I’ve recently realised that I really like Basic D&D’s odd race-as-class system. You know the one, Elves, Dwarves and Halflings are treated the same as choosing to play a Fighter or a Thief, as if being another species was just another job. To put it another way, if you are happy to play a human you can be a Fighter, Mage, Cleric or Thief, but all Dwarves are Fighters, all Elves are Magic-users who can also fight and all Halflings are sort of fighters who are good in the countryside. Definitely a bit odd.
A common modification is to do what AD&D did and separate out the options so that every character is built with both a Class and a Race. Look at Basic Fantasy RPG; you choose from Fighter, Mage, Cleric or Thief and then you chose between Elf, Dwarf, Halfling or Human. Great right? You can finally play your Elven Thief or your Halfling Mage. There’s 16 different combinations there to try out. Except that it doesn’t quite work out that interesting because your choice of Race doesn’t really do much for your character, the Class is far more important So now you only have four choices of what character you will be playing: Fighter, Mage, Thief or Cleric. The Race is just seasoning.
Go back to B/X (or any other iteration of Basic D&D) and you have seven distinct characters to choose from, but they are still a bit weird. Well here’s a suggestion for re-skinning those seven classes both to remove the weird and to make the game fell more dynamic, all without actually rewriting any of those classic rules.
Don’t the names “Halfling” and “Dwarf” seem fairly derogatorily to you? Do you think they would refer to themselves with those terms? Maybe these are simply what Humans call these other species…
Elves. Shorter and far slighter that Humans. Humans call this species Halflings. They live alone or in small communities in the wilderness, which they know well. Elven warriors are known as Rangers, they are very good with bows and are adept at hiding in rural locations. Elven magic users are common and powerful, they live long enough that they have learned to cast their spells even while armed and armoured.
Elven Rangers use the Halfling Class.
Elven Mages use the Elf Class.
Gnomes. Shorter and hardier than either Elves or Humans. Humans call them Dwarves. Gnomes live in underground complexes of many styles and scales, from small hillside holes for a family to vast cities and fortresses. Gnome Fighters are some of the toughest in the world and each one knows the underworld well. Gnomes are also devout and can all upon their ancestor-gods to aid them in their battles, particularly in their eternal struggle against the undead. Gnome Paladins are celebrated across the world for the light of life they carry with them.
Gnome Fighters use the Dwarf Class.
Gnome Paladins use the Cleric Class.
Humans. Tall, but often sickly and weak. They act like they own the world. Every year brings that truth a little closer. Relentless and cunning they will trade away all that you offer and then steal whatever you don’t. The laws of Nature or the Ancients mean nothing to Humans and nowhere is this more true than in their magic schools. Human Mages can become more powerful than any other species’ practitioners. The others of their species are sneaky bastards, they know how to fight but they’d rather stab you in the back.
Human Mages use the Magic-user Class.
Human sneaky bastards use the Thief Class.
(I dropped the Fighter because it was a little too similar to the Dwarf, and this way the Humans don’t feel like the median species any more.)
That’s not the only option of course, after all, there’s more than one way to re-skin a class…
How about we take Race-as-Class to it’s extreme and only give each Race one option:
All Dwarves are Fighters
All Halflings are Thieves
All Elves are Mages
All Humans are Clerics
Or, for a slightly less conventional mix:
All Dwarves are Clerics
All Halflings are Rangers
All Gnomes are Mages
All Humans are Fighters
All Elves are Thieves
How about a Greenskins game?
For Orcs use the Fighter or Cleric Classes
For Goblins use the Thief or Mage Classes
For Lizardmen use the Halfling or Elf Classes
The best bit about all this, is that it’s the same rules, but simply by giving each option a bit of a twist the game will no longer feel like typical D&D. By limiting the player character options you create a much stronger sense of place, and of their place in it, right from the start.