The question of Race, or nature versus nurture

Over the last year there has been a lot of talk against Dungeons and Dragons races and how they pre-determine various attributes of a character (generally with the conclusion that this is BAD and very un-woke and un-politically-correct).

Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything brought in some changes to attempt to address these concerns, but from what I saw and heard on Twitter, the conclusion seemed to be that the changes there were tokenism and didn’t go far enough and didn’t address the problem.

Recently someone on The Angry GM Patron discord referenced an article he wrote in 2015 which piqued my interest enough to go and look it up. And I found that, as so often, he very neatly expressed my thoughts and provided a mechanism which made a huge amount of sense.

I’ll come onto what that was, but first let me dig into the problem a bit more.

Races in earlier versions

Back when I started with the basic boxed sets, race determined absolutely everything. Well, not if you were human, but certainly the demi-humans. A dwarf was a stolid fighter who was rather resistant to poison and magic and good at mining (GAZ6 The Dwarves of Rockhome introduced dwarf clerics). A halfling was also a sort of fighter, who was also good with missile weapons, dodging (AC improved) and reactions (initiative bonus). And an elf was both a fighter and a magic user.

That was it. They were effectively different classes rather than races. And they had significant level limits – where humans could go up to level 36, dwarves had a maximum level of 12, elves a maximum level of 10 and halflings a maximum level of 8. In the Companion and Master sets they did gain attack ranks which improved their to-hit scores, and they gained multiple attacks and improved resistances at particular XP scores, but they didn’t advance as far or as fast as humans.

In AD&D there was a bit more flexibility. Races and classes were described as separate, but the races all had limitations on the classes they could play.

  • dwarves could be fighters, thieves, assassins or a combination, and only up to level 9; they were magic and poison resistant and had mining skills and infravision, improved constitution, and reduced charisma (except to other dwarves)
  • elves could be fighters (max level 7), magic-users (max level 11), thieves or assassins (max level 10) or a combination; they were resistant to sleep and charm, had infravision, were good with non-mechanical bows, good at spotting secret and concealed doors, and good at moving silently
  • gnomes could be fighters (max level 6), illusionists (max level 7), thieves or assassins (max level 8) or a combination; they were magic resistant and had mining skills and infravision
  • half-elves could be clerics (max level 5), druids (no limit), fighters (max level 8), rangers (max level 8), magic-users (max level 8), thieves or assassins (max level 11) or a combination; they were slightly resistant to sleep and charm spells, had infravision, and were good at spotting secret and concealed doors
  • halflings could be fighters (max level 6), thieves (no limit) or a combination; they were magic and poison resistant; had either infravision or mining abilities, were good at moving silently, had decreased strength and improved dexterity
  • half-orcs could be clerics (max level 4), fighters (max level 10), thieves (max level 8) or assassins (no limit); they had infravision, improved strength and constitution, and reduced charisma (except to other half-orcs)

Races in 5th edition

I missed 3rd and 4th edition, so I now jump forward to 5th edition as per the Player’s Handbook.

Races and classes are completely separate – there are no limitations on class for any race. However, races bring particular attributes.

  • dwarves have improved Constitution (+2), decreased speed (25′), resistance to poison, darkvision, proficiency with particular weapons and with smith’s tools, and highly proficient in History where it relates to the origins of stonework; Hill dwarves also have improved Wisdom (+1) and improved hit points (+1 per level) while Mountain dwarves have improved Strength (+2) and armour proficiency
  • elves have improved Dexterity (+2), darkvision, natural proficiency in Perception, advantage on saving throws against charm and can’t be put to sleep, and only need 4 hours “trance” instead of 8 hours sleep per night; High elves have improved Intelligence (+1), proficiency with certain swords and bows, automatically know a cantrip and know an extra language, Wood elves have improved Wisdom (+1), proficiency with the same swords and bows, increased speed (35′) and improved hiding ability, and Drow have improved Charisma (+1), 120′ darkvision, disadvantage on attack rolls and Perception in sunlight, gain spells at 1st, 3rd and 5th levels, and have proficiency with certain weapons
  • halflings have improved Dexterity (+2), decreased speed (25′), luck, advantage against being frightened, and can move through the space of larger creatures; Lightfoot halflings have improved Charisma (+1) and are good at hiding while Stout halflings have improved Constitution (+1) and are resistant to poison
  • humans are generalists; slightly better at everything (all ability scores increase by 1, or 2 ability scores increase plus one skill plus one feat)
  • dragonborn have improved strength (+2) and Charisma (+1), plus a breath weapon and resistance to the damage type of their breath weapon
  • gnomes have improved Intelligence (+2), decreased speed (25′), darkvision, and advantage on Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma saving throws against magic; Forest gnomes have improved Dexterity (+1), the minor illusion cantrip, and can communicate with small animals, while Rock gnomes have improved Constitution (+1), are highly proficient in History where it relates to magic items, alchemical or technological devices, have proficiency with tinker’s tools and can create particular devices
  • half-elves have improved Charisma (+2) and two other improved abilities (+1), plus darkvision, advantage on saving throws against charm and can’t be put to sleep, and have two skills
  • half-orcs have improved Strength (+2) and Constitution (+1), darkvision, proficiency in Intimidation, automatic ability to drop to 1hp instead of 0hp 1/long rest, and an extra damage dice on a critical hit
  • tieflings have improved Intelligence (+1) and improved Charisma (+2), darkvision, resistance to fire damage, and gain spells at 1st, 3rd and 5th levels

Each race has flavour descriptions as well, but these don’t have mechanics to enforce them.

What makes a race a race?

But there’s a problem here.

Consider the case Angry had a few years back, where a player wanted to play an elf who had been abandoned and grown up on the streets. However, they still expected to have all the proficiencies and languages and so on which come with being an elf.

That felt wrong to Angry, and feels wrong to me. Some things you only learn by growing up in that culture, and don’t inherit just by having those parents.

Some parts of the race do indeed come down to genetics, and you would indeed get them just be being that race – for example, halflings are small so can fit into the space of others, dwarves have evolved darkvision, elves have charm immunity, dragonborn have breath weapons, kenku can fly.

Other parts would be down to upbringing: proficiency with particular weapons/armour/tools, languages, mining skills, communicating with small animals, hiding ability and silent movement. I can possibly see that most ability scores could be affected by upbringing – Strength because the lifestyle develops muscles, Dexterity because the lifestyle develops fine motor control, Intelligence because the lifestyle works the grey matter, Wisdom because the lifestyle teaches common sense.

Charisma and Constitution I have more trouble with. Does the Charisma come from the race being naturally considered beautiful, or from learning gracious courtesy in the upbringing? Does Constitution improvements come from a body more resistant to disease or from a lifestyle which develops hardiness?

Updates in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything

So how did Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything change this?

Here’s what it says:

If you’d like your character to follow their own path, you may ignore your Ability Score Increase trait and assign ability score increases tailored to your character. Here’s how to do it: take any ability score increase you gain in your race or subrace and apply it to an ability score of your choice.

To customize the languages you know, you may replace each language in your Languages trait with a language from the following list:…

Some races and subraces grant proficiencies. These proficiencies are usually cultural, and your character might not have any connection with the culture in question or might have pursued different training. You can replace each of those proficiencies with a different one of your choice, following the restrictions on the Proficiency Swaps table.

Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything p7

In other words:

  • swap any ability increase for any other equivalent ability increase you fancy (but no applying two different ability increases to the same stat)
  • swap any language for any other
  • swap any skill or proficiency for any other within certain limits

In many ways that does address the issue. The changes here do fall into the cultural list I worked out above (falling on the side of ability increases being all down to upbringing).

So that’s great, right?

It’s simple and generic. But I find myself a bit disappointed. I find it a bit too freeform for my taste.

An alternative, or a refinement

The thing is, I’d like to know what the culture was that led to that particular set of stats. I don’t want to allow my players to switch things about willy-nilly just because they fancy something different.

Call me old-fashioned. Call me restrictive. Call me a control freak. But I have a vision of my world, and so if the player wants to go off-piste with their culture, they need to at least fit within one of the cultures and have an explanation for why their character grew up in that culture instead. It’s not just a free-for-all.

And this is what The Angry GM suggests with his article Why Race Isn’t Broken in Pathfinder, And How To Fix It. Split racial characteristics into generic and cultural. The character always has the genetic parts, but they need to grow up the right way to get the cultural parts.

But as Angry points out, you need to consider balance – in order to be able to swap about you need to make sure that the genetic parts of each race have the same value and the cultural parts have the same value. In his article, Angry comes up with the split for Pathfinder (inspired by The Advanced Race Guide). But the various attributes for Pathfinder seem quite different to 5e – the ability bonuses seem bigger as the first thing which jumps out – so to adapt to 5th edition we’ll need to do the same balancing job.

Come back for part 2 for the details

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