Does D&D Race Mean Anything Anymore?
What does it mean to be a dwarf in D&D?
We have certain expectations, don’t we? There are certain attributes that make a dwarf recognizable. Short. Stout. Hardy. Bearded. Industrious. Temperamental. Probably has a Scottish accent and is a high-functioning alcoholic...
Okay, those last few were stereotypes, but I hope you’re following me. Dwarves are different from other races. Not only culturally, but biologically as well. They are distinct from other races because they possess qualities that make them unique.
These qualities are broken down mechanically in the race’s traits. Dwarves are the first race outlined in the Player’s Handbook for D&D 5e. They are identified as being shorter and slower than most other races, but long-lived, resilient, battle-ready, skilled craftsmen, and well-suited to life underground.
These traits gave dwarves a strong racial identity. You know what to expect when interacting with a dwarf. And when those expectations are subverted or surpassed, you are rightly surprised! The same is true of the taller, energetic, talented, and often reckless humans. Ditto the elegant, ethereal, skilled, unaging elves, and the affable, carefree, nimble, short, and incredibly fortunate halflings. You can quickly identify certain aspects of each race’s biology and cultural values, and this knowledge helps you roleplay within the fiction of the game!
These races and their trademark traits initially appeared in one of the three core rulebooks for the game: the Player’s Handbook. Years later, Volo’s Guide to Monsters was published and offered a wide array of fantastical creatures to add to our list of options! This paved the way for dozens of other races to be added by campaign guides, supplementary sourcebooks, and adventures! Each race added felt wholly different from any that came before!
Then along came Tasha…
Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything was published two years ago. This book was a real game changer… it literally changed D&D! In many ways it was changed for the better, but I think we lost something important along the way.
Though the book introduced arguably some of the best subclasses that have graced the game to date (and the Twilight Domain… if you know, you know), its first paragraphs gave me pause as a Dungeon Master and a lover of the game. They offered players the option of custom origins for their DND characters. These new rules allowed players to fundamentally alter the racial traits of your character’s race. Rather than embodying the characteristics that make that race extraordinary, a character could be wholly disparate from all others of its kind!
Instead of choosing one of the game’s races for your character at 1st level, you can use the following traits to represent your character’s lineage, giving you full control over how your character’s origin shaped them:
This option was stated as being designed to promote individuality in player characters. Perhaps your character was atypical for their race? After all, Yao Ming and Kevin Hart are both human, and yet their physical and cultural characteristics are obviously vastly different. It is equally conceivable that a dwarf might be tall for his race, an elf might be stockier than her kin, or a halfling fleeter of foot. Surely this is a step in a positive direction, right?
Perhaps, but perhaps not. If you wish to play a dwarf that is taller, stronger, barefaced, lives above ground, is less industrious than his kin, and want the mechanics to match the flavor, I think that’s commendable. Likewise if you wish to play an elf who is shorter in both height and life expectancy, is consequently slower than her peers, and always comes through in a pinch, that sounds wonderful. But, I wonder, if simply playing these same characters as a goliath or a halfling, whose races already reflect those traits, would be any less advantageous or meaningful? What would draw you to those races if not the features that make them special?
This change also becomes a more complex issue when considering races with built-in advantages and disadvantages. Per the rules listed above, a halfling with a custom lineage will always be faster than a normal halfling, and a wood elf would always be slower. A human or halfling might start the game with darkvision, and a gnome could be over seven feet tall while a goliath might be only two!
These mechanical benefits and detriments aside, as well as the absurd nature of some of the possible combinations, the blurring of the lines between the races did not stop there. No, in fact it progressed further. As Wizards of the Coast was releasing its playtest material leading to the launch of Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft, this paragraph appeared in its Unearthed Arcana:
Design Note: Changes to Racial Traits
In 2020, the book Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything introduced the option to customize several of your character’s racial traits, specifically the Ability Score Increase trait, the Language trait, and traits that give skill, armor, weapon, or tool proficiencies.
Following in that book’s footsteps, the race options in this article and in future D&D books lack the Ability Score Increase trait, the Language trait, the Alignment trait, and any other trait that is purely cultural. Racial traits henceforth reflect only the physical or magical realities of being a player character who’s a member of a particular lineage. Such traits include things like darkvision, a breath weapon (as in the dragonborn), or innate magical ability (as in the forest gnome). Such traits don’t include cultural characteristics, like language or training with a weapon or a tool, and the traits also don’t include an alignment suggestion, since alignment is a choice for each individual, not a characteristic shared by a lineage.
Finally, going forward, the term “race” in D&D refers only to the suite of game features used by player characters. Said features don’t have any bearing on monsters and NPCs who are members of the same species or lineage, since monsters and NPCs in D&D don’t rely on race or class to function. Moreover, DMs are empowered to customize the features of the creatures in their game as they wish.
While these paragraphs did not officially appear in a final product, it shows the focus and intent of the game’s creators… and here I started to sense a more genuine problem. The sense of foreboding that Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything gave me was justified. Wizards of the Coast was taking steps to remove any constraints on the sort of characters that could be created in their game. This was more fully realized when Mordenkainen Presents: Monsters of the Multiverse was released, retconning the way practically every race’s traits worked. “A triumph! A masterstroke,” I’m sure they thought, congratulating themselves. “Now our players will be unfettered, free to create whatever characters they desire!”
But do you see what this implies? In the minds of the makers of our beloved game, nobody should tell you how you have to play their game… even them! The makers of the rules of the game are scared to tell you how to play. Doesn’t that seem odd? Dungeons & Dragons has traditionally been a pretty crunchy game that encouraged its players to create functional and interesting builds to combat the challenges it presented. Fifth edition already disappointed some long-time fans of the game by being light on its rules compared to tradition, and now 5e is doubling down and removing its own limited rules for races so that its players can design their characters to be special snowflakes that aren’t like anyone else!
Funny how a field full of snowflakes just looks like snow… all individuality is lost in a sea of similar dissimilarity.
The beautiful complimentary and clashing contrasts once offered by the races are gone. The identifying hallmarks of the races are all but erased. Traditional racial traits are now considered “legacy,” and are marked as such on dndbeyond: a polite way of calling them antiquated and irrelevant.
But not to me.
I love the racial traits as they were originally presented. I think it is good worldbuilding that dragonborn are innately better suited to be paladins than halflings. I love that a goliath that wishes to be a bard will have to overcome some natural disadvantages if she wishes to play like the elven musicians! I love that a halfling will almost never be as strong as a barbarian that is several times his size! In my mind, certain races can and should be predisposed to excel and struggle in different areas.
I’m reminded of a scene from 2004’s animated triumph The Incredibles. The villain of the film has engineered a way to give “superpowers” to ordinary people, thus ridding the world of its need for heroes. He planned to take what made a particular group of people (“supers”) special, and allow everyone to have access to it, essentially eliminating any appreciable difference between the groups. This gave rise to the infamous quote…
If we apply this mentality to the current state of D&D, I think it matches up uncannily well. If any race can be short, stout, hardy, bearded, and industrious, then what differentiates dwarves from the other races?
When everyone is dwarf, no one will be.
Have we lost what makes the creatively colorful and varied races of the world unique and interesting in the name of creativity? Is that too high a price to pay?
I’d argue yes, yes it is.
Perhaps this stems from my being a Dungeon Master more often than a player, more interested in worldbuilding and storycraft than the design of a particular character? Or perhaps it comes from me being so immersed in the game, not just casually playing now and again with friends when I have the time, but being a student of the game and of game design? Is it because I worry what other rules might be changed in the future, and because I fear for what few staples of D&D might be truly sacred, and whether anything is safe from the tides of change? Maybe it’s because I chose to play D&D over other systems which embody these more freeform ideas of character creation specifically because I loved how it made each class and race feel distinct in its flavor and its mechanics? Or all of the above?
Whatever the reason or reasons, I continue to ask myself the same question as I watch the state of the game shifting with each new publication…
What does it mean to be a dwarf?
Rob Franklin (thedndwannabe) has been a Dungeon Master for many years, and has a deep passion for roleplaying games. He runs the MistyMountainStreaming channel on Twitch, our Misty Mountain Gaming YouTube channel, and is cohost of the Bardic Twinspiration D&D podcast. He also enjoys bourbon, From Software games, and his dog Bigby.