In Dungeons & Dragons, you can choose what kind of person you want to be, not just how you act, but what Race/Species/Ancestry you want to be. We already talked about the benefits of playing a Human, but what about the other common races?
Elves, Dwarves, Halflings, and Half-Elves. These are great because due to the extreme popularity of The Lord of the Rings, everyone has a pretty solid understanding of these races. Also, in most settings, these are prominent races that can usually be easily found, and therefore won’t bring unnecessary/unwanted attention to your party.
So let’s look at these races, how they’re usually portrayed, how they can break those tropes, and how I play them. As a heads up, the subraces in my world are less an example of racism, and more on classism.
I also want to add, that in the setting of your next campaign, these races might be more specific in the mind of your DM. It’s possible that all Dwarves are combat-obsessed, or that Elves are agoraphobic. If this happens, while it’s always a good idea to communicate and work together to find a solution that everyone can enjoy, remember that Humans are expected to be adaptive and diverse, and can probably fill the role you have in your head, if it doesn’t fit the race as the worldbuilder intended.
First, we have the Elves. In many settings, Elves are the first mythical race created, and many other races are somehow based on them. They live to be generations older than Humans, they tend to live in the Forest in tree houses, and are seen as wise for their centuries of experience. You can put most Elves into one of two camps: Legolas or Elrond.
Legolas Elves, or Wood Elves, can handle themselves in nature, usually use attack from range with a bow and arrow, and love a good leaf-and-root motif.
Elrond Elves, or High Elves, are very posh, and praise patience and wisdom as the greatest of virtues. They tend to think of short lived Humans as children.
All modern Elves come from The Lord of the Rings, because before that Elves were basically fairies, but that does explain their connection to the Fey or Fairy World. This is why D&D Elves have powers like Fey Step, and are related to Eladrin, powerful Fey beings. How are you connected to fairies?
A fun extension of their long lifespans, is that Elves might be perfectionist, because they have so much time to perfect their skills and abilities. Why is a 60 year old Elf Level 1, and a 20 year old Human Level 1? Well, because the Human learns enough to get started, while an Elf wants to make sure they fully understand the basics.
They aren’t all the same though, as in Eberron Elves ride horses in the desert, and are more akain to barbarians, attacking others for their resources.
In my setting, Elves have formed a kind of Idealistic Hippie Commune, where they meditate, create art, and look to the preservation of history. They are the only ones who seem concerned that the present will one day be gone, and it is their job to keep accurate record of it, for future generations. High Elves are the equivalent of nobility, while Wood Elves are the more prominent group.
Next we have Dwarves. Dwarves come from Norse mythology, and were more akin to what we would consider Gnomes, and were a subtype of Elves. Interestingly, Dwarves being a type of Elf is a common trope, also seen in the Elder Scrolls (Skyrim) series.
The classic Dwarf, is of course Gimli. Short, bearded, usually Norse or Scottish, both in voice and lifestyle. No matter the setting, Dwarves almost always mean one thing though, Mountains. They are known for mining the mountains, and using the ore for weapons, that they then attack other mountainous creatures with, like Orcs.
Because of this, the Mountain Dwarf can fall into all of the tropes easily, but what about Hill Dwarves? There’s not much about the difference in the Player’s Handbook, with it really just being that they don’t live in the mountains.
My setting is largely the same, where Mountain Dwarves live in the Mountains, and the Hill Dwarves don’t. In the Dwarf nation, that means that the non-mountainous areas in the East are responsible for all of the agriculture for the Mountain Dwarves. However, the Capital is in the Mountains to the West, so they are seen as more important to the nation. Similar to in the US, how New York and LA, big cities, are seen as the important places in the country, but the Midwest is where all of our food comes from, but cities like St. Louis aren’t treated as important, even though they are still full urban areas. Another distinction is in the Northern Dwarves and the Southern Dwarves. In the North, a focus on strength and military is held in high esteem, but in the South, the focus is instead on production and invention. Both are traditionally Dwarvish values, but I split them up. Now all Dwarf characters can roleplay between two different axis that can give two different sources of conflict within the Dwarvish communities.
Also interestingly, even though they also have long lifespans compared to humans, this isn’t as focused on with how they are portrayed.
Halflings are very humanoid as well, and so even if they aren’t as common, it doesn’t feel out of place to see them. Just like the others, there are two subraces of Halfling, Lightfoot and Stout, or as I call them, Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee.
Halflings are commonly cheerful, laid back, and peaceful. While they are just as willing to work hard for important reasons, their ambitions are more focused on celebrating today, rather than working for tomorrow.
For my setting, I stole from Eberron, and made it where Halflings are exceptionally skilled at hospitality. Halflings don’t have their own nation, largely because they are so accepting of the rules and lifestyle of those around them. Halflings serve others, not because they have to, but because it creates a symbiotic relationship with the other ancestries that are stronger, and will protect them from danger.
Lastly, we have Half-Elves, people that usually have an Elf parent and a Human parent, but might be from two Half-Elf parents themselves. These are actually much less common, but they can often pass as either, and so are seen as common anyway.
Many biracial players in the real world identify with half-elves, as they have a foot in each culture, but sometimes don’t feel like they fully belong to either. While some Half-Elves might be able to pass as either ancestry, it’s possible that instead they pass as neither. The Humans think they’re Elves, and the Elves think they’re Human, and so neither group fully accepts them. Personally, I moved a lot growing up, so I was always the new kid and never felt like I belonged, so I also always felt partial to the Half-Elf.
However, in my setting, I’ve made Half-Elves a creation of the Elves. As I mentioned above, the Elvish culture is one focused on art, history, literature, and spirituality. That means that there is a lot of work that goes undone, or at least nobody that wants to do it, things like construction and maintenance, food production and procurement, or travel for trade and commerce purposes. So, they made Half-Elves, beings that are between Humans and Elves, that are more willing to do that hard and dirty work that is needed for society. This has a side effect, unfortunate for the Elves, that many Half-Elves leave to lead lives of mercenary work. In other words, they are perfect to become D&D adventurers, much in the same way that my Half-Elf characters are.
There are a lot of ways that you can play common ancestries (races), and the most important thing is that you work with your DM to make sure that your character fits into the world you’ll be playing in.