Sunday, February 8, 2009

Race in D&D

I've been making D&D 4 characters all week with the DDI software, mostly because it's a fun exercise, but also because our group is changing campaigns and needs a few solid builds. The big difference between 3.5 comes down to race. Race is more important than it seems on first glance. The change comes from the removal of the complex 3.5 bonus system that required expertise in algebra to navigate. Armor class is the best example, as you can't bump it with magic items carefully selected for the many slots available. This makes the game easier and more enjoyable, less of a math lesson, but it puts too much emphasis on character attributes.

Armor class in 4th edition is based on your actual armor, perhaps with a small magic bonus, your modifiers from dex or int if you're wearing light armor, and a progressive bump based on half your level. There are no rings of protection, or even magic shields that provide bonuses, just the basics. The modifiers for armor are carefully balanced to avoid power builds. This means there's a much greater focus on the one area you can boost, min-maxing character attributes, and the best way to do that is to choose a complementary race.

The int or dex bonus in 4th edition is probably four or five times as important as 3rd, because there are fewer options. In fact, after making a dozen or so 3rd level characters, most had the same AC (around 18), while combat builds had something slightly higher (20-22). Armor types initially seemed to have variety, but everyone ended up with the same armor: hide if they could use it and had a high attribute modifier, chain if they didn't, and a feat to gain something better, like plate, if they had a combat build. The same lack of external modifiers and emphasis on min-maxing takes place with combat modifiers like strength or dex, so it's not just AC.

As much as I don't like reading Internet threads about builds, there does seem to be a consensus on the right builds for each class and build, based on the racial modifiers. When new races emerge, the first thing people look at are the attribute modifiers. The new genasi has a +2 int/+2 str, making it the new de-facto warlord build over the eladrin. Some races have duplicate attribute bumps, which means they get a better power, like eladrin (+2 dex/+2 int but with feystep).

This right build issue is troublesome to me. Although I like to power game like the next guy, I've always enjoyed the variety of various class/race combos, something in which 3.5 did a good job. I was happy to come up with a workable build with any race or class thrown in the pot. Racial bonuses were nice, but not critical at mid to high level. I really like the role of race in 4th, that it's not tacked on, that it has a role to play throughout the life of the character. What I don't like is how deterministic it feels. Choosing a non-standard race or build is quirky in 3.5, but seems a detriment in 4th.


  1. Yes and No. I think it should be remembered that taking the ideal race in 4th is more of an optimization than a necessity. Not getting that extra +2 to a stat (which amounts to a +1 modifier) just means that you're going to take one more hit out of every 20 times you get attacked, or miss once more out of every 20 times you attack an opponent.

    You're not exactly gimping your character by picking a race that isn't the ideal choice for your class.

    That's my perspective anyway.

  2. In 4e, the +1/2 your level bonus makes most of those old optimizations obsolete. You're *not* going to die if you can't kill your opponents in the first round or two. Step back and smell the elves. =)

  3. Good point. I guess I'm overemphasizing this since it's much more important at low levels.

  4. I thought about mentioning how the +1/2 your level is going to dwarf those attribute bonuses after just a few levels.

    There are optimal builds in 4th, and there's no real harm in going for one, but you're not going to have that big of an advantage over someone who doesn't.

    I think that's one some people mean when they complain that 4th doesn't give them enough options. They really mean that 4th doesn't let them show their l33t min-maxing skills to full effect.

    [rant]Incidentally, I almost broke down laughing the other day when someone told me they played 3.5 instead of 4th because they "roleplayed" and 4th was just about tactical combat. On a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being an RPG system designed for roleplaying first and 10 being a system designed for tactical combat first, 3.5 is a 9 and 4th is a 10.

    I like what I've seen of 4th, but if your reason for avoiding it is because you're a "roleplayer" then you need to expand your horizons beyond D&D.[/rant]

    I should probably save that for my own blog, but I can't resist saying something here :-P