A Rant on Racial Prerequisites

I’ve been asked why I don’t like racial prerequisites (or, as I like to call them, racist prerequisites), and I don’t think I have a clear, logical answer, certainly not the kind that will sway everybody to my viewpoint. The easiest way to describe it is that it “just bothers me”, much like how the texture of a tomato can be more off-putting than the actual taste. I’m certainly not going to the length of ignoring them in my campaigns or, worse, ignoring anything with them, but I think a looser interpretation of them is the best way to go.

I guess it comes down to egalitarianism or something like it, that I don’t like the idea that some characters are, by way of birth, banned from certain character paths. To be fair, we’ve come a long way from the early days of D&D, where elf and dwarf were classes. D&D has managed to go almost all the way through 3rd and 4th Edition without restricting character options based on gender or height or skin color, but restricting things by race is normal and expected, as early as the D&D 3.0 Dungeon Master’s Guide and as late as Heroes of the Feywild. Why is it alright to prevent players or characters from certain builds based on race, when everything similar is taboo?

What really gets me are racial feats that leverage something in training. There’s a feat in the 4.0 Player’s Handbook that gives dwarves proficiency in all hammers and a damage bonus with them. That is, every dwarf can learn how to use every hammer at the cost of one feat. For a normal, martial dwarven society, this may make sense. But what if you have a dwarven wizard or rogue, who doesn’t follow the path of the archetypal dwarven soldier? Weirder, what if you have a dwarf raised outside a dwarven society, like one brought up around elves or raised by wolves? Should all dwarves, regardless of upbringing, have hammers so ingrained in their racial background that any dwarf can learn every hammer with a minimum of effort?

This goes the other way, too. Say a human or elf is born in a dwarven society and raised in the mold of the soldier. They’ve spent their whole career using hammers. So why can’t they qualify for the same weapon training as every dwarf around them? And this gets really ridiculous when the two points are combined: a human fighter training for their entire life will never be as good with hammers as a dwarven wizard can be in a week.

I don’t approve of abolishing all racial prerequisites, because some of them make sense. Dragonborn, for example, have a breath weapon. Only dragonborn can take feats that modify this breath weapon. No problem here. There’s no purpose in an elf taking a feat that increases the range of dwarven darkvision, or in an orc taking a halfling feat that takes advantage of their Small size category. But there are far more feats, especially in 4th Edition, that just make some races better than others at something without a real explanation.

Other racial properties tend not to bother me, maybe because they’re surmountable. A dwarf has a racial bonus to Constitution and an elf doesn’t, so all else equal, the dwarf is tougher. But if that dwarf is a wizard, putting his focus into Intelligence and Wisdom, and the elf is a ranger, putting focus into Dexterity and Constitution, that elf will eventually surpass the dwarf, probably even at level 1 when the dwarf puts a lower ability score roll into Constitution. Also, I get the feeling that racial properties tend to be less powerful because they’re always present, and often they’re even not as good as a feat. Goliaths can roll twice for Athletics checks to jump and climb, but there’s a paragon-level feat that gives any character the same benefit on all Athletics and Acrobatics checks. So all goliaths are natural athletes, but anybody can surpass their racial advantage with sufficient training.

In 3rd Edition, I tended to ignore racial requirements with a sufficient story reason. A human training with dwarves who meets all other prerequisites can become a dwarven defender, in the same way that a shape-changing construct can take a prestige class reserved for humans and dopplegangers. 4th Edition made this a lot wackier, and I’m not sure how to approach it. In a lot of the books, many feats have racial prerequisites. I cracked open Martial Power 1 to verify this just now, and out of 182 non-multiclass feats, I counted 81 racial prerequisites. This is actually fewer than I thought it was, but epic level skewed the numbers a bit. In heroic and paragon tiers, 71 out of 140 feats were racial, or more than 50%. I can’t expect anybody to review all of the possible interactions among these feats when racial prerequisites are ignored, not even starting on paragon paths. Regardless of my trust in my players, I’m worried that there are too many ways to combine too many things that can break the game wide open.

So I’m stuck accepting racist prerequisites, wishing for the halcyon days of 3rd Edition and Pathfinder campaigns, when the designers weren’t quite as intent on putting characters into adorable little boxes based on race. It’s the last piece of equality that the designers are willfully ignoring, and there’s not really anything that anybody can do about it.

I was actually going to have a paragraph in this post about how WotC created some races and then completely ignored them, and how they’re banned from so much later material. Fo example, the bugbear is a playable race in 4th Edition, introduced way back in the Monster Manual. But since it’s not a ‘PC’ race, it gets no feats, optional utility powers, paragon paths, or anything else. Whole chapters of whole books are completely worthless to them, because the designers feel no need to allow them to play the same game as everybody else. But that was before we started working on the Savage Species for 4th Edition, a book designed to correct a lot of these wrongs, so for us at least I feel the severity of that complaint has somewhat lessened.

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2 Responses to A Rant on Racial Prerequisites

  1. D says:

    You might let characters choose an ‘honorary’ race as a background option. I believe feats that require a specific power (i.e. improved Dragonborn Breath) have the power itself as a prerequisite in addition to the race.

  2. Dave Fried says:

    The problem here seems to be more that 4E characters are kind of black boxes. You make a few choices up front – mostly class and build – and then you get about four race choices (give or take, more with the Essentials updates) which fit your initial choice. The only appreciable differences between the races are typically a fairly weak encounter power and access to later options like feats or the occasional paragon path. In other words, race is a game-mechanical choice in 4E far more than a story choice.

    4E is not an attempt at simulation. It’s not about living in a realistic world filled with elves and dwarves (and bladelings and drow and eladrin and…). The game says to you, “how do you want to be awesome? Here are the available ways:” They then push you very hard towards one of those good ideas and away from the others.

    I understand that for folks like you and me, that completely breaks the fiction. Why can the dwarven sorcerer (as if you’d ever play a dwarven sorcerer in 4E!) use all hammers better than nearly any human, even if she grew up among elves? The designers answer is: don’t think too hard about it. Just enjoy the fact that she gets a decent weapon to make opportunity attacks with. That’s not going to be satisfying to everyone.

    I’m currently listening to a recording of a convention panel with Kenneth Hite, who is a long-time game reviewer and game designer. He points out that the original point of D&D was simply to create a veneer of continuity between tabletop wargame battles, and the different editions are just variations on that. He said that the main difference between 3.x/PF and 4E was that 4E pretty much got combat perfect (the word he uses is “crystalline”), but isn’t as good as previous editions with the continuity part. I think he’s right. 4E is way more focused, but it gives up a lot to do that. One of the things that’s lost is the immersive factor. Which is why a lot of people gravitate to games like Pathfinder instead.

    Getting back to your original point: I agree with you to an extent, but I’m also willing to accept a game world where certain races face certain restrictions for physical or cultural reasons. For example, in the world of Dragon Age, dwarves can’t do magic, period, due having a racial resistance to lyrium, a mineral/drug which is required for casting spells. They have that resistance because they live underground, among lyrium veins, and if they weren’t resistant it would kill them or drive them mad. If something like that is part of the flavor of the world, then I don’t have a problem with someone telling me, “no, your dwarf can’t be a wizard.”

    But yeah, a rule that says that “dwarves are just better at hammers than anyone else, regardless of upbringing or training” is dumb. I’m currently reading Luke Crane’s Burning Wheel, which is a very simulationist game that makes very little attempt at game balance at all (in many ways it’s the polar opposite of 4E among rules-heavy fantasy games). Burning Wheel I think solves your problem using a “lifepath” system which forces you to basically justify every skill and ability choice you make in the context of your birth, upbringing, and chosen profession(s). So while people of different birth (or if you’re playing with non-humans, different races) are restricted, they are only restricted for story reasons, and each race has completely different abilities and rules which make them feel unique, and not like “short people who are good at hammers” or “tall people who run fast and shoot bows good”.

    (As an aside, I’m planning to write an analysis/review of Burning Wheel at some point in the near future, if you’re interested.)

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