Hey Bilbo, Get a Job!

Why Demihumans Have No Class

Bilbo Baggins standing in front of the door to his house, from the animated feature film "The Hobbit"

Bilbo Baggins, from the 1977 animated feature film "The Hobbit"

“We’d like to thank you for applying, Mr. Baggins, but there’s really no room for you with our company.”

“Wha’dya mean?”

“Look – right here on your résumé, under ‘previous employers’.”

“Yes?”

“You wrote ‘Hobbit’.”

“Yes.”

“’Hobbit’ isn’t a profession.”

“I beg to differ.  It’s quite a bit of hard work.”

“But it’s not a career.”

“How dare you!”

“Mr. Baggins, we understand you’re upset, but – “

“You’re a racist!”

“Excuse me?”

“You’re turning me down because I’m a hobbit.  That’s racism.”

“No, Mr. Baggins – we’re turning you down because, while your résumé boasts a long list of exceptional achievements, you have no prior work history.”

“So now all hobbits are lazy.”

“We didn’t say –“

“Oh, stuff it.  I don’t need to work for your company anyway!”

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Basic Dungeons & Dragons (Holmes/Moldvay/Mentzer) utilizes a simplified character creation system in which dwarves, elves, and halflings are treated as character classes, while human characters may choose to be one of four unique classes.  While the intention may be to highlight humanity’s abundance in the Known World, it’s considered one of the system’s main flaws – even by Frank Mentzer himself – and is often a spot of ridicule for the game system, with some detractors claiming this “single class” system is not only archaic, but racist.

I’ll honestly say that I switched from Basic D&D to AD&D because I was looking for a more realistic gaming experience and, until recently, I agreed that this was a major limitation of Basic’s design.

That is until I learned to appreciate Basic’s design premise, and now fully support this system as one of the most accurate portrayals of character creation for a fantasy-themed setting.

Consider this: when you hear fighter, your mind calls up a specific image.  The same thing happens when you hear halfling or elf – some derivative characteristics are anticipated.  Elves possess arcane abilities, and halflings are sneaky.  We’re already applying stereotypes, so why bother to define specific classes?

You might be saying that “classes define abilities”, but abilities come from genetics, as well as skills and behaviors acquired through life experiences, with only some influence stemming from individual professions.  The butcher is no better as a fighter than my own mother; in fact, I’d trust her talent with a sharp blade over his – she’s had to put up with me and my siblings, after all.

Basic D&D attempts to recreate Tolkien’s party structure as presented in sources like “The Hobbit” or “The Lord of the Rings”, capturing the flavor of the novels with a similar focus on character, rather than class choice.  In fact, of all the possible character creation methods for fantasy roleplaying, Basic may emulate Tolkien better than any other system.

Consider Frodo’s class.  Now think about Samwise.  Consider the other characters that compose the Fellowship: Elrond and Gimli, for example.  Each of these characters is a representative of their race, and embody the characteristics common among their people.  In fact, the only real differences between Frodo, Samwise, and other hobbits are matters of personality.  At no point does Frodo say, “I’m a rogue”.

Come to think of it, the only characters who express different powers are the humans – Aragorn and Gandalf – although, to be fair, Gandalf isn’t really human.  Regardless, the point is that, using Basic D&D rules, players could craft characters that captured the feel of portraying Aragorn, Gandalf, and Frodo – without worrying about what class a character is or what role the character fills.

But it isn’t that the races are without class.  The fact of the matter is that characters are all one class, regardless of if they are human or halfling, fighter or cleric.  All characters are adventurers.  Rather than worrying about what class your character is, consider instead why your character started adventuring in the first place.  Individual powers and abilities should have little bearing on what caused your hero to set out into the world in the name of adventure.

Perhaps your character must escape some evil that threatens their homeland?  Maybe they’ve been charged with a mission to destroy some powerful artifact, or possibly to recover one?  Or they could be the key to reuniting two halves of a shattered kingdom.  There are any numbers of reasons to begin a career as an adventurer, and they don’t necessarily revolve around class choice.

Larry Elmore's Elf, Halfling, and Dwarf

Elf, Halfling, and Dwarf by Larry Elmore (www.larryelmore.com). From the Mentzer edition Basic D&D Player's Book. © Larry Elmore, all rights reserved.

What if your character concept isn’t possible due to the rigid structure found in Basic D&D?  Here are two suggestions to work around those limitations, using a halfling magic-user as an example:

Think Outside the Box

You could claim something like your magic-user is a halfling, even if your DM doesn’t allow this type of hybrid character.  Perhaps there’s a reason why you lack abilities standard to halflings – for example, you’ve toiled for decades under the oppressive watch of a powerful wizard who, luck would have it, passed away abruptly, leaving you his haunted tower, a dusty old spellbook with most of the pages removed, and a mysterious quest.  You’ve never spent any time with other halflings, so you’ve never learned any of the skills or talents typical of halflings.  None of this needs to impact or influence the game’s mechanics; it’s just important to consider it in terms of character concept.

In this version, you don’t gain any of the halfling’s benefits – no bonus to AC against large creatures, for example, and no talent for hiding outdoors – but you’re able to roleplay the type of character you’d like, at least.

Think Outside the Rules

Alternatively, you could work with your DM to develop new options that allow for your unique character.  In Basic D&D, you may build a halfling with spellcasting ability similar to an elf, but with a -1 to strength.  Or you could start with a Magic-User, sprinkle in some halfling traits (such as hiding) and impose limits on spellcasting (like fewer spells), or penalties on other ability scores or saving throws.

Ultimately, the most important thing is to see past the arbitrary limits of Basic D&D, and explore the full range of possibilities in ways you might not have previously considered.

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The Secret DM™ is just an average guy, trying to navigate the complexities of a successful career, a happy marriage, and raising a daughter…all while secretly rescuing damsels from fire-breathing dragons.  Visit him at www.facebook.com/secretdm or www.thesecretdm.com, or contact him at: thesecretdm@gmail.com.  Happy Adventuring!

8 comments on “Hey Bilbo, Get a Job!”

  1. DM_Glenno

    Yep, well said! Roleplaying and story telling.

    It seems that throughout the later editions a new game has emerged; selecting optimal character builds.

  2. DM Mike

    LOL Great article!

    Thing is, if you just changed the name of the classes; say “Hobbit” instead of halfling, “Fay” instead of Elf, and Delver” instead of Dwarf there would be no argument. Even if you then said that these are the typical stereotypes for the races in question.

    Its all about the verbage. Which is strange but many people can’t get past such.

    Kep up the good articles!

    DM Mike

  3. Erin

    Really helpful post. The whole race=class thing was hard to get over when I started playing B/X. If the only clerics were human, how did dwarves conduct worship? Were they godless? If they couldn’t be magic-users, who made their magic weapons and armour?

    But I think you this statement is the best answer I’ve heard: All characters are adventurers.

    Put another way, of course there are dwarf clerics and halfling thieves–they just don’t go on adventures. Just because your PC can’t be a dwarf priest doesn’t mean that there aren’t dwarf priests. It means that all adventuring dwarfs are of the dwarf class, while add adventuring clerics are of the cleric class.

    And, as a side note, to your final suggestion about Thinking Outside the Rules, may I offer “Building the Perfect Class” as a tool for creating your own balanced B/X classes.

  4. The Secret Player

    Cool post – I never thought about Basic D&D like that. I just always assumed that the lack of demihuman classes was a lazy play to limit options. Great angle on that, it totally changed my opinion.

  5. The Secret DM™

    @DM_Glenno: Thanks so much — and I agree…I genuinely feel in the decades since I’ve started playing RPG’s, the game I cherish most has moved further and further away from character development and closer to optimal-build development, sacrificing “character” in the process.

    @DM Mike: Oh wow, thank you! That’s great to hear from one of the podcast-members! And yeah, I don’t think I realized how impactful “word choice” is until I sat down to write this article. It’s been one of the hardest things to deal with personally, too, as I’ve started working on my own RPG rules system…some things need certain words to define them, but then those word choices may prove restrictive to one’s imagination.

    @Erin: That’s an awesome assessment of the point I was driving at — I love the examples you’ve provided! And I DEFINITELY love the tool for class building — you can be sure I’ll be using it as I develop my upcoming Basic D&D Campaign Setting (In the Shadow of the Mountain — see http://www.thesecretdm.com for more info…); also, if you don’t mind, I’ll likely be reviewing your tool for my personal blog.

    @The Secret Player: We meet again, ha ha! I actually saw D&D the same way you did, right up until I wrote this article. I was having a converation with a friend about D&D’s “inherent racism”, and, while extreme, it made me consider the possibility. And that’s when the thought emerged that, sure, these were generalizations and restrictive ones at that — but the archetypes matched up perfectly with The Hobbit/LotR — and maybe that’s all they were ever intended to do. Thanks for commenting!

  6. Fjw70

    One problem with your LotR stereotype argument is Legolas. Now maybe he did have some spell casting abilities and never used them, but that is a stretch. In general I agree with your LotR argument.

    I never had a problem with the race=class thing in Basic D&D. I just saw it as a simplification in the system. However I did prefer the more complex AD&D back in the 80s but I think my idea old school system would be a mix of Basic and Advanced.

  7. The Secret DM™

    @Fjw70: Sorry I haven’t responded sooner! Looks like I need to change my permissions so I get e-mail notifications when there are new comments! I’m glad to hear you agree with my LotR argument — though to be clear, this article does convey only my personal opinions, and may not necessarily be what the original designers of D&D actually had in mind. As for Legolas being a stereotypical elf — he had power enough to speak with trees, grass, and rocks — and if that’s not magical, I’m not sure what is. Elves are also described as having “starlight…on their hair and in their eyes”, and, without any known source, a shimmer of light falling about their feet.

    That’s at least the imagery I think of when I think of elves. 🙂

  8. fjw70

    Good points on Legolas, but I think his magic was more Druid than MU. Hmm … that would be an interesting variant of the Elf. He would get Druid spells instead of MU spells.

    Legolas is probably best emulated by the AD&D Ranger.

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