Sunday 10 February 2019

An argument for cultures instead of race in roleplaying

Image: Wizards of the Coast

Alexis at the Tao of D&D recently wrote about D&Ds propensity, particularly in 5e, to force identity onto a PC through what essentially amounts to 'race fluff'. This got me thinking about why culture is a favourable alternative to race in games.

Race is a loaded term and in roleplaying games it tends to put you in a box. As an elf you're more sensitive towards nature, you're more musical or whatever. As a dwarf you dislike elves, you can recognise underground masonry etc. God forbid you come across a goblin trying to parley because your Paladin's having none of it. Goblin equals evil bad thing to be killed. Essentially, things tend to get racist.

I'd argue that culture is a better alternative to race. Culture covers traditions, customs, language and heritage without having to hang onto a particular race. An elf could be integrated into dwarf culture. They're still an elf, but they may not have anything to do with typical elf culture. This is a simple way of looking at it, but it still sort of talks race. Let's take it one step further.

The Tharesh culture are historically miners. While Tharesh started mainly as dwarves, die to trade and travel the Tharesh count many humans and gnomes among their numbers. Growing up in this culture, people are more likely to be sympathetic to rocks, understand the value of precious minerals and know the great lays of Udrick of the Great Pick. Mechanical bonuses can apply to these, but they're never predicated on race.

Taking it further still. Your gnome bard had grown up in Tharesh culture, but has since moved to the warmer southern climes to Dwilt, integrating into Al Tal'hu culture. This is a seafaring culture of all races, many of whom worship Venhara, the sea goddess, and many have traditionally grown vineyards, so they understand well the southern wines. Here we see a patchwork culture - our gnome has heritage as Tharesh, but it interweaves with Al Tal'hu. This could mean taking some aspects of both cultures mechanically.

Races are static, but culture is ever flowing. Characters could pick up aspects of cultures as they travel around - whatever resonates with them. Pathfinder 2e changed race to ancestry, but this is simply a difference in words. Culture still has room for racial heritage - but this can be as important as the player wants it to be.


  1. I never get this. In my mind, these are much more than "races", and hence is part of the problem. This is no just a "difference of culture" problem, and simply an unfortunate choice of words by Gygax that sounds out of place 40 years later.

    Example: An elf is not just a thin, long-living feminine human who likes nature. They are an entirely different species of creature, which is supposed to be alien to human ways of thinking. This distinction gets lost in modern mass-market fantasy novels. Read The King of Elflands Daughter, and then tell me an Elf is anything like anything from an RA Salvatore book.

    I wonder if the main influence for non-human "races" is mostly due to Lord of the Rings (which is included in Appendix N BTW). But, even the elves in Tolkien's works are tremendously more interesting than "just a tree hugging waif" with some extra stat buffs. Tolkien's stories, and his prose, were so dang good that a lot of those tropes simply stick with us.

    Last comment: these are parts of my reasoning why I prefer "race as class" (as in original D&D, D&D basic, DCC RPG, etc.), but I promise I'm not trying to start an argument about that :)

    /steps off soapbox lol

  2. Race is not an issue in the least, save for with the super sensitive for whom nearly everything is an issue.

  3. I tend to give my non-human races very non-human qualities. My dwarves are constructs of stone given life. My elves are exiled creatures of fae, etc.

    Have you ever dread Das Schwarze Auge/The Dark Eye? It definitely has an interesting take on culture, even different cultures for dwarves, elves, etc.

    The computer game Arcanum also has some neat ideas for elves and dwarves who have integrated into the big steampunk cities of humans. An elf in a human city is a very different person than an elf who lives in the sylvan forests. Gnomes have integrated entirely into human society but have an insular sub-culture of their own.

    Cool stuff.

  4. The point is that player character identity ought always be a choice, regardless of race or culture. I have no problem with non-players shaped to fit either race or culture, but that should have nothing at all to do with a particular player's choice about that player's character. 5e clearly implies otherwise.

  5. Race is an artifact of the racism baked into Tolkien, which was the source material for OD&D. Making a crunchier system for cultural bonuses instead of racial ones would be a nice alternative.

    I like the idea of a character slowly transforming into a race that fits their core personality. The world would seem more magical that way.

    Want to start as a human who hugs trees, you slowly level up into a wood elf or dryad and age slowly as the forest ages, getting thin and lithe with an affinity for the environment. Like to play a hearth and home loving Hill Dwarf, who enjoys cooking and drinking and smoking... your character slowly becomes a Hobbit. Etc.