Darrell J. Pursiful

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Fantasy “Races,” Again

I’ve previously commented on my aversion to the term “race” in reference to fantastical beings like elves, dwarves, and the like. My preferred term is “kind” or “kindred,” but that’s neither here nor there.

Now I’ve learned via Charlie Hall at Polygon that Eugene Marshall has worked out a way to convert some of my concerns into Dungeons and Dragons terms. Marshall is not only an author and game designer, he’s also a professor of philosophy who knows of which he speaks when he points out the moral and philosophical bankruptcy of the whole construct of “race” as the term has been used in the past few hundred years.

Marshall is the author of Ancestry and Culture: An Alternative to Race in 5e. He replaces the longstanding template of “choosing a race” in D&D with a choice of both a culture and an ancestry. Your culture might give you a stat bonus in intelligence or constitution, but your biological ancestry determines things like height, life span, and special abilities like dark vision. His system allows for a multiplicity of diverse ancestries, and even provides perks for characters with a diverse cultural heritage.

As Hall writes,

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.

Hear, hear!

For ten bucks, I expect I’ll be picking this up at Drive-Thru RPG. The excerpt from the introduction that Hall provides is nearly enough to sell me on the product.

For what it’s worth, Marshall’s approach is similar, but not identical, to what I’ve been doing in my fantasy novels. Characters have a “kindred,” a biological ancestry (elf or dwarf or whatever); a “chaos,” an elemental affinity that shapes their magical potential (air, water, etc.); and a “culture,” the nuts and bolts of the languages they speak, the customs they observe, the technology they use, and so forth.

Unlike Marshall, I’m imagining a situation somewhat like the prehistoric real-world earth, with various members of genus Homo interacting with one another in various ways. (And the situation here is looking more complicated all the time.) Not all of these populations are interfertile, so not all mixed ancestries are possible, and I’ve tried to put a little bit of science into the implications for those that are (cf. the nature of sapiens-Neanderthal interbreeding in the lower Paleolithic). Still, I expect I will thoroughly enjoy Marshall’s supplement.


1 Comment

  1. Cool! I hope you’ll do an update with a review of the supplement when you’ e had a chance to read it.


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