Ancestries in Emberwind

Recently, I’ve been revisiting Emberwind, a really clever indie RPG that, at least to me, feels like a super-streamlined take on the tactical D&D 4E model. There’s a lot to like about the game’s welcoming, approachable structure that makes it easy for new players to get into, as well as the ability to combo abilities and craft synergistic builds that should appeal to knowledgeable power-gamers. It’s got a wonderful class system, with subclasses coming soonish. But something that might be missing for your table are Ancestries. The game avoids statistical differences between a Human and a Dwarf, if they exist in your setting, and for the most part, I’m okay with this omission. But if you’re not, here are some approaches I would suggest (and one that I wouldn’t).

How I Wouldn’t Do It – Mechanical Bonuses

Let’s get this out of the way first – I think straight mechanical bonuses (be they to CAP values, skill values, or whatever else) are a bad idea. I don’t think it’s a good idea for one Ancestry to be de-facto better at a given thing than another. Setting aside real-world racial stereotyping (although that sure is a thing that this approach echoes), choosing to be one type of playable creature versus another just for the stat bonus makes for kind of boring game worlds.

Expanding the Keepsake system

In Emberwind, every character gets a Keepsake, a little something that acts like a rechargeable consumable. They don’t have to be tangible items like lockets, either – everyone gets what’s called an “Emberwind Spark”, which to me is less “physical item that my character has on their person” and more “essence of heroism that exists because my character is a main character in the story”.

To use this, the GM or table have to decide on how to implement this:

  1. Give everyone a bonus Keepsake to reflect their Ancestry
  2. Everyone’s Ancestry must be reflected in their free-choice Keepsake
  3. Only the “default” Ancestry gets the Emberwind Spark, while others get their choice of a replacement Keepsake

Giving everyone an extra Keepsake probably makes the game slightly easier, and makes management a little more fiddly, but this might be a welcome trade-off, especially for veteran players. Personally, it still feels a little too close to static mechanical bonuses to be really palatable, but it’s leavened somewhat by a bit more looseness in the attribution, as well as the fact that Keepsakes aren’t always-on abilities.

Anchors and Deadweights

Anchors and Deadweights are fiction-based approaches to modifying skill rolls. They simply apply Advantage or Disadvantage to a roll, reflecting lived experience (good or bad) with an aspect of the world.

I’m taking inspiration from Whitehack’s Group system for this. If your character’s Ancestry has enough of an impact on your rolls, make it an Anchor, and choose an equivalent Deadweight. Maybe you’re playing a Drow, so you’d choose an Anchor like “the Underdark” with a Deadweight like “above-ground society”. It’s up to the GM or the table to decide how much a given Anchor/Deadweight are worth.

Which would I use?

Probably Anchors and Deadweights. These days, I generally prefer systems that only lightly touch the heavier, crunchier mechanics of a given game, especially one so intricate as Emberwind. That said, I know a lot of players like messing with systems, so the other options are examples of me doing that.

Though, truthfully, I don’t think I’d even use Anchors and Deadweights. I think the game’s just fine as-is, and if I were to use Ancestries, they’d just be role-playing prompts. If it’s good enough for Heart and Spire, it’s good enough for me.