“Dwarves use sturdy, well-crafted axes and hammers. Elves use thin, elegant blades and bows. Halflings are nimble and sneaky. Half-orcs are strong, savage, and not so bright.
We all know these things, but how important is it that they affect the actual mechanics of the game?”
This quote is from Monte Cook over on the D&D Next blog site in a post entitled “Racial Importance”. He asked the critical question of whether there should be a ton of race-based mechanics attached to races, like Dwarven bonuses with axes or halfling bonuses to sneaking. I say (with a big however noted below), yes! I LOVE a set of strong racial mechanics. One of the best things 4e did, for example, was racial powers because they were mechanical elements that were fun, effective, and also shouted out from the hilltops, “my PC is THIS race and no other!” The halfling was able to dodge out of danger by yelling “second chance!”, the dwarf was able to hold the line a little longer with his dwarven resilience… awesome stuff. I hope a strong suite of race-based mechanics makes it into the core game of the next edition.
HOWEVER (and this is a big however), I think the key to handling race in the new edition should be to realize that “these things that we all know” (not scare quotes, just a reference to Mr. Cook’s original quote), are true for Tolkein-inspired game worlds. Particularities of race should always be thought of as setting-specific. Elves who grow up in a city or who grow up in the wild should be very different (Dragon Age does this well). This is one area where in-game life can mirror real life; a person’s culture, talents, and worldview are shaped by their environment, maybe more so than by their basic racial or ethnic characteristics.
Therefore, as the setting changes, so should the races and, by extension, whatever race-based mechanics go with each race. The Neverwinter Campaign Setting book started on this path with different mechanics for Sun Elves/ Moon Elves and what not. Why not carry that forward and really expand on it!
I wouldn’t mind if core D&D had race mechanics based on “these things we all know” – dwarves with axes, elves with bows, etc. etc. After that, different setting books could offer alternate packages for swapping in. Elves in the core book would be good at Arcana, but in Dark Sun they’d be better at Streetwise. Half-orcs could be headstrong and mighty in the core setting, but in Eldeen Reaches of Eberron they would be wise in-tune with nature. And in homebrew settings they both could, I dunno, fly! The DMG could also have specific advice and sample race-mechanic layouts if they want to shape races to their own worlds.
As long as race is considered setting-specific, I believe that it’s flexible enough that it could be as mechanically stout as anyone could want without causing too much of an uproar. What does everyone else think?