Shaky Steps in Unearthed Arcana
For those not tracking, Unearthed Arcana is one of D&D’s oldest and oddest traditions. Originally released as a life line by Gygax for 1e AD&D after TSR’s early financial practices almost sank the operation, it has become a repository for experimental rules and concepts in 5e. Effectively an ongoing playtest effort, classes, subclasses, and more that are close to being publishable often see their first public appearances there. This month saw the release of “Gothic Lineages”, which may mark an actual step towards dealing with some of the issues around race in D&D.
What is it?
The supplement is a five page pdf, which based on the track record of releases in 5e may indicate that they are considering another MtG setting port. They’ve already brought Ravnica and Theros into the canon, and the lineages presented in the Unearthed Arcana release would be a solid match for the gothic horror themed plane of Innistrad. But the key statement is “lineage” and there’s a significant side box dedicated to explaining the plan moving forwards. The plan, in short, is to move away from the PHB standard of “races”.
Gothic Lineages is taking the step of completely delinking the +2 and +1 ability score modifiers from any specific ability score; players will select where they want to put them. There are no cultural mechanics. No automatic weapon proficiencies, no skills, or so on save the ability to speak Common and one other language. There are biological traits, such as darkvision, and innate magical traits, but that’s all.
There is some confusion in the wording though, as the title of the release uses the term “lineage”, but the explanation of the new system retains the term “race”. However, Unearthed Arcana is where things are developed and shopped, so this may be cleared up in future.
What does this mean?
To be perfectly honest, this is the start of the barest step forwards that I and others were expecting from Wizards in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything. It means, for these lineages at least, that two things are happening.
1.) The concept as presented no longer rewards players for selecting the “right” race/class combination, instead, any combination can be the “right” one.
2.) There is less assumed lore and background to the lineages as presented, opening more doors to create than the traditional routes. This is done by excising the mechanical cultural aspects (skills, weapon proficiencies etc…) of the lineage in question.
Now, the reason I say “start of the barest step forwards” is because there’s no guidance for the cultural aspects. It’s a partial step that, with a few extra pages, would have been a full one.
This is the kind of thing I had expected with Tasha’s Cauldron. An actual, if small, step forwards and away from the problematic aspects of “race” in D&D that have persisted for generations of gamers. However, the real challenge moving forwards will be the hard choices that Wizards will have to make concerning the legacy settings of D&D. Many are built on the bedrock of bio-essentialism and problematic narratives that this approach may remedy in future. To the point that, in my honest opinion, most would not survive a retcon process in any form recognizable to the fan base outside of names and locations. So the real question now is how far is the team at Wizards willing to take this step, or will this be it.
Like you I was pretty disappointed with Tasha’s, and yes, this seems like a small step in the right direction – as well as actually opening up stuff D&D really should already have been offering in 5E. I do think the lineages feel a little incomplete as you say, but it does make them highly adaptable, which is nice.
As for settings and retcons, that is an interesting point that I hadn’t properly considered previously. Thinking about it, my expectation would be that in 5E they don’t go back and revisit any settings which couldn’t survive such a retcon (which is probably most of the big “world” settings), but equally, I hope and sort of almost believe they’re only going to move forwards on settings where they think any retcons/change won’t severely change them, or essentially new settings which won’t require retcons. Planescape seems like one which could survive the retcon process intact, for example. Dark Sun is an interesting case because it has a lot of seriously problematic elements, but a massive retcon might actually serve it well, and even most fans aren’t hugely attached to the specifics, rather the general concept and vibe (and post-environmental-apocalypse setting is sadly even more relevant now).
I mean the designers did comment on how they think it would take decades to decolonize D&D, and given how many incel gamer broflakes get offended at the merest idea of diversity and cry bloody murder the moment someone hurts their incredibly fragile white feelings even a little bit…
I won’t hold my breath to it.
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Hopefully they will be brave and continue to walk this new path.