Excerpts Archive | 5/2/2008
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Excerpts: Racial Benefits
4th Edition Player's Handbook

From a look at classes, we move on to races, and why they matter more than ever in 4th Edition. To answer that question, we turned to Rob Heinsoo:


Original Design Intent

Before we began 4th Edition design, James Wyatt decided that he wanted a player character’s race to matter a lot more in 4E than it did in 3E. Andy Collins and I heard about James’ decision during our first week of brainstorming together. James said something like, “I won’t be happy with this design unless it gives me a reason to care about what race I am all through a character’s career. Not just something that happens at first level.” That sounded great to me and Andy.

Our early designs put race on par with paragon paths and epic destinies as character elements that would be secondary to class for ten levels at a time. Race supplied features and powers from levels 1-10, paragon paths took over at levels 11-20, and epic destinies capped characters off at levels 21-30.

One drawback of our original “race offers powers at levels 1-10” approach was that it made race abilities less significant at higher levels. Another drawback was that our classes were already plenty rich. We realized that we didn’t need race, path and destiny competing directly with the class-based power lists that were the heart of the design.

4E Solution

So we settled on a hybrid approach. Each 4E race gets a small roster of abilities that make them stand out from other races. Each race gets a single unique power at first level that stays cool and useful over the character’s entire career. And each race has a unique selection of feats that flesh out the race’s advantages compared to other races.

Styles of Racial Feats

There are at least three different styles of racial feats in the Players Handbook.

Racial Power Related Feats: The logic for these feats is that you’re the only race in the game that can pull off a stunt that everyone else envies. Letting you choose feats that utilize your racial power makes you feel even better about your power. You’re opting to improve an already good power instead of choosing a feat that could shore up a weakness, so we aren’t shy about making racial feats a good deal.

Take the Enlarged Dragon Breath feat for the dragonborn as an example.

Enlarged Dragon Breath [Dragonborn]
Prerequisites: Dragonborn, dragon breath racial power
Benefit: When you use your dragon breath power, you can choose to make it blast 5 instead of blast 3.

A dragonborn’s breath weapon isn’t going to be its most powerful attack, but it is one of the few minor action attacks in the game. Increasing the blast area from 9 squares to 25 squares? It’s a no-brainer for any weapon-using dragonborn who isn’t already capable of attacks that blast many enemies at once. Once you’ve played a dragonborn with 5-square breath, playing a dragonborn with a wee little 3-square blast won’t cut it.

Flavorful Feats that Don’t Need to Clutter Basic Race Abilities: Some 3E races have laundry lists of abilities supplying situational benefits. In 4E, we have laundered those lists. Small situational benefits are great as feats that a player chooses because it suits their character concept, not as good as something that every player of a particular race has to keep track of. Here’s an example from the dwarf.

Dodge Giants [Dwarf]
Prerequisite: Dwarf
Benefit: You gain a +1 bonus to AC and Reflex defense against the attacks of Large or larger foes.

3E dwarves all ended up having AC bonuses against giants. 4E cuts this advantage out of the standard dwarf package and rephrases the advantage as a feat that can help dwarves against all bigger creatures, not just the few bigger creatures that happen to be actual giants.

Feats that Capture the Essence of a Race: Okay, I admit this last category is a bit broad. The perfect racial feat of this style supplies the race with a wonderful little feature that members of other races would love to have but don’t deserve. Sometimes we succeed perfectly, other times we get as close as we can.

Any guesses about the hardest race? Which race was the hardest to peg with feats that felt distinct and appropriate?

Other designers may have other answers, but I’d say it was humans. The problem is that you all know humans. You’ve got a pretty good sense of human capabilities, and even in a fantasy world with elves and dwarves and succubi, there are a lot of abilities that we could try to peg onto humans that would make you and most all your friends cock an eyebrow and hone your mockery skills.

So we settled on the idea that humans, at least the PC humans we’re concerned with, are the action-hero race, winning against improbable odds and fighting to the last breath. Try the following feat as an example:

Action Surge [Human]
Prerequisite: Human
Benefit: You gain a +3 bonus to attack rolls you make during any action you gained by spending an action point.

That’s an example of an ability nearly any PC would like to have, but as a feat, it’s only available to humans. You think you’ve got a human finished off and they pull out some heroic stunt that saves the party.

Full Circle

Enlarged Dragon Breath, Dodge Giants, and Action Surge have one point in common: all three are racial feats you can take in the heroic tier that will still be useful even when your character is 19th or 28th level. We made good on James’ original hope—your PC’s race always matters, and if you want to choose a number of racial feats, your PC’s race can matter a lot.
--Rob Heinsoo






Racial Traits

Each character race offers the following types of benefits.

Ability Scores: Your character race gives you a bonus to a particular ability score or two. Keep these bonuses in mind when you assign your ability scores.

Speed: Your speed is the number of squares you can normally move when you walk.

Vision: Most races, including humans, have normal vision. Some races have low-light vision; they see better in darkness than humans do.

Languages: You start off knowing how to speak, read, and write a few languages. All races speak Common, the language passed on by the last human empire, and some races let you choose a language.

Other Racial Traits: Other traits include bonuses to your skills, weapon training, and a handful of other traits that give you capabilities or bonuses that members of other races don’t have.

Racial Power: Several races give you access to a racial power, which is an extra power you gain at 1st level in addition to the powers your class gives you.

Racial Feats (Heroic Tier)

Name Prerequisites Benefit
Action Surge Human +3 to attacks when you spend an action point
Dodge Giants Dwarf +1 to AC and Reflex against attacks of Large or larger foes
Dragonborn Frenzy Dragonborn +2 damage when bloodied
Dragonborn Senses Dragonborn Low-light vision, +1 to Perception
Dwarven Weapon Training Dwarf +2 damage and proficiency with axes and hammers
Eladrin Soldier Eladrin +2 damage and proficiency with longswords and spears
Elven Precision Elf +2 to reroll with elven accuracy
Enlarged Dragon Breath Dragonborn, dragon breath racial power Dragon breath becomes blast 5
Ferocious Rebuke Tiefling, infernal wrath racial power Push 1 square with infernal wrath
Group Insight Half-Elf Grant allies +1 to Insight and initiative
Halfling Agility Halfling, second chance racial power Attacker takes a –2 penalty with second chance reroll
Human Perseverance Human +1 to saving throws
Light Step Elf Add to overland speed of group, +1 to Acrobatics and Stealth
Lost in the Crowd Halfling +2 to AC when adjacent to at least two larger enemies

Be sure to return Monday for a look at skill challenges!
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