Adventurers come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, from the small and nimble Gnomes to the towering buff giant-kin Goliaths. But here’s the thing: do you want to be a buff Gnome? Or a scrawny bookish Goliath? You can totally do that, it’s not illegal. When making your character for a game of D&D you have the freedom to describe them however you like! Height, weight, hair color, eye color, and even gender. In fact, many people have found D&D to be a safe space to explore different gender identities through their characters. So then what’s the purpose of the race you choose at character creation?
Today we’re going to break down the 50ish races currently available in 5th edition D&D and what makes each of them unique. Keep in mind, each of these races have unique cultures depending on which setting you’re using, and if it’s a homebrew setting your Dungeon Master (DM) might have entirely unique cultures! Maybe in your game Dwarves built a settlement on a big beach and live in literal sandcastles! So discuss your characters background and culture with your DM as the following are much broader strokes about why different races are great.
We’re going to start with the most recognizable races and work our way down to the really weird and unique ones. Feel free to stop reading when you found a race that inspires you, maybe this article will be shorter for some than for others, but if you want something a bit funkier for your next character be sure to read until the end where the robots, werewolves, and mutants are…
The following races should be recognizable to anyone who has read anything fantasy ever. Lord of the Rings was obviously a huge influence on D&D, and you can successfully play any of these races by acting like you’re in Middle Earth! But don’t be afraid to break stereotype, Dwarves don’t have to have Scottish accents after all.
- Dwarf. Dwarves are do-ers. They tend to be long-lived and they often spend their lives mastering hobbies, which is why they have so many weapon, tool, and armor proficiencies. Play a Dwarf if you want a character that’s proud and passionate about what they do, and also if you want to be good at drinking (remember kids: “Advantage on saving throws against poison” is code for “You can drink booze real good”).
- Elf. Elves are defined by their long lifespans and their versatility. In lore Elves scattered across the planes and adapted to wherever they settled, so Sea Elves are underwater Elves, Wood Elves live in the forest and love nature, Dark Elves (or Drow) are adapted for life underground, etc. Elves are great for playing a character that’s naturally (and sometimes magically) synched with your environment, and for having a rich history from your long life.
- Half-Elf. Being an elf is cool, but for when you want to be more grounded you’ll want to go with the Half-Elf. Generally thought to be Half-Elf and Half-Human (although no one’s stopping the other part from being Half-Dwarf, just saying) the Half-Elf has a handful of elven traits mixed with more skills and a shorter life-span. While a shorter life span may sound like a disadvantage it actually makes roleplaying easier. Most people can role-play someone who’s lived for 50, 80, or even 100 years, but playing a 500 year old elf can be intimidating.
- Halfling. Hobbi…iiImean…Halflings… are a Small sized race, so on average about 3 feet tall, and they use that to their advantage. They’re naturally lucky and brave and can fit through smaller than normal spaces. This doesn’t mean you must be a happy-go-lucky potato farmer though, lucky, brave, and sneaky are also the ingredients for a master criminal.
- Gnome. Similar to the Halfling, Gnomes are a Small sized race but are more reclusive and magical. Gnomes are used to life underground and are either in tune with nature, known as a Forest Gnome, or they tinker and make small toys as a Rock Gnome. And then there are Gnomes who live deep deep underground, the Deep Gnomes, they can see excellently in the dark and hide amongst the stones of their underground homes, and some have a few magic tricks hidden up their sleeves.
- Human. If all of the above sounds like too much, you can always be a human being. Seriously, it’s a valid option. You know how to pretend to be a human because you are one, and they still have tons of flavor because the culture and experiences of your human character are vastly different than your own.
Let’s get serious for a second. Fantasy media has a problem where to justify action sequences and violence they often have an “evil” race of beings that we don’t have to feel bad about fighting. If all goblins are automatically bad-guys then we don’t have to feel bad about the fact that we’re about to kill fifty of them in our adventure. This is a problematic trope and D&D has been trying to address these issues throughout the run of 5e, resulting in many of the below races being revised several times. No race is naturally aggressive or violent and to think so reinforces harmful and racist prejudices in a fantasy world that unfortunately reflect the mindset of racists in the real world. So approach the following race options with an open mind and let’s leave harmful stereotypes behind.
- Bugbear. Bugbears are not related to bugs or bears at all (that would be a cool race though), they’re actually goblinoids! The name has the same linguistic origin as “boogeyman” and as such they’re big sneaky goblins. They’re known for both their stealth and their long arms that allows them to reach farther than usual with weapons. Play a Bugbear if you want to be a sneaky furry bogeyman with long long arms.
- Dhampir. Not quite a vampire but with vampire-like powers, Dhampir are considered a “Lineage” which means anyone could start as, lets say, a Dwarf, and be turned into one by a curse or vampire bite. Or maybe you start the adventure as a centuries old Dhampir who’s already used to being almost-undead!
- Goblin. Newer books tie the origins of goblinoids to the Feywild, a realm of chaotic joy, and as such these little guys tend to bring the chaos. A goblin’s small size both helps them to be maneuverable and fills them with rage to take out on larger enemies. They’ve become so popular many players are advocating for them to be a core race in D&D 6e, so play one and find out why everyone loves Goblins!
- Goliath. Also known as half-giants, these folk are generally very tall and extremely well adapted to living high up in the mountains in the cold and snow. Their natural beefyness helps them to carry heavier than normal objects and occasionally shrug off blows that would normally do a lot of damage. If your campaign is exploring high altitudes or dealing with very cold environments you’re going to want a Goliath on your side.
- Hobgoblin. Hobgoblins are medium sized goblinoids that excel in group settings. Their abilities are centered around drawing strength from the support of their allies and offering help back in return. Play a Hobgoblin if you want to be a team player.
- Kobold. Classically considered to be minions, the small dragon-like Kobolds have evolved to be much more than simple dragon geeks. They’re oftentimes played as chaotically as Goblins but more bold and crafty than sneaky, and many are born with some innate magical abilities. The battle cry of these little guys can even distract your enemies long enough to give an advantage to your allies.
- Orc. The biggest victim of “Big and Scary = Evil” in media, Orcs are much more than their outward appearance. Different worlds have different Orc societies, but they tend to be well trained warriors that are fiercely loyal to their allies. Their large builds help them to carry heavy objects and their love of the outdoors gives them skills associated with nature. Orcs can be great Barbarians, but you might surprise your group by playing a really wise Orc Druid, or a sassy Orc Wizard, or maybe a heavy-metal loving Bard.
- Half-Orc. As a core race in the Players Handbook, Half-Orcs are a lot more prevalent in D&D than Orcs. What most Half-Orcs have in common is a tenacity that allows them to keep on fighting even after they should go down and a strength that allows precise hits to really make an impact. I know what you’re thinking: “can the other half of a Half-Orc be Half-Dwarf?” and you better believe it can! Just slap a beard on your character and you’re good to go.
THE ANTHROPOMORPHIC ADVENTURERS
The following races are based on animals and while many have unique cultures in game they are all still heavily influenced by real world animal behavior. For example, in one of my home games a couple based their Tabaxi and Leonin characters on the personalities of their pet cats and it worked really well! So if you’re making a character and you’re inspired by a particular animal consider using one of the below races.
- Aarakocra = Birds, particularly eagles.
- Dragonborn = Dragons, and yes you can breath fire.
- Harengon = Rabbits.
- Grung = Poison Dart Frogs
- Kenku = Ravens. Cannot fly but can mimic voices.
- Leonin = Lions.
- Lizardfolk = Lizards (duh).
- Locathah = Fish people.
- Minotaur = Bulls, like in mythology.
- Owlin = Owls, just different enough from Aarakocra to be their own race.
- Tabaxi = Cats.
- Tortle = Turtles.
- Yuan-Ti = Snakes, but you can pass as human if you hide your snake-like features.
The Feywild is like a parallel universe where fairies, magic, nature, and chaos reign. The following races all either originate in or draw their power from this realm and as such they tend to be a little bit more magical than many of the other races.
- Centaur. Exactly like in mythology, Centaurs have a human head, arms, and torso, and a horse’s body. They have difficulty climbing and using things like ladders, but they make up for it with a faster than normal speed and strong hooves they can use to trample their foes. Often portrayed as nomadic people, Centaurs are a wonderful race for people who want to run free in nature…and who don’t care about ladders.
- Changeling. Mystique from the X-Men comics is a great example of what a Changeling can do. Their bodies can morph to take on the appearances of other people, and even other races. This obviously makes them great for espionage, but many Changelings use this ability to express themselves – using different faces for different moods or tasks. You should play a Changeling if you like the idea of having your appearance be fluid, or perhaps you start the game pretending you’re a Dwarf only to give your party a huge surprise later!
- Fairy. A Fairy is more of a catch-all term for a small Fey creature that can fly. You can describe your look in a myriad of ways but all Fairies have the following features: they have wings they use to fly, and you have innate magic you can use to grow larger or smaller. Fairies are a wonderful race for the whimsical and imaginative players out there.
- Firbolg. Firbolgs are gentle giants living deep in the forest. They often act as caretakers of the woods and friends to small animals, who they have the ability to speak with. To reflect their private and hidden nature, their magic allows them to turn invisible or disguise their appearance so that they can avoid detection. A Firbolg adventurer likely is away from home for the first time, so think about what pushed you to leave home and go on a journey?
- Hexblood. A Lineage (like the Dhampir) a Hexblood is someone who has been changed by Fey magic, usually by a Hag. Some Hexbloods begin adventures knowing their nature, others discover it suddenly later on, but all have a kind of creepy magic. They can hex their enemies or offer pieces of their body, a lock of hair or maybe a fingernail, and use it to communicate or view allies from afar.
- Satyr. Like the Centaur, the Satyr is pulled from mythology and as such can be played using those characteristics. They have a great jump, resist magic, and can party hard. These spritely folks are great for players who want to get into a little bit of mischief.
THE PLANAR PATROL
The planes of D&D are like parallel dimensions centered around a concept. Things like Good, Evil, Fire, Water, Earth, Air, Dreams, Chaos all have their own planes of existence that players can travel too and thus different races can come from or be influenced by these places. Many of these races have some heavy lore behind them, but we’ll try and keep this snappy.
- Aasimar. Basically Angelic humanoids. Either descended from or magically infused by angels or beings from the heavenly Upper Planes, Aasimar can pull positive energy to heal, light up dark spaces, or even grow wings for a time. But not all Aasimar are goody-two-shoes, Fallen Aasimar can inspire deep fear in their enemies with their spooky skeletal wings.
- Genasi. Water. Earth. Fire. Air. Genasi are an elemental people, sometimes because they have a Genie ancestor, or sometimes because they were born in an area suffused with elemental energy. They tend to have magic associated with their element and some pretty unique features. If you vibe with one of these elements and want to build a character around it, Genasi are a really great choice to lean into that theme.
- Gith. Gith are psychic humanoids from space. Their two subraces, the Githyanki and Githzerai, have been at war for ages, but because they reside in the outer space-like Astral Plane or the chaotic plane of Limbo respectively not many people are even aware of their existance. A Gith adventurer is likely a space-fish out of space-water and that can be a lot of fun to play.
- Kalashtar. Generally restricted to the world of Eberron (we’ll cover that later), Kalashtar are psychic humans who merged with beings from the realm of Dreams ages ago. They can work in any world as a kind of dreamy psychic who has a dream spirit bonded to them that most others cannot see.
- Tiefling. A core race from the Players Handbook, Tieflings have become one of the most popular and prevalent races in the game. Not directly descended from Fiends, Tieflings owe their devilish good looks to an ancestor who perhaps made a deal with a devil and it corrupted their bloodline. But the sins of the past don’t affect a Tiefling’s personality or attitude at all, a Tiefling’s morals and personality are as varied as any other race on this list.
- Tritons. These protectors of the deep sea have likely saved the world a few times over without the land-loving races even knowing about it. Tritons guard the world from monsters that make their way through portals from the Plane of Water, and so Tritons are well adapted for deep sea adventures. They also work well as stand in for mermaids!
Ok, let’s get weird. Most of these races are unique to specific settings of D&D, so ask your DM for permission before using any of them. They all have very specific lore but we’re going to try and keep it general and applicable to any setting.
- Reborn. Reborn are the third and final Lineage and as such could start off as any other race. Their story is that one day they died, and something or someone brought them back. This could be as a resurrected corpse ‘a la Frankenstein’s Monster, or perhaps their soul was reawakened into an artificially built body. They are often haunted by past memories that give them skills but don’t always make sense to them. So if your Elf dies and wakes up with their head sewn onto a Dwarf’s body, you may have just become a Reborn.
- Shifter. Not a full-blown Werewolf, Shifters are humanoids who can “shift” into an animalistic form. You can still play a Shifter as a Werewolf, but in the game you have complete control over when you shift and how you behave while shifted. While shifted they gain abilities based on the type of animal they’re based on and become tougher for a short time.
- Simic Hybrid. Simic Hybrids are mutants who have had animal parts magically grafted onto them. Unlike Shifters, Simic Hybrids cannot hide their nature and generally mutate to have attributes of a few different animals over time. Some have extra claws for grappling, some have gills, and some have a membrane they can glide with. Simic Hybrids are great for anyone who wants to be a mutant or have a mad scientist in their background.
- Vedalken. More likely to be the experimentor than the experimentee, Vedalken are like partially-amphibious versions of Vulcans from Star Trek. Their wits and dispassion makes them harder to trick with magic, and they tend to focus on their skills and tools to such a degree to appear smarter than other races (whether that assessment is correct or an embellishment is up to you).
- Verdan. Verdan are goblinoids exposed to something otherworldly that mutated them into something new. Their black blood speeds up healing, their size can suddenly shift from small to medium, they have a persuasive presence and limited telepathy. Verdan are a people who are trying to discover who they are now and how to deal with these mutations.
- Warforged. While they can be played as robots, Warforged are NOT actually robots. They’re an artificially created race that were designed to fight in a war. They have root-like cords of organic material filled with alchemical fluids, their organic wooden and stone body can merge with armor that then becomes a part of them, and full consciousness. They are created fully grown and mature, so they never had a childhood, and many struggle to find their purpose while others find joy in new hobbies and experiences. Warforged are the perfect race for artificial humanoids, but you must always ask for what purpose were you made, and what purpose would you rather pursue?
Hopefully this article helped to ease the anxiety around choosing your character’s race, because it can be a very intimidating question for new players. And hopefully my love of Dwarves wasn’t too obvious. Once again the above summaries are all suggestions and you can work with your DM to modify a race to fit your character better, the important thing to figure out is Who you would like to be in this magical game we call Dungeons and Dragons.