I recently finished playing in a Dungeons & Dragons (5th edition) campaign, and the same group is now planning for the next one, in the same setting but with all new characters. We’re even using D&D Beyond for it, because if we’re going down that rabbit hole we might as well go all the way, right?
And going through character creation has got me thinking again about fantasy races in D&D, and pondering yet again the age-old question: what in the Nine Hells is up with the Half-Elf and Half-Orc races? What makes them so special that they get treated as distinct races in their own right? Why can’t I play as any other type of hybrid, like a half-elf/half-dwarf dwelf? Well, this time I actually decided to do something about it.
You can play other types of hybrid in D&D 5e. Read on to see how.
Update 2019-03-22: A follow-up blog post updates some of the rules I originally wrote on this post. You can find it at Dwelfs and Dragoblins: More mixed race options for D&D 5e
Update 2020-03-22: Another update, this time at Beyond Dwelfs: Even more mixed race options for Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition. While the links in this blog have been updated to the latest version, you’ll need to see the updated blog post for an update to the components as presented at the end of this post.
But first, a little digression into the history of it and some other ways of dealing. If you just want to see the hack, skip ahead to the section headed ‘CREATING HYBRID RACES IN D&D 5E’.
A wizard did it; he’s called Tolkien
Half-Elves and Half-Orcs have been the only real playable races in D&D since its early days, and it’s not hard to work out why. Of the seven playable race options that have appeared in every version of the game since first edition AD&D in 1977 (Humans, Elves, Dwarves, Halflings, Gnomes, Half-Elves, and Half-Orcs), all but one are based on peoples of Middle Earth from the works of J.R.R. Tolkien:
- Humans, Elves, and Dwarves = Men, Elves, and Dwarves (duh)
- Halflings = Hobbits
- Half-Elves = Half-Elven
- Half-Orcs = Half-orcs, orc-men, or Uruk-hai (which are either the same things or they’re not, because it’s Tolkien and I’m not enough of an expert to get my head round it all)
These inspirations are obviously pretty tenuous in some cases. For example, in Tolkien, Half-Elves like Elrond and his brother Elros had to choose between their Human and Elven sides. Elrond lived as an Elf, Elros as a Man. It’s a whole thing. In D&D, however, Half-Elves are a combination of the traits of their two parents (sort of) and there’s this focus on adaptability and living between two cultures and fitting in.
I find that fascinating, because a common response I see from D&D players when someone wants to play a child of two races is “narratively, that’s fine, but just pick one of their parents’ races for the purposes of the rules”. The advice is to adopt a Tolkienian approach to mixed race children, even though the basic rules of D&D intentionally took a different approach.
Can we fix this without creating a bunch of new rules?
The thing is, once a playable race exists in one version of D&D, it’ll keep coming back in every subsequent edition. Players want to see the character options they used to know, and they’ll homebrew old options into new editions if the game designers don’t provide them first (and sometimes even then).
So Half-Elves and Half-Orcs will always be there, but that doesn’t mean your gaming group needs to use them. There are plenty of other racial options nowadays to pick up the slack from cutting a couple out. And preventing players from taking the options that are explicitly F1 hybrids gives you and your gaming group leeway to establish new things about your own campaign setting. For instance, maybe:
- the various races of the world are wholly separate species and simply cannot have offspring with each other;
- a child of two races will belong to one race or the other (per Elrond); or
- existing races are already hybrid races of one sort or another (e.g. Humans are the offspring of Elves and Dwarves).
If you don’t want to take any rules out, it’s probably worth having a think about why the existing hybrid races are the only ones that can be player characters. That includes Half-Elves and Half-Orcs, of course, but could also be extended to Tieflings, Aasimar, Genasi, and maybe even Dragonborns, depending on which interpretations of these races you’re using.
For instance, why is it generally assumed in the rules that hybrid races will be one half Human, and one half Something Else? (In 5th edition, the Genasi write-up refers to the possibility of not being descended from Humans, but it still feels a bit like an afterthought.) Some settings attribute it mostly to culture, but that seems limiting when applied to all settings.
In my recent campaign, we decided that Humans are low-key magical creatures with the innate power to have kids with anything. That worked for us, but there are probably other options.
Ok, let’s create a bunch of new rules
The other option is to just create a whole load of new rules for playing hybrid races. Given D&D’s penchant for adding new options (mercifully toned down since 3rd and 3.5 editions), it’s telling (and almost surprising) that there aren’t official races for every kind of hybrid around. The only one I can even think of is the half-dwarf Mul from the Dark Sun setting, but even that gave us the (more interesting) insectoid Thri-Kreen at the same time.
Of course, creating new races for every combination would be a bloat on a game that is already relatively heavy on its rules.
Instead, let’s just divide the existing races into components that can be mixed and matched at will. I’ll call them Left and Right components. The idea is based on hybrid classes from 4th edition D&D’s Player Handbook 3. (In fact, I originally had this idea when 4th edition was still current, but I never acted on it. I think it would have been easier in 4th, because every racial feature was divisible by 2 back then, but I’ll never know because I’m probably never going to go back and do it.)
CREATING HYBRID RACES IN D&D 5E
This section has been updated since this blog post, and the version here is largely obsolete. You can see the latest version at Beyond Dwelfs: Even more mixed race options for Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition.
All character races have been divided into Left and Right components.
To create your character’s race, pick one Left component and one Right component from the lists below, then apply all benefits (and disadvantages) from both.
(The provided components can be used to create all official variants to date of the following official races: Aasimar, Dwarf, Elf, Gnome, Goliath, Half-Elf, Halfling, Half-Orc, Human, Tiefling.)
Except for Ability Score increases, where the chosen Left component and the chosen Right component give the same specific benefit, it applies only once. (Practically, this should only happen for languages.)
Ability Score Increases (ASIs) must be applied in the following order, regardless of which component they come from:
- any (free) – increase any of the six Abilities by one without restriction
- specified ASIs (Strength, Charisma, etc.) – increase the specified Ability by one, or decrease the Ability by one if it is preceded by a minus (-)
- any (repeat) – increase an Ability by one that you’ve already increased under step 1 or step 2
- any (other) – must increase any Abilities that were decreased in step 2 to remove the penalty (even if you’ve already stepped it up in step 1), or (if there are no Ability penalties remaining) increase any Ability that has not already been increased (including in this step)
(The only major changes to the ASIs offered are for Elves, which have been tweaked because Elves and Half-Elves are so different, and are therefore more flexible than in the base game. To create a rules-as-written Half-Elf, take a Left Elf and Right Human, taking Charisma as the Human’s free ASI.)
Right Humans ordinarily get a free choice of language (subject to the usual restrictions for player characters). However, if the Left component does not have Common, then this choice must be used to acquire Common as a language.
The Fleet of Foot trait is reworded as “Increase movement speed by 5 feet”.
(This section should look like 2 columns/boxes next to each other that scroll independently. The one on the left contains Left components, the one on the right contains Right components. If it doesn’t look like that on your computer, please let me know! This is a bit of an experiment!)
The instructions for creating hybrid races are also included in spreadsheet form: Creating Hybrid Races in D&D 5E by SMorffew (this is the latest update. An archive of the original can be found here.)
When producing this hack, I referred to racial traits as given on D&D Beyond. I also referred to the Musicus Scale and the Detect Balance Scale for working out the power or utility of races in D&D 5th edition, using them mostly to work out which traits should be in Left components and which in Right components.
There is potential to extend the hack to cover more races. For instance, Dragonborns are the most notable exclusion, mostly because I assume they don’t give birth to live young as the other races do. In the event that Wizards of the Coast ever produces a playable race that is neither Medium nor Small (the Pixie in D&D 4e was Tiny, for example), I’d replace the Size calculation (currently determined solely by the Right component) with a numeric scale that can be summed as follows:
Header image is Kiliel (Titans Grave) by Nick Gan, via snapzu.com