In Dungeons & Dragons, you can play a plethora of races. Of course there’s Humans, which often gets overlooked for the more interesting races, like Elf, Dwarf, Halfling, or Half-Elf. But what about more uncommon races? The things that, in many settings, would stand out from a crowd? What is it like to play such an outsider? In my opinion, Uncommon Ancestries can be broken down into two groups, ones that still kind of look like people, and ones that straight up look like animals.
I also want to say, Roleplay is more than just a funny voice, and an accent isn’t even required if that’s not something you enjoy. Roleplay is about inhabiting the space of that ancestry or character, and how they are distinctly different from Humans, or even the Common Races. If you are going to play one of these races like a regular Human, but with fur, just be a hairy Human. If you want to play these unique races, that’s great, just play them up, make them interesting.
If you play a humanoid, but uncommon, ancestry, your results vary greatly on how magical, or old, the setting you’re playing in is. If your world is highly magical, or has centuries upon centuries in it’s canonical history, then probable that your character will still be able to function in society, while maybe being a bit ostracized. If your world has low magic, or still relatively young, then your very presence will be shocking to some, and you might be seen as a monster.
Gnomes are the easiest, because if there are Halflings, you can probably get away with people assuming you are one of them. You might use that to your advantage, or might see that as insulting.
To me, a Human is to an Elf as a Halfling is to a Gnome. That is to say, a bit on the fey side.
Some people play them as tinkerers, though when that trope was created in Dragonlance, it was more played as a joke.
The home city of the gnomes, is actually an extinct volcano. Mount Nevermind has an incredibly “sophisticated” transportation system. Many gnomes considered that stairs were outdated, useless, and “primitive”. Their method of traveling to different floors within the mountain involves catapults. On the ground are many catapults. The gnome gets on one of them, and then a bell rings on the floor that the gnome intends to go to, letting the inhabitants of that floor know about an arrival. Then the catapults launches the gnome upwards. When the gnome reaches that floor, a net is supposed to roll out and catch the gnome. If it fails, then a net on the floor below it opens. If all the nets on all the floors miss the gnome, sponges are deployed on the ground floor… to help clean up the mess.”Mount Nevermind, Sancrist Island, Dragonlance
Rock Gnomes are the tinkerers and shoe makers. Forest gnomes are your Keebler elves. In Eberron they can read your mind and have a secret police and an advanced intelligence network. In Nentir Vale they are sneaky and paranoid fey. There are also a bunch of other gnome subraces (earth gnomes, skygnomes, arcane gnomes, river gnomes, ice gnomes, wavecrest gnomes) depending on the setting.
Half-Orc, Warforged, Goliath, Firbolg
These are your big folk. They will always stand out from a crowd, and when villagers see them, they might very well think they are under attack. They also often come from very specific communities, with very strong traditions and belief systems. I would recommend leaning into those traditions if you are interested in playing those races. If you want to be *unique* you can be, but know that the DM will probably make it part of the Roleplay with your character, when you don’t follow the strong traditions of these beefy boys.
Half-Orcs are obviously related to Orcs, and generally have Half-Human DNA, but could be another mixture.
Warforged are robots created for warfare, from Eberron. They bring a distinctly magitek/steampunk vibe to the game.
Goliath are the biggest, strongest in the game, and it’s entirely possible that your DM will not allow you to play a Goliath on the basis that they can negate entire challenges based on their size alone.
Firbolgs are your gentle giants, emphasis on Giant, caring for nature, generally not wanting to get violent.
Tiefling, Aasimar, Changeling
These I can barely count as Humanoid, but they are certainly closer to looking human than any specific animal, so they get to pile in.
First, we have Tieflings, which look like a Human and a Demon/Devil had a baby, because that’s basically what they are. People will automatically assume you are working for the forces of evil, though this is certainly not a requirement. A fun trope here, is “People called me a monster, so I decided to become what they thought I was anyway,” or the alternative “People called me a monster, but I do everything I can to prove them wrong, and bring more light into this world.” Both are valid, but people will always assume bad things. It just comes with the tails and horns. And maybe fangs?
Aasimar are quite the opposite. Basically, if a Human and an Angel had a baby. They are the closest you can get to the Hercules Demigod thing, if that’s your vibe. People will assume you are working for the forces of good and light. Do you stick with that vibe, and go on a holy crusade to rid the world of fiends, or do you use their naïve assumptions to your advantage, as you rob them blind?
Lastly, we have the Changelings, which again some DMs might exclude from your options, because their ability to completely change their appearance gives you a distinct advantage that could ruin the conflict and tension of the story. They are pretty cool though, as you’re essentially Mystique from the X-Men.
And, we have races that look like different kinds of animals. I want to specify, these don’t look like monsters per se, as next week I’m going over the Monstrous Ancestries. No, these are ones that are Human-sized animals, with Human-sized brains.
If the Humanoid races above weren’t allowed in the world, it’s even less likely that any of these will be. If you are really leaning toward one of these races, make sure to ask your DM before you start working on a backstory, because if they do exist, chances are there are some caveats you’ll need to agree to, to make them fit.
Dragonborn look like giant lizards. They can later breathe fire (ice/lightning/acid/etc), and might even get wings. Dragonborn are different in every setting over where they come from, but a common trope is that they were created by Dragons as slaves, and have since broken free of their bonds. In Matt Colville’s setting, they were created to be the ultimate royal guard, but then the King was usurped, and now they are on the run from the Usurper. Fun stuff.
Shifters are basically Diet Werewolves, they always look kinda like wolves, and they can increase their beastliness when in combat. Are they actually related to werewolves? Do they lose control of their emotions? Or is it just an evolutionary fact, that is a coincidence that there is a similar curse? Either way, do people think you’re a werewolf?
Tabaxi are Cat people. There are different types, just like there are different types of cat (hairless, leopard, tiger, etc). Many people play this due to the fun stereotypes of house cats in our world that they can bring in the game.
Aarakocras, Kenkus, and Owlins are all Bird Folk. Aarakocras are like Eagles, and tend to live in the mountains, where they can fly around. If you play one, why do they live on the ground, and engage in problems that probably won’t affect your people? Kenku are like Crows, except they don’t have wings, and they can’t create their own voice, they can only copy sounds and phrases that they hear. Some people like to play this up, but it can be hard to balance the line of it being annoying or debilitating. Where normally I suggest talking to your DM, this time I’d check in with your whole party first, because if you don’t do this right, you can really start to bug your entire table. Owlins are, you guessed it, Owl people, from the new setting Strixhaven. No tropes have grown yet, so that means you won’t be challenging preconceived notions, and are able to really make the race your own.
Triton are kind of fish people, though they are more like Sea Elves, as they have more human features. They are the most Humanoid of the Animal Ancestries. This really only works if you are playing a sea-based campaign, so make sure that the DM and the players have bought in to that concept, otherwise you’ll feel left behind when you are all fighting drow underground, with no body of water to speak of.
Finally, Tortles are turtles, and Harengon are rabbits. These are very new or underused races, and so if you want to play one of these, really make some decisions about what these mean.