You’ve rolled some ability scores and decided what kind of adventurer you want to be, but one major and very basic element remains—what are you? This is a fantasy game, after all, and part of the fantasy is the idea that humans are not alone in the world, but that they live in a world filled with magical and exotic creatures, from savage trolls to terrifying ghosts to majestic (and often malevolent) dragons. Beyond the super-predators of the fantasy world, however, you have other fantasy people who live there. In theory, you could play almost anything as a character in a fantasy game, and for an experienced player or DM that might work out very nicely. When you’re first starting out with D&D, though, it’s best to stay with races that aren’t too exotic.
We all know the classic types of fantasy people, along with their stereotypical personalities: graceful, aloof, and magical elves; fun-loving and mischievous halflings; grumpy, rude, and pugnacious dwarves; curious, experimental (often mechanically inclined), and prank-playing gnomes; or half-races caught between two worlds of humanity and either beauty (half-elves) or savagery (half-orcs). These are the basic races of D&D, and each has different strengths and weaknesses which makes them better or worse for the various kinds of adventurer you might pick.
The first thing to remember in picking a race, though, is that you don’t have to play the stereotype for each race. Obviously, you can. If you just watched the Lord of the Rings movies and you want to be a woodsy elven archer like Legolas or a grouchy axe-wielding dwarf like Gimli, go for it. If you want an elven ranger with two scimitars like Driz’zt or a lucky human rogue like Mat Cauthon from the Wheel of Time, make it happen. But don’t think that that’s the only way you can play. You can be a swashbuckling half-orc rogue with a sense of humor, or a cultured and well-mannered dwarven wizard, or a grim halfling ranger, or a city-dwelling elven mercenary who’d rather hug a full wine barrel than a tree.
Playing to a Race’s Strengths
Naturally, some races are better at some things than others. All races have a favored class, which means if you ever multiclass—take levels in more than one class as you go up in level—it’s easier for you to do, but that’s really the only game effect of a ‘favored class.’ It does represent a pretty good idea of one class that the race is pretty good for—half-orcs make good barbarians, halflings make good rogues, elves make good wizards, etc. For most beginning D&D players, favored class probably won’t mean much, though, because at least the first few times you try D&D you should try sticking with one class for a while.
Races also have different racial abilities, and these are described in the Player’s Handbook. Some are simple, like a human’s bonus feat and bonus skill points or a dwarf’s bonus to saving throws against poison. Some are more complicated, like a gnome’s ability to cast some minor magic spells or an elf’s ability to notice hidden doors and secret compartments. You could choose a race based on which one had abilities you like or which seemed advantageous. For instance, an elf gets free weapon proficiencies in a sword and a bow, which is meaningless for a class like fighter or ranger that already knows how to use those weapons, but could be very handy for a wizard or cleric that doesn’t. On the other hand, a dwarf’s ability to use certain exotic weapons as martial weapons is great if you’re playing a barbarian or fighter that can use martial weapons but not so useful if you’re playing a druid or cleric that doesn’t. It’s sometimes hard to judge how useful racial abilities are until you’ve played for a while, so in general you should think about the kind of race you want to play first and then worry about testing out your racial abilities later. You will have time to try out lots of different characters, or to watch other people trying out theirs, and you may see something you like and want to try with your next character as you go.
One important place to look, though, is at the ability score modifiers that each race has, because that can impact how you arrange your ability scores and what kind of class you want to choose to go with your race. (For more on ability scores, check out the first tutorial.) A race with an ability score penalty will be at a disadvantage if you play a class for which that ability is really important. Thus, dwarves and half-orcs, with a Charisma penalty, make poor sorcerers or bards. You could still play those classes, but realize you’re kind of tying one hand behind your back. Charisma is also important for a paladin, and a dwarf’s or half-orc’s lower Charisma score will hurt, but a bonus to Constitution or Strength may be good enough to balance things out for a character that fights a lot.
Balancing the benefits of ability scores is important. A halfling at first seems like a poor choice for a fighting character, because of its small size and Strength penalty. However, if you combine the halfling’s Dexterity bonus with a feat like Weapon Finesse, you can still create an effective melee fighter, or you can focus on a fighter, paladin, ranger, or barbarian that specializes in the use of missile weapons. Your elf barbarian’s lower Constitution means his rage won’t last as long, but his higher Dexterity means he’ll be better at using ranged attacks and will have a better Armor Class, which is important when your character’s class relies on using light or medium armor.
It’s also important to get away from thinking about the worst-case scenario—like a half-orc sorcerer. There are lots of atypical class and race combinations in which your ability penalty ends up being pretty much irrelevant to your class abilities. There’s no real downside to playing a dwarf druid or half-orc monk or halfling sorcerer or gnome ranger or elf monk, classes you might not normally think about for them.
If you have a fantasy idea from a book or movie that you want to play as a D&D character, that’s great. But if you don’t, think about what race and class appeal to you as a mix-and-match process. Dwarves tend to be fighters because they make good fighters, but they’re also pretty good at being a lot of other classes, so don’t imagine that every dwarf has to be like Gimli and every elf like Legolas. This is your character, so you can make it your own!
About the Author
Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, and son Allen. He is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one weekly campaign while playing intermittently in two others.