Over at Nerdarchy the YouTube channel Nerdarchists Dave and Ted cracked open a fresh copy of Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount to go over the new player options for races for fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons characters. Dave and Ted talk about the new races and their mechanical attributes, and in that regard the book contains five new options: pallid elf, lotusden halfling, draconblood and ravenite dragonborn and orcs of Exandria. New player options are always a welcome addition to 5E D&D and it’s fun to examine new races to see what classes they mesh with through their traits and attributes. But what really interests me about Character Options — Races in Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount isn’t the crunchy parts at all. Rather, I’m fascinated by the example of worldbuilding through all the existing options we already had and how Matt Mercer takes things we already know and enriches his own campaign setting with them. Worldbuilding doesn’t start or stop with a Dungeon Master, and the most basic component of character creation offers a terrific example of how this aspect of the game provides fertile ground for players and DMs to collaborate and build things together.
Worldbuilding with character races in 5E D&D
Before delving into ideas about worldbuilding it’s worthwhile to note Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount includes a lot of character race options from other sources. I’ve seen a bit of grumbling online about this, but I suspect many of these complaints stem from either people who simply don’t like Critical Role and if it wasn’t reprinted races it would be something else, or players who feel the book has less value because there isn’t as many new options and there’s page space devoted to content they already have from their original sources. As a counterpoint I’d say including these existing options is a great thing. It puts everything players need from sources beyond the core rulebooks in this single source and adds setting specific notes. In this regard the section on races is similar to Eberron: Rising from the Last War.
Revisiting the classics — human, elf, dwarf, halfling
According to Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount the dominant races of the setting are dwarves, elves, halflings and humans. Sound familiar? These are the common races core to 5E D&D itself, included in the Basic Rules and presented together in the Player’s Handbook. So right off the bat this tells us something about the worldbuilding process for Wildemount. The core assumption cleaves to the standard for 5E D&D and illustrates a great starting point for D&D players developing their own campaign settings.
From this starting point you can begin asking questions about these races place in your world. In the case of a newer D&D players, a group planning a new campaign or an individual DM working on a fresh setting starting with these four races provides a strong foundation supported by the default worldbuilding features of the game. This is a wonderful opportunity to begin player and DM collaboration! Starting with the characters in the party, start considering their places in the world you create together. It’s easy to assume humans are the most common and prevalent race. We’re human ourselves so this makes a setting relatable.
What does a world dominated by a majority dwarf population look like? Or elves or halflings? Perhaps one of the uncommon races from the PHB is in fact the most common in your world. Some DMs like to keep their worldbuilding to themselves, sharing pertinent details with players who create characters to adventure there. Consider the possibilities when you involve the players in this process. What do they imagine about their characters’ culture and heritage, and how those things interact with the larger world. A player with a tiefling character might imagine them as the only one of their kind, a rare occurrence from potentially any other race or even an entire civilization. It can’t hurt to collaborate with the player and use their character as a lens through which to look at the wider world.
In Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount you can see how Matt Mercer and the team who helped bring the world of his imagination to life is inspired by the game we all love as much as the next person, taking the default elements and creating context for them. This sort of worldbuilding doesn’t require any mechanical design work but it can certainly impact players and their characters during campaigns. Using dwarves as an example, Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount begins its presentation thusly:
“Dwarves’ long memories give them uncommon insight into the world of the past. However, this connection to the past can make their societies resistant to change, even when change is desperately needed.”
This sounds like an interpretation of the Long Memories, Long Grudges section in the PHB a little bit, right? In your setting this could be interpreted completely opposite. A dwarf’s long memory could result in a jumble of thoughts making them generally unfocused. Or they might look at history, seeing the ups and downs and embracing change with the understanding of their culture weathering the tides of time because of they endure like the mountains. In practice, dwarves in your setting could be explorers of the unknown or even nomads, secure in the knowledge their ancient home will persist. An important part of dwarven culture might include returning home with news and developments from across the world specifically to bring about those changes in their society.
In the case of elves Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount delves into elvish lore and reimagines their history a bit different than the core assumptions from D&D history. Elvish creation mythology has always been a deeply ingrained part of their lore, more than most other races, and some key components of their lore remain here. Corellon and Gruumsh are feuding gods, they’re linked with the Feywild, they’re reclusive and despite the many elf subraces there is one with a distinct difference more than any other — the drow. But in Wildemount these traits, qualities and lore take on their own new directions. The most welcome difference comes from the drow. Dark elves are traditionally a race of wicked subterranean elves generally speaking. But in Wildemount drow culture includes a deep connection to mystical forces instilling them with respect toward people of all races.
Elves and dwarves aren’t just humans with different body shapes. Even among adventurers there’s unquestionably races and cultures they’ve never seen or heard of before. What kinds of stories emerge when the adventuring party encounters these things for the first time? Are there characters in the party itself for whom their companions are creatures they might not even know existed to begin with? Do characters from the same race, even the same subrace, come from cultures and societies vastly different from each other? Sword Coast Adventurers Guide does a great job illustrating how different humans can be from each other in the same setting. Apply this same logic to elves, dwarves, orcs or goblins.
At the end of the day, as 5E D&D players it’s fun to ooh and ahh over new character options and the mechanical benefits they bring to the game. A pallid elf might make a fantastic Inquisitive rogue, but who are these pallid elves and what is their place in the world? The Pallid Grove they call home is hidden near the northern heart of the Cyrios Mountains” and “cut off from the rest of Wildemount by deadly peaks.” A pallid elf character brings a lot of worldbuilding and storytelling to the table. Can they find their way back to the Pallid Grove? How and why did they leave in the first place? Without any mechanical discussion, a player and DM can share this worldbuilding space to determine how this affects their game.
Whether you are starting a new campaign set in the world of Exandria with Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount, continuing adventures in your own homebrew setting or playing games set in another existing world like Greyhawk, the experiences around the table make any setting unique to your group. By giving some thought to how the races of 5E D&D interact there you can enrich the storytelling potential and find ways to engage in worldbuilding together.