I've been so busy lately, I haven't had the chance to write about everything I've wanted to. I finally got my copies of the Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures rulebooks (the core rules, plus Further Afield and Heroes Young and Old) in the mail. I was going to write a full review of them, but then a bunch of stuff happened between school and family, and that's on back-burner now.
One thing that became apparent even on a cursory read-through, though, was that using a conversion of the D&D 5E engineer class wasn't going to cut the mustard—not balanced against the way magic works in BtW. Likewise, I can't use my own tech class from Engines & Empires; that was written explicitly to be balanced against BECMI magic-users and clerics.
But it's precisely my dissatisfaction with the D&D magic system (and the experience level scale generally) which led me to seek other games, like Barbarians of Lemuria and Risus. The fact that BtW lets me keep the basic D&D mechanics I'm so familiar with, but it uses a strict ten-level experience scale and a magic system that could've been lifted out of any one of my favorite fantasy novels? That's priceless. That's the RPG I want to play for the rest of my life.
The only problem is, if I want to play this game in a steampunk setting (like I do), I need a technologist class balanced out with the BtW mage—and I've got one coming along now. It still needs a lot of work, but I've noticed two funny things:
1) The BtW mage is a really easy class to balance a steampunk inventor class against. The mage's cantrips, spells, and rituals have an easy analogue in technological gadgets (that do something simple and not very powerful), alchemical preparations (one per day per level, just like a mage's spells, for a variety of effects that make up the backbone of the class's power), and high-tech inventions (which, like rituals, take a lot of time and money and don't have to be terribly portable).
2) Building a tech class that looks like this has wound up reminding me a great deal of how my friends and I handed technology back when we played AD&D in high school, when we were just sort of winging the way everything worked and making it up as we went along. Which says to me that what I'm doing here is a fairly natural and organic way to represent these game mechanics. It feels right.
So I'll go into more detail on that once I have a finished, working tech class in a self-contained document. (Writing up the stats on a sufficient number of inventions is rather time-consuming.) Today, though, I wanted to talk about demi-humans and how they're handled in D&D. I've touched in this before, but I can't remember having gone in-depth.
There exists a certain tension inherent in having non-human protagonists in fantasy and science fiction. Whether we're talking about elves or aliens or robots or whatever, it's impossible to identify with something that doesn't at least appear to have a human psychology. (Along those same lines, anything which is superhumanly powerful is apt to have a psychology which is very difficult to identify with.) For those reasons, it's generally important to keep playable non-humans in a fantasy RPG (or playable aliens in a sci-fi RPG) at least superficially human-like: more or less human-shaped, not too powerful, and basically mortal. D&D elves have been a far cry from Tolkien's immortal Eldar for a long time (their lifespan dropping with each successive edition of the game—1200 years in 2nd edition, 700 years in 3rd edition, 300 years in 4th edition) for this very reason.
And, yet, at the same time, we want to have these non-human beings be, well, inhuman, for various narrative and world-building reasons. The old-school renaissance is particularly enamored with "alien" demi-humans for a couple of reasons;
• A preference for "humanocentric" low fantasy literature (Conan the barbarian doesn't have any elf-friends)
• A certain disdain for the way 3rd edition D&D "opened the floodgates" on playable races (including monsters and templates)
• Plain old nostalgia for the way B/X D&D introduced "race as class"
I like race-as-class (and used it in Engines & Empires) for similar reasons. It emphasizes the "otherness" of the nonhumans, it limits players' inclination to choose them over human characters, and it keeps them stereotypical—B/X elves, dwarves, and halflings feel a lot like Elrond, Thorin, and Bilbo. It's good genre-emulation for Tolkienesque fantasy. (Well, The Hobbit anyway.)
But there are also a couple of problems with this approach:
• Players don't like being shoehorned into a single class due to their choice of race/species. To most players (especially those raised on AD&D and its descendants), it's draconian and nonsensical.
• B/X racial classes do a good job capturing the general feel of fantasy races, but they fail in the specific details. In fantasy novels, most of the time, demihuman races really are more human than not. (Tolkien's elves are an exception, but there's nothing you can do about that except make the really powerful elves unplayable.) Tolkien's dwarves can't see in the dark, and his hobbits are literally human—they're an offshoot of the Edain, making them a subspecies of mortal men.
For reasons like this, I've tended in recent times to avoid race-as-class. I'm also teetering on the brink of eliminating game-mechanical racial abilities for most playable demi-humans unless absolutely necessary. But in practice, this latter tendency leads to everything feeling kind of "samey" at the game table, I don't really want that. So what to do?
The answer came to me from browsing through Men & Magic, volume I of OD&D. It reminded me that even the very original D&D game had split-class multi-classing, and the degree to which an elf character took advantage of this was (arguably) up to the player. The player could go into an adventure as either a fighter or a magic-user, and it's unclear as to whether XP was split evenly between the classes or went to the class that was used during that adventure (presumably, it was up to the referee's interpretation). This is idiosyncratic and primitive and was very quickly replaced by AD&D's fully fleshed-out multi-classing system. But I also feel like there's something there that I can use…
So come along with me on this. At the moment, I'm running a game that has five playable races common to the setting: humans, fairies, dwarfs, goblins, ogres. Fairly standard, except that I've shuffled some names around and tried to root them in folklore more than fantasy.
I also have only four classes in this game: fighters, experts, mages, and techs. (My expert class, like the BtW rogue, now uses the cleric's XP chart—0; 1500; 3000…—while my tech class is using the B/X dwarf or 2e psionicist progression—0; 2200; 4400….)
When I started this campaign, all of the non-humans had one racial ability, and one pair of scores that got a +1 bonus/−1 penalty adjustment. To balance this out, humans got +1 on all ability scores. Now I wish that I hadn't done this, because I think I've come up a better way to go.
Run humans by the book. No ability adjustments, no special perks. Their ability is that they can pick any one of the four basic classes and run it up to the highest level (which is 10th in Beyond the Wall).
For the non-humans, instead of adjusting their ability scores ±1 in a few places like AD&D, I toyed with the idea of having the player roll the stat that's supposed to get the bonus on 4d6-drop-lowest and the penalized stat on 4d6-drop-highest; but I figured that that might push things off the rails. So instead, I hit upon this gem: the player rolls the stats in order, but then, if the "bonus" stat is lower than the "penalty" stat, they get switched.
Fairies are Cha up, Int down. Dwarfs are Dex up, Str down. Goblins are Int up, Cha down. And Ogres are Str up, Int down. To see how this system works, I'll roll up a set of stats:
A human would leave these stats be. But if the player elects to play a fairy, the Int is higher than the Cha, and so they have to be swapped—Int 10, Cha 15. If the player chooses a dwarf, the Str becomes 8 and the Dex becomes 9 (barely meaningful, but that's good—average rolls of the dice wind up making average characters). A goblin would leave the stats as they are, since the Int is higher than the Cha. And an ogre would change them around to Str 15, Int 9.
So already, a single set of stats looks pretty different for each non-human race, without the bother of extra dice or bonuses and penalties that can shift everything off the bell-curve. That alone is worth the price of admission—I wish I'd thought of this a month ago, before my current campaign got off the ground, because there's no way to implement it now.
But now, let's bring in the kicker: humans and only humans get to pick a single class (and hope to raise it to 10th level). All of the non-humans have to belong to two classes, one of which is favored by their race (viz. fighter for ogres, mage for fairies, expert for dwarfs, tech for goblins). And since there are only a few classes, it makes sense to come up with some flavorful combinations that make sense for each race:
• Ogres can be fighter/experts ("barbarians") or fighter/mages ("shamans").
• Dwarfs can be fighter/experts ("rangers") or expert/mages ("tricksters").
• Fairies can be fighter/mages ("druids") or expert/mages ("bards").
• Goblins can be fighter/techs ("sappers") or expert/techs ("engineers").
The amount of XP required to carry a single-classed human to level 10 would bring most split-class demi-humans up past 8th level in both classes, and so that's a good benchmark for the level limit: demi-humans can only reach level 8/8 in their classes. Generally speaking, this gives most of them only a few more hit points at 8th level (from their tougher class) than a 10th level member of their weaker class would have (which is just about perfect).
Getting to the nitty-gritty of advancement, much like AD&D multi-classing, characters would use the best stats (attacks, saves) from their classes; but I'd extend this to hit points too, using the HP from the tougher class only (instead of averaging it).
To balance things out at 1st level, non-human characters would only have access to the class abilities of their primary class (again, fighter for ogres, expert for dwarfs, etc.) and would start at a negative XP total equal to half the amount needed to reach 2nd level in the secondary class.
For example, a dwarf ranger would start the game effectively identical to a human expert, but with -1,000 XP. All XP earned would go to eliminating this initial XP penalty, until the character reaches 0 XP. At that point, the character would acquire the abilities of a 1st level fighter (including the hit points associated with that class), and from that point on, the character's XP total and all XP earned would be split, 0/0 out of 1,500/2,000, with all XP divided evenly between the classes until the character reached 120,000/120,000 XP, which is enough to be 8th level in both the expert and fighter classes.
Note that at this point, any human characters in the party would be at or near 9th level, with the potential remaining to advance up to 10th. And that's another feature I kind of like: a stage of the game where demi-humans' players will feel their level limit, but it's only for the span of one level—when human characters hit level 10, they smack into a level cap of their own, and then everyone's in the same boat, and the demi-humans aren't so much weaker that they can't adventure with 10th level humans.
Now, since I'm using XP-for-treasure-spent (and specifically, characters only get XP for treasure wasted on nothing that mechanically benefits them), there are still plenty of reasons to keep adventuring at this point. In fact, it would be downright liberating for players to find all of their treasure freed up for strongholds, armies, magical items, and high-tech inventions. That would be other curious effect of this system: while human players will be ambitiously wasting their treasure trying to reach 10th level, demi-humans will get a jump on their strongholds, or that powerful magical item they've wanted to craft all campaign long, and start settling down and focusing on personal pursuits. (Again, in keeping with what was expected of demi-human characters who hit their level caps in B/X.) But it works out in a way that doesn't eliminate them from gameplay!