Many times players and Dungeon Masters want to play a campaign with the feel of a specific mythological style. While Dungeons & Dragons makes for a remarkable tool set for building and playing any setting you wish the races presented in the game are generally written in such a way as to be either two generic or, as in the case of the dragonborn and tieflings, too specific in their backgrounds. When creating a customized setting the ultimate goal should be to provide maximum player options while maintaining the style and flavor of the game and setting you desire. Let’s focus on how to do so for one of my favorite settings steeped in the feel and flavor of Scandinavian and northern European myth and folklore.
Changing character races to fit 5E D&D campaign theme
It’s important to remember that your setting, while based around a specific mythology, folklore or culture need not be completely accurate to the source material. This is a concern if you are trying to make an accurate setting and in these cases I recommend creating character races from scratch and not adapting existing races. Game setting must balance playability with setting flavor. In Scandinavian mythology the fantasy races are usually very limited and in the context of the source material generally far too powerful to be used as races for player characters. The goal then becomes finding a way to interpret and reiterate the fantastical peoples of the mythology into playable forms.
Elf, dwarf, gnome and half-elf
The first thing to consider when you are trying to figure out what races to include in your setting is choosing races to fit the setting with little or no modification. For the purposes of a Norse campaign these races without a doubt include elves and dwarves. The fantasy versions of these races are very directly drawn from modern fictional interpretations of their Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon origins.
Source myths are very general in terms of the abilities of these two races and in many cases they are almost interchangeable. For the sake of fitting with RPGs distinctions are important for convenience. You can opt to treat the various subraces of elves (Alfar) and dwarves (Dvergr) to a matter of individuals rather than overarching racial profiles. This is consistent with the mythological examples of these races who seem to vary widely in the powers they demonstrate.
The two basic gnome subraces are a good fit as well and consistent with the Nisse. While some Nisse are woodland folk (forest gnomes) others are more household or farm dwelling and would be consistent with rock gnomes though you might have to reinterpret how their Tinker feature works and what sorts of devices it can make.
Half-elves also fit this category as there are always stories of humans producing children with mythological races. I would even go so far as to suggest hill dwarves be used to represent the children of humans and dwarves, rather than a subrace of dwarves. Such unions between dwarf and human almost always seem to produce a wise offspring.
Firbolg, goliath and half-orc
After sorting out your easy fits you can then move on to character races whose stats fit other races or creatures you want to turn into playable races but whose outward appearance, specific D&D lore, names and other details do not fit the campaign you are trying to make.
It is best to have the original source mythology chosen first. Knowing what they are known to do in the stories allows you to find a character race to fit them. The fit may not be perfect or exact but what you are looking for is something to give a close enough feel to the original tales without having to get messy with retooling character races. Again, your goal should be flavor and theme and not accuracy.
Scandinavian folklore and mythology include powerful forest folk called the Huldra. They are often described as a form of troll or race distinct to themselves and their abilities are curiously close to firbolg. While they are not the same physically, usually described as appearing near human and of a similar size, the attributes and racial abilities of magical stealth and the ability to disguise their true forms are a solid match.
Humans with giant and troll blood appear in tales of heroes or the fabled histories of historical personages. Similar to firbolg, the goliath becomes less an actual race of giants and more a more man sized, often exceptionally tall human with the blood of giants in their lineage. Half-orcs are a good fit for troll blooded folk. Troll bloods were renowned fighters and the savagery and toughness of half-orcs perfectly mirrors the edge the mythic lineage gives a human with troll blood. In both these cases, these characters look mostly human with only some outstanding (sometimes not) physical features to hint at their lineage. Often this is remarkable physique, oddly colored eyes, a strange diet or other more supernatural special effects such as eerie feelings around them and friendship or hostility from animals.
Adding things for the sake of style
With the easy stuff out of the way we can look at how to include other character races not exactly a fit for anything already included in the source myths and folklore but still thematically fitting and could add additional character and variety to the setting. There is no hard and fast way to go about this but the best suggestion is to familiarize yourself with the themes and motifs of the source stories and find things that build off of those. These additions often require a combination of reskinning and some retooling to fit the setting.
For example, if your Norse setting does not include the classic D&D range of metallic and chromatic dragons and instead includes the Linnorm type dragons, dragonborn racial abilities might need to be modified as Linnorms often have fewer sorts of breath weapons and other abilities like poison, rot and such. Halflings might find a place in such a setting, which has so many overlapping beliefs in small natural folk. They could be reskinned as some form of lesser troll or Trow or perhaps just a less magical folks who live alongside humans. Bugbears are a surprisingly good fit for the more modernized Scandinavian interpretation of trolls as sneaky, crafty brutes. I could even see including kenku into a Norse setting as ravens are such a common motif in mythology and stories.
There really is no limitation to how many races you can try to fit into a setting using this last method though it is always worth considering how far doing so may be stretching the feel of what you were going for. I would very much suggest against trying to find a place for every last thing up front. You can always add others in later as players come up with new and interesting character concepts.
While nobody likes limiting options there is always the possibility certain character races simply will not fit your setting. There are many reasons for this but you should never be afraid to make a firm declaration of omission on some player races. If you have already gone through all of the previous considerations, you likely have a hearty supply of playable races for your setting and putting your foot down on some is not going to ruin anyone’s fun, especially if they came into the game with the same desire to play the thematic game you are trying to set up.
In the context of the Norse setting I find it difficult to fit race like aasimar and tieflings without stretching. Similarly, races from Eberron and Ravnica are tricky to place with the notable exceptions of shifters and centaurs. Monstrous races from Volo’s Guide to Monsters have been mentioned here and there but most do not fit well into a Norse setting. So many of these races overlap and provide variations on the roles of other races rather than defining new and interesting roles for player character races and as such, keeping them out of the mix is not likely to hamper your enjoyment.
What if I really want to?
In the end, only you as a DM and your players can decide what feels right for your new mythological campaign theme and setting. If you or a player really wants to include a race that just does not seem to fit easily into the world, pass it through the previous considerations and then find a way to make it work. If you have a player who absolutely wants to play a lizardfolk but you are playing in a cold temperate or subarctic setting you might go with a shaggy lizardfolk from the cold fens or perhaps have them as a race of Linnorm men instead of dragonborn. A subtle retool of loxodons as mammoths and reflavoring their serenity as stoicism would work well if you needed to fit them into your world. Even minotaurs could be inserted if needed but reskinned as bison or even musk oxen which, while not native to Scandinavia, are a good thematic fit.
Creating a setting based on your favorite mythology is fun and rewarding and most of the challenges in doing so come from making sure you are maintaining the themes and motifs that inspired you to make the setting in the first place. Diluting the concept too much might result in a loss of the themes and flavor you set out to create. I hope you’ll challenge yourself to make a setting based on your favorite mythology at least once in your gaming lifetimes and am quite sure, if nothing else, it will prove a valuable exercise in design restraint and process.