Today, we’ll be talking about change. Specifically the changes that WotC has been all about recently, which some have welcomed and others have criticized. Do I, personally, support the changes?
Here’s a whole post about that answer which boils down, ultimately, to “maybe.”
Speaking of change, I finally remembered how to do the “read more” link. So that’s new! And probably good.
Is It Broke?
As we all know, if something isn’t broke… don’t fix it. So the question that remains is whether or not D&D is broke. And the answer is… yes.
First we have the idea of races. This is something many RPG players have become attached to, and not in a bad way! But it also has unfortunate implications.
The idea of inherent differences in ability between various races is a difficult topic. Statements like “all X people are good at Y” are dangerous in part because they’re difficult to respond to. It could seem true – there could be a statistically higher number of X people in Y activity. But you have to consider culture as well – are X people just born “better” at Y? Or is it that the X culture simply placed a higher emphasis on Y, thus giving children from the culture a lot more practice from a much younger age.
Dungeons and Dragons takes this concept a step further. High elves are just smarter than mountain dwarves are. Conversely, orcs are just stupider than other races. At the same time, high elves just innately know how to use cantrips, while mountain dwarves are seemingly born with proficiency in martial weapons and armor.
These things were initially intended to reflect culture and biology. That’s why dwarves used to have a racial bonus when fighting orcs – dwarves in the primary setting were ancient enemies with the orcs. But as we grew accustomed to the collaborative storytelling of D&D, problems arose.
What if a dwarf is orphaned and raised by humans? What if, in my world, dwarves and orcs are best friends united in their hatred of elves? What if my world’s elves are half fey, half human, and the orcs are the same, just because I got so tired of everyone playing nothing but half-elves that I wrote them out of the setting?
(That actually happened, by the way. When running 2e, my players basically only played half-elves to the point where it annoyed me enough to write them out of the setting entirely. This is the same campaign where gnomes were actually the cursed descendents of the now-extinct giants, just to give an idea of how much I screwed with the setting.)
The problem is that we’re placing overly broad generalizations on an area of the game which is supposed to reflect customization. What if I want to play a buff elven fighter? I’m at a distinct disadvantage compared to the party mountain dwarf, and yet she just wants to be a scrawny rogue!
This is especially problematic when many races have good racials that don’t tie into ability scores or stats. If elves don’t get Dexterity bonuses, what makes them elves? Fey Ancestry! If a mountain dwarf doesn’t get bonus Strength and Constitution, what makes them a dwarf? Poison resistance! Stonecunning!
We have the ability to differentiate playable races without using stats. Some races might need minor tweaks – high elves in particular don’t get anything unique compared to other elves if you take out the free cantrips that might not make sense in a magically primitive elven society. But that’s a fixable issue.
Why Fix It?
And here we get to the crux of the issue. For many, “why fix it?” is a common question. I have two answers.
The first is that this fix doesn’t hurt you at all so why care. Seriously. Who cares if elves don’t get innate DEX bonuses anymore? The rules just let you pick an ability to put your bonus in, so just choose DEX! If anything, this change enables more unique builds that can help longtime players find something new.
The second is that it makes the game more welcoming. That means more players, which means more books, and more fun. It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand it – as established, it doesn’t affect you so who cares? In a way, you can look at it as being similar to high-level content. Why do we publish anything for 15th level and up? All the data shows that the vast majority of games only go up to like 12th level.
And yet the game would be a much emptier place if we didn’t have high level content, and it’s nice that it’s there for the people who want it.
Change of Alignment
Now I want to address another common complaint – changing the listed alignments of creatures in the Monster Manual. I have a friend who is very upset by this. And that’s fine, that’s their choice.
That being said, I’m going to indulge myself and lay out my view of it here.
Basically, I think it’s fine. If a creature has free will, it shouldn’t have a set alignment. I’m not a real big fan of their move to “typically X” though – it’s a cop out of just doing what’s actually necessary.
Which is removing alignment entirely. It’s time.
But it isn’t time for me to talk about that yet. The point is that removing alignment is an important step in redefining what is, and is not, a monster. That’s one thing I love about Eberron – there’s still a list of “monsters” but who is and isn’t on that list is a matter of in-world debate.
There are issues, of course. Sometimes you don’t want to do a deep dive into orcish society and its relationship with aggression and violence. Sometimes you want enemies to get in the players’ way as they traverse the wilderness between two points.
You could use undead, sure – they’re evil by default as non-sentient creatures of dark magic. But undead imply the presence of a necromancer, a higher-level threat than your normal “raid leader” of an orcish war party. You can also just use beasts, but that lacks a certain something compared to thinking, humanoid opponents.
There’s always solutions though. These are challenges, sure, but they aren’t insurmountable.
Adaptation and Change
It often seems that the primary argument against change is that change is innately bad. And too much change can be dangerous.
But especially here… so many of these changes are so minor that I just don’t get the point of becoming upset. I prefer not being angry, but I can only say that as someone who has been angry before.
I think the point is that change is necessary, and that should be reflected in the game too. Just because elven culture promotes agility and wits doesn’t mean that an elf can’t choose to become a musclehead. I myself chose to change – from my family history, I should use the half-orc stats, rage and all. But I don’t like being angry, so I don’t.
Though I will note, in the interest of fairness, that I’m not exempt from any of this. I decry my 2e group for always playing half-elves, and yet in 5e I’m seemingly incapable of playing anything but aasimar.
As for getting mad at change… just ask me about my opinion on VGtM‘s aasimar. I dare you.