Every once in a while, a roleplaying game product comes along that makes you grateful for its existence because it fixes a game problem you’ve been having for years and you don’t have to write the house rules yourself. Eugene Marshall’s Ancestry & Culture from Arcanist Press is one of these products, Marshall fixing a problem in D&D 5e that goes all the way back to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st edition, namely the incredibly problematic concept of Race in a fantasy game.
I’ve been thinking hard about this for a long while and I’m not exaggerating. Back in 1988, when I attended UCSC, my anthropology thesis was titled Sexism & Racism: The Myth of Dungeons & Dragons. Bluntly, all of the standard fantasy races of 1st edition—humans, elves, half-elves, dwarves, halflings, half-orcs, and gnomes—closely paralleled racial stereotypes from the real world when Tolkien first used them. D&D didn’t improve Tolkien’s mix by adding gnomes, and the only other change from Tolkien came from a lawsuit and settlement that renamed D&D hobbits to halflings but kept the hair on their feet and attendant barefoot rustic stereotypes.
I won’t rehash my old thesis in this review, but the parallels between fantasy fiction races and real world racial stereotypes are obvious once you look at them, with one race being the wise philosophers or noble savages (elves), another the subhuman barbarians you can kill with impunity (orcs), a third the funny little short people who cook your food and pick your vegetables (hobbits, ahem, halflings), and so on. And this doesn’t even get into the sexism in 1st edition D&D.
The multiple editions up to 5e have done some good work to remedy the sexism in the original game — the maximum Strength for female characters in 1st edition was thankfully discarded by the time 5e rolled around, and there’s more and better art for women — but the base fantasy races in 5e still leave much to be desired. Even adding dragonborn and tieflings didn’t help, since 5e kept the base mechanic of Race and the inherent problems that go with it.
Thankfully, Marshall addresses this by discarding the Race mechanic and supplanting it with two other mechanics, namely Ancestry and Culture.
Ancestry and Culture
Ancestry covers inheritable traits which a character gets from their biological parents, things like Size (is the character Small or Medium?), Age (at what age are they an adult and how long is their lifespan?), Speed, whether one has Darkvision or Keen Senses, Fey Ancestry and the like. If one looks to the artwork in the book — which is nicely done — Ancestry also includes cosmetic traits such as tusks, horns, pointed ears, tails, lavish beards or eyebrows, scales and so on.
Culture, meanwhile, governs everything else, all the skills a character would learn from their parents and the society in which they are raised, such as Language, Tool Proficiency, Combat Training, Stonecunning and so forth. One isn’t born speaking Dwarvish, for example — it’s something a character learns as they grow up. Ability score bonuses, which were previously tied to Race, are now tied to Culture instead, linked to what abilities a culture might value in its members and educate them to increase, rather than the poisonous old concept that one Ancestry is inherently smarter or stronger than another.
Ancestry & Culture also does some other nice things to fix D&D, one of the best being to make orcs one of the base character races, rather than have orcs as a monstrous race with only half-orcs allowed as player characters. The base description for orcs and their origins is also deliberately ambiguous, allowing DMs to decide if they were created by an orcish creator god, as in standard D&D, or came from another world, as in Warcraft. (Tolkien’s original concept of orcs being twisted elves bred by Saruman is left unmentioned.)
Fixing Other Problematic Mechanics
Even better, Marshall goes on to fix one of the other problematic mechanics, the idea that orcs and elves can both have children with humans, creating half-elves and half-orcs, but orcs can’t have children directly with elves, and meanwhile dwarves, halflings, gnomes, dragonborn, and tieflings never intermix either. He does this by the simple expedient of taking the bad mechanic, throwing it out the window, and saying that they do. You can have a character with Mixed Ancestry and Diverse Culture. There. Fixed.
Even better, Marshall gives rules and guidelines for Mixed Ancestry and Diverse Culture, and even illustrations. For example, here’s Nym Auvyrae, Elven & Tiefling Ancestry, Human Culture, and Tessellax Springgadget, Dragonborn & Gnomish Ancestry, Gnomish Culture.
Nym Auvyrae, Elven & Tiefling Ancestry, Human Culture
Tessellax Springgadget, Dragonborn & Gnomish Ancestry, Gnomish Culture
Mixed Ancestry follows basic logical rules. If both of your characters’ parents are Small, you’ll be Small too. If Medium, then Medium. If different sizes, you pick which parent’s size you want for your character. Diverse Culture meanwhile assumes the character was raised in a multicultural community and can draw on its strength, gaining a bonus to Charisma and another ability score of their choice.
The Best Rules in the Book
Ancestry & Culture then goes on to the appendices, which are some of the best rules in the book. Appendix A is Personalized, Anti-Essentialist Culture. In a nutshell, this has the rules for someone who may not fit with what their greater culture might value most, but still nonetheless be a part of it, like the child of the village scribe in an orcish community or a gnome from a gnomish village who decided to become a wrestler rather than make cuckoo clocks. And while the appendix doesn’t note it, it easily provides rules for cultures where there are divisions of labor based on gender, class, or caste, assuming you want that in your game. You’re running a game based on the Greek myth and want to design the all-women culture of the Amazons? Appendix A has the rules to design that.
Appendix B, Other Races, is a solution to one of the realities of publishing third party supplements, namely the fact that only the base races are covered by the Open Gaming License. But following the rules in the appendix, DMs can convert other Races into Ancestries and Cultures, or simply invent their own, with rules to divide traits up and check for play balance. This also works for what happens when you have a character of extremely Mixed Ancestry, as would happen if Nym and Tesselax had children. What would Elven Tiefling Dragonborn Gnomish ancestry look like?
Light of Unity and Helping Hands
The second half of Ancestry & Culture is comprised of Light of Unity and Helping Hands, two short adventures which also serve to illustrate what mixed societies might look like in D&D world. Light of Unity is set in the blended community of Unity and deals with a temple and a curse. Helping Hands has quests involving four neighboring but less blended communities, such as the elvish village of Greenglade, which suffers a fire, and the village of Thimblenotch, which is mostly gnomish with a few orcs, and an interesting cultural detail of each family weaving an ancestral tapestry.
These are both fun, light adventures, with a theme of interdependence and cooperation. The villages and communities also make excellent places for characters to be from, functioning multicultural communities without the strife and ugly history behind so many communities in the real world. If there’s a criticism to give Ancestry & Culture, it’s that Marshall has consciously chosen to avoid the racial animosity and discord between fantasy races that Tolkien set down with his distrust between elves and dwarves for Legolas and Gimli to overcome, and instead ventures into the territory set out in Jackson’s expansion of The Hobbit, where Tauriel the elf has a romance with Kili the dwarf.
Simply imagine a world where Kili lives, and he and Tauriel go off to have children of mixed dwarven elven ancestry, and possibly hobbit culture, because they move to the Shire, or the D&D analogue where all the hobbits are halflings. Ancestry & Culture makes it easy to make a character with Dwarven Elven Ancestry & Halfling Culture, and that’s a good background for any adventurer.