Fireclave's Guide to 4e Race Mechanic Creation v1.1
Ever had a really cool idea for a race, but had no idea how to build it? Whether you are new to race creation or veteran race creator from previous versions, it's good to know some of the conventions the 4e designers used when creating races.
What I present here are general guidelines for specking out balanced races in 4e, following the patterns used by official races drawn primarily from the PH1 and PH2.
Table of Contents
This is what your basic 4e stat-block should look like:
Ability Score: +2 stat, +2 different stat
Size: Medium or Small
Vision: Normal or Low-light
Languages: Common, 0-2 other languages
Skill Bonuses: +2 one skill, +2 different skill
Defense Bonus: If this races stat bonuses apply to the same defense, grant the race +1 to a different defense. Else, don't grant a defense bonus.
Major Ability One: A mechanically significant ability
Major Ability Two: A mechanically significant ability
0-2 Minor Abilities: Abilities with little or no mechanical impact.
Racial Power: A racial encounter or at-will power
Encounter Power -or- At-Will Power
Flavor goes here.
Encounter or At-Will ♦ Keywords
Targets: Targets go here.
Attack/Effect: Go here.
Now that's you've seen the template, let's discuss some of the key mechanical points.
Each race should get a +2 bonus to two different ability scores. If the ability scores of your race apply to the same Non-AC Defense (or NaD for short, which includes Fort, Reflex, and Will), you should also give your race a +1 bonus to an additional, NaD. This defense bonus does not count against the other abilities you grant you race.
Note that, aside from compensating for like-defense ability scores, you should generally avoid granting your races unconditional bonuses to defenses. Defense bonuses are highly coveted in 4e, and almost no racial abilities or racial feats grant an unconditional, always-on bonus to a defense. This is a different treat than what 3e veterans may be used to, where AC bonuses from size and natural armor were very common. Many 4e racial abilities, however, do grant conditional bonuses to defenses, with Halflings and Devas being a prime example of this treatment.
The exceptions to this rule are Humans, who get a +1 to all NaDs. Note, however, that Humans are built and balanced a bit differently than most races. Since Humans only get an ability bonus to one score, they are effectively down several bonuses (to skills, class powers, ect) compared to other races, and are therefore compensated in other ways, this being one of them. Also in favor of the Human's defense bonus is the fact that NaDs don't come into play as often as AC.
A PC race shouldn't be no bigger than Medium and no smaller than Small.
Small size deserves special attention, especially for homebrewers migrating from 3e. In 3e, Small size restricted weapon damage and while granting bonuses to attack rolls, AC, and hide checks. Small size in 4e confers no inherent bonuses but has kept the weapon damage reduction. That said, Small sized races in 4e are not without compensation.
A common consensus is that the bonuses of being small have become part of individual race's writeup and racial feats rather than being inherent to the size category itself. The Halfling's Second Chance power, Nimble Reaction racial ability, and Lost in the Crowd racial feat are examples of small-themed racial perks.
Another common consensus is that the abilities of small sized races are slightly more potent than those of their larger kin. To what, if any extent, this disparity of power exists and how well this works as a balancing factor against the negatives of small size is still hotly a debated topic, but that does seem to be the trend.
Therefore, if you are building a small size and want to emphasize their size, give them racial abilities and feats that emphasize the theme of being small.
The standard speed for a PC race is 6 squares. Speedy races like elves can have a speed up to 7, while slower races like Dwarves and gnomes can have a speed as low as 5. No printed races, to date, have had base speeds higher or lower than these values.
Races typically have normal or low-light vision. If your race is nocturnal, dwells in poorly lit environments, or simply has extra sharp vision, consider low-light vision over normal.
Try to avoid granting your race darkvision without good reason. Darkvision, in the hands of a capable player, can be very powerful when used against foes without it; And, AFAIK, only one official race, the Drow, has been given darkvision so far. Also, a reminder to race homebrewers who have migrated from 3e, darkvision, by default, has no distance limit and is therefore even more powerful than it was before. Even creatures that once had darkvision in 3e, such as Dwarves, Tieflings, and PC-stat'ed kobolds (but not their monster stat'ed version strangely enough), now just have low-light vision at beat.
All PC races speak Common. Many, but not all, speak one additional language; typically either a language related to their racial identity or their choice of one other. Very few speak three languages.
Compared to previous editions, languages in 4e are purposely limited to a few (DMG;171). While language is never a big adventuring concern unless the DM wants it to be, fewer languages mean that the languages the party does have access to are more likely to be useful whenever the situation arises. Therefore, consider using an appropriate, pre-existing language first before inventing a new racial language. Here's a few examples:
Nature-philes, fey, and forest people, like Eladrin, Elves, and Gnomes, tend to speak Elven. Mountain people, like Dwarves and Goliaths, speak Dwarvin. Big folk like Goliaths (again), Half-orcs, and Orcs tend to speak Giant. Dragons and scaly peoples like Dragonborn and Kobolds speak Draconic. And so on.
Other thing to avoid is giving your race Supernal or Abysssal. PCs are, by default, restrict from starting with these languages.
All races get a +2 bonus to two different skills.
Major abilities are those racial abilities with definite mechanical benefit. What is a "definite mechanical advantage" you ask? Typically, anything that affects your character's numbers often, semi-often, or are significantly beneficial whenever they do apply. Major abilities include abilities such as the dragonborn's Dragonborn Fury, the Halfling's Bold, The Tiefling's resistance to fire, and the Eladrin's saving throw bonuses against charm effects.
While a race's major abilities should be indicative of the race, but at the same time they should be general enough that they are useful regardless of class or build. For example, an ability that apply to only melee attacks is completely useless for ranged or implement users, which means non-melee focused memeber of that race is missing out on a major portion of his race's abilities. If you have such niche racial abilities in mind, consider converting them into racial feats instead.
Your race should have no more or less than two of these. If you have more than two ideas for major abilities, choose the two you feel most iconic to your race's identity to become racial abilities. The rest are excellent candidates for racial feats.
Minor abilities are racial abilities whose mechanical significance are extremely limited, niche, highly situational, or have no effective mechanical significance at all. They often serve as both a mechanical and flavor anchor for additional abilities such as racial feats, race-specific items, racial paragon paths, and the like.
The Eladrin's racial weapon longsword proficiency is an excellent example of this. While proficiency is indicative of the race's flavorful love of swordplay, it's not a very significant ability mechanically. Since most characters who would want to use a longsword will likely be members of a class proficient the the weapon anyway, the ability as is will likely go to waste for most characters. However, the Eladrin's racial proficiency serve as a tie-in for several related mechanics, including Eladrin Soldier feat, the pact swords (AV), and the Wizard of Spiral Tower paragon path (which, besides having a very Eladrin-friendly flavor, the entry prerequisites seem to have been written with Eladrin wizards in mind).
A race's racial power is one of the most significant abilities for establishing that race's identity, in both mechanics and flavor. It should either be universally useful to all members of the race, such as the halfling's Second Chance or the human's bonus at-will, or it should be useful to a broad range of classes that the race is most suited for.
The dragonborn, for example, greatly favor front-line combatant classes, and the stats used to attack with their Dragonbreath racial (str, con, dex), are significant to almost all close-combat oriented class builds. But, while the former evidence seems to point to Dragonbreath being a melee oriented racial ability, consider that every class in the PH has at least one build that uses one of those stats as a primary or secondary (including the wizard thanks to the staff build).
As a general rule, racial powers should take no more than a minor action to use. There is a reason for this. Being a minor action allows the race to use their cool and distinctive racial powers while still being able to perform their class functions.
Non-implement/Non-weapon Attack (NINWA; I don't think that acronym's been coin yet) powers, such as the dragonborn's Dragonbreath, have special guidelines to consider. First, the damage of such powers should scale per tier. Most offensive racial powers of this type scale at about 1d6 points of damage per tier.
In addition, you should grant such powers a +2 bonus to hit per tier (+2 at heroic, +4 at paragon, +6 at epic). The reason for this is that these powers don't have an weapon or implement to provide enhancement bonuses to attack.
Finally, and less obvious to novice race designers, racial NINWAs that target AC should have an additional +2 bonus to attack on top of the standard (+4 at heroic, +6 at paragon, +8 at epic). The reason for this is due to how attacks and defenses are balanced against each other. A monster's AC is typically about 2 points higher than their NADs. This is balanced about by weapons granting their user a +2, or so, bonus to attack. So, on average, weapon users have about the same odds of landing a hit than implement users. So if you have your racial non-weapon power target AC, you need to "build-in" the proficiency bonus.
Exactly what it says on the tin. 4e races never get minuses to anything. Any ability a race has should, in some way, add to rather than take away it. When creating a race, resist the urge to give it racial penalties for any reason (but especially the reason listed below).
The Closest thing any race gets to a racial penalty is the small size, but see the section "Sizes larger than Large and smaller than Small" below for more details on this subject.
While I already said that 4e doesn't do racial penalties, this sub-topic, I feel, deserves extra attention.
If you do succumb to the allure of giving your race a racial penalty, exercise discretion when attempting to grant a penalty to compensate for an extra-powerful racial ability. All to often, attempts at balancing out an extra powerful ability with an racial penalty results one of the following:
- The penalty itself does too little to balance the race, and the race remains overpowered.
- The penalty itself does too much to balance the race, and the race becomes underpowered.
- SThe penalty does not address the reason that the benefit is overpowered, thus making the race both overpowered and underpowered at the same time, swinging wildly between the extremes depending on the situation.
Attempts to balance flight with Tiny size and related penalties to create a Victorian fairy-race are a common culprit of number three among homebrewers, and therefore are a good example of this error. Tiny, flying, races with heavy penalties are very polar. They'll either decimate encounters at a distance with spells and arrows, or they'll become a flying airline peanuts in target-print bags for flying creatures and ranged foes.
When faced with a situation where it seems like a good idea to give your race a penalty to compensate for a strong ability, it is almost always a better idea to reign in or discard the offending ability instead.
4e's combat mechanics and assumptions don't support larger or smaller creatures very well. Besides the fact that the weapon size rules don't take Tiny and smaller creatures into account, such creatures are also considerably nerfed in melee combat since they have no reach and must incur OA's to enter a creature's square. Conversely, Large and larger creatures are significantly more powerful in combat than other races. Their larger weapons add significantly more damage to weapon based powers, and the reach provided by large size is extremely potent in 4e's combat environment which is heavily focused on short-ranged, close-quarters skirmishes.
If you really feel that your race needs to be an unusual size, remember that sizes in 4e don't have hard boundaries and are just abstractions anyway. Your race can be very large with being Large sized, or very tiny without actually being Tiny sized. If you want size to have a mechanical presence, take a cue from Halflings and Goliaiths and give your race size-related abilities and feats instead.
It's no coincidence that ability score bonuses are always an even +2 and never an odd +1 or +3. The first reason is that even ability scores affect all members of a race in the same way. A +2 ability score bonus always grants a +1 modifier. Odd bonuses only provide like bonuses half the time.
For example, say you have a race that grants a +1 to str. A member of that race with a base score of 11 strength will, after racials, have 12 strength, which increases his strength modifier by one. A second member of that race with a base score of 10 will, after racials, have an score of 11, barely any mechanical change to show for it aside from increase carrying capacity.
The second reason, more specific to this edition, is that the math of 4e is fairly tight. This is especially true compared to 3e where racial score varied greatly due magic items, tomes of permanent bonuses, level adjustment, templates, and the like. Point buy, feat prerequisites, and the like are carefully calculated against the assumptions such as races getting no more than +2 to a stat.
Flight is one of the things 4e, with its emphasis on short-ranged skirmishes, does not handle very well. Very, very few things in the game grant flight in any form, and fewer still grant at-will flight. What few flight enablers are in the game typically do appear any earlier than mid paragon.
Flight can be very powerful in the hands of a PC. PCs that can fly can ignore ground-based traps and trivialize combat with melee ranged monsters who are left with few, if any, ways of fighting back. This makes it harder for the DM to plan level-appropriate encounters.
As a general rule, PCs races should not start with at-will flight of any type, including overland flight. At most, racial flight should either be granted in very limited duration, most likely in the form of a short duration encounter power, or barring that, a form of flight with a max altitude that does not actually take them out of melee reach.
However, there is precedence for flight at-will flight being available at higher levels. The Scion of Arkhosia path (PH2), the Favored Soul (DP), and the Flying Carpet (PH), all grant at-will flight by 16th level (in the case of the carpet, lvl 16 is the earliest you could find the item in treasure parcels). The former grants a fast at-will overland flight and per encounter flight power, while the latter two grant combat-capable flight. It seems that, for now at least, level 16 is the bench mark for granting at-will flight capabilities.
If you want to grant your race more flight earlier than that, you are either going to have to get very creative in giving the flight limitation, or accept that the race will have a very powerful and potentially very unbalancing ability. But see the "Final Word" section below.
In short, it is flat-out overpowered.
Oversized in an ability that allows a character to wield weapons as if he were one size larger. Several of the monster npc racial stats in the monster manual, namely the Bugbear and the Minotaur, have this ability.
Initially, Oversized seems to be appropriate ability. Oversized generally increases your weapon die size by one step, which is a +1 damage on average and a max of +2. However, the problem shows itself when using powers with multiple [W]s. What's 1-2 additional base weapon damage can eventually escalate to 5-10 damage or more at higher levels when encounter and daily powers are used. This is a far greater damage boost than what any racial ability was intended to grant.
WotC has recognized that Oversized too powerful to be PC racial material, which is why the official Minotaur writeup doesn't have it any more, why the Goliath who had the equivalent ability in 3e never got it in this edition, and why it almost definitely will not appear in any official racial material in the future.
There are several status conditions that are, in general, inappropriate for racial abilities because they are just that good. These include Daze, Dominated, Helpless, Petrified, Stunned, Unconscious, and Weaken. Note that most of these conditions render the foe completely unable to act at all.
In terms of secondary effects, racial powers should generally be no more potent than 1st level class encounter powers. This bars all of the previously mentioned conditions. If you do decide to make imparting these conditions available to your race, carefully consider their effects on the balance of the race and consider making them paragon or epic-tier upgrades of your race's power.
While this article has primarily dealt with mechanical do's and don'ts, there is one racial point I feel I should not neglect to comment on. And that's naming your race.
Say you've read this article, followed it, and created a totally awesome, that had both interesting flavor and sound mechanics. What's the first thing people are going to see when you post your race? The name. The name of the race is going to set the tone for the mechanics and flavor to follow. Therefore, you should take some time in coming up with a interesting name for your race.
Therefore, try to come up with something other than the ____ Folk. That might be the shorthand of what your race might be known as in-game, but as the official name of your race it often, though not always, sounds like a placeholder at best.
That's not to say that the ____ Folk is a bad name for a race. It could actually be a very good name. Many beloved official races follow this and similar naming cliches. However, the ____ Folk is a cliche naming pattern none the less. And like any cliche, while neither inherently bad or good, it is very common and familiar.
Such naming cliches are one of the basic tools that every race homebrewer, from beginner to expert, has in their arsenal. If you thought of naming your race the ____ Folk, very likely there is a race, or several races, that already have that name or similar ones. Therefore, if used without careful attention to aesthetics, this naming cliche can make your race, an otherwise different and unique creation, sound very common and familiar as well. The last thing you want is for a criticizer to look at your race and think "not another cat race."
Other common racial name cliches include the ____men, ____kin, ____iods, ____born, ____lings, and Half-____s, where "____" is also often a classical elemental, well known mythological creature, or the species name or genus of an animal, Latin or otherwise.
Remember that the guidelines given here assumes that you are attempting to make a race that's balanced against standard PC races in standard environments. This is important if you are planning on posting your creation to share with the whole gaming community.
However, if you are designing the race primarily for your game, you have a lot more legroom with work with. Your game may not be a standard game, and therefore things that may be over or underpowered in a "typical" campaign may work just fine in your own campaign under your individual campaign style and houserules.
But more importantly than that, these are guidelines and not rules. Creating a D&D race is equal parts math and art, and it's okay to break conventions and do something radical or different than normal.
The bottom line is that your race you create makes your campaign more fun. If it does, then you are doing it right.
But please, if you bring a race to the boards for PEACH'ing and you've intentionally made it unbalanced against normal standards to fit better in your own campaign, please, please, say so upfront along with any relevant considerations. It just saves both you, and the kind people who take the time to PEACH your creation time and energy.