There are no Dragonborn in Hommlet
1st-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons keeps the player tightly tethered to stereotypical fantasy tropes like dwarves and elves, and even when it comes to those demi-human races, restrictions are in place to encourage, as much as possible a humanocentric world. In Gary Gygax’s own words:
ADVANCED D&D is unquestionably “humanocentric”, with demi-humans, semi-humans, and humanoids in various orbits around the sun of humanity. Men are the worst monsters, particularly high level characters such as clerics, fighters, and magic-users — whether singly, in small groups, or in large companies.
p21, 1st-edition AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide
Many players, (and particularly newer, less experienced players) believe that playing a strange monster might be loads of fun. And let me take this opportunity to make clear, if you find it fun, I’m not here to tell you otherwise. The point of this post is not to “instruct” anybody on the only “right way” to play the game. You can play it however takes your fancy and as long as that is fun for you, then great. The point of the post is simply to help dispel some myths about why the rules are the way they are, and to offer up an argument as to why they are actually just fine the way they are.
In that vein, the first thing to acknowledge is that however you like to play, it is unequivocally true that the playing of such monsters (including, I’m sorry 5e-fans, the like of Dragonborn and Tieflings) is diametrically opposed the original vision of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.
Yes, there is provision in the rule-books to basically, “change whatever you like” … but really, we didn’t need Gygax to give us that permission — we’re free to change whatever rules we want regardless — and it is also very clear that in the case of exotic player races, he also strongly suggests not to do it despite the ultimate rule-changing freedom he concedes to individual Dungeon Masters.
Why? The answer is because Gygax was just mean, didn’t want players to have any fun and also he had no imagination.
Actually, no, that’s not the reason (although I have legitimately heard it claimed!). This was undoubtedly a deliberate design decision, and the purpose for it is two-fold:
- to create a humanocentric game world; and
- to keep rare that which should be rare
A game world that is non-humanocentric simply turns what is intended to be fantastic and unique into something that is common and mundane. If your game world is one where every tavern is like the Moss Eisley Cantina of weirdos and your entire party is a verifiable freak-show of Tieflings, Dark-Elves and Dragonborn, you haven’t made anything more interesting. You’ve only served to make Tieflings, Dark-Elves and Dragonborn a whole lot less interesting.
It’s important to note that Gary Gygax’s vision is plainly not to reduce or remove the fantasy element from the game world. A quick browse through some of the oddities in the Monster Manual will dispel any such notion. Instead, it’s to encourage the game-world to be viewed through the lens of humanity. There are very good reasons for this, but they are perhaps best explained by way of example. And there countless to choose from, Lord of The Rings, The Witcher and Star Wars are just a few convenient examples: in all of these stories, the universe is full of bizarre creatures, but relatively few of them are actual central protagonists in the world. They’re cool flavoring and atmosphere, but they’re not the real heroes.
Why not? Because nobody is particularly interested in the plight of a bunch of weird aliens, it’s just too difficult for us to relate to them. Unless you’re an alien reading this text hundreds of years in the future, then you, like the rest of us, observe the world through a human lens. In other words, that is our default frame of reference. Remove the human-centric nature from the game and it becomes strange, alienating and difficult to relate towards. Successful Hollywood directors have known this for a long time, but for some reason, many role-players seem to be under the mistaken impression that it’s going to somehow make their particular story more interesting.
“But the protagonists in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings were Dwarves and Halflings, not humans!”
True, but dwarves and halflings are allowed as player races, so that’s somewhat a moot point.
Furthermore, the common Tolkein-esque fantasy races are clearly fairly simple caricatures of humanity. Hobbits are drawn from the quaint lifestyle of Edwardian pastoral England, for example. Dwarves from the rough and tough workmen, miners and craftsmen of his time. They’re all a long way off from playing a troll, a dragon-man or a demon.
The reason for that is because although the fantasy elements of a game like Dungeons & Dragons, such as the aforementioned trolls, dragons and demons, certainly do shape a unique and enthralling fantasy world, it is in experiencing these fantastic elements where the fun and adventure lies, not in embodying them. Playing an exotic race will not make your character more interesting. Being a good and imaginative role-player, and creating a character to which the other players at the table (including the Dungeon Master) can easily-relate and interact-with is what makes your character interesting.
3 comments on "There are no Dragonborn in Hommlet"
I’m a bit divided. On the one hand, I also tire of the many, many non-human “races” at play in most modern gaming tables and instead restrict my own game to being a nice and simple “humans only” affair. For many of the reasons you’ve described, it’s just a flavor of fantasy that appeals to me more.
But on the other hand, I still think it just comes from a place of taste and preference, NOT some more legitimate “vision” of how the game “should” be. I’m not convinced that Gygax’s intended vision for the game is inherently better than anyone else’s, and whenever I’ve read OD&D I always got the impression that “making this game your own and getting weird with it” was far more in the spirit of what the game was about than any of the specific details inside. But that’s OD&D and you’re discussing AD&D, which are pretty different.
But like, it’s not just a 5E thing or even a general New School thing. This mindset would have kept us from ever getting Planescape, which I think is one of the best D&D settings out there and simply one of the best D&D-related things ever. It’s NOT where I’d want to set the majority of my games, but I play many games and many one-shots because I’d prefer some variety of experiences over trying to always confine my game to just one “vision” of fantasy that I like.
I DO tell my players that they should always think of their character as a human first and then only choose otherwise if there’s a compelling reason for them to NOT be human. But as I see it, that doesn’t just apply to dragonborn and tieflings. It’s equally true for elves and dwarves. ALL of them can be described as “fairly simple caricatures of humanity.” 4E and 5E do so little in making “dragon men” and “demon men” feel meaningfully different that they’re actually quite CLOSER to humans than elves and dwarves are. But to me, that’s actually why I usually don’t have an interest in most of them. I only like playing non-human races when they’re EXTREMELY different from a human and the way a human experiences the world. That’s the only time it seems worth bothering, to me.
Like I said, I’m divided.
Certainly a fair-enough comment there. I do tried to be clear that I’m not about lecturing people on how they “have to play or you’re doing it wrong”, it’s more just a defense and justification for the rules as written (which I quite like). Of course, everyone else is free to do however they please, it’s their game.
Yup, you nailed it.
My big problem with it comes from early days of playing D&D back in 77. Even as a teen DM I was asking things like: OK, if a player is a 400 year old elf, shouldn’t they know a lot about the lore of this world?
Once you go outside of the standard OD&D races, you are going to have even more issues along these lines.