How D&D’s Rules Changed To Encourage More Varied Groups of Heroes Than Those in the Pulp Fantasy That Inspired the Game.

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 Sometimes, those old rules even feel like a troubling reminder of outdated attitudes.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.

Arduin adventure party

This adventuring party was pictured in Arduin Grimoire III

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.

14 thoughts on “How D&D’s Rules Changed To Encourage More Varied Groups of Heroes Than Those in the Pulp Fantasy That Inspired the Game.

  1. TW

    All part of the continuing decline of the role of the DM. Offloading the lift of fun to players is brilliant in a lot of ways-they’re willing to tweak characters endlessly, you can just run whoever through a nice expensive module–but it’s also sad.

  2. Tim

    In the 70s, level limits weren’t that important. We were only playing d&d maybe once a month and playing multiple characters. It was infrequent to actually hit the racial limits.

    Also if you played version one RAW, then it wasn’t rare for you to play for no experience. It took 1250xp for a first level thief to advance to second, but it cost 1500gp, which would give you 1500xp to acquire, not counting xp from monsters. XP was just one reward for success and greater power.

    That’s kind of an aside. What is really confusing is your paragraph about characters “representing” the player. If they represent the player, they should be the same as the player. That is, they should be humans with few exceptional abilities, certainly not magic. If they are different from the player, how are they representing the player?

    The fun of version 1 d&d was playing a persona and abilities different than what you actually had in a world different from the one you lived in. You played with (and gained some empathy toward) people different from you. One game you might play an authoritarian nobleman, the next a rebel thief.

    It wasn’t about collecting badges in some sad attempt to pose as something different from yourself. And by represent you mean pose, since the player isn’t representing his true self.

  3. Tardigrade

    Ugh. Good article, but what it describes is the ruination of d&d.

    “Player’s typically want characters who feel extraordinary from level 1. “

    This right here is the root of the problem. You’re level 1. You’re not special. Let me emphasize:

    You are level 1.
    You are not special.

    The whole point is to *become* special. Luke doesn’t start off as one of the greatest Jedi of all time. He’s just a doofus farm boy on a hick planet raised by a couple doofus hicks. Only much much later does he become a great Jedi.

    It’s catering to this greedy, selfish desire that has made d&d rotten.

    “A player who fancied playing a halfling barbarian would later learn their character suffered a permanent limitation. “

    As it should be! Halflings are the size of 5 year old human children! I do not exaggerate. Check World health org stats on that. So that player should not be stunned that his character is not as effective as the human fighters.

    It is crazy preposterous to think a three foot tall, 45 lb dude should be as strong as a full grown man. To give them a -1 penalty to strength is super duper generous. I would make it much stricter.

    If you played a human fighter in a party of stone giants would you expect stone giant stats? Why or why not? “It’s a game with dragons and wizards” is not acceptable. That means nothing matters and rules are meaningless.

    “…for players set on a class, the choice between one race and a plainly weaker option adds nothing.”

    This is a ridiculous to me as saying “in chess, some players are disappointed that pawns are not as powerful as queens because queens are more fun” Too damn bad. That’s the game. We don’t change all the pieces to queens.

    “…we identify with them because our game world stand-ins think and feel mostly like us as people.”

    For starters, they don’t think like us. They don’t think at all because they’re imaginary. We try to think like them – dragons or vampires or robots – and act on that.

    The idea that we identify with our own characters is meaningless. They do not exist apart from us. My character is just a version of my own personality. It is me, dressed up. “I identify with myself” is saying 1 =1.

    “To “pave the way for truly unique characters,” Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything (2020) stopped linking ability modifiers to race. “

    So, there couldn’t be TRULY unique characters when ability modifiers were linked to race? Before Tasha “paved the way”, characters were not unique? Sorta unique? Almost but not really unique?

    Bollocks. That is advertising copy and it just doesn’t follow. You absolutely can have a dwarf wizard gardener with racial mods.

    The problem is you get whiney players who moan about that imaginary dwarf not being as good as the other players’ characters. “It’s not fair!” They howl like spoiled little brats.

    Too bad. That’s the game. Or at least, that used to be the game.

    1. Josh O'Neal

      I totally agree with you here. by removing racial bonuses you’ve no only removed anything that made a particular race special, you’ve made everything a mixing pot of bland porridge. People tend to forget this is a GAME. There are boons and detriments to all your choices.

  4. Jared Rascher

    The famously underpowered Luke Skywalker who could throw a grappling line, swing across a chasm, shoot military grade blasters, and pilot a starfighter in his first appearance.

    1. EinMcDrummies

      See that’s the thing, there are an overwhelming amount of “small town nobody becomes a hero overnight after all of their powers awaken”. You can’t tell me you think a level one warlock is no more capable than a level one civilian? Warlock powers are entirely granted by your patron. Why would any single race be naturally better at that than another? Anyone arguing against these changes is bitter and old and can go pick up a copy of AD&D and play a boring game with their boring old friends.

      1. Lleij Schwartz

        “Anyone arguing against these changes is bitter and old and can go pick up a copy of AD&D and play a boring game with their boring old friends.”

        You’re literally threatening me with a good time. In fact, that’s what my boring old friends and I have done weekly for almost 4 years now. And we have yet to get bored of it. Curious.

  5. Tardigrade

    “See that’s the thing, there are an overwhelming amount of “small town nobody becomes a hero overnight after all of their powers awaken”. “

    That’s literature, not the game of d&d. And even in literature, it often takes time for powers to awaken. Harry Potter takes 7 years and he still is a pretty mediocre magician. Ya know, the whole “hero’s journey”.

    “You can’t tell me you think a level one warlock is no more capable than a level one civilian? “

    ?? I don’t believe anyone mentioned anything about warlocks or civilians. But about that:
    why should a first level anything be much more competent than a basic npc? They’ve just learned the basics of their trade. They are commoner+1. A first level warlock IS extraordinary compared to a peasant in that he can cast spells.

    “Warlock powers …”
    Not pertinent to the discussion.

    “Why would any single race be naturally better at that than another? “

    I’d call them “species” and not “races”.

    I would say different species definitely are naturally better at different things. For example, monkeys are better than humans at climbing, while humans are better than cats at calculus. Argentine lake ducks…well, look em up. That’s life. Maybe magical species are naturally better at magic? Maybe half orcs are better fighter because they are bigger and stronger?

    “Anyone arguing against these changes is bitter and old and can go pick up a copy of AD&D and play a boring game with their boring old friends.”

    Nice. You don’t agree with me so rather than making a functional, coherent argument you call names and make insults about age. Go play candyland. It’s more your speed.

  6. Wesley Paulman

    The notion that prior to Tasha’s playing an unconventional race/class combination was hopelessly weak and suffered a “permanent limitation” is widespread and quite simply false. Let’s be real about what that ability score bonus amounts to. A +1 to hit and damage. That’s what we’re talking about here. A difference so small players wouldn’t notice that their main attack has +4 while their buddy’s has +5 except that they can see the numbers and are so petty that they feel bad that theirs is one lower. And the reason I know they can’t tell is because not a single player has ever been able to tell which monster had +6 vs. +7 or +10 vs. +11. The difference is imperceptible unless you already know it’s there. Then there’s the fact that 5e ability score maximums mean you’ll end up with a 20 in your primary stat eventually anyway, so it can hardly be considered permanent. If you’re so eager to play a dwarf wizard but just can’t because your intelligence will be 15 rather than 17 at level 1, I’d argue that what you’re really interested in is playing a wizard with 17 intelligence. Which is fine, but clearly the dwarf part isn’t that important to you if you’ll cut it the second your character appears even marginally suboptimal.

  7. Pingback: D&D’s Biggest Controversies Ranked—7. D&D changes the game’s original handling of races and humanoids | DMDavid

  8. Not a fox

    The warlock is a bad example here. If warlock powers are wholly granted by their Patron, the Patron could stop granting them which explictly is not the case. Furthermore, Charisma as a spellcasting stat is hard to justify for anything but bards.
    To explain the “why” in a General way, no matter how well you Train a dog, the dog will never be a decent tailor. A dog has the physical Limits of having no thumbs and the mental Limit of lacking the intelligence of mastering that skill.
    Yes, there are many stories of characters who go beyond what we believe to be the Limit of their race. That’s usually the human race. If there are other races, this often is a Story of how the Protagonist succeeds despite those Limits. It also is a Story of Change, the characters Level up – yes, it is in a short time.If you use the recommended amount of encoutners in an adventuring day, getting from Level 1 to Level 20 Needs a bit more than a month.
    The Point is: you don’t start as the legendary hero who saved the world. This is what you become.
    Looking at it from that perspective: what’s so bad about playing the Underdog? Looking at 3rd Edition, the difference between an elven wizard and a dwarfen wizard is 2 Points of intelligence which makes a difference in 5% of relevant checks. It absolutely is doable.
    You also lose something if you get rid of those limitations: the incentive to work around them. You want to Play a halfling barbarian? Make use of a high dexterity and constitution to get a stronger defense. Consider throwing Things – and take feats that Focus on defeating enemies that are bigger than you (almost all of them are). If you put your mind to it, that character can be pretty awesome.


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