Tab Completion

I'm Tab Atkins Jr, and I wear many hats. I work for Google on the Chrome browser as a Web Standards Hacker. I'm also a member of the CSS Working Group, and am either a member or contributor to several other working groups in the W3C. You can contact me here.
Listing of All Posts

Fantasy World Racial Traits

Last updated:

I've previously riffed on "my elves and dwarves". Translating this over to mechanics, tho, makes me a little uneasy.

I've got a bit of a bug in my bonnet over people attaching too much "inherent flavor" to mechanics. For example, in my current D&D game I'm playing a Bard. The other players in my game have tried to refer to me as such in-game, and I had to correct them - my character isn't a bard by any stretch of the imagination. He's a noble son, raised in the Mondavi family tradition, which involves a mix of physical, social, and magic training, and uses a musical/lyrical focus for their magic to double-dip on those categories. There's no "Bard's College" that he's associated with, and he doesn't play music in taverns for coin or tell stories to crowds (tho he can certainly tickle the ivory in a more upscale party, if he wants to entertain his friends).

I spread this same philosophy to all the classes in the game, tho it does sometimes require one to be a little creative in interpreting things. The point is just that mechanics are nothing more than numbers and rules; they can admit a lot of interpretations, and doing so frees up character-gen in a lot of interesting ways.

I think the same should apply to races. I don't necessarily want to RP as a half-orc just because I want a tough person who's great with big weapons; maybe I just want my character to be a human, or a buff elf. And, overall, this actually works quite well - with a little bit of creative tweaking, all the "races" in the DMG can be interpreted as just traits you're born with / trained into earlier in life, before you started adventuring. Reusing the terminology from some other games, they become a "Background Feat" granted at first level. This has precedent in several systems I'm already familiar with: Iron Heroes had some feats marked as "Background Feats" which could only be taken at first level, and were a little more powerful than a normal feat; Numenera's character creation consists of completing the phrase "I'm an ADJ NOUN who VERBS", where the NOUN is your class and the ADJ and VERB are additional qualities that can represent your upbringing or race.

The only exceptions to this are the handful of "flavor" features that are definitely more biological, not thematic. The half-orc's traits suggest Strong but they also have darkvision, not because they're strong but because that's how half-orcs work. Same for elf trance, or halfling/gnome smallness. These carry little to no mechanical value - they're not used to balance the races - so it's okay to just attach these to the race itself, rather than the trait we extract from them.

So, here's the D&D 5e races, reinterpreted as background qualities that can apply to any race:


  • Con +2
  • Adv on saving throws against poison
  • Resistance to poison damage


  • Wis +1, HP +1/hit die, or
  • Str +2, proficient in light/med armor


  • Dex +2
  • Proficiency with Perception
  • Adv on saving throws against charm


  • Int +1, cantrip, extra language, or
  • Wis +1, speed 35, hide when lightly obscured, or
  • Cha +1, learn dancing lights, faerie fire, *darkness*


  • Dex +2
  • Reroll 1s on attack/damage/skill/saving throw, must take second result
  • Advantage on saving throws against frightened
  • Move thru space of equal or larger creatures


  • Cha +1, can Hide behind an equal or larger creature, or
  • Con +1, advantage on saving throws against poison, resistance to poison damage


  • +1 to all stats, or
  • +1 to two stats, proficiency in one skill, gain one feat


  • Str +2, Cha +1
  • Magic blast (5'x30' line or 15' cone, choose acid, lightning, fire, poison, or cold)
  • Resistance to your blast element


  • Int +2
  • Advantage on Int/Wis/Cha saving throws against magic


  • Dex +1, gain minor illusion cantrip, simple talking with small animals, or
  • Con +1, Expertise in Int(History) checks about magic/alchemical/tech items, tinker to create small devices


  • Cha +2, +1 to two other stats
  • Advantage on saving throws against charm
  • Proficient in two skills


  • Str +2, Con +1
  • Proficient in Intimidate
  • Can drop to 1hp instead of 0, once per short rest
  • +1 die on crits


  • Cha +2, Int +1
  • Resistance to fire damage
  • Know thaumaturgy, hellish rebuke, and darkness, usable 1/day

(a limited set of Markdown is supported)