Responding to a older Rule-of-Three article today. The idea of monstrous PC races was again brought up, spear-headed by folk wanting to play kobolds, which continues to be a fan-favourite monster race for reasons that defy reason. But it could also include goblins, orcs, and the like.
The author(s) of Rule-of-Three wanted feedback, so I decided to blog my thoughts and look at the issue.
I have discussed this topic before here, with a more historical slant) and quoted the interesting Gygaxian rant on the subject here. There’s also the forum discussion here, which descended more into a discussion of the merits of shifty as a power and less on monsters in general.
The excuse given for why we don’t see kobold is two-fold. The first is that their racial power is too powerful for PCs. Except... the seeker class totally has the same power as a class feature. And the entire reason the seeker has that power is because of “kobold envy”.
The other more understated reason is that monster races are supposed to be adversarial, so adding them as PC options dilutes the evil of the race. WotC likely wants fewer “misunderstood” races, which add a dash of grey morality to the practice of exterminating members of those races. This is why we have the githzerai but not the githyanki, as the latter are supposed to be pure villains. I can understand this second reason. Drizzt has made it difficult to use drow without baggage. You don’t want to “defang” every monster and reduce them to being just another player option.
What are the advantages of a Dragon article on monster races? The biggest is stylistic. While Mike Mearls worries about a DM’s authority and “a group’s desire to play a specific type of campaign” that is precisely why we need an article on monster races. A wide variety of races enables alternate styles of campaigns and story, permitting DMs to tell the kinds of stories they want. Options, people!
A monster races article allows for players to be the bad guys, or play their opponents. This can be part of a reverse dungeon, where the players build defences and plan an underground lair that is invaded by the DM’s party of heroes. Or they could be an evil adventuring party, twisting and parodying expectations of the game. Or the players might take the roles of the bad guys in an existing campaign, essentially playing through a narrative aside and seeing what their opponents are up to. Or the players could play monsters in a magical body-swap adventure. Or it could just be the single player being the odd-man-out and playing the monster in a group of other races.
The last option – the only monster in the village – doesn’t have to be disruptive. For example, if a PC died while playing through Keep on the Shadowfell it would certainly make narrative sense for someone to use Splug as a replacement character.
There’s some appeal to playing as the bad guy, either as a break or for a longer time campaign. Imagine the fun of playing orcs and goblins in a campaign set on Middle Earth, where the adventures twist Lord of the Rings to the bad guy’s perspective: winning the battle at Helm’s Deep, capturing Minis Tirith, and tracking down the One Ring for your lord and master, Sauron. Yes, you could just reflavour elves and humans and half-orcs as villainous races, but it’s not quite the same; D&D just lacks something without races, such as pretending everyone with a high enough Dexterity score is an “elf”.
A monster article might not work well with the “everything is core” design philosophy that is a key element of 4e. However, it would work beautifully as an Unearth Arcana article or series of articles. That way individual DMs could decide if they wanted to allow every monster, most monsters, or only a particular monster. 4e really needs some more optional rules and content, so ability to customize and tweak.
Realistically, ever since the first Monster Manual presented monster powers and ability score modifiers in the same formatting as PC powers (instead of generic monster powers) DMs have been pushed by players include orcs and kobolds as playable races. Both Character Builders (downloadable and online) permit them as options. And this doesn’t even trigger the “House Rule” label! Heck, the RPGA even released cards that allowed Living Forgotten Realms players to play orcs in the organized play program. So, really, an article on monster races would be reining in abuses potentially already in play.
And some DMs might not consider every monstrous race monsters. If DMs are known for only one thing, it is creativity. Many have unique campaign worlds with quite different design philosophies from the default world and core game. At its heart, D&D is a toolbox of rules and options which DMs use to craft stories and forge worlds. It’s quite possible for DMs to have a world with kobolds as major players, or where goblins have adventuring parties, or where lizard men are upcoming race on the verge of civilization. Many DMs like to take a seemingly underused race and push them to the forefront of their world, making them a vital part of their personal setting.
The big downside to PC monsters is that it makes monsters less special. It makes them common place. Standard. Boring. Elves aren’t particularly interesting after so many years and so much attention. They’re just elves when they should be these strange and mysterious faerie beings. And, over the years, D&D has continued to push the boundaries of what is considered a common race, so we now have living crystals and humanoid plants and reincarnated angels as playable characters. Goblins seem almost mundane by comparison, but still hold on to a tiny fragment of allure and mystery born from being unplayble.
As mentioned earlier, the most well-known example of this becommoning is Drizzt, who single-handedly – or rather, twin bladedly – changed drow from feared monsters from the dark places of the world into a race of misunderstood chaotic good loners rebelling against their dark kin. Drow are almost a joke, divided into Drizzit clones and characters designed solely to not be Drizzt clones.
An article on monsters also seems to open-up a wealth of potential new races for new players, baffling them with even more options. And, it might risk unloading only partially balanced content upon the organized play programs, such as Living Forgotten Realms and Encounters.
The “say yes” philosophy, pervasive through the edition, has made accepting new content the standard practice. It’s just accepted that if it’s published by WotC or in the Builder it’s a valid option. A half-dozen new monstrous races means DMs will have to be the unpopular bad guy and say “no”. Players might be forced to play a less preferred option, secretly wishing they could play a goblin, and becoming increasingly resentful towards their DM who banned the character they wanted to play.
There’s also the cost to current campaigns. Whenever new content is released players have to evaluate the real fun they are having with a character and the potential fun they could be having with the new options. It’s never easy on continuity to have a dedicated hero suddenly abandon his quest and stretches verisimilitude and believability that a group of heroes will just embrace some newcomer thrust upon them. It’s always a tad awkward when a player decides to swap characters for the latest hotness.
A half-dozen new monster races might also bloat the edition and lead to some redundancy. There’s not a lot of stat variety in monster races, which tend to be tough and brutish or small and quick, with few having high mental stats. 4e added some variety and unique powers to the assorted humanoids, but at their heart they’re still mean and evil humans of varying and increasing hardiness. As we already have the half-orc and goliath and halfling, the other more monster races don’t bring anything new to the table.
Adventuring parties are already seldom composed entirely of the “classic” races, such as elves and dwarves and humans. It’s not an uncommon sight to see parties of a goliath, a shardmind, a shifter, a warforged, and a genasi. It’s quite likely that entire groups might suddenly decide to try out the new races and accidently form monster-only parties. Then there’s the suddenly the strain on believability, as what is essentially a warband of demihuman killers roams the countryside yet might be treated as heroes.
Which raises a final concern: fairness versus realism. Common folk in a fantasy world will not like orcs or goblins or kobolds. They’re Nazis and Vikings and serial killers all rolled into one destructive and offensive package. DMs should not treat the monstrous races the same, creating a role-playing challenge for what might be a mechanical choice. To a player it might seem like they’re being picked on, they might take it personal when shopkeepers refuse to sell to them and the owners of inns make them sleep in the barn. There has to be some reason they’re not killed on sight when they walk into town, or brutally beaten like Tonto in a bad Lone Ranger serial (it never ended well when he rode into town alone).
The genie is already out of the bottle. As I stated earlier, all of the major monster races received PC racial write-ups at the back of the Monster Manual. While it’s always been said that these were for NPCs, I think that’s just a form of DM plausible deniability: they can say “no” because it wasn’t meant for PCs even though it was presented like a PC race and not like a monster theme or template.
So, since said efreet has escaped his imprisonment, the question is not keeping him trapped but minimizing the number genasi he sires. So an article revising the monsters and removing questionable or broken elements would be good. Such as limiting kobolds to only shifting in light armour or removing “oversized” weapon abilities.
Plus, while I liked the “everything is core” philosophy initially, the more I play the more I want a wealth of options that I can pick and choose from as a DM, a myriad of play styles and more versatility of play. I want D&D to be a big ol’ cardboard box that I can play with however my imagination feels like, like in Calvin & Hobbes.
And, from a marketing standpoint, a monster article would make a lovely companion piece when the Book of Vile Darkness drops. A large player feature article with a couple pages of fluff and description on each of the big monster races and new stats & feats paired with a DM feature on running monster campaigns and dealing with non-standard PC races. And they could even use the articles to push options from the BoVD.
No discussion on monster PC races would be complete without an overly long listing of the needed monsters, the big names who should be included. Or a mention why a big name should not…
Kobolds Of all the monster races, kobolds deserve the most chance of upgrading to PC race. They’ve been plucky underdogs (and then under-reptiles) for forty years. They deserve a little time spotlighting. True, they were featured in Races of the Dragon for 3e, but they’ve since returned to being just another low level monster to be twacked before mid-heroic.
Gnolls The feral-hyena men are an oddity. They’re more savage, evil, and unredeemable than many other names on this list, yet they’ve been awarded with a write-up in Dragon. But they haven’t seen any attention sine Dragon 367 back in September ’08, with no backgrounds or racial Paragon Paths or feats for new classes (or any classes, really). A series or large feature on monster PCs would be an opportunity to rectify this.
Orcs 4e orcs bug me. Their racial power is all about being tough. Meanwhile, half-orcs, their half-offspring, have a racial power that is all about dealing damage. Half-orcs don’t feel like the union of a tough race and an adaptable race. Likely because there were already multiple planned tough races, so half-orcs became different. An orc article could explain this discrepancy. Regardless, orcs are still fun and should be written up.
Goblins These little bastards are extremely deserving of a chance at PC status. They’re evil but not incredibly evil, more mischievous than malevolent. They’d be fun, and the game does need some more short folk.
Hobgoblins Unlike goblins, hobgoblins are unredeemable evil. They don’t do bad things out of simple desires, but out of ambition and drive. On the one hand, this works well for an evil party and villain campaign, but has less flexibility for other types of campaign. Being inflexible and unvaried, I don’t think hobgoblins would work well as a PC race. They’re evil soldiers and only evil soldiers.
Bugbears Being cruder and dumber than any other race on this list I don’t imagine bugbears working well as a PC race. Unless the party really needs a bully or some muscle, bugbears don’t add much to the table. They’re just too simple. I’m sure someone will disagree with me.
Githyanki As a high level extraplanar threat, being a PC race diminishes githyanki more than other races. Instead of an epic threat that is dangerous to entire worlds, they’re someone adventuring with you against goblins. In retrospect, I think WotC was right to hold them back from PC status.
Kenku Given someone at the WotC office plays a kenku, I don’t think there’ll be much argument against making them a true PC race.
Bullywugs It’d be fun to play as a frogman, and I can imagine all kinds of feats related to jumping or using their tongue as a reach weapon or toxic skin. And they also have an aura; it would be interesting to have a PC race with an aura as a racial ability. But bullywugs are so reviled and evil, so unpleasant that even the land hates them, that I don’t see them working as a PC race.
Lizardfolk I like lizardfolk. In my 2e homebrew world I had lizardfolk as a playable race. Since there’s multiple “breeds” it would be easy to introduce a new sub-breed that’s playable and more civilized. But I’m biased.
Duergar They’re like dwarves… only eeeevil. Even having been retconned for 4 as dwarven tieflings, I don’t think there’s much that makes them stand out. They’re just dwarves but evil. Lame.
Derro See above. Only without the fiendish aspect.
Dark One Essentially short shadar-kai, these could be fun, and they have a neat little racial power. And it’s fun adding more PCs from the mirror planes. They’re halflings to the shadar-kai’s humans, and provide another opportunity to expand on one of the new planes.
Werewolf Reflavour a shifter. Next.
Ogre I think it would be a lot of fun to have a large sized PC race. Large PCs were broken in 3e, but removing threatening reach from most monsters de-fangs them. Other than the size of the token/mini there’s no real difference between a medium creature and a large one (I’m surprised we haven’t seen more size-changing powers, given size has such little impact on the game).
Yuan-Ti While pure snake-men likely wouldn’t work, snake blooded near yuan-ti would be interesting. However, given we have crystal men composed of splinters of rock held together by mental power, there’s no reason we couldn’t also have folk with the lower bodies of snakes.
Trolls 4e has every other race found in World of Warcraft except trolls, so some kind of lesser troll makes sense, if only to get the WoW race BINGO. Given everyone heals completely between combats, giving a race some low regeneration wouldn’t break the game.
Myconid Arguably you could just reflavour a wilden, but there’s so much potential for fun racial powers and feats using spores and their unusual anatomy. There’s an equal potential for fun alien role-playing.
Mind Flayers There’s no real PC aberration. I can’t think of any more human-ish critters from the Far Realm. While most illithids are far too evil it’s not impossible to imagine a faction where the implantation didn’t take, a small minority that retained the personalities and memories of the original host.
Oh, and wrecan wants an ooze PC race. Make it happen.