“Wait, you're a Half-Dragon who kills other dragons?” Character Creation for Dungeons & Dragons, Part 2: Playable Races
I know, I know. I assured you I would talk about skills this time around. Yet here we are. I realized that in order for the skills section to make sense, we need to discuss race and class first, so I put that one on the back burner for now. As a side note, I am only going to cover the first five of the nine Player's Handbook races today, and next time I will discuss the other four. A few more have been released since, with some truly out of the box options now available, but for the time being, I will focus only the main ones. Not to worry, I will discuss the Crow-men and Robots you can be in a later post.
Choosing a race in D&D is, unlike many video games, not simply a matter of personalizing the color of your character’s skin. Race in the Forgotten Realms (where most modern D&D stories take place) is far more varied. Elves, Dwarves and Half-Orcs mingle, fight side by side and forge alliances with even stranger creatures. Each race comes with skills, attributes and specialties that make them unique.
Before we get into the more fantastical races, I want to look at the basic Human race. Far from just the vanilla option, Humans are versatile and a valid choice. The Player's Handbook gives an excellent variety of ethnicities for Humans, and examples of names, cultures etc. to flesh out the character. Or you could add your own, of course. A personal favorite of mine was a Medieval Private Detective, who spoke in 1950’s slang and used anachronisms to solve clues about adventures. Hilarity ensued.
Humans get to increase all Core Ability scores by 1 point from the start. This makes a huge difference, and makes a Human a very attractive choice at lower levels. A variant of this is also available, where the Human increases 2 stats by 1 point and take a Feat (a kind of superpower), which most characters would only have access to by 5th level or so. What this boils down to is a massive power increase from the get go, at the expense of some more exotic powers other races get. The races are very well balanced, so this becomes less pronounced as levels increase, but as a starter character, you could certainly do worse. Humans get a Movement speed of 30 feet (about average), and two languages, one of which is Common, the lingua franca of D&D. Humans can assume any role in the party, and are suited to any Class.
Next up, Dwarves. Traditionally seen as grumpy little mine workers, these hardy adventurers are another great choice for a character. The Dwarf gets a +2 to Constitution, making them very resilient. Dwarves have a speed of 25 (slightly slower than Humans, due to their smaller stature), but unlike most, their speed is not reduced by wearing heavy armor, although they still suffer other drawbacks if they do not learn proficiency with it. As far as racial bonuses go, they get both Darkvision (The ability to see in the dark as if it were a black and white movie), and resistance against poison. Dwarves are also proficient in using battleaxes, handaxes, throwing hammers and warhammers, meaning they excel at the use of these weapons, and can add a bonus to their dice rolls when using these items. I’ll talk more about this in the section about combat at a later stage. Dwarves are also well known for their stonecraft, and get a bonus when investigating the history of any stonework. They speak Common and Dwarvish. There are two sub races among Dwarves in the Player's Handbook: Hill and Mountain Dwarves. Hill Dwarves get an extra +1 to Wisdom, and extra hit points, making them even more resilient than their brethren. Mountain Dwarves get a +2 to Strength, and can wear both light and medium armor. Mountain Dwarves make excellent warriors, while Hill Dwarves are better at being Clerics or Druids. My favorite Dwarf character was an Evil Cleric, who used his holy powers to commit unspeakable acts whilst refusing to bathe. He was also constantly getting set on fire…
Elves are another iconic class that shows the Tolkien influence on D&D. Magical creatures with grace and litheness, Elves are known for their love of poetry, music and nature. The fact that they do not need to sleep in the traditional sense, but can instead meditate for a few hours to refresh themselves makes them excellent guards for the party, and the +2 to Dexterity make them ideal as archers, thieves or swashbucklers. They live for centuries, like Dwarves, and a lot of good storytelling opportunities can come from an Elf that has been around for a long time and sees the rest of the party as foolish young neophytes. Elves can move 30 feet per round, have 60 feet of Darkvision and are excellent at Perception, a handy skill. They are difficult to Charm and to be magically put to sleep, ideal for facing Wizards who use mind control. They speak both Common and Elvish. Once again, there are variants among the elves: High Elves, Wood Elves and Dark Elves.
High Elves are like the Lord of the Rings’ Elrond – wise, stoic and magical. They get an intelligence score increase of +1; training in longswords, short swords, short- and longbows; plus an extra low level spell to throw around. They also learn an extra language. High Elves make excellent Wizards, although any other class would work well.
If you prefer a Legolas type character (Lord of the Rings should never be far from your mind in this game) Wood Elves are for you. With copper colored skin, darker hair and hazel eyes, they resemble the woods they protect. They get an extra +1 to Wisdom, the same weapon training as High elves, plus an extra 5 feet of movement, for a total of 35 feet. They can also hide in foliage and other natural environments.
The most divisive sub-class are the Dark Elves, the favorite of vampire kids everywhere. A brooding character named Drizzt from a popular series of books by R.A. Salvatore brought this race to the forefront. As such, many players want to play as a Goth Anti-hero, to the point where it is almost clichéd now. As a DM, I do not allow this race at my table unless it has an original backstory, but your mileage may vary. Dark Elves (or Drow, as they are also known) get a Charisma bonus of +1, better darkvision (120 feet) and are sensitive to sunlight, making them pretty hard to play during half of the day. They get an extra low level spell (or cantrip, as they are known), and can use a spell called Darkness to envelop their enemies in inky blackness when they reach 5th level. Their weapons are also different, as they prefer rapiers, hand crossbows and short swords. They make good Rogues, if you operate only at night.
As another option, there is also a Half-Elf race available. A mix of human and elven parentage, they carry bonuses and drawbacks from both the races, making them versatile all-rounders. The Half-Elf carries the weight of not fitting into either society they may have been born into. Sad for them, wonderful for role playing purposes. They get a Charisma increase of +2, and two other +1 increases in ANY STAT THEY CHOOSE! That is, at the risk of hyperbole, mind-blowingly-awesome. They also get Darkvision up to 60 feet away, resistance to sleep spells and being charmed, and proficiency in any two skills of their choice. Coupled with 30 feet of movement, they are an extremely attractive Race to play, and could potentially fill any Class you would want to play. Three languages (Common, Elvish and one more of your choice) rounds off this excellent Race. Seriously, if you want to make the most powerful character in your party, this would be a great place to start.
Sticking with Tolkien archetypes, the Halfling is a Hobbit in all but (copyrighted) name. Small, furry footed and friendly, they would be perfectly at home carrying a ring around while forces of darkness conspire against them. Halflings get a speed penalty, taking them down to 25 feet of movement, but they more than make up for this in other ways. For example, they get a +2 to Dexterity, making them excellent thieves. Their size is also small (most other races, except Gnomes, are medium), enabling them to move through the space of another creature, a feature unavailable to most of their companions. They can also sneak through tiny passages otherwise inaccessible to the larger races. The biggest kicker, and the feature that saved many a character’s life over the course of my campaigns, is the Luck feature. Halflings are innately lucky, and fortune smiles on their endeavors. When they roll a 1 (usually an auto-failure) on an ability, attack or saving throw, they get to re-roll the dice and use the new roll. This is incredibly powerful, and makes a strong case for playing this race. As usual, they get two subraces: The Stout and Lightfoot Halfling.
Lightfoot Halflings double down on the Thief/Rogue class benefits. They get a +1 to Charisma (useful for talking your way out of jail/into the treasure vault), and because of their size, they can attempt to hide behind other larger characters. An excellent burglar, to paraphrase Gandalf.
Stout Halflings are more combat orientated, and have resistance to poison. They get a Constitution bonus of +1, making them significantly tougher to kill. Rumor has it they have Dwarven stock in their ancestry, yet do not get the weapon nor armor proficiency of their supposed kin.
That’s it for the “classic” races. In the next post, we will look at the Dragonborn, Gnome, Half Orc and Tiefling options. Since these Races are a bit more unique, I figured they deserve their own article. As always, take to the comments for any suggestions, questions or threats.
[Editor's Note: This is the third article in our recurring series on getting started with Dungeons & Dragons. Please make sure to check out Lloyd's other articles on first introductions and the first in his series on character creation: core ability scores!]