I came across Arcanist Press this past summer when researching alternatives to race in Dungeons and Dragons. I found their work on Ancestry & Culture: An Alternative to Race in 5e the same day I discovered
An Elf and An Orc Had A Little Baby ( Interview here ). I was so excited at the opportunity to sit down with Eugene to get to know more about the work and how Arcanist Press came to be! I hope you enjoy getting to know more about their content.
Berry (she/her): Who are you and what do you do?
Eugene (he/they): I’m Eugene Marshall and I’m co-owner of Arcanist Press. Our most well-known title is Ancestry & Culture: An Alternative to Race in 5e. I design, write, and edit our games, as well as handle social media, while my partner Amy does layout and art direction. I also do some freelance designing for Sigil Entertainment and other companies. When I’m not working on games, I am a tenured university professor of philosophy.
Berry: Can you tell us a bit about your experience playing TTRPGs?
Eugene: I started playing roleplaying games in 1982 or ’83, with basic D&D. The game appeared in the film E.T. that year, and the D&D cartoon following soon after. I started with the Mentzer/Elmore basic D&D red box. I soon branched out into AD&D, Champions, Villains & Vigilantes, Rolemaster, Call of Cthulhu, and more, and eventually graduated to D&D 2e (Planescape!), GURPS, Palladium games like TMNT and Rifts, and, eventually, the World of Darkness games in the 90s.
In the past ten years, I have played a lot of D&D, especially 5e, as well as a wide range of indie games. I love Powered by the Apocalypse (especially Masks, Urban Shadows, and Monsterhearts), as well as Savage Worlds, Eclipse Phase, Trail of Cthulhu, Blades in the Dark, Night’s Black Agents, and Numenera.
Berry: How did Ancestry and Culture 5e come to be?
Eugene: I can’t take credit for recognizing the problem of race in D&D. I learned from articles by N.K. Jemisin, James Mendez Hodes, Graeme Barber, and Tristan Tarwater, who pointed out how problematic race is in D&D. Once they showed me the problem, I couldn’t unsee it, so I came up with a solution for my own home games. A player of mine suggested I publish it, right about the time Kickstarter was announcing their ZineQuest promotion — a low bar of entry for publishing a simple game idea. I ran a Kickstarter, it took off, and it ended up an Adamantine seller on DriveThruRPG.
What they taught me is this: Some players report that they are uncomfortable with the idea that a group of people can be racially inferior. Orcs in D&D are almost uniformly ignorant, physical, and savage, for example; they are there mostly to be slaughtered by heroes. The problem is, that way of talking is the same way that racists used to talk, and still sometimes do, about blacks, or Asians, or Muslims, or whoever is being reviled at the moment. So many players get a bit bummed when they encounter the same way of talking about a whole race of people in their game. I mean, imagine if you had to read about sexual assault, and accept it as a part of your character’s backstory, as a part of creating your character! It would rightfully alienate a lot of folks. So why treat racism differently?
Allow me to illustrate my point. The co-creator of D&D, Gary Gygax, claimed that a hero with a good alignment should feel free to slaughter or enslave orc prisoners, including orc babies. He approvingly quoted John Chivington, the US general of the Indian Wars, who ordered his men to slaughter native babies, saying, “kill and scalp all, big and little; nits make lice.” Chivington is literally one of the worth racists is real world history, yet Gygax quoted him at his worst to justify how we should behave in our games.
Now, I know that orcs do not equal Indians, and Gygax most likely would never have said such a thing about Native-Americans. But you know what? Many Native-American players see that and they feel pretty damned unwelcome at the table. They, and others, see what orcs represent in the game, and it alienates them from the community.
Do we really want to play a game in which an intelligent people, with their own culture, can be savage and menacing simply because of their race? Not their culture or education, but their blood? After all, if an orc is raised by elves, why wouldn’t he just act like an elf? Saying he can’t because of his blood is ridiculous, and makes some folks raise an eyebrow.
And all this doesn’t begin to address the fact that using ‘evil races’ is just lazy storytelling. If you need villains, make them people who chose to be evil, not people who are just evil because of their race. You can still have evil hordes to slaughter; but they are more like a gang choosing evil that a family or clan born that way.
Berry: How did you reason which traits were rooted in biology and which were tied to culture?
Eugene: When I sat down to write Ancestry & Culture, I had two design goals. First, I wanted to remove the racial essentialism in the game; in other words, I wanted to change the way D&D often ascribed behavior — and worse, bad behavior — to race and blood, rather than culture or choice. Second, I wanted to keep to new system as close to the original as possible, so more folks would be willing to adopt it. I wanted the choice to still feel like D&D, even if it no longer had the problematic aspects.
I looked at each trait and asked myself whether it should be attributed to biological heritage or to learned social behavior. For example, the elf ‘race’ in D&D has Darkvision and Fey Ancestry, as well as a Medium size and a lifespan of centuries. Those seem biological and probably inherited from birth parents, so I put them in the elven ancestry. The Elven Weapon proficiency of the High Elf, or knowing Elvish, are clearly learned, so I put them in Elven Culture.
In some cases, however, the traits were simply unacceptable as written, so I changed them. For example, a half-orc makes “Savage Attacks” and is “Menacing,” simply because they have an orc parent. Ascribing the trait ’savage’ to a whole race of people has a bad real world history, and could easily make some people uncomfortable.
For more on the history of calling a whole race savage, see this article .
Berry: What has your experience been marketing/promoting A&C?
Eugene: I’m happy to report that, for the most part, the community had been receptive to the book and its message. Even Wizards of the Coast itself has affirmed the values of diversity and inclusion, repeatedly. They made an attempt to address some of the issues with their section on race in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, though there is still more work to do, as they themselves have acknowledged.
Unfortunately, not everyone in the community agrees. Every time our book or ideas get a wide audience, we are attacked. For example, we had a Russian gamergate Twitch channel attack us, which resulted in some unpleasantness.
Nevertheless, as the spokesperson for Arcanist Press and its social media face, I have not received the kind of viciousness that some folks have. Because I am a white person, who people assume is cisgendered, and because I am a middle-aged college professor, my privilege insulates me from the worst of the attacks. I rarely get more than the random troll complaining or dismissing my work. My black, asian, latino, femme, queer, trans, and gay colleagues suffer far worse.
But overall, the response has been positive. The majority support us; it is only the loud few who oppose.
Berry: Can you point readers in the direction of some similar works that expand on the topics covered?
Eugene: I’d love to. First, I should cite those who inspired me and to whom I owe a debt.
“The Unbearable Baggage of Orcing.”
James Mendez Hodes on
Tolkien and racism
Graeme Barber, aka POCGamer, on
Tristan Tarwater on
playing mixed race characters in D&D
And here are a few other creators who have also offered good solutions to the issue of race in D&D.
Berry: What can we expect from Arcanist Press in the future?
Eugene: First of all, we have launched a new series of free content on our Patreon , which we call Volo’s Guide to Ancestries & Cultures. We’re creating playable ancestries and cultures for every single official D&D race, many of the most popular D&D monsters, and some old favorites from earlier editions! Each week we’ll release one entry, moving through the Forgotten Realms, and then on to Eberron, Ravenloft, Ravnica, Planescape, and more.
Second, we have now completed writing on Epic Heroes, a new game that lets you feel like a superhero, just like your favorites from comics, TV, and film. Using an original system that is easy to learn yet rich and rewarding in play, you can make virtually any superhero you can imagine in as little as ten minutes. Epic Heroes features novel mechanics that really enhance the comic book feel, like secret identities, hidden bases, and evil counterparts, plus simple systems that reinforce great role-play and player interaction, like power combos, team morale, and heroic cornerstones. It’s easy to learn and play, true to the genre, and, most of all, fun. We are looking to publish or Kickstart Epic Heroes in 2021!
Berry: Can you tell us about a non-profit/charity you would like us to signalboost?
Eugene: Black Lives Matter still matters. I think a lot of (white) folks have moved on, mentally, but the issues from last summer haven’t changed.
*Art Credit: Arcanist Press
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