Considering Non-human Characters

Yesterday’s post about the Kobold Kommandos reminded me I haven’t really written much about non-human characters. It seems this would be a good time to do that.

Okay, maybe not.  I expected to spend about an hour jotting down some notes, I ended up spending about four hours doing analysis and monster deconstruction.  Ah well, it happens.


Assuming humans are the baseline character type for simplicity, it seems that anything else that is at all attractive is better in some way or another. Yes, a half-orc is relatively dumb, but he doesn’t need to be smart.

Any time you can build focus in one character area without losing something you care about, you have a more powerful option. As such it should be reasonable to pay for the privilege. In D&D they try to balance this with a feat and one skill point per level.

I think we can do better than that. We could have multiple races with humans having a bonus talent or something. Possibly one at each tier, if the other races’ racial abilities are worth having all the way up and are comparable in value, and…

Mmm, no, that doesn’t seem like a reasonable way to go about things. Instead, we could have each race constructed of talents, which will mean quantizing the various racial abilities to be supported, even the really small ones, and getting bonuses for the penalties and other disadvantages, and…

That’s still too much hassle, especially since most talents can still be taken by other characters – your human can be as strong as the half-orc and as agile as the elf because he can take the same talents they got racially.

Instead, it seems reasonable to me that there could be a talent for each race. This talent may or may not be a full talent (it might go only up to Expert or Heroic tier, say, or even stop at Basic). This talent might start at a higher tier than Basic or Expert if the race is required to have abilities that are inappropriate for lower-level characters. This approach means that nonhuman characters have some advantages but pay for them, with something rather more reasonable than level adjustment. In some cases the advantages are minor (the race is more or less balanced) and only a small cost need be paid, in others (the more powerful or unusual races) the cost should be proportional to the power gained.

Near-Human Characters

Dwarves, elves, halflings, and so on, these are characters that in D&D 3.xare considered equivalent to humans. They have a similar physical configuration and abilities comparable to humans, or at least close enough that it’s not worth a level adjustment.

In D&D 3.x these characters have small ability score modifiers (some positive, some negative) and some other racial abilities such as darkvision or low-light vision. Some of these are reasonable to make talents (such as the vision ones – minor ability, but well worth having, and fairly generic given that so many creatures have them), others are probably worth bundling into racial talents.

Example: Dwarf

For instance, looking over Dwarf I see there is a mix of physical and mental/social abilities to account for. The physical include: +2 Con, -2 Cha, base speed 20 but ignore load and armor effects on speed, darkvision, +2 racial bonus on saves against poison, spells, and spell-like effects. The mental/social include: stonecunning, weapon familiarity, +1 racial bonus on attacks against orcs and goblinoids, +4 dodge bonus to AC against giants, +2 racial bonus on Appraise and Craft checks (related to stone or metal). I’m not sure which I would consider stability part of, probably physical.

If darkvision is its own talent, I can see two more being applicable, one for the other physical elements (the ability scores sort of balance out, as does the speed, the rest are net benefit but smaller than an Expert tier talent), one for the mental/social elements (again, a bunch of small pieces, not worth tracking independently). If this is accurate, ‘being a dwarf’ would cost three Basic talents – this leaves three for most adult dwarves for their actual careers, and two for the Experts (who presumably upgrade something they previously had at Basic).

For those characters who have race as a minor component of their build (when they reach higher level – as it is in D&D 3.x) nothing further need be spent. On the other hand, it is possible to define higher-tier abilities for each of these talents that let the character become ‘more dwarfish’. This could serve much the same purpose as the dwarven racial paragon class, or apply to only one portion (only the physical, ignore the mental). This could also support the possibility ‘subraces’ – similar at the lowest levels, but diverge after that.

In any case, the near-human characters are close enough to balanced with humans at low levels that a level adjustment is not needed in D&D 3.x, so the cost of being one shouldn’t be too high. Three Basic talents could be about right, and in some cases an Expert talent might not be out of line.

In describing a race it might be worth mentioning talents that are often taken, but it is likely pretty easy to predict. Half-orcs get a bonus to Strength, so presumably will build on that – they’ll often be combat-oriented characters, probably take other talents that make use of greater than normal Strength, and so on. ‘Favored classes’, another unfortunate mechanism from D&D 3.x, don’t really come into play because a character’s abilities will support certain areas of development better than others. You’re not likely to find too many half-orc wizards because they don’t make very good ones compared to other races and can fill other roles rather better.

More-Powerful Characters

This is a place D&D 3.x falls down. The level adjustment mechanic really doesn’t work very well as described in my first Failures of D&D 3.x article. I think Echelon can handle this better by limiting the levels at which a race can be played without changing the character’s level by requiring the character to have particular racial talents.

Example: Ogre

Ogres in the RSRD have four racial (Giant) hit dice and a +2 Level Adjustment, and are supposed to be roughly equivalent to sixth-level characters. Let’s take a look at their traits and break them down.

  • +10 Strength, -2 Dexterity, +4 Constitution, -4 Intelligence, -4 Charisma.
  • Large size. -1 penalty to Armor Class, -1 penalty on attack rolls, -4 penalty on Hide checks, +4 bonus on grapple checks, lifting and carrying limits double those of Medium characters.
  • Space/Reach: 10 feet/10 feet.
  • An ogre’s base land speed is 40 feet.
  • Darkvision out to 60 feet.
  • Racial Hit Dice: An ogre begins with four levels of giant, which provide 4d8 Hit Dice, a base attack bonus of +3, and base saving throw bonuses of Fort +4, Ref +1, and Will +1.
  • Racial Skills: An ogre’s giant levels give it skill points equal to 7 x (2 + Int modifier, minimum 1). Its class skills are Climb, Listen, and Spot.
  • Racial Feats: An ogre’s giant levels give it two feats.
  • Weapon and Armor Proficiency: An ogre is automatically proficient with simple weapons, martial weapons, light and medium armor, and shields.
  • +5 natural armor bonus.
  • Automatic Languages: Common, Giant. Bonus Languages: Dwarven, Orc, Goblin, Terran.
  • Favored Class: Barbarian.
  • Level adjustment +2.

Large size brings a lot with it. According to the RSRD, among other things Large size gives Str +8, Dex -2, Con +4, Natural Armor +2, a -1 size penalty to attacks and AC, and increased reach. This leaves us with

  • Large Size (and all baggage)
  • +2 Strength, -4 Intelligence, -4 Charisma.
  • Darkvision out to 60 feet.
  • Racial Hit Dice: An ogre begins with four levels of giant, which provide 4d8 Hit Dice, a base attack bonus of +3, and base saving throw bonuses of Fort +4, Ref +1, and Will +1.
  • Racial Skills: An ogre’s giant levels give it skill points equal to 7 x (2 + Int modifier, minimum 1). Its class skills are Climb, Listen, and Spot.
  • Racial Feats: An ogre’s giant levels give it two feats.
  • Weapon and Armor Proficiency: An ogre is automatically proficient with simple weapons, martial weapons, light and medium armor, and shields.
  • +3 natural armor bonus.
  • Automatic Languages: Common, Giant. Bonus Languages: Dwarven, Orc, Goblin, Terran.
  • Favored Class: Barbarian.
  • Level adjustment +2.

The Hit Dice are meaningless here, and they take away the Racial Skills and Racial Feats. Favored Class means nothing, and automatic languages are a point of interest only. Darkvision is previously described as a Basic talent. Weapon and armor proficiency are mostly handled through Basic talents as well, but can be considered mental/social elements (which is to say, may be replaced with something else). We’ll leave them in for now, though. Removing the other bits leaves us with

  • Large Size (and all baggage)
  • +2 Strength, -4 Intelligence, -4 Charisma.
  • Basic Talent: Darkvision out to 60 feet.
  • Basic Talent: Basic Martial Training, Basic Weapon Focus (clubs), Armor Training (for the medium armor; light and shields are in Basic Martial Training)
  • +3 natural armor bonus.
  • Level adjustment +2.

This really just leaves us with having to account for Large Size, +3 natural armor bonus, and +2 Strength (and two -4 penalties that honestly don’t seem to trouble the ogre all that much). If we consider Large Size as an ‘Heroic Talent’ and Natural Armor Bonus as talent granting a natural armor bonus equal to the character’s Level Bonus (to a maximum of the Level Bonus available in the tier – Expert tops out at +2, Master at +6, etc.) we have

  • Heroic Talent: Large Size (and all baggage)
  • Heroic Talent (1 unassigned)
  • Expert Talent: Natural Armor Bonus (+2 so far, goes to +3 at 6th level if it gets upgraded to Heroic)
  • Expert Talent: Great Strength (+2 Strength, 1/day +4 Feat of Strength)
  • Expert Talent (3 unassigned, but presumably some Basic talents below can/should/would be upgraded)
  • Basic Talent: Darkvision
  • Basic Talent: Basic Martial Training
  • Basic Talent: Armor Training
  • Basic Talent: Basic Weapon Focus (Clubs)
  • Basic Talent (1 unassigned)
  • -4 Int, -4 Cha
  • The items above in italics can be readily changed for something else (either because they are upgraded to Expert or Heroic tier, or you somehow a pacifist ogre, or something else).

I considered just giving him the +2 bonus to Strength, then realized that if he instead took Great Strength the ability to do a Feat of Strength each day might actually be interesting. It might be worth doing that (and with the +8 from Large Size he’ll be able to do some big things). The penalties to Int and Cha are less of a penalty than they seem because this guy is not like to be doing the smart or charming thing. It might be worth giving one or two low-tier talents… though since the racial talents are mandatory it’s not even insane to charge a talent for them. It would be a little insulting, though. I’ll keep it in mind when and if I end up with a creature that looks like it’s coming in too high.

It looks like this would be a viable character at 5th level. If you wanted to get a more precise match with the RSRD ogre he’d have to be 6th level in order to get the third point of natural armor (needs an Heroic talent slot and +3 Level Bonus, both of which could happen as the 6th-level gains).

This still leaves room for some more Martial Training (potentially bringing his attack bonus up to his level, and some more hit points) or some other abilities. He’s unlikely to make a good spellcaster, but we knew that before we started. Hit points are in line with other characters of his level (slightly better in fact, with the +4 Con – 14 more if he tops out his Martial Training, or +8 if not).

Oh, hey, I missed Toughness in the feats section (though it’s gained from his Giant Hit Dice, right, so went away in my analysis above). Even without it he’ll have (14+2*10=) 34 hit points as a non-martial character, or (14+5*10=) 64 hit points as a martial character. This assumes that we don’t apply the hit point multiplier (Jim?) suggested in RGFD when discussing how to determine hit points.

Thoughts on this Example

This example has gotten a little more complicated than I’d expected, but still not too bad. It’s a bit of work to set up, but once done I think it may be simpler than using the RSRD creature. Unlike the dwarf there isn’t really much to be done as a ‘racial talent’ per se because the ogre is just a big, tough (and relatively stupid) human. Apart from size the only real

This example required rather more deconstruction than the dwarf example, but it was fairly straightforward. The Large Size I’m not entirely comfortable with, it’s pretty nice. The RSRD has it at +1 LA by itself, and it feels more or less Heroic in power (it certainly isn’t Master), but it might be a bit much. However, I do expect to review and possibly revise how creature sizes work, and I expect this will either satisfy me with the current scheme or let me come up with a better one that better suits the tier. However, even with that this doesn’t look overpowered to me – he’s unusually good in a reasonably common circumstance, but while he may dominate a type of combat he can be matched by other characters in other modes of combat and exceeded entirely in noncombat areas.

We can even have ‘more ogrish ogres’. Perhaps as they gain in personal power they continue to grow (Huge as a Master-tier talent?), they can certainly get thicker hide (higher natural armor bonus, add a Damage Reduction talent – maybe DR and natural armor are part of Great Fortitude and automatically scale with tier?), there may well be a magical element to being an ogre (it’s not entirely unreasonable to consider ogres as giant fey – Humanoid (Giant, Fey) if we use the revised monster types), and so on.

I’ll leave out my ‘ogre mages are actually oni’ spiel.

Really Not-Human Characters

It looks like I don’t have time to go into this much tonight, but the really not-human characters can be done in a similar vein. Between a mix of racial talents customized as above and some other talents I have not yet discussed it should be possible to describe them in a similar manner. I have structures in mind that should let us deal with things like bloodlines (whether like Pathfinder’s sorcerers, Birthright’s Scions, Unearthed Arcana’s unfortunate construction, or something else).

For that matter, the same structures should even work for things like outsiders and aberrations.

I can afford a few minutes to take a quick look at demons. Common demonic traits are

  • Immunity to electricity and poison.
  • Resistance to acid 10, cold 10, and fire 10.
  • Summon (Sp): Many demons share the ability to summon others of their kind (The success chance and type of demon summoned are noted in each monster description). Demons are often reluctant to use this power until in obvious peril or extreme circumstances.
  • Telepathy

A quick look shows a draft of Great Fortitude providing immunity to poison as the Master tier ability of Great Fortitude. Immunity to electricity may be the same or higher (I haven’t really thought about it too hard). Fire resistance 10 is part of the Heroic tier ability for the (draft) Fire Domain talent (which also includes ‘fire finger’, whatever; the +4 bonus to saves vs. spells or spell-like effects is more interesting). Summon can clearly be tier-dependent and thus has a great deal of flexibility, and telepathy can be useful but is not terribly powerful. This puts us at:

  • Unknown Talent: immunity to electricity
  • Unknown Talent: summon (varies by creature, thus could be almost anything, and the unreliability may be worth some adjustment too)
  • Master Talent: immunity to poison (and everything else Master Great Fortitude brings – I’d be willing to reduce the tier if it’s just poison)
  • Heroic Talent (acid, cold, fire resistance, but the talents these are part of have other baggage so it might be worth reducing again, or folding into a smaller number of talents)
  • Heroic? Talent (Telepathy – can communicate with any other creature within range).

This assumes we don’t allow demons to scale down a bit. Perhaps a quasit isn’t immune to electricity and has only half the normal resistances because he’s a weaker demon. Maybe not all demons are immune to poison (only Heroic Great Fortitude, still immune to disease and has a +4 bonus to saves versus poison anyway).

On the other hand, a succubus is CR 7 with 6 Hit Dice and a +6 Level Adjustment. Anything that leaves it from roughly middling Heroic to high Master or low Champion is okay by me.

  • Str +2, Dex +2, Con +2, Int +6, Wis +4, Cha +16
  • Demon traits (immunity to electricity and poison; resistance 10 to acid, cold, fire; summon Vrock, telepathy)
  • Spell Resistance 18 (HD+12, CR+11)
  • Spell-like abilities
  • Energy Drain

This looks like it will need some creative interpretation. Let’s knock off the easy ones. Assume it’s no less than 9th level (bottom of the Master tier, for +2 to all ability scores).

  • Str +0, Dex +0, Con +0, Int +4, Wis +2, Cha +14
  • Heroic Talent (3 – energy resistance 10 to acid, cold, fire)
  • Heroic Talent (3 – Succubus Spell-Like Abilities, at-will)
  • Spell Resistance 18
  • Energy Drain

I’m cheating a little on the spell-like abilities in a couple of ways, but it should be close enough for this. The spell-like abilities aren’t very coherent and I’d like to see that fixed, but that would likely require that they no longer be at-will abilities (or require a higher-level demon). Again, I’m willing to be creative and back these off a bit if needed to keep the tier down.

  • Master Talent (Charisma: +6 to Charisma, 4/day +12 Feat of Charisma)
  • Master Talent (Succubus Spell-Like Abilities to 5th-level, 1/day) [needed for polymorph, but perhaps a different spell would work better]
  • Heroic Talent (2 – Succubus Spell-Like Abilities to 4th-level, at-will) [greater teleport downgraded to dimension door]
  • Heroic Talents (3 – energy resistances, telepathy, tongues, summon Vrock 1/day)
  • Heroic Talent (Great Fortitude — +4 to Fort saves, immune to disease)
  • Spell Resistance 18
  • Energy Drain

I cannot yet account for Spell Resistance or Energy Drain. I haven’t really looked into Spell Resistance and how it should work in Echelon. I also haven’t looked into Energy Drain at all, except to know that I want to do something about it.

This build does not yet have ethereal jaunt (as I said above, the spell-like abilities are fairly incoherent and will need some tweaking). I’ve downgraded greater teleport to dimension door (maybe she’ll get better); it could go as a low as blink depending on how the spell-like ability talents work out. She still has detect thoughts, suggestion and charm monster at-will, polymorph can only be used once per day (but I think disguise self or alter self might be better choices at this point, to keep the level down).

It could be possible to bring the build cost down some more. Heroic Charisma gives +4 to the score itself, and twice per day gives a +8 bonus to a Charisma-based check (net of +10, slightly better than Charisma 26 has, though of course the higher Charisma isn’t limited to twice per day). Depending how the energy resistances and immunities come together it might be possible to bring them down (or take them at a lower tier anyway – a fledgling succubus might have only five points of energy resistance, or still be vulnerable to fire), and so on.

The build above looks passably close to the RSRD succubus, ignoring electricity immunity, Spell Resistance and Energy Drain.

Note that I’m kind of hacking this together at the moment so things are not an exact match and can be expected to change. The shape is about right, the details are subject to change. This will have to be examined rather more closely later.


  1. Doug Lampert

    You dropped the 40′ movement from your list of things an Ogre gets when you bundled large size. That’s not part of large size (RAW), but it’s definitely worth something.

    To me, a “ballanced” -2 to one ability +2 to another in a D&D type system is a CLEAR advantage to most character. You take the +2 where it helps and the -2 where it hurts. I’d say if you do it like D&D3.x does you need to charge a basic talent for that (at least).

    My suggestion: Use point purchase, extend the cost table to scores higher than 18, and racial modifiers to abilities (the Ogre’s -4 Int, -4 Wis, and +2 Str) all apply ONLY to the maximum and limits on your starting scores and have no talent cost or effect. Thus the Ogre can buy 8-14 in Int and Wis, 8-20 in strength, and 8-18 in everything else.

    Scores above 18 cost 4 ability purchase points each. So 20 starting strength costs the Ogre 24 purchase points.

    The advantage is that you pay for what you actually get, and you can’t dump an ability to less than 8 (8 is the same as “useless” for most PC builds, giving points for going lower is silly).

    If rolling randomly an orc with 16 int and 12 Str is EVERY BIT as likely as one with 22 Str and 6 Int. Which of these is ACTUALLY more likely to leave the tribe and become an adventurer? The Paragon of Orcish strength? OR the wierd bookish one everybody picks on? Yet every PC orc ever observed is a lot closer to the Paragon of Orcish strength. This is silly. One ability array is PLAINLY worth less, it should also cost less.

  2. The movement speed was an oversight. A quick look suggested that it was part of the size (Huge giant gets movement of 50′) and I didn’t check further. (Short on sleep the night before, trying to write quickly, and didn’t check thoroughly. Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy of me.)

    I agree, the +2/-2 is not actually ‘balanced’, and I believe I mentioned it. Given that Expert Strength gives +2 Strength and 1/day +4 Feat of Strength, +2/-2 may in fact be worth a Basic talent. It won’t be worth an Expert talent, clearly.

    I understand what you’re saying about the ability scores, but I’ve really never been a fan of point buy. Using 27-25-23 means you could go outside the normal limits and have scores as high as 24 (27-3), which is six points higher than normally allowed and automatically results in a really poor score elsewhere — presumably it would be put somewhere he would take a penalty under the normal rules. Given that this is likely somewhere he wouldn’t be affected so much it may still be playable, but I think you’re right that the difference between 8 and 4 isn’t actually as profound as it looks, if it’s somewhere that doesn’t much matter. I think that’s why I didn’t bother charging (or giving a discount for) the penalties. The +2 Strength is explicitly charged for for the ogre.

    For the dwarf I figure things balance close enough to lumped into a single Basic talent. I’d be prepared to charge a little more for the dwarven effects, but I figure half (or more for an Expert or higher) of the Basic slots is about right.

    Building the racial packages will be a bit ad hoc for a while, obviously. I don’t know that I can reasonably quantize each and every little bit, but I do know that I don’t particularly care to right now, so I’ll aim for the simplest thing that works for now and review it later if I start seeing new patterns to take advantage of.

  3. hadsil

    As I understand it, a starting player character has 6 talents. His race is undefined. If the character is to be human, the player assigns all his talents to various things as he wishes. If the character is to be non-human, then of the 6 talents an X number of them are predetermined to specific talents, leaving 6 – X talents the player then assigns to various things as he wishes.

    In 3E, an elf wizard is everything a human wizard is but also has low-light vision, bumps into secret doors, resistant to sleep, has a long life, proficient with the long bow, etc. For an Echelon elf wizard to have all that, that would leave only 6 – X talents left to spend on stuff to be a wizard where as an Echelon human wizard can spend all 6 of his talents on stuff to be a wizard.

    At last**, humans are equal to every other race and don’t suck!

    **I should acknowledge that GURPS has humans equal to non-humans. Given 100 character points for a generic character, playing a non-human race costs points from that 100 where as a human can spend all the 100 points on whatever he wants.

  4. Hadsil, as far as you took it you understand correctly. It’s possible for a race to take higher-tier talents as well (see the ogre or succubus, though the succubus is strictly incomplete).

    On consideration I might allow the racial talents to be slightly better than normal because they are locked down and take away choice (if the human can take the same thing and be as good there’s… no reason to be the other race. huh). Anyway, maybe not ‘better’, but let them bend things a little — there should be some reason to play a dwarf besides liking things short and thick.

  5. However, you’re right that in a strictly power sense they should end up about the same. OTOH, this mechanism does allow for limiting particular talents to characters with specific traits (whether racial or not). For instance, I can see be a bunch of talents providing spell-like abilities of various flavors that require that a character have a particular bloodline or racial background. For example, fey characters (either actual fey or with a fey bloodline) might have SLA talents available relating to enchantment, illusion, and shapechanging.

  6. dalamb

    I really like having racial abilities cost tier-appropriate talents — it really seems to completely eliminate the bad aspects of LA. Being forced to use up slots for racial talents makes humans much more flexible — something 3.x said it was doing with the pitiful +1 feat and +1 skill point, which to me rarely seemed comparable to the humanoid racial abilities.

  7. dalamb, thanks. I had originally expected to use this mechanism for other purposes (bloodline abilities, I think) when I realized it would also suit rather well for straight up racial abilities as well. After all, they can be almost the same thing anyway.

    I do reserve the right to make racial talents a little special, possibly even something that you can’t get otherwise. For instance, while the ogre above has Expert Strength with all it brings, I could instead give him a racial bonus to Strength (no Feat of Strength, but Great Strength can stack with it for a higher total). It still costs, and while you get less for it than you would with Great Strength the two stack for great happiness, so I imagine it might still be fairly attractive.

    I expect I’ll be revising the Succubus in this light later. I can see describing a build progression for the various tiers. For instance, “first three slots must go to demonic traits, succubus traits (which includes racial bonus to Charisma and some other specific abilities), and Great Charisma”. This allows for ‘baby succubus’ to have ability scores more or less in the human range, if probably near the top for Charisma, but grow from there as she gains power.

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