then, I've been thinking about the various mechanics that D&D has used to implement fantasy. Basic D&D is somewhat unique in using "race as class" (i.e., you're either a dwarf OR a fighter). However, class and level limitations (i.e., a dwarf cannot be a wizard and can only advance until level 8 as a fighter) are common in old school D&D.

In modern D&D (3e, 4e and 5e), dwarf gets bonuses in certain abilities (Strength, Constitution, etc.); in some cases, there are penalties too.

This is somewhat limiting, both in mechanics (by making some race/class combination forbidden or so bad they won't exist in practice) and setting (some setting could have great dwarf wizards, for example, and every people should have its warriors). Of course, the settings might have its build in limitations - dwarven culture frowns upon magic, etc. - but this shouldn't necessarily be built into the mechanics.

In addition, there are people who object to playing creatures that are "dumb" or "weak" on average (although this is circumvented by giving EVERYONE - including humans - bonuses and no penalties... which is just semantics as dwarves are still dumber than humans on average, and occasionally makes humans better or worse than all others).


It occurred to me that having "minimum requirements" for some races solves lots of these (real or perceived) problems, and creates additional positive consequences.

Say, for example, that dwarves need Constitution 9 (assuming you're using 3d6 in order to generate attributes). This means that the most frail dwarves are still healthier than humans, but it DOESN'T say the dwarf is much more likely to be the toughest guy in the party - or that he is much more likely to be dumb or clumsy. It is just that, if he HAS a weakness, it is probably somewhere else. It also DOESN'T say he is limited in his class choices, etc. It does say that most dwarves are at least a bit healthy, which tells you something positive about each creature.

This limits player choice in an interesting way: if your Constitution is lower than 9, you cannot be a dwarf. So, your ability score rolls will suggest (but usually not force) not only class but also race.

It also makes sense. Want to play an ogre? Maybe you need Strength 13 minimum. You could negotiate a frailer specimen with your GM, etc., but usually ogres are strong, although some humans are even stronger.

In addition, this seems like the SIMPLEST mechanic available. It is binary. You do not have to recalculate or set limits to ability score or class. You can get a vague about how dwarf society might function, but you cannot pidgeon-hole dwarf individuals.

Of course, if dwarves get additional powers (darkvision), this has to be balanced somehow, but this is easily done by giving humans a power or two to compensate.


  1. Each Special Sense could be its own Attribute (as in Harnmaster), and then the Dwarf would not only need a minimum of 09 Con, but also a minimum of 09 in Infravision. Elves would have a minimum of 13 Dex, but also a 09 in both Infravision and Ultravision, etc.

    1. It would serve to diminish the 'Demi-Humans-Rule' phenomenon, while not outright eliminating them from play.

      Second Edition AD&D's Powers and Options (or vice-versa) assigned points-cost to all abilities, including Demihuman special senses, so that could be another way to go.

    2. I think "points" (or, in the modern version, "feats") are the best way to go. So you can get balance without hard limits.

    3. This is an older post, but I am reminded of the percent chance for psionic talents from older additions. Perhaps a set of 'secondary' traits with a set thresholds to achieve cut-offs.

      So perhaps 9-11 in infravision is infravision with sun blindness, 12-15 is superior infravision (farther distance), while 16-18 is superior vision no sun sickness.

      These are rolls for a set scale condition, so the number doesn't need to be checked after generation, but it's a way to make a more 'free form' system.

      Probably works better if you have humans and Other (where Others are just a collection of Faerie story creatures) rather than specific mortal groups.

  2. At one point (when I just used ability modifiers and not the scores), I had a +3 cap on modifiers for starting characters (I started everyone with +7 in modifiers to distribute. Humans could go to +4 in anything; dwarves could go to +4 (or +5?) in Con and Wis; Elves could go to +4 (or +5?) in Int and Dex, and so forth. This was the tail end of 3e, but it seemed to level things out a lot for the brief period I used it.