Methods of Choosing Your 5E D&D Character Race
Based on the placement in the fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook, choosing your character’s race is a top priority in character creation, second only to generating ability scores. The chapter begins by illustrating the diversity within the D&D multiverse, describing exotic places from the Waterdeep in the Forgotten Realms to Sigil in the Planescape campaign setting and the myriad races living in those places. Only after painting the picture in your mind of fantasy races like dragonborn, tieflings, gnomes and dark elves — “people of varying size, shape, and color, dressed in a dazzling spectrum of styles and hues” — does the PHB mention humans. That’s pretty significant. So if choosing your character’s race in D&D is so important, how do you make such an impactful decision?
Let the character be your guide
For new players who may be creating a D&D character for the first time, the organization of the PHB divorces the process from the ability score increase matchup many players gravitate towards. I like this approach. My advice to any D&D player when creating a character is to imagine them as a person first, and a collection of facts and figures second. Who is the person you want to play, and what is their perspective on the world around them?
The PHB expertly guides players through this step by putting all the mechanical stuff at the end. D&D races are frontloaded with cultural descriptions and fundamental qualities of each option, helping players to imagine their characters as the vehicle for roleplaying. The civilizations of dwarves, elves, halflings, humans and the rest show you where each comes from, and what might motivate them to take up the adventuring life. Keep in mind these are the broad strokes of default D&D — in the campaign setting you play in, cultures and perspectives could be wildly different. But overall these are solid foundations for every D&D race. Sources like Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes do a fantastic job of drilling down further, revealing richer material for inspiration. On a side note, I’ve always liked duergar and dang, MToF only heightened this; dwarves were really kind of the jerks in that scenario right?
From a design perspective, I really appreciate the way races are presented in D&D. Rarely have I played in a game where exacting mechanical optimization like pairing the absolute best race and class combination was an important factor. Optimal mechanical choices are important to different playstyles for sure, but in my experience it hasn’t had much impact.
Choosing your character’s race in D&D has perhaps the biggest influence on your character. The NPCs in the world can’t look at you and tell what your class or background are, but your character’s race is plain to see — magic and mundane disguises notwithstanding. If you are small, like gnomes and halflings, the world will be a much larger place for you. In a recent game, my party was caught in a classic trap. The ceiling was descending on us to crush us. A half-orc hireling was doing his best to resist, and the rest of the party quickly scrambled into a trap door in the floor. They urged me to help our half-orc hireling…but in that game I play a 3-1/2 foot tall svirfneblin. How could I do anything? Fortunately, I had inspiration at the time and bestowed it on the half-orc, who made his Strength check and gave us all enough time to escape. (The half-orc made it out too, only to perish shortly after. Such is the life of a hireling.)
Backtracking from character class to race
This is the approach I usually take to character creation in D&D. After thinking about what character class I’d like to play for any particular campaign, I figure out what race fits the concept in my imagination. For the svirfneblin mentioned above, I knew for sure a Circle of Spores druid was the class of choice for the Secrets of Castle Greyhawk campaign. Weird plants, fungi, oozes and aberrant things are among my favorite things in D&D and the idea of playing that druid subclass from Unearthed Arcana had really been growing on me. A race that lived underground felt like a great choice, and my recent affection for gnomes (historically I’ve disliked them) led me to settle on the svirfneblin, or deep gnome. Mechanically, a deep gnome doesn’t bring much to the table for a druid. Intelligence isn’t a factor and while Dexterity is a useful ability score for just about every character, is of little consequence for a druid.
But wow is it a fun character to play!
My favorite character to play is all kinds of suboptimal mechanically. Mesmogdu is a drow wizard whose Charisma is higher than his Intelligence. Initially I wanted to try out an Illusionist wizard, and this would have been my first foray into playing a gnome, but somewhere along the way the character started making his own decisions during the creation process. I considered Archfey warlock for their beguiling abilities, and bard (mostly because vicious mockery frankly but also proficiency with rapiers). But in the end Mesmogdu became a drow wizard for two reasons. One was the Drow Weapon Training trait, because I really imagined this character had a rapier. The other was I wanted him to earn his power through careful study and also to get by in the unfamiliar surface world passing himself off as various different personas wherever he went as a charlatan. So in the case of Mesmogdu, it was a little of mechanics and a little of roleplaying that led to making him a drow. He plays as a fun mix of Ron Burgundy from Anchorman and Ernie McCracken from Kingpin.
The D&D race that speaks to you
In the video, Nerdarchist Dave mentions how he hasn’t played an elf character in decades and often plays dwarves because he feels a connection to that race. In contract, Nerdarchist Ted says how a great majority of his characters have been elves. One of my friends who I’ve played D&D with for a long time almost always plays gnomes or halflings. And for my taste I like unusual races like genasi, drow, firbolg, and you’d better believe the simic hybrid is on my radar from Unearthed Arcana and the upcoming Guildmasters Guide to Ravnica.
Exploring different perspectives through D&D characters is my favorite part of playing this game. I almost never play human character because I am human. While there’s countless ways to view the world from the human perspective, I really enjoy interacting with D&D worlds and fellow players as something else.
When it comes to choosing a race for your D&D character, the most important thing you can do is pick one that sounds fun and interesting to portray. For some players, a race that optimizes other mechanical choices fits the bill, and that’s a totally cool and legit way to create a character too. A mechanically optimized character certainly does not make them boring or cookie-cutter either. Not all half-orc barbarians play the same and the experiences at the gaming table will shape them in unique ways.
At the end of the day, D&D is a game about telling a story with your friends, playing characters who grow and develop together in a group. Whether everyone plays a variant human for the feat, mix-maxes their characters for superior performance, or creates unusual character and race combinations for fun and flavor, the goals are the same — having a great time enjoying the hobby together. How you choose a race for your D&D character is up to you, and I hope the video and my thoughts here give you a few new perspectives to consider the next time you create a character for a new D&D game.
In the comments below, I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you go about choosing your character’s race in D&D. Do you always play the same race, or have any stories about your favorite characters to share? Let me know!
Before you go, check out this screenshot from the most recent & Beyond Dev Update from D&D Beyond. Part of these monthly videos includes data and analytics Adam Bradford shares about DDB usage, including race and class distribution. As you can see, the good ol’ human fighter tops the charts as the most frequently created characters. Looks like there’s a definite dearth of kenku druids out there too. Maybe create one for your next game?
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