About the Concepts of Playable Races

I preface this discussion by mentioning the impetus responsible for its creation. Alex has mentioned in other posts his disdain for halflings, and this brought me to consider the question, “What is in a race”? Race inside role playing games is a many faceted discussion, but I would love to narrow the focus to the following topics:
1 What is a non-human race?
2 Why would a player choose one race over another race?
3 How should the game balance races in play?
4 What role does race hold for the creating more involved character role playing?
5 Are the adventurers of a race the average members of their races, the outcasts, or the paragons?
Here’s how I think ACKS is answering these questions.
1 - Non-human races are demi-humans, half humans. This immediate distinction allows us as human players to empathize with our dwarven and elven characters instead of of limiting us to a more sympathetic relationship. My dwarf is not that different from a human, thus I can accurately play a dwarf without diverging too far from my natural psyche.
The problem this creates, though I don’t see this as a terrible issue, is that races become more or less humans with a few key stereotypes. Dwarves are short tough humans with long beards and a more surly attitude. Elves are aloof humans gifted with long life and a tendency to frolic. A player can be tempted to enact these stereotypes in game to immerse themselves. This in it of itself is not a bad thing, as any immersion is often better than no immersion, but the choice of race can be made more meaningful if other design option are chosen.
2 - I will simplify the many reasons one race is chosen over another race into two broad categories. One group of players chooses a race because it gives them a statistical advantage in some role of the game, and one group of players chooses a race because they want to create an alternative persona that embodies the previously mentioned stereotypes.
I believe ACKS caters to both groups. Players wanting an advantage make a choice between a more powerful early level dwarven fighter, or a high powered end game human fighter. Players wanting a chance to role play a specific type of character will find dwarves and elves to be distinct enough from the average human to be unique, but they will still find enough of a relationship with them to consider taking on the associated role.
3 - Alex has mentioned that races in ACKS are balanced a point system that takes into account a variety of factors and results in the creation of a level limit for the racial class. Within the restraints of ACKS, this seems like a perfectly workable system. When we get our hands on the background numbers, we will be able to tighten and loosen screws at will to create viable racial classes.
4 - As stated above, I believe that any role playing interactions with your non-human race in ACKS will be limited to broad interpretations of your races tendency. My wife wants to play an elven spellsword, but because she likes the spellsword part. I foresee many such situations occuring, but I don’t necessarily see anything wrong here other than a player making a mechanical choice over an aesthetic choice.
5 - I don’t know the answer to this as pertains to ACKS. I usually assume that adventurers are more outcasts of their respective societies, but I don’t know how that fits into the eventual ruling of a domain. I tend to think of dwarves as xenophobic clan mates that would not leave home to explore the world, but here comes the outcast dwarf that abandoned home to follow a path of his own. This logic train allows for the adventuring heroic halfling. Normal halflings stay home, tend crops, and groom body hair. Adventuring halflings are by definition not normal. They risk life and limb in ways scarcely imagined by their more adjusted fellows.
Well that’s my thoughts on this. Any thoughts someone else wants to bring up?

Interesting questions.

  1. Another way to look at this question would be to ask what distinguishes a race from a monster. I think part of the answer (which dovetails neatly with your point about empathic characters) is that a “race” has achieved a level of human-comparable civilization while the “monster” has not. If the Snake People mostly hang from trees and attack the occasional traveler in ambush from above, they’re monsters; if they’re building step pyramids in the jungle and kidnapping the occasional traveler for their monthly sacrifices, they’re a race. As a player, the latter provides a lot more hooks for building an interesting character, and in ACKS it would make sense if 50-300 Snake People soldiers showed up when you built your own Fortified Pyramid. Personal stereotypes broadened to the cultural level, basically.
  2. Another variation of the second group would be players who know what kind of character they want to play, so they find a race that works. For example, one of my favorite character types is a Faust variant: X has made dark deals in exchange for power - can they be redeemed? In ACKS, that’s easily a human mage, might be more interesting as a sociopath spellsword, but none of the dwarf options really fit.
  3. All of the race options should be valid choices at all levels of play, and race shouldn’t overshadow class (when races aren’t classes). A low level dwarven fighter and a low level human fighter should be roughly equal in power with different areas of focus (the dwarf with better defense, the human with better damage from two-handed weapons). At high level, the human fighter and the dwarven fighter should be able to build comparable kingdoms of their respective types. Races should have trade-offs throughout the entire character lifespan; if spellswords are always as good at magic as mages at the same level of experience, something is broken. (They aren’t.)
  4. I think the more that the race’s culture is developed, the more it can contribute to the role-playing. That’s the power of a really strong campaign setting. Playing a dwarf in a generic “there are dwarves here” setting is fun, but playing a dwarf from one of the three fortresses still standing during the middle of the Great Goblin Migration is a whole different thing.
  5. I think all of those are options. Mostly, I see them as almost-but-not-quite average members of the race (level 1 isn’t that far from level 0) with something driving them to become more.