Eugene Marshall is a game designer, writer, and editor as well as an associate professor of philosophy. His D&D supplement Ancestry and Culture weds these two interests by exploring how the concept of “race” has been handled in Dungeons & Dragons in the past, and how the game and gamers could handle it better in the future. Marshall’s first 30 pages outlines (1) the problems associated with the language and conceptualization of “race” in modern thought and (2) a simple homebrew method to address these problems. The next 40 pages provide sample adventures featuring these innovations. I’m not going to review these adventures; my interest is solely on how Marshall challenges us to reconsider the concept of “race” in a fantasy setting.
Marshall’s three-page introduction lays out his case for doing away with “race” in D&D. It basically boils down to the fact that this term, as it has been used since the Enlightenment, has more often than not been used to denigrate and oppress others. It is, as many have noted, a social construct, not anything based on actual science. For this reason, I have long preferred to call these population groups “kindreds” and jettison the term “race” completely.
Why should this matter in a fantasy setting when we’re not talking, for example, about Europeans and Asians but about dwarves and elves? Marshall points out that, even though we’re imagining fictitious beings, we tend to imagine them with our cultural blinders on.
In short, monstrous kindreds such as orcs
…are often not so subtly veiled stand-ins for age-old, racist stereotypes…. It’s hard to ignore the fact that, when he first created miniatures for the fantasy races, Gary Gygax chose Turk minis to depict orcs and repainted Native American figures for trolls and ogres. Although orcs and goblins are fantasy races in a fantasy world, they are created and depicted by real people in our world, and the systems of fantasy racism and real-world racism are unavoidably linked. (p. 5)
Even “non-monstrous” kindreds are subject to this kind of othering behavior. That’s why so many dwarves these days are inveterate drinkers who speak with a Scottish accent and love a good fight. In the end, a stereotype is a stereotype, and since all of us playing the game are (presumably) human, we have little choice but to draw on the stereotypes we have learned about other groups of humans. The problem is that we often don’t realize that is what we’re doing.
You’d think after all this that Marshall would advocate only ever playing humans—and humans of a culturally or ethnically “neutral” heritage, at that. In fact, he proposes a tweak to the basic rules of D&D 5e that is so elegant as to be nearly imperceptible while at the same time opening up vast new horizons for character customization.
Marshall proposes that all of the features of any given fantastical kindred can be divided neatly into ancestral traits and cultural traits.
Ancestral traits have to do with biology. They are things like average height, lifespan, and various unique advantages such as darkvision, dwarfish resistance to poison, elfish resistance to charms, etc.
Cultural traits have to do with how one was raised: languages, proficiencies, tendencies toward a particular alignment, and ability score increases (more on that in a bit).
So if you’re playing a gnome, you get all the features and abilities of any D&D gnome played straight from the rule books. I expect for the vast majority of players, that’s where it ends. Ancestry and Culture gives permission to go further but doesn’t require it.
But what if you want to play a gnome that was raised in a community of dwarves? That’s now very easy to do: you get the ancestral traits of a gnome (your species hasn’t changed, after all), but you get the cultural traits of a dwarf.
Now let’s take it a step further and say instead that you want to play a gnome-dwarf hybrid. Suddenly, that kind of character build is ridiculously easy. For the ancestral traits, you split the difference in terms of average height, average lifespan, etc. and you pick one unique ancestral trait from each of your two ancestries. (You get darkvision for free if either of your ancestries offers it.) Then you just decide whether you were raised among gnomes or among dwarves and take the appropriate suite of cultural traits. Or, maybe you want to be a gnome-dwarf hybrid orphan who’s been raised by humans. Then just take the human cultural traits instead. Done and done.
Furthermore, you’re allowed to stipulate that your character was brought up in a multicultural community and choose “Diverse Cultural Traits” instead of the traits tied to any particular race.
Marshall only deals with the fantastical kindreds available under the Open Gaming License, but he offers an appendix with steps for applying the same principles to any kindred you might find in any other D&D game book.
I played more than my fair share of D&D and Traveller way back when, but I was mainly interested in Ancestry and Culture for what it might teach me as a fantasy author: how can I do a better job of handling elves, dwarves, etc. in ways that don’t fall into the old racist pitfalls that have plagued fantasy fiction as well as fantasy gaming. And I’ve got to say, Marshall provides some well-reasoned guidance.
There are three areas where, to my taste, his system as written is somewhat unsatisfying. With two of them, Marshall anticipates my quibble and explicitly addresses it. With the third, I see where he is coming from and he does, in fact, concede that there might be another valid solution, though perhaps an unnecessarily complicated one.
Genetic Free-for-all. Marshall sets up a system where any conceivable hybrid character can exist. If you want a character whose father was a human-dwarf hybrid and whose mother was an elf-dragonborn hybrid, you can do it! But to paraphrase Dr. Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park, we can be so preoccupied with whether or not we could, we don’t stop to think if we should.
For me (and I acknowledge that this is a personal preference), it’s more interesting to inject a little bit of science here. For example, modern human-Neanderthal hybrids were viable when the mother was human but not when the mother was Neanderthal—at least, there is no evidence of Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA in the modern human genome today. These kinds of considerations add a little extra flavor that I find fascinating.
Marshall concedes that issues of realism might factor into how much hybridization is acceptable in a given campaign world. His response: If this bothers you as a DM, don’t allow it.
Monolithic Cultures. Another concern has to do with painting all elves, halflings, or what have you with the same broad cultural brush. In a rich, realistic world, elves don’t all speak the same language, follow the same religion, uphold the same cultural values, etc. any more than all humans do. Doesn’t it make sense that the Elves of the Northern Mountains would have a different culture than the Elves of the Mystic Forest?
To address this, Marshall provides a one-page appendix on how to describe a “custom” culture that can plug into his system quite easily. This is the kind of thing that I’d love to see expanded upon, but that would obviously go far beyond the goals of this supplement. Every campaign world is different, and such a project would quickly grow to encyclopedic lengths.
Ability Score Increases. Here is the one place where, in my opinion, Marshall’s system is a bit too simple: He attributes all ability score increases to cultural rather than ancestral factors. I understand why he did that, and I don’t fault him for it. I’ll let him express himself in his own words:
Some readers may wonder why ability score increases appear in culture rather than ancestry. 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 rather than removing ability score increases entirely, or dividing them up in some more complex way such as a point buy system, these rules keep them under the umbrella of culture for simplicity and ease of use. (p. 9)
In effect, Marshall is inviting us to see these bonuses as the result of a particular kind of upbringing: one that favors athleticism, physical resilience, studiousness, rhetorical skill, or what have you.
There is nothing unreasonable about this approach, especially if everyone around the table playing an orc or whatever is actually a human being enmeshed in their own experiences with race and racism. We’ve all heard how some populations of humans are “more athletic” than others but “less intelligent,” and we all know how those stereotypes have been exploited by other humans in positions of power.
Still, suppose someone uses Marshall’s guidelines to include goliaths in their campaign world. In D&D lore, a goliath is a human-giant hybrid. They stand between seven and eight feet tall and can weigh over 300 pounds. Shouldn’t such a character possess considerable physical strength based on their genetics, quite apart from what culture they were raised in?
In his sidebar quoted above, Marshall himself concedes that it would be possible to divide up the ability score increases in some more complex way. Presumably, he can envision ways of doing so that would not insensitively parrot real-world racial stereotypes.
I expect there are ways to handle these cases that don’t throw a wrench into Marshall’s system overall. Perhaps, for example, it could be as easy as giving goliath characters an ancestral trait called “Gigantic Ancestry,” corresponding to the “Fey Ancestry” of elves and the “Draconic Ancestry” of dragonborns. Let this trait provide some kind of boost to brute strength, hardiness, or whatever, essentially splitting the ability score modifiers between ancestry and culture. Maybe something similar could be done with a number of kindreds, if not all of them. Such a system would have to be rather complex, however. And simplicity of design is nothing to be sneezed at in a tabletop RPG.
I found Ancestry and Culture to be a stimulating read. Admittedly, Marshall was addressing concerns that I have expressed before. Rather than simply bemoaning how “race” has been mishandled in the past, he offers a clear, simple, and (I think) imminently playable alternative. Get this book if you play D&D or any other RPG that deals with characters from a variety of fantastical kindreds; it will give you food for thought. Get this book if you’re a fantasy writer who seeks guidance in avoiding some of the racist pitfalls that can come with that genre—but do not need to.