Dungeons & Dragons is a game system built around giving players a useful, handleable group of tools to build a character. You have the simplest two lego pieces to snap together; what you do (your class), and how you were born (your heritage/race). A elf fighter is not the same as a half-elf fighter is not the same thing as an orc fighter, for example. These cultural groups then let you inform the world; after all, if there are elves and orcs in the world, there are probably places that those elves and orcs grow up. And thus the player options build the world, and the world building feeds into how the player options feel.
If you have crystal cities of a floating city state full of elves, the players will get ideas for that, and how they interact with the world, based on that. If the elves live in great green forest villages that hang from the branches, that’s going to give them different ideas. And if the elves, I don’t know, come from an elf mine, that’s going to give you a different perspective.
It’s a great system. I love it. I honestly think it’s one of the best things about the game, and the fact that it gives you a pair of dials to spin serves as an onramp that almost any player can get engaged with quickly, and that serves to anchor your decisions going forwards. Great system, I think it does a great job.
Anyway, I don’t like the the Dwarf and the Dragonborn in 4th edition D&D.
Glossary Note: Conventionally, the term used in D&D for this mechanical package is race. This is the typical term, and in most conversations about this game system, the term you’re going to wind up using is race. For backwards compatibility and searchability, I am including this passage here. The term I use for this player option is heritage.
It’s not that they’re a problem, per se. The problem is actually kind of the inverse: These two heritage options represent two of the most powerful player options to the game, and I don’t think I have a place in my world for them to exist.
First up, there’s the dwarf. Dwarves were in the first player’s handbook, which meant every developer after that point had dwarves to point to. They could always make a dwarf related piece of content, and what’s more, dwarves are an iconic fantasy heritage. I mean Tolkein had them and World of Warcraft has them and that’s basically all of culture. That’s why they’re almost always greedy, Scottish, drunken fortress-builders who, inexplicably, can’t get into heaven. Don’t think about that too much.
This iconic symbolism meant that when anyone is designing new content for the game, it’s really easy to think about things dwarves can or should do, and therefore, how it fits with what you’re doing. Dwarves have one of the most well-defined and clear personalities of any culture in any edition of D&D. They are mechanically excellent, they are supported in every role, and if there’s something that dwarves ‘should’ be able to do, you can almost certainly find the feat or class support that will let them do it, and that support means that whatever it is you want to do with a dwarf, you can probably do a really good job of it.
It’s really easy to make material for dwarves, though, because dwarves are a boring stereotype and suck.
What’s a dwarf? Usually some variety of a drunk racist who’s very tough and you tolerate because even if he’s a jerk and unpleasant, that’s fundamental to his character, to how he is. He can’t help being that way and you need to accept it. What does a dwarf do, or how does a dwarf work, that humans can’t do, even in large groups? Nothing. And what’s more, the nothing that dwarves do differently instead takes a particular human ideology and mindset, which is also kinda really toxic and palingenetic, and says ‘oh, this is an ancient culture, this is pre-human, it is set in its way, and it is capable of greatness.’
Dwarves take a particular vision of humans, separates them out from humans, and says ‘these people are special.’ It takes options away from humans, it separates human history out from humans, and all you get out of it is the enshrining of an excuse for every player to think they can do a great Scottish accent.
If the dwarf was cut out of the game, lore wise, and you wanted to make something that looked like a dwarf, you 100% could, by just making a human. Just be grumpy, grab an axe and a shield and come from an ancient city and you’re there. You don’t need dwarves to make dwarves, which is a problem.
Dragonborn are a different problem.
I wrote about Dragonborn in the past, about how strange they are, and how the place they fit in the world is kind unexplained. Dragonborn are similar to the Dwarf, but in a different way. See, they were also in the Player’s Handbook and therefore got a ton of support throughout the whole game’s history, but also, there are a number of developers of these games who are some variety of dragonfucker, meaning that there’s support for dragonborn across dozens of types and ideas. Do you want dragonborn that fly? Some of them. Do you want them to explode? Some of them do. Do you want them to have claws or fangs or be able to mark things with their breath weapons or all sorts of other possible combinations? There is support for that.
Dragonborn were new, and exciting and had a lot of obvious space to fill in. So they were filled in.
My problem with the Dragonborn is that I had no idea for what their culture was. In a typical D&D setting, you don’t need an explanation for Dragonborn – they’re just there, in a party, and when a player asks ‘what’s that?’ you can just go ‘oh, that? that’s a dragony dude.’ And that’s easy. But when I’m building the world, the dragonborn imply worldbuilding that either requires the presence of a sensible, intelligent actor I don’t want in my world (Bahamut is a cop), or some other origin story that elevates dragons to a near-deific level.
I did toy with the idea of tying them into my kobold concept, where they’re essentially just big, goony kobolds made for the specialised purpose of defending kobold dens. The thing is, kobold dens are best defended by traps and the dragon that lives there.
I also don’t know where dragonborn live with my concept space of being ‘made of meat.’ They breath fire (or cold or whatever), so it seems like they should have some kind of energy or magical powers.
I can’t just get rid of these two heritages. They’re both too useful to players, and let’s not kid ourselves, there are dragonfuckers in every friend group, it’s just a natural byproduct of the culture. But I want a good, meaningful reason for these two cultures to exist in my setting, and for there to be an interesting reflection of the world if a player chooses to play one.
These are the problems presented: I need to find non-mechanical explanations for why Dwarves and Dragonborn are around.