Wednesday, February 25, 2009

An Ordinary Word About Non-humans

Well, I managed to get the thing off the ground, and it looks like it just might work out.

But I also think that from time to time I’ll have to make an effort to still produce an ordinary blog entry, or else I might lose everyone not actually running in the campaign.

It would be difficult at this time for any such entry to not mention the current events, or to avoid making comments about. Yes, we might all overdose if this becomes the only topic of conversation, but I can’t resist making a few comments.

I was talking to my daughter about a few circumstances of the campaign, expressing my surprise that out of five characters, four chose to be humans. I can’t remember how long its been since humans outnumbered demi-humans in a party…but my daughter simply shrugged her shoulders and said, “That’s a 3rd edition thing.”

She has had experience with 3rd edition that I haven’t had, since I’ve never played it and she did, all through high school. Apparently, 3rd punished the crap out of non-human players in some effort to balance the game, so that it became impractical to play elves and dwarves. Now, I know nothing about it, that’s just what I’m told.

I more or less came to the conclusion years ago that elves, dwarves and so on had benefits which Gygax chose to balance by allowing humans unlimited levels and denying these to demi-humans. It was obvious early on that this was going to create a great deal of discontent—although I had little experience with it, as my campaigns tended to create players who would struggle hard to get to be tenth or eleventh level, then lose interest. That might have been because it usually took three years of steady running to get to be name level—mine is not an easy world. But I liked that every session was not about experience and my players seemed to appreciate each level all the more for having to actually earn them.

But getting back to the human/demi-human thing. Part of what I did to balance out the game was simply to apply a part of my world towards the difficulties of being a dwarf or a gnome in a predominantly human world. Since virtually every government in civilized Europe or Asia was monopolized by humans, who vastly outnumbered demi-humans, an elven character could expect to be treated with mistrust, antipathy or outright hatred, depending on what part of the world they were. After all, a human, two dwarves and an elf enter the Islamic court in Damascus…which do you think the Sultan will be inclined to lend an ear to?

This never stopped my players from choosing to play elves or dwarves. My offline campaign has only four humans among the twelve principal characters and henchmen (run by five players), and despite the occasional racist reactions they receive, they’re generally happy to be the race they are. After all, parties tend to be insular from the world itself; they learn to trust each other, not NPCs, so that a pervasive us-vs.-them attitude reflects in every action and interaction they take.

I haven’t ever played out a scene where a group of bigoted humans abused or harassed a player on account of their race. Rather, I have most of my humans take a fairly sullen and passive stance. “We don’t bother ‘dem, and dey don’t bother us” is the general rule.

But lately I have instituted the format where humans have slightly more hit points, which has seemed to work. As a result, I have relaxed, somewhat, the discord I once employed.

As I said, I can’t guess what 3rd edition did. I’ve looked through the 3rd edition books, but not at the character descriptions, as a few paragraphs of each seemed to give them an unnaturally high amount of power at a low level. And I can’t recall ever reading anything about demi-humans. So I suppose I shall have to find a source and see.

One last word about the blog itself. I recognize that the prevailing attitude will be that posting into the campaign as a kibitzer will seem inappropriate and annoying. I feel myself that the occasional interjection couldn’t hurt—and that if it actually was inappropriate, it could be deleted as necessary. But these players too are exposing themselves and their playing methods to the general public, and it wouldn’t hurt to give them a word or two of praise when it’s deserved. You are, after all, their peers…and I’m sure they’d like your insight on what they’ve done or how it might affect your own playing styles in the future.

All I ask is that you don’t tell them to do this, or that. Everything else ought to be out and on the table.


KenHR said...

I like how you approach human and demi-human relations. Social ("non-crunch") factors can have a huge impact on play, and I think many recent designs have lost sight of that.

In my case, the choice of playing a human was most definitely _not_ a 3e thing; I never made the change as I've got years of notes on my preferred editions (1e and Moldvay Basic). I've just always preferred playing humans, mechanical bonuses or no.

Josef Mieszko said...

I played 3e twice, maybe 5 'sessions' total. I went with human largely because I assumed (and I am realizing more that my assumptions here stand to make an ass of me and - well, just me!) that the humanocentrism might make it easier to 'get-along' with society in-general.

Were there any Elven Archers at Agincourt?

Alexis said...

Elven archers? Absolutely. And halfling slingers.

sirlarkins said...

"One last word about the blog itself. I recognize that the prevailing attitude will be that posting into the campaign as a kibitzer will seem inappropriate and annoying."

Not in the least, as far as I'm concerned. I quite like the idea of seeing a campaign unfold and getting to have some "director's commentary" from the DM as things progress.

Carl said...

3.0 removed racial level and class restrictions allowing characters of any race to be any class and advance to whatever level they feel like.

Each demi-human race was given advantages, balanced by disadvantages (+2 Dex, -2 Con in the case of Elves, for example). Those advantages extended to free skill points (proficiencies), weapon proficiencies, learnable languages, or class preferences. The latter of which translated into a class which would always be "free" for the character to multi-class into.

The Human preference in 3.0 was brought about by the feat system. Feats are special abilities that your characters get for being characters. Scribe Scroll (as in putting a magic spell on a scroll to cast later as a scroll) is a feat that Wizards (Magic Users) can take, for example. As you level, you get more feats. Feats make your character more powerful, more versatile, more skilled, more everything.

Humans get a bonus feat and some extra skill points. That's their special racial ability. This was usually seized on by power gamers attempting to min/max their characters in combination with a level in Rogue (aka Theif) for their huge skill list, a level in Ranger for free feats in either Two-Weapon fighting (Florentine style) or a special Ranged Weapon feat, followed by levels in Fighter to get even more feats.

I played 3.0 pretty much from the moment of its release up until a few weeks ago when I switched to Traveller. I will say that I had more humans in my games than in the past (having removed the level restrictions from my AD&D game, everyone played elves all the time) but still in every party, humans were far-and-away the minority.

Ryan said...


I noticed the same thing... when I played AD&D2 (junior high/high school), humans were by far the minority. When I was in college and 3rd edition came out, suddenly it was all human, all the time. My short experience with 4th edition tilted back to humans being a minority.

I've also noticed that games where you must somehow "pay" to be a demi-human (GURPS Fantasy, Shadowrun 2nd and 3rd) tend to have mostly human parties as well.

Justin Alexander said...

I'm aware that I'm an oddity in this, but my campaigns -- going all the way back to '89 when I first started playing -- have always featured predominantly humans.

In my early days of playing, I suspect it was because the level limits were meaningful. We played a lot and, thus, leveled up a lot. Characters often shot right past the demihuman level limits.

We eventually house-ruled out the level limits, but looking back on it I guess we simultaneously let humans multi-class (which is one of the huge advantages for demi-humans). So maybe that balanced things out.

So, yeah. A dozen different campaigns and I've always had humans out-numbering demihumans.

Re: 3rd Edition. The elves and dwarves weren't screwed, but the rules actually gave a mechanical basis for the "humans are more flexible and adaptable" thing. That extra flexibility (in the form of bonus skill points and a feat) is incredibly appealing to me.

The only race that really got screwed in 3rd Edition was the half-elf. (Half-orcs are screwed if they aren't barbarians or fighters, but at least they have a niche. The half-elf ends up just being a watered down elf with none of a human's meaningful advantages.)