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Design Journal Part 5: Characters, Revisited

A few months back, I discussed my early thoughts on character races and classes for Umber. Since then, I've developed those ideas more fully, expanding the range of options for player characters.

In looking at some of the more powerful races that I wanted to include as player characters (such as aasimars and tieflings), I realized that I had a bit of a conundrum. I wanted these powerful races as available options for starting characters, but I also wanted every player to begin as a 1st-level character. With races that have a level adjustment, that would be impossible to balance--everyone would want to play one of the powerful races, rather than be "stuck" with a less-potent race.

My solution was to "power up" the other races to bring them more in line with the more powerful options. By layering additional ability adjustments and special features onto the standard races, I could bring them in line with the tougher ones. Essentially, every race would have a level adjustment, which I could then conveniently ignore. Umber's a tough world, so it's only fair that starting characters get a bit of an edge.

I also tweaked the racial options a bit to make sure that each race had its own niche in the class system. That meant dropping orcs (too similar to half-orcs, and not as interesting), and adding a new sorcerous race (see the dragonblood, below). Here, then, is my final list of player character races. (The descriptions aren't complete, but they give you an idea of how the races compare to one another.)

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Human. The humans of Umber share a mixed heritage, but retain their ultimate adaptability. With national and ethnic borders erased, there's no easy way to tell friend from foe. Ability Adjustments: +2 to any ability. Favored Class: Any.

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Aasimar. Some humans are born with clear signs of their heavenly heritage. Aasimars make natural leaders, and often cling to outdated ideals of nobility and honor. Ability Adjustments: +2 Wis, +2 Cha. Favored Class: Paladin.

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Dragonblood. Like the aasimar, the dragonblood is born of human parents but displays a distinctly nonhuman ancestry. One of very few races with a natural talent at magic, the dragonblood's flair for sorcery derives from the all-but-extinct race of dragons. Ability Adjustments: +2 Con, +2 Cha. Favored Class: Sorcerer.

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Dwarf. The master craftsmen of the world of Umber, both before and after the Fall. Despite their lack of agility, they remain powerful warriors. The dwarves of Umber are exceptionally reclusive, and don't get along well with others. Ability Adjustments: -2 Dex, +4 Con, +2 Int, -2 Cha. Favored Class: Fighter.

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Elf. Once seen as a blessing from the gods, the elves now curse their long lives--most still remember the beauty of the Old World. Their years on Umber also grant them exceptional insight, which some use in defense of the natural world. Ability Adjustments: +2 Dex, -2 Con, +2 Wis. Favored Class: Druid.

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Gnoll. Once a proud race of feral savannah hunters, the gnolls now subsist on scraps purchased with the meager funds derived from mercenary work. Despite this fall, they remain cunning warriors. Reduced to 1-HD humanoids to match other races. Ability Adjustments: +4 Str, +2 Con, -2 Int, -2 Cha. Favored Class: Ranger.

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Gnome. Of all the races surviving the fall of the Old World, the gnomes have retained the most hope for the future. Many have taken on the task of safekeeping the stories (and secrets) of the Ancients, believing that there will come a day when such knowledge is needed once again. Ability Adjustments: -2 Str, +2 Con, +2 Int, +2 Cha. Favored Class: Bard.

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Half-Elf. Living emblems of the mixed-heritage nature of the world, half-elves tend to be accepted wherever they go. They are natural survivalists, able to take care of themselves in all situations. Ability Adjustments: +2 Cha. Favored Class: Scout (Complete Adventurer).

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Half-Orc. The product of a close alliance between the ancient kingdoms of humans and orcs, half-orcs are now a fully stable species. Though the alliance is long dead, and the orc race now hunts humans and other civilized races as food, the half-orcs remain integrated with the other races of Umber. Ability Adjustments: +4 Str, -2 Int, -2 Cha. Favored Class: Barbarian.

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Halfling. Abandoned by their goddess, their tight-knit communities rent asunder by the Fall, the halfling race has grown cynical and individualistic in recent generations. Many have taken up arms to better defend their personal needs. Ability Adjustments: -2 Str, +4 Dex. Favored Class: Swashbuckler (Complete Warrior).

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Tiefling. As with aasimars and dragonbloods, the tieflings are born of human but manifest nonhuman heritage--in this case, an ancestry born of Hell itself. As befits their nature, they tend to seek their fortunes through stealth and guile over force of arms. Ability Adjustments: +2 Dex, +2 Int, -2 Cha. Favored Class: Rogue.

I'm still set on my original idea of no single-classed spellcasters. That makes bonuses to spellcasting stats--Int, Wis, and Cha--much more palatable, and lets me put those bonuses in the races that I'd most like to see as (potential) spellcasters. Elves are the iconic druids of Umber, so they get a Wisdom bonus. Dragonbloods are the iconic sorcerers, thus the Charisma bonus, but many other races make reasonable sorcerers as well. With no wizards, the dwarven Intelligence bonus has few ramifications other than for skills.

You may be surprised to see paladin listed as an available class, since I had stated earlier that such characters wouldn't be present. I've rethought that a bit, and I'd like to include (non-spellcasting) paladins as vestiges of the Old World's nobility. They retain a semblance of supernatural power, though whether this comes from the thought-to-be-dead gods or purely from force of will is unknown (and to most, unimportant--belief is what matters).

Though I expect that rampant multiclassing will help make a race's favored class significant, I'm quite interested in determining other ways of increasing the importance of favored classes overall. For races with a spellcasting class (druid or sorcerer--bards and rangers, like paladins, will lose their spellcasting in Umber), I'm considering allowing them to be a spellcaster at 1st level, and letting them "round up" when determining how many spellcaster levels they may have (two at 3rd level, three at 5th, four at 7th, etc.). The result: A dragonblood who pursues the path of sorcery (or an elf who follows the druidic faith) can do so more quickly than any other race. I'm not yet sure how to "reward" the other races for pursuing their favored class, but it's on my mind.

Some classes--bard, paladin, and ranger--are losing some of their punch by losing spellcasting. I think that those classes will still have a lot of appeal, thanks in part to the low-magic aspect of the world. The bard's ability to fascinate or inspire will seem pretty good compared to the spellcasting ability of a multiclass druid or sorcerer, and the paladin's supernatural abilities are quite attractive in a world without clerics. Similarly, the ranger's aptitude in wilderness situations will come in very handy in a campaign that features a lot of overland travel. I'll be playing this one by ear, though, ready to add other small class features to help out, should my theory prove incorrect.

The other classes--barbarian, fighter, rogue, and the two as-yet-unpublished classes--will work pretty much as written. The fighter (and indeed, all combat-oriented classes) will gain some versatility from a change I'm instituting in those feats that require you to select a weapon to which you may apply their effects (such as Weapon Focus). I plan to broaden the feats to apply to a wider range of weapons, allowing characters to more easily switch between weapons as they find new and better ones. Few characters will be able to afford to begin play with a sword or longbow, so it seems overly punitive to make them a) focus in a weapon they'll soon discard, or b) focus in a weapon they won't see for a few levels. Instead, a character choosing a feat that normally requires application to a specific weapon (Exotic Weapon Proficiency, Improved Critical, Weapon Focus, Weapon Specialization) will choose a category of weapons--light melee, one-handed melee, two-handed melee, thrown, or projectile--to apply its effects.

Admittedly, that's a bit arbitrary and abstract, but I think it allows for plenty of versatility while still allowing for characters to follow specific archetypes. A barbarian who begins play with a greatclub or longspear is much more likely later in his career to switch to a greataxe, greatsword, or falchion rather than picking up a pair of short swords. A fighter wielding a club and wooden shield at 1st level is more likely to upgrade to a longsword and steel shield than to a greatsword. A high-Dex archer-type character is more likely to trade in his shortbow for a longbow than for a bastard sword. And so on.

I think I'll keep Greater Weapon Focus and Greater Weapon Specialization as applying only to a single weapon, though I don't anticipate many characters reaching a level sufficient to select those feats.

All material copyright Andy Collins 2001-2008.