You don’t have to work hard to persuade me that D&D would be a better and more flexible game if its rules were somehow able to adjust to fit each new supplement.
For example, Mythic Odysseys of Theros introduce new two races to D&D in the form of the Leonin and Satyr, but we don’t have rules for half-Leonin or half-Satyr. Maybe half-races like that isn’t a route you want your D&D game to go down, but if it was, wouldn’t it be handy if the core rules automatically coped with all future introduced races.
On a similar note, why are half-races all built from a human half? Why not elf, dwarf, gnome, orc or any other race?
Arcanist Press’ Ancestry & Culture: An Alternative to Race in 5e steps up to offer these rules. However, that’s only part of the picture.
As the title says, this supplement makes a case for scrapping the word “Races” altogether and moving onto a more modern and helpful term.
Pathfinder 2e has already done this. The word “Race” in that popular fantasy RPG has been dropped in favour of “Ancestry”.
As I understand it, science supports this. The concept of “Race” in real-life is a social construct. Specific genetic markers play significant roles in how we look, and that’s the biology. Still, the decision to clump some of these markers together and suggest these patterns define distinct races is an ageing convention.
Ancestry & Culture: An Alternative to Race in 5e doesn’t try to claim that biological accuracy is the main reason for dropping the term, though. As you’ve predicted, Arcanist Press is concerned that maintaining decades-old racial concepts in games like D&D is a failure to root out racism in our societies.
There are pages on the importance of dropping races to avoid racism in the download, but I did not once feel talked down to or called a racist. That’s quite an achievement.
The truth is that we’ve had a racist past. The events in recent weeks have shown me that some phrases I’ve happily been using are racist in origin. I don’t think this makes me a racist. It just means I needed someone to point it out to me, now that they have, I can think of an equally good alternative. I’m no worse off at all. For example, I think I’ve frequently greeted someone with “Long Time No See”. I meant it as a contraction of “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you”, but that exact contraction was initially used to mock specific speech patterns. The same goes for “No can do”.
Trying to use different phrases is one thing. Someone coming along and messing with my D&D rules, especially character generation, is a whole other ball game.
As it happens, the goal of Ancestry & Culture: An Alternative to Race in 5e is not to mess with the rules. It takes what was “Race” and argues the rules bundle those genetic characteristics (size, darkvision, etc) and bundle it with cultural ones (languages, stonecunning, bravery, etc). If we split these out, then we can stick them back together at our leisure.
Let’s take elf. Those genetic traits – the ones we get from ancestors – are Age, Size, Speed, Keen Senses, Fey Ancestry and Trance. In other words, an elf born into an orc tribe could still level for hundreds of years. However, alignment, languages, elven weapon training and cantrip are all cultural factors. If we go back to our sample elf, the one born into an orc tribe, how is she going to know elvish and have elven weapon training?
The download says the orcish cultural traits are alignment, Confident, Powerful Attacks and languages. So, our elf that was raised among orcs could live for hundreds of years, have Keen Senses and not need to sleep but would be confident and have been taught how to land sturdy blows.
Does that make sense? I left one critical decision off.
Ancestry & Culture: An Alternative to Race in 5e argues that Ability Score Increases are cultural, not ancestory based.
I understand why this argument is made, I think, and I’ll find out shortly whether I have it right, but there are two reasons. Firstly, the idea that some “Races” are smarter than others is a racist trope that needs to be avoided. Secondly, this decision keeps the rules simple and allows Ancestry & Culture to slide easily into your next D&D game without a rules re-write.
The bit I wrestle with is the Ability Scores that seem connected with the physical aspects of characters. For example, is a four-year-old gnome child as strong as a four-year-old dragonborn?
The author of the supplement and one-half of Arcanist Press is Eugene Marshall. Eugene’s kindly agreed to talk to Geek Native.
Hi, thanks for speaking with me! I’m delighted to see our title getting attention. I feel strongly enough about these rules, and this issue, that we have included the title in the Black Lives Matter charity bundle the day after it released! It’s a top five title, but we would rather get it out there for folks and benefit black lives than make bigger profits.
Hi, and thanks for making time for Geek Native’s readers. Hopefully, you’ve had a chance to read my thoughts so far and see where I’ve got to. Is a young gnome likely to be as strong as a dragonborn?
You’ve hit the nail on the head. I wanted to move ability scores to culture to get them out of biology, because of the racist history of biological essentialism in the real world. Racist ideologies in the real world assign innate smarts, or violence, or speed, or good/evil, to people because of the color their skin. And lots of folks who have been harmed by those racist beliefs would prefer not to encounter that in their gaming (including me), so these rules are an attempt to address that. If we want everyone to feel welcome to play our games, we might want to consider how these racist tropes make many folks feel unwelcome.
I considered making the system more complex, splitting the ability bonuses in various ways, but that ultimately was too complicated. I want these rules to be as easy to adopt as possible. What’s more, I trust and respect Wizards of the Coast’s play testing experience and design skills, so I always prefer to defer to their rules when I can. If folks do want even more flexibility for their character creation, or they don’t like putting ability scores or alignment in culture either, I include the option to entirely customize them in the Appendix.
Let me address the specific example, though. Remember, my choice to put ability scores in culture does not prevent any individual character from having almost any ability score. Your Dragonborn character may very well be stronger than my gnome character. All I want to establish is that, if they are, it’s not just because of their ancestry — maybe it’s because of who their specific parents are, or who their specific upbringing might have been. But yes, maybe across all possible Dragonborn and gnomes, any two four-year olds have an equal chance of being stronger or weaker. I’m OK with that. After all, realism is overrated in fantasy gaming!
I can see why we want to move away from the trope of intellectually superior races, but your rules define “Gnome Cunning” as an ancestral trait, not a cultural one. Does that still fit?
Wow, that’s a great question. I went out of my way to rename and redescribe any of the old “racial” traits, but I missed that one. For example, the instead of the half-orc “Savage Attacks” and “Menacing” traits, which clearly have a negative, problematic connotation, I have “Powerful Attacks” and “Confident.” These are also now traits of Orcish culture, rather than biology. But yes, perhaps I should have called it Gnome Magic Resistance? Thanks for the tip!
What are your top reasons for suggesting the change? More flexible rules? More palatable rules?
Both! Let me be clear: I am not original in identifying Race in D&D as problematic. I was inspired by NK Jemisin, James Mendez Hodes, Graeme Barber, Tristan Tarwater, Daniel Kwan, and more brilliant folks, who have been pointing this out for years. My contribution is what I hope is an elegant, effective solution that respects the original rules. I wanted to create something that addresses the problem they identified, but did so in a way that still *felt* like D&D. The other solutions I’ve seen out there — doing away with Race entirely, or adopting a buffet style point buy system — all work, but just don’t feel like D&D to me. I wanted to retain as much *narrative* content and lore as I could, so we can still tell the stories we love, without needing the bad bits of Race.
And once I came up with the rules, I immediately saw how powerful they can be for creating new, more interesting characters and stories! Now I can play an Aragorn character, a human raised by elves, and actually have different mechanical effects. These mechanics are *narratively* rich, which is how I prefer to design. And when I also realized I can use these rules to allow people to create characters of mixed ancestry, I was so excited! The child of a tiefling and a halfling? Check! Of an elf and an orc? Check! And now there are simple, familiar mechanics to allow us to do so.
What do you think the chances of the next D&D (be that D&D 5.5 or D&D 6) stepping away from races are? Happy to go first on this one; I think they’re quite high.
Based on what Jeremy Crawford and others have said on Twitter, I think Race as we currently see it in the PHB will go away with the next major rules overhaul, in what will hopefully be a 5.5e; I love 5e too much to wish for a 6e.
Where does that leave us with monsters? Do we scrap that term as well? Owlbears become… what? Animals?
According to the smart people I mentioned above, the problem arises when sentient, humanoid creatures who have language, culture, and so on are used as two dimensional stand-ins for racist tropes. Orcs are used that way, for sure. Owlbears aren’t. And those creatures that do have language and are unabashedly evil, like mind-flayers, or beholders, or fiends, aren’t described in the same language that white supremacists describe Blacks or Asians. So I see no problem with having fiends, aberrations, and undead have evil alignments and so on. Again, because those types of creatures don’t tend to use those racist human-stand in tropes, I see no problem with them.
Have you thought about expanding on these rules with an additional supplement of other defined cultures? For example, you could imagine what a mountain fortress populated with soldiers from mainly human and dwarven ancestries would be like and give us cultural rules for that.
Absolutely! We put out a second title a day after our first, called Custom Ancestries & Cultures. It contains 61 original ancestries and cultures, from fantasy classics to bizarre originals. Our next product will be More Ancestries & Cultures, which will include even more, but also templates for cultures based on geography and environment. For example, it will include cultural traits for any civilization based in any of the terrains, such as Mountains, Grasslands, Coastal, etc, as well as other variants too! Hopefully that’s exactly what you have in mind.
What might we see from Arcanist Press next?
In addition to More Ancestry & Cultures, we have another DMs Guild title coming out in a few weeks, titled, “The Shape of Madness,” which is a Tier 1 one-shot adventure based on Modrons. After that, we are planning a big Kickstarter for Excelsior, a superhero game using D&D 5e OGL rules, but with a modern comic book feel. It uses those familiar D&D rules, but with all new superhero classes, powers, and feats that capture the Marvel/DC flavor people love. You’ll be able to play at the tier of your choice as well, from gritty Street Level heroes, to City level heroes and teams, to Global level adventures, all the way to epic Cosmic tales! We’re doing revisions and playtesting now and plan to bring it Kickstarter in the Fall.
Thanks again for speaking to me!
What are your thoughts? Strike up a discussion and leave a comment below.