Over at WotC’s “DnD Next” page, Monte Cook has written a second article kinda circling around how to handle PC races. Basically, Mr. Cook is wrangling with the question of how much mechanical impact your choice of race should have. Since I can’t seem to figure out how to post over there, and since I don’t have time to write something brief and pithy, blog post!
If you’re going to separate race and class (and we know they are for 5e) and class is going to dictate the lion’s share of your character’s abilities, what does that leave for race? Traditionally, race has offered a few small tweaks to your character sheet: a few bonuses or penalties to stats (which vanished in importance fairly quickly in every iteration of the game) and a handful of special abilities and bonuses (which also often got swamped out by escalating bonuses and abilities as the characters approached mid-level). In 1e, the big bonus you got from choosing a non-human was the opportunity to multi-class, and it was fairly similar across the races.
If you’re going to bother having character race be a choice, what do you want to accomplish with it? Or, rather, as is the case for 5e’s design team, if you’re stuck with including elves, dwarves, halflings, etc. in your game, what opportunities do they give you?
What pops foremost in my mind is the chance to create a new experience while playing a familiar class. The basic mechanics of the class might still be the same (still rolling a d20 to hit with your weapon or still picking spells in advance via a Vancian system), but the race should offer a wrinkle that fundamentally changes how you play that class. That means more than a simple +1 when using certain weapons or the like.
What you’d look for are frequently used but seldom modified sub-systems that can be adjusted by your choice of race. One of my favorites is inventory management. The dwarf’s extra carrying capacity in LotFP’s encumbrance rules or my own pixie’s equipment costing half as much as normal are examples of this sort of thing. A race that received extra benefit from clerical spells would play very differently than norm for just about every class, as would one who was highly resistant (or even nearly immune, even to beneficial clerical magic). A race that reacted very differently to dropping to nearly, or below, zero hit points might also offer some interesting differences (assuming the PCs in your game did that frequently enough). So might a race that couldn’t wear armor but offered alternative options for adjusting AC.
That’s just off the top of my head. I’m sure there are enough interesting sub-systems in 5e that they could come up with a fun and interesting tweak for every race that would alter how you play nearly every class enough to make playing a fighter of one race very different from playing a fighter of another. Keeping it all balanced would be a headache, but as I’m a “combat as war” kinda guy, I’ll admit to not being terribly interested in that aspect of it.