A few days ago, Wizards.com posted a gem from the 1e DMG regarding humans as a playable race. Quoting that article as my source for what’s in the book—something I’ve painstakingly explained to my mother she should never do in her master’s program papers—I present you with the following gem: “This is done principally because the player sees the desired monster character as superior to his or her peers and likely to provide a dominant role for him or her in the campaign,” the Dungeon Master’s Guide states. “A moment of reflection will bring them to the unalterable conclusion that the game is heavily weighted toward mankind.”
The article also quotes the following wall of text: “The game features humankind for a reason. It is the most logical basis in an illogical game. From a design aspect it provides the sound groundwork. From a standpoint of creating the campaign milieu it provides the most readily usable assumptions. From a participation approach it is the only method, for all players are, after all is said and done, human, and it allows them the role with which most are most desirous and capable of identifying with. From all views then it is enough fantasy to assume a swords & sorcery cosmos, with impossible professions and make-believe magic. To adventure amongst the weird is fantasy enough without becoming that too!”
Aaand, wow, I have apparently been playing wrong for years.
But it’s not just me, the entire game has been steadily shifting towards a nonhuman-inclusive format since the introduction of 3rd. I remember how exciting it was to see how the 3rd edition format doubled ability adjusts; for anyone reading this who joined later, since 3rd also put every ability onto the same general table this was the first time you were guaranteed to have your character’s race markedly alter your stats. Back in the day, maybe you wanted to play an elf even though your dex was sitting at 11. When you picked elf, your dexterity bumped up a single point…to zero effect, since that table started providing bonuses at 13. Other tables provided their bonuses later; I believe you needed a 16 to get a damage bonus out of Str (and 17 to get an attack bonus). But it’s cool, guys, because Str actually went up to 18/00 since you had a percentile roll if you scored an 18!
In addition to encouraging a 4d6 drop the lowest roll method, 3rd helped put all of the ability scores on the same progression. These two changes meant that playing an elf suddenly became a significant decision that boosted your decision to make an archer fighter. However, 3x still carried the racial ability score penalties, so there was a tradeoff for any race. It also maintained imbalanced ability score modifiers for some races, something that pissed me off then and bothers me now because it just felt unfair to those poor half-orcs.
The other tremendous change was removing level limits and class restrictions from races, which suddenly allowed that elven archer fighter to reach the same lofty heights as a human archer fighter. Humanity was swiftly losing its traditional advantages…which, remember, were basically “a lack of significant penalties” and nothing else. To compensate, the designers actually gave humans some boosts; specifically an increase in their potential for skill training and a free feat. While powerful options for bringing certain character concepts to life, these benefits weren’t so strong that I’d look at them, then at a gnome with his Int bump, and say “I’d be a fool not to play the human!” Granted, I didn’t know we were diving 3x classes into these “tiers,” or that wizards were overpowered as a class, until about 2 years ago. And I haven’t played 3x in closer to 4. The game I like to play and the game the optimization forums like to play is as different as (off-color euphamism for a particularly athletic coital act) is from (off-color euphemism for onanism).
Humans also gained greater flexibility in multiclassing, and that was something I would have paid greater attention to if I’d been playing tabletop during the era of 3rd. Other races were subtly forced into traditional channels by limitations placed on their ability to juggle multiple classes (such a big thing in 3rd) of wildly varied levels, unless one of those classes was their favored class.
Thing is, I did all of my play online during this time, and in six or so years of playing I probably gained a total of seven levels. PbPs, at least the ones I played in, tended to lack the necessary lifespan for continued advancement. This reduced the significance of an xp penalty for characters leveling in multiple classes, and most DMs just threw that penalty out altogether.
I still rolled a few humans during the 3.x era: a warblade, that crazy-ass psion, a real down-to-earth character in a very low-powered game, even my most iconic DnD character was a human. But I rolled almost as many duergar in the same period, definitely as many half-orcs. And this was 3.x; I rolled a flamebrother salamander Dustman cremationist at one point. I understood that the race, with its bonus feat and skill boost, was the premier choice for a lot of builds. I understood that being able to hump up to…what…Greater Cleave? at level 1 was a thing not to be ignored. But they rarely fit my interests, and so I only threw them together when the story seemed to suit it or when I was really hungry for that feat bump at level one.
Now, in the world of 4e, we have a human that I think works pretty well. Still have that bonus feat, still get that skill boost, and the extra at-will is a delicious option; particularly if you’re eyeing any of the psionic options. As an aside, when I say “psionic” I’m never talking about Monks; they’re cool and all, but it seems strange to me that you lump them in with three extremely unified classes. It’s cool if you want to say that they’re psionic, but it hardly feels necessary.
Anypants, the bump I run into with character creation in 4e is that I usually need that extra stat boost, and humans aren’t providing that. I tend to need that extra boost because I have a proclivity for sub-optimal builds, odd multiclasses, and so forth. I’m usually lucky to squeak a 16 in my primary stat, and it’s often the case that I need a 16 in at least one other stat to make the build work. That gets plenty expensive when you’re running a human. I also can’t imagine taking the other human racial, though I guess if your build was so tight you couldn’t envision a situation where an additional at-will option comes into play, maybe you go with it.
That’s only looking at things from a character creation/roleplay perspective, though. I’ve already come out and stated that I have trouble accepting human ascendancy from a fantasy prospective. The argument usually comes down to “They breed fast and master things quickly,” which feels like a size-of-the-boat argument to me. Goblins breed quickly, and goblins are wicked smart and organized. Kobolds breed quickly, and they have the same qualities and are beloved of gamers besides. The argument that’s supposed to keep both of those races down is their supposedly inherent cowardice, which is usually tied (at least in part) to their small size. But given that they’re subterranean races, that small size is to their benefit…and when five or ten creatures come on you in a tunnel you’re stooped half-over to travel, cowardice really need not apply.
Humans aren’t as long-lived as the elves, which markedly cuts down on their ability to be recognized as masters of any endeavor an elf might take an interest in. Dwarves get a similar bump, particularly in the areas of craftsmanship and architecture. Humans are usually presented as being relatively morphic, genetically, giving rise to tieflings, half-elves, and half-orcs. But that, too, is sourced in some of the odd-ass genetics that you find in DnD when you look back far enough; like how elves couldn’t breed with certain other species. Also, there’s the assumption that dwarves and elves don’t get along—an assumption loyal to Tolkien, certainly, but not necessarily core to every fantasy world. Tinderbox has half-elves and half-orcs, but both races are generally the product of elf/dwarf, elf/orc, or orc/dwarf pairings.
And that is, of course, because Tinderbox has no humans. I took them out. I didn’t see a place where I could justify them existing as anything but primitive creatures. They don’t make slave races on par with a potpourri of orcs and goblinoids. They didn’t have any sort of timeline advantage that would give them a technological edge over the dwarven, elven, and draconic empires. They’re not capable of adapting to any environment the others can’t live in. And there’s no god or gods who took an inexplicable interest in the soft-skinned, natural defenseless, mewling race and elevated them above the others. So the humans made dark deals and became Beastmen.
I have given humans homes in some of my other campaigns. They were notable in the Jhyaran campaign world as being blessed by several of the gods, both Elemental and Seasonal. However, they still weren’t the dominant race there; that went to an equally Godblessed elven subspecies. Humans were more numerous, and thus given to stewardship of the aforementioned elves’ empire; but their positions were without much political power. Humans in my high school campaign existed, but primarily as fertile-crescent-dwelling fodder for the orcish hordes. Their territory was of necessity small, since that campaign was rife with extremely hostile environments which required special adaptation (and were each home to a particular subrace of dwarf or elf).
I generally see humans as being either a secondary race in thrall or allegiance with the card-holders of the campaign, or (as an excellent article in Dragon provided some support for) as a race whose environmental adaptations give them some small niches in which to dwell. If you have a hostile swamp, humans might devise a society that survives especially well there. Clad in croc skin and wielding serrated spears, the humans might cautiously emerge to trade with the fair fey inhabitants of nearby crystal cities. Humans might wander, wrapped in silks and wielding curved swords, through an inhospitable desert no one else much cares to dwell in; their trade in gems and enchantments keeps them neutral in the endless war between the dwarven mercantile concerns and the deathless legions of the tiefling dynasties.
But running the campaign? I just can’t get there.