D&D 5E: “Race” as Species, Culture, and Training

Race in D&D is fraught. Inevitable sarcastic blog comments notwithstanding (which yes I’ll delete), it’s clear. Wizards of the Coast has made their own efforts to rewrite “race”, and I’ve been working on my own. I’m taking as my starting-point that race as such has no place in D&D, as it is a social construct and doesn’t even really apply to any creatures in D&D settings.

Race as Species

Sometimes, race means species – that is, the phenotype of a given intelligent species and how this phenotype impacts game mechanics. Some species are aquatic, or aerial, or terrestrial. Some are very large or very small. Some are mammals, some reptiles or amphibians, and others are insects.

Size is the first consideration, and here I’m using my house rules for character size because if we’re going to have PCs of different sizes I want that to matter more than it does in 5E RAW.

If the species is large, then they gain +1 hit points per level (or increase hit dice one step), take a -1 to Armor Class, and pay 4x as much for food, lodging, equipment, etc. The weapons they wield deal an additional damage die (when sized for them). They have disadvantage on attacks against small or smaller creatures, and small or smaller creatures have advantage on attacks against them.

If they are medium, then no changes to the usual rules. They have advantage on attacks against huge or larger creatures.

If they are small, then they take a -1 to hit points per level (or their hit die is reduced one step). They also get a +1 to Armor Class. Their weapons deal normal damage, but their upkeep – cost of living, food and water needs and so on, are 1/2 usual. They have advantage on attacks against large or larger creatures.

If they are tiny, then they take -2 to hit points per level (or their hit dice are reduced two steps). They get a +2 to Armor Class. Their weapons deal damage that is one die step lower. They have advantage on attacks against medium or larger creatures. Their upkeep costs 1/5 normal.

The next question is whether the species is terrestrial, aquatic, or flying.

A terrestrial creatures starts with a movement rate of 30′ if medium or large, and 25′ if small and 20′ if tiny.

An aquatic creature is assumed to be amphibious. They start with a swim speed of 30′ and the ability to breathe water, but suffer a level of exhaustion if they go more than 24 hours without being submerged in water.

A flying creature starts with a fly speed of 30′, and are vulnerable to bludgeoning damage.

Next is the question of whether a species is diurnal or nocturnal. Diurnal creatures have no modifications – they are the norm. Nocturnal creatures include those adapted to live underground. They have darkvision out to 60′ and are also have sunlight sensitivity (my house rule is that the two go together).

Next is physiology – choose an effect of the species physiology. Either choose +5 to base movement, +1 to an ability score of your choice, resistance to a particular category of damage like fire or poison. You can also select a trait taken from a published race, like the goliath’s Stone’s Endurance.

Race as Culture

Sometimes, race means culture. Decide whether your character comes from an urbanized culture or a hunter-gatherer culture. Even if they don’t come from a city, the distinction between these two options are between cultures that build cities and cultures that do not.

If the character is from an urban culture, then they gain a bonus Proficiency in History, Persuasion, or Religion.

If the character is from a hunter-gatherer culture, then they gain a bonus Proficiency in Nature or Survival.

The next distinction is for cultural specializations. For example, the dwarven ability of Stonecunning applies to a sub-set of Proficiency checks. This is a situational bonus, and should be more narrow than a whole Proficiency. Take inspiration from published races.

Race as Training

Finally, choose an ability score and add +2 to it. This will usually represent a key ability score for the character’s class, and represents additional talent and training that they’ve received.

D&D Without Attack Rolls or Saving Throws

D&D sucks when your turn comes around and nothing happens, either because you whiff on your attack roll or you cast a spell and miss your attack or your target makes their saving throw. Any game sucks when your turn amounts to nothing, but especially a game like D&D where you might have waited 30 minutes for your turn to come back around again in a complex combat encounter.

It’s also tough when you build a spellcaster like an enchanter, or someone who has a lot of spells that allow saving throws, as sometimes you’ll use your magic and nothing will happen. Unlike an attack roll, you’re already using a limited resource – spell slots – and getting nothing for it.

I was also thinking about how to adapt some of what I was enjoying so much about Breath of the Wild to tabletop, and one thing about Breath of the Wild, and most video games in general, is there are no saving throws that negate your abilities, and normally instead of a character skill roll to attack you are relying on player skill. The player skill is harder to attach to a tabletop RPG, and depending on how you do it you get accessibility issues. But that’s a line of thinking for another time.

As a rule, there shouldn’t be a point in a story when a main character takes action and nothing changes. That’s true for PCs in RPGs – when they act, something should change. What prevents that change in D&D are attack rolls and saving throws, so I wondered, how much would I have to change D&D to get rid of those two things?

Turns out, a lot, but not as much as I’d feared.

What follows are my notes so far. Feel free to use them as a starting-point. I need to playtest this idea, but I do think it’s workable. As with the other things I’ve uploaded here in the past, I’ll update this document as I improve on my notes. Enjoy!

Cops in D&D

What’s the equivalent of this in Faerun? Eberron?

One of the classic elements of Dungeons & Dragons, probably across generations, is player-characters getting into fights with the cops. I’ve lost count of the times that the initial antagonists in a campaign, intentionally or not, are the town guards of whatever town the PCs enter. The characters invariably cause trouble, and the town guard or militia shows up to try to deal with them, and of course no one plays D&D to go to jail, so shenanigans ensue.

Usually, the town guard is completely outmatched by the PCs, and sometimes the game then spirals out into a situation where the players are just enjoying acting out and smashing things while being chased ineffectually by the cops. This can be fun and is perfectly fine.

But I was thinking about how scary the cops are in the real world. The first response we have to the cops showing up in force anywhere is fear. That’s true for me and I think that’s true for everyone, and that’s exactly how cops are designed to function. They are built to intimidate, because intimidation is cheaper than violence, right? If you’re too scared to resist a cop, then the cop won’t have to escalate to make you comply.

I’ve also been working on dystopian setting designs that include versions of totalitarianism and authoritarianism – for obvious reasons, living the US. Our stories are going to reflect the world in which we live. And in this case, my stories are going to give players the chance to punch that authoritarianism right in it’s sneering face. One thing these worlds have required, though, are tougher cops.

So what would be a fantasy equivalent of a modern cop?

First, they would need access to far more violence than most citizens. So if people in town can carry weapons openly, then the cops have to carry bigger weapons. There should be no question in most people’s minds that a cop is going to win a fight with a citizen. Maybe they have better armor, minor magical items, and the best-made weaponry available. Maybe they have a significant number of spellcasters. Whatever would cause the feeling of “Oh shit, the cops are here!”

Second, the cops travel around town in a way that is more protected, and obvious, than civilians. So if lots of people have horses in town, then the cops have horses with barding and a magical item that lets them talk to each other without being overheard. Their horse would have extra weapons for when they need them, and some way to amplify the volume of their voice enough to be heard over a riot. Their mode of travel can be blatant, the equivalent of lights flashing, or quiet, the equivalent of hidden lights and low-contrast coloring that US police use to sneak up on people when they decide to.

Third, cops should have more access to information, including information that you’d rather was kept secret. Maybe they can detect traps or read surface thoughts, or have a sending device to check on your records. Maybe they can activate a locate person magical item for the most wanted.

Fourth, D&D cops would have a way to restrain you effectively, even if you have supernatural abilities. With regular people, a pair of handcuffs will make it very hard to resist, but this would have to go farther with a warlock or a paladin or a rogue. But whatever means they would have to restrain you would be effective, because if they weren’t, the cops would get upgrades from the authorities. They need a way to prevent spellcasters from casting most spells, keep rogues from picking the locks on their handcuffs, etc. Unless the PCs are the first elite people the cops have seen, they need to be ready. This can’t be the first rowdy 2nd level wizard they’ve had to deal with.

Fifth, a D&D cop would have a way to respond when things escalate. What’s listed above is not the equivalent of the SWAT team, or the equivalent of cops in riot gear. They would have military weaponry, whatever that is in your setting, and heavy magical armor that makes them invulnerable to poison gas, and access to that poison gas to use on you, shields that can electrocute and stun you, sonic weapons, etc. They would have the equivalent of snipers (maybe hidden on rooftops with wands of magic missile casting the spell at 5th level) and of surveillance specialists (diviners) and of teams built to smash their way into a barricaded building and kill everyone inside.

What other ideas do you have for D&D cops?

Final Note: I totally understand if you want your D&D cops to be pushovers, or if you don’t want to migrate your fear of cops into your time playing pretend with your friends, or your imaginary world is full of evil criminals and your heroes are the cops (I’m looking at you, paladin). I was just thinking through how to make cops scary, the way they are in the United States, in case we want to engage with that fear through play, or have an imaginary setting that feels a little more familiar, as uncomfortable as that feeling might be.

VtM 5th Edition PbtA (Updated)

I caught the bug as I always do, and I rewrote Vampire the Masquerade 5th Edition using PbtA. This is not a complete game by any means – it is mostly a huge collection of moves adapted from the mechanics of V5. There aren’t playbooks or anything like that, but the bones are there, and I thought I’d put it out there in case there is any interest or feedback on it.

It also just helps me to put out a version of what I’m working so that I feel more like I can work on something else for a while. Edit: I updated this to a 0.3 version, and will keep updating periodically as I get time to work on it. Let 0.3 represent how far I think this is from a finished draft 🙂 Edited: Updated to 0.4 with some changes and the addition of simple coterie moves based on the Vampire Companion’s Coterie Merits. Edited: I updated this to 0.7 over the last few weeks 🙂 (VSI) represents the change to Violence, Insight and Subtlety being your three main attributes, instead of Physical, Social and Mental.

Anyway, here you go:

I Hacked V5…A Lot

Edit: I decided to do this differently. Lately I’ve been much more interested in writing full stand-alone documents than blog posts, so what I am going to do is finish a version of my rules reference document and just put out the PDF. This way I don’t have to write it twice.

Vampire the Masquerade 5th Edition came with a lot of asterisks, at least form my point of view. A new team of people; a failed attempt at a MMO; rumblings of issues with the playtest documents, and then issues with the text itself. Further problems with the following Camarilla book that were so bad that it ended up in a complete staff change.

For all of these reasons, I avoided V5 for a while. I wanted to make sure it wasn’t low-key for Nazis (it isn’t). I wanted to see how the shake-ups with staff worked themselves out, and what changes they’d decided they needed to make. I also just didn’t like the aesthetic of the new book – I get what they’re going for, but a fashion-forward coffee-table book was not what I was after here. I liked the grittier art styles of previous editions, and I also thought that a lot of OSR designers were doing much better, more creative work with art and layout. So it wasn’t enough of an art book to get my attention, and it wasn’t enough of a game book to get my attention that way either.

There were things I liked about it, though, based on the playtest documents and reviews that were out there. The Hunger mechanic seemed just right as a replacement for blood pool. I also really like many of the updates to the metaplot, with the Second Inquisition replacing the Sabbat as the main antagonist, and the Beckoning stripping the Camarilla elders out of most cities. I thought, if you’re going to have Vampire the Masquerade in 2020, this is how you need to do it.

Onyx Path’s Chicago by Night sealed the deal. The layout and art are much better than the core rulebook, much more my preference anyway, and I like how they updated the Camarilla’s feature city for modern nights.

Turns out, I have some friends who love Vampire the Masquerade. Two of them are actually two of the first people I ever played VtM with back in the day (the day being 1998). We’re still friends, and we’re still gaming. The D&D campaign I was running was failing to launch, so we all got next-game-itis and I thought, hey, want to play Vampire? Yes. Does this mean I’ll need to buy, read, and almost certainly hack V5? Also yes.

Fortunately, it was also the lead-up to the US Presidential election, so I had plenty of anxiety to channel toward writing. Sometimes, that even works! Instead of sleeping or fostering grim imaginings of a civil war between QAnon and Antifa (for the record, team Antifa here), I hacked V5 apart and redesigned it. As is my habit, now, I hacked it so that players roll all the dice, and got rid of a number of rules that thought just complicated things (like specifics around blood resonance). I simplified how backgrounds work and combined some redundant skills and…well, you’ll see, because I’ll be posting these hacks on this blog over the next few weeks.