Wasted Possibilities in Dungeons and Dragons: 4th Edition

A group of great friends and I have been playing Dungeons and Dragons for a few years now, specifically 4th Edition. Over the years our group has grown, and it reached the point where I felt like the newest players would benefit from a comprehensive summary of the campaign. So as the ‘Dungeon Master’ in our group, I’ve been writing that document.

I began by describing the player-characters, but in the process I had an interesting realization.

Unused Race and Class Combinations

There are three Player’s Handbooks. Combined they present seventeen races and twenty-two classes. Off the top of your head, do you know how many possible race and class combinations that makes?

Three-hundred seventy-four.

Yet I am willing to bet that no one who plays 4th Edition has seen more than twenty. This struck me as a waste of interesting possibilities. I started thinking about why I have never seen a dwarven sorcerer or a half-orc bard or an eladrin warden. Naturally I thought about the character creation process, and there I found the explanation.

There’s No Benefit to Experimentation

I always see players create their characters in one of two ways.

  1. First they decide on what race interests them the most. Then they look at the classes whose key attributes are the same as their racial attribute bonuses.

  2. Or they decide on their class first. Then they use the key attributes of that class to filter through the races, searching for one whose bonuses align with the class.

For example, one player-character in our campaign is a half-orc warlord. The most important attributes for a warlord are strength, charisma, and intelligence. Half-orcs begin with bonuses to strength and dexterity. The race and class complement each other, so the choice makes perfect sense; it is the best thing to do simply in terms of game mechanics.

But why have I never seen a dwarven sorcerer? Because the key attributes for sorcerer are charisma, dexterity, and strength. Dwarves get bonuses to wisdom and constitution. The racial benefits do not line-up with the class. I believe this is exactly what reduces 4th Edition to a small handful of race-and-class combinations despite the fact there are so many available possibilities.

Please don’t misinterpret me as implying that any player is wrong for choosing races and classes whose attributes complement one another. It is a great way to play the game. And I’ve had plenty of fun even though I have never seen anyone roll-up a half-orc bard.

Nonetheless, 4th Edition encourages players to match their races and classes in order to maximize the benefits. This cuts down a huge number of potential combinations that players could use. The more I think about it, the more I see it as a design flaw.

One Possible Fix

Every race gets a ‘+2’ bonus for two attributes. Those two attributes are fixed, with the exception of humans. They get to apply those bonuses to two attributes of their choice.

I believe players would be more willing to play unconventional race-and-class combinations if every race allowed the player to choose which attributes to boost, exactly like humans. Who says a half-orc cannot be charismatic enough to be a bard? Maybe he is more charismatic and intelligent because he is weaker (i.e. lower strength) than his half-orc peers, and so he had to develop a sharp mind and personality to make it through life.

If every race could apply their benefits to two attributes of their choice then I believe we would see a lot more variety in player-characters. What do you guys think?

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5 thoughts on “Wasted Possibilities in Dungeons and Dragons: 4th Edition

  1. I like that idea a lot, actually. I mean, sure, some races would “normally” be expected to be strong in some areas and weak in others. But especially in a world as wide-open as D&D (as in, whatever the campaign setting), I don’t see why a player couldn’t roll up a character with a background that would support one of those unconventional pairings. Heck, I think it’d be awesome. :) I think it’d be fun to work those changes into a one-off or a mini-adventure.

  2. I like the Idea of having racial strengths and even weakness. I think I would like it better if their were
    racial feats that gave benefits to any race similar to how favored class works in pathfinder where each race gets a small unique benefit for each class. For instance a dwarven sorcerer could have a feat available letting him use a hammer instead of a dagger for weapon powers or a halfork bard could have a feat allowing them to use both strength and charisma modifiers on intimidate checks. Something like this could give them a unique benefit that balances out some of the stat penalty while still keeping the feel of the races different.

    1. I think I would like it better if their were racial feats that gave benefits to any race…

      I like that idea. I would prefer that over the current system of races having bonuses for constant attributes. Removing those and letting players choose from racial feats, whether they related to classes or not, would allow for more flexibility in character creation.

  3. Actually, aside from the fact that I think the racial feats are a little slim in 4th edition, feats like the ones John suggested that were tied specifically to less-than-ideal race/class combinations would be a cool addition. They wouldn’t even have to be very original- just ways to compensate for the drawbacks associated with that kind of choice. A more complicated “solution” (and one inspired in no small part by Tenra Bansho Zero) would be the ability to gain an extra point to add to base skills at every level where most characters get two. That way, a character that starts out weaker would be more powerful by epic tier. It would be a way for the game to convey the difficulty of stepping outside one’s race’s typical comfort zone (a Half-Orc trying to pick up the lute would have a hard time due to stupid fingers, maybe, or lack of teachers), but also display the fruits of the naturally heavier workload necessary to succeed in that occupation. A choice between that development arc or the Human attribute boosts at character creation would give all the necessary options for narrative purposes, too. Maybe that’s a tad too complicated, though, and potentially too game-breaking.

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