The Problems with Race Leveling

As D&D moves away from tying ability scores to race, the design is trending towards including more robust and flavorful racial features. This makes sense…except when it doesn’t. Recently, the 5e design team has leaned more heavily into racial features that provide new benefits when your character levels up.

These features have two problems:

  1. They don’t make sense.
  2. They are troublesome for players.

A Tale As Old As Time

Now, let’s not pretend this is a new development.

The Elf was originally a class in 1e/basic. But, this design was quickly dumped when class and race were separated in 1977. No longer can you take a level in a race when you level up.

Kind of.

In fact, this design has crept back in; it exists in core 5e. Since the Player’s Handbook, the Tiefling has had scaled racial features that give you new spells when you level up. We see this same design manifested in other races, like the Gith.

Recent Unearthed Arcana shows that the 5e design team wants to trend further in this direction. Each of the last 3 Unearthed Arcana installments playtest racial features that give additional benefits on level up. However, these go even farther in providing physiological benefits such as wings, new breath weapons, and sticking to walls (i.e. spiderclimb).

Narrative Breaking

The new spells never really bothered me as a Tiefling/Gith. On some level, I can jive with the fact that your inate magical power grows as your character grows in power. However, where this narratively falls apart is when you select a magical race and pair it with a non-magical class, such as Barbarian. What is it about your Barbarian practice that makes your spellcasting or psionics grow in power?

Racial leveling makes especially little sense when it treads into the realm of physiological changes. We assume that physiological changes of a creature are tied to things like its age/maturity. When you tie them instead to character level, you wind up with some really weird assumptions.

You don’t hit puberty without class levels? This gateway prevents you from rolling up elder members of your race, since they inexplicably haven’t matured.

Adventurers are common? If a race does not experience physiological developments without gaining character levels, it stands to reason that every member of that race would become an adventurer, if for no other reason than to ensure the development and propagation of their species. But, we know that adventurers aren’t common. They’re a rare exception.

These issues are difficult to harmonize. Not impossible, but you need to hold your nose to swallow the classist implications of saying only a certain profession represents the physical ideal of their race.

Clunky Design

Even if we can wrap our head around these features with one narrative justification or another, they still present difficulties that 5e has otherwise attempted to distance itself from. In prior editions (notably 3e/3.x), character “builds” needed to be planned out many levels in advance. 5e has largely attempted to escape this design trope by (mostly) eschewing things like feat trees.

Yet, the more components you design that give you new features at higher levels, the more planning is required. This makes the system less accessible to jump into, especially for new players who are already considering numerous options.

It also makes leveling up a pain. Instead of checking the Player’s Handbook and seeing all the new changes for your class level in a single chart, you now need to look in an extra chapter of the book.

In cases like spellcasting, you may have to swap back and forth as new racial spells and subclass spells can create potential redundancies. All that needs to be sorted before choosing your new class spells.

This issue is not limited to spellcasting. Racial features can also resemble spells or other class features and create redundancies, or simply glut a certain facet of action economy. If my character has three features that all want to be used on the first turn of combat, but they all consume a bonus action, then I’m going to have a bad time.

Keep It Simple

Generally, 5e has strayed from complicating design in this fashion, preferring features that naturally scale with the player by leveraging the proficiency bonus. When you examine the narrative and mechanical difficulties of giving new race features at higher levels, you can see why.

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