What Do I Know About Reviews? Grazilaxx’s Guide to Ancestry (Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition)
How we look at player character species or familiar background has been a popular topic in recent months. For years, people that the industry should have listened to more often have said that race in RPGs introduces some problematic narratives. While some games have introduced changes in terminology, the D&D Beyondarticle Reimagining Racial Ability Scores went even further and presented a way to remove biologically determined ability score bonuses from D&D with optional rules.
The product we’re looking at today on the blog, Grazilaxx’s Guide to Ancestry, goes one step further, creating a modular system of ancestry with a few common traits and more overall customizability to familiar fantasy archetypes in D&D.
This particular product is a 35 page PDF available from the DMs Guild. The formatting of the product is very similar in appearance to official D&D product releases, with light parchment backgrounds, sepia headers, and black text.
There are numerous tables, and strategically used DMs Guild artwork assets to illustrate the various ancestries presented. Overall, the product is very professional in presentation, and if you like most of the official D&D offerings, this should fit well with those sensibilities.
The product is arranged into the following sections:
- Race in D&D
- Behind the Mechanics
- Core and Expanded Ancestries
- Eberron Ancestries
- Ravnica Ancestries
The new concepts introduced in this product are the terms Ancestry, Regions, and Branches. Ancestry is the replacement term for Race. Regions are the differences between members of an ancestry based on where a group developed. Branches are related, but significantly different, ancestries, like goblins and bugbears or dragonborn and kobolds.
Ability score increases are no longer tied to ancestries (similar to the D&D Beyond article linked above), but instead, the product presents multiple ways for a character to gain an ability score increase, including increasing the starting point buy for ability scores, linking it to class, or linking it to background.
Racial traits from established D&D rules are assigned to different Inheritances. Inheritances can be either Major or Minor. Most ancestries are built from six inheritance points, with Major Inheritances costing two points, and Minor Inheritances costing one point each. Several of the ancestries presented link certain Inheritances together, so you can’t have a Minor Inheritance unless you have the contingent Major Inheritance, and certain Ancestries have a required Major Inheritance that helps to define that Inheritance.
In theory, this means you can take the Inheritances and mix and match them to create a new Ancestry, or take a race that isn’t presented as an ancestry in these rules and assign their abilities as Major or Minor, although there appears to be as much art as science to assigning those designations as we look at various ancestries.
A Note On Terminology
I really appreciate that the text, right at the beginning, doesn’t dance around what this product is trying to address. It discusses how problematic race is as a term, how racial ability scores can promote ugly stereotypes, and how associating a persistently adhered to alignment with sapient beings is a mistake. In fact, one of the first things done in the document is to mention that none of the entries are going to address “common” alignments of various ancestries at all. I agree with all of that.
There are a few places where the terminology still slips from “ancestry” to “race,” however. This by no means undermines the overall impact of the product, but it definitely shows how deeply ingrained the terminology has become to roleplaying games.
Ability Score Increases
Of all of the alternate methods presented, I’m the biggest fan of hitching ability score increases to Background, because it’s kind of a logical thing that a character’s ability scores are molded more by their role in society. Unfortunately, I think the alternate method I would actually use would be class-based. Why?
Because one of the reasons many players dislike racially locked ability score increases is that it makes some class options less viable. But this just shifts that concept to backgrounds. If backgrounds grant you specific ability score increases, your Nobles are less likely to be fighters than paladins, and your soldiers aren’t likely to be rogues, and then you get back into the territory of using the rules to reinforce tropes, when players may want to try something different.
The Core and Expanded Ancestries Include the Following:
The Eberron Ancestries include the following:
The Ravnica Ancestries include:
- Simic Hybrid
To provide some examples of how this system works from a modular standpoint, Kenku and Aarakocra are both part of the Avian ancestry. They have Major Inheritances that define the difference between them, but some of the Minor Inheritances can vary a bit.
Half-elves and Half-orcs are created by taking one Major Inheritance from the Human Ancestry, and one Major Inheritance from either elf or orc. This works out as a pretty logical means of modeling the ancestry. The text also mentions that this method can be used, with DM approval, for other Ancestries.
The first thing that springs to mind in this instance is that it makes it fairly easy to create tiefling, aasimar, or genasi that are descended from elves, halflings, or dwarves, instead of humans. Again, this is a nice, simple way of introducing this variety.
The problem is, there are some Major and Minor Inheritances that feel like they work well enough within an Ancestry, but outside of it, and combined with potentially any of the other Ancestries, custom-built Ancestries could be angling towards some powerhouse combinations. For example, coming up with a melee character that is picking and choosing from minotaur, orc, and goliath traits.
There are definitely some interesting judgment calls when it comes to Major and Minor designations for Inheritances. For example, Magic Resistance and Poison Immunity are both Minor Inheritances for Yuan-Ti. When taken with the overall “package,” this doesn’t feel like a bad choice, but allowing someone to “dip” into traits, again, a custom-built Ancestry could be a potential issue. It’s also worth noting that the orc ancestry gets Minor Inheritances that grant them proficiency in drums, Religion, or Intimidation for the same points it costs the Yuan-Ti for these traits.
Despite this, there are many of the potential combinations that feel like a lot of fun. For example, picking up the Bite Inheritance for a Tortle to flavor them as being more similar to a snapping turtle.
While most of the ancestries in the document have familiar traits sorted into Major or Minor, with a few extra options thrown into the mix, and the ability to borrow from other areas of the Ancestry, humans get a more substantial rebuild. The Human Ancestry has the following Regions:
These give rise to some interesting Ancestral Inheritances, like the Urban Human ability to move through a space where they would provoke an attack without doing so, as long as there is another person within five feet of them, or the ability of Mountain Humans to ignore a level of exhaustion caused by non-magical effects.
Since we’re talking about humans, this seems as good a time as any to note that the product also mentions that you can treat an appropriate feat the same as a Major Inheritance.
The rules provide a lot of flexibility, and can allow for story-based customizations, like the above-mentioned snapping-turtle Tortle, or the examples from the text of a drow raised on the surface without sunlight sensitivity, or an elf that is more bound to the material world and needs to sleep instead of performing their trance. The product provides a solid and clear statement of why these rules were developed, that doesn’t shy away from the discussion that needs to happen as RPGs move forward, and it provides some interesting alternatives to humans as “the adaptable ones.”
Even in the core D&D rules, not all of these race/ancestry options are perfectly balanced against one another, and making the building blocks of various ancestries modular in some places underscores this issue. While the text is very clear on making sure everyone is on board with custom Ancestries, it’s worth noting that it’s not just the potential synergies that are the issue, but also that some Minor Inheritances are just flat out better than others, and could lead to an “arms race” of custom build characters if the DM isn’t careful and the player’s aren’t conscientious about their choices.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
I like the concept of these rules quite a bit, and I really enjoy seeing the alternate take on humans that is tied to where they are from and the abilities that humans literally have to adapt to those environments. I like the potential that the customizations provide for story purposes enough that I think it’s worth risking some of the downsides of customization for the sake of advantageous abilities.
If nothing else, it’s a good product for continuing an important discussion and providing a framework to provide examples of future implementations of a potentially fraught and outdated way of doing things in a hobby that needs to adapt with the times.