Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Making Races

Everything seems about normal here. 'Cept that bug guy. And is he missing his skin?
On the D&D wiki, you can find literally thousands of homebrewed classes, races, subclasses, equipment, spells, backgrounds, and more. For the most part (aside from a fairly extensive list of loot and some backgrounds) I've veered away from building homebrew materials for players. I find there's just so many options already, and I'd rather make something cool and memorable using the basic rules than try to "inject" cool into my character with a custom set of abilities.

However, there is some very good design philosophy on the Wiki when it comes to creating homebrew material. It boils down to this: if you're going to make a class, you need to make it impact the game as little as possible.

You might be thinking, class? Isn't this article about making races? Well, sort of. Hold tight.

There are a lot of issues in adding material to the existing rules. Look at Pathfinder and D&D 3.X for examples. Without properly understanding the system and playtesting the material, it's difficult to tell how something will interact with the other parts of the game. Perhaps your "Spirit Fighter" idea is cool, but with a Cloak of Etherealness he becomes invincible. Maybe you have a great "Pirate" class, but you end up totally overshadowing the player with a Swashbuckler Rogue. Each class has a role they fill, and you can't let the core classes lose that.

And that's not even addressing the issues of minor balance. D&D 5e isn't a perfectly balanced system, but its balance is intentional. Did you know that classes always get two saving throws: a common one (Dex/Con/Wis) and an uncommon one (Str/Int/Cha)? So if you make a "Drunken Master" class with proficiency in Dex and Con saves, you've changed the balance of the game. There are hundreds of small design rules like this that we can only infer, since we don't have access to the WotC 5e  Design Documents.

So, how do you add something new to the game? Well, according to the Wiki, there are five steps you have to consider.

Druid? No, you have the wrong guy
First: Can you simply reflavor the class? This one is my favorite. I've played a wizard who thought he was a fighter, a druid that looks and acts like a barbarian, and a whole game of warlocks pretending to be something else. And yes, all of that is using the basic rules. One of the examples in the Wiki is calling a wizard an "alchemist" and just making their spells be potions. I love it.

The next step is if creating a background is enough to get the character you want. For characters who are odd, like Demigods, or characters who want to be former adventurers turning over a new leaf, such as a retired assassin, a background is all that is necessary.

After that, you might use a custom feat to get the character you want. If you want to create that "Spirit Fighter", maybe all you need is a feat called Ghost-Touched that allows them to attack incorporeal creatures. That would have very little impact on the game, but at this point you have to accept that the feat is canon - something all players could take. If you build your game around fighting ghosts, that's fine, but your players might not like the prospect of being forced to take a particular feat.

The second-to-last step to consider before creating a class is if a subclass to an existing class would do what you want to do. This has been the approach taken by Wizards in Xanathar's Guide, and I think it's quite appropriate for this stage in 5e's development. A subclass adds a lot of flavor, but remember that it can't be too restrictive. People need to be free to play the subclass in multiple ways, to allow different characters to be created.

The final step, of course, is making the class as a class. That's assuming none of the above options worked out for you.

Just rename the classes. I mean, you're already using your imagination, right?
So, after a long detour, we can talk about making races!

The same design philosophy applies here. If you want a new race, consider re-flavoring an existing race, changing or modifying a single feature of an existing race, or adding a sub-race to an existing race. Don't make a Demigod race, just use Aasimar.

But the races in the current game simply don't cover everything. That's because classes are fairly flexible, and the idea of "fighter" or "rogue" can cover a multitude of fantasy character tropes. But races (and therefore appearances) are much more difficult to spread out in such a way.

The good news is that the issue of balancing races has mostly been worked out by clever players. You can find a massive list of racial features and their relative strengths here:

But the design philosophy above should still be followed! If you are able to use an existing race as a template, do so! A race of cursed humans could be based on Tieflings, Kenku, Half-Orcs, or even Goblins. Just modify them slightly.

However, the real difficulty of creating races isn't the mechanics of it. It's the culture.

Some have more than others...
When designing a race, think about how that race fits into your world. Unlike classes, races don't have to "fill a role" or be completely unique. Dwarves, Elves, Humans, Gnomes, Orcs, and Lizardfolk all have their own type of smithing or crafting. The overlap expands the world and makes it more realistic. There can be several races all with similar traits, but no two races should have exactly the same traits.

When working out a culture for your race, it's good to consider the following things:

  • Appearance (not too specific, to allow for individuality)
  • Traditions and common mannerisms among members of the race
    • This includes what the race traditionally values
  • Families and relationships within the race
  • Relationships with other races
  • Where this race lives (again, not too specific! Races expand and move throughout the world!)
  • Why a member of this race would leave home and go adventuring
  • Traditional race names
  • Age and Alignment (actually part of the race description but still informed by the culture)

Classes give the people in your world a set of skills they can use to influence their surroundings, but races are those surroundings. Thus, defining their place in the world helps forge the nature of your world.

So, when designing a race, I like to cover a lot of these bases by using traits, much like I did for the races in the Player's Handbook. Personality traits can cover common mannerisms, relationships with other races, and reasons a member of the race would go adventuring. An Ideal can relate to the race's traditional values, including relationships within the race or the race's normal alignment. Bonds, or Motivations if you prefer, can deal with values, relationships, adventuring reasons, and even where the race normally lives. And flaws can cover mannerisms and inter-racial relationships.

This leaves only the age, alignment, appearance, and names for the actual description. Age and alignment go in the stat block itself, so no worries there. When we create the list of features, it's easy to include them.

For names and appearances, I like to give examples as reference. Pictures are good for appearance, and I use for inspiration on names. Usually I just pick one of the generators on the site and state that it will be the basis for naming this particular race. More often than not, I can find one that's pretty close to what I was thinking! For example, a race of dryads could use this name generator under the Magic: the Gathering section.

With that all in mind, here's an example of the traits I would give to the Aarakocra.

As you can see, from this we learn a lot about the type of culture Aarakocra have in Ahneria. They value song and family, but also the ability to move and fly. They are generally Chaotic Good, and seek to discover new experiences or to help those in need.

Of course, a player doesn't have to select from these options. But if they do, they will find themselves more like the Aarakocra who are their kin. And if the players meet an Aarakocra, they can expect them to have some of these traits.

I'm planning on going through this exercise because I want to start exploring a new part of Ahneira: the Republic of Khoomes. And I think I'll be going for a kind of "animal kingdom" vibe. I'm talking Disney's Robin Hood style.

Classic rogue
I realize this article was a lot of design philosophy and not a lot of design. But I am working on the actual races, and when they are ready I'll be posting them in their own article. Hopefully there will be enough flavor and variety to make the continent interesting and exciting for exploration!

Thanks for reading!

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