Monstrous Characters Through The Years

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So you want to play a powerful creature?

That’s been handled in several different ways through the various editions of Dungeons and Dragons – and the various methods are worth a look, since you can see variations on all of them in many of the other games that have been designed since.

In First Edition AD&D the idea was squelched right up front in a number of ways.

First up, there WERE no creatures which were more powerful than humans. In the end, everyone, including the gods, was weaker. Only humans got unlimited level advancement. Demi-humans got limited level advancement, monstrous quasi-humans got a tiny taste of level advancement, and outright monsters got what they got. If you wanted to play a monster the game master was called on to break up the abilities of a fully-adult specimen into levels roughly equivalent to those that humans got and to let you advance through them in one way or another until you dead-ended. In the meantime, he was encouraged to make your characters life a living hell and to throw in extra obstacles. As far as playing monster’s went, Gary Gygax was pretty clear about his – and thus the rules – take on the topic. From the first edition Dungeon Master’s Guide:

The considered opinion of this writer is that such characters are not beneficial to the game and should be excluded. Note that exclusion is best handled by restriction and not by refusal. Enumeration of the limits and drawbacks which are attendant upon the monster character will always be sufficient to steer the intelligent player away from the monster approach, for in most cases it was only thought of as a likely manner of game domination. The truly experimental-type player might be allowed to play such a monster character for a time so as to satisfy curiosity, and it can then be moved to a non-player status and still be an interesting part of the campaign – and the player is most likely to desire to drop the monster character once he or she has examined it’s potential and played that role for a time. The less intelligent players who demand to play monster characters regardless of obvious consequences will soon remove themselves from play in any event, for their own ineptness will serve to have players or monsters or traps finish them off”.  -Gary Gygax.

Ok, I think that’s pretty clear. Matters remained that way until Unearthed Arcana, wherein some of the exotic demihuman subraces were given actual modifiers and opened for play. If the attributes you’d rolled qualified you to be a member of an exotic race – and you did indeed need to qualify for some races, just as you needed to qualify for some classes – you got some extra goodies at the cost of knowing that you’d have to live with their restrictions, including those pesky level limits.

Second Edition AD&D was not quite as critical of playing monsters as first edition. It included some guidelines for playing them and stated that most players who wanted such characters only wanted to try the role – even if there were a few who were looking for a cheap way to dominate the game. Humans, of course, still had unlimited level advancement – and thus were still the most powerful actual race in existence since gods no longer had statistics for anything but avatars.

Those guidelines could be summarized as:

  1. The creature should fit into the campaign, being humanoid or centauroid, able to move about on land, intelligent, sociable, and willing to fit in with humans (specifically excluding such creatures as duergar and satyrs).
  2. The prospective player-character creature was NOT allowed to possess special abilities beyond those of the existing player character races, in general excluding creatures with shapechanging, breath weapons, innate spellcasting, magic resistance, extradimensional origins, which were able to draw on extra-dimensional powers, or were undead, and specifically excluding dragons and brownies.
  3. Only allow one at first, on an experimental basis.
  4. Use standard ability score generation with modifiers – which must total zero and would never exceed +/-2, with the sole exception being Strength (which could reach plus or minus four for very large or small creatures respectively – and there was a discussion of the problems of being over- or under-sized).
  5. Someone who wanted to have a character of the new race would have to qualify for it – meeting minimum ability scores for the species and respecting any maximums. The DM could waive the minimums if there was a reason, thus your Str 6 Hill giant might have been thrown out as a runt – but he or she certainly wasn’t obligated to do so.
  6. Class choices for creatures were very limited, and they were subject to strict level caps – even lower than normal demi-humans – although, if you were lucky, there might be a multi-class option.
  7. You could gain a few bonus hit points at level one if you were playing an oversized creature – one per additional hit die that your creature type normally got. Of course, you also took extra damage from many weapons…
  8. Natural armor didn’t stack with external armor.
  9. You got the movement rate from the Monstrous Manual, but your attacks were based on your class and level.
  10. The game master was advised to make NPC reactions a major problem.

A small tweak was added considerably later; when the “Complete Book of (Dwarves / Gnomes & Halflings / Elves)” series came out. Those books included some subraces who were assigned experience point penalties. To quote from the Complete Book of Elves:

Each elf subrace has different talents and hindrances in an adventuring career. Each achieves levels differently and at a different rate than the others. Some, such as the drow, have a large number of benefits while suffering few disadvantages. (Of course, the major disadvantage to being a drow is being a drow.) Subraces that have more advantages require more experience points to advance to the next level than those with few advantages.


Additional Experience Cost. The penalty for playing a naturally powerful subrace. Because certain subraces have a number of advantages that other subraces do not, they must work harder to become better in their chosen professions. Experience adjustments for high ability scores cannot be taken by races with additional experience costs.

Thus experience penalties were not added to “balance” (say) drow against humans, they were just a part of a set of penalties intended to keep all the different types of elves attractive without resorting to first edition Unearthed Arcana’s maze of maximum level tables for each subrace. They were there to be a minor annoyance among many – and that’s all they ever were; the ever-increasing experience point tables ensured that no reasonable XP penalty would ever put a powerful sub-race character that much behind, even if having a penalty also eliminated the 10% experience bonus for having high attributes.

Experience Penalties didn’t really last very long. The AD&D Player’s Option books that came out a little later dropped the entire idea. Those books weren’t enormously popular, but they did considerably expand the range of playable races – although they still stuck fairly closely to the original second edition Dungeon Master’s Guide rules about what was available and how to manage it, including strict level limits for monstrous characters.

Dungeons and Dragons (a separate game from Advanced Dungeons and Dragons) simply didn’t support monstrous characters. If you wanted to add such a thing, coming up with a racial class for it was your problem – as was persuading your game master to allow it.

Third Edition discarded the old notions of “Game Balance”. In earlier editions, “Game Balance” was quite automatic; everyone got the same options and chances when they sat down and picked up the dice. Yes, chance, skill, and player choices started to favor one or the other as soon as the first roll to generate a character was made – but that was part of playing the game, and characters didn’t usually last too long anyway.

Third Edition Dungeons and Dragons attempted to achieve “Character Balance” instead of “Game Balance”, making all the races and character design choices equally good. Unlike “Game Balance”, “Character” or “Play Balance” is nightmarishly complicated.

Thus Third Edition introduced Effective Character Level Modifiers “rather then” applying experience point penalties – thus “solving a problem” that it had brought into existence by making unlimited class advancement available to every sapient creature out there. Sadly, ECL modifiers not only meant that high-powered races were unusable until the campaign hit minimum levels, but they meant that attempting to play a race with low hit dice and a high ECL penalty was virtually impossible until the games level substantially exceeded the ECL modifier. Otherwise your “powerful species” character had so few hit points that the first area effect took him or her out. Thus you had the strange spectacle of such races only springing into existence at medium or higher levels – with no real explanation of where they’d come from.

As was demonstrated with the later release of Savage Species (which went back to first edition principles of breaking down a monsters abilities into levels), ECL penalties simply didn’t work very well.

Of course, that was obvious from the first.

Lets take a +1 ECL race with fixed benefits. Lets say that this works at level one, while the rest of the characters are level two.

So our +1 ECL level one Wizard is balanced with a level two Wizard.

So those fixed racial benefits – whatever they are – are as useful as +1 BAB, +1 Will, +1d4 hit die, +1 Cantrip, +1 1’st level spell, and +1 on caster level checks and the level at which those spells were cast.

Now lets look at things a little later. Our +1 ECL Wizard is now level eleven, and his friend is level twelve. What are the differences between those levels? Our level twelve benefits are now +1 BAB, +1 Fort, +1 Ref, +1 Will, +1d4 hit die, +1 fifth, and +1 6’th level spell, and +1 on caster level checks and the level at which those spells were cast.

Wait, aren’t a fifth and sixth level spell worth a lot more than a cantrip and a first level spell? Not to mention those extra save bumps?

Yes they are. Higher level abilities tend to build on older ones, and become more useful. Feats at the ends of chains are generally better than basic ones. Like it or not, an ECL penalty is generally either a lousy deal that steadily gets worse or is a net benefit at low levels, a balanced deal later on, and a penalty at high levels. It’s even worse if the character is working outside of his or her racial tendencies, where attribute boosts do not provide an ongoing benefit. For example, lets make a Wizard – and take a +3 ECL Gnoll. Why not? If ECL’s are balanced, this should work fine shouldn’t it? We’ll style him after some anime-character or another for whom a human – canine persona works.

So Gnolls get…

  • Medium Size and Speed 30, just like most characters.
  • Strength +4, Constitution +2, Intelligence –2, Charisma –2.
  • 60′ Darkvision.
  • Two levels of humanoid, granting 2d8 Hit Dice, a base attack bonus of +1, and base saving throw bonuses of Fort +3, Ref +0, and Will +0.
  • 5 x (2 + Int modifier) Skill Points wiith ONLY Listen and Spot as class skills.
  • One Racial Feat.
  • A +1 natural armor bonus.
  • The ability to speak Gnoll.
  • Favored Class: Ranger.

Wait. When my elven buddy is level eleven, and throwing Disintegrate, I’ll still be stuck with Fire Shield – and every spell I cast will be easier to resist. I’d be way better off as a dwarf or a half-elf or something with three levels of Ranger and a canine mask – and three levels of Ranger would STILL be a lousy choice for a career spellcaster. It’s off to the isle of misfit character designs for our gnoll wizard, to wait for Rudolph and an elf who wants to be a dentist instead of an adventurer to come along and extract him.

If you’re chasing that elusive specter of “balance”, and want “character level” to mean something, that doesn’t work. The trouble is, most racial abilities do not scale – and you can’t readily build on them as you can with class abilities.

Now, I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be sub-optimal choices. If you choose to play the pack mule instead of the noble knight, that’s probably not going to work so well. If the game master is setting up for a classic fantasy romp, and the character you make up is a English Royal Marine with an assault rifle and a bandolier of grenades, that character probably won’t work very well at all (as in “not in this game!) – unless the game master shrugs and says “OK. Monk 2, Ranger 2, Wizard 1, Wand of Magic Missiles at Caster Level Five (for rapid fire), six 5d Fireball Gems, has a few eccentric delusions”.

There do need to be bad choices. Otherwise there’s no point in making choices. Sauron really would have been better off surrendering to the Vala and reforming – but that’s not what he did.

The problem with ECL modifiers is really a just a subset of the problems with multiclassing – and an illustration of why third edition multiclassing simply does not work properly. If it did, my Bard-3, Ranger-3, Wizard-3 would be just as effective, and useful to have in the party, as your Cleric-9 – yet it just doesn’t seem to work that way. Isn’t “level” supposed to be a good measure of how effective your character is?

Prestige classes tried to fix that. If your character conception (say “mystic archer”) couldn’t be properly represented within a single base class, and trying to represent it with multiclassing simply resulted in a crippled character, than you could just take a prestige class.

The trouble is that this multiplied the prestige classes to the point of insanity – and a lot of them were poorly written, or could be combined in unanticipated ways to create absurdities.

The introduction of “capstone abilities” only makes this worse. Now a L20 “Mystic Archer” base class was generally noticeably superior to a Fighter 5/Wizard 5/Arcane Archer Prestige class 10, which was – in turn – notably superior to a character who was Fighter 10 and Wizard 10 – yet, within the game world, they might all have the same training. The only difference lay in which of the players fished through sourcebooks more energetically (or could afford to buy a bigger heap of them) or came up with the niftiest new class proposal.

Now, all too commonly, the specter of “balance” is invoked to cover things that simply don’t make any sense – but this is definitely not working properly even as “balance”.

What we want to fix is multiclassing – and to keep the game playable, and the number of sourcebooks down to something usable, we’ll want to knock the notion of prestige classes over the head while we’re about it and go through it’s pockets looking for any spare character conception gems it may be carrying.

That was a large part of the point of Eclipse. The power creep, and the smothering mass of new base classes and prestige classes, was inherent in third edition from the start – so Eclipse drove a stake through that particular nightmare. It purchases racial abilities, template abilities, and “class” abilities with points – and lets you build on any or all of them just as easily, since character advancement brings you more points. You can make racial or template abilities scale, slowly acquire powerful racial abilities across many levels or build on them, or design exactly the powers and abilities you want your character to have without having to bother with a class beyond your own personal character description – which basically determines what skills will be slightly more expensive for you (yes, Ugh the Caveman will have to pay a bit extra for Craft/Electronics).

Fourth Edition, of course, tries to make all races more-or-less equal – which “balances” at the cost of excluding most creatures from use as player-characters again. Oh well.

Eclipse: The Codex Persona is available in a Freeware PDF Version, in Print, and in a Paid PDF Version that includes Eclipse II (245 pages of Eclipse races, character and power builds, items, relics, martial arts, and other material) and the web expansion.

8 Responses

  1. Good post.

    Oddly enough Classic D&D offered better support for racial options that it’s big cousin with Orcs of Thar offering Orcs and the Creature Crucible/a> series provided playabler races, settings and adventures for everything from Fairies to Mermaids and Werewolves.

    • Oh yes – I especially liked the one for flying races – but there was no core system for creating monstrous character “classes”.

      To be quite fair, it wasn’t that hard though. I think the most amusing one I’ve seen recently was a class for Corgi’s.

  2. Well, that’s annoying slip of a bracket. Sorry about that!

  3. For the record – in Original D&D, Gary suggested a somewhat more liberal approach than he did in AD&D (which was a far more restrictive ruleset by design).

    From Men and Magic (p8):

    Other Character Types: There is no reason that players cannot be allowed to play as virtually anything, provided they begin relatively weak and work up to the top, i.e., a player wishing to be a Dragon would have to begin as let us say, a “young” one and progress upwards in the usual manner, steps being predetermined by the campaign referee.


    • Also for the record, Men and Magic included some thirty pages of rules (including pictures and tables), and virtually no mention of society at all.

      It DID include the statement that “There is no theoretical limit to how high a character may progress” (page 19) – except, of course, those level limits for nonhumans. So we have unlimited advancement for humans – and “a top” – apparently the usual top monster statistics – for monstrous characters.

      Mechanically, that’s the same as the first edition AD&D position.

      Given that none of the three books – Men and Magic, Monsters and Treasure, and Underworld and Wilderness Adventures with a total of roughly a hundred pages (in large part charts) include much of any information on rationales, backgrounds, or societies save for a paragraph noting that angry villagers are dangerous, I suspect that the first edition Dungeon Masters Guide presents Mr Gygax’s first fully developed thoughts on the social side of the matter.

      The first edition dungeon masters guide, after all, has larger pages, denser pages, represents only one of the three core books, and still has twice as many pages as the entire original edition set. I cannot prove that Mr Gygax didn’t get more sour on the notion of monstrous characters during the interval, but there’s no actual evidence in the rules of his position changing very much.

  4. I always liked the mention that you could play a Balrog (which I believe became Balors when the Tolkein Estate got mad), as long as it was a “young” one.

    I kept having this mental image of the heroic party journeying through The Mines of Moria, battling ambushes of goblins, finally come face to face with the fiery terror who slaughtered the Dwarves, onyl to hear, from the back fo the party, a confused and happy voice crying out: “Dad?!”

    • Well, that sounds entertaining to me… Although the idea of a young Balrog is kind of hard to fit into Tolkien, given that they were basically fallen angels who predated the world. On the other hand, at least one Maia apparently had children with an elf, so who knows?

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