Along with a full character name index comes a bit of data. While not perfect (few things are), the frequency of page mentions can provide a hint into the importance of the non-player characters (NPCs) to the game. Frequently mentioned NPCs are more likely to affect the lives of the player characters (PCs). There is a greater likelihood of interaction or of the NPC either aiding or thwarting the characters.
Before I look at the data, I want to take a moment and say that talking about gender representation doesn’t mean that a work is automatically sexist or say anything about creator intent. I know both Wolfgang Bauer and Steve Winter. Wolfgang was one of the first people I did work for and both he and Steve have been supportive of me. I see things in the adventure that speak to conscious intent to be more inclusive of women. It’s actually one of the few published adventures I would run for myself. However, I’m breaking down this adventure into statistics in part because it helps me better understand our culture’s latent biases and how they might be reflected in the work we all do.
With that said, let’s start looking at the numbers. A good starting point is just looking at the number of named characters. Looking at my post yesterday, we have 53 male, 21 female, and 7 of unknown gender. That leaves us at about 26% female characters. That’s higher than the approximate 21% in the starter set adventure and in line with female representation in family movies. As that NY Times article mentions, it’s pretty common to have a Harry and a Ron for every Hermione.
Comparing the total frequencies of page mentions by gender shows that female characters were mentioned more often given their numbers than the male characters did, with approximately 35% of the total. The reason for this is easily found, one female character, Rezmir, had more than triple the number of page mentions, 35, than the highest male characters did individually, Dralmorrer Borngray and Leosin Erlanthar, 11 each. This makes sense, she is the “big bad” of this portion of the adventure.
By moving beyond the characters Rezmir, we can see how much of an outlier she is. For instance, of the 21 female characters, nearly two-thirds of them, 14, are mentioned on just one page. Compare that to about 54% of male characters being mentioned on just one page. If we break up the remaining characters into groups based on page mentions, 2-6 and 7-12 mentions, we find the ratio of male to female in the first group to be approximately 3 to 1 in each group with 17:5 and 7:2 respectively.
I think these numbers support the general feeling I had about the adventure, there are definite attempts at creating a world that is more gender equal, we still haven’t gotten to the place where gender equality in the Forgotten Realms is the norm (Caveat: My experience is by and large post 2009, earlier works may not match this impression). Also, I did leave the adventure with the continued feeling that the “dark side” is where it’s at for women still. It feels like the stereotypical “good” people tend to be more male and the others tend to be more female, but it's a good space for future investigation.
However, I’d like to take the time to talk about some of those attempts at inclusiveness in the adventure. First, as already mentioned, the “big bad” in this adventure is a female half-dragon. Her charisma is her second lowest score, with strength being her highest. She has legendary actions that she can take during her turns. The artwork for her (on page 79) does not have discernible breasts and she is not what humans would consider pretty. She’s intelligent and proactive instead of reactive. She is not fooled by Leosin Erlanthar and astutely moves the camp when he escapes.
Additionally, more than half of the episodes have at least one notable female character in them. Episodes 2 and 3 have Frulam Mondath playing a prominent role. Episode 4 has Jamna Gleamsilver. Episode 7 has Talis and 8 has Rezmir.
Throughout the book, there are sprinkled small vignettes that undercut the numbers. For instance, one of the first encounters of the adventure involves a human family, “father, mother, and three young children,” being attacked by kobolds. However, it’s the father who is injured and the mother who is protecting the family with “a round shield and a broken spear.” There are mentions in a few places reminding that the generic groups of creatures have male and female members, such ast eh mention on page 47 that “[t]he Scaly Death tribe comprises eighty lizardfolk warriors, both male and female.” Also, of the five caravan guards mentioned on pages 32-33, four of them are female.
Finally, while I haven’t had a chance to do a similar break down based on fantasy race and skin tone of the human characters, I really wanted to point out this artwork of Talis the White.
I’m not well-versed enough yet in the ethnic groups of the Realms to know where she is from but she does not look like a stereotypical fantasy European to me. Likewise, I love this illustration of Captain Othelstan.
This past week we recorded The Tome Show review of Tyranny of Dragons: Hoard of the Dragon Queen. During that review, we talked about how information dense the book can be and I know in preparing for it, I wished that there was an index of named NPCs. So, I decided to spend some time this afternoon creating one. (By the way, I was fortunate enough to get a free copy from Wizards of the Coast for review.)
|Azbara Jos||31, 37, 38, 39, 48, 54, 62, 77, 80|
|Blagothkus||75, 77, 78, 80, 81, 82, 83, 84, 85|
|Bog Luck||40,41, 42|
|Captain Othelstan||63, 72, 73, 75|
|Castellan Escobert the Red||7, 8, 9, 12|
|Craggnor the Dwarf||66|
|Dralmorrer Borngray||45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 52, 53, 55, 56, 58, 61|
|Esclarotta||75, 82, 83, 84|
|Frulam Mondath||9, 10, 15, 17, 18, 21, 25, 26, 27, 30|
|Galvan the Blue||68|
|Glazhael the Cloudchaser||68, 77, 83, 85, 86|
|Governor Tarbaw Nighthill||7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 13, 19, 28|
|Gundalin the Wheelwright||73, 75|
|Hulde||77, 78, 79|
|Jamna Gleamsilver||31, 37, 38, 39, 40, 42|
|Langdedrosa Cyanwrath||12, 15, 17, 18, 21, 24, 27|
|Lasfelro the Silent||32|
|Leosin Erlanthar||6, 13, 14, 18, 19, 20, 27, 28, 29, 30, 80|
|Lord Marsten||67, 74|
|Neronvain the Green||68|
|Nesim Waladra||13, 14|
|Ontharr Frume||20, 27, 28, 29, 30, 80|
|Pharblex Spattergoo||46, 47, 48, 49, 52, 53, 55, 59, 60, 61|
|Rath Modar||5, 48, 64, 77, 80, 83|
|Rezmir||10, 15, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 25, 27, 31, 33, 34, 39, 45, 46, 47, 48, 50, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 61, 62, 63, 68, 72, 73, 77, 78, 79, 80|
|Samardag the Hoper||33|
|Sandesyl Morgia||77, 81, 82|
|Severin the Red Silrajin||5, 68, 80, 81|
|Snapjaw||44, 45, 47, 49, 53|
|Sulesdeg the Pole||33|
|Szass Tam||5, 31|
|Talis the White||5, 48, 62, 63, 64, 65, 66, 67, 68, 69, 71, 72|
|Trespin the Troll||63, 64, 67, 69|
|Varram the White||62, 66, 68|
|Voaraghamanthar||45, 46, 47, 48, 58|
|Wessic the Wizened||69|
|Wigluf||77, 78, 79|
Named Characters by Gender
|Female NPCs (21)
Talis the White
Male NPCs (52)
Castellan Escobert the Red
Craggnor the Dwarf
Glazhael the Cloudchaser
Governor Tarbaw Nighthill
Gundalin the Wheelwright
Lasfelro the Silent
Samardag the Hoper
Severin the Red Silrajin
Sulesdeg the Pole
Trespin the Troll
Varram the White
Wessic the Wizened
Galvan the Blue
Neronvain the Green
The raw data, along with information about the NPCs' race and background (e.g. veteran, merchant, etc) as well as an index to illustrations can be found here: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1e-S_GU0ihGHuSb7-McU9rwS4esD2WBsG...
Also, be sure to grab the pdf supplement from Wizards of the Coast here: https://dnd.wizards.com/products/tabletop-games/rpg-products/hoard-drago...
You can buy Hoard of the Dragon Queen from Amazon.
- Tim Eagon pointed out that Sammaster is an NPC in the Forgotten Realms and is male.
In addition to the seriously awesome, Hacking as Women event, another thing happened at GenCon that reinforced my faith in D&D. Mike Mearls invited myself and Anna Kreider to have lunch with him. There was no real agenda other than to talk about our experiences and perhaps to help identify things we thought of as problems and maybe offer potential solutions.
This was a big deal to me. I respect Mike a lot. Heck, most of the people I know who work on games, many of whom I count as friends, whether it's Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, or Evil Hat, want to see more diversity in the portrayal of characters. I've known for a long time that the creators themselves wanted these changes, but that it could be unclear if they could or how to do it. A number of people have told me in various conversations that being on panels like "Queer as a Three-Sided Die" helped them see a perspective of themselves and their companies that did not match what they knew or wanted and that became an impetus for change. For instance, in a recent interview, Mike discusses being struck by surprise in the community that a WotC employee could attend a panel on LGBTQ issues.
In 2013, Jeremy and I talked about the Gen Con panel over lunch the following week, and I was struck at how the community was surprised that someone from Wizards of the Coast was able to attend. I had always felt that we were a fairly progressive company, but it drove home that people can’t read our minds. Our intentions don’t mean anything unless we reflect them in our work and our actions. Source: Mary Sue
And we know that they aren't just saying their intentions. They worked to make the art in the Player's Handbook diverse, something that Mike made sure to discuss when we interviewed him on the Tome Show. (Sorry we didn't ask more questions about it Mike, I wasn't sure then if we could.) They included the sex and gender inclusivity text not just in the Player's Handbook but as part of the basic rules. They've done a great job, in my opinion, of talking about D&D in places they might not have before, such as that Mary Sue interview.
And, finally, something that truly humbled me, Mike spent about 2 hours of his very busy Gen Con to talk to Anna Kreider and myself about our experiences in gaming. We talked and talked. Everything from how happy we were to see how they were changing their approach to our fears about being cut off every time we offer a critique of the product. This came at a very stressful time as we were both being harassed for those critiques for over a month before Gen Con. Mike talked about his hopes for the game and the community, the difficulties they've had in the past and during the reorientation, and we talked about some ways that we might be able to get there. He talked about his experiences with the various communities and how that feeds in to what they are trying to do. It was a great conversation, one that fills me with hope.
Look, I know that there is, for some, a lot of pain here when it comes to D&D. I'm definitely not saying that D&D is now perfect or even that we should stop critiquing. However, this sort of thing is why I haven't given up on the game and why I think it could go in even more awesome directions. If you want to be a part of that, let your voice be heard. Write about your experiences! Write about what you love but feel free to temper that with the stuff that gets you down. Play, experiment in your play, and write about that. Let's fill this community with diverse voices. They are listening. These changes were less likely to happen without Anna or myself writing what we write. Or if the community didn't express shock over the participation in panels like Queer as a Three-Sided Die. Or if Mike's coworkers didn't speak up to say that they thought they couldn't do progressive things. It's easy to never name our assumptions, but let's stop doing that.
Read about Anna's version of the lunch here.
Artwork: "Lead to Gold" © 2013 Kaitlynn Peavler and Cheeky Mountain Parrot Games, created for Conquering Corsairs, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/
P.S. I am opening comments up on this. However, I will be moderating them.
Contains spoilers for the D&D Starter Set adventure, Lost Mines of Phandelver
For those who haven't heard, Basic D&D 5e is out as a free pdf download and some friendly local gaming stores already have the Starter Set (everyone else can get it starting July 15th). I was fortunate enough to get a press-preview copy of the Starter Set for review. There's a lot I want to talk about but since Mike Mearls was kind enough to give us some hints about inclusivity in the new edition when we interviewed him on the Tome Show, I want to talk about that today, focussing on gender.
There are two obvious big things in the Basic D&D pdf rules that I'd like to mention upfront. The first is the inclusion of a comparatively progressive discussion of sex, gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation, in the game. Found on page 33, here is the full text:
You can play a male or female character without gaining any special benefits or hindrances. Think about how your character does or does not conform to the broader culture’s expectations of sex, gender, and sexual behavior. For example, a male drow cleric defies the traditional gender divisions of drow society, which could be a reason for your character to leave that society and come to the surface.
You don’t need to be confined to binary notions of sex and gender. The elf god Corellon Larethian is often seen as androgynous or hermaphroditic, for example, and some elves in the multiverse are made in Corellon’s image. You could also play a female character who presents herself as a man, a man who feels trapped in a female body, or a bearded female dwarf who hates being mistaken for male. Likewise, your character’s sexual orientation is for you to decide.
Some Opinions on the Wording
First things first. The intent here is nice. I mentioned the existence of this passage to one of my nonbinary friends over dinner and her eyes lit up. The fact that a game company the size of Wizard of the Coast was willing to start the discussion of these topics is important to me. That said, there is definitely room for improvement. Many people who don't feel quite comfortable with the way it was presented have been saying great things. I implore you to go out and listen to them. For instance, one person I admire, Avery Mcdaldno, wrote this:
First off: if that "X trapped in an X body" narrative works for your friend, that's great. We all find different narratives helpful.
The trouble isn't that the narrative exists, but that it has been used for decades as a single story. If the phrase single story doesn't mean anything in particular to you, this is a really good video: http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story
So, there are a couple reasons why this narrative is a harmful one to perpetuate as the single story about trans bodies.
The first is that it implies that total medical transition is necessary in order to belong to your body. In my case, that would mean: collarbone restructuring, jawline shaving (the face is opened up and the bones are scraped down), tracheal shaving, full-body electrolysis, vaginoplasty, breast augmentation, hormone replacement therapy, and more. At the end of it I'd still be trapped in a testosterone-sculpted bone structure. The "trapped" narrative suggests that every trans person needs to commit $10,000-$120,000 toward rehabilitating their body... and that until they do, it's still a wo/man's body.
The thing is: if you identify as a woman, your body is a woman's body.
To say that trans people are "trapped" in the "wrong body" implies a limited range of solutions for finding happiness: pay endless dollars or kill yourself.
Again, if it's a narrative that individuals adopt to make sense of themselves / their lives, that's awesome. I 100% support them. But it's different when others push it on you as a monolothic trans narrative, and lots of people see it as exclusionary / reductive / regressive.
"X trapped in an X body" puts the burden of change upon individual trans people, who are presumed to be broken and then instructed to fix themselves. We need a new narrative. One that says, "Navigate gender on your own terms, ask for the support you want, demand the resources you need, break the binary where you ought to."
There's a really important piece of writing by Little Light, Elena Sims - http://takingsteps.blogspot.ca/2007/01/seam-of-skin-and-scales.html
Another person, Caoimhe Snow, said this:
I will add that as far as I know, this is the first time that Corellon has been called "hermaphroditic" -- previous descriptions of the god referred to something like (from memory) "he, she, both, or neither" which is an example of genderfluidity (and/or divine shapechanging powers), and not of intersex genitals.
There's a lot of other problems with it, ranging from possible confusion of the "female character who presents herself as a man" with a trans man to the fact that most trans people aren't themselves outside of the gender binary.
They had good intentions, but it's clearly written from a cis perspective to a cis audience in way that casts trans people as outsiders -- even explicitly so by referring to intersex magic elves.
Some people pointed out that they would love to see a rewording of the text instead. neongrey posted this new wording:
You can play a character of any gender without any mechanical effect, but you can consider how that might affect your roleplay. You might think about how your character's gender and personality relate to their culture's expectations of them. Do people think it's unusual that your fighter is a woman? Did your drow cleric leave for the surface because his temple wouldn't accept him?
Neither do you need to conform to binary notions of gender. Elves and dwarves are often perceived as androgynous in two very different ways, for example. You could also play a character who feels no gender applies to them, or a woman unhappy with the body she was born with. Don't forget the prevalence of magic lets you explore these possibilities in ways you couldn't in real life, no matter what your own gender is. Your character's identity is entirely up to you!
I hope Wizards of the Coast listens to these various perspectives on the language and updates it in future versions to be even more inclusive and welcoming. I loved that it was pointed out that this is not the first time D&D attempted to address these issues, for instance I believe it was 3e who said you can play a male or female character. Unfortunately, that inclusive left out others because it reinforced the gender binary.
Does the product meet its stated goal?
So, leaving aside where the wording definitely can be improved, let's look at whether or not the promise of the section is matched with the reality of these two products. I've read over both the Starter Set and the basic rules a few times. I think the hints Mike gave about the inclusivity in the art hold true, at least when it comes to gender. There's only one piece of art in the basic rules. While I think there could still be some critiques regarding it, it can be read as having parity between male and female genders and the female characters aren't the only ones not on the front line.
This trend also carries through to the art in the Starter Set. (Sorry about the quality, as far as I can tell they didn't release the art online and I'm not near my scanner.)
Lots of women who are by and large similarly posed and dressed to the male characters. There's another image where I'm not even sure if one of the characters is of a particular gender. At least two of the female characters in the Player's Handbook continues this trend according to previews sent out by Wizards of the Coast.
I'm happy so far with the way the art has been done and I think it meets the promise of the sex and gender section of the Basic Rules. So what about the writing?
First, let's look at how gender is portrayed in the races section of the Basic Rules.
[Elves] Males and females are about the same height, and males are only marginally heavier than females.
Halfling men often sport long sideburns, but beards are rare among them and mustaches even more so.
Male dwarves value their beards highly and groom them carefully.
Human skin shades range from nearly black to very pale, and hair colors from black to blond (curly, kinky, or straight); males might sport facial hair that is sparse or thick.
So, first, let's acknowledge that they had very little space to talk about these races and that none of the descriptions are sexist. However, they do start to reinforce the gender-binary and cisgender norms, no? Also, the inclusivity text asks us to think about how our characters act in accordance with or in contrast with the gender expectations of where they are from yet the only gender expectations set here are for the male characters. It doesn't intend to, but it can give the impression of the male character traits being more important. I've discussed this in more depth in a previous post.
Also in the Basic Rules, they talk a bit about two fighters from D&D novels and how they can both be the same class and yet very different. It's great that they give a male and a female example. However, both examples have elements that are stereotypical when it comes to gender:
Tika Waylan is innocent, almost childlike, believing in the value of life and the importance of appreciating everyone. Neutral good in alignment, she cleaves to ideals of life and respect. Artemis Entreri never allows his emotions to master him, and he constantly challenges himself to improve his skills. His lawful evil alignment gives him ideals of impartiality and a lust for power.
Tika Waylan is naive and emotionally vulnerable, younger than her companions and annoyed that they still think of her as the kid they knew years ago.
Artemis Entreri is completely walled off from any personal relationships and just wants to be left alone.
I think it's important to say here that part of the issue is dealing with the history of D&D is that it has a checkered past when it comes to gender. As with the inclusivity statement, I believe Tika was likely added in an attempt to counteract gender stereotypes but, also like the statement, there may have been some blindspots during her creation and development and in the way that the examples were picked and presented in the Basic Rules.
While the Starter Set rules are also pretty neutral when it comes to sex and gender, the adventure, in my opinion is a mixed bag. Let's start with named characters where the gender is known from the text.
Sir Aldith Tresendar
There are a few other characters that I wasn't quite sure how to categorize: Tsernoth, Palien, Ander, Thistle, the dopplegangers Vyerith and Vhalak, and Tergon. Now, not all characters need to have a clear gender designation, but the gender ambiguity on some of these characters leads to further issues. Let's look at some of the +1 weapons one can obtain through the adventure:
The chest also holds a +1 longsword in a silver-chased scabbard. The sword is inscribed with the name “Talon,” and its hilt is worked in the shape of a bird of prey with outspread wings. It once belonged to a great knight named Aldith Tresendar, known as the Black Hawk. A character who succeeds on a DC 15 Intelligence (History) check recognizes the sword and recalls this lore.
Beneath the coins is a rusty old battleaxe of dwarven manufacture. Runes in Dwarvish on the axe head read, “Hew,” and the rust is misleading. Hew is a +1 battleaxe that deals maximum damage when the wielder hits a plant creature or an object made of wood. The axe’s creator was a dwarf smith who feuded with the dryads of the forest where he cut firewood.
This +1 mace was made for a cleric of Lathander, the god of dawn. The head of the mace is shaped like a sunburst and made of solid brass.
This +1 breastplate has a gold dragon motif worked into its design. Created for a human hero of Neverwinter named Tergon, it grants its wearer advantage of saving throws against the breath weapons of creatures that have the dragon type.
None of these items are directly connected to an obviously female character (I'm holding out slight hope that Tergon turns out to be a female character). In fact, one of the +1 weapons appears to be connected to killing dryads, a race that is specifically tied to the female.
There's also an uncomfortable plot line in Phandalin. One of the male characters, Thel Dendar, was killed for standing up to the Redbrands after some of them leered at his wife.
Thel Dendar, a local woodcarver, stood up to the Redbrands a tenday ago when they came by his shop and leered at his wife. The ruffians murdered him. Several townsfolk saw it happen. The Redbrands grabbed his body, and now his wife, daughter, and son have gone missing too.
It's not their shop. They didn't stand up against the Redbrands together. He wasn't killed during a fight after she stood up to them. Only he counteracted the leering. She and their two children are then kidnapped by the Redbrands, who also turn out to be slavers. Mirna, the wife, and their daughter are in one cell and the son in another.
A pair of disheveled human women are held in a cell to the south, while a human boy is confined the north. All are dressed in plain gray tunics and have iron collars fitted around their necks.
I'm willing to bet no one thought about it, but this feels uncomfortable to me. Redbrands leered at her, she is kidnapped by them, they are slavers, the two women are in their own cell, and only they are described as disheveled.
Let's also look at how some of the female characters are described:
Elsa, a gossipy barmaid
Trilena, the innkeeper’s wife
Linene Graywind, sharp-tongued
Halia Thornton, ambitious and calculating
Qeline Alderleaf, wise
Agatha (a banshee), vanity
None of these are necessarily a problem on their own and in a diverse world with lots of examples of women, they wouldn't raise an eyebrow. But to me, they don't really push gender stereotypes much. Why is Trilena a wife of an innkeeper and not an innkeeper herself? Why have the banshee be vain, a trait commonly associated with women? Also, where are the women who are described like Sildar?
Sildar Hallwinter is a kindhearted human male of nearly fifty years who holds a place of honor in the famous griffon cavalry of the great city of Waterdeep. He is an agent of the Lords’ Alliance, a group of allied political powers concerned with mutual security and prosperity. Members of the order ensure the safety of cities and other settlements by proactively eliminating threats by any means, while bringing honor and glory to their leaders and homelands.
Daran Edermath is a retired adventurer who lives in a tidy little cottage beside an apple orchard. A fit, silver-haired half-elf well over a hundred years old, Daran is a fighter who served as a marshal and herald for many years…
It's also important to note that none of the women are/were adventurers. While a few serve as liaisons for larger groups in the Realms, many of them exist to do nothing more than point the PCs in the right direction to get more information or help with many of those destinations being male characters. Now sure, some of the male characters are presented in stereotypical or negative ways, such as the townmaster.
The current townmaster is a male human banker named Harbin Wester--a fat, pompous fool. Completely intimidated by the Redbrands, he claims that they’re “just a mercenary guild, and not all that much trouble, really.”
But we also have men in the town who are actively standing up to the Redbrands, something that the women aren't doing.
I want to acknowledge that they are trying. There are parts where we can tell that. For instance, the list of important NPCs has parity. But there are still quite a few blind spots. No one of the items I brought up above are necessarily an issue on their own, but the overall trend is. I have faith that they will continue to work on it.
As for the question asked in the title: Yes, I feel like it is a more inclusive D&D, but that doesn't mean that there isn't still work to do. We need to iterate and improve.
I enjoy props at a table and I find that toys can often make for wonderful props. For example, at a variety store a few years ago, I bought a miniature Stonehenge set.
Inside the box there are three groups of things: puzzle pieces for creating the base of Stonehenge complete with numbered areas to help you with placement of the pieces, the "stone" pieces, and a booklet of information about the site.
Even without the stone pieces on top, the base could be used to help describe an area in a game. Anything could be in those numbered squares. For instance, they could be statues (or living things turned to stone). You also could hand out the puzzle pieces over time as pieces of a map or an ancient scroll that showed how certain artifacts had to be placed in order to complete an intricate and ancient ritual.
In addition to the base, the construction of Stonehenge could be used in multiple ways. For instance, it could be off to the side as a form of clock to show how much progress an adversary has made towards obtaining their goal. Or the PCs could be tasked with finding some or all of the pieces of Stonehenge and put it back together. Or maybe the dragon they fought had knocked the pieces down and it is up to them to set everything up right again. Additionally, the fully finished model could be used as part of a puzzle that involves how light would shine on the location at a certain date and time.
The Stonehenge set was made by a company called Running Press. Amazon has a number of their kits.
Similar to this set is another toy I found (although I didn't buy it quite yet). At a local store, I saw a toy penguin that is made up of seven stackable wooden pieces.
As with the Stonehenge set, this could be used as a clock for either the PCs or their adversary and help illustrate their progress towards a goal. Similarly, one could take the image of an important NPC or location in the game and create a puzzle out of it using card stock or cardboard. The nice thing about the puzzle is that it's possible that the players can guess it before the final piece but it helps keeping you from giving too many clues at once. However, if they still can't get it after they have all the pieces, it may be time to allow them access an expert or take 20.
What sorts of toys inspire your games?
When we talk about women fighters in medieval-inspired fantasy games, people will often go on about how we're really trying to reinvent history. In some ways, they are right. Few women fought in organized armies at the time and most of history was written about those armies. However, in many ways they are missing the point.
Most Men Didn't Fight
A combination of ancient and modern warfare clouds our understanding of much of Medieval Western European combat and armies. We're used to large standing armies and large drafts to create larger and larger armies, especially in the two World Wars. We're used to large percentages of young men and smaller percentages of young women shipping off to war.
This view of war would have lost many Medieval wars. The simple reason: food. We have much higher crop yields today, coupled with machines to make harvesting easier, and this frees up more hands for the war effort. I read on one site that we're talking about something like 1 in 30 seeds would mature to feed us in Medieval Europe versus 1 in 2 to 1 in 7 today.
Lower crop yields required much more land and labor than today. To send significant numbers of men, especially young men, off to war would have put the fields and harvest in jeopardy. The exception to this would be the sons of nobility. Since one of the defining characteristics of the nobility is that they didn't work with their hands, they often didn't work the fields. And since titles couldn't be shared or split and a titled family often needed as many resources as possible, spares didn't always have much of a future to look forward to.
Since the overwhelming percentage of men were commoners tied to land and were needed to farm it, the vast majority of men simply wouldn't have been involved in the formal military campaigns of the period, the very same campaigns we often rely on for our information about medieval warfare. We ignore this for games like D&D because it's just not exciting. If it's not exciting for male characters to keep to historical realism, I might suggest it's not exciting for female characters either.
Overlooked Combat Opportunities
With the focus on formal military campaigns, other sources of combat experience often are overlooked. For instance, we know of a number of peasant uprisings during the period. Rebellions have long recruited whomever they could get and have been a source of opportunity for women who yearned for something more. Likewise, when under attack, women could be employed in a variety of defensive positions. They could pour boiling water from above.
In addition, women have long provided combat support roles throughout history. Wives, daughters, and other women might accompany a military campaign. Some would have been noble women, often attempting to get pregnant since that was their and their husband's duty.
Why Do I Find This Important?
There isn't as much documentations on women in these positions in part because it just wasn't that important to the people at the time. Portraying women as independent and strong went against the typical narrative of the day. But when we look at the vast amount of data from the past 300 years, we see plenty of evidence that the formal narratives of the time often differed from women's lived experiences. We should keep that in mind as well as remind ourselves of the limits of history:
- Someone had to find the information important enough to record.
- Future generations had to find the information important enough to save.
- Our generation has to find the information important enough to seek out.
With all of that said, I'm not arguing for historical realism in the majority of games, such as D&D. Instead, I'm suggesting that we cease using inaccurate "historical realism" as an excuse to perpetuate the gender bias and stereotypes we have today.
I recently found a profile of Samantha Swords from the Fight Like a Girl blog (part of Combatant Magazine). For those who are unfamiliar with Samantha Swords, she is a Western Martial Arts (WMA) fighter, actor, prop maker, stuntwoman, and more. Earlier this year she won the long sword competition at the World Jousting Invitational in New Zealand.
I particularly enjoyed her insights into fighting and I think it could be useful to gamers and other creators of fantasy stories. Too often I hear that women are just smaller and, thus, have no chance in combat. She talks about this a bit but points it out as an advantage.
We ladies have a unique advantage over our sword brothers. As well as having a lower centre of gravity, we’re predisposed to be physically inferior, which means that we have to work harder, be accurate and quite cunning to maintain the edge against most of our competition.
It may sound like an illogical advantage, but developing these attributes should happen anyway as a fighter; it’s just necessary for women to get a headstart because we have less to offer in the brawn department. Due to WMA being in the infancy of its revival and having no solid divisions of weight or gender, we’re allowed to be outmatched in competitions. This is good, it teaches humility for learning proper defence. We need to apply tireless dedication to getting things right, because the result is much more obvious when we don’t.
While I know a number of women who are physically bigger and stronger than the vast majority of men out there, I agree with the overall point that not being to fall back on brawn means that women fighters often have to dedicate themselves to their craft. While I don't always find it important to replicate our sexism based on differences in physical size in fantasy literature and games, I do think the concentration on training and practice would be important to anyone of a smaller size regardless of gender and especially among women.
Additionally, Swords points out a number of martial arts that work well for people who aren't as large or physically strong.
I’d advise any female fighters to look at aikido, kumi uchi, goju ryu, and all the fighting guides you can find that use biomechanics to take a pressure or force, and redirect it to compromise your opponent. This will enrich your understanding of historical European combat, because they all point to the same concept: that effective martial arts don’t rely on speed, strength or agility, but an artful understanding of physics and how to apply it to the human body. If your technique doesn’t work because “you’re not fast or strong enough”, you’re doing it wrong!
Often in fantasy stories, we often think that only the strongest or best capable served in combat. The reality was far more complex. We have many different combat styles in part because we were at the mercy of who happened to be available at the time and their capabilities. The challenge put before those responsible for martial maneuvers was how to use what they had to get the result they needed or wanted. We know women have always fought, we just don't always have records of who they were and how they fought.
In a world that didn't tie leadership to combat and/or didn't believe in the natural inferiority of women could easily be set up to teach people of all genders how to fight in a way that used their natural attributes and skills to the best possible advantage. This often didn't happen in the middle ages, at least in the rhetoric, because women's supposed inferiority was an important part of the governance structure, which relied on divine right to rule combined with patrilineal and patriarchal customs. If your fantasy world doesn't have those same strictures, it's harder to argue for the continued lack of women warriors in a society.
I'd like to ask you to consider one further reason why you should include at least athletic girls and women if not women warriors in your stories. Earlier pulp novels could assume an audience that reflected the sexism of the time. This is becoming less and less true. For instance, since the introduction of Title IX in the US, women's athletics has increased dramatically with a 560% increase at the college level and 990% in high schools. Additionally, around that time self-defense courses grew in popularity as a rape counter-measure. Few girls and women my age and younger want to hear that they are physically incapable of defending themselves or others and fewer people, regardless of gender, are used to a world in which girls and women are kept from physical exertion. It does not reflect our reality and will break suspension of disbelief for many, disregarding the fact that many of us want to be strong when we use literature as escapism.
So, if you want to include more women fighters but also want it to make it feel "real" enough given our society's current views of women, this might be a good start. In fantasy literature, Arya from Game of Thrones is a good example of this. If you want more examples of warrior women, especially those who study WMA, the Fight Like a Girl blog highlights more. I also know quite a few women who fight in the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) such as Jeanie Davan.
Also, while I'm on the subject of women fighters, I must point out these awesome sketches by Tess Fowler. Here's an example and you can find more here.
Looking for some inspiration for your bard? I recently watched the movie The Sapphires and loved it. It follows the adventure of four singers who happen to be aboriginal women, showing the racism they face in Australia and their dreams of catching their big break by playing for the troops in Vietnam. Three of them are sisters: Gail - the headstrong lead singer, Cynthia - a jilted bride-to-be recently left at the altar, and Julie - a young mother who wants a better life for her and her son. They are joined by their cousin Kay, a woman who had been stolen from her family because her skin was pale enough to pass as white in Australian society. Along the way they are helped by a down-on-his-luck Irishman, Dave Lovelace.
The Bechdel Test
The movie passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors. Not only are there four main characters who are also women, but they rarely talk about men or relationships with each other. Most of the conversations are about their lives and their goals. All of the female characters have their own personalities with relatively complex motivations and backstory. I also love how they handle the women's sexuality. They have sex, fall in love, and everything but those elements to ordinary life are not presented in a negative light. They also are allowed to be sexy and sexual without being sexualized.
Race and Racism
In addition to being featuring four aboriginal women, the film weaves race and racism into its narrative in interesting and compelling ways. The sisters enter a talent contest but are denied the prize due to their background. The relationship between Gail and Kay is strained as result of Kay's upbringing away from the family, a reference to Australia's Stolen Generations. Martin Luther King Jr's assassination is referenced and provides an impetus for them to perform for the troops. Many of the US soldiers are African-American.
While these elements are all presented, they are not the driving force of the story. The primary story is about the adventure of the four women. However, the issues of race are woven in nicely and something that could help game masters and game designers alike.
Based on Real Life
The movie is inspired by the real lives of the original Sapphires: Laurel Robinson, Beverly Briggs and Naomi Mayers. They were a band of three aboriginal women who played at clubs, parties, universities, and more in the Melbourne area. They were asked to perform for the troops in Vietnam, but two of the original members refused to go as a protest against the war. The remaining member, Robinson, went with her sister, Lois Peeler. Robinson's son, Tony Briggs, used their story as inspiration for a play based on their experiences. This play was the basis of the movie. The role of Lovelace was created for the film.
This past weekend I was honored to attend CarnageCon as a special guest. It's a wonderful con held this year in Killington, VT and previously at Lake Morey. I ran 12 hours of a D&D Next version of Reclaim Riverbend. Now, because it was a con, we didn't run with any crunchy rules for the exploration section, but we played with the premise of rebuilding after a war, playing in a sandbox, and having player driven stories.
I think it was a great success. A couple of the players played the whole 12 hours, and a number more played 8 hours worth. As a DM, I was really happy. Here's a picture from the second 4-hour slot.
So the first thing about the game is that the set up really helped ease play. I started by giving each player character one NPC character they could bring with them. As an example, the cleric chose an underling acolyte and the rogue chose to know the military commander in the town. This helped in a number of ways. First, I think it helped the players feel like they had a bit of the world that they knew and could interact with. Additionally, as they played, they had someone else that they could also make up stories about. The cleric, for instance, named his acolyte Ned and would add flavor by talking about the types of sermons Ned was making and the reactions of the townspeople to them. He also set up Ned in the church after they cleared it of the undead and a dark priest. He even decided to create his own sect, the Order of the Radiant Heart.
In addition to the one NPC to start, each PC had 10 commoners each who came with them. These would be the people who did the basic chores of the town. They also served another purpose. As the PCs cleared out areas, one of the commoners would often step forward and take over a job. So, after they had cleared one of the small forests, one of the commoners stepped forward to become a forester. Likewise, when they cleared out the brewery, one of the townspeople had skills as a brewer and stepped forward.
Also, having a map helped them figure out where they wanted to go and what they wanted to do. I used the map from Village of Hommlet, and just described how every place except the Inn of the Welcome Wench was more or less rendered uninhabitable. They were concerned about where the villagers and decided to check out the old cottages first, which turned out to be a good thing because one of them was haunted by the ghost of any angry former inhabitant who had been killed in the great raid. Likewise, they often would balance where they went with the needs of the town. They cleared out the cottages and the docks (so people could be come fishermen) but also decided they needed better ale and cleared out the brewery. Then it was the mill so the town could grind flour.
Obviously I have a bunch more to do before I can make it a thing and I need to develop my own town map if I want to publish it, but being able to run 12 hours of gaming on this premise was a great confidence boost.
As a note, we played mostly theater of the mind style. I used the Noteboard product to draw rough maps to help the players visualize areas. This worked well with D&D Next but obviously might not work well for every game.
The main thing I'd love to work on before I did it again would be interactive environments. The setup worked well in showing the players that what their PCs did had an effect on the town, but I wish I had more traps, rituals, other interactive elements (like a complex arcane machine), and maybe some friendly NPCs in various areas that the PCs could interact with. More food for thought.
Finally, a tweet from one of the players after the game:
— Geoff Duke (@gcd) November 10, 2013
Also, I had the honor of being the first DM for a young boy and we had three other teenagers join in. That felt good too.
I wanted to give some more concrete examples of where my thoughts around Reclaim Riverbend are currently. Since it's a well known module and fits pretty well, I'm going to use The Village of Hommlet as an example.
Village of Hommlet is great because it lays out an entire village complete with a village map as well as maps of a few of the buildings. My thought is that much of the town would have been destroyed by a combination of neglect by the evil forces that inhabited it (they did not agree that cleanliness is next to godliness) and the battles for control of the town. I think I would set everything except either the walled manor house (27) or the Inn of the Welcome Wench (7) as being in some state of being too broken to be immediately useful. I haven't figured out the mechanics of repair, but it would be something like filthy, cosmetic damage, structural damage, and beyond repair. Filthy buildings could be repaired without access to resources beyond labor. Cosmetic damage would require access to wood, either from other homes or a forest. Structural damage might require a carpenter. Beyond repair would require labor to remove the rubble before it could be built on again.
A nice thing about using something like Village of Hommlet as the underpinning is that we can tell the story of that village through this game even if we don't use everything from it. The people still existed and we can tell their story in the background elements and in the items left behind.
Let's ignore the ability to harvest wood from the forest for now and only rely on reusing materials found in the town. Let's say each destroyed house provides 10 wood. Cosmetic damage requires 1 wood, structural damage requires 3, and new construction of a modest cottage requires 5. (I'm not sure how fine-grained I'll be when I get further along, so take this all with a grain of salt.) Repairing buildings with cosmetic damage doesn't require specialization and takes less wood. The issue is that the building the group really wants might not be one of the ones that are the cheapest to fix. Do the players focus on fixing the easiest to fix buildings first? Do they try to adapt the building to a different use than intended, costing them perhaps a few more resources and more time? Or do they focus their resources on the buildings they think would best serve them?
These are decisions constantly being made after a catastrophe. What do we have? What can we save? What is the cost of saving it?
One of the issues after war is that many of the trade routes are disrupted. A village like Riverbend couldn't expect regular deliveries of resources from other places. First, the area is still far too dangerous for all but the least risk averse merchants. Second, many towns and cities need goods after a war and Riverbend isn't exactly a thriving place full of coin. It needs to make itself better known for that. So currently, the town can except a visiting merchant only about every month or three. I might increase the frequency if I specialize the merchants though. Additionally, costs might be higher for even basic goods that have to be imported from elsewhere. For now, let's say that there is a 50% rise in prices.
The Village of Hommlet module works well for this because it faces trade issues. In the case of the module, a bunch of bandits have been attacking trade caravans. They are holed up in the ruins of the moathouse, a complete adventure already written for DMs. Since Reclaim Riverbend is a post war game, I might change some of the bandit characters to fit into that theme better. Maybe they deserted during the war or they grew cynical from their experiences and decided to live for themselves after the war. They also could be left over enemies who didn't want to go home.
Defeating the bandits would improve trade through Riverbend in addition to potentially giving real items as treasure. So after they are dealt with, let's say the additional cost of goods gets reduced to 25%.
An additional benefit to The Village of Hommlet is that it's tied to the Temple of Elemental Evil. I might have in one of the buildings some writings from one of the evil clerics or wizards that mentioned ruins in the area of the town. By this point, between the overturn in inhabitants and the amount of time that has passed, it's quite possible that none of the current inhabitants remembers the temple. This diary could talk about how the cleric or wizard wants to find the legendary ruin and increase their reputation. The PCs might decide to see if the other side was unable to uncover the ruin or decide that they don't care, they want to see it for themselves.
You could even run Temple of Elemental Evil as a flashback before they discover it in the present. You could then modify the ruins to take into account the decisions of your group and, who knows, maybe the past adventurers left something behind that could be used by those in the present.
So that's my thought on how the concept of Reclaim Riverbend can be used to tie together published adventures in a way that reinforces the core story being told and organically changes the world around the characters. I fully acknowledge it might not be for everyone. Obviously, if I were to create my own Reclaim Riverbend for publishing, I couldn't use Village of Hommlet as a base but it's a perfect fit as an example of what could be done. Additionally, the framework doesn't need to be limited to D&D as a resolution mechanism. Other games, such as Fiasco, could be used for certain types of adventures or scenes and still have an impact on the world. For instance, perhaps the players want to convince a wizard to take up residence in the tower but he wants the PCs to prove that they are worth his presence. A Fiasco-style playset could be a fun way of determining if they succeed at the task of wooing him.