D&D 5 Review Part 4: Character Races (Part 2)

Category: Cussin' In Tongues
Created on Friday, 27 April 2018 Written by Steve

Before we start this, I’d like to ask a question I’ve been wondering about for a while now: WHAT THE FUCK IS A TIEFLING? Apparently it and the Dragonborn showed up somewhere between 3rd Edition and now, and I don’t understand why. Admittedly, the fact that I’m an Old Fart is part of the problem here, but D&D, derivative as it may be, has developed into its own genre, and that genre has a very broad but specific collection of influences, none of which include dragon people or whatever the hell Tieflings are. There are literally hundreds of existing D&D creatures that could have been tapped if the designers wanted a wider variety of character races, but instead they chose to just shoehorn in some made-up shit that has never existed in D&D, any of the D&D game worlds, or any of the traditional source material.

I think the departure from the D&D genre is also why I couldn’t get into D&D Online. I’m not much of a video game player, but the D&D video games have consistently addicted me, at least for a while. In the early days (starting with Pool of Radiance on the Commodore 64), I’d play them all the way to the end. More recently (up to Neverwinter Nights Online), I’d play them as often as I could for a month or two and then get bored. With D&D Online, I played about two weeks. I think the main problem is that it just didn’t feel like D&D to me. It had airships as commonplace things (instead of as weird storied inventions of the knomes/whatever the human version of knomes in the Forgotten Realms was called--Lanthans or something), robots, and a bunch of shit that made it seem like “not D&D.” Or at least, not *my* D&D. Again, Old Fart.

As I mentioned last week, the remaining races are the “uncommon” ones: Dragonborn and Tieflings (true, if by “uncommon” you mean “have never been seen by anyone in most D&D worlds before, but suddenly there are a dozen of the fuckers in every bar), Gnomes (ok, that’s true, nobody says “oh boy, I’m going to play a gnome!”), Half-Orcs (ok, maybe, but I think classifying them as “uncommon” is borderline true at best), and Half-Elves (bullshit, those guys are everywhere in most games, maybe more common than Elves themselves). 


Hey, they found a quote for these guys too. The book is from 2013. They couldn’t even find a classic literary source like Elaine Cunningham. So yeah, the dragonborn are dragon guys. They breathe fire (or whatever). It’s really a “what it says on the box” kind of thing. Want to play a dragon man? Here’s a dragon man for you. The sparse information about Dragonborn society is basically a rewrite of all the Dwarf stuff about clans. There’s also a sidebar that tries to convince us that Draconians from DragonLance were Dragonborn despite Draconians being completely different from Dragonborn. This race is exactly the kind of power gamer fan service I expected it to be. Yes, Dave, we’re all very impressed with your 18 Strength and acid breath. Now fuck off. 


If I could ask Gary Gygax one question, it would be “Why Gnomes?” I mean, what are they there for? Did Gary worry that there was a significant segment of the gaming population who really wanted to play a short guy but couldn’t handle the sheer manliness of Dwarves or the sheer...uh...Bilboiness of Hobbits? Who are the Gnomes for? This is the one question even Jon Peterson will never uncover the answer to. 

DragonLance gave the Gnomes a purpose by turning them into D&D’s mad scientists, which kept “I’m going to play a Gnome” from being universally met with a response of “Why would you do that?” Third Edition kind of latched onto the Krynn version of Gnomes, but 5E hedges with two subraces: The Rock Gnomes, who are pretty much just Krynn Gnomes, and the Forest Gnomes, who are closer to a red-hatted Wil Huygen/garden gnome, just a little bigger and slightly less cutesy. The Rock Gnomes invent, the Forest Gnomes cast illusion spells and talk to chipmunks. The one thing I do like about the Gnome entry is that it makes them sound fun to play, or at least fun to meet. The writers don’t come right out and say “Gnomes should be comic relief,” but it’s heavily implied. Gnomes definitely get the award for Most Improved Character Race for this edition.


Bastard. Half-Breed. Orphan. Mongrel. Mudblood. Unlovable Gutter Trash. Zamboni. These are just some of the names Tanis Half-Elven was called in the first two paragraphs of the DragonLance Saga, but we all know that for all the talk of them being moody and sad, Half-Elves are a nice go-to race when you want some extra powers but don’t want to have to deal with all the baggage the comes from trying to role-play a character who isn’t human. The Half-Elf description here focuses on the whole “of both worlds, but really of neither” (single Affleck tear) thing and that they can grow beards. Ability-wise, the designers seem to be nudging Half-Elves toward the Bard Class (as a past player of many Half-Elven Bards, I support this decision). They get +2 Charisma and +1 to an ability of their choice, darkvision, bonuses against charm and sleep spells, and a couple free skills. No big surprises here, but no weird changes, either. 


The Half-Orc entry starts out by presenting the typical Half-Orc as the legitimate child of a loving interracial couple whose tribes formed an alliance. This is a nice change of pace from the “all half-orcs are rape babies” origin that’s been the standard in previous editions. Well played. There’s a nice bit about how their scars tell a story and another one about how their tendency toward evil is due in part to literal influence from the Orc god Gruumsh. Instead of just being angry combat machines, Half-Orcs “feel emotion powerfully” in general. They laugh heartily, love passionately, and dance like nobody’s watching. It’s kind of a Conan vibe. Overall, Half-Orcs are much better developed than in previous editions. This has the side-effect of making them at least slightly less conducive to bad allegory, which I think everyone who saw Bright can agree is probably a good thing. If the Gnomes didn’t sound so goddamn delightful, the Half-Orcs just might have edged them out for that Most Improved award. 


Ah, the Tiefling. For players who want to play a Drow, but way Drowier. Look, I get it: They were a 4E thing, 4E desperately wanted to be MMORPG: The RPG, and a bunch of MMORPGs let you play demons. Sure, it might not fit into “My D&D,” but I can understand the capitalist impulse to  incorporate newer influences into the genre, especially those with a huge audience. But couldn’t you have just called them Demons? At least it’s a real word. I think a big part of my problem with Tieflings is the dumb, meaningless name. “Tiefling” is a stupid made-up word that sounds like what they’d call a baby llama in Little House on the Prairie, or maybe a fancy scarf that a dandy would wear to a cotillion. Something about it as a D&D race is just like fingernails on a chalkboard to me. 

The description here doesn’t really tell me much beyond the “they’re fucking demons” part I already knew. Ok, they’re not technically demons, or even half-demons, more like they have demon blood. That’ a little better, I guess; at least some versions of Merlin and a few other characters from traditional D&D influences shared that with them. They’re resistant to fire, can cast a few spells, and have darkvision because everybody but humans has darkvision. Oh, and all that potential for sloppy allegory that disappeared from the Half-Orc? Don’t worry, the Tiefling description has plenty of it to go around. 

Next week: Classes. This is going to be a slog. 




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D&D 5 Review Part 4: Character Races (Part 2).
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