How to choose the right character race in Dungeons & Dragons 5E

Is your character a dwarf, elf or tiefling at heart? Find out here!

Theoretically, you can create a character with any race featured in the Dungeons & Dragons universe (including typical enemy races, such as bugbears). However, as we advise in our guide to Dungeons & Dragons 5E character creation (which you really should have read already), jumping straight into the wacky world of the wider D&D universe and homebrew content for your very first character is a tad ambitious.

The character creation section of the Dungeons & Dragons 5E Player's Handbook provides a decent selection of major races, and their sub-section of races, each one bringing their own unique set of traits, sometimes both positive and negative. Whilst the nitty-gritty elements of the Player’s Handbook are a chore to read - which is why we’ve broken it down nicely in our guide to how to get started with Dungeons & Dragons - the little bits of flavour text are actually quite good and can help you get a better understanding of how each race fits into the D&D world as you create your character.

However, with that in mind, we’re going to provide our own brief, but hopefully informative, look at what each race is really about – and help you decide what your own roleplaying avatar will be.

Dwarves

Dungeons and Dragons race guide dwarf

They’re pretty much what you expect from a classic dwarf: short, stout and good with a set of tools. Dwarves get a nice selection of general traits, such as darkvision (can see in dim light for up to 60 feet, which is always handy to have) and, of course, tool proficiency (can choose a toolkit to use). They’re generally a good shout when it comes to creating heavy-set characters, because their speed isn’t reduced by the armour they’re wearing. Additionally, because of their innate combat training, they’re a fantastic choice if you’re looking to play a character who’s a dab hand with weaponry, such as a monk, fighter or barbarian.

Key elements

  • Increase to constitution
  • Medium size
  • Darkvision
  • Advantage on saving throws against poison
  • Resistant to poison damage

If you’re after more resilience, pick a hill dwarf, as you’ll get an increase to your maximum hit points, as well as an increase to your wisdom.

If you’re more of a fighter, choose a mountain dwarf, as they get added strength and proficiency in both light and medium armour.

Half-orcs

The first thing to establish about half-orcs is that they’re certified meat-shields. Sure, they’re not as hench as their full-blooded orc brethren, but if you’re looking to be completely and utterly ripped, then the half-orc is your best bet (unless you want to try and wrangle a goliath into being). Their ability score increases feed into their strength and constitution, they have proficiency in intimidation from birth, and automatically gain the Relentless Endurance feat (which initially prevents characters from hitting zero hit points). All these factors make half-orcs incredibly efficient frontline attackers, particularly of the physical kind, as they get to give additional damage whenever they score a critical hit with a melee weapon. Half orcs: think barbarians, fighters, that sort.

Key elements

  • Increases to strength and constitution
  • Medium size
  • Dark vision
  • Proficiency in intimidation
  • Initially fall to one hit point rather than zero
  • Roll an additional damage die if you land a critical hit with a melee weapon

Elves

Dungeons and Dragons race guide elf

Graceful, beautiful and stuck-up-their-own-arses. Elves are a better pick for characters that favour dexterity or magic, as their traits hover around the speedy and charismatic aspects, more-so than the stabby and thrusty aspects. For example, all elves have an ability score increase to dexterity, and have advantage on saving throws against being charmed. Like dwarves, they also benefit from having darkvision, and have automatic proficiency in perception (which is a great thing to have, regardless of character build). Depending on which subrace you choose, elves can be a good pick for characters that sneak, like rogues or rangers, or characters that cast spells, like druids or wizards (learn how to play the Dungeons & Dragons 5E wizard class).

Key elements

  • Dexterity score increase
  • Medium size
  • Darkvision
  • Proficiency in perception
  • Advantage against being charmed

If you’re more into the idea of creating a smarty-pants (like a Merlin-type), then high elf is definitely your pick, as you’ll get an increase to your intelligence ability score. They’re also a good shout for an elven monk or fighter, thanks to their broad weapon proficiency (longsword, shortsword, shortbow and longbow).

If skulking is more your jam (e.g. rogues and rangers), then why not consider the humble wood elf? Not only are they fleet of foot (meaning faster than other elves), but they can also hide behind bad weather with Mask of the Wild. Alternatively, with that cheeky increase to your wisdom ability score, you could make a decent druid.

Otherwise, if you’re feeling a little spicy, you could always go for a dark elf (or drow) which are a brilliant pick if you’re planning to make a character that casts using charisma, such as sorcerers or bards (they always start with the dancing lights cantrip). However, they also suffer disadvantages on perception checks made in the sunlight.

Halflings

Let’s face it, halflings are just hobbits. They’re small, love a good meal and reluctantly get drawn into adventures (if just to save their friends from buggering things up). They’re also often overlooked by the average D&D player, which is a shame, because halflings are surprisingly versatile. Obviously they’re a great choice for those seeking something nimble (they literally have a trait called halfling nimbleness) like rogues and rangers, but they also make incredibly reliable damage dealers (believe it or not) because of their luck and brave traits (which makes them more likely to hit and less likely to run away).

Key elements

  • Increase to dexterity
  • Small size
  • If they roll a one whilst attacking, they can choose to roll again
  • Have advantage on saving throws against being frightened
  • Can move through a space occupied by anyone a size larger than you

If a spellcasting halfling is what you’re going for, then better pick the lightfoot subrace of halfling, because you get a sweet increase to your charisma score. This is also the better choice if you’re planning on sneaking around anywhere, as lightfoot halflings can also hide behind larger creatures.

Alternatively, you can choose for something more suitable to fighting. That’s the stout subrace of halfling. With a higher constitution score, and a resistance to poison damage, the stout option is a more well-rounded choice.

Humans

Dungeons and Dragons race guide human

The vanilla of D&D’s ice-cream parlour, it’s tempting to avoid picking a human just because they might seem like the most boring choice (and in many cases, they are). Oh contraire, they’re possibly the most buck wild of all the D&D races, simply because they enable players to make so many different options, and I’m not just talking about the myriad of subraces featured in the Players’ Handbook. Thanks to their ability score increase trait, human characters automatically add one to each ability score, meaning that theoretically any character build can work. Alternatively, if your DM allows it, you can choose to exchange your ability score increase to learn one skill and one feat of your choice (alongside an increase to just two ability scores of your choosing).

Humans are an especially good choice if you’re still unsure of what you’d like your character to specialise in, as picking them won’t have any negative impact on what you choose class-wise.

Key features

  • Plus one to every ability score
  • Medium size
  • Language of your choice

Dragonborn

What could be a more iconic element of D&D than the titular dragon? And although you can’t play as an actual dragon (at least not from the Player’s Handbook), you can choose the next best thing: a dragonborn (no, not the Skyrim kind). All joking aside, dragonborn are undeniably one of the most powerful races to play as in D&D. Why? Well, not only do they get a double increase to their strength ability score (atop a +1 to their charisma), but they also get some serious firepower (ha, ha) from their draconic ancestry trait; in the form of a breath weapon and a damage resistance. Dragonborns are a fantastic choice for anyone wanting to create a beefy damage-dealer, such as a barbarian, cleric or fighter.

What’s more, is that the wide array of draconic heritages enable you to customise your dragonborn far more than the other subraces included in the player handbook.

Key features

  • Increase to strength and charisma ability scores
  • Medium size
  • Breath weapon
  • Damage resistance

Gnomes

Dungeons and Dragons race guide gnome

A race of pranksters, japers and fools (so essentially the entire Dicebreaker team), gnomes can be hard to take seriously. Afterall, they’re so small and mischievous, it’s hard not to laugh them off. However, gnomes are not to be underestimated. The automatic increase they get to their intelligence makes them wily, and with advantage on all charisma, wisdom and intelligence saving throws, they make for formidable opponents to all spellcasters as well. Gnomes aren’t generally a good pick for the more physical classes (they’re VERY small), instead they lean more towards spellcasters and dexterity-based classes (such as rogues, monks and rangers).

Key features

  • Increase to intelligence
  • Small size
  • Dark vision
  • Advantages on all charisma, wisdom and intelligence saving throws

Whilst both gnome subraces are tricky, forest gnomes slightly eke things out by having an increase to dexterity, the ability to cast minor illusions from the get-go and even the chance to talk to small animals. So jump on the forest gnome if you want to build a rogue or monk.

Whereas rock gnomes rely more on their smarts and sturdiness, with an increase to constitution, the ability to apply additional proficiency bonuses to intelligence checks regarding magical items, alchemical substances or technological devices (in other words, cool stuff), and the fun little ability to make clockwork devices. Rock gnomes may be a less straightforward option, but it’s most definitely the maverick’s choice of gnome. They don’t fit as tightly with the game’s classes, but you can make a bloody clockwork frog, so there’s that.

Half-elves

Perhaps the angstiest race in D&D’s lexicon (they’re the ultimate outsiders), half-elves exist as a muddled middle-ground between the inoffensive human and ostentatious elf, like a beer shandy. Despite not getting any increases to ability scores, half-elves do benefit from the gentler aspects of their ancestry, gaining the ever-useful darkvision trait and advantages to saving throws against being charmed. However, being a little more practical than the pure elven types, half-elves can gain proficiency in two skills of their choice (you can learn how to use your proficiency modifiers in-game in our guide to the basics of Dungeons & Dragons). This essentially makes half-elves a slightly more specialised choice than the human, whilst still leaving them vague enough to mould into whatever you want. There’s potential to imbue somewhat one-note classes like barbarians with a bit more pizzazz, or you could double up on the proficiencies with a bard? Whatever your flavour, really.

Key elements

  • Medium size
  • Dark vision
  • Advantage on saving rolls against being charmed
  • Inability to be magically put to sleep
  • Ability to learn two additional skills

Tieflings

Dungeons and Dragons race guide tiefling

In D&D, there’s this thing called the Nine Hells. A little like the classic Judeo-Christian hell, the Nine Hells of D&D are filled to the brim with devils and all sorts of nasties. One day, it seems, a group of these devils decided to pay a visit to the material plane (that’s your standard Earth), and lo, tieflings were born. Arguably the most magically inclined of all the main D&D races (that can happen if you have the blood of a devil in you), tieflings have some pretty unique spell-related traits, such as increases to intelligence and charisma, and the ability to cast the Thaumaturgy cantrip from the off (this spell enables the user to create cool little visual and audio effects, very dramatic) and to gain a variety of spells from select levels above one. In addition to this, tieflings gain resistance to fire damage (because Hell is hot), and, you guessed it, darkvision.

As our hints suggest, tieflings are a good choice of race if you want to create a strong spellcaster, particularly classes that use charisma to cast, such as sorcerers, warlocks (learn how to play the Dungeons & Dragons 5E warlock class ) and paladins (which would be one heck of an ironic class to pick for a tiefling).

Key elements

  • Increases to intelligence and charisma
  • Medium size
  • Darkvision
  • Resistance to fire damage
  • Knows Thaumaturgy straight away
  • Gains additional spells at levels three and five

Learn more about preparing to play Dungeons & Dragons with our guides to what to buy if you want to play Dungeons & Dragons 5E and how to start a Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying group.


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Alex Meehan avatar

Alex Meehan

Staff Writer

Alex’s journey to Dicebreaker began with writing insightful video game coverage for outlets such as Kotaku, Waypoint and PC Gamer. Her unique approach to analysing pop culture and knack for witty storytelling finally secured her a forever home producing news, features and reviews with the Dicebreaker team. She’s also obsessed with playing Vampire: The Masquerade, and won’t stop talking about it.

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