Unlike the modern real-world use of the word, "race" in Dungeons & Dragons does not refer to a character's ethnic background. In D&D terms, "human" is a single "race", and players are generally free to select their character's skin tone, hair color and other details of appearance as they see fit.
In Dungeons & Dragons, a player creating their character selects from one of many fantasy species known as "races". All editions of Dungeons & Dragons feature the human, elf, dwarf and halfling as options, and most include other options.
Each race possesses unique traits and abilities, many of which are helpful in the context of dungeoneering and combat.
Beginning with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st edition (1977), a character's race grants fixed bonuses or penalties to a character's ability scores. Such a bonus can even increase a character's starting ability score above the normal starting maximum of 18. Racial ability score modifiers continued to be a standard mechanic throughout D&D, up to and including Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition (2014).
In many earlier editions, including AD&D 1st and 2nd edition, races have a minimum and maximum allowable ability score requirements; players rolled ability scores before selecting their race and class. For example, in AD&D 1e, a character who rolled a Strength score below 8 could not play a dwarf. This rule was discontinued from Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition onward.
In D&D 5th edition, an alternative to racial ability score modifiers was presented in Tasha's Cauldron of Everything (2020), p.7-8. This approach was made standard in Monsters of the Multiverse (2022), which officially split ability score modifiers away from race. According to Jeremy Crawford, the goal of this change was to make a much broader range of race-class combinations viable.
Some races can be divided into multiple variants or subtypes, known as subraces.
A few rare mechanics allow a character to change their race. These include:
- The reincarnate spell
- The Ritual of Rebirth, which can change an individual into dragonborn
- The pact which changed the humans of Bael Turath into tieflings
- Acquired templates
Race as class
The Basic D&D product line from 1977 to 1999 merged the character concepts of race and class, effectively making all races a class. For example, one could play a dwarf or a fighter, but not a dwarf fighter. The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons product line (1977-1999) kept race and class separate, and D&D third edition (2000) onward chose to continue with the two separate.
The inclusion of the dwarf, elf and halfling (originally called hobbit) is influenced by the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, particularly The Hobbit, which features all three of those races. Their appearance in the original 1974 edition of Dungeons & Dragons appealed to fans of Tolkien.
As D&D shaped the field of fantasy fiction, fantasy races have come to be a staple of computer roleplaying games and other media.
Selecting from a variety of character options is a key mechanic of Dungeons & Dragons and allows players to distinguish their character from others, increasing the longevity and complexity of the game.
For a full list, see Category:Races.
- Humans are typically the most numerous, versatile and culturally diverse.
- Elves are graceful, patient, and have a connection to nature.
- Dwarves are short, hardy and bearded.
- Halflings are short, stealthy, and lucky.
The original Men & Magic (1974) did not use the term "race", but did introduce the dwarf, elf, and hobbit (later renamed halfling), with the assumption that most characters would be human. Non-humans were restricted in their choice of character class and maximum character level, but gained unique special abilities, such as a dwarf's magic resistance or the elf's ability to detect hidden doors.
Notably, races did not yet give numeric bonuses to ability scores. According to former TSR employee Tim Kask in 2018, players of original D&D rules chose their race based on the randomly generated stats. Later editions of the game would make rules.
The "Basic" Dungeons & Dragons product line from 1977 simplified the game so as to merge the concepts of race and character class, making all races effectively classes. Tim Kask calls this change "one of the stupidest things, in my opinion, that was ever done".
Starting with Basic Set (Holmes) (1977), characters choosing to play a non-human needed to meet with certain ability score minimums, as with other character classes of that ruleset. From the Basic Set (Moldvay) (1981), non-humans were referred to as demi-humans, and the term "race" is used in reference to humans, demi-humans, and dragons.
AD&D 1st edition
The Players Handbook (1e) (1978) first introduced the term "race" to refer specifically to the types of humanoids available to player characters, a usage which has been retained throughout the game's editions and widely popularized by video games inspired by D&D.
The Players Handbook allows players to choose between dwarf, elf, gnome, half-elf, halfling, half-orc, and human. Of those, four races received bonuses and penalties to various ability scores (dwarf, elf, half-orc, and halfling). Further, all races other than human had ability score requirements; for example, a player who rolled less than 8 Intelligence could not play an elf.
As in later editions of the game, each race receives a variety of unique special abilities. Humans receive no bonuses, penalties or special benefits.
AD&D 2nd edition
The Player's Handbook (2e) (1989) largely concurs with the rules presented in AD&D 1st edition. A notable difference is the lack of inclusion of the half-orc race, generally speculated to be due to controversy over half-orc parentage.
A note is also made to avoid confusion between the modern usage of the word "race" and its fantasy usage.
D&D 3rd edition
The Player's Handbook (3.0) (2000) allows players to choose between the same seven races as in AD&D 1st edition: human, dwarf, elf, gnome, halfling, half-elf, and half-orc. There is no longer any note to avoid confusion between the modern usage of word "race" and the fantasy usage.
There are no minimum ability score requirements to play a race. For example, a player who rolls an Intelligence score of 3 is free to play any race, even an elf. Conversely, the increased effect of racial ability score modifiers encourages players to select a race to increase their ability scores in a chosen field.
Humans receive their own special abilities for the first time, specifically a bonus feat and bonus skill points.
Numerous expansion sourcebooks for Dungeons & Dragons third edition introduced new playable races, while the level adjustment system first introduced in the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting allowed players to select more powerful races including the drow and tiefling. Later rules, particularly the sourcebook Savage Species, allowed players to select a wide variety of monsters as playable characters.
D&D 4th edition
Later sourcebooks introduced additional races, including the half-orc and gnome. A total of 55 playable races were introduced during the game's run.
D&D 5th edition
The Player's Handbook (5e) (2014) launched with a record nine playable character races: dwarf, elf, halfling, human, dragonborn, gnome, half-elf, half-orc and tiefling. This includes all races which had ever appeared in the Player's Handbook of any edition, except for the eladrin, which appeared alongside the aasimar in the Dungeon Master's Guide (5e) (2014).
Most races are also divided into two or more subraces, including the hill dwarf, mountain dwarf, high elf, wood elf, dark elf, lightfoot halfling, stout halfling, forest gnome, and rock gnome. The human, dragonborn, half-elf, half-orc and tiefling have no subraces in the Player's Handbook.
Further, races are divided into common and uncommon, with only dwarf, elf, halfling and human (the four races appearing in the original edition of D&D) considered common. This is largely thematic and has no game mechanic.
Additional races were introduced by later sourcebooks and Unearthed Arcana playtest articles.
The use of the term "race" to refer to a species of humanlike people appears occasionally in the works of Tolkien, although it seems most often to refer to a subgroup of creatures.
The original inclusion of fantasy races in Dungeons & Dragons was inspired by the works of fantasy writer J.R.R. Tolkien, whose literary interpretations of traditional folklore creatures such as the dwarf, elf and hobbit were influential on D&D and other 20th century fantasy literature. These three races previously appeared in Chainmail (1971), a miniature wargame created by Gary Gygax and influenced by Leonard Patt's Rules for Middle Earth (1970).
Reception and influence
Race has become a standard element of character creation in computer roleplaying games inspired by Dungeons & Dragons.
The potential for confusion between the modern and fantasy usage of the term "race" has led some table roleplaying games to use alternate terminology. For example, Pathfinder 2 uses the alternative term "ancestry".
With the growth of blogs, web forums, and social media in the 2000s, many players discussed the perception of racial prejudice in Dungeons & Dragons, primarily centered around comparisons between D&D's rules regarding "race" and real-world social prejudices against the African American community in the United States. Particular topics included:
- A lack of non-white characters appearing in artwork in the core rulebooks. While D&D's original World of Greyhawk campaign setting (1980) explicitly included non-white ethnic groups, in practice most NPCs in D&D sourcebooks were depicted as white.
- The drow, dark-skinned elves, are usually evil, while the fair-skinned high elves are usually good.
- The orcs, often evil, were depicted as brown-skinned in AD&D 1st edition, and while this was later changed in later sources, the popular image of black-skinned orcs was reinforced by the popular 2002 movie adaption of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Even in later sourcebooks, orcs were often described as agressive, tribal, and unintelligent, interpreted as analogous to racist stereotypes of African people.
- D&D's frequent depiction of non-human species such as orcs, kobolds, goblins and gnolls as violent savages has been compared to colonialist notions historically used to justify the conquest of indigenous peoples. Debate on this topic increased in February 2020 with the publication of Dom Liotti and Sam Sorensen's Izirion's Enchiridion of the West Marches, which argued that the presentation of entire humanoid species as justified targets for killing and looting is colonialist and racist.
- The idea that some D&D races tend towards a certain alignment, usually good or evil, has been interpreted as equivalent to racial stereotyping of real-world ethnic groups. The description of races having ability score bonuses or penalties has also been interpreted by some critics as racial stereotyping.
- The term "race" has been criticized as a 19th Century concept used justify white supremacist attitudes. Pathfinder 2nd edition (2019) changed the term "race" to "ancestry", putting some pressure on Wizards of the Coast to make similar changes.
In developing Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition (2014), Wizards of the Coast undertook a policy of depicting diverse characters, including a greater variety of ethnicities, genders, and sexual orientations.
In 2019 and 2020, the growth in popularity of the Black Lives Matter political movement took place during a period of increased awareness of racial discrimination in the United States, as well as a substantial increase in discussion of issues of race in D&D. Beginning with Tasha's Cauldron of Everything (2020), Wizards of the Coast undertook various changes to the game, including removing alignment from monster statblocks, providing alternative ancestry rules for player characters, and employing sensitivity readers to ensure respectful depiction of people of color.
- Players Handbook (1e) (1978), p.15.
- Player's Handbook (2e revised) (1995), p.27.
- Changes to Player Races (2022). Dungeons & Dragons, YouTube.
- Curmudgeon in the Cellar LIV, 4m15s.
- Dungeons & Dragons Compendium
- Racism in Roleplaying Games (2012), chroniclesofharriet.
- Monster Manual (3.5) (2003), p.102.
- Monster Manual (3.5) (2003), p.203.
- Monster Manual (1e) (1977), p.76.
- Monstrous Compendium Volume One (1989).
- Monster Manual (3.5) (2003), p.203-204.
- Dungeons and Dragons is Way More Racist Than You Realize (2012), Mark T. Hrisho.
- The Truth of Colonialism in D&D (2020), Fear the Swarth
- Izirion's Enchiridion of the West Marches. Google Docs, Feb 2020.
- Diversity and Dungeons & Dragons, June 17, 2020.