What Do I Know About Reviews? Ancestry and Culture: An Alternative to Race in 5e (5e OGL)
There has been a lot of discussion about race in Dungeons and Dragons, and what the mechanics and terminology says about the biases we have in the real world. There have been several passes at this concept so far, including James Haek’s article on D&D Beyond, and Grazilaxx’s Guide to Ancestry (which I reviewed at the link). This has become important enough that Wizards of the Coast as addressed this here, and will be taking some action based on this in the future.
Before I dive in, I also wanted to touch on a few other RPGs, especially with the terminology that will be used. The first RPG I recall to use Ancestry instead of Race was Shadow of the Demon Lord, although it doesn’t radically alter the way Race/Ancestry has presented rules to reinforce that concept. I am almost certain someone more knowledgeable will be able to find an even earlier example.
Pathfinder 2nd Edition uses the term Ancestry as well. What D&D calls race and subrace, Pathfinder calls Ancestry and Heritage. Ability flaws are still tied to ancestry (flaws in Pathfinder are places where you take penalties to your ability scores). This means that the concept becomes more customizable, but still, one that leans into biological determinism on some level.
Okay, now that we took a tour of the RPG landscape and some D&D adjacent rules, let’s look at what I’m planning on reviewing today, Ancestry & Culture: An Alternative to Race in 5e.
The PDF for Ancestry & Culture is 71 pages long, with a title and credits page, a table of contents, and two pages of legal text. The greater legal text is due to this product being an OGL product rather than a Dungeon Masters Guild Product.
The cover art makes an impact right from the start, with a female-presenting orc wearing a detailed gown, knighting another character. Internally, there is detailed line art depicting communities with multiple ancestries, and also character studies of character with mixed ancestries (Dragonborn/elf characters, halfling/Tiefling characters, etc.) and cultures.
The formatting is very similar to the standard Dungeons and Dragons 5e core rulebooks, including page backgrounds and headers. One difference from the 5e standard is that the pages are single column instead of dual columns.
Ancestries and Cultures
The first section presents the “core” Dungeons and Dragons races, but divides them between traits that are gained from Ancestry, and traits that are gained from culture. To decouple ability scores from reinforcing biological determinism, any ability boosts that a character gains come from culture. Weapon proficiencies, skills, and even spells that a character might cast all come from culture, with size, age, and traits like Darkvision, breath weapons, or speed all related to Ancestry.
What this means is that it’s very easy to play a Tiefling raised in just about any culture, a dwarf raised among humans, or a halfling raised among elves. When discussing how these were divided, the text mentions that one goal was to avoid a point-buy version of ancestry, so that choices, at base, are only transitioning from one decision to two.
One thing worth pointing out is that, as an OGL product, this only touches on the races that were free to use. That means there are only Hill Dwarves, Lightfoot Halflings, High Elves, and Rock Gnomes presented in this product (along with humans, Tieflings, and Dragonborn).
Mixed Ancestry and Diverse Culture
After the section that is presenting Ancestry and Culture, there are several options for customization. There is a process for creating mixed ancestral traits, which includes comparing ages and walking speed, then picking from among the presented ancestral traits of the character’s forbears.
There is a similar section for amalgamating the cultural traits that were presented in the previous section. This also includes a section on personalized cultural traits that are more flexible and can be used to represent a wider range of character types.
Because there is a limited range of races that could be adapted from the OGL, the next section deals with custom building races that might appear in other sources, with guidelines on how to split racial traits into ancestry and culture. This uses the existing OGL racial traits as examples of where to draw the line when converting.
I fully understand the limits of the OGL, and I really appreciate the process that went into this section of the rules. The division of culture and ancestry gets me excited for the concept of customizing, for example, elves from Evermeet versus elves from Evereska in the Forgotten Realms. I do wish there had been perhaps an example of a “new but similar to” race, but I understand not wanting to skirt the line of what might be allowed.
Light of Unity, Helping Hands
The first 30 page is dedicated to the OGL conversion to Ancestry and Culture, as well as the guidelines for making conversions. The rest of the product is comprised of two adventures featuring either a multi-cultural village (Light of Unity), or the need to bring together neighboring settlements (Helping Hands).
Light of Unity revolves around a growing corruption spreading from a warded area whose magic is failing, investigation, and interaction with different cultures that are present in the town to learn how to repair the ward, before facing down the monsters that have already breached the ward.
Helping Hands revolves around an elven settlement harmed by a forest fire, and potential negotiations to get nearby orc, gnome, and halfling villages to band together. In many cases, this involves solving problems for those neighboring villages, which may also come down to either negotiation on behalf of the settlement, or facing a threat to the village.
One of the interesting aspects of these adventures is that some of the level adjustments to encounters include modifying the recharge ability of some monsters, which is the kind of ability tweaking that I appreciate for bumping the D&D dials up and down. I also like that even with the strong “communication between cultures” theme of both adventures, that there are still action scenes, playing to a lot of D&D’s core competencies.
The opening discussion about why race needs to be addressed in Dungeons and Dragons and the ongoing issues is one of the best laid out that I’ve seen on the topic, and there are hyperlinked references for the various sources referenced. I love the possibilities for mixing and matching culture and ancestries, and I appreciate the step by step procedure for producing customized results.
The adventures have some inventive ideas about varying encounters, and provide short, thematic adventures that are easy to follow and have just enough of variance on a theme to make them stand out.
Shadows of the Past
While both of the adventures are solid and engaging, some buyers may not want 50% of the product to be adventures based on the theme. As I mentioned previously, I understand the limitations of the OGL, but I still wished for an extra ancestry/culture or two beyond the standard OGL examples.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
This is an important topic in gaming at the moment, and this product addresses it well. If you are the type of gamer that is inspired to tinker based on examples, this is going to be a great resource. Beyond the game material in the product, I’d recommend it for the introduction and its engagement with the topic race and the problem with the concept in D&D. If you just happen to want some additional one-shot adventures as well as a product that will address the topic, this is even easier to recommend.