I'm preparing my new campaign for my group of players and I was wondering if the following ruling would unbalance the table.

What will be the effects, balancing-wise, if I let players choose a race for the traits, and another race for the cosmetic appareance of their PCs ?

For example, they could have a PC that is human, but has all the traits of a gnome, in order to make a good wizard.

I feel it would enhance RP, since they will be much more comfortable with their character. Most of them are experienced players, while others are kinda new, so I am unsure if it will unbalance them too much (since the experienced players like to min/max their characters).

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    \$\begingroup\$ Would a human with the traits of a Halfling be Small or Medium? Or rather, do the height, size, weight, lifespan, and other sorts of traits all get applied from one race and only the cosmetics are applied from the other? \$\endgroup\$ – Medix2 Jul 31 '20 at 15:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ So 100% of the stats stay the same? The only change would be cosmetics? \$\endgroup\$ – SeriousBri Jul 31 '20 at 15:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri Exactly, they cannot mix both races' traits, because that would certainly unbalance. They need to go all in in whatever race they want their traits to come from \$\endgroup\$ – RegularNormalDayGuy Jul 31 '20 at 15:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Regular That sounds more like an answer, which is not what comments are for \$\endgroup\$ – Medix2 Jul 31 '20 at 15:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ Somewhat related (but also a bit different) Q&A: Are there any side effects of switching the ability-score increases for a race? \$\endgroup\$ – David Coffron Jul 31 '20 at 17:05

Cosmetics is by definition not relevant for balance

By definition, cosmetic appearance is not relevant for balance. Mechanics-wise this will change absolutely nothing, if you take the original races.

Confusion and strangeness

Giving many options to new players might confuse or overwhelm new players. However, if you make them choose a race like normal and tell them that if they choose the mechanics of a gnome and still choose be whatever they like, this is not that much more complicated than before. Concerning experienced players you can straight up ask them what they think about the idea. For the sake of the new players it might be useful to make only a few races available, e.g. PHB only.

The other thing about race bonuses is that some of them do not make much sense when remixed. For example you could say you're a halfling with the traits of a Goliath, which would mean you have the powerful build trait counting you as large for carrying capacity while you're flavorwise really small. The same goes the other way around, with a Goliath unable to wield heavy weapons. For people into a simulation heavy game this could be quite negative.

To avoid such problems, you could forbid some combinations that seem absurd, such as the halfling / goliath.

However, you know these people best, so you can decide best if this is too odd for them. Or you can even ask them.

From my experience I can say that restricting the available races is almost always a good thing for new players. Also, I'm generally very liberal with the cosmetic non-mechanical parts of races and classes which works also very well in my games.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Good question, IMO I would restrain certain "niche" characteristics of certain races of being removed (like the Goliath's powerful build) and have the player compromise on traits of it's choosen race (like remove one trait of your Elf if you want to play it as a Goliath, since it has powerful build). Something along those lines. Restricting some races is a good idea however! \$\endgroup\$ – RegularNormalDayGuy Jul 31 '20 at 16:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ If you start along those lines, it can become a problem for balance. \$\endgroup\$ – Anagkai Jul 31 '20 at 16:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ Forbidding some combinations that don't make sense would be a good solution then \$\endgroup\$ – RegularNormalDayGuy Jul 31 '20 at 16:09

It's Fine

I did exactly that in a 4e game I ran, a while ago, to a slightly lesser extent: For in-game reasons, only humans and elves were allowed as playable races, meaning, the game world simply was not populated with gnomes, halflings, etc.

However, I knew perfectly well that some of my players wanted to play certain races for mechanical reasons, in combination with certain classes. So I told them up front that they could take any race they wanted, as along as they "skinned" as human or elf.

Where it would have gotten weird (and therefore was my only not-allowed restriction) would be if someone had chosen a dragonborn, because I would have had to justify a human with a breath weapon. But that was not a mechanical issue, it was, itself, a cosmetic issue.

In practice, it was fine. And by fine, I mean we experienced no negatives at all, precisely because this is a cosmetic issue.

I realize you're asking about 5e and I'm answering in the context 4e, which are different systems. But they're not so different that I would expect any problems out of 5e.

Just do be careful, as the comments and this answer suggest, to make sure you're not accidentally cherry-picking some mechanics from both the "skin" race and the mechanical race. And be careful that you're not setting yourself up for something really weird and difficult to justify in-game, like a gnome with a breath weapon.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Breath weapons are easy enough to flavour as X/day spells, like from a sorcerous bloodline \$\endgroup\$ – SeriousBri Jul 31 '20 at 19:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri It'll depend a lot on the setting the GM has in mind. That would not have worked for my custom setting, but I'm sure it would elsewhere. I bring it up mainly as a thing to think about. \$\endgroup\$ – Novak Jul 31 '20 at 19:14

Keep in mind that this essentially removes a good part of what it means to be a (race). You can no longer say "elves are xyz" if those things are not related anymore.

That is not necessarily a balancing issue, but a roleplaying one.

On balancing, from my (very limited) 5E experience, race traits are relatively weak and shouldn't unbalance the game.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm not sure if you can state the balance implications like that. Either you mechanically take a race as written, in which case it changes nothing. Or, you start modifying things in which case you cannot declare the changes unproblematic without looking at the specifics. \$\endgroup\$ – Anagkai Aug 1 '20 at 10:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ I understand your point, however, it can also mean that maybe the PC is a unique individual of that race, creating plenty of RP possibilities (outcast of his tribe since he wasn't like the others, etc.) \$\endgroup\$ – RegularNormalDayGuy Aug 2 '20 at 13:36

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