Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Heritage and Race:  Creating New Rules    

Earlier, I talked about race in Pathfinder and I suggested different ways to break that concept down.  There are a few other issues with the way that Pathfinder (and Dungeons & Dragons) handles race that have less to do with story and more to do with system mechanics (but can be solved in ways that make better story!)  And there is one other elephant in the room that I want to talk about, and that is the concept of racial hatred.

In Dungeons & Dragons, humanity was always the default.  Races that were not human had advantages mainly in how they could multiclass.  Specifically, humans couldn't do it, but certain multiclass combinations were available only to characters of certain races.  This was "balanced" by a number of factors, including level caps for certain classes and experience point requirements for making level.  It was all fairly cludgy and got entirely rewritten when Third Edition came out.

However, some of the concepts from prior games continued to build on each other, until by the time you reach Pathfinder, race plays a huge role in your game and has a ton of game mechanics.

Again, let's use Elves as an example.

Here are the things that choosing an Elf as your character involve, in terms of what you need to keep track of and write down on your character sheet:
  • Ability Scores:  Elves gain +2 Dexterity, +2 Intelligence, and -2 Constitution
  • Subtype:  Elves have a subtype of Humanoid (Elf) which comes into play very rarely in the game (for situations such as when an opponent has Favored Enemy).
  • Languages:  Common and Elven, and then a particular list for bonus languages due to having a high Intelligence.
  • Immunity to magical sleep effects.
  • +2 bonus to save vs. enchantment spells and effects.
  • +2 bonus on Perception.
  • +2 caster level check to overcome spell resistance.
  • +2 bonus on Spellcraft, only for purposes of identifying magic items.
  • Proficiency with longbows, composite longbows, shortbows, composite shortbows, longswords, and rapiers.
  • Treat any weapon with the word "elven" in it as a martial weapon.
  • Low-light vision
  • There are also tables for rolling height, weight, and age (although, to be fair, those things rarely are used in the game at all.)
Some of these things you can write on your character sheet and more or less forget about for the rest of the game (subtype).  Some of them will not come into play unless you are playing a specific class (overcoming spell resistance).  Some of them will be completely useless to you if you are playing certain classes (weapon proficiencies).  Several of them are exceptions to general rules that you must write out on your character sheet if you haven't got them memorized (bonus to save vs. enchantment, bonus to Spellcraft only in one particular situation).  Note that most character sheets will not have room for you to write this in easily.

This is not, however, the end of your decisions regarding race!  There are currently forty alternate racial traits listed in the Pathfinder SRD, each with its own rules, prerequisites, etc., that you may want to use to replace some of the traits you already have.  In fact, you may feel cheated if you don't, since the fighter you are making has no use for three of the traits on the list.  If you haven't chosen a class yet, you may want to examine the favored class options, each of which grants a very specific, but tiny, reward every time you level up in the class you have chosen as "favored" (which could be any class available).  There are also racial archetypes that will change certain class abilities, racial feats that are only available to elves, and racial prestige classes that only elves can aspire to.

I could, if I wanted to, create an "elf" who had the racial traits of creepy, darkvision, fleet footed, and elemental resistance: cold, which would replace every trait above except for the ability score modifiers.  I am now, essentially, playing an entirely different race.

I am all in favor of empowering the player with many different choices when it comes to character creation.  But I am not in favor of drowning players with unnecessary rules and paperwork in order for them to customize their character the way that they want to.  So my question was, how can I keep all of these wonderful options for players, and simplify the rules so that they are more accessible, but still serve the purpose of having distinct heritages in the game?

Tinkering with Heritage

When I am running a game, I generally have a good sense of the cultures that are in the part of the world that is the setting for the game.  As a gamemaster, I might give the players a list of these, where elves look like the write-up that I used in an earlier post:

Elven Heritage Traits
  • Languages:  Common and Elven
  • Nocturnal:  low-light vision
  • Wilderness Dwellers:  +2 Perception, +2 Knowledge (nature)
  • Arcane Magic Users:  +2 Spellcraft
It is similar to the list above, except shorter, and with fewer specific rules (for example, the bonus to Spellcraft is not limited by what you are using the skill for.)  I've standardized it by including only one special trait (low-light vision) and three skill bonuses.  Suppose a player is building an elven fighter.  "I want to play an elf," they say, "but I'm never going to use Spellcraft."  "Can I swap that out for something else?"  I might suggest that there are two ways to approach this problem that don't involve just taking the same heritage and changing what it does.

Option One:  Create a different heritage.  If you look at my creepy elf with darkvision above, you can see the potential for a different heritage there.  These elves live underground in cold caverns, spearing fish like Gollum and scuttling away from torchlight.  Allowing a player to create a new heritage is going to make my game world richer and more interesting.  Sharing the world-building will allow players to be more invested in the game.  If it is something that is a problem with the story I have planned, compromise may be necessary, but more often I find that this is a win/win situation.

Option Two:   Have a blended heritage.  Perhaps there is another heritage on the list that has something this player feels fits their character better.  I would allow the player to take both, and choose one special trait and three skill bonuses from the combined list.  Perhaps one parent was from a family of forest elves, but another was from a nomadic horse-riding culture.  The player could take a +2 on Ride from the second heritage, which suits their fighter character better.  In addition, they now have some additional back-story for their character.

Removing Racial Hatred from the Game

It is true that part of having a heritage means dealing with the ugliness of hatred.  My own upbringing, in the deep South, certainly featured a lot of hatred.  It is a heritage that I have had to outgrow and leave behind as a result.  But fantasy roleplaying games, such as D&D and Pathfinder, often try to spin hatred of another race into positive storytelling.  It is clumsily done, generally identifying one race as "evil" and giving another race bonuses when fighting them.  There are several ways that enmity between heritages can come into a story.  Let's consider whether any of these need support from the rules, and how best to accomplish that.

In one example scenario, two individuals meet who come from different cultures.  Neither is in their homeland.  There is a long-standing enmity between their cultures, due to past historical events, and perhaps even current warfare.  No matter how the individuals react, it is going to be good for the story.  If they struggle with this enmity, then seeing that struggle is good story.  If they try rise above their differences, that is good story.  If they decide to rebel against the hatred of their culture, and work to make peace, that is good story.  What is not good story is if the players feel forced to be hateful to each other because the rules push them in that direction.

In another scenario, a person from a foreign culture has entered a place that is unfamiliar, and possible hostile to them.  Here, the struggle can be shown less as one individual vs. another, and more one individual vs. their environment.  Just as other hostile environments are supported in the rules, so can a hostile culture.  For example, the character might have a penalty on all Charisma based rolls while in this place.  The rules present an obstacle to the player, which they must then figure out how to overcome, resulting in an interesting story element.

In the final scenario, the gamemaster has designed an adventure where the people of one culture are the villains.  This is certainly a common fantasy trope, but I would argue, it is an over-used one.  In reality, identifying the culture of a villainous individual or organization is rarely sufficient to determine their motivations.  And painting an entire culture as evil has disastrous real-world effects.  It is almost always a better idea to create a villainous organization, perhaps operating within a culture, but not the entirety of it.  The rules can support this by not having any fantasy heritage labeled as "evil" or "thieving" or "bestial" or any of the other real world prejudices that people face, based on their heritage.

This blog is funded by my Patreon! All proceeds are donated toward making gaming a more fun and more diverse place! Thank you so much to all my Patrons!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.