Customizing D&D Races
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Before we dive in, I want to thank two people who gave me great feedback on this article. First Leona Maple consulted and did rules development for this idea. It would not be close to what it is without her contributions and advice. Check out Leona’s website! I also want to thank James J. Haeck, who gave me great advice that inspired the variant on these rules below. Find out more about James on his site!
I want to be upfront that I don’t think this system comes close to solving every issue of race in Dungeons & Dragons. That is an issue that requires a total rethink of the game, in other words an entirely a new game. Leona put it best when she said, “D&D itself is problematic and racialised, and it is 1000% baked into the very foundations in tiny ways, even aside from the racial bonuses.” This new system addresses some, and nowhere close to all, of the mechanical aspects of this issue.
The fact that D&D has ability score adjustments and many cultural traits tied to race is inherently racist. There’s also a fun factor to this new system, which is subjective. I want to play a dwarf wizard and not be inferior to other wizards just because I didn’t get a sweet, sweet Intelligence score bonus and an extra cantrip. I’ll admit, I have a little power gamer in me as well as actor, so even when I have a great character concept in mind, I hesitate to play it if it isn’t optimized. I also get a little jealous when my friends are more effective.
There are also story considerations. What if you want to play a character with one tiefling parent and one dragonborn parent? You could pick either tiefling or dragonborn and go with it, but wouldn’t it be more fun to put the two together? What if you’re a halfling raised underground by incredible masons and miners? Shouldn’t you have the Stonecunnig trait? What if you come from a place where a diverse population has existed for generations? You might have a bunch of different heritages and cool mix of genetic and cultural traits to go with it. What if I just want to play an elf bard with a Charisma bonus instead of Intelligence and some more skill proficiencies instead of weapon proficiencies?
With all this in mind, I started to think about the options I could give my players the next time we rolled up characters. What I’m putting forth in this post is my first crack at a way to offer more flexible ancestry for characters in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons.
This is definitely going to need some adjustment. Please feel free to leave feedback in the comments below, but here’s the thing: I know this is a contested subject. This post is about making a system help my players have more fun and be more comfortable at the table. I’m sharing it, because I think it might help other people. If you like the way fifth edition D&D character-building works now, there’s no need to get nasty about this single option I’m proposing.
Balancing the System
The system I’m proposing below is meant to be used as an option for character building. If my players want to build their characters according to the official rules, that is also fine with me. My hope is to provide a method for some players to customize their characters in fun ways while still maintaining the overall power balance among player characters. (This first crack may not accomplish that, but I got to start somewhere. Let’s see how close I got!)
This system cannot be used to recreate existing races. Many races are balanced by a lot of fiddly factors. For example, mountain dwarves getting +2 Strength is balanced by them also getting the Dwarven Armor Training trait (since classes that benefit most from +2 Strength already have the same armor proficiencies the trait provides). If I included all these considerations in my system, it would likely be very balanced but also way too complicated for most to use at the table. It’s already a little complicated and likely too unwieldy for people unfamiliar with fifth edition D&D. Lucky for me, many people are.
The final note about this is that this version of the system only uses the racial traits available in the Player’s Handbook. I may add traits from other books later, but at the moment I want to keep it simple.
Custom Races in D&D
To build a custom race in D&D, you first build a base race with some starting guidelines. Then you pick more traits to build onto the base.
Build a Base Race
You begin with the following traits:
Ability Score Increase. Two different ability scores of your choice increase by 1.
Size. Pick your size: Medium or Small.
Speed. If you are Small-sized, your base walking speed is 25 feet. If you are Medium-sized, pick one: Your base walking speed is 30 feet, or your base walking speed is 25 feet and not reduced by wearing heavy armor.
Language. You know Common and one other language of your choice.
Add More Traits
Now that you have your character’s base traits, you can spend points on any number of traits from the list below until you exhaust your total. If you are a Medium-sized character you have 10 points to spend. If you are a Small-sized character, you have 11 points to spend (because of your slower base walking speed, not directly because of your size). You can purchase each trait only once unless its description says otherwise. Each trait is defined below or in chapter 2 of the Player’s Handbook.
The following traits each cost 1 point:
- Artificer’s Lore. See “Gnome Traits” in chapter 2 of the Player’s Handbook for more information.
- Brave. See “Halfling Traits” in chapter 2 of the Player’s Handbook for more information.
- Extra Language. You can speak, write, and understand a language of your choice. This trait can be taken multiple times. Each time you take it, you learn a new language.
- Fey Ancestry. See “Elf Traits” in chapter 2 of the Player’s Handbook for more information.
- Nimbleness. This trait works the same as “Hafling Nimbleness” in “Halfling Traits” in chapter 2 of the Player’s Handbook. Only a Small-sized character can take this trait.
- Resilience. You have advantage on saving throws against poison.
- Speak with Small Beasts. See “Gnome Traits” in chapter 2 of the Player’s Handbook for more information.
- Stonecunning. See “Dwarf Traits” in chapter 2 of the Player’s Handbook for more information.
- Tool Proficiency. You gain proficiency with a set of tools of your choice. This trait can be taken multiple times. Each time you take it, you gain proficiency in a new set of tools.
- Trance. See “Elf Traits” in chapter 2 of the Player’s Handbook for more information.
- Weapon Training. You gain proficiency with three weapons of your choice. This trait can be taken multiple times. Each time you take it, you gain proficiency in three new weapons.
The following traits each cost 2 points:
- Darkvision. See “Dwarf Traits” in chapter 2 of the Player’s Handbook for more information.
- Cantrip. You know one cantrip of your choice from the wizard spell list. Intelligence is your spellcasting ability for it. (Designer note: This would include minor illusion, so the forest gnome’s Natural Illusionist trait is covered by this trait.)
- Faster Movement. Your walking speed increases 5 feet.
- Mask of the Wild. See “Elf Traits” in chapter 2 of the Player’s Handbook for more information.
- Naturally Stealthy. See “Halfling Traits” in chapter 2 of the Player’s Handbook for more information. Only a Small-sized creature can take this trait.
- Powerful Critical. This trait is the same as “Savage Attacks” in “Half-Orc Traits” in chapter 2 of the Player’s Handbook.
- Relentless Endurance. See “Half-Orc Traits” in chapter 2 of the Player’s Handbook for more information.
- Skill Proficiency. You gain proficiency with a skill of your choice. This trait can be taken multiple times. Each time you take it, you gain proficiency in a new skill.
- Superior Darkvision. When you gain this trait, you also gain the Sunlight Sensitivity trait. See “Elf Traits” in chapter 2 of the Player’s Handbook for more information.
- Tinker. See “Gnome Traits” in chapter 2 of the Player’s Handbook for more information.
- Toughness. This trait is the same as “Dwarven Toughness” in “Dwarf Traits” in chapter 2 of the Player’s Handbook.
The following traits each cost 3 points:
- Armor Training. This trait works the same as “Dwarven Armor Training” in “Dwarf Traits” in chapter 2 of the Player’s Handbook.
- Breath Weapon. See “Dragonborn Traits” in chapter 2 of the Player’s Handbook for more information.
- Damage Resistance. You gain resistance to one of the following damage types of your choice: acid, cold, fire, lightning, or poison.
The following traits each cost 4 points:
- Ability Score Increase. Increase one ability score of your choice by 1, including an ability score you already increased with your initial traits. You can purchase this trait a second time, but when you do, you must apply the increase to a different ability score.
- Cunning. This trait is the same as “Gnome Cunning” in “Gnome Traits” in chapter 2 of the Player’s Handbook.
- Drow Magic. See “Elf Traits” in chapter 2 of the Player’s Handbook for more information.
- Infernal Legacy. See “Tiefling Traits” in chapter 2 of the Player’s Handbook for more information.
- Lucky. See “Halfling Traits” in chapter 2 of the Player’s Handbook for more information.
8 Points for a Feat
If your DM allows feats in the game, you can spend 8 points to gain a feat.
Variant: Customizing Existing Races
The rules above can also be used to customize existing races. A character swap a published racial trait for another of the same or lower point value, as the long as the trait swapped in or out is not the Ability Score Increase trait.
A character can adjust the Ability Score Increase trait by swapping the ability scores increased for others. For example, instead of a dragonborn ranger gaining a Strength score increase of 2 and a Charisma score increase of 1, they could elect to gain a Dexterity score increase of 2 and a Wisdom score increase of 1. A character cannot gain an ability score increase of more than 2 for any given score. If a character gains a bonus to two or more different ability scores originally, each increase must still be applied to a different ability score. For example, a human character cannot use this variant rule to gain +2 Wisdom, +2 Constitution, and +1 Charisma. (Designer’s note: I know this second rule is a little more fiddly. Consider the tiefling’s normal +2 Charisma and +1 Intelligence do not optimize as well with any obvious single class builds the way a half-orc’s +2 Strength and +1 Constitution do. However, my game, like many, allows for multiclassing, which basically throws many of these fiddly arguments out the window… probably.)
How’s It Look?
So how did I do? Let me know in the comments below.
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April 23, 2020 @ 12:18 pm
This reminds me of the old skills and powers book from decades ago. More customizations make for more unique characters but also as you said allows for the power gamer to ma imise their potential.
I would use this perhaps while worldbuilding to unqiue races as I really like the balance of how you laid out the abilities.
April 23, 2020 @ 12:38 pm
I think continuing to use the term “race” makes the whole process self-defeating, as that term as modernly used is entirely tied to racist 19th century colonial anthropologists.
Maybe “heritage” or Pathfinder 2’s “ancestry”.
It’s a neat little system, not unlike what Paizo did in the Advanced Race Guide. It’s a neat option but probably 1000% more fiddly than what you’d want for most actual 5e games.
Because in the existing system player’s have two small decision points—what race and what subrace— which are heavily based on flavour and don’t necessitate you to fully read every option. With this kind of system you detach the flavour and instead have eleven decision points requiring you to read through 34 different powers. Which also bring in system mastery, as you need to know the rules to know what options to pick.
Point-buy systems like this are also significantly more prone to min/maxing and abuse than package-based system.You no one ever takes the flavourful ribbons (like speaking with beasts, a bonus language, or a tool proficiencies) when they can instead take something that makes them better at murder (brave, weapon proficiency) or avoid being vulnerable overnight (trance).
April 23, 2020 @ 12:46 pm
Race in this case would be what it should be used for. A creature that is of a new subspecies or new species. Heritage and ancestry don’t mean the same as say species so if it was too change to that it would at least make sense still.
April 23, 2020 @ 12:55 pm
But “race” doesn’t really exist. It’s an imaginary concept used by racists European anthropologists 150 years ago to prop up white people as superiour.
There are no distinct human “races”. We’re all one species (homo sapien) that is divided into cultural and ethnic social groups that have cosmetic physical differences.
Species is the better term. But that feels to “modern” to most people for a fantasy game (despite being older than “race”).
April 24, 2020 @ 12:35 pm
IMO “species” still sounds a little demeaning even if it’s an accurate term…
Adam Mando Mage Wookie
April 23, 2020 @ 2:22 pm
I really like this solution. It lets you fully customize any PC with the options that are already available and used in the game. Plus, it allows a player to build a character along the lines of of the classic/RAW races with just a minor modification to be more fitting to THEIR character’s story and background.
I think that this kind of system is a very good fit for D&D because it is similar to the point-buy or standard array methods for ability scores. Yes it’s adding another table of options, but this is a very streamlined and effective one. I think it helps address the issue of racial bonuses and also adds to the feeling of building a unique character with a backstory and relevant skills/ability set that are better suited to the role playing experience the player desires.
Adam Mando Mage Wookie
April 23, 2020 @ 7:48 pm
I spent my lunch break brainstorming some options from Volo’s and Elemental Evil for fun. I also ran through the numbers of how this system would stack with all of the race options in the PHB.
As it stands, Dragonborn are the at the low end with 10 (so fitting your system), and Mountain Dwarves at the other extreme with 19. Elves are also a little higher than the other race options. However, with the Dragonborn and M Dwarves factored in and out, the average for all the races came out to ~13.7.
Therefore I think that your allotted points need to go up slightly. Personally I would say up by two with small player option getting 13, medium and armored small options going to 12. There could be argument for upping it to 14/13, but I think 13/12 is sufficient.
Aside from bringing it to the level of the base race options of the PHB, it better allows for that third ability score improvement. Every character in RAW that I can think of (excluding Mountain dwarf) get a total of three point increases, usually as 2/1 split. My initial thought would be that the third point should be baked into the base character creation, and lowering the starting trait points of 10 and 11 to eight and nine.
Keeping with the structure you came up with though, I think going with the 12/13 trait points will make purchasing that third ability score increase more accessible (again, I think it needs to be since everything to date is based on that three-point spread).
As I said I was also brainstorming some of the traits from Volo’s and EEPC and think something you will want to account for now in the development process is alternate move speeds, namely flying. With a swim speed, that makes sense as an option you spend trait points on just like the rest, but flying seems to be larger dilemma. Gaining a fly speed would feel to me to be worth as much or more than a feat. With that though, I think you could make two modes of flying (if you wanted to make it cost trait points). One would be the 50 foot fly speed that Aarakocra have costing 8 points which would still allow for one or smaller traits. The second could be a fly speed of 30 (or even equal to their base walking speed) that only costed 6 points (argument for 7 points could be made).
In summation, I think this system could be slightly more liberal with the starting trait points to better match someone who comes to the table with one of the RAW PHB options. And at the end of the day, I’d rather my players feel satisfied with their power level in terms of traits and attributes where I as the DM can adjust encounters UP if they are a bit strong, rather than players to feel frustrated or under powered.
Just some thoughts from a fan. Hope they help with future decisions and implementation!
April 23, 2020 @ 8:50 pm
Thanks for the feedback, Adam. I covered this in the article, but the reason to not backwards create races that way with this system is all of the other fiddly considerations that go into them.
I think by making the races customizable, you’re already giving players an edge that will help them build a strong character. People love variant humans, which can be built with only 10 points, largely because of the customization. That said, a 2 point difference likely won’t make a big difference, but would make me want to make some of the 4-point abilities 5 points so players can’t take 3, but maybe not. The system may very well end up as you describe.
April 23, 2020 @ 2:24 pm
Nice! Thank you
April 23, 2020 @ 3:57 pm
I really like this. I have a player with a triton character in a mostly mountainous campaign because of the ability bonuses they get.
April 23, 2020 @ 8:34 pm
Really good! But suppose you just add 8 points to everyone’s total and eliminate the base “race” getting any ability score bonus? Players can still add the ability score bonuses if they want.
April 24, 2020 @ 11:10 am
It’s an interesting idea, but it kind of leads to this weird thing where suddenly you have acid-spitting elves and humans who can trance…
I feel like keeping traits inherent to a heritage’s physiology like a dragonborn’s breath weapon and a drow’s superior darkvision attached to those (should the innate spellcasting of drow and genasi count? Questions to ponder), but keeping all the other stuff like ASI, bonus proficiencies and full-on character traits as separate options independent of heritage.
April 24, 2020 @ 11:12 am
Acid-spitting elves is exactly what I’m going for.
April 24, 2020 @ 11:24 am
Well why stop there then? Why not have elves who only live to age 20 like Aarakocra and humans who live to be in the thousands of years old?
Why even have races and worldbuild them when every humanoid on the planet can just be this completely blank and featureless thing until it suddenly decides what it wants to look like and what kind of things it wants its physiology to do? That acid-spitting elf and that dwarf who can fly? Suddenly they’re twinsies too!
April 24, 2020 @ 11:34 am
Clearly we disagree here. Thanks for the feedback.
April 24, 2020 @ 12:24 pm
I just feel this kind of thing dulls out anything unique about heritage choices. I like that dragonborn have these draconic traits, that tabaxi are like cats and thus have claws as weapons and make decent climbers, that aarakocra are able to fly. And if a player wants their character to have lost that ability through some accident or tragedy I’ll happily give em bonuses elsewhere.
Sure, if you’re just running a default D&D Kitchen Fantasy Setting where nothing ever really needs explaining, this is fine, but anyone who wants to give more uniqueness to their setting and to how distinct non-human heritages are FROM humans will likely be turned off by this.
I know if this becomes the default from D&D, I’d just tell everyone to just play humans and strike every feature that couldn’t apply to humans from the list of choices.
I already walk such a delicate balance between distinguishing all my setting’s assorted cultures, especially with how these physiological differences like lifespan, comparative size and otherworldly traits create those distinctions, without stepping on the toes of what my players want to bring to the table.
I also hate how every heritage in the game presently instantly assumes that your PC character grew up fully immersed in the assumed default of that heritage’s culture and fully absorbed it (so all high elves have free cantrips, all dwarves are super-good at recognizing stonecutting), which wouldn’t necessarily be the case if the PC’s family spent a few generations living over in some cosmopolitan area or just settled in some settlements outside their assumed cultures.
April 24, 2020 @ 12:15 pm
Ok I’ll be the first to admit some of 5E could use a little rework but I’m not sure this is one of them. What happened to celebrating difference and being proud of where you come from? There will always be haters. We will never change that. If we were all circles on a page, all identical but with our human personality there would be hate. One would hate another because it was higher on the page. One would hate another for being rounder.
Making everything the exact same will not change people or the world.
We have to embrace the differences, learn about them and celebrate them.
No matter how hard you try you will never remove the good or bad parts of humanity from the game, because us humans are who’s playing it. Giving in to removing race and differences is allowing the haters to win. People who claim D&D is racist are wrong! To believe that D&D is all about being who you are and using your differences to make a better place to live is one the money! Being able, even for a short time, to be one of, or all of these wonderful beings that populate the D&D worlds is what makes it the best game ever made.
April 24, 2020 @ 12:33 pm
No, there is definitely racism baked in to D&D. Every PC race sports many traits that automatically assume your PC was brought up fully into that culture and fully embraced it, hence the static ASIs and traits like Dwarven Stonecutting, Keen Senses and Tinker.
I think James’ approach goes a little too far and ends up making heritage not even matter (the only true thing that affects the build choices are whether your PC is Small or Medium), but there’s definitely a lot of good here in coming up with character options that do away with this baked-in racism.
April 25, 2020 @ 10:11 am
Hey, James! Love your work and support you on Patreon. (Everyone should hop over there and support James in his work!)
While I think I disagree with some of your purpose, I love building or rebuilding each species from the ground up in my games. Having more diverse options for my elves satisfies me aesthetically and scratches my power gaming itch. I think you’ve got a good start here and would love to see more options as I like to read through pages and pages of choices. Analysis paralysis is kinda my thing! I loved all the choices I had in the Pathfinder race builder.
I think a lot of this would be taken care of if we weren’t hyper focused on the rules. If someone wants to play an acid spitting elf and it adds fun to the table, GMs should be allowing that more often. I really believe the idea that 5E is “balanced” is an illusion. Even with RAW there can wildly different power levels between characters that the GM has to balance anyway. A +2 bonus to a stat is only a 5% difference on a roll, so meh. Give that player the +2 Cha instead of Int! Having more permissive and flexible GM habits may go a long way to solving this I think.
If I might make a suggestion for your approach (which again, I like), what about doing away with the term “race” and split the options into two categories of nature and nurture? By nature, a Dragonborn usually has a breath weapon and scaly hide, but through nurture they have the Stonecutting trait and a skill focus. By nature an elf has trance, but by nurture they have a+2 Str. Would that allow for the inherent difference between cats (Tabaxi), cows (Minotaurs), and birds (Aarakocra) while still allowing diversity and the ability to dial in just the right character you have in mind? Just a thought, but I’m an infamous tinkerer who never finishes a project so I’ll leave it in your capable hands. Keep up the good work!
April 25, 2020 @ 2:42 pm
This is a nice concept, James. I like the concept of being able to expand a character’s heritage/ancestry, and it’s something that’s needed since official 5E rules don’t really give you a way to have a character with mixed heritage (or they just assume that if you do have a character like that, only one side of your family tree’s traits are dominant). What you’ve come up with reminds me of a product I’ve seen on DM’s Guild called Grazilaxx’s Guide to Ancestry that has the same concepts: https://www.dmsguild.com/product/287638/Grazilaxxs-Guide-to-Ancestry
May 6, 2020 @ 4:33 pm
This reminds me of this document made by Eleazzaar: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1vq1kz6PRAbw5LHy6amH-bNb4OuB8DBXL1RsZROt03Sc/edit
May 10, 2020 @ 4:28 pm
I really like this approach. I run a low-magic Sword & Sorcery setting and being less cluttered in heritages, but making these heritages more customizable to the players’ liking would go a long way in still letting the players try a lot of new things. Halflings and gnomes? The same people, just with the names they give themselves based on region (just like how humans don’t call themselves “humans” really, they’re Thayan or Damaran or whatever). I’d probably have giant-folk types though, any idea where you would fit the Goliath’s traits in your point system?
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June 7, 2020 @ 11:05 am
I do really like this new method. I would need to try it to find out if it is unbalanced, but it looks pretty good from what I’ve read.
It may end up becoming quite confusing and tiresome, however, as this requires you to look for many things in the books. I’ll see if I can create an online app in the following days to facilitate this using the SRD. Let me know if you want a link for it once it’s finished 🙂
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