D&D 5E: “Race” as Cosmetic with Flexible Traits

Thinking through some further house rule ideas for D&D 5E, maybe even enough for a second edition of the Hoard of House Rules. I have seen some relatively complex solutions to the race problem in D&D, and a simple option occurred to me. A lot of what’s interesting about races, I think, are the cosmetics. This especially seems to be true for tieflings, so often featured in fan art. But I digress. For those who are motivated by the minutiae of racial bonuses, you have the RAW to go with. Enjoy! For those who don’t care much but want to be maybe a cool lizard person or angel-person, these ideas are for you.

First, treat every character as a human. Then add whatever cosmetic changes you want – feathers and a beak, scales and a shell, gossamer diaphanous wings, spiky rainbow hair and spiral ibex horns, whatever. Assume that all starting characters get +2 to one ability score and +1 to another ability score. You can also choose whether you have darkvision for 60′, but I’m using my house rule that darkvision always comes with sunlight sensitivity. In addition to those (and a starting native language), you can choose three of the following (or more if your DM says so, as long as everyone has the same options):

  • A starting feat
  • Replace the +2 and +1 with +1 to all ability scores
  • Resistance to a single damage type
  • Amphibious, and you have a swim speed of 20′
  • Wings that allow you to glide at your movement speed
  • Advantage on specific proficiency rolls (like dwarven stonecunning or wild elf stealth)
  • An additional proficiency plus an additional language
  • One supernatural knack like speaking with small burrowing animals
  • One cantrip
  • A strong build that doubles your carrying capacity
  • Any other single racial trait that you discuss with your DM

These traits can be accounted for any way you wish – physiology, culture, training, etc. but no racial essentialism because two characters with the same race might be quite different from one another. Here are some examples that don’t replicate the RAW but I think retain the spirit and remain interesting:

  • Dwarf: +2 Constsitution, +1 Wisdom, darkvision and sunlight sensitivity, one feat, resistance to poison damage, proficiency with one tool and Dwarvish
  • Elf: +2 Dexterity, +1 Intelligence, one feat, proficiency in Wisdom (Perception) and Elvish, bonus cantrip
  • Human: replace the +2 and +1 with +1 to all ability scores, one feat, proficiency in a skill of your choice and a bonus language
  • Tiefling: +2 Charisma, +1 Intelligence, darkvision and sunlight sensitivity, one feat, resistance to fire damage, proficiency in Charisma (Intimidation) and a bonus language of Abyssal or Infernal
  • Tortle: +2 Strength, +1 Wisdom, Amphibious, resistance to bludgeoning damage (for your shell), strong build

Remember that the ability score bonuses can go wherever you want, those are just my initial thoughts. Alright, there you go. Feel free to use this.

Non-Lethal D&D Part 2: Consequences

A while ago I wrote a little about non-lethal D&D, reinterpreting hit points as morale rather than meat. I thought through some of the consequences of this change, and I think it’s a great idea, especially for games with younger players, or those who don’t want a lot of the killing that comes with D&D (but don’t want to play a different game, of course).

I had some more thoughts on non-lethal D&D, about consequences of falling to 0 hit points. I actually would love more rules for different kinds of conflicts – fighting to capture, or fighting to drive away – that games like Mouse Guard handle so well. But we’re going with D&D’s system, which assumes that a fight goes until one side runs out of hit points. In our case, that means one side runs out of morale, or willingness to continue fighting. I can see three possible consequences of this: collapse to the ground, flee in terror, or surrender. Simple enough, but here are a few mechanics to go with each.

Collapse to the Ground

You fall prone and drop any weapon or shield you were holding, unable to continue. You can still defend yourself, and are assumed to take the Dodge action each round, so any attacks against you suffer disadvantage (and are clearly evil, to be blunt). Either you are utterly exhausted, or paralyzed with fear, full of abject despair. If given the chance, you can still choose to flee or surrender.

Flee in Terror

You throw down anything in your hands, as it might slow you down, and shed any gear you can easily shed. You move and take the Dash action away from danger each round until you are safe. At your discretion, you can also Dodge or Disengage if those actions seem most likely to keep you alive. You might hold onto a shield to deflect any incoming attacks, but fleeing is your priority.


You throw anything in your hands to the ground, raise your hands, and throw yourself on the mercy of your attackers. If they sought to capture you, you are captured. You are unable to take the Attack action, though you can still choose to flee if your surrender is not accepted, but surrender is much more interesting than being killed, so a DM should err on the side of NPCs and monsters accepting surrender.

Am I forgetting something important? Is there anything you would add?

D&D 5E: “Race” as Species, Culture, and Training

Race in D&D is fraught. Inevitable sarcastic blog comments notwithstanding (which yes I’ll delete), it’s clear. Wizards of the Coast has made their own efforts to rewrite “race”, and I’ve been working on my own. I’m taking as my starting-point that race as such has no place in D&D, as it is a social construct and doesn’t even really apply to any creatures in D&D settings.

Race as Species

Sometimes, race means species – that is, the phenotype of a given intelligent species and how this phenotype impacts game mechanics. Some species are aquatic, or aerial, or terrestrial. Some are very large or very small. Some are mammals, some reptiles or amphibians, and others are insects.

Size is the first consideration, and here I’m using my house rules for character size because if we’re going to have PCs of different sizes I want that to matter more than it does in 5E RAW.

If the species is large, then they gain +1 hit points per level (or increase hit dice one step), take a -1 to Armor Class, and pay 4x as much for food, lodging, equipment, etc. The weapons they wield deal an additional damage die (when sized for them). They have disadvantage on attacks against small or smaller creatures, and small or smaller creatures have advantage on attacks against them.

If they are medium, then no changes to the usual rules. They have advantage on attacks against huge or larger creatures.

If they are small, then they take a -1 to hit points per level (or their hit die is reduced one step). They also get a +1 to Armor Class. Their weapons deal normal damage, but their upkeep – cost of living, food and water needs and so on, are 1/2 usual. They have advantage on attacks against large or larger creatures.

If they are tiny, then they take -2 to hit points per level (or their hit dice are reduced two steps). They get a +2 to Armor Class. Their weapons deal damage that is one die step lower. They have advantage on attacks against medium or larger creatures. Their upkeep costs 1/5 normal.

The next question is whether the species is terrestrial, aquatic, or flying.

A terrestrial creatures starts with a movement rate of 30′ if medium or large, and 25′ if small and 20′ if tiny.

An aquatic creature is assumed to be amphibious. They start with a swim speed of 30′ and the ability to breathe water, but suffer a level of exhaustion if they go more than 24 hours without being submerged in water.

A flying creature starts with a fly speed of 30′, and are vulnerable to bludgeoning damage.

Next is the question of whether a species is diurnal or nocturnal. Diurnal creatures have no modifications – they are the norm. Nocturnal creatures include those adapted to live underground. They have darkvision out to 60′ and are also have sunlight sensitivity (my house rule is that the two go together).

Next is physiology – choose an effect of the species physiology. Either choose +5 to base movement, +1 to an ability score of your choice, resistance to a particular category of damage like fire or poison. You can also select a trait taken from a published race, like the goliath’s Stone’s Endurance.

Race as Culture

Sometimes, race means culture. Decide whether your character comes from an urbanized culture or a hunter-gatherer culture. Even if they don’t come from a city, the distinction between these two options are between cultures that build cities and cultures that do not.

If the character is from an urban culture, then they gain a bonus Proficiency in History, Persuasion, or Religion.

If the character is from a hunter-gatherer culture, then they gain a bonus Proficiency in Nature or Survival.

The next distinction is for cultural specializations. For example, the dwarven ability of Stonecunning applies to a sub-set of Proficiency checks. This is a situational bonus, and should be more narrow than a whole Proficiency. Take inspiration from published races.

Race as Training

Finally, choose an ability score and add +2 to it. This will usually represent a key ability score for the character’s class, and represents additional talent and training that they’ve received.

D&D Without Attack Rolls or Saving Throws

D&D sucks when your turn comes around and nothing happens, either because you whiff on your attack roll or you cast a spell and miss your attack or your target makes their saving throw. Any game sucks when your turn amounts to nothing, but especially a game like D&D where you might have waited 30 minutes for your turn to come back around again in a complex combat encounter.

It’s also tough when you build a spellcaster like an enchanter, or someone who has a lot of spells that allow saving throws, as sometimes you’ll use your magic and nothing will happen. Unlike an attack roll, you’re already using a limited resource – spell slots – and getting nothing for it.

I was also thinking about how to adapt some of what I was enjoying so much about Breath of the Wild to tabletop, and one thing about Breath of the Wild, and most video games in general, is there are no saving throws that negate your abilities, and normally instead of a character skill roll to attack you are relying on player skill. The player skill is harder to attach to a tabletop RPG, and depending on how you do it you get accessibility issues. But that’s a line of thinking for another time.

As a rule, there shouldn’t be a point in a story when a main character takes action and nothing changes. That’s true for PCs in RPGs – when they act, something should change. What prevents that change in D&D are attack rolls and saving throws, so I wondered, how much would I have to change D&D to get rid of those two things?

Turns out, a lot, but not as much as I’d feared.

What follows are my notes so far. Feel free to use them as a starting-point. I need to playtest this idea, but I do think it’s workable. As with the other things I’ve uploaded here in the past, I’ll update this document as I improve on my notes. Enjoy!

Cops in D&D

What’s the equivalent of this in Faerun? Eberron?

One of the classic elements of Dungeons & Dragons, probably across generations, is player-characters getting into fights with the cops. I’ve lost count of the times that the initial antagonists in a campaign, intentionally or not, are the town guards of whatever town the PCs enter. The characters invariably cause trouble, and the town guard or militia shows up to try to deal with them, and of course no one plays D&D to go to jail, so shenanigans ensue.

Usually, the town guard is completely outmatched by the PCs, and sometimes the game then spirals out into a situation where the players are just enjoying acting out and smashing things while being chased ineffectually by the cops. This can be fun and is perfectly fine.

But I was thinking about how scary the cops are in the real world. The first response we have to the cops showing up in force anywhere is fear. That’s true for me and I think that’s true for everyone, and that’s exactly how cops are designed to function. They are built to intimidate, because intimidation is cheaper than violence, right? If you’re too scared to resist a cop, then the cop won’t have to escalate to make you comply.

I’ve also been working on dystopian setting designs that include versions of totalitarianism and authoritarianism – for obvious reasons, living the US. Our stories are going to reflect the world in which we live. And in this case, my stories are going to give players the chance to punch that authoritarianism right in it’s sneering face. One thing these worlds have required, though, are tougher cops.

So what would be a fantasy equivalent of a modern cop?

First, they would need access to far more violence than most citizens. So if people in town can carry weapons openly, then the cops have to carry bigger weapons. There should be no question in most people’s minds that a cop is going to win a fight with a citizen. Maybe they have better armor, minor magical items, and the best-made weaponry available. Maybe they have a significant number of spellcasters. Whatever would cause the feeling of “Oh shit, the cops are here!”

Second, the cops travel around town in a way that is more protected, and obvious, than civilians. So if lots of people have horses in town, then the cops have horses with barding and a magical item that lets them talk to each other without being overheard. Their horse would have extra weapons for when they need them, and some way to amplify the volume of their voice enough to be heard over a riot. Their mode of travel can be blatant, the equivalent of lights flashing, or quiet, the equivalent of hidden lights and low-contrast coloring that US police use to sneak up on people when they decide to.

Third, cops should have more access to information, including information that you’d rather was kept secret. Maybe they can detect traps or read surface thoughts, or have a sending device to check on your records. Maybe they can activate a locate person magical item for the most wanted.

Fourth, D&D cops would have a way to restrain you effectively, even if you have supernatural abilities. With regular people, a pair of handcuffs will make it very hard to resist, but this would have to go farther with a warlock or a paladin or a rogue. But whatever means they would have to restrain you would be effective, because if they weren’t, the cops would get upgrades from the authorities. They need a way to prevent spellcasters from casting most spells, keep rogues from picking the locks on their handcuffs, etc. Unless the PCs are the first elite people the cops have seen, they need to be ready. This can’t be the first rowdy 2nd level wizard they’ve had to deal with.

Fifth, a D&D cop would have a way to respond when things escalate. What’s listed above is not the equivalent of the SWAT team, or the equivalent of cops in riot gear. They would have military weaponry, whatever that is in your setting, and heavy magical armor that makes them invulnerable to poison gas, and access to that poison gas to use on you, shields that can electrocute and stun you, sonic weapons, etc. They would have the equivalent of snipers (maybe hidden on rooftops with wands of magic missile casting the spell at 5th level) and of surveillance specialists (diviners) and of teams built to smash their way into a barricaded building and kill everyone inside.

What other ideas do you have for D&D cops?

Final Note: I totally understand if you want your D&D cops to be pushovers, or if you don’t want to migrate your fear of cops into your time playing pretend with your friends, or your imaginary world is full of evil criminals and your heroes are the cops (I’m looking at you, paladin). I was just thinking through how to make cops scary, the way they are in the United States, in case we want to engage with that fear through play, or have an imaginary setting that feels a little more familiar, as uncomfortable as that feeling might be.