Last Updated: September 27, 2021
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 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.
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.
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”.
Every ancestry will have some fundamental, basic traits: size, creature type, and movement speed.
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.
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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
Would this work?
Ability Score Increases: +2 Dexterity, +1 determined by your heritage, +1 any other, or you may use Custom Ability Score Increases.
Skills: Any 2. Halflings frequently select Animal Handling, Nature, Performance, and Stealth.
Major Trait: Varies by Heritage.
Minor Trait: Halfling Nimbleness.
Minor Trait: Varies by Heritage.
Major Trait would be Lucky for most, the innate spellcasting for the Lotusden.
Minor Traits would be Silent Speech, Naturally Stealthy, Timberwalk, and Stout Resilience.
That’s great! Making Lucky the major trait and sharing it between heritages is a great idea that I hadn’t thought of. Well done!
It’ll be interesting to see the Mordenkainens Monsters of the Multiverse as it’ll feature 30 re-do’s of PC races.
Yeah, I wrote this before I knew that was happening, so I’m pretty excited too.
I think my baseline expectation is that everything will get the same ability scores options that the Van Richten’s lineages and Witchlight races got (+2/1 or 3 +1s), and hopefully they’ll rebalance some of the weaker PHB races. We might also get updated dragonborn based on Fizban’s, but I don’t know if WotC is going to re-print those so quickly.
My race handbooks are going to get weird if we essentially have three versions of 30 races.
Ability Score Increases: +1 Dexterity, +1 Charisma,+1 Varies +1 any other, or you may use Custom Ability Score Increases.
Skills: Any 2. Tabaxi frequently select Perception, Stealth, Acrobatics, and Survival.
Major Trait: Feline Agility.
Minor Trait: Dark vision.
Minor Trait: Varies.
Ability Scores: + 1 Dexterity
Minor Trait: Cat Claws (Climbing Speed + Claw Attack)
Ability Scores: + 1 Strength
Minor Trait: Apex Predator (Swim Speed + Claw Attack)
Ability Scores: + 1 Constitution
Minor Trait: Heavy Fur (Cold Resistance)
Ability Scores: + 1 Intelligence or +1 Charisma
Minor Trait: Magical tale (Gain one Cantrip from the Wizard or Sorcerer Spell list)
I see some interesting ideas there. Why a swim speed for the jungle heritage? I know there are many real-world cat species that live in jungles and do a fair bit of climbing. And would the Charisma increase from the Arcane heritage stack with the core ancestry increases?
Jungle cause of jaguars which are apex predators they can even kill crocoidles in the water. And most felines like water. Just house cats usually dont like it. Thats why most people are surprised to hear that tigers and other big cats love to swim. 🙂
Regarding the charisma. Yes you either have a plus 2 dex and 1 charisma like normal or vice versa with arcane. As i mostly play wizards i would need the int anyway 🙂
Stacking the increases like that is clever. Great idea!
A thought – to avoid a copyright battle, which no one wants, perhaps WOTC could continue to use ‘Lineage’ to denote ‘Heritage’, but use something like ‘Origin’, maybe, for PF2e’s ‘Ancestry’. Same concept, different word out of the thesaurus.
That could work. Fortunately, I don’t think Paizo can claim a copyright on the usage of “Ancestry” or “Heritage” since those are pretty generic terms. They also publish all of their rules content under the Open Gaming License, so WotC is free to duplicate, reprint, and sell whatever they want. The OGL is really permissive, which is why we get cool stuff like Archives of Nethys.
I really like your approach cause after tashas abiltiy scores have become obsolete. All my character have the same ability spread. With the system after tahsas you could even take it away from race and just increase ability score management from 8-15 to 8-17. Why should you select abiltiy scores and then again in the race section when almost all races have the same abiltiy scores?
But with your approach which i think what was i hoped when info about tashas leaked would look like. I still can play my favorite lineage/class combination but at least i have to somehow adapt to the lineage and not almost ignore it. However when tashas came out i had a lot of disturbing discussions about this topic and i have the feeling 80% of the comunity would find your suggestion extremly racist. An orc and a gnome are on average the same intelligence all else is racism. Which as you pointed out makes not a lot of sense as their biology is litteraly different. My cat can jump higher then me and i can open cans better then it. Thats not culture thats biology.
Size: Small at levels 1-4. Medium at levels 5+
Ability Score Increases: +2 Charisma, +1 Constitution, +1 any other, or you may use Custom Ability Score Increases.
Skills: Any 2. Verdan frequently select Insight, Perception, Performance and Persuasion
Major Trait: Black Blood Healing – Whenever the character regains hit points (from a Potion of Healing, Cure Wounds spell, etc) you may also spend a single Hit Dice and add the character’s Constitution modifier to it and regain extra hit points equal to the total. Additionally, whenever you roll a Hit Dice you spent to regain hit points (including from Black Blood Healing), you may reroll the dice once and must use the new result. (Improved to be more useful to all classes and deserve being a major trait).
Minor Trait: Limited Telepathy.
Minor Trait: Telepathic Insight.
Since I might be the only person in the world who cares about the Verdan, I wanted to see if I could rework them into this framework and give Black Blood Healing a little impact.
And I share your appreciation for the Verdan. Random used the Verdan as the race choice for our Hexblade Warlock example build!
I’m not generally a fan of this method, mostly because there isn’t room for those “ancestries and heritages” that have multiple minor traits that add up to being worthwhile to take and not unbalanced, rather than having a chunky “major trait” and 2 minor traits. Also, some major traits, minor traits, and combinations thereof are going to be stronger than others, if only because not all traits are created equal.
I didn’t specifically call out the idea of an ancestry/lineage with numerous minor traits, but I tried to address exceptions in the “Exceptions to the Rules” section. D&D is a game built on rules and exceptions to those rules, and race design shouldn’t be any different. There’s certainly room within my proposed system to create ancestries built entirely around minor traits, but since my intent was that minor traits are typically “passive” I imagine that those ancestries would be infrequent exceptions.
And you’re absolutely right that certain combinations of traits would be stronger/weaker than others. There’s no way to make a perfectly balanced system unless literally every option is identical. My hope was that by creating a clearer, explicit design framework we could avoid having ancestries which are hugely out of bounds with the rest of the available options.
I love this style, but I worry you would have to neuter heritages to make them feel balanced using this framework. Like, compare a high elf to a drow. Both give some version of spellcasting, as well as weapon proficiencies and altered environmental abilities, either with a bonus language or extended dark vision. Those are what 5E considers their unique traits. How do we realistically condense those into balanced bonuses?
Idea for the half orc savage critical:
Confirm the Kill – Turn one successful attack hit into a critical one. You must finish a long rest to use this feature again.
The Drow would be a great example of an exception to this framework. By adding Sunlight Sensitivity (which is a serious drawback), you make room for additional traits. I think the Drow’s Innate Spellcasting would be a good trade.
And I love that trait for a half-orc! That would be a lot of fun on a lot of builds, and it would definitely make the half-orc appealing for characters using something other than a greataxe.
I honestly thought the drow innate spellcasting was perfectly fine. My issue was that the high elf doesn’t seem to have enough going for it to compare. A cantrip and a bonus language doesn’t seem right, at least under this new system, in light of Major traits being activated effects. I’d propose their own set of innate spells, or perhaps some other sort of ability that fits their theme.
Half elf would be very interesting to see here. Perhaps they would be like human, except limited to the half-feats, to reflect that sweet extra ASI boost? Relating back to elves, I hope their fey ancestry and trance would be one trait, but perhaps this would be a good opportunity to drop darkvision from some of the core races? It’s a nitpick, but I’ve always felt it was too common of an ability.
Gaaah! My mind bursts with the cool ideas! This is a very good post/blog/article!
The High Elf in the core rules definitely didn’t have enough going for it, but the availability of Booming Blade made it a really powerful race in a lot of builds where previously it was just “the generic wizard race”. I think going for some pre-set innate spellcasting could work, but I might also say something like choose one cantrip and then one innate 1st-level spell chosen at character creation. Choice is very powerful, especially since it gets more powerful as new books are added.
I agree with you that too many things have Darkvision, but they dumped low-light vision for simplicity so this is what we got. I think if we brought back low-light vision as a way to remove Disadvantage on Perception in dim light we could make a lot of neat changes. But it adds complexity, which isn’t always good.
I’m glad that your having fun ideas!
Speed: 25 (unchanged due to armor or encumbrance)
Ability Score Increases: +2 Constitution, +1 determined by your heritage, +1 any other, or you may use Custom Ability Score Increases.
Skills: Any 2. Dwarves frequently select Religion, Athletics, Intimidation, and History.
Major Trait: Varies by Heritage.
Minor Trait: Stonecunning.
Minor Trait: Dwarven Resilience
Major Trait: Battle Ready (you may make a single attack as a bonus action. You must finish a short rest to use this feature again.)
Major Trait: Natural Sprinters (dash as a bonus action, towards enemy)
Major Trait: Innate Duergar Magic (you may cast invisibility and the enlarge spell on yourself each once per long rest, but not in direct sunlight)
Bonus Trait: Superior Darkvision
Drawback: Disadvantage on attack rolls and perception checks against targets in direct sunlight.
I like a lot of that! Deviating from the existing traits for Mountain/Hill heritages is a fun idea, and I like how you handled the Duergar’s extra traits. Ninjadeadbeard and I discussed something similar for the Drow, and it’s cool to see a working example.
I’m assuming that “Natural Sprinters” is a Lord of the Rings reference. It got a good chuckle out of me.
So I really appreciated reading this article when it came out as it scratched an itch I’ve been having lately over races. In fact, I’ve since used a derived approach to convert 25+! races but as I was working I ran into some issues and made some changes.
The core issues I ran into were I personally don’t like the idea of normalizing +3s for everyone, a major trait and two minors isn’t enough to really capture differences between some of the races, and it’s really hard to come up with semi balanced ‘active’ major traits and two semi balanced ‘passive’ minor traits that are actually distinct enough to be interesting.
As I read it, it seemed like the optional +1 had no restrictions, and I really would have appreciated a lot more discussion of the effects of that, how it vastly enhances SAD over MAD, puts 18 at level 1 guaranteed, and how at tables that roll for stats (4d6 drop lowest), a group of 6 people can expect 2 of them to start at level 1 with a 20 in their primary stat. Bounded accuracy absolutely helps limit how critical that is and I can see arguments for it, I just felt like the article needed to address that. Personally from a design perspective, I really enjoy enhancing MAD classes and the ease of their playability, so I changed it to a +1 that must be in a different stat than the assigned +2/+1, which definitely enhances MAD and doesn’t help most SAD much, near every class can use a +1, except for *maybe* Dex/Con builds (e.g. Dex Fighter) as the only real spot they might put it into is Str for Grapple or Wis for saving throws. Everyone else can almost always benefit from higher Dex for initiative and Dex saves.
The issue I ran into with limiting it only to one major and two minors is it became very difficult to capture the identity of Elves (minor being Darkvision and Fey Nature (Trance+Fey Ancestry) while differentiating their versions like High Elf, but simultaneously capturing the identity of Half-Elves (minor traits being Darkvision and Fey Ancestry+maybe you could do something instead of trance) while also making Half Elf/High elf different than High Elf. I elected to add a Optional third minor trait that helps capture more of the core identity of races, and that allowed all Half Elves to get “choose a human minor trait” while maintaining Darkvision and Fey Ancestry as minor traits. (In our case, Half Elves/High Elf and High Elves share the same major trait of something akin to Tiefling’s Infernal Legacy, but High Elves get Trance+Elf Weapon Training v Human minor trait).
The last issue I ran into was coming up with enough Passive minor traits that are balanced while being interestingly distinct enough. It’s really, really hard and I decided to instead use it more of as balancing guideline. Major traits are *supposed* to be fundamental reasons to pick a race over something else, their key defining feature like aarakocra flight, dragonborn breath, Aasimar Transformations etc. and minor traits are often passive but don’t have to be, focusing more on smaller features like Darkvision, Brave, natural weapons, but also Healing Hands which is notably active but not a key part (but very thematic, thus I’d hate to see it go).
Besides the criticisms, there are some great ideas here and I’ve really appreciated the inspiration. I’d be very curious to see how you handle Half Elves v Elves, as well as balancing the different Aasimar transformations. Dark Vision and Gnome Cunning are good for Gnomes but what are their major features between heritages? For say Dwarves, how do you capture all of their key parts (like Mountain Dwarf) without cutting too much out?
Wow, it sounds like you really had some fun ideas from this! That’s great! Converting 25+ races is really impressive. If you’d like to share any of them, I’d really love to see it.
On the subject of ability scores, I totally I agree with you and for all of the exact reasons that you listed. I did a bad job in the article explaining how I intended the +1 flexible increase to work, but all of the example races I included specifically say “+1 any other”. I didn’t want anyone getting +3 increases at level 1, I didn’t want to upset the fundamental math of the game, and I certainly didn’t want to make the game favor SAD builds any more than it already does. Poor writing on my part, but I think you and I are in vigorous agreement on the subject.
I see your point regarding the limitations on the minor traits. Making each race feel mechanically distinct could definitely become difficult within such a strictly-defined system, but I’d argue that we already have that problem in many cases. A lot of races have a huge amount of overlap with many other races, and things like Darkvision and skill proficiencies are some of the biggest culprits. Part of my intent here was to lean into that idea, accept that there’s a ton of overlap, and just make that part of the baseline assumptions of how racial traits work.
With those shared basic assumptions, we have more room to make the major traits interesting. Innate spellcasting, a feat, flight, the aasimar’s transformation, those are all exciting, unique features of the race, and every race should have something which is at least that mechanically distinct. I love half-elves mechanically because they’re very powerful, but they’re still boring because they don’t have any active traits. They don’t get cool button to push. Conversely, dragonborn are really weak but people still play them because they have a cool button to push (and because dragons are cool).
Again, I think you and I are in vigorous agreement about a lot of things here. Having an optional third minor trait could be cool, especially if it adds flavor but little mechanical impact. “Ribbon” abilities, if you will. Things like the Tabaxi’s claws, which are objectively worse than a dagger, but still make the race feel flavorful. And of course, I did specify that there will always be exceptions to the rules, and things like the Aasimar’s Healing Touch are a good example of an exception.
Half-elves are hard to answer quickly. I’d have to give elves a good long look before I could answer half-elves. Gnomes are tough, too, but I think I’d give forest gnomes innate spellcasting with Minor Illusion and Animal Friendship limited to tiny beasts, and for rock gnomes I’d make their Tinker trait do something actually useful, like give them a temporary tool or implement of some kind.
Ah, I double checked and still missed that it forbade +3s.
I do agree we have the issue with races having overlap currently, but we can definitely try to do our best to fix that too since we’re here. Upon some reflection, I think the biggest reason why I feel like you need a third minor trait is in large part due to Darkvision, (minor traits being usually flavor+skill prof, or some weapon proficiencies, or natural weapons, rarer situational advantages. Definitely stronger than a ribbon, but definitely not a major draw to the race either). I think a perfectly alternate approach would have been to just make Darkvision a yes/no and if you don’t get it, you get a Major/Moderate/Minor instead of Major/Minor/Minor or something along those lines.
I absolutely agree about the Major Traits, and I think your words here are not quite what I interpreted from the article, where Major Traits are the primary draw to a class, not necessarily a flashing ‘click me’ button. Aarakocra absolutely have their flying as their major trait, just as Bugbear have Long-Limbed, and Tortle’s with their natural armor. What I do agree from the article is that nearly every race should get a resource or a button to press. I think some of the new racial feature scaling off prof bonus is great for this and helps you avoid the classic “this is very strong at levels 1-4 and falls off after that” that some racial features have.
That being said a lot of these have to answer the perpetual question of: Why would I play this over a variant human (or customized origin)? Since One Major two Minor traits are relatively few, either every major trait is a feat or slightly better equivalent, (which is where I ran into issues to some degree with a hard fast rule on two minor traits. Am I building a race with different features or just races with a preselected feat? Which for a simpler dnd like game, might be the way to go.) I’ll put in some examples and what I did to variant humans. The other major note is these are a bit beefier than PHB races in power level, the extra +1, and attempting to bring everything up a bit to surpass a variant human with a strong feat is pretty much why. Other note is if you can choose where attributes go you don’t get to put them into a stat that is also increased by your race.
Also, these are very much first draft and need a fair amount of work, comments and feedback appreciated.
+2: None, +1: Choice, +1 Choice (not eligible for +1/+1/+1 or +2/+1 rule)
Major: One Feat
Minor: Fast Learner
Minor: Winter Hardened: You have advantage on Saving throws against cold damage. Additionally, you add a bonus equal to your proficiency when making survival checks in a snow covered area.
half elf/high: (8)
+2: Charisma, +1: Intelligence, +1 Choice
Major: Childhood Magical Training: You know one cantrip from the Wizard spell list. Once you reach 3rd level, you can cast the Suggestion spell once as a 2nd-level spell. Once you reach 5th level, you can also cast the Misty Step spell once. You must finish a long rest to cast these spells again with this trait. Intelligence is your spellcasting ability for these spells.
Minor: Fey Ancestry: You have advantage on Saving throws against being charmed, and magic can’t put you to sleep.
Minor: Choose a Human Heritage trait. // half Xs will generally have one of these and be slightly weaker but allow better customization
elf/high elf: (8.25)
+2 Dexterity, +1 Intelligence, +1 Choice
Major: Childhood Magical Training (same as above)
Minor: Fey Descendent: You have advantage on Saving throws against being charmed, and magic can’t put you to sleep. Additionally you do not sleep. Instead you meditate, remaining semi-concious for 4 hours a day. After resting in this way you gain the same benefit a human would from 6 hours of sleep.
Minor: Elf Weapon Training
So here we see half elf/high v elf/high are stat differences, and then Elf Weapon Training + Trance v Human heritage trait choice which I think is a nice “these are very similar but not quite” distinction while being a fair trade.
half-orc/human heritage (8)
+2 Strength, +1 Constitution, +1 Choice
Major: Savage Attacks: When you score a critical hit with a melee weapon Attack, you can choose one of the weapon’s damage dice and add its maximum value to the extra damage of the critical hit.
Minor: Choose a Human heritage trait
Minor: Choose an Orc heritage trait // could leave darkvision off as a fixed minor trait here
orc/names are hard (8)
+2 Strength, +1 Constitution, +1 Choice
Major Traits: Aggressive: Once per turn, immediately before you make an attack against a creature, you may move up to 1/2 your speed toward the target. This requires you to have a speed above 0. You must end this move closer to the enemy than you started.
Minor Traits: Darkvision
Minor Trait: Opportunistic: When you make an opportunity attack against a creature within 5′, you have advantage.
Minor Trait: Powerful Build
aven/hawk (8.75?) // One of the cooler ones to me, but difficult to evaluate for me
+2 Dexterity, +1 Wisdom, +1 Choice, Speed: 25
Major: Aven Flying: You gain a flying speed of 30′ while not wearing medium or heavy armor.
Minor: Hawkeyed: Attacking at long range doesn’t impose disadvantage on your ranged weapon attack rolls.
Minor: Quick Thrower: As a bonus action you can make a ranged attack with a thrown weapon that does not have the two handed property. You are able to do this a number of times up to your proficiency bonus. In order to regain expended uses, you must complete a long rest.
Minor: Oketra Training: You are proficient with light armor, nets, spears, and daggers.
I have many, many others of varying interesting-ness levels. Some like Aarakocra were pretty much directly ported (with nerfed flying speed, walking speed, but they can cast Gust now: a reference to them flying in groups using Gust on each other to enhance their flying speed), and others have pretty major changes making them hard to evaluate. Everything is targeted for around 8-8.75 in the power scale to at least pretend there’s balance. Let me know if you want the google sheet shared, there’s around 60 options following this rough format, over 50 major traits and over 100 minor traits (although some of them are pretty boring “You are resistant to BLANK damage”). I’m planning on slowing down the rate of new ones since I’ve fleshed out most of the major non UA options and focus on improving them and trying to get them in front of more eyes to see how interesting or unbalanced these are. Some were exceptionally challenging like yuan-ti (which honestly probably needs even more work), and others took about 5m because they just directly ported in cleanly (like Goliath, Stone’s Endurance is major, minor traits are powerful build, resistant to cold, and optional minor is athletics+adapted to high altitude).
Cool system! You briefly mentioned it, but would you simply have Dragonmark-like spellcasting be a major/minor trait or would it simply be part of a race like the 2 skills? I’d argue that it could be considered a minor trait, at least the part where it merely adds spells to a player’s arsenal. I’d also prefer if the current Dragonmarks were divided in half and offered as a choice, one side being the cool abilities tied with them while the other added the spells.
I’m not quite sure how I would handle dragonmarks in this system. My first instinct is just to make them provide innate spellcasting. The fact that dragonmarks add spells to spell lists but don’t do anything interesting for non-casters is frustrating.
That’s a fair point. As a frequent player of spellcaster classes, I do find dragonmarks nice for the purpose of altering my available spells, as besides multiclassing and a few feats the spell list of a given character can start to feel stagnant after several campaigns.
My previous suggestion was each of a race’s heritage to have 2 options, a “spell” one and a “martial” one. For the sake of example, the Mark of Finding Half-Orc would either allow a character to pick the expanded lists of spells known or gain access to Darkvision and Hunter’s Intuition. Obviously that isn’t a great trade, and if I was going to homebrew it I’d likely make the “martial” option have abilities equivalent to a “major trait”.
Edit: I would add to Cursed above that a kenku can never be a Leader of a Minion. And the penalty for failing to learn a spell can be negated with Roleplay at DM’s discretion.
My actual post about kenku stats didn’t make it, just the erratum, I think.
Anyway with the new Mordenkainen removing the roleplaying challenge of Kenku (which I admit worked only in play-by-post or email), all “races” are just re-skinned humans, with nothing forcing you to imagine how a non-human might process thought or feelings or speech (maybe still lizardfolk)? So I would like to add to your cool suggested system some optional Challenge Traits for Varsity DND, or tournaments. Like Kenku’s curse, but with mechanical rather than Roleplay implications.
Very cool stuff and lots of good work. I’ve thought for a while a more “point buy” type system of features would be good for D&D. Speaking of, I think point buy is the better way to do stats, and help make the rest of this system work better than rolling.
I wonder if the new One D&D changes will help make this type of system easier to do, or harder? So far I feel like easier, but I guess it’s in flux for now, so hard to tell.