Reviews Without Gimmicks: Ancestry & Culture: An Alternative to Race in 5e

I put up this blog so I’d have somewhere to put all the reviews I was doing for Itch.io’s Bundle for Racial Justice. It’s been fun, and I think I’ll keep doing it sporadically, because why not. But there’s no reason to JUST review that occasionally infuriating sporadically beautiful collection of oddities. If a game I purchased the normal way strikes my eye, my readers might like knowing about that, too!

Well, reader. Just the one. Hi, Jasmine.

Ancestry & Culture: An Alternative to Race in 5e by Eugene Marshall

I stumbled across this one a while ago, likely when somebody on Facebook linked to it. I remember reading an article about how this was someone’s attempt to make the concept of “race” in Dungeons and Dragons less #problematic while still preserving the tropes of elves and dwarves and orcs and shit, and I was like “Huh, that sounds worth doing” and then probably clicked on a video with cats or otters or something.

But it DID stick around in the back of my mind, and my most recent Justice Review brought it to the fore. My random number generator sent me to One Page Lore: Fantasy Folk, a perfectly serviceable set of ideas for putting some fresh spins on the old favorites. It made me think of Ancestry & Culture because the short description that serves as my first introduction to these games made explicit mention that it was a racism-free product.

And it was, I suppose, but that really wasn’t the focus of the project; it was more interested in establishing races that had heads where their torsos ought to have been, or dwarves literally carved out of magic rocks, or cold-blooded elves, or other such things. Fair enough, but that left me kinda disappointed. There’s a lot of shit from D&D’s early days that’s pretty damn uncomfortable in a modern setting. I explore that thought in more detail in my One Page Lore writeup, but seriously, a race of elves who have black skin because the gods cursed them for their irredeemable evil? Even the Mormons had to back down from that bullshit.

There’s a lot to say on the topic. So I figured, why not take a look at a product that was expressly designed to de-yikesify Dungeons and Dragons?

tl;dr: it’s good. Falls short of greatness, I think. But I think it achieves what it’s trying to do. If I ever get a D&D campaign going again, I think I’ll use these rules.

As implied by the title, the rules simply bifurcate the normal process of selecting a character’s race: your ancestry determines what kinda body you’re born into, your culture determines how you were raised. Nothing revolutionary there, just plain nature versus nurture. If you’re an elf raised by elves, the end result is pretty much indistinguishable from just writing “Elf” in the race slot. But if you’re, say, an elf raised by orcs, things start to get a little different than what you expect.

For starters, you get fuckin’ SWOLE, bro.

Basically, every race gets its traits split between the “culture” and “ancestry” buckets. Some of this is what you’d expect, but some of it isn’t. For instance, our elf girl whose family moved to East Orklandia when she was a toddler is going to have the size, slender features, keen senses, disregard for sleep, etc etc you’d associate with elves. But because she grew up in a culture that put a premium on physical strength and conditioning — orc PE classes are fucking INTENSE, dude — she gets a +2 to her Strength and +1 to her Constitution. She’s also proficient in Intimidation, and gets a bonus damage die to her critical hits; Self Defense was NOT an elective, and her instructors taught her to go right for the nutshot.

Basing stat boosts off of culture instead of ancestry is, I suspect, the most counter-intuitive decision in Culture & Ancestry, but having sat with it for a while, I’m on board. As the author explains in a sidebar, “This choice allows us to move away from the problematic notion certain ethnic groups have higher strength or intelligence, as those notions are often at the heart of racist attitudes in the real world.” And … yeah, I think he’s right. You CAN argue that in a fantasy world with ogres and trolls and dragons and shit running around that it’s perfectly reasonable for some races to be inherently stronger or smarter or whever-er than others. But most playable races map so tightly to humans that going that way brings with it some baggage that has been used to promote some profoundly horrible shit in the real world. The notion that some races are inherently better than others has been used to justify full-bore genocide. Sure, you can claim that orcs are habitually stronger than other races as a consequence of the Dark Lord breeding them for war, but it’s honestly just as plausible that it’s because “One who skips leg day” is a pretty sick burn in orcish society.

When you come to a fork in the trail with two equally viable paths, I say take the one that doesn’t have fuckin’ Nazis on it.

You can take it a step further and just mix and match within the categories. With ancestry, you’re limited to two; you’ve got darkvision because Mom is a full-blooded wood-elf but you’ve also got stupid-good luck because Dad’s a halfling. Or whatever. It’s all good. You also have a ton of freedom in defining whatever culture it is you grew up in, largely decoupling it from the notion of race entirely and getting very flexible grab-bag of options.

“But doesn’t that make the whole think pointless and lend itself to min-maxing the shit out of everything?” Yeah. Yeah, it kinda does.

And I’m fine with that.

Minmaxers gonna minmax. Some people play fantasy RPGs to immerse themselves in a made-up world that reminds them of stories they’ve loved, others go into it treating their character as a series of numbers defining an engine for slaying monsters. As long as you’re not stepping on anybody’s toes, there are tons of valid ways to play the game. If you’ve got a player who honestly doesn’t give a flying fuck about all that “PC crap” and just wants to loot the shit out of some undead-infested tomb, then their reward for going along with your efforts to scrub some of the racism out of your game is that they have an easier time creating the treasure-harvesting machine they want to play.

The players who care don’t have to squirm at the icky implications of elves being inherently smarter than everyone else, the players who don’t care get to kick more ass and loot more treasure. Everybody wins.

The book only covers the “basic” races, but they give guidelines for converting other races using these mechanics. For any race not covered here, it’ll take a DM all of five minutes to sort out which bucket to toss each trait into.

The ideas here are so simple and so easy to put into practice that the book winds up having a bit of trouble justifying its own existence as a book. The core rules only take up 25 pages or so. More than half of the book is padded-out with some diversity-themed adventures that explore some of the ideas presented in the crunchy sections without getting too obnoxiously heavy-handed.

Of the two, I’m more intrigued by Helping Hands, where the party is given the opportunity to help a town deal with a forest fire. It winds up feeling aggressively kid-friendly; if the party fails to rescue a guy trapped in a burning building, for instance, he doesn’t die, he’s just seen recovering from smoke inhalation the next day. I’m not sure I want my adventures to be THAT rigorously low-stakes, but if you’re running a game for your kids, I definitely see the appeal.

I do wish that the adventure setting wasn’t so woke right out of the gate, though. The PCs need to go to other nearby settlements to request aid and supplies, and even though each village is predominantly settled by one race, they already get along fabulously. Wouldn’t it be more interesting if there were some simmering tensions there? Like, they’re reluctant to suggest the PCs go to the orc village because, you know, orcs? Wouldn’t it be more fulfilling if the players had the opportunity to help bridge some divides rather than just walk into a setting where everybody’s already got their shit figured out?

Eh, I’m being nit-picky. Bottom line, it’s a damned solid product, even if the content is a tad thin for my liking. As of this writing, it’s available on Drive-Thru RPG for $5. If it sounds like the sorta thing you and your group would be into, I can definitely recommend it as being worth your time.