D&D Custom Race Guide

Posted by Andrew E. on

Table of Contents:

A Creature for Every Occasion

Dwarf, elf, orc, halfling, variant human, bleh, boring. Where are the octopus-people? Why can I not be a dragon race that's actually dragons, or a robot with a chainsaw hand in dungeons & dragons? If you’ve longed for these playable 5e races and more, you’re left making do with a base race or scrounging through fan content and even then, you may not get something well-balanced or even what you’re really looking for. So why not make your own? Start looking for inspiration because we’re going to run through the design workshop with everything you need to know about making your own custom dungeons and dragons 5e races.

Custom Race Goals 

First, before we get into it properly, we should establish what goals we’re working towards. While you could theoretically make any sort of player character, you want to end up with homebrew races that can be played alongside the existing races without causing a power imbalance. Now, that may not be what you’re looking for, but all the following advice will be oriented towards helping you create a race balanced with the standard races that anybody could drop into their campaigns without issue. If you're looking to create something stronger than an official race, you're looking at monstrous races or advanced races. Monstrous races are fun but will be overpowered compared to the base races. Advanced races on the other hand will be strong but shouldn't be game breaking as there's already advanced races in the game such as the yuan ti pureblood.

As a dungeon master if you're wanting to create monstrous races, simply work towards a goal of 20 "points" rather than 10 "points" when creating your monstrous races. If you're looking to create an advanced race, work towards a goal of 15 "points" rather than 10. More on how these points work later.

Race Breakdown

Now, let’s take a look at the mechanics of races and take them apart, so you can put your own together later. A race represents in a strict biological sense what a character IS, with just a dash of how they were raised and their cultural identity. As fifth edition has progressed that cultural influence has been pulled further and further out, but for now think of a race as a character’s physical form first, and with only a touch of culture sprinkled on top. Racial traits are a surprisingly small component when it comes to how a character functions mechanically, but each race has a few essential bits, and a wider set of general features.

Race Essentials

There’re nearly infinite racial traits a race could have, but there are a few essentials that every playable race must have in order to function properly in 5e.

Ability Score Increase Trait

5e is balanced to assume that each player receives ability score improvements from their race during character creation. You have a bit of flexibility on how you implement racial bonuses, but generally you should be providing 3 ability score points but never all in the same score. The majority of them fall into just 2 ability score generation methods:

  • +2 in an ability score, and +1 in a different ability score.
  • +1 to three different ability scores.

Rarely, you get some races that only gain 2 ability score points, or that gain 4 ability score points. These should be losing or gaining more features than normal (more on that later) and they usually fall into the following formulas:

  • +2 in an ability score with the benefit of more features.
  • +1 in an ability score, and +1 in a different ability score with the benefit of more features.
  • +2 in an ability score, and +2 in a different ability score at the cost of fewer features.
  • +2 in an ability score, +1 in another ability score, and +1 in yet another ability score at the cost of fewer features.
Age Trait

Somewhat a relic of editions filled with age traps and age-based penalties and bonuses, every race needs a trait that simply addresses the average age and lifespan of your race. These don’t really have any mechanical weight but you’ll need to add one in for flavor regardless. 

Alignment Trait

A similar relic from times where character alignment mattered quite a bit more, you’ll need to include a trait indicating what alignments your race tends to be. Because this is a tendency rather than a mechanical rule, it’s all flavor and worldbuilding.

Size Trait

You’ll need to indicate what size category this race falls into. Now, if you’re sticking to 5e design entirely, this means you’re limited to either a small creature, or a medium creature, which are mechanically almost identical except for heavy weapons and some fringe spacing issues. 

Technically speaking, tiny and large playable races can work, but they’ll take a lot of work. You run into a whole swathe of logistical issues from weapon sizes to dungeons with 5-foot-wide corridors. Approach tiny and large races with caution and expect unexpected problems. For now, we’ll assume your race is either small or medium.

Movement Speed

You’ll need a trait showing how fast your race gets around and their normal speed. 30 ft speed is the standard base speed, with 25 as a slower option and 35 for extra speed as common alternatives. If your race has a flight speed, climb speed, or a swim speed you’ll also need to outline those alternative movement speeds, though these will eat into your other features which we’ll get into in a minute.

Languages

As a baseline your race will need to be able to at least speak common, and most races will also know their own unique racial language or some combination of other additional languages.

Think of common + racial language as “standard” and any bonus languages in excess of that should eat just a bit into your features.

Race Features

We’ve gone through all the essentials that your race needs, now let’s go into the sort of extraordinary abilities you might want for your 5e race. These are all the racial qualities that make your race unique and set them apart. By definition each racial trait can be really anything, but I’ve found it’s very helpful to subdivide them into categories. If all the features you’ve come up with fit into the same category, maybe try and mix them up and diversify them. Your race probably shouldn’t have like 5 different natural attacks.

Sense Features

This includes the basic stuff like darkvision, and anything relating to how your race perceives the world around them. 

Offensive Features

This includes natural weapons like a breath weapon, claws or bites, features that provide weapon proficiencies (particularly for martial weapon groups), or any other racial feature solely designed for attacking or that deals with attack rolls.

Defensive Features

This includes natural armor, armor proficiencies (though I'd avoid heavy armor), features that provide a bonus to a saving throw or resistances to damage types, or any other feature that revolves around keeping a creature alive and well. 

Magic Features

This includes any feature that provides “racial spellcasting” or cantrips, any sort of spell like ability, and anything else that feels intrinsically magical.

Miscellaneous Features

This includes features that just provide a skill proficiency or tool proficiency, and anything else that just doesn’t fit right into another category.

Building Your Own 5e Race

Now that we’ve taken the 5e races apart into their component building blocks, we can start putting them together to make something new! We just need to establish our blueprint so you can fit the right power level for the half-undead race or half-construct race of your dreams.

5e Race Template

The numbers here are arbitrary, but by dissecting the core 5th edition races and measuring them against each other, we can get a good approximation of the “strength” of a race and use that as a blueprint for building our own. On our point cost scale after evaluating all their features, the core races add up to “10 points”, give or take a point or two. The stronger features cost more points, and things like weaknesses can even subtract points. You simply need to evaluate the features you want to include based on existing features, then mix and match them until you get something you’re happy with that adds up to 10 points (or close to it).

We start by assuming that the features that have no mechanical impact don’t factor into this, so your race’s age, alignment, and size don’t matter for these points totals.

Then there’s a couple of the race essentials that’ll factor in if you deviate from the “standard” versions. There’re infinite possibilities, but hopefully the examples presented here can give you a good feel for the relative point costs.

Ability Score Increases

+2 in an ability score, and +1 in a different ability score. 0 Points

+1 to three different ability scores. 0 Points

+2 in a single ability score only. -2 Points 

+1 in an ability score, and +1 in a different ability score. -2 Points

+2 in an ability score, and +2 in a different ability score. 2 Points

+2 in an ability score, +1 in another ability score, and +1 in yet another ability score. 2 Points

Movement Speed

Assuming that your race starts off with just a normal 30-foot movement speed, tally up the following points for the following alternate movement speeds:

30-foot swimming speed. 1 Point

30-foot climbing speed. 1 Point

30-foot flying speed. 6 Points

25-foot walking speed. -2 Points

35-foot walking speed. 2 Points

Features

There are SO many features that a new race could potentially have and I’m sure you’ve got ideas about how you want your race to function that I can’t possibly anticipate. What I CAN do is give you some examples to scale your own features against. The following features have been tested against the core races from the player's handbook, and should give you good metrics to design your own features:

1 Point Features

Darkvision. You have superior vision in dark and dim conditions. You can see in dim light within 60 feet of you as if it were bright light, and in darkness as if it were dim light. You can't discern color in darkness, only shades of gray. 1 Point

Keen Hearing. Your kind have a highly attuned sense of hearing. You make Wisdom (Perception) checks relating to sound at advantage. 1 Point

Broad Claws. Your claws are natural weapons, which you can use to make unarmed strikes. If you hit with them, you deal slashing damage equal to 1d4 + your Strength modifier, instead of the bludgeoning damage normal for an unarmed strike. 1 Point

Maritime Weapon Training. Your people live and die by the sea and traditionally train with nautical weapons and tools. You have proficiency with the net and trident, and with waterborne vehicles and cartographer’s tools. 1 Point

Light Armor Training. Your people have lived harsh lives and have learned the value of a tough hide and a swift foot. You have proficiency with light armor. 1 Point

Tuck and Roll. Either through an innate weightlessness, a durable design or an acrobatic aptitude for mitigating falls, your kind don’t suffer as greatly from hard landings. You have resistance to damage taken from falling. 1 Point

Mask of Wilderness. You can attempt to hide even when you are only lightly obscured by foliage, heavy rain, falling snow, mist, and other natural phenomena. 1 Point

Dramatic Effects. You know the thaumaturgy cantrip. Wisdom or Charisma (your choice) is your spellcasting ability for it. 1 Point

Gnomish Beast Speech. You can speak, read, and write Common and Gnomish.  Through sounds and gestures, you can communicate simple ideas with small or smaller beasts. Your people love animals and often keep squirrels, badgers, rabbits, moles, woodpeckers, and other creatures as beloved pets. 1 Point

Call of the Ocean. Your kind are inexorably drawn to the sea. As an action, you can magically determine which direction points towards the closest ocean. 1 Point

Trusted by Nature. You are proficient in the Animal Handling skill. 1 Point

Fey Ancestry. You have advantage on saving throws against being charmed, and magic can't put you to sleep. 1 Point 

2 Point Features

Advanced Darkvision. You have superior vision in dark and dim conditions. You can see in dim light within 120 feet of you as if it were bright light, and in darkness as if it were dim light. You 

can't discern color in darkness, only shades of gray. 2 Points

Blood Tracker. Your kind have minds hard-wired to sense the weak and wounded. You have advantage on all Wisdom (Survival) checks made to track any creature whose current hit points are below their maximum hit points. 2 Points

Graceful Claws. Your claws are slender, sharp, and retractable, you can use these instruments of death to make unarmed strikes. If you hit with them you deal slashing damage equal to 1d6 + your Dexterity modifier, instead of the bludgeoning damage normal for an unarmed strike. 2 Points

Long Charger. If you move at least 20 feet straight toward a creature and then hit it with a melee attack on the same turn, you can cause the melee attack to do extra damage to the creature and attempt to shove the creature as part of the attack. The extra damage equals your level. Once you use this ability, you can’t use it again until you finish a short or long rest. 2 Points

Thrive Under Pressure. You have resistance to thunder damage. 2 Points

Easily Overlooked. You find it easy to blend in amongst others. You can attempt to hide even when you are obscured only by a creature that is at least one size larger than you. 2 Points

Bardic Cantrip. You know one Cantrip of your choice from the bard’s spell list. Charisma is your spellcasting ability for it. 2 Points

Magical Instincts. Your kind’s minds are highly focused machines, you have an instinct for when the natural world has been altered. You make Wisdom (Perception) checks to notice and see through magical illusions at advantage. 2 Points

Skyland Ken. You can speak, read, and write Common, Auran, and Draconic. You can also communicate in a limited manner with birds and dragons.

They can understand the meaning of your words, though you have no special

ability to understand them in return. You have advantage on all Charisma checks

you make to influence them. 2 Points

Watchful. You are proficient in the Perception skill. 2 Points

Feels no Fear. Your kind are born with courage in their hearts. You have advantage on saving throws against being frightened. 2 Points

3 Point Features

Deepsight. Your kind’s eyes are designed to detect even the smallest hint of light in the deep abyss. You can see in dim light within 120 feet of you as if it were bright light, and in darkness as if it were dim light, this distance increases to 300 feet while you are underwater. 

You can't discern color in darkness, only shades of gray. 3 Points

Ambusher. If you surprise a creature and hit it with an attack on your first turn in combat, the attack deals an extra 2d6 damage to it. You can use this trait only once per combat. 3 Points

Being of Darkness. You have resistance to necrotic damage. 3 Points

Minor Telekinesis. Your kind have tapped into the power of the mind, and can focus your mental power into physical action.

As an action, you can attempt to exert your will on one object that weighs no more than 10 pounds that you can see within 30 feet.

If your target is an item being worn or carried by a creature, make a Wisdom or Intelligence (your choice) ability check contested by the creature’s Strength check. If you win the contest, you may move the carried object up to 10 feet in any direction. 

If your target is an unattended object, you can move that object up to 10 feet in any direction. 

Instead of moving an object, you can choose to exert fine control on an object telekinetically, such as manipulating a simple tool, opening a door or a container, stowing, or retrieving an item from an open container, or pouring the contents from a vial. 3 Points

Knowledgeable. Your kind have a predilection for valuable knowledge. You are proficient in your choice of two of the following skills: Arcana, History, Medicine, Nature, or Religion. 3 Points

Sudden Sprint. When need be, your natural reflexes and agility allow you to a sudden burst of speed. When you move on your turn in combat, you can double your speed until the end of the turn. Once you use this trait, you can't use it again until you move 0 feet on one of your turns. 3 Points

4 Point Features

Earth Attuned. Your kind are naturally attuned to the rock and soil and can sense subtle shifts in the earth. You have tremorsense in a 60-foot range, this ability only functions on natural earthen substrates such as rock, sand, or soil and does not function on worked stone or any artificial surfaces. 4 Points

All-Consuming Light. Starting at 3rd level, you can use your action to unleash the energy within yourself, causing a searing light to radiate from you, pour out of your eyes and mouth, and threaten to char you.

This magical overflow lasts for 1 minute or until you end it as a bonus action. During it, you shed bright light in a 10-foot radius and dim light for an additional 10 feet, and at the end of each of your turns, you and each creature within 10 feet of you take radiant damage equal to half your level (rounded up). In addition, once on each of your turns, you can deal extra radiant damage to one target when you deal damage to it with an attack or a spell. The extra radiant damage equals your level.

Once you use this trait, you can't use it again until you finish a long rest. 4 Points

Fireproof. You have resistance to fire damage. 4 Points

Deep Magic. The dark magic of deep places flows through you. You know the dancing lights cantrip. When you reach 3rd level, you can cast the faerie fire spell once per day. When you reach 5th level, you can also cast the darkness spell once per day. Charisma is your spellcasting ability for these spells. 4 Points

5 Point Features

Pounce. Your kind are acutely adept at pouncing upon your opponent and confirming the kill. If you move at least 20 feet straight toward a creature and then hit it with a melee attack on the same turn, you can attempt to knock the creature prone with a shove as part of the attack. If you successfully knock the creature prone you may immediately make another melee attack as a bonus action. Once you use this trait, you can’t use it again until you finish a short or long rest. 5 Points

Puncture Resilience. You have resistance to non-magical piercing damage. 5 Points

Holy Magic. You know the guidance cantrip. Once you reach 3rd level, you can cast the bless spell once per day as a 2nd-level spell. Once you reach 5th level, you can also cast aid as a 2nd level spell once per day. Wisdom is your spellcasting ability for these spells. 5 Points

6 Point Features

Chainsaw Hand. Your kind have a rotating saw blade at the end of one of your arms where your hand would be. Your chainsaw hand is a natural weapon, which you can use to make unarmed strikes, if you hit with it, you deal slashing damage equal to 1d6 + your Strength modifier instead of the bludgeoning damage normal for an unarmed strike.

Your chainsaw hand can be revved up as an action. If you do so, it will remain revved up for 1 minute or until you choose to stop it as a bonus action.

While your chainsaw hand is revved up, it can be used to make unarmed strikes, if you hit with it, you deal slashing damage equal to 1d12 + your Strength modifier, instead of the bludgeoning damage normal for an unarmed strike. If the damage die rolls a natural 12, you may roll an additional 1d12 damage die and add the result to the damage total of the attack, you may continue doing this until you roll a result other than a natural 12.

Once you rev up your chainsaw hand, it cannot be revved up again until you finish a long rest.

Your chainsaw hand actually replaces the hand that would be attached to that limb, meaning you may not use that arm to wield other weapons, perform somatic spell components, or use items, etc. 6 Points

Resplendent Scion. You are immune to radiant damage. 6 Points

Fire Magic. You know the firebolt cantrip. Once you reach 3rd level, you can cast the burning hands spell once per day as a 1st level spell. Once you reach 5th level, you can also cast scorching ray once per day as a 2nd level spell. Intelligence or Charisma (your choice) is your spellcasting ability for these spells. 6 Points

 

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