Ancestry Mechanics in Fantasy Games
Back in June WOTC announced changes to how various races were portrayed in D&D. While much of this comes down to presentation and RP by making your various peoples multifaceted and nuanced and not reliant on tropes and stereotypes, the old standbys of “racial bonuses” and “racial abilities” is what we’re going to look at here. Specifically how it’s handled in four different products – core 5E, Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, Ancestry and Culture, and Pathfinder 2E.
D&D 5E Player's Handbook
The basic approach is simple. Each race in D&D 5E has a bonus. Elves are dexterous, dwarves are hardy, half-orcs are strong. For some of the races you get an additional bonus for the specific type – high elf or wood elf for example. It’s always bothered me though that not all the races get this variation such as it is. Between the various books there’s easily a half dozen types of elves and one type of half-orc.
So you pick your race and get some things automatically. All elves get dexterity bonus and are perceptive. All dwarves are tougher and know how to use a battle axe. It’s quick but it also plays right into stereotypes.
Tasha's Cauldron of Everything
So this was supposed to be the book where D&D addressed those issues around stereotyping and well…okay they kinda did. In a super lazy and obvious fashion that put almost zero effort into things. It equates to apply the bonuses your character gets to whatever stats you want and then you can swap some proficiencies and languages.
I’ve seen some folks who dislike this because they have concerns about min maxing or whatever. I dislike it because it is the bare minimum necessary to address the underlying issue they’re trying to fix. It doesn’t matter to me if you make a half-orc sorcerer with +2 Charisma or a half-elf sorcerer with a +2 Charisma.
It also doesn’t address things that aren’t proficiencies or ability bonuses. All High Elves still get a cantrip even if your character hates magic. All half-orcs are still hard to kill, even if your character is a studious 98lb geeky half-orc who faints at the sight of blood. You might be a drow raised on the surface world who’s never seen the Underdark and yet you’re still sensitive to the sun.
It’s a step forward but it’s a small one and to me it reeks of “well, we need to do something so quick let’s toss out something”
(Note I’ve only read through the basic book. I’ve since discovered that there are two more books – Custom Ancestries and Cultures and More Ancestries and Cultures. I don’t know what those books contain, though I’m definitely adding them to my list of things to pick up.
First off – yay for calling it ancestry and culture as opposed to race. If you’re looking at making meaningful changes word usage is a big part of that. It’s a small thing that has a big impact on the mindset of the reader.
There’s some background and information here on the reason for the project but we’re really here to look at how it impacts the game. Is it better than Tasha’s half-hearted approach?
Yes. Absolutely yes. Breaking down the traits into things that are genetic – darkvision, size, fey ancestry, breath weapons etc. and things that are cultural – proficiencies, languages, bonus cantrips and that sort of thing. So right away you can have a character who is a dwarf (with those ancestral abilities) but who was raised by high elves so they get those cultural abilities. There’s already a great deal of flexibility here and more thought put into things.
However they do fall into the trap of having each culture being tied to an ancestry. There’s a High Elf culture and a Dragonborn Culture and so forth. My problem is that ability bonuses are tied to these cultures when it would have been so, so easy to say Military Culture or Sea Faring Culture rather than tying the cultures presented to a specific ancestry. That’s part of the reason I want to see the other books to see how that pans out.
I’m also not keen on having Alignment play into this with the different cultures tending towards different alignments. Thankfully they mostly shy away from making any culture inherently evil instead saying things like ” Evil or not, an independent nature inclines many in tiefling culture toward a chaotic alignment. ” They could have just as easily left alignment out of it entirely.
Mixed Ancestry and Diverse Culture
I do like that the system they provide here makes it easy to create mixed ancestry and characters from a diverse culture. Sure it’s as simple as picking traits from your parents ancestries but it allows for a wide variety of mixed ancestry characters and that’s not a small thing. Dad was a dwarf and mom was an elf? Easy. No more generic half-elf or half-orc as long as you take the time time figure out what ancestry each parent was.
Unfortunately Diverse Cultures is just totally bland. As opposed to being a mixture of two cultures, it’s a generic catch all. Rather than a flavorful blending of two cultures it’s a +2 to Charisma, +1 to another stat and two skills and two languages. Why couldn’t it be done like ancestries so our dwarf elf could have a bonus cantrip (High Elf Culture) and Dwarven Weapon training (Hill Dwarf Culture) to symbolize the two paths their very different parents pushed them. Definitely a missed opportunity in my book.
Pathfinder 2nd Edition Core
Unlike D&D where such considerations and changes are an add on, Pathfinder 2nd Edition came along at a time when they could include this sort of thing as the base system.
In this system a character has a ancestry (the basic genetic building block), a heritage (a small subgroup of the ancestry) and a background. They clearly denote what abilities come from your ancestry (including a portion of your starting hit points) but unfortunately continue the trend of ability flaws – dwarves aren’t charismatic, elves aren’t hardy.
Your ancestry provides you with bumps to two predetermined stats and a free roaming bump. So still tying to the stereotypes but with some flexibility. So you can have a stronger elf or a smarter dwarf. It’s better for sure. Ancestry also, like the Ancestry book, provides things that are genetic – base speed, darkvision etc. It also determines base hit points, which I thought was kind of neat. Ancestries also provide some feats at certain levels because Pathfinder loves its Feats. This is something I’ve seen in other games (notably Shadows of the Demon Lord) where your ancestry or kin provides ongoing benefits as you level. These pretty much all play into the stereotypes though so it’s a bunch of “meh” in relation to this article.
The Pathfinder subgroups are called Heritages, which further grants bonus abilities, though no attribute bumps. This is where you find your resistances and your skill bonuses etc. Much of this could be more easily adapted into a culture or an upbringing category rather than an ancestry subgroup.
Backgrounds though I like pretty much in their entirely. They provide more meat than the D&D ones do and a strong sense of the character pre-adventuring. They each provide two stat bumps – one a choice between two based on the background and one free as well as a “do a thing” skill, a Lore skill and a Feat.
Pathfinder also includes a stat bump in the class selection – something that 13th Age does and perhaps others. Following that you get a handful of free attribute bumps to sprinkle around as you see fit.
All this comes together pretty nicely though there are still very much some issues to be had.
Much as how for ages female characters had a mandatory lower strength attribute than male characters it’s time that D&D moved forward in how they approach character ancestries. While much of the issue can be dealt with by the DM and players putting work into presenting the various denizens of their worlds with a multitude of cultures and backgrounds there’s always the specter of the racial bonuses. These products seek to address this to varying degrees of success and none of them are perfect. If I had to pick one I’d go with the Ancestry and Culture book. However any GM worth their salt that wants to honestly address this issue at their table is going to look at these products and likely cobble together their own. I know I’d take some ideas from Pathfinder (Ancestry hit points, class based attribute bumps) and some from the Ancestry book and hammer them together with the already existing backgrounds from D&D. If you used Ancestry, Culture and Backgrounds with each providing different elements you could have an excellent system with a high degree of flexibility for both players and NPCs.