Playing Against Type

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on December 2, 2009

When it comes to character creation you have a lot choice. If you take into account the current number of races (35) and classes (22) presented in character builder you can create over 770 different possible combinations. If you throw the Hybrid class into the mix the number continues to grow exponentially. And as more classes and races are introduced, the number of variations continues to increase. So if there are currently 770 different possible race/class combinations, why do we keep seeing the same ones over and over again?

I’ll tell you why and I can do it with only two words: power gaming. When making a new character, most gamers want their PC to be the absolute best he can possibly be. For most of us (me included) being the best is synonymous with being the most powerful. The problem is that the most obvious builds quickly become overplayed.

Before you make your next character, take a look at our skill matrix by race. Along the bottom it clearly shows which races receive bonuses in which ability scores. Regardless of whether you choose your PC’s race or class first, the decision-making process ends up being pretty much the same.

Beginning with race

You really want to play an Eladrin. You know that if you do, you’ll receive a +2 bonus to Dex and Int. Armed with this knowledge you review all the classes and find the ones that gain the most benefit from having a high Dex or Int or both.

The Wizard and Avenger classes both use Dex and Int. So from a power gaming perspective if you’re planning on playing an Eladrin, playing an Avenger or Wizard will give you the greatest advantage when it comes to determining your initial ability scores.

But what about a class like Paladin? It doesn’t rely on Dex or Int. Eladrin Paladin’s have no inherent bonus to the scores they most rely on (Cha and Str). Having a +2 racial bonus to Dex and Int is no real help. So does this mean that there no Eladrin Paladins? I’ll admit I’ve never played with one at my table.

Beginning with class

You really want to play a Barbarian. You know that this class relies on Str, Con and to a lesser extent Cha. You start looking at all the races and find that the Goliath and the Warforged both get a +2 racial bonus to Str and Con. The Dragonborn gets a +2 racial bonus to Str and Cha, so this is also in the mix. Playing any of these three races will give your Barbarian high ability scores in the stats he’ll use most often.

But what about a race like Elf? They get a +2 racial bonus to Dex and Wis. Neither of these abilities really helps a Barbarian, but I’m sure that there are still some Elf Barbarians. Again, this is not a build I’ve seen and it’s not one I expect to see any time soon.

Little variation

Even though there are currently 770 different race/class combinations, we tend to focus on the builds that provide the most in-game benefit. We usually dismiss race/class combos that don’t maximize racial ability bonuses with key abilities of the class. The result is that we see the same race/class combos over and over again.

I’m the first to admit that of the 10 or more PCs I’ve played, I’ve tried to maximize the race/class combo in the exact way I’ve described above. The Dragonborn Warlord, Half-Elf Paladin, Drow Sorcerer, Half-Orc Ranger and Goliath Warden were all created to give me the best scores in the most relevant abilities for my class. I was the best in class (most powerful).

I’ll admit that I got bored quickly, especially when playing LFR games at GenCon and my FLGS. I constantly bumped into other players with nearly identical characters.

Every time someone described their Sorcerer his race was inevitably Drow, Gnome or Tiefling. Just once I want someone to tell me bout their Half-Orc Sorcerer. Now that sounds like an interesting character.

Try something new

Creating a PC shouldn’t always come down to crunching the numbers. Embrace the role-playing. Think of how a Half-Orc Sorcerer would be seen in-game. It’s an oddity that very few players seem likely to try. So not only would your character be unique in your campaign, chances are you’d never come across that particular race/class combo at any other game table. And it’s this spirit of adventure that I’m asking all of us to embrace as we make characters in the future.

I’m going to lead by example as I create a new character for my brand new long-term campaign this week. I’ve always wanted to try the Warlock class, but I’m not interested in playing a Gnome, Half-Elf or Tiefling like every other Warlock I’ve ever seen. So I’ve chose to play an Eladrin, another race I’ve always wanted to play. His starting Cha may only be a 16, but the rest of his scores are quite well rounded. I’ve created a clever take on this PC and I’m really looking forward to playing against type for the first time since 4e came out. With 770 variations to choose from, I encourage all of you to give it a try.

Have you played against type in 4e D&D? If so tell us about your most creative build.

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{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Nai_Calus December 2, 2009 at 9:36 am

I’ve got a character I’ll be starting soon who both is and isn’t against type – He’s a Sun Elf(AKA Eladrin) Cleric of Corellon Larethian for a FR game. The concept is perfectly ordinary and normal. Elven subrace that tends to be devout, cleric of head god of racial pantheon. But 4e makes this against type, as Eladrin make terrible clerics by default. So in order to have my stereotype character, I have to go against typical race/class combos.

Kind of an odd feeling when you have something that fluff-wise is perfectly normal but crunch-wise is meh.

2 Anarkeith December 2, 2009 at 10:42 am

I suspect anytime you have racial bonuses, people will look to exploit it (we are playing a game, after all!) Trying something different for the sake of being different requires an adventurous player, a supportive group, and a DM willing to avoid powergaming against the party. (Show me the minions!) In my homebrew rules I did away with racial bonuses. We have one halfling, and one elf among ten players. All the rest were human. Why? Is it because there was no advantage to playing another race? Maybe Gygax was on to something with the level caps for non-humans (a rule I always ignored.)

3 Mike December 2, 2009 at 11:02 am

I have a Half-Orc Sorcerer that I’ve played in LFR. Graurg is a Chaos Sorcerer. He like is when things don’t go well. When someone describes a plan that sounds like it could end badly, he’s gung ho for it.

“You mean we have to get our non-sneaky fighter past the guards into an area that isn’t mapped, to get something for a guy who can’t pay us? Sounds great!”

My second favorite character I’ve created in the CB is my Goliath Bard Solati. He lived in the mountains and would frequently come down to the city and hang out at a dwarven tavern with the dwarves and share stories, songs and stout. They called him Uncle Solati. I haven’t played him in LFR yet though. Looking forward to it though.

Other options I’ve built and want to play: Tiefling Paladin named Ideal, and a Dwarf Ranger named Arthur.

4 deadorcs December 2, 2009 at 11:29 am

I eliminate one half of this dilemma by always playing humans. I supposed some perceive this as a limit on imagination, but I’ve always rather have an extra skill or feat than a bonus to an ability score that might come along later as a magic item bonus.

I’ve played most classes, unless they have a religious or “grunt fighter” bent. I think this is mainly prejudice due to the limited roles these characters had in earlier editions of the game.

My two cents…
.-= deadorcs´s last blog ..It’s A Trap! E.S.S. Trapbook, Level 8 Traps =-.

5 Ragnarok December 2, 2009 at 4:45 pm

I play a Dragonborn Warlock. Has the CHA bonus but just seemed like something different.

6 James Geluso December 2, 2009 at 5:22 pm

I submit that there’s another consideration: racial powers. When I pick my race and class, I look at the racial power and how it blends with the class. I ended up taking a human for my sorcerer because the extra at-will and feats made a better sorcerer. If I were building a fighter, I’d take a dwarf, not for ability bonuses but for the second-wind-as-a-minor-action power.

7 DanTracker December 2, 2009 at 7:03 pm

i am currently playing a Dborn shaman MC druid. according to the numbers this really isn’t an advantageous build, but i’m having lots of fun. i play as with a native/aboriginal flair and some hippie talk now and then. one of the most fun aspects is that he comes from a community that is undercivilized compared to the other characters of the party and we roleplay that up quite a bit. after a particularly nasty fight with plenty of bloody mess all over, i set up camp and used my best skills to hide the camp while the rest of the party went to bathe from the heavy fighting. i had even been hit by two kobold stink pots during the fighting, but didn’t think about cleaning up afterwards. another interesting example was that i saw hobgoblins in town and immediately wild shaped and charged, the fighter grabbed me and restrained me from charging. later i shared a smoke pipe with him and admitted that my reckless behavior could have gotten us into a lot of trouble.

8 SteveA December 2, 2009 at 7:39 pm

I’ve played a Half-Orc Sorcerer in Dark Ages of Camelot, which, while it isn’t true D&D, is close enough that I got lot’s of stares when playing that character.

9 Ameron December 3, 2009 at 1:03 am

@Nai_Calus
This is very much the point I’m trying to make. There are going to be some race/class combos that make a lot of sense (like the one you’ve described) that aren’t great when it comes to number crunching. The result is a lot less PC Clerics from races without a +2 Wis bonus.

@Anarkeith
If I’m playing in a one-off game (like a dungeon delve, for example) I’m always going to exploit every advantage I can get. But when it comes to a long-term game where you have time and opportunity to develop the PC, I’d like to see more players try something different.

Eliminating the racial bonuses is a good way to level the playing field. Until 4e I always played Human characters.

@Mike
It sounds like you’ve had a lot of fun and a lot of success playing against type. A Goliath Bard sounds like a great build. Thanks for sharing.

@deadorcs
I suppose the Human advantages you’ve described are just another way of power gaming. But I think it opens up a lot more options. As someone who likes playing Humans I have to agree with your approach to this issue.

@Ragnarok
I’ll bet that playing a Dragonborn Warlock has given you some great role-playing experiences. Glad to hear you tried something different.

@James Geluso
I agree that sometimes the racial power can make all the difference when choosing race/class combo. However, I think for most gamers it’s a secondary consideration after ability bonuses. Part of the reason I’m looking forward to playing the Eladrin Warlock is because of the Fey Step racial ability. I suppose these abilities are what you make of them. If you can think of an interesting way to use a racial power with a particular class then go for it, even if the numbers aren’t in your favour.

@DanTracker
This is exactly what I’m taking about. Try something that’s “against the numbers” and you’re likely to have a lot of fun with it. Great examples.

@SteveA
Just think of how mundane your character would have been if instead of Half-Orc he was as Human as the next guy.

10 RoudVolf December 3, 2009 at 9:20 am

Nice article, I am going to demand my players read it too… always powerbuilding in my games… I have played a Goliath Wizard, sadly not for long, he was like a tribal counselor in all kinds of magical stuff and studied magic for 4 years before coming back to the mountains he lived when the adventure started… it was reeeally tough to have good results with the dices but it was really really fun to play him… it is always more unique when you play against type even if you have a normal combo but have a different interpretation to that character

11 Ragnarok December 3, 2009 at 3:19 pm

Indeed. Back to another article about arch-typing, I play him as if he were James Bond.

12 skywise December 7, 2009 at 3:08 pm

My team right now has a Halfling Paladin on the team. It’s pretty unconventional I’d say, mostly because he’s now wielding a longsword, which he has to wield with two hands. But he’s really interesting, because it’s really hard to hit the little guy. Even though his Dex doesn’t apply to his AC (platemail) he still has Lost in the Crowd, and he still can force an attacker to reroll his hit as well. He’s pretty cool.

13 Sorain January 14, 2010 at 11:38 pm

Sometimes the off key (so to speak) combos can result in suprising power.

Consider the Eladrin Barbarian. Everyone knows that a Barbarian hits really hard, so they all try to avoid being in range. Now imagine that Barbarian can teleport into your face before dropping a high end rage strike. Some builds actually can take limited advantage of the off key stat benifits, in this case, a Wheirling (duel weld) Barbarian can make use of the Dex bonius for higher damage. the aptly named Nirvana headed down the Calm Fury paragon path for fluff reasons initially, but the path is all about getting the most out of rage strike, a focus that combines well with the ability to open up combat by teleporting into the enemys face and dropping the highest damage attacks (burn that action point, why keep it?) possible. when 6[w] and 5[w] damage drop into your face before you can even react, combat dynamics become intresting. Elves Accuracy power could be put to similar use, making the enormus damage frightningly certan to land.

People tend to remember the Eladrin Barbarian with the Double Sword that never actually used a rage and still tore those bug bears apart.

As much as it seems silly, a race with off stats for a given class (str on a rouge, Cha or Dex on a barbarian ect.) can prove mechanically intresting. If nothing else people will ask “Whats your story?”

14 Adrian January 21, 2010 at 2:17 am

I am currently playing in an online DnD campaign called An Unorthodox Band, where every character’s race and class abilities were not allowed to match up at all. I created an Elf Swordmage, the reasoning behind it being that he wonders what ‘different’ things are like, in this case what the arcane power wielded by his Eladrin ‘cousins’ is like, and took a liking to it.

15 Ameron January 21, 2010 at 12:59 pm

@RoudVolf
Character built against type may not have the best numbers but they tend to be more fun to play and are often the most memorable PCs at the table.

@Ragnarok
A Dragonborn Warlock played as if he were James Bond… awesome.

@skywise
I saw a Halfling Paladin build at GenCon this summer. The Halfling was constantly running around the battlefield provoking opportunity attacks but no one could hit the little bugger. The player had a blast playing him and he was one of the PCs I most clearly remember (even now, 6 months later).

@Sorain
Most players just look at the +2 to ability score when picking race and don’t consider all the great racial powers out there. Your suggested builds do sound really cool. I may have to “borrow” one of these builds for a new character I’m working on.

Having a response ready for the “What’s your story?” question shows that the player actually put some thought into it and didn’t just play to the numbers.

@Adrian
Asking the party to not duplicate any races or classes sounds like an interesting exercise in character creation. It no doubt makes for a wild bunch of PCs.

16 Sorain January 24, 2010 at 9:15 pm

@Ameron/Adrian
The thought of setting things down with the rules
no duplicate Races or classes, no race/class matchup (at least on the primary stat, ex str for fighter) and what would happen makes me giggle a little.

Feel free to barrow those ideas, consider similar ‘off center’ stat/class combos. Often the ability to get a nice bonius on your powers reguardless of which secondary stat they care about (Int or Cha for example) opens up a suprising amount of flexability in role.

Incidentally, that Eladrin barbarian wound up (though duel welding a defensive weapon and feat/item selection) having the highest defenses of anyone in the group (excepting will) More AC then the fighter, better reflex then said fighter, and equal fortitude. Which saved her ass when the party scorcerer decided to drop 3 blast spells in a single turn without keeping her our of the line of fire. (It needed to be done, and the image of her fending off lightning and then fire by spinning her double sword to deflect them is just plain cool.)

17 Ameron January 28, 2010 at 1:26 pm

@Sorain
A Barbarian with high defenses, I’m impressed. That always sees to be the trade off whenever I’ve see the Barbarian in play. Awesome attacks and damage output, but terrible, terrible defenses. It’s a good thing they get a lot of healing surges.

18 Sorain January 28, 2010 at 2:45 pm

@Ameron
True, thats what I expected as well, but while I never intended it, it worked out that way. I did trade some offence for it though, duelwelding via the Double Sword means missing the damage boost of an Executioner Axe for example (and dear lord is that a powerful weapon). At the end of the day though, the other defenses are the fault of the others. Why some people dont immediately get a plain magic amulet or cloak I will never understand.

19 Caelvan February 9, 2010 at 10:17 pm

I am currently running a small game of 4e with two new players, and one semi-new player. Instead of going for what was the best to power game, they went with what they thought was cool. As a result, I have an elven paladin, a Dragonborn rouge, and a dwarven warlock. All of these are not the usual races for the classes. An interesting campaign if I do say so.

20 Ameron February 10, 2010 at 12:03 am

@Caelvan
I’ll bet that these characters will be the most memorable your players run for years to come. The fact that they didn’t get hung up with the mechanics and number crunching during character creation shows that they’re in it for more than combat. I have no doubt that this group will have a lot of fun.

21 StarOne July 27, 2010 at 8:42 am

My favorite off the wall build is the Gnomish Barbarian. The idea of this 3 1/2 ft person flying into a rage kicking someone butt 2 to 3 times his size is just funny.

22 CaptainPlanet September 15, 2010 at 4:02 pm

A little late the to party here, but here’s my 2cents:

I think playing against type is awesome, both in terms of avoiding power-gaming, and in terms of avoiding stereotypes (instead of making a goliath barbarian, how bout a goliath rogue or assassin?). The only problem is, unless you’re playing with a skilled DM who knows how to properly tweak encounter difficulty, your party will probably not do so well. Having been in parties with unique/interesting characters, it can get really frustrating when your low attack bonuses cause you to miss all the time, and the enemies end up just murdering your party.

I think these kind of unique combos only work when the DM is willing to lower the difficulty (by lowering the defenses of monsters/changing their hitpoint totals/etc). Otherwise, it just seems to lead to a lot of dead PCs.

23 Svafa March 25, 2011 at 3:40 pm

Also late, but meh, whatever.

In the group I DM for we have a Tiefling Warlord, and a melee one at that. It’s an interesting character and has had some difficulty in play, but he’s paired with a Dragonborn Fighter which has helped save his hide several times. It also makes for some very interesting party dynamics as the two expertly channel the hated rival but trusted comrade relationship.

One of my personal characters was a Tiefling Paladin of the Raven Queen. I’m still waiting to play the character, as I was unfortunately unable to participate in the game I created it for. I created the character when I realized that the 4E core rules had dropped the Lawful Anal requirement for Paladins. Upon realizing this I set about creating a Paladin that was as atypical as possible while still being a, admittedly nominal, good guy. Thus, I went for a somewhat classic Chaotic Neutral Tiefling with the unusual class of Paladin. And then further subverted it by making the Paladin as much of a striker as I could, who followed the Raven Queen and worshiped her through combat. I still regret that I haven’t been able to field the character, even though I suspect I’d have had some difficulties early on.

24 Andrew August 6, 2011 at 4:10 pm

Half-orc sorcerers are a lot more feasable than my first 4e character, a Bugbear Wizard. It was a terrible mix and that what’s made it fun. Our Dm had added rules for missed ranged attacks. My party wasn’t so thrilled when I killed our cleric and then bloodied our fighter. But Everyone but the cleric survived.

25 dukethepcdr August 18, 2011 at 1:05 pm

My wife and I are playing in a 4th Ed. game and we both have characters that are a bit against type. She is playing Dragonborn Rogue and I am playing a Halfling Cleric of Kord. It’s kind of comical to visualize a huge 200 lb plus fire breathing dragonborn trying to sneak around and steal stuff. While Halflings are no strangers to being clerics, you rarely see one devoted to the god of battle and storms. We even rolled our stats the old fashioned way with four D6’s and everything. So her dragonborn wound up with low wisdom, charisma, Constitution and intelligence and medium strength. Her only high stat is dexterity but it’s only a 17 and not maxed out. It makes for some interesting encounters when she needs a good diplomacy check and she only has a bonus of +2.

My halfling cleric has low strength, constitution and dexterity. His Intelligence and charisma are barely high enough to make a decent cleric. His wisdom is his highest but is only 16. His halfling luck and bravery have saved his skin more than once :). When he’s in really dire straits, he can pray and call upon the Aspect of Kord to come to their rescue though. Aspect of Kord in our game uses modified stats from the stat card that came with the mini. He will only come if the party is out of healing surges and if a party member is near death. Then he stays for only one day once summoned and won’t come back for several days after he leaves. So even though he’s really powerful, we have to be careful in when we decide to summon him. This makes it fun to try to keep my cleric alive and able to heal the members of the party. We try to see how far into the adventures we can get without needing Kord’s aide.

We also made it so that my wife’s dragonborn can trasform into a medium copper dragon if she’s out of healing surges and her HP reaches 0. She regains half her HP when she transforms. The transformation only lasts one day, so she’s back to a dragonborn the next morning. It makes for a more dramatic and fun way to keep our characters alive than doing death saving throws.

I like playing clerics and paladins while she enjoys being sneaky and playing theives and rogues. We don’t really venture out into other classes because the ones we play feature the aspects of the game we enjoy the most. For variety, we change races and backstories each time we roll up new characters. Being a halfling cleric of a god of war is a fun twist and more challenging than my last character who was a dwarf cleric of Morodin. He got to be almost too good at adventuring after a while.

26 Anarius September 27, 2011 at 9:46 pm

We’re playing a rolled scores campaign, you know, 4d6 drop low. I ended up with 8, 11, 11, 11, 12, 17. So obviously, I had to make… a Halfling Paladin! A doctor by training, I thought he would be the party healer. He’s Charisma-based, which means the 12 got put into Wisdom. Since he has so few uses of Lay On Hands, he has multiclassed into Cleric for Healing Word. So, imagine the doctor coming to your door, in all his 4 foot tall glory, decked out in shining scale mail and wielding a battle axe in two hands that’s taller than he is.

27 Xzania February 16, 2012 at 5:09 pm

HAHAHA i just made an eladrin warlock :3 glad to see you were thinking as well :)

28 Shal'Koth FlameHand April 16, 2014 at 8:44 pm

three years late to the party, and i still want to put my two cents in.
I started playing D&D 3.5e five months ago, so i’m still relatively new to the game, but out of the four PC’s i’ve made (i die a lot) my first character will always be my favourite. The Glorious Minotaur Cleric, Shal’koth FlameHand (whom i have named myself after in honor of his might) When I joined my D&D group, my party all groaned and begged me not to play a minotaur cleric, because they did not want ‘dead weight’. two months later, I was the strongest member of the party. Conclusion, any character can be great, or overpowered. you just have to roleplay them right.

29 angeliza September 29, 2014 at 6:46 pm

I’ve signed up to play dnd with some friends, and while flipping through the handbook, I decided on a Teifling Paladin.
A HUGE play against type…but even cooler since Paladins need charisma, and Teiflings get a charisma bonus! It’s a play against type, but a smart one, I like to think.^^
Still working on building her up though, personality and backstory-wise.

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