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.