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Yes, You Have Plenty of Books…
But you don’t have this book! I was privileged to be a critique partner of Steve, and I found this to be a delightful, wholesome story. Maybe it’s something you’d like either for yourself or for a younger reader in your life. Order Piercing the Veil in the format of your choice.
Ancestry and Culture by Eugene Marshall
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.
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.
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.
Native American Cuisine
I thought this article from Atlas Obscura was fascinating!
In March, a few weeks before COVID-19 shut down the country, chef Nico Albert and her longtime mentee, chef Taelor Barton, met at Duet Restaurant + Jazz to discuss plans for their upcoming Native American dinners and culinary classes.
Each November for the past two years, Albert has turned the menu at Duet Restaurant + Jazz into full Native American fare. While the seasonal, New American food that Albert serves year round has made the 140-seat eatery one of Tulsa’s most beloved fine-dineries, it is this menu of contemporary Native dishes, available only during Native American Heritage Month, that truly stands out. Locals and regulars flock to the restaurant, and Cherokee and other tribal members come from as far away as Michigan or Seattle. The offerings—which include persimmon frybread pie made with Pawnee heirloom corn and crispy, sumac-crusted snapper with roasted squash, wild greens, sweet corn hazelnut sauce, and pickled blueberries—routinely sell out.
The article goes on to describe archeological research on some of the oldest known culinary traditions of the Eastern Woodlands.
And now I’m hungry.
Cryptids of Ohio, Expertly Illustrated
A new exhibit at the Rutherford B. Hayes presidential library features a slew of legendary creatures that purportedly haunt the Buckeye State. Atlas Obscura has the details, and you need to click through to see the paintings by Dan Chudzinski, historian and special-effects artist, who has rendered a number of these creatures in superb detail.
Dr. Gwilym Morus-Baird knows a thing or two about conceptions of the Otherworld in Celtic cultures, and he shares it in this video.
I’ve long been fascinated with the idea of a strange, mystical world running parallel to our own. It is the basis of my “Into the Wonder” series and also features in my current work-in-progress, Shadow of the King.
Characters of Color: Easy Mode
Excellent advice from Colette Aburime about writing people of color.
When you write with racial and ethnic diversity, you hear a lot about what to avoid. Now, it’s not without good reason. The road to good representation is paved with harmful stereotypes and worn-out depictions of People of Color. Advice-givers, like me and the rest of the folks at WritingwithColor, put up caution signs and leave the rest of the journey up to you.
Still, there are some do’s that make for both good writing and good representation.
Writers tend to think big. Our craft demands that we keep our brains fired up with ideas.
I’m asking you to think small.
This is the kind of article I wish I’d had years ago, though I think I somehow stumbled through writing some African American secondary characters in Into the Wonder. I look forward to the next installments!
The Prehistoric World Is Moving into D&D 5e Territory
I have previously opined that the prehistoric world was somewhat “Tolkienesque,” with multiple humanoid species interacting with each other in a variety of ways. In a recent Discover article, Bridget Alex surveys how things have changed even in recent years.
When I first wrote about extinct hominins and fantasy fiction, the newly discovered “hobbit” (Homo floresiensis) was all the rage. The very next year saw the discovery of H. naledi in South Africa, and an article published just this year concludes that remains found in the Philippines come from an otherwise unknown species dubbed H. luzonensis.
If we can assume some late surviving members of H. erectus on the margins (they were contemporary with us but geographically separated), that brings us to seven hominin species fighting, trading, and in at least some instances interbreeding with each other from roughly 300,000 to 30,000 years ago.
So it’s no longer just humans, elves, dwarves, and halflings. Now we’ve got to add gnomes, orcs, and…I don’t know, tieflings?—with no guarantees somebody won’t find yet another extinct hominin species tomorrow.
The prehistoric world is quickly gaining the appearance of a D&D campaign with no restrictions on character race.
Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-García
I’m not sure what put me on a vampire kick, but here we are. Silvia Moreno-García’s Certain Dark Things presents an interesting take on the vampire mythos. The premise of the story is that the mundane world learned that vampires were real some fifty years ago. At that point, the various nations took steps to either contain the monsters or expel them outright. For various reasons, many of these banished bloodsuckers ended up in Mexico, where the anti-vampire laws were more lenient than most places, and European-style vampires are now running Mexico’s drug cartels in competition with the tlahuelpocmimi, the indigenous vampires of Aztec culture.
The story begins as Atl, the last surviving member of a powerful family of tlahuelpocmimi, is on the run after a deadly altercation with the Necros, vampires of the clan that had recently massacred her family. She flees to Mexico City, the lone ostensibly vampire-free stronghold in the country, where she meets a street kid named Domingo. The novel plays out as Atl and Domingo evade hostile forces both human and superhuman in a quest to find a place of refuge. As might be expected, the two grow in affection for each other, though there remains the nagging sense that their relationship might bring complications to Atl—and prove deadly for Domingo. You see, Moreno-García humanizes her vampires, but they’re still ultimately monsters. At one point, an ancient vampire warns Domingo, “We are our hunger.” Indeed.
The novel is well written, the characters believable, the near-future world fascinating. I especially appreciate how Moreno-García played with varying vampire legends from around the globe. There are ten known vampire species in this world: European, African, Indian, Chinese, and of course Mexican. Three of them are most involved in the plot, although about half of them at least get a mention at some point. (She describes all ten in an appendix, but I found this a bit of a letdown. If you’re not going to put them in the story and you don’t have plans for a sequel, why the info dump?)
Moreno-García takes some liberties with vampire mythology—they’re all living members of a distinct human species, and as much as possible their special powers and weaknesses are described in scientific terms—but she does this creatively, not haphazardly. She has obviously done her research, and it shows.
If you like vampire stories at all, you owe it to yourself to give Certain Dark Things a look.
Medieval Alchemy 101
Have a look at Sarah Durn’s primer on medieval and Renaissance alchemy as it is depicted (quite accurately, apparently) in Deborah Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches.
Where many fantasy novels are complete works of fiction, perhaps inspired by the medieval period, but not in any way historically accurate, A Discovery of Witches combines the fantastical with the academic. Deborah Harkness, the author of the series, is a history of science professor at the University of Southern California. She wrote her doctoral thesis on the history of science and magic in Europe from 1500 to 1700—the same subject her protagonist, Dr. Diana Bishop (played by Teresa Palmer in the adaptation), is researching in Oxford’s Bodleian at the outset of A Discovery of Witches.
I have looked for a long time for a concise, objective, and easy to follow description of alchemy. Thanks to Dr. Burns, an actual card-carrying medievalist, I now have it!
And it looks like I also have a trilogy of books I need to read…