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Races and Classes

This month, Wizards of the Coast takes a behind-the-scenes look at the making of 4th Edition, revealing the philosophies, insights and decisions that helped shape the development of the game. We speak with Michele Carter, compiler and editor of Wizards Presents: Races and Classes, about what we can expect to learn from this 4th Edition preview!

Wizards of the Coast: Let’s get to the heart of the matter—4th Edition releases June 2008. December’s Wizards Presents: Races and Classes was written before the game was finished, so what does Races and Classes offer? As a gamer, why would I want to pick up a copy?

Michele Carter: First off, and forgive me for taking a moment here, but: woo hoo! I got my name on a cover! I’ve been a roleplaying game editor for 15 years and this is my first, so I’m a little bit excited. Moment of personal triumph!

Okay, done now.

If you’re the kind of person who buys DVDs with extended scenes and director commentary, or comic book compilations with initial concept sketches and creator annotations, you’ll want this book. That’s exactly how we envisioned it: it’s a “Making of” book, all the DVD extras that explain how we made decisions and built the structure for 4th Edition. From the timeline of the entire project to the frank discussion of all the hows and whys, it’s the most open look into the process of making a roleplaying game we’ve ever published.

The “written before the game was finished” is the interesting part, because that’s really where you can see the living process of game design. In fact, some of the essays for Races and Classes were written before the equivalent sections in the Player’s Handbook, in the process forming the basis for what would later become official material. And in many cases, there’s far *more* information in Races and Classes than could ever fit into a Player’s Handbook entry on a given topic—the six pages about dwarves, for example, compared to the two pages about dwarves in the Player’s Handbook. All that additional material informs our future design and gives hints to where the game will go in later products.

And yes, the game continued to evolve after Races and Classes went to typesetting... but that doesn’t make the book any less accurate, since it was meant first and foremost as a glimpse into the design process, a snapshot in the life of 4th Edition development. That said, we were tweaking the details well into galley stage to keep up with the latest changes. I remember deleting mentions of the tome implement for wizards at the very last second because we knew it wasn’t going to be in the Player’s Handbook (but it’ll be back). The warlock’s vestige pact was similarly put on the backburner about a day after Races and Classes went to the printer. But we knew that was going to happen for one topic or another, and again, it works for a snapshot... and as virtual Easter eggs for sharp-eyed readers to glimpse details about future books.

Wizards of the Coast: Can you tell us how the concept for Races and Classes came about? What information on the new edition and its design mandates was Wizards R&D looking to convey—and how did you become involved with the project?

Michele Carter: Since we knew the 4th Edition announcement was happening at Gen Con, that long 10-month stretch between the announcement and the game’s release seemed the perfect opportunity for a project that would give the audience a taste of what was to come. What really got us excited about it, though, was that Races and Classes gave us—the designers, developers, writers, and editors of R&D—the chance to talk about the game we were designing. We’d been building the groundwork for 4th Edition for more than two years, and now we finally could dispense with the secrecy and let all of that enthusiasm come out.

We’d already had the opportunity to “talk design” a bit in the Rules Compendium, and this was an even bigger and better forum to talk openly about our goals and hopes for the game. I mean, when there’s a section from Matt Sernett called “The Trouble with Gnomes” that flat-out tells you that we don’t know what we’re doing with them yet, or a confession from Rob Heinsoo that he’s got Plans (with a capital P) for the race-formerly-known-as-aasimar, you know you’re getting the words straight from R&D’s mouth. Or keyboard, as it were.

And come on, have you ever known a writer who didn’t want to talk about his or her work? Didn’t think so.

So that’s really the heart of what we were trying to convey: the hows and whys of the process. As for how I got involved? When we had the opportunity to make “wish lists” for what we wanted to work on, Races and Classes was at the top of my list. There might have been breath-holding and jumping up and down involved too.

Frankly, I think it’s just about the niftiest project our department has done in a long time. It represents the kind of communication with the fans that we hope to foster.

Wizards of the Coast: Taking a look at the list of contributors, it reads as a who’s who in RPG R&D—how did you go about wrangling the various essays and contributions from this ensemble cast? Were any topics favorites of particular contributors that specifically requested them—or favorites of everyone and were especially sought after to write?

Michele Carter: Putting this book together was like any anthology: first you pick your topics, then you pick people to write them. After we’d formulated what we wanted the book to be, Matt Sernett and I sat down and came up with a list of subjects, essentially storyboarding the entire book from front to back before a word was ever written. Then we typed up the list, took it to the RPG R&D group meeting, and as I recall, basically went around the room with everyone picking an essay in turn until they were all claimed. Yeah, there were some good-natured curses flying around when a topic was claimed that someone else wanted to write, but there was plenty to go around in the end.

And then every piece came in on time and fit perfectly.

*pause for hysterical laughter*

No, “wrangling” is a good word. The process was not unlike herding cats... nearly twenty of them. Everyone was excited to contribute, but they were also trying to write 4th Edition at the same time, so there was quite a lot of herding involved. But it was worth it, and we even got the concept artists and alphabet designer involved with the help of Stacy Longstreet, the Art Director. And even after the topics were all assigned, I was looking for holes to fill: Rodney Thompson’s essay on the Star Wars Saga Edition was a late addition that gives a lot of perspective on the early implementation of concepts that would become the core of 4th Edition design.

Wizards of the Coast: Much of the book looks not just at elements of the game that will be part of 4th Edition, but also at the decisions behind these elements. In the creation of the book, was this the first time you learned of any designer philosophies, and if so, did any come as a surprise to you?

Michele Carter: You can learn a lot about the writers if you read between the lines, it’s true. I already knew that James Wyatt likes paladins and that Bruce Cordell enjoys playing with the creepier side of fantasy—if a book’s full of tentacles and slime, you know Bruce had a hand in it—but what really made me happy was getting these essays in my email, one by one, and seeing the enthusiasm and excitement that everyone involved had for what we were building. You just can’t fake that.

My favorite part, though, was wading through two years worth of email for usable quotes. The “People. Who Hold People” thing still makes me laugh, and Andy’s note about “Terse replies from the Dev team” wasn’t hyperbole. I couldn’t use some of the best quotes, though... this is a family production.

Wizards of the Coast: Races and Classes, obviously, details the races and classes appearing in the 4E Player’s Handbook. Also obviously, there has been much speculation up to this point as to which races and classes would appear in the Player’s Handbook—do you follow any of these rumors and arguments, and if so, did any surprise you in their accuracy, passion, logic—and might any have planted some thoughts concerning the races and classes appearing in future Player’s Handbooks?

Michele Carter: I was really, really entertained by all of the speculation about the race and class mix. It’s both interesting and informative to see what people are thinking and hoping for the game. Some of the arguments were right in line with the designers’ thoughts, whereas others were completely opposite. We’re always interested in seeing what races and classes have “traction,” as Rich Baker calls it—the concepts that seem to gather the most interest and have the strongest foothold with the audience. Obviously, those are concepts we’re more likely to pursue.

I saw the dragonborn name come up relatively early and that made me smile, even if the poster didn’t know anything about the new context we were using for the race. Dragon-people in a game called Dungeons & Dragons? How obvious was that?... But then again, it took us this long to put them into the core, so it probably was a surprise to most.

Wizards of the Coast: Two races are known not to have made the initial cut: the gnome and the half-orc. Perhaps debated for inclusion because of their longstanding ties with the game, why the decision to cut them here (at least at the start of 4E)?

Michele Carter: For the gnome, I can refer you to Matt’s essay—the upshot being that gnomes have had several different incarnations through the life of the game, and we haven’t settled on the 4th Edition version yet. But we will, and they’ll be back. In fact, they’re in the Monster Manual as a playable character race, so players will have them right from the start.

As for half-orcs, we’re still discussing them. Speaking only for myself: I’ve played a half-orc and enjoyed it in the “Hulk smash” sort of mode. But the race intrinsically makes me uncomfortable due to its implied origins, and until that’s solved, I’m just as happy to see them left out for now. At the same time, I have absolutely no doubt that we can find a story that will allow us to update the half-orc with the same kind of reimagining that turned the tiefling from an oddity into a full-fledged race.

Oh, and the paragraph about half-elves that was supposed to be in Races and Classes? Dropped for space, not any other nefarious reason. They’re still around.

Wizards of the Coast: Diverging a bit from the book itself, but sticking to the theme of races and classes—in playtesting the game, what race and class are you currently playing yourself? How does this particular inception of your character compare to past versions of the race/class you might have played?

Michele Carter: Whee, let me tell you about my character(s)! Of course I’ve wanted to playtest every race and class in every combination... for work purposes, you understand. There just isn’t enough time in a day to get them all in, but I’ve tried. So far:

Zanne, a half-elf rogue: Half-elves? They rock. (Let me say that again, because Dave Noonan makes a happy sound when he hears it: half-elves rock!) I’ve always liked them for their part-of-two-worlds viewpoint, and their racial traits fit that role perfectly. But it’s the rogue part that’s really exciting. I’ve rarely played rogues because so many of their capabilities could be mimicked with magic or brawn (wizard with a knock spell, fighter with enough hit points that he doesn’t care if he gets blown up by a trap), but with a little redefinition as strikers, the rogue has become immensely fun to play. Zanne’s just been retired since her playtest game morphed into a real campaign with new characters, but I wouldn’t at all mind pulling her out again or creating a new rogue.

Valenae, an elf paladin: I’ve shied away from paladins in general for the simple reason that I hate moving slow in a game, and heavy armor reduces your movement. The elf doesn’t have to worry about that as much, so that’s opened up the class for me. A holy strike here and a radiant smite there, and I’m rediscovering the joy of the holy warrior all over again.

Kithri, a halfling warlock: At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I haven’t played a lot of halflings, either... but the new halflings have one of the most fun racial abilities in the game and that demanded a tryout. And warlocks have the best flavor text in the game, as far as I’m concerned. She’s a star pact warlock, all darkness and mystery, but I’m itching to play a lighter-themed fey pact warlock, too....

Andraste, an eladrin warlord: I knew I was going to like warlords from the first moment they were mentioned as a core class, and I haven’t been disappointed. A tactically minded warrior with the ability to bolster teammates? Bring it! And the eladrin embody all the magic and mystique of high elves. Some of us were a little dubious about the elf/eladrin racial split, but the more I see it in play, the more it makes sense.

Kimori, a tiefling fighter: Played briefly for a playtest, just to see the fighter’s capabilities... and wow, did they get a lot more interesting than “I attack. I attack. I use Power Attack for variety.” Even better, Kimori was deliberately built subpar to see if a nonoptimal class/race/power combination would work, and she handled herself just fine.

Kathra, a dwarf wizard: (What’s with all the K-names? Huh.) Again, one of the first dwarves I’ve played in a long time, but the slow movement matters less for a spellcaster and it’s a relief to play a wizard who won’t fall over in a stiff breeze. And not having to pull out a crossbow, ever? *Priceless.*

I haven’t had the chance to play that dragonborn ranger or human cleric yet, but sometime... and then it’ll be time to start again with a completely different mix. From all the above, it’s clear that 4th Edition has been a real revelation for me in trying out races and classes I wouldn’t necessarily have considered playing before.

Wizards of the Coast: Following Races and Classes, there’s a companion Wizards Presents coming out this January: Worlds and Monsters. Can you give us a taste of what’s to come, in terms of what this book will offer?

Michele Carter: I’m holding an early copy right here, so let’s see.... My fellow editor Jennifer Clarke-Wilkes put this one together using a similar process to what I described above, with the topics covering the world of D&D and the monsters that live in it. The essays here talk about how the monsters were picked for the first Monster Manual and how each was examined to best determine how it fit the world. There are sections about cosmology and the deities, and how the planar structure interacts with the world the characters know. The world itself gets considerable focus, with discussion of the “points of light” philosophy and how we approached the basic precepts that would underlie the rest of the design.

Oh, and the monsters. So many, many monsters! Some of them will look very familiar, some have gotten a redesign to make their stories and abilities better fit the world they live in, and some are completely new.

Races and Classes and Worlds and Monsters represent a good deal of what we’re hoping to accomplish with 4th Edition, and I think they’re a great introduction to the way we think about and continue to develop the game. If you ever looked at a game detail and wondered “why?”, many of those answers are here. Whether you’re a casual fan or a budding game designer, it’s my hope that these books will prove valuable for their insights and candid discussion of the process of building 4th Edition.

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