There’s a correlation between race and class in D&D and has been for years. Many players let their choice of race determine their choice of class or vice-versa. Is this correlation a bane or a blessing?
If you’re playing D&D 5E there’s more than small chance that at least one player in your group is playing one of the following: human fighter, half-orc barbarian, dwarf cleric, dragonborn paladin, half-elf bard, halfling rogue, tiefling warlock or elf ranger. These combinations are not just quite popular, they’re almost built in the system. Of course, other combinations are also popular, but for other reasons, e.g. if I had a penny for each good aligned drow rangers that has been presented at my gaming table…
Race and class often goes hand in hand, i.e. choosing one impacts or has an effect on our choices in the other. This, however, can mean that the system itself nudges you in a certain direction, i.e. it’s almost as if there’s a built-in favored class for many races or an invisible chain between race and class (e.g. half-orc and barbarian, half-elf and bard), and in groups where the dice rolling part of the game is taken really seriously, a poorly chosen combination can be met with a frown by the other players.
Going against the flow
Once, shortly after 5E was released, a friend of mine introduced his tiefling character, Jonax, at my gaming table. He described Jonax as this sleek type of tiefling, charismatic and streetsmart, in a leather coat and a satin vest, a sheathed dagger in his belt and with a sly smile on his lips. Unfortunately Jonax had this one minor flaw, he had an anger management problem.
“So, Jonax is a warlock, right” one of the other players asked. My friend shook his head. “A sorcerer?” No, Jonax wasn’t a sorcerer either. “For the love of gods, not a rogue?” Still the answer was no, then my friend revealed that Jonax was a barbarian. Silence hit the group like an eighteen wheeler. Jaws were dropped. Eyebrows were raised. Finally one of the other players stuttered: “Why?”
No one by the table had ever considered playing a tiefling barbarian, not to mention having an urchin background. And these are veteran roleplayers.
Come to think of it, perhaps that is the problem. Their affinity and experience in browsing through rule books and spotting out most desired or most beneficial combinations of race and class has clouded their minds. In a way, this affinity prevents them from going against the flow of the system and create tiefling barbarians or gnome monks.
What if there wasn’t a correlation between class and race?
Would there be more human fighters, dwarven clerics, half-orc barbarians? Or would we see more diverse combinations of race and class? Would Jonax, the tiefling barbarian, group up with Argur, the half-orc transmuter, Redknob, the halfling cleric and Drak, the dragonborn druid?
By removing or changing the racial ability score increases you seriously impact the effect race has on class choices. In fact, would it change D&D that much if you removed the racial ability score increases? Think about it, if you still had other racial features, e.g. darkvision, breath weapons etc., what difference would it make removing +2 or -2 to an ability?
In fact, it would make as much difference has having them not removed. Though the system nudges you in one direction when choosing class and race, there’s no obligation heading in that direction. In fact, unlike AD&D, you can play whatever combination you like in D&D (and has been since 3E), long as you meet other prerequisites.
It’s interesting to see this data from DnDBeyond and to explore what combinations are the most popular ones. It seems that the system is doing a fairly good job in nudging us players in one direction rather the other.
As mentioned above, this correlation isn’t etched in stone and it’s easy to change this if you want to, e.g. by creating house-rules that eliminate racial ability score increases. And of course, there are other fantasy roleplaying games available where race doesn’t have this effect on what class you choose, e.g. Trudvang Chronicles.
Don’t let your class or race determine your character
When playing with my kids they tend to go for the stereotypical characters, the dwarf has a beard and speaks with a scottish accent, the elf has long hair and speaks in soft tones etc. I keep trying to tell them that not all dwarves are like that, in fact there are even some dwarves that have dark skin, golden eyes and trimmed beard. There are even elves that are wild, barbaric and have rugged features.
One thing Jonax taught me, and that is to not let neither class or race determine my character, because the character is the combination of both and so much more. Being sleek, dressed in leather and satin, with sly smile and anger management problem is character.
There’s nothing wrong with choosing to play dwarven cleric or tiefling warlock, just as there’s nothing wrong in going for the half-elf fighter or gnome paladin. Long as you make it yours and keep the golden rule at heart, it’s going to be awesome, because roleplaying is fun.