Pick’n’mix race for D&D 5e

I’m keen to develop a version of race in fantasy roleplaying games that doesn’t bake in the notion that people are divided by ancestry into essentially separate groups that differ dramatically from each other. (Later note: in 2021 I ended up doing a number of further posts on this theme. Here is a summary post signposting them all.)

Since my current (and most likely near future) games are Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition, I’ve turned my mind to implementing this within that framework. So I present, and invite your thoughts on, the following:

Imagine all the races from the Player’s Handbook have lived alongside each other for thousands of years, and have interbred. Most folk have dwarven, elven, halfling, orc and many other types of ancestry, as well as vanilla human. Even bits of draconic or infernal. So people vary from short like halflings to tall like half-orcs or dragonborn. They vary from slight like elves to sturdy like dwarves. They have all kinds of coloration and other cosmetic features. And they have a wide scatter of fantastical abilities. Most people more or less take after one or both of their parents, but sometimes you get a throwback to a more distant ancestor.

So in character creation you can choose from one giant racial-features buffet. (Another later note: I’m vaguely aware that the November 2020 publication Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything contains something that is apparently rather like this, so if you like official rules they are in there for you. But if, like me, you don’t have a lot of 5e beyond the core rules, here’s my free version using just SRD material. You can probably adapt it to your needs and slot in features from whatever sources you do have.)

I feel it would get out of hand if players choose as many as they like, so I’m thinking I will allow a certain number. And all the different features are not equal, so I’m thinking of dividing them into tiers, and allowing, for example, 2 Greater benefits, 2 Medium benefits, 3 Lesser and 3 Trivial. With probably scope to trade, for example, 2 Lesser benefits for 1 Medium. And a little scope to accept a drawback in exchange for an additional benefit of equal value.

Anyway, so I’m inviting thoughts on the following tiers for the various SRD racial features.

Greater Benefits

  • +2 to any one ability score (only one benefit per score)
  • Tough (+1 hit point per level as Hill Dwarf)
  • Infernal Legacy (as Tiefling, or maybe equivalent with other spells of the same levels available at the same character levels)
  • Lucky (as Halfling)
  • Relentless Endurance (as Half-Orc)
  • Savage Attacks (as Half-Orc)

Medium Benefits

  • +1 to any one ability score
  • Lifespan over 500 years
  • Darkvision
  • Resilience to poison (as Dwarf, or maybe similar benefits for different attack form)
  • Resistance to elemental energy type (as Dragonborn or Tiefling)
  • Cantrip (as High Elf, maybe expand to allow non-wizard cantrips)
  • Breath Weapon (as Dragonborn)
  • Cunning (as Gnome, or similar advantage to many saving throws)
  • Tinker (as Rock Gnome)

Lesser Benefits

  • Lifespan 250-500 years
  • Proficiency with 3-4 weapons in up to two groups (as Dwarf or Elf)
  • Brave (as Halfling, or similar advantage on a few saving throws, such as magic charms*)
  • Unsleeping (Trance as Elf, plus immune to magical sleep as Elf*)
  • Naturally Stealthy (as Lightfoot Halfling)
  • Nimble (as Halfling)

*I am regrouping the Elf features headed Fey Ancestry and Trance, into Advantage vs Charm and Unsleeping (that is, moving immunity to magical sleep to go with trance/not normally sleeping, which seems more logical to me).

Trivial Benefits

  • Lifespan 150-200 years
  • Proficiency in one tool, skill or language (you must take at least one language)
  • Craft Lore (as Dwarf Stonecunning or Gnome Artificer’s Lore)

Medium Drawbacks

  • Slow (speed 25 feet)

Lesser Drawbacks

  • Plodding (speed 25 feet, not reduced by armor)
  • Size Small

Trivial Drawbacks

  • Lifespan 75-80 years

(I take Medium size, 30ft speed and lifespan of around 100 years as the default, not counting as any benefit or drawback.)

Looking for feedback

So, do you think these tiers make sense? Do I need to put anything in a super-high tier above Greater? Do I need a tier between Greater and Medium?

And do you think that the right features are in the right tiers? Should I do anything fancier with ability scores, like whether +1 changes the modifier or not, or whether you increase a score that is already high? Should skill proficiencies be worth more than tools or languages? Should I bump Small down to a Trivial Disadvantage? Should I put Relentless Endurance and/or Savage attacks down to Medium Benefits?

Rating the races

I’ve tried to make a rough test of the tier assignments by counting up the value of all the SRD race features. It varies a bit depending on exactly how many lower-tier benefits are worth one higher-tier benefit but, roughly speaking, I find that the above system makes Halflings, Dragonborn and maybe Gnomes come out weaker than Humans. And it makes Dwarves, Elves, Half-Orcs and maybe Half-Elves come out stronger. Does that seem to reflect your feelings? Or should I re-assess my feature tiers to make the official races come out more balanced.

Limits on pick’n’mix race building

I should also note that I would put some limits on what Strength scores are compatible with what heights and weights (ie if you want a low Strength you have to be smaller, and if you want a high Strength you have to be bigger), and also on what speed features are compatible with what heights and builds (basically if you are going to take the Slow disadvantage you must be under a certain height, maybe 5’, and if you are going to take the Plodding disadvantage you must be similarly short but also strong for your height).

I also propose to make the Small disadvantage automatic if you are below a certain height/weight, and unavailable if you are above it/them. I haven’t worked it all out yet, but I mention this principle now because it is part of why I have currently made Small size a Lesser drawback (and in an earlier version only Trivial)—if you’re Small, you have a low Strength and probably don’t want to use Strength-based weapons (which all melee weapons with the Heavy property are). So the only real impact is being limited to shortbow rather than longbow and light crossbow rather than heavy.

Ancestry vs upbringing

Also, when I implement this system, I’ll probably move some elements to the background phase of character creation, such as proficiencies of the various kinds, Tinker, Craft Lore and at least some cantrips/spells. Background won’t be completely pick-and-mix but there will be some flexibility there too.

Seriously, tell me what you think

In the comments below, please and thank you.

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