This is the fourth part in a series on Campaign World Building for 5th Edition AD&D, and the first where we really get into the conventions and assumptions of D&D Next.
ChaptersBelow are links to the other chapters in this series on World Building.
Part 13: Starting Zone
Part 14: Player's Guide
One of the big design tenants of D&D Next is making few assumptions of the DM's world, play style, and campaign. As such, only four races are assumed to really exist: humans, dwarves, elves, and halflings. Other races, even ones common to D&D, are not assumed part of the baseline. And even then the core races can be reflavoured and tweaked to the preference of the DM. But why pick races at all? This is a tricky question that comes down to taste and the horror that can be verisimilitude.
Worlds where everything exists (also known as "kitchen sink" worlds) are crowded. As an example, let's look at 4e, as that edition was relatively restrained in terms of races. There are still roughly eighteen different core races, excluding those from Dragon, campaign settings, and later accessories. Plus all the semi-intelligent humanoid monstrous races, such as orcs, gnolls, and goblins. There could easily be as many as twenty-three or twenty-four unique cultures all within a single landmass the size of Europe. That's crowded.
It's a little like making each member state of the European Union a unique species that cannot interbreed with other races. Given the size of the territories and smaller demographics of a medieval world, many demihuman races would have populations so small they'd be classified as endangered species.
Sometimes that can work. You can justify some of that by making the races not true races, such as tieflings being a small city-state corrupted by fiendish races, genasi being individual humans touched by the elemental planes, dragonborn being actual half-dragons rather than a separate people, gnomes being visitors from another world, and the like. There can only be a few thousand half-elves in the entire world because they're not a true race. And with races (and creayures) being created by gods, you can avoid questions of evolution and heredity over generations.
But it still gets tricky, especially with newly introduced races. When WotC goes and drops a brand new race on the game, suddenly you as a DM have to explain how they fit the world and where they’ve been all this time. Were they just in the background and you never noticed? Are they actually new? Do they live in a distant part of the world and have only just crossed the Expansive Ocean?
It also depends on your world: if you have a bottom-up world that is being created due to the will and adventures of the PCs it’s easy to explain new races and additions. They’re just from an unseen corner of the world. In a Top-Down world where every scrap of the continent may have been developed and populated, finding room for an entire species of new distinct humanoids might be frustrating. I’m speaking from personal experience: I was planning a new campaign setting during the creation of 4e and the inclusion of dragonborn came as a shock, and I stumbled for a long time over how to include them and make them fit the world as they were unlike any other race.
A hard decision is knowing what races to keep and which to scrap. This is a little easier if you have an established group and know who you'll be making the world for: you can poll and find out their best loved and least liked races.
It's a good idea to have at least one of every players’ Top Two races in the world. Players should be able to play what they like. If one (or both) of their preferred races are being tweaked to fit the setting, then more choices are good in case the customization is not liked.
It's also a neat challenge to try and make the disliked races (a player’s Bottom Two races) appreciated or given a solid place in the world. Trying to redefine races is what led to tinker gnomes and kender (which, admittedly, might not sell the idea, but they are more distinct and memorable). It's fun trying to “fix” an underdog race or make them vital and unique to the world.
Other than that, it comes down to personal choice and brainstorming. It's a good idea to write down and brainstorm for more races than you plan to use and see what idea gel, using only the races with the best ideas as part of the world. Ask yourself how each race fit in the world, what role they play in the world, and what niches they fill. Start with writing down races and applying The Hook (see Part 1) to them and see what ideas occur. Can the race complement or contrast with the Hook? How does the Hook impact each race? Does it change the conventions of the race or augment them? Races shouldn’t just be there, they should be a part of the world. If a race doesn’t bring something unique or interesting to the world, doing something no other race can do, it really doesn’t need to be there.
A question related to the above is "Why use the standard races?” or “Why not radically change the standard races?" This is another question that can come down to personal taste.
The standard races are useful for establishing a baseline and familiar foundation for the world. While many gamers are now tired of the Tolkien tropes, this is a fraction of the total geeky population, let alone the population in general. There are expectations of what a "dwarf" is and that "dwarves" will be in the average fantasy world. The Big Four races are likely to score high as personal favourites among players at a table.
Sometimes removing or altering an assumed race can work. Many fantasy worlds have differentiated themselves as being "the world without orcs". And removing a core race frees their narrative and world role for other races. If you remove elves from your setting, suddenly there are gaps for both a woodsfolk race and a naturally magical folk. Who are the best smiths in a world without dwarves? That can be fun. But you don't want the new race to just be the replacement race. If minotaurs are a race of smiths and craftsmen they still need to be minotaurs and not tall, hairy, bull-headed dwarves.
It can get tricky as the common races are so familiar. New players might want to play the Gimli and entrenched players might have a favourite race. It's easier to exclude the non-standard or less common races for that reason (or make them unique for players who really like them). The LotR tropes may be old hat to experienced gamers but the movies have attracted a significantly larger audience. Return of the King is the 6th highest grossing movie worldwide and the Hobbit films are likely do respectable business.
As for changing races, this has to be done carefully. If you change everything about a race are they still that same race or would you be better served by making a new race? If halflings are unfriendly feral cannibals in your setting are they still halflings? Do the mechanics fit, and are they recognizable or are they just halflings in name only? Does the fan of the halflings still like the race and want to play one? The more a race is changed the more risk there is of losing what made the race interesting and appealing in the first place.
Sometime defying expecting is fine, but if there's nothing familiar about a race then you've also lost the benefit of having a traditional fantasy race in the game: a familiar element to ground the campaign and story. D&D requires a lot of narrative and imaginative buy-in. It helps immersion if there are familiar elements. The magical and special seems more magical and special if it's surrounded by the familiar to draw attention to the unfamiliar. There’s a contrast.
As such, my recommendation is that it’s most effective to change one major element of a race. This is often why fantasy and sci-fi species are often similar to humans with one trait emphasized and exaggerated: it's familiar so the exaggerated trait stands out.
Y'know, unless you're doing something like Dark Sun where part of the point is defying expectations and making the familiar unfamiliar, in which case feral cannibal halflings might work just fine.
Spinning off from the above discussion point is the related “How different should your races be?”
As mentioned above, one really solid and memorable change is worth more than several smaller subtle changes. This is not to say smaller changes cannot work, but it’s easier to remember and explain one big difference.
Iconic elements, especially physical ones, should be kept and adapted to the new paradigm (if only because finding minis and art becomes tricky if physical traits are altered).
If halflings become grim, serious, and suspicious then they should still retain their desire for quiet lives in the countryside. So instead of being the fantasy equivalent of friendly folk from the English countryside they’re more akin to insular small town’s folk who dislike “them big city types”. If dwarves are no longer honourable and loyal folk but instead a shifty and mercantile people who live under the one law of “caveat emptor” then they might wear beards to conceal their faces and expressions, viewing “clean faces” as guileless.
There’s no hard and fast rule for how many conventions and tropes you can break. As an arbitrary rule-of-thumb, I’d draw the line at half. Races should be mostly familiar, and for every element that’s different there should be one recognisable element. If they’re more different and new than familiar they become a new race, something altogether strange and unusual. As a DM you want your players to focus on the world, and if they have to continually be reminded about things like how a race acts then they’re not going to notice other elements of the world.
For example, if in your world the difference between high and grey elves is one clan reveres demons and the other devils that's dramatic and memorable yet still keeps elves as elves. But instead of the standard elves, the feral wood elves living in the forest are chaotic and territorial because of their demonic influence, while the erudite elves are magical because they signed pacts with devils. They're still instantly recognizable as elves: the common elf tropes apply and sweeping details of the race do not need to be explained. You're not fighting too many assumptions and every time an elf appears you don’t need to spend three minutes re-explaining what’s different about elves, but there's still a twist.
Why Define Races?
The final question is "why have racial assumptions?" Establishing a culture just pushes players in one direction which they might not want to go. The player might want to use a sword but because they're playing a dwarf fighter a hammer or axe is the optimal choice.
This is a heavy issue. Some people dislike racial assumptions as it hits a little close to associating human ethnicities with certain strengths, weakness, and stereotypes. Saying "all elves are frail" or "all dwarves are dour" or even "all elves are agile" is a little too much of an assumption and a little too close to “all girls are bad at math”. Adding to that, attaching statistic or other game penalties to races pushes them to certain builds or classes, potentially making it harder for people to play a character concept. While I personally like the idea of racial weaknesses and/or stat penalties I accept that they are overly limiting and discourage some class choices.
That said establishing a baseline for the races has its benefits. Knowing how a traditional halfling or dwarf acts aids those players who want their character to be a typical member of the race. And it helps those players that want to stand out, by defining how the average member of the race acts and thinks. You cannot make an atypical member of a culture if you do not know what's typical. The actions and behaviour of Bilbo are unusual for a stout halfling (read: hobbit) but would hardly earn a second glance for a lightfoot, but they are precisely what makes Bilbo interesting. And sometimes people just need inspiration for a character, and reading a racial description might offer a needed prompt.
A New Race?
When world building, it’s also tempting to add your own unique element to the world. After all, that’s what helped define Dragonlance (draconian), Dark Sun (muls and half-giants, and to a lesser extent thri-kreen), Planescape (tieflings and aasimar), and Eberron (changelings, warforged, shifters, and kalashtar). Pretty much every published world has an example race. As such, it’s pretty damn tempting to make a new race for your world.
This gets tricky. Not just because you need to think of a brand new idea for a race with its own niche and culture, but also because you need to design the race for the game. And you need to describe this new race to your players without pictures, use it in your game without miniatures, and the like. This is not to say you shouldn’t do think about making your own race, just that you should do so carefully while knowing what you’re in for.
Before making a brand new race, see if an unused race or monstrous race will fit. Before making a race of evil malicious rat people who live in warrens and trash heaps, consider if something like kobolds would work. 5e also has sub-races. Don’t feel bound to make a whole new race when a unique sub-race might work just as fine and be easier to describe and design. Instead of an entire race of arctic fey ruled by the Snow Queen, why not an “arctic elf”? Never underestimate the ease of adding a label or prefix to a known quantity.
I can’t give hard balancing or race creation advice at the moment, as the playtest is ongoing. But the best advice is the edition neutral: look at the existing races and building something of comparable power and with similar design. Don’t look at earlier editions for more than inspiration. Just because in 3e a similar race could move 10 feet faster than a human doesn’t mean that’s balanced or works in Next. Don’t just compare it to a single race, but multiple races. See how your creation works in relation to dwarves and halflings and humans. Then playtest. Let your players know it’s subject to change and let them test it out at first. Re-evaluate every session and consider rebalancing every three or four sessions. Then test more and re-re-evaluate. Always check to make sure you didn’t overcorrect.
Races in War World
First, here’s a map I’ve been working on for War World. Not finished yet, but the geography is getting close to done.
Continuing with my ongoing example I will be embracing the D&D Next design goal of allowing DMs to pick and choose available races for their world. As such I'll be avoiding making this a kitchen sink world and excluding some races while adding others, starting with the Big Four then throwing a couple others to the mix. Some of these will be full species with their own empires, others will be small sub-races either spread across the land or with small city-states, and a few might be so rare as to almost be unique.
The Big Four are dwarves, elves, halflings and humans. Let’s go alphabetically.
Dwarves: The default fluff implies dwarves are a declining race, evoking flavour similar to the empty halls of Moria. This works nicely with the world. Mountain dwarves had a massive subterranean empire that stretched across the western mountain range that runs the length of the continent. Their massive underground kingdoms have fallen, seized by orcs and goblins as the dwarves retreated to lesser halls and smaller cities. Taking that to the next level and applying the Hook, the mountain dwarves have become a people of war. They’ve lost their home, their history, their artefacts, and more. All they have left is war and revenge. They make weapons and fight and nothing more.
Hill dwarves are trickier, not having the same fluff. They could be displaced dwarves, whose mountain nations fell generations back and have adapted to life on the surface. They’re still dwarves, but lack a true homeland. It might be fun to make them a neutral race of mercenaries. While they still have the traditional dwarven sense of honour, this applies to their employer and they otherwise don’t take sides. A hill dwarf’s loyalty can be bought, but once it has they’re yours... until the job is done.
Getting into some of the other fluff of the race, it’d be fun to justify the traditional animosity between elves and dwarves. I’ll say the dwarves were "betrayed" by elves many centuries ago. Once staunch allies, the elves withdrew their support at a critical time and the dwarves blame them for the loss of their empire. This also explains why dwarves are slow to trust: they had a strong alliance once and it cost them everything.
Elves: Moving from dwarves to their betrayers, there’s less built-in elf flavour. There’s the standard talk of woodland realms and the mixture of magical elves and woodfolk. I picture elves as one of the races that has suffered least from the perpetual wars, or at least high elves.
This is actually a fun example of the creative process as I had no idea what elves brought to the world until I typed that last sentence. Suddenly, all elves might have once been high elves, but some fell and lost their focus on magic.
As such, the elves maintain their empires in their primeval forests, fighting the endless war against invaders and evil humanoids. The high elves have fared better and their cities are among the last bastions of art and civilization on the continent, but they have paid heavy prices. Some have sealed themselves away, killing all who pass into their territory while also veiling their cities with illusions. They have become isolated and withdrawn. Wood elves saw their cities burn like those of the other races. While they retain their homeland for the most part, they live simpler lives fighting guerrilla wars and defending their borders.
Halflings: Halflings are described as a forgotten and overlooked race, which makes them tricky to use as adversaries or adventurers. They’re often the first race changed in campaign settings, as the simple agrarian folk are deemed too boring and soft, leading to grim-ification and toughening up.
The nomadic lightfoot have and easy role in the world. Being wanderers found everywhere they make great spies and scouts. “No one notices a halflling.” Some might act as information brokers, at the center of a web of halflings with open eyes and ears. Others might be in the employ of nations, observing troop movements and the like. More mercantile halflings run black markets in occupied nations and war zones while other sneak food and supplied across borders to aid refugees.
Stout halflings are harder to fit in the world, being quieter agrarian folk. Some might find themselves in the role of the above, but halflings might also find themselves considered serfs. Their inoffensive and neutral natures make them reliable farmers needed to feed armies. They sell and work for whomever owns the land, and are thus left alone as troops need to be fed. With war being continuous and borders ever shifting, the nations have learned long ago that killing the halflings and salting the earth will just hurt yourself during the next offensive when your troops are hungry. The classic blunder of War World is not “never fight a land war in Asia” but instead “never kill the halflings tending the crops.”
The necessity of stout halflings might add another element to lightfoot halflings. As a neutral race, halflings might be some of the few races allowed to travel between nations bringing food and supplies. They’re the traders as well as farmers. Which makes it easier for them to slip in and spy, as they’re there already trading goods.
Humans: As always, humans will have several nations of their own. This will be discussed more in the part describing Nation building.
The prevalence of humans depends on your campaign world. Typically there are many different human nations and cultures. While many demihumans might only have a couple cultures, humans have several. Although, the more different demihuman races that exist in the world the more likely the number of human cultures will shrink. In a world where not every race is a species, some “human nations” might also include a number “tiefllings” or “genasi” or similar people that are really humans but altered.
(It might be an interesting design for 5e to have human subraces include things like tieflings, half-elves, half-orcs, etc.)
From here I move onto the optional races.
Half-Orcs: There’s an ugly stereotype regarding half-orcs, and several attempts have been made to downplay this unseemly origin. In a world at war, this might come into play more, but it’s also worth it to consider an alternative. With that in mind, half-orcs might have been bred as a warrior race. Shock troopers created to take advantage of hybrid vigour (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heterosis ) between humans and orcs. They are thus a race without a homeland, very similar to the Clone Troopers from Star Wars: they fight for a nation they will never truly be a part of.
I’ll have to revisit this in the Nation section.
Half-Elves: While it’s easy to think of individual half-elves, there is typically not a nation of half-elves. This is fine as it allows half-elves to be found everywhere and anywhere.
In an earlier blog I mentioned the idea of an occupied nation being an interesting place for adventure, which gaves me a fun if dark idea for half-elves. Imagine a human force that has occupied an elven nation. It’s been held for half a century, long enough for several generations of humans to have been born and raised there, along with intermarriage and breeding. It’s their homeland and their father’s homeland. However, the longer lived elves still remember being free and even young elves remember a time without humans.
To both sides the land is their home and there is a continued tension, with the poor half-elves being caught in the middle.
Gnomes: I love me some gnomes. So I really want them to be a fun, integral part of the nation. Such as the gnomes and kobolds in lengthy war that was partially responsible for the endless war. But I’m not seeing much room.
Gnomes regularly overlap with other races, typically dwarves and elves. However, with halflings taking a little of the “information broker” thunder, the gnomes have even less of a place.
As such, I’ll say gnomes were a casualty. Most were wiped out a century back and are considered extinct save a couple hundred that were in the Feywild or deep undergrounds (for potential players who are gnome lovers). Even if all the surviving gnomes gathered together, there would be too few to replenish their numbers.
The other races do not want to “go the way of the gnomes” and have seen the potential results of losing a war. And so they fight even harder to defeat their enemies.
Warforged: This race is such an easy addition to the world it has to go in. The problem with regular soldiers is they die and it takes twenty years (at least) to make more. Warforged allow continual warfare. They might have been the creation of one race (most likely the high elves) before the knowledge was stolen and spread. Unlike Eberron, I cannot imagine warforged being freed. In many nations they might be little more than slaves: draftees for life. Some nations might allow warforged to earn their freedom after a number of campaigns, as a reward for loyal service.
They might primarily remain the armies of the high elves. This tweaks the design of warforged to look a little more natural and organic, but only slightly. Symmetrical warforged with engraved patterns on their body, typically leaves and vines. Although a more magical human nation might also have them, albeit in smaller numbers.
Drow: It’s tempting to dump drow as overdone and cliché, but they are a pretty iconic race. They might be more reclusive and isolated and less overtly hostile.
They might have been considered a myth until the re-emerged and attacked the elves. This might have been the cause of the elven withdrawal from the alliance with the dwarves. They were unexpectedly attacked from behind, causing the elves to pull back forces promised to the dwarves. However, few other races believed the elven reports as “black elves” are a campfire story. Even now, drow might be a legend few believe, as the dark elves have once again retreated into their subterranean lairs. Are they slowly regrouping and preparing for a renewed offensive, or do they have their own problems with things living deeper still?
Dragonborn/ Draconians: I’m torn on dragonborn. They’re a fun race and being a Dragonlance fan I love the draconians. But do honourable warriors belong in War World? Or are they better suited as rare half-dragons, individuals with dragon blood and not a separate species.
Having mused about this between writing the other races an image hit me: Vikings with their dragon-prowed longboats. Very few races in D&D have a strong aquatic and maritime slant. Dragonborn can easily take up that mantle, operating as seaborne raiders in the north and pirates in the southern sea. The more traditionally noble might operate as traders, but those would be rare in times of war.
Eladrin, Shades & Shadar Kai: The nice thing about the parallel planes is more room for side races. Because of crowding, I don’t want too many additional races in the world, but it’s easy to stick these two in the Shadow Realm and Faerie, leaving them as extraplanar. They’re rare on the natural world but not unknown.
Shades and Shadar-Kai are especially problematic as both occupy the shadow plane, and there is not constant cosmology. Adding them as a core races forces their plane into campaign worlds. And both occupy the same design space: humans touched by shadow. They might work best as the same race but distinct sub-races.
From a world perspective, extraplanar travel would be a great military advantage. Portals to the shadowfell would allow a nation to quickly move an army across the landscape without being seen. But the races present in the other worlds might not like this and would have secured their border. Plus there’s something horrifying in fighting a war with a race on another plane that can strike anywhere.
Changelings: These are tricky as it’s unknown if they’re going to be renamed doppelgangers again or lesser doppelganger kin like in 3e. We already have halflings as spies, so a people of shapechangers has less of a hard role.
If they are crossbreeds it’s easier to have them as rare additions, which makes them more interesting on an adventure building level: shapechangers are not as common as half-elves or dwarves. Even if they are doppelgangers it’s better to limit them to smaller numbers where they can have more of a story impact and less of a world impact. With monsters, sometimes less is more.
Goliaths: One of the problems with an edition change and planning a world is not knowing what races will be updated and when. The truly big races and fan favourites will see print sooner rather than later (like gnomes and dragonborn) but it’s hard to know if we’ll see goliaths. Having seen print in 3.5e and 4e, while also filling the niche of gentle giant (and half-giants), goliaths have a reasonable chance of being updated. Plus, knowing my world has a sizable mountain range running down the continent there is plenty of room for goliaths, as they’re the one demihuman race that lives on mountain tops.
In War World goliaths might be reluctant warriors, having been forced to repeatedly defend themselves and their mountain homes from invaders and passing troops. They stalwartly watching passes and valleys in their territory, having long since learned the lesson that even those not at war can become the victims of armies. (As shown during the Crusades when the Crusaders attacked, looted, and pillaged many towns on their way South to the Holy Land. Some clans might kill any intruders, having grown territorial, while others might warn trespassers to turn around or allow interlopers to explain themselves before being sent hurtling down cliffs.
As a people they might keep to themselves. They likely remain their spiritual side, as reinforcing & maintaining their ties to primal spirits and nature continues to work.
Minotaurs: As a Dragonlance fanboy I want to include minotaurs. But their role as the big burly race overlaps with the dragonborn and goliaths. And their Krynnish sailing skills have just been ninja-ed by the dragonborn.
Plus we’re only likely to see the large-sized cursed minotaurs at first, which are individuals and not a race. While the designers have said they’re thinking about having “Krynnish minotaurs” later, I’ve long since learned not to plan dependant on expected content. As such, no minotaurs. Play a goliath or dragonborn.
Shifters, Deva, Tieflings, Genasi: I think each of these has a place in the world, it’s just unique or small. Such as Deva/aasimar being descended by someone with celestial blood or a genasi being conceived at a place where the boundary to the Elemental Chaos was thin. However, when I start looking at nations there might be a gap they can fill.
I can see shifters being lovely Mongolian horsemen, living nomadic lives and wild plains raiders. I have an idea for tieflings possessing a city-state where the noble houses made a Faustian pact to save their city from invaders and have been corrupted over a generation. Humans that have taken “the spirit of the hunt” into them and live a wild, free life.
Kenku: How can you spot a battlefield from a distance? Look for the crows. Carrion birds and wars go hand-in-hand, and so the kenku are excellent additions to War World. I thought of them late in writing this piece, but they seem perfect.
They’re risky for the same reasons as other additions or monster races – it might be some time before they’re updated – but kenku have been around since the Fiend Folio and are a fun race, so it makes sense to have them be a vital and important part of the world. After thirty-two years (give or take) they’re finally promoted to A-list race in a campaign setting.
In War World kenku are the war profiteers, the dark reflection of halflings. They loot battlefields and sell the goods. Swords are always needed and the dead do not care. While halflings trade the mundane goods, kenku serve as arms merchants and weapon brokers. Attracted to shiny objects, kenku are naturally greedy and avaricious. At their worst, they have been known to whisper lies and spread propaganda pushing nations at peace back into war.
With many nations at war, there are few able men to serve as police and civil defenders, adding a sense of lawlessness to many cities. Kenku thrive in the cities, running gangs and organized crime. Although, in the darker and most dangerous cities, the kenku ruled streets might be some of the safer streets... as long as you’re friendly with the kenku.
Hamadryads, Satyr, Pixie, Revenants, Shardminds, Vryloka & Wilden: These are the kind of races that might not be updated. Whenever a new edition starts there’s always some options that don’t make the immediate cut off as “must update” and become forgotten, and the authors are always interested in adding their newest creation rather than updating a lesser option. They might see an update, or they might go the way of illuminums, raptorans, saurial, and the like.
As such, I’m hesitant to even think about adding these races and making them a major part of the world when they easily might not exist.
Wilden have kinda sorta been in two editions, being very, very loosely updated from a 3e race. I did have an idea about magic being used to turn the land into a weapon, which might be an interesting origin for the wilden: they are nature made into an army. I’ll keep that idea in mind.
That’s War World, with its 10 major races and room for two or three smaller sub-races. Next time I’ll look at building nations, dividing your new world into nations.
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