DnD 5e - The Half-Elf Handbook
Last Updated: February 22nd, 2020
I will use the color coding scheme which has become common among Pathfinder build handbooks, which is simple to understand and easy to read at a glance.
- : Bad, useless options, or options which are extremely situational.
- : OK options, or useful options that only apply in rare circumstances.
- : Good options.
- : Fantastic options, often essential to the function of your character.
I will not include 3rd-party content, including content from DMs Guild, even if it is my own, because I can't assume that your game will allow 3rd-party content or homebrew. I also won't cover Unearthed Arcana content because it's not finalized, and I can't guarantee that it will be available to you in your games.
The Half-Elf is among the most powerful races in the core rules. It's a top-tier race option for several classes, and even for classes where the Half-Elf isn't a perfect fit it's at least workable. Two flexible ability increases and two free skill proficiencies are useful on essentially any character, plus you get Darkvision and a +2 Charisma increase. If those traits don't quite work for you, the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide includes variants which allow you to exchange part of your racial traits for other options.
The Half-Elf's biggest competition is from the Variant Human, which has similar ability increases and with the versatility of a feat the Variant Human can often provide the same build versatility that makes the Half-Elf so appealing. In cases where you need a lot of one thing (a lot of cantrips, a lot of skills, etc.) the Variant Human is better. In cases where you need a bit of everything, the Half-Elf is better.
Your ability increases work fine, and more skills are always helpful, but the Variant Human is a better option. The High Elf variant can get you an extra wizard cantrip, but Variant Human with Magic Initiate gets two. High Elf and Wood Elf get you access to some martial weapons, but Battlesmith will make that redundant and other subclasses will do better with cantrips.
If you want to use Charisma-based skills like Intimidate, a Half-Elf Barbarian is an interesting choice. You can get some interesting options from the Half-Elf variants, but typically the vanilla Half-Elf is your best option.
An obvious and fantastic choice, nearly every Half-Elf bard will put their flexible ability increases into Dexterity and Constitution, and with the fixed +2 Charisma increase you're ready for any bard sublcass that catches your fancy. Two extra skills will help broaden your skillset, but since you get Jack of All Trades as a bard you may prefer to take a variant. For example: High Elf can get you a wizard cantrip, including powerful offensive options like Booming Blade or Firebolt which aren't on the Bard's spell list.
Charisma isn't especially useful for the Cleric, but Persuasion is on their class skill list, and with two additional skills you can easily pick up Deception, Insight, Intimidation, and Persuasion, and have all of the Face skills. Half-Elf Variants offer access to some other useful options like Elf Weapon Training so that you can use a bow or a cantrip from the Wizard spell list if you like to fight in melee and want to use Booming Blade or something else that the Cleric normally can't get. But in either of those cases you could accomplish the same goal with a Variant Human, and the Variant Human will typically be more effective.
The ability scores work fine, but Charisma is largely wasted on the Druid. You can still pick up some Face skills, but none of them except Insight are on the Druid's class skill list so you're totally dependent on your free racial skills. You might consider the Wood Elf variant to get Mask of the Wild, but at that point a Wood Elf is more effective. You might consider the High Elf variant with Circle of Spores, but a Variant Human with Magic Initiate will be more effective. Half-Elf is by no means a poor choice for Druid, but nearly any way that you build your character another race will be slightly better for your build.
Mark of Detection offers some interesting options. In addition to a Wisdom increase, the dragonmark expands your spell list to include numerous divination options which are otherwise unavailable to druids. Druids are very good at some types of spellcasting, but compared to the Cleric their divination options are limited, so expanding those capabilities can be a significant addition to your capabilities.
Charisma is wasted on most fighters, but the Purple Dragon Knight has some Charisma-based abilities, and you could easily serve as your party's Face. If you plan to dump Charisma, you have enough skills that with the right background and an emphasis on Dexterity you can easily fill in for a rogue. Half-elves get access to the Prodigy feat, which lets you get some extra proficiencies and Expertise in one skill, which is very appealing for a fighter who likes to rely on Grapple and Shove. You might also consider the Drow variant to get some magical options since fighters have so few options to approach problems that require magic.
A Champion Fighter can make excellent use of the Elven Accuracy feat; if you can get Advantage on an attack (easy if you Shove your target prone), you have a 27.10% chance to score a critical on a 19-20 and a 38.59% chance to score a critical hit on a 18-20, making critical hits not only common but nearly a mathermatical certainty. If you're extremely ambitious you might combine Elven Accuracy, 3 levels of Champion Fighter, and a big pile of Barbarian levels for Brutal Critical.
The monk is a fine fit for the Half-Elf, but your Charisma is largely wasted and in every build you can think of a different race (typically a Wood Elf or a Variant Human) will be a better option. Still, you get everything that you need to be a successful monk, and if you don't want the extra skills the variant Half-Elf traits offer some interesting options.
A perfect fit for the Half-Elf, the Paladin needs three good ability scores and one happens to be Charisma. You can easily play your party's Face, or if you prefer you could trade away your extra skills for variant Half-Elf traits.
The Half-Elf makes a fine ranger, and the free skills help close the skill gap between the Ranger and the Rogue. However, aside from the skills the Wood Elf is typically a better option.
Do you like skills? Do you want to have all of the skills? Normally you would play a bard, but a Half-Elf rogue with the right background can start with a total of 8 skill proficiencies. You can take the Prodigy feat to get more proficiencies and Expertise in another skill, but usually what you get from the class is sufficient. You could also take Elven Accuracy, and if you're relying on Advantage to deliver Sneak attack the extra die improved your chance of rolling a natural 20 (and therefore a critical hit) from 9.75% to 14.26%. And if you've ever gotten to roll a critical hit with Sneak Attack you understand how exciting it is to roll all of those dice.
Dexterity, Constitution, Charisma. With the free skills you can easily play your Party's Face, or you might get crazy and use the free skills and your background to get skills to let you replace a rogue. The Half-Elf variants don't offer much of interest, unfortunately. High Elf can get you another cantrip, but Sorcerers get more cantrips than any other class, and the Sorcerer and Wizard spell lists overlap considerably, so there isn't a ton to be gained there unless you really, really like cantrips.
Mark of the Storm gets an honorable mention here: Half-elves already make great sorcerers, but if you really want to double down on Storm Sorcery, Mark of the Storm fits thematically and can add some additional options which complement the subclass.
Much like the Bard, the Warlock is a perfect fit for the Half-Elf. Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma set you up for nearly any Warlock build. Extra skills can broaden your capabilities beyond magic, but definitely consider variant options if they seem appealing.
Sorcerer and Warlock are better options for the Half-Elf because the ability scores line up beetter, but the Half-Elf still has everything that they need to be a successful wizard.
If you can get Advantage reliability, this is a fantastic feat. The +1 ability increase is nice, but the reroll mechanic is the real draw here. You need Advantage to trigger the reroll, but you can reroll one die each time you roll with Advantage (though you're limited to attack/checks/saves with the four lister ability scores), so Advantage is essentially rolling three dice and choosing the highest.
The extra proficiencies are great, but the main reason why you want this feat is for Expertise. This is a go-to option for Barbarians, Fighters, and other martial characters who plan to use Grapple or Shove in combat, and if you can spare the Ability Score Increase to take a feat, it will save you the trouble of multiclassing into Rogue.
Half-Elves treat Dragonmarks like a variant, replacing the Half-Elf's Ability Score Increases and Versatility traits.
Mark of Detection
Dropping the Half-Elf's Charisma increase in favor of a bigger Wisdom increase predisposed the Half-Elf to spellcasting classes like Cleric and Druid, but other classes like the Monk and the Ranger are still great options. Even classes which only tangentially benefit from Wisdom are still viable, so fighters, rogues, and and number of other classes can still work thanks to the remaining flexible ability increase. Of course, spellcasting classes get the most out of Dragonmarks because of the expanded spell options.
Mark of Storm
Thematically interesting, and a great complement to the Storm Sorcery Sorcerer, but otherwise a very niche option. The spells are neat, but nearly all of them are situational and often difficult to rely upon. The proficiencies have the same issue. Even the ability score increases will limit Mark of the Storms appeal. Resistance to lightning is great, but that's not enough to make this broadly appealing.