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.
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.
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.
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?