Kobold Press’s Unlikely Heroes offers the discerning 5E player a selection of eight new character races and four backgrounds in a 27-page document (available in pdf and print versions from their webstore; the print version is also available from Amazon). Written by Dan Dillon, with addition design by Wolfgang Baur, several of the races are normally evil in alignment, although this is not true of all. The races also provide a selection of those who have been part of D&D for many years, while some are more recent additions. Many also hail from Kobold Press’s Midgard Campaign Setting.
The new races are Derro, Dhampir, Dust Goblin, Jinnborn, Kijani, Lamia, Ramag and Sahuagin. Each of the races is presented with a significant amount of detail, following the lead of the 5E Player’s Handbook. The descriptions are very informative, with an eye towards providing an overview of each race’s history and the normal personality traits of its members.
The mechanical aspects of the races are mostly well done, although there are a few elements that I consider problematic or a little out-of-place. The balance of the races is excellent; I just have a few quibbles about the implementation.
Here’s a run-down of the races:
The Derro are a race of insane dwarves, worshippers of the Gods of Madness and the Great Old Ones of the Cthulhu Mythos. A set of tables allows you to determine a particular quirk or madness your character possesses, although these are mostly minor in aspect and have no mechanical effect. The race is sensitive to sunlight, and their primary mechanical benefit comes from their superior darkvision (to 120 feet). Otherwise, their implementation is solid without being inspirational.
The Dhampir are the half-living children of vampires and humans, and they are naturally charismatic, making them an attractive choice of race for potential bards, sorcerers and warlocks. They have two mechanical abilities that are interesting: Predatory Charm is an improved version of the friends cantrip, lasting an hour instead of one minute and lacking the requirement that the creature can’t be hostile towards you when the ability is used. Their other ability of note is the ability to drain the blood of a creature in order to regain Hit Dice; the number of times you can use it each day is limited by your Charisma modifier. This is an ability that I think this would fit a 4E game better. In 5E, the ability to regain Hit Dice is not particularly significant. Occasionally useful? Yes, but with hour-long short rests, it requires the Dhampir to have at least two short rests in a day to have any effect, something that has been rare in my experience of the game.
The Dust Goblins are a race of goblins that live in a corrupt, blasted wilderness and are likewise twisted in mind and body. Mechanically, they have one ability of note: Twisted, which allows them to frighten a creature briefly when they attack it from hiding if the creature fails a Wisdom saving throw. I love this ability! It properly represents the brief moment of terror you have when something unexpected appears. Personally, I’d prefer it if the saving throw was based on Charisma rather than Dexterity, although otherwise the race is well done.
The Jinnborn are similar in many aspects to the Genasi of the Forgotten Realms, although their implementation is less magical in nature. They have a fantastic background, but the mechanical implementation is a little patchy. All Jinnborn are subject to madness if they spent a long time away from the desert, which is a particularly odd trait in those attuned to water. The affinity to an element fails to mean anything in the case of the Speaker Jinnborn subrace, which is a pity, because otherwise they have some very good abilities. The Shaper Jinnborn at least have the ability to resist damage related to their element and deal additional elemental damage a limited number of times each day. I feel this race suffers in comparison to the Genasi.
The Kajani are a race of sentient plantfolk who have fled from a great power that destroyed their homeland and twisted and enslaved those who remained. Their relationship with humankind is very nicely realised. They have a couple of abilities – one offensive and one defensive – that only become available when they are badly damaged. I don’t think the link between the mechanics and the lore is as well-realised as I’d like (why does being in a base fury allow them to protect themselves better?), but I very much like abilities that have this type of trigger.
The Lamia have a fantastic background, but aren’t quite as well-realised mechanically. I’m a bit doubtful about the wording “have advantage on attacks rolls against a creature you have surprised”, but the remainder of the ability that allows you to attack with advantage against charmed creatures is a nice touch; I’d like it even more if the lamia had a charm ability!
The Ramag are a humanoid race that used to live in an empire of titans, but have been changed by the magic released when that empire fell. They have an exceptionally short list of mechanical abilities, perhaps most curious is the Spell Damping ability that gives them advantage on Strength and Dexterity saving throws against spells. Strength? Really? Not Constitution or all spells? Very odd. Their major ability is to ignore the class restrictions needed to attune magic items, which can be extremely powerful and worth monitoring.
The Sahuagin are a race of humanoid shark-men, present in D&D lore for many, many years. This is the one race that I consider an unqualified success in its implementation: natural attacks, blood frenzy, and thick skin. It has everything that I want my shark-men to have. And they even have a 40-foot swim speed!
The new backgrounds are Cannibal Headhunter, Prophet, Scavenger, Seer, and two variant backgrounds, the Tinker (Guild Artisan) and Beggar (Urchin).
The backgrounds are well-presented, and I have a particular love of the Cannibal Headhunter, a character who tends to unsettle those more “civilised” people he encounters, and the Scavenger, a character who just can’t throw anything away, allows a lot of good role-playing opportunities. Each of the new backgrounds is presented with the regular set of traits, ideals, flaws and bonds, and, if one doesn’t appeal, then the next one likely will.
The Tinker and Beggar allow you to customise two existing backgrounds with new features and skills. As someone who read Gygax’s Gord the Rogue books, it’s very pleasing to see the Beggar make an appearance. The Tinker is also nicely realised.
The realities of publishing printed volumes mean that the pdf price is more attractive than that of the print edition, but the layout, formatting and artwork is of the normal Kobold Press standards, which is to say very high. Likewise, the writing is of a high standard and it’s been well-edited.
That then is Unlikely Heroes, the latest 5E release from Kobold Press. There’s a lot to like about it, and it’s worth investigating if you’re wanting to allow more character options than those in the basic game.