Several years ago, as part of a still-unfinished project, I decided that it would be cool if there was more to races in D&D than there currently is. In most D&D versions and variants, race might limit what classes you could take, or give you some bonuses/penalties that are either explicitly for certain classes, or stack particularly well with certain classes. And some races might give you some nifty abilities, or even the equivalent of a couple levels’ worth of abilities (at the cost of a level ajdustment, or XP penalty, or some other such compensating mechanism). Though in most core rules, they deliberately avoid that, up to and including watering down a race in order to keep it at that power level.
And that, in fact, was the real genesis of this thought process: I’ve always preferred verisimilitude to balance, but, more importantly, i prefer verisimilitude to sameness. AD&D1/2 had some real problems with this, however, with elves, in particular, being noticeably overpowered. I don’t recall, now, how they dealt with really powerful races like drow in 2nd ed, but i know that 1st ed didn’t really balance them at all. So, along comes D&D3E, and introduces a much more robust system, with a lot more room for compensating and balancing things, and even the level adjustment mechanism. So, finally, we have a way to balance elves: we give them some meaningful penalties, or a level adjustment, to make up for all their nifty abilities. But, instead, they thought that keeping everyone at the same level was more important, so they watered down their elf-ness. And while I understand their reasoning, given the choice between very folkloric (or Tolkien-esque) elves with a LA+2, say, and which therefore can’t be played at 1st level; or LA0 elves which don’t feel much like elves, I’ll take the former. IOW, I think that their solution throws the baby out with the bathwater.
Which gets back to where I started this: for the most part, the races as depicted in most versions of D&D, are relatively irrelevant. D&D3E exacerbated this, because characters in general became more powerful. That is, the difference between a 1st- and 10th-level character is more significant than in AD&D1/2. And, perhaps more importantly, you have more kewl powerz as you go up in level in D&D3E than you did before—before, you mostly gained magic items, hit points, and maybe spells. Now, you gain all sorts of feats and it seems like more class powers, too. Thus quickly overshadowing a couple +2s from your race. Then we played Arcana Unearthed, where the races have a bit more influence: specifically, one of teh themes of the game is choosing your own destiny, and therefore there are several instances of feats and the like that change or augment your race. When I ran it, i expanded this some more, effectively introducing gnolls, titans, doppelgangers, and a couple other races as offshoots of the standard races, “buyable” with feats. I wanted even *more* race feeding into my fantasy characters.
But the mechanism escaped me. I thought about giving everybody an extra batch of feats that only could be used for racial feats; about having level-based abilities that automatically accrued; and probably some other mechanisms i’m forgetting right now. Then I saw Iron Heroes and a friend pointed me at Dawnforge (at roughly the same time), and it started to gel. Making it feats would let people choose whether they wanted to emphasize their racial heritage as their character got more powerful. Using mastery feats, rather than feat chains, would let people better choose *how* they embodied their race. As an added bonus, it would mean more variety–a few, core, aspects would be true of all elves, but beyond that, there wouldn’t be a particular progression as they grew. In particular, someone can take a “high-level” feat that they think fits their character, without having to “use up” a whole bunch of their feats along the way, just to get there (the way that feat chains often end up working).
Following on from some of the ideas in Iron Heroes, as well as suggestions of other fans on their forums, i broke the essence of each race down into two traits, one for “blood”, and one for heritage. See, I also wanted to blur the concept of “race”, making it more like in the real world: if you look like an elf, and you act like an elf, but one of your parents wasn’t an elf, are you an elf? If your parents are both Japanese, but you grew up in the US, don’t speak Japanese or otherwise follow your parents’ traditions, and act just like every other 19-yr-old around you (of assorted racial heritages), are you meaningfully “Japanese”? Are you not? Also, this covers the “half-elf” idea, though in a slightly different way: You can simply take either the heritage or blood trait, without the other, and thus be partly of that race/culture. Which neatly solves the question of whether a half-elf is more elven or more human, and whether it’s heritage or blood that makes the difference—the answer is: it depends.
In addition to giving player choice to the issue of half-breeds, and blurring the lines of what constitutes each race (Just those with both traits? anyone with the blood trait? anyone with the heritage trait? anyone with either?), I ended up tackling the issue of favored classes for the various races, along the way. The end result is that several of the racial masteries are tailored to work with a particular class. Some of them are only accessible to a few classes (which have the highest rating in that mastery); some give benefits that are meaningless without a particular class’s abilities; some are merely synergistic with a particular class’s abilities. The first few just sort of happened; after that, I decided to very consiously make that happen. Especially once I noticed the coincidenc of 10 non-human races, 10 warrior classes, and 10 magic classes–and the fact that about 16 of those classes just naturally fell into a specific race, and of the remaining ones, none felt like a shoehorn, though 2 were fairly arbitrary choices: they didn’t clash with the races they ended up with, but neither did they just scream out that race’s name.
Incidentally, about a year after i last worked on this, the first previews of D&D4E came out—specifically the one about making race more important by giving characters a racial ability every level, or every few levels, just like class abilities. Like most of the aspects of D&D4E that were in the previews and teasers, yet didn’t make it into the final version, that sounded really awesome! I would’ve loved to have seen that.
Now, the actual details of fleshing this idea out, actually making the races both meaningfully different, and interesting, and coming up with appropriate feats to do it with, was a bit of a challenge. Some of the races were a piece of cake: just look to Tolkien and a bunch of other sources, and start cribbing stuff for your elves and orcs. Plus there’s the general stuff that has accumulated over the years in RPGs. But some of the races just weren’t that easy. What is the essence of goblin-ness? Especially when you want to make them very distinctly different from both orcs and kobolds. Dawnforge was extremely helpful: making gnomes the more fey race, since elves in the Tolkien tradition aren’t particularly fey, was an easy solution. I was able to crib from a couple of their other races for some great feats for several of the racial feat masteries, too. And emphasizing the goblins’ savage, raiding lifestyle, vice the orcs’ survivalism and toughness. And so on. I think that rewarding a player for choosing a “favored” race/class combo is far preferable to penalizing other choices (as in earlier editions, primarily through level limits). And the D&D3E method really seems a little back-handed: you don’t actually get a reward for pursuing the “favored” class; you get a reward for pursuing multiple classes, so long as they include the favored class.
There was one other issue involved in all this, before even I got to crafting racial feats: I wanted a little broader crosssection of fantasy races. In fact, that’s really where it all started. I’ve never liked the fact that D&D always designated elves, dwarves, humans, and a few others as the “good guys” and the only PC options; and orcs, goblins, and the various other humanoids as the “bad guys”, and not PC options. I always thought that the rulebook should give you a good basic set of PC races, of all sorts, and leave it up to the group to figure out which ones were in the setting, what their relationships were, and could be played as PCs. So I always knew that if I decided to write up some sort of D&D variant, I’d put in just as many “humanoid” races as “demihuman” races. Or some such balance. And try to flesh them all out beyond the simple morality of D&D, which designates certain races as morally-safe choices, who may be killed without repercussions. That is, give all of them some sort of culture and value.
Given all of this, here’s my work-in-progress version of the mastery feats for goblins:
Goblin Heritage [Background]
You were raised by goblins, or have spent a significant amount of time living with them. You’ve adopted some of their raiding talents.
Goblin society is lived largely in the saddle, raiding and hunting. Generally, goblin tribes take what they need, rather than making their own or trading for it. They usually wear leather, or even uncured skins, and have little use for decoration or finery. Some tribes file their teeth in order to make their appearance more fearsome.
Mechanics: You gain a +4 bonus on Sneak and Ride checks, and can speak Goblin.
At least one of your parents was a goblin, and goblin blood flows through your veins.
Those with goblin blood tend to be very short, and wiry but still strong for their size, with orangish skin and yellow eyes that reflect like cat eyes. Pureblooded goblins are usually under 3 1/2’ tall and around 40-45#. They have skin that ranges in tone from yellow through orange, to red, and eyes are red or yellow and literally glow dully in the dark.
Mechanics: You gain a +2 bonus to Dexterity, but a -2 penalty to Strength and Charisma. Additionally, you have lowlight vision. Also, you are size Small, which gives the following adjustments: +1 bonus to passive defense, +1 bonus on attack rolls, +4 bonus on Hide checks, –4 penalty on grapple checks, lifting and carrying limits 3/4 those of Medium characters. Your base movement is only 20’.
Goblin Fury [Power]
You draw upon the fury within the goblin soul to power your abilities.
Base Mastery: 2
Prerequisite: Goblinblooded Trait
Benefit: In any round in which you generate fury tokens, you generate an extra fury token.
Expanded Mastery 2: You gain a +2 bonus on Bluff and Intimidate checks when dealing with spirits.
Expanded Mastery 3: You can use larger-than normal weapons. You may use a weapon one size larger than you are as a one-handed weapon, or a weapon two sizes larger than you are as a two-handed weapon. In either case, you make all attack rolls while doing so at a -2 penalty.
Expanded Mastery 5: If you have any levels in Shaman, you can gain the domain power from one more spirit than normal, per day. You must still perform the usual ritual to do so, and have enough spirit allies to make this possible. This ability does not enable you to gain the domain power from any one domain more than once.
Expanded Mastery 6: You gain darkvision to a range of 60’. You need no light to see, but when there is no light, you see only in black & white. Other than not needing light, you cannot see anything that you otherwise would not be able to see (so invisible opponents are still unseen, and so on). If you already have darkvision, you gain the ability to discern color without light.
Expanded Mastery 7: When calculating your damage, consider your Strength to be 4 points higher than it actually is. If an attack does not normally use Strength to determine how much damage it does, this feat has no effect.
Expanded Mastery 8: Every time something occurs for which you gain fury tokens, you gain 1 extra fury token. If you gain fury tokens due to multiple events in a round, you gain this bonus token each time.
Goblin Raiding [Lore]
You’ve learned to be a fearsome goblin raider.
Base Mastery: 1
Prerequisite: Goblin Heritage Trait
Benefit: Goblins are consummate riders, with a knack for riding not only horses. You do not take penalties for riding bareback, or for riding an unusual mount. In addition, your mount takes 1 less point of damage each round that you spur it on to greater speed (so, no damage the first round, 1 point the second, 3 the third, etc.).
Expanded Mastery 1: The goblins’ favored mount is the worg, with whom they share a special bond. You have learned to speak the worg language, and can use all social skills unhindered when dealing with worgs, and gain a +2 bonus on any Handle Animal or Ride checks involving a worg.
Expanded Mastery 2: You know how to call upon the spirits to aid you. You gain a +2 bonus to Diplomacy and Sense Motive checks when dealing with spirits.
Expanded Mastery 3: You have learned to see spirits. You can see active spirits within 60’ with a successful Spot check (DC 20) and guess their nature and intentions. Dormant spirits canbe spotted with a successful DC 25 Spot check.
Expanded Mastery 4: Goblins have a special connection with their mounts. When you spur your mount on, you may take a special skill challenge to give it an even bigger speed boost. For every -5 penalty you take on your Ride check, you increase the speed boost if you are successful by another 5 feet. This does not change the amount of damage the mount takes due to the extra movement.
Expanded Mastery 5: Any berserker rage abilities that you have, you may now share with your mount. Any action or situation that generates rage tokens when it applies to you, also generates rage tokens when it applies to your mount. These rage tokens go into your rage token pool. Likewise, you may spend rage tokens to activate any ability you have for your mount, too. Each expenditure is separate, but you can activate abilities for your mount separately from yourself, each round, provided you have sufficient tokens.
Expanded Mastery 6: Each time you make a Cleave attack while mounted, your mount can move 10 feet as a free action. It cannot move more than its normal speed in this manner. This movement does not provoke attacks of opportunity. Additionally, you may spend cleave tokens to increase this free movement by 5’ for each token spent.
Expanded Mastery 7: Your mount now has its own rage token pool. It may have no more rage tokens in its pool than half the maximum for your own pool. So long as you are mounted, however, you may use each other’s tokens freely. So, you may use your rage tokens to activate a berserker ability on your mount, and may use your mount’s rage tokens to activate a berserker ability for yourself. You must have expanded mastery 5 to take this feat.
Expanded Mastery 8: Goblins are not afraid to terrorize even spirits. Every time you successfully do damage to an incorporeal enemy, you gain a cleave token. You can spend 3 cleave tokens before making an attack to ignore the normal miss chance for striking an incorporeal foe.
Note: If you also have cleave expanded masteries 8 or 10, you may use cleave tokens generated by any of them interchangeably—all of your cleave tokens go into a single pool, which may have no more than your level + 10 tokens at any given time.