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D&D General How many mechanical features does a race need to feel "right"?

Of actual mechanical crunch, I'd want: 1 major racial ability, 2-3 moderate racial abilities, and 2-3 ribbon abilities. The major racial ability would be the big thing that stands them out from everyone else, making them distinct from the others and defining why people likely play them. The moderate ones would be important, but overlap with other races (e.g. darkvision). Ribbon abilities are really nice to help detail and define little aspects about them without having to be a big mechanical benefit. Overall races should be balanced against each other, but not against class specific situtations (making elves better wizards than dwarves is fine, so long as dwarves are better fighters too).
 

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AcererakTriple6

Autistic DM (he/him)
Like a few others have said, it's not quantity, but quality that matters. The Fizban's Treasury of Dragons' Dragonborn have just 3 racial traits: Elemental Resistance, Breath Weapon, and a unique feature based on their "Family" of dragons (flight for Gem Dragonborn, a special Breath Weapon for Metallic Dragonborn, limited damage Immunity for Chromatic Dragonborn).

Just 3 mechanics. That's really all that sets them apart from a "normal" D&D person. And, at least in my opinion, that's easily enough to make Dragonborn feel like their own thing. They breath like dragons, resist certain damage types like dragons, and have a special ability based on the dragons they are related to.

The same is true for Changelings. Changelings basically only have 1 mechanical feature that sets them apart from other races (Shapechanger), and it's easily enough to make them feel "right" as a race.

The same general pattern also applies to Kalashtar (Mind Link, Mental Discipline, Dual Mind, Severed from Dreams), Shifters (Darkvision and Shifting), Aarakocra (Flight and Talons), Fairies (Fey creature type, Fairy Magic, Flight), Goblins (Fury of the Small, Darkvision, Nimble Escape), and a few other races.

However, there are also quite a few races that do need more mechanics to set them apart from the "assumed racial mechanics" of D&D 5e. Warforged have a lot going on (Poison Resistance, not needing to eat, drink, sleep, or breathe, immunity to disease, shorter long rests, +1 to AC, taking an hour to put on/take off any armor, armor can't be removed against your will while alive), as do Elves (Darkvision, Trance, Fey Ancestry, Keen Senses and a subrace), Grung (Climbing Speed, Amphibious, Poison Immunity, Poisonous Skin, Standing Leap, and Water Dependency), and a few other examples.

The amount of mechanics depends on the race and what sets it apart from the base D&D race. Some races need more mechanics than others (Warforged and Grung), and some really don't need all that many to explain their concept and make it playable (Changelings and Dragonborn).

Quality versus Quantity and context is everything.
 

Does it matter what the features are? Do they need to include ASIs? Do they need to include movement? Save modifiers? AC modifiers? Proficiencies? Advantage or Disadvantage? Languages? Feat-like abilities? Innate spellcasting?

Do the races need to be balanced with each other, insofar as the rule system allows?
Do the races need to be balanced with themselves, i.e. do drawbacks like "this race has a slower-than-average movement speed" need to be balanced by an extra bonus or feature?
Impossible to answer. There are only so many things you can adjust on a character sheet that actually have broad appeal to all classes. The second you start adjusting, then one race gets better at a specific class, which will upset the same group that was upset they couldn't have a +2 ASI where they wanted.

Keep the adjustments limited then you get all the races are humans in funny hats.
 

I think we're asking the wrong question. It looks at mechanics as a way to build a heritage, when we should be looking at a heritage concept and asking what mechanics are needed to describe it. Create the concept. Flesh it out with no mechanics described, and then figure out how to implement the heritage you created with balanced mechanics.
Well then, my narrative thoughts about the dragonborn race:
They are charismatic (the shadow of a dragon's frightful or awesome presence), and tend to be physically hardy, capable of great feats of strength and surviving severe wounds. Of course their physiological connection to dragons is a defining characteristic: dragon breath being a major aspect. They are, collectively, proud and tend toward behavioral extremes: it's rare to find wishy-washy or neutral dragonborn, they usually go all out, paragons of virtue or freedom, or unapologetic tyrants or savages. Pride and draconic impulses tempered by a need to be social causes them to tend toward both positive and negative forms of patriotism, zeal, or dedication, but this usually means they have some idea of what they're comparing themselves to (albeit perhaps rose- or jade-tinted.)

I wouldn't call things like flight, water breathing, a mouth full of sharp teeth, or being able to breath fire 'just fluff'.
Yeah, declaring physiology has literally actually ZERO impact is a bit silly.

A bit of a thread-jack, but what I find more interesting is how little I see races played as races and not just a set of traits and mechanics...
Personally I find this quite sad, when it happens, as I think this is one of the best parts of playing a non-human being. What little ways can I infuse my roleplay with non-human elements? How does having a tail, or scales, or hooves affect a character? Does my diet differ as a dragonborn (e.g. their apparent healing factor in 4e, coupled with some other things, implies their diet is much more protein-focused than a human's)? How about language? Maybe there are some stock phrases or metaphors favored by dragonborn I can use, or there's a tradition of using your own claws for calligraphy so you can tell a scholarly dragonborn by the colorful ink stains on his fingers. Etc.

That sort of stuff is super fun and vastly enriches the play experience for me.

At what point would certain races eliminate other races that are in competition with them? Why are monsters- monsters? Mostly because they do not look like us or act like us. This leaves us with humans, elves, dwarves and halflings. Tieflings and Dragonborn likely would have been hunted to extinction. This is likely a 1e/2e position.
This just sounds needlessly reductive and hostile. Anatomically modern humans or their immediate predecessors appear to have lived perfectly happily with other humanoids (since, y'know, most of us today still have Neanderthal and/or Denisovan DNA...) Just because two species physically look different does not imply they would destroy each other. Indeed, many myths have reptilian or animalistic humanoids as gods or semi-divine figures (e.g. Erichthonius, or the Scythian Drakaina), and humans don't seem to have any problem accepting them as mates or proudly claiming descent from them.

Like...you're allowed to do whatever you want as a creator. Fiction is creationist. I just don't see why you would want to go for such a grim, hostile, "it's us or them" approach when it isn't required and "naturalism" of this kind is a total choice (and one very often ignored in order to permit Cool Stuff that makes no naturalistic sense like dragons or owlbears).

But perfect balance is not needed,
Makes me wish people would stop raising the specter of a thing no one actually wants and everyone knows cannot be achieved. But "perfect balance is impossible!!!" is just too tempting a straw man, I guess. It's the Godwin's law of balance arguments: In any discussion about tabletop game design, the probability that someone accuses someone else of advocating for "perfect" balance (or an equivalent) asymptotically approaches 1 as the number of posts increases.
 

JEB

Hero
But if we want a list of races as diverse as DnD has been using since mid-3.5e (2002? 20 years now?) then you need to find a way to account for the fact that some races have more inherent power than others.

ECL is not the answer. Maybe racial levels? I'm a 3rd-level centaur / 9th-level rune knight fighter?
Similar to racial levels, I once pondered (inspired by the Web DM folks) breaking up monsters' traits into feats that you earn at appropriate levels (like they did with the Deep Gnome). Never actually implemented the idea, though.
 

Scars Unseen

Adventurer
I'm going to resist my "return to the old ways" stance I often take when it comes this kind of thing and instead, roll with the idea that D&D is just changing into something else. That WotC will continue to make changes going into 6E that take the game further and further from what they inherited from TSR.

So, for my part, I'd start by divorcing ability scores from primary combat related functions altogether. In fact, I'd consider dropping ability scores completely since the scores themselves don't really do anything anymore and, as has been pointed out to me on many occasions, aren't connected to the physical reality of the races that possess them.

Instead, I'd work on the assumption that for your primary combat functions (e.g. anything that touches the combat formula), competence trumps raw ability, so a halfling fighter with a short sword is just as deadly as a half-ogre with an axe (within the scope of attack vs AC) because positioning and a well placed attack are more important than being able manhandle your way past steel. No ability scores, no ASIs, done.

Then instead, I'd have three types of features that bundle into character creation: inherent, developed and legacy.

Inherent is what we would think of as "genetic" in a modern context. Keen Senses, Monstrous Strength, Fleetfooted, etc. I would make a collection of these traits, and give each race a select pool of which they could choose 2. Most of these abilities would be non-unique for a given race, but not available to all races. So an ogre wouldn't have Fleetfooted available, but an elf and halfling both would. Meanwhile an elf and ogre might both have Keen Senses, but an elf would choose between sight and hearing, and an ogre would get smell. And an elf might have Keen Senses, Fleetfooted, and Nature Attunement available in their pool, but they wouldn't be able to take all three of them.

Developed would be like some of the traditional racial abilities that could be funneled into the category of being cultural abilities instead. Martial Upbringing, Stonesense, Pack Tactics, etc. Anything that if you were raised in the appropriate community, you could adopt regardless of race. This would be a lever that could be used in world building to help build cultural identity instead of relying on race for that.

Legacy would be something of a cheat. It's something that your character specifically takes on to help define them, and it can come from both the Inherent and Developed lists (as well as potentially having unique options). It could represent abilities taught by your heroic parents, a heritage from a special bloodline, divine intervention, etc. Create your Heracles by giving a human a Monstrous Strength legacy. Your orcish diplomat could be Silver-tongued despite being raised in a warrior caste.

There's more I could probably come up with on how to develop it at higher levels if I put more time into it, but for a starting point, I think that would work for most players to have decently defined races while retaining a lot of flexibility in creating individual characters and without forcing specific decisions to be optimal in combat.
 

Frozen_Heart

Adventurer
I wouldn't either. I'd call them class abilities. Or feats. Or spell-like powers. But not race crunch.
Except those are race related powers. Aarokoca have wings, therefore they can fly. That's not related to class or feats in any way. That's just an innate mechanical part of being an aarokoca.
 

Makes me wish people would stop raising the specter of a thing no one actually wants and everyone knows cannot be achieved. But "perfect balance is impossible!!!" is just too tempting a straw man, I guess. It's the Godwin's law of balance arguments: In any discussion about tabletop game design, the probability that someone accuses someone else of advocating for "perfect" balance (or an equivalent) asymptotically approaches 1 as the number of posts increases.
Look. The OP literally asked about people's opinion on the role of balance in design, so I felt it was appropriate to address the matter. I don't know what the satisfactory level of balance to some people is, but it is way higher than mine. I don't think some species being able to get one point higher modifier in certain abilities is a problem, and I don't think some species having slightly slower movement speed than others is a problem. But those things are gone now. Some people have already complained about weapon limitations small species have. Those probably go next. So if the goal is not perfect balance, it at least is prioritising balance way higher in relation to verisimilitude than I personally would.
 
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Look. The OP literally asked about people's opinion on the role of balance in design, so I felt it was appropriate to address the matter. I don't know what the satisfactory level of balance to some people is, but it is way higher than mine. I don't think some species being able to get one point higher modifier in certain abilities is a problem, and I don't think some species having slightly slower movement speed than others is a problem. But those things are gone now. Some people have already complained about weapon limitations small species have. Those probably go next. So if the goal is not perfect balance, it at least is prioritising balance way higher in relation to verisimilitude than I personally would.
If your point is that others are being more concerned with balance than you are, that's fine, but it doesn't make a very strong argument. "Stop pursuing perfect balance" is significantly stronger...so long as the other person actually is doing that. And that's the problem; just because it's a more stringent idea of balance than you care for doesn't make it the pursuit of perfection.

That's the issue. I have absolutely no problem with "I don't think it's necessary or even useful to be concerned about any further balance than already exists." Likewise, "You shouldn't be concerned about any further balance, what we have is good enough." But, "You shouldn't be concerned about further balance because that's the pursuit of perfect balance, which is a fool's errand," that I have a problem with. It's a hollow non-argument that doesn't actually engage with anyone; it just dismisses anything more strident than the speaker's preferences as the foolish pursuit of perfection.
 

steeldragons

Steeliest of the dragons
Epic
hmmmm...42?

Nah. I'm going to say...a species needs... what did I do in my own system/setting?... I think I do a solid 4...but then a couple of those have multiple "sub-elements"...and the Ability adjustments...so, let's say, 6.

I think that's enough/solid to make non-human species FEEL (and hopefully, play) "non-human." No "just humans with pointed ears" here!

Breaking it down in general categories, off the top of my head, I go with something like this...

  • Trait 1: Ability Adjustment: +1 to two abilities, -2 to one ability. Every non-human species operate and have aspects of their physiology and/or psychology/mentality that are not the same as the "baseline" human (who are granted +1 to their class' Primary ability and +1 to another ability of their choice).
  • Trait 2: Size...but this is really only applicable to/for the Small species. Or very rare "Large" ones which in my game only really applies to/for PC Centaurs.
  • Trait 3: Senses: for most this involves a
    • 3a) Vision (lowlight, superior lowlight, dark, superior dark); and
    • 3b) one other situational Perception roll bonus: a dwarf's "Stonecunning," an elf's "Keen Senses," etc... Something that relates to/is not necessarily dependent on sight, but some other sensitivity of the species.
  • Trait 4: Save Bonus: there is some element of the innate species physiology, mentality, or [predominant] society that affords the species a situational bonus to certain saves or ability checks. Elves are "Sure-Footed" granting a bonus to Dex-based ability/save rolls for maintaining balance (as on ice or traversing a tree bough), saves involving difficult terrain (e.g. as made by the Entanglement or Soften Earth spells), or (I think) climbing. Halflings (and dwarves and gnomes) have "Stoutfolk Resistance" granting them a bonus to Con-based save rolls and against Arcane magic attacks (Divine and Nature magic effect them normally)... and so on.
  • Trait 5: Let's call this one, as a category, "Culture"...for lack of something better. This can, but doesn't always, involve more than one element. A Dwarf's are "Ancestral Warriors" attack or weapon bonus would go here. Halflings in my setting have something called "Affable Charm" giving them a bonus to interactions using Persuasion (and Deception, if using that as a separate skill. But not "Intimidate.") for creatures with whom the halfling can communicate (generally a shared language... but, ya know, magic happens, so not necessarily.).
  • Trait 6: I guess we'll just call "Miscellany." There's something else specific to the species that other species do not have/get/can do. Or, at least, can not do innately. This would be where -using 5e as an example now, not my own game- something like a Dark Elf or Tiefling's innate magic would go. Dragonborn breath weapon. That sort of thing. My Elves are "Star-Blooded" which gives them ye olde immunity to ghoul paralysis and Enchantment/Charm effects (compulsions work normally). Satyrs have, obviously, "Caprine Form" giving them a Headbutt attack (with their horns), Jumping/Kicking with their haunches, and Dex bonuses for balance.

They all feel different. They have, as far as I've seen, play differently.
 
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TwoSix

Unserious gamer
Like a few others have said, it's not quantity, but quality that matters. The Fizban's Treasury of Dragons' Dragonborn have just 3 racial traits: Elemental Resistance, Breath Weapon, and a unique feature based on their "Family" of dragons (flight for Gem Dragonborn, a special Breath Weapon for Metallic Dragonborn, limited damage Immunity for Chromatic Dragonborn).

Just 3 mechanics. That's really all that sets them apart from a "normal" D&D person. And, at least in my opinion, that's easily enough to make Dragonborn feel like their own thing. They breath like dragons, resist certain damage types like dragons, and have a special ability based on the dragons they are related to.

The same is true for Changelings. Changelings basically only have 1 mechanical feature that sets them apart from other races (Shapechanger), and it's easily enough to make them feel "right" as a race.

The same general pattern also applies to Kalashtar (Mind Link, Mental Discipline, Dual Mind, Severed from Dreams), Shifters (Darkvision and Shifting), Aarakocra (Flight and Talons), Fairies (Fey creature type, Fairy Magic, Flight), Goblins (Fury of the Small, Darkvision, Nimble Escape), and a few other races.

However, there are also quite a few races that do need more mechanics to set them apart from the "assumed racial mechanics" of D&D 5e. Warforged have a lot going on (Poison Resistance, not needing to eat, drink, sleep, or breathe, immunity to disease, shorter long rests, +1 to AC, taking an hour to put on/take off any armor, armor can't be removed against your will while alive), as do Elves (Darkvision, Trance, Fey Ancestry, Keen Senses and a subrace), Grung (Climbing Speed, Amphibious, Poison Immunity, Poisonous Skin, Standing Leap, and Water Dependency), and a few other examples.

The amount of mechanics depends on the race and what sets it apart from the base D&D race. Some races need more mechanics than others (Warforged and Grung), and some really don't need all that many to explain their concept and make it playable (Changelings and Dragonborn).

Quality versus Quantity and context is everything.
Strong agreement with your list.

I'll go a step further and say that the only racial mechanics that really matter in terms of making a race feel present and different are ones that require active insertion in the fiction.

+2 to a stat, free skills, darkvision are all terrible racial features because they have no presence during play. No one ever says "I'm making my Perception skill, which I'm proficient in because I'm an elf!" or "I just make my Concentration check because I'm a dwarf with +2 Con!". Every character has ability scores which are modified by multiple sources; nothing about using that slightly higher ability score makes the other players feel like you're an elf or a dwarf.

Good racial skills are those that trump normal expectations of play, not just adjust numbers. Turning a 20 damage hit into a 5 point hit because of Stone's Endurance is a good racial. Flight is a good racial. Changeling shapechange is a fantastic racial. Resistances are a blah racial, but immunities are fantastic ones.

Darkvision would be a good racial if it wasn't so widespread; its ubiquity makes it flavorless, such that races that don't have it are actually the noteworthy ones. Natural weapons are good for verisimilitude but ultimately flavorless, since 5e play really doesn't allow for their use except in the most contrived situations. Make claws a bonus action attack, though, and then they'd actually be an interesting racial feature.
 



Stormonu

Legend
I'd like race to be more than mere handful of mechanical traits, but mechanics are sometimes needed.

On the note of ASI's, I wish there were three levels: one +1 ASI from race, one +1 ASI from background, one +1 ASI for class. Let the ASI's at level up be directed more towards unique talents such as feats and less likely to be spent on ASI's.

As for racial ASI's, I'd like to see two options:

+1 to one ability score defined by the race (example, +1 Dex for elves, +1 Con for dwarves, +1 Cha for dragonborn, etc.)
OR
+2 to one ability or two +1 to ability scores and a -1 penalty to another score, defined by race (ex., +1 Dex, +1 Int and -1 Str for elves; +2 Dex and -1 Str for halflings; +2 Con and -1 Chr for dwarves, etc.)

With the three ASI sources, you might build something like:

Elvin (+1 Dex) wizard (+1 Int) with Soldier background (+1 Str).
Elvin (+1 Dex) wizard (+1 Int) with Scribe background (+1 Int).
Elvin (+1 Dex) rogue (+1 Dex) with Street Urchin background (+1 Dex).
Elvin (+1 Dex) rogue (+1 Dex) with Charlatan background (+1 Cha).
 
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Just one special trait/ability is fine. I'm currently starting a Whitehack campaign. In Whitehack, you get "groups" that you can write next to a chosen ability score, and one of these groups is your species. So you might have "lizard person" written next to your dexterity score, and when applicable to you get advantage on dexterity checks. It's a very flexible rules lite system that relies on conversation between player and dm.

There are other games where inventory is where a character gains expression (e.g. Knave, Into the Odd). For these games, race/culture could be expressed through an item or trinket that grants a particular effect.

Otherwise I prefer to just stay within the fiction and let race/culture/background affect things naturally. It requires a dm who is looking out for ways that PC traits can express themselves in a game, however.
 

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