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Ancestry and Culture: An Alternative to Races

Have you ever wondered why there are half-elves and half-orcs in your favorite fantasy roleplaying game, but not half-dwarves or half-gnomes? And why only allow orcs and elves to have children with humans and not others, or with each other? Why can’t we play the child of an elf and an orc or a gnome and a halfling?

What’s more, what if we want to play a human raised by elves, like Tolkien’s Aragorn, or a halfling who grew up among orcs? Wouldn’t such characters be different from a halfling who grew up among her own people, for example? It would be a delight to have character options that support such a diverse cast of characters.

Well, now we can! These rules allows you to easily create a variety of new character combinations and types, without having to make sweeping changes to the core game rules. What’s more, these rules supplant the problematic concept of race as it is traditionally used in character creation, replacing it with two concepts: ancestry and culture. Ancestry provides those heritable traits that a character might receive from their biological parents, such as height, average lifespan, and special senses like darkvision. Culture, on the other hand, is an integrated system of beliefs, values, and symbolic practices shared by a particular group or community. Cultural traits include language, skill training, values, and education.

Think of the possibilities of playing a character of both dwarven and elven ancestry, or a gnome raised among orcs—and imagine what their diverse communities might be like, where dwarven and elven food, art, and architecture mingle! What might their buildings look like? Their clothing? In short, we want to replace race with ancestry and culture because replacing it is easy and makes for more fun!

Character Creation

The character creation rules below replace the race choices in character creation for the world’s most popular roleplaying game.

Ancestral and Cultural Traits

The description of each ancestry and culture includes both inherited and cultural traits that are common to members of that ancestry or culture. The Age, Size, and Speed traits are tied to a character’s ancestry, as these are most likely to be inherited traits, shared with biological parents. The Alignment, Languages, Skills, and many other traits are tied to their culture, as they do not depend on one’s biological parents as much as they do on the systems of belief and practices of the community of one’s upbringing. Each entry distinguishes between them clearly.

For example, a dwarf who grows up among other dwarves would possess all of the traits from both dwarf ancestry and dwarven culture, whereas an elf who grew up among dwarves would possess elf ancestral traits, such as Keen Senses, Fey Ancestry, and Trance, but dwarven cultural traits, such as Combat Training, Tool Proficiency, Stonecunning, and proficiency in the Dwarvish language.

Weapon training and languages aren’t genetic, after all; one learns them from one’s family and community. Thus, if an elf grew up in dwarven culture, they would learn dwarven weapon training and languages, unless those who raised them specifically chose to raise them as culturally elven.

You will also find rules for creating characters with more than one ancestry below. For example, your character might have one elven parent and one dwarven parent. Some players might balk at the notion that individuals of different fantasy ancestries could have children together, especially when their physiologies seem to differ as much as, for example, a dragonborn’s and a gnome’s might. If such issues of realism bother you, then by all means do not use those rules or allow them at your table. For those players who are not bothered by such issues, or for those who wish to explain their character as having a magical, rather than a biological, origin, these rules can provide such options.

Ability Score Increase

Ancestry does not by itself endow a person with higher or lower Intelligence or Strength, or any other ability modifier. Cultures do sometimes promote certain behaviors and lifestyles, however, which can increase one or more of a character’s ability scores. For example, education systems can promote different activities and values, such as athleticism, academic excellence, public speaking and rhetoric, or perseverance. These differential education systems might slightly shift the range of abilities among those young people who undergo them, subtly increasing their average Strength, Intelligence, Charisma, or Constitution.

Even so, some players may wish to shy away even from this limited form of cultural baggage. Rules are provided below for fully customizing one’s culture, so that no specific ability score can be identified with a particular culture. Instead, each player may personalize the culture in which their character grew up. This personalized culture option can be found in Appendix A.

Ability Scores as Culture, not Ancestry?

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.

Age

The age entry notes the age when a member of an ancestry is considered an adult, as well as the ancestry’s expected lifespan. This information can help you decide how old your character is at the start of the game. You can choose any age for your character, which could provide an explanation for some of your ability scores. For example, if you play a young or very old character, your age could explain a particularly low Strength or Constitution score, while advanced age could account for a high Intelligence or Wisdom.

Alignment

Ancestries have no innate alignments whatsoever, as behavioral tendencies toward goodness or chaos or law or evil are not genetically inherited. Cultures are not straightforwardly good or evil either, though values are indeed often a part of a culture’s belief systems. Even so, those values could never be reduced to simple concepts like goodness, evil, law, or chaos. What’s more, such cultural beliefs do not dictate the beliefs of an individual character, though some cultural norms might weakly influence an individual’s alignment, though it is up to the player whether such influences are present or if they instead reject them.

Nevertheless, some general cultural influences are described in this entry, with weak tendencies toward particular values described, so that players might have a sense of the various cultures they may choose and because they are familiar to players of the game. These are not binding for player characters; they are included only to give players a sense of what their character’s chosen culture is like, though some of the more problematic descriptions have been removed or revised.

Indeed, players may even decide to drop alignment completely, as it plays very little mechanical role in the game and is overly simplistic in many ways. It has been included here only so that players looking for it see that, if it must be retained, it is better attributed to culture than biology.

Size

Characters of most ancestries are Medium, a size category including creatures that are roughly 4 to 8 feet tall. Members of a few ancestries are Small (between 2 and 4 feet tall), which means that certain rules of the game affect them differently. Please note that the Size recommendations listed here are always modifiable. For example, you may wish for your character to be a human, elf, dragonborn, or orc little person, in which case you might prefer your character be Small rather than Medium.

Speed

Your speed determines how far you can move when traveling and fighting.

Languages

By virtue of your culture, your character can speak, read, and write certain languages.

Core Races Using these Rules

Mixed Ancestry and Diverse Culture

The ancestry and culture options above assume that a character has a single ancestry and culture. Thus, if a character has elven ancestry, this assumes that their ancestry is primarily elven. Most commonly, this would mean that both of their parents are of elven ancestry.

Some characters have mixed ancestries, however. For example, 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.

Finally, rules for creating diverse cultures follow the rules for mixed ancestries.

Diverse cultures represent those that are a combination of several cultures, as one might find in a multicultural urban environment.

Mixed Ancestral Traits

Your character has inherited qualities from biological parents of two or more ancestries. Perhaps your parents are an elf and a human, a halfling and a gnome, an elf and a dwarf, or one or both are themselves of mixed ancestry. Regardless, your ancestries provide you certain inherited characteristics. In addition, you may have traits that are unique to children who claim more than one ancestry.

Characters of mixed ancestry might look almost entirely like one parent or the other, or anywhere on the continuum between them. Thus the two children of a dwarftiefling couple might both look tiefling, dwarven, some combination, or one might look tiefling and the other dwarven, even though they are siblings.

Age. Pick two of your ancestries from the available options. Select a number in between the two ages listed for when people of those ancestries come of age, and again between the numbers listed for their average lifespans. Write these down; these are your age at which you became an adult and your expected lifespan.

Size. Pick the listed size from your chosen ancestries and choose one of the sizes listed. If both of your ancestries are size Medium, then so are you. If both are Small, then likely so are you. If both Small and Medium sizes appear in your chosen ancestries, you may choose which size you are.

Speed. Your base walking speed is 30 feet, unless both of your chosen ancestries have a base speed of 25 feet, or your size is Small, in which case your base walking speed is 25 feet.

Darkvision. As long as one of your ancestries has the Darkvision trait, you may have darkvision as well, if you choose.

Additional Ancestral Traits. You may select one other ancestral trait from each of your two chosen ancestries. For example, you might select Fey Ancestry from an elven ancestor, or Hellish Resistance from a tiefling ancestor. If you have a dragonborn ancestor, you may select Draconic Ancestry and either the Breath Weapon trait or the Damage Resistance trait, but not both.

A Note on Balance

Some players may have concerns that the various ancestries and cultures here are not perfectly balanced. What’s more, a certain kind of player might try to use these rules to make a more powerful ancestry and culture combination than other players have. To be sure, these ancestries and cultures are not perfectly balanced.

Then again, the original races are not perfectly balanced either, yet this has not broken the game or caused all players to use the same few slightly more optimized races.

Allowing players to mix and combine ancestries and cultures is primarily valuable for narrative, rather than mechanics, but these options have been created with mechanical balance in mind as well. As always, you can discuss with your players if you wish to adapt the rules for your table.

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.

Ability Score Increase. Your Charisma score increases by 2, and two other ability scores of your choice increase by 1.

Alignment. Those who grow up in such diverse cultures often share a pluralistic and open-minded bent. They value both personal freedom and creative expression, demonstrating neither love of leaders nor desire for followers.

Skill Versatility. You gain proficiency in two skills of your choice.

Languages. You can speak, read, and write Common and two extra languages of your choice that might be spoken in your community.

Appendixes

Below are some additional rules, options, and resources for replacing race in your favorite fantasy roleplaying game.

Appendix A: Personalized, Anti-Essentialist Culture

The rules above reject the essentialist concept of race, which supposes that your biological ancestry determines your personality and abilities. They instead assign many of those features to one’s culture, particularly those that refer to skills and alignment. However, you might not like the somewhat essentialist picture this paints of culture; after all, do we want to say that simply because you grew up among orcs, you are somewhat more likely to be strong or athletic? Do we want to assign any traits at all, uniformly, to a culture?

It might be reasonable to say yes, if the orcish communities in a setting simply have a more physically oriented education curriculum for their young people.

Similarly, elvish communities might have their children study a simple cantrip or the use of the longbow. This may not, at a glance, seem problematic to some people.

Even so, if you would like to avoid even this hint of cultural essentialism, you have another option, one that can allow you to retain elements of cultural representation while adjusting them to your liking. What’s more, you can retain or jettison whichever elements of the culture concepts presented above that you prefer.

For example, perhaps your character grew up in a traditional orcish community, but she was the child of the village scribe, so she has a +2 to Intelligence rather than Strength. Or maybe you are of gnomish ancestry and grew up among gnomes, but you chose to become a gnomish wrestler, and so have a +2 to Constitution rather than Intelligence. After all, in every culture, one can find a vast variety of interests, personalities, and professions.

The option below allows you to personalize any culture. To use it, describe what ancestries are found in this culture, then select the traits below, as usual.

Combine this with one of the ancestry options above to customize your character even more.

Personalized Cultural Traits

Ability Score Increase. One ability score of your choice increases by 2, and another ability score of your choice increases by 1.

Alignment. What alignment your character adopts is entirely independent of your ancestry or culture and, as such, is a personal choice.

Personalized Proficiencies. You gain proficiency in two skills of your choice.

Languages and Tools. You can speak, read, and write Common. You have proficiency with one tool of your choice and speak one extra language that might be spoken in your community.

Other Races

The rules contained in this document refer only to the races and subraces available under the Open Gaming License. Fortunately, you can use the principles in this document with other races and subraces in your favorite roleplaying game. The following process allows you to replace any race with a corresponding ancestry and culture.

Step 1: Identify Ancestral Traits

Only traits that could only be biologically inherited belong in this category.

These include things like age, darkvision, size, and speed. Other traits that seem biological, such as resistances (like tieflings’ resistance to fire or dwarves’ resistance to poison) might belong here as well. In the above examples, we also opted to include a few traits that grant advantage on certain saves, such as Fey Ancestry and Gnome Cunning, since these may be a result of magical ancestry rather than upbringing.

Ancestry might include physical traits like wings, claws, horns, gills, long limbs, powerful builds, or natural armor. Other unique bodily features also fall into this category, such as the ability to mimic sounds or change shape.

Beyond these obvious bodily features, most other racial traits—both from the Open Gaming License and from other races—can be ascribed to culture rather than ancestry.

Step 2: Identify Cultural Traits

Any trait that concerns a skill or magical talent can usually be attributed to a creature’s culture. These include language proficiencies, skill and tool proficiencies, and any form of training with weapons or armor. Some examples in the rules above are Dwarven Combat Training, Elven Weapon Training, or the orcish Powerful Attack, which suggests a style of combat that is reasonably understood as having been learned.

In the above rules, magical skills and talents are included this category, such as an elf’s cantrip and a tiefling’s ability to cast thaumaturgy or darkness. Some might balk at this, suggesting that these abilities are innate biological inheritances, like a dragonborn’s breath weapon. Though this may be reasonable, it’s also reasonable to assume that such magical talents require training and that elves or tieflings who grow up outside their own cultures may not learn to harness these abilities. Conversely, it may be odd to say that someone of dwarven or halfling ancestry could learn a cantrip from being raised among elves or the darkness spell from growing up in a tiefling community, but we would rather ascribe as many traits as possible to culture to avoid biological essentialism, as well as to avoid making some ancestries more mechanically powerful than others.

Next, ascribe any ability score increases to culture. This may be controversial to some who imagine that all dwarves have a high Constitution, for example, or that all orcs are naturally strong. And to some extent, a few biologically inherited traits remain a part of these ancestries, including Dwarven Toughness and orcs’ Relentless Endurance. Nevertheless, increased Strength or Intelligence simply cannot occur without experience. Even if we were to suppose that orcs possess a slight genetic disposition toward Strength or gnomes toward Intelligence, individuals who do not exercise or study will not develop those supposedly inborn traits. In other words, simply being of orcish or gnomish ancestry is not sufficient to grant ability score increases. Thus, they are best suited to come from culture, since that is where education, training, and experience occur.

Step 3: Check for Balance

Once you have divided up the standard racial traits and assigned them to either ancestry or culture, evaluate them for balance. Ideally, the traits from the original race divide equally between ancestry and culture. Try to allocate traits to both ancestry and culture so as to make either a desirable mechanical choice. Though many players choose their character’s ancestry and culture based on roleplay and backstory motives, it’s helpful to balance the mechanical advantages so that they are perceived as equally viable, with no one ancestry or culture clearly more powerful than the others.

Congratulations! You have now transformed the outdated race category in your favorite fantasy roleplaying game into the less problematic and more flexible categories of ancestry and culture!

On complexity versus Ease of Use

Some players might prefer to choose traits from a menu so they can exactly specify their character’s traits. These rules avoid such an approach, for two reasons. First, point buy ‘race’ building systems are so much more complex as to be prohibitive. One goal of these rules is to encourage as many tables as possible to remove racial essentialism from their fantasy gaming, so these rules should be as simple as possible, requiring only two simple choices rather than one. Second, spending a pool of points by choosing ‘racial’ traits from a menu robs ‘races’, ancestries, and cultures of narrative value. If every elf, dwarf, and halfling can have literally any of the fantasy traits, from wings, to darkvision, to fey ancestry, to halfling nimbleness, in what sense do these categories have any narrative purpose at all? This approach is certainly an option, but doing so robs the fantasy worlds in which we play of a rich narrative resource which many players would miss.

Section 15: Copyright Notice

Ancestry & Culture: An Alternative to Race in 5e © 2020 Arcanist Press Author: Eugene Marshall