So I really wanted to like this one, but unfortunately I didn’t. I had to force myself to finish it just to review it in good conscience, and I had to keep venting to friends about what I disliked. But there were just enough glimpses of promise to excuse giving this a 2 star instead of 1, because I really want to like this book more than I actually do. Overall I can’t justify recommending this book for anything other than to have an informed option on it, or buying it strategically to show WotC that there is a market for this idea so they can make a better, more detailed and more usable official version.
So The Good first:
I continue to love the concept of splitting Race into Ancestry and culture. (to be clear, despite not liking this book at all, I don’t want to see people stop attempting this. I just want to see them do it better.)
It gives alternative cultures for Dwarves, Elves, Gnomes and Halflings, and even one for humans, which I liked.
It also manages to make Aquatic Elves something I would actually like to play which is something 5e utterly failed to do for me.
Some of the ancestries/cultures given are quite cool and intriguing especially the Giff (Hippo-folk), who are bizarre, weird and wonderful.
By and large most of the ancestries avoid giving skill proficiencies and instead give other traits and bonuses which I feel is good, and a definite move in the right direction that happens with the latter entries. (though unfortunately not all do, especially early entries in the book)
But the Bad:
First of all, the Amazons. Oh the Amazons. They are probably my biggest issue with this book and the one that drags my opinion of it down.
For a book that wants to go against biological essentialism having your gender be a thing defined by your ancestry is awful and seems to go against the book’s aims.
Also, given that pretty much every other culture is open and accepting of all genders and sexual orientations (which is mostly the default in standard 5e) the Amazons are noticeably horrible and bigoted. “ Amazonian culture is welcoming of any who identify as a woman.” so if a person in their community was thought to be a woman comes out as male, agender, genderfluid, non-binary, or any other gender the community stops welcoming them and kicks them out?
I am non-binary, which likely colours how I view this, but I really dislike the Amazons and wish they were not in this book at all or had received much greater attention.
This leads me to my second point, which is that I wish their had been fewer cultures with more information given about them. As it stands if I used this book, i would have to turn to the 5e PHB, Volo’s guide to Monsters, and the other WotC 5e books for details on the cultures they have in common and do a lot of my own work on any of the novel ones. It gives so little cultural information (and in some places goes directly against established 5e setting details without providing much of substance to replace it with.) I really wish this book had provided deeper and richer cultures.
I also find it odd that only the Couatl Folk and the Reforged had sensitivity readers given that there are a lot of things taken from real world cultures (Dullahan from Irish, Amazons, Medusas, and Minotaurs from Greek, probably more) that apparently weren’t checked in this lens.
I feel that despite wanting to get away from biological essentialism, it still leans into it a bit. The Publisher misinterpreted my comments on this on my other review so I will go into greater depth: I have no issues with ancestries giving darkvision, resistance to being charmed, or any of the other cool traits. In fact I quite like them.
What I have issue with is certain ancestries giving skill proficiencies. I had this issue with Humans and Elves in the first book, and I have it with Amazons, Cat folk, and others in this book. I feel that saying certain ancestries just inherit an innate training in a skill reinforces biological essentialism far more than saying certain ancestries have different tendon insertion points or brain lobe sizes that give a small natural advantage to strength or intelligence. For one, I feel “Amazons are innately proficient in Athletics” makes as much sense as the original innate weapons and skills proficiencies that elves and dwarves had. (which this book does move to culture, and I like that.)
It also makes more of a mechanical difference. If you take 2 individuals, A and B, that get a 10 (+0) to strength, and B gets a +1 from their ancestry, A is at 10 and B is at 11, and both of them roll Athletics (strength) at +0. If B were to get a +2 from their ancestry, they are now at 12 so make that roll at a +1 instead of 0. However if instead B’s ancestry gave them proficiency at Athletics, with both of them remaining at Strength 10, A makes the athletics roll at +0 and B makes it at +2 at level 1. So I feel skill proficiencies tied to race reinforce biological essentialism more than just a bonus to the attribute itself would.
I agree with putting some ability bonuses in culture, I just feel it would be better to split them between ancestry and culture to reflect both natural talent and training.
There’s also kind of a weird contradiction: options like Half Elves and Half Orcs have been removed, and the reason for this was stated to be so that any ancestries could mix (such as say gnomes and dwarves) and so that not all Half-Xs were half humans. Yet a lot of the ancestries in this book are stated to be half human and half something else.
Relatedly, humans appear to be presented as the default and baseline ancestry, as the age and size as almost every other ancestry is described in relation to how similar or different they are to humans. I can’t put my finger on why this view of humans as normal and everything else as weird and divergent makes me uncomfortable, but it does.
I dislike the arbitrary 2 hour time limit on the flying ancestries, I get the purpose for limiting flight (and agree that is needs a limitation) but how they did it feels weird and clunky. I feel a better solution would be instead of going “here is your 2 hour flight meter, once it is empty no more flying” would have been to inflict constitution rolls after an amount of flight time to avoid fatigue. That way you don’t have unlimited flight, but there is a more natural limit based off existing rules.
On a practical and nit picky level, this book needed a better proofreading process than it got. Without looking for them I found 3 errors, there are probably more. (the 3 I found are Page 10, “birlike talons” instead of “birdlike talons”, page 45 “not ither” instead of “not either”, and page 50, the Satyr Cultural traits says “Rat Folk” instead of “Satyr”)