Roguish Reflections – Races in D&D 5e


I’m starting to learn more about the world of design from the grand Archmage himself, so I’m going to start writing a bit more on that process, my discoveries, and general ramblings that I have with myself throughout. If nothing else, welcome to inside of my brain! So the latest lessons have been on one of the primary factors for any character in D&D – race!

How often do you really look into the races in D&D 5e? I’m sure those who are reading this have actually looked closely at the races, and probably do frequently. Indulge me a little bit here –  when you look at them, they’re all balanced to each other, in ways we don’t always realize. Looking especially at subclasses that are provided with a disadvantage and how any potential difficulties can be overcome. Drow are a great example, considering that as an elf, they have keen senses, providing them with a proficiency bonus to perception, as well as drow weapon training, both of which are to help counter their sunlight sensitivity, which gives them disadvantage when making Wisdom (perception) checks on something in direct sunlight, or when attacking in direct sunlight. The bonuses help balance out what could otherwise be a detrimental set back in playing a drow. 

I find these efforts to balance especially prevalent when you look at races in Unearthed Arcana. As an example, if you look at the differences between the UA Warforged versus how it turned out in Eberron: Rising From the Last War, it’s interesting to see what they had to do to the race to balance it out. Things like subraces for the Warforged were scraped (pun intended), and armor bonuses were simplified. 

That’s the fun thing about something like Eberron though – such a different setting means new races and subraces to help illustrate the flavor and aesthetic of the realm. It also means reimagining some of the current races – take the orc for example. Looking at the orc in Eberron versus that in Volo’s Guide to Monsters – Eberron imagined orcs differently, not giving them a penalty to intelligence, and redefining their alignment. They also introduced the Aerenal and Tairnadal elves, adding a different layer to how history can inform a subrace, changing the overall aesthetic for a race in the setting. Both elves subraces lean heavily on the themes of ancestry and heroes, providing a new look to lineage which isn’t limited to where you were raised, more about how you were raised. 

Subraces can add a lot of flavor to a fantasy race, but I found it interesting how tieflings only sort of have subraces. They end up being more like variants, with only subtle changes to their spells and one stat. There’s a lot more care given to most other subraces, including aesthetic changes and additional features, but overall tieflings feel kind of random, the more you think about them. There’s not a lot of rhyme or reason to their colouration, their horns, or any part of their look. In theory, you would think that it would be connected to the archdevil from which they’re descended, but they’re not. 

Balance of components is key to any game, and something to keep in mind when designing… well, anything. Races, subclasses, even adventures – looking at the challenges versus the benefits and ensuring that it is equal, especially by comparison to precedents, is what will make a quality product.

You might be wondering – if this is part of my design lessons, what am I designing? Well, if you sign up for TMC Patreon, you’ll start seeing what comes out! Want to talk more about this? Chat with the team on Twitter – ask us questions about design, D&D, or TTRPGs in general.

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