Funnily enough, when making a Dungeons and Dragons race, speed is the worst thing you can try for. Races aren’t finicky, and they aren’t difficult – they do, however, require a lot of thought and a lot of consideration.
On the upside, there’s probably more bad puns to be made in this article than in any of my previous ones, so lets go!
On your marks, get set…
At the Starting Line
When talking about D&D characters, a lot of people start by saying the class. And that isn’t wrong – a character’s class and subclass determine pretty much everything from a mechanical sense.
But race… ah, race – arguably the most important thing to a character’s roleplay interactions, but it always gets second place to class. A PC’s choice of race is very important. Besides determining how other characters will treat yours, it also generally ties to your choice in class through ability score increases, and it also can make your character extremely unique.
In my current D&D game, I’m playing a half-orc Evocation Wizard. The special thing here is that this combination opens up a rather interesting a fun opportunity – Mage Rage. Evocation Wizards can use Overchannel to deal maximum damage with their spells, at the cost of health. With the half-orc’s Relentless Endurance, I can Overchannel one extra time – the Overchannel that would normally kill me instead brings me to 1 hit point, allowing me to spitefully blow up one last time before beginning to die.
Is it “good” technically speaking? Hell no, but it’s funny.
Anyways, the key here is this – race choice can be important, especially when choosing something a bit… weird.
As a quick note before we begin, never compare your race to variant human. Honestly, variant human is broken as hell, but that’s the only way to encourage people to play a human when other, much cooler options are available.
Now, lets get on to talking about the base races of the game. I’m going to look at two things primarily – what classes a race is suited for usually, and what odd combos the race enables.
Dwarf. With bonuses to Constitution, Wisdom, and Strength, dwarves make for excellent barbarians, clerics, fighters, and paladins. With the addition of Dwarven Weapons and Armor Trainings, however, dwarf is also great for turning a non-martial class into a semi-martial one – you get great weapon proficiencies from base dwarf, and good armor from Mountain Dwarf.
Elf. The base bonus to Dexterity makes elves fast and hard to hit (good for rogues and rangers!), while their subrace bonuses to Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma make them excellent spellcasters (especially bards, clerics, or rangers!). But elves are a versatile race – each subrace gets its own weapon training to add martial potential to a non-martial class, while High Elves and Drow get magic that can make a non-spellcasting class feel that little bit more magical.
NOTE: Take a good look at Sunlight Sensitivity – it’s the only negative trait we’ll see today.
Halfling. Dexterity, Charisma, and Constitution make for an interesting spread. Barbarians they ain’t, but a halfling fighter, rogue, or sorcerer isn’t too far-fetched. To be honest, halflings don’t really meld themselves to any one class – their features are just good, no matter what class you choose.
Human. What do you really wanna be? Cause… just be that. There’s no reason that you can’t be that. Especially if you pick variant human, or as I like to call it – “the only reason half my stupid character concepts could ever work.”
Dragonborn. Paladin time! Seems weird, sure, but Strength and Charisma? No other class fits better! (Dragon Sorcerer gets special mention for fitting so well thematically, and also being something that melds well by encouraging melee with extra health, which lets you use your Strength too.) Much like halflings, however, all of the dragonborn’s other race features are pretty applicable no matter what you choose – who the hell would turn down breathing fire?
Gnome. Intelligence is an odd base race stat, which is really only useful for wizards. Both Dexterity and Constitution are useful for wizards, with the former making for good Arcane Trickster material. Otherwise, gnomes don’t have much in the way of features that determine class choice. One interesting possibility is the mage hunter – with the bonus to magic saves from Gnome Cunning, a gnome mage hunter would be quite viable.
Half-Elf. What (Charisma-using class) do you really wanna be? Cause… just be that (unless Charisma is useless for it). There’s no reason (besides it not using Charisma) that you can’t be that. Have I mentioned how much Charisma is a necessity?
Half-Orc. Strength and Constitution, classic barbarian and fighter stats. But the half-orc has many useful features for any melee based class – Savage Attacks is good for any melee class, and Relentless Endurance can be good for almost anyone!
Tiefling. Our last race is also a weird case. With bonuses to two different spellcasting abilities – Intelligence and Charisma – there isn’t anything that actually needs both. Ultimately, I believe that tieflings are good for making non-spellcasting and non-skilled classes better at both. The one class that might benefit from both stats is Arcane Trickster, since rogue has the skill access to use Charisma effectively, and the spells require good Intelligence.
Whew. That’s a lot of races, huh? I’m just going to ignore Volo’s Guide to ?Monsters creepily staring at me from the shelf, because good grief we do not have the time. Also, not everyone has it – I want these to be accessible before anything else.
So, lets talk about them.
What I’ve tried to illustrate here is that races are focused around class choice, and also completely not focused on class at all. No character exists without a class, so you always have to keep that in mind. Simultaneously, some obvious race/class choices aren’t actually so easy.
Each character has a power budget, which is the amount of power given to it by its various class and race features. Some race/class combos waste a bit of that power budget – dwarf in particular comes to mind. A Mountain Dwarf fighter seems obvious, but ends up wasting two of the race’s features – Dwarven Weapons Training and Dwarven Armor Training are both completely redundant on a fighter, who already has proficiency in all weapons and armor.
To me, that shows the folly of designing a race with one specific class in mind. Instead, I suggest focusing on a kind of class – martial, skilled, or spellcasting. But before we cover that, lets look at subraces.
I Liked Subraces When They were Still Under Water
Anyway, subraces are unlike subclasses in that they are 100% optional. Every single class absolutely must have at least two subclasses – meanwhile, a race can exist perfectly fine without any subraces at all.
The main idea behind subraces is to represent how different groups of the same creature can be different. A High Elf is very different from a Wood Elf, and both are massively different from Drow.
When making subraces for an existing race, you have to ask yourself – what could be different? What sort of elf culture, for instance, isn’t covered by High, Wood, or Dark Elves? Aquatic? Well alright, that’s a good subrace then.
A group of dwarves that live in the desert? Sure, sounds great. Gnomes from the Underdark? Already been done, but maybe you could choose something more easily pronounced than svirfneblin. A type of half-orc from the jungle? Eh… not so much. Adding subraces on to races that don’t currently have any is both difficult and, usually, not needed. Half-orcs are just half orc, half human – they don’t need a subrace. If you’d like to add in a unique half-elf, half-orc combo, then that may be a good subrace, but you’ll still run into some problems.
Lets use dragonborn as an example. Currently, dragonborn have no subraces, and don’t have a need for any. But lets say you wanted to mirror dragons even more closely, and add in some Shadowfell-tainted shadow dragonborn.
The first step is to determine what stays in the new “base” dragonborn, and what ends up a part of the default subrace of “Metallic/Chromatic” dragonborn. For this, lets separate out like this:
Ability Score Increase. Your Charisma score increases by 1.
Breath Weapon. You can use your action to exhale destructive energy. Your draconic ancestry determines the size, shape, and damage type of the exhalation.
Damage Resistance. You have resistance to the damage type associated with your draconic ancestry.
Subrace. Two subraces of dragonborn exist: Metallic/Chromatic and Shadow.
Ability Score Increase. Your Strength score increases by 2.
Draconic Ancestry. Choose one type of dragon from the…
Ability Score Increase. Your Constitution score increases by 2.
Draconic Ancestry. Your damage type is necrotic, and your breath weapon is a 15 ft. cone, requiring a Constitution saving throw.
Now, is this a good subrace? I’m not sure. The point is this – when adding subraces to an existing race that doesn’t have any, one of the most important steps is determining what gets separated from the base race and into one of the new subraces.
When making subraces for an original homebrew race, you have things significantly easier. Just remember these general pointers:
- Where a race with no subraces gets bonuses to two ability scores, one with subraces should get one ability score increase from the base race and one from the subrace.
- Generally speaking, subraces do not alter the Size, Speed, or Age qualities of the race. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but particularly with Size and Speed it should probably be respected.
- A subrace has to have something besides just an ability score increase – add in a unique feature that separates the subrace from other members of the same race.
- At the same time, there should generally be more base race features than there are subrace features. Certain base race features can be modified by subrace features (as is the case with the hypothetical Shadow Dragonborn I created above), but a race, unlike a class, cannot have most of its features come from a subrace.
Race to the Finish
It might seem weird that a post about making races is actually covering full races last. However, there just isn’t too much to say on the subject. Making a race is pretty straightforward, even if it requires a lot of specific thought and consideration to go into it.
Firstly, I recommend looking through either the homebrew race analysis document by Musicus (visit his website here) or the homebrew race guide by Eleazzaar (original post here). I won’t recommend one particular method over another, but having a nice numeric value to assign to things has always helped me conceptualize things.
I’m not going to step into the numerical side of things except to say a few general points.
- Don’t give things a speed higher than 30.
- Races that are bigger than Large size are generally bad ideas.
- Ability score increases cap out at +2, and usually give +2 to one stat and +1 to another.
- Don’t take any of these as actual rules.
Instead, lets talk more abstract.
When making a race, I find that the best thing to do first is to determine what classes you’d like to encourage this race to be. To use my own Half-Fey race as an example, my first concept wanted them to be good bards, druids, rangers, and sorcerers. The second step is to determine what subraces you want, if any.
After that, it’s a matter of sorting. Which subraces do you want to be best at which classes? For the half-fey, I ended up having the dryadae be the druids and clerics, the nymphae as the bards and sorcerers, and the slyphae as rangers. You can see this reflected in each subrace’s ability score increase – dryadae get Constitution for melee hit points and general usefulness, nymphae get Charisma for spellcasting, and sylphae get Dexterity for ranged attacks. The only stat left is Wisdom, which became the base race’s ability score increase.
Now you should have a base race, several subraces, and ability score increases for each. What’s next? Well, I like to define a couple of basic things before I get any further – Age, Alignment, Size, Speed, and Languages.
After that, its time to make features. One chief thing to keep in mind here is whether you want to really encourage certain class choices, or if you’d be alright with making them less than perfect.
If the latter, consider giving lookalikes to lesser class features to the race. This is similar to the dwarf weapon and armor proficiencies – they’re totally unneeded for a dwarf fighter, but go a long way towards making any dwarf character, regardless of class, feel a bit like a fighter.
If the former, then you have to be careful to steer clear of redundancy. A race that should make good rogues doesn’t really need an ability to Dash as a bonus action. Likewise, a race that should make for a good fighter ironically doesn’t need weapon proficiencies – fighter has them all already.
Personally, I recommend the approach that leads to a bit of redundancy. After all, a Mountain Dwarf still makes a great fighter, even with the redundant proficiencies. But it also makes for a pretty cool wizard… who can wear heavier armor and shock foes by smashing their heads in with a hammer.
Once you’ve got all the features figured out, its time for the numerical analysis. And, as I’ve said, I’m leaving that to people much more qualified than I – check out the Musicus race analysis or the homebrew race guide from Eleazzaar. Both are very good sets of guidelines, just don’t obsess too much over exactness.
The Power of Negative Thinking
Before we finish, I’d like to take a quick minute to talk about negatives in race design, and in 5e design in general.
It’s in a weird place. Previous editions of D&D loved downsides and negative traits. Tons of races had them, and a lot of class options did too. However, 5e seems to have tried to do away with as many of those negatives as possible.
I don’t think this is a bad choice. Negatives are kind of lame, and extremely limiting. However, when it comes to races, sometimes it seems like the only thing that can really represent a race accurately is negative traits. Having a fully orcish race without a negative modifier to Intelligence seems odd to me on a fundamental basis. Orcs are dumb – that’s the stereotype. And maybe its good to avoid falling into such cliches, but still…
Ultimately, I think that negative traits and limitations are perfectly usable in 5e. However, I think their power has been devalued significantly. For one, we’ve sort of realized that having a negative modifier to a stat that the race is never going to use isn’t much of a downside. What does an orcish barbarian care about Intelligence? That isn’t a downside, it’s just a flavor thing.
And that’s where I draw the line. Negatives and restrictions should serve, primarily, as ribbons. They shouldn’t be taken into account for balancing or power, they should just be something that makes the race (or whatever) feel more thematic.
So, if I was going to make a full orc race, I actually wouldn’t give them a negative modifier to Intelligence. I would do this instead:
Frustration. Whenever you make an Intelligence skill check, you subtract from the result the number of failed Intelligence skill checks since your last long rest.
Or maybe something like this…
Impatient. Whenever you make an Intelligence check in a skill that you are not proficient in, you subtract a number from the result which is equal to 5 – your proficiency modifier (maximum 0).
Both of those make the orc stupid without relying on stats. The first even allows for a smart orc, it just characterizes their passion/anger as making things difficult if they struggle. The latter, meanwhile, allows the orc to get “street smart” over time, and decrease their Intelligence penalty over their adventuring career.
You’ll notice that the only negative race trait in the Player’s Handbook is the Sunlight Sensitivity of the drow. And, all things considered, it’s an alright downside. However, again, notice that it doesn’t really affect the balance of the race at all – after all, simply play a drow in the Rage of Demons campaign and suddenly its no downside at all.
And that’s it for today! Races are a really fun thing to homebrew, and something that I honestly wish I did more of. Its a nice change of pace from classes and subclasses, and subraces are about as difficult to make as spells or feats and yet are similarly different in feel.
I hope this helps with the more abstract concepts of making a D&D race, and I hope the linked resources can supplement that with a solid numerical understanding. I always love seeing new race and subrace options, so maybe I’ll get more into it myself in the future.
Thanks for reading!
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