In The question of Race, or nature versus nurture, I talked about an elf who grew up on the street and wouldn’t have learned elvish proficiency, and other combinations where the character might try to claim benefits of a race without growing up among that race. I also talked about genetics versus culture across different editions of D&D, including the latest updates in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything.
At the end, I referred to The Angry GM’s article Why Race Isn’t Broken in Pathfinder, and How to Fix It, where he splits racial characteristics into genetic and cultural components. This really made sense to me, but his article did the calculations for Pathfinder and I use D&D 5th edition. So if I’m to use this I need to do the equivalent for 5th edition.
Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything has guidelines on what can be considered culture:
- swap any ability increase for any other equivalent ability increase you fancy (but no applying two different ability increases to the same stat)
- swap any language for any other
- swap any skill or proficiency for any other within certain limits
So let’s take that as a starter for what can be considered cultural, and consider everything else genetic. Let’s look at the features of each race, and consider how the features split – does it balance?
Genetic or cultural by Tasha
To get an idea of balance, we need some scoring scheme. I’ll try this:
- Ability score increase: +1 point per increase
- Proficiency: +2 points for skill, +1 points for double proficiency specific cases, +1 if light weapon, light armour or tool, +2 if martial weapons, medium or heavy armour
- Language: +1 point per language
- Speed: +1 per 5′ over 30’/-1 per 5′ under 30′, +2 for an additional movement type (or more)
- Spellcasting: +1 for cantrip only, +2 if additional at #3 & #5
- Darkvision: +2 for 60′, +4 for 120′
- Resistance: +2 per attribute
- Disadvantage: -2
- Other special attributes to be scored similarly
Reasoning for ability score versus proficiency:
- +1 to an ability score has a 50% chance of +1 to rolls against checks using that ability; +2 is required for a +1 to the roll. On the other hand it can affect multiple different skills, saving throws and checks.
- Proficiency in a skill gives a +2 to rolls against that skill at level 1, increasing to +6 at the highest levels, but it is situation-specific. There is an argument that different skills should be valued differently given the amount they get used, but treating them all the same keeps the rating simple.
- Given Proficiency doubles the bonus from an ability score +2, but is more specific, it seems reasonable to rate a Proficiency equivalent to a +2 on a ability.
- Genetic: medium size, age 50-350, decreased speed (25′) (-1) but not slowed by heavy armour (+1), advantage on saving throws against poison, resistance against poison (+2), darkvision (+2) – total +5-1 – total +4
- Cultural: +2 Constitution (+2), proficiency with battleaxe, hand axe, light hammer, warhammer (+2) and smith’s tools, brewer’s supplies or mason’s tools (+1), double proficiency in History relating to stonework (+2), additional language dwarvish (+1) – total +8
- Hill dwarves: +1 Wisdom (+1), +1hp/level (+2) – total +3
- Mountain dwarves: +2 Strength (+2), proficiency with light and medium armour (+1) – total +3
Potential: Genetic +5-1, Cultural +8, subrace +3 = total +15
- Genetic: medium size, age 100-750, speed 30′, darkvision (+2), advantage on saving throws against charm (+1), can’t be put to sleep (+2), only need 4 hours “trance” instead of 8 hours sleep per night (+1) – total +6
- Drow: 120′ darkvision (+2 additional), disadvantage on attack rolls and Perception in sunlight (-2) – total +0
- Cultural: +2 Dexterity (+2), additional language elvish (+1), proficiency in Perception (+2) – total +5
- High elf: +1 Intelligence (+1), proficiency with longsword, shortsword, longbow, shortbow (+2), know a cantrip (+1), additional language of choice (+1) – total +5
- Wood elf: +1 Wisdom (+1), increased speed (35′) (+1), proficiency with longsword, shortsword, longbow, shortbow (+2), can hide when only lightly obscured by natural phenomena (+1) – total +5
- Drow: +1 Charisma (+1), proficiency with rapiers, shortswords, hand crossbows (+1), dancing lights cantrip, faerie fire at level 3, darkness at level 5 (+2) – total +5
Potential: genetic +6, cultural +5, subrace +5 = total +16
- Genetic: small size, age: 20-150, +2 Dexterity (+2), decreased speed (25′) (-1), move through the space of any creature larger (+1), lucky (+1), advantage on saving throws against being frightened (+2) – total +5
- Stout: advantage on saving throws against poison, resistance against poison (+2) – total +2
- Cultural: additional language halfling (+1) – total +1
- Lightfoot: +1 Charisma (+1), can hide when obscured only by another (larger) creature (+1) – total +2
- Stout: +1 Constitution – total +1
Potential: genetic +6-1, cultural +1, subrace +2-3 = total +8-9
- Genetic: medium size, age teens-100, speed 30′ – total +0
- Cultural: +1 to all ability scores (+6) or +1 to two ability scores (+2) plus a feat (+2) and proficiency in one skill (+2), one additional language of choice (+1) – total +7
Potential: genetic +0, cultural +7 = total +7
- Genetic: medium size, age 15-80, speed 30′, breath weapon (1/short or long rest) (+2) + corresponding damage resistance (+2) – total +4
- Cultural: +2 Strength (+2), +1 Charisma (+1), additional language Draconic (+1) – total +4
Potential: genetic +4, cultural +4 = total +8
- Genetic: small size, age 40-350, reduced speed (25′) (-1), darkvision (+2), advantage on Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma saving throws against magic (+2) – total +3
- Forest gnome: minor illusion cantrip – +1 – total +1
- Cultural: additional language Gnomish (+1) – total +1
- Forest gnome: +1 Dexterity (+1), speak with small beasts (+1) – total +2
- Rock gnome: +1 Constitution (+1), double proficiency on History checks related to magic items, alchemical objects or technological devices (+2), proficiency with tinker’s tools (+1), and can construct a tiny clockwork device (+1) – total +5
Potential: genetic +4-1, cultural +1, subrace +3-5 = total +6-8
- Genetic: medium size, age 20-180, speed 30′, darkvision (+2), advantage on saving throws against being charmed (+2) and magic can’t put you to sleep (+2) – total +6
- Cultural: +2 Charisma (+2) plus +1 to two other ability scores (+2), proficiency in two skills of choice (+4), additional language elvish plus one of choice (+2) – total +10
Potential: genetic +6, cultural +10 = total +16
- Genetic: medium size, age 14-75, speed 30′, darkvision (+2), when reduced to 0 hp and not killed outright, can drop to 1hp (1/long rest) (+2), +1 damage dice/critical hit (+2) – total +6
- Cultural: +2 Strength (+2), +1 Constitution (+1), proficiency in Intimidation (+2), additional language Orc (+1) – total +6
Potential: genetic +8, cultural +6 = total +14
- Genetic: medium size, age teens to ~100, speed 30′, darkvision (+2), resistance to fire damage (+2), thaumaturgy cantrip, hellish rebuke at level 3 (1/long rest), darkness at level 5 (1/long rest) (+2) – total +6
- Cultural: additional language Infernal (+1) – total +1
Potential: genetic +6, cultural +1 = total +7
- small or medium, speed 30′, ability +2 (+2), feat (+2), proficiency at one skill (+2), one additional language (+1) – total +7
Potential: genetic +0, cultural +7 = total +7
So, based on that scoring, how do the different races fare?
|Dwarf||+5-1||+8||+3||+16-1 = +15|
|Halfling||+6-1||+1||+2-3||+9-10 – 1 = +8-9|
|Gnome||+4-1||+1||+3-5||+9-11 – 1 = +8-10|
Interesting, and feels somewhat counter-intuitive to me. I wasn’t expecting such a spread of scores. Obviously it has been affected by how I’ve rated the different attributes, but I’ve gone over it several times and nothing jumps out at me that would significantly change the balance.
Variant humans are supposed to have the most flexibility due to the choice of ability scores plus feat and skill, but actually half-elves have similar flexibility while getting additional benefits from their elven blood. Elves, dwarves and half-elves seem to get both genetic and cultural benefits, significantly more than others, followed by half-orcs. Dragonborn and tielflings I thought were pretty powerful from their blood, but it doesn’t seem to balance out that way. The Tasha complete custom race comes out level with human…as the lowest benefit. Halflings and gnomes come out slightly better than humans; halflings have a lot of genetic benefits while gnomes get a fair bit from their subraces.
There’s also variation in how the genetics versus culture is split, with Tieflings almost purely genetic and humans purely cultural.
This makes it difficult to repeat Angry’s genetic/culture split, and suggests for an optimiser, the best builds following Tasha’s rules start with an elf or half-elf and then start swapping.
I much prefer the story and setting to drive the character options to offer my players, but it doesn’t look like there’s a natural way to come up with cultures that can be swapped, so if my players come up with a character concept which seems to clash with the default attributes of their race, I’ll just have to wing it…