Sarah Darkmagic's blog
A few weeks ago, I came across the Spera graphic novel, written by Josh Tierney and illustrated by a number of artists including Kyla Vanderklugt, Hwei, Emily Carroll, Olivier Pichard and Afu Chan. Since I’m using the Comixology app on my iPad to read the comics, I’ve only read the first 3 issues of volume 1, but I’m already in love.
The tale follows the lives of two princesses, Lono and Pira. Lono is a more traditional princess, her days were filled with “sitting, reading, and dreaming.” Then one day Pira arrives with news of a grave threat and convinces Lono to flee with her. Together with Pira’s best friend and fire spirit, Yonder, they seek adventure and life. Along the way they fight a hill monster, climb a steep cliff, and negotiate for their meals and a place to sleep, all while pondering what it is they want from life and from each other.
As for why I love the series, well, first the artwork is amazing. Using multiple artists to tell the tale was a great choice, especially since the story seems to follow a traditional hero’s journey story line. The multiple artists reinforces the feeling that we often crave similar things, to be understood, to be in control of our own destinies.
Besides loving the graphic novel itself, the story could be a great starting point for a game. It also made me ponder using D&D Next for it since Pira’s reasons for leaving home, to find adventure and rescue the princess Lono, are such common motivations for fantasy, and by extension, D&D stories. As much as I love 4e, it’s not quite the right feel for it since it’s clear that Lono and Pira aren’t quite heroes yet (although Yonder is fairly powerful). In addition, the flexibility I see so far in D&D Next, especially its lack of master skill list and the equal emphasis on interaction and exploration, fit well with the narrative of the story.
Thus, the comic reminds me what I hope for most with D&D Next. I would love things to stay simple and flexible enough where I can create my own themes, backgrounds, and the like so that if I want to build a campaign world similar to Spera’s, I can do so easily. I could create a background and a theme for Pira that gives her access to simple fighting maneuvers as well as skills such as climbing, while creating another one for Lono to emphasize the skills she would have learned as a more passive princess. Yonder could be a character half controlled by the DM but also accessible to the players as a limited resource.
More information can be found on Spera-Comic.com. Also, I love the ComiXology app for the iPad. It has a special view option that shows you a panel or two at a time, creating movement, and providing composed scenes. It's also helped me learn how to read comics.
When Perseus was grown, Polydectes came to fall in love with the beautiful Danaë. Perseus believed Polydectes was less than honourable, and protected his mother from him; thus Polydectes plotted to send Perseus away in disgrace. He held a large banquet where each guest was expected to bring a gift. Polydectes requested that the guests bring horses, under the pretense that he was collecting contributions for the hand of Hippodamia, "tamer of horses". The fisherman's protégé had no horse to give, so he asked Polydectes to name the gift; he would not refuse it. Polydectes held Perseus to his rash promise and demanded the head of the only mortal Gorgon, Medusa, whose expression turned people to stone. Ovid's account of Medusa's mortality tells that she had once been a woman, vain of her beautiful hair, who had lain with Poseidon in the Temple of Athena. In punishment for the desecration of her temple, Athena had changed Medusa's hair into hideous snakes "that she may alarm her surprised foes with terror".
Athena instructed Perseus to find the Hesperides, who were entrusted with weapons needed to defeat the Gorgon. Following Athena's guidance, Perseus sought out the Graeae, sisters of the Gorgons, to demand the whereabouts of the Hesperides, the nymphs tending Hera's orchard. The Graeae were three perpetually old women, who had to share a single eye. As the women passed the eye from one to another, Perseus snatched it from them, holding it for ransom in return for the location of the nymphs. When the sisters led him to the Hesperides, he returned what he had taken.
From the Hesperides he received a knapsack (kibisis) to safely contain Medusa's head. Zeus gave him an adamantine sword and Hades' helm of darkness to hide. Hermes lent Perseus winged sandals to fly, while Athena gave him a polished shield. Perseus then proceeded to the Gorgons' cave.
In the cave he came upon the sleeping Stheno, Euryale and Medusa. By viewing Medusa's reflection in his polished shield, he safely approached and cut off her head. From her neck sprang Pegasus ("he who sprang") and Chrysaor ("bow of gold"), the result of Poseidon and Medusa's meeting. The other two Gorgons pursued Perseus, but, wearing his helm of darkness, he escaped.
Perseus is a bit brash and gets called on it by Polydectes, a moment of "Oh yeah, you think you're hot stuff? Fine. Bring me the head of Medusa." We fear for our hero because, well, Medusa is scary, but by doing some research and planning (and a little wit and luck), he's able to assemble a number of tools that make it a bit easier. This sounds a lot like the play sought in the diceless skill check system. The magic items are unique and separate quests are undertaken to find them.
While some people enjoy this type of play, others might feel too much like they are playing a game of read the DM's mind. It can also be interpreted as a way to force players to play through a particular story line. Also, planning all of this can add to a DM's workload, especially if the DM isn't keen on improvisation. I've heard some groups, including some of my friends, who aren't keen on how easy encounters can get after smart play by the players.
I'm interested in exploring another path. What if players, with the DM, could easily find out or even design the solutions that makes the challenge easier to overcome. Perhaps the character studied monsters with a particular keyword or from a particular location. Or maybe each player could contribute one idea of an item they would have to retrieve or create. We could even tie it into the various themes, backgrounds, and traits. Are you an artifact hunter? Great, you grab a trait similar to the blacksmith one but it lets you detail a new artifact in the game world (with DM permission). It could have a limit of once per day, once per creature or even once per level.
For inspiration, I'd turn to other games, like Spirit of the Century. It has a "Declaring Minor Details" action under the Academics skill. The player proposes a fact in the character's specialty. If the GM approves it, she asks for an Academics roll to see if it becomes true. It also has rules for how to conduct research and recall information that I wouldn't mind converting to D&D Next.
I recognize this won't work for every group. Some DMs enjoy tighter narrative control and sometimes players don't want to be responsible for creating content. After the character creation details come out, I'm sure I can provide more exact examples of what I mean.
Earlier this week, much discussion erupted over the D&D Playtest version of the Medusa. Much of it was either two "sides" arguing for or agains the inclusion of what is being called a "save or die" type effect. For some, a D&D game without some such mechanics just isn't D&D to them. For others, the inclusion of such a mechanic, particularly without any advice on how to handle it as a DM reminds them of previous bad experiences, often at the hands of either a "killer" or inexperienced DM. I've wanted to write this post for a few days now but wanted to distance myself from the original discussion a bit in hopes I could do it better justice that way.
So, how does the medusa work in D&D Next? Well, first, a medusa can turn the gaze attack on or off at will. So, unless one has it turned it, it is possible for a character to look at one and not turn to stone. So, one of the most common complaints, that a PC might be wandering around a dungeon, turn a corner, and wham, turn to stone, isn't technically true or at least depends on DM discretion. My reading of the Caves of Chaos adventure included with the play test documents, suggest that the medusa has the gaze attack turned off when the PCs first meet her.
Second, unless surprised, any character who tries to attack a medusa can decide to avert his or her eyes. If the PCs avert their eyes, they do not need to make a saving throw but they gain a disadvantage on their attacks and enemies gain advantage against them. If they decide to not avert, they have to make a saving throw against petrification. A failed saving throw means they become petrified and that character is effectively out of the game until the condition is reversed.
Let's compare that to a 3/3.5 era gaze attack as written here: http://www.dandwiki.com/wiki/SRD:Gaze. In this version, PCs have 2 options: avert their gaze and have to make a percentile check (50%) each round to see whether or not they have to make a saving throw against petrification or they can blindfold themselves, granting every creature total concealment and gaining huge penalties to trying to hit. I believe earlier editions had similar mechanics for gaze as well and the medusa had a snake poison attack that was a save versus poison or die.
In 4e, the petrifying gaze of the medusa is handled in two different ways.
Medusa Spirit Charmer, Medusa Venom Arrow
Stony Glare At-Will
Trigger: An enemy ends its turn within 2 squares of the medusa.
Attack (Immediate Reaction): Close burst 2 (the triggering enemy in the blast); +x vs. Fortitude
Hit: The target is petrified (save ends).
Third Failed Saving Throw: The target is petrified until one of the following conditions is satisfied.
: The use of an appropriate power, such as divine cleansing.
: The willing kiss of the medusa that petrified the creature (a medusa might do this to gain information or to luxuriate in the victim’s fear before returning it to stone).
: The medusa responsible for the petrification is killed and its blood is applied to the stony lips of the victim before a full day passes.
Medusa Shroud of Zehir (Female), Medusa Archer (Female)
Petrifying Gaze (standard, at-will) Gaze, Petrification
Close blast 5; blind creatures are immune; +x vs Fortitude; the target is slowed (save ends). First Failed Save: The target is immobilized instead of slowed (save ends). Second Failed Save: The target is petrified (no save).
In Stony Glare, we have a case similar to a save or die mechanic, combined with 4e's death saves idea and ways to reverse the death. In Petrifying Gaze, we increase the time it takes to petrify, allowing multiple save attempts along the way. It also gives the PC the ability to make the tradeoff between being blinded or risking the effects of the hit.
The D&D Next version puts a lot more in the hands of the players and isn't even a true save or die effect. First, petrification isn't death, it can be reversed. Second, as written, the only time the PC definitely faces that situation is when the character decides to attack without averting eyes. That is within the player's control, not the DM's. It's true that the surprise round complicates things, as the DM could decide the medusa has the gaze on, but I know of groups that enjoy that bit of DM discretion, such as Lair Assault or some of the deadly delve challenges I've heard about in the past.
So what do I think the solution is? As always, player and DM education about how to bring about the play experience the table wants. It means communication. Do you want a game that challenges your player knowledge/skill as much as it challenges the characters? How often do you want surprise to come up in game? What should the thresholds be for it?
For DMs, I'd suggest minimizing the chances of a surprise gaze attack. Consider how common it really it is for a medusa to be walking down the halls of a dungeon with her gaze on and leaving now signs of her presence. Leave hints in many places that one might exist, everything from weird stone statues where the subjects are all caught in awkward positions and with horrified visages to tavern rumors about a medusa's existence. If you're well versed in Greco-Roman legends, remember that not everyone might be, especially newer players who might not be used to asking lots of questions or who might feel intimidated by the rest of the group. Finally, if you decide to use one and your players just weren't expecting or up to the task of dealing with a medusa, figure a story way out or even talk to your group afterward and chat with them about how they want to handle the situation. Also, anytime you use an effect that might remove a character from the game for a bit, think about options for the player who is now without anything to do. Could he or she control some of the monsters or maybe the hirelings or henchmen?
For players, think about why you play the game. If you are really invested in your character, make sure your DM understands that so he or she can keep that in mind when choosing or designing adventures and picking the monsters. If you are interested in reacting to an ongoing story full of twists and turns, try to let go of control a bit and think of something like petrification as a challenge to create an interesting new story instead of as an end of the current one (or as a personal failure). If you're upset, consider stepping away from the table for a moment.
The issue isn't save or die mechanics or ones that seem like them. It's about communication, understanding what each other is looking for, and setting reasonable and fair boundaries.
While I may sometimes take exception with or point out the parts of D&D that bother me, I love the game. I love the people who make it, who play it, who talk about it, those who agree and those who disagree with me. Yes, I'm opinionated and strong-willed. Yes, I make mistakes. Yes, they sometimes make mistakes. But, at the end of the day, I still love the community and the people and the game and its offshoots.
I'd like to take a moment to point out something I really like, and that was the recent article by Jon Schindehette, D&D Art Philosophy. Is it perfect? Nah, but hell, nothing I write is perfect either. But it says a lot of really cool stuff. In it, he lays out his vision for the artwork for D&D Next, opening it up to public comment by the D&D community. That's awesome! It's what we've been asking for and I'd like to respect it for what it is. Here are his key philosophies.
- Storytelling is king
- Impact and drama required
- Great characters
- Cultural clarity
- Differentiated monsters
- Look to the past to create the future
With the exception of the last, I'm either in love with or am more than happy to support every item on that list (even if supporting realism gets me in trouble with a close friend). I want to see illustrations of wonder and action. I want to explore new lands, try my hand at figuring out how something breaks the laws of physics, and be scared by monsters. I want the art to take on new perspectives, different angles, and show us a world unlike our own.
I admit, the last is a little scary for me. D&D history is full of examples of things that leave some of us shaking our heads today. Then again, it was a product of its time and those times also leave me wondering how people could have thought those things. When Jon pointed out in the comments that they mean, "What would Gary do today?" I was still nervous but willing to see where it goes. And here's the thing. I had those worries before Jon said anything. If it wasn't for him saying something, me being able to comment on it, and him being able to respond, I'd continue to get sick with worry about what exactly they were going to bring back from the past.
In the end, it's an important conversation to have, out in the open, with as many points of view as possible. I wish we could have certain base rules, like women in D&D are equal to men, that sometimes they will be the rescuers, sometimes the rescued, and sometimes just background elements. I wish I could smooth away the years of distrust on both sides that have built up. The best I can do is present why some of these things make people uncomfortable and hope we can move forward. Sometimes, just feeling like someone hears and understands you, even if nothing can be done, is enough. Sometimes we can make small changes, like being a bit more circumspect in the types of images that get the most prominence. And other times, we need to be willing to bend and change, like perhaps finding room in the canon for new characters that fit our modern values.
If you haven’t read Jon Schindehette's article about Sexism in Fantasy, I suggest you go read it. I will reference it a fair bit in this post.
The portrayal of female characters in fantasy art, including how sexism affects the art process, is an important subject to me. When I read Jon’s article, I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. I know and am friends with many people at Wizards of the Coast. I have had chats with Jon on this subject among others. We even had him on a Tome Show episode. I write a column for the website celebrating the company. Yet the words I read on the screen left a mark.
You might ask why. For one, the “poll” set up to show that sexism isn’t well defined is a bit flawed as was the definition used. Like many academic terms, it’s easily misunderstood or misapplied. It is full of nuance. Whether or not something is sexist depends on lots of things, including context. While his test might have proved that the term is misunderstood by people in the community, it doesn’t mean we should stop trying to understand it, even if it makes us feel uncomfortable and perhaps even triggers guilt. It’s those feelings that cause some to feel that the term is “convenient, inflammatory, and polarizing,” a phrasing that itself is often used as a derailing and silencing technique.
So, let’s talk about those two images quickly. One of the issues faced by women is that they are seen as being present mostly for decoration. If most images of women looked like that first image, our artwork would play into that expectation and gender-based constraint of women. Another issue is that women are often put into the role of nurturer. So while a woman in that role is not automatically sexist, if the only times we depict women are when they are in that role, that can be. Finally, a third issue is what is commonly called the virgin/whore dichotomy, something that is illustrated when the two pieces are presented together. In one, we have the nurturing woman in modest dress, devoid of most if not all sexuality. In the second, it seems that if she uncrossed her arms, we would see her breasts. That hint of sexuality that goes beyond the normal bounds of our society is part of what makes that picture exciting.
Now that we’ve addressed the “sexism poll” Jon constructed, I’d like to discuss the issues of the portrayal of women in D&D. I don’t want to limit it just to the art because to be honest, both the art and the text often amplify each other in ways we might not intend. Beauty comes up often in the article, implying that women are beautiful objects and that artists are drawn to creating that sort of art. This, to me, points out some of the problems present due to latent sexism in our society. Why isn’t an older woman considered beautiful? When it comes to female characters, why is beautiful so often correlated to cheesecake and fan service rather than compelling stories and other aspects of the character? How does the descriptions of what the artists like to create explain the relative diversity of male representations? Wait, doesn't some of his statements assume a male artist?
Also, when I and other people often discuss sexism in D&D art, we’re talking about the art as a whole, across the product and across the entire game. We’re talking about the lack of variety in age, body styles, clothing options, composition, content, and the like when it comes to female characters. We’re talking about how much more often you are to find a character with an exposed midriff or cleavage than someone above the age of 25 and why it is that so many of the images with multiple characters perhaps one or two token women in them, if any at all. If you haven’t looked at which images are chosen for the covers and the half-page vertical images for the classes (and races), I suggest taking a look. William O’Conner appears to be used for just about every class image and he, almost without fail, shows off the female character’s breasts and adds elements like garters.
People often step in at this point and ask why I’m bringing “real world” issues into the game. I’d like to turn the question around and ask why they are insisting on bringing “real world” discrimination into the game. Whether they like it or not, the game world of D&D has a world full of women over the age of 25. The Forgotten Realms is supposed to be a game world where women are equal to men. In a world with magic and healing, there’s no reason why women would have to be relegated to a subservient role in the world.
But the thing that really got me about the article is that Jon goes out of his way to talk about and even demonstrate why he believes that “sexism” is such a loaded term. Ok, fine, but if you honestly believe that, why use it to frame the entire discussion, especially one as important as the role of women in the D&D world? Why feed the trolls who believe that discussions that myself and other people have often, almost every day at times, are just some attempt at political correctness run amok.
That’s what bothered me the most about the post and what led me to feel the most betrayed. I spend many, many hours talking to people about how awesome D&D is, about how much I love being part of this community, and how to get more women to play. Then the very real feelings myself and others have about how women are presented in the game world, in both the art and text, feel dismissed because we dared to use the correct term to discuss them.
As for the circle of finger pointing, the “it’s not our fault because it’s what the customers want or what the artists turn over to us,” well, that’s the reason I started the Prismatic Art Collection. Are there limitations on what people like Jon can do? Sure. But there are many things that they could still do within the constraints.
- Create a safe space for female fans to provide feedback. It feels so strange to me that I have to point out that many women don’t feel comfortable commenting publicly, either as comments on a post or in forums. There are many reasons for that. Give them a space to leave comments and listen to what they say.
- For D&D Next, create a less restrictive license, even if it’s only for certain groups. I want to create D&D content that is more socially aware for the current version of the game since past versions aren’t always conducive to that sort of content. It’s also easier for the people I want to reach with it to get the newer books than the older ones and for them to get support from the community.
- Create groups (not races) within the D&D world that hold a variety of beliefs about gender, sexuality, and the like. Then divide the characters presented in the artwork among those groups. Then the artwork and the game text will more often align with each other. Cheesecake art will be presented in a context where it makes sense instead of feeling like it’s fanservice to a presumed heterosexual male audience who wants that sort of artwork.
I think those would at least make a good start. I’ll have more to add once we get to the commissioning stage of the Prismatic Art Collection project.