Nautical Races for D&D 5th Edition

by Karl Brown

Part 1: Understanding the race descriptions.
This article provides new PC races chosen to suit nautical adventures inspired by Harryhausen Sinbad films, the golden age of piracy, or viking sagas. I have reverse engineered the WOTC race creation system and used this to ensure these races are balanced designs. This race creation system will be released separately when it is complete. It is not the system published in the previous edition of RPG Review. The article before you provides only the material needed to use the races presented here.
To save space most traits are not described in full, instead the core books are referenced. References to page numbers are encoded by book. PHB (Player’s Handbook), DMG (Dungeon Master’s Guide), MM (Monster Manual).
Safety star rating
To help you judge how certain I am of the evidence used to create a race I have a star system. Like the hotel and car safety scoring systems, races range from 0 to *****. Note that the star rating does not reflect ‘balance’, all races are designed to be balanced, but how sure I am of the design. The star system could be used to communicate to players what races you are going to allow, you might for instance only allow races rated 3 to 5 stars.
0 Flawed: This race actually breaks the rules set by WOTC’s race creation system. Many fan created races on the net are at this rating.
* Experimental: Contains one or more traits that are products of intuition. Most commonly speeds above 40ft or below 25ft, and Reach over 10ft. It does not break the rules of WOTC’s system. Very few fans extend the game system in new directions so this level is actually rare among fan created races on the net.
** Playtest: This race contains uncertain traits. It probably does not break the rules of WOTC’s system and that there is a chance that it may be a little over- or under-powered. Alternatively, the race uses rules that extend PHB rules in new ways. Many better fan created races on the net would be at this level.
*** Typical: This race contains at least one trait that we do not know the exact value of and does not break the rules of WOTC’s system. Conservative fan based races created by using PHB races as templates can reach this level. A deeper understanding of WOTC’s system obtained by reverse engineering allows greater design freedom while still remaining at this level. If not canonised by the PHB the builds for halflings, gnomes, and half-orcs would be at this level.
**** Safe: The races traits are all one for which we have very good evidence. If not canonised by the PHB dwarves, elves, tieflings, and dragonborn would be at this level.
**** ½ to ***** Very Safe/Canon: The race has no uncertain items, all the traits can be valued by direct statements in the PHB. Of all the PHB races only the Human reaches this level without canonisation by the PHB.
Type & Tags
A PC version of a monster has the monster’s Type and any Tags.
Racial ability score adjustments
Unlike the PHB, racial ability score adjustments can be negative.
Ability score range
The canon rule in the PHB is that the range of ability scores for PCs is 3-20. However, who ever heard of a Str9 awakened frog? Optional ranges are given for starting ability scores. During play misfortune can reduce a character’s ability scores below these minimums but a PC may never rise above the maximums given.
This has no bearing on game mechanics and might be gleaned from MM text or invented. Age ranges are not given with the races.
The alignment given in the MM is the one the race adheres to most often. For mortal races this is just a tendency but for extraplanar creatures deviation from the given alignment can be vanishingly rare. Alignments are not given in the race descriptions.
Size: 3e veterans note that Size does not include Reach.
Weapons of different Sizes are different proficiencies. A Large javelin proficiency does not let an ogre use her proficiency bonus with a human’s javelin. If a creature changes size when levels are gained then all weapon proficiencies also scale up at the same time.
Natural armour: if the PC wears armour use the highest of the natural armour and the worn, they do not stack (like the barkskin spell).
Water breather: you breathe water not air. If you enter the air the usual rules for holding your breath and suffocating apply (PHB183).
Low CR monsters
Some creatures are so weak that extra traits are assigned to the PC version.
Care must be taken in this edition of D&D when allowing flying 1st level. The level at which PHB only characters can gain good access to flight is 6th !
Races with a flying speed at 1st level should have the following warning:
“Having a flying/swimming) speed before 6th level is exceptionally effective in certain circumstances and exceedingly dangerous in others. As a result, playing a (race) requires special consideration by your DM who may disallow this choice.”
Part 2: Overcoming the limits
The rules in this section are not part of the reverse-engineering of WOTC’s system.
The PHB is designed to support humanoids of Small or Medium size and lower power level as PCs. The reverse engineered race creation system is bound by these limits. This section contains new rules to overcome these limits. The rules use existing D&D rules and math as a basis but are NOT something WOTC uses. For example a mathematical analysis of classes was used to create the Level Adjustment rule. Players and DMs should treat these rules like a play-test. If you use these rules you should regard your character as a play test and accept that the referee has the right to remove the character from play at any time.
Out of Combat: Disadvantage & Inspiration
We don’t want to write a library of special case rules to cover marine creatures on land, awakened animals trying to pick pockets, etc. We need a separate alternative system. Fortunately, we are given two general tools for players who play within the limitations of a role: Disadvantage, and Inspiration.
Use Disadvantage when the race can do something but with difficulty.
When a race can’t do something say ‘no’ but if this prevents the character from taking an action critical to survival or achieving important goals award Inspiration. Inspiration is explained as the character trying harder to prove themselves useful.
The Inspiration awards are important. Awarding Inspiration when the handicap becomes critical compensates the player in proportion to how often the handicap is actually important during play.
Specific examples follow in the sections below on Size and Beasts.
Whenever the Size of your race place you in danger or prevent you from doing something critical your referee might award Inspiration (PHB125). A giant might be rewarded Inspiration for not being able to enter a room where the rest of the party was loosing a fight but not if the door went into an inn on a warm summer night. If your Size makes something more difficult but not impossible apply Disadvantage, for example a hill giant trying to pick a human-built lock.
Size and Equipment
The other issue is equipment of the right size. For scaled armour we learn from the barding rule, the armour does not differ in AC from Medium scale, cost is x4 per scale up and x1/4 per scale down, weight is x2 per scale up and x1/2 per scale down. In the PHB Small armour costs and weighs the same as Medium you may wish to change this. These rules could be used for any worn equipment including packs.
For other non-worn gear my best guess is cost x2 per increase in scale, x1/2 per scale down. The exception is items with value based on their materials, such as gold jewelry, those increase in cost as per weight.
For scaled weapons if the weapon is in the monster’s description use the damage listed (minus the monster version’s STR mod). If not, Large scale double the number of damage dice, Huge scale triple the number of dice. By extension I’m guessing that gargantuan scaled weapons would be 4x the usual number of damage dice. Ok what about smaller? Well, sprite in the MM tells us 1d8 at Medium goes to 1pt at Tiny but we currently don’t really have any other data points for smaller than medium scaled weapons. While we wait on further evidence I suggest halving the number of sides of the dice used per reduction in scale below Medium (for example a 2d8 becomes 2d4, a d2 becomes 1pt, 1pt becomes 0 damage). Using this system weapons can be scaled to Small Size too; for example a Small Greatsword does 2d3 slashing. At Tiny any slashing or piercing weapon can be built with the finesse quality if damage is reduced to 1pt.
Unarmed damage is NOT scaled this way. Unless bought as a separate trait unarmed damage is 1 bludgeoning.
Weapon cost probably increases in proportion to the average damage of the weapon compared to the Medium version, i.e Large x2, Huge x3, Small x1/2 and Tiny x1/4. Weight increases by x8 per size increase or x1/8 per Size decrease in the real world.
A giant’s rock is a simple ranged weapon.
Beasts and other oddities
There are issues if you cannot wield tools or speak. Whenever the limitations of your race place you in danger or prevent you from doing something critical your referee might award Inspiration (PHB125). For example an awakened panther might be rewarded Inspiration for not being able to open a door to a room where the rest of the party was losing a fight but not if the door went into an inn on a warm summer night.
Not being able to talk can cause communication issues that could occasionally be worth Inspiration. You might understand languages without being able to speak or write them. Speech is characterized into three categories:
1. If you can’t vocalise at all then you can’t cast spells with a verbal component and spellcasting classes are not recomended. You can still learn languages and understand them, just not speak them. (twig blight, crawling claw)
2. If your natural form can’t speak humanoid languages then for spells with verbal components assume you are able to translate the arcane formulas into noises you can make. If shape-changed into a form that cannot make your natural range of sounds you cannot cast spells with verbal components until the effect ends, even if your temporary form can speak humanoid languages. (chimera, chuul, manes).
3. If you can speak humanoid languages then you use words for somatic components. If you are polymorphed or shape-changed into a form that cannot sound out words you can’t cast spells with somatic components until the effect ends (human, awakened animals, silver dragon)
Tool Use
Not all races have hands or tentacles able to wield weapons and use tools well. For weapon and tool use rate the creature into one of 5 categories most races presented are equivalent to a human (tool use 5) but a few are tool use 2.
If you have no hands or an odd body-shape armour is usually no problem, exotic barding can exists in D&D. You may need help to get in or out of armour (see below).
You cannot begin play with equipment you cannot use, nor proficiencies in weapons, shields, or tools you cannot use. This also applies to any class benefits you cannot physically do. You are not directly compensated for this you just lose these benefits. However, the more often this comes up the more limited your character is and the more likely they are to earn Inspiration during play.
For those without hands a spell focus can replace most material components and can be simply grasped or worn. I would assume you can interpret somatic components into complex sets of movements you can perform in your natural form. Just as a human transformed into a handless parrot can’t cast spells with somatic components a parrot transformed into a human cannot use somatic components even though the new form has hands. If you can’t write you cannot write into a spellbook without aid, therefore creatures that cannot write who are wizards must take the Mage Hand cantrip at first level.
Tool use 1: Paws, mouth, or similar. Unable to use any weapons, shields, or tools. Cannot don or remove armour without help. Cannot apply the bonus for Dexterity to thrown or missile weapons except objects dropped from above. Cannot open locks, disable traps, pick pockets, open a doorknob, or write. A wizard must take Mage Hand as a known spell at first level. Spells requiring specific material components with a gp value require an active Mage Hand. Can cast spells where a focus can substitute for material components. Cannot use a component pouch without an active Mage Hand. Somatic components require your whole body to be free to move (behir, beholder, blink dog, chimera, cloaker, killer whale).
Tool use 2: Grasping paws or similar. Able to grasp items and point wands but due to weak grip, lack of coordination, or limited range of movement cannot wield weapons, use shields, or perform fine manipulation such as writing. Cannot don or remove armour without help. Cannot apply the bonus for dexterity to thrown or missile weapons except objects dropped from above. Cannot open locks, disable traps. Can pick pockets with a Disadvantage. Requires a DC10 Dex check to open a doorknob though if the door was intended for people two or more Sizes larger you are at a Disadvantage. Wizards must take the Mage Hand cantrip at 1st level. Able to cast most spells requiring material components. Spells requiring specific material components with a gp value require an active Mage Hand if fine manipulation is described in the spell description. Can cast spells where a focus can substitute. Can use a component pouch. Somatic components require your whole body to be free to move (dragon, raven, crab, homunculus, otyugh, raccoon, possum, umber hulk).
Joining levels for powerful creatures
Level adjustment (LA) is how many class levels the race is worth. Joining level (JL) is the level when the race can join a party. If no LA or JL is listed assume LA+0 and JL1.
Joining level (JL) is the level of PHB race characters when the monster race joins them. Typically, JL=LA+1 but not always. For example a monster with LA4, JL6 joins a party two levels in her class when the humans in the party are 6th level in their classes. A character must have at least one level in a PHB class to be legal for play. Sometimes however JL is higher because an trait requires a higher level (see below).
Level Adajustment & traits
Where a race trait is granted at a level use LA+class levels to determine when the trait is gained.
Joining level & traits
For some creatures an adult starting without a particular trait is stretching credibility. If this is the case JL may be higher than LA+1 so that the joining level is one where a desired trait is balanced.
Part 3: Unusual characters in play
Character creation
You still get the usual 1st level HP for your first class even if you have racial HD. Proficiency bonus is determined as if your level was LA+class levels. There are no limits on Background. The Outlander is good for marauding humanoids and wild creatures, even those from the ocean. Equipment is as given by Class and Background or purchase. If you go with the Class and Background options weapons and armour are scaled to your size representing a significant saving in the cost of scaled goods for large races. You may not begin with equipment you cannot use, for example tool use 2 races do not begin with weapons.
At the table
The more human–like the character is, the easier it will be to include them in D&D’s traditional types of adventures. Creatures of any Size could be adventurers. If your campaign features a lot of dungeons then Large is probably the maximum Size for PCs. However a nautical campaign consists mostly of ocean travel and islands. Huge PCs should play just fine if adventurers stick to the shallows or if a large ship carries the party. Tiny PCs can be useful in any type of adventure.
Unusual shape is actually even less of an issue than size if the character is part of a party. Compare a giant eagle and awakened parrot, the latter can easily perch on another PC’s shoulder and go where they go. A solitary awakened parrot is going to be stuck when faced with their first doorknob but as part of a party they can get past the door and do their fair share to overcome whatever is on the other side.
If during play the unusual character seems too powerful the table should negotiate a solution. One alternative is to remove the character from play.
Part 4: Nautical Races
Aquatic Elf
***½ Medium Humanoid (Elf)
Elf traits (PHB23).
Subrace traits: Dex+1, Con+2. At 1st level Swim speed is 35ft and land speed 25. Amphibious (PHB305). Mask of the Sea: you can attempt to hide even when you are only lightly obscured by seaweeds, silt, and other natural underwater phenomena (as per Mask of the wild PHB24). Proficient in spear and trident. The aquatic elf speaks Elvish, Common and Sahuagin.
Notes: This version of aquatic elf is based on the 2e version from the Book of Elves and the Monstrous Manual for that edition. Interestingly, these two sources are inconsistent in several places.
Cat, Awakened
** ½ Tiny Beast Tool use 1. Languages: Common and one other of the player’s choice.
Str-2{1-6}, Dex+2{3-20}, Con+0{3-20}, Int+0{3-20}, Wis+1{3-20}, Cha+0{2-14}
Traits: Speed 40, Climb Speed 30ft. Proficiency in Stealth, Perception, and unarmed attacks. Keen smell, no disadvantage on sight checks in dim light. Claw attack does 1+STR slashing damage. Exceptional individual: your unusual past is represented by one feat of your choice.
Notes: most ships have a cat, when a skald takes a liking to the feline or wild magic is encountered in uncharted oceans characters like this can result.
Eagle, Giant
* ½ Large Tool Use 2 Speech 2 Beast. LA2 JL3
Str+3{3-20}, Dex+3{3-20}, Con +1{3-20}, Int-1{2-16} Wis +2{3-20} , Cha+0{3-20}.
Traits: Speed 10ft, Fly speed 80ft, cannot fly while wearing heavy or moderate armour, keen sight, Perception skill, Beak 1d6 piercing and talons 2d6 slashing no extra attacks reach 5ft. Racial HD 2d10. Unarmed Proficiency.
Speaks Giant Eagle. Understands Common and Auran but cannot speak them.
Notes: In nautical campaigns one can easily imagine giant versions of white sea eagles. Being able to fly before 6th level is exceptionally effective in certain circumstances and exceedingly dangerous in others. As a result, playing a giant eagle requires special consideration by your DM who may disallow this choice.
Fog Giant
* ½ Huge Giant. LA8, JL11. A fog giant joins an 11th level party with three levels in a class. Languages: Common, Giant. The first two times a fog giant would gain an extra attack from a class she gains a 1d8 hit die and associated increase in maximum hit points each time instead.
Str+9{3-20}, Dex+0{3-20}, Con+5{3-20}, Int+0{3-20}, Wis+2{3-20}, Cha+0{3-20}
Traits: Reach 10ft. Natural armour 13+DEX. Racial HD 5d12. Speed 40. Proficient in Dex, Con, and Wis saves. Skill proficiencies in athletics, survival, and stealth. Advantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks for both smell and hearing. Blend into fog, mist, falling snow, hail, or heavy rain (this works like Mask of the Wild for these conditions PHB24). Unarmed attacks do 1d10 bludgeoning damage. Weapon proficiencies: unarmed, huge rock (as per a Cloud Giant’s rock MM154) and Great Club (as per Hill Giant MM155). Advantage on saves vs poison and resistance to poison damage.
Notes: based on the 2e Monstrous Manual creature. The Fog Giant was first seen in the 1e Fiend Folio. These 24ft tall muscular giants have milk-white skin and silvery hair. They dwell in temperate coasts, marshes, and boggy forests; all places prone to fogs. They are hunter-gatherers but know some metalwork and value silver. There are both good and evil fog giants, both are known for being as quiet in ambush as they are boisterous in carousing. Aboard a ship the Fog Giant takes up as much space as 64 Medium sized crew/passengers probably by sleeping in the hold. Only large vessels. However, the giants great strength and hieght enable him to do the work of 64 crew also but only if say 20% of the vessel’s cost and construction time is spent modifying the ship. In a coastal or island hopping campaign the giant can wade or swim while other PCs sail but Fog Giants cannot swim an ocean crossing.
Half-Elf Variant
**** ½ or ***½ if half aquatic elf. Medium Humanoid
Charisma is raised by +1
Speed 30ft
Choose one subrace of elf. You gain all of the traits of that subrace including the ability score modifier and lesser traits. Note that you done not get the core Elf traits and modifiers, only those listed under your chosen elf subrace (PHB23-24 or aquatic elf above).
Traits: You gain two skills of your choice. Darkvision 60ft, Fey Ancestry (PHB23), plus those granted by your elf sub-race. Languages: Common, Elven, and any one other language.
Notes: this can be used to make half aquatic elves for nautical campaigns, half drow for underdark settings etc.
***½ Medium Humanoid (Merfolk)
Str+0{3-20}, Dex+0{3-20}, Con+1{3-20},Int+0{3-20}, Cha+1{3-20}.
Traits: Amphibious (PHB305). Land speed 30ft. Shore walker: the half-mer can take an action to transform between two physical forms, one with legs and an land speed of 30ft and the other with a fishy tail instead of legs, a swim speed of 30ft and a land speed of 10ft. Exceptional individual: your unusual past is reflected in the free choice of one feat.
Lesser Traits: speaks Common, Aquan, and one other language of the player’s choice. Half-Mer: when adjudicating magical effects the character counts as both a human and a merfolk, both a land creature and a marine creature.
**½ Medium Humanoid (Lizardfolk) Speed 30ft. Languages: Draconic, Common.
Str+2 {3-20}, Dex+0{3-20}, Con+0{3-20}, Int+0{2-14}, Wis+0{3-20}, Cha+0{2-14}.
Traits: Swim Speed 30ft, Natural armour 13+DEX. Bite 1d6+STR piercing and claws 1d4+STR slashing, both reach 5ft. Weapon proficiencies: unarmed, heavy club, and javelin. Hold breath for 15 minutes.
Notes: In a nautical campaign one can easily imagine marine lizard men who perhaps look like anthropomorphic saltwater crocodiles.
*½ Medium Humanoid (merfolk)
Str+0{3-20}, Dex+1{3-20}, Con+2{3-20},Int+0{3-20}, Cha+1{3-20}.
Traits: Perception skill. Proficient in spear, trident and net. Land speed 10ft, swim speed 40ft at 1st. Amphibious (PHB305). Your unusual past that has driven you away from the usual life of your kind is represented by two skills, a feat, and an extra language of your choice.
Notes: This race is designed for a campaign where the Merfolk PC will be spending at least some time out of water and interacting with land-dweller PCs. It may be overpowered in other contexts. You should discuss how you and the referee imagine issues like thirst, dehydration, and jumping and how Disadvantage and Inspiration will be used to make sure you are on the same page.
** ½ Large monstrosity, the first Extra Attack from a class is swapped for a 1d8 hit die and associate increase in maximum hit points.
Languages: Abysal, Common. LA4, JL5.
Str +4{3-20}, Dex+0{3-20}, Con +3 {3-20}, Int-2{2-12} Wis +3{3-20}, Cha-1{3-18}.
Traits: Darkvision 60ft, Labyrinthine Recall. Speed 40ft, natural armour 14+DEX, Reckless. Proficient in: Perception skill, unarmed and great axe. 3d10 racial HD. Gore, at 13th level gains Charge but with a damage bonus of +1d8, this becomes +2d8 at 19th level, Charge only applies to gore attacks.
Note: The maritime minotaurs of Kryn were player characters in previous editions. Minotaurs might also find a place in settings inspired by the Argonauts of Greek myth or Harryhausen films.
Octopus, Awakened Giant.
* ½ Medium Beast. Tool use 5 (as good as human hands). Languages: Common and one other language.
Str+2{3-20}, Dex+1{3-20}, Con+1{3-20},Int+0{3-20}, Cha-3{2-14}.
Traits: Aquatic (see above). Swim Speed 60ft, land speed 10ft. Water breather (PHB309) but able to hold breath for one hour (MM326). Stealth skill. Tentacles 1d6 bludgeoning, reach 10ft, and DC is 13+STR modifier (otherwise as per MM326). Ink cloud (MM326). At 5th level becomes Large, tentacle reach extends to 15ft, and tentacle damage becomes 2d6. To counteract the effect Large can have on damage per round a giant octopus replaces their first Extra Attack from a class (like fighter at 5th) with a 1d8 hit die and associated increase in maximum hit points.
Notes: An octopus is an alien. A solitary ambush predator with no need for friendship and incredible patience. You are never motivated by friendship, family ties, or love. In your bonds you only recognize the value of others’ skills and resources. You might be motivated to protect your ocean home, by curiosity, or to amass gold to buy safety and food. The Hermit background would be a good fit.
That you have eight tentacles does not grant any extra attacks.
Parrot or Raven, Awakened
* ½ Tiny Beast Tool Use 2. Languages: Common, any one other language.
Str -4{1-4}, Dex+2{3-20}, Con+0 {2-16}, Int+0 {3-20}, Wis +1{3-20}, Cha0{2-12}
Traits: Speed 10ft, Fly at 50ft. Cannot fly in Moderate or Heavy armour. Mimicry (PHB309). Unarmed proficiency. Advantage on saves against magic with Dex, Wis, Cha, and Con. +3 to initiative. Skills: Perception, Stealth, and one extra skill of the player’s choice. False appearance: looks like an ordinary parrot or raven. Beak does unarmed 1 piercing damage. The ability to communicate with ordinary parrots or crows and ravens. Additionally, a Raven has advantage of saves against poison and resistance to poison damage but only from ingested poisons.
Notes: Most of a bird’s survivability is in her power of flight. The best character options are those that enable the bird to attack or aid at a distance. Parrots would stereotypically have the pirate or sailor background but it would also be suitable for the ravens taken by Viking ships to seek out land. The Sage Background is suggested for Viking ravens who emulate Odin’s birds Huginn ("thought") and Muninn ("memory") or ravens attracted to “many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore”.
Having a flying speed before 6th level is exceptionally effective in certain circumstances and exceedingly dangerous in others. As a result, playing a bird requires special consideration by your DM who may disallow this choice.”