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An androgynous D&D character, with the horns of a tiefling and the aquiline features of an elf, tossed a crystal ball in one hand.
Nym Auvyrae, with elven and tiefling ancestry. They were raised in a human culture.
Image: Arcanist Press

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D&D will change to address racism, but someone has already done the work

A new zine is required reading for playing RPGs in 2020

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Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

In June, Dungeons & Dragons publisher Wizards of the Coast announced that it would take steps to address racist stereotypes in the world’s most popular role-playing game. But the problems go deeper than simply cleaning up the image of the black-skinned Drow and giving the Vistani — an analog for the Roma people — some dignity. That’s because the concept of race itself, as a game mechanic, is deeply flawed.

Wizards says it will implement changes this year to how race works in Dungeons & Dragons via a new, as-yet unannounced product. But another game designer has already found a way to address D&D’s race problems. In fact, the new zine published by Arcanist Press could serve as the way forward for the entire gaming industry.

In Ancestry & Culture: An Alternative to Race in 5e, author and designer Eugene Marshall argues that the concept of race in 5th edition D&D isn’t just flawed, it’s bigoted. He’s a lot more gentle with his language, however. That’s likely because in addition to writing and designing RPG content for Arcanist and Sigil Entertainment, he’s also an associate professor of philosophy. One of his specialties is the philosophy of games. Marshall’s Ancestry & Culture reads more like a scholarly work than a run-of-the-mill splatbook. The only thing missing is footnotes and a proper bibliography.

From the introduction:

Scientists and philosophers who study race reject the concept of race as a biological fact that discretely individuates groups of people. Race is not a biological reality; rather, it is a social concept constructed and employed differently at different times in history and in different places in the world. It is not like eye color, but like citizenship: something that is based in social relations and concepts, not biology.

In other words, the concept of race as it has been used from at least the Enlightenment forward to the twentieth century is, frankly, bankrupt. This is not to say there is no such thing as ancestry, heritage, and genetic difference, of course. Indeed, our genetics are real, but they are a function of our individual ancestry, not our race. What folks call racial differences simply do not map cleanly onto anything in our biology as simplistic as the concept of race. What’s more, that concept in the real world has been used to justify historic atrocities.

Indeed, racists still use these bogus, faux-scientific justifications to support their prejudice. Because these harmful concepts have no place in our world, they need not be in the stories we tell with our friends either.

A marriage scene, showing a tiefling and a Black human, being married by a dwarf. Image: Arcanist Press

He then proceeds to lay out a flexible, highly adaptable system that effectively chops up the existing races in D&D, and then reassembles them on a latticework supporting both a narrative role-playing experience and balanced tactical gameplay. The framework goes to great lengths to respect everyone at the table.

Marshall’s system relies on divorcing “biological ancestry from cultural heritage.” When creating a character, players don’t choose a race. Instead, they choose the culture in which their character was raised and the ancestry of their parents. Stat bonuses — things like higher intelligence, constitution, or charisma — are derived from culture. Meanwhile, inherited traits — things like height, speed, and life span, and fantastical abilities like breath weapons or dark vision — are tied to ancestry.

In gameplay terms, Marshall’s design offloads the problematic issue of race in favor of expanded creativity and expression. In role-playing terms, it not only encourages but requires players to think long and hard about how their character relates to their own environment and to the family that raised them. It does that by embracing the concept of mixed ancestry.

Previously, 5th edition D&D’s Player’s Handbook only supported two races with mixed ancestries: half-elf and half-orc. Marshall’s system expands the possibilities exponentially:

A character can have an elven parent and a human parent, or a dwarven parent and a halfling parent. Other characters can have parents who themselves have mixed ancestry. The rules in this section provide mechanics to generate such mixed ancestries. Of course, almost all characters in a fantasy world probably have some degree of mixed ancestry. These rules are intended to allow players to make characters that have two primary ancestries, however, rather than one dominant one.

When players with mixed ancestries create their character sheet, they are free to pick and choose from the ancestral traits that they have available to them. A player with a dragonborn parent and an elven parent can breathe fire and see in the dark. They are also allowed more variability in areas like life span and speed.

My favorite part, however — and the section that very nearly brought me to tears — is what I’d like to call the diversity buff. Marshall, who again is better with words than I am, calls the perk “Diverse Cultural Traits”:

People of mixed ancestries are most often found in multicultural communities where elves, humans, dwarves, and halflings, among others, live together. Anyone of any ancestry can be found in such communities, which is one of the strengths of such cultures.

With Ancestry & Culture, diversity is no longer a bludgeon that Dungeon Masters beat their players over the head with. Marshall’s system is permissive, rather than restrictive. Diversity ascends from being merely a tool to cast orcs and drow as the “other.” Instead, it becomes a boon from which players can draw their own strength.

Diverse Cultural Traits grants players +2 to their charisma, because diversity is beautiful. They gain the character trait whereby they value personal freedom and creative expression. They have an inner strength whereby they have “neither love of leaders nor desire for followers.” They gain proficiency in two skills of their choice, and they can speak two extra languages that might be spoken in their community.

D&D spent decades codifying a ruleset that reinforces the racism already endemic in our culture, even when the rules of the game were revised across five editions and more than 40 years. The original RPG is the Ur-game, from which modern video games and even movies now flow. We have all been influenced by it. Ancestry & Culture works to upend that, while keeping the game that millions of people love to play around the world whole.

And it does it in 26 pages. The other 50 pages are full of adventures and other great stuff.

If you want to start changing how you play D&D right now, you can purchase Ancestry & Culture: An Alternative to Race in 5e as a PDF for $9.95. Softcover copies run $14.95. You can also snag 61 Custom Ancestries & Cultures for an additional $9.95.

Ancestry & Culture: An Alternative to Race in 5e is available now. The zine was reviewed using a download code provided by Arcanist Press. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

Cover art for the Dungeons & Dragons Essentials Kit shows a player-character and their sidekick going up against a dragon on a snowy hilltop.

D&D Essentials Kit

  • $16

Prices taken at time of publishing.

The Dungeons & Dragons Essentials Kit is “the single best introduction” to the fantasy role-playing game we’ve ever seen. The box includes everything you need to start playing D&D, including an introductory rulebook, a DM screen, a set of 11 dice, a handy set of cards for things players need to keep track of (initiative, magic items, etc.), and a brand-new adventure, Dragon of Icespire Peak.

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