Vague Patch Notes: The specter of racially locked classes in MMOs and before

Looking back.

One of the things I’ve taken on multiple times in this column is the concept of gender-locked classes, which are bad, and if you think “hey, it makes sense in some culture,” you’re wrong and making bad excuses. But there is another common case of class restriction, and those are racially locked classes. This comes in a variety of different flavors, ranging from highly restrictive (all elves are Wizards and Hunters and all Wizards and Hunters are elves) to lightly restrictive (elves can be everything other than Witch Hunters).

The thing is that as much as that seems like it might on some level be even worse, it’s actually got some older precedent. So let’s start turning the clock back. Way back. Way, way back. “Before I was actually born” back. We’re turning the clock back to 1974, when Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson worked together to put together a then-unprecedented derivation of the rules for the Chainmail tabletop game that was something new entirely.

The first edition of Dungeons & Dragons is, to put it politely, a complete flipping mess. But you can hardly blame Gygax or Arneson, considering that the two of them were making something that had never previously existed. (There are lots of other things you can blame Gygax for; Arneson seems pretty unproblematic.) We’re not going to get into the breakdown of where classes and races were the same thing, in no small part because I wasn’t there anyway and don’t have access to the original rules. My rulebooks are all Advanced Dungeons & Dragons from the second edition around 1995.

But you know what those rulebooks still have? Restrictions of classes to certain races. Heck, restrictions of class levels by race, even! If you want to reach level 20, you’d better be a human, otherwise you ain’t getting there.

The reasons for this are a little hard to suss out, but the basic idea seemed to be that because non-human races were naturally more powerful than humans, the lower level cap was a reflection of that; it also meant that humans were going to potentially beat out other races just by virtue of class powers, especially as humans were the only race that could dual-class.

Dual-classing, for the record, was what we now call multiclassing. AD&D from 1995 is still not a good system by any metric. But that’s not important right now. What’s important is that there has long been an idea right here that not every race can be every class. It sounds a little weird when you say it like that, but considering that “race” in this case is closer to “species,” I suppose it doesn’t sound as bad. Still weird, though.


Now, by 1995 this was kind of irrelevant because tabletop gaming had long since moved away from class-and-level systems and onto a much more open skill-based systems, this was seen as largely a thing of the past. It’s one thing to say that an Elf can never be a Paladin, it’s another entirely to say that an Elf can never learn to use armor or a sword or holy magic. Class-based systems persisted primarily in video games, where they can be easier for a variety of reasons. They were hardly ubiquitous but still reasonably popular, contrary to the modern day, when class/level systems and variants thereupon have seen something of a resurgence.

So how did Ultima Online handle its class and race restrictions? It didn’t. It doesn’t have classes or multiple playable races; you play a human (gargoyles and elves were added later), and it’s skill-based much like the other games in the series at that time. (Earlier games did have classes, though.) But a lot of class/level video games had race restrictions if not race level limits, and so a lot of MMORPGs inspired by those games also had classes segregated by race. So it has continued to be kind of common, albeit not ubiquitous.

Now, in a tabletop sense, this has been basically cut out. D&D’s current edition lets any race be any class because the alternative is just silly, and as it’s become clear that specific attribute penalties/benefits weight things unfavorably those have also gotten moved to one side. But in some MMOs, such as World of Warcraft, there are still limitations on which races can be which class. And that’s a bad thing that should be changed, yes, but it’s also kind of not nearly as big a deal as gender-locking. No, not just because it means fewer art assets.

Here’s the thing: Nonhuman races in any sort of game are a kind of fraught subject in many ways. They aren’t really the same as gender in the sense that players don’t have a real-world experience to tie it to. Even for genderfluid or nonbinary folks (who are valid), you exist in a world where gender is a construct and you live with it. You do not live in a world with Orcs or Gnomes or whatever. These are not part of your identity in any way.

But they also kind of are.

Let's leave this one aside.

Sure, you are not an Elf, but maybe you really identify with the idea of being long-lived and high-minded in a way that distances you from other people. Or maybe you just wish you had some dope pointy ears. Maybe you really like the idea of being an animalistic race that’s more in tune with nature. Maybe the idea of being a lizard person appeals to you because you think lizards are super neat. These are parts of your personal expression, and that has validity even if it doesn’t have the same relation to daily life as “but I’m a woman and want to play as a woman without having to be a healer or an archer.”

Yet it also can be kind of difficult to communicate culture in some spaces without those restrictions. In Guild Wars 2, there is a distinct identity to Charr engineering, Asura engineering, and Human engineering… but it doesn’t really exist to the same extent for Norns and Sylvari. Yet you still can be an Engineer from those races. That’s not a problem, but it does lead to a touch of disconnection. The class (yes, I know they’re “professions” in game lingo, deal with it) doesn’t have an identity within these spaces, and it’s hard to get a sense of “Sylvari Engineer is unusual” when everyone can just make one without a problem.

So I do think there is some validity to these sorts of restrictions. But not much, and ultimately it’s not as valuable as just making these things narratively clear through other means. Final Fantasy XIV ties culture very clearly to city rather than race, and while most of the occupants of Limsa Lominsa are hyur, roegadyn, and mioq’te, they’re hardly the only occupants by any means. The culture isn’t tied to a specific race, and the specific races have cultures separate from cities.

So yeah, this is something that we should largely have moved past, and increasingly I’m happy to see games doing exactly that. But I also acknowledge that it can be a little complicated at the same time, and I understand why some games are taking their time to get there. There’s not the same real-world baggage to saying “in this world, Elves just don’t like hunting witches” as to saying “come on, a boy can’t be a healer, that’s just silly.”

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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