How a picture of girls playing D&D went from cool to awesome

So, some of my friends were sharing an image around that I thought was pretty cool.

I love it! They claimed that it was a D&D ad from circa 1980. That would be awesome to hear about but something was nagging me about the story. It didn’t feel like an ad. I’ve seen a bunch of ads from that time period. Where was the TSR logo? Or the address to write to for more information?

So I did a Google image search. (In Chrome, I can do this easily by right clicking on the image and choosing “Search Google for this image”). I found this article from 2012 that discusses the image and points to a Scribd page as the source. From this page, it claims that the image, instead of being part of an ad, is actually part of an article about Dungeons & Dragons published in Dynamite Magazine.

Unfortunately, the site would only give me the first page, the one with the image, for free, so I still couldn’t be sure that it was more article than ad. My curiosity overcame me and I paid for a one-day pass to the site so I could download the entire article. I’m glad I did!

While the article itself doesn’t say Dynamite Magazine, it gave me two more clues. The credited photographer, Richard Hutchings, has had over 20,000 pictures published by Scholastic, Inc, the publisher of Dynamite Magazine. Likewise, a search on the author’s name, Margaret Howard, points to a connection to Scholastic. While not conclusive proof, they provided support.

The article is pretty amazing to me. I’m so used to hearing tales about the satanic panic when it comes to the early history of the game. Reading a relatively balanced article from the time period is nice to begin with, but seeing one aimed at kids feels awesome. It was cool to see some of the industry stats too, things like 250,000 sets of D&D were sold in 1979 and that was double the 1978 numbers. It was also interesting seeing it called a FRP, the fact that only Gygax is mentioned as the creator, and that it started from stories his father told him while he was growing up. I also laughed a bit at hearing a group of Orcs called a flock.

After the brief history, it talks a bit about how the game is played and includes two more photos, close ups of two characters, a wizard and a monster.

Dungeons and Dragons is not a game in the usual sense. There are no little “men” to push around a board, no cards to tell you what to do, no race to finish first. There isn’t even a winner. Instead, each player becomes a character in an imaginary adventure set in a mysterious world. The game is acted out under the direction of a Dungeon Master (DM). He or she creates the dungeon in which the adventure will take place and controls the action of the game. Usually D&D is organized as a search for some fabulous treasure that lies at the end of the dungeon. Each character hopes to survive the perilous journey and claim the treasure, which could be gold, jewels, or objects with magical powers. Dice are used on each turn. And throwing the right number can mean the difference between life and death, success or failure.

This is a great introduction to the game and no wonder children responded (more on that later). Those familiar with the history of games and of Dungeons & Dragons will know she points out a lot of what made Dungeons & Dragons a success. This wasn’t about winning or the end. The middle part, the journey, was why one played (with the possible caveat in regards to tournament games). In addition, the game is more than just what it is not, but what it allows to happen, an open world that can be simulated without necessarily limiting.

She then discusses the role of the Dungeon Master, how they create dungeons, the more complicated the better, and how the players create their characters by "roll[ing] some weird looking dice." Even the role of mapping by the players in the game is discussed, something that later editions often left out and a brief explanation of leveling, "as the players move from one fight to another, they gain experience and become more powerful."

Then she gets to the monsters.

And what monsters! One DM we know especially likes something called Green Slime. According to the D&D rulebook, Green Slime acts like an acid. But when it touches flesh, the flesh itself turns into Green Slime. The only way to get rid of it is with fire, cold, or a magic spell. Yecchhh! And Green Slime is only one of the enormous gang of monsters which could be roaming through the dungeon. Carrion crawlers, shrieking fungus, giant ticks and beetles, hell hounds, berserkers, black puddings, orcs, ogres, stirges, after page of the D&D rulebook is devoted to descriptions of these nasty creatures, the damage they can do, and how they can be killed, repelled, or neutralized.

I love this! She includes quotes from at least two players, including one boy who is listed as 13. He tells us, "all you really need is some paper, a pencil, and a good imagination." She also tells people where to find D&D games, although it’s part of the paragraph that talks about how some kids take it too far. But astute readers will now know to go to hobby stores and also that they can learn more by reading “issues of Dragon, White Dwarf, and other FRP magazines.”

So, am I just over enthusiastic about this article? Well, that’s where the story gets even more awesome. While researching the origin of the image, I found a number of people who credit the Dynamite Magazine article with introducing them to Dungeons & Dragons. Let’s take a look.

Ryan Dancey

I entered the hobby gaming market as a 6th grader at Westhill Elementary in Bothell. I found an article in Dynamite magazine that had a picture of a map set up with miniature figures and about a half page description of people playing Dungeons & Dragons. Without rules, a firm understanding of how you made a “game” out of that stuff, or much else to go on, something deep in my soul connected with the idea of a roleplaying game, and I was hooked.


Frank Brunner

I heard about Dungeons and Dragons in a Dynamite magazine at school. I grew up in a small town in northern Michigan, and being in 4th grade, didn’t know anyone else who played. So I told my mom about it, and she tried to DM for me. She had no clue what she was doing. It was fun because it was a family activity, but we ended up just saying you know what, wait until next summer when you’re at your cousins, and they can show you how to play.


Geoffrey McKinney

That's not merely an ad. It's actually the first page of a three-page article about D&D. It's in Dynamite #82, cover story on Buck Rogers and Wilma "TV's Fun Couple of the Future!"

It was this D&D article from late 1980 that first caused my D&D obsession. For days I pored over each and every word in the article, until that weekend when my parents took me to the toy store so I could buy the Holmes Basic D&D set and the Monster Manual (plus a few dice).


They aren’t the only ones. I also found this reference by a movie reviewer, Shawn Francis, who credits the article as the source of his weakness for certain types of movies.

I think I got into Dungeons & Dragons back in the sixth grade, hearing about it for the first time in Dynamite magazine, although I didn’t really start playing it until I got into my sophomore year of high school. Because of this, I have a weakness for medieval fantasy movies and there have been a ton of them that reminded me of D&D. They even started making movies based on Dungeons & Dragons; unfortunately, they have all been, for the most part, lackluster.


So yeah, this tidbit of D&D history went from cool to awesome for me as Iooked into it more. I sent emails to the photographer, Richard Hutchings, and Scholastic to see if anyone has more information about the article. I was also able to confirm that the article is from Dynamite Magazine, issue 82 from March 1981.

Thanks to Jonathan Bolding for bringing the picture back to the forefront.

Jared von Hindman provided moral support and fact and trivia checking during much of this search. I love this tweet of his with a pic of the pimping wizard.

Also, if you’re like me and are curious about what book the girl on the left is holding, apparently it is the Holmes edition blue book.

Finally, if you are looking for a TSR ad with girls in it from around that time period, check out this commercial.

UPDATE: I got an email from the photographer!

If I remember correctly, the male in the picture is my Nephew David, Now 50 who was showing his girlfriend and her friend how the game is played. Whether they continued playing, I do not know, but my nephew played D and D with his step brother and other friends.

Thanks for the memory,


Unconscious Bias or Why I Write

Discussing bias in terms of gaming is often a difficult task because it's often, but not always, the result of unconscious bias, not active discrimination. Because unconscious bias is the result of societal attitudes and practices, it is both much harder to see and often results in a greater level of defensiveness when people find out that they, too, are contributing to larger social patterns that they might otherwise decry and work against.

I understand this defensiveness because I've lived it. I've always been interested in civil rights issues, especially issues of race. But, like many people out there, I often assumed a rather equal playing field when I approached questions. For instance, when I got a job as an undergraduate advisor (my school's version of residential advisors, fellow students who provided mentorship, especially to first year students), I often worried about what "being fair" would look like on a diverse floor. Would it really be fair to ask someone from the south to take down a Confederate flag they hung in their room? It didn't help that I had grown up relatively poor and much of my extended family lived in poverty, so many of the experiences people of color shared were much like my own and seemed normal.

Eventually I came to see what I couldn't see before. Climbing the class ladder helped a bit. Now when I walk into stores, the clerks want to help me and no longer follow me around, mainly because I buy jeans that cost 3x or more what I did when I was in high school. I probably also walk differently and do other unconscious displays of social status.

I say all that to explain how I got to where I am today and why discussing things like how banshees are portrayed in some book about some elf game matters to me. While I'm forever wary of confirmation bias, my research and my life experiences lead me to a place where I find concepts like privilege, unconscious bias, implicit association, and the like are true. I think we do notice patterns in our lives and the art and media we experience, whether it's fiction or not, and internalize them in ways that we might not like if it's made explicit. And I do agree with research that suggests that the way to counter these biases isn't through censorship but through discussion and that it's through lack of discussion that these things continue. Also, it's not just the dominant group who often has these biases, for instance a research into the hiring of recent science grads showed that women were discriminated by men and women (I believe the research worked within the gender binary).

Now that I've been a bit more explicit about my own approach and biases, I'd like to talk about the Monster Manual a bit more. There is a lot I love about the book. I love that there is a richer history here, things like how hatred simmers below the surface between the azers and the efreeti. I rather enjoy the concept of lair actions and environmental effects, maybe because they remind me of the catastrophic dragons from 4e or my own monster from Lost City. (Aside, I loved Lyndsay's article about how to use these as part of world building.) Likewise, there is a lot of implied world history in the book, as Rob Donoghue points out. I've already used it to help someone knew to the game understand what the monsters we were describing in a discussion look like. Overall, the Monster Manual can be indispensable for a dungeon master as they prepare for their game or campaign and I highly recommend it.

However, that doesn't mean I'm comfortable with all the things it says about the world that we're supposed to play in. One of the goals of this edition of D&D, especially with the way organized play is set up, is that they want us to have a shared experience. I know many of you have had awesome conversations with each other about the older modules. "Man, that Acererak is a real asshole. Why the hell would he ever set up [redacted] in room [redacted]?" "Do you remember when that chick turned out to be a vampire and almost killed our entire party?" These sorts of shared stories help us bond and become our secret handshake of sorts.

Now imagine of that secret handshake left you feeling not only uncomfortable but like your basic humanity was being ignored. When a game starts making one gender the other, makes that gender a symbol for only certain things, that's what happens to many (but not all) members of that gender. Yes, it's true, there are a lot of "strong men" in D&D. But there are also physically weak male wizards who get by on their brains instead of their brawn. There are pudgy men, wise men, evil men, good men, men who lead armies, men who hide in a tower and read books all day, etc. However, women are too often limited to their looks and/or their covetousness of beautiful things. That's why the banshee, in that context, made me take notice. Mythological banshees are none of those things.

It's easy to argue for the existence of any one example or against the inclusion of one example in the pattern. If the banshee were the only example, sure, we need variety. If we had lots of other monsters that were portrayed as explicitly having female members with agency, sure, the fact that the medusa can also be male would be important to note. But those things, in our product today, aren't true. Sometimes, we are missing the forest for the trees.

When you aren't part of the core audience that the book due to explicit and/or implicit bias, which would include people of all genders who like and are well served by current societal attitudes towards gender, it's often easier to see that forest, to see that general pattern that even if it doesn't say stay away, says that you're not exactly welcome either. And that is why I write these things. Not because I hate games or because I want to tell other people that they are bad, but because if I stay quiet, if I don't mention these things, no one will ever know. People will still ask the questions, "Why is it so hard to get this person I care about to play? Are women really just not interested in this?" and no understanding will come of it because the real reasons are never allowed to be spoken, the sentiments censored.

Now, I'm not asking for total agreement. Plenty of people disagree with me on some things much of the time. Disagreement is not only good, it's going to be a fact of life. Humans are incredibly diverse in their tastes and their opinions. Just look at the full spectrum of kinks! But if you want to discuss gender essentialism or how applying the stereotype or the average to the individual is actually a good thing, well, you won't find purchase for your arguments here. That's not censorship, I just hear those opinions way too often as it is.

For those who have supported me through the years, many hearty thanks.

Art: "Scroll Raider" © 2013 Kaitlynn Peavler and Cheeky Mountain Parrot Games, created for Conquering Corsairs, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license:

Fighting female goblins isn't necessarily violence against women

Also in preparation for The Tome Show review of the 5e Monster Manual, I've been reading other people’s reviews and reactions to reviews. One strange argument I’ve read suggests that we shouldn’t have more female combatant NPCs in Dungeons & Dragons because violence against women is a thing. I’d like to address this argument because I see too many people accepting it at face value and I think that actually ends up perpetuating sexism and violence against women.

I don’t know about you, but I know many boys during my childhood were told “don’t hit a girl.” When a local girl joined the middle or high school football team, I read article after article that worried that the boys would get all confused about whether or not they could hit girls if they had to compete with one on the playing field. My own principal in middle school declared at an assembly that it would be over his dead body that any girl in his school earned a position on the football team.

Controlled violence between equals was forbidden if one of the participants was a girl and the other was a boy. However, when the boys snapped my bra or threatened to rape me when the monitors weren’t looking or dragged me around the playground because I had taken out the classroom ball and the boys didn’t want me to play or when a boy blocked my exit from a room unless I gave him a kiss, these things were just boys being boys. When a boy got a little too rough with a girl, it’s because he was too frustrated and just didn’t know any better.

The latter, while many are relatively mild forms of this, illustrate how violence against women is different from people, some of whom happen to be women, being involved in violence. Not every act of violence that involves a woman is included in the term violence against women. It has more specific meanings. For instance, in the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women from the United Nations General Assembly, it’s defined as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.”

When we’re in a goblin cave fulfilling our destiny as murder hobos, killing female goblins does not make our acts violence against women. Supporting gender diversity when it comes to what enemies we fight is not a vote in favor of violence against women.

In fact, I’d argue that restricting female combatants only to the common female stereotypes and tropes is a much stronger argument that something supports violence against women. For instance, having the few female monsters be overwhelmingly the ones that charm you, something that real life women are commonly accused of, such that you have to get them down to zero hit points to break the spell, that reinforces myths that encourage violence against women. And yes, I get that charming others isn’t limited to women, there are some male creatures do it as well, but there are far many other male creatures that use other methods of challenge.

By having so few female-centered creatures (ones where the description limits the creature to only the female sex or the text and/or artwork suggests that the female version is much more likely) and having the majority of them tied to female stereotypes, we create a world in which when we fight female creatures, it is often tied to some corruption of their femininity, making it implicitly if not explicitly gender-based.

Fighting against the corruption isn’t in itself bad, but when the only time we fight female creatures is because they are not meeting gendered expectations, I’d argue that not only reinforces those stereotypes, it is violence against women.

We change that by broadening where we use female monsters and by finding other ways than enslaving the females of the race to denote that a monster race is evil. For instance, I loved this scene from the Rat Queens.

The Rat Queens had killed the troll lady’s boyfriend and she’s there for revenge.

However, I’d feel bad if I didn’t point out one thing. When creating scenes where violence is being done to a woman by a man, it would be good if it didn’t look like it came from a 1980s slasher film or an episode of Criminal Minds. For instance, this scene from the Magic the Gathering card, Triumph of Ferocity.

(Note: Wizards of the Coast has apologized for this image.)

Now, I get it, they need to fight each other. But the specific setup, him holding her down and choking her with his knee between her legs, that’s a common pose in the scary “he’s going to rape you” scenes in movies. That’s part of the reason some people reacted to the card the way that they did. It’s not that they were fighting, it’s the pose. Contrast that with this scene from Rat Queens.

Sure, we can make jokes about how that’s a mighty big sword he has pointed at her, but there’s nothing that sexual about the composition of the scene.

Finally, just because I think it’s awesome that Polygon published this post, it’s important to note that these sorts of discussions about our media and our art are nothing new. Back in the 1980s, Siskel and Ebert talked about what they saw as a disturbing trend in how violence against women was being portrayed in some sorts of movies.

Art: Rat Queens © 2014 Kurtis J Wiebe and Roc Upchurch. Magic the Gathering © Wizards of the Coast.

Explaining my issues with the 5e Banshee

This weekend we had to drive out to Pittsburgh for a friend’s wedding. During the ride, I decided that I would get in some of my Tome Show preparation for our upcoming review of the Monster Manual. When I got to the banshee entry, however, I had to stop for a bit and tweeted some of my thoughts about it. Now that I’m not in a moving car, I want to explore my impressions further. I’ll do a fuller discussion of gender and the Monster Manual at a future time, but I thought this forum post on the illustrations by gender was interesting followed up by this examination of the artist credits in the book.

Some people were a bit confused by the tweet or its purpose and I understand that. Twitter’s limit of 140 characters or so precludes in depth discussion within one statement. I understand why we banshees are female, due to the mythological origin that the D&D creature derives from. I can even understand the elven origin, with that fantasy race’s connection to faerie which is integral to some tellings of the legend.

Legend has it that for great Gaelic families – the O'Gradys, the O'Neills, the Ó Longs, theMcCnaimhíns, the Ó Briains, the Ó Conchobhairs, and the Caomhánachs – the lament would be sung by a fairy woman; having foresight, she would sing it when a family member died, even if the person had died far away and news of their death had not yet come, so that the wailing of the banshee was the first warning the household had of the death. Source: Wikipedia

What I didn’t really get was the connection to beauty and corruption. In D&D 5e, “[b]anshees are the undead remnants of elves who, blessed with great beauty, failed to use their gift to bring joy to the world. Instead, they used their beauty to corrupt and control others.” Because of their failure they are cursed to “experience no gladness, feeling only distress in the presence of the living.”

This made me uncomfortable. For me, it reminds me of a tendency in our society to believe that female beauty is owned by the public and that women have an obligation to make the world a better place through their beauty. For instance, a common way women are harassed on the street is by telling them to smile, as if it is an obligation they owe to everyone else.

The cause of this curse sets up an obligation all too familiar to many female players. It creates an in world justification for sexist behavior and harassment for anyone who plays a female elf and sets DMs up to view female elf characters, at least ones with high charisma, on a primary access of attractiveness. Is she beautiful? Great, you better do good things or she might become a banshee. Even this obligation wouldn’t be so noticeable if I those sorts of obligations were common, especially among the male-centered monsters.

This emphasis on attractiveness or lack thereof also makes them similar to other monsters in the book. Dryads bound to healthy trees stay “forever youthful and alluring.” Hags are described with “withered faces...framed by long, frayed hair, horrid moles and warts dot their blotchy skin, and their long, skinny fingers are tipped by claws that can slice open flesh with a touch.” Medusas are “as deadly as they are ravishing.” Harpies “tak[e] glee in suffering and death” and are the result of a female elf’s twisted love.

In the 2e Monstrous Manual, there’s no clear indication as to why they are evil elves, just that they are and that such a thing is rare. Instead, the book talks about how the banshees only attack at night, going after any living creature up to 5 miles away from her abode. In addition, it talks about how she, over time, blights the land. I much prefer that, even with its sexist assumptions that knights are male and will be drawn in by her wail (which is nearly impossible to distinguish from the cry of a human or elf woman in pain).

Because the writers too often center on beauty and love when it comes to female characters and monsters, the banshee gets reduced, in my opinion, from what could be an awesome monster that seeks out player characters just when they think they are safe (for instance while making camp in the woods at night) or creates a destination for an adventure, the blighted forest, and instead creates a variation on a overused and tired theme.

I hope that explains my comments on twitter a bit better. I’ll have more analysis soon, but I wanted to get this one out there.

Art: Bunworth Banshee, Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland by Thomas Crofton Croker, 1825

Note: I received a review copy of the Monster Manual from Wizards of the Coast.

Hoard of the Dragon Queen: Greenest in Flames - Part 2

Let's continue with our discussion of the first episode of the Hoard of the Dragon Queen. Since last time, Mike Shea of SlyFlourish made a compelling argument for having the Half-Dragon Champion mission be the last of the evening. I tend to agree with him, especially since there is a good chance that one of the PCs will be a bit beat up after it and may not be able to participate in any further missions, such as Save the Mill. Also, I've heard that quite a few groups had to take at least one short rest during the night, so allow them to take it if they need it.

When I have the luxury of time, I like taking a peek at how other people run the adventure. One of the nice things about living in the future is that a lot of people have slick campaign wikis on places like Obsidian Portal. For instance, Loremaster kept to the 1 hour shifts in describing what happened. WinWizard did something I had been thinking of, giving the PCs a label/reward based on the number of townspeople they saved during the course of the night.

As for me, I know one of the things I struggle with the most when running a game, especially a sandbox one, is keeping information straight, especially when the choices characters make in one encounter could affect an encounter that happens hours if not days later. Also, I dislike bogging down the game for things like XP calculation and other record keeping. As I referenced in the last post, I'm creating a bit of a playbook as I go through this adventure to help me provide a bit more structure to the information and make my job a bit easier. You can see the current version here.

Example of PlaybookExample of Playbook
The first part lays out the goals for the episode. What are the key elements to the episode that, as a DM, I want to be sure to highlight? In this case, I know I need to introduce a few important NPCs, both the PCs' main allies and some of the antagonists. In addition, we need to give them a clue that something bigger is going on. This isn't a random raid by a bunch of bandits, cultists, and in particular members of the Cult of the Dragon, are amassing quite a treasure pile. Additionally, we need to put a bit of fear into them, the typical kick down the door approach is likely to get them killed especially since the cultist group has an idea that there are adventurers afoot.

As I play through the episode, I can cross out names and check off boxes after I've addressed the goal. This helps me too in terms of pacing because I really don't want to have a big info dump at the end. If I'm 2 missions in and none of the goals have been addressed, I need to step up with info sharing. It helps in this episode that the missions are meant to help with these goals, so it shouldn't be too hard of a task.

The next section has a empty schedule on the left and the list of detailed missions on the right. While I put down the time schedule, there's no need to keep to it. My big thought here is that it would be nice to know later what order they did things in. Imagine if 6 months from now they are in a bar and hear a bard signing a song about the burning of Greenest and she gets most, but not all, of the details right.

After that I have some key information to record for each mission. This includes information that is used for generating XP or is useful later in the adventure. For instance, the PCs can get XP for each townsperson they bring back during the Seek the Keep mission or their XP might be cut in half during the Sanctuary mission if too many townspeople die. Having a quick place to note this info (and a reminder about what is important to note) can make the process of giving XP, if that's what you're group is doing, much easier.

Finally, I have the list of enemies listed in the episode at the bottom as well as room to keep a tally of the number defeated. Even if you're using the milestone based leveling instead of using XP, this can be useful for things like pulling minis or providing achievements for the group, if that's your style.

I tried to keep it to one-page, in part at Mike's suggestion. However, I could see a slightly longer version being made that helped by listing the DCs and such. So, take a look and tell me what you think. I hope to do them for all the episodes.

Send feedback using the contact form or through twitter, @sarahdarkmagic.

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