Updated: Mar 2
D&D character races, once long ago, were oh so simple. There were humans, dwarves, elves and halflings and that was that (I’m talking back in the days of the starter set in the mid 1980s by the way). There were no Tieflings, no Aasimar, no Warforged, not even gnomes.
Now we live in much more interesting times, not only has the range of available character races dramatically increased, but the homebrew culture within D&D means that homebrewing races is now much easier.
You don’t have to be a games designer or artist to bring a new type of adventuring being to life and this article is a handy step by step guide to help you.
Before we get started though, let’s quickly drive a stake through the term race. I’ve used it to start with because it’s a term that is part of D&D parlance (soon to be forever phased out, thank goodness).
In the Arcverse, we use the term origin. Race was a term created by Victorian eugenicists in order to explain and justify colonial exploitation, the expropriation of lands, slavery and genocide.
It’s a bad, bad term and even if used innocently (I doubt whether Gary Gygax or Dave Arneson ever shared these views), and it deserves to be consigned to the dustbin of history, so from now on we’ll go with origin.
Ok, with that bit of anti fascist housekeeping out of the way, let’s continue and build our new and amazing character origin.
Let’s first look at sketching out a basic idea for the character origin, by doing this we give the concept some coherence and form - we need to know what the origin is ourselves before we present it to the players to enjoy.
Creating a homebrew D&D origin can be fun and rewarding, but it takes a lot of careful thought and planning. The first step in this process is to come up with a concept that sets your origin apart from existing ones.
Before we consider skill proficiencies, movement speed, hit points or a bonus action, psionic abilities or whether the character can inflict additional damage, we have to start with something a lot more generalised
How do you see this being you want to bring into the world? The first thing to consider is that thought that's been lurking in the back of your mind, barely visible to you, but ready to emerge into your fantasy world.
You can sometimes get a sense of the character origin ready to be born, not just the size and shape of the playable race, but their thinking, their mentality, their soul. Experienced dungeon masters who have created dozens of origins over the years will be familiar with this stage, and know that some new origins work better than others.
Some are concepts that we try out and then have to scrap because they just don't quite work somehow. Don't worry if your own homebrew race doesn't quite work out the first time round, and never, ever throw anything away. Good things will come if you hold on to the concept, you will find a way to best fit it into a campaign in the future.
This concept could be inspired by a particular culture, mythology, or real-world animal, or it could be something entirely original. It's essential to think about what abilities and traits would make sense for this concept and how they might fit into the broader D&D world.
When brainstorming your origin’s concept, it's crucial to consider what makes it unique. What sets it apart from other beings in terms of appearance, abilities, and behaviour? For example, you could base your origin on a culture that values strength and resilience, giving them a natural proficiency in combat and survival skills.
Alternatively, you might draw inspiration from a real-world animal and give your race heightened senses or physical attributes that help them navigate their environment.
Once you have a basic concept in mind, it's time to start thinking about what abilities and traits your origin will possess.
You'll want to consider how these traits will impact gameplay and how they'll fit into the broader D&D world. For example, if your origin is known for its exceptional vision, you might give them bonuses to perception checks or allow them to see in low-light conditions without penalty.
It's also important to think about how your race will interact with other races in the game. Will they be accepted by other races, or will they face discrimination and hostility? How will their unique abilities and traits affect these interactions?
Originality for its own sake rarely yields good results, and there are few entirely original ideas anyway. If you create something that resembles a Drow or a Half Orc, that’s ok, there are countless ways to tweak your being so that it has a distinctive flavour. A Drow type being that isn’t from the Underdark but from a dimension of shadow might be an interesting alternative. This might enable it to have different abilities and flaws to a standard Drow.
Perhaps your new character throws off old stereotypes, instead of dwelling underground what if there was a forest gnome, perhaps one with fey ancestry? What if high elves were beings that did not act in the way we imagine a high elf should? There is no intrinsic reason why a gnome should just be a deep gnome in some subterranean realm.
In our first expansion title The Book of the Graces, we created the Suraians, beings that were human once, but that have incredibly long life spans in which they read, learn, think and debate. The result of this is that they know most of what there is to know.
This gives them advantages in problem solving (they know where a monster’s weak spot is, or how to solve all manner or problems), but there is a crucial drawback - their memory. It’s all very well to know things, but if the Suraian can’t recall the vital bit of knowledge at the right time they can’t put it into effect.
This is an example of how to start with a premise and extrapolate outwards. We simply asked ourselves ‘what would it be like if a person could live for thousands of years and read every book there is? What would they be able to do as a result?’
Ok, pop quiz. Why isn’t Captain Marvel in Avengers Endgame until the last bit? We all know, don’t we?
Yes, she would have ruined the movie if she had been so powerful that she could have retrieved all of the stones on her own, leaving the rest of the Avengers with nothing to do. Creating a Captain Marvel level origin should be avoided because it degrades game play and makes challenges meaningless.
Creating a balanced homebrew D&D origin is a critical aspect of the game's mechanics. Ensuring that the origin is well-designed and balanced in terms of ability scores, basic traits and powers is necessary to maintain game balance and ensure everyone has a fair chance of success. One of the most significant aspects of creating a new origin is balancing the bonuses and abilities it provides.
When designing a new origin, it's important to think about how its bonuses and abilities compare to those of existing origins. If the bonuses and abilities are too powerful, the origin can easily overshadow other origins, making the game less enjoyable. On the other hand, if the bonuses and abilities are too weak, players may struggle to keep up with others in the game.
Additionally, it's essential to consider how the origin might interact with different classes and playstyles. If the origin is well-suited to a particular class or playstyle, it may be more powerful than intended, and vice versa. This can be mitigated by designing the origin to complement a broad range of classes and playstyles.
Playtesting is another critical element in balancing a homebrew origin. Playtesting involves testing the origin in real gameplay scenarios to see how it performs, and if it affects game balance in any way. It's an opportunity to identify any issues or imbalances and make adjustments before introducing the origin into the main game.
It's also important to consider how the origin fits into the game's world and lore. The origin should be unique and add something new to the game, but it shouldn't be so out of place that it doesn't fit in with the established universe you have created.
If you find that it does, this can be an exciting opportunity to recalibrate the universe your players adventure in. It might be that there is an unknown and hidden aspect to the world that you have not explored yet, one that is home to all manner of new and strange creatures.
While balance is critical in creating a homebrew D&D origin, it's also essential to consider the impact it will have on the roleplaying aspect of the game. One way to accomplish this is to think about the cultural and social customs of the origin. By developing a unique culture for the origin, players can immerse themselves in the game world, and develop their character's backstory and motivations.
Is this being from what we might call one of the 'civilized races' or origins? Civilised is, of course, a vexed and loaded term, but for the purposes of this article, we can mean 'are there lots of them that live together in communities that evidence some sort of technological advancement, language and are distinct from the rest of the world?'
In Arclands: The Spellforgers Companion, we put a lot of energy into creating languages, naming conventions and rich cultures for the human ethnic groups, Olorians, Ghothars, Haatchi, Arclanders and Mordkhaani.
This raises the origin from simply being a vehicle for adventures to being a living, breathing entity with a past, a society it originates from, a language, a culture and a distinct way of navigating the world.
Developing a unique culture for the origin can include things like language, religious beliefs, social customs, and even the way they dress. These details can add depth and richness to the game world, making it feel more real and immersive. It can also help players create more well-rounded characters by giving them a foundation for their character's backstory and motivations.
Another aspect of roleplaying to consider is how the origin interacts with other races in the game world.
Are they friendly, hostile, or neutral towards other origins? Do they have any alliances or rivalries with other creatures? These types of details can add to the game's depth and provide new opportunities for storytelling and character development.
The rivalry and resentment between Elves and Dwarves in Tolkien’s works is the products of millennia of interactions, slights, betrayals, alliances and shared struggle against Sauron.
Make sure that whatever your character origin believes about others has a deep historical and social context - if they feel something deeply about another group of beings there must be a profound reason why and this is often rooted in a shared social or cultural experience.
Additionally, considering the prejudices or stereotypes the origin might face can help players create more nuanced characters. Understanding how the origin is viewed by other races in the game world can inform how players choose to play their character, and can lead to interesting and compelling character arcs.
It's important to note that roleplaying doesn't just happen during gameplay. Developing a unique culture and backstory for the origin can lead to rich world-building and storytelling opportunities outside of gameplay, such as in character creation and backstory development. This can make the game world feel more immersive and alive, and give players more investment in their characters and the world around them.
In creating a homebrew D&D origin, it's important to consider not only the strengths but also the weaknesses of the origin. Every origin should have some kind of drawback or weakness to balance out their strengths. This adds an element of challenge and encourages players to think creatively when playing the origin. By including drawbacks, you can create a more well-rounded and balanced origin that is enjoyable to play.
The drawback or weakness could be a physical limitation, such as a low constitution score or a vulnerability to a particular type of damage. It could also be a cultural taboo or limitation, such as a forbidden practice or belief that restricts the character's actions.
This adds an extra layer of complexity to the character's roleplaying, making their decisions and actions more challenging and interesting. In the case of the Suraians mentioned previously, they are limited by how much they can remember, without this they would have almost god like omniscience and that would be a colossal drag as far as gameplay goes.
Including drawbacks also encourages players to think creatively about how to overcome obstacles and find unique solutions to problems. For example, if an origin has a weakness to fire damage, players might need to come up with creative ways to avoid or mitigate that damage in combat. This type of problem-solving can lead to fun and engaging gameplay, as players are forced to think outside the box and find innovative solutions to overcome challenges.
Additionally, including drawbacks can make the origin feel more realistic and grounded in the game world. No origin is perfect, and every society has its flaws and limitations. By including drawbacks, you can create a more well-rounded and believable origin that feels like a natural part of the game world.
It's important to note that drawbacks should not be so severe as to make the origin unplayable or unenjoyable. The goal is to create a balanced and challenging experience, not to punish players or make the game frustrating. By carefully considering the drawbacks and limitations of the origin, you can create an engaging and enjoyable experience that players will want to come back to again and again.
Once you have created a homebrew D&D origin, it's essential to playtest it to see how it performs in actual gameplay. This is a crucial step in the process of creating a balanced and engaging experience for players. You may find that some abilities or bonuses are too powerful, or that the roleplaying aspects need to be fleshed out more. By playtesting and refining, you can create a more enjoyable and well-rounded experience for your players.
The first step in playtesting is to actually use the origin in gameplay. This can be done in a variety of ways, such as running a one-shot adventure, incorporating the origin into an existing campaign, or having players try out the origin in a mock combat scenario. As you playtest, be sure to take notes on how the origin performs and how players respond to it.
During playtesting, you may discover that certain abilities or bonuses are too powerful or unbalanced compared to other races. If this is the case, don't be afraid to make adjustments as needed. For example, you might need to reduce the bonus to a particular ability score or modify a racial trait to make it less powerful. It's important to remember that balance is key, and the origin should not be too overpowered or too weak compared to other races in the game.
In addition to balancing gameplay, it's also important to consider the roleplaying aspects of the origin. During playtesting, you may find that certain aspects of the origin's culture or social customs need to be fleshed out more to make it feel more believable and immersive. Player feedback can be particularly helpful in identifying areas for improvement in the roleplaying aspects of the origin.
Overall, playtesting and refining your homebrew origin is an ongoing process. It's important to be open to player feedback and to make adjustments as needed to create a balanced and engaging experience for everyone at the table. By taking the time to test and refine your origin, you can create a unique and enjoyable addition to the D&D world that will keep players coming back for more.
After the recent time of WOTC troubles, we as D&D players have found ourselves in a curiously advantageous position. The aforementioned publisher sees the big money of the future in its ONED&D platform, which will gradually resemble something akin to a D&D MMORG.
This is why they have capitulated on the OGL and backtracked substantially, leaving the entire Systems Reference Document (containing classes, races, and mechanics) freely available under the Creative Commons licence. If it was possible to make your own version of D&D previously, it is even easier to do so now.
This, therefore, is the era of the homebrew and homebrew games and worlds will define table top D&D for the foreseeable future. Having won against WOTC, this is our reward. What this means for you, the creator, is that the moment has arisen for you to take your ideas and start to develop them into your version of D&D. In the next few weeks we’ll look at homebrew origins, classes, backgrounds and adventures and give practical suggestions about how to develop what you do for an audience beyond simply your table.
Here are some other articles that you might enjoy on NPCs, world building, GMing and the like: