Friday, January 25, 2013

Cultural vs. Racial Traits

Alright, so I have a beef with Pathfinder and 3.5 DnD, and it is a beef that strangely enough 4th Edition fixes somewhat. It is also a beef I am guilty of at times.  

So we have the Dwarf,  a race from folklore known for axes and hammers and craftsmanship and so on and so forth since the time of the Vikings and when Odin was still Odin and hadn't been folded into Santa Claus. In 3.5 DnD, Dwarves are pretty much as they've been depicted in fantasy games and novels since time immemorial. They have a knack for stonework and figuring out stuff based on stone like secret doors and passages and that sort of thing, they also have bonuses on attack rolls against Orcs and Goblinoids because they know special combat tricks to fight them. It makes sense, as Dwarves are typically enemies of those types of creatures in fantasy. They also have a bonus to their armor class vs. Giants, not because they're small, but because they're trained to fight these guys in the same way they're trained to fight Orcs and Goblinoids. They're also good at appraising the value of stone and metal items, because Dwarves are good with stone and metal. They also treat Dwarven waraxes and urgroshes as martial weapons instead of exotic, because they are Dwarven weapons. Dwarves also have some bonuses to saves vs. poison and disease and saving throws. They're also hard to knock down and they are slow, but their encumbrance doesn't ever affect their movement because they're so hardy. The Pathfinder version of the Dwarf hits all those same notes, but the effects are altered a bit because of some rules and mechanics changes that happen between 3.5 and Pathfinder. 

Now, 4th Edition Dwarves. The hardiness is there, as is the encumbrance speed, and the standard bonus to Constitution. The stability is there as well. The stonework bonuses are translated to a Dungeoneering bonus, and they are proficient with hammers. What they lack is the bonus to fighting against Goblinoids and Giants. This ability appears later in the Player's Handbook as a feat that gives a defense bonus against Giants. I'm sure the Goblinoid one is in the game somewhere, but fuck if I know where it is, I haven't perused a 4th Edition book in over a year. These stats are the same in the Essentials version of the Dwarf race as well. 

Ok, my first beef is that all Dwarves everywhere, regardless of upbringing, apparently know all things stone and metal. To the point where they can guess the value of items with some degree of skill with no education or experience whatsoever. The second beef is that Dwarven DNA apparently has some genetic predisposition to using hammers and axes to beat on things, and yet another genetic predisposition to use those axes and hammers to beat on Goblinoids and Orcs and to avoid being hit by Giants. These are not genetic traits. It's like saying Hitler wanted to throw Jews in ovens because it was in his DNA. He was born and his DNA just filled his brain with the knowledge that the Jewish people were susceptible to ovens and gas chambers and then he just woke up one morning and knew how to get them all on the trains with no planning or secret meetings with other officials of any kind. Just woke up, brushed his stache, and said, "Do this, this and this, and the evil Jews are done." and everyone related to him knew all these same things. 

Ok, that is a bit inflammatory and not a particularly good analogy. What I am saying is that I like the style of fighting against Giants as a feat available to Dwarves. Dwarves are known for that kind of thing, but not all Dwarves would necessarily know how to best fight Giants, unless they were taught it. The resistance to poison and disease and magic is a genetic thing. If you're a Dwarf, you're born with it, it isn't some secret Dwarven alchemical beer recipe that all young Dwarves get dipped in after they're born that their father quaffs after consuming the placenta. It makes sense for all Dwarves to have those abilities. If you are a Dwarf raised amongst Thri-Kreen in a massive wasteland of a desert, how the fuck do you even know what a Dwarven waraxe is or what stonework looks like and how to tell if there is some sort of architectural flaw that means there is a secret room or door? 

I dunno, it is goofy. I kind of do the same thing with some of the races in Hekinoe. What I think would be more appropriate would be going back to what I did in the first Hekinoe campaign. Instead of one trait at first level, you gain a background trait, a cultural trait, and a racial trait. Cultural traits are much more appropriate for stuff like bonuses against fighting a certain race your race has been an enemy of for ages.  Hmm, a thought occurs. If Goblins and Orcs have been fighting Dwarves as long as Dwarves have been fighting them, and Giants have been fighting them as long as Dwarves have been fighting them, wouldn't A) the Dwarf opposed race in question have come up ways of circumventing the Dwarven techniques, and B) come up with their own dirty little tricks to fight Dwarves? I dunno, it suddenly seems very odd to me that Giants don't have a fancy little ability called Dwarf Stomper where they just leap ten feet into the air to avoid a Dwarf's axe and then come down on his face with their feet.

I dunno, this is kind of nitpicking, but I feel like it is goofy. For a game where you can come up with some zany Dwarf raised by Thri-Kreen concept race to explain why your Dwarven Ranger is so hunter/prey relationship focused and likes bugs, it feels too restrictive and counter-intuitive. Wouldn't that make Survival or Nature (depending on the edition) more appropriate than Craft or Appraise checks or detecting secret doors? This example of Dwarves certainly isn't unique, all Elves are good with Bows and magic, all Gnomes like badgers, all Halfings are good with slings, all Half-Elves are tormented half breeds never fully a part of either races and constantly seek acceptance, etc, etc. 

To a certain extent, you get different cultural attributes through subraces like Whisper Gnomes and Gold Elves, and Strongheart Halfings, but now you have an entirely different race write up when all you need to says is that Dwarves raised here are probably good at fighting Goblins and Dwarves raised here are more resistant to magic because the Drow try to murder and enslave them every other day of the week. Blah blah blah. 

I dunno, just some thoughts. 

1 comment:

  1. Just a counter thought to the idea of a racial trait.

    The ideas behind racial traits like stonecunning or the dwarven advantages against orcs and goblins is more of a cultural idea than genetic. They are brought up in a society that would place value in those things enough that those growing up will pick up a thing or two about the subjects just by being around it enough.

    Think about it like this. An American will have a "racial" tendancy to be able to understand, use, repair, and appraise a piece of modern technology more than someone from a tribe deep in the Amazonian rainforest. You or I might not know the price of a brand new MacBOOK or Kindle Fire or even how to use it, but we'd have a better chance estimating that price than that tribe member would. The tribe member might also have an inherit set of skills based upon their culture that we as Americans would not be as inherently good at because we didn't grow up in a rainforest where a river of ants might suddenly swallow you whole like a river of acid.

    Likewise, a dwarf who grew up among other dwarves would have a better grasp of the value of stonework since he'd have been exposed to it for most of his life. He wouldn't necessarily be good at it, he'd just have an advantage vs an elf who grew up in tree houses made of unicorn farts and dreams (or whatever those pointy eared bastards make their buildings out of).

    This is why I like the alternative racial features of Pathfinder, it helps to push different originating cultures. If you were running a dwarf that grew up with thri-kreen in my game you'd be allowed to swap out what could be considered cultural traits with ones that were compatible with the thri-kreen culture instead.

    I think "Racial" is a misnomer here. It is only part of the equation, but it does fit better on a character sheet than "Cultural backgrounds, values, and traditions" does.

    Also, since DnD was based heavily off of Tolkien and Tolkien was pretty damn racist in the books about Middle Earth, that could be the basis for it too. Race=everything you need to know about someone according to the Lord of the Rings.