Guidance – Design 101: Playing God, the Designer’s Guide to Race Building

Welcome to Guidance, Private Sanctuary’s source for tips and techniques for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, written by Everyman Gamer Alexander Augunas. Today, we’re going to be talking about using the Race Building tools in Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Advanced Player’s Guide.

It’s inevitable. If you play in your own, home campaign, you’re going to want to add interesting new PC races for your players. Chances are that if you’re looking to build some custom races for your campaign, you picked up the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Advanced Race Guide for its handy race-building tool. Following the chapter gives you decent insight on how to create a race, but there are many unspoken rules that the book doesn’t quite lay out for you, and if you’re not careful you’ll end up creating a race that is grossly too powerful. So today, we’re going to be going over what makes a good race and what makes a poor race, both in terms of mechanics and flavor.


When designing a race mechanically, there are some important factors to consider, which we’re going to talk about here.

  • Ability Score Bonuses: It is important to decide how your race allocates its ability score modifiers because very few effects in the game increase ability scores. Generally speaking, a good ability score spread is one that can support many different types of classes at least somewhat and doesn’t heavily favor one specific type of play. For instance, a race with +4 Intelligence and –2 Strength and Wisdom is basically screaming, “Wizard! Wizard! I’m a Wizard!” The wizard’s Will save bonus will make up for the Wisdom penalty and Wizards couldn’t care less about Strength. On the other hand, the race provides a MASSIVE +4 bonus to Intelligence, the only stat besides Constitution that the wizard cares about. As a general rule, if you’re going to give a race a +4 to an ability score via the race building system, you also need to give it a penalty to a stat that another stat that a character who primarily uses that ability score would care about. Also, +4 bonuses to casting stats are almost NEVER a good idea because it is possible to make a character who benefits heavily from that bonus with few downsides.
  • Strength is the Odd Man Out: Although the rules give you guidelines for increasing any ability score that you want, take a look at all of the races in the game. Of them, races that offer Strength are in alarming short supply: orcs (paragon +4), oreads (standard +2), and sulis (standard +2) have bonuses to Strength. As a general rule, most races don’t have Strength bonuses because it is very easy to optimize Strength for damage via the barbarian class, for instance.
  • Drawbacks Need to be Drawbacks: When designing a race, it is imperative that if you are going to give your race a weakness, it needs to be a meaningful race. For instance, if you give the race every racial bonus to arcane spellcasting under the sun, it is meaningless if you add a drawback that bars the race from picking a divine spellcasting class as a favored class. A drawback needs to actually be a meaningful penalty.
  • Decent at Everything: A well-designed race can function as any class. It may not be the most optimal choice, but players have reason to be a dwarven swashbuckler despite the lack of bonuses to the swashbuckler’s key stat. If a race is so heavily skewed towards one specific type of class that it is impossible to build that class successfully as anything else, it is not a good race.

Let’s look at two sample races that I’ve crafted; one is an example of a very, very bad race while the other is a race that I use in my home games.


  • +4 Strength, –2 Intelligence, –2 Wisdom: Grovlines are physically strong, but they are mentally feeble.
  • Monstrous Humanoid: Grovelines are monstrous humanoids.
  • Large: Grovlines are Large creatures. They gain –1 on attack rolls and to AC and +1 to their CMB and CMD.
  • Normal Speed: Grovlines have a base speed of 30 feet.
  • Low-Light Vision: Grovlines can see twice as far in conditions of dim light.
  • Natural Armor: Grovlines receive a +2 natural armor bonus to AC.
  • Total RP Cost: 14 pts.


  • +2 Constitution, +2 Charisma, –2 Wisdom: Mephians are hardy and charismatic, but aren’t very perceptive.
  • Mephian: Mephians are humanoids with the mephian subtype.
  • Medium: As Medium creatures, mephians gain no bonuses or penalties due to their size.
  • Normal Speed: Mephians have a base speed of 30 feet.
  • Empathic (Ex): A mephian receives a +1 raical bonus on Diplomacy and Sense Motive checks.
  • Favored Skills: A mephian selects two skills and adds them to his list of class skills.
  • Friendly Aid (Ex): A mephian using the aid another action increases the bonus he provides to his allies by +1.
  • Great Health (Ex): Mephians receive a +2 racial bonus on Fortitude saves made against disease, poison, and effects that cause the sickened or nauseated conditions, including magical effects.
  • Musk: A mephian’s tail secrets a sticky, sweat-like substance that most creatures find revolting. A mephian can use its tail to make a melee touch attack as a standard action. If the attack hits, the target becomes sickened for 1 minute unless it succeeds on a Fortitude save (DC 10 + 1/2 the mephian’s Hit Dice + his Constitution modifier). A successful saving throw reduces the condition to 1 round. A mephian can use this ability once per day; a mephian with a Constitution score of 13 or high can use it up to three times each day instead. A mephian’s musk does not affect creatures that are immune to inhaled effects, nor does it affect creatures with the mephian subtype.
  • Scent (Ex): Mephians gain the scent special ability, which allows them to detect creatures by smell.
  • Total RP Cost: 15 points.

So, which race is OP? The mephian has many, many more racial abilities than the beefcake, so it makes sense that the mephian is the OP option, right? Well, let’s look the two over in terms of our check list.

  • Ability Scores: The mephian’s +2 Cha, +2 Con, and –2 Wis is respectable. Constitution is a good ability to grant a bonus to all around, and while Charisma is good for specific classes, it isn’t an ability score that is overbearing. A Wisdom penalty, however, balances both of these benefits out because you’re looking at reducing your Perception checks (your most oftenly used skill) and Will save bonus by 1. Grovlines, on the other hand, have a +4 bonus to Strength and are penalized for their Intelligence and Wisdom. Although Wisdom hurts a little, going barbarian can easily offset this penalty because of the +2 bonus on Will saves that you get from raging. And as we all know, barbarians care little for Intelligence. This is further complicated by the fact that the Grovline has a +4 Strength bonus, which means that it is feasible for this character to get up to a Strength of 22 at 1st level. That’s a +6 bonus on weapon damage rolls and attack rolls for our barbarian friend! There is no class that synchronizes this well with the mephian’s bonuses.
  • Drawbacks: Neither class is designed with a drawback, so this is a moot point.
  • Decent at Everything: As we mentioned, the mephian is well-rounded. You could make the mephian into just about every class decently; even a Wisdom-based class because of the mephian’s Constitution and natural armor bonus. On the other hand, can you imagine the grovline as anything but a front-line Strength-based character? A massive +4 Strength with penalties to Int and Cha? I guess you could do a Str/Wis caster, but you’re still adopting the same style: massive Strength damage beatdown. Combine that with the fact that the grovline is Large sized and uses Large weapon damage dice for its attacks, and it becomes even harder to imagine this race as doing anything but beating the enemy over the head with a greatsword. That’s a huge problem from a design perspective, because you’re not really giving the player any choices with this character: choosing between an overpowered strategy and an inoptimal strength is not a choice.

As a result, it is the grovline, not the mephian, that is the ridiculously OP race.


This aspect of race design is a lot harder because it isn’t something that you can pull from a race building system. As a matter of fact, to build a truly effective race you need to have most of the flavor ready before you ever start building the race mechanically.

Now, obviously the Paizo designers don’t sit down and plan out as much flavor as I’m about to recommend when designing a new race, but as someone who is going to immediately need to use this new race at the table with no one’s guidance but your own, you need to be prepared to have a LOT of flavor information ready about this race. Generally speaking, you need to have the race pegged down from an individual standpoint and a societal / cultural standpoint.


Generally speaking, this a small bit of the race’s write-up. What does the race look like, physically speaking. What is a member of the race’s typical alignment. What is an ordinary (hint: 1 HD) member of the race able to do well without much training, or what can they do with a LOT of training? Why would a member of this race consider the life of an adventurer?


Most of a race’s write-up reflects its culture, not the individual. How do members of this race function together as a team? What does their society look like, and what specifically makes it DIFFERENT from other societies (specifically humans)? What sort of allegiances do they have with other races? What do they eat and drink? How do many of them fight? How does the race’s abilities affect its society?

That last point is especially important. For instance, humans have very flexible statistics (free skill points and a bonus feat), so one might argue that the humanocentrism experienced on most worlds is a result of that ability of humans to reproduce quickly and for offspring to quickly learn how to adapt to new environments and locations. Dwarves have a natural knack for stone and mental, which results in many of their racial traits. Naturally, this step can’t be done until after you’ve picked all of your racial traits, but thinking about what members of this race can do will help you pick and design racial traits, which in turn will help you finish off how those traits affect the race’s societies.

I’m nowhere near done saying all I can about race design, but that’s all the words that I have time for today! How about you? How do you tackle race design? Or do you use Paizo / 3PP stuff exclusively? What are your favorite races and why? What 3PP races are worth using? Thanks for reading and commenting, and I’ll see you next week for another installment in the GM Guide!

Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long as 90% of his colleagues. Alexander is an active freelancer for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and is best known as the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series by Radiance House. Alex is the owner of Everyman Gaming, LLC and is often stylized as the Everyman Gamer in honor of Guidance’s original home. Alex’s favorite color is blue, his favorite Pathfinder hybrid race is kitusne/grovline. THE BEEFIEST FOX EVER!

Alex Augunas

Alexander "Alex" Augunas is an author and behavioral health worker living outside of Philadelphia in the United States. He has contributed to gaming products published by Paizo, Inc, Kobold Press, Legendary Games, Raging Swan Press, Rogue Genius Games, and Steve Jackson Games, as well as the owner and publisher of Everybody Games (formerly Everyman Gaming). At the Know Direction Network, he is the author of Guidance and a co-host on Know Direction: Beyond. You can see Alex's exploits at, or support him personally on Patreon at


  1. Tayse McAusem Reply to Tayse

    One time I was trying to make a world that used the classic horror monsters using the world of darkness games as the standard for the core races. Most of it was pretty easy tweaks; human, skinwalker, dhampir, tiefling, I hit a few snags changing the warforged into undead constructs and my biggest hill was converting Elan into my geist race for a non-psionic campaign.

    Then all players chose to be human.

  2. I’m not so much interested in making new races as I am in reflavoring the existing ones.

    I think that fantasy games have plenty of fantastical races, some ridiculously so. Thus, I tend to think more of how can I make the “common” races seem new again.

    For example, I have in mind a campaign based off the American colonial/revolutionary times. In this world, Orcs and Half-Orcs were enslaved by the Imperialistic Dwarves and used for heavy labor. The Dwarves and Humans are currently fighting each other for control of new swaths of territory in the New World as the colonies established by both are beginning to resent being used as pawns by their ever increasingly foreign monarchs.

    Caught in the middle of all of this are the “barbaric” tribes of Elves, who were the original natives of the New World. The armies of the Dwarves and Humans tend to conscript Elven guides and warriors to gain the advantage over each other. The Halfling kingdoms are a neutral party in this fight, selling supplies and equipment to both sides. Some speculate that the Halflings are secretly manipulating the others for their own benefit.

    This is just a rough idea, and doesn’t go into the deeper political and social dynamics of this world. But I think it makes for an interesting setting using the core races, just in different roles than we are accustomed to. Of course, someone may have already done something like this, but I’m not versed in every single game setting out there.

    • Alex Augunas Reply to Alex

      But see, the thing is that you didn’t reflavor the races so much as you flavored the cultures, Kevin. I’m sort of bored with the core races in general, and no amount of reflavoring is going to pull that away from me. Reflavoring something with an already iconic flavor is risky business; reflavor too much and you lose what purists liked about the original flavor to begin with, but if you’re too modest with your reflavoring people will ask what the point of the reflavoring was.

      In your example, dwarves are still dwarves and the humans are still humans. To some extent, the halflings are still halflings. And by taking existing flavors (British, French, Spanish, and Native American, respectively) and assigning them to existing races, all your setting has done for me, personally, is highlight the parallels to the source material. I don’t find those reflavors particularly interesting as a result, sort of like how Warhammer Fantasy’s high elves and dark elves boil down to thinly veiled British and American political analogues.

      • Well, as with anything creative, you can’t please everyone. Some people are not going to like your take on something, and that’s fine. But what are the races except as defined by their culture? A collection of stats does not make a race, after all, a golem is a collection of stats, a dragon is a collection of stats. What makes Elves Elves (or dragons dragons) is the way they are presented. When you change how they are presented, but keep some familiar aspects so that people can still recognize them, then you have “reflavored” the race.

        And keeping those familiar aspects is important, because without them, you might as well just call them something other than Elves. It’s a psychological thing, where people gravitate to what is familiar, because that is comfortable. Even if Elves are presented in a radically different way (i.e. as savage primitives from the point of view of the “civilized” races) people will be more willing to accept the changes if there is still something familiar about them.

        This is partly why I dislike new fantasy races, because there is nothing familiar about them that I can latch onto. And because of that, attempting to play one would just end up like playing a Human, because that’s what I’m familiar with. I know that not everyone is the same way (in fact, I happen to be a rather boring person in real life who is stuck in his ways), but we all have similar psychological tendencies. Why do you think that all of the different species in Star Trek all looked like Humans with make-up on (I ask, somewhat tongue-in-cheek)? From a psychological point of view, it made empathizing with them easier, even if it was just a byproduct of budget. It is part of what made Star Trek resonate so powerfully in our culture.

        Anyway, my example was something I only have the smallest seed of an idea for, what I wrote in my post was the whole of it. So yes, the parallels are plain as day (I also do not claim to be particularly clever). My whole point is that most people (not all) would have a difficult time wrapping their heads around a new race with just a few paragraphs of description, and unfamiliar things tend to frighten us. So a gradual introduction of new things is the way to go about it rather than plopping a brand new race down (and one with zero published support material) and saying “have at it”.

  3. Ben Trieschmann Reply to Ben

    Hey, can you email me how you used RP for the Grovline, please? I am having a hard time rebuilding it at 15 RP.

    • Alex Augunas Reply to Alex

      There’s actually an error in the article; the Grovine have 14 RP, not 15. This is what the build looks like.

      — Standard Ability Scores (0 RP)
      — Monstrous Humanoid Type (3 RP)
      — Large Size (7 RP)
      — Average Speed (0 RP)
      — Low-Light Vision (1 RP)
      — Natural Armor +2 (3 RP)

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