Darrell J. Pursiful

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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.

Character Creation

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.

Bottom Line

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.

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.

Gaming in the Realm of Saynim

Yesterday I ran a table-top role-playing game for the first time in 30 years. I’ve mentioned before how Dungeons and Dragons occupied a fair bit of my teenage years and how I’ve used RPG mechanics generally to work out issues of worldbuilding for my writing. Well, over the course of several months and numerous conversations with a friend and coworker whose away-from-work friends have nudged him into the RPG world, I finally got up the nerve to run a one-shot for a couple of coworkers and their spouses. In this post, I’ll offer a quick review of the system we used, a summary of the adventure and game play, and some final thoughts from the writer side of me.

Fate Core

I first picked up the PDF for Fate Core (and several other pay-what-you-want Fate products) from Evil Hat Productions not for the game but for the architecture. As a writer, I wanted a way to quantify (1) how magic works in Saynim, the setting of the story I’m currently working on, and (2) what differentiates the various fantasy kindreds (elves, dwarves, etc.) from one another in that realm. So my original interest in Fate completely ignored whatever “use as directed” warnings may or may not have appeared on the label. But apparently Jim Butcher writes up D&D character sheets for the characters in his novels, so why not?

At the table, though, I saw how Fate could shine. As a game, all of us found the system to be rather elegant. Two of the four players had never tried tabletop RPGing before, but it was very easy for them to grasp the system. Anything they wanted to do that required a dice roll required the same dice roll—four special dice marked with a +, a -, or a blank—add the results, and apply the appropriate skill modifier: Fight, Stealth, Deceive, etc. They didn’t need to understand the terminology Fate associates with these rolls to differentiate between Overcoming, Creating an Advantage, etc. I was able to explain that as we went along.

Building the game was a breeze. Fans of Fate say it’s really more a toolkit than a game system, and that rings true to me. It can be applied to just about any genre—fantasy, science fiction, cyberpunk, superheroes, etc.—with a little bit of tweaking, and there is a strong online community sharing their ideas for how to tweak. For example, one thing I realized early in my prep was that I needed a handle on how 18th-century muskets should work in the game. There isn’t anything like that in the core rules, but a Fate subreddit provided several examples of quick, simple rule hacks to simulate that style of combat. And needless to say, I had already devoured a ton of information about putting together unique magic systems from the Fate System Toolkit, the Fate Freeport Companion (one of the few resources I actually had to pay for!), and a number of other products.

Fate doesn’t have to be rules-crunchy, but i don’t see any reason it couldn’t be if that’s what the players and the GM want. I can imagine more detailed lists of weapons and their capabilities, lists of spells, rules for tracking wealth or ammunition, etc. It’s all good. At its best, though, Fate favors a more cinematic flavor of game. Characters are larger than life, and the rule of cool is expected to trump a strict simulation of the laws of physics.

For my purposes, with a table of newbies or near-newbies, I elected to keep things as rules-light as I could. To be honest, I didn’t even enforce some of my own “rules” about how magic works in the world of Saynim. Introducing the hobby, having fun, and finishing the adventure in a reasonable amount of time were higher priorities!

The Game

The pitch for the game went something like this: I want to run a high fantasy adventure that feels like a Western. By “high fantasy adventure,” I had in mind the kind of old-school D&D tropes I grew up with: elves and dwarves, melee combat, magical powers, etc. By “feels like a Western,” I was thinking of a frontier setting, gunfights, “the code of the West,” and the overall attitude (also present in old-school D&D) that life is cheap. (The tech level of the setting wasn’t 19th-century, though, but 18th. Think Daniel Boone or Last of the Mohicans, not Gunsmoke.)

I brought a bunch of pre-generated characters that blended both of those families of tropes in their High Concept aspects, and the party ended up being Anya, the Refined Elven Polymath (and resident “city slicker”), Saba, the Half-elven Gunfighter, Alana, the Elling Scout (an elling is basically a hobbit with the serial numbers filed off), and Culloch, the Shifty Human Horse Thief. I must say that, even for inexperienced players, everybody really got into their roles. Each of them had at least one moment of really neat role play. Special shout-outs go to Culloch and his kleptomaniac tendencies and Alana’s drinking problem!

Given the one-shot format, the adventure was pretty straightforward: the frontier town of Dunswale was beset by a gang of ruthless outlaws, and our intrepid adventurers (jury is still out on whether they were “heroes”) gathered clues, tracked them down, and used a combination of deception, fire power, and magic to drive them off and collect a reward from the town’s beleaguered ree. They no doubt then celebrated at the Drunken Dragon and regaled the tavern keeper with tales of their exploits.

GMing a Fate game was actually surprisingly easy. At least, the “muscle memory” of how I used to do it back in the day was still there. The rules were straightforward enough that I felt confident winging it. I know there were places where I flubbed the rules or couldn’t put my hand on a cheat sheet I know I had prepped beforehand, and I could have done a much better job of keeping the fate point economy moving along. But the game system was very forgiving—and thankfully so were the players! My sense is that a good time was had by all.

The Writer

Running my story world as a game helped me see it from a different perspective. Did I learn anything? I’m not sure. Maybe. But introducing the world to others and seeing it through their eyes will no doubt help me convey it on the page.

I’ll confess to a certain satisfaction in bringing some of my side and background characters to life as the party talked about them or to them as the plot developed. I might have grinned a little when Culloch thought to go visit Goblintown looking for clues, and I was able to show him Brack, one of my favorite sidekick characters, as he argued with Mote Crankshaw over the best way to preserve their community, replaying a scene from early in my novel but in a different context.

In Conclusion

Now that I’ve actually used Fate as an RPG system, I can see why a lot of people like it. It’s fast, versatile, and almost infinitely customizable: 5 out of 5 stars from me!

Of course, the people around the table are what really makes a game. In my experience, even a clunky game system can be fun if the players buy into it and keep the focus on having fun with their friends. In our group, everybody brought something valuable to the table, so I’d also give Dave, Katy, Katie, and Tyler 5 out of 5 stars. It’s a pleasure to have run the game for them.

My Next Novel: Escaping from a Bad D&D Campaign

And by “bad,” of course I mean “awesome.” I’ve written before about how Dungeons & Dragons was a pretty important part of my adolescence. Not only did it prod me out of my introverted shell and entice me to interact with a few close friends, it stoked an interest in mythology, fantasy, and adventure that continues to this day.

But let’s face it: Old-school D&D as played by über-nerdy teenagers was usually a hot mess—a glorious hot mess, but a hot mess all the same. If you were first exposed to D&D in the 70s or early 80s, and that corresponded to your junior high or high school years, you know of which I speak. What I mean is that some of the tropes of D&D are a bit unconventional, even within the fantasy genre. For example…

There are Loads and Loads of “Races”

D&D has always been a fantasy kitchen sink. That’s part of its charm. Beings from Norse and Arthurian mythology rub elbows with creatures from ancient Greece, China, the Middle East, and realms even further afield. Add to that the creatures that sprung like Athena fully formed from the minds of Gary Gygax and company.

That diversity extends to the humanoid fantasy “races” found in the game. (I’ve explained before that I don’t care for the terminology of fantasy “races.” But I’m using the term here so you know what I’m talking about.) At first, if you didn’t want to play as a human, your choices were elf, dwarf, or hobbit—the latter quickly adjusted to halfling when the Tolkien estate <ahem> took exception to TSR’s use of the term. It was only a matter of time before half-elves were added. Then came half-orcs, gnomes, various sub-classes of elves, and even more fanciful creatures. And if you look at the intelligent monsters that aren’t (usually) permitted as player classes, you’ve got to add goblins, kobolds, gnolls, lizard men, nymphs and satyrs, giants, dragons, an assortment of demons and devils…you get the idea.

I heard somewhere that Gary Gygax literally couldn’t conceive of why everybody didn’t want to play a plain vanilla human fighter. That’s why those early editions put caps on how high non-humans could advance in levels: he wanted non-humans to be rare!

Soon, however, humans effectively became the minority, if not in the campaign setting then at least in the makeup of the average adventuring party. (Fair play compels me to acknowledge that the Fellowship of the Ring consisted of four hobbits, an elf, a dwarf, a quasi-angelic being, and only two humans!) (Snark compels me to acknowledge that the only thing rarer than Men in LOTR was Women.)

Magic Is Everywhere

I’m pretty sure that every member of my old D&D group operated under the assumption that, if an item existed in the rule books, it was bound to exist somewhere in the campaign setting. Half the point of playing D&D was accumulating the most whiz-bang magical goodies: flaming swords, enchanted armor, various and sundry wands, staves, rings, and potions. And these were the good old days where you could wander into any fair-sized city and find a “magic shop” where some of these items were even available off the shelf.

And this is before considering the vast supernatural powers most player-characters could wield. From the beginning until today, decent D&D parties always have at least one or two decent spell-casters. The parties that don’t tend not to survive for very long, because even if the players don’t have access to spells, you can bet the bad guys do!

But even the non-spell-casting types are usually capable of physics-defying feats of strength, stealth, endurance, or what have you. And don’t get me started on psionics! In short, the genre of D&D has always favored larger-than-life heroes with access to powers and abilities far beyond those of mortals. (Seems I’ve heard that line before…) In the early days when I was playing, we didn’t worry about that in the least; it was all part of the awesome.

So What?

In short, D&D has tended from the start to favor a great diversity of non-human characters interacting in a setting in which, far from being the stuff of misguided superstition, magic is as commonplace as blackberry bushes. That’s a marvelous setting for a game of fantasy adventure. But it isn’t the “real world.” Now, I don’t mean it’s a flaw that D&D has wizards and dragons and such because they don’t actually exist. I’m not that thick! I’m saying the classic D&D setting isn’t even the “real world” in the sense that people alive in the Middle Ages would never have recognized it as theirs, notwithstanding the fact that they would have been earnestly afraid of witches and ghosts and truly awed by the fantastical creatures scholars described in their bestiaries.

It is, however, a world that those medieval people would have heard of, be they peasant or king. It’s the world in which many of their favorite stories were set, a world that shaped their imagination and their cultural ideals by setting them against a place so obviously different that the conventional rules no longer applied.

It is, in a word, Faery Land.

It’s the place heroes go to fight dragons and rescue princesses before eventually finding their way back to the ordinary world to live happily ever after.

So, what if somebody who’d grown up in this high-powered, magic-rich, and decidedly non-human-centric D&D campaign found it advisable to leave? Where would he go? What would he do? What alliances might he forge with the inhabitants of whatever new world he landed in? What foes might he have to face there?

And what if this new world was ours?



How Many Hit Points Does a 1st-Level Author Have?

A Facebook friend shared this article from the New Yorker a few days ago: “The Uncanny Resurrection of Dungeons & Dragons.” Apparently, D&D is growing in popularity forty-some years after it first hit the hobby store shelves. I won’t say D&D is cool again, though. It was never cool in the first place—that’s why I loved it!

According to Neima Jahromi, the author of the article, a “circle of life” story seems to be unfolding as at least some people are rediscovering forms of entertainment that don’t involve video screens and can even require sitting down at a physical table and interacting with one’s friends in real time. According to Jahromi,

In 2017, gathering your friends in a room, setting your devices aside, and taking turns to contrive a story that exists largely in your head gives off a radical whiff for a completely different reason than it did in 1987. And the fear that a role-playing game might wound the psychologically fragile seems to have flipped on its head. Therapists use D. & D. to get troubled kids to talk about experiences that might otherwise embarrass them, and children with autism use the game to improve their social skills. Last year, researchers found that a group of a hundred and twenty-seven role players exhibited above-average levels of empathy, and a Brazilian study from 2013 showed that role-playing classes were an extremely effective way to teach cellular biology to medical undergraduates.

I first played D&D in sixth grade at the invitation of a group of friends who thought it would be something I’d be interested in. The pitch, loosely paraphrased, began, “Now, don’t laugh, but the name of this game is ‘Dungeons and Dragons.’ It’s kind of hard to explain.” Intrigued, I showed up and was introduced to three tan booklets packed in a white box with a picture of a wizard blasting goblins (or something) on the front. (Thinking back, I can’t for the life of me remember who was there. I’m pretty sure we were playing in Bryan Beecher’s basement, though. As it turned out, these guys weren’t my go-to D&D buddies in years to come.)

I gave up D&D in college, mostly because I lacked the time. Second, third, fourth, and fifth edition passed me by without even making a blip on my personal radar. But when I started writing Into the Wonder, I started thinking of my worldbuilding tasks as if I were running a new campaign and trying to get my homebrew setting and house rules to work right. (I even managed to get a jokey D&D reference into the first book.)

Along the way, I discovered several other RPG systems and settings that helped me hone in on how magical creatures, powers, and artifacts might work in terms of the story I was trying to tell. Without even thinking about it, I began to accumulate the free PDFs and online extras you can find for GURPS supplements, Changeling: the Dreaming, and other settings and rule sets.

So now I’m working out the details of a different story world for a new set of characters with new sets of abilities. And for the first time, I’ve been experimenting with setting down at least some of this information intentionally in the form of a “rules supplement”-type document.

Along the way, I’ve discovered that a coworker, who has never really gotten into RPGs before (at least not seriously), has a growing interest because it’s something he has started doing with a group of friends outside of work.

And along the way, I have once again found myself bonding with a friend over a shared interest in a geeky hobby.

And also along the way, our conversations have led to exploring the possibility of me crafting a one-shot RPG session set in the world I’ve been creating for the past four or five months. Wouldn’t that be cool?

Funny how things circle around, right?