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.
I’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.”