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This article first appeared on D&D Beyond. I’ve stripped most of the references to the D&D Beyond to keep the advice here more universal and streamlined. If you want advice on how to build a background specifically in D&D Beyond, check out that version of the article.
When it comes to designing new elements of D&D, there are few pieces of the game as important to get right as new races. The story and mechanics of a player character’s race come up multiple times during every session of play.
The same reasons to be careful while designing a race are also what make building a new one so fun and rewarding. You’re adding a big piece of to the game! Unlike a spell, feat, monster, or magic item that your players might ignore most of the time, an original race sets your game apart from all others. Getting the balance right might seem daunting, but don’t let that stop you.
Like previous Design Workshop articles, I’m going to go through the process of creating a race step-by-step.
Before You Start, Ask the Important Questions
Before you begin to design any new element of the game, don’t forget to ask these three questions, the importance of which are discussed in the How to Make a D&D Background post:
- What do I want to make?
- Does my creation already exist as official D&D content?
- Can I reskin or tweak another creation to suit my needs?
If the race you’re considering designing doesn’t already exist and can’t be built by tweaking an existing one, it’s time to design your own.
The Dungeon Master’s Guide provides guidelines for creating a new race (and subrace), which are great. I’ll expand on what’s provided and vary the steps in the process to give a more in-depth look. All races have the following components you need to design:
- Racial Traits
For this article, I created a new race called farfolk. These humanoids are influenced by the Far Realm.
Step 1. Story
The story of your race should be broken down into at least four sections, each of which should be at least one paragraph.
The introduction of your race should give an overview of what the people of the race are like, where they come from, and where they live. Some of these opening descriptions, like the one for the dwarf, are no longer than a sentence, while others, like the genasi, go on for several paragraphs. Give enough information for a general overview of your race before diving into the details.
Provide at least a paragraph of physical description for your race. Include body types and shape, color options for hair, skin, and eyes, fashion sensibilities, and anything else that sets your race apart from the rest. Start this section with a short heading that let’s players reading the description prepare for what’s ahead and get reminded of the race’s appearance when they come back to it. For instance, the physical description for elves has the header “Slender and Graceful,” which sums up elf physiology quite well. These headers are valuable both as a quick summary for the reader but also as a focus for you as you design your new race.
Attitudes and Philosophies
Provide at least a paragraph about the typical attitudes, philosophies, religions, and reasons for adventuring that your race has. How does your race differ from others in these areas? As with the physical description section, add a header to sum-up your race’s attitudes and philosophies.
Other Story Sections
You can choose to add as many other sections as you like to your race’s story. You could add a section about where the race typically lives, like the halfling’s “Pastoral Pleasantries” section, a section about how your race views other races, like the lizardforlk’s “Hapless Soft Ones” section, or sections about strange customs, unique behaviors, and the like. Add as much description as you like and don’t forget your helpful headers.
After all your story sections are complete, write a final section about your race’s naming conventions and include example names. How many names does a typical member of your race have? Who do they inherit any familial names from? Do they have nicknames? Are their certain sounds or a particular number of syllables these names have?
Here is the sample write-up for the farfolk:
When a pregnant human comes into metaphysical contact with an entity of the Far Realm, their unborn child can become warped and strange, developing into one of the farfolk. Farfolk are able to have children with other farfolk and humans. The offspring these unions also produce farfolk. The strange race are shunned by others for their differences of appearance, but those who befriend the contemplative race know their oddities are gifts.
Alien in Appearance
Though humanoid, farfolk have an otherworldly appearance. Their great black eyes take up much of their bulbous, hairless heads that end in short tentacles. Instead of a nose, they sport two nostril slits in the middle of their faces just above their thin-lipped, circular mouths. Farfolk skin can be any shade of blue or purple mottled with marks of black, gray, and red. The hands and fingers of farfolk are long and slender, just like the rest of their spindly bodies. Since farfolk are feared for their alien appearance, they tend to wear baggy, hooded clothing to conceal their features.
Many farfolk feel they belong nowhere and go through much of life as observers while taking in the actions of others. Their cerebral minds analyze every behavior of other races as well as the forces of nature, habits of animals, and the like. These observations teach farfolk about the world they live in. When farfolk interact with others, they use behaviors and phrases they learned by watching others. A farfolk abandoned by its parents and raised by wolves acts like a wolf, a farfolk raised in a dockside tavern cusses like a sailor, and a farfolk raised in a noble household has manners better than any royalty.
Farfolk tend to be on the move, not just because they’re unwelcome or restless, but also because they feel a need to observe more of the world. The more they observe, they more they understand. Traveling helps a farfolk move beyond mimicking behavior and coming into their own. This wanderlust makes adventuring a perfect life for farfolk.
Shunned by Others
Their strange appearance and psionic powers leave other races uncomfortable at best with farfolk. Farfolk who spend coin in a settlement are welcome for a time, but when an accident or crime happens in town, they are the first blamed. Those who know of the Far Realm and the horrors that originate there can be hostile or fascinated by farfolk, depending on their interest in the alien plane. Adventurers of other races tend to overlook a farfolk’s alien physicality and strange observe-and-mimic behavior since they’ve seen worse and know the abilities and mind of the strange race are a boon.
Farfolk with human parents have human names. Farfolk with one or more farfolk parents might have a farfolk name, a multisyllable word that borrows sounds from Deep Speech, using many X and Z sounds. Adult farfolk without a farfolk name sometimes adopt one themselves, to better reflect their heritage.
Farfolk Names: Az’cax’ta, Cazbux, Exvezzeer, Fax’muz, Galzux, Jozzozzox, Lemoxoz, Mezzil, Oztoxizok, Traz’uk, Xalvazat, Zazzcom
Step 2. Racial Traits
It’s time to give your race traits! These mechanical bits of the game can be difficult to balance. I recommend studying what Wizards of the Coast has put out and using the mechanics of races already created to help design your own. Also, it is very important to playtest your race. Because race is such an integral part of a player character, you can only know for sure it’s balanced by playtesting. I’ll go through traits one-by-one and talk about how to balance them.
If you intend to create subraces, the philosophy of balance is the same as it would be for creating a race with no subraces. Balance the race as a whole with its subraces considered. For instance, you should not compare the dwarf, which has three subraces, to the half-orc, which has none. You should compare the duergar, hill dwarf, and the mountain dwarf to the half-orc (and all dwarves to each other).
It does not matter how many traits you choose to save for subraces, as long as each subrace is as powerful as its counterpoint and when combined with the universal racial traits, creates a race that can stand toe-to-toe with the others without overpowering them.
You want one sentence to introduce your race’s traits. For farfolk, I wrote, “Farfolk share certain racial traits as a result of their brush with the energies of the Far Realm.”
Ability Score Increases
Most races get a +2 bonus to one ability and a +1 bonus to another. There are exceptions to this rule. Humans receive a +1 bonus to all ability scores for instance, but this gain is balanced by the fact that humans get no other traits beyond a bonus language. Mountain dwarves get +2 Constitution and +2 Strength, but this gain is balanced by the fact that mountain dwarves are also proficient in light and medium armor. Most classes that rely on Strength in even small ways grant armor proficiency and those that don’t grant the proficiency don’t rely on Strength. If you plan on changing up the normal +2/+1 dynamic, be sure to balance for it elsewhere.
It doesn’t matter which ability scores get your +2/+1 increases, if you’re sticking to the standard. Farfolk get +2 Intelligence and +1 Wisdom.
Let people know at what age your race matures and about how long they live. These numbers help players get an idea of how old an elderly half-orc is and when an elf hits puberty.
Give players an idea of the alignments your race tends to favor.
Give a height and weight range for your race and then their size. If your race is the same size as humans (like tieflings), you can instead write that along with their Medium size.
Provide the race’s base walking speed. Most creatures have a base speed of 30 feet and a few (dwarves, gnomes, and halflings) have a speed of 25 feet. Wood elves are faster than other races with a speed of 35 feet. Most creatures don’t have any special speeds beyond a walking speed, but there are exceptions (like the aarakocra and the triton).
Consider a walking speed of 30 feet the baseline. If a creature has a slower or faster speed or special type of movement (like a flying speed), you need to balance for this later when your adding other traits to your race.
This is where the balancing gets tricky. There are no hard rules for designing a race’s traits. Look at the traits of other races while going through this process. First make a list of the traits you want your race to have. Do those traits or similar ones exist in an official race like darkvision or the ability to cast spells? What else do races with those traits get in addition to those abilities?
To get the balance right, pick an official race that is close to yours and modify it to fit your new race. Is there something that gets close to what you’re creating story-wise? Odds are it is close trait-wise as well.
For instance, farfolk are influenced by another plane’s magic and treated like outsiders, like tieflings. The tiefling traits would be perfect for farfolk with a few tweaks.
I’m going to lift darkvision from tieflings. Many monsters from the Far Realm can see in the dark, so it makes sense that our farfolk can as well.
The tiefling gets Hellish Resistance, which doesn’t exactly fit for the farfolk, but psychic damage resistance makes sense. Psychic damage resistance is not as powerful as resistance to fire, since far more monsters and spells deal fire damage.
To balance the farfolk’s weaker psychic resistance, I could give them another rare resistance, like radiant, but that doesn’t really gel with the race’s story. Another trait is in order. The ghostwise halfling’s Silent Speech trait fits the farfolk’s story, and it’s a fair trade for a weaker resistance. This ability doesn’t boost the farfolk’s combat capabilities or give it a bonus to saves or ability checks, it allows the creature to communicate telepathically with others. It’s a needed small boost.
I also want to give the farfolk some psionic talents, similar to the tiefling’s Infernal Legacy trait. I gave farfolk characters the same trait, but with different spells of the same level. I did make one other change that boosts the power of the trait for farfolk just a bit. No components are required for the spells to give them a psionic flavor (like the mind flayer’s Innate Spellcasting (Psionics) feature). I think this change is minor enough and that the farfolk still lags behind for not having resistance to a more common damage type. That should be ok. I’ll find out if not during playtesting.
That’s enough other traits! The race is almost complete. Just one more thing to do.
Unless you have a very good reason, your race should be able to at least be able to read, speak, and write Common. Adding one language beyond this won’t break the game, but once a race has three or more to start, you may want to consider balancing for that by losing or making one of their other traits weaker.
Farfolk can read, speak, and write Common and read and speak Deep Speech (which has no written language).
Step 3. Edit and Playtest
Now that you’ve created your race, read it outloud and edit. Even the most experienced designers need to edit their work. Then send your work to a friend to make comments. A second pair of eyes helps you understand if the design intent of your race is coming through.
If you have the opportunity to playtest your new race, take it! Nothing is a better test of your design work than actually seeing it in action. Plus it’s a great excuse to get friends together for a game of D&D! Give your race to someone else to use during the playtest, again to see if the design intent comes through. Change anything you think needs it after playtesting.
Step 4. Make Your Work Public
It’s time to make your work public! That means sharing the race with your group, posting it to a blog, putting it up for sale on the DMs Guild, or on D&D Beyond.
You can find the final version of the farfolk here.
Go Make Stuff!
There you have it! A step-by-step process for creating a D&D race. I can’t wait to see what people create. Share your creations with me on Twitter @JamesIntrocaso on in the comments below. Next, I’ll show you how to make a new spell!
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