While closely related to modern humans, Neanderthals were a distinct subspecies, larger and stronger than humans of the time due to being adapted to higher latitudes. While initially assumed to be less intelligent than homo sapiens, recent evidence shows that they were our likely our equals, and had the same capabilities for language and culture. They were also capable of interbreeding with humans, and almost all non-African modern humans have some Neanderthal DNA (though the exact scale of the interaction and interbreeding is unknown). While on Earth they died off 40 millenia ago, in D&D they can serve as fantastic race of barbarians or even simply as variant Humans. They are also well suited to a low-fantasy/sword-and-sorcery game where the DM may not wish to include all of the races found in the Player’s Handbook. They have been included in D&D before, but I am doing my own take for 5th edition. The cultural elements are largely fictional, but the racial traits are only slight exaggerations of what we know about their physiology.
Inhabitants of the northern plains, hills and steppes, Neanderthals are primitive hunters who enjoy their isolation from civilization. They live in small, insular tribes, hunting large and small game and harvesting wild plants for food. While mostly peaceful, they are not generally friendly to outsiders and will try to frighten them away, sometimes resorting to violence, or simply leave the area if they are greatly outnumbered. Explorers have reported sighting a Neanderthal village with dozens of inhabitants, only to find it abandoned the next day with no trace of where the tribe has gone. Usually they follow animistic religions, with druids and shamans forming the backbone of their society, but all members of a tribe contribute equally and decisions are usually made by consensus.
Sometimes, individual Neanderthals will become curious about human and demi-humans and make contact. Small tribes whose lands are overwhelmed by humans, dwarves or other races may eventually integrate into the new society and give up their hunter-gatherer ways, though they will often maintain their tight-knit family units. Neanderthals are very intelligent and perceptive, so they can quickly learn the languages and customs of other cultures, and often integrate well into an adventuring group, treating their new friends as a second tribe. Their strength and excellent senses make them formidable warriors, the likes of half-orcs or dragonborn.
Despite their similarity to humans, and being able to have children with humans without difficulty, there are many key differences. A Neanderthal may be mistaken for a human at a glance, but their powerful build, broad face, and loud, nasal voice will quickly reveal that they are something else. Neanderthals do not domesticate animals or use written language, though they do create artwork and often have complex oral traditions and social rituals. Deception is also an alien concept to them; Neanderthals rely heavily on non-verbal communication, and lying or concealing information from their fellows is extremely difficult, so they generally do not even try, and they can seem somewhat naive when dealing with more cunning races. They are likely to take great umbrage at even a simple deception once it is discovered, and their reaction to a severe betrayal will almost certainly be murderous. They understand magic, and clerics, druids, and sorcerers are found among them, but a Neanderthal wizard or bard would be a very unusual sight, and would likely have been raised from childhood among other races.
A Neanderthal looks similar to some humans, with pale skin and light brown, red, or blonde hair, and a powerful, hulking build. Both males and females grow large manes of hair as a rule, and males have prodigious facial hair, but they do not have much more body hair than humans. Their large nose and eyes give their faces a somewhat brutish appearance. They can speak any language, but will often sound unusual as they have a huge chest and nasal cavity, making everything they say quite loud and a bit higher-pitched than one would expect from a large human. Their native tongue includes many keens, hoots, and even howls that are difficult for humans to reproduce.
Among their tribes, Neanderthals first have a child-name, given by their parents, usually something short and simple.. Child names are rarely gendered, so males and females may have the same or similar names. When they become an adult, they are given another name by the tribe based on their deeds or personalities, and join the two together, forming what sounds like a first name and surname. Different tribes have slightly different naming conventions. Those with more contact with other races will borrow names from those cultures, much as humans do.
Sample child names: Po, Unt, Oks, Fin, Kit, Got
Sample tribal names:
Jobs/Deeds: Rabbit Catcher, Ghost Chaser, Night Singer, Stone Thrower, Quick Runner, Spear Maker
Personality/Appearance: Flame Hair, Quick-to-Anger, Soft-Speaker, Always Watching, Pretty Eyes
Your neanderthal character is stronger and more durable than their human relatives, and has some unique traits.
Ability Score Increase. Your Strength score increases by 2, and two other ability scores of your choice increase by 1.
Age. Neanderthals mature and age at about the same rate as humans.
Alignment. Neanderthals can be of any alignment, though those raised in primitive tribes tend toward Lawful Neutral, basing their philosophy on the pragmatic tenets of hunter-gatherer life.
Size. Neanderthals are about the same height as humans, but have stouter builds, with barrel chests and powerful arms. Your size is Medium.
Speed. Your walking speed is 30 feet.
Cold Adaptation. You automatically succeed at Constitution checks to resist the effects of extreme cold environments. When you make a Wisdom (Survival) check in arctic, forest and mountain environments, you are considered proficient in the Survival skill and add double your proficiency bonus to the check, instead of your normal proficiency bonus.
Keen Sight. Neanderthals have larger eyes and more of the brain devoted to sight than humans, giving them excellent distance vision, motion tracking ability, and an uncanny ability to read body language and facial expressions. You have advantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on sight and on Wisdom (Insight) checks against creatures you can see.
Toughness. Your hit point maximum increases by 1, and it increases by 1 every time you gain a level.
Languages. Neanderthals speak their own language, which has no written form (though Neanderthals do elaborate painting and drawing in their caves or structures). Neanderthals can learn any language much like a human can, and your character begins the game knowing Common as well as their native tongue.
In some portrayals in literature, the large brain of the Neanderthal grants them psionic abilities. The DM may include psionic Neanderthals as the default version of the race, members of specific tribes, or rare mutants born among tribes of regular Neanderthals. If you want to use this variant, replace Keen Sight and Toughness with the following abilities:
Telepathy: You can communicate telepathically with any creature within 30 feet that has a language.
Psionics: You know the Mage Hand cantrip (the hand is invisible). At 3rd level, you can cast Charm Person once per day. At 5th level, you can also cast Detect Thoughts once per day. Intelligence is your spellcasting ability for these spells.