Humans are one of the 9 basic race types for DnD and the one you should be most familiar with. Unlike every other race in DnD, the Human class does not have any unique traits. Instead said humans fall into a broad spectrum. They are your basic be anything, do anything race and are the best choice for players who want to customize a fantasy hero just the way they like.
What is a Human in DnD?
You probably know what a human is already, but in the DnD universe we need to narrow that down a bit. Ignoring physical characteristics for a moment, humans are broadly classified by the following terms most frequently: restless, adaptable, ambitious, young, innovative, and diverse.
What sets humans apart from the other races is not that they are one specific thing, but instead that they are not. To the other races this is highly unusual, as most of them have defining physical features, narrow societal roles, and roughly similar temperaments. Humans have none of this. Each human is different, and this is actually a bit concerning to some of the more homogeneous races.
Moving back into physical characteristics, there are a few things worth noting for their traits. Most humans are said to have at least a touch of non-human blood in them, which has interesting story implications; we can infer that they are one of the few races capable of cross species breeding on a broad level. This is also why we have half-elves and half-orcs, but we don’t have elf-orcs or dwarf-halflings. Human sorcerers also likely have their magic powers thanks to a magical bloodline, be it draconic, fiendish, or fey.
Beyond their penchant for getting it on with just about everyone, humans have 9 variants which the book calls out specifically as ethnic groups (which it does nowhere else). These ethnic groups are all from the Forgotten Realms campaign setting and confer no trait benefits, which we will get to in a moment.
When it comes to their attributes as a creature, they are roughly in the middle; they are the most balanced of all the races and the easiest to customize. While there are obvious reasons for doing this, it can benefit the game to have a Mary Sue for everyone. The game is about having a fantastic fantasy life, so why not let people interject an idealized version of themselves if they want?
Humans are weird when it comes to society types. The books describe them as being somewhat individualistic and somehow not all at the same time. Like all things for humans, they lead whatever kind of lives they want, so there are kingdoms and villages, war-bands and travelers, hermits and nomads. If there is a societal type, humans have likely tried it. But there are a few defining features to human society that are worth noting.
Humans don’t live as long as most of the other major races. This means that human society has a relatively short memory and is often focusing on progress rather than tradition. Where dwarf generations are long and overlapping, it would be unusual for humans to know tales older than their great grandparents, and thus they have a shorter cultural evolution cycle.
Humans are also prolific. They breed fast, get everywhere, and are hard to get rid of. They spread out just as much as they clump up. You’ll see a human settlement pop up and then within 200 years they’ve spread themselves all over the country side making towns and villages, castles and keeps.
To elves, who live super long lives and breed slowly, human expansion looks absolutely insane. An elf might watch development from the edge of a forest and turn away for what was a short time to them and see instead that everything has changed. This feature of humanity, driven by their short lifespans, perplexes the long-lived races.
We’ve already said that humans are all over the place when it comes to traits and characteristics, and their disposition is no exception to this rule. What’s so great about this is that it mixes well with their short life spans and wide spreading societal habits. The Player’s Handbook actually refers to humans as “Everyone’s Second-Best Friends” which is both flattering and a burn all at the same time. Humans get along with just about every other race, which is partly out of necessity as they spread out and get everywhere, but also partly in their inquisitive nature.
Humans have a hole in them that they can never seem to fill (sorry if this is too real) and in fantasy that avoidance of boredom and struggle to find purpose leads them to intermingle and exchange ideas with other races and cultures. We know this isn’t always a good thing and sometimes they don’t act with the best intentions, but they aren’t afraid to venture out and meet the neighbors.
While they tend to spread out and intermingle with every race, they also can be a bit xenophobic. Humans in DnD are all different, have tons of variation, and a lot of individual freedom. The other races tend to fit more neatly into boxes and this can cause humans to stereotype the other races to a degree that causes some natural distancing. Humans will almost always feel more comfortable among other humans because of this, though this doesn’t really limit their play or role play options in any real way.
Humans, being so diverse, naturally have loads of people who want to seek adventure. Most notably, humans are said to seek adventure for their ambitions. Whatever a human’s ambitions might be, this can drive them forward. But it is worth noting that these ambitions are typically self-centered.
It’s not to say humans don’t adventure for others, but in DnD humans are often painted as choosing to do something for themselves rather than doing it out of some greater societal pressure. If a human adventured for the same reasons as an elf it would seem a touch bizarre.
Subversion of Human Archetypes
How do you subvert the archetypes of humanity? Simple, just give up the traits of humanity. If you want to subvert normal human behaviors it’s best to have them act like any other race and be shoehorned into roles that they might not otherwise fit.
That grouping of words used to describe humans earlier, throw those out. Do the opposite. Make an unambitious, rigid individual whose only goals are someone else’s. And when you’re done creating that Paladin, send them out questing.
Humans by the Numbers
Humans are the middle of the road when it comes to mechanics. They are both flexible and uniquely non-special. Instead of having any specific trait that is stronger than another, they get an extra ability point in all stats.
Alternatively, the variant human traits, which tend to be more popular, give humans the choice of two ability scores to increase, an additional proficiency, and the choice of a single feat. This is meant to reflect their adaptive nature, but really is mostly used to smooth out flaws or accentuate high scores. The best things about this is that a human character, while the least fantastical of all the races, is the most flexible and can be anyone the player wants.
Humans in a Nutshell
The Player’s Handbook says “It’s hard to make generalizations about humans” but really that lack of generalization is perhaps their most defining feature. A moldable and adaptable race that can fit any campaign. Humans make a great choice for a player’s first character, good NPCs, and even a strong choice for power gamers to want to customize. So don’t turn away from human characters because they’re boring or unimaginative. Like all things with humans, they are what you make of them.