Although Dungeons & Dragons fourth edition gives us eight races and sixteen monster races, there are times when these won’t do. Perhaps you’ve had an idea for a cool new race, or a player wants something different. Maybe you’re developing a new and innovative campaign setting, or want to introduce an interesting NPC or monster species.
The following guidelines should give you a start.
Step 1: Come up with a strong race concept.
Your initial idea is vital. Consider your race’s appearance, abilities and culture. What’s special about it? Where does it come from? What makes this different from other races? Why do members of this race make good adventurers?
“Animal people” are almost always a mistake. They’re generic, overused and at worst ridiculous. D&D has some classic animal people (including gnolls, minotaurs and hengeyokai), but you should aim to be more original.
If you’re really stumped for ideas, try a variation of an existing race, such as a new type of elf. Take the stats for your race and change some abilities to suit your purpose, taking care that the power level is roughly the same.
Step 2: Assign ability score bonuses
The ability score bonuses of a race usually determines its focus. Most are geared toward a certain class or range of classes. Consider what focus you want your race to have and assign ability scores as appropriate.
For a player character race in D&D 4th edition, a +2 bonus to two ability scores is the norm. Don’t be tempted to give out greater bonuses, as these break with convention and are probably too powerful. Unlike D&D third edition, 4E has no “level adjustment” system to balance overpowered races.
A flexible or universal race can use the human’s bonus +2 to any one ability score. This is slightly weaker than other races, so be sure to compensate them in other ways.
Step 3: Decide special racial abilities.
Racial abilities flesh out a race and create a reason for players to use it. You have a lot of freedom here to create innovative mechanics.
Take a look at the existing player character races to gauge the sort of power a race’s special abilities should have. The halfling and tiefling have three reasonably strong powers, while the elf has five weaker powers. You should have at least one particularly powerful ability, like the elf’s Elven Accuracy or the tiefling’s fire resistance.
Your race should also have a +2 bonus to two different skills. This helps to characterize the race as filling a certain role.
Step 4: Fill in the extras.
Finish off by filling in the race’s average weight, height, language, and minor statistics: size, speed, and vision type. Almost all races will be size Medium (unless it’s Small), have speed 6 and either normal or low-light vision.
Remember that unlike D&D third edition, it’s unusual for player character races to possess darkvision.
Step 5: Playtest!
Even if you’re sure your race is well-balanced, it’s vital that it gets some live testing before you publish it in the next RPG best-seller. Playtesting can uncover flaws and loopholes that you hadn’t noticed, or reveal that an ability doesn’t work as you had anticipated.
A final piece of DM’s advice is to take care when allowing players to create races for their own use. Players often make their own material too powerful, even without realizing it. Be sure to consider player material carefully.