Before a “Dungeons & Dragons” player joins a game, before she finds her first sword or slays her first gnoll, she must create a character who has a race and a class.1 Will she skulk in the shadows as a gnome2 rogue?3 Sally forth with her human paladin? Reave up and down the Sword Coast as a dwarven barbarian?
Since the tabletop role-playing game debuted in 1974, “Dungeons & Dragons” has grown to include so many different kinds of characters that there are two races of playable bird people.4 In August, the game’s publisher released an online tool called D&D Beyond that streamlines the process of setting up a new character. Players created hundreds of thousands of characters in the site’s first month, and Curse, the developer behind D&D Beyond, sent us users’ most popular picks for races and classes from the game’s Fifth Edition.
So what does this data say about players’ character preferences? At first blush it looks like characters are drawn from literature and everyday life, which seems surprisingly unimaginative considering that “Dungeons & Dragons” is the quintessential fantasy game. But some of the common character choices can be explained by the game’s structure of racial bonuses. Humans — the most popular race by far — get an extra point in all of their ability scores, which makes them a balanced pick for any class.
Other races dovetail nicely with particular classes. The wood elf5 gets a bonus to dexterity as well as proficiency in longbows, perfect for the ranger class. Halflings also have extra points in dexterity and may have access to the “naturally stealthy” trait, which makes them exceptional rogues. The appearance of both these archetypes in Lord of the Rings and other works of fantasy likely also plays a role in their popularity.
Some pairings you won’t find anywhere in Tolkien’s books, but might stand at the vanguard of a new fantasy canon. Apparently the lumbering, scaly dragonborn are frequently cast as paladins, a class traditionally inhabited by snooty white men. And remember the bird people? Players who pick the avian aarakocra are most likely to adventure as martial artist monks, filling the skies of the Forgotten Realms with Jet Li Big Birds.
When I started playing “Dungeons & Dragons” five years ago, I never would have chosen the game’s most popular match: the human fighter. There are already enough human fighters in movies, TV and books — my first character was an albino dragonborn sorcerer. But these days I can get behind the combo’s simplicity: It lets you focus on creating a good story rather than spending time flipping through rulebooks to look up spells. Players who are more interested in the action than the storytelling might relish the technicalities of more arcane race and class pairings, watching the dice fall and arguing over whether they have full or half cover. You can play “Dungeons & Dragons” as a pure combat simulator, a murder mystery or even a dating competition. For decades, that open-endedness has brought players back to the table to fill out one more character sheet.