The most exciting and iconic part of creating a Dungeons & Dragons character is choosing your race. With over 50 official options spanning numerous sourcebooks, the range of diversity, customization, and roleplaying potential available is immense. The vast array of races and subraces provides tremendous creative possibilities for crafting unique adventuring heroes…and villains. This extensive guide delves into the core races of the Player's Handbook in detail, provides summaries of popular races from other books, suggests ideal class pairings, and offers tips on roleplaying and optimizing each race option. Let's set forth on the journey to uncover the magical world of races in D&D.
Part I: The Stalwart and Stony – Dwarves
“Baruk Khazâd! Khazâd ai-mênu!” This Dwarvish battle cry rings out in the depths of forgotten mines and mountain keeps. Dwarves are stout, sturdy folk who spend their long lifespans below the earth mining precious metals and gems. Dwarven kingdoms linked by enormous underground tunnels house clans devoted to their traditions and lineages. Dwarves cherish gold, ale, jewelry, and exquisite craftsmanship. Give a dwarf a forge and some fine metals and they'll produce intricate armor, weapons, and trinkets of unsurpassed quality.
The typical dwarf stands 4 to 5 feet tall with a muscular frame perfect for hard labor and combat. Dwarven skin tones range from ruddy peach to deep brown with hair in burnished copper, golden blonde, raven black, and silver grey tones. Male dwarves value their long, ornately braided beards tied with rings and jewels denoting clan and lineage. Dwarven eyes glitter like precious stones in azure, emerald, jet, and even rich amethyst shades.
Dwarven culture revolves around family, crafting, mining, and venerating the dwarven deities known as the Morndinsamman. Reverence for ancestors and adherence to long-held grudges and oaths defines most dwarves. They prefer to stick to their traditions rather than innovate. A dwarf won't easily forget a slight or betrayal, but those who stand alongside a dwarf and prove their worth will find no more loyal an ally.
Several dwarven subraces exist across the realms. Mountain dwarves are the common envisions, living in carved fortresses and mines within the highest peaks. Hill dwarves, adapted to life above ground, build halls in grassy hills and low mountains. The duergar, or gray dwarves, were corrupted long ago and now dwell in the gloomy Underdark. Each subrace has its own unique traits and abilities.
Dwarven Racial Traits:
- Darkvision – Accustomed to life underground, dwarves can see in dark and dim conditions.
- Dwarven Resilience – Advantage on saving throws against poison and resistance to poison damage. Tough as stone!
- Dwarven Combat Training – Proficiency with battleaxes, handaxes, light hammers, and warhammers.
- Tool Proficiency – Proficiency with one artisan's tool of your choice like smith's tools or brewer's supplies.
- Stonecunning – Intuit depths underground, spot unusual stonework, and find hidden doors in stone walls.
- Languages – Can speak, read, and write Common and Dwarvish.
Mountain dwarves gain +2 bonuses to Strength and Constitution while hill dwarves gain +2 Wisdom instead of Strength. Both subraces make excellent fighters, paladins, clerics, and even wizards. The duergar's traits like invisibility and psionics lend themselves toward rogues or more eccentric builds.
Playing a dwarf character offers great roleplaying flavor, regardless of class. An oath of vengeance paladin seeking ruins of lost dwarf clans, a circle of the moon druid embodying the toughness of mountain beasts, and a lore bard preserving ancient tales through poetry and song all make compelling dwarven concepts. Or lean into dwarven stereotypes and play a gold-hungry berserker barbarian!
Part II: Graceful as the Moonlight – Elves
Elves are amongst the most magical and mysterious of the D&D races. Their lives interwoven with the arcane and primal forces which permeate the fey realms, elves develop strong ties to the natural world and supernatural powers. An elf gliding soundlessly through moonlit trees, bow at the ready, embodies the agile grace which defines this race.
Elves stand taller than humans, averaging 5 to over 6 feet, but with slender, lithe builds. Their features are finely chiseled and delicate, with skin tones ranging from creamy alabaster to polished obsidian and shimmering emerald. Elven hair shines like mithral silver, gleams as golden as the sun, or cascades in deep emerald, sapphire, ruby and ebony tones. Their large eyes glitter like jewels in shades of gold, silver, aquamarine, and amethyst.
Elven lifespans far exceed those of humans, averaging around 750 years. In that time, they accumulate tremendous knowledge of magic and the workings of the world. Most elves feel little haste, moving through life with patient confidence and contemplation of the ages behind and ahead. They find loud, brash mortals off-putting and avoid major cities and human settlements when possible.
High elves, the most magically gifted, withdraw to splendid cities carved from white stone and filled with intricate artistry. The wood elves embrace the wilds, living in harmony with nature and exploring realms deep and forgotten. Drow descend from elves banished underground millennia ago, now dwelling in the dark and embracing evil.
Standard Elven Racial Traits:
- Darkvision – Accustomed to twilit forests and the night sky, elves have excellent vision in darkness.
- Fey Ancestry – Advantage on saving throws against being charmed and immune to magical sleep.
- Keen Senses – Proficiency in the Perception skill. Paying attention is key!
- Elf Weapon Training – Proficiency with longswords, shortswords, shortbows, and longbows.
- Fleet of Foot – Base walking speed of 35 feet. Outpace your lumbering allies!
- Mask of the Wild – Wood elves can attempt to hide even when only lightly obscured by foliage, rain, etc.
- Trance – Rather than sleep, elves meditate deeply for 4 hours a day.
- Languages – Can speak, read, and write Common and Elvish.
Both high elf and wood elf subraces gain +2 Dexterity. Wood elves also gain +1 Wisdom while high elves get +1 Intelligence instead, perfect for scholarly magic. The drow's bonuses go to Dexterity and Charisma, great for rogues or warlocks.
Elves excel as rangers, rogues, wizards, druids, and other graceful or mystical classes. Or break the mold with a burly, heavily-armored elven paladin or a lively bard weaving songs of ancient tales! Just don't forget your nightly trance, and watch out for those pesky charms.
Part III: Little Folk, Big Luck – Halflings
Looking for a hero on the shorter side? Say hello to the halflings! These friendly folks stand around 3 feet tall on average, with pleasantly plump builds, curly hair, and faces sporting youthful freckles and smiles. Halfling attire often features brightly colored vests, skirts, breeches, and shirts, as functional as they are stylish.
Halflings thrive in pastoral settings near rivers or lakes, living in cozy underground burrows or quaint cottages. They lead uncomplicated lives devoted to simple comforts – good food, fine drink, and the company of friends. Halfling villages are tight-knit havens brimming with warm hospitality. Visiting strangers can expect delicious meals and cozy beds aplenty.
Some halfling communities remain isolated from the world while others freely mingle with nearby kingdoms. Halfling adventurers set forth seeking new sights, fresh meals, and the thrill of discovery. They adapt easily to new surroundings and cultures, making friends wherever they roam. Just keep an eye on your valuables!
Halfling Racial Traits:
- Lucky – Reroll any attack roll, ability check, or saving throw that comes up a 1. Lady Luck smiles upon you!
- Brave – Advantage on saving throws against being frightened. Show some courage!
- Halfling Nimbleness – Move through the space of any creature one size larger or more.
- Naturally Stealthy – Able to hide behind creatures one size larger when lightly obscured.
- Languages – Can speak, read, and write Common and Halfling. Fear no thick regional accents!
Lightfoot halflings gain +2 Dexterity and +1 Charisma, making them natural rogues, bards, or rangers. Stout halflings gain +2 Dexterity and +1 Constitution instead, ideal for sturdy fighters or barbarians.
Halflings make endearing and lucky heroes perfect for rogues, bards, rangers, or even fighters and barbarians. Their bonuses to Dexterity make them naturally quick and evasive. Playing a stout halfling barbarian or fighter is an unexpected choice that still nicely leverages their traits. With Lucky allowing rerolls of low rolls and Brave granting saves against fear, even the mightiest foes become less threatening. Halflings thrive when confronting challenges bigger than their small frames would suggest.
In roleplay, lean into the halfling reputation for contentment and cheer. Have your halfling frequently pause the quest to enjoy a meal or compose a song. Play up their disarming friendliness and deft fingers when interacting with strangers. An outgoing halfling spreading goodwill can become the heart of an adventuring party. But also remember that sometimes big treasures come in small packages when your unassuming halfling unleashes their true power!
Part IV: Bold and Ambitious – Humans
The most common yet ambitious of the D&D races, humans display daring, innovation, and swift adaptability in their relatively brief lifespans. Driven by wanderlust, zealotry, conquest, trade, or myriad other motivations, humans constantly reshape the world through sheer determination. This adaptability and endless drive lends itself perfectly to the adventurer’s life.
Humans exhibit a tremendous range of physical features and skin tones, hailing from varied cultures across fantasy realms. Aside from their diversity, humans tend toward sturdy builds, moderate height and weight, and lasting fertility. Human lifespans average around 80 years, though accomplished mages and healers may prolong their vitality through magic.
Two varieties of humans populate the worlds of D&D. Standard humans gain +1 to all their ability scores, reflecting both their versatility and their lack of any outstanding strengths. This jack-of-all-trades approach suits generalist classes like bards and rangers. Variant humans gain proficiency in one skill of their choice and a starting feat, specializing from level one.
Human Racial Traits:
- Standard – +1 to all ability scores. A well-rounded foundation without any weaknesses.
- Variant – +1 to two ability scores of your choice, one skill proficiency, one starting feat. Specialize to your heart's content!
- Languages – Start with Common plus any additional languages equal to your Intelligence modifier. The adaptable polyglot!
Playing a human allows choosing any class or build without restriction. Standard humans can start with 16 or higher in their primary ability score for any class. Variant humans can grab a specialized feat like Spell Sniper for casters or Heavy Armor Master for tanks and optimize immediately. Ultimately, humans have no limits on potential, besides mortality. But driven human heroes can achieve more in decades than an elf might in centuries!
In roleplay, consider your human's lofty ambitions and how it drives them to a life of adventure. Maybe your human clings fiercely to every moment, knowing their time is limited. Or perhaps they hold deep prejudices or fears of other longer-lived races. Even with versatility, humans can developing compelling motivations and flaws.
Part V: Scales and Glory – Dragonborn
Few heroic sights inspire more awe than a dragonborn warrior, scales gleaming, muscles rippling, clawing the air and unleashing their draconic breath weapon upon wicked foes. These noble beings with reptilian features are the distant kin of the mighty dragons. Their clans pass down the ancient power flowing in their bloodline.
Dragonborn resemble humanoid dragons in stature and build. Their muscular frames combine humanoid and draconic features. A scaly hide protectively coats their entire body save their face and chest. Their hands and feet end in vicious claws with colors matching their ancestry. Dragonborn heads feature long, angular jaws, sharp teeth, and swept-back horns.
A dragonborn's draconic essence manifests as a breath weapon and damage resistance determined by their ancestry and associated color. Red dragonborns unleash blasts of fire while white dragonborns emit cones of frigid cold. These breath weapons recharge after use, growing more potent over time. Dragonborn also pick up Draconic as an additional language.
Dragonborn Racial Traits:
- +2 Strength, +1 Charisma – Excellent for frontline fighters and inspiring leaders.
- Breath Weapon – Exhale destructive elemental energy in a 15-foot cone.
- Damage Resistance – Resist the damage type of your breath weapon.
- Languages – Can speak, read, and write Common and Draconic.
Dragonborn make very effective paladins, sorcerers, bards, fighters, and more. Their Strength boost aids melee damage and physical feats while the Charisma benefits social interaction. Dragonborn also work well for clerics devoted to Bahamut, the Dragon God of Justice. The breath weapon provides a useful ranged attack option. For fun builds, try a feral dragonborn barbarian or a calculating dragonborn wizard questing for eldritch draconic secrets.
In roleplay, honor your clan and bloodline by upholding draconic virtues like courage, strength, and leadership. Your breath weapon symbolizes the power of your heritage – use it judiciously. And don't forget to speak boastfully of your ancestry and decorate your armor and clothing with draconic imagery. Your very presence should remind others of dragons!
We have only begun to scratch the surface of playable D&D races. In future installments of this series we will journey to the realms of the fey with gnomes and halflings, embrace the darkness with drow and tieflings, explore exotic species like tabaxi and tortles, and customize fantastical lineage options. The quest for the ultimate race and class combination never ends! But armed with the insights from our journey so far, you are ready to start building your own legendary hero. Now grab your starting gear, choose your favored abilities, and set forth on adventure. The Forgotten Realms await!