Tuesday, November 1, 2022

Dwarf race-as-class variants

This is the second installment in the B/X race-as-class variant series. Elves can be found here.

My approach to dwarves is slightly different than to elves. Makes sense to me, since elves and dwarves should be distinct from one another as well as humans. The result is not necessarily a list of dwarf "variants" but instead a table of variant features that mechanically distinguish dwarf PCs while still preserving that sweet core of archetypal dwarfness we all know and love.   


All dwarves start with Infravision (60’) and have a 2:6 chance to detect construction tricks and room traps. Players roll twice on this table to determine additional features:

  1. Hard head. Your head is harder than a cannonball. You can shrug off all but the most dire damage it sustains. There might be some physical indication of this feature, like ram horns or a block-shaped cranium.
  2. Magic tools. You have a set of magical tools you can work with to quickly repair damaged equipment. Once per day, you can fix a broken object as per the mending spell. You can also use the tools to magically repair damage to equipment, even from non-mundane sources like oozes or rust monsters. It takes an hour to repair equipment for each -1 penalty it accrued. The strange tools only detect as magic when you work with them. Otherwise, they just seem like normal dwarf-tools.
  3. Pack mule. Your endurance and near-supernatural packing skills means heavy loads are no problem. You can carry an extra 500 coins (or 5 extra inventory slots; etc.) of treasure and equipment that doesn’t count toward your encumbrance.
  4. Perfect spatial reasoning. You have an extraordinary sense of scale and direction. You can determine lengths and distances at a glance, and can throw and catch with almost perfect accuracy. +1 to ranged attack rolls.
  5. Heigh-Ho! You can sing a song to make any hard manual labor you’re doing, like clearing stone or building a structure, take half the time. Other dwarves working with you can sing along to also get the bonus, even if they don't have this feature.  
  6. Keen senses. You are particularly tuned-in to your surroundings, especially in constructed and subterranean environments. You have a 2:6 chance of listening at doors and through dungeon walls that are less than a foot thick, which you can detect when searching.
  7. Tinkerer. You love toying with contraptions and gizmos. You have a 3:6 chance of detecting room traps when searching, and a 3:6 chance of salvaging something useful from deactivated trap mechanisms, mechanical constructs, or other sorts of complicated machinery.
  8. Gourmand. Dwarves are already famous for their vast appetites and expansive cuisine, and you’re more of an adventurous eater than most. You can safely consume just about anything you can get your mouth around and with adequate cooking gear you can prepare a passable meal from even the most meager ingredients (within reason—you can turn grass and boot leather into food, but not dirt or rocks). You’re a pretty slick cook in general to the extent that the food you make would knock the socks off a common peasant and impress even a haughty aristocrat.
  9. Azer. Despite what is commonly supposed, Azers are not dwarves from the “elemental plane of fire” (which doesn’t exist), but instead a special class of pyrogenic dwarves who practice ritual flame eating and are said to be born from magma... Your skin is shiny bronze and your hair is either red-orange or blue like a gas flame. You are unharmed by normal fire and extreme heat. Additionally, you get +2 to saves vs. fire magic or breath attacks, and take 1 less point of damage per dice (these effects do not stack with fire resistance granted through magic). You can also chug a flask of lantern oil (doesn't need to be lit) and spit it out like a flaming oil attack at a range of 10’, ignoring armor. Strong spirits work the same but the flame is shorter lived, only dealing damage on one round instead of two. As a consequence, water is repulsive to you. You get a -2 penalty to attack and damage rolls when wet (bring an umbrella) and if you’re fully submerged you must save vs. death or pass out and sink like a stone.
  10. Riding goat. You are the proud owner of a trained dwarfish riding goat. However stubborn it may be, the two of you share an indelible kinship. HD: 3 AC: 7 Att. Kick x2 (1d6) or Ram (1d8+1). Move 120’ (40’) can climb steep surfaces and navigate difficult terrain at full speed. If given a run-up of, 20’ you can forgo your attack and make the goat charge, granting its ram attack double damage. Morale 12.
  11. Geomancy. You are versed in the esoteric art of dwarven geomancy. When underground, you can accurately determine what dungeon floor you’re on, and you can spend a turn performing a dwarfy dousing ritual to get a rough approximation of where corridors you can see lead—whether they go to dead-ends, continue forward, turn, branch, open up into a room, etc.  
  12. Berserker. Epigenetic hatred of monstrous humanoids burns at the very core of your being. +1 to hit and damage against monstrous humanoids and giant types, and unless you are restrained or succeed on a Wisdom test you attack them on sight and cannot run from battle. The bonus improves every three levels, becoming +2 at level 3, +3 at level 6, and so on. You have a badass mohawk.
  13. Percussive technician. You have a knack for making sure things work properly. You have a 2:6 chance (modified by the situation) to make damaged machinery function again by whacking it with a hammer a couple times. Also, your base chance for opening a stuck door is 2:6 before any strength modifiers. Attempts you make to open a stuck door or even force one off it’s hinges generally don’t produce enough noise to alert nearby monsters—you’re a good enough handydwarf that just a tap is all it takes.
  14. Blood of Stone. A dwarfish way of saying you’re tougher than a bag of nails. You get +2 starting hp and +1 additional hp every time you level up. You also only need to rest every 12 exploration turns instead of every 6.
  15. Wayfarer. You’ve explored some faraway lands and have picked up a couple languages on your travels. You can speak Gnomish, Goblin, Kobold, Hobgoblin, Orc, Bugbear, Ogre, Dragon, and one additional language of your choosing. You also do not have to rest the usual one day out of every week when traveling overland. 
  16. Dwarven thrower. You specialize in a Dwarven fighting style that emphasizes throwing big weapons. Any melee weapon becomes throwable—even weapons you are not typically able to wield due to your size. Range: 20’/40’/60’.
  17. Indomitable. Dauntless doesn’t even begin to describe it—you can’t be put down for nothing. Once per day, you get a free reroll of any save. If you fall under the effects of supernatural fear and mind-controlling spells, you can make a save at the end of each subsequent round to end it.
  18. Metal teeth. You got your chompers replaced with well-crafted metal denticles. You can chew through anything up to the toughness of iron.
  19. Gemstone eyes. In place of eyes you have two beautiful, glittering jewels. In addition to functioning as normal dwarf eyes, they grant full-color darkvision with a range of 120’ and allow you to instantly appraise the value of gems and other treasure items.
  20. Roll twice, ignoring repeated results.

Variant of the variant: Dwarf Clans

Another way to spin this if you want specific dwarf class options (like elves) instead of random table rolling: roll or pick two qualities from the list. These are now the qualities associated with a specific dwarf clan. Repeat this process a couple times until you have enough dwarf varieties to be satisfied.  

Now, for example, the various clans in your campaign are goat-riding trollslayers, fire dwarves with metal teeth, jewel-eyed geomancers, wayfaring gourmands, and hearty stone-bloods with ram horns. During character creation when a player rolls up a dwarf, they decide what clan they want their character to be a part of and thus possess those features.

Dwarf science

Dwarves are rarely idle. At home, when they’re not eating, sleeping, or drinking ale, they’re hard at work. Another thing about dwarves: they are incredibly productive. Ridiculously so. 

The typical amount of maintenance and upkeep required to keep a dwarf society up and running only takes so long. And so they commonly partake in a practice they refer to as “dwarf science” (sometimes translated as “stupid dwarf tricks”):  essentially, large-scale projects, oftentimes of questionable utility, that require high amounts of ingenuity and industriousness to complete. 

Dwarf science spans a wide variety of endeavors, such as megalithic Antikythera computers, baroque fortress defense mechanisms, meticulous life-size statue replicas of famous battles in dwarf history, and increasingly ridiculous and elaborate methods of channeling and transporting magma. 

At 9th level or above, when a dwarf PC constructs or acquires a stronghold and other dwarves come to live there, dwarf science can begin.

The dwarf PC has some control over what sort of projects get worked on, but in truth most dwarves are too self-directed and dwarf society too diffuse to effectively stick to doing projects for someone else.

Only one dwarf science project can be commissioned by a dwarf PC per year. The rest of the time, it is assumed that dwarves are doing their actual jobs or pursuing their own projects.

Examples of the sorts of dwarf science projects that can be commissioned are as follows:

  • The extracting and processing of marvelous materials (create equipment made of mithril, adamant, alchemical quicksilver, or other such materials with unique properties)
  • The engineering of war machines both great and terrible (create wondrous weapons, powered armor, advanced and/or autonomous siege engines, catapults, ballistas, etc.)
  • The creation of Vehicles of terrific capability (create advanced seafaring vessels, landships, clockwork autonomous caravans, etc.)
  • The contriving and arming of fortress security measures (develop various tricks, traps, and defense mechanisms to thwart sieges and invasions)
  • The crafting of wondrous items (plumb the archaic depths of dwarf ancestral knowledge to create magic or otherwise fantastical items)
  • Other areas of development not immediately relevant to the interests of the adventuring dwarf (civic infrastructure, art & architecture, etc.)

Rough approximations of what can be accomplished in a single project period:

  • 20 weapons or gear for individual people*
  • 5 things that could be used by 5 people, or 5 things that greatly enhance the capabilities of one person (like mech suits or single-occupancy vehicles)
  • 3 somewhat elaborate fortress defense mechanisms or 1 very elaborate one
  • 1 vehicle or vessel that can hold 20 people or more
  • D10+10  single-use wondrous items, d10 single-purpose items with charges, d6 single-purpose items or multi-use items with charges, or d4 multi-use items
  • 2 large-scale public works or 1 very large-scale public work—work with the DM to define what these are and what they’re for. They can have some situational utility (ie a pneumatic chute system for easy transport of messages and small goods, stables for animal training, rudimentary hydropower dams) but they would otherwise attract more dwarves to your stronghold and boost morale.

*people here referring, of course, to dwarves 

The base time and manpower requirement for any of the above projects are 1 year (52 weeks) of game time and 25 dwarves. For every additional 25 dwarves working on the project, the time is reduced by 1d4 weeks (4 weeks being rounded up to a month). For every 1000 sp invested in the project, the time is further reduced by 2 weeks. No more than 50% of a stronghold’s dwarf population can be assigned to work on the dwarf science project. The minimum amount of time it takes to complete a project is 3 months, accounting for research & development as well as production times. Dwarves who work on the project cannot be taxed the typical 10 sp per year for citizens of PC domains. Situational occurrences such as raids, resource scarcity, and lack of morale may impact cost and production time, as per the DM. 

Larger-scale projects can be accomplished as long as the time, cost, and manpower scales are adjusted accordingly. Dwarf science may also require rare materials, resources, or expertise that would necessitate (of course) an adventure in order to acquire.

It should be noted that the dwarf science rules have not been playtested and may need some adjusting. Do the rules also require some amount of handwaving and work on the DM's part to fill in some gaps? Sure. But that's just in-keeping with the stronghold and domain rules from B/X. I'm not lazy; I'm just keeping the tradition alive.

The three wonderful dwarves featured throughout this post were made by Goran Gligovic. Check him out. 

Next: Halflings. 

Friday, October 14, 2022

Elf race-as-class variants

Whenever I talk with new school D&D players about B/X, the biggest sticking point for them is always race-as-class. That’s understandable. It’s a big departure from what they’re used to. I like race-as-class; in an assumed human-centric world, it gives the sense that demihumans are thoroughly distinct. 

The special thing about fighter PCs is that they’re good at combat. The special thing about thief PCs is that they’re sneaky and have a bunch of thief-type skills. The special thing about an elf PC is that it’s an elf. To someone who likes a level of normalcy in their campaign so that the weird has room to be weird, that’s enough. 

In 5e an elf has more in common with a human or a dwarf if they happen to be fighters than another elf if that elf happens to be a bard or druid. That doesn’t sit right with me. 

 Hawk the Slayer didn’t assemble a team of five generic fighter PCs. He gathered an elf, a dwarf, a giant, and that other guy. The variety of fantasy races represented was what made them interesting. I just saw Hawk the Slayer by the way. Terrific movie. 

With all that being said, more variety among the demihuman races is not always bad. The Adventurer, Conqueror, King System and this post from the esteemed Dr. Jeff Rients posit that demihumans ought to have their own classes exclusive to their respective race. It’s an intriguing idea, and while I’m not particularly crazy about ACKS’s execution (no disrespect to the system; I’m just physically incapable of being interested in anything called an “elven nightblade”) it’s a solid enough idea that I was inspired to take a stab at it myself.  

Early on in the conceptual stage, I realized that the unique features that characterize the demihuman classes, like the dwarf’s ability to recognize architectural quirks or the elf’s immunity to ghoul paralysis, are rather easy to replicate and play around with. Instead of coming up with distinct classes for each demihuman, it was much easier and facilitated more creativity to come up with variations of the same classes. And this has the added benefit of keeping demihuman classes more thematically cohesive. You maintain that thing I brought up earlier where the special thing about an elf PC is still that they’re an elf—not an elven shardwhisperer (or whatever).

"A strange individual, to be sure..."
Starting with the elf, I took their class features and swapped them out with features of comparable utility. Each is flavored as a different elfy archetype. Treat all the numbers and granular details of the class like saves and equipment restrictions as the same as the base class. 


All elves have infravision and a 2:6 chance of hearing noises.


  1. Fair elf. You are from some bizarre elf city, like a floating kingdom or domed arcology.  Fair elves are haughty and gracile, and more often than not spend the majority of their lives far removed from the concerns of human civilizations. Fair elves that leave their society typically do so as part of (or to avoid) some inscrutably complex social or political circumstance in their homeland, or simply to accumulate novel experiences that add texture to their long existence.


Immune to ghoul paralysis. 2:6 chance to find secret doors. 

Fair elf PCs have a 2:6 chance of having their starting weapons and armor be of quality elven make, meaning they have equal durability though half the weight of standard equipment. Roll only after purchasing gear at character creation. 


  1. Sylvan elf. You hail from a massive, ancient forest as yet untouched by man. Sylvan elves eschew civilization in favor of small nomadic communities. They are generally aloof, capricious, and fascinated by human customs though they have little regard to adhering to social strictures. 

     

Animals can understand you. Immune to charming spells and creature effects such as that of a dryad or nixies. Climb and Move Silently 4:6 when in the wilderness. 

 

Sylvan elf PCs have a 2:6 chance of starting with an animal companion from their homeland. 

      1. Elephant bird. Stats as draft horse.
      2. Royal stag. Stats as riding horse.
      3. Dire lynx. Stats as war horse. 
      4. Cooshee (elven hound). Stats as wolf. Their bark can be heard a mile away or more, but they only do so to warn their master.

The animal companions are smarter than their mundane counterparts and will obey your commands to the best of their ability. They are entirely faithful and never break morale. You only get one though, so if your companion dies that's it.

  1. Sanguine elf. You are an exile from the Vermilion Isles. The demon-worshipping sanguine elves shun all others and to seclude themselves in their remote island kingdoms as the ages roll past outside. Millenia of decadence and isolation have led them to pursue exceedingly baroque and horrifying forms of supernatural hedonism.  

Alignment must be Chaotic. Drugs and other other non-magical mind-altering substances require twice the effective dose to work on you. Immune to level drain. 2:6 chance to detect enchanted creatures in a 5’/level radius. Successfully detecting an enchanted creature grants you insight into their nature (demon, elemental, undead, etc.) but no specific details about their identity or intention.  

 

Sanguine elf PCs have a 1:6 chance (rolled on a 1) of being a cenobite: your Charisma is reduced to 2 and you are generally disdained by all, but you can only be killed by magical attacks. Anything mundane that would normally kill you instead drops your hp to 1, knocks you out for a turn, and reduces your total HD by 1 (your level stays the same). Grotesque ritual mutilations are both among the greatest gifts and harshest punishments of the Vermilion Isles. 

Sanguine elf PCs also have a 1:6 chance (rolled on a 6) of being a member of the ruling bloodline. Once per level, you can call upon a demonic benefactor to assist you in a time of need—a "Get Out of Jail Free card" for any sticky situation you and your allies might find yourselves in. The demon's help is rarely given for free. Oftentimes they require an offering in exchange, or a favor to be claimed at a later date...   

  1. Dawnlander elf. You are from—or claim to be from—the mythic Dawnlands, a Shangri La-like place spoken of in legend. Dawnlander elves are active and adventurous, eager to live and work among humans but never staying in one place for too long. They are often drawn to the sea, and typically find success in the more exciting seafaring ventures like leviathan hunting and piracy.

    Immune to diseases both mundane and supernatural. Detect room traps or other unseen dangers in a 10’x10’ area 2:6.

 Dawnlander PCs have a 2:6 chance of starting as a pirate. Roll up your old pirate crew (see the pirate statblock). You don't know where exactly the treasure's buried, but you know your old captain has the map. You're familiar with (and perhaps have a reputation at) the major pirate havens. 

 

  1. Boreal elf. You hale from the frigid northlands. To outsiders, it appears that the stoic and severe boreal elves lead sparse lives, cloistered monk-like in their icy strongholds. But in reality, their kind has a remarkably complex societal structure filled with all sorts of particular customs and rituals that are entirely lost on outsiders. The boreal elves have the reputation of crafting heartbreakingly beautiful objets d'art, which are coveted the world over by men and elves alike. 


Immune to the effects of cold, both mundane and supernatural. Boreal elves possess the Boreal Aura: a supernatural ambiance that can be manipulated to function as psionics. You start with two psionic powers, and your power dice is improved one step (1d4 becomes 1d6, 1d6 becomes 1d8, and so on). Any time you were to suffer a breakdown, you suffer a shock instead. You learn magic as though you were one level below. 


Boreal elf PCs have a 2:6 chance of being trained in the grueling spiritual practice of their kind. Through discipline, breath control, and aura manipulation, you have total control of your body temperature and heart rate, can maintain balance in virtually any position, hold a single pose indefinitely, walk on your fingertips, sense the aura of other living creatures (only surprised on a 1:6), snag projectiles out of the air (1/round, must have a hand free), and explore dungeons or travel the wilderness tirelessly without the need for rest. In order to benefit from these features, the PC must engage in intense meditation that leaves you unable to memorize spells for the day.


  1. Lunar elf. You are from the moon. Lunar elves are eerie and ethereal, often quiet and prone to bouts of reverie. Their detached yet dignified mannerisms and strange appearance (platinum or silverwhite hair, eyes, and skin that seem to glow faintly in the dark) make them the most alien of all the elves, though it can be said their proclivities lend them an unmistakable mystique. 


Immune to sleep spells. In place of sleeping, lunar elves enter a dreamlike trance that leaves them semi-conscious yet oblivious to their surroundings. Begin with an extra first-level spell. Once per day, a lunar elf can exchange a memorized spell to cast any 1st level cleric spell. 

Lunar elf PCs have a 2:6 chance of having an important relationship with an etheric lunar entity. Under the light of a full moon, you can enter a trance to commune with this entity. During the trance, you can ask 1d4 questions and receive truthful though not necessarily specific answers. The entity knows much, but is not generally concerned with the affairs of mortals and so will not be able to provide answers on specific individuals, local politics, or recent events. After communing with the entity, you must spend an entire day resting.

 

And a bonus elf, available only to players who have run an elf PC to 4th level.


  1. Shadow elf. You are from the Plane of Shadows. Little is known about shadow elves, other than that most seem to reside in the eternally twilit forests of the shadow realm. How or why one would make their way to this world is unknown. You certainly won’t get an answer out of them. Human scholars believe shadow elves to be one of the many living permutations of shadow planes' id. Elves believe that each shadow elf is an umbral counterpart of an elf that lives in the prime material plane. While the two may never meet, they share an inextricable bond that transmits vague impressions of one another between dimensions. 

 

Immune to shadows’ strength drain. 90% chance to hide in shadows or move silently provided dim light or darkness. Access to the Illusionist spell list. Shadow elves cannot recruit hirelings or construct strongholds. 


Note: I foresee some readers taking issue with the fact that the class variants have a 2:6 chance to start with an extra feature. Elves are strong enough starting out as it is, so the chance of another benefit can throw the balance even more. In my home games I like to let players start new characters with an added boon or feature from their background, usually in exchange for some starting wealth but sometimes just for free, so I wanted to give these elves a chance to start with something extra as well. If you're more orthodox with your character generation you can skip the bonus feature rolls. 

Up Next: Dwarves.