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D&D 5E PHB Humans are the most mechanically boring race. How do we fix this?

ReshiIRE

Adventurer
(Note: I am using 'race' here to use the current and common game terminology: I prefer the term ancestry or heritage myself.)

This is growing out of a related thread which talked about ASIs and onto humans and feats. Which reminded me of a thought I have had ever since I started to dive into D&D over the past two years:

Humans in the PHB, variant or not, are pretty mechanically boring in D&D 5e.

The basic non-variant human gets no special abilities, no extra skills, nothing to distinguish themselves, except that they automatically get +1 across the board for all ability scores. This is mechanically not the worst but even while not playing 'optimal' in point buy and with standard array just means a character might be better at some save or skill compared to literally any other race that is taking the same class and has the same point distribution. It probably does have a nice bonus affect for anyone rolling if you end up rolling a lot of high but uneven scores, but in the end mechanically there is nothing to interact with outside of character creation.

Fictionally, my interpretation of what these ASIs are designed to represent is the idea that humans are more adaptable as a baseline in the base setting or base concept of D&D. I could derail my own thread by diving into why I dislike that very concept but let's ignore that completely and just focus on representing that concept. It's a pretty poor way to represent it depending on how you build your character, honestly. With the fact that in 5E your actual Ability Score means nothing while your Ability Modifier determines so, so much, often characters built with point-buy won't fictionally show this adaptability; there won't be uneven scores so no extra modifiers will be created. And since the adaptability of a human does not grow in the fiction as the actual person becomes stronger, it ends up feeling like a mechanical and fictional waste.

Variant human is much better in comparison to the normal human. They have two floating +1 ability increase (which is pretty common in the PHB, compared to races from later books), they get to gain proficiency in one skill (which REALLY should have been on the base human), and most interestingly of all, they get to gain a feat.

There are numerous problems with a variant human gaining a feat mechanically.

First of all, mechanically a lot of feats are pretty powerful. There are reasons why in 5E as designed you choose between a feat or an ASI; there are a number of feats, especially in other books, that can make a certain playstyle, weapon and class combination really powerful and in many ways optional or strong. Great Weapon Master, War Caster, Polearm Master, Sentinel, Crossbow Expert, arguably Martial Adept for some classes, arguably Healer, arguably Lucky - these are all in my or others estimations strong feats worth giving up an ASI for, and you can have them at level 1. Arguably more importantly, you don't need to give up an ASI at level 4 (when you REALLY want to, in a lot of cases, get your main Ability Score up, especially if you didn't start with a +3 modifier) to have these.

Or you could have the Polearm Master and Sentinel combo at level 4.

This, in games that allow feats, does in some ways make variant humans the baseline from which we can judge the relative strength and power of other races. While I do like making strong characters I certainly do not select them solely off ability, but if you want to be the very best in a game where feats are running around, then races like the dragonborn are gonna be crushed.

Which actually leads to the second problem: feats are an optional rule in 5e. This isn't always obvious because it seems a significant amount of people run games with feats (and personally while I would play in a feat-less game, I would certainly never run one, and I do prefer to have some choice of character customisation besides ASIs later in the game), but it does mean in a game without them variant humans can't exist, and that means the more mechanically interesting human can't be selected.

Fictionally, there's still not a lot here that excites. There are definitely feats that are designed for flavour, and those are cool to have for fictional reasons, but a significant amount of the particularly helpful choices are very mechanically inclined. War Caster means you're great at casting in battle. Cool! That... doesn't necessarily add a lot when you're playing a Cleric, who can often be assumed to be good at this thing already. Same goes for most feats. Some are quite favourable like Tavern Brawler, but that's not a unique human thing or unique to people with the feat either.

This has further problems due to the fact it's something you get at level 1. Since typically level 1 characters do not have a lot of experience and barely have any skills, it can be a bit hard to justify from a fictional perspective some of these feats. To take War Caster as an example again, it states within it's text that 'You have practiced casting spells in the midst of combat, learning techniques that grant you the following benefits...'

It's not particularly easy, in many ways, to justify a level 1 human as having those skills despite being a relative novice. And while I know starting at level 1 is not popular, even for a level 2 or 3 class it can still be a little fictionally odd, especially when comparing similar fiction against every other race. Doubly so if you play at a pace where you only level up only after five or more sessions, or perhaps after weeks or even months of in-game time.

What this all boils down to that, despite in many ways being seen as a 'milktoast' option, humans from my perspective can be more difficult to role play and write fiction around because there is no non-ASI mechanic to fall back on or excite the imagination.

Compare an elf, any elf. They have Trance as an ability. They don't sleep like most races, instead meditating deeply and remaining semi-conscious, magic can't put them to sleep, and they only need to rest for four hours before benefiting from the effects of a long rest. That is deeply strong fiction not only for DMs and setting writers, but for players. You can easily play into this not only mechanically for resting, but also for your character. Perhaps thanks to this meditation throughout their life your elven character has a strong sense of who they are and deals with the stresses of life by working them out in their Trance. Or as an adventurous person, they are quite used to being alone at nights and doing the work of protecting everyone at night. Does that perhaps seep into their personality - perhaps they feel protective of their party?

I'm not the best writer but there's certainly more to main here. And that's from one ability that elves have - they already have a few more.

Let's take dragonborn, which aren't mechanically the best or more exciting but even in their base version still have more exciting aspects for fiction without assuming setting. Their colour determines their origin and how their own natural weapons work. How does that play into who they are? Perhaps they have become accustomed to using their breath for non violent reasons - while it's not part of the mechanical text, I think it would be okay to describe a Brass, Gold or Red dragonborn cook as using their own natural fire to really spice up their foods. Or keep the fires going for their companions. Or as an entertainment trick.

I could go on but... to me, this really highlights how dependent on setting culture and sometimes DM information to make a fictionally interesting human, as there are no human unique fictional elements to use.

This leads me to the conclusion that for a 6E, something should be done on the mechanical end to make humans more interesting to play.

Or, in perhaps an insane move, they should be removed entirely. Or there are rules for them but the default setting does not have humans.

Now I know the latter too won't be done at all by WoTC (for valid artistic and commercial reasons), even if I would love to see it (not a fan of our species irl tbqh :vvvvvvvvvvv).

I don't have any well thought mechanical fix for humans. But going off the basis of showing human adaptability and such, I wonder if humans should have the ability to, as they level up, adopt more skills or perhaps, some special human-exclusive feats that allow them to know some basics of another class (something like Pathfinder 2E's multi-class feats). Something to show increasing adaptability as a human explores more and develops as an adventurer.

I will note that in personal opinion this is not a problem restricted to D&D. There are a number of games where humans are mechanically boring (even if their fiction is cool) whereas nonhuman races are cool. Some games I think that somewhat give humans cool mechanics are games like Divinity: Original Sin 2, which does give human characters a nice normal ability. Still not the best, however. And D&D can certainly do better.

End note: I ascribe pretty heavily to the notion that 'subjectivity is implied', as explained in this excellent video by Joseph Anderson. Outside of things that are fact based, all of this has been purely on the experience I have had and what excites me as a player from reading official and unofficial material for DND, Pathfinder, etc. I admit I do not have a lot of experience; I have only played around 32 bi-weekly sessions of D&D 5E, and my main exposure to TTRPGs has instead been reading about them or exploring their video game counterparts. This experience at the moment is also unlikely to increase for the foreseeable future. I have however been exposed to a lot of game design rational and talked and tried (key word, tried) to design games before, so I'm not... a complete fool for trying to write this, I guess.
 

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Scribe

Hero
I approached this by asking what I want Humans to represent.

Then go about finding ways to emphasize those things either through defining Human as an option, or by way of contrasting with the other PC options.

In the interest of not derailing the thread I'll not go into my approach, but I do agree that especially in a post Tasha's game, Humans are pretty lacking.

So, what is it you want Humans to be? :)
 

Wow that's a lot of words G

Humans have always been the baseline that all other races deviate from (mechanically). Its what we as humans in teh real world understand. It's a convenient tool for understanding aliens. What do you want humans to be? Should they have wings? Or be quick learners? Or more versatile? Or less versatile? Or stronger or...

Or of course, don't allow humans in your setting and then everything you do allow will be different and interesting. Until everyone plays a X and you start to feel Xs are boring.
 



ReshiIRE

Adventurer
I approached this by asking what I want Humans to represent.

Then go about finding ways to emphasize those things either through defining Human as an option, or by way of contrasting with the other PC options.

In the interest of not derailing the thread I'll not go into my approach, but I do agree that especially in a post Tasha's game, Humans are pretty lacking.

So, what is it you want Humans to be? :)
I think that heavily depends on a setting to setting thing, and how much you want to use floating ASIs versus fixed ASIs (I would personally allow both and see them as compatible rules, with perhaps defining fixed ASIs as 'common cultural adventurer' in the fiction). There is a reason I didn't go into the Eberron dragonmarks here, not just my unfamilarity with them: they seem to have strong fictional and mechanical parts that reinforce themselves, and that is really what I would like to see defined in fiction.

The alternative route is to give humans some core, universally useful and adaptable way to contribute mechanically. Something I can think off the top of my head in the spirit of what Divinity: Original Sin 2 did is to say, give humans a stronger Help action (make it a bonus action in combat?) that has limited uses and refreshes on a short rest. In a way that reflects humanity being able to be adaptable and co-operative in fiction.
 


ReshiIRE

Adventurer
The fix is there - the variant human. Giving them a feat instead of broad bonuses allows specialization in unique ways.
I addressed why I felt variant human is lacking mechanically and fictionally in the post. They certainly are better but I don't feel they work well enough, and have issues with relying on an optional rule.

I think one way to make them better might be to have human-only feats, though that would only work in a 6E or homebrew and perhaps makes the fiction more complicated.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
I think variant humans are fine, race-specific feats are never going to be a thing.
 

ReshiIRE

Adventurer
I am very fond of variant humans mechanically. I love feats at first level, and most of my games I even give them (or a supernatural/dark gift) for free at 1st level.
Don't get me wrong, feats are cool at first level (though I think they are quite strong, especially for certain classes, and in comparison to what a lot of races get from the bat. More adaptable, too). And I think giving everyone one at the start is a houserule I would consider. I just feel they're not great fictionally depending on what you want to do and I personally ydon't always find them the most exciting mechanically because of that. I like the idea of growing more naturally into feats as my character's combat or non-combat skills develop.

I almost wonder if some other fix to this might be to delay a variant human getting their feat until later on (let's say overall level 6, not tied to class) and giving them more skills to compensate at the start. Still powerful but delayed and shows development and change within humans, and more fictionally justifyable... but they would be pretty poor mechanically and fictionally at an early level.

How 2, 3 / 3.5 and 4E handled humans would be an interesting comparison.

EDIT:

(Sorry, I don't know how to quote properly in an edit)

Oofta:
I think variant humans are fine, race-specific feats are never going to be a thing.
Xanathar's added race exclusive feats for many races in the PHB: Half-Orc, Half-Elf, Human, Halfing, Gnobe, Elf (high), Elf, Tiefling, Dragonborn, Elf (drow), Elf (wood), Drawfs (and Small Races in general). There is a precident, but it hasn't been carried forward in 5E's design afterward, and the design on some of those feats is questionable.
 

Scribe

Hero
The alternative route is to give humans some core, universally useful and adaptable way to contribute mechanically.

I'd still build on what it is you want humanity to reflect fundamentally. Are humans the federation builders? Are they out to form alliances with others? Your Help idea would make sense then.

It sounds like that's more what you want, something post creation that makes Humans distinct during play.
 


Steampunkette

Shaper of Worlds
So... here's what I do:

I split all races into Heritage and Culture. Heritage is Biological Traits (Darkvision, Lifespan, Etc) and Culture is, well... culture.

So you don't make a Human, you make a Musarran Raider Human with the cultural traits of a Raider (with Babylonian Flavor) and the heritage traits of humans.

All the races except humans gain either +2, +1 floating, three +1s, or something similar, Tasha's Style, for modifiers. Humans get 2 +1s and the "Adaptable" trait, which allows them, each time they level up, to move 1 point from any attribute to any other attribute, including at level 1.

It makes them incredibly customizable, and since it's a trait that continues past level 1, it's very attractive.
 


ad_hoc

(he/they)
+2/+2/+1

The problem with 6 +1s is that the bonuses have diminishing returns and 4 of the 6 are even in the standard array.

This will give you 16/16/14/12/10/8.

If you aren't using Tasha's floating bonuses this will be enough for people to take them.

Variant Human is then slightly less powerful overall but with flexibility with the feat and the skill.
 

Jmarso

Explorer
Mechanically? Off the top of my head, give them 2 backgrounds. So you don't just have a Noble, you have a Noble Scholar. You don't just have a Criminal you have a Criminal Sailor (ie a Pirate).

I have no idea if that would work but I can think of a bunch of combos that don't seem overpowered but offer a lot of color.
I like this idea. Even as a partial application, such as a hybrid of two backgrounds rather than two full backgrounds. Cherry pick skills from each and coordinate with the DM on any goodies / features. Would have worked well with a char I rolled up influenced by Fronsac from Brotherhood of the Wolf. (Le Pact De Loups). I took anthropologist as his background because that was the closest, but I could have easily gone with some combination of anthropologist and then either soldier, noble, or some form of scout.
 

Bolares

Hero
Did it? That's not according to this tweet, and from skimming over rules a while ago and reading stuff online, I thought the only racial restriction dropped related to Bladesinger no longer being restricted to Elves.
Maybe I'm misremembering it. Maybe tue Unearthed Arcana that came out first said that.
 

I have only once seen a non-variant human at my table, and it was only because the player thought it would be fun(ny) to build a character with all 13's and 14's. (And used the first ASI to get two more 14's).
 


ECMO3

Adventurer
I would have to disagree and being able to cast misty step or invisibility for example as a 1st level character is far from boring.

Similarly going with heavy armor master or tavern brawler or a lot of other feats lets a fist level V. human (or custom) do things no other first level character can do.

At higher levels those feats are less impactful, but letting you carry that forward while also getting an ASI has its advantages.

Quite frankly a grappler build or a multi-class arcane trickster/caster has to be a human or custom IMO because it takes to long to get into your build otherwise.
 

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