In all of the incarnations of D&D players can choose to be of different "races." Humans, Dwarves, Elves, and Halflings, from the beginning (putting on pause the race-as-class idea from ODD). In 1e we see Gnomes, Half-Elves, and Half-Orcs enter the fray, and the "Races" chapters of each later PHB contains even-greater variety. I think it's fair to say that the concept and its attendant terminology are in the DNA of most fantasy TTRPGs.

Some of these "races" are clearly just that: physically-distinct groups within the same species that, when in congress produce fertile offspring: Orcs+Humans or Humans+Elves. Looking at the various monster manuals we see other cross-breeds: Human+Giant, Ogre+Orc (Ogrillon), Giant+Goblin (Bugbear, according to original Greyhawk, I believe), Human+Goblin, Human+Dragon, &c.

But we never see "quarterlings" ("three-quarterlings?"), "dwelves," "minognomes," "dra-goblin-born," or plenty of other crosses from among the above constituents. Are some of these different species, such that they cannot co-procreate? Was the use of the term "race" intentional from the beginning, meant to convey that all of the races presented belong to one species?

Exclude from consideration cross-bred species created magically, such as centaurs, chimera, owlbears, &c. To put it bluntly, this is about a member from each of two groups coming together to produce an offspring with traits of each parent, which offspring itself can continue its lineage.

Excellent answers would refer to sources (published play-material, articles, interviews) from the 70s and 80s.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ What problem are you trying to solve, here? \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Sep 1, 2015 at 23:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ @GMJoe Also, I'd say it's not so much a problem I'm trying to solve as it is a question I've had for a long time. I'd like to know if the support for "this is more thought than the designers put in" is 38-years' radio silence, or are there interviews/articles/handbook notes indicating that? \$\endgroup\$
    – nitsua60
    Sep 2, 2015 at 0:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ Your basic assumptions are totally wrong, but +1 for letting us put down this common D&D + pseudoscience misconception. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 2, 2015 at 0:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ @GMJoe I'm not thinking of it as a 'please design my world/campaign/adventure/player group for me' question, but as a 'is this information out there to help me do all of that work?' \$\endgroup\$
    – nitsua60
    Sep 2, 2015 at 0:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ Rather than letting it languish in the comments, you may wish to weave some of this relevant clarification of motives into the question itself where future answerers will see it. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 2, 2015 at 5:13

2 Answers 2


They're all species. The word "race" is not actually so specific as often thought, and can be used synonymously with "species" if sentient beings are involved, so it's still an appropriate word for giants, elves, and such.

The ability to interbreed and produce fertile offspring is a red herring and doesn't indicate anything about species or subspecies relations here—different fantasy species can have fertile half-whatever children because it's a fantasy trope common to the genre,(WARNING: TV Tropes link!) not because it's supposed to be a clue to the scientific taxonomy of the various fantasy races. That's putting more scientific thought and expectations into it than the designers did.

When worldbuilding, one can certainly subvert or avert this trope, and draw on a more rigorous understanding of biology and taxonomy to create detailed, interesting distinctions and relations between the "standard" fantasy races. But by default there's nothing there as a foundation to either build on or to need to cooperate with. A worldbuilder that wants to inject sensible biology into the sentients of their setting is entirely on their own, but also unimpeded by any existing laws.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Phew that was close, I almost got lost in TV Tropes for two to three hours. \$\endgroup\$
    – Sandwich
    Sep 2, 2015 at 2:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ I also remember somewhere in 2nd Edition that Orcs could breed, or at least tried to breed, with everything. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ruut
    Sep 2, 2015 at 5:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for "That's putting more scientific thought and expectations into it than the designers did." We live in the age of overthinking a great many issues. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 2, 2015 at 12:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ It’s worth noting that in many cases, different real-life species can have fertile half-whatever children, because there is no hard-and-fast definition of “species” and the common layman definition of fertile offspring is not taxonomically viable in all cases (e.g. ring species, or for an even more extreme example, bacteria). Wikipedia has a pretty good article on this so-called species problem. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Jul 14, 2017 at 14:47

Applying In Real Life terms to D&D: Elf would be a Species. Wood Elf would be a race.

In Real Life Definitions

Species: A species is often defined as the largest group of organisms where two hybrids are capable of reproducing fertile offspring, typically using sexual reproduction.

Race: Race, as a social construct, is a group of people who share similar and distinct physical characteristics.

Applying D&D Terms to D&D: Elf would be a Race. Wood Elf would be a Sub-Race; or Elf would be a Type. Wood Elf would be a Sub-Type.

Fantasy Documentation

The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games by Michael J. Tresca

Unlike its usage in modern time, the term "race" in gaming represents a species. Race is one of the most basic attributes in defining a character in fantasy literature. Andrew P. Miller and Daniel Clark (1998:155) distinguish fantasy races from fantasy creatures by the following list:

Table 2: Characteristics of Fantasy Races

  • Physical Similarity: Share traits in common with others of their race
  • Population: Not unique beings, even if they are a dying breed.
  • Procreation: Can procreate, with implies gender and familial groups.
  • Reason: Capable of forethought and consciousness in a way that is above animal-like.
  • Culture: Have a culture that shares common beliefs and traditions.

The simplification of racial archetypes in The Lord of the Rings is understandable. Identifying members of the Fellowship by race helps identify their origins, clearly delineating their political and national allegiance. The Fellowship is as much a League of Nations as it is an adventuring party, dedicated to achieving a common goal that has far-reaching political ramifications. They are not merely after loot and prestige. These adventurers are out to save the world.

Of course, the racial archetypes present in Middle Earth predate Tolkien's works. His magnum opus provided a common framework for the races to work together. To examine the relationships of the Fellowship in modern gaming, it's useful to explore the roots of fantasy in fairytales, myth, and legend.


The most comprehensive approach to inter-species breeding I have ever seen in print was Bastards & Bloodlines. Peruse that publication for some ideas.


I have never seen official publications that mention 3/4 races - the GM/DM would probably have to say that the person in question could be considered whatever race is dominant rather than have traits of both. For example, a 3/4 Elf 1/4 Human could probably look entirely elven, except for having human eyes, or human facial hair; but be considered completely elven.

In 3rd Edition, Dragon Magazine #328 (Nobody's Perfect) gave an optional Flaw to use for Half-Elves; of which could be modified for all half-races:

Quarter Elf

Prerequisite: Half-elf. Effect: You are not immune to sleep spells and do not gain a racial bonus on saving throws against enchantment spells or effects. You are not considered to have elven blood.


In 2nd Edition, if I remember correctly, they used Race and then Sub-Race. In 3rd Edition, they began using Type and Subtype.


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