Race & Culture in Dungeons & Dragons 5e/Next

A few days ago, Monte Cook posted two short paragraphs and a poll to his page on the Wizards of the Coast community. Those few words stirred up a lot of conversation about race in Dungeons & Dragons in the comments and on Twitter over the weekend. For me (Draco), it brings up a long standing pet-peeve about how D&D conflates race and culture. I’ve talked about this with my co-author (Aaron) before, and we decided that with the attention its getting now, it warranted a more public and in-depth look.

The Issue At Hand

The basic “problem” is this: When you pick a race in D&D, you’re also getting a pre-packaged culture with that choice. This happens because all races in D&D that are not human have a single monoculture that is assumed to be true and consistent across both space and time. You can see the effect of this assumption in “racial” mechanics. All elves, everywhere, know something about nature. All dwarves, ever, will know how to wield a warhammer or an axe. Those are not really things that are affected by being born a elf or a dwarf; they are the results of the elf and dwarf monocultures. Now, if you want to play a dwarf with a hammer, that’s fine. You are rewarded with those benefits for playing to the stereotype.

A dwarf with a sword! Heresy!

If, however, you want to play a dwarf who likes swords, or an elf who has never even set foot in a forest, you are either penalized by not playing to the strengths of the “race”, or have to rely on houserules and bend the system to make it work. Never mind that it doesn’t even make logical sense to assume that every elf is handed a bow as soon as they’re old enough to learn how to use it. The monoculture system also smacks a bit of ethnocentrism. Humans are varied and have many different cultures. Every member of every other race fits into a singular mold.

This can almost certainly be traced, at least in part, back to Tolkien. But even in Middle Earth, not every dwarf is the same. Just read the Hobbit. So why, in this modern era, are we still allowing our fantasy to fall into these easy tropes? Is it lazy design, complacent players, or something of both? Especially in cosmopolitan worlds like Eberron and the Forgotten Realms, it makes less sense to stick religiously to these hide-bound traditions.

Now, some mechanics do make sense as “racial”, inherited traits (which, for the purpose of this article we’re going to define as something “inborn”, “genetic” and stemming from nature, as opposed to nurture). Sometimes it appears that ability modifiers certainly have more to do with race than culture. (Though even that is problematic, which we’ll get to in a bit.) We won’t get into genetics and dominant vs. recessive traits, here. There’s room for some broad strokes, I think. It is still a game.

A Possible Solution

This can all be fairly easily solved by breaking Race and Culture apart. Make these things modular. Allow players to pick a race and then apply relevant bits of culture. Your elf is from the city of Greyhawk? Maybe she’s skilled in Streetwise instead of Nature. Maybe she never learned to use a bow in the city (not terribly functional in an urban environment) but picked up some other talent instead. But, she was born an elf so she has the racial elven inborn Low-Light vision and is naturally agile (DEX bonus). The idea isn’t to make every race the same so that there’s functionally no difference from playing a dwarf to playing a human. It makes sense to distinguish them in some ways. A dwarf certainly isn’t a human, and an elf isn’t a halfling.

However, a dwarf raised in a human village is absolutely going to have more in common with his human neighbors than any of his distant relatives in ye-olde-dwarven-mountain-holdfast. This is enculturation at work. He’ll still be a dwarf, but he’ll have been raised among a predominantly human culture. Maybe his parents insisted that he learn the ancient dwarf heritage of hammer swinging, but he picked up some of the humans’ love of History instead of learning about Dungeoneering.

These are just examples. Maybe D&D Next will handle these sort of traits differently, but the general idea can still apply. Let players make these choices about their PC without having to go to the DM and ask for special permission to make an exception to the rules. This also gives the DM better tools when she’s world building to create a distinct setting that can vary in more interesting ways from other worlds.

These two certainly don’t fit the usual mold for their respective races.

Which brings us to another point: that this allows different published settings to more easily distinguish themselves. We might be able to rationalize why a dwarf from two far-flung parts of the same world are exactly the same (mechanically), but why is a dwarf from Oerth the same as a dwarf from Toril? Or a dwarf from Athas? Or, at least, why do they HAVE to be the same, according to the rules as written? It allows a DM to more easily challenge a players perception of what things are. No longer is a dwarf just a bundle of stereotypical traits. A dwarf is an individual that happens to be a dwarf.

This could also let us move past (or at least around) the idea of subraces in D&D. The concept of “race” as it was once understood doesn’t apply anymore, at least in the real world. At best, the concept is controversial. It may make sense to say that an elf and a human are of different races, but why must we subscribe to the idea that differences in culture (or skin color) = a different race? This is an outmoded concept in our world. Let’s move past it in our stories, too.

Another use for this solution could be for handling half-breeds. No longer would a half-elf need to be a stand-alone unique race. In fact, half-elves all being the same is perhaps the best (or worst) example of the nonsense of monoculture. With a modular system, you could just pick two races and apply benefits as desired. Maybe your half-elf isn’t diplomatic at all. Maybe she was raised among elves and learned to use bows. Perhaps she isn’t at all charismatic, but inherited some physical strength from her human parent. Build your own half-elf, half-dwarf, or half-halfling. Why not?

Speaking of Charisma, this is probably as good a place as any to point out the trouble with ability bonuses. Are all dwarves really born extra wise? Do eladrin have better brains than other races? Isn’t it a bit offputting or uncomfortable to imply that some races are naturally more intelligent (or less intelligent) than others? The Essentials rules made a good step forward by allowing players to choose between a couple different ability modifiers for each race. And it makes sense to limit races in some ways. An elf’s physical build likely doesn’t allow for as much muscle mass as a dwarf or dragonborn might have, for example. But allowing more variety always makes things more interesting.

And that’s really what this is all about. If you want to play the stereotypical gruff, hardy, mountain-dwelling dwarf, that’s perfectly alright. We’re not here to tell you that’s badwrongfun and that you can’t do it anymore. Any time you have fun with something, you’re doing it right. The idea is, as stated above, to give DMs and players the tools to more easily build beyond those stereotypes if they want to do so.

Potential Problems with the Solution

If we make other races more customizable, what’s going to be left to make humans distinctive? Why would you want to play a boring old human if every race is just as flexible and changable? Good questions! We note that D&D’s default is to say that humans are the most adaptable and diverse race and we see no reason to change that. We’re not saying that it’s critical to allow elves to be as versatile as humans. Just break them out of their current mold a bit. Humans can still have the most options available and that doesn’t have to be diminished just because other races have more options than they previously did.

But won’t the min-maxers go to town and abuse this? Well, yeah, probably. That’s what min-maxers and power gamers do. Even the most innocuous option can sometimes be twisted to help create an unstoppable monster of a PC. As always, its primarily the DM’s job to decide whether they want to allow things in their game and to watch out for abuses of the system. Instead of culling the available options to prevent rules abuses, it’s better to include something in the books to give the DM a heads up on how to recognise such exploitative behavior and handle it if it crops up.

Embrace your inner halfling barbarian.

Aren’t players already flooded with options? An increase of options can certainly overwhelm newer players. Even more experienced players might be daunted at the additional complexity of determining what bonuses and benefits they receive for a particular environment, upbringing, or culture. Prepackaged options in addition to a more freeform listing of available choices can help take the sting out of this problem to some extent, but it is still something which DMs might have to be on the look out for.

We think that any potential problems or complications are more than outweighed by the benefits that breaking culture from race gains you and your campaign. A player gets to make exactly the sort of character that they’d like without feeling that they are being mechanically punished for thinking outside the box or approaching the game in a creative way.

In summary, race is not inextricably tied to culture and variety is the spice of the gods. Even if it never comes to fruition in an official D&D product, making an effort to treat race and culture as separate in your home game can produce an experience unlike any other. Leave your players talking fondly about their time helping out the sea-faring dwarves or beating back the raids of the militaristic and bloodthirsty halfling kingdoms!

Aaron can also be found writing at RPG Musings and @WolfSamurai on Twitter!


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  1. Popesixtus

    I like the idea of separating race from culture, but I would hesitate to make cultural features a modular addition. People don’t always choose culture, they grow into it depending on where they are or who they hang out with. The Eberron setting, for example, did a great job illustrating this when it first came out – elves from the country of Breland felt more kinship with dwarves from Breland than with elves from their far away homeland of Aerenal. The new Neverwinter Campaign setting inches in this direction by allowing for different racial bonuses depending on if you were a High or a Sun elf. So there has been some movement in this area.

    I might be totally wrong, but I doubt that core D&D is ready for postmodern critique and revisioning about race. It can make baby steps, though. I would like for the core books to keep things the way they are, while noting that the racial bonuses are default to the “generic D&D world”, whatever they choose to call it. Then different setting books could expand on those options.

  2. joe

    “Speaking of Charisma, this is probably as good a place as any to point out the trouble with ability bonuses. Are all dwarves really born extra wise? Do eladrin have better brains than other races? Isn’t it a bit offputting or uncomfortable to imply that some races are naturally more intelligent (or less intelligent) than others? ”

    Since those would actually be different species (if we’re going to be technical), then why not? Why should that make you uncomfortable to consider that another species might be better than a “human” at something. Or worse?

    Are you uncomfortable being smarter than a dog? or that a chimpanzee can climb better than you?

    The game isn’t making specist arguments about some sort of uber-race, but does have mechanical indications that some of the fantasy races are better at some things than others. Call it genetics, call it divine design (hey, that would actually be valid in a fantasy setting), but some of the people in the D&D world are (or may be) better at some things than others

  3. Fruchle

    Didn’t Forgotten Realms & Dragonlance already deal with this, to a lesser extent? Not modular, but broke up dwarves & elves (for example) into some very different societies, of the same race.

    And then Forgotten Realms broke things up in 3rd & 4th ed with area-based background (feats) too, which kind of address some of your concerns.

    Granted, what you’re talking about goes a lot further than Forgotten Realms’ foray, but I thought it should be mentioned: it’s been looked at before, and likely just tossed into the ‘too-hard’ basket.

  4. Anaxetogrind

    Let me first say you make some interesting and thought out suggestions.

    Harkening back to the original concept of ability scores, the stats were intended to represent the standard distribution of abilities across a population. Dwarves received a plus to wisdom and constitution and a negative to charisma. This shift represented the mean of the distribution for that genetic species. Rolling dice served to define where in your racial gentics your natural abilities fell. A charisma of 16 meant that despit a big boned, bearded race your force of personality was such that you were extra-ordinary. Yes you would never be a better bard then an elf that had the force of genetics and that 1% improbability that propelled them to always be better than you. You did, however, have something else going for you. Your individuality and difference from others of your species gained a circumstance bonus. People started thinking oh wonderful a dwarf, and ended up thinking holy cow a dwarf bard. That is fame, that is heroic over coming a stereotype in that manner.

    Flash forward to 4E, it has balance built into the math. We have point buy systems and the expectation of top of the line stats to fit a character concept. The misconception is that A sixteen is always going to be a detriment to your ability to be successful. The math expects you too have a +4 to be as efficient as possible, but nothing says you have to play a campaign that way, unless your into organized play. I quite often find myself playing the mold breaking pc. The dwarf mage. The overweight half-elf fighter. The force of personality and clever tactics tend to offset any lack luster rolls. Un-optimized pcs are a blast. To encourage my own players I have house-ruled the Inherrent bonus system and made math feats (weapon expertise etc) only available to sub-optimal pcs. These two changes completely off-set any concerns I have about sub-opts at my table. One step further and you give sub opts an expertise as a free feat and you have completely leveled the field of play.

  5. KosherInfidel

    You need to check out how the table top version of Dragon Age RPG does it. You pick a race and a background. One has some minor bonuses (race) and the other is a chart with possible bonuses based off of a random roll, plus some stat increases, language(s), and othe ritems (background). Much better system, creates much better, and varying characters.

    WOTC: learn from the indie games!

  6. mmaranda

    You do make some good points like is it appropriate to give a fantasy race a bonus to a weapon type because they are that race. These mechanical bonuses haven’t always been in the game and so far as I recall aren’t in D&D today. But I do understand your not wanting to see these kinds of bonuses because they give a race golden handcuffs.

    Recent editions of D&D have provided some races are provided with automatic proficiency in weapons which if a player chooses to ignore doesn’t generally affect the player in a negative, way most of the time.

    Other editions of AD&D generally avoided this, possibly intentionally or coincidentally, provided races with benefits that generally seemed either “biological” or mystical. This is often more palatable given the creation mythologies of these races, the whole made in Corellon’s image type of thing.

    I think this religious aspect having a patron deity or pantheon helps to explain some of the mono-culture that is also addressed in the article. It would probably be much easier to envision a culture that stay more consistent across a world if there are physical/deific manifestations the ideals of a fantasy race.

    However one aspect isn’t addressed why do human’s not have a patron as well? That is a hole that has yet to be addressed and I don’t think I can right now. But all of these aspects help show this isn’t a cut and dry easily solved problem for D&D. There are many pros and cons to each way of looking at it and eventually one personal preference will have to be implemented.

    I hope I don’t sound contrarian you had some things that made me think and hopefully I addressed some justification for why things have been presented the way they have.

  7. KosherInfidel

    Maybe this is where themes can play a better role, supplanting basic racial identity.

  8. ObsidianCrane

    @Axetogrind 4E doesn’t have point buy or arrays as its default but dice rolls. I’m not sure why the character builder hides dice rolls so much. Incidentally I know people used point buy as far back as 2E from the arguments about using it in 3E.

    On Race…. curiously enough from an entirely biological perspective elves, humans, and orcs are all the same species (they can breed and the children are fertile) which makes race a useful term in dnd. ;)

    Aside from scientific pedantry I would very much like to see culture and race separated. The core could present them as follows:
    Some fluff about elves living in wandering tribes in forests.
    Racial Abilities
    – Ability Score Modifiers
    – Elven Accuracy (or something like it)
    Elven Forest Tribe Culture
    The typical bow etc bonuses for elves.

    Dwarves, halflings, and gnomes would then have specific Culture packages as well to reflect their stereotyped background fluff. Humans could then have 2 or 3 culture options (City Folk, Villager, Tribesman). Half-orcs can then have a couple of options (City Folk, Tribesman, Savage Orc Tribe), and similarly Half-Elves might have (City Folk, Villager, Elven Forest Tribe).

    Finally there can be a note that any culture can be taken by any character with the DM’s permission.

    Setting books can then introduce culture packages for the distinct cultures of the setting along with their typical races. Other races would need DM concent to choose that culture.

    Eg Cormyrean Noble (Human), Dalelands (Any), Myth Drannor Court (Elf)

    Another good thing about cultures is you can, if appropriate have more languages. Dale Tongue might be a different language to Cormyrean. All PCs might know Common (Trade Tongue), but regional languages work still because everyone from the region gets the language through their culture.

  9. Anaxetogrind

    @Obsidian Good point on species vs race.

    On the rolling vs. etc. Matter method 1 is listed as std array, method 2 point buy and method 3 rolling as far as default method er who can say but I will admit the lack of a random generator and my experiences point to point buy as the preferred method ( pun not intended).

    The method you propose for separating race and culture seems more like a stylized background/theme component. Rather than a display of culture.

    Traditions, general moral fiber viewed thru law written and of the group, and long term goals of a society or organization are the cornerstones of a culture. Dnd racial stero-types peripherally brush these but more thru the “Play this race if you want…” sections and fluff than via actual mechanics. In past editions this was more prevalent but 4E has tabled much of this into feats.

    @Obsidian the Kingdoms of Kalamar 4E setting is styled this way with names for each god based on race, location and language. The book is a great resource for mining ideas but a daunting set of lists to memorize for the average player and Dm. Though I believe this adds to realism I also find it impractical for it to ever be mainstream in wotc production plans.

  10. KosherInfidel

    @anacetogrind: I love to design I depth settings (anth/humanities ba), but do payers truly want any of this? I think the razor would dictate they want race, class, maybe a god/religion name and adventure; most probably could not care less for such detail.

  11. Nat

    I have to speak up on behalf of Draco’s mix-and-match idea. It’s always bugged me a bit that half-elf (and more recently, half-orc) have become entrenched, traditional races, but we don’t get the option of any other half-races? I’ve used the mul from Dark Sun as a half-dwarf race in my own campaign, but that’s as far as it goes. In addition, it’s always half-human, half-X. What about the rare elf/dwarf love story? I’d love to roleplay that character.

    In addition, I strongly agree that 4e really punishes playing against stereotypes. I enjoy making powerful, effective characters, as do most of the people I play with, but I get tired of elven archers and dwarven fighters and halfling rogues. Twice now I’ve sat down to make a dwarven rogue, and given up in frustration at the inability to make such a character that can keep up with the stereotypical characters next to me at the table. A bonus to Con and axe proficiency don’t help on a character that uses Dex and daggers.

    I’ve considered separating bonuses from race entirely, and just letting my players put two +2’s anywhere they want, the argument being that training and individual characteristics vastly outweigh racial norms. I’d likely have a much higher strength and lower intelligence if I’d spent my life playing sports and working out instead of reading books. If 5e is really going to be modular, I’d love to see optional character creation rules that allow for mixing and matching as Draco suggests, or rules that use both race and culture to determine starting benefits, or a creation tree system similar to the one in Heroes of the Feywild but more impactful.

  12. Michael Cugley

    Personally, I thought Athasian Dwarves (and Elves, and Halflings, for that matter) were fairly different. No Big Long Beards, for one – Athasian Dwarves are completely hairless.

    Athasian Elves are savage desert nomads.

    Athasian Halflings are feral cannibals – except the ones who aren’t, if you ever find them.

    Okay, they all had a monoculture within that, but at least they are different from their Forgotten Realms counterparts…

  13. Bob Hanks

    Hello thanks for the article I enjoyed reading it
    ” It may make sense to say an elf and a human
    are of different races, but why must we subscribe
    to the idea that differences in culture or skin color
    = different race.”
    Nice point not just in terms of D&D.
    Thank you.

  14. Paul LInton

    Perhaps it’s time to limit our definition of the mental ability scores.
    If Int were more specifically defined to mean “aptitude at magic/mathematics” than to mean “brains in general”, than the idea of races with higher int becomes less potentially disturbing.
    And wisdom is already a huge mess, since it’s simultaneously the stat for memory (knowledge skills) and for senses.

  15. ObsidianCrane

    The first thing is the consideration for Intelligence, it is easier to think of Int as deductive reasoning skills and fact recall. These are the foundation skills of science and mathematics in the real world; the realm of academia. Of course they are not the defining characteristics of Intelligence as we understand it now (actually you can think of DnD’s 6 attributes as each being a part of intelligence as we understand it now). In contrast Wisdom is intuitive reasoning and sensory understanding of events. Of course we also need to put a better definition on Charisma; the ability to make friends and influence people works well enough. Fortunately these are actually fairly close to the 4E definitions (which I find many didn’t bother to read) for these abilities and they work well enough with the skill associations.

    All of that said this doesn’t change the inappropriateness of saying “all dwarves are gruff and anti-social and so should have a Cha penalty” that’s bad design for the core rules. For a setting specific set of rules that might well be fine, but for a base set of rules its terrible because it provides no actual gain while creating problems in the naratives the game can be used to create.

  16. John Smith

    If they changed the word to “Species” – i.e. what these orcs and dragonborn actually are – I’d be completely fine with it.
    As is, it’s saying to beginners “Welcome to D&D, choose which Race you think is superior”

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