Variant Races | New Rules Options for Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition

The races in the Fifth Edition do a pretty good job of bringing balance and flavor to the game. However, they don’t make room for a whole lot of variety or special abilities. For example, if I want a drow rogue that has the Alert feat, I have to wait until that drow hits level 4 in order to do that. Of course, that ASI is probably better spent on a Dexterity bonus or something that would serve the class better.

I think the solution for this is simple. Deconstruct all of the races so that they, too, have optional variants similar to humans.

Race Design – The Rule of 3 ASIs

While there only mild rules guiding the creation of races in Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition, we can learn a lot from two things:

  1. All feats in Fifth Edition should be balanced against getting two points of ability score improvement.
  2. Default humans have each of their ability scores increased by 1 at creation.

Therefore, we can deduce that a race’s traits should be equal to three ASIs, or six points of ability score bonuses.

Knowing this, we can start to deconstruct the other races to allow for variants.

Dexterity is worth more than other abilities.

Dexterity is probably the most useful ability in the game. As such, you’ll notice in my notes that I’ve given greater weight to races that give Dexterity bonuses.

The Fifth Edition Races Deconstructed

Here are my notes for how each of the races can be deconstructed. I’ve left notes for my rough estimation of how it is balanced against ASIs:

Dwarves Deconstructed

All dwarves have the following traits:

  • Constitution +2. This obviously equals 1 ASI.
  • Darkvision. I don’t believe darkvision has any lasting effect on a race. Also, it doesn’t make sense to strip it from the race. The cool kids on Reddit call this a “ribbon.”
  • Dwarven Resilience. Poison immunity and condition is pretty common in Fifth Edition. However, it’s hard to measure what the designers feel it’s worth without doing a little deduction. Since hill dwarves (see below) are the “neatest” of the two subraces in terms of design, a hill dwarf minus its Dwarven Resilience is worth roughly 5.5 ASIs. Therefore, Dwarven Resilience should equal half an ASI.
  • Dwarven Combat Training. The Weapon Master feat gives you proficiency in four weapons plus a single point increase in Strength or Dexterity. Therefore, Dwarven Combat Training is probably equal to half an ASI.
  • Tool Proficiency. At most, this is worth 1/3 of an ASI as the Skilled feat grants a character three skill or tool proficiencies. For now, I’ll consider it a ribbon.
  • Stonecunning. This has such a narrow use, it’s a ribbon.

Hill dwarves have the following traits:

  • Wisdom +1. This is worth half an ASI.
  • Dwarven Toughness. The Tough feat gives 2 points for each level. Dwarven Toughness does half that. Therefore, it, too, is worth half an ASI.

Mountain dwarves have the following traits.

  • Strength +2. This is worth a full ASI.
  • Dwarven Armor Training. Interestingly, both medium armor proficiency and light armor proficiency are paired up with a single ability score increase. This would make me think that both of the mountain dwarves’ proficiencies add up to one full ASI.

Final notes on Dwarves

Mountain Dwarves are either intentionally imbalanced, or a +2 in Strength has very little value in itself (since Strength is used so little in Fifth Edition, this isn’t surprising). I suspect, too, that the option to add a 1 Dexterity score increase in the Armored feats may throw off the balance for those: in other words, a single Dexterity bonus could be worth as much as  0.75 ASIs, with two being worth 1.5. After all, Dexterity is by far the best ability score in the game.

Elves Deconstructed

All elves have the following traits:

  • Dexterity +2. As I mentioned in dwarves, I suspect that Dexterity might have greater value than all the other ASIs, Constitution and Wisdom included. Judging by the way the sub-races for elves are laid out, I think this is true. Dexterity +2 is worth 1.5 ASIs.
  • Darkvision. Again, darkvision is a ribbon.
  • Keen Senses. Elves have proficiency in Perception. As I mentioned before, Skilled offers three skill or tool proficiencies. Perception is definitely useful, though, so I think I’ll keep this as a 1/3 ASI for the purposes of calculation.
  • Fey Ancestry. Like the halfling’s brave trait, this only does so much.

High elves have the following traits:

  • Intelligence +1. This is worth half an ASI (possibly less).
  • Elf Weapon Training. The Weapon Master trait gives four weapon proficiencies, as does this. So this is worth half an ASI.
  • Cantrip. The Magic Initiate Feat offers two cantrips and a single use 1st-level spell. Since a cantrip does, on average, half the damage of a 1st-level spell, I think it’s fair that two cantrips equal one 1st-level spell (possibly more). Either way, we’ll call the cantrip half an ASI.

Wood elves have the following traits:

  • Wisdom +1. This is worth half an ASI.
  • Elf Weapon Training. Same as high elves, worth half an ASI.
  • Fleet of Foot. The wood elves are faster by 5 feet. Mobile gives a 10-foot increase in speed but also gives two other pretty excellent abilities. This is probably worth nothing (just as a decrease isn’t worth much).
  • Mask of the Wild. This is another that’s hard to quantify. But seeing as how high elves are worth 1.5, and with the elf Weapon training and Wisdom this one is up to only 1, I’ll credit this as being half an ASI.

Drow have the following traits:

  • Charisma +1. Half an ASI here (possibly less).
  • Superior Darkvision. Useful sure, but probably not worth any ASI.
  • Sunlight Sensitivity. If anything, this balances out Superior Darkvision.
  • Drow Magic. Similar to high elves, this offers up some pretty specific spells none of which deal damage. I’d be willing to guess it’s worth half an ASI.
  • Drow Weapon Training. Finally, drow get weapon proficiencies like their cousins, only three this time. However, hand crossbows are pretty useful, therefore, I think this is another half ASI.

Final Notes on Elves

Based on the construction of the sub-races, it’s pretty clear that Dexterity is worth more than normal ASIs, at least 50% more. With that in mind, elves fall into the 3 ASI bucket quite nicely.

Halflings Deconstructed

All halflings have the following traits:

  • Dexterity +2. Based on what we learned with elves, this is worth 1.5 ASIs.
  • Lucky. Halflings never get critical failures, apparently. Judging by the sub-races, this is probably worth half an ASI only because I don’t think it’s as good as the actual lucky feat.
  • Brave. Halflings have advantage on saving throws against being frightened. This is probably a ribbon as it won’t get a ton of use.
  • Halfling Nimbleness. Another interesting ability, but one that only comes into play only so often. Ribbon!

Lightfoot halflings have the following traits:

  • Charisma +1. This is worth half an ASI.
  • Naturally Stealthy. Halflings can hide when its obscured by a creature that is at least one size larger than it. Not sure that it’s really worth half a point, but looking at the math, it must be. Where I think this probably shines is when it’s combined with the Halfling Nimbleness feat.

Stout halflings have the following traits:

  • Constitution +1. This is worth half an ASI.
  • Stout Resilience. Like dwarves, stouts have advantage on saving throws against poison and resistance to poison damage. Half an ASI.

Final Notes on Halflings

Once more, my Dexterity theory shines through. Lightfoot halflings seem marginally weaker than stouts, but it might be their ability to run into a Medium creature’s space, hide (with a cunning action), then immediately Sneak Attack.

Variant Humans Deconstructed

Earlier, I mentioned that default humans have specific traits. However, there are always the variant human, too, that can tell us a little bit about how races are constructed in Fifth Edition.

Variant humans have the following traits:

  • Ability Score Increase. This is an ASI, obviously.
  • Skills. Variant humans gain one skill proficiency of their choice. What’s fascinating is that this is only worth 1/3 of an ASI.
  • Feat. Human variants get one feat of their choice. That’s an ASI, too.

Final Notes on Variant Humans

So now we see a problem, don’t we? Human traits only add up to 2.33 ASIs. Why is that? My theory is that it’s the actual freedom of choice that makes humans so good. That, in itself, is worth about 2/3 of an ASI it appears.

Dragonborn Deconstructed

Dragonborn have the following traits:

  • Strength +2 and Charisma +1. This is 1.5ish ASIs. I suspect that Strength may be the weakest of all ASIs.
  • Breath Weapon. Dragonborn get a breath weapon that’s a little weaker than burning hands, a 1st-level spell. Magic initiate gives two cantrips and a single-use 1st-level spell. Therefore, this is worth half an ASI.
  • Damage Resistance. This is kind of a big deal, and I think it might be worth as much as a full ASI, especially considering you get to choose. It may even be worth more than if you shrink down the benefits of Strength increases.

Final Notes on Dragonborn

The biggest bonus that dragonborn get is their damage resistance.

Gnomes Deconstructed

All gnomes have the following traits:

  • Intelligence +2. This is worth an ASI.
  • Darkvision. Ribbon.
  • Gnome Cunning. Gnomes have advantage on all Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma saving throws against magic which is massive. I’d say this is worth a full ASI. Note that full Magic Resistance would be 2 ASIs.

Forest gnomes have the following traits:

  • Dexterity +1. This is worth 0.75 – 1 ASIs. Dexterity is powerful, and out of any of these, the ability to round up an odd number to an even number is huge.
  • Natural Illusionist. Gnomes know minor illusion. Probably a ribbon here.
  • Speak with Small Beasts. Pretty useful (depending on the campaign), but not much more than an extra language would be.

Rock gnomes have the following traits:

  • Constitution +1. This is worth half an ASI.
  • Artificer’s Lore. Cool, but similar to Dwarven Stonecunning, is very niche.
  • Tinker. Another tool proficiency but with some nifty ribbons attached.

Final Notes on Gnomes

This is another one where the subclasses seem to be somewhat imbalanced, with rock gnomes being slightly weaker than forest gnomes.

Half-Elves Deconstructed

Half-elves have the following traits:

  • Ability Score Increase. Half-elves get a +2 bonus to Charisma, then can increase any two ability scores of their choice. That’s 2 ASIs right there.
  • Darkvision. A ribbon, as usual.
  • Fey Ancestry. Like I mentioned earlier with elves, this one isn’t worth a ton.
  • Skill Versatility. Half-elves get to pick two skills that they get to be proficient in. This is almost as good as Skilled, and I think with lumping in Darkvision and Fey Ancestry (plus factoring in the ASI choices) that’s worth another ASI.

Final Notes on Half-Elves

Again, this is a situation where “having a choice” is an implicit benefit.

Half-Orcs Deconstructed

Half-orcs have the following traits:

  • Strength +2 and Constitution +1. Strength isn’t worth much, but Constitution is. This is either 1.5 or 1 ASIs depending on how the creators view Strength.
  • Darkvision. A ribbon.
  • Menacing. Proficiency in Intimidation, so 1/3 of Skilled.
  • Relentless Endurance. This is like having a second life. I’d wager that this is probably worth half or a full ASI.
  • Savage Attacks. This is a pretty cool ability. The closest Feat that I can line this up with is Great Weapon Master which allows you to make an extra attack once you score a critical hit and bring a creature to 0. I’m tempted to say that this is worth half an ASI.

Final Notes on Half-Orcs

This is probably one of the more difficult races to measure since it’s traits aren’t too similar to existing feats. They’re great as barbarians and fighters, but that’s about it. For that reason, I think the synergy itself may balance it out.

Tieflings Deconstructed

Tieflings have the following traits:

  • Intelligence +1 and Charisma +2. Tieflings are one of the few races that don’t get a single bonus in one of the “big three,” Dexterity, Constitution, or Wisdom. Still, I’ll call this 1.5 ASIs.
  • Darkvision. Ribbon.
  • Hellish Resistance. This, like Dragonborn, is where all of the tieflings’ goodness comes in. Fire resistance is potent.
  • Infernal Legacy. Like the drow, this gives the tiefling a cantrip and two one-shot first level spells. Worth half an ASI.

Final Notes on Tieflings

Structurally, tieflings are somewhat weak. However, their high Charisma lends them to a great number of classes and fire resistance is useful for everyone.

Variant Races: How They Work

Now that I’ve deconstructed each of the races, it’s a matter of creating “Variant” versions of the races. Here is how they will work:

  • The race itself will offer its basic Ability Score Increase trait. This should be a +2 in one ability score, costing a full ASI.
  • Ribbons such as Darkvision stay with the race.
  • Next, the character must select a racial feat. This will be either one of the ones I plan on creating from preexisting abilities or one of the ones from Xanathar’s. Each of these feats will be worth one full ASI.
  • Finally, a free feat of the players’ choice is offered at first level, similar to variant humans. This is the final ASI.

Variant Races List

Here are the variant races and their racial traits.

 

Variant Dwarves

You retain the following dwarf traits as they are described in the Player’s Handbook: age, alignment, size, speed, darkvision, and languages. The remainder of your dwarf’s traits are as follows:

Ability Score Increase. Your Constitution score increases by 2.

Racial Feat. You gain one dwarven racial feat.

Feat. You gain one feat of your choice.

 

Variant Elves

You retain the following elf traits as they are described in the Player’s Handbook: age, alignment, size, speed, darkvision, fey ancestry, trance, and languages. The remainder of your elf’s traits are as follows:

Ability Score Increase. Your Dexterity score increases by 1.

Racial Feat. You gain one elven racial feat.

Feat. You gain one feat of your choice.

 

Variant Halflings

You retain the following halfling traits as they are described in the Player’s Handbook: age, alignment, size, speed, and languages. The remainder of your halfling’s traits are as follows:

Ability Score Increase. Your Dexterity score increases by 1.

Racial Feat. You gain one halfling racial feat.

Feat. You gain one feat of your choice.

 

Variant Dragonborn

You retain the following dragonborn traits as they are described in the Player’s Handbook: age, alignment, size, speed, and languages. The remainder of your dragonborn’s traits are as follows:

Ability Score Increase. Your Strength score increases by 2.

Racial Feat. You gain one dragonborn racial feat.

Feat. You gain one feat of your choice.

 

Variant Gnome

You retain the following gnome traits as they are described in the Player’s Handbook: age, alignment, size, speed, darkvision, and languages. The remainder of your gnome’s traits are as follows:

Ability Score Increase. Your Constitution score increases by 1, and your Intelligence score increases by 1.

Racial Feat. You gain one gnome racial feat.

Feat. You gain one feat of your choice.

 

Variant Half-Elf

You retain the following half-elf traits as they are described in the Player’s Handbook: age, alignment, size, speed, darkvision, fey ancestry, and languages. The remainder of your half-elf’s traits are as follows:

Ability Score Increase. Your Charisma score increases by 1.

Racial Feat. You gain one human, half-elf or elf racial feat.

Feat. You gain one feat of your choice.

 

Variant Half-Orc

You retain the following half-orc traits as they are described in the Player’s Handbook: age, alignment, size, speed, darkvision, and languages. The remainder of your half-orc’s traits are as follows:

Ability Score Increase. Your Strength score increases by 1.

Racial Feat. You gain one human or half-orc feat of your choice.

Feat. You gain one feat of your choice.

 

Variant Tiefling

You retain the following tiefling traits as they are described in the Player’s Handbook: age, alignment, size, speed, darkvision, and languages. The remainder of your tiefling traits are as follows:

Ability Score Increase. Your Charisma score increases by 1.

Racial Feat. You gain one tiefling racial feat of your choice.

Feat. You gain one feat of your choice.

 

Racial Feats

In addition to the racial feats listed in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, these racial feats are available for characters to take at character creation or later on. The feats are presented below in alphabetical order.

When using the optional variant races rule, drop the subrace prerequisite for the racial traits in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. For example, Wood Elf Magic would only have the prerequisite Elf and not Elf (wood).

 

Draconic Resistance

Prerequisite: Dragonborn

You have draconic ancestry. Choose one of the following damage types: acid, cold, fire, lightning, or poison. You have resistance to the chosen damage type.

 

Dwarven Hardiness

Prerequisite: Dwarf

As a dwarf, you come from hardy stock. You gain the following benefits.

  • You have advantage on saving throws against poison, and you have resistance against poison damage.
  • Your hit point maximum increases by 1, and it increases by 1 every time you gain a level.

 

Elven Magic

Prerequisite: Elf

You have a keen mind and a mastery of magic. You gain the following benefits.

  • Increase your Intelligence score by 1, to a maximum of 20.
  • You have proficiency in the Perception skill.
  • You know one cantrip of your choice from the wizard spell list. Intelligence is your spellcasting ability for it.
  • You can speak, read, and write one extra language of your choice.

 

Gnome Cunning

Prerequisite: Gnome

Thanks to your inherent cleverness and strong connection to magic, you have advantage on all Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma saving throws against magic.

 

Gnomish Inventiveness

Prerequisite: Gnome

You have a natural inventiveness beyond that of other gnomes.

  • Your Intelligence score increases by 1, to a maximum of 20.
  • Whenever you make an Intelligence (History) check related to magic items, alchemical objects, or technological devices, you can add twice your proficiency bonus, instead of any proficiency bonus you normally apply.
  • You have proficiency with artisan’s tools (tinker’s tools). Using those tools, you can spend 1 hour and 10 gp worth of material to construct a Tiny clockwork device (AC 5, 1 hp). The device ceases to function after 24 hours (unless you spend 1 hour repairing it to keep the device functioning), or when you use your action to dismantle it; at that time, you can reclaim the materials used to create it. You can have up to three such devices active at a time. When you create a device, choose one of the following options:
    • Clockwork Toy. This toy is a clockwork animal, monster, or person, such as a frog, mouse, bird, dragon, or soldier. When placed on the ground, the toy moves 5 feet across the ground on each of your turn in a random direction. It makes noises as appropriate to the creature it represents.
    • Fire Starter. The device produces a miniature flame, which you can use to light a candle, torch, or campfire. Using the device requires your action.
    • Music Box. When opened, this music box plays a single song at a moderate volume. The box stops playing when it reaches the song’s end or when it is closed.

 

Gnomish Mysticism

Prerequisite: Gnome

Your magical nature grants you a natural knack for illusion and communicating with small animals. You gain the following benefits.

  • Increase your Wisdom or Intelligence score by 1, to a maximum of 20.
  • You know the minor illusion cantrip. Intelligence is your spellcasting ability for it.
  • Through sounds and gestures, you can communicate simple ideas with Small or smaller beasts.

 

Halfing Hardiness

Prerequisite: Halfling

You may have dwarven ancestry; you’re tougher than most halflings and have mild resistance to poison. You gain the following benefits.

  • Increase your Strength or Constitution score by 1, to a maximum of 20.
  • You have advantage on saving throws against poison, and you have resistance against poison damage.

 

Halfling Nimbleness

Prerequisite: Halfling

You can easily hide from notice, even using other people as cover. You gain the following benefits:

  • Increase your Dexterity score by 1, to a maximum of 20.
  • You can move through the space of any creature that is of a size larger than yours.
  • You can attempt to hide even when you are obscured only by a creature that is at least one size larger than you.

 

Halfling Tenacity

Prerequisite: Halfling

You are incredibly lucky, somehow able to avoid ever making costly mistakes. You gain the following benefits:

  • Increase your Charisma score by 1, to a maximum of 20.
  • When you roll a 1 on the d20 for an attack roll, ability check, or saving throw, you can reroll the die and must use the new roll.
  • You have advantage on saving throws against being frightened.

 

Hellborn

Prerequisite: Tiefling

Your infernal heritage has left a clear imprint on your nature and appearance.

  • Increase your Charisma score by 1, to a maximum of 20.
  • You have resistance to fire damage.

 

Hidden One

Prerequisite: Elf

You and your ancestors have spent their lives underground, which has made you accustomed to living in the dark. You gain the following benefits:

  • Increase your Charisma score by 1, to a maximum of 20.
  • Your darkvision has a radius of 120 feet.
  • You have disadvantage on attack rolls and on Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on sight when you, the target of your attack, or whatever you are trying to perceive is in direct sunlight.
  • You know the dancing lights cantrip. When you reach 3rd level, you can cast the faerie fire spell once with this trait and regain the ability to do so when you finish a long rest. When you reach 5th level, you can cast the darkness spell once with this trait and regain teh ability to do so when you finish a long rest. Charisma is your spellcasting ability for these spells.

 

Infernal Legacy

Prerequisite: Tiefling

The blood of devils runs through your veins, granting you innate magical abilities. You gain the following benefits:

  • Your Intelligence score increases by 1, to a maximum of 20.
  • You know the thaumaturgy cantrip. When you reach 3rd level, you can cast the hellish rebuke spell as a 2nd-level spell once with this trait and regain the ability to do so when you finish a long rest. When you reach 5th level, you can cast the darkness spell once with this trait and regain teh ability to do so when you finish a long rest. Charisma is your spellcasting ability for these spells.

 

Relentlessness

Prerequisite: Half-orc

Your orcish heritage makes you hardier than normal. You gain the following benefits:

  • Increase your Constitution score by 1, to a maximum of 20.
  • When you are reduced to 0 hit points but not killed outright, you can drop to 1 hit point instead. You can’t use this feature again until you finish a long rest.

 

Savagery

Prerequisite: Half-orc

Your orcish blood makes you fierce and dangerous. You gain the following benefits:

  • Increase your Strength score by 1, to a maximum of 20.
  • You gain proficiency in the Intimidation skill.
  • When you score a critical hit with a melee weapon attack, you can roll one of the weapon’s damage dice on additional time and add it to the extra damage of the critical hit.

 

Wildling

Prerequisite: Elf

You have a natural connection to your native forests which imbues you with unique abilities. You gain the following benefits:

  • Increase your Dexterity or Wisdom score by 1, to a maximum of 20.
  • Your base walking speed increases to 35 feet.
  • You gain proficiency in the Nature and Survival skills.
  • You can attempt to hide even when you are only lightly obscured by foliage, heavy rain, falling snow, mist, and other natural phenomena.

Thanks for reading! PDF on Patreon!

I hope you enjoyed the content and find it useful in your own Fifth Edition campaigns. This article will appear in PDF format on Patreon. In addition to this PDF, there are more than 25 currently available, including a 56-page book titled EVIL that you get when you sign up at any tier.

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2 thoughts on “Variant Races | New Rules Options for Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition

  1. I don’t get why Half-Orc and Thiefling get only +1 to their ability score (the score is not dex.. for Half-Orc it’s the “lamest” STR score..?)

  2. Should the half-orc also be able to take feats for Orcs? Assuming you do race variants for Volo’s guide?

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