Saturday, April 9, 2011

Humans vs. Humanoids

Why do humans get the shaft in D&D? Elves and dwarfs and even halflings (hobbits!) have all sorts of cool abilities, but in general humans are pretty vanilla. In ye olde versions, humans have unlimited advancement whereas demi-humans do not. Okay, that seems like a major bonus. But honestly, how many games have you ever played that got over around 10 or 12th level? I've been in a few, but we never went over 14th (AD&D), and even then the elves were STILL better than the human magic-users due to being able to wear magic armor and swing swords (why anyone would play a single classed demi-human is beyond me). I think the break point in AD&D is 12th level, as that's when MUs get 6th level spells; elves can only go up to 11th level. But realistically, you're probably looking at 15th or so before the humans really start to outclass the demi-humans. In 3rd edition, this pretty much goes out the window, as there are no level limits. Of course, the designers took this into account and gave humans more skill points and a feat to make up for it. Mechanically, this is a major reason to be a human. But honestly, I think it's an oversight on their part: humans are the most powerful race in all versions of D&D, by far. Even at low levels.

Did I just contradict myself? I complained about humans getting the shaft, then said they were still the most powerful. Not at all. Using purely the described mechanics, yes, humans aren't as good. We're old school, though...mechanics don't mean shit. Humans have the greatest possible power in D&D, that of being tolerated by every single other humanoid race in the game. Humans can easily make friends with dwarfs, halflings and elves. Half-orcs act favorably toward humans most of the time. Humans can make deals with roving orc bands, call truces with goblin tribes and probably engage in some form of trade with kobolds. Ogres will serve a high-powered human fighter. Lizardmen can be browbeat into forming an army by a human leader who is strong enough. Gnolls and trolls can be placated if there's a lot of treasure involved. None of the other playable character races can claim to have such diplomatic ability. In fact, they cannot even get along with each other most of the time. An elven fighter might be strong enough to coerce an ogre to working for him, but the ogre will never trust the elf, and will rebel whenever possible. That same ogre would probably have no problem working for an evil human fighter, and in fact might even enjoy it. Orcs attack elves instantly; they'll usually listen to what a human has to say before melee is started.

Of course, this all depends on how you play the game. 3rd edition assumed that mechanics needed to dictate "fairness", much like how black and white both have the same number of chess pieces. If I take away a couple of black's pawns, that surely doesn't seem fair. But D&D isn't chess, fairness has nothing to do with game pieces or movement capabilities. Player skill is paramount, not rules-lawyering. It is up to the player to determine how to exercise the implicit advantages offered by humans, and by extension, character classes that seem to suck. 1st level magic-users suck, no doubt. Their survivability rate is low compared to fighters and clerics. So what? And they only suck IN A FIGHT. Any MU character who goes into melee deserves to get killed. A clever player can easily turn these disadvantages into an advantage. No one will get pissed if the MU hangs in the back and runs away from a fight that is going poorly. Fighters are expected to be meat shields, MUs are expected to be smart. Conversely, a 9th level fighter is overshadowed by a 9th level Wizard. MECHANICALLY. So what? That same fighter can create a dominion, become very popular, and strike fear into the hearts of countless orcs whenever he's out and about. The wizard will be respected, but out of fear. The fighter is respected and loved. To use a real-world example, Warren Buffet is insanely rich and powerful. But Mick Jagger gets lots of hot chicks and has legions of fans. In the context of a game, it's hard to quantify the latter quality, but it's arguably as "good" as the former. Games like GURPS try to assign points to such traits; I don't know how well that works.

I almost always play humans in any D&D game that will last more than a few sessions, even if I don't think we'll ever get past around 3rd level. As far as I'm concerned, if the elf or dwarf are outshining my character, it means their players are doing a better job and I need to concentrate on superior play.

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