Dungeon Mastering

DM Tools - CREATE YOUR FREE ACCOUNT       About Us       Contact Us       Advertise                   Subscribe to Dungeon MasteringSubscribe

The Art of the Small—Analyzing the “Crunch” for the “Fluff” #2

Written by LanJemWezz - Published on June 25, 2011

Well met again, fellow gamers!

Join me in a series that takes a 20 on a Spot Check examining details within the D&D game that provide role-playing cues.  Last time in Part the First, we looked at stats and language.  In this edition, we look closer at racial game details.

Part the Second: “A race to the finish.”

Choosing a race in D&D is assuredly the most important decision a player faces during character creation (save perhaps class). What isn’t so assured is how well we understand that what a race offers in the crunch department can be turned into a flowering piece of fluff for role-play. Thus, dive in with me as we race to the finish of our understanding in this important aspect of character building focusing on those core classes shared by the most current popular editions of the game.

Where the numbers rest, a pearl is hidden.”

Humans. Humans in D&D typically don’t have anything extraordinary about them, save what the player puts in. They’re the nice, tall glass of water to the dwarves’ root beer or the elves’ ginger ale. Though, outside of flavor additives…er, text, there are a few interesting points about human “crunch” that can inform our role-playing. Humans are usually better skilled than other races. They have one more trick up their sleeve, or in this case, one more skill in their repertoire than the others. (Only one, you say? In 4e, this is explicit. In 3e, humans have 4 more skill points at 1st level, the right amount one needs to be adequately “trained” in a particular skill; and, ideally, with a +1 modifier in the requisite ability score yields the same numerical advantage.) It’s the same with feats. Thus, the question is: what else does this tell us about human characters? Theoretically, whatever another race has in these terms, humans have it in doubles. All things being equal, if every race has a single profession or vocation, humans have two. They may be a lot like your average 21st century middle-class parent, holding down two jobs and raising a pair of rug-rats all while still finding time to vanquish those pesky goblins and loot their dingy hole.

Even if the numbers don’t reflect a distinct 2:1 in skills and feats across the board, it doesn’t mean it can’t be a part of the character. The rules often state (for example, p. 62 of the 3.5 Revised PHB) how a character may in fact be “good at” quite a few things beyond what she has ranks in, therefore we have no excuse not to run with it when playing a human. Why not inject a bit of Huck Finn into our role-play and take our character fishing? Not a professional rock-climber? No problem, we can still be into spelunking! As players, we should extrapolate out from this pattern and let it show in our role-play. As DMs we should encourage players to think critically about their character creation choices, rather than min/max.

What else do humans have going for them? Based on the numbers alone (best measured by feat progression), they’ve done and seen an equivalent level’s or two’s worth of stuff more than the others. No doubt symptomatic of the human’s short lifespan, players should invest at least as much backstory into their starting human characters as to bring them up to 2nd or 3rd level. Right or wrong, humans are doers, creatures of action, and likely to get in as much trouble as they do good—if not more. Humans then should have a backstory that proclaims as much, if not because it serves to inform your role-play, than because the numbers would seem to demand it.

Dwarves.  Once you step away from humans, the races become delineated by the bigger, more obvious characteristics of their kind [e.g. ability modifiers, key racial abilities, etc.] Since these often vary from game to game or edition to edition I’m not as concerned with them, also because they’re not so easily overlooked and have been covered extensively elsewhere.) A tried and true hallmark of dwarfkind is their propensity for war. Not likely to back down from a challenge, dwarves come ready-made to handle many effective implements of warfare that other races are unfamiliar with. Proud of the many weapons and armor that bear their names, dwarves may incorporate such into expressions. “As handy as an urgrosh, that one is!” “The boy’s stubborn as dwarven plate!” “Strong, bright, and supple as mithral, she is!” Or, “Skin me with a waraxe, how long has it been?” You get the idea.

Dwarves back up their rough and tumble talk with rough and tumble bodies, and while this often yields them some crunchy side-effects, it also informs our role-play. Being of stout and sturdy stature, a dwarf may be lead to comment on the frailty of things or the lack or excess of space given the foreign surroundings he finds himself in (e.g. the thin or soft supports of elven and halfling accoutrements, or the obnoxiously narrow though high doorways of human dwellings). The dwarf’s very posture informs his being: anywhere from broad, overbearing, and thickly boastful, to against character, hollow-voiced or soft-spoken, careful, deflecting attention away from the more exaggerated characteristics of his body image and nature.

Dwarves also typically enjoy resistance to foul vapors and potent unguents. However, no where does the crunch state that these poisons only be ingested, inhaled, or felt first, thus this can manifest in the fluff in a variety of ways. Perhaps your dwarf’s olfactory is so sensitive as to allow him to identify what’s being brought up from the larder downstairs? Or a tongue to identify rocks by their taste? Maybe your dwarf’s skin is so abrasive that it sheds, creating a dander that is the primary ingredient in a special antitoxin spread useful against poisons transmitted through the skin? Gross, I know, but a perfect example of crunch informing fluff informing an entirely different kind of crunch (awaiting DM approval, of course), and far more interesting than simply knowing that your dwarf gets a bonus against poisons.

Elves. In all their many forms, attention is not often paid to some of their more intriguing qualities. For starters, elves don’t sleep. The crunchy aspects of reduced resting times and full awareness during non-sleep (or trance) indicate a couple fluffy bits. Though not sleeping, elves still dream. What exactly do they dream of? This is a perfect opportunity for the DM to seed elf characters’ dreams with hints and clues at what is going on in the game-world. These dreams might reflect an elf’s connection to nature, magic, and/or her deity. And consider what it must be like to be aware of your surroundings while “sleeping.” In what position does the elf trance? Lotus? Standing up? In a tree? Choices like these give us starting points to pursue more engaging role-play, and provide means of breaking the ice at the gaming table and getting players to look for their own ways at dressing the stage. This also gives the DM a breather from directing all the role-play to just sit back and enjoy the players as they create, or consider new ways of introducing the next scene.

Elves and bowcraft are like salad dressing and vinegar. Even if you’re playing a class that isn’t similarly equipped, never forget that every elf comes predisposed to admire the slender, curving, elegance of the bow. The same can be said of swordplay. Perhaps your elf describes things in terms of the bow and the sword. “I cannot deny that the draw of your words speeds an arrow of urgency to my heart.” “My guidance requires that your fletchings remain unruffled, good sir!” “The balance of your judgment rivals that of the finest elven blades!” An elf character should never miss a chance at thoughtfully remarking about this or that longbow, or such and such’s short sword; a good way of drawing player attention to weapons available to the party without doing a weapons roll call or asking rather bluntly, “How much damage can you deal?”

Lastly, elves are widely respected for their talents of perception. This isn’t because people in-game know what skill bonuses an elf receives in these areas, but rather through demonstrated excellence. When an elf spots something, perhaps she adroitly hoists herself up for an elevated glance by rocking gently on her bow, using the arrow shelf as a cleft to step on. Maybe when actively listening in, she crouches low, or places her head flush against nature around her (a tree, a rock, the ground—thank you, Strider!), or perceives danger through an indirect source (a change in birdsong, a dying echo in the leaves, a disturbance in the wind). Coming up with these examples only takes a few minutes of reflection, but the results can open up doorways of gameplay.

The bottom line is: don’t forget to play the numbers, they often carry a dual usefulness no matter how you role/roll. In the next section, we’ll pick things up with a look at three more races common to many a D&D game!

Powered By DT Author Box

Written by LanJemWezz

Writer for ICOSA Entertainment LLC, and author of the upcoming in-house offering, “The Alchemist’s Trilogy”: a series of Pure Steam tie-in novellas. Also, look for his short story “Dark Magic in the Root Cellar” in the “Dreamless Roads” anthology for DreamWorlds Publishing, due out Winter 2014!

Check out the Pure Steam Campaign Setting at: puresteamrpg.com, drivethrurpg.com, paizo.com, d20pfsrd.com
Twitter: @PureSteamRPG

GD Star Rating
The Art of the Small—Analyzing the "Crunch" for the "Fluff" #2, 4.7 out of 5 based on 3 ratings » Leave a comment



3 Responses to “The Art of the Small—Analyzing the “Crunch” for the “Fluff” #2”
  1. AlphaDean says:

    Excellent article. I’ve been doing things like that for years and thanx for some view points which will definitely be added to my game. Can’t wait for the next shinig gem.

  2. LanJemWezz says:

    Great minds think alike, eh? I find it at times useful to have one’s ways of doing reinforced by the activities of like minded peers, even if it’s something we’ve been doing for years. Cheers to you, and may these and the methods you’ve been using serve you well!


Check out what others are saying about this post...
  1. […] D&D game that provide role-playing cues. This time we take a stab at class specifics, whereas last time it was character race; thus we’ll be bouncing back and forth. Are you game? Excellent, let’s […]

 Speak Your Mind

Tell us what you're thinking...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!