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I always had the feeling that the half-elf is unbalanced in D&D 3. It gets some racial bonuses on saving throws, immunity to sleep, low-light vision and a couple of pluses in abilities, but it does not get an additional feat like humans, nor 4 additional points. On the other hand, it is not an elf, so it does not get skill modifiers.

Is the half-elf unbalanced? I never saw any player specifically choose a half-elf. If I wanted to house-rule some change to make it a little more attractive, without being excessive, what would be a fair change?

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I think debates about "is X unbalanced" are irredeemably subjective. –  mxyzplk Oct 12 '10 at 4:24
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@mxyzplk : yes and no. the game mechanics follows specific, mathematical rules, although I am unaware of these rules when it comes to game design. Having so many game designers that know these rules can provide a good, detailed answer on this regard. –  Stefano Borini Oct 12 '10 at 7:25
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Not really. Internet fora are full of complaints about how every race and class and option in D&D is either overpowered or underpowered. It's an endless and pointless source of contention. But I leave you to it. –  mxyzplk Oct 12 '10 at 13:17
    
My friend would always play a half-elf bard in 3rd edition. He enjoyed playing the underdog :) –  GMNoob Sep 23 '11 at 6:06

9 Answers 9

Whether it is balanced or not has a lot to do with your play style.

If you do lots of pure dungeon-crawl hack-n-slash, it's pretty darned good.

If you do lots of skill checks, it's still awesome, but it's not as much as the dungeon crawl save bonus and low-light vision.

If you do lots of deep roleplay, but don't emphasize their "outcastness", they're just a bit better than they should be.

If you do lots of deep roleplay, and emphasize their "Not a Race of their own" aspect, then they really are underballanced.

All in all, they are not badly off.

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In my experience, they are (in the context of "pure dungeon" games) strictly worse than humans, unless you somehow really need bonuses on those skills instead of floating skill points. It's generally hard to argue with a free feat. –  Burrito Al Pastor Oct 12 '10 at 17:38
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Or if you're dungeon-crawling in the Dungeon Of Things That Enchant You With Sleep. –  Burrito Al Pastor Oct 12 '10 at 17:39
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The nightvision makes a HUGE impact... It is the equal of a feat. And it was the first enchantment half my human 3.0 players went for, too... –  aramis Oct 13 '10 at 1:13
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I consider the Half-Elf balanced just for Nightvision. My HE characters can all SEE at night. Humans are reliant on a bright fire (that enemies can see). –  Pulsehead Nov 10 '10 at 15:02

They're a pretty darn limited race, to be sure; giving them any positive ability modifiers would be a good starting place for making them more attractive. You might try giving them +2 charisma? Conventional wisdom dictates that positive modifiers to spellcasting stats are Bad, but I think you're okay with charisma - sorcerers, bards, and paladins could all use a little boost anyways.

Of course, between racial mods and a bonus to charisma, all half-elves would be diplomancy machines (even moreso than they are already). If you're incentivising the usage of half-elves, I'd advise you to have a comprehensive Diplomacy fix in place already.

It's also worth noting that Eberron gave half-elves membership in something like three of the dragonmarked houses, including sole access to the very important House Lyrandar (the people who control the airships), which in my experience went a long way towards making half-elves more useful.

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Pathfinder is D&D 3.5, but better. Here's what a half-elf looks like in Pathfinder:

  • +2 to one ability score (player's choice)
  • Medium, Normal speed
  • Low-light vision
  • Skill Focus as a bonus feat at first level
  • Immune to sleep, +2 vs. enchantment
  • +2 to Perception (read: Listen, Search, and Spot) checks
  • Half-elves can choose two favored classes

It's worth nothing that humans have the same "+2 to any score" in Pathfinder; all races have a "net" +2 attribute bonus. Favored classes work a little differently (granting +1 HP and +1 skill point for favored class levels, instead of the usual multiclass XP penalty).

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Pathfinder half-elves may be better than 3.5 half-elves, but that's not an inherently meaningful improvement - unless having a second favored class is really good, they aren't any better relative to humans (unless the value of a free feat has become significantly diluted), and certainly not better relative to elves (+2 int and +2 to overcome SR? yes please!). –  Burrito Al Pastor Oct 12 '10 at 17:32
    
I was comparing half-elves in Pathfinder to half-elves in 3.5. I consider the "+2 to one ability score" to be a major improvement, where 3.5 half-elves get no ability bonuses: hence the suggestion to use Pathfinder's half-elves. They also get skill bonuses, which the OP complained were lacking. I'm not sure how 3.5 compares with 3.0, and I wasn't trying to argue that they are better than Pathfinder elves. –  RMorrisey Oct 13 '10 at 1:46
    
-1 for needlessly inflammatory language comparing D&D 3.5 and pathfinder. –  Mala Aug 16 at 22:08
    
PF's half elves have a +2 bonus, but then again every race in PF has a +2 bonus on top of those it had on 3.Xe –  Zachiel Sep 16 at 13:38

I think the root of your perception (a common one, I'll agree) that Half-Elf is an unbalanced race can be observed in the way you omitted that their highest class counts as their favored class.

In my experience, most players find the rules for multiclassing-experience-penalty tiresome at best, and consequently discard them.

As a result, the "any favored class" rule becomes trivial, and this makes them unbalanced. In a group where multiclassing is more important, they probably seem more balanced, but they still feel dis-interesting to me :P

I guess getting bonuses just feels cooler than not-getting penalties ;)

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Aren't half-elves also eligible to take both elven and human feats? I recall that being useful in 3.5, but I haven't played 3.0 in quite a while. –  Pat Ludwig Oct 12 '10 at 5:14
    
I don't remember about feats ("human feats"?) but I recall that they had "elven blood" and were considered elves for the purposes of magical effects and weapons, or something along those lines. –  LeguRi Oct 12 '10 at 11:48
    
You may be thinking of the content from "Races Of Destiny", which was a racial sourcebook for human and humanlike races, including half-human races; there was a sidebar about half-human races counting as human, and also it had feats with "human" prerequisites. –  Burrito Al Pastor Oct 12 '10 at 17:25

Another thing to consider, if you are using additional material beyond Core, is Unearthed Arcana. Specifically, the Paragon Racial Classes. The Half-Elf can take both Half-Elf Paragon, and either Human or Elf Paragon. Since both Half-Elf and Human, after three levels, net you a +2 to an attribute of your choice, that's a pretty big bonus. Not to mention the bonus feats (minimal compared to a Fighter, for sure, but 2 bonus feats in 6 levels isn't too bad), the boosts to skills, and the +3 caster level in existing classes over those 6 levels (better than some casting prestige classes).

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half-elves

  • immune to sleep. +2 on save rolls against enchantments.
  • low-light vision.
  • +1 on detection, search, listen
  • elvish blood. considered as elves for powers and special effects.

humans

  • bonus feat
  • +4 skill point at level 1, +1 each other level

the low-light vision feat may not seem really useful if vision rules are not applied in dungeon exploration, but it does allow for scouts to actually have an edge on other characters in a party.

Human have a bonus feat, but the +2 bonus on save rolls against enchantments is almost a feat (iron will). Combined to the immunity against sleep, it's good all around.

it must be said that when playing with less deeply concerned dungeon masters, those abilities will not be used often, but as a matter of fact, detection is used a lot (in the wild, to spot ennemies before they do, for exemple) [which is a part often overlooked of exploration]

overall, with abilities corresponding roughly to a bonus feat, and their bonus on skills (and automatic uses of elvish blood) they are not underpowered.

plus, roleplayingly (by the way, isn't roleplaying all this is about?) they are pretty awesome, either too young or too old, always in between.

Compared to dwarves, they do get a lot less bonuses on things, but they do not suffer any stats malus, which is great in itself.

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During the entire 8 years I played D&D 3rd edition (and 3.5 included in that) the half-elf was always widely considered to be the weakest race. (...and bard was considered to be the weakest class).

However, I would recommend against house-ruling it. It eventually became the character race that expert players would play 'for the challenge'. They also have interesting roleplay possibilities. If you don't see many players playing half-elves I wouldn't sweat it. Maybe they are rare on your campaign world?

The best supplement for additional information on half elves is Races of Destiny. The racial paragon prestige classes in Unearthed Arcana are good as well.

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Half-Elves aren't unbalanced, because it's pretty much only humans that are unbalanced with their bonus feat - they can get feats with pre-requisites several levels earlier than any other race.

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Yes, the half-elf is underpowered. According to D&D design staff Mike Mearls and Jesse Decker, as well as a Wizards of the Coast web poll, the half-elf is the weakest core race in D&D 3.5:

Mike Mearls

The half-elf is the least powerful race, because it is an elf with the weapon proficiency, secret door detection abilities, and racial ability adjustments removed and the bonus to Spot and Listen reduced. In return, the half-elf gains a +2 bonus to Diplomacy and Gather Information checks. These bonuses are useful only for a narrow range of characters – low Charisma characters and those who do not have Diplomacy and Gather Information as class skills gain little benefit from it since these skills operate against static DCs rather than opposed checks. In an opposed check, there's always a chance that you face an untrained or penalized foe, making any sort of bonus useful. Since both Diplomacy and Gather Information can be used untrained, they are poor investments unless you can use them to routinely beat high (20+) DCs. If anyone in the party aside from the half-elf invests in those skills, the half-elf's bonus is largely useless.

The ability to count any class as favored is a minor edge, especially compared to the human benefits. In comparison, the elf's secret door detection is useful to any character, while Spot and Listen are useful in almost every encounter.

Jesse Decker

Mike’s answer is correct, not because he chose the weakest race but because he demonstrated that the half-elf’s puny bonuses don’t compare at all with the other races. One of the not-so-obvious purposes of this question is to see how the potential developer deals with the word “weakest.” There can be all kinds of weaknesses in a roleplaying product, but the developer's job is to focus on the power level of game elements -- which means that interpreting this question as an analysis of a race’s combat ability is important.

Other popular answers to this question include the gnome and half-orc. While both of those races have their limitations (gnomes are mostly overshadowed by halflings, and half-orcs are severly limited in their choice of classes), both can shine in specialized builds.

As for how to balance it, I'd give the race +2 Charisma, -2 Wisdom. This takes the half-elf from a reasonably good bard to an excellent race of sorcerers and charismatic (if impetuous and short-sighted) military leaders. The Wisdom penalty is not a big deal for sorcerers, who get the good Will save anyway, and the Alertness feat from the sorcerer's familiar compensates for the Spot/Listen penalty. They make poor clerics, but this fits with their mixed heritage. They don't truly belong among the flock of with any one race's deities, and sharing the traditions of both peoples makes it more difficult for them to accept any one religion as the one true faith.

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+1: Love the research –  user1637 Sep 21 '11 at 12:55
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Wow, I'm impressed at Wizards' honesty and awareness of this problem. I would comment that the Half-orc is giving the Half-elf a strong run for its money. Both are very poor. Of course, WotC thought the Half-orc was better than it is because they overvalued Strength. –  KRyan Dec 8 '12 at 15:19
    
Once again proving that something deemed subjective can be non-subjective at all. Thank you –  Stefano Borini Sep 21 at 9:08

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