Today’s Dungeons & Dragons focuses on letting players build custom characters to suit their taste, but for half of the game’s 50-year history, the rules emphasized rolling a character and playing the numbers the dice gave. Especially at first, gamers demonstrated their play skill by making the most of some random combination of scores. Original D&D paired non-humans with particular character classes, so dwarves could only become fighting men. Every elf, dwarf, and (until 1977) hobbit fit their race’s archetype. Mainly though, gamers loyal to the game rules played humans, because the rules limited the number of levels non-humans could gain. For example, a dwarf could only reach level 6. Largely human parties suited the taste of D&D co-creator Gary Gygax. Ability scores hardly mattered, and with limited character options, characters became distinctive as they adventured and won magical gear. Those magic trophies served as mementos and made one elf play differently from all the others.
Today’s game looks very different. If a party contains a single human, the group rates as unusual. Player’s typically want characters who feel extraordinary from level 1. Often, that means playing the best ale-loving, hammer-smacking, dwarf who ever craved gold. Sometimes that means playing a dwarf wizard who happens to love gardening. The countless tiny, fairy barbarians that have joined my tables show that players relish a chance to play a character who defies type and at least seems one of a kind. Non-human characters only match a racial archetype when a player chooses it. To most players, the old rules that made races fit a stereotype now feel confining. Sometimes, those old rules even feel like a troubling reminder of outdated attitudes.
This evolution took all of D&D’s 50 years. This post tells the story of the change.
“In the old days, elves and dwarves and some of the other playable options were very much the product of folklore, and in folklore, elves and dwarves were embodied metaphor,” says D&D’s lead rules designer Jeremy Crawford. “They were metaphors for different aspects of the human psyche. So, elves were often associated with more elevated lofty aspects of the human psyche. Dwarves were often associated with the industriousness that some people manifest.” In fairy tales, these metaphors became talking creatures. “You can meet a demon that’s embodied evil. You can meet an angel that’s embodied good. You can meet a dwarf that’s the embodiment of industriousness and hardiness.”
Early D&D included rules that made characters fit the archetype of their chosen race. The game restricted non-humans to particular classes and blocked their advancement to higher levels. Later, the game added racial ability score modifiers that encouraged characters to fit certain archetypes, so half-orcs gained strength and constitution, but lacked charisma. Originally, half-orcs only excelled as assassins.
Gary Gygax favored the sort of human-dominated fantasy that appeared in the fiction that inspired him. To Gary, non-human level limits explained why humans dominated D&D worlds despite the extraordinary talents and longevity of elves and dwarves. Gary wrote, “If demi-humans, already given some advantages, were as able as humans, the world would be dominated by them, and there goes the whole of having a relatively familiar world setting in regard to what cultures and societies one will find in control. So, a demi-human is unlimited in thief level only, as that this a class not destined to control the fate of major groups or states.
“Why are humans more able to rise to higher levels than demi-humans?“ Gygax wrote in a internet discussion. ”Because the gods say so, and don’t like pointy eared types with curly-toed shoes, squat miners with big beards, hairy-footed midgets, etc.” Gygax intended the comment as harmless fun at the expense of make-believe creatures, and in 2005 most readers read it that way. But now the comment reads in a way Gygax surely didn’t consider. In our history, people have justified inflicting countless horrors on other humans by claiming that God disapproved of some group. Talking about even fictional half-humans like this raises uncomfortable echoes.
Even in D&D’s first years, not every player shared Gygax’s taste for games where most characters resembled the human heroes of Poul Anderson, Fritz Leiber, and Robert E. Howard. When J. Eric Holmes wrote the 1977 D&D Basic Set, his draft explained, “An expedition might include, in addition to the seven basic classes, an African witch doctor/magic-user, a centaur, an Amerindian medicine man/cleric, a lawful werebear, a Japanese samurai fighting man and a half-human, half-serpent naga”. The published book cut most of those options, leaving only “a centaur, a lawful werebear, and a Japanese samurai fighting man.” In Dragon 53, Holmes wrote about the set’s limited character options. “I am personally sorry to see the range of possibilities so restricted. The original rules (the three little brown books) specifically stated that a player could be a dragon if he wanted to be. I enjoyed having dragons, centaurs, samurai and witch doctors in the game. My own most successful player character was a Dreenoi, an insectoid creature borrowed from McEwan’s Starguard.” Meanwhile, Arduin Grimoire III (1978), an unofficial supplement to D&D, included pictures of an exotic adventuring parties that scarcely resembled a typical group. Author Dave Hargrave wrote, “The fact is that most players want individuality in their characters.”
When Wizards of the Coast purchased TSR, new CEO Peter Adkison steered D&D to more flexible character options. “My biggest beef with the older rules were the consistent limitations on what characters could become,” Adkison wrote. “Why couldn’t dwarves be clerics. Why could wizards of some classes only advance to some pre-determined level limit? Why couldn’t intelligent monster races like orcs and ogres pick up character classes? In my mind these restrictions had no place in a rules set but should be restrictions established (if at all) at the campaign-setting level.” The 2000 edition scrapped non-human level limits and rules that limited each race to particular classes.
Still, ability score modifiers remained in the game, and they stayed in the 2014 Player’s Handbook. Lead rules designer Jeremy Crawford said the modifiers “are specifically there just to reinforce the traditional D&D archetypes for dwarf adventurers, elf adventurers, halfling adventurers, and so on.” The modifiers meant a player who wanted to play something like a dwarf wizard had to settle for a less efficient character.
Experienced players rarely settled, so the ability score modifiers felt like as much of a restriction as the old rule that limited dwarves to playing fighting men. As for new players, the ability score modifiers became a trap. A player who fancied playing a halfling barbarian would later learn their character suffered a permanent limitation. Restrictions that force players to make interesting choices can make better games. Much of the fun of character building comes from choosing among enticing options, but for players set on a class, the choice between one race and a plainly weaker option adds nothing. “All games are about making choices and making meaningful choices,” Crawford said. “But we want the choices to be between things that are all fun and interesting. Like a great example is making the choice between the classes where it’s an open-ended field and you get to just choose the one that sing to you. What we don’t want is choice where just hiding inside it is some kind of trap. And that’s what the traditional ability score bonuses often feel like to people.”
Aside from adding a trap—and not the fun kind—ability score modifiers raise troubling reminders of how real ethnic groups can suffer from racist stereotypes that paint people as lacking certain aptitudes. D&D’s unfortunate use of the word “race” makes those reminders far more powerful. When D&D creators Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax adopted the word race for the playable species in D&D, they used the term in the same sense as the human race. More commonly, “race” refers to human groups who share superficial traits common to their ancestry, and that use recalls a long history of people using ancestry and appearance to justify mistreating and exploiting people.
Our characters in roleplaying games represent us in the game’s imaginary world. They might be just-pretend types like dragons, vampires, and robots—sometimes pronounced warforged—but we identify with them because our game world stand-ins think and feel mostly like us as people. Our characters represent people, and if they’re people, we can imagine them enjoying the same versatility and potential as real-world people.
To “pave the way for truly unique characters,” Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything (2020) stopped linking ability modifiers to race. Now, players could create a dwarf wizard with a green thumb without settling for a less efficient build than a similar character who happened to be an elf. “It is not our assumption and never has been in fifth edition that those bonuses in the players racial traits are true of every member of the race,” said Crawford. “As the game continues to evolve, and also as the different types of character people make proliferates and becomes wonderfully diverse as people create types of characters that many of us would never imagine. It’s time for a bit more of those old assumption to, if not pass away, to be something that a person can set aside if it’s not of interest for them and their character. It’s with that in mind that we created this system to be true to our philosophy. We sometimes talk about when we give DMing advice to whenever possible say yes. This is a system about saying yes to players. That yes, you can play the dwarf you want to play. You can play the elf you want to play. You can play the halfling you want to play.” In D&D, player characters stopped serving as metaphors.