Wizards of the Coast is changing the way that race works in D&D, leaving the door wide open for backgrounds to expand.
With a “new evolution” of the game coming in 2024, Wizards of the Coast has already set their sights on changes to the way monsters and player character races work in the game, and over the last couple of weeks we’ve gotten a look at what that means for the future of D&D.
Monsters are going to make life easier for the DM. WotC is adding a new tag system that’s worth digging into later, but what seems to have captured the attention of the playerbase right now is the way character creation is changing in D&D.
Let’s look at our jumping off point as it stands. In the most recent Unearthed Arcana, which introduced a number of alien species that appeared in Spelljammer (and, fun fact, first appeared in TSR’s Star Frontiers before being adapted to Spelljammer). But alongside them, WotC solidified a trend we’ve been seeing since Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything and Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft:
For the most part, it’s about what you’d expect– and you can see it play out in Harengons and Fairies in the newest book, Wild Beyond the Witchlight. There you can see how Harengons, for instance, have features like leporine senses which give them proficiency in Perception to reflect their naturally keen senses (Elves have this as well) and rabbit hop which lets you use a bonus action to jump up to 5 x your proficiency bonus in feet.
All of which reflects the “physical or magical realities” of a given member of that species. Dragonborn breathe fire, Harengon can hop around like bunnies, Gnomes can innately turn invisible. But not every Elf grows up learning the longsword, for instance, or how to speak Elven.
Which brings us to the latest Unearthed Arcana, which is full of new options for players to try, but for the most part folks are dwelling on the Giff (pronounced exactly like .gif), everyone’s favorite space-faring, arquebus loving hippo-folk.
The Giff, as a playable species, doesn’t have any innate proficiency with a gun–and why would they? It’s a cultural thing, not an inherent “physical or magical reality” but rather than take that to mean that culture has no impact on character creation, the door is wide open to expand the rules.
In fact, a number of folks have already given us a look at how character creation can reflect both what kind of creature you are, and what you grew up doing.
There’s Ancestry & Culture: An Alternative to Race in 5E, which separates ancestry and culture into distinct ways to build the character you want.
And Level Up: Advanced 5th Edition, similarly, gives you heritage and culture (because even though D&D uses the term “race” it’s not really reflective of what the word actually means). But similarly, these options reflect things like a Dragonborn’s armored scales and breath weapons, alongside options that reflect a Dragonborn’s cultural upbringing.
And WotC, too, has a tool already in place that reflects what you did growing up: backgrounds. The issue is that backgrounds, from the inception of the PHB, were there to help round out what 5E’s original race options did.
They weren’t doing the heaviest lifting. The balance was weighted differently. But with a new evolution, backgrounds could be expanded to reflect some of the things that folks are missing.
You could have a background like “Giff Arquebusier”, which represents growing up in the firearm-loving Spelljammer crews of a Giff expeditionary flotilla that might give you proficiency with a firearm of some kind, or that lets you use loading weapons without wasting an action. Backgrounds can help pick up the spare as WotC changes things.
What do you think of WotC’s new character creation guidelines? Let us know in the comments