As previously mentioned, there are six races to choose from for your protagonist, split into two uneven groups: the fey races (elves and gnomes) and the natural races (humans, half-elves, dwarves and halflings). Beyond obvious cosmetic and cultural differences, this also influences their attributes and abilities, as well as the classes available to them. It’s a restrictive system, and some of the limitations are a bit baffling to me (e.g. why can an elven Mage only specialise as an Enchanter or a Diviner?), but then, I’m not familiar with the intricacies of the D&D system or the Forgotten Realms setting. Four out of the six races have infravision (all except humans and halflings), which supposedly helps them see in the dark, but I’ve yet to perceive any actual usefulness to it. Also, elves and half-elves are supposed to be resistant to Charm and Sleep, but coding mishaps mean that these bonuses don’t work in the vanilla game.
As far as the character avatars (or paperdolls) are concerned, elves and half-elves use the same models. Moreover, the vanilla game doesn’t actually have a separate model for female dwarves or gnomes (probably because there aren’t any among the companions), so the ones in the images are either taken from mods or from Baldur’s Gate II. More generally, expect to feel a bit left out if you pick any of the shorter races. Not only do they get shortchanged as far as class selection is concerned, but NPCs of those races are few and far-between (especially gnomes and halflings), and you can pretty much forget about romances in BGII, unless you rely on mods.
Humans: As is usual in games with different races, humans are the middle-of-the-road, safe choice. They have no attribute bonuses, no special abilities and very few class restrictions, which makes them the most versatile race overall, as they can pick almost any class without penalty. In addition, they’re the only race able to dual-class. This means that they’re barred from the two triple classes (Fighter/Mage/Cleric and Fighter/Mage/Thief), although that’s far from being a handicap. In cultural terms, humans are one of the most numerous and widespread races in the game, ambitious, adaptable and ethnically diverse, although this also frequently leads to conflict. Most of the available companions are human (13 out of 25), and the storyline is biased towards a human (male) protagonist. Still, in spite of all that, as is usual for me when given the choice, this is the one race I’d never pick for my protagonist: I know all about being human, so why not experiment with more exotic lifeforms? They are, however, the only race which can be Paladins, so if that strikes your fancy, then you don’t really have a choice. Four of the 13 human companions are Good (Imoen, Ajantis, Minsc and Dynaheir), five are Neutral (Garrick, Branwen, Safana, Faldorn and Skie) and four are Evil (Xzar, Edwin, Shar-Teel and Eldoth).
Elves: As is typical of Western fantasy settings, elves are beautiful, slender and graceful, somewhat shorter than humans, with pointy ears, no body hair and slanted eyes, as well as an average lifespan of about 300 years. They’re a patient, relaxed people, with a contemplative (some would say lackadaisical) outlook on life, and a love of freedom and nature. They can also enter a meditative trance (reverie) instead of sleeping. There are many subgroups of elves, but the most distinctive are the drow, who live in the Underdark and are generally Evil. They’re shorter, have dark skin and white hair, and are resistant to magic (c.f. Viconia). Elves have quick reflexes and therefore get a one-point bonus to their maximum Dexterity, but also a one-point penalty to their maximum Constitution, as they’re rather frail. Elves also have a one-point THAC0 bonus with bows and swords, which, coupled with their Dexterity bonus, makes them excellent ranged attackers. As far as thieving skills go, they have a 5-point bonus to Pick Pockets and 10-point bonus to Stealth, but a five-point penalty to Open Locks. Elves are also one of the three races that can be a Fighter/Mage, my personal favourite class. However, the only Mage specialisations they can pick are Enchanter or Diviner, which are both problematic. They also can’t be Bards, Druids (or Fighter/Druids) or Paladins. They can be Clerics, but none of the Cleric multiclasses. There are four elven companions: Viconia (Evil), Coran (Good), Kivan (Good) and Xan (Neutral).
Half-elves: The product of a union between an elf and a human, they combine traits from both of their parent races. They’re slightly taller and stronger than elves, although they retain the pointy ears. They’re also more active than elves and longer-lived than humans. Oh, and male half-elves can grow beards. Culturally, half-elves tend to feel out of place in either of their inherited cultures, but, conversely, they usually also view this dual heritage as a source of pride, and tend to be strong-willed, sociable and adventurous. Like humans, half-elves have no attribute advantages or penalties. They’re also the second most versatile race after humans, as they can be anything except a Cleric/Thief or a Paladin. This makes them the second of the three races that can be a Fighter/Mage. As Mages, they can’t specialise as Abjurers, Illusionists, Invokers or Necromancers, but that’s no big deal. In the thieving department, half-elves have the opposite focus to elves, with a 10-point bonus to Pick Pockets and a five-point bonus to Stealth, but no penalty to Open Locks. There are two half-elven companions: Jaheira (Neutral) and Khalid (Good).
Gnomes: These diminutive fey humanoids share some physical characteristic with elves (pointy ears, high cheekbones and longevity), but male gnomes also have a tendency to grow beards, like dwarves, as well as a preference for living in burrows. Curious, witty and crafty by nature, gnomes are also reclusive and unambitious, but they have a knack for engineering and an affinity for illusion magic, preferring to have an indirect influence on things. Like elves and dwarves, gnomes have an Underdark-dwelling subgroup, the svirfneblin, who are, however, much less prone to evil than drow or duergar. They’re also darker-skinned and shorter-lived than their surface brethren, and male svirfneblin are all bald. Gnomes are a cerebral folk, so they have a one-point bonus to their maximum Intelligence, with a corresponding penalty to Wisdom. This makes them an ideal race for Mage characters, with the proviso that they’ll automatically be Illusionists, which, fortunately, is a good specialisation. They can’t be Paladins, Druids, Rangers, Bards or Fighter/Mages. This also excludes all related multiclasses. As a short race, gnomes also gain a bonus to their Saving Throws (Spell and Wand) based on their Constitution score, which is a nifty plus. In the thieving department, they have a five-point bonus to Open Locks and Stealth, and a 10-point bonus to Detect Traps. There are two (terrible) gnomish companions: Quayle (Neutral) and Tiax (Evil).
Dwarves: Again, as is typical of Western fantasy settings, dwarves are a short and sturdy race, characterised by thick beards (sometimes even on female dwarves), often as a sign of social status. Longer-lived than humans, but shorter-lived than gnomes or elves, they’re a brave, honourable, steadfast folk, who value tradition and loyalty, but tend to be suspicious, stubborn and averse to change, as a result. Dwarven society is organised in clans, and most have a preference for living underground, frequently near mines, due to their love of crafting and gems. Like elves and gnomes, they have an Underdark-dwelling subgroup, the duergar, who are thinner, usually bald and more prone to evil, due to bearing a demonic taint. The dwarves’ natural hardiness translates to a one-point bonus to their maximum Constitution. Conversely, they’re not the most agile of races, resulting in a one-point penalty to their maximum Dexterity. Moreover, their ‘tough and crusty’ image also translates to a two-point penalty to Charisma. So don’t pick a dwarf to lead a party. Being a short race, they also gain a Constitution-based bonus to their Saving Throws (Wand, Spell and Poison/Paralysis/Death). Dwarves, like halflings, are very limited in their class choices. They can be Fighters, Clerics, Thieves, or a combination thereof, but that’s it. Still, they do make great Fighters. In the thieving department, they gain a 10-point bonus to Open Locks and a whopping 15-point bonus to Detect Traps. There are two dwarven companions: Kagain (Evil) and Yeslick (Good).
Halflings: The proper name for the race in their own language is “hin”, but humans call them halflings because they’re roughly half their height (think Tolkien’s hobbits, including the hairy feet). They mostly look like their taller brethren, although they have pointy ears, lack facial hair and are slightly longer-lived. They’re a friendly, conciliating, hospitable folk, with a love for simple pleasures, a practical outlook, and a focus on home and family, which they show great courage in defending. They also have a knack for collecting things and are generally considered to have good luck. Due to their quick reflexes, halflings have a one-point bonus to their maximum Dexterity. They also have a one-point THAC0 bonus with slings. However, they’re not particularly strong or insightful, which translates to a one-point penalty to Strength and Wisdom. To compensate, they gain Constitution-based Saving Throw bonuses (Wand, Spell and Poison/Paralysis/Death), as all short races do. Their greatest problem is that they have the most limited class selection: they can only be Fighters, Clerics, Thieves or Fighter/Thieves. They do, however, make the best Thieves, as they have bonuses across the board: fives points to Open Locks, Pick Pockets and Detect Traps, and a whopping 15 points to Stealth. There are two halfling companions: Montaron (Evil) and Alora (Good).