Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, November 08, 2017
Is Your D&D Character Rare?

FiveThirtyEight, a website better known for predicting election results with statistical methods, a few weeks ago posted a statistical analysis of 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons characters regarding their choice of class and race combination. The result is boringly predictable: People overwhelmingly choose a race that gives at least a +1, if not a +2 bonus to their main class stat. As the race system has been designed to favor combinations that appear in the cast of Lord of the Rings, you get a lot more elven rangers than dwarven rangers, etc. However that is much less an attempt to emulate the classics but rather simple stat minmaxing.

I don't know how these statistics look for other games or previous editions of Dungeons & Dragons. But I suspect that the "bounded accuracy" math of 5th edition D&D makes a +1 or +2 bonus a lot more important in this edition, because there aren't so many other bonuses around. Unless you "roll lucky" (which is my way of saying cheat with your stats), an elf paladin is simply too bad stat-wise to be playable. That from a role-playing point of view a haughty elf might make a brilliant paladin if played well is of no importance. You choose your class, then take one of the few races that are good at that class, or default to humans who are good at everything.

As a role-playing challenge I would love to try a gnome barbarian. But as a 5th edition character with standard array or 27-point buy stats I'd end up with something not very fun to play in combat. The World of Warcraft system where your choice of race has only a very minor influence on your combat performance is more to my liking.


One of the things 4th ed was better at, IMO. You're capped on 18 with or without a race bonus, and you could often get decent scores as long as you had at least a secondary as racial (18 14 etc array, giving you 18 primary 16 secondary). And then you had stuff like halfling paladins - a paladin is brave, a halfling is also brave. A halfling paladin has crossed into psychotic disregard for safety. And is also extremely playable.

D&D 5 lets you get 18 with point buy, and then 20 with a racial, right? Bad move.
But the stat bonuses didn't come out of a vaccuum. They were designed to emulate the classics. Or to put it another way, the player is not penalized for trying to emulate the classics.

Trying to make every race-class combination viable is hard when there are racial bonuses. You either give up racials, or slant the racials to favour the "classic" combinations.
It would be better if the system could compensate you in other ways. It really doesn't make sense for a gnome barbarian to do the same damage as a goliath barbarian, but he's smaller so he should probably be much harder to hit.
This is one of the reasons I really like point-based systems like GURPS or Hero System, or highly narrative systems like HeroQuest. Generally, non-humans end up being packages of abilities that generally could have been purchased a la carte. You want to be a "traditional" elf archer? No worries, here are the pre-made templates. You want to be a gnome barbarian? OK, you'll have to build it yourself, but you are in no way at a disadvantage. I really like being able to customize my character, and things like GURPS let me do that freely.
I don't play DnD, but generally in RPGs I play characters whose gender is appropriate to their role. If my character is a hulking barbarian he will be male; a rogue or mage will more often than not be female. I also apply this to race/species in worlds where it makes a significant difference.

If the differences are meaningless, what's the point in having them?

I've nothing against people playing characters that are against the grain of their natural talents, but I don't think such characters will plausibly excel in their role, at least in a conventional fashion. And given that there is no competition between players in DnD, I don't see why they should have equal combat skills.
In WoW "race" is merely a graphics element. If all races would be removed and everyone would be just human or orc, half of the people wouldn't even notice. But probably that's one of the stable solutions: either make race completely cosmetic, or make certain races mandatory for classes (so gnome can't be barbarian)
They should just get rid of the pre-chosen race stat bonuses and say that for these races, you get 4 attribute points of your choice, max of +2 to any particular stat and for these other races you get 3 points, etc. Or, any reasonable DM should allow that sort of switching for better (or at least different) RP opportunities for the players. Other racial features could stay. I mean, I have been a dwarf wizard a couple times, but it stinks that I could never be as intelligent as a gnome or high elf with the point buy system.
Vanila WoW had racial bonuses. They were small, but enough to matter in a little bit in PvP and raiding.

Also, each race had a limited selection of classes.

The biggest difference was that only Alliance races could have paladins, and only Horde races could have shamans.
I agree with Ulrik. 4th edition was the one edition where I felt a lot more free in choosing my race than others (at least among dnds)
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