I'm a DM for a bunch of new players who are going through the Lost Mines of Phandelver starter set with the pre-generated characters. This campaign will be over fairly soon and I need to get the group thinking about creating their own characters, ready for the next campaign.

Part of this process is getting myself familiar with the various races and classes so that I can assist them with creating their characters. After looking at each race in turn in the PHB and typing up a short cheat sheet showing each race's stats/abilities/proficiencies etc, I asked myself one question. Why would any of my players want to play as a human?

Each of the other races has some sort of proficiency or trait that makes them stand out and gives the character something extra, but all humans appear to have is a +1 to each ability score. This doesn't seem like much fun compared to all the bonuses other races receive. Therefore my question is:

How much of an advantage is it to have a +1 in each ability score and what other potential advantages would a human have in D&D from a mechanical and role playing point of view?

I don't want to force any of my players to actually be a human. If all five wanted to choose Dragonborn, that would be completely fine. But a good answer here will allow me to present a solid argument for considering a human over other, more exotic races.

Although I would like some answers based on RAW, anything that mentions optional races/features such as Variant Human would also be helpful.

up vote 48 down vote accepted

Humans aren't as bad as you think

Firstly, humans gets +1 to all stats, in the PHB (pg. 31):

Ability Score Increase. Your ability scores each increase by 1.

This means, as @SeriousBri pointed out in a comment (now deleted), they can get higher starting stats when using the point buy system. But even with rolling for stats, if you end up with a bunch of odd numbers, this can increase all of the modifiers by one.

(To quote a player at an RPG club I go to, after rolling either mostly or entirely odd numbers: "Well... looks like I'll be going human!")

Secondly, the variant human rules (which I believe is AL-legal, as far as RAW goes). They get +1 to two stats, plus a free skill proficiency, plus a feat. This last point makes them very strong (depending on what feat you're going for).

From the PHB again, page 31:

Variant Human

If your campaign uses the optional feat rules from the Player’s Handbook, your Dungeon Master might allow these variant traits, all of which replace the human’s Ability Score Increase trait.

Ability Score Increase. Two different ability scores of your choice increase by 1.

Skills. You gain proficiency in one skill of your choice.

Feat. You gain one feat of your choice.

As an example, making a Barbarian or Paladin or something who uses a great weapon, you can pick the Great Weapon Master feat, which allows a second attack (as a bonus action) if you crit or kill something. This is essentially Extra Attack at level 1, which is very strong.

Furthermore, it's possible for a human using the variant rules to have a 20 in a stat at level 1. As an example, elves get +2 to Dexterity, so if they roll an 18, they can have a 20 in Dexterity at level 1. However, recently a player in a game I'm playing in rolled an 18 as a human wizard, put that in Intelligence, used one of their "+1 to any two stats" to make that a 19, then took the Linguist feat (which, among other things, gives +1 to Intelligence) to increase that to 20.

Ok, so they don't have darkvision, but neither do Dragonborn or Halflings.

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    Darkvision isn't as awesomely overpowered than it was in previous editions either, in complete darkness you treat it as shadowy illumination which still imposes disadvantage to perception checks that rely on sight... this is situational and would rely on the DM actually remembering and having monsters use that against them though. – Slagmoth Aug 16 at 12:25
  • @Slagmoth The disadvantage on perception checks that rely on sight is more relevant to noticing details in the environment; you can use hearing to find hiding creatures. After all, they still have to make Stealth checks against your passive Perception, and you can't possibly be using your sight if they're in a heavily obscured area. It really depends on the dungeon though. A light source will give you away for miles in a large open cave, but extremely bright light like the daylight spell can illuminate past darkvision's 60 feet in dungeons made up mostly of closed rooms and hallways. – Doval Aug 16 at 13:24
  • @Doval true, but in previous editions it was just you get to see with the only disadvantage being it was B&W... I don't allow Darkvision to work with bright lighting though either. Never made sense to me, a human is blinded going from long periods of darkness to bright light but more sensative eyes are not? – Slagmoth Aug 16 at 13:34
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    I really like the remark from your local store guy. Especially because it reminds a reader that some peole will use random stats and point buy. Enjoy a +1 – 3C273 Aug 16 at 14:10
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    Minor note: with point buy, 13 in several scores is cheap, but that 14 is expensive. But if you have +1 to all scores, then you get several 14s for cheap at character creation, which for MAD classes, is very nice. – Mooing Duck Aug 16 at 23:54

There's a ton!

There is of course personal preference. I have a couple of friends who only play humans in RPG - they just can't put themselves in the shoes of other races. Even without that, playing something "mundane" in a world otherwise extraordinary can be really fun.

Then, mechanically, normal human isn't that popular, but Variant is king. I can see from comments that you haven't encountered it, but it's Adventurers League legal, and is the preferred option. Sheer amount of options that choosing a feat at level one gives makes it good to play as any class. I won't stop on mechanical advantages, since builds are readily available on the internet and take really a lot of space. Here's an excerpt from Treantmonk's Guide to Wizards, actually arguing that they're TOO good:

Variant Humans are a terrible addition to the game in that they are too good. A feat at first level while still getting access to a 16 attribute (or 2 16’s depending on your feat selection) trumps anything any other race can bring to the table. Naturally Variant Human therefore becomes far and away the best option for ANY class, ANY build. However, variant human is an optional rule. This is my recommendation to all DM’s out there: Just don’t allow it. If you think the regular human is too weak (and they are), then give them a skill proficiency or two instead of allowing this poorly designed optional rule. Inclusion of Variant Human can cause a not insignificant character imbalance of power - especially at low level.

Edit: My group has been using a houserule for the past year or so that the Variant Human receives their bonus feat at level 4 instead of level 1. This seems to have worked well in preventing the frontload of the variant human and brought it back in line with the other races.

And finally, humans are the only race that allows a lot of visual customization. Fantasy races have certain expectations with them - Dwarves mostly don't have almond-shaped eyes, and Wood Elves don't come with black skin. You don't really meet a 5 foot Goliath, or a 7 foot Gnome. Humans on the other hand come in all shapes and sizes, and that matters :)

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    That last paragraph is actually a really good point, something I'd missed from my answer. – NathanS Aug 16 at 12:18
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    Writing it actually made me want to create a world with Asian-flavored dwarves. They would make some really cool samurai... – Misamoto Aug 16 at 14:29
  • I know its off topic but I think the writer of the article you quoted is sorely mistaken. The feats available to variant human are nothing compared to the racial feats the other races get, the only thing they add is diversity in choice. What it does provide is humans with something closer to other races instead, which is in no way unbalanced, I think the writer just plum forgot about racial feats included with all other races. Just off the top of my head, Dragonborn get a great breath weapon, with great lvl 1 damage, as well as free resist to an element, thats better than most feats. – JDM7 Aug 16 at 15:53
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    @JDM7 "nothing compared to the racial feats the other races get" - lol not even close, sorry. There are at least 5 feats that are at least 2 tiers above everything from other races. Sharpshooter for Ranged for example. I link some examples in my answer if you are interested. Btw, Breath Weapon is an awful feature if you are thinking about actually doing consistent damage. – HellSaint Aug 16 at 15:58
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    @JDM7 Before it extends, I invite you to join the chat if you want to discuss it further. I might be biased because I'm a huge fan of Treantmonk's guides and respect him highly :P – HellSaint Aug 16 at 17:04

From a roleplaying standpoint, one strong reason to play a human is that you, as the player, are a human. You know how humans think, what they want, how they react — because it's how you think and react and what you want.

If you don't want to play a Role-Playing Game like a single-figure-level wargame (Squad Leader, anyone?), it's likely because of the role-playing aspect. If that's the case, you may choose to play a character who's not highly optimized, because it fits your concept better than the more optimized, but less "human" character options.

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    From a roleplaying standpoint, isn't the whole point that you play someone other than yourself? Otherwise we'd all be playing Commoners, not Wizards and Paladins. – Erik Aug 16 at 12:37
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    @Erik Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn't. It's hard to know the motivations of something too much different from yourself -- hence we tend to anthropomorphize. Play a rabbit in Bunnies and Burrows and you're playing like a human wearing a rabbit skin. Play a human in D&D, and you're as close as you can come to playing the character as it is. – Zeiss Ikon Aug 16 at 12:39
  • Yeah, for me this is an RPG first. I got tired of the published worlds and all the cosmopolitan aspects where it is humdrum to see an elf or a dwarf walk through town. New world is very culturally segragated. Got tired of people playing "Bearded Humans", "Pointy-eared Humans" and "Short Humans"... There are other races but they are all human (for now) and the races have only come together twice in recent memory to thwart a global threat... (like the Fellowship) otherwise they keep to themselves. – Slagmoth Aug 16 at 13:23
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    Surely this goes against the idea that every play style is valid? You may want to play a deeply immersive roleplaying game, but if others want to play a game that verges on a tactical war game that is their choice. – Sarriesfan Aug 16 at 14:36
  • @Sarriesfan Likely those wargamer style players won't want to play a human, then. Question is why to play a human, after all. – Zeiss Ikon Aug 16 at 15:01

My answer will mostly be for AL and optimization. This means no roll for stats and doing good stuff with that (i.e., I assume a character that rolled 17/15/15/15/13/11 doesn't exist here - but yeah they do, I'm DMing for one atm lul).

Normal Human

Well, this mostly sucks, as you thought. A few classes are MAD - they require, usually, 3 attributes at high values to be effective. Barbarians, for example, would like their STR, CON and DEX high, so their AC is high from Dex and Con and their damage is high from their STR (although the Dex for Barbarian is not that important, so it's arguable). Paladins want high STR, CON and CHA. Although MAD is not such a problem in 5e any more, these classes actually benefit highly from 3 different attributes. Even for these classes, +3 of the ASI from human will not be too relevant, making them on equal foot to an usual +3 from other classes or +4 from Mountain Dwarves. If you are multiclassing into something that requires more than 4 attributes (where humans would get more ASI than other races), you are probably playing something that will not be optimal anyway.

So yeah, normal humans, from an optimization POV, are usually a bad choice for most characters and classes.

Variant Human

Now, this is a whole different thing. This is the King of low level optimization. Check, for example, What is the most DPR possible at level 1? - for the most usual AC range (6 to 20), as well as for extremely low or extremely high ACs (0-5, 27+), the highest DPR in 1st level is achievable by humans. In my Achieving highest Rogue DPR at 3rd level using PHB+1, Human is also used for every possible interaction of a maximum damage. Their optimization is not limited to DPR, though - the ability to get any feat (as long as it has the requirements, obviously) is incredibly flexible. You can get more control options through Sentinel, more proficiencies through Skilled, more languages through Linguist, or just move faster through your "Needed feats list" for a SAD character. The major weakness is the lack of any other major race feature, like Darkvision, but that can be worked around.

Whilst the other answers here are spot on, I would also add that the non-variant Human would be good for multiclassing, having an easier time reaching the minimum requirements for stats, or sub classes that need to dip into more than 1 (or 2) stats, such as the Eldritch Knight or Arcane Trickster which both require an additional stat (Int) to get the most out of their spells.

There is also the fact that a higher score helps with all skills, meaning you would be ok or better at everything whereas others would suffer in certain departments, such as Str/Con focused race/class combos lacking in Arcana, History, Medicine, etc. and the same applying for a magic focused character not being able struggling with jumping/climbing.

As mentioned though the Variant is where its at, which mainly makes them able to match the other races' racial skills but with greater control even though feats are weaker than racial feats on the whole.

You can play a variant human, which is much stronger.

If your campaign uses the optional feat rules from the Player’s Handbook, your Dungeon Master might allow these variant traits, all of which replace the human’s Ability Score Increase trait.

Ability Score Increase. Two different ability scores of your choice increase by 1.

Skills. You gain proficiency in one skill of your choice.

Feat. You gain one feat of your choice.

Online analysis I've seen of the base human class does indeed note that mechanically it's pretty average/weak.

It's not bad being human. With point buy and +1s across the board you can get a nice array of 16,16,14,10,10,10 which is good for multiple ability dependent classes.

Role-playing advantage: Flexibility
It's true - playing a human sounds... vanilla. You don't have to assume a haughty sneer, a scottish accent, a cheerful go-lucky attitude, or spend years as an outcast. Yet it can be argued that you also have the freedom to do any of the above, or even more: when there isn't an expected stereotype you kinda have to come up with something on your own (note that playing a teetotaler dwarf is still addressing the stereotype, if only to subvert it).

Now I'm not suggesting that there's anything wrong with playing a castaway tiefling ("oh, I am a cursed thing") - but sometimes you might want to try something that doesn't have to do with race.

Mechanical benefits: Simplicity
The other answers have elaborated on the usefulness of a +1 to everything (I'd add that it's also nice for MAD character concepts) and of course playing a variant human is great. I'd like to add that it's also far simpler and you don't have to remember a ton of situational bonuses that might not even come into play (trance!?) or even if they do you'd have forgotten about them.

Variant Human can be customized to accommodate a diverse range of backstories and character histories depending on which feat and which skill you end up choosing, plus humans run everything from the old dangerous veteran soldier coming out of retirement on the prince's behalf to the old wizard's early twenties aged larcenous granddaughter who depends on granddaddy's reputation to scare her foes because she herself isn't scary. An elf, dwarf or orc are pretty much trope-locked due to their racial abilities and have little room for customization.

I am going to tackle this question from a storytelling point of view. Maybe the next campaign can take the players to lands whose inhabitants are extremely biased against non-humans. If the players choose to form a party that contains only non-humans, they're gonna have a hard time interacting with any NPCs.

Or maybe they will meet an environment that is mildly toxic to non-humans (maybe some sort of magical radiation) and being a human will be an advantage.

protected by Oblivious Sage Aug 17 at 13:14

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