Let's continue with our discussion of the first episode of the Hoard of the Dragon Queen. Since last time, Mike Shea of SlyFlourish made a compelling argument for having the Half-Dragon Champion mission be the last of the evening. I tend to agree with him, especially since there is a good chance that one of the PCs will be a bit beat up after it and may not be able to participate in any further missions, such as Save the Mill. Also, I've heard that quite a few groups had to take at least one short rest during the night, so allow them to take it if they need it.
When I have the luxury of time, I like taking a peek at how other people run the adventure. One of the nice things about living in the future is that a lot of people have slick campaign wikis on places like Obsidian Portal. For instance, Loremaster kept to the 1 hour shifts in describing what happened. WinWizard did something I had been thinking of, giving the PCs a label/reward based on the number of townspeople they saved during the course of the night.
As for me, I know one of the things I struggle with the most when running a game, especially a sandbox one, is keeping information straight, especially when the choices characters make in one encounter could affect an encounter that happens hours if not days later. Also, I dislike bogging down the game for things like XP calculation and other record keeping. As I referenced in the last post, I'm creating a bit of a playbook as I go through this adventure to help me provide a bit more structure to the information and make my job a bit easier. You can see the current version here.
The first part lays out the goals for the episode. What are the key elements to the episode that, as a DM, I want to be sure to highlight? In this case, I know I need to introduce a few important NPCs, both the PCs' main allies and some of the antagonists. In addition, we need to give them a clue that something bigger is going on. This isn't a random raid by a bunch of bandits, cultists, and in particular members of the Cult of the Dragon, are amassing quite a treasure pile. Additionally, we need to put a bit of fear into them, the typical kick down the door approach is likely to get them killed especially since the cultist group has an idea that there are adventurers afoot.
As I play through the episode, I can cross out names and check off boxes after I've addressed the goal. This helps me too in terms of pacing because I really don't want to have a big info dump at the end. If I'm 2 missions in and none of the goals have been addressed, I need to step up with info sharing. It helps in this episode that the missions are meant to help with these goals, so it shouldn't be too hard of a task.
The next section has a empty schedule on the left and the list of detailed missions on the right. While I put down the time schedule, there's no need to keep to it. My big thought here is that it would be nice to know later what order they did things in. Imagine if 6 months from now they are in a bar and hear a bard signing a song about the burning of Greenest and she gets most, but not all, of the details right.
After that I have some key information to record for each mission. This includes information that is used for generating XP or is useful later in the adventure. For instance, the PCs can get XP for each townsperson they bring back during the Seek the Keep mission or their XP might be cut in half during the Sanctuary mission if too many townspeople die. Having a quick place to note this info (and a reminder about what is important to note) can make the process of giving XP, if that's what you're group is doing, much easier.
Finally, I have the list of enemies listed in the episode at the bottom as well as room to keep a tally of the number defeated. Even if you're using the milestone based leveling instead of using XP, this can be useful for things like pulling minis or providing achievements for the group, if that's your style.
I tried to keep it to one-page, in part at Mike's suggestion. However, I could see a slightly longer version being made that helped by listing the DCs and such. So, take a look and tell me what you think. I hope to do them for all the episodes.
Ok, so we discussed the number of characters and representation by gender a bit in the adventure, but let’s get deeper into the adventure itself. One thing to know is that this adventure has a lot of characters and is character-driven. This was a driving force behind creating the index. While the majority of characters are relatively minor, keeping track of them isn’t.
During the course of the adventure, the player characters will uncover the Cult of the Dragon’s secret, they are attempting to free Tiamat from her prison in the Nine Hells. To do this, they need to gather the five dragon masks and combine them to create the Mask of the Dragon Queen. Several of these masks have already been found. In addition to masks, the cult is gathering riches to present to Tiamat upon her return.
It is this latter goal that drives the cult to raid the town of Greenest, which the player characters just happen to be near. The first episode start assumes that the players are together and outside of town. This can be tricky, since unless the DM has laid the groundwork, there isn’t necessarily a reason for the PCs to defend the town. The adventure even mentions that they may decide to not do so. The Id DM offers advice for how to tie the player characters more closely with the town, ensuring a smoother entry into the story.
Once they get to Greenest, they will be run through a gauntlet of missions to help save as much of the town during the night. This is one area where the organization of the book hinders the DM. Overall, the book feels like it was written to be an enjoyable read more than as a playbook for running the adventure. On my first read through, I got a great picture of what was supposed to happen that night. I could think of at least a dozen movie or book scenes to use as my mental picture of what was going on. But as I read through it again to prepare for this blog post, I realized that I didn’t understand a lot of the expectations of how to actually run the episode, but more on that later.
Greenest in Flames is meant to be run in a sandbox fashion. It has four main goals: introduce the characters to some of the people who will feature prominently over the next few episodes, establish the PCs as hero with some renown, clue the players in that their decisions will have consequences and cause the world to react to them and let the players know that this adventure is not OSHA approved, their characters can and will go through some brutal stuff.
To aid in these goals, the adventure provides example missions that the PCs can undertake. While the book presents this as a sandbox and in theory the order should not matter, the proposed structure for the episode suggests an order. The proposed structure is thus, the PCs arrive at 9 pm and need to survive the night. Sunrise is at 6 am. Most of the raiders will be gone by 4 am, with many leaving before then (leaving in waves is a nice detail to reinforce to help with episode 2 in particular). Each mission should last 1 hour. According to this plan, the PCs could participate in seven missions during the evening. Several of the missions either state that they will happen at a specific time or imply that they need to happen after other missions. For instance, the dragon attack states that it happens slightly before midnight, which would be in slot 4 if we keep to the suggested timing. The suggested reason for the attack is that Mondath knows the adventurers exist and that they are in the keep. This implies that they’ve already had time to be heroic. Likewise, the save the mill mission is a trap set specifically for the PCs. The prisoners mission makes more sense after they have done one or two missions but early enough in the night that the information might be useful. It’s also a good time to tell the PCs that leaving the keep through the front gate is out of the question. However, the mission states that it can be combined with others, so keep that in mind too.
My suggested ordering is:
Option A: keep to the midnight timeline on the Dragon attack (he’s bored and really doesn’t want to be there anyway)
1 Seek the Keep
2 Prisoners/The Old Tunnel
4 Dragon Attack
5 The Sally Port
6 Half-Dragon Champion
7 Save the Mill
Option B: Push the dragon attack back an hour to give the PCs more time to establish themselves as heroes in town
1 Seek the Keep
2 The Sally Port
3 Prisoners/The Old Tunnel
5 Dragon Attack
6 Half-Dragon Champion
7 Save the Mill
I have the half-dragon champion mission right after the dragon attack because it just feels more cinematic that way. The morale in town should be pretty low after the dragon attack. Having the call for a champion right then allows the half-dragon to really gloat. Also, the story implies a stepped withdrawal from the town. Having the mill after that would make sense as a parting blow directed at the PCs and gives them the opportunity for an up beat before the end of the episode. It all depends on how you want to tell the story of course. This is different from SlyFlourish’s suggested order, so I think there’s definitely a degree of flexibility to this.
One thing that confuses me about this episode, though, are the random encounters. They are sprinkled throughout the episode description and I’m never sure if the new ones mentioned are supposed to supersede the table at the beginning or not. So let’s explore that aspect a bit more.
The section called “Wandering Encounters” contains a table of random encounters and mechanisms for how to determine when the group encounters one. I say mechanisms because how the characters act determines which one to use.
Skill check If they are being stealthy and careful, each player makes a stealth check for their character. If they are using the stream bed for cover, they gain advantage. For every two failures in the group, the group will have one encounter.
Distance If they aren’t being stealthy, then the DM rolls a 1d8 for every 100 feet traveled. If the result is 5 or higher, then they will have an encounter and the DM rolls on the random encounter chart.
One difficulty with this system is that while there’s a map with scale, very few paths have the distance detailed in advance. So, one suggestion I’d make to DMs is to have a good idea of the distances ahead of time. However, it’s often multiple hundreds of feet between the areas on the map, so it’s clear that being stealthy has a clear advantage here since with a four PC group, the max encounters would be 2 per travel attempt, regardless of distance, where it could easily be a max of 5 or more with the distance based system.
However, a number of the missions have descriptions that vary from this system. For instance, “Seek the Keep” states that there should be a static three groups of raiders between them and the keep. Additionally, they will meet a group of NPCs each time they retreat. If those NPCs join their group, the group will have an additional encounter for every four townspeople. This makes some degree of sense, a large group will attract more attention. Other missions have overrides as well. For instance, the Old Tunnel has its own method for determining if there are some random encounters.
None of this is an issue, but it can make the episode a bit chaotic for the DM. In the next post, I’ll take a quick stab at creating an info sheet for the DM to help limit the chaos.
Art from WikiCommons: Paolo Uccello - The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Dragon#mediaviewer/File:Paolo_Uccello_...
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.