Disaster as Random Chargen Filter

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One of the problems with holding onto a love of random character generation is that it originally went hand in hand with another major facet of D&D: if you rolled poorly on your character, that character would probably die quickly and you’d get to try again. Conversely, it’s probably likely that players that rolled really exceptional characters had a decent chance of getting overconfident and losing them. Ultimately, that meant that the dungeon was serving as a filter: weak characters tended to die (or be lucky enough to be very interesting to roleplay), and, in the long term, it was hard to get stuck with a character meaningfully weaker than other PCs for the campaign.

Meanwhile, in modern games, most tables that I’m aware of don’t really have a high PC body count. If you use random chargen and roll poorly, you could be stuck as the effective sidekick to the more powerful characters in the party for the whole campaign.

I had an idea while attending the Horror in Gaming panel at Dragon*Con this year that would allow you to reintroduce the filter in a specific circumstance. My original idea was for something I’ve seen in modern action horror movies like Freddy vs. Jason and House of the Dead: dozens of teens at a rave in a dangerous location, suddenly fleeing when monsters attack. It also works for disaster-movie scenarios. But the idea possibly best in that old D&D trope: survivors of the big bad wiping out a village.

I may expand this idea to a loose module in the future, but the basic idea is:

  • The GM (with the help of the players, if they’re interested) generates a bunch of extremely rough character descriptions and puts them on notecards. This would be the kind of details you’d notice in a crowd scene of a disaster or horror movie: race, sex, hair color, age, and a significant item of clothing (possibly just using something like the Pathfinder Face Cards instead). It’s enough to give the players some idea of whether they’d like to play the character long term.
  • The players take turns claiming cards (or get them randomly) until they have an equal number of characters.
  • The GM sets the stage for what’s going on. Players used to games where they improvisationally portray characters with no stats might pick a character or two to do a bit of ad libbling.
  • Something awful starts killing everyone, and the crowd scatters to escape. The PC cards might represent the whole crowd, or be surrounded by NPCs also getting slaughtered.
  • The GM puts obstacles in the way of escaping: dodging monsters and explosions, having to scale walls and fences, stumbling lost in the dark, remembering how to bypass something, soldiering on through choking smoke or light injuries, and begging others for help.
  • Each of these obstacles is an attribute challenge (e.g., in D&D 5e, an ability check for skill or save). When characters get to it, roll up their applicable stat and make the test. Characters that make it through might, if the context makes sense, help those that failed (but not all of them). The goal is to have pretty heavy carnage of characters that fail challenges.
  • After every such obstacle, give the survivors a new character trait (possibly also randomly chosen) like name and other personality highlights (e.g., again for 5e, background, then personality, ideal, flaw, and bond). Allow a little time for roleplaying if the players want to: they should be figuring out which characters they might want to play.
  • Also after every obstacle (or round of obstacles, if the characters split up into different mobs), have the players hang on to one or two characters they like the most right now, put the rest back in the middle, and then redraw until everyone has an even number. This is just in case players have a different rate of attrition.
  • You might also give the players a small set of rerolls to use across all their characters, to get characters they’re growing attached to through a poor roll or two.
  • Repeat obstacles until the character pool has been whittled down to one PC per player (possibly with a few left over to be backup characters/friendly NPCs). If attrition was high enough that not all the necessary attributes and personality traits are chosen, roll those now.
  • Narrate the last of the PCs escaping to a moment of safety long enough to catch their breaths… and worry what they’re going to do about the thing that just wiped out everyone around them. Finish generating the characters (such as picking a class and everything that goes with it).

Ultimately, this method should wind up with PCs that are above average and more-or-less on par with one another, but that still feel random. And you’ve also got a nice baked-in traumatic experience and plot hook to motivate roleplay from there on out.

Dynamically Static Initiative

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I’ve never been a tremendous fan of the “roll initiative at the start of combat and then just cycle that order until combat is over” school of initiative that has existed in a lot of games, but most notably D&D from 3e on. In my experience, it makes everything feel very static, and can lead to problems with players getting distracted while they just wait for a turn. In the past, I’ve worked on other solutions to the problem, with my most common being group initiative (based on this Ars Ludi post).

A friend recently linked me to this joke monster:

from http://imgur.com/r/dndnext/H4BrSMH

from here

The Percolating Haste mechanic struck me immediately as a potential solution to the boringness of cyclic initiative; you can just apply it to everyone, to get a much more dynamic combat where high initiative bonus matters past the first round of combat. I’d implement it in the following way:

D&D (All varieties post 3e)

Roll initiative for the first round of combat normally. Each time you end your turn, if subtracting 20 from your initiative total would not reduce your score below 0, subtract 20 and go again on that initiative tick. If this would reduce you below 0, instead add your initiative bonus to your current initiative score upon ending your turn (unless you have an initiative penalty, in which case just stay where you are).

Haste-type effects might reduce the subtraction amount (making it easier to go twice in one turn).

Beyond the Wall

Determine initiative for the first round normally (in BtW, this is a fixed initiative total equal to level plus Dex bonus plus 0-2 from class choice). Each time you end your turn, if subtracting (Your Level + 10) from your initiative total would not reduce your score below 0, subtract (Your Level + 10) and go again on that initiative tick. If this would reduce you below 0, instead add your initiative total to your current initiative score upon ending your turn. (Very few BtW characters should have an initiative that’s negative, particularly past the first couple of levels even with a very low Dex.)

This method has the subtraction amount scale by level since your initiative bonus scales drastically by level; it should result in high-init characters getting similar amounts of extra actions as they level.

Benefits of the System

To my mind, this system has a couple of major benefits:

  • Due to different initiative bonuses, characters are likely to change order through the course of a fight. You can’t guarantee that you’ll get a turn in the same position every round; that skeleton that went after you this round—but has a higher initiative—might go before you next round. This in itself should make the fight a lot more dynamic-feeling.
  • High-initiative characters, over a long combat, will get to go more often (making up for the fact that the benefits of high initiative tend to become less and less after many rounds in a fixed initiative order, and also compensating for a high initiative but bad roll).

Of course, the system is a little fiddly for a GM to keep track of round to round. One solution is to ask players to track their current initiative score and just do a countdown initiative call, but another is to use the program I threw together to work as an initiative tracker.

Initiative Tracker App

Here is the app.

As usual, this is a simple Windows form app (someday I’m going to get around to learning to make web and mobile apps) that I solemnly promise is not going to do anything bad to your computer. Just put it in a directory and run it.

The Main tab is where most of the functions lie:

  • Once you’ve added characters, you can select them from the combo box and click Add to add them to the current initiative list.
  • Click New to add a new, default character to the current initiative list (and the combo box).
  • Click Remove to remove a character from the initiative list (it remains in the combo box to be added back later).
  • Select a character in the initiative list to see its stats in the text boxes underneath. You can change them and they’ll update on the fly (if you put something that’s not an integer in the non-name boxes, it will default to 0):
    • Name: The character name that will appear in the lists
    • Increase: The amount that will be added to the character’s initiative count after every turn that didn’t result in a second turn (i.e., initiative bonus)
    • Decrease: The amount that will be subtracted from the initiative total to determine if the character goes again
    • Current Init: The character’s current initiative total (overwrite this every combat if the players hand-roll their scores)
  • The Current Character label indicates which character is currently up once you’ve started combat (and stays the same even if you select another character for editing).
  • Click Next Character to move to the next character in the initiative order (and modify the scores of the last character to act). This replaces the Current Character label and selects the character in the list (so you can easily edit it if necessary). If no one has gone yet after starting a new encounter, this selects the first character in the initiative order.
  • Click New Encounter to reset the initiative count to the top of the order (and possibly reset current initiative scores based on Settings).

This doesn’t currently support delaying/holding actions. I’d suggest just moving on and remembering that the character has a floating ability to act; for a delay, you can hand overwrite the character’s current initiative).

The Settings tab allows you to change a few things:

  • Use the radio buttons to select what you want to have happen to everyone’s current initiative scores when you click New Encounter. By default, leaving them unchanged is selected. The first two options reset them to a generic value (either Increase or Increase + 10; the first option is for Beyond the Wall). The third option rolls a d20 and adds Increase (essentially a normal first-round initiative roll if you’re using Increase equal to init bonus).
  • Change the New Character defaults to whatever you want a new character to begin with when you click New on the Main tab.
  • Uncheck Modify Initiative on Advance to turn off all the fancy changing and use this as a normal cyclic initiative tracker.
  • Click Save All Characters to File to create “InitiativeTrackerCharacters.txt” in the same directory as your app executable. This writes all the characters currently in the combo box to the file, and the next time you open the app it will load them all back in from that file.

There isn’t currently an in-app way to delete characters. You can manually remove them by editing the text file.

Pathfinder: Ability Point-Based Supers

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Points

Two unrelated things that became related in my brain:

  • It would be reasonable to model Captain America’s superpowers (from certain eras and writers) as just “human max attributes.” In D&D/Pathfinder, that’s 18s (or maybe 20s) in all six ability scores.
  • While I have my misgivings about the fungibility of the race features in the Advanced Race Guide*, I couldn’t help but notice that the point scales involved in race building seemed fairly similar to the points used to buy ability scores. In particular, I wondered if it would be fair to do something like allow a player to be an aasimar (a 15 point race) in a party of players handbook races (9-10 point races) in exchange for the aasimar PC having 5 fewer points for ability scores.

Those ideas gelling in my head, I did do some additional math and found out that, indeed, the race point balancing is relatively close to ability point balancing. To wit, if you made a PC with all 18s it would cost around 90 ability or race points (not counting the first 15 points that normal characters get); for race points, it’s using the +2 ability score bonus with no strings that increases in cost for each cumulative +2. The price is likewise similar (around 130) for all 20s. Since the math is close enough, let’s move on to the system below.

* In that my intuition and experience is that it leads to players ditching rarely used but interesting features for boring features they think they’ll use more

Point-Based Supers

You can turn Pathfinder into a supers system by just giving out bonus points that can be spent on ability scores or racial features. A character of around Captain America’s power level gets 100 or so points. Notably, these characters will be hella awesome for first level characters, but scale normally through character level (and mythic tiers, if you’re feeling particularly gonzo).

Character points can be spent in three major ways: enhanced ability scores, racial features, or spell-like abilities.

Ability Scores

While the normal point buy rules stop players from buying over 18, it’s easy to extend the costs indefinitely upward: the cost for each ability score increase is equal to the modifier for that score (e.g., it costs 5 points beyond the cost of 19 to get to 20, because 20 grants +5).

The extended chart is below:

Score Total CP Cost Score Total CP Cost
7 -4 22 37
8 -2 23 43
9 -1 24 50
10 0 25 57
11 1 26 65
12 2 27 73
13 3 28 82
14 5 29 91
15 7 30 101
16 10 31 111
17 13 32 122
18 17 33 133
19 21 34 145
20 26 35 157
21 31 36 170

So someone that had 100 points and went all in on an ability score could start with a 30 or better.

Racial Features

Most of the racial features from creating new races (p. 215 of the ARG or here) are probably viable for building heroic abilities. Hell, you need a pile of superhero points to afford to be a robot (sorry, “construct”).

Specifically, leave out the racial features that modify ability scores (use the point costs above) or grant one-off spell-like abilities (see below). Otherwise, anything the GM and player agree works for the character’s power concept should be fair game for the prices listed.

Spell-Like Abilities

The real bread-and-butter of making supers is the freedom to pick spells to use as spell-like abilities. Want to be a blaster? You can do worse than Scorching Ray. A teleporter? Dimension Door.

The costs in the ARG seem relatively cheap for this purpose, though: it makes more sense to sell players a second level spell per day for 2 points when they’re going to have less than a dozen points, but that’s a LOT of scorching rays if you have 100 points to spend.

So I suggest for this purpose you cost spell-likes as their level squared. So:

Spell Level CP Cost
1 1
2 4
3 9
4 16
5 25
6 36
7 49
8 64
9 81

You can also work out with the player how many uses are required for something to become an At Will spell-like ability, or an always-on supernatural ability. For attacks and other primarily-in-combat powers, I’d work out how many times I genuinely expect the player to use it in a day, and make it At Will once that many uses are purchased. For utility abilities, particularly long-duration ones, it may only take a few per day to become a self-only, always-on supernatural ability. Healing and other things that become really good out of combat with unlimited time should probably never become At Will.

Like racial spell likes, the caster level for these abilities is equal to total character level/hit dice, and the save DC is equal to 10 + spell level + the most relevant ability score modifier (but don’t let the player browbeat you into setting the save DC to the ability score he’s raised to a crazy high level if that doesn’t actually make sense).

And with all of that, you’ve hacked in superheroes. Either turn them loose on the normal fantasy classes and setting, or strip down the core classes to run something more traditional for supers.

D20: A Facing Hack

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Facing is admittedly complicated. Third edition D&D removed it, and subsequent editions haven’t seemed to have cause to question that decision. Particularly in the already tactically dense 3e and 4e, tracking facing would be another complication on top of a bunch of other rules that could slow down play.

But Attacks of Opportunity, flanking, and the rules for the Stealth skill are also complicated. I’ve often wondered whether the complexity saved by removing facing really saved much effort after the rules that had to be put in to preserve some level of simulation.

So this is a small hack (mostly for 3.x/Pathfinder) to see whether the cheese can be moved a bit to try to make those other rules a little simpler to allow slightly complex facing rules, as follows:

Facing

facingDuring combat, each character is always considered to be facing in a particular direction. On a grid, the facing is always centered in the direction of one of the eight adjacent squares. The character’s total facing is essentially a cone covering the square in the center and the nearest two other adjacent squares (see diagram).

A character making a move action is normally considered to be facing in the direction of travel while moving. If a character wishes to specify facing from square to square while moving (e.g., to keep from turning her back on a target while moving away or past), the character moves at half speed for that move action.

While stationary, on her turn, a character may choose any facing desired (e.g., you can make an attack against a character on one side of you and then make your next attack against someone on the other side). A character must pick a final facing upon ending her turn.

A character may also change facing during any other character’s move action in order to center facing on the moving character (i.e., you can always turn to face someone who’s moving to keep them from moving around behind you). However, you can’t turn when another character takes a non-move action (so be careful if you turn to face a target when that target’s ally is already adjacent to you). You also must be aware of the other character to turn to face her (see Stealth, below).

Attacks

You can generally only make an attack on a square within your facing (as noted, you can change facing at will on your turn).

Attacks against a target from squares not covered by that target’s facing count as flanking (gaining a +2 bonus and Sneak Attack). This applies whether or not there is another ally involved and works with melee or ranged attacks (do not turn your back on a rogue archer).

You may use an Immediate or Swift action to make a melee attack against anyone that is not facing you, if the attack would otherwise be legal. (This is why you might want to keep facing toward someone and back away: they can use their Immediate to hit you with a melee attack if you turn around completely to run, or just try to go past them.) (Note to GMs: Adjust Combat Reflexes and other sources of AoO as makes sense to you.)

Stealth

You can use the Stealth skill as if you had concealment if none of your enemies have you within their facing. That is to say, a character using Stealth may use it to move from cover to cover if no enemy is facing in a way that covers her path, and may use Stealth to get behind a target and make a Sneak Attack, even while combat is ongoing.

Enemies that aren’t facing you still get to make a Perception check to become aware of you (and then may turn to face you as you move), but it is possible to make the Stealth check even if you’re out in the open. (It’s up to the GM whether some kind of special tricks are needed to regain the ability to Stealth after enemies become aware of the character the first time; this is mostly so that you can start the fight by sneaking up to make a Sneak Attack in a way that’s logical but is normally extremely complex to pull off in Pathfinder due to the lack of facing.)

Fantasy Timekeeping without the Sun

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A while ago, a friend was talking about running an Underdark-style campaign in a world of his own creation, and was stuck on how people would tell time and handle scheduling/logistics without the sun. The official Underdark uses various forms of magic for this purpose, and it was clear that he wanted something similar that made sense in his campaign. But I reached a different conclusion:

What if societies living underground didn’t actually keep careful track of time?

In the real world, humans deprived of time indicators will usually settle on a circadian rhythm of a little more than a day, but the exact amount varies from person to person. Fantasy races, particularly the long-lived elves and dwarves so common in stocking local underworlds, might have an even longer one. Deprived of an external conception of a day, does a dwarf sleep the same number of times as a human in a given lifespan, the dwarf’s days just longer?

From day to day, in pre-industrial societies, loose timekeeping by the sun has a lot to do with just making maximum use of the sunlight. You don’t want to be caught hunting far from the village when it gets dark, or fail to get vital chores done around the farm that you can’t do in the dark and which won’t keep until tomorrow. But if your fantasy underworld already supposes some form of chemical or magical artificial light, the actual time of “day” doesn’t make much difference to your ability to function.

Longer-form timekeeping is mostly for tracking the seasons, primarily for food production and preparing for winter. But, again, presumably whatever climate and food sources prevail underground don’t really vary that much over the course of a “year.” You only really care how long things take if you’re reliant on shipments from outside your locale, and I argue that you can just as easily judge those by consumption as on time (e.g., “We usually put in a new order for grain from the surfacers when the silos are about half empty, and it winds up showing up in time.”). Rules of thumb based on travel can also emerge (“The regional peddler usually has done three circuits through his territory by the time the grain shipment comes in, and he’s done four so it’s well late.”).

At the very least, a campaign predicated on fuzzy timekeeping would be an interesting head trip. GMs would have to revise their descriptive language. Instead of, “it takes you until noon to get to the ruins,” you say, “it takes you a little while to get there, and you’re starting to get hungry.” You have to track sleeps instead of days and distances traveled instead of hours. I suspect the feel of the campaign could become rather dreamlike, particularly in long journeys through the dark that take as long as they take.

It could also result in some interesting fodder for worldbuilding:

  • Chaotic societies are always awake. Each individual sleeps when his or her own circadian rhythm calls for it, resulting in a haphazard rotating schedule. Canny adventurers can wait for an opportunity when most of the guards happen to sync up their sleep and the fortress is understaffed.
  • Lawful societies are regimented by the ruler’s preferred rhythms, employing loud bells and civil employees to wake the populace with their leaders, and trying to regiment the day as best as possible. Without access to a true mechanical clock, however, it’s all guesswork leading to a layer of frustration and sleep deprivation among many.
  • Crafters, particularly high-end ones, will complete your item at some arbitrary point in the future but can’t give you any specifics. Dwarves are especially likely to zone out on a job: the item you ordered is twice as good as you expected, but showed up excessively long after you needed it.
  • Time varies drastically from region to region, even in lawful societies, as it’s hard to maintain any kind of regularity across distance. Passage from place to place is a strange dream where it’s never the time you expected when you return.

Ultimately, I think it would be an interesting experiment in making the Underdark feel truly alien to the surface world. You go beneath the world and lose time upon your return… not from any faerie magic, but just because of your own untrustworthy internal clock.

Mages of the Hedge

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This is a writeup for Harbinger’s Blog Carnival. It’s how I’ve taken some of the implied setting from Beyond the Wall and further embellished it for my The Hedge setting.

The wise of the Order have long espoused a simple rubric for categorizing magic. They talk of the arts of the sky and the secrets of the earth, of the truths of fire and the mysteries of water, and of the derivations of science and the intuitions of nature. Unfortunately for their desire to categorize, magic is not so easily divided. Some rituals reward those with a keen intellect, while others work better for those that are more intuitive and wise, but any mage willing to risk failure can easily learn magic outside of her natural inclinations. In the heights of their frustrations trying to get it all to make sense, many young initiates have just thrown up their hands and decided that any laws of magic may be beyond mortal comprehension.

Perhaps if there was a central conclave of the wise, they could compare notes and proclivities, finally narrowing down the differences in their styles. But even the “Order” is, at best, a loose confederation of lone practitioners that have seen some small benefit in presenting a unified front in the halls of mundane power. In truth, there are few magi at large, and their services are needed far and wide; though they are often quite willing to share their learning, they have little opportunity to congregate. While magic can ensure a clear day, a magical steed, and hardiness against the other dangers of travel, it seems to present few options for quickly crossing large distances. The patrons of the wise keep them busy at home such that long journeys along monster-haunted roads are not a regular enough occurrence to truly generate a magical society.

Instead, the craft is often a simple master-student relationship. When a child demonstrates a knack, if there is a nearby mage capable of taking on an apprentice, then that child may gain a teacher. Yet, doing so seems to be optional: many mages, if cornered, admit that they were able to assemble their praxis from the odd book, fae bargain, whisperings of old gods, or simple intuition. There are few mages in the world, and those born with the talent for it will inevitably find a way to express that talent. Those without a mentor may have rougher edges on their capabilities, but are no less powerful in the long term.

This capacity to intuitively begin evoking the supernatural could be dangerous for a young child in superstitious lands, and there are, indeed, rumors of distant places where witches are burned. But the lands of the old empires have a deep memory, if only in the form of stories and institutional pragmatism. They understand that most mages will never have more than a handful of tricks, useful but rarely terrifying. A small smattering of locals that can help with the weather, ward off supernatural threats, and confirm whether an odd relic is magical are worth the occasional misfire of a hex or angry blast of fire. Those that become skilled enough to evoke more awe-inspiring powers are deeply enmeshed in their communities by that time. For sure, one does not cross the village’s old witch for fear of the many things she could do in retribution… but also because she’s a local fixture with many friends, and no reason to cause harm to those that give her the respect she’s due.

As always, this is with a caveat that what works in the ancient lands near the Hedge may not be true in the lands settled by the encroaching northern Empire. While their diplomats speak honeyed words about tolerance of diverse views, those who have had opportunity to truly study the writings of their Church of the New Dawn have reason to doubt their benevolence. While outwardly loving, their monotheistic scripture draws lines separating magic in service of their god and magic in service of chaos. Many of the wise outside the Empire fear that their praxis could easily be labeled as falling on the side of chaos, once the Empire fully takes hold. Their words are well-meaning, seeking to morally justify unprovoked attacks on dangerous supernatural beings, but the definition of a “dangerous supernatural being” could some day encompass witches as easily as demons.

Ultimately, while they don’t have a true hierarchy, there are five rough ways to group the wise, and learn something useful about any given mage:

  • Many mages consider themselves scholars, even wizards. The most commonly represented in the Order and in the courts of the nobility, these mages put a higher premium on recording their secrets and reading the wisdom of others. Bookishness breeds an interest in formal philosophy, so they are very likely to try to work out the scientific and mathematical underpinnings of their powers. None have succeeded in a grand unifying theory, but they tend to specialize in spells and rituals with enough similarities to one another to hint at a shared origin.
  • Those who learn in the small villages along the Hedge could be considered witches, and some storytellers speak of an ancient tradition of druids whose teachings still resonate in modern arts. Many have little power beyond a trick or two to help out around the farmstead, but those truly dedicated can become just as powerful as scholars. While most rely on intuition and semi-formalized superstitions, some few claim to have heard the voices and teachings of the old gods directly.
  • The fae are natural mages, and those that share a bloodline with them often have strange powers that can blossom into full magic. Even those without a blood tie to the fae may learn tricks from them, if their whimsy puts them in a teaching mood. Few mortals become full mages from fae study, but the high sidhe themselves evoke a melange of arts that seem distinct from those of scholars or witches.
  • The imperial Church of the New Dawn views its magically-capable priests as clerics or templars, depending on martial bent. They are encouraged to focus on magic that protects and strengthens the virtuous and binds and destroys the wicked. Of course, most arts that can destroy the wicked leave a lot of discretion to the caster as to which individuals are subject to their god’s wrath.
  • Even less a unified group than the others, any mage can become an apostate, often through diabolism or necromancy. Treating with demons for increased power is a steep and slippery slope, and few are moral enough to learn the magics of undeath without the dark arts consuming them. Other mages are quick to disavow those that start down these dark paths, as they can become a greater danger to civilization than the worst beasts that slink out of the Hedge.

Humans as Anchor Race

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There is a long history in D&D (and other games with multiple races/species) of treating humans as the vanilla race, into which new flavors could be mixed to produce other races.

In the early days, humans literally got nothing: other races got bonuses and hopefully flaws that cancelled them out (realistically, this meant that there was probably at least one race that was better than humans for any build; the build could use that race’s bonus but mostly ignore the flaw).

These days, it’s common to try to give them some kind of versatility advantage (e.g., a choice of trait bonus, feat/edge, etc.). That’s mechanically better (there are now often builds for which human is only slightly weaker than the best choice race), but it’s still treating humans as vanilla: there’s nothing much about their racial traits that says anything about them. Every other race is more or less a pre-specialized human, so anything that applied to humans would apply to other races by thematic inheritance.

I’ve noticed some interesting memes over the course of the last couple of years that aim to fix that: what if human capabilities are not universal? Rather than being a chassis onto which other race options add, humans have special abilities that are implicitly removed from other races. If humans are the toughest race in space, what does it mean that every other race is less durable than humans? If they’re the most loyal, what does that say about other races’ social dynamics?

This is a neat way to go, and immediately more interesting than vanilla humans, but it can result in some weirdness. If you give humans a couple of things that they’re paragons at, you can limit your race design conceptually. In particular, while the “humans as space orcs” meme is very neat, it means you can’t make actual space orcs; all your proud warrior race guys wind up squishier than humans (admittedly, Farscape did interesting things with this with the Luxans’ difficulty clotting and Sebaceans’ difficulty regulating body temperature).

And, at its core, the whole thing goes back to roleplaying hooks: turning pieces of the human experience into special abilities is a mechanical way to make players portraying non-humans think of their characters as not humans in funny prosthetics. It’s a piece of your lived experience that you can’t just take for granted for your character.

It also has a neat effect on the overall thematic space of the campaign/setting: by designating a human trait as significant enough to qualify as a racial advantage, you’re saying that trait or its absence is meaningful world context. If humans are extremely loyal, and other races are not, that’s an immediate crux around which to pivot your politics and societies.

I think it’s possible to split the difference between vanilla and paragon and still get a good result.

The trick is to call out 3-5 racial advantages for humans. Near-human races swap out one or two of those advantages for something else. Strange races swap out nearly all of them (but likely keep one just for the ability to run mirror-darkly stories around the one similarity highlighting the differences).

For example, in a D&D 5e game based on the same strengths in the linked memes, I might do something like this (I don’t know if these racial benefits are remotely balanced for 5e; they’re mostly set as illustrations of the concept):

Human Traits

Humans bond deeply to companions, including animals and even inanimate objects, and are happy to risk their own lives to protect these others. But this risk is less than that of many other races: they shake off injuries that would permanently cripple others, and recover quickly (even if the scar tissue isn’t always pretty). The coupling of their short lifespans and bonding results in multiple very different cultures, and mixed parentage that means any human might be born with a natural talent for any given pursuit.

  • Recklessly Loyal: As a bonus action, designate a named target (including inanimate objects) that you have spent enough time with to feel loyal to (GM’s discretion as to how much time this takes). You gain Advantage on attack rolls against subjects that are directly threatening your target and on ability checks made to directly rescue the target from harm (again, GM’s discretion on what “directly” means). You may use the Protection fighting style to benefit your target, even if you are not wielding a shield. While active, you are overly focused on protecting your target and thus have Disadvantage on Dexterity saving throws and all attacks against you are made with Advantage. You can deactivate this or switch targets as another bonus action, and it ends automatically when you are rendered unconscious. You may only maintain one target at a time.
  • Bent but Not Broken: Any time you would be Charmed, Frightened, or Stunned, you may take a level of Exhaustion instead (this requires your reaction). You gain advantage on saving throws against any effect that would apply Poisoned. You gain Advantage on all saving throws if your current hit points are less than half your maximum hit points.
  • Life is Too Short: Any time you would recover hit points, recover +1 HP per die of healing rolled. You recover an additional level of Exhaustion per long rest. If you are suffering from any other detrimental effect that persists through a long rest, you recover from it at twice the normal rate.
  • Endless Variety: You gain two languages of your choices in addition to Common. Increase any ability score by +1, or choose an extra skill proficiency. Increase any ability score (except one you chose to raise by +1) by +2, or choose an extra Feat. (The options in this feat may be pre-selected by particular subrace/culture options.)

Dwarf Traits

Due to their long lives, dwarves do not share the rapid recovery of humans nor the cultural variety: they are more set in their ways, prone to long consideration, and find it hard to adapt their politics to new ideas. However, they do have a similar ability to bond to others (but are more likely to use it on close family than on friends) and an even more significant case of stubborn refusal to submit to injury.

  • Recklessly Loyal: As the Human trait; Dwarves are most likely to use this on family/clan members and on inanimate objects that they consider sacred.
  • Bent but Not Broken: As the Human trait; Dwarves are, if anything, more stubborn than Humans.
  • Deep Dweller: Accustomed to living underground, you have superior vision in dark and dim conditions; within sixty feet of you, treat the lighting condition as one step brighter (but, when treating darkness as dim light, you can only see in black and white). Additionally, whenever you make an Intelligence (History) check related to the origin of stonework, you are considered proficient in the History skill and add double your proficiency bonus to the check (instead of your normal proficiency bonus).
  • Children of the Smith: Increase your Constitution score by 2 and your Strength or Wisdom score by 1. You have proficiency in all axe and hammer weapons and with one set of artisan’s tools of your choice.

Elf Traits

Elves live extremely long lives, and value their own very highly. They do not share the strong bonds of humans; it takes a long time to gain the full love and trust of an elf, and even then it is hard for her to risk her own life to save yours. Neither do they share the resilience and recovery of the shorter-lived; elves make it a point to use grace, wit, and craft to avoid being injured at all, for wounds may stick with them for uncomfortably long periods. Strangely, they do share in the variety of humanity, seeming to possess a natural tendency to adapt to the environments.

  • Endless Variety: As the Human trait; Elves are particularly likely to have these choices pre-selected by a subrace.
  • Superior Training: Due to your long life, you’ve picked up several tricks. You have proficiency in the Perception skill and with four martial weapons. Additionally, gain a cantrip or some other special lore (such as increased speed and hiding ability in the wilderness). These choices are likely to be pre-selected by a subrace.
  • Blood of the Ancients: Accustomed to twilit forests and the night sky, you have superior vision in dark and dim conditions; within sixty feet of you, treat the lighting condition as one step brighter (but, when treating darkness as dim light, you can only see in black and white). Additionally, you have advantages on saving throws against being charmed. Magic cannot put you to sleep, and instead of sleeping you enter a meditative trance for four hours a day (gaining the same benefits that a Human does from eight hours of sleep).
  • Subrace: You have a tightly knit family that favors you above outsiders; gain advantage on all Charisma (Persuasion) and Wisdom (Insight) checks when dealing with other members of your subrace. Your particular subrace provides suggested choices for your Endless Variety and Superior Training traits.

Halfling Traits

Halflings are, in many ways, humans writ small. They share many things in common with their bigger cousins, except for their particular indomitable ruggedness in the face of injury. Instead, they possess their own form of courage and luck.

  • Recklessly Loyal: As the Human trait; Halflings are less likely to protect inanimate objects, and more likely to protect dear friends.
  • Life is Too Short: As the Human trait; though they are slightly longer-lived than Humans, Halflings still recover from injury much more quickly than the elder races.
  • Endless Variety: As the Human trait; Halflings tend to favor Dexterity more highly than Humans, but otherwise have nearly as much variety.
  • Small Body, Giant Heart: You are Small, and your base walking speed is 25 feet, but you may move through the space of any creature that is of a size larger than yours. The courage and luck of larger folk are concentrated within you: you have advantage on saving throws against being frightened, and can reroll any attack roll, ability check, or saving throw when you roll a 1.

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