Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Designing Races

So I guess this is a game design post, talking about some considerations when designing races for your game, but it's also a Centerra post, because I'll talk about the races there.

So, a lot of game design is top-down.  Someone starts brainstorming their world, and thinks about four-to-seven distinct races for their game world.  Elves-dwarves-orcs-hobbits-humans, perhaps.  Or giants-kenku-illithids, maybe.  Then they start thinking about what kind of bonuses each race would get, and that stuff gets written in.

Giants get +4 Strength.  Kenku get +4 Stealth.  Because that's what makes sense for the fiction, so that's what should be reflected in the statblock, right?

The problem with this is that it quickly leads to synergy, which leads to builds.  (At least if you have race and class as separate.)  People who want to play smashy fighters will be drawn to giants, and giant players will be coaxed towards being fighters.  And in balancy games, the game will be balanced for that level of optimization.

Same thing with kenku and rogues.

GLOG Design Rule #48: Race abilities/bonuses should not synergize with class abilities/bonuses.

GLOG Design Rule #3: Never use small, passive bonuses.  They're boring, easy to overlook, potentially confusing, and often lead to synergy.  Use active abilities instead.  (What Extra Credits calls "incomparables".)

Even if you use race-as-class, the dwarf class is still going to be good at fighting and bad at magic, and so a player who wants a dwarven mage is out of luck.  (This is why I like keeping race and class separate, even though I hate synergy/builds/mechanical optimization.)

GLOG Design Rule #51: Class and race should be separate.  Race should be optional.  (All human campaigns are my favorite these days, with other races being unlocked as play progresses.)

And one more thing.

When a player chooses their class, they are sort of choosing their play style as well.

A player who chooses a barbarian tells the DM that they (probably) want to kick down doors, drink beer, and break shit.

A player who chooses a wizard tells the DM that they (probably) want to study problems, spend time in preparation, and overcome them in one fell swoop.

Et cetera.

I like that.  I think classes should be conducive to certain types of play styles.

So here's my idea: what if players picked classes to determine what role they wanted to play, but the table as a whole picks a single race to determine what type of game they want to play.

GLOG Design Rule #44: Races should be written as to encourage the whole party to pick a single race, and that choice of race should modulate the game in such a way so that it changes the way the entire party approaches the game.

snail man by Richard Partridge
Here are the most extreme examples.

Orcs have two racial abilities: Hatred and Hated.

If something almost kills you (forces you to roll on the Death and Dismemberment table, forces you to save vs. Death, etc) and you survive, you must draw a scar on your character sheet and label it with the name (or description) of the creature that almost killed you.  Thereafter, you get a permanent +2 bonus on all d20 rolls when attempting to kill it, or preventing it from killing you.

Every civilized place will treat you like shit.  Humans will kill you on sight.  Orcs will also kill you on sight, because you are not a part of their tribe.  Anything larger than a camp is going to be hostile to you.  There are no safe places to rest, sell, or trade.

People you meet in your adventures, in dungeons or in the wilderness, will treat you normally.  The wild places have fewer stigmas.

Everyone you travel with suffers the same stigma.  Orcish slaves are never kept, and orcish prisoners are always killed, so no fair using those excuses.

Since the penalty extends to the whole party, there's no reason not to stock the whole party with orcs.  It's a subtle encouragement to a whole-orc party.

It's also appropriate for a party who wants to play the game on Hard Mode.  Imagine this:

DM: Let's play Keep on the Borderlands again.

Players: Okay, but let's play orcs.

DM: Okay, but be aware that the keep will attack you on sight.  You'll have to rest in the wilderness, and you'll have no place to sell your stuff.

Players: We're ready!  Hur hur hur!  Gut the fuckin' humans!  Waaaaaaaaagh!

Halfling (Afner)
Halflings have two abilties: Small and Team Stealth.

Small creatures get no penalty for fighting in cramped spaces.  They eat half as much as a full-size human.

Small creatures must use armor and weapons sized for them.  Small weapons deal damage one die size smaller.  If they attempt to use regular weapons, they get -2 to hit.

Team Stealth
Halflings get +1 Stealth for every other halfling PC sneaking alongside them, up to a maximum of +4.  They lose this bonus if any participating halfling's player fails to speak in a whisper.

I know, I broke Rule #3 and Rule #48.  I gave them a passive bonus that synergizes with thiefy classes.  But I only did this because I love all-thief parties.  How much will the game change when the whole party has an extremely high chance of being able to sneak past so many combats?

Or put another way, how much does the game change when combats become more optional?

That's a knob that a DM has always had the power to turn, we just never admitted it as much.  (For example, by creating a house rule that says monsters never surprise the party, and the whole party can use the thief's stealth.)  It creates a very different game, man.

Iron Ghost People
The Iron Ghost People have one ability: Blink.

After meditating for a full round, you can teleport as far as 2 feet.  At-will.

One of the players is going to be reading the rulebook and have the epiphany of "Guys!  What if we were all Iron Ghost People and we could just get past every door in the dungeon!  We wouldn't care about locks!"

Their eyes would be wide with the possibilities.

And they're right.  This would change the game entirely.  Dungeon design sort of goes out the window as soon as you introduce something this game-changing into the game.  While orcs turn the game's difficulty up, they don't introduce anything revolutionary.

I'd say use this one with caution.  Remember, the DM chooses which races to allow in each game.


  1. There's some real food for thought here - a lot of this stuff I've never considered before, but it makes a lot of sense. That Hatred trait for Orcs is brilliant as well. Great work.

  2. I like the idea of having abilities that help the team as a whole. It's a really cool idea that really helps to encourage team work. One thing I've always wanted from races is to have cool abilities over just simple bonuses. Granted, it is harder to 'balance' if that's your thing, but it makes the races seem more fun. That actually includes humans. I always thought the "free feat/skill" thing was super boring. I've been trying to brainstorm better ideas for humans, but I haven't had much luck.

    1. give humans different abilities based on the region they came from, once you think like that, it gets much easier.

  3. Points taken, but perhaps there is something to be said for race-class synergy, that is, for races encouraging certain classes and classes encouraging certain races. For example, if a barbarian playstyle is (as you indicate) to run around killing people, breaking stuff, and getting blackout drunk, it might not be a bad thing for synergies to encourage players to choose a race of orc or dwarf for their barbarian!

    I do need to put more thought into the pros/cons of monoracial campaigns, though. I'm currently running an all-human campaign, but didn't think of that as a FEATURE, haha. I can definitely see how starting human but then "unlocking" races could be a cool dynamic, though. None of my PCs have died yet :( , but that very well may be an option when one does.

  4. Race/class synergy is important - if one isn't obvious, then the cultures populated by that race will be orthogonal to "normal" adventuring conceptions, requiring new classes.

    I think class unlocking is just as important as race unlocking - they are paired ideas.

    1. It's worth a full blog post, not just a comment, but I disagree with you. Race/class synergy is deh debbil. But two points:

      1. Adventurers and NPCs don't need to use the same char gen rules. NPC orcs can have -2 Int because it fits the fiction, but PC orcs don't need that shit. Along the same lines, NPC women might get -2 Str to fit the fiction, but female PCs shouldn't be bound by that. Let them roll their stats and then pick their class. If they want to be a genius orc, let them. They're already special snowflakes in so many other ways.

      2. It helps players play whatever character concept they want. If they want to be a dwarven sorcerer (which sounds cool--the literal son of a mountain) they shouldn't be punished mechanically.

    2. You're right that class and race/culture synergy is a much deeper issue, and I appreciate your two points.

      1. Both positions are viable.

      2. I support players realizing their character concept, whatever it is. For a 3.x and later game, the dwarf version of a sorcerer might not use Charisma as their primary attribute. Being "the son of a mountain", at least to me, seems to draw more from Con/Wis than Cha. Using either in place of Charisma enables the character's vision and further diversifies the world.

  5. On first read, I thought it said "Orcs have two racial abilities: Hatred and Hatred." A chuckle ensued.

  6. Just a quick question, especially as I really like this philosophy and was planning to use it for my RPG: How would you manage a Giant race?

    My first idea was that whenever they do any out-of-combat related to strength, they get to add half their strength again to their total (so, a character with 10 strength would be treated as though they had 15, a character with 20 would be treated as though they had 30, and so on). In exchange, they are really big, and so have troubles going through doors and that sort of thing.

    I might also add hp or damage in exchange for AC, but I'm not so sure.

    Would love to hear your thoughts!

    1. Fuck, that's a tough one. Maybe their power is fading, and their souls are peeling away from their body. They giant race is dying out, and their great strength comes only when they summon

      *Str 18 outside of combat
      *Larger weapons and armor. Larger weapons use a die size larger.
      *-2 to attack when in cramped quarters (i.e. every building in town, the average hallway)

      I don't know what sort of team ability to give them. Maybe let them build buildings really fast, like exponential Amish, as long as they have the raw materials.

      1 giant can build a raft or small bridge in 8 hours.
      2 giants can build a wooden house.
      3 giants can build a stone house.
      4 giants can build a stone tower.

      It'd change the game in a fun way, if the all giant party can just travel across the countryside, building goddamn towers everywhere.

    2. That's really cool, I like the building mechanic a lot. Creates situations like "If we had enough rocks and 8 hours..."

  7. This is a really engaging way to resolve character creation problems and party cohesion. Also Yeah the Orc traits are a cool addition to contemplate with regards to roleplaying. Do you think that the same kind of template could be applied, say, to a campaign that only featured humans, but humans of differing cultures? Or perhaps even having the party hinge upon all playing as the same class? Perhaps it would involve a more niche kind of campaign but could nevertheless be interesting.

  8. I like what you're putting on the plate here Arnold, but I gotta say - I'm a race as class guy. I just like worlds where non-humans are stymied and stuck in their cultural paradigms: Kitten Men will always be adorable con artists who try to act tough, Roach-people are natural engineers who are despised by everyone for their filthy habits, and the Imperial nobility are out of touch but have a natural affinity for spells, scholarship and dueling canes.

    I mean it's a different sort of game I guess, but I think your demi-human ideas (like the ones offered by Scrap recently)are solid.

  9. I like the party race/ player class dynamic.
    I'm not sold on your halflings though. How do you get stealthier by moving in groups? Do they point out the crunchy twigs to each other?
    Being small is already a good bonus that the whole party benefits from. THey fit through the narrow without leaving anybody behind, the whole party can hide beneath a table over cross over weak support beams and they require less gp worth of food and other materials. Halflings are all about leveraging their small size to open up new routes.