DnD Needs to Re-Think Race Design

We’re approaching 7 years since the DnD 5th edition Player’s Handbook hit store shelves for the first time. Since that day, the Dungeons and Dragons design team has iterated on race design in nearly every new supplement which has included new races.

Some changes were applied retroactively using the Customizing Your Origin optional rules presented in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, but aside from more flexibility in ability score increases and skill proficiencies, a lot of the new race design ideas haven’t affected the core races, leaving many of them as somewhat novel relics in the face of a growing library of races that are often more interesting both mechanically and conceptually.

What Has Changed Over Time?

To be brief: a lot. Mostly, we got more choices beyond just choosing our character’s race.

Ability Scores

Ability Score Increases were, for the most part, static for a long time. Half-Orcs for +2 Strength and +1 Constitution, and that was that. That concept of racial ability score adjustments dates back to early editions of Dungeons and Dragons, and has remained unchanged for the games entire history until Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything came along and shook things up. Humans (and a few other races like half-elves and warforged) had the ability to assign their ability score increases as they chose, which provided a huge benefit to playing those races even though the increases were no larger than what other races got.

Now everyone gets to reassign their ability scores as they see fit. The thinking behind this is sound: adventurers are naturally atypical, so why should they need to perfectly adhere to our preconceived notions of what a race is and does? But mechanically, this took a sledgehammer to how we’ve thought about races in DnD for decades.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course. I like flexibility in build decisions because it allows for more creativity.

It also allowed a ton of additional optimization. Mountain Dwarves suddenly got really good at being durable wizards, and aarakocra got good at being literally anything that isn’t locked into melee.

These days, the expectation is that every character gets either +2/+1 increase or three +1 increases. The new lineages in Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft are presented this way, and new race options in current Unearthed Arcana articles are being given the same treatment. I think it’s safe to say that this point that’s how things will work for every new race option we see.

Skill Proficiencies

Racial skill proficiencies have also changed quite a lot over the course of 5e’s history. In the Player’s Handbook, elves and half-orcs each got one pre-defined skill, Variant Humans got one of their choice, and Half-Elves got two, making them one of the better races in the PHB when held up alongside their other traits.

Volo’s Guide to Monsters introduced orcs as a playable race, and they too got two skills, though players were made to choose from a fixed list tailored to the common notion of what orcs are in a fantasy setting until Tasha’s came along and removed the restriction.

Since then we’ve seen a growing number of races which get two skill proficiencies as part of their racial traits. Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft includes three new “lineages” (basically a mechanical replacement for your race’s original traits, plus a cool new flavor like being a reanimated corpse), and every one of them gets two skills of their choice unless you trade it for a movement speed.

At this point the 2 skills from your race are basically an expectation. That creates some frustration for older races without those benefits because you’ll have fewer proficiencies than players using new races, which again provides further incentive to play new races over many of the core races.

Innate Spellcasting

Hexbloods have innate spellcasting which they can reuse by spending spell slots. No other published race can do this (dragonmarks work a little differently so they don’t count). I’m honestly not sure if this will become the norm for future races, but I expect that it will. If that’s a problem in your games you could always apply that rule to existing races.

What is Still Wrong?

To be brief: a lot. Mostly stuff that we’ve inherited from previous editions.

The Word “Race”

“Race” means something very specific in the real world, and the fact that the Fantasy genre in general has long used it for a different meaning is frustrating and confusing. In the real world, “race” is used to describe your ancestry, not the fact that you’re a different species (unless you’re a massive racist).

In the Fantasy genre, race inexplicably describes your species. Dwarves and humans are two distinct species. They have different biology, their bodies work a little differently, and in typical settings they can’t bear children together because they’re not conspecific. (I chose dwarves over elves to prove a point here. I’m aware that half-elves are a thing.)

The only reason we don’t use “species” in this context is because it sounds scientific, which makes you think of decidedly non-fantasy topics like creatures in white lab coats. More likely you’ll think of science fiction tropes like little green aliens rather than fantasy tropes like little green goblins.

Paizo was really clever with Pathfinder 2e, and dropped the words “race” and “subrace” in favor of “ancestry” and “heritage”. Both of those words make you think of something old and interesting, which is exactly what you want for a fantasy setting where you’re going to be exploring old, interesting ruins full of monsters.

WotC seems to have noticed this stroke of genius, and is embracing “lineage” more frequently, though we haven’t seen any new playable races make it to print since Tasha’s was released (it’s been less than a year, be patient), so we may simply be stuck with the word “race” until we get a new edition.

Old Stuff Hasn’t Kept Up

As I mentioned above, many of the core races lack some things common to new races. Perhaps most notably, many new races get skill proficiencies. While the optional rules in Tasha’s leveled the playing field in terms of ability score increases, skill proficiencies matter quite a bit, and in a typical party of 4 characters you could have as many as eight more skill proficiencies if your whole party is using newer races than if everyone stuck to PHB races (I’m aware that half-elves are an exception. That’s a significant gap in capability outside of combat, and as important as combat is to the game, it’s still only one of the three pillars (exploration, social interaction, combat).

Inconsistent Power Level

Races vary wildly in how powerful they are. Variant Humans remain a staple option because they get a feat and two flexible increases, and even with everyone getting flexible ability score increases that feat is still really good. Aarakocra are really good because they can fly at first level. Half-Orcs are generally only good for front-line melee classes like the Barbarian and the Fighter because their other traits pigeon-hole them into those classes, and even then they’re not much better than numerous other races which can also succeed in other classes.

Part of this is that there’s little clear structure for how races are designed. In the PHB it was “two ability score increases and whatever else makes sense based on the history of the race.” This slapdash approach to race design meant that designers were free to put whatever they liked into a race, but it also meant that some races were less interesting and less powerful than others. In a sense, imbalance was baked into the design process.

How Can We Do It better?

First, replace the word “race” with “ancestry”, and replace “subrace” with heritage. Yes, we’re outright stealing that from Pathfinder 2e.

Next, we need a framework in which to design races. The “anything goes” method has literally never produced balanced races, and we’ve been trying it since the 1970’s so I think 50 years is enough time to say that we’ve given it an honest try.

The optional Customizing Your Origin rules are the closest we’ve gotten to rethinking how races work, and there are some good ideas there, but we’re going to think a little bit bigger because we have the luxury of not being responsible for actually driving this madness to publication and then trying to sell it.

I propose a simple framework which we can use to build any race which will allow races to be both cosmetically and mechanically distinct, will allow us to define an “archetypal” (generic, normal, baseline, iconic, whatever word you prefer) version of that race, will retain the new-found sense of choice and flexibility introduced by Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, all while having a rigid enough framework that we can make apples-to-apples comparisons between races to easily determine if they are “balanced”.

The Basics

Every ancestry will have some fundamental, basic traits: size, creature type, and movement speed.

Ability Scores

Every race will get an assigned +2 increase, and assigned +1 increase, and a flexible +1 increase. (Shoot, I’m stealing from Pathfinder 2e again.) Players can use those scores or can use “Custom Ability Score Increases” which offer players the option of +2/+1 increases or three +1 increases, assigning them however they please.

You might note that taking the Custom Ability Score Increases gives you smaller increases. This is very intentional. The flexible +1 increase means that you can make most classes work for any ancestry using your ancestry’s default ability scores, but if you want a little extra power by reassigning everything it comes at a small, but meaningful cost. That adds some opt-in complexity and room for customization, but still gives players an idea of how typical members of that ancestry develop.

For example: Half-orcs would get +2 Strength, +1 Constitution, and a free +1 Ability Score Increase. This makes them well-suited for classes like the Barbarian, the Fighter, and the Paladin. You could put that flexible +1 into Dexterity to play a rogue or Intelligence to play a wizard, allowing you to play in a variety of classes with little fuss. If you really want to move that +2 somewhere else, you could choose to use the Custom Ability Score Increases rule to get +2 Wisdom and +1 Constitution if you want to play a cleric or a druid, and while your ability scores won’t be quite as high as some other characters you’re not giving up so much that the build is unappealing.

Skills

Every ancestry gets two skills, no exceptions. Most ancestries will be given an accompanying list of four suggested skills which help describe common cultural stuff for that ancestry, but those are merely suggestions. Four is a large enough number to not feel binding, but not large enough to reduce severe analysis paralysis, so it’s a helpful guideline for players who may have trouble deciding otherwise. It also helps describe cultural norms for a given race without being binding in a way that might be problematic.

For example: elves might have Arcana, History, Perception, and Performance listed as example skills.

Other Ancestry Traits

Now we get to the fun stuff. These are the traits that change races from a ball of numbers into something a little more exciting.

Ancestry traits will be divided into major traits and minor traits. Each ancestry will receive a single major trait and two minor traits.

Major traits are the exciting stuff that makes you want to play a specific ancestry. Dragonborn breath fire. Humans get a feat. Major traits are things that members of that ancestry actively use, and which typically have some distinct mechanical benefit that players can bring into play at will.

Minor traits are less flashy, but still important. They are typically “passive” benefits, meaning that they just hang out in the background until they matter, but you don’t need to do anything to actively use them. That doesn’t mean that they’re not powerful, just that they’re typically not as flashy. Darkvision and resistance to fire damage are good examples of a minor trait.

And that’s it. That’s the extent of the framework. Ability scores, two skills, one active trait, two passive traits. Numerous races already fit into it (with some minor changes to wording, especially around ability scores), and we can adjust the rest without too much work.

Exceptions to the Rules

DnD is a game built on exceptions to the rules, so naturally there needs to be room for exceptions within a system around designing races. In my proposed system, most races would fit neatly into the rules above, but occasionally exceptions may be necessary.

For example: If you want a race with two “active” traits (such as the Fairy from The Wild Beyond the Witchlight, which has both flight and innate spellcasting), it needs to come at a significant cost. Replace either both passive traits or one passive trait and the racial skill proficiencies feels like an appropriate trade.

Example Ancestries and Heritages

Human

  • Type: Humanoid
  • Size: Medium
  • Speed: 30
  • Ability Score Increases: Choice of +2/+1 increases or three +1 increases (note that this is a weird exception)
  • Skills: Any 2. Humans frequently select Athletics, Medicine, Performance, and Religion.
  • Major Trait: One Feat.
  • Minor Trait: Fast Learner: Choose two proficiencies from among any type of artisan tool, vehicle, or language.
  • Minor Trait: Varies by Heritage.

That also leaves us room for human heritages, which we’ve never really seen in DnD as far as I know. Maybe a Warrior Family heritage offers proficiencies in some martial weapons. Maybe an Outlander heritage offers something related to surviving in the wilderness. You could do region-specific heritages to describe human ethnicities within your setting, like maybe people from Waterdeep are naturally suspicious and get +1d4 to Insight checks to detect lies. There’s room for creativity there, and new settings and sourcebooks could add new heritages on a regular basis.

I do have some concerns here that this version of the human would be too powerful. Variant humans are already really good because feats are really good, so there’s some room to iterate on this design. Maybe humans can only pick “half feats” that also offer an ability score increase, but then give up the extra increase. Maybe humans give up that second minor trait to remove that restriction. Heck, that could be a heritage on its own. Call it “family secret” or “gifted heritage” or something.

Half-Orc

  • Type: Humanoid
  • Size: Medium
  • Speed: 30
  • Ability Score Increases: +2 Strength, +1 Constitution, +1 any other, or you may use Custom Ability Score Increases.
  • Skills: Any 2. Half-Orcs frequently select Animal Handling, Athletics, Intimidation, and Survival.
  • Major Trait: Savage Critical. (I would probably also change this trait’s benefits because it’s not good enough to be a major trait as-written).
  • Minor Trait: Darkvision.
  • Minor Trait: Relentless Endurance.

Remember how I said that some races already fit neatly into the framework without much change? The only things that I’ve changed about the Half-Orc are that they get an extra skill. I might also improve Savage Critical. If humans get a feat, major traits need to be a bit more impactful than Savage Critical.

If we wanted to make heritages an option for the half-orc, we could easily trade out any number of things. The Orc’s Aggressive trait could be another option for a major trait. We might make darkvision optional to portray more prominent human heritage, replacing it with traits borrowed from the Human, or we might even allow selecting a “parental heritage” for the human parent and allow the half-orc to use that minor heritage. Now suddenly in the space of one paragraph we’ve got enough ideas for half-orcs to fill a book.

Tiefling

  • Type: Humanoid
  • Size: Medium
  • Speed: 30
  • Ability Score Increases: +2 Charisma, +1 determined by your heritage, +1 any other, or you may use Custom Ability Score Increases.
  • Skills: Any 2. Tieflings frequently select Animal Handling, Athletics, Intimidation, and Survival.
  • Major Trait: Varies by Heritage.
  • Minor Trait: Darkvision.
  • Minor Trait: Varies by Heritage.

Tieflings also fit nicely into the framework with little modification, but they’re a much more complex case than the Half-Orc because they have subraces/variants, and because those subraces/variants were introduced after their original publication.

The Asmodeus Tiefling (the one in the PHB) would provide a +1 Intelligence increase, the spellcasting from the PHB as a major trait, and fire resistance as a minor trait. Other existing subraces provide a different +1 increase, different innate spellcasting, and either cold or fire resistance. The Winged variant would offer the fly speed as a major trait and fire resistance as a minor trait. I’m not sure what their +1 would be, but Intelligence would stay closest to the official rules text.

Conclusion

And just like that we’ve reinvented how ancestries work (remember, we renamed races), how they’re designed, and the choices which players get to make while selecting their ancestry. With all that, we’ve shown that we can adapt many races into the new framework with extremely minor changes, all without making ancestries any stronger than existing options (though see my notes under the Human entry above).

Let’s try something fun: If you have a favorite race, try adapting them to my ancestry design framework and post it in the comments below. If you’re feeling adventurous, you might also include a heritage or two. It won’t take long, especially if you copy+paste the bulleted list above for formatting.

24 Comments

  1. DaDarkDrake September 27, 2021
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