Tasha’s Rules for Custom Origins Make Pencil-Necked Mountain Dwarves Overly Good

I played Rime of the Frostmaiden in a party that included the sort of armored dwarven wizard empowered by two features: (1) a weak dwarf’s ability to wear stout armor without a speed penalty and (2) the customized origins from Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, which let players assign their race’s ability score bonuses to any ability score. This dwarf started with a Strength of 8 and level of fighter for heavy armor proficiency, but some characters gain similar benefits by opting for a mountain dwarf and gaining proficiency with medium armor.

We both played wizards who boasted similar offensive power, except his wizard never got hit. When the character returned at high levels for my D&D weekend, a shield spell routinely boosted his AC into the 30s.

Aside from a monk with high-wisdom and Stunning Strike, I suspect the character type that dungeon masters find most tiresome combines high AC and the ability to cast shield. We DMs can be fans of the characters and want to land an occasional attack. I love Superman, but I also love the threat of a robot powered by a kryptonite heart.

Tasha’s custom origins improve D&D by giving players freedom to play the character they want without choosing ability scores that make the character less effective than others. In an appearance on Dragon Talk, lead D&D designer Jeremey Crawford says, “All games are about making choices and making meaningful choices, but we want the choices to be between things that are all fun and interesting. What we don’t want is a choice where just hiding inside it is some kind of trap. And that’s what the traditional ability score bonuses often feel like to people.

“As the game continues to evolve, and also as the different types of characters people make proliferate and become wonderfully diverse, it’s time for a bit more of those old assumptions to, if not pass away, to be something that a person can set aside if it’s not of interest for them and their character.” The Tasha’s rules create a game that helps gamers imagine and create a broader spectrum of viable characters. “You can play the dwarf you want to play. You can play the elf you want to play. You can play the halfling you want to play.”

Does the new freedom fuel more powerful characters? Jeremey says no. “Contrary to what many people might think, those ability score increases that are in those different options, they are not there for game balance purposes. They are there strictly to reinforce the different archetypes that have been in D&D going back all the way to the 70s.”

The game’s design gives smaller ability score bonuses to races with more potent racial features. Jeremey contends that where players put the ability score bonuses doesn’t matter.

Except the placement matters. Before custom origins, mountain dwarves gained a +2 Strength along with medium armor proficiency—a feature that rarely benefits characters who gain from a +2 strength. Fighters and paladins get armor proficiency anyway; barbarians and monks avoid armor. For wizards and other classes that actually need armor, that +2 Strength offers nothing. To the Player’s Handbook designers, this combination of strength and armor proficiency seemed like such useless fluff that mountain dwarves gained +2 in two ability scores rather than just one. Besides, Strength is a roleplaying choice for sub-optimal characters..

I suspect that if Jeremey failed to save against a suggestion that forced the whole story, he would admit that the placement of modifiers does matter, but not enough to derail adding the simple and flexible custom origins in Tasha’s. Mountain dwarves rank as strong, but not overpowered.

Still, if the designers gained a redo on the dwarf, surely the race’s mechanics would change. In the case of dwarves, the custom origin rules go beyond enabling unique characters who defy class archetypes. The rules encourage pencil-necked dwarf wizards able to wear half-plate. I’ve learned to accept characters who sell out to seldom get hit, but acceptance comes easier when the price isn’t a bargain. Nonetheless, if I were king of D&D, custom origins and their flexibility would stay despite the adventuring parties suddenly filled with clanking dwarven wizards.

5 thoughts on “Tasha’s Rules for Custom Origins Make Pencil-Necked Mountain Dwarves Overly Good

  1. mrboxty

    I agree the trend in Tasha’s is bad because it destroys archetypes. But optimizers still think the variant human or custom lineage are the strongest race due to the free feat. I don’t think the dwarf gets shield proficiency so variant human with the Moderately Armored feat is still considered superior for many builds.

    The best way to deal with the high AC PC is to include a big, ugly mook in your encounters with moderate AC, high HP, and decent damage capability. The tank will be drawn to it like dwarves to gold and will go toe to toe with it while the rest of the party deals with the other monsters. That way the tank has his power fantasy fulfilled and everyone else can have fun as well.

    If you want to mix it up you can throw in the following from time to time but overuse will frustrate the players:

    –ranged attackers with more mobility
    –Water obstacles that can’t be crossed easily by heavily armored characters.
    –Spells that attack weak saving throws
    –Heat metal (use very sparingly against metal armor. IMO that use should be reserved for the players to cast and not the DM)
    –Mobs of creatures like zombies that won’t go down easily. You can also bait the player in using his reaction for opportunity attacks so he won’t have his reaction for casting the shield spell.

    I think tanks are the easiest players to deal with. Spell casters and ranged attackers more difficult.

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  2. J

    [main rant]

    I saw this argument all during Tasha’s release: simple fix, make the +2 STR (or whatever) a +1 whatever- done. No one gets +4 to spread around, or everyone does. It’s like people are afraid JC booby-trapped their PHB and any slight change will cause their PHB to ignite in hell fire and consume their souls. Sheesh.

    Also if the DM gave away +2 or more on armour at or over 15 AC, or any shield, they deserve what they get – a +30AC wizard.

    Also it’s possible to swim in plate and chain armour – it’s just harder. Why does this myth persist?

    It still amazes me the myopia involved in believing that a bonus to a stat defines an Archetype. There literally PAGES of race defining words, but mess with TWO characters and the world unravels like toilet paper at the hands of an enraged kitten!

    “How the #$%% does your half-elf have +2 STR! You’ve ruined D&D for everyone!”

    Interesting how no one really complains about everyone having darkvision? I mean it’s ubiquitous, but that doesn’t hurt Archetype uniqueness? I mean why not just have it perpetual noon and the Sun can be seen from darkest depths of the Underdark. No one understands or uses light levels right anyway.

    [side rant]

    Maybe the above is in the same vein as everyone claiming, and wrenching their arms out of their sockets patting themselves on the back doing so, that D&D is a story telling game. The SECOND, however, The Wild Beyond the Witchlight comes out everyone claims that because their barbarian doesn’t HAVE to cleave their way through the campaign leaving blood and viscera in a merry swath of death behind them their character is useless. Seems like your story is a little mono-tone.

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  3. Eric Scheid (@ericscheid)

    Swimming in chain or plate is not the problem .. breathing is, when you’ve sunk to the bottom of the water hazard — put on some water-wings to change your bouyancy, and yes you can swim across the river. Clutch onto an air-filled water-skin and kick-paddle your way across. Easy.

    Walking across a dungeon room with shin-deep murky water also wouldn’t be a problem, apart from the reflected glare from your torches. Until you walk into a 10′ deep pit hidden below the surface, that is.

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  4. thekarmikbobTheKarmikBob

    Am I missing something here, or wouldn’t encumbrance put a level of control on this? Medium & heavy armor both weigh a lot and many have a minimum STR requirement (not to mention imposing DISADV on stealth). If you’re running a game where realism & verisimilitude are key features, you can even use the variant encumbrance (where a str 8 character can carry 40# before becoming encumbered).

    From a story perspective, there’s no issue with a dwarf wizard. if your D&D world cares little about realism then who cares if a weaker dwarf can wear plate as a wizard? If it is important, enforce encumbrance and consider using variant encumbrance.

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  5. David Dalrymple

    In 2014, 5e took a very “bundled” approach to character design: races and classes/subclasses come with “bundles” of multiple features, not all of which may be to useful to a particular character build, and some of which may be redundant. In theory, this bundled approach to character design presents interesting choices: every combination has advantages and drawbacks. But in practice, it leads to a situation where a few combinations have almost no drawbacks, and every other combination derided as a “trap”.

    The rules in Tasha’s drastically reduce the “trap factor” (by allowing you to sub out most redundant or unnecessary features), but the consequence is that some combinations become disproportionately powerful as a result. If the newly empowered combinations (like the Dwarven Wizard or the Gnome Barbarian) become the new normal, then that’s a problem. But so long as “overpowered” characters are the exception rather than the rule, then I’m happy.

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