Jordan's Page of Useless Babble

Welcome to part two of Zen & the Art of Character Creation. Last time, we discussed different character creation philosophies, different character types and some different player types that can be harmful to a game's wellbeing. Today we'll be discussing race selection and what pitfalls can be avoided when selecting one for your character.

Your character's race determines a lot of what they can do both in Roll and in Role. A lot of roleplaying material can be culled from a race's general attitude, temperament and relations with others. A race can provide both mechanics and philosophy (see Part 1 for more details), but there's more of an emphasis on roleplaying material.

Originally, there were just seven races for a character to choose from: human, elf, dwarf, gnome, half-elf, half-orc, and halfling. Now there are quite literally hundreds of options available, and choosing just one can be overwhelming to even an experienced player.

When players are feeling overwhelmed, they often fall-back on the old standby: humans, and why not? Human characters are safe, well-balanced and familiar to us. They can, by design, be utilized in most any character build without causing a problem. The problem is, although humans are solid choices overall, they are vanilla. There are so many other choices out there that can make a good character into a great character by adding just that extra dash of spice.

When choosing a race, it's often better to pick one to suit your character, rather than creating a character around a race. This ensures that when picking your race, you've had a chance to see how its racial abilities compliment feat-choice and class abilities.

Racial Abilities

Ability Scores: Although having racial ability modifiers can help compliment a character, it's not a deal-breaker if they don't. Smart races like elves can make excellent warriors, despite their physical frailty. These characters often place a great deal of stock in tactical combat and make good use of light armor and mobility. Traditionally battle-oriented races like dwarves or half-orcs make for less-than-stellar wizards, but their toughness lends synergy when making armored spellcasters who can reliably fall back on strength of arms once their magic has been expended.

Vision-Based Abilities: Except for in limited situations, vision-based abilities like low-light vision or darkvision don't really affect a character's build. Players should consider these abilities, but only for personal preference or the needs of the campaign.

Other Racial Abilities: Any other racial abilities should be chosen to compliment the entire character build. For example: races with natural armor work excellently with classes who are restricted to having either light or no armor, like arcane spellcasters, monks, scouts and so on.
    Breath weapons and other supernatural abilities can improve a spellcaster, enhance a character's skills, or provide new outlets for martial-based characters.
    Spell-like abilities, much like supernatural abilities, can enhance almost any character, but they have the added bonus of being easily advanced later through the use of feats. These are especially useful when the character's class provides free feats.

Favored Class: Nine times out of ten, this is the least utilized ability provided by a character's race and if not taken into account, it can easily constrict or even cripple the build entirely.
    Humans and other races that have a favored class of 'any' are the easiest to multiclass with as they provide the most freedom.
    On the other end of the spectrum are those very rare races that have no favored class at all. These can still be very rewarding races to use, but they can be difficult. They are best used with single-classed specialty characters, but they can also be used on multi-classed characters if the player keeps a very close eye to make sure that levels remain even between classes.
    Other favored classes can be utilized depending on the specific class selection desired. Every build can utilize their favored class, or not, as the situation requires.

Level Adjustment: Powerful races often have a level adjustment; something that can radically alter a character build. It can be extremely useful to have a character with such abilities, but care should be taken to avoid the glass-jaw paradox (see below).

Monster Classes and the Glass-Jaw Paradox

Monster classes are very helpful tools for playing with a race that could be alternatively revered or reviled, and sometimes it can be fun to play a character who's race has an effective character level of usually between +3 and +20 (but even that can be higher or lower).
    Although it may seem like an attractive option: giving up class levels for extra-powerful racial abilities, utilizing a monster class or a race with a high level adjustment can create a character that has a severe deficiency of hit-dice, leading to what's called the glass-jaw paradox.
    Such characters usually have massively high ability scores and racial abilities far beyond the norm, but since they have fewer class levels, they generally have much fewer hit dice than their companions. Fewer hit dice means lower saving throws, a lower base attack bonus and lower hit points. This problem can be somewhat alleviated through things like higher natural armor and even damage reduction (both of which are common amongst monsters), but caution must still be maintained. A poor choice can lead to a character who might be able to throw a punch, but be unable to survive a punch themselves.

Trading in Levels for Abilities

In some cases, characters can trade levels in for special abilities such as ability score increases, feats, skill bonuses, spell-like abilities and so on. While these are pretty much like a level adjustment, they generally come to play later on in a character's progression. Examples include bloodlines, an optional rule introduced in Unearthed Arcana. This kind of trade can be very beneficial and provide a lot of synergy between race and class, but players should think of them as a level adjustment of anywhere between one and five levels and take the same precautions.

Bringing it all Together

In the end, everything comes down to personal preference; the choice of race simply doesn't affect character creation as much as class does. By spending some time and thought on your choice, you can select a race that perfectly compliments your character build and hopefully provides some great roleplaying opportunities as well.

Please check out the next installment of Zen & the Art of Character Creation, when we'll discuss class-selection, multiclassing and the horrors of dead levels.

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