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I've recently been considering the phenomenon that "unusual" race-class combinations are often 1 modifier behind on their primary ability score - i.e. that they would start, using point buy or standard array, with a 15(+2) in their primary score, rather than 16 or 17 (+3). To my mind, this is a very significant mechanical effect that undesirably discourages such unusual combinations, while each race's other qualities act as much more of a nudge than a hard barrier.

I recently came across a house-rule that would address this issue, allowing any race to achieve a 16 (assuming point buy or standard array) in their classes primary ability score at character creation, and have slightly modified it to the below.

Floating Ability Score at Character Creation

During character creation, you may remove 1 point from any racial ability score bonus you gain from your base race (but not your subrace), and add it to any other ability score which does not already gain a bonus from your race or subrace.

The original rule allowed this movement from any racial ability score, including from subraces. I have changed that because:

  1. It avoids breaking the balance of the Mountain Dwarf subrace, whose traits are designed to work against each other, and they do so much less if you can swap a point of STR for another stat
  2. Subraces are already thematically sparser than base races; the ASI is often 1 of only 2 defining traits - and you already get to pick between several subrace options anyway

I think even with that change this rule still achieves the desired goal of letting less traditional race/class combos not fall behind in their primary stat.

Are there any serious foreseeable balance issues that would arise from using this house-rule?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I don't have the article on hand, but there was one that looked at the option of taking the ability score bonuses from races and instead gave certain bonuses based on class. My group used it for a one shot and we had the best time with the characters we made. \$\endgroup\$ – Matthew Green Jun 18 at 14:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MatthewGreen: Are you thinking of the D&D Beyond article "Reimagining Racial Ability Scores" by James Haeck? (Many others have created similar house-rules/homebrew systems.) Or perhaps it was GabeJamesGames' Class Modifier Module for 5th Edition? That one's more recent, though, so I don't know if it was what you used. :) \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jun 19 at 6:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ @V2Blast no all of those are much more detailed than the one I remember using. It was a couple of years ago so I'm having a hard time finding the specific one but those like look good ones to use if I get another campaign started. \$\endgroup\$ – Matthew Green Jun 22 at 18:56
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Carefully consider what problem you are trying to solve

In 5e races are not that mechanically different. They have slightly different base stats, and maybe a few bonus special features, that's all. By reducing mechanical differences between races, you are making every choice less interesting. There needs to be meaningful choices for there to be meaningful decisions. With more homogeneity between races comes less creativity, since each decision is less important.

Stats reflect the unique physiology and heritage of different species. A goliaths are huge muscly, a halflings are small and sneaky. One is more suited to being a rogue, one is more suited to being a barbarian. But that doesn't mean goliath rogues and halfling barbarians don't exist.

People already play imperfect class/race combinations. A lot of people do, perhaps even most people. 1 or 2 points in a main stat isn't a huge barrier. The question is why are your players not making creative characters?

Perhaps your players are fans of other forms of media, a player may be inspired by a favorite book, another by a tv show, and a third by a movie. All of this media probably portrays similar archetypes - the elf archer, the human wizard, the halfling rogue, the dwarven fighter, etc. It could be that your players are perfectly happy playing within these archetypes, they may have no desire to make a gnome barbarian or loxodon rogue.

As for balance, I'm sure you know this, but it's a buff for any unusual class/race combination, and nerfs any class/race combination that currently works well.

Be sure that your players are truly feeling limited by the race mechanics, as altering them will make races less special, and that will make players who built to their race's strengths feel less special too.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This answer makes it seem like the only unique trait of a race is their ability score bonuses when it's really the other features combined with the history of each race that make them unique. Changing ability scores does nothing to limit creativity or strength of a given race. \$\endgroup\$ – Matthew Green Jun 18 at 14:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – linksassin Jun 24 at 1:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ MatthewGreen No, please reread, I specifically say "In 5e races are not that mechanically different. They have slightly different base stats, and maybe a few bonus special features, that's all." To say that "changing ability scores does nothing to limit creativity or strength of a given race" is totally wrong, if in the lore it says "goliaths are big and strong" but that isn't reflected in the mechanics, then goliaths are in fact NOT big and strong. \$\endgroup\$ – gszavae Jun 29 at 0:07
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My groups often had/have a similar house rule to solve the issue:

In games I played in, we often had a similar, but different, rule to tackle the "problem". Basically, we were allowed (and I would allow if I was the DM, though if I recall correctly, noone asked me on those occasions) to get up to 16 score with point buy (spending 2 points for 15->16), as long as the total starting score didn't exceed 17 (normally the maximum for a +2 race with 15 score).

This makes it viable to play race/class combinations that would normally be underpowered due to inconvenient racial bonuses.

In my experience, this doesn't break the balance at all; I played the entirety of Storm King's Thunder with a Fire Genasi Druid (Fire Genasi get +2 CON and +1 INT, while druids need WIS. Although the extra CON is always nice, of course).

Noteworthy addition: playing well-suited combinations (i.e. races that allow you to reach 17 in your relevant score at level 1, which isn't possible if your race doesn't benefit that bonus) is still beneficial with this house rule, because in those instances, you can grab a feat that increases a score instead of getting a regular ASI. For instance, you could play a Mountain Dwarf Barbarian with 15+2 starting constitution, and then grab the Durable feat at level 4 in order to get up to 18 CON while gaining an additional benefit that you wouldn't get from a regular ASI. Same thing would work for a Mountain Dwarf Fighter with STR and Heavy Armor Master or numerous other combinations - although feats mostly increase physical ability scores, if any, making this "trick" less relevant to casters.


Balancing of your house rule:

Concerning your house rule: I do not believe it would pose a balance issue, although other issues could arise. As stated in Anagkai's answer, it reduces the "roles" of flexible races such as half-elves and humans.

However, I don't really see that as an issue as long as everybody at the table is aware of the house rule and allowed to use it; if only one player (e.g. one that joins later) can use the house rule, while the initial players had to choose e.g. a half-elf in order to play their desired character, they might be a little pissed.

Aside from that, I don't think it limits player's creativity - on that contrary: it encourages your, let's call them "mechanically aware", players to also choose unusual class/race combinations, whereas they would otherwise limit themselves to the well-suited combinations.

Honestly, I think your (or my) houserule are just continuations of a D&D trend in recent editions; early/earlier editions had very severe restrictions on which classes could be combined with which races, while 5e, for instance, barely limits this at all.

It may go beyond what some DMs or players prefer in their game (after all, it makes sense that an orc or goliath is naturally stronger than a halfling), but I think the added freedom more than makes up for that, especially when the changed ability scores are not physical (it's kind of racist that orcs are dumber than humans, if you think about it - even if it """makes sense""" and suits our expectations about fantasy races).

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for your input, and for sharing your own rule, which looks like an elegant solution; as well as what you've already said about your rule, races with scores in the "right" stats still benefit from having +1 or +2 as these scores will substitute for the most expensive steps in the point buy. So you've removed the "hard gate" for 16 of having at least a +1 in the score, in favour of a "soft gate" of having less point buy available for other stata. This appeals to me as I tend to like "you can try, but it's harder" style design (over "you can't"). \$\endgroup\$ – Vigil Jun 19 at 10:47
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It seems reasonable from a hard mechanical standpoint.

The way the rule is written prevents people from getting to 18 and from moving the original point-bought which would be problematic since the cost is non-linear and there is another upper limit here (15).

It devalues the half-elf and human

The half-elf and and the variant human can choose any ability score for their bonus which can be a relevant reason to choose them. Giving a similar option to all races makes this a lot less appealing. I know that variant human is very powerful and the feat is usually a very important reason for the choice. However, the half-elf also benefits in cases where CHA is not desired, being able to move one point of Cha and get any three +1 bonuses. The effect on the half-elf is therefore not really mechanically relevant, it is just that the half-elf feels less special since essentially any race can get +1 to anything.

Incidentally, the normal human gets stepped on their feet as well. They can produce, for example a Cleric with 16 on STR, CON and WIS at level 1, and similar setups. You can do the same now with the Triton or Goliath for example.

It affects creativity.

The house rule caters to optimizers. When someone wants to play a specific class with a specific racial feat they can now get more optimized scores as well (how optimized depends on the exact combination). Otherwise they would have to choose and get creative to make it work with 15.

You could say that it is a bonus for people who choose interesting combinations from a perspective of role-play rather than optimization. But these people are exactly the ones that will get creative and make it work. As an example, I have a tiefling ranger in my current campaign.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ "When someone wants to play a specific class with a specific racial feat they can now get optimal min-maxed scores as well." Not exactly, because it doesn't always let you optimise secondary scores - so taking your Tiefling Ranger for instance, this would let you start with a 16 in Dexterity, but you would not be able to min-max your Wis or Con with the remaining Tiefling bonuses in Cha/Int. \$\endgroup\$ – Vigil Jun 18 at 5:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ Should I say that in a less firm way? "With an optimizes primary score at least"? \$\endgroup\$ – Anagkai Jun 18 at 5:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ If the secondary score is already right, you can optimize both. If they are both "off" you can do either. \$\endgroup\$ – Anagkai Jun 18 at 5:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ tbh I would not fear for the half-elf, as they are already one of the more powerful race options. \$\endgroup\$ – Szega Jun 18 at 10:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ I would suggest that the Half-Elf becomes better off. The free stat points allows the Half-elf to play a diverse array of classes well but it does not really make the Half-elf better at those classes than another race with the right bonuses. By allowing the Half-Elf to take +1 CHA and +1 something else you strengthen Half-Elves in non-charisma builds. Half-elf clerics with +1s in DEX, CON, and WIS come to mind. \$\endgroup\$ – Odo Jun 18 at 11:13
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I am not sure this would actually accomplish what you seemingly want, and as for balance I think this is pretty weak.

First I will say that it is important to know what the real problem is here, but if you are wanting to see more gnome barbarians then allowing one point to be moved into a useful stat isn't going to cut it for the type of people who care about stats.

While options with a +2 bonus exist it is still going to be superior. It sounds like your players are already not picking the +1 races, so this rule just changes the +0 races into +1 races, and they are already not being picked.

An alternate suggestion

What I think you need to do to encourage diversity is create more +2 races. There are many ways to accomplish that beyond the scope of this question. But if my players ask I just let them add the racial bonus' to whichever stat they prefer, never had an issue. I also scrap any negative stat penalties from most races because those suck (poor kobolds).

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There is an unintended buff to suited, MAD, race/class combos

This modification is intended to promote unusual race/class combos. However, there is an unintended benefit being given to certain race/class combos that are already strong, where the class is MAD. Left unchecked, this benefit could disincentivise certain races from playing certain classes, the opposite of what this change is intended to achieve. It could also allow heavier min-maxing.

Most races have bonuses to 2 stats, usually +2 to one and +1 to another. The exceptions in the PHB races are:

  • Human: Receives no racial features other than +1 to every ability
  • Variant Human: In order to get +1 to 3 different abilities, must choose from a limited number of half-feats. The non-ASI half of half-feats are less strong than full feats, so you are giving up some power of this race, leaving you with just a half-feat and a skill as non-ASI racial features
  • Half-elf: Half-elves are a relatively strong race, but when it comes to MAD classes they can only get +1 to 3 stats if one of the stats is Charisma.

Adding this modification would give the ability to get +1 to 3 abilities to all races. The result would be that races with racial ASIs of +2,+1 or +2,+2 that are already relatively well suited to a MAD class could be even more heavily optimised, to have 16 in 3 abilities at level 1.

Take a Half-Orc Barbarian, for instance; Already a good combo, now it could use this rule to have STR +1, Con +1, and Dex +1 - allowing 16 in Str,Dex, and Con at level 1 - at the cost of an 8 in every other stat.

This could then incentivise heavy optimisation, and reduce the number of "spare" point buy points for these classes that a player might use to slightly increase one or more of their non-class abilities - often done to give a little flavour to the character.

This might also mean that the gap between races whose ASIs currently make them poorly suited for these classes and races whose ASIs make them well suited both contracts and expands; e.g. a Tiefling Barbarian; perhaps a viable choice if the difference between it and a Half-Orc Barbarian is a 16 in just one of the secondary scores, but it's starker if it's a difference of a 16 in both the secondary scores.

Suggested fix

A simple addition to the rule to avoid these unintended consequences is to add the following:

If you use this rule during character creation, you cannot have more than 2 ability scores above 15.

With this addition, races that are designed to do it can still get 3 scores to 16 (Half-Elves can do it if one is Charisma), and +2 +1 races that are not designed to do this cannot.

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