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Many races have a +2 bonus to one ability and a +1 bonus to another ability. They do not usually have +3 to a single ability.

I am wondering about the implications of having races with such bonuses in my game.

I am considering point buy only. What I see is possible that was not possible before (with +2/+1), is

  • 18 in the primary stat at level 1
  • 20 in primary stat with first ASI

However, this 20 in the primary stat means that I cannot exceed 15 in the secondary stat. It seems to me that no class in 5e benefits from less than two abilities (at least constitution and one other).

Furthermore

Is my analysis above correct and does this mean that a +3 racial bonus instead of +2/+1 does not pose severe balance issues?

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Bounded accuracy solves most problems

My table rolls stats and we've done roll systems where it's not unreasonable, and in fact common, to roll an 18 to start in at least one stat. Doing this has never caused 'problems', and I mostly realized that the differences of modifiers in the positive range really aren't gamebreaking.

The dice roll is a much bigger influence in outcome than modifiers, so even in a point-buy system like you use, having a 20 at first level or first ASI shouldn't be a big issue as we have never experienced one.

Additionally, the +3 to a single stat is very nice, but as you've noticed there are statistics that are important that you won't improve at level 1 with increase. It's a trade-off that a player still needs to make.

But every table and group is different, and you may personally find that the disparity isn't 'fun' or that it causes issues that I don't see or have an issue with at my table.

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It is quite strong, but won't break your games

This is quite different from rolling stats, though. What these races are doing is actually consistently buffing SAD classes and making MAD classes even harder to play. I have played a rolled stat character with 18/16/14/10/10/6 as attributes. I can easily play a Paladin or Barbarian or Monk with these rolled attributes. With a +3 race, it is nearly impossible to play these classes, I would rather be getting a Dwarf. But a Wizard or a Sorcerer are now considerably stronger. You say that "no class" depends on only 1 attribute, and that's true, but you don't actually need to max out the secondary one. This allows classes like Wizards to now take early feats, which was previously considerably hard. Taking Resilient (Con) at 8th level when already having 20 INT is really strong.

So, overall, what this might do is decrease the number of Barbarians and Monks and increase the number of Rogues and Wizards. Or even increase the number of non-arcane-trickster rogues instead of AT ones.

More deeply, it depends on what attribute it gives +3, and what other stuff you give to the race

From the previous section, we know that +3 Int is going to considerably buff Wizards, +3 Dex is going to considerably buff Rogues, +3 Cha considerably buffs Sorcerers. But +3 Con isn't exactly all that powerful. +3 Str may still be worse than simply going Mountain Dwarf. And obviously it depends on what other stuff you give to the race. A race with plain +3, no darkvision, no new proficiencies, no new anything isn't exactly overwhelming. Also, when I say considerably buffs, I'm just saying I would pick a +3 Gnome over a +2/+1 Gnome any time I am playing a Wizard, so, in that sense, it may be considered overpowered (it overshadows other choices), but it won't actually impact the game itself so much.

For perspective, the well known detect balance for races puts +3 ASI as a 3.5 score, while a +2/+1 is 3 points. A 0.5 score is something like a Darkvision or a skill proficiency, so, simply taking away one of such features may already make the race balanced (as shown by the Changelings notably not having Darkvision, or the Variant Humans not having Darkvision).

You can always balance the encounters accordingly

So, this is something very important when considering balance: balance is relevant for discrepancy between PCs, not between PC and Monsters. If you simply give +5 to all attributes to everyone, as strong as it is, the only consequence it will have is that you will have a harder time balancing the encounters, but that's all. I believe I have already made my point on the slight difference +3 will give between choice of races, but other than that, I don't think there is any consequence, other than maybe you having to think harder when balancing your encounters because now that monster with 12 AC is even easier to hit and kill.

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It probably won't make a huge difference to the balance of the game, because the game is already designed to handle randomly generated stats that can easily get you into the 18-20 range with a racial bonus.

The main negative I can see is that this can pigeonhole the race into a very small number of class options, depending on which attribute you're talking about. The +2 already does that to some extent, but removing the secondary bonus makes it even more likely that the players are going to say things like "All gnomes should be wizards." And yes, of course there are play-against-type players who will go built a Gnomish Barbarian just for laughs; but the reason they do the +2/+1 thing is to suggest that races are broader than a single stereotypical class.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Can you support the reason you provide at the end? I haven't read that, but it's an interesting thought. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Aug 4 at 18:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ Eh, the argument is interesting, but for Gnomes that's quite hard to believe. WotC went out of their way to make intelligence a dump stat for everyone but wizards, so it's very hard to imagine a non-wizard gnome (except for the play-against-type you mentioned). \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Aug 4 at 20:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ @HellSaint I think that very much depends on play style - I have a gnome paladin in one campaign, and a gnome cleric in another, just because that's what I wanted - these characters have backstories and personalities and this is just who they are. They're definitely not 'just for laughs', but I'm clearly not a min-maxer either - for me the fun of it is the characters and the storytelling, not optimisation. \$\endgroup\$ – DM_with_secrets Aug 5 at 0:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DM_with_secrets it depends more on the world (which is obviously a consequence of playstyle) allowing them to live as adventurers while being clearly subpar, I guess. That said you can just play without any racial bonus and still get a decent character so yeah. Either way, it is play-against-type. Even lore-wise gnomes are more prone to wizardry. Not that play-against-type is uncommon or wrong - Drizzt has been one of the most played characters in my experience exactly for going against the original stereotype \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Aug 5 at 0:25
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Consider why having bonuses spread out is good. Classes generally fall into one of two categories, they either depend on one ability score for everything (called a SAD (single-ability-dependent) class) or depend on more than one ability score for everything (called a MAD (multi-ability-dependent) class).

For MAD classes, having the bonuses spread out is important, because it means you can start with very good (16 or higher) scores in your two most important abilities, or can go 16, 16, 14 (by doing a 15 and two 14s) if you need three abilities (or if you're hyper-optimizing, play a Triton and have three 16s and three 8s at the start of the game, really fun build for a paladin). However, if you've only got a single +3 to work with, you cannot have more than one ability over 15 at game start. This is huge for classes that actually need multiple abilities to be good to do well, because it means that they're underpowered relative to a +2/+1 (or +1/+1/+1) bonus up until level 4, but at that point they're still underpowered because they have to use their ASI or Feat to shore up their lower score instead of boosting their most important one.

For SAD classes, it's actually still helpful to have a +2/+1, as it lets you start with 17 in your key ability (and thus use either an ASI or a Feat to get it to 18 at level 4) and still have a secondary skill of your choice (usually DEX or CON) in the 14-16 range at game start, which helps you either survive or be better overall. Essentially the same issue arises here as for MAD classes. Playing a spellcaster, you can easily optimize for both casting and either having a decent AC (by putting DEX at 16) or being good at concentrating (by putting CON at 16) if you've got your bonuses spread, but you can't do that if you've only got a single +3 to work with.

If you look at a large sample of characters, you can kind of see this play out a bit. Most players won't actually start with a stat at 17 (the highest you can start with with a +2/+1 race), they'll start with two at 16, or more commonly one at 16 and two at 14. That common case actually is doable with a single +3 bonus, but anything more optimized than that for multiple stats is not. As a result, by using races with a +3, you're zoning people out of optimal builds for MAD classes if they pick that race.

This may be fine, but overall it means you will not see any serious players using that race for anything but SAD classes (and even then probably mostly for glass-cannon style spellcasters, because they can't shore up their defenses as well).

The probably bigger issue here though is how this affects your class DC, which is especially important since most SAD classes lean very heavily on effects dependent on their class DC. D&D 5e is built on a concept known as 'bounded accuracy' or 'bounded power'. Effectively this means that there's an upper limit to the potential power level of any character in game, and the players approach that at a fixed rate proportionate to their level (actually it's not really a fixed rate, it's more logarithmic, as the difference between level 1 and 2 is much bigger (due to HP scaling) than the difference between most of the other levels). This is, in general, founded on the assumption of using the point buy system. That's half of why 5e only has the classic approach of rolling your scores as an alternate rule instead of the 'standard' approach (the other half is that it normalizes out overpowered (everything 14 or higher) or underpowered (everything 13 or lower) builds that sometimes arise from rolling for ability scores).

However, starting with an 18 kind of throws that off, because your class DC is now 1 higher at level one than it would normally be, and at level four it ends up being again 1 higher than it would normally be. This means that content that was designed around the 'bounded accuracy' principle (such as pretty much all published adventure modules for 5e) will be measurably easier for SAD classes and especially casters at early levels.

Whether this matters or not is largely up to you. Regardless of how you handle it, you will skew the balance of the early levels more in favor of SAD classes (either you don't correct for it, and SAD classes are more powerful, or you do, and MAD classes are weaker relative to the content than they normally would be).

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