The One D&D Unearthed Arcana introduced updated Character Origin rules. Almost every PHB race was revisited, but two were dropped: Half-Elf and Half-Orc. The latter was replaced with the full Orc, but the former was replaced with a new planetouched race called the Ardling. That left no half- or otherwise mixed race options.
There is a sidebar, “Children of Different Humanoid Kinds,” that says if you want to play half-elf, half-orc, or any other combination of things, just pick one side of your parentage to determine your game abilities and then you can describe yourself as looking like a combination of both sides of your ancestry. Then average the two races’ lifespan to get your expected lifespan.
A lot of folks feel that is insufficient for a variety of reasons that I’ll leave you to find on your own. A lot of alternatives have been proposed, usually around the idea of combining traits from two or more races, but exactly in what proportion is a tough nut to crack. So I took a swing.
Any mixed heritage system needs to be as simple as making a few choices from a list. Spending points out of a pool to “purchase” racial traits a la carte is too involved for my casual players and the casual players that D&D is most aimed at. So, how much of what do you pick?
I went through the Races section of the Character Origins UA and gave each trait under each race a simple categorization:
Minor (m): A single skill proficiency, darkvision, a cantrip, resistance to a rare damage type, or a fairly situational ability
Major (M): Magic progression with cantrip, 1st-, and 2nd-level spells; resistance to a common damage type; or a generally powerful ability
Superior/major + minor (Mm): Something that exceeds the Major options in a substantial way
These are general bands of power, not meant to draw fine lines between every distinct trait. That would not enable the quick-and-dirty nature of this homebrew on a playtest doc. Are these subjective? Yes, to some unavoidable degree. No two people will rate everything exactly the same, including the designers. But we’ve got to start somewhere.
The first thing I learned is the races as written are not particularly balanced. Modularizing the races into a standardized structure like we see in the Backgrounds of the Character Origins UA would require significant changes to a number of the races. I decided against that, as that would limit the utility of the system going forward since Wizards of the Coast are unlikely to adopt my rewrite of their UA, to understate things significantly.
Instead, I built a structure for mixed heritage races that is itself standardized even though it is built out of these non-standardized pieces. The median race in the UA has about 2 Major traits and 2 Minor traits. Some have a Superior trait, but none have more than one. So I used that as the structure. Every mixed heritage PC using this will have 2 Major and 2 Minor traits, with Superior traits taking up 1 Major and 1 Minor slot, and no more than 1 Superior trait. This way, even if the UA traits are eventually revised, this structure can still be applied, I’ll just need to update the trait ratings.
So here’s my sidebar:
Children of Different Humanoid Kinds
Across the magical worlds of the multiverse, humanoids of different kinds often have children together. On some worlds, children of humans and orcs or humans and elves are particularly prevalent. However, many other combinations are possible and well represented throughout the multiverse.
If you decide your character is the child of such a pairing, pick the Creature Type, Size, and Speed traits of one of your parentages (we suggest the most distinctive). Determine the average of the two options’ Life Span traits to figure out how long your character might live. For example, a child of a Gnome and a Halfling has an average life span of 288 years. As far as physical description, you can mix and match the visual characteristics – color, ear shape, and the like – of both parentages.
For your special traits, pick two major traits and two minor traits from those listed for your character’s parentage, in any combination. In place of one of your major and minor picks, you may instead pick a superior trait. You cannot pick more than one superior trait.
For example, the Gnome/Halfling child above might pick the Gnome’s Gnomish Cunning trait (superior), the Halfling’s Luck trait (major), and the Gnome’s Darkvision trait (minor). Alternatively, they could pick the Gnome’s Gnomish Lineagetrait (major), the Halfling’s Bravetrait (major), the Gnome’s Darkvision trait (minor), and the Halfling’s Halfling Nimbleness trait (minor).
Angelic Flight (Major)
Celestial Legacy (Major)
Damage Resistance (minor)
Draconic Ancestry (this has no effect itself, it only affects the Breath Weapon and Damage Resistance traits. If you take either of those, also take Draconic Ancestry)
Breath Weapon (Major)
Damage Resistance (Major)
Draconic Language (if Dragonborn is one of your parentages, you get this trait automatically)
Dwarven Resilience (Major)
Dwarven Toughness (Major)
Forge Wise (Minor)
Elven Lineage (Superior)
Fey Ancestry (Major)
Keen Senses (Minor)
Gnomish Cunning (Superior)
Gnomish Lineage (Major)
Halfling Nimbleness (Minor)
Naturally Stealthy (Minor)
Adrenaline Rush (Major)
Powerful Build (Minor)
Relentless Endurance (Major)
Fiendish Legacy (Superior)
Otherworldly Presence (Minor)
So, a few examples:
Fey Ancestry (Major)
Fjord, Half-Human Half-Orc
Adrenaline Rush (Major)
Koriand’r Starfire, Half-Ardling Half-Dragonborn
Angelic Flight (Major)
Breath Weapon (Major)
(Ardling’s) Damage Resistance (Minor)
Draconic Ancestry (free)
Draconic Language (free)
Chastity Bitterburn, Half-Dwarf Half-Tiefling
Fiendish Legacy (Superior)
I don’t think these are broken, not in light of the standard Dwarf and Elf packages, at least. Maybe Dragonborn’s Breath Weapon should be superior? But maybe not. I’ll keep revising it.
What do you think? Does this make mixed heritage characters feel more mixed? None of this is set in stone, I welcome thoughtful feedback.
Let me know if you try this out how it works for you! That would be amazing.
Also, please, can we drop the word Race and use almost any synonym? Heritage, Ancestry, Parentage, Kin, even Bloodline is better than Race. Thanks.
(This is a post about rulings in D&D 5e, I promise.)
In 1899, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., wrote the lines “We must think things not words, or at least we must constantly translate our words into the facts for which they stand, if we are to keep to the real and the true.” We live in a very different age where justices allow textual minutiae to erode and diminish the rights secured by past generations’ efforts, then chide the upset citizenry for not knowing that words are more important than things. But that’s a little too significant for this blog.
It is relevant, though. For the life of D&D 5e, official rule interpretations have come in the form of Sage Advice, mostly tweets from D&D’s Lead Designer Jeremy Crawford. These are compiled into the Sage Advice Compendium, here. As of this writing, the most recent compendium update was released in April of 2020.
The vast majority of Sage Advice’s rulings are fairly noncontroversial, but there are a few that leave you scratching your head. There’s a theme to some of the most egregious of these outliers: they rely on the text of the rules as written to justify an awkward, clunky distinction that doesn’t really make sense based on the apparent in-universe rules of “how things work.” They are rulings based on words, not the actual things the words represent.
A Hero Is Only As Good As His Weapon
The best known example may be the paladin’s Divine Smite ability. The text of the rule reads “when you hit a creature with a melee weapon attack, you can expend one spell slot to deal radiant damage to the target, in addition to the weapon’s damage.” So the question came: Can a paladin use Divine Smite when they hit using an unarmed strike? Well, in the combat chapter, the PHB tells us “Instead of using a weapon to make a melee weapon attack, you can use an unarmed strike.” In other words, whether you use a weapon or an unarmed strike, that is a melee weapon attack, so either fulfills the requirement of Divine Smite.
And this makes sense, right? What god insists on the use of handheld weapons to the point that they withhold their paladins’ ability to smite enemies if they head-butt them instead of smash them with a hammer? Let alone all gods, since this would apply to all paladins! That’s a pretty arbitrary, if not outright silly limitation. Divine Smite imbues divine energy to a paladin’s physical attack, whatever form that takes. Any other ruling would also create a strange, new distinction between a “melee weapon attack,” which includes unarmed strikes per the combat chapter, and an “attack with a melee weapon,” which does not. Textually, conceptually, structurally, and practically, Divine Smite on an unarmed strike is the clearer, more sensible, more consistent rule.
But it’s not the one Sage Advice went with. You see, according to Sage Advice, “the text of Divine Smite…refers to the ‘weapon’s damage,’ and an unarmed strike isn’t a weapon.” (Compendium, p. 5). Sage Advice gets stuck on the words in the rule, that it refers to “the weapon’s damage,” which must be different from an unarmed strike’s damage, even though they are both melee weapon attacks. If the rule had meant to include unarmed strikes, I suppose it would have said “you can expend one spell slot to deal radiant damage to the target, in addition to the weapon or unarmed strike’s damage,” or “in addition to the attack’s normal damage,” or something else. But since it said “the weapon’s damage,” well, I guess poor Sage Advice’s hands were tied.
Paladins got a slight nerf and the category of “attack with a melee weapon” was distinguished from “melee weapon attack,” because Sage Advice answered the question by thinking words, not things. Never mind that the words in Divine Smite were likely drafted without knowing what the combat chapter’s final text would say about unarmed strikes, and likely by a totally different person or even team than whoever wrote the unarmed strike rules. No, Sage Advice instead insists that this was a thematic choice, that paladins are traditionally associated with weapons so the game wouldn’t support unarmed paladins, and not an interpretive choice wherein Crawford answered a question by strictly following a slightly contradictory text. That is difficult to believe, and if true, a bad reason to burden us with “attack with a melee weapon” anyway.
But even more egregious than Divine Smite is what this textualist approach did to magical effects in, say, an antimagic field.
Works Like Magic (Except When It Totally Doesn’t)!
According to antimagic field‘s description, “[s]pells and other magical effects, except those created by an artifact or a deity, are suppressed in the sphere and can’t protrude into it.” There are some further rules describing how spells and other magical effects are suppressed, but that’s the relevant takeaway. So the question comes to Sage Advice: is the breath weapon of a dragon magical? Is it a “magical effect” for antimagic field and similar purposes?
A great question, since “magical effect” is not defined in the rulebooks. There are a number of things to think about while answering it: dragons are inherently magical creatures, and breathing fire or ice or acid or sleep gas seems like a part of their magical nature. At the same time, every elf also has Fey Ancestry which gives them apparently magical immunity to charm and magical sleep effects. Is that also a “magical effect” suppressed by antimagic field? Elementals are beings of almost pure magical energy, are they suppressed, as well? Magic infuses every inch of D&D worlds, it is part of their fundamental make up, yet obviously antimagic field doesn’t blink everything in its radius out of existence. What about a monk’s ki effects? Druid’s Wild Shape? A paladin’s aura? Bardic Inspiration? We have to draw a line somewhere that feels right and that DMs can apply at their own table.
Or we could do what Sage Advice did and make up textual rules about whether something is magical. There are 5 ways an effect can be magical, and if it doesn’t fit any of those 5, then it’s not magical. Ask yourself these questions:
Is it a magic item?
Is it a spell, or does it let you create the effects of a spell that’s mentioned in its description?
Is it a spell attack?
Is it fueled by the use of spell slots?
Does its description say it’s magical?
If at least one of the answers is yes, the feature/trait is a magical effect. So, a dragon’s breath, it turns out, is not a magical effect since it is not described as “magical” in its statblock or any of the other criteria. (Compendium, p. 20)
But as is often the case when you impose strict textual rules of interpretation on rules written years before by different people in different phases of development, these rigid rules lead to some weird results!
For instance, a bard’s Countercharm ability, whereby you use “musical notes or words of power to disrupt mind-influencing effects[,]” is now not magical. A Light Cleric’s Warding Flare or Life Cleric’s Divine Strikes? Not magical. When a Tempest Cleric takes flight via Stormborn? Also not magical. The Eldritch Knight Fighter – you know, the one who casts spells – gets the ability to teleport when they Action Surge, but it’s not a magical teleport, apparently, just one of those mundane teleports. A paladin’s Lay On Hands is not magical, nor is the Vengeance Paladin’s ability to transform into a winged form with a frightening aura. An Archfey Warlock’s Misty Escape, whereby they become invisible and teleport, is not magical, nor is the Fiend Warlock’s Hurl Through Hell feature which, as you can guess, hurls enemies through hell. All of this can happen in an antimagic field, apparently. Bizarrely, teleportation is one of the specifically enumerated effects of antimagic field, even though some teleports are, by Sage Advice, not magical!
“OK, fine,” you might say to yourself, “imposing that rule backwards may not work very well, but I’m sure specifying what is meant to be magical became standard practice after that Sage Advice, right?” Well, that Sage Advice response first appeared in 2015, over 2 years before the first major expansion, Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, was released. That book featured the Barbarian Path of the Ancestral Guardian, whose key feature, Ancestral Protectors, summons spirits who protect you. It just does so non-magically, apparently. The Grave Cleric can harness the energy of a departing soul to heal others, and this is also not magical. A Hexblade Warlock can raise an undead specter to be its servant all without magic.
Suffice it to say, things don’t get better in Tasha’s, either, in fact it introduces psionic subclasses which are a whole new gray area. Material being released today is just as random on the Sage Advice magical effect criteria as the material that predated it. And this list is by no means exhaustive. There are dozens more class features that are clearly magical in concept but are not technically “magical effects” per Sage Advice. I haven’t even looked at monsters yet, but I assume the problem is just as rampant there.
When PCs are teleporting, hurling fools through hell, and raising spectres and you’re calling that not a magical effect, but a Totem Warrior Barbarian speaking with animals is since the latter directly cites a spell, the term “magical effect” has lost all practical meaning. These are not even the close calls that rules clarifications are helpful for. Sage Advice never should have defined “magical effects” by tying it to the specific words a dozen or more authors happened to use in descriptive text written across the many years of the edition’s lifespan. The results are absurd.
Now, I’m a lawyer, I get where Crawford’s coming from: in an ideal world the words we use to codify rules would perfectly express the scope of what we want the rule to do, so the rules text itself can provide the answers without having to engage with the inherently fuzzy concepts directly. He wanted to find an answer in the words, not the things the words represent, just like a Supreme Court Ju–no, sorry, not getting significant. I get that impulse for easy analysis, but in any sprawling system, the easy answer will often lead to more confusing, less beneficial outcomes. In Justice Holmes’ words, it loses “the real and the true.” Sometimes it is better to let judges just roll up their sleeves and make substantive judgment calls in context.
That means the “rule” on magical effects should have addressed things, not words. Something like:
If an effect is accomplished by material, mundane, or mechanical means, it is not a magical effect; but if it is accomplished by applying some source of supernatural energy, whether arcane, divine, mystical, or otherwise, then it is a magical effect.
For example, all spells channel arcane or divine energy, so spellcasting is magical, as is any feature or trait that mimics a particular spell or is fueled by spell slots. Likewise, any effect that calls for a spell attack or a save against a Spell DC channels magical energy.
Some features and traits are magical even if they don’t refer to spellcasting: a druid takes the form of beasts via Wild Shape, clerics and paladins can Channel Divinity, and Pact of the Fiend warlocks can send their enemies on a trip through hell.
Supernatural energies include more than just the arcane and divine, e.g. the mystical or psionic. A monk’s ki powers and a mind flayer’s Mind Blast are also magical effects since they manipulate those energies.
Just because something seems unrealistic does not mean it is not mundane in D&D worlds. Realistically, a creature built like a typical fantasy dragon would be unable to fly. But what matters is that dragons have wings, which are a mundane means to fly. Unless something suggests otherwise, creatures with a mundane means to accomplish an effect use those means, and creatures with a magical means to accomplish an effect use those means.
When a creature has both mundane and magical means to accomplish an effect, it may help to compare the effect to other effects the creature has to decide which means is likely producing the effect in question.
Thus, the analysis of a white dragon’s Cold Breath would go something like: while we could imagine a mechanical or mundane means of spewing an icy blast at a foe, nothing about a white dragon suggests it has such means. On the other hand, white dragons create icy effects similar to their Cold Breath in their lair and region as they grow in power, which certainly seem to be supernatural. Since the white dragon’s other ice effects appear to be accomplished by magical means, and no mundane means of blasting ice is suggested by what we know of dragons, the white dragon’s Cold Breath is a magical effect.
Maybe you would draw the line slightly differently, maybe “magic” is really only about drawing on external energies and therefore inherent magic like a dragon’s breath or a monk’s ki or an elf’s fey ancestry would not count as “magical effects.” Or some other mental model entirely.
The point is not to draw the perfect line between non-magical and magical effects, the point is that the rules and/or DM rulings should define that line in terms of the fictional things that are happening and not by the words a given author happened to use to describe them.
And that has become very apparent with the updated monster stat blocks! A lot of good changes in the new blocks, but magic is a much more mixed bag. Spellcasting monsters’ key spells will be turned into unique Actions to make them easier to run, while other, mostly out-of-combat utility spells, will be in the general Spellcasting Action. I’m all for making spellcasters easier to run, and Actions written out in the block beat just a spell name I have to look up every time. But changing key effects from spells to non-spells changes things a lot, especially when the new write-up forgets to describe an obviously supernatural effect as magical. Now it’s no longer a spell, no longer uses a spell slot, and isn’t written as “magical,” which makes it not even a magical effect! The old War Priest was, for all intents and purposes, a War Cleric who would be just as affected by antimagic field as the party’s War Cleric. The new one, OTOH, would not be much affected since its at-will Holy Fire attack is neither a spell nor a magical effect, according to Sage Advice.
Enough is enough. Sage Advice put out a rigid, text-based definition of magical effect that was wildly inconsistent with the game as it was written then, has not been applied since, and now the textual and mechanical lines between mundane and magical effects are being blurred even more with the new evolution. DMs shouldn’t follow that Sage Advice, and the new evolution of 5e should write a rule for magical effects and then ensure that magical effects actually follow it.
My definition and ruling are by no means perfect, there are still edge cases like paladin auras or bardic inspiration that you could argue either way for. But when stuff is already published and you’re just looking to interpret it, clear concepts with some unclear application is ultimately preferable to a crystal-clear-to-apply but frequently absurd answer. DMs have to make up how to award magic items and had to invent how stealth is supposed to work entirely: we can decide whether an effect in the narrative and rules is accomplished by mundane or magical means.
Keep to the Real and True
I’m a proponent of robust rules, but no TTRPG can cover everything and making rulings is an important skill for every DM. Unfortunately, 5e really doesn’t provide much guidance on how to make one or how to communicate one. Sage Advice are official rulings: they’re not binding, but they’re a model of rulings. While most Sage Advice is perfectly reasonable (where the rules actually answer the question), occasionally the insistence on ruling from text instead of from the fiction creates absurd results.
Justice Holmes gives us a better way: think things, not words. Understand the rules are imperfectly trying to reflect the fictional world, and that world can and should be the foundation of your rulings, not just the letter of the rules text. Paladins can Smite with their fists. Lay On Hands is a magical effect. Sage Advice can just be wrong. Death to textualism.
Have you ever tried to put a Large creature mini in the center of 3 1″ hexes like the 5e DMG indicates is the size of a Large creature?
That mini’s base is spilling waaay over into the bordering hexes, such that no Medium base can fit there. And a Huge base swallows the 7 hexes the DMG says it’s supposed to get plus takes a bite out of 5 more hexes.
Either you need to use a much bigger hex grid (like 1.25″, maybe 1.33″?), or just drop the 3-hex configuration and bump the size categories up so that a Large mini fits over 7 hexes, Huge covers 12, etc.
And this makes way more sense because a 1″ hex isn’t a square inch of area the way a 1″ square is. A 1″ hex is ~.853 square inches, so 3 of them together is only about 2.56 square inches, significantly smaller than the 4 square inches on a square grid. Currently, the DMG recommends an increasingly smaller area on hex grids than on square grids:
Notice that every hex arrangement over Medium is actually smaller than the creature’s base? You see how the Gargantuan creature is supposed to take up barely over 1 sq. in. more on a hex grid than the Huge creature does on a square grid? These hex arrangements are unworkable.
If you want, you can put the Large creature on a symmetrical 6-hex pattern that actually makes its total area closer to the 4 sq. in. of the square grid than either 3 or 7 hexes does (5.12 sq. in. instead of 2.56 or 5.974, respectively).
I know no one cares about hex grids anyway, and VTTs and TotM really don’t care how big minis are. But it bothers me that multiple editions have been suggesting such absurd hex conversions to ostensibly use with your same minis and maps.
So, what design goals do I think would help the D&D After Next (D&D AN) be a better game? First, a note on what I mean by ‘better.’ I want a new edition of D&D to lower the barrier-to-entry of the hobby, to expand the market, to make new gamers, not just pander to old ones. I want it to get at the core of what makes D&D fun, not what makes it familiar.
My mantra for this project will be; does this idea make the experience cleaner, faster, or richer? If it doesn’t do one of those things, it’s not going to make it into the game.
I want the game to be simpler than some of its editions, and not simply by relying on the DM to make up most of it. I want a reasonable first-time player to feel fairly comfortable playing after their first session. I want to make the DM’s job as easy as possible. I want the rules to be clear and concise, and I want them all very easy to find; preferably all in one place, or in extremely handy places – no more flipping through chapter upon chapter of text trying to look stuff up. So, I want a simpler, streamlined D&D, in both presentation and content.
My ideal session of D&D AN would last about 60-150 minutes, and cover a complete mid-sized adventure without feeling rushed. I don’t want to have to choose between spending time with family and friends and playing D&D; besides the obvious possibility of doing both simultaneously, I want to be able to do both in the same evening. Resolution time needs to be cut down by a significant margin; combats need to be shorter without being much more lethal. I aim for a combat to take between 10-25 minutes, not 30-40. I want less die rolls per action wherever possible. I have a lot of ideas for this that you’ll see in the next post.
At the same time, I want a richer D&D: I want tools that emphasize the story-telling aspects, and meaningful, yet balanced character options. D&D AN needs to play to its strengths, considering the competition from other hobbies, and I think the story-telling aspect is one of the big ones. D&D AN will strive to help you craft and live your character’s story, with all the thrills, disappointments, and achievements that come with it. But besides story-telling, there needs to be a great amount of depth and range of character options. I will use the principles described here and here to make balanced, situationally beneficial options. No more trap classes or feats! No more pigeonholing race + class combos! No more identical class mechanics! And not just in the dungeon; I will make meaningful non-combat rules that have depth while keeping everyone able to participate (more on that soon).
Those are my broad goals. Specific benchmarks and ways to achieve them will be brainstormed and hashed out right here, for your entertainment/enrichment. My next article will focus specifically on how much faster it needs to be and how to get there.
Please leave a reply with your comments, ideas, or criticisms! Agree or disagree? What do you think D&D AN needs to be?