I’m a little obsessed with “simplifying” Pathfinder, as you can see here and here. The thing is: I really love Pathfinder, with its many classes, archetypes, feats and variants (which is also a selling point for D&D 3rd in general for me). My “perfect” game would be something that gave players that many options and complexity, but require from the GM as much work as OD&D/Swords & Wizardry (although, to be fair, new games like DCC RPG and 13th Age really improved things in this regard).
Going back to this post’s topic: the choice of race in D&D 3rd/Pathfinder is something that rarely matters much after 3rd or 5th level (in rules terms).
The various racial ability scores bonuses and penalties, for example, have a greater impact at the beginning of the PCs’ career, but it’s mostly ignored after 5th level – and players only care about ability score bonuses/penalties as a min-maxing tool (nothing wrong with that, I just find it boring). In fact, in the last years, as my free time/patience are running exponentially short, I just don’t want too much math and minutiae in my RPGs, unless they (considerably) increases fun and flavor.
But, as I said, I love Pathfinder. At the beginning, I thought of just getting rid of racial ability score bonuses/penalties and using ability scores maximums/minimums (like in AD&D) for races, but that’s just more bookkeeping (and I prefer to keep that in AD&D). After thinking more, I also thought about limiting the rule to classes, with each class give one ability score bonus (+2) to its main stat (like Fighters gaining +2 to Str, which I think makes more sense). In fact, I used that idea in my D&D 3rd Tormenta* House Rules and I see that 13th Age uses a similar approach.
*A famous brazilian fantasy setting, whose current edition is based on a mix of D&D/Pathfinder with Star Wars Sage Edition.
Instead of racial ability scores bonus I prefer direct modifiers (like +2 to Str-based damage for a brute race or +1 dodge bonus to AC for a quick race). This way you avoid ability score inflation (and modifiers inflation in general, as a general bonus to one ability score can change lots of other things in a PC). Understand, there’s nothing wrong with using racial ability score modifiers, I just want to reduce it. You can see a few examples here and here where I used direct modifiers, but I want to try some different now.
Besides less math I’m more inclined these days to iconic/thematic racial traits. I already said somewhere that I loved the D&D Next Playtest races (and the Intoxication rule in particular, which was awesome*).
*The Intoxicated condition in D&D Next Playtest docs gave you disadvantage in attacks and checks, but granted you a 1d6 damage reduction. One player love it enough to create a drunk dwarf warrior concept.
Basically, elves in the D&D Next Playtest were immune to charm (including domination and other mind-controlling stuff), dwarves were immune to poison and – I can’t remember – but I think halflings were immune to fear.
All the racial traits above are simple to remember, simple to use, very thematic and allow you to extrapolate a lot about each race. For example, dwarves food is probably something analogous with toxic/death for most races (to be invited to a “dwarven dinner” could be a slang for either a duel or an ambush). Elves could be really dominating assholes who won’t accept a ‘no’ unless convinced by the blade. They also have one damn excuse to finally think less of others (after all, charm magic works on “lesser races”). Maybe even good elves wouldn’t have moral issues about casting charm in their non-elven friends when talking didn’t work (or when the good elf is without patience and with his non-elven friend’s “best interests” on mind).
Recently I got to read a preview for a new setting called Thordezilhas, for the brazilian OSR Old Dragon (a review here if you’re curious). Thordezilhas’ approach to races is exactly what I’m searching these days. Among the new races, we have the Ébanos, a race immune to “normal fire”; and the Sereianos, a beautiful human-like race that gains a mermaid tail under water. A well-known example of flavorful racial trait is DCC RPG’s take on Dwarves (which I expanded here). Digging among other D&D/d20 sources I also remember the twin-bodied Dvati (from Dragon #271 and Paizo’s Dragon Compendium) or even Birthright’s dwarves (with cold and rock-hard skin) and elves (which were, to my memory, the first AD&D elves that really didn’t need to sleep and which were indeed immortals). You can also check excellent OSR ideas for races (which are in general very thematic and rules light), like this great take on hengeyokai from Playing D&D With Porn Stars.
OK, I hope to give a more concrete example with a next post, where I convert Pathfinder Core races to my “new” approach (less numbers, more thematic traits and the option of acquiring more racial traits as you level up).
Edit: talking about flavor, I forgot to mention the wonderful Red Box Hack, which you can find here or here. In particular, check the Snake, the Bear and the Fox classes.