better character classes for B-X D&D

m. werneburg, 2014.12.12

I'm adopting the Dungeons and Dragons game "Labyrinth Lord" to suit my tastes, and it's been great fun. While I leave most of the rules alone, I've drastically changed two races, modified a third, and added a fourth.

Labyrinth Lord is a reworking of the original basic/expert ruleset, where classes are race (except for humans). I've kept that in place, but I had to do something about the halflings.

The Tolkien mythos works well for the major races (humans, dwarves, and elves) but the fourth "race"—the halfling/hobbit—is just a short human. We're supposed to accept that they're at once dependable and durable (doughty!) farmers but somehow also make good thieves. It reads like they're the last people you'd want on an adventure of any kind, and the very last sort you'd want as a scout or "thief". Wooo, bare feet!

I wanted interesting halflings. Less doughty, more shirking. Less rotund, more lean. Less cherubic, more wiry. Less charismatic, more irritable and toothy. Landless, witty, quick with sticky fingers. Possibly sometimes nasty. Not a race of thieves, but a race that can certainly engender a thief for an adventuring party. I've given this creation of mine its own page.

This decided, I had a taste to carry on. But a radical change like that has strong implications for not only what's possible but the possibility of imbalance. I wanted guidance on keeping the whole thing narratively consistent.

My TV Tropes addiction pays off

Then I read the TV Tropes page on five races that outlined five main racial archetypes in fantasy/sci-fi fiction. I interpreted for my D&D game by developing five character types that flesh out a universe of plausible races that are complementary to one another and make for good story telling.

The five d&d character types on the TV Tropes page are:

  1. The Stouts/dwarves*
  2. Fairy/elf/angel
  3. The High Men (superior to humans)
  4. Mundane (human)
  5. Cute (hobbit/gnome)

*The "strong man" from TV Tropes's excellent analysis of the five man band. TV Tropes a terrible drug.

So, I'd dealt with the Cute. Humans were Mundane, and dwarves were the Stouts. So, which were the elves, the High Men or the Fairies?

Elves in D&D try to have it both ways. Tolkien's elves are super-human High Men in every way. Even their penalties (e.g. crazily long childhoods) are not really penalties. Why would elves hang around with their short-lived, dumber neighbors? And why would they ever get involved in adventuring? Why take the risk. When you're that smart and that ageless, you'd just pay some desperate humans to do the dirty work!

I wanted motivated elves. A racial remnant, perhaps. A group that knows why—or part of why—the world is such a retrograde crapsack. They're bent on righting old wrongs, and maybe exonerating themselves.

This suggested that elves would be the High Men, quick-witted and deeply intelligent, but far more in-the-now than Tolkien's elves, and therefor more tolerant of mankind's company. More like modern educated Europeans than forest folk.

This left the Fairy position free. But I'll get back to them.

I decided to redraft the dwarves: in the standard D&D milieu, it seems that dwarves are so similar to one another that you can't tell males from females, and all are patterned after a single, dull—and, oddly, Scottish—personality. As doughty as Tolkien halflings, they're irritable, taciturn, live in isolation underground and inexplicably craft and trade a lot of top-quality goods of every kind. And as a player class, dwarves are essentially redundant to human fighters, hammer-weilding, dire-boar-riding human fighters.

So two things had to change with dwarves. I wanted dwarves that want something, rather than just do things. I wanted them to be strong, yes, but different from human fighters in being charismatic. As charismatic as human mystics, but in a lusty way not visionary. Because a group of hardy toughs who readily engage others sounds like an interesting break with fusty tradition. Craft fine wares? Yup, garrolous dwarves could be manufacturers and traders. Maybe they've had some insights into magic use? These people have to compete with humans after all, and elves as well. That left just the unbearable shortness of dwarves in D&D. I wanted the focus to be on strong, not short.

Happily, I had a template in our own human history. My dwarves became Neanderthals, living in cooler climbs than humans, be they sub-polar or alpine. With broad features, immensely strong &durable bodies, and a knack for durable goods.

A world with five races

In looking at how I wanted to position them, I started with the six main attributes that playable characters possess. These are: strength, constitution, wisdom, intelligence, charisma, and dexterity. I decided to map out the "five race" idea to the attributes by setting the attributes in a wheel and filling the gaps between them with the character classes. Thus, each character class is associated with two attributes that are its strong points, and set against two character classes that are its weak points.

And in so doing, opened a Pandora's box. I wound up revising the player character attributes.

Revised character attributes

As I worked on the racial/attribute balance, I realized that the standard attributes were a bit odd.

Wisdom, for instance, is effectively unused in the game. It's the player's wisdom that matters: who wants to be the DM who says, "No, silly, you're character's a lot less foolish than that!".

Next, Intelligence is a bit of a wide matter. If wit is your insight and intelligence is learning and recall, wouldn't it be more effective to replace Wisdom with Wit, and rename Intelligence to Learning? Now you've got street smarts and book smarts.

Constitution, meanwhile, is heavily used in the game. But how does it vary except with Strength? Is there a really heroically durable weakling? Or an immensely strong character with no endurance? Good bye, constitution! Your modifiers are going to Strength.

Charisma and Dexterity, you can stay as you are. But Dexterity, you're becoming Agility.

The map I made looks like this:

revised dungeons and dragons classes and attributes
Revised dungeons and dragons classes and attributes.

I'll explain the "Erdei", my Fairies, last.

Wizards, clerics, and fighters were easy to place immediately. Fighters hone their Strength and Agility. Mystics require Charisma to lead and share their conviction, but also Will to enforce that conviction and to stay strong in the face of opposition (and undead). Wizards similarly need Learning to understand their craft, but also Will for the determination. Mystics and Wizards would be one side of the circle, and Fighters the other. So far, so good.

But that left three blank spots on the map, and I still had four races left to fill them.

The dwarves were easy to place. Charisma and Strength fit nicely into my attribute map as neighbors, and the dwarves between them.

My halflings would fit nicely between Wit and Agility. Exactly as I'd envisioned them. At this point, my ring of attributes was complete.

So elves took their place between Wit and Learning.

But where was my Fairy race? I belatedly also realized that I still had one type of magic to get into the game: druidic magic. That worked perfectly with a Fairy race. But where could they fit? With the Mystics? Druids never struck me as Charismatic. With the Wizards? How could I fit book magic with tree magic without it feeling shoe-horned in. Also, would druids really be "squishy wizards", with penalties to strength and agility? Didn't sound very fey.

Then I noticed the hollow space in the middle of my diagram. Could I cheat, and put my Fairies there? Druids are about balance, so it made sense to not associate druids with any particular attribute.

And so was born a race of gravely serious druid-warriors, aghast at the wreckage wrought by man and dwarf. If my dwarves were no longer the strong and silent types, my otherworldly druid Fairies could be. Strong and silent woodland Fairies, very different from elves and men and dwarves and my little halflings.

Now I just needed a name. It had to evoke the wilds. But it couldn't be something already taken—that would cause all kinds of problems down the road. All kinds of elven and sylvan races had been named over the past 25 years. In the end, I settled on "Erdei", which is Hungarian for "Sylvan"—a word I found on google translate. Like my halflings, these erdei have a write-up of their own.

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reader comments

Sounds like you just need to play a different game.


And so, I am.


rand()m quote

(In which I leave the final word to someone else.)

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