Race Design (3.5e Guideline)

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Race Design[edit]

The following is a guideline for designing new races for D&D 3.5.

Overall notes[edit]

Stock text[edit]

Use the same wording as in the Player's Handbook when you use items that appear in it. For example, the text for Small size should be exactly the same for every Small race, because that's a standard description of how Small works.

Balance[edit]

It is of core importance that you do not make it intentionally overpowered compared to the races in the Player's Handbook. An overpowered race ought to have a level adjustment.

If you do make a powerful race with a level adjustment, remember that high level adjustments. Make sure that, even if used optimally (e.g. a race with bonuses to Strength used as a fighter), the level adjustment is worth the character levels lost.

For primary spellcasters like the wizard, even one level of level adjustment is usually too expensive.

Do not create a race with exceptional power balanced out by massive drawbacks! Either the drawbacks with make the race unplayable, or players will find a way to negate the drawbacks.

Avoid making a race with every single ability geared to be optimal for a single character class.

Preparation[edit]

Before you write a race, read the entire race section in the Player's Handbook. Read it a second time, and a third. Put it down, come back tomorrow, and read it again. Compare each race to each other. Meditate upon it.

Ask yourself what is there, and why. Ask yourself what is not there, and why.

Visualize your player at the table. He has your race printed out on paper. "That's fine," he says, passing you back your creation, "I'm just going to go with human." What's on that paper? What's wrong with it? What should have been there? What will be there?

Visualize your race, beyond what has been done and yet within the circle defined invisibly by the core races in your mind. Can you see it? What are its mechanics? What is its flavour? Why does it exist? Where does it fit? What does it look like? What is its place in the world? What does its statistics say about its appearance, and its appearance about its statistics? Were they here all along, and where are they, and where did they come from, and when, and why are they here now?

When you can begin to answer all these things, you are ready to begin making your race.

Name[edit]

Your race will need a name. This can come first, or you can wait until you've got a sense of the race's culture, abilities and place in the world.

The name should reflect the image you're going for. A flighty fey race should not be called the "Bruk." A species of eight feet tall rockmen will not be called the "Eliolda".

Write your race's name down. How does it sound spoken out loud? Can it be easily misspelled or mispronounced? Is it going to be easy for your players to remember? Is it too long? Most importantly, do any of its syllables sound like the word "ass"? If you don't discover this, it is guaranteed your players will.

Once you've decided upon a name, Google it to make sure you haven't just accidentally named them after an existing creature or a piece of offensive slang or something. Check Urban Dictionary just to make sure. Double check that it's not too derivative of something else.

Thematics[edit]

The flavor text traditonally goes first in a race description.

Think carefully about your race. What's its place in the world? What are its origins? How does it interact with other people? In what ways do they behave as humans, and in what ways are they different?

Start with some flavor text introducing them so that the reader can get a good sense, in just a paragraph or two. Traditionally, it's followed by the following sections, though you can ignore these if they don't apply or you just want to write up some quick fluff for your beardy Int race:

  • Personality: What do they act like? This is most important, because this tells you how to play the character. It should reflect their game statistics.
  • Physical Description: Describe their of height, build, weight, shape, eye/hair/skin color, clothing, how they age, and anything unusual about how they live, eat or sleep.
  • Relations: How they tend to get along with other races. Any traditional friends or enemies.
  • Alignment: Which alignment they tend to be. Except for planar races, it's rare for a race to be purely one alignment.
  • Lands: What it's like where this race lives.
  • Religion: The gods they worship, if any, and how they worship it, what their god's teachings are, and so on. Usually reflects their alignment.
  • Language: Description of their langauge. How does it sound? Do they have a written language? Is it similar to other languages or written in another language's script for historical reasons?
  • Names: Male and female names to pick from, as well as surnames and any special names they might have, such as nicknames or
  • Adventurers: Finally, why do members of this race become adventurers? Are adventurers of this race outcasts? Are adventurers of this race common? How does their society feel about individuals leaving their civilization to undertake this dangerous profession?

Specific traits[edit]

Ability scores[edit]

Nearly all races in the Player's Handbook have +2 to one ability score and -2 to another. An exception is the half-orc, which has penalties to both Int and Cha because Strength is more powerful and melee characters don't have great need of Int or Cha. In general, however, stick with +2/-2 unless you're making a race for Pathfinder.

Try not to create races with multiple bonuses and or penalties.

Not all ability scores are equal. Elves pay a Con penalty for their high Dex for its importance. Resist the urge to make your character's penalty stat Charisma, a dump stat for many characters, especially if you envisage bards, sorcerers or even clerics taking the race.

Always give even-numbered ability score bonuses: +2, never +1 or +3. This is an intentional design decision in D&D 3e to ensure that racial bonuses always increase or decrease the ability score modifier. Otherwise, a character with 13 Str who takes a -1 penalty has no change, and a character with 14 Str who gains +1 sees zero benefit.

If a race has +0 to an ability score, you don't need to note this.

You might gain a feat instead of ability score modifiers, but this will steal the Human's one key ability, so think carefully.

Like in the PHB, follow your racial bonuses with with a sentence explaining why this race has those attributes.

Size[edit]

Your character will normally be Medium size. Small is especially useful to spellcasters and detrimental to melee types, and characters with Strength penalties tend to be Small.

Don't make your character Large size or higher. The benefits to that size are enormous (excuse the pun). Large creatures can wield bigger weapons and deal more damage, and often have reach which lets them make more attacks of opportunity.

Don't make your character Tiny size or smaller.

Speed[edit]

Usually 30 feet for Medium or 20 feet for Small. Avoid giving Small races an overly generous speed, as they already benefit massively from their size granting +1 to AC and attack. A Medium race with over 30 speed should have that as a key racial ability for which they are especially famed.

Vision[edit]

Nearly every race other than human has at least low-light vision, and a few have darkvision. Darkvision is really good, so don't give it to all your races. Resist the urge to give absurdly powerful abilities like blindsight or truesight on a standard race.

Special abilities[edit]

Here's where your race's unique abilities come in handy. You should have a few things here.

Examples of reasonable abilities include:

  • +1 to an offensive ability in limited circumstances: +1 to spell DCs of a certain school, +1 to attack certain subtypes of creature, etc
  • +2 to one or two skills
  • +2 to saves vs one specific type of effect, like spells or poison
  • An exotic weapon proficiency (not something really good like spiked chain), or two or three martial weapons proficiencies
  • Immunity to a very specific magical effect like sleep spells
  • A cantrip or three, once per day each
  • A rare type like Fey, Outsider (Native) or Living Construct which gives no real bonus beyond immunity to spells like charm person

Don't give a feat of the player's choice. That's too powerful to get in addition to ability score modifiers. Don't give away important character class abilities or higher level spells. If you give one very good ability, don't give away too many little abilities.

Languages[edit]

Your character should almost always speak Common, and perhaps one racial langauge. Don't forget to list a few bonus languages which they can pick from, which explain who that race's friends and enemies are.

Favored class[edit]

Don't forget this section... even though I've literally never seen a DM enforce the multiclassing XP penalty. It's useful for showing the reader what class your race is optimal for.

Level adjustment[edit]

Most races should be designed as +0.

Bear in mind that the aasimar and tiefling are underpowered for a +1 level adjustment, and aren't really good benchmarks for a +1 level adjustment. They were originally written as monsters, and the authors of the Forgotten Realms Campaign setting who came up with the level adjustment decided they had to be +1 because they were slightly more powerful than core races, but they're not really good guidelines for the upper limit of ECL+1.

If your race is as good as aasimar or tiefling, however, it's slightly too good for ECL+0.

An ECL +1 race might have a +4 in a stat, or flight, or a level 1 spell, or some more powerful ability. Ask yourself if your race can be used to build a character who's as good as a human that spent your level adjustment on class levels instead. The higher you go in level adjustments, the weaker in class levels, hit points and saving throws a character becomes, until ECL+8 races like vampire are unplayable except as monsters or NPCs.


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