Dungeons & Dragons & Diversity: An Interview with Eugene Marshall of Arcanist Press
On Wednesday 29th July I was fortunate to interview Eugene Marshall of Arcanist Press on his rule-book ‘Ancestry & Culture: An Alternative to Race in 5e’. It tries to address a problem that is deep-rooted in Dungeons and Dragons, that of racial essentialism.
This problem of racial essentialism has been around for a long time, and there has been an increasingly loud section of the community calling out this racial problems within D&D.
Eugene Marshall, inspired by members of these community, set about designing an alternative rule-set that combats this problem, while attempting to keep that 'plug in and play' narrative focus that has made 5th edition D&D so popular.
It has proved to be a popular book with the Kickstarter raising thousands over its humble $300 goal. Now two expansions have been released and Arcanist Press is storming forward with more Ancestry & Culture content.
I wanted to get to grips with this problem as at first I thought that a simple fix was all that was necessary. Changing race to species felt like a simple way to solve the problem of race, so I was intrigued to listen to Eugene and see what was the deeper issue and how could it be solved.
What unfolded was a significant chat about the problem of racial existentialism, how some language in D&D books mirrors that of racial supremacists and actually that these alternative rules add some much need lore to your characters. ‘Ancestries & Cultures: An Alternative to Race in 5e’ also gives us an opportunity to mix races in D&D, something that we haven't been able to do in 5e, this was a huge selling point for me.
It would be remiss to say that Eugene didn't also mention that one of the best things we could do for the community was promote, and for Wizard's of the Coast to hire, BAME members and give them more of a voice in the community.
You can watch the Video or read the transcript below:
Hello Eugene, Could You Tell Me About Yourself and Your History with D&D and Table-Top Gaming?
Sure. So I got introduced to Dungeons and Dragons when my parents bought me the red basic set in 83 with the Elmore cover Mentzer edition. I was also watching the cartoon when it was on air at that time and I played D&D and a whole bunch of other tabletop games. I liked a lot of the superhero games like Heroes Unlimited and Champions and Marvel the phase rip edition. And then I got into Paladium Games riffs, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles went into World of Darkness in the 90s. And near the end of 3rd Edition, early two thousands, I kind of stopped playing when I went to grad school, got married, had kids.
Then in 2014, a friend invited me to play Fifth Edition on roll20. And, you know, I was hooked once again. And so I've been playing it constantly ever since, although I've expanded to include a lot of other games, too. I became a kind of dungeon master. I got all of the people that I played with back in the 80s and 90s. I got the band back together, so to speak, and I DM’d them through a big campaign, levels one to 20. It was great. And eventually, I made friends in the larger gaming community and some of them are creators themselves. And they invited me to participate and collaborate. And after I did that for a few years, I worked with Sigil Entertainment on some savage worlds content and some D&D. And I realised this is something I wanted to do, you know, with my spouse, Amy, a little more consistently. So we launched Arcanist Press in February of this year. Oh, and then when I'm when I'm not doing well, I'm not doing tabletop gaming. I am a college philosophy professor.
Where Did You Get The Idea for ‘Ancestry & Culture: An Alternative to Race in 5e’ and Why Do You Believe It’s So Popular?
Well, a couple of things, one, you know, I was just to be clear, this didn't come out of nowhere or out of my head. I was reading articles, N.K Jemisin got this great blog post on the unbearable baggage of orcing. And then people like James Méndez Hodes, Graeme Barber, Tristan Tarwater were writing on this problem of race in D&D. I had been hearing people talk about this, they made me aware of this problem. I just thought, last fall, just for my own home games, I wondered whether I could come up with a solution. And my goal was just to come up with something that addressed the racial essentialism, which I'm happy to talk about after if you want, but in a way that still felt like D&D, because there are other systems out there that give you like menus of traits and you can buy them with points. And it feels like you're playing GURPS or something. No, not to knock GURPS, but, you know, it's a point buy sort of character creation system.
It's not exactly easy to get into or play.
Right. It just doesn't feel to me like what I loved about Fifth Edition. Fifth Edition, for me, harkened back to basic earlier editions that were, especially the basic stuff, pick up and play and a little more intuitive. And so I wanted to retain that. And so this was the solution. And I just put it out there thinking in February at this two week inquest, I put a goal of three hundred dollars so I could buy a piece of cover art.
And then, yeah, I saw some people online, got wind of it and started retweeting it. And then it got a larger audience and kept growing. And so it grew enough after about a week that I realized, oh, I made enough money now where I can buy more art and even hire like an editor to make it look nice. So I hired Hannah Rose. She's a freelancer for Wizards of the Coast. She did the editing on the Wild Mount book, and she's worked on several other official books. And so having her on board and then her tweeting about it as well, kind of got it to a much larger audience. And so it got it got up to like nine hundred and seventeen backers. $7500, like there's a three $300 goal. So yeah, quite a bit exceeded the goal. And honestly it's just been growing since, you know, that we went on, we went into hibernation for a few months just preparing it. And then when we released it in June, it really did just explode again. And so it's been it's selling really, really well and drive through and getting more attention. So that's been a delightful.
What is Racial Essentialism and What is the Problem With It?
Sure, so racial or biological essentialism is the view that certain traits, characteristics, features of human beings, including things like behaviours and attitudes, are. Biological, but more precisely with the concept of racial essentialism, not just a result of their individual genetics. It's not just who your parents are. It's that you're a part of a larger ethnic or racial group. And so it's not just describing, oh, you are smart or fast or violent because of who you yourself are, but it's because you're a member of this racial group. And so that's where the problem comes in, in the real world is for two things. First of all, it's just in general scientifically incorrect even. I mean, it's quite an open question to determine how much your individual genetics might or might not contribute to your behaviour as an adult. But one thing that is clear is there's not some sort of race category in your genes that can be kind of clearly defined. Individual genetics are real, but racial genetics aren't really,l there isn't a clear cut out for like black people's genetics versus white people's genetics. And so ascribing a property like intelligence to a national or racial genetic source, it's just bad science and wrong. But the second problem there is that it used to be what science thought maybe two hundred years ago, one hundred years ago, even 50 years ago.
But for the most part of the past hundred years, it's been debunked. And the only people that hang onto it are usually people that use it to justify racism. Yeah, so they used it as a basis for their racist ideologies that, you know, like white people are superior or this category is by nature violent and that category is by nature weak or whatever. So it's in the real world, it's not only bad science and false, it's also harmful and racist. Now, then the question is why? Hey, elves, dwarves, these aren't real. This isn't the real world. What's the problem? You might ask and I would respond to it in the following way. I'd say, look, here's the thing. Racism and racial essentialism harm people in the real world. And if you are a target of it, you know what it feels like to be harmed in that way. So when you're sitting down to play a game and all of a sudden you have to deal with that again, there it is in your face. You're trying to create a character and they're talking to you in the same way that racist talk about you in the real world. And when they harm you, it can be off-putting.
It can alienate those people. They say, oh, man, I don't really want to put up with, you know, all elves are this way in all, you know, all half- orcs. I wanted to play a half-orc, but then I read how they're being described like racist describe me in the real world. Now, that doesn't mean that half-orcs are just stand ins for Asians or blacks or something. But it sure does make, and I'm just basing this on their reports, members of marginalised groups, well it reminds them of this hatred they have to deal with in the real world. And so it ruins the fun for them. So, I mean, for those people who still don't buy it, I would say, look, it's a form of violence that some people don't want to encounter in their games. Imagine if you had to sit down and play a game and you had to in order to create your character, you had to encounter another form or other forms of unpleasant violence from the real world, like sexual violence or class violence or religious violence. Imagine if in order to make your character, you had to describe the ways in which these things affected you, your character. You might say, gosh, this isn't very fun.
I think it's weirdly inappropriate that this is an opt out situation, you know, because another answer people give is, if you don't like it, change it at your table, in D&D you could do whatever you want, which is true. But the default rules include all of this. And I would sure prefer if the default rules didn't. And then if you wanted to talk in this sort of way, you could at your table but the new player coming to end for the first time encountering this is like: ‘oh that's oh, I don't really want to do that. There are other games that don't force me to do this.’ And so these sets of rules are trying to address that in a way that still feels like D&D.
The Rules You Designed Focus More on Background and Culture, Do you Think This Makes Players Think More About Their Characters?
No, that's exactly right. I mean, if I can just jump in there real quick, because I think that I just want to make a note about this, because this I almost sat down to try to solve this problem and I ended up accidentally creating, and then once I realised I was creating this, I ran with it. It's super useful as a tool for creating more interesting characters and building more realistic worlds. I mean, let's face it, if elves and orcs or elves and dwarves or halflings and tieflings or whoever lived in the same city for generations, things are going to happen. Right, and, you know, it's you're just you're going to have exchange of culture, you're going to have ancestral combinations. And again, you want to I mean, even if you look at the classic Lord of the Rings sources, Aragon was a human raised by elves, and that made him fundamentally different than other humans.
And he ends up raising children with an elf.
Right. Exactly, so that the rules actually allow for mechanics to do that. Everyone could always have told a story like that, but these are mechanics that actually allow the traits of the races to help tell that story.
You also included the option for having other mixed races, not just half-orcs and half-elves.
Yeah, totally, I mean, why and not just that, but like so yeah, why not an or can and an elf. If an orc can have a baby with a human and an elf can have a baby with a human, why can't an orc and an elf have a baby?
Or what about halflings and gnomes, right. I mean that could totally happen right. If an elf and a human can then why not a halfling and a gnome. And I know, but you know there are some cases in older editions like the Dark Sun Setting has half-dwarves. So there are some other places where this story gets told. But you know, not 5th Edition.
With All this Content, What Design Problems Did you Encounter?
Right, I mean, this was more of an interesting design challenge. There's actually quite a few solutions out there that, like, you know, there's a book, there's a couple on DMs Guild; Grazilaxx's Guide to Ancestry Half-Race Handbook. There's a new one that just came out called An Elf and an Orc Had a Little Baby.
And they each provide [a solution], and they're all interesting solutions and they each have different ways of solving this problem. I wanted to go for the simplest possible, which is you look at the entry for the orc ancestry, you look at the entry for the human ancestry. Each of them have a couple traits. Pick one from each.
That's the offspring, so you can choose like, well, do you want the elven fey ancestry, you choose which of the traits you want to have? And that would allow for half a dozen different permutations. It does allow now, I'll admit it does allow for some minmaxer to try to choose what they think is the most powerful trait from each. But I happen to think and I might be and I might not everyone agrees with me, but I don't think I don't think most of what are called racial traits are actually particularly unbalancing. I think that Wizards of the Coast did a pretty good job designing the races such that elves or dwarves, humans, gnomes, halflings; none of their traits are unbalancing by themselves, and even when you put them together in different ways. Now there's a couple of exceptions, like the yuan-ti's magic resistance and poison immunity is a little too powerful, maybe? And maybe you think the aarakocra’s unlimited flight is a little too powerful. But actually, in our versions of this book so that with the second expansion we have (we've released some expansions that have bird folk and snake people and all this sort of thing), we actually kind of toned that down to try and address balance concerns. But yeah, its always going to be possible to generate two or three or four different permutations of, like I said, elf and orc, and some will be more powerful than others. But I think they'll all fall within the range of what Wizards of the Coast deems playable. All right. So that's the goal, at least.
I’m more of a role playing gamer in D&D, do you think your rulke set up is more set up for people like me then?
Right. Yeah, I mean, my policy as a designer for Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons is to trust the designers, you know, people like Jeremy Crawford and, you know, they did a great job designing this game and all the extensive play testing. And one of the things I really like as a principal of Fifth Edition is narrative first.
And I mean, Fourth Edition has its great strengths, but it was much more of a mechanics sort of focused system. Whereas when you look at the way spells or traits or features are described in Fifth Edition, it's quite story oriented first. And so I think that if you take that sort of attitude towards what we're doing with these ancestries and cultures, it makes perfect sense because there's a total narrative reason for the system. It's like, well, why is it that you built the system with these traits? It's not perfectly mathematically balanced. It might not be perfectly mathematically balanced, but I think it's perfectly narratively balanced.
What Feedback Have You Received?
So feedback, yeah, so it's been overwhelmingly positive. Now, there have been a few outspoken, angry trolls, I got accused of being the worst thing to happen to D&D since TSR sold to Wizards of the Coast the other day, which is a bit of bombastically hyperbolic, fine, whatever.
What almost always happens is somebody on social media or on some YouTube video says something negative about a product. Then some of their followers just go and dog-pile on that product for a little while. We've got an article that featured us in Polygon, which is a very large video game website, with a readership which extends far beyond the kind of normal channels that I would get involved in. And so we had some people coming in, with all kinds of hostile things to say. But almost every single one made it quite clear they actually hadn't read past the headline.
Right. So it's very easy to just dismiss, you know, or, you know, the number one response is probably like if you just call it species, the problem goes away.
I actually was going to ask you that as Wizard's have mentioned it as a possible solution, why doesn’t it work?
Well, the short answer is it doesn't do away with the essentialism. It's just species essentialism instead of race essentialism, it still is treating people as though you can categorise their personality and intelligence and ability based on the part of the world they're from.
Call it species, call it race, call it ethnic group, it's still essentialism and that's the problem. But I say that in the intro to the book, I address that, and I've talked about it online but people sometimes get angry that clearly didn't do their reading. They didn't do their homework. I'm a college professor, and so they get a poor score on their quiz. But, you know, there's been a few people like that. But what matters for me most is the people that I respect have had nice things to say about it, people that I know and respect their judgment, you know, other designers, players, DMs.
So that that's made it worth it. I mean, I don't know if you saw it. We just announced today, like in a couple of hours ago that. I just tweeted this a couple hours ago that we're going to be having it translated into Portuguese. And it's going to we're working with an educational collective in Brazil who will be using the Portuguese translation to teach D&D and to use it to talk about race and racism to poor kids in the favellas. So it's like, you know what, I can tolerate a few angry racists yelling at me on Facebook to know that that type of thing is going to happen.
What about more specific feedback, is there anything people have wanted to see in future expansions?
Yeah, yeah, there has been, I apologise, I kind of misunderstood.
Two things have come up. One is one that I am trying to address, but I might not ever fully be able to, which is that some people say and this is I understand this and I think it's reasonable. They say, look what we've done. So let's take something like elven ancestry and then we separate out the learned or taught traits from the player's handbook and call them elven culture. And so some people point out, hey, you're just trading racial essentialism for cultural essentialism. Right. Which is legitimate. We try to solve that in a couple of ways, first, by the time you look at this, we actually have to expansion's ‘Custom Ancestries and Cultures’ and ‘More Ancestries and Cultures’, together they have about 126 mixtures of ancestry and culture. OK, so but so there's you know, there's like six or seven different elven cultures described across all of these books, so that's one way we were trying to address that. But there's still a lot of the ancestries that we don't have multiple cultures for. And that's legitimate. I understand that. One reason we did that is because we were trying to make it still feel plug and play, so to speak, and that's the way D&D does it.
Another thing people are sometimes asking for is, well, I'd like to see elven mountain culture and elven coastal culture and urban culture, just take the elven out of it. Urban, coastal, mountain, arctic, you know, this valley and the great plains, you know those sorts of cultures, write those.
And so in the book, ‘More Ancestries and Cultures’, we have a section at the end that is geographic cultures, like it's all the officially recognised geographies in the D&D system. So, you know, there's like 11 of them; mountain and underdark and coastal and hills and all that stuff. So that's one way to deal with that kind of thing that people have been asking for.
But still, people sometimes want more info, like they'll say, well, you describe bird folk and you only give a couple of paragraphs talking about them. I would like to know, like, where do they live? What are their leaders like? What religions do they follow? They want me to build a world setting. Right, which is great. And I love, love, love settings. But it's not my strength. Right. I feel I'm much more like a DJ than a composer or a remixer than a novelist. Like I'm not going to be the one to share my grand vision of the world. I'm the one who's like, here are some tools. Now you show me your grand vision of the world with these. Right. I'd rather facilitate somebody else's fun than dictate it in that way, although I love it when people do that for me and I love watching it happen. I'm very frankly a little envious of people that can sit down and write a world. But even when I DM, I'm very much of a rip off artist. You know, I state I take stuff from other people and use that.
With All This Invented Culture, Do You Feel Like You Have Built Your own World?
No, no, the new books don't do a lot of worldbuilding either. Instead they speak in general terms. So they'll say something like bird folk, you know, cultures are... And so I tried very hard in writing these later books, the two later books, which are much more substantive. Just to be clear for anyone watching this who doesn't know the core book only has what's called the content that's legally allowed under the open gaming license. So that's only the eight races in the player's handbook and one sub-race per. So it's only like, high elf and hill dwarf and lightfoot halfling etc. and there's literally zero words of lore. It's only the mechanics. Because otherwise if you want to kickstart and publish on Drivethrough, you have to limit yourself to what's in what's called the system reference document. And it's very limiting. So the Kickstarter project and the original book, ‘Ancestry and Culture’, only has that stuff in it. So there's very little world world building at all.
The later books I created a bunch of those races where I what I would do is I would look at classic ones like, you know, Minotaur or and then look at make versions of, I don't have drow because that's intellectual property of Wizard’s, but I do have deep elves. That sort of thing. And so I would write a couple of paragraphs describing, but I tried to give them some like a hook, like an adventure hook or a story hook for a DM without like, you know, using proper nouns. So, like the bird folk, generally they live in eyries or villages or communities perched on the edge of a cliff and this sort of thing.
But I also tried very hard to make sure that when I talked about cultures and communities, I talked about it in a way that made it possible that actually there's not very many of that ancestry there. Like so the bird folk culture might actually just be that it's inspired by kind of bird-folk traditional ways and there might mostly be non bird folk there, or they might be only one group among many. It just so happens that some of the practices there are ones that kind of bird folk propagated more than others. I mean the language in every single one of those entries is things like; “members of bird folk communities often share the following traits”. And when we would talk about them, we'd use all these qualifiers, like “some communities do this and other communities are like that”.
So I tried hard to avoid a lot of the worst of the kind of cultural essentialism and in so doing built the framework of a world. But I didn't build one in the end, now would I in the future? I think the next thing that would be closer to that is we're now going to start putting out stuff on, we got approval to put Ancestry and Culture related content on DM's Guild. This allows us to use the official Wizards of the Coast intellectual property so we can do cultures of the forgotten realms or cultures of Ravenloft or something. And that will allow us to help ourselves to a lot more. Kind of meat, you know.
So this will let you play some official D&D content with your system?
I am thinking the books we put out so far are tools for people to homebrew or they're general enough that they are compatible with the Wizards of the Coast stuff. So if you wanted to play a game of ‘Descent into Avernus’, the most recently published book, you could just take one of the Ancestry and Cultures out of ours, say that they talk about generally about being brought up in a city or arctic environment, I’m going to say I’m from Icewind Dale or Waterdeep. So people are perfectly able to do that
In future books we might be more specific. Like in a Ravenloft book we might have duskelf ancestry, Vistanii culture. You know, its specific to things in the world.
You Also Include Some Custom Campaigns, Are You looking to Do more of That?
Right now no. We have those two short ones or you could say two parts of one longer one, I guess. It was a stretch goal that I described and it definitely is an attempt to demonstrate the values and the examples of the rules. I also wrote them in a very family friendly way just because I have kids and that was what I was running. So if people are looking for a family friendly game to run with kids I would recommend it. If you prefer your D&D darker or edgier you might need to do some adjusting.
I did want to say two things.
One just very briefly, there is a Youtube channel called Let’s Roll Characters that has been using Ancestry and Culture rules. Every episode is like 20-30 mins and they roll up a character, entirely randomly, like rolling a d10 for ancestry, then a d10 for culture just using the core book. Then they make the character based on the stats and its fascinating. One of the things they’ve said is that it's remarkable how much story you get from that ancestry culture duo. Like, Why would a dragonborn be raised by dwarves?
One of the most interesting things I love about table-top roleplaying is how a rule can make a story. And any good rule is one that builds story and that was what I was trying for with this and I think I got lucky and it worked.
But I do want to say one final thing. I am entirely grateful and honoured, I’m delighted that people like the book and they’re buying our products. But I do have to acknowledge, that the book did come out, quite by accident, at a time when a lot more attention was drawn to things like the #BlackLivesMatter movement and also movements from people worrying about racism in Dungeons & Dragons. That was just a coincidence. I had written this thing for years.
Yes, you mentioned your interests and the community's interest predates this year.
Yes but it got a lot of mainstream attention and that may have helped my sales but I would like to call on anybody who likes the book and what were doing to go and look, what I think would really help the community (in RPGs and D&D), is buying the products of black and indigenous and marginalised creators. Cause I happen to be white and while I’d like people to buy my product I would also like them to spend money on something by.. Orion Black or Gabe James or any number of people. And I think if Wizards of the Coast hired and listened to people of colour then that would be the best thing that could happen to this industry.
All art art is courtesy of Sigil Entertainment Group - artists for Ancestry & Culture: An Alternative to Race in 5e