As a person of mixed race, when I play a mixed-race character, I generally want one of two options: I want it to either not matter at all, so I can momentarily live in a fantasy world where things I have no control over have no bearing on the quality and quantity of interactions I have with other characters. Or I want it to be handled with care, the nuance of being part of multiple races and cultures a part of the worldbuilding, not just an awkward obstacle for my character to deal with.
Racial Traits and D&D
What is race in D&D? In the real world, race is a construct, made up of physical characteristics we attribute to groups of people, with no one ‘race’ having a monopoly on any one trait. Genetics have a say in people’s appearances, health, and mobility but it is the construct of culture which says what is beautiful, acceptable, and useful. Humans who look vastly different from each other can still for the most part make another human together. Culture might dictate people from different backgrounds avoid each other or even look down on one another but it can’t physically keep two cells from smushing into each other, forming one cell which divides into more cells which all hold the instructions for making a person.
In Dungeons and Dragons, the idea of race is a bit more fantastical. There are many sentient races, and their biologies are so divergent some of them can see in the dark! Or control the elements! Or have tails! Yet some of the racial stats could be attributed more to culture than to race, and there’s no delineation between these “cultural” racial traits and the “fantastical” ones. An elf gaining a bonus to their Dexterity score could be innate to their supernaturally lithe build, or the result of physical training in a culture that values physical dexterity. This is left to the player or the DM’s discretion. On the other hand, the Elven Weapon Training trait is almost certainly something cultivated, promoted by adults and other culture keepers. Languages are learned, not inherited and circumstances may have characters able to understand languages but unable to speak them.
Just like in real life, a mixed-race character might physically favor one parent’s traits over the other, as genetics are not like mixing paint but more like mixing a set of marvelous pigments, where some colors just mix, some disappear altogether and some create colors nobody would have put money on. Semblances of ancestors past suddenly surface, as dominant and recessive genes flip on and off. A child’s ears might be pointier than expected, their face less hairy than expected. When deciding the appearance of your character, consider what traits might express themselves. If you have siblings from the same parents, they may look just like you or so different that people don’t believe you are related!
In a just world, nobody would care what race anyone is. But it’s not like that in the real world. Likewise, in the many worlds of D&D, every race has an opinion on every other race. When facing a character of more than one race, the players’ actions may fall under scrutiny as others try to figure out which side the character takes after or where their loyalties lie. Mixed-race characters may also be subject to other people trying to decipher their appearance and thinking they’re something they’re not. Inquiries into their background might result in surprise, curiosity, disbelief and even flat-out rejection. Not fitting someone’s expectations can be jarring for people and many people, regardless of race, do not like to be wrong.
Mixed-Race Characters in Your Game
A character might be mixed-race, but could be a member of any number of cultures and subcultures. An elf raised from birth by humans in a human-majority settlement will still have an elf’s Darkvision and Fey Ancestry traits, but may not have the martial traditions or hold the beliefs of their elven ancestors. That elf’s player could work with their DM to replace their Elven Weapon Training feature with a Human Weapon Training feature to give them proficiency with a different set of weapons like pikes and glaives instead of longswords. Likewise, a half-orc raised around orcs might refuse to speak Common, in order to form a stronger bond with their orc caretakers.
D&D has two “mixed-race races” in the Player’s Handbook already: half-elves and half-orcs. If you want to play another mixed-race character, like a human with one halfling parent, or a half-elf whose non-elven parent was a dwarf rather than a human, you’ll have to get creative. An easy way is to just choose one race as a mechanical base, and leave your physical appearance and cultural background as flavor, not represented by mechanics. While creating your character’s background and personality, however, be aware that characters made up of two or more races could face challenges and obstacles others may not have to—if racial discrimination is alive and well in your fantasy world.
Your character’s parents or guardians and their views of their races and cultures are very likely to influence your character. How your parents regarded themselves in relation to their communities influence what they pass on. Parents might shun their culture, disagreeing with some part of it. Or they may cling to it, teaching it as a source of comfort in a hostile environment. In addition, there may be gaps in your knowledge if the only people like you are your parents. Living outside of ancestral homelands might mean your character has never tasted a certain dish, not the way your parents remember it. But food may be the thing that they share from home, avoiding topics that are uncomfortable but eager to pile your plate high with your favorite dessert.
Race and Inherent Evil in D&D
Playing a D&D game with mixed-race characters invites examination of D&D’s simplified and fantastical view of race. If you want to explore the nature of race in your D&D game, dismantling the idea that entire races are evil could be of benefit. This isn’t to say that evil doesn’t exist! Murder, subjugation, cannibalism, destruction, and oppression are all terrible things to be thwarted in a campaign. And while the descriptions and depictions of many of D&D’s “evil” races make them all look like monsters, the idea that every single individual within a given population with certain biological features is evil, with perhaps a few exceptions…? When you say it out loud, it sounds bad! Organizations, which are based on values can be nefarious and there are cultural practices which are reprehensible. But the language around race and alignment, if those around the table are interested in making the gaming table a more welcoming place to people of all backgrounds, should address the value systems of the characters, the players and the world they are playing in.
D&D is, in many ways, subconsciously rooted in Western and imperialistic ideology. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson were fans of wargaming which clashed imperial armies against one another, and of stories in which individualistic heroes battled foreign hordes and took their treasure. To no great surprise, the language used since D&D’s early days to describe its “evil” races has been used to describe many real oppressed groups in modern history. The idea of humans being a race which conquers and that being presented as one of their more respectable traits, when paired with the prevalence of evil races, should come under scrutiny by those wanting to create a gaming space that is welcoming and fun. Giving your orcs and drow villains (and so forth) real reasons to do evil things makes them characters, not caricatures.
The drow culture of Menzoberranzan, for example, is evil not because drow are inherently evil, but because their leaders have created a culture of fear and mistrust. Standing up to people from a culture that encourages evil, imperialistic acts is something most people can relate to, and it can deepen the story of your game. It takes more effort to deepen your worldbuilding like this, but can create a more impactful result when the players defeat the villains and restore balance to the realm. A culture which encourages its people to be cruel came from somewhere, some idea, and that idea should be challenged—if you’re playing a heroic campaign, that is.
Listen to Jeremy Crawford talk about drow society in the video above. Or, listen to Mike Mearls talk of the role of orcs in this interview with Todd Kenreck.
Playing a Mixed-Race Character
If you’re interested in playing mixed-race characters or games where culture is a bigger part of the world, here are tips for Dungeon Masters and players to consider when creating characters and building scenarios.
For Dungeons Masters to Consider:
- What types of mixed races exist in your world? Consider allowing players to homebrew other possibilities by taking Racial Traits from both races. Maybe a halfling-orc could look like a Halfling with the Stout subrace; keep the +1 to Constitution and choose either the +2 to Strength or Dexterity, and take the halfling’s base speed of 25 feet, thanks to your short legs. Pick four of the Racial Traits from between the Halfling entry and the Orc entry and take Common and up to two Languages their character may know. The player may choose according to their characters backstory. Try to make sure that your player doesn’t cherry-pick the best traits from each race, though; you’re the ultimate arbiter of your game’s balance.
- Consider allowing players to play characters raised in cultures different than their race. An elf raised by a family of kindly stone giants or a goliath tribe might gain Giant as a language, and the goliath race’s Mountain Born trait while losing Elven as a language and their Elven Weapon Training trait.
- What is the dominant race and culture of the world and what kind of power/advantages do they have over outsiders, if any?
- Who passes down the culture and traditions of the people in your world? Is it solely left to parents? Extended family? Religious leaders? Where can characters interested in their heritage go to find information about where they’re from and is this information readily available?
- What is the attitude of player races towards people who shirk their culture or never grew up around it? Do they pity them, scorn them or try to teach?
- Which groups of people are most likely to come into contact with each other? How and where does this happen?
- How much does race matter in the society the characters live in? Is prejudice rampant and codified in the laws, embedded in the culture in a non-codified way or frowned upon? How will different NPCs react to people who do not fit their expectations?
- If one of your players is playing a mixed-race character of an ‘evil’ race—and you haven’t already considered ways to make your orcs and drow and so forth not inherently evil—talk about their expectations in dealing with NPCs, if the character plans on exploring their alignment or if they just want the stats and the cool trappings. Any of it is fine and can be fun, if players and Dungeons Masters communicate.
For Players to Consider:
- What interests you in playing a mixed-race character? What ideas do you want to explore? What things in the world do you need to exist to support your characters backstory? If race relations are heated between your parents races in this setting, how did your parents meet? Or has your family been made up of mixed-race people for generations?
- Did your character grow up raised around both races or cultures that your parents belong to? Was one more dominant than the other, or preferred over the other?
- Did they grow up in a monolingual or multilingual home?
- Is one of the races your character comes from a dominant or minority group? What are the relations between the groups currently? What history is there?
- Were your parents/caregivers good adherents of their cultures? Or are they rebels, out to do new things?
- Do you have siblings or friends who shared similar experiences to you? Is there a community or place you can go to be around people who know you?
- Do you feel pressure to be a ‘good example’ of one of your races? Or do you staunchly insist you are your own individual who should live free of judgement from those who have just met you?
- Do you wish you fit in to a community? How do you react if people ask you ‘where are you from’ in reference to your race?
- Are there parts of your cultures you try to honor or uphold? Is there an aspect of your culture you aren’t proud of? Perhaps you love the influence music has had on the world at large but dislike how children are treated. The oral tradition is what you miss every night but the food is too rich and the insistence that people clean their plates is annoying.
- How do you identify? How do people of other races classify you, as opposed to how you self-identify?
Playing games conscious of race and culture can be satisfying and interesting to everyone. What adventures and alliances await for the player who don’t blindly attack orcs wandering the plains, or who meet surface-dwelling drow with an extended hand rather than a drawn blade? You’ll have to play to find out!
What interesting stories involving fantasy races have you created with characters or NPCs at your table? Let us know in the comments!
Tristan J. Tarwater is a writer of novels, comics and RPG bits. Their RPG credits include Reality Makes the Best Fantasy, V20: Dark Ages, 7th Sea: Lands of Ice and Fire and Rolled and Told: Pull Your Weight! Residing in Portland, Oregon, they occasionally run games for their spouse, kid, and friends but never for their two cats. You can find them on Twitter at @backthatelfup.