A Twist on Race as Class

The Races of Pathfinder (Source Unknown. Early Artwork?)As you may or may not be aware, some games use a system of race selection commonly called “race as class.” It’s primarily found in older games, or “retro clones,” which attempt to capture the spirit of older games. The basic concept is that some or all races (normally excluding humans) are both a race and a class combined. A player might select a human fighter, or a human wizard, but if they choose an elf, then they’re just an elf. Elves grow in power as they gain experience points and levels, just as a normal class would, but they can’t be elven fighters/clerics/rogues. It’s an idea which has fallen out of style in recent decades, and I think the hobby is better for it. There are those who disagree, and they have some very compelling arguments. It’s just not for me.

As glad as I am that race and class are now thoroughly divided concepts within gaming, it has come at a cost: racial distinction. When a human and an elf have completely different leveling progressions, it’s hard from them to be more distinct from one another. They are completely different. But when humans and elves are racial choices in a game where most of a character’s abilities and flavor will be defined by their class, racial distinction can be lost. Or, to put it another way, the elves can become “humans in funny hats.” This problem has only become more pronounced since the elimination of a “maximum level” for certain race/class combinations. I’m not saying I want those to come back either, I’m just saying we need to recognize the problems which these changes have created.

Throughout the third edition of Dungeons and Dragons, the choice of which race to play was almost irrelevant. A fighter was a fighter, regardless of whether it was an elf, a dwarf, or even a halfling. There’s no doubt that each race came with some sweet benefits. Getting 2 feats at first level when you played a human was amazing, but after first level the choice of being a human lost any kind of relevance. Rather than being a defining feature, a character’s race essentially became a very powerful feat which can only be taken at 1st level. Paizo attempted to address this problem in Pathfinder, and they succeeded somewhat. Essentially they made race into a much more powerful feat. One which has a more dramatic effect on a character than before. This isn’t terrible, but it’s certainly inelegant.

And when designing a set of rules which, ideally, people will largely be able to memorize; elegance is key.

Pathfinder Advanced Races Guide Cover ArtI’ve felt this way about races for some time, but I’ve never applied much thought to it. My thought has always been that race works better as a role playing element than as a mechanical element. But that does no justice to the concept of having races with different anatomies and abilities than humans have. The whole idea is for each race to be fantastical and unique; to be so different from humans that it can be difficult to find common ground. Dwarfs are more than Scottish accents and beer, and elves are more than nature loving know-it-alls. Choosing your race should have a powerful impact on your character’s abilities, flavor and progression!

Which brings me, finally, to my idea: what if the racial entries were simplified to the bare minimum, and each class progressed differently based on the character’s race?

Talking specifically about Pathfinder here, what if the 7 core races were boiled down to elements which would be universal to members of that race? For example, all humans are medium creatures, have a base land speed of 30ft, and that’s it. Everything else in the race entry is just fluff: descriptions of human appearance, what their society is like, etc. Other races might have an extra doo-dad or two, such as darkvision. But the racial entries themselves wouldn’t have bonuses or penalties to base ability scores, or other miscellaneous talents. Instead, all of that stuff would be moved to the class entries.

Each of the 9 class entries would have 7 small tables which detailed how the core races progressed through those classes. There would be, perhaps 5-10 levels where the character would gain racial abilities in addition to their class abilities, and those racial abilities would be unique to each class. An elven ranger, for example, could gain the ability to see great distances, whilst elven wizards and sorcerers would gain a +2 on their ability to overcome spell resistance. (“Logolys, what do your elf eyes see?” “I don’t know, I’m a Wizard!”) In essence, race and class are re-combined. But instead of the races being classes unto themselves, they modify whichever class they’re connected to. A player with an elven druid might be playing a very different class from a player with a dwarven druid.

This sounds complicated, I know. But consider this: in Pathfinder’s current form, racial entries contain a great deal of relevant information. Dwarfs get a +4 dodge bonus to AC against giants, Half Orcs can fight for one more round after they hit 0 HP, and gnomes get frickin’ spells if their charisma is high enough. These are the kinds of things which will almost never be written down on a player’s character sheet unless they anticipate needing to know it. That means that if they ever do need it, they’ll need to look it up in the book. This system condenses both racial and class abilities into a single, easily book-markable entry.

Still not convinced? What if I point out that Pathfinder is already doing something essentially like this? If you’ve ever picked up the Pathfinder Advanced Player’s Guide, you’ve probably seen the Class Archetypes. They’re on page 72 if you haven’t. Instead of having eleventy-billion poorly balanced prestige & base classes like 3.5 did, Pathfinder offers “alternate versions” of the 9 core classes, which replace certain abilities with others. In this way you can take a Rogue (as an example) and turn them into a Scout, or a Swashbuckler, or a Spy. My twist on “Race as Class” wouldn’t be any more complicated than this. The only difference is that instead of substitute abilities, racial selection would grant additional abilities.

Is there any game out there doing something like this? I know many of my readers are familiar with RPGs I’ve never even heard of, so let me know if I’m just re-wording a system which is already present in “Lords of the Twisty Tunnels,” or “Chop & Kick Kings.”

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17 thoughts on “A Twist on Race as Class”

  1. Last point first: the game that was my primary game for many years, In Nomine, has some of what you’re suggesting; instead of race and class, it has Choir (for angels)/Band (for demons) and Superior. Each Choir/Band has “racial” characteristics, and each Superior grants “class” characteristics, but they’re far more intertwined than that, and an Elohite of the Sword is going to play far differently from either an Elohite of Creation or a Malakite of the Sword, which is, I think, what you’re going for.

    (Disclaimer: I worked for SJG, and IN is one of the game systems I’ve written for, but I no longer have ties to the game.)

    Now – the post you linked is old and so I don’t feel comfortable with post necromancy, but the arguments put forth are compelling only on their surface – they break down rapidly under even trivial examination.

    Consider the dwarf example. Okay, dwarves are hewn from the very stone and have greed and industry in their veins. Fine. (This is blatantly not true of all dwarves, but I can understand that he’s addressing a specific game world.) But some of them can break their in-born mental blinders and go forth and adventure – otherwise they wouldn’t be playable as a race.

    This leads us to one of two conclusions:

    1) Every single dwarf who has ever removed those mental blinders has “broken” in precisely the same way, and so – unless you’re literally just seeing your character as numbers on a page against which to roll dice – there’s no point in playing one, because it’s going to be exactly the same as every other adventuring dwarf.

    2) Different dwarves remove their mental blinders in different ways, which by definition shunts them down different paths, and so it’s ridiculous on its face to say that every adventuring dwarf is identical.

    Either way, the argument is untenable from a roleplaying perspective.

    I don’t disagree that race should be an important aspect of system – in fact, I actively like the concept of class-linked racial abilities (like WOW’s priests had before Wrath). But I’m actively opposed to any system that removes roleplaying agency from the player as strongly as race-as-class, as suggested in the linked post, does.

    1. I fail to see how race-as-class removes agency. Class (any class) provides an archetype and some game mechanics. Playing a B/X elf removes no more agency than playing a B/X magic-user. It merely provides a set of abilities that the player can make use of (or not, it’s up to the player). Classes are always going to be less flexible in terms of game mechanics than systems that use a more pick and choose approach, but that is sort of the point. Classes + feats is kind of the in-between design.

      1. I’m pretty sure I explained how race-as-class removes roleplaying agency in my comment. I’m not sure what good repeating myself will do.

        If you’re okay with every Adventurer Dwarf breaking from the Basic Dwarf mold in exactly the same way and having exactly the same skills and abilities as every other Adventuring Dwarf, go for it; but understand that that is the mechanical consequence of race-as-class.

        Unless, as I said, you’re literally just seeing your character as numbers on a page against which to roll dice, in which case race and class could easily be indistinguishable. Then again, I’d walk out of a game like that, so I suppose my opinion doesn’t matter in that context.

        1. I think we’re using the word agency to mean different things. When I talk about agency, I’m talking about player choice mattering in game, not what powers a character has access to.

          In B/X there are no skills, feats, or powers. Here is the entirety of the dwarf class from Moldvay (page B9):

          Dwarves use eight sided dice (d8) to determine their hit points. They may advance to a maximum of 12th level of experience. Dwarves may use any type of armor and may use shields. They may use any type of weapon of normal or small size, but may not use long bows nor two handed swords. A dwarf character must have a minimum Constitution score of 9

          Dwarves are very hardy creatures and have better saving throws than most other character classes. Dwarves often live underground, and have infravision (heat sensing sight) which allows them to see 60 feet in the dark. They are expert miners and are able to find slanting passages, traps, shifting walls, and new construction one third of the time (a roll of 1 or 2 on 1d6) when looking for them.

          The only other details really are the attack progression and saving throw numbers.

          If a particular dwarf came from a non-standard culture, I would might tweak the architecture ability (or maybe not, maybe it’s a magical connection to stone and built structures).

          This is not about a character being constrained by numbers on a page, it is about those numbers only covering a small part of your character concept. The rest is absolute freedom, up to you! This is the exact opposite of just numbers on a page. You don’t need game mechanics to represent every character aspect.

          If you don’t like rules-lite systems, that’s a different thing, but there is no agency lost here.

          1. No, we’re talking about the same agency; we just have different perspectives on it.

            First – I’m wondering what’s missing in the ellipsis in that dwarf description.

            Second, you’ve actually just illustrated what I mean by loss of roleplaying agency.

            A dwarf who’s spent his entire life studying magic, who hasn’t trained in weapons at all, and who’s mostly worked by candlelight so his eyes are weaker than most? Still uses any weapon and armor except longbows or two-handed swords (never mind that he’s never trained with a single one of them), still has infravision (despite having weak eyesight), still an expert miner (notwithstanding that he’s never set foot in a mine). (And since I don’t know B/X, I assume that since it’s not explicit that dwarves can use magic, they can’t – and so this dwarf has either spent a lifetime as a pure academic or is chasing a goal that he literally can never achieve.)

            A dwarf who’s greedy to the point of avarice, and who routinely sends other people to do work for him, maximizing his return on effort, unless he’s absolutely forced to go out and do things? Still uses any weapon and armor except longbows or two-handed swords, still has infravision, still an expert miner.

            If you don’t consider those informed, enforced character traits losses of player agency, then I think we’re probably done.

            (And I suspect you’re using “rules-lite” in a jargony way, because as far as I’m concerned, the fewer rules that get between me and the character, the better.)

            1. Your uncreativity is showing.

              It’s from your assumptions that a dwarf’s vision can read marks on paper, to the idea that they can hold all the same materials that a human can, not blistering when holding wood.

              They are not human, and their sensation of existence is unknowable by us. Race as class helps you take that role (you, remember, the one that you choose — it isn’t forced on you).

              If you’re not open to doing anything but humans in funny hats, then that’s fine.

              But that doesn’t mean that a non-human you choose to play with certain limitations impacts your agency at all. You’re always free to pick another class.

              If you want to make choices without consequences, feel free to play some more modern games.

              It’s the consequence that makes the choice matter.

              1. Congratulations, sir, you have led a kind of silly conversation to its silliest possible conclusion. When one party decides to resort to “let’s invent rules and then get upset because the other party wasn’t abiding by them before we invented them”, there’s nowhere further for the discussion to go. Have fun.

            2. The ellipsis is actually there only because I was leaving out the section titles.

              Here is Moldvay’s dwarf class in full:


              Dwarves are short, stocky demi humans about four feet tall. All dwarves have long beards. They weigh about 150 pounds. Their skin is earth colored and their hair is dark brown, gray, or black. Stubborn but practical, dwarves love hearty meals and strong drink. They value good craftsmanship, and are very fond of gold. Dwarves are sturdy fighters and are especially resistant to magic, as shown by their better saving throws against magical attacks. The prime requisite for a dwarf character is Strength. A Strength score of 13 or greater will give a dwarf a bonus on earned experience points.

              RESTRICTIONS Dwarves use eight sided dice (d8) to determine their hit points. They may advance to a maximum of 12th level of experience. Dwarves may use any type of armor and may use shields. They may use any type of weapon of normal or small size, but may not use long bows nor two handed swords. A dwarf character must have a minimum Constitution score of 9.

              SPECIAL ABILITIES Dwarves are very hardy creatures and have better saving throws than most other character classes. Dwarves often live underground, and have infravision (heat sensing sight) which allows them to see 60 feet in the dark. They are expert miners and are able to find slanting passages, traps, shifting walls, and new construction one third of the time (a roll of 1 or 2 on ld6) when looking for them. All dwarves speak Common, Dwarvish, and the alignment tongue of the character plus the languages of gnomes kobolds and goblins.

              Obviously some of these details are just part of the implied setting. I was trying to highlight the rules part of the class since the rest is up to your imagination. No kobolds in your setting? Dwarves probably won’t be speaking kobold then.

    2. That post is only as old as the minute the person reads it.

      If those two conclusions are the only ones you can come up with, then you missed the numerous examples given in the very post itself, such as a geas or tragedy.

      Part of your difficulty with being able to comprehend ‘race as class’ and not ‘human in funny hat’ is thinking they have to stop being their race in order to become playable.

      If you define ‘role-playing agency’ as a choice divorced form consequence, then you misunderstand the meaning of agency. It indicates that you are allowed to make whatever choices you wish, so long as you are willing to bear the consequences.

      Choosing to play a non-human alien being and then complaining that they aren’t human is childish entitlement.

  2. ACKS does something similar to what you are proposing; race-as-class is maintained on the surface, but there are (potentially) multiple race-as-class options for each race. For example, there are elven spellswords (the traditional elf fighter/mage), elven nightblades (something like a thief/mage), and a few other options in expansions. This maintains the “inherently magical” nature of elves while offering multiple options in terms of game mechanics.

    From my ACKS review:

    ACKS goes out of its way to provide a modern facade while maintaining a classical essence. It has actually retained many of the most controversial aspects of old school D&D, such as race as class, but the essence is obscured because there are multiple classes for each demihuman race. For example, there are two elf classes available: the spellsword (fighter/mage, basically the traditional B/X elf) and nightblade (thief/mage). These classes are only available to elves, and are also the only classes an elf may choose. This retains the special demihuman flavor provided by race as class while sidestepping the issue of why elves can’t be thieves (or whatever). And all classes have level limits (ranging between 10 and 14). This is how I would play B/X, it just makes the human level limit explicit, and softens the level limit blow by not including any classes with extremely low level limits (like the B/X halfling, which only shows up as a monster). I think this design is masterful.


  3. Well, I think the contrary. I think that race should have more influence in the game and should influence the way every race sees the classes and, to this influence be incorporated in the role-play, there must be some mechanic differentiation.

    This change should reflect the cultures each race has, in our world there is a huge difference between a samurai and a knight and, while a samurai could learn how to use a longsword and use fullplate armor, it’s not in his cultural background. This degree of differentiation is not seen in fantastical races because they were engineered to one specific game function/class. The races don’t have a real cultural background that is the base for these changes.

    I remember two occasions in that Wizards tried to change the classes to fit into the races descriptions, the first was a 3.0 book that guided the players to make theirs heroes (I forgot the name), The changes were minimum, mostly some changes of skills and suggested feats. The second was in the “races of wild/stone/destiny”. In these books each basic race had class options for some levels in 3 classes (ex: elf had class options for ranger, paladin and wizard).

  4. I like your idea a great deal as a “fix” for 3.5 / Pathfinder — I agree that much of the fun of races is to have them be quite distinct from each other. Then again, I am one of those perverted oldsters who actually prefers race-as-class.

    1. That’s about where I stand. This idea is pretty good for Pathfinder. End result though? Your race is your class. :) I like things simple, I guess.

      The term “race-as-class” is kind of funny though, isn’t it? I think “class-as-race” might make more sense, although calling it a “class only” or “class based” game might be even better. The other terms imply some knowledge and expectation of the races being separate things, and also imply there’s something wrong with the game defining classes by what race a character is (which there isn’t.) And then in most later games you STILL get the effect of certain classes being the obvious and flat-out best choice for a given race due to racial ability bonuses and the need for certain high abilities in classes. Which again is basically “race-as-class” in the end result, only more complicated to set up and deal with.

      The reason why is probably this: In fiction, non-humans are stand-ins for types of humans or different human cultures, etc. That’s why it always boils down to race-as-class, in essence. They ARE pigeon-holed, it’s what makes them non-human and defines their race: it’s why we use non-humans in fiction at all. Only humans have access to the full range of options, the elves, dwarves, klingons or what have you are always highly stereotyped and fill specific roles because of tradition, duty, etc. You know, the exotic cultural things that make them feel more non-human to us.

      The exceptions to that should be just that: exceptions. Which any DM is free to invent with a player, but it should not be the standardized norm, or something is lost (see all the good-guy dark elf “Drizzt” clones of Forgotten Realms games, for instance.) Playing against type is interesting, but not if there is no type to play against. Once everyone can do it, you lose race identity.

      All that said, I do think the Pathfinder idea presented above works well with this, and is probably the best separated race idea I have seen. Why can’t WotC figure this kind of thing out for official D&D? They promised in development of 4E they’d make race matter throughout the PC’s career and we all saw how well that turned out.

  5. Other then attempting to communicate with the uncreative masses about a non-human non-human, I wanted to say, this is very similar to what I’m doing in my latest game.

    Players can multi-class with non-humans, picking from 1 to 3 of the basic classes, but their advancement in those classes is defined by their race.

  6. Exalted actually does something similar to this. It doesn’t use races, but does use different Exalt types, which greatly alter your abilities and prospects — a Lunar has a completely different playstyle from a Sidreal, for example. However, within each Exalt type, there are “castes”, which are roughly equivalent to classes. Each Exalt type has five castes, and, for the most part, they’re all virtually identical — with few exceptions, each class of Exalt has (in D&D terms) a fighter, a cleric, a rogue, a sorcerer, and a bard. However, the castes are subtly different depending on Exalt type, not just because of the major differences between Exalts in general. The Dawn, Full Moon, and Chosen of Battles castes are all roughly “fighters”, but they have different bonuses and abilities. So, I think that’s sort of similar to what you mentioned here.

    More information can be found here if you’re interested.

  7. I actually had been working on something of this sort myself, but, Paizo themselves actually beat us to it with the Advanced Races Guide.

    Race Archetypes for all!

    Well, ok, only a few examples, but some that give you the gist, which is cool.

    We’re slowly avoiding the funny hats problem now at least.

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