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.