A few years ago, I woke up and realized what I thought was fantasy wasn’t the same for everyone else. Sure, people have had worlds with winged cats that could talk, elves with red cloaks, and all sorts of tweaks and twists to the basic fantasy tropes for years. And I’ve always known that things such as the Empire of the Petal Throne and Jorune lurked on the fringes, but they were strange things wholly alien to my sensibilities. You see I cut my teeth on Tolkien, Homer, Mallory, Howard, Alexander, and the rest. The old red box D&D let me play in a version of fantasy with which I was most familiar. It let me tell my own stories set in Middle-Earth or wherever because the fundamental concepts about fantasy ranged from “one ring to rule them all” to forbidden dealings with Arioch to scaling the Tower of the Elephant. I knew elves didn’t hang out in Hyborian Age and you would never find dwarves drinking with Gawaine, but in my youthful mind I could reconcile these differences because it was all fantasy to me.
By the time 2nd Edition D&D hit the shelves, I had already solidified my views and, with the frustrating absence of assassins, half-orcs, and monks aside, the game remained true to that vision. But over the next few years, the game began to change. TSR published settings that presented different ways to play D&D. Some, such as Birthright and Mystara, weren’t that far from my tastes, while others challenged what I believed was true about D&D, notably Spelljammer, Red Steel, and Dark Sun. In some cases I embraced these visions; in others I rejected them. Thinking back, we never said we were playing D&D when we played Dark Sun. Instead, we said we were playing Dark Sun. (The same was true for Ravenloft now that I think on it.) I enjoyed those settings as games in themselves—games that just so happened to use the rules I knew so well. They weren’t D&D to me, but that was okay because they never spilled too far into the core (though the MC Appendixes would eventually chunk together all sorts of monsters from across a wide range of worlds).
The weird psychological game I played continued into 3rd Edition. The racial assortment stayed more or less the same as it had in previous editions. The game retained the core tone I had embraced years ago. Things would change. Supplements introduced new races, some expected (half-ogres and minotaurs) and some completely unexpected such as dusklings (Magic of Incarnum), illumians (Races of Destiny), and the hadozee (Stormwrack). Since these races lived in supplements, I could ignore them or use them at my discretion.
Fourth Edition, however, shocked me. I never imagined I would find dragonborn and tieflings in the Player’s Handbook. What about the gnome? Where did the half-orc go? D&D had gone and reinvented itself without consulting me! Imagine my horror. Why did the marshal deserve to be in the Player’s Handbook in place of the druid or the bard? Everything I knew to be true about D&D had been shaken up, and I was left puzzled and a bit upset—not enough to explode in nerdrage, but enough that I was uneasy.
I was so certain and so confident the dragonborn didn’t belong in D&D, I figured my players would reject the race as I did and choose something more in line with the D&D we’d always played. Imagine my surprise when one of my younger players, who was 19 at the time, immediately latched onto the dragonborn and warlord. Imagine my continued surprise when game after game my players ventured further afield than the classic array of classes and races. What I realized was that although dragonborn seemed ridiculous to me, the race had a great deal of appeal to my gaming group—the cantankerous, vulgar, twinkie group of players that they are. And if these old dudes could climb on board the tiefling, drow, dragonborn, wilden, shardmind train, then there must be people for whom these elements are fantasy for them. In the end, I made my peace with the weirder races and classes that have snuck into the game and broadened my horizons to at least not be offended that they exist. (I would use an emoticon to soften the last sentence but I won’t stoop to that sort of nonsense here.)
We’ve talked a lot about what races and classes we would include in the next core player book. I’ve argued at great length about how editions never fall at break points in people’s campaigns and that often an edition change means invalidating a choice a player has made about the character he or she is playing. I can imagine some folks were upset not to have a monk class when 1st Edition shifted to 2nd, just as I’m pretty sure some folks were upset when they couldn’t play a barbarian right out of the gate when 4E landed. We’ve tentatively agreed that D&D is big enough to accommodate the various Player’s Handbook classes and races, and we want to make sure these options are available when the next version comes out. Although this move will certainly appeal to the audience who think dragonborn and tieflings kick ass, I wonder if their inclusion will offend people with opinions that matched mine a few years ago. I’d love to say that we’re all reasonable people and finding a tiefling in the next version of the game doesn’t mean they have to appear in every world or campaign, but, being an unreasonable person myself, I can understand how such a thing might be upsetting to people who have a clear vision of what D&D ought to be. Likewise, I think people who dig the Nentir Vale and the 4E cosmology would be livid if we ripped out the dragonborn and tieflings, whose fallen empires are so important to shaping the land. Is this a no-win situation?
I don’t think so. And here’s why. We can be explicit in the rules about class and race availability. By tagging some races as common, others as uncommon, and others as rare, we can instruct players and DMs alike in how these options might fit into their settings. The core races, the common ones, might only include humans, dwarves, elves, and halflings since those races more or less appear in every D&D setting (yes, yes, kender are different from halflings—you’re welcome, Miranda). Uncommon races might include half-elves, half-orcs, high elves, and gnomes. And maybe the rare include dragonborn, drow, and tieflings. Separated in this way, a DM can tell players his or her game features only the common and uncommon races. Or, maybe the DM says only uncommon and rare races. A new DM might say just the common ones only! This method of sorting could also apply to classes so DMs looking to capture a particular tone and style can confidently and broadly select the options that most closely match his or her expectations and vision of fantasy most appropriate for his or her campaign.
There’s no poll attached to this post, but I’m eager to read what you think about this. Would dragonborn and tieflings be welcome in your campaigns? Would it be D&D with them? Without them? Does this sort of thing keep you up at night?