Ask Not What Your Lineage Can Do For You

Lineage — also called “ancestry,” “species,” or (historically and problematically) “race” in different games — is often the starting point of the process of creating your character in a fantasy RPG. Even when lineage isn’t the first choice you make for your character, it’s still likely the first thing that defines your character in their own understanding of themself. Because of this, the setup of what lineage or ancestry means in a game often sets the bar for how the world of the game feels. But unfortunately, most fantasy RPGs have a pretty narrow perspective on what lineage actually represents.

Taking its cue from Tolkien, fantasy gaming has traditionally treated lineages or ancestries as cultures — often defining them as such explicitly. Even more problematically, lineages are typically defined as monolithic cultures, laying down a single set of parameters that define your character’s place in the world, and creating a very real sense that your lineage or ancestry first and foremost defines who you are. Your personality. Your sense of morality and ethics. The way you view people different than you. 

CORE20 takes a slightly different approach, working with the idea that your character’s lineage is an important part of who they are — even as they get to define what that lineage means to them. 

Chapter 3 — Lineages

In CORE20, twelve worldborn lineages have defined the spread of culture and civilization in the historic age — dwarves and gnomes; elves, halflings, and humans; essaruks and orcs; goblins, hobgoblins, and bugbears; and kobolds and lizardfolk. (“Worldborn” in CORE20 is a word that replaces “humanoid” as it’s used in other game systems, so that the majority of the peoples of the world aren’t being constantly and explicitly compared to a minority human baseline.) The realms those twelve peoples inhabit is referenced in the CORE20 rules as Isheridar — a world-continent whose modern age has been the domain of the worldborn lines.

Isheridar isn’t a world that anyone interested in CORE20 is required to play in. (Everybody knows that most GMs like to homebrew their worlds, even when using published campaign settings as a starting point, and the game is meant for anyone to do with what they will.) But the foundations of how the twelve worldborn lineages have shaped history together through times of conflict, peace, renewal, and global empire, creates the in-game framework for how your character’s lineage connects to who they are — and how lineage and culture are very separate things.

Every character in the game world, like every character in our world, has at least one culture. This is the perspectives and foundational beliefs that come from the land in which you were born, the people you lived among when growing up, the realm where you decided to make your life. The places and people that have been part of your life help to shape you, whether they define you or whether you defy them. (Alongside lineage, your character also has a background that relates to your culture but is again separate from it. That’ll be a later preview.)

Lineage, though, is something different than culture. Lineage is the unique history you bring to your place in the world, occupying a space more permanent and profound than your culture. Your lineage means that no matter what culture your character hails from, and no matter how many cultures have been a part of their life, they belong to something else as well. They’re part of something larger than they are — part of a story that goes back to the beginnings of history.

The mechanics of lineage express this connection to history with the same freeform approach to character building that CORE20 as a whole is built on. You choose a lineage — but then instead of being given a short list of traits that rigidly define your character through that lineage, you get a big list of traits to choose from, letting you define your lineage in terms of your character, rather than the other way around. 

There are no lineages that are better at one thing than another. There are no lineages more disposed to battle and bloodshed than any other. Martial, magical, and heroic traditions are found in the legends and tales of every lineage, and every character gets to draw from that in their own way.

Within those choices, you can often see the familiar archetypes of fantasy gaming in CORE20 — ambitious humans, stoic dwarves, disciplined hobgoblins, and so forth. But the wide range of choices you can make for your lineage traits (including characters being able to choose traits from any lineage if it fits their story, and to freely create characters whose ancestry is built on multiple lineages) lets you build archetypes rather than stereotypes. 

(Art by John Latta)

The Art of Non-War

In most class-based fantasy RPGs, there’s a default expectation that your character should be pretty good at beating other creatures up — even if that’s not part of what you want your character to be good at, and even if you’re playing a campaign where you want avoiding fights to be just as much fun as getting into fights. 

In CORE20, combat maneuvers are an attempt to help deal with both those issues.

Chapter 9 Excerpt — Combat Maneuvers

One of the best things about D&D is that despite its roots in wargaming, despite the epic fantasy baseline of evil creatures doing evil things and needing to be dealt with by the forces of good and their friends who just want to get rich, the game offers plenty of ways to avoid combat. There’s negotiation and trickery, obfuscation and illusion, and so many other options in between. As a player, I love being able to think of ways to defuse a conflict that doesn’t need to end in bloodshed. As a DM, I love when the players decide to avoid direct conflict with two factions of antagonists by figuring out novel ways to get those factions to fight each other.

That said, though, once D&D combat begins, it tends to follow a specific pattern of the characters trying to beat their foes into physical submission, and vice versa. D&D effectively becomes the war game it started out as once initiative is rolled, with everyone focusing on committing grievous assault with weapons and magic. As a fairly old-school player, I like combat in D&D. I like the underlying model of heroic fantasy that sets up the game as a war story, wherein combat acumen counts as an important part of a characters’ ability to stand up for what they believe in — whether those beliefs involve the need to fight otherworldly evil, or being driven to save the people around you from political corruption, or even just noting how much ancient treasure is just lying around in forgotten monster-haunted vaults so maybe someone should go grab it.

But given how the foundation of any RPG is the idea that characters should be able to do anything they want, I long wondered to myself why D&D combat couldn’t also cover options beyond the characters beating their foes into unconsciousness the same way, each and every fight? And what if there were a way to make not killing monsters just as much fun as killing monsters?

Combat maneuvers in CORE20 are an attempt to make fights in the game more interesting for players looking for options beyond baseline fantasy violence. Maneuvers are very much about combat, as the name suggests. But they provide characters with some different approaches to dealing with enemies, building on the existing foundations of nonweapon combat (primarily in the form of grappling rules) that’s always been part of the game. They’re a set of actions that your character can take with the intent of not hurting your opponent, but rather of messing with that opponent’s ability to hurt you. Whether you’re tripping a foe up, slowing them down, messing with their timing, or making them second-guess their own willingness to fight, combat maneuvers let you try to control the flow of a fight to your own benefit.

Combat maneuvers can be entirely useful as an adjunct to beating down one’s foes if that fits a character’s combat style. Throwing an enemy off balance or sending them prone to set up your next attack — or the follow-up attack of an ally — is a great way to gain an edge in a fight. But maneuvers also allow characters to get out of fights they don’t want to be part of, or to create a nonlethal buffer of a few rounds in which to try to talk a furious foe out of fighting. And within the context of CORE20 allowing you to freely choose everything your character is good at, maneuvers are a perfect way to build a character who doesn’t ever want to go toe-to-toe and blade-to-blade with their enemies — but who needs to be able to handle themself if they’re jumped unexpectedly, and to quickly and safely get out of a fight they didn’t start.

(Art by Jackie Musto —