The purpose of this post is twofold. The first, and by far the more straightforward, is just to illustrate how racial abilities might function if you dissociate the bulk of ability adjustments with race, and transfer them to background, as I have done here. Since two points of modifier have now been assigned to background, that only leaves one point associated with race (in rare cases, two, such as for half-elves in the standard design). Below are my suggestions for racial adjustments with just one point of modifier. For those who have no interest in Markwald but like the general idea of disaggregating race and ability modifier, they can simply use the pared down racial adjustment to one single attribute, add the two modifiers based on background, and leave the rest of the race package in the PHB or any other source unchanged. This still allows the potential of gaining +2 to an attribute of your choice, based on your background selection. Adjusting for races that get a total of +4 to attributes would be somewhat more complicated using this system, but since many of them give free selection as to which attribute to increase, you could still take the +1 adjustment noted below, the +2 adjustment from background, and then increase any other attribute by 1.
Now on to the experimental part, which is really a partial reconceptualization of racial packages to fit the setting I have in mind. I've gotten rid of some races that don't belong (dragonborn), eliminated subraces that are generic and boring (high elves, wood elves), redone one (dwarves) that are uninspired with the aid of a class mechanic for Artificers that seems much more appropriate and topical, rethought gnomes and outfitted them with a halfling mechanic, left one largely intact mechanically, but with a new RP wrapper, and added one based on a variant of a Lukomorye race. The fluff describing each race is stolen from here, but I suppose I'm still allowed to steal from myself.
So here are the race packages for Markwald - a setting which is inspired by Black-Death era Central/Eastern Europe, Grimm's Fairy Tales, medieval epic poetry, and whatever else I feel like stuffing in there.
Church teaching asserts that humans are God's stewards on earth. During the heyday of the Vallanda Empire, which it is said covered nearly all the world, that seems to have been close to the case in practice. The collapse of this empire 1000 years ago brought creatures that had older claims out of hiding, but with the spread of the Ecumenical Faith, they once again retreated from the world, into their mines, haunts, and isolated estates. Some say that the Totentanz was their punishment for human pride, though others insist that without a settlement between humans and the other races, the apocalypse unleashed by the Totentanz will be impossible to contain.
There are many human nations. Those native to the Markwald are called Tungri (or Tungren), while neighbors include Vallanda, Anten, and many others.
Human Traits: Mechanically, the distinction between the human and the human variant package is eliminated. You can take a +1 adjustment to any ability, and a feat of your choice (from the list of those available), or, if you don't want to take time to pick one, simply take +1 to any ability, and the Skilled Feat (acquire proficiency in three skills). And no, you're not being cheated out of a skill proficiency, because you're getting a +2 attribute adjustment from your Background, for a total of +3, whereas the variant human typically gets +2. Whether you pick Skilled or another feat, you still get a bonus human language, belonging to one of the above proximate nations, or, if you prefer, a more distant one.
These people are quite similar to the standard dwarf race. Under the leadership of King Goldmar, they have withdrawn from most intercourse with humans, and retreated into their marble halls. "Mountain" dwarfs live in his realm among the unapproachable peaks of the Ardz mountains, and are a very rare sight in Markwald. Indistinguishable from the Dark Dwarfs (Duergar), they sometimes operate in secrecy, and are said to have fashioned networks of tunnels beneath some of the towns. When engaged in nefarious activities, they help poison dwarf-human relationships. Surprisingly, though, some are rumored to be physically attractive, though others are said to be quite ugly. "Hill" dwarfs are somewhat more widespread, and are said to dwell in the Düst foothills bordering Markwald from the south. Some of these, known as 'court dwarfs', appear in the castles of the magnates from time to time, or have special districts set aside for them in human towns. In contradistinction to kobolds, most dwarfs are clannish, and tend to stick to their own kind.
25 feet/round movement speed
Dwarf Resilience: Advantage on saves vs. poison, resistance to poison damage
Languages: either Dwarfish and one Human, or for those not raised by dwarfs, 1 Human and one bonus tool proficiency
Tool Proficiencies: One artisan tool
Dwarf Crafting: Similar to an Artificer, you learn to infuse crafted items with magical energy. You have four infusions, and may have two infused items at any given time. You may select any infusion that is available to Artificers at 2nd level. There are, however, several differences with the Artificer ability.
- You may only infuse items that you can craft based on your own tool proficiencies
- In order to infuse an item, you must work on it for a minimum of 1 day, and have all the requisite tools on hand to perform this work. You may then touch an item after completing a long rest in order to complete the infusion.
- You cannot replace the infusions you know as a product of this feature with any other infusions.
- With GM approval, you may start with two completed, functional, and if needed, attuned infusions as soon as you have completed the process of character creation.
- The items do not vanish when you die.
- Your infusion slots do not count against Artificer-based infusion slots if you happen to be an Artificer.
- The attunement slots you use to attune to your infusions do not count against your total three attunement slots for other items.
Getwerg (Hill dwarfs):
Master Appraiser: You may add double your proficiency on History checks when trying to appraise gems, jewels, coins, artifices, or other appropriate items
Healing Elixir: You can create a Healing Elixir at the conclusion of a Long Rest. The elixir restores 2d4 + your INT modifier HP to whoever drinks it (minimum of +1). You may have as many active elixirs at a given time as your INT modifier dictates.
Duergar (Mountain dwarfs):
Extended Darkvision: Your darkvision extends 120 feet.
Master Spelunker: You have advantage on Survival checks when underground.
Artificer's Lore: When you make Literacy/Arcana checks related to the functioning of artifices, alchemical objects, or magical items, you can add double your proficiency bonus to the check.
Sunlight Sensitivity: You have disadvantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks and attack rolls that rely on sight when you, the target of your attack, or whatever you are trying to perceive is in direct sunlight.
Duergar Magic: When you reach 3rd level, you can cast the enlarge/reduce spell on yourself once (using only the Enlarge option). When you reach 5th level, you may cast the invisibility spell on yourself once using this trait. You must finish a long rest before you may regain either spell. You don't need material components for either, however, you cannot cast these spells in direct sunlight. Intelligence is your spellcasting ability for both spells.
These are significantly more remote and dangerous than the beings depicted in standard D&D settings. The elves (Albe or Alpe) are the royal lines of the Fee, and in response to the spread of humans, have largely retreated back to their own world - Albenheim. Retreated, but not given up on taking revenge. They are said to sometimes carry out attacks against people who are asleep, though the purpose of doing so is unclear. They also steal children, and replace them with changelings. In the case of a certain Pied Piper - active in Markwald over a century ago - they do so en masse. Rumors have it that they control leaders of the heretical sects, and may ultimately be responsible for the Totentanz, and the Wild Hunt.
The two clans of elves - light (Eladrin) and dark (Shadar Kai) are the two 'subraces' known in Markwald, though it is not clear that one is more favorably disposed toward humans than the other. The elves have their defenders, who argue that they are not evil, just misunderstood. Whatever the case, when they walk abroad in the world, elves are typically in disguise. Some changelings grow up to be half-elves, whose elven parents makes their desires and instructions evident, at some point.
Languages: Elvish and any other language
Elf Magic: select any cantrip
Fee Ancestry: Advantage on saves against being charmed, and cannot be magically put to sleep.
Trance: four hours of meditation is sufficient for a Long Rest.
Lichtalbe (Light Elves - Eladrin):
Radiant Resistance: You have resistance to radiant damage.
Fey Step: As a bonus action, you can magically teleport up to 30 feet away into an unoccupied space you can see. Once you do this, you cannot do it again until finishing a Short or Long Rest. At 3rd level, you gain additional effects based on season (as Eladrin). If the effect requires a saving throw, the DC equals 8 + your proficiency bonus + your Charisma modifier. Note that unlike for Eladrin, the season is dictated by the actual season, depending on what Realm you are in.
Schwarzalbe (Dark Elves - Shadar Kai):
Necrotic Resistance: You have resistance to necrotic damage.
Blessing of the Raven Queen: As a bonus action, you can teleport up to 30 feet away into an unoccupied space you can see. Once you do this, you cannot do it again until finishing a Long Rest. Starting at 3rd level, you gain resistance to all damage when you teleport with this trait. The resistance lasts until the start of your next turn. During that time, you appear ghostly and translucent.
Half-elves can be the product of a mixed elf-human union, but they could also be changelings, placed with human parents by their elf parent. They may grow up not being aware of having elven heritage. In any case, most-half elves can pass as human, and most do attempt to do so, at least at some point in their life. Some half-elves may, however, have purely human heritage, and but acquire elven traits over time because they grew up in Albenheim. The purpose of placing the elves with human families, or taking them to grow up with elves likely becomes revealed at some point.
Fey Ancestry: As elf, above.
Languages: 2 bonus languages, as appropriate
Skill proficiencies: 2 bonus skill proficiencies
1 cantrip (any)
Of the Fee, the kobolds (more commonly known wichtelmännchen or erdmännchen - 'gnomes' is the term used by scholars) actually interact with humans the most. The former two terms are used to refer to urban gnomes, who access the houses of town residents (perhaps through underground tunnels). They tend to be skillful at artifices, and sometimes reward certain craftspeople they like by leaving little gifts. Conversely, they torment those they dislike. Their motivations are unclear, though it is rumored that they seek alliances with certain artisan guilds, and are willing to share knowledge with them. The Erdmännchen are more likely to have forest or mineshaft haunts. They are wilder and more magical, and, like the famed Rumpelstilzchen are not above stealing (or bargaining for) children.
Unlike dwarfs, kobolds tend to be solitary, or attached to families - human, or, more rarely, their own, though they do on occasion form teams (but despite some kobolds' closeness to humans, they are reticent to give out their names). The urban kobolds roughly correspond to rock gnomes, the mine-dwelling ones are closer to forest gnomes. In fact, however, the 'gnome' presented here is an amalgam of gnomes, halflings, and the Russian domovoi. There may be a special subrace - Klabautermännchen - that dwells on shipboard with sailors. And a 'deep gnome' may in fact be ancestral to both dwarves and gnomes.
Small size: You have Disadvantage on using Heavy weapons. In addition, Kobolds receive a lower HD type than what is appropriate for their class. E.g. kobold fighters have d8 for HD, Kobold rogues d6, and so on.
+1 AC (also for small size)
Tool Proficiencies: Artisan Tools (pick any)
Darkvision: 60 feet
Nimble: You can move through the space of any creature of a larger size than yours without provoking an opportunity attack. If you start in or next to a space with such a creature, you may Disengage as a bonus action.
Heinzelmensch ('Rock' or Urban Gnome):
Heinzelmensch Magic: You may select either the Mending cantrip, or the Spoil cantrip. You also know the Knock spell, but cannot cast it a second time without first taking a Long Rest.
Nisse/Erdmensch ('Forest' or Mine Gnome):
Nisse Magic: You know the Minor Illusion cantrip. You also know the Speak with Animals spell but cannot cast it a second time without first taking a Long Rest.
The orcs of Markwald are quite distinct from D&D orcs. Their physique does tend to be orc-like, though they are typically hairier, and lack mandibles. They do not live in tribes or march in large armies. They tend to be solitary, hiding in caves and swamps, though some have established themselves as estate owners in desolate locales. In such cases, they typically demand children to eat or spouses to marry as the price for leaving the rest of the people alone. Unfortunately, their spouses tend not to survive long, though some orcs imprison old spouses and practice polygamy. Solitary orcs sometimes kidnap partners from neighboring towns and villages.
The Church holds that orcs are descended from Nadad - the first human murderer and fratricide. This helps account for the orcs' monstrous lifestyle, but it also explains their close kinship with humans and ability to produce offspring with them. It is not clear whether orcs are in fact half-breeds themselves - in Markwald, there is no clear distinction between orcs and ogres. What to their neighbors the Vallanda are orco, and to the Galli - ogres, the Tungri call Riese, though they are much shrunken in comparison to the giants of old. Some still do possess rudimentary magical abilities.
Riese (half-orc) traits:
Language: Riese (Giant), or appropriate Human (or other) if raised among other peoples
Bonus Skill: Intimidation
Relentless Endurance: When reduced to 0 HP, you drop to 1 HP instead. Once you use this feature, you cannot do so again until you finish a long rest.
Savage Attack: When scoring a critical hit, you may roll one of the weapon's damage dice an additional time and add it to the total. (Variant: you may select the Disguise Self spell, which you can cast once and take a Long Rest before being able to cast it again instead of the Savage Attack feature).
Though church scholars are divided on the matter of whether the Fee are evil or destined for neither Heaven nor Hell, the beings that sire tieflings (also rendered as 'Teufling') are clearly infernal. The appearance of such creatures are clearly marked as 'monstrous births', and though most die before reaching adolescence, some survive. Though priests typically do their best to save their souls, most tieflings who make it to adulthood are driven out from their native villages and towns. At that point, they turn to lives of highway robbery, or become mercenaries. The few that are magically gifted sometimes found heretical sects, or become sorcerers of some note. Various tiefling types exist, and trace distinct infernal parentages (there are many, and it takes teams of learned doctors to catalogue them all). That said, some scholars assert that tieflings are not infernal at all, but are sired or birthed by creatures called Salamanders from the Realm of Muspelheim.
Languages: Babel (natural Infernal Tongue)
Hellish Resistance: You have resistance to fire damage
Infernal Legacy: Select one of the following cantrips to know: Friends, Mage Hand, Minor Illusion, Thaumaturgy. In addition, at 3rd level, you learn and may cast one of the following as 2nd level spells once per Long Rest period: Hellish Rebuke, Ray of Sickness, Disguise Self, Charm Person. Burning Hands. At 5th level, you learn and can cast one of the following spells once per day: Darkness, Crown of Madness, Detect Thoughts, Suggestion, Invisibility, Flame Blade. Charisma is your spellcasting ability for these spells.
Lorelei, known as undines to scholars, are water-dwellers, though they may also be found behind waterfalls, and atop riverbanks. They are especially known for their beauty (though some use magic to conceal horrid appearances) and their singing, which has enticed many a sailor or boatman. Occasionally, lorelei come to human settlements and take on partners, much like fee, orcs, or demons. The affairs tend to be unhappy ones, and cost the human partner their life or their sanity. To the lorelei, the cost is a shortened lifespan (but the gain, priests say, is their immortal soul). When they become 'human' in this way, lorelei retain some of their native traits, called watermarks - green hair, a greenish-pallid hue, and occasionally, scales or gills. Children born of such unions are also considered lorelei for game mechanic purposes.
Language: You can speak the Aquatic tongue. If born among humans with no other lorelei contact, select a human language instead.
Amphibious: You have a 30 foot Swim speed, and can breathe underwater as if affected by a 3rd level Waterbreathing spell of indefinite duration.
Beguiling: You know the Friends cantrip.
Strength of the Deep: You have advantage on WIS saving throws against magical effects.