Sarah Darkmagic's blog
I love to use fairy tales as an inspiration for my games. Ralph, the talking chicken, was a prince transformed by a witch's curse. Rumpelstiltskin served as inspiration for a bargained child tale. Given this, I'm always on the hunt for new tales, especially given how often the current Grimms' versions don't have great roles for women.
Enter End to End, a book of four fairy tales written by Jocelyn Koehler. I was fortunate enough to get a review copy. Set in the mythical land of the Nine Kingdoms, near the borders of Faerie, these tales often mix the real with the fantastic. A forbidden wood. Dancing sisters. A kingdom in decline. Medicine required for survival. These all feel familiar and yet new. What I love in particular, plenty of strong women who have their own agency.
Pearl Against Diamond: When Pearl meets Lin in a forbidden forest, it is the beginning of a romance, and the beginning of a tragedy. For Lin is the slave to a faerie queen, and Pearl must journey through dangerous realms to save him. But Lin hides a secret of his own. A reimagining of the legend of Tam Lin, this story pulls inspiration from not only the original, but also the dreamland of ukiyo—the “floating world” of forgetfulness and pleasure.
The Solider Underground: Alexander Stargazer is a wanderer and a mercenary. One day, when he stumbles into a new kingdom, he hears about a mystery he can’t resist. For a full year, the twelve princesses have disappeared every night to go dancing...but no one knows where or how. Many have tried to solve the mystery. All have failed. Stargazer uses his wits and magic to discover the secret, which lies far below the castle in a subterranean world too fabulous to be believed...and far more sinister than it first appears.
Wise Marah: We all know the legend of the Sleeping Beauty. Or do we? When a beloved queen falls into an enchanted slumber, a whole kingdom is dragged down into a shadowed grief. Can a simple housemaid break the spell? She can...if she is wise enough.
When the Wolves Returned: In a forgotten kingdom severed from all others, life is incredibly dangerous, and survival depends on not falling prey to the sickness that ravages the land. The key to survival—a precious medicine—lies beyond the forest. A strong young woman named Red is the one who journeys through the woods, wary of wolves and other perils. But the largest threat may prove too powerful for Red to fight...until she makes a fragile, remarkable alliance with a former enemy. Together, they will bring their benighted land back into the light.
I enjoyed these so much that I am going to buy the previous book in the series, The Way Through the Woods.
This section may contain some spoilers.
- Part of the story of Pearl Against Diamond involves her being swindled. If your players are looking for ways to be heroic without killing everything in sight, righting a wrong like this could be a good way.
- Pearl also receives a few magic items created just for her by Lin. Consider allowing extremely limited magic items like these in your game without worrying too much about what the rules say NPCs can create.
- In the Soldier Underground, it's not until he drinks from a fountain that he sees the underground world for what it is. It's a risk for the players to drink from random fountains but having rewards like these can encourage them to take those chances and explore.
- Likewise, a few of the art objects in the underground palace give hints at the story of the world. Providing these hints throughout a game rewards exploration and helps ensure the players don't look at you confused when they figure out the mystery of the world.
- Wise Marah reminds us that sometimes an outsider can see things that locals cannot. In my experience, players would react in a similar manner to Marah, questioning any restrictions, especially without a firm reason why they shouldn't explore further. With some groups, I wouldn't necessarily have an end story in mind, I'd present something like the sleeping queen and let the players work out an explanation that works for them.
- What happens when the old ways are no longer necessary? When the Wolves Returned reminds us that someone always profits off of these things and they are often reluctant to give up their revenue streams. The same can be adapted for a fantasy world.
I hope you try them out. If you'd like to read some excerpts, the publisher was kind enough to provide me with some.
I got a few responses to my post on D&D Next races that I would like to discuss here.
First, a comment from Impressions on the D&D Next Races Section by Deran.
I agree, that women have been treated badly in the past (and by some these days). I don't think this type of mentality should be portrayed in games. I think there are fundamental differences between the genders and should equally be addressed in the documentation. Describing male Dwarves as generally a little huskier than females doesn't seem to me that female Dwarves are any less important. I would like to see more information on female Dwarves and why some wear beards and others choose not to.
There are a few problems with this argument. Applying human sexual differences to dwarves has no basis in the game reality. Dwarves neither evolved nor were created by an Abrahamic god. They were created by Moradin and, as far as I can tell, before 3.5 (and maybe 3rd, I don't have a 3rd edition players' handbook), they were near impossible to tell apart physically. In fact, even Moradin's wife has a beard, one that has its own mythology associated with it. The only real sex or gender difference I could find, from Roger E. Moore's "The Dwarven Point of View" in Dragon #58, was an explanation that for whatever reason, fewer females were born than males. My understanding is that dwarven culture in general viewed adventuring in a negative manner, so given the low numbers of women born each year, it makes sense that a female dwarf adventurer would be rare. In everything else, it seems that males and females have approximately the same opportunities. If a female dwarf wants to spend her life as a craftsmen, she is allowed that freedom. If a male dwarf gets married, it was expected that he turn his focus to his home life. So these beliefs in fundamental differences between sex/gender make no sense in the context of a dwarf.
However, that tidbit about there being fewer female births leads me into the next question.
When I read (skim, really) over the races section, it reads to me like the guidelines for art orders got included in the draft. I find it really easy to imagine someone deciding that that information (art guides) would be useful in the draft races chapter, which might be part of why I read it that way.
Independent of the specific choices for very specific things like female dwarven beards (which is an interesting topic, but you guys have it covered already), I wonder what you think about gender dimorphism in art orders? I know that you've spent some time and effort on the topic of gender representation in fantasy art, and I think we agree that the very blatant differences characteristic of, for example, WoW are disturbing. I'm not sure how I feel about simpler and subtler indicators like half-elven facial hair, or `slight' height/bulk differences for elves.
Part of my motivation is this: I have several trans friends, and social cues like facial hair, grooming, and muscle bulk are important to them. In your opinion, is this something that's worth preserving in fantasy games, or is the cart pulling the horse?
I wanted to post this as a comment, but couldn't find the comment link. Thanks!
I'm not sure if they were the art orders, but if they are, that makes me rather sad. That would mean that these things could not be addressed before the books come out and would be part of the game without discussion from the community. However, after doing some research, it seems likely that it came from 3.5. I'm also curious if it's related to video games and the such where there seems to be some difficulty in making females in general anything but skinny and big-breasted.
I want to be upfront, I'm no expert in transgender topics or issues and my experience is that many of my readers are not either. So I'd first like to give my definitions for a few terms before we discuss them. These happen to be my understanding of the terms and, in general, they can be quite hard to define precisely, I think in part because they are intended to define things that are, in reality, quite ambiguous. (Please, contact me if I'm grossly misrepresenting the meanings.)
sex - In it's most basic form, the label (male or female) assigned at birth based on physiological characteristics.
intersex - People who fall outside the physiological norms making labeling them with a sex difficult or results in them being labeled with a sex they do not have.
gender - Societal expectations and norms surrounding people of a particular sex and how we perceive ourselves. Gender is often referred to as a societal construct.
cisgender - People whose physiological expression matches their gender.
transgender - Peoples whose physiological expression does not match their gender.
I'm leaving out sexuality/sexual preference for now because it really deserves a post of its own.
I think the first thing we should discuss is that while we might label people as being cis or trans, that doesn't mean that all members of that group feel the same way about something. We cover up a lot of diversity in doing so, sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for neutral, and some for bad. So, while these sorts of cues are important for some, they might not be for others, regardless of their gender.
However, we know that for some people being able to express gender in a story or game can be very important. When people complain about having too many strong women characters being nothing more but men with a different facade, what they often mean is that it feels like the gender of the person is completely irrelevant, we call that character a woman but nothing about what it means to be a woman in her society seems to affect her decisions or reactions. Generally they don't mean that no women can be portrayed in that way, but the lack of diversity in portrayals gets to them.
This lack of diversity in the D&D Next races is what bothers me. If three out of the four races present as males are larger than females, we lack a bit of diversity in our stories. That sex characteristic doesn't add much, if anything to the game. How is my gender as a dwarf different from gender in elves or in humans?
Additionally, in the case of the dwarf race, I find it detrimental to dwarf cis women. The aspects of society that are discussed in the description focus on mining and battle, two areas that regardless of historical accuracy, many people in the audience align with strength. People also tend to align smaller size with less strength. Thus, you take the one race that is supposed to be all about strength and create a sexual dimorphism that can easily imply a difference in prestige along gender lines, something that, as mentioned above, was lacking in some earlier editions of the game. Additionally, while I can imagine a world where magic users provide permanent body alternations, altering one's size and shape doesn't seem to be as interesting as figuring out the issues of how one fits into society or changes society to fit oneself.
Thus, while I agree that for a portion of the players, gender differences and representations of sexual dimorphism will be important tools in helping them play the character they want, I think we should be careful in what those differences can imply within the setting's society and have a preference towards including them when they increase our story options rather than repeating our own biases in the setting without thought.
To me, that's one of the most interesting things about having fewer dwarf females born each year. Dwarfs are a society built on tradition and clans. For males, family is both important (clan-based) and many of them will not have one (not enough females). For females, while one can choose to become a craftsmen or an adventurer, there has to be a lot of pressure to reproduce. For everyone, are clans patrilineal, matrilineal, or maybe not even based on genealogy but interest? Are daughters celebrated more than sons due to their rarity? Do some societies decide to go with a polyandry system instead of monogamy? Do some cis men marry non-dwarves instead? How do their families react?
In this case, the sex-based change in society provides a character with a wide range of decisions based on sex and gender. Instead of limiting character development, for players who want to, it expands it.
I'd argue that the size difference in elves, while breaking with traditional representations of elves in some ways, isn't as important as with the dwarves. Elves aren't particularly known for their strength and size doesn't have the same implications in regards to the things they are known for, such as their bonds with nature or affinity towards magic.
Note: A good starting point for understanding transgender is Transgender 101: 15 Things to Know
In discussing things such as age of majority, age of marriage, etc, one thing that often comes up is the statistic that life expectancy in medieval Europe was 35. They argue that since it was so relatively young, people were treated like and became adults much earlier. It definitely has a ring of truthiness to it, doesn't it?
However, there are a few potential issues with this view. For one, this number is life expectancy from birth. People often forget or don't know that life expectancy from birth for a group where all members are currently dead, is a simple average of age at death for the population. So, if I have the following set of ages at death [1 29 15 31 76], the life expectancy would be 34 years from birth. Using an example from the Wikipedia entry on life expectancy, "in a hypothetical stationary population in which half the population dies before the age of five, but everybody else dies at exactly 70 years old, the life expectancy at age zero will be about 37 years, while about 25% of the population will be between the ages of 50 and 70." As you can see, the average life expectancy on its own doesn't give us a ton of information about actual life spans.
The problem is further compounded by the fact we just don't have a lot of data from that time period. However, that's not to say that we can't make some guesses. According to this write up of the issue, we know that countries like Canada had an infant mortality rate of 10% in 1921. While it's possible that the infant mortality rate was lower in medieval Europe, all data we do have points to that being unlikely.
So, let's take our 35 year life expectancy and figure some stuff out.
Let's start with that 10% number.
(1 +9x)/10 = 35
1 + 9x = 350
9x = 350
x = 350/9
x = 38.9
(1 + 1 + 8x)/10 = 35
2 + 8x = 350
8x = 348
x = 348/8
x = 43.5
(1 + 1 + 1 + 7x)/10 = 35
3 + 7x = 350
7x = 347
x = 347/7
x = 49.6
These are rough numbers and they only account for infant mortality, but hopefully people can see the issue. We are confident that many more died after infancy but before reaching adulthood. Of course, for each of these, x is also an average, obscuring a range of ages.
Why is this important? Well, if much of the low life expectancy numbers can be explained by infant and child mortality, it doesn't necessarily follow that people would be forced to become adults at a younger age. If they passed the riskiest parts of youth, they'd have plenty of time to live their life and mature.
Additionally, at this point, we're not looking at things within the context of their times. Given how hard it is for us to get this information, it's unclear how much they would have had it at their disposal, especially since recording vital records wasn't particularly important for much of this time. It also assumes that the things we find important are the same as what they would have found important. In these discussions, I feel like we often take out their humanity, treating them as another piece of data instead of living, thinking beings.
Finally, even if many people died by the age of 35, that doesn't mean older people would have been a rarity and that people wouldn't have tried to plan for a longer life. An explanation of how many older people would have been around given different mortality scenarios can be found in Life Expectancy and 'Age of First Appearance' in Medieval Manorial Court Rolls by L. R. Poos.
In the end, there's a lot we don't know about this time period. But understanding life expectancies and the limits of what we can assume from them is a good start.
One of the common reactions to my discussion of the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth was, "Oh come on, that was written so long ago. Why are we talking about it?"
The reason why I discuss it is because if you immerse yourself in D&D material from that time period long enough, you start bringing the points of view into the current project. I already pointed it out a bit with the races, but it's even clearer in the deities section in the classes.
Here are the deities: Arcanist, Lifegiver, Lightbringer, Protector, Reaper, Stormcaller, Trickster, and Warbringer.
Now, I happen to like the creation of archetypes instead of specific deities. This is important because D&D Next is meant to unite editions. By using archetypes, they can provide mechanics for the different deities that work in Greyhawk and in Forgotten Realms. It's weighted a bit towards martial, but that makes sense given D&D Next development until this time, it's largely been dungeon crawls.
However, I do have issues with the descriptions of three of them. Lifegiver, Protector, and Stormcaller. Suddenly, out of nowhere, these deities and the concepts and traditions they represent become gendered. The Lifegiver deity, the one involved with growth, healing, and fertility, is "usually female." The Protector, the domain of defensive strength. As a martial deity, it's usually male, but as the community building, caregiving version, it's usually female. Finally, Stormcaller, which represents storms, wars, physical might, and courage is commonly barbaric and male.
At this point, some will argue that this is traditional, we shouldn't get upset at this. Yes, in patriarchal societies, this was typical but far from universal. But, those are patriarchal societies, something that should not be assumed for all games of D&D. What happened to not setting the thermostat?
Additionally, some may point out that well, we're talking about the deities themselves, not the player characters. The problem with this is that it still implies that there are gender-based distinctions within the setting itself. That men are war-like, courageous, and barbaric. Women are the lifegivers, community builders, and caregivers. Add on top of this the sexual dimorphism, and we're right back in the 1970s. Sure, there are strong female characters in the setting but they are rare and exceptional.
My suggestion, leave out the "usually male" and "commonly female." It doesn't add anything while still setting the thermostat as it were. For those of us who don't want that in our games, it's one less thing we have to explicitly fight against. Our players won't be reinforced into believing that genders are a particular way in our game. People who want this gender bias in their games will bring it to the game on their own. They are still fully supported, especially since the settings mentioned have this bias in them.
Please, don't explicitly put gender stereotypes into your setting, Wizards of the Coast.
While it wasn't one of my main points, people picked up on my comment regarding humans having adulthood set at 15. One of the things it brought to the forefront is that what adulthood means is rather nebulous. It has no meaning in the rules or even necessarily the setting. Outside of elves who decide when they are adults after their 100 birthday and take on an adult name at that time, we know only that it happens when a human turns 15, halflings at 20, and dwarves at 40.
Some people asked why I thought it was creepy. I can understand why it might seem like a weird thing to say. Fifteen to sixteen is a common time for coming of age stories, many of which take the form of a quest or adventure. The difficulty I have is that in the same literature and folk stories that have tales of late teen male adventurers, many of the girls are being sent off to be married, quite often against their wishes. My fear is that we would see more stories about the 16 year old princess kidnapped by the old creepy wizard to be his bride or part of some dark ritual. And, because she's an adult, I'm afraid of that being sexualized in a way that's really uncomfortable to me.
Additionally, it reinforces some misconceptions we have about history. For instance, while it's true that some girls were married at very young ages, it appears that may have been more predominant among the nobility. According to the Wikipedia entry on the Hajnal line.
[A] thousand marriage certificates issued by the archdiocese of Canterbury between 1619 and 1660 show that only one bride was aged thirteen years, four were fifteen, twelve were sixteen, seventeen were seventeen, and the other 966 of the brides were aged nineteen years or older when they married for the first time. The church stipulated that both the bride and groom must be at least 21 years of age to marry without the consent of their families; the most common ages of marriage were 22 for women, 24 for men; the median ages were 22.75 for women and 25.5 for men; the average ages were 24 years for women and nearly 28 years for men. The youngest brides were nobility and gentry.
Here are some more tidbits collected from the Wikipedia page on marriage:
- According to Aristotle, the prime of life was 37 for men and 18 for women.
- The Visiogothic Code of Law (7th century) placed the prime of live at 20 years for both men and women.
- It can be presumed that most ancient Germanic women were at least 20 years of age when they married and were roughly the same age as their husbands.
- The average age of marriage for most Northwestern Europeans from the late 14th century into the 19th century was around 25 years of age; as the Church dictated that both parties had to be at least 21 years of age to marry without the consent of their parents, the bride and groom were roughly the same age, with most brides in their early twenties and most grooms two or three years older, and a substantial number of women married for the first time in their thirties and forties, particularly in urban areas, with the average age at first marriage rising and falling as circumstances dictated.
Outside of marriage, there was no clear line for adulthood. From Family and Household in Medieval England, medieval theorists had three divisions for childhood. The last, adolescentia, was from 15 to the age of majority. As time went on, the age of majority became more commonly 21, but much of that was tied to inheritance laws. "For society in general the defining point came when the young person was married and began to live with his or her spouse as husband and wife."
Given this connection between marriage and the definitions of adulthood, the young age for adulthood bothers me on another level. Children are a common result of marriage. It's fairly common these days to discuss older age and its effect on fertility on maternal mortality, that women tend to lose fertility as they get older, until menopause hits, and older women are at a higher risk for complications. What isn't as often discussed is the impact age has on maternal mortality, in particular, that girls and women under the age of 19 tend to have a higher mortality rate. According to Advocates for Youth, pregnancy is the leading cause of death for young women ages 15 through 19. They "are twice as likely to die during pregnancy or child birth as those over age 20; girls under age 15 are five times more likely to die."
So, when we start discussing setting adulthood in a fictional world at age 15 for humans, those are the types of thoughts that come to my mind. Obviously there are other thoughts to have as well. But given that adulthood was a nebulous concept, even historically, that it can have different implications for women in the setting, often limiting them or raising issues of child brides, I might suggest it's something that is better left to each table to decide. There's no need to set the thermostat in this case, especially since setting the thermostat can lead to some rather uncomfortable conversations. I should know, I've had to had a few of them just by pointing out how it made me feel.
All that said, I loved the suggestion some people had which was to create rituals that signified the passage into adulthood. If we look at the elves, they have that in a way. After turning 100, the elf decides when adulthood starts and even takes on an adult name at that time. Many human cultures have this. Perhaps this would be a better way of going than giving a definite age, particularly for humans given that race description discusses how variable humans are?