When building a character, the first major decision you make is what race your character will be. D&D races are more like species, not race in the way we use the term for humans. Are you an elf or dwarf? A gnome or a human? What’s your subrace or ancestral line? If you could answer none of those questions and are, quite frankly, a little miffed I would ask you to choose when you have no idea what any of those are, this guide could help you:
The 9 Main Races of D&D (5e)
Before we begin, D&D comes in many flavors. There are multiple editions. There are expansions and add-ons. There are also tons and tons of mods—RPGs that use the same mechanics as D&D but have completely different settings and characters (so the same game in a different dress).
What we’ll be looking at here are the nine races you can play as in the fifth edition (5e). This is the widest selection to date. The first edition started with just seven. While 5e is the most popular, older editions are still played so the actual selection of races you can choose from will depend on which edition you’re playing.
Elves are an otherworldly people full of grace, beauty, and magic. They have a taste for the finer things in life: poetry, music, nature, and cleanly executing their enemies with a bow or spell. While they tend to be more diplomatic and look for non-violent solutions where possible, they’re well-trained in martial strategy and know their way around a sword or bow.
Elves get a natural boost to dexterity and perception and a natural advantage against magic and charms.
You’ll choose from one of three main subraces: high elf, wood elf, and dark elf. High elves are more intelligent and have a natural proficiency for spellcasting—but they can sometimes be arrogant or reclusive.
Wood elves are almost always reclusive and very distrusting. They have highly attuned senses, a strong intuition, and a natural bonus to wisdom and speed as well as a talent for moving about stealthily.
Dark elves are murderous, underground-dwelling marauders who believe anybody who lives above ground is inferior and unworthy. They’re stealthy, ruthless fighters that pillage and slaughter with abandon. If a dark elf does break from his society and try to be good, they still tend to struggle with a lifetime of deeply ingrained prejudice.
Stout and hardy, a dwarf is great at manual labor and fighting. They make up for their short stature by being incredibly broad and dense. They’re basically a ferocious ball of pure muscle. Though they tend to be loyal and decisive, they hold grudges for centuries.
If you play as a dwarf, you’ll choose between two subraces: hill dwarf or mountain dwarf. Both get a bonus to their constitution score and get advantages on saving throws. Hill dwarves get an additional bonus to wisdom where mountain dwarves get a bonus to strength.
All dwarves tend to align lawful. Whether good, evil, or neutral, a dwarf likes a sense of law and order. If good, they uphold the law to the letter and ensure justice is served everywhere, at any cost. If evil, they’re usually the imposing authoritarian variety that won’t tolerate the slightest hint of dissent. If neutral, they act based on law and custom alone, regardless of who that might hurt.
As you can imagine, this makes them rigid and stubborn which is frustating in situations that call for a little moral flexibility. It can also lead to lots of heated arguments with the more chaotic members of a party, like half-elves or tieflings.
Gnomes are curious and enthusiastic creatures that are both short and small. They talk a mile a minute and love jokes and pranks. Brimming with ideas, gnomes tend to make greater inventors, engineers, and alchemists. Though, their impulsive nature can make them prone to mistakes and mishaps while tinkering.
All gnomes get a natural boost to intelligence and are proficient in cunning, persuasion, and deception. While they tend to align good, they run the gamut from law-abiding sages to chaos-loving, but good-hearted tricksters.
There are three main subraces: rock gnomes, deep gnomes, and forest gnomes. Rock gnomes are the most sociable and adventurous of the subraces. They have a natural bonus to constitution. Their love of tinkering also gives them an advantage when constructing devices or using tools.
Deep gnomes live below ground and are much more suspicious and guarded. They’re slow to trust and often rude or distant until they do trust you. They get a natural bonus to dexterity and an advantage in both hiding and dark vision.
Forest gnomes are the most reclusive of all gnomes, even more so than deep gnomes—though, they aren’t as distrustful. While they prefer to keep to themselves, they’re friendly to outsiders. They have a natural advantage in stealth and hiding. They can also talk to animals.
Humans in Dungeons and Dragons are like humans on earth—except maybe a bit stronger and hardier. They’re like humans if all humans were Olympic athletes. Being human, they’re adaptable, creative, and perhaps a little too ambitious for their own good.
While most races are born with a particular set of natural abilities that dictate what they’ll be best at, human adaptability makes them more of a blank slate. They’re born kind of fleshy and useless but get to choose which skills and talents they want to cultivate as they grow up.
Like real humans, their taste, temperament, and alignment vary widely (both on the good/evil and chaotic/lawful scale). You’ll find bloodthirsty warriors, peaceful humanitarians, and self-centered opportunists in equal measure.
Likewise, humans exhibit a lot of variation in skill and ability. To start, humans get a +1 bonus to every ability score. Beyond that, it’s up to players to decide what kind of specializations their human character will have.
Half-elves are half human and half…well, you can probably guess. They have the adaptability and ambition of a human combined with an elf’s refined taste for the arts and nature. Some grew up among humans and others grew up among elves. Both feel a sense of not quite fitting in. As a result, many half-elves, regardless of where they grew up, eventually set out on their own and construct a found family of other outcasts and misfits.
In terms of alignment, they span the spectrum from good to evil but almost always have a chaotic edge. They enjoy their freedom and instinctively rebel against rules, even where the rule serves a legitimate purpose. This makes them unpredictable and a little hard to work with—especially for characters who thrive on order, like dwarves.
While there are no subraces, their mixed parentage makes half elves a versatile race so players can pick and choose which skills they are naturally proficient in. They all have a natural bonus to charisma and then players can choose any two other abilities to add a bonus to. They also have above-average dark vision and a resistance to being charmed.
Despite their name, halflings are not half anything. They’re just a shorter species of humans. They’re pleasant, peaceful folk who prefer to live in either remote agricultural communities or friendly nomadic bands. They tend to avoid combat and danger in favor of the finer things in life: good food, good drink, and good conversation.
They tend to align good. They like having a good time and they want everybody else to have a good time with them. While they also tend toward lawful since adhering to tradition has helped them maintain peace and plenty in their communities, they have zero tolerance for oppression or bullying. They will come to the aid of the oppressed—even if that means breaking the law.
Halflings come in two, closely related subraces: lightfoot and stout. Both have a natural bonus to dexterity and an inborn luck (which means you automatically get to roll again anytime you roll a one on a D20 roll).
Lightfoot halflings also get a bonus to charisma and are naturally nimbler and stealthier. They’re the more adventurous type—more likely to be nomads than farmers—and, while friendly, find it difficult to be tied down or settled.
Stout halflings are the hardier subrace and get a bonus to constitution. They lean more toward tradition and home than lightfoots. They’re the ones you usually find in farming communities.
Another mixed parentage race, this one comes from an orc and human. They’re a war-hungry and nomadic race that can often be found terrorizing settled communities on their path. They get this from their orc side. Their human influence gives them ambition and leadership skills that, when combined with their love of violence, can make a half orc a truly terrifying and effective conqueror.
If half-orcs align good—which is, admittedly, rare—they would thrive best leading an army or otherwise being the protective muscle for a group so that they can discharge some of that violent energy. They’re more likely to be evil or neutral, however, and almost always chaotic.
There are no subraces. All half orcs have a natural bonus to strength and constitution. They also have a natural proficiency for intimidation and work best with melee weapons that allow them to get right in the middle of a bloody conflict.
This is a humanoid dragon. It stands upright like a human and has no wings or tail, but it has the scaly skin and head of a dragon. They are usually greeted with fear or confusion from others because, well, they’re humanoid dragons. Since others tend to avoid them, dragonborn had to become very self-sufficient.
This makes them resilient survivors, but it also means that they put an unusual amount of pressure on themselves to be perfect at everything. They’re constantly studying or practicing something. This perfectionism has made them prideful and even a little prejudiced against other races who they view as less driven and, therefore, less skilled. As a result, they’re unlikely to trust a non-dragonborn race to help them or be of much use, which makes them hard to work with.
Dragonborn characters have a natural bonus to strength and charisma and tend toward the extremes when it comes to alignment. They’re either good or evil, chaotic or lawful, rarely neutral or true. Once an extreme is chosen, they adhere to it so rigidly that others in their party might find it annoying.
If you play as a dragonborn, you’ll need to choose your draconic ancestry. There are 10 ancestral lines. Each one comes with a specific damage type (like acid, fire, or poison) and a breath weapon (your ability to exhale destruction on your enemies in the form of your chosen damage type).
Tieflings were once human long ago and still look mostly human-ish. The key difference: the giant horns sticking out of their forehead and the thick tail curling out from their backside. These demonic traits are the result of an ancient pact between certain human kingdoms and the overlord of the Nine Hells. The pact gave these humans infernal features and powers—but made them and all of their descendants the subject of ridicule and mistrust.
As a result of their peculiar origins, they have no true home and are often ostracized in the towns and cities where they live. Relegated to the poorest and roughest neighborhoods, they usually become thieves, gang leaders, or otherwise lead a life of crime to survive.
Although often driven to crime, they’re rarely evil. More often, they align neutral or even good. Either way, they’re almost never lawful. The alienation and injustice they’ve endured at the hands of “law and order” have all but guaranteed that they prefer the freedom and impartiality of chaos.
There are no subraces and all tieflings get a natural bonus to intelligence and charisma. They also have exceptional dark vision, a resistance to fire damage, and an innate ability to cast spells and do magic—thanks to their hellish origins.
Choosing a Race in D&D
After reading these quick overviews, you may have found yourself gravitating to one or two races more than the others. If that’s the case, go with your gut! If nobody really stuck out if you’re just not as decisive as a dwarf, here are a couple questions that can help you choose:
What kind of skills do you want to use?
When choosing a race, it helps to think about what kind of gameplay you want to do. If this is your first rodeo, just envision what you imagine it’s like to play D&D.
Do you envision lots of fistfights or bludgeoning enemies with hammers? Then you might want to be a dwarf or half-orc. Do you envision conjuring up powerful spells and defeating enemies with magic and trickery? You might want to be a tiefling or gnome.
If you envision nothing because somebody roped you into this and you don’t know the first thing about D&D, choosing a human is a safe bet. Humans are pretty neutral skill-wise so you can start out as a kind of average jack of all trades and then develop a specialty as you go (and as you figure out what the hell is even going on).
What kind of personality do you want your character to have?
This is something you can decide even if you have no D&D experience. Just think of what kind of personality traits you’d like your character to have. Are they going to be a fantasy version of you or they going to be somebody completely different?
Are they more introverted or extroverted? Are they a good mediator or are they stubborn? What kind of temperament do they have? Are they quick to anger or more of the “calm and collected” type?
What’s their moral alignment? Are they unshakably devoted to doing good or are they fiendishly obsessed with spreading evil—or are they more neutral, leaning one way or the other depending on the situation?
After you’ve thought a bit more about the personality traits you want your character to have, read through the descriptions of the races again to pick one that most closely matches what you’re going for.
How in-character do you want to get?
Some players love to really get into character when they play. They speak as their character would speak. They make decisions that their character would make. While all players should do this to some degree, the more charismatic and sociable races definitely create more opportunities for it than the reclusive or taciturn races do.
Halflings or rock gnomes, for example, are social butterflies. The gnomes especially will be energetic and probably talk too much. If you’re going to play one of these, channeling that energy will help give the character shape.
While you could get away with saying “I roll persuasion to convince the crowd of drunken revelers to fight for me in this upcoming battle.” You could also deliver the actual epic speech that wins the hearts and minds of every member of the crowd.
With a shy or less sociable race like forest gnome or dragonborn, on the other hand, roleplaying to that extent can be optional. So, players who are mostly in it for the bloody battles or strategy might prefer a race that can get by with less roleplay.
If after answering those questions you’re still not sure what race to choose, I don’t know what to tell you. Just close your eyes and point, I guess.