Home > Foes & Fortunes > Race as Class

Race as Class

A variation on Chimera character classes

Picture this: Pennsylvania, 1983. A young boy (finally) figures out how to play D&D using Moldvay Basic. It’s the coolest game he’s ever played, and he creates several of each character class. It’s a hoot, until he considers a dwarf cleric or a halfling thief. It is the genesis of a sad confusion that will last the next 20 years of his life.

Working Premises

For those unfamiliar with “Race as Class,” it works like this: your character’s profession denotes his species type. Thus, in Moldvay Basic, if you choose cleric, fighter, magic-user, or thief, your character is automatically human. If you choose dwarf, elf, or halfling, then, well, your character is a dwarf, elf, or a halfling.

race as class

Race as Classes

On the surface, this can seem to limit the creativity for both player and GM: Does the campaign include non-human gods if non-humans can’t be clerics? If dwarfs can’t be magic-users, who makes magical dwarf weapons and armour? You’re telling me that every elf knows how to cast spells and none is more than 10th-level? It can be hard to reconcile within the context of a fantasy setting, particularly since other versions of D&D made class and race totally separate.

Yet, for Basic, it did help make character generation faster, and the game is a bit more streamlined as a result. And, aside from certain mechanical advantages, the concept does impose some not-so-illogical assumptions about human-centric fantasy settings:

Humans are the most adaptable
When they reach adventuring age, humans can branch out in one of four directions: cleric, fighter, magic-user, or thief. Each is a separate line of work, requiring training in separate disciplines, as evidenced by the prime requisite for each class. Whereas a human could focus on one of four attributes (Wisdom, Strength, Intelligence, or Dexterity), a dwarf, elf, or halfling adventurer always has the same prime requisite.

Demi-humans don’t like adventures
As a corollary to the above, the average dwarf, elf, or halfling would rather stick around the forge, grove, or hearth than go on adventures. I base this on the logical assumption that there are dwarf priests, elf wizards, and halfling sheriffs—it just makes sense that these types exist in the campaign. But, since they’re not available as classes, it’s clear that they don’t go adventuring. They’re just NPCs, likely with better things to do, which reminds me that…

Demi-humans are more industrious than humans
In a world where you can get rich by adventuring, humans are all fired up for the easy money, as suggested by their class diversity. They figured out four paths to the get-rich-quickery of going on adventures. That demi-humans are more uniform adventurers tells me that, culturally, they earn their money the old fashioned way (and with their traditionally longer lifespans, this is probably OK with them).

My D&D Solution

For me, the Holy Grail was a way to create new classes—like dwarf priest or elf wizard or halfling rogue—that could work alongside the canonical classes. After many failed and aborted attempts, fast-forward to the early aughts and my own guidelines for Building the Perfect Class.

That system reverse-engineered the existing classes by assigning each class/race ability an Experience Point (XP) value. You could then create any race-as-class combo you wanted, simply by adding abilities and summing the total XP value.

How Chimera Does It

Now I told you that story so I could tell you another one: Chimera makes it very easy to adopt the Race as Class model. The secret is in the “pay-for-play” approach.

Just as in Building the Perfect Class, Chimera lets you create any class you want, so long as you pay for it. In Chimera terms, this means Wound Limit, Abilities, and Perks don’t come for free—the more you have, the higher the class’ Advancement Cost (AdCost).

As a side benefit, Special Perks helps you avoid the “carbon-copy” problems of D&D’s race-as-class mode. Special Perks are optional abilities (i.e., not quite inherent) that are unique to the class (or race), and you can add some, all, or none, at your discretion. For each Sperk you choose, you simply increase AdCost by +1. Poof! Instantly customisable classes that are all automatically balanced against each other.

In the Chimera model, it becomes quantity vs. quality. A character with few abilities and a low AdCost will advance quickly, but he’ll be really good at only a handful of things. Conversely, a character with many abilities and a high AdCost will advance slowly, but he’ll be decent at a bunch of stuff.

In short, it’s up to the player to find the right balance for the character he wants to play. Strategy, not only from the start, but as you advance. Completely open-ended, yet entirely balanced.

Final Words

Next step is putting my money where my mouth is, so in the next few weeks, I’ll be posting Chimera versions of the Moldvay Basic classes.

In the meanwhile, let’s take the time to share our feelings: what’s your take on Race as Class, and if you like it, how do you interpret in your game?

  1. June 29th, 2011 at 11:43 | #1

    I love race-as-class and I am working on a blog post of my own about it. In short, I think race-as-class is good because D&D deals in archetypes, not “realism.” There are archetypical fighters, wizards, and priests, and you can be all of those. And there are archetypical dwarves, elves, and halflings, and you can be those. But “halfling wizard” is not an archetype. “Halfling wizard” as a player option is thus inconsistent with the basic idea of PCs-as-archetypes.

    If there is some other variant on a demihuman that is archetypical (I could imagine, say a “Runesmith” dwarf), then there should be a new class for that.

  2. Greg MacKenzie
    June 29th, 2011 at 12:43 | #2

    That young man in Pennsylvania had a counterpart in 1979 Quebec… I prefer to have the character’s class separate from their ethnicity. Halfling magician’s anyone? One of the great things about Chimera is it addresses so many old issues, and solves them!

  3. June 29th, 2011 at 23:19 | #3

    @Kullervo : Makes a lot of sense, given that the classes seem to be based largely on popular fantasy characters: Bilbo, Thorin and Company, Gandalf, Grey Mouser, Elric, et al. You’re right, if the archetype doesn’t exist, it doesn’t appear as a class. Aside from tweaking a few examples (Gandalf used a sword, Legolas didn’t cast spells, Elric wasn’t technically an ‘elf’), those classes represent pretty much the characters you’d read about and want to play.

  4. June 29th, 2011 at 23:23 | #4

    @Greg MacKenzie : I think I’ve gone full circle on the race-as-class thing. Dwarf forge-wizards, elf rangers, and halfling illusionists have appeal as variants–provided the setting supports them and players are interested. From a GM perspective, I liked the flexibility of being able to match any race to any class.

    But I think my brain’s gone soft the last few years–to Kullervo’s point, I’m digging the archetypes these days because they save me a lot of time. Still, Chimera does give you the option for either approach, so that’s the true flexibility.

  5. deimos3428
    June 30th, 2011 at 14:30 | #5

    I like race-as-class insofar as it obviates the need for ridiculously-specialized-class-that-only-members-of-one-race-belong-to. There’s a base, and with Chimera, you can make these one-offs (or two-offs) without having to create a new “class”. I guess it’s all about the sperks.

  6. June 30th, 2011 at 15:53 | #6

    @deimos3428 : It is all about the Sperks™. In Moldvay Basic, every elf can cast spells. In Chimera, you could make a race-as-class elf that might have Wield as an inherent Ability (thus satisfying the elves-are-inherently-magical requirement), but can’t cast spells because access to spell schools is a Sperk. Presto! Instant variation.

    As I publish the Chimera versions of Moldvay’s classes, this will become more clear, but I strongly believe this is a good path to flexibility for both GMs and players.

  7. February 24th, 2012 at 09:44 | #7

    Erm… 1+1=2! I have been reading / studying the Welshpiper site for some time. When stuck, I give it a little Google love to see if what I recall is somewhere within the pages. Currently being sick, I have gone back and started reading it from the beginning to find this:

    The Welsh Piper + Building The Perfect Class = That Erin!!

    Sometimes I am dense, but wow, it took me a loooong time to catch that!


  1. No trackbacks yet.