As I was writing Fantastical Places: The Crypt of Ommos, I was frustrated that the nameless Halfling mentioned in the fiction is not viable as a player character (it’s implied that he’s a Fighter with a high Strength) and that reminded me of an idea that my friend Josh and I had shortly after Gamma World came out. To be honest, this isn’t really my idea. I’m just taking something from Gamma World and applying it to 4e.
When selecting bonus attributes (the +2 to one or two attributes), you select one of the attributes listed for your race (it does not have to be the primary) and one of the attributes listed for your class (it does not have to be that class’s attack stat). You may not select the same attribute twice. Humans only gain the bonus for their class.
Let that sink in for a moment, then I’ll answer your questions.
Doesn’t this encourage power creep/optimization?
I don’t think so. As it stands, someone who wants to play a specific class and is more interested in mechanics than characterization is already going to choose the race that gives him the best fit. My method gives him access to a different set of racial feats and powers, but there aren’t that many places in the system where balance is maintained by creating a disincentive for certain races to play certain classes. Conversely, there are a fair number of feats that don’t see much use because they’re tied to a race/class combo that isn’t viable.
What do you mean by viable? Aren’t you just saying that everyone needs to start at 18 in their attack stat?
No matter how emotionally invested a player is in their character, they notice when their character underperforms when compared to their peers (unless, of course, they’re playing at a highly abstracted table, in which case no one is caring about mechanics) and nowhere is the difference more noticeable than in hit ratios. Missing is that big a deal. Once a player has realized this, the hunt for +hit begins and the process of character creation becomes inverted.
Ideally, we would like for players to look at character options and say “this fits with my character concept”. Instead, what we see is players starting with maximized +hit as the default, then choosing how much of it they’re willing to sacrifice, which isn’t much. This is why weapons with a +2 proficiency bonus remain unpopular, despite repeated attempts to make them more attractive. There’s also the fact that video games have taught gamers to “stat hump.” If you’re serious about World of Warcraft, for example, and play a Death Knight, you’re always looking for more Strength*.
A 5% increased chance to miss isn’t actually crippling. It’s really only going to make a difference once every three or four fights, but it feels much worse to the player. This is where we hit the real issue of “viability.” A character that starts with a 16 or 17 in the attack stat isn’t going to explode in a shower of gore the first time they get hit, but because of the way players perceive the value of hitting, that character is much less likely to see play in the first place.
Why can’t someone just pay “full price” for their 18?
Again, there’s nothing mechanically that stops them from doing this. However, I have two issues with it. The first is Multiple Attribute Dependency (MAD). Some classes are narrow in their stat requirements (Wizard). Some classes require an array of stats (Paladin, Warlord). Try making a Warlord with Tactical Presence that isn’t a Genasi and tell me how excited you feel about that character. If you’re like most people, you’re more conscious of the compromises required to make it work than the possibilities. What happens is that the race/class pairing ends up trumping other considerations for a lot of people.
My other concern is the high cost of being unique. Part of the purpose of attribute systems is to maintain a certain amount of thematic identity. How is an Elf different from any other PC race if being strong is no more difficult for them to “buy” than for anyone else? Actually, in previous editions, this was enforced more thoroughly through the use of penalties, which effectively closed the door on many character concepts.
What I don’t agree with, however, is that charging characters more to break the mold has the desired effect. Does the guy who takes an 18 Dex on a Dwarf feel special? My guess is probably not. He’s actually being punished for playing a concept, because he doesn’t get anything that an Elf or Halfling wouldn’t get. In fact, he gets less.
How, then, is this not damaging racial themes?
It’s not difficult to maintain theme through NPCs. In fact, the PCs were always supposed to be the exception. One person who decides to play a strong Halfling or an agile Dwarf doesn’t change the basic flavor of those races. In fact, I would argue that opening up more class options – but only for PCs – actually improves theme.
Let’s say that one of my players comes to me and says, “I have this really cool idea for a Half-Orc Wizard. He thinks that the reason that Orcs and Half-Orcs are second-class citizens is because they don’t have access to magic. Oh, they’re pretty good with a sword or their fists, but they aren’t smart enough to use the other technologies (arcane and divine magic) and they lose out as a result.” To begin with, this is exactly the sort of second-tier character design that I want to endorse. It isn’t “I’m the son of a blacksmith…” It’s a background that establishes what the character thinks and feels. By contrast, if I see another Dragonborn Paladin that’s a Paladin “just because”, I might punch myself in the crotch until I lose consciousness. It would probably be less painful.
The larger point is that defining the exception strengthens the stereotype. I know a bunch of you are scratching your heads at that statement, but it’s true. When you sit down and give examples of how something differs from the norm, you are reaffirming the norm. That is, you have accepted and internalized the norm.
Okay, so maybe this isn’t bad, but how is it good?
I think that it gives character creation a much-needed injection of characterization over mechanics. Most characters are built something like this:
- What role does the party need/what role do I want to play?
- What class interests me that fills that role?
- What races work well with that class?
- … details.
My suggestion changes step 3 because many more races “work well with a class”, meaning that players will consider options that they would otherwise have dismissed. Eladrin Battlemind? Sure, why not? Halfling Barbarian? Sign me up!
What do you think?
* – This is a huge generalization intended to make a point. I’m fully aware that there are other considerations based on gear, role and spec.