dnd


Minotaurs, Udders, and Worries of Gender Stereotyping

Minotaur Shaman by Jared von HindmanMinotaur Shaman by Jared von HindmanIn two recent posts, Jon Schindehette and James Wyatt explore the minotaur and question what defines a D&D minotaur. From everything I can tell about D&D Next, the entire mythos of D&D is getting a once over in preparation for the core books and two of the important guiding principles seems to be 1) does it feel like D&D and 2) is this creature/class/background iconic enough. For the latter, I believe they want to make sure that each creature seems unique and is instantly identifiable.

One of the issues with minotaurs is that over the years the creature has gone from the one-of-a-kind monster created as a punishment for defying a god's commands through the union of a snow-white bull and a human woman and found in the labyrinth beneath Crete to a full race with society, offspring, and the like. Since there was no society in the original stories, the earlier D&D authors had to create one. They often centered on the beastly qualities of minotaurs, and that makes sense to a degree. Hence why minotaurs often have a gore attack or are described as being incredibly strong.

It's not wrong to have some races who exhibit these traits, and I can see the minotaur as being one where it makes sense to have so a strong dichotomy between sexes. I do quibble a bit on a few elements though on how things are presented.

Physically representing the gender of a minotaur

In his article, Jon has a section on, if there are female minotaurs, how should their sex (or gender) be signified in the art. The poll has three options: human-styled breasts, cow-like udders, and they should just all be male. This left me with some questions. Why do we only talk about how females should be represented physically, but not males? Do they not see how this reinforces that females are the other? And why is the first thought to represent gender as a biological dimorphism rather than in another way? I mean, we don't have to display the male minotaur's penis to show that he's male (even though it would also fit with our mythology since bulls are often tied to virility and fertility).

Minotaurs as a symbol of Strength and Power

From James' article we have this possibility for the minotaur origin story in D&D:

Sometimes, when Baphomet’s petitioners plead with him for strength and power, he rewards them by transforming them into minotaurs. Some cultists thus transformed view it as a blessing, others as a curse, and each viewpoint largely depends on the opinion they held of Baphomet before the transformation.

This quote in itself isn't worrisome, but I start to get a little nervous when we consider that according to Jon's poll, minotaurs might be male only. One of the issues I've had with D&D (and part of why I didn't play for a long time) was that all-female races were often tied to looks, either being so beautiful that poor adventurers, especially male ones, couldn't help but want to have sex with them, or so ugly that no one would want them and that made them bitter old, well, hags. All-male races tended to be beasts of some kind, influenced by their out of control appetites, whether they be sexual, as with the satyrs, or gastronomical in nature. If minotaurs are male-only, this continues the tradition of gender stereotyping where it doesn't make much sense. I realize that cows are often seen as docile, but they are also strong.

Things I'd Love to See

Again, it's none of these are at the "this is so obviously sexist and I will not purchase these products" level of thinking, but it makes me worry a bit and is one of the difficulties of looking at individual races without seeing the whole picture. How many other races support this rather human-based dimorphism?

Focus on Needs and Motivations More than Sex and Gender - What do these races eat? Are they civilized? If so, what do they produce and trade to others? What are the race's core needs - food, shelter, companionship and the like. In just about every society, all sexes contributed more than just children to the community. If you need gender roles, give everyone jobs beyond procreation. In some early societies, physically weaker (but perhaps faster or higher endurance) people would help herd deer and other game towards the skilled and physically stronger hunters. Find interesting things for everyone to do. Characters tend to have very similar needs and motivations; their sex and gender often influence how they satisfy them.

Write from the Point of View of the Female Members - My experience with many previous editions is that they took either an outside observer stance or spoke about the society from the male viewpoint. The main exception I can see are the Drow, but they are so incredibly problematic in my opinion that I can't advise someone use them as an example. I'd love to see more of a person on the ground approach.

Value Female Contributions Equally (Where it Makes Sense) - Yes, we will have some societies and/or races that are horribly sexist (like the Drow). However, as noted above, in many societies, especially where there isn't an overabundance of resources, everyone has to contribute to society. In societies that have gender roles but aren't meant to be oppressively sexist, consider valuing the contributions from female members of society as highly as those from the male members. Remember, many fantasy societies still rely heavily on a barter economy rather than a currency based one. Food and clothing was often a more immediate need than a new sword or iPod and, in settings that lack of technology, could be a bit more expensive to get.

Understand the Biases in the Source Material - Many of those myths we use as the basis of our stories, including D&D, were meant to transmit values to younger generations. The heroes and monsters were meant to convey what behavior would be rewarded and punished by the societies that told them. Likewise, many of the earlier editions took a field guide approach to discussing creatures, concentrating on what they ate and looking at their mating and childrearing habits. One thing to consider there is that there's a long history of scientists trying to use nature to reinforce what they considered to be proper human behavior and they hid or would not report on behaviors that deviated from their expected script.

Is Sex-DIfferentiation Important for this Race? - Consider how important sex-differentiation is for the race. There are lots of animal species out there where it's rather difficult for humans to tell the sexes apart. They still seem more than capable of reproducing, so why should it be so important to every race in a fantasy world to outwardly display their sex?

Move Beyond Primary and Secondary Sex Characteristics - This emphasis on primary and secondary sex characteristics, especially of women characters, feels a bit creepy to some women and men. Seriously, a female character should be more than her organs, whether they be her legs, her breasts, or her skin. Many societies find it important to mark the transition to adulthood in some outward way. Perhaps we can use those as signifiers instead, and have them for all sexes and genders in the society?

Consider non-heterosexual and non-cisgender viewpoints - Throughout human history, we've had differing opinions on close and romantic relationships between members of the same sex. We've also had differing opinions on the importance of gender and even whether or not gender is binary. By bringing some of that diversity to the gaming world, we can cut down on some of the sameness we often experience.

Remember Rule Zero - Rule Zero doesn't just work in the game, it happened in real life. When war came knocking, people often didn't care whether or not so-and-so didn't want women to have weapons. Women are just as intelligent and resourceful as men and they would use what they knew about to try to fight off invaders.

Stop Giving Gendered Answers to Poll Questions - Seriously, guys, enough with poll answers like "My kid sister could kick its butt."

Understanding Boundaries

A frequent topic in gaming and game socializing has to deal with respecting personal boundaries. Just about everyone has a line (or multiple lines) that they prefer people don't cross. Sometimes they are common boundaries, part of our culture and/or subcultures. Other times they are personal and often point to our individual traumatic experiences. These boundaries may shift, for instance I know my husband has different boundaries from my close friends and they have different boundaries compared to complete strangers.

One of the difficulties we face, particular online and at gatherings where people outside our core social groups might be present, is a misunderstanding over boundaries. I feel there's a tendency to normalize the behavior of our friend groups and assume that new people we meet, especially ones that seem similar to our friends, will welcome the same behavior. When we act in ways that others have welcomed and the person ends up not responding in the expected way, it's a form of rejection. That can be hard for many people to take, especially people who haven't experienced it before.

We also have an additional problem, at least in the US, of certain sayings that minimize and or dismiss the boundaries set by women in particular. "Boys will be boys," "you can't blame a guy for trying," etc, these all are meant to tell women that they should keep quiet when faced with someone who doesn't respect their boundaries and they tell men and women that the boundary crossing is normal and expected. It's not the person violating the boundary that's at fault, it's the woman who complains.

I bring this up because I've received quite a few comments recently that attempt to defend a person who disregarded either my own or another person's boundaries.

Do you like ribbons?

The first I'd like to bring up is a benign interaction that happened to me in a GenCon hallway. Sunday morning I rushing to get to a morning meeting. As I walked down the hall, someone came up to me to ask a question. From what I could gather in the brief interaction, he had seen that my badge had some ribbons, he wanted to play Settlers of Catan, and asked if I wanted to play. I told him thanks but no, I had a morning meeting to get to. He said ok and we went our separate ways.

For the most part, not much going on there. Except it did bother me a bit. I couldn't figure out why he thought he should stop me, even though I was in my city-walking pace, to play a game. There were a fair number of other people around. I don't think I made eye contact with him first and I was walking pretty quickly, not sitting or standing. As far as I can tell, I wasn't anywhere near the actual games area, although he could have interpreted the ribbons I had gotten from Susan Morris and E Foley to be Catan resource ribbons. Was it because I was wearing a skirt? Or maybe he was hitting on me? I didn't know at the time and still don't know.

I wrote about this experience on G+ not to say that the guy was horrible, because he wasn't. However, I did feel a little uncomfortable and I wanted to explain why, partially in a naive hope that it would enlighten people about the ways some women think. The response from some people, however, was quite disheartening. They wanted so hard to defend the guy and explain to me why I had no right to feel uncomfortable.

Example comments:

Note to self - if inviting a random stranger to play a game at a con, read badge and make sure it's not +Tracy Hurley because, holy crap.

But I also think that sometimes an invitation to play Catan is just an invitation to play Catan. And if every time a male has to read the mind of every female before inviting her to play a game at a convention? Screw it. He'll just ask other dudes to play.

Sorry everyone, if my defense of random ConGoer's completely normal and not-at-all inappropriate actions translated into me being a bit of an ass. It's probably this penis I have that's causing all the problems. Stupid penis!!!

If I am reading this right, you are interpreting a guy inviting you to a game as hitting on you. And making a pass at a woman is bad because she may not be comfortable?

No offense, but if that is the case you are taking it a bit strangely. People interact with strangers all the time and sometimes they want to follow their biological urge to reproduce. That's life.

okay, that detail wasn't clear to me. the stopping you while you were obviously in a hurry has nothing to do with being a horny guy. It's just rude. But life is full of rude people, so I stand by "that's life"

That being said, don't blame guys for being interested in women. That's what they do. Men try to be agents, they see women as goals to be attained. This is biology.

Tracey, you can find it as fucked up as you want. Humanity is not pretty, it's a biological-social mess. I don't blame you for wanting to vent when a person inconveniences you, or makes you feel uncomfortable, but dudes are gonna try to do what their body tells them too. Maturity is the control of these urges. You dealt with an immature person.

Throughout these comments (by two different men, but lots of men said awesome stuff, so keep that in mind too), there are some common themes. The first is a bit of myth about men and masculinity, that is men can't help themselves whenever they see a woman they are attracted to. We see this a lot in classical mythology and the motif is repeated in many stories since. People who buy into this sometimes believe it's hatred of men to be made uncomfortable by this "fact" of male sexuality. The issue is that men are more than capable of comporting themselves and not violating another person's boundaries even when their passions are aroused. It's a skill people learn as they grow up. The problem is, if you tell them they don't have to learn it, some won't.

Another common theme is the belief I'm supposed to care more about the man's feelings in this than I am my own. That the man's desire to tell me something or interact with me should be given more value than my desire to move from point A to point B in a timely and efficient fashion, and that by not valuing that person's desire more than my own, I'm not being nice and am someone who should never be randomly invited to play games. But here's the deal, the context is all wrong for those conclusions to be the ones drawn. If I had been in the gaming area, or come up to a group playing a game, the question, as asked, would have had a context that would have removed the elements that made me uncomfortable.

Some of the responses to the story made me much more uncomfortable than the event itself. I was getting the clear message that I was not allowed to establish boundaries if they violated what some people feel are men's rights to chase women.

Who uses the word banging anyway?

A few days before the Catan incident, I was at a bar near GenCon relaxing with some friends. Trevor Kidd and I were sitting on bar stools having a nice chat when this guy comes over and starts talking to Trevor. I listened to the conversation for a bit and at some point the guy realizes that he mistakenly thought Trevor was someone he talked to earlier. He decides at that point to introduce himself. They exchange names and then the guy turns to me and says, "Hi girl who's banging Trevor." Yeah. I had a choice to make there. I could have let that ruin my evening. I could have gotten mad. But you know what, I was having a pleasant evening. I was enjoying hanging out with Trevor. So Trevor and I just sort of looked at each other and laughed.

I'm glad I was in a place where I could do that, surrounded by friends who probably would have understood if I hadn't taken the laugh it off approach. But it also made me feel nervous and uncomfortable. I was with a bunch of other people are in the industry. I have a column for Wizards of the Coast, I have a well known blog, I freelance, and I do podcasts. I was on a panel the next day. Yet, to this guy, the main thing he considered about me was that I must be there for a sexual reason. If I hadn't known the people so well, I probably would have been really embarrassed and would have felt unsafe enough to leave the bar.

Telling people they make you uncomfortable is disrespectful?

This story isn't about me, but it has some of the same themes. Recently, my friend Chelsea had a guy on twitter who was saying things to her, at first over DM but then publicly, that made her feel uncomfortable. He made it clear that he paid enough attention to how often she tweeted to be able to assume that she was asleep, a comment he sent via direct message. After she unfollowed him, he started making comments to her publicly, including telling her that she needed to know that she is pretty. Even though she rarely replied to his messages and had even unfollowed him, he didn't get that he was making her uncomfortable.

When her boyfriend told him to stop contacting her, the guy went after him, doubling down and saying he had a right to say what he wanted, that it was freedom of speech and that she should just ignore him if she didn't want to hear it. He even went on to seek out some of the people who were providing her support.

At some point, she realized that this guy who wasn't respecting her boundaries also was a customer at the store where she works. That made her feel uncomfortable and she said so. The person responded by claiming she was disrespecting him and sending a tweet to the corporate twitter account of the place where she works. He claimed that she should not be able to say this about a customer because he was not acting creepy.

I've seen this a fair bit unfortunately. Some people, in many of my experiences men, get upset when people point out that they feel uncomfortable around them. That someone finds them creepy is disrespectful and must be "corrected." But here's the deal, when you not only ignore someone's boundaries but claim you don't have to respect them because you have a right to something, you are being creepy. Being creepy isn't about particular actions or behaviors (although there are some behaviors that are highly likely to cause that response within a particular culture), but it often is about not respecting a person's boundaries. Yeah, I get that sometimes it's hard to know what those boundaries are going to be in advance and that not everyone is great at picking up on non-verbal cues and that there are some medical conditions that make it much harder to discern these things. Most people I know get that too. But, there's a difference between unintentionally crossing someone's boundary (at which point, it's probably best to just apologize or at least step back a bit) and claiming that they have no right to set that boundary in the first place.

These repeated violations of boundaries and the arguments that women's boundaries don't have to be respected if they conflict with traditional male behavior are wrong. They make some women feel that it's better to opt out of the community and are one of the biggest barriers we have to getting more women to go to conventions and to participate in public spaces.

Running for Girl Scouts

This year I had a real treat at GenCon. For the past few years, Susan Morris has created and run a game for Girl Scouts based on the Heroes of Hesiod adventure she wrote for Wizards of the Coast. HoH is a simplified version of D&D for kids. This year I suggested a Halloween sleepover adventure, in part inspired by a few episodes of My Little Pony and because dressing up and telling spooky tales are activities that many kids would have experience with.

For me, when trying a new game, I find it easier if the scenario draws from elements in my real life: traditions, holidays, occupations, and the like. Many kids celebrate Halloween in the US, they participate in dress up, and they tell stories. The costumes element of Halloween was an added benefit because the players could dress their characters however they wished, and one of the girls at my table wanted to be a princess and the other a unicorn (I ran a smaller table so we didn’t have as many players at first). Giving them this control over their characters seemed to get the girls more interested in the game.

We also tried to pick monsters that were instantly recognizable, had fun noises or movements we could act out, and that the players could interact with. The first monster was a ghost that I based a bit on Slimer from Ghost Busters. The ghost dripped slime over everything, including the heroes. If they tried to move after being slimed, they might slide in unexpected directions. (Playtest Note: In hindsight, the heroes didn’t move enough to make this important, so I might adjust it in the future.)

After that we had the zombie. I skipped it in my game since we started late and the smaller group size made things a bit more swingy, but many of the tables loved this monster. Susan designed it so that it could throw its brain at the heroes. If the brain hit and got stuck, the hero would then attack whomever had the tastiest looking brains around, turning on her fellow heroes. Some of the tables played with throwing the brain around at each other.

The next monster was one of my weird ideas, a possessed sleeping bag. It lept up from the ground to attack the nearest hero. If it succeeded, it covered her and anyone other than the engulfed hero who attacked it risked injuring the hero inside. We had quite a few turns where someone tried to pull the sleeping bag off of one of the poor heroes.

Finally, we had the imp who was controlling it all. On its first turn, the imp produced two copies of itself. These functioned like minions. The girl who picked the main imp to hit felt great about her choice and the others liked making the duplicates disappear with one hit.

The game went great. I could have been better about giving the girls more opportunities to control the story, but they still had a great time. One of them noticed that we had skipped the zombie and asked to fight it after the main game. She and another girl set up the scene for the zombie attack, they were watching a zombie movie on tv when the zombie on screen came through and started attacking them. One of them loved running away from the shambling zombie and they both wanted to stay clear of the brain. The girl who asked to fight it also asked for the adventure at the end. It was pretty clear that she wants to play again. Fortunately for her, her father is a D&D player, starting with 1st edition if I recall correctly. Since he played in the game, he should have a good idea of what she might like.

So, that was the Girl Scout game. I’m glad the girls enjoyed it and I would love to write more adventures for that age group in the future.

Why random roll gender?

This morning, Pelgrane Press had a pretty awesome tweet:

So why is this awesome? Consider that while there are a large number of women who game, many groups are predominantly male and many of the content creators are male. As an additional layer, parts of the community feel uncomfortable about gender bending during games, that is having players play characters that are not their own gender. What this means is that many of the characters, especially PCs, are male and the focus is on male stories[1].

Artwork © 2012 by Susan Knowles. Available through the Prismatic Art Collection. Licensed under the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution-ShareAlike license.Artwork © 2012 by Susan Knowles. Available through the Prismatic Art Collection. Licensed under the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution-ShareAlike license.Given this focus on the male characters, it becomes easy to forget about women, particularly in games that claim some degree of historical accuracy. We've always had exceptional women and, in every society, women were rarely true victims and usually had their own sources of power. However, since those power structures tended to exist separate from the public sphere, they are left out of many history and gaming books. Furthermore the opportunities and challenges faced by women tend to vary depending on socio-economic class, but many of our stories focus on the interests of the ruling or upper classes.

Also, women's power tended to ebb and flow. Women have a long history in resistance movements in part because those movements often promised more freedom for them and also because the groups needed all the help they could get. During times of disease or war, women were called upon to fulfill traditionally male tasks. Someone needed to keep the farms and shops producing. For wars on local soil, women were called on to aid in defense. Even armies that marched elsewhere often had some women in the camp followers: wives of soldiers and officers, wives and daughters of the provisioners, blacksmiths, and the like, women who provided entertainment or other services.

The interesting thing about these stories is that while they were often promoted during the conflict, most often aren't spoken of after the conflict ends. Sure we might talk about the ones we can't ignore, especially if in the end it doesn't turn out well for the women, such as Joan of Arc. One reason for this is that it often didn't suit societies needs to talk about the bravery of its women when the men returned home. These acts of heroism and individual resolve were in direct conflict with the female gender role which stressed that a woman's worth was to be found through marriage and children.

My hope is this. Random rolling of gender should lead to a greater number of female characters. In order to make them unique and interesting, we'll have to look at history how it really was, complex. We'll start appreciating women's contributions to society and value what people like Molly Pitcher and Elizabeth Wynne. While I might hope that people would expand their ideas of what women are capable of, even if they decide to keep to the traditional definitions, I hope they might see that women often faced the same problems as men and found their own solutions within the framework they were presented. Finally, if more characters were women, I might hope that the audience would demand more artwork of women that was meant to fit their character and the world, rather than to serve as decoration.

[1] I don't point these things out to make a judgment about it but rather to explain how behaviors that are reasonable and rational might lead to unexpected and perhaps even unwanted outcomes.

The artwork is from Farewell to Fear.

Review: Even the Women Must Fight

During a recent discussion about Brad Murray’s No Contact, the issue of dealing with female characters in a game set during the Vietnam War came up. To satiate my own curiosity, I started researching women’s roles during the war. The beauty of Google is that sometimes you find things you didn’t expect to find. In this case, I found stories about women from the Vietnamese side, namely the long-haired warriors and other volunteers who did everything from road building to fire the anti-aircraft guns. During this research I came across the book, Even the Women Must Fight: Memories of War from North Vietnam.

Not only do I recommend this book for people who love history and women’s stories, but I also think it makes a great book for game designers and writers, especially ones who would like to include more female characters into their games. The book does, in my opinion, an excellent job of portraying the internal struggles of women as they deal with a society that views them one way but requires them to act another, especially in times of war. In addition, it explores the frequent revisionism that happens after wars, where men’s valor and bravery are often embraced and celebrated while women’s contributions are often reframed if not discarded.

Trung Sisters: The Trưng sisters ride elephants into battle, painted by Bắc Ninh.Trung Sisters: The Trưng sisters ride elephants into battle, painted by Bắc Ninh.By the time of the American War (what we call the Vietnam War), the country had a complex and sometimes contradictory view of women. The book’s title is named after a Vietnamese proverb, “when war strikes close to home, even the women must fight.” There’s a long history of women warriors in Vietnam including the Trung sisters, two women from a rural military family who lead a rebellion against the Chinese and Trieu Thi Trinh, (Lady Trieu), rumored to be 9-feet tall with yard-long breasts she threw over her shoulders while she fought against the Chinese. More recently, some believe hundreds of thousands of women were instrumental in the victory over the French at Dien Bien Phu.

This reality of warrior women contrasts with other beliefs about the proper place of women in Vietnamese society. As the book explains, confucian beliefs often asked for obedience from women, first to their fathers, then their husbands, and finally to their eldest son. Daughters-in-law were often expected to make their mothers-in-law happy. An importance was placed on male children, not only as a way of continuing the family line but also as a way of ensuring that women would be taken care of in their old age, especially as they were expected to not remarry if widowed.

Layered on top of this were the beliefs brought to Vietnam by the French, both in terms of how they viewed women and how they viewed the native Vietnamese people as a whole. A number of the women relate how it seemed that the French were willing to allow a number of discriminatory practices against women to continue under their rule, even as women in France enjoyed rights they did not have.

Finally, we have Ho Chi Min and his beliefs that women should be involved in the political sphere. For a number of women in Vietnam, this gave them hope that they would be able to live a different life than the one offered to them under the traditional beliefs. However, as with Confucianism and French doctrines, this was a foreign idea as well, brought in as part of a push towards Communism.

These varying and sometimes contradictory views of women mean that understanding women’s service and reactions to their service can be complex and difficult to understand. Women served for a number of reasons, from a desire to follow in the footsteps of the traditional tales of women warriors to a belief that women’s emancipation would follow victory to a pure sense of adventure.

Immediately after the war, while there were many stories about the men’s acts of bravery and valor during the war, the women’s stories often went untold. The book presents a few reasons for this, including male control over many of the media outlets, that male bravery is seen as something to embrace while female bravery makes them less feminine, a desire by some women to forget their service and move towards a more normal life, and guilt by some of the men over the sacrifices made by women during the war.

Those stories that did present the female story often reframed the women as being more sexualized or traditionally feminine than they were. In my studies, I’ve seen similar revisions of history after other events. The key here is that the war is recent enough that it’s possible to talk to the people who served but enough time has passed that many documents about the war are available.

Not only is the book an interesting study in understanding a foreign culture in terms of its own culture and how these complex feelings on the role of women in society might lead to their invisibility in the stories produced after the war, but it provides a lot of great information for creating strong female characters. The book repeatedly talks about how the experiences of the women survivors are different from those of the men. Many of them spent years fighting in remote jungles, often catching malaria, disfigured by injuries, and suffering from PTSD. While many of them fought in hopes they would be able to have a traditional life of wife and mother, the long years of war left them undesirable to many of the men.

Some decided that their inability to find a husband wouldn’t stop them from attempting to have a child. Artificial insemination was too expensive for most, so they had to find men who were willing to have sex with them in a society that frowned upon such relations. The number of children born this way lead to changes in laws and practices that led to these children being accepted as part of the village in ways they were not before.

Those who found husbands often faced another difficult decision. Exposure to chemicals during the war, particularly Agent Orange, increased the odds for many that they would give birth to a child with birth defects. Some decided the risk was too great and went childless in a society that judged women on their ability to have children.

Overall, this book is a great window into what is often the secret world of women. Many of the issues faced by the women, both during and after the war, are discussed in a mostly frank manner, although it is important to note that the interviews were conducted in the presence of a Vietnamese official. There’s a diversity in experiences in the book to show that the women had differing views about the war and their role in it as well as the ongoing role of women in society. It provides a number of tales of heroism, bravery, and leadership from women. Many of the war stories compare and contrast service experiences of men and women. Finally, it shows how and why women’s contributions to war efforts are often made invisible after the conflict ends.

Finally, if this is a topic you are interested in learning more about, the book has an excellent bibliography and also discusses some fictional accounts, including some movies.

Episode 200 of the Tome Show

For the recent Tome Show episode 200, we decided to play a game. I decided to create a mixture of D&D versions for the game to make it run faster. Since a few people wanted to see how the characters looked, I'm adding them here.

These are really quick characters I created from scratch for the game. I departed from tradition for the AC calculations. I gave each of them a special benefit or a few based on their occupation. We played a bit loose with the rules and had a ton of fun with the game.

Social skills: CHA
Knowledge skills: INT
Athletic Skills: STR/DEX

Butcher Baker (Fred)
HP: 15 + Con (Healing Surges: Con + 1)
AC: 10 + Con, FORT: 10 + CON/STR, REF: 10 + INT or DEX, Will: 10 + WIS/CHA
Weapon: Cleaver (Attack: +STR, Damage: 1d6 + STR)
Weapon: Stink bags (Attack: +DEX, Damage: 1d4 + DEX, on hit, target smells)

Sure strike (encounter): +STR + 2 bonus to hit
Quid pro quo: Gain a +Cha + 2 bonus to a negotiation check by offering quality meats.

Rod Huggins, Candlestick Maker (Randall)
HP: 15 + 2 (Healing Surges: 3)
AC: 12, FORT: 10, REF: 14, Will: 11
Weapon: Candlestick (Attack: -1, Damage: 1d6 + 1)
Weapon: Sling (Attack: + 4, Damage: 1d4 + 4)
Equip: Phallic shaped candles, 19 hard wax balls (slingstones) Backpack, Waterskin, Loaf of Bread, Jug of Wine, Torch, Tinderbox

Lighting the way: Gain a +WIS + 2 bonus to search checks (if aiding, the aid bonus goes from +2 to +4)
Unless turned off, always increases light of room one level (dim to standard, standard to bright)

Sager the Magician (Andy)
str 9/-1 dex 14/+2 con 11 Int 17/+3 cha 15/+2 wis 14/+2
HP: 15 (Healing Surges: Con + 1)
AC: 10, FORT: 10, REF: 13, Will: 12
Weapon: Dagger (Attack: -1, Damage: 1d4 -1 )
Weapon: Sling (Attack: +2, Damage: 1d4 - 1)
Magic Missile: (Autohit, 1d4 damage)
Web: (Attack + 3 vs Reflex, Restrained)
Cantrip: Ghost sound, mage hand

What does it say? +5 to checks for understanding text or languages

Tailor Alfonse Threadbare (Brian)
HP: 17 (Healing Surges: 3)
AC: 12, FORT: 12, REF: 13, Will: 11
Weapon: Dagger (Attack: +1, Damage: 1d4 + 1)
Weapon: Crossbow (Attack: +3, Damage: 1d6 + 3)

Pinpoint accuracy: (2 x encounter) +1d6 with combat advantage

STR 13 (+1), DEX 16 (+3), CON 14 (+2), INT 9 (-1), WIS 12 (+1), CHA 11 +0

Stuff: Sewing kit, feather boa, hand mirror, Jermone my floor length mirror bearer.

Apothecary Apothacus Maximus (Jeff)
HP: 16/4 (Healing Surges: 2)
AC: 11, FORT: 11, REF: 12, Will: 12
Weapon: Dagger (Attack: +1, Damage: 1d4 + 1)
Weapon: 7 potions from the following list:
1) Alchemist’s Fire x1 (Attack: +2 vs Ref, 1d6 + 2)
2) Grease x2 (Makes square slick, -2 penalty to Athletics checks)
3) Laughing gas x1 (Distraction, grants combat advantage until save)
4) Healing potion x1 (Restores full health)

What’s that? Automatically identify most common household items and a +2 to any other appraise or identification checks.

STR/DEX/CON 13 (+1), INT 15 (+2), WIS 12 (+1), CHA (+2)

Things: Random apothecary-ish stuff.

Who Guards the Queen?

This weekend I watched Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame. I loved it and want to borrow a number of items, both large and small from it. The backdrop of the movie is the upcoming coronation of the first and only female emperor in Chinese history, Wu Zetian. A number of officials die in a horrifying manner, seemingly by spontaneous combustion. Wanting to save her coronation and under the advice of the Chaplain, the soon-to-be Empress summons a former rebel, Detective Dee, and orders him to solve the mystery. What follows is a story full of action, romance, magic, and epic fantasy.

Note: Some spoilers for both this movie and Game of Thrones.

The movie provides lots of inspiration for any fantasy RPG. However, what particularly struck me about it was the use of female guards. One of the Empress' attendants, Jing'er, accompanies Dee on his investigations, often fighting alongside him as they are beset by a number of challenges. Jing'er is not the only female attendant. In many scenes, especially in the palace, most of the people in the background were women.

In fantasy, we see a similar role for women in Game of Thrones, with Brienne of Tarth. She aligns herself with Catelyn Stark. In The West Wing, a female Secret Service Agent is often around Zoey Bartlett, in part so she can go into places that men cannot go, such as restrooms. A quick Google search shows a number of real life corollaries, including a Ukrainian group protecting dignitaries during Euro 2012, Chinese women who serve as bodyguards for wealthy people, and similar group in Britain.

In cultures that separate women, having female bodyguards are useful for the same reasons that female assassins are. For one, they can go to areas that are often off-limits to men and travel in a closer proximately to the women they protect without risking as much in terms of rumor and suspicion. Also, while a large, muscular person, regardless of gender, tends to be rather easy to notice. Bodyguards who are valued for their wisdom or reflexes might be overlooked.

Finally, by using women for these roles, groups who want to can push the boundaries of gender roles, even in a fantasy society that traditionally frowns on such things. In a world where shapeshifters exist, having a few women capable of protecting the Queen sounds like a good move to me.

Comics I Love: Spera

A few weeks ago, I came across the Spera graphic novel, written by Josh Tierney and illustrated by a number of artists including Kyla Vanderklugt, Hwei, Emily Carroll, Olivier Pichard and Afu Chan. Since I’m using the Comixology app on my iPad to read the comics, I’ve only read the first 3 issues of volume 1, but I’m already in love.

The tale follows the lives of two princesses, Lono and Pira. Lono is a more traditional princess, her days were filled with “sitting, reading, and dreaming.” Then one day Pira arrives with news of a grave threat and convinces Lono to flee with her. Together with Pira’s best friend and fire spirit, Yonder, they seek adventure and life. Along the way they fight a hill monster, climb a steep cliff, and negotiate for their meals and a place to sleep, all while pondering what it is they want from life and from each other.

As for why I love the series, well, first the artwork is amazing. Using multiple artists to tell the tale was a great choice, especially since the story seems to follow a traditional hero’s journey story line. The multiple artists reinforces the feeling that we often crave similar things, to be understood, to be in control of our own destinies.

Besides loving the graphic novel itself, the story could be a great starting point for a game. It also made me ponder using D&D Next for it since Pira’s reasons for leaving home, to find adventure and rescue the princess Lono, are such common motivations for fantasy, and by extension, D&D stories. As much as I love 4e, it’s not quite the right feel for it since it’s clear that Lono and Pira aren’t quite heroes yet (although Yonder is fairly powerful). In addition, the flexibility I see so far in D&D Next, especially its lack of master skill list and the equal emphasis on interaction and exploration, fit well with the narrative of the story.

Thus, the comic reminds me what I hope for most with D&D Next. I would love things to stay simple and flexible enough where I can create my own themes, backgrounds, and the like so that if I want to build a campaign world similar to Spera’s, I can do so easily. I could create a background and a theme for Pira that gives her access to simple fighting maneuvers as well as skills such as climbing, while creating another one for Lono to emphasize the skills she would have learned as a more passive princess. Yonder could be a character half controlled by the DM but also accessible to the players as a limited resource.

More information can be found on Spera-Comic.com. Also, I love the ComiXology app for the iPad. It has a special view option that shows you a panel or two at a time, creating movement, and providing composed scenes. It's also helped me learn how to read comics.

Adventurers of Old: Perseus

While doing research for my The DM and the Medusa post, I was struck by how it has many of the elements of a decent adventure. Here's the story as related in the Perseus entry on wikipedia.

When Perseus was grown, Polydectes came to fall in love with the beautiful Danaë. Perseus believed Polydectes was less than honourable, and protected his mother from him; thus Polydectes plotted to send Perseus away in disgrace. He held a large banquet where each guest was expected to bring a gift. Polydectes requested that the guests bring horses, under the pretense that he was collecting contributions for the hand of Hippodamia, "tamer of horses". The fisherman's protégé had no horse to give, so he asked Polydectes to name the gift; he would not refuse it. Polydectes held Perseus to his rash promise and demanded the head of the only mortal Gorgon, Medusa, whose expression turned people to stone. Ovid's account of Medusa's mortality tells that she had once been a woman, vain of her beautiful hair, who had lain with Poseidon in the Temple of Athena. In punishment for the desecration of her temple, Athena had changed Medusa's hair into hideous snakes "that she may alarm her surprised foes with terror".

Athena instructed Perseus to find the Hesperides, who were entrusted with weapons needed to defeat the Gorgon. Following Athena's guidance, Perseus sought out the Graeae, sisters of the Gorgons, to demand the whereabouts of the Hesperides, the nymphs tending Hera's orchard. The Graeae were three perpetually old women, who had to share a single eye. As the women passed the eye from one to another, Perseus snatched it from them, holding it for ransom in return for the location of the nymphs. When the sisters led him to the Hesperides, he returned what he had taken.

From the Hesperides he received a knapsack (kibisis) to safely contain Medusa's head. Zeus gave him an adamantine sword and Hades' helm of darkness to hide. Hermes lent Perseus winged sandals to fly, while Athena gave him a polished shield. Perseus then proceeded to the Gorgons' cave.

In the cave he came upon the sleeping Stheno, Euryale and Medusa. By viewing Medusa's reflection in his polished shield, he safely approached and cut off her head. From her neck sprang Pegasus ("he who sprang") and Chrysaor ("bow of gold"), the result of Poseidon and Medusa's meeting. The other two Gorgons pursued Perseus, but, wearing his helm of darkness, he escaped.

Perseus is a bit brash and gets called on it by Polydectes, a moment of "Oh yeah, you think you're hot stuff? Fine. Bring me the head of Medusa." We fear for our hero because, well, Medusa is scary, but by doing some research and planning (and a little wit and luck), he's able to assemble a number of tools that make it a bit easier. This sounds a lot like the play sought in the diceless skill check system. The magic items are unique and separate quests are undertaken to find them.

While some people enjoy this type of play, others might feel too much like they are playing a game of read the DM's mind. It can also be interpreted as a way to force players to play through a particular story line. Also, planning all of this can add to a DM's workload, especially if the DM isn't keen on improvisation. I've heard some groups, including some of my friends, who aren't keen on how easy encounters can get after smart play by the players.

I'm interested in exploring another path. What if players, with the DM, could easily find out or even design the solutions that makes the challenge easier to overcome. Perhaps the character studied monsters with a particular keyword or from a particular location. Or maybe each player could contribute one idea of an item they would have to retrieve or create. We could even tie it into the various themes, backgrounds, and traits. Are you an artifact hunter? Great, you grab a trait similar to the blacksmith one but it lets you detail a new artifact in the game world (with DM permission). It could have a limit of once per day, once per creature or even once per level.

For inspiration, I'd turn to other games, like Spirit of the Century. It has a "Declaring Minor Details" action under the Academics skill. The player proposes a fact in the character's specialty. If the GM approves it, she asks for an Academics roll to see if it becomes true. It also has rules for how to conduct research and recall information that I wouldn't mind converting to D&D Next.

I recognize this won't work for every group. Some DMs enjoy tighter narrative control and sometimes players don't want to be responsible for creating content. After the character creation details come out, I'm sure I can provide more exact examples of what I mean.

The DM and the Medusa

Statue of Perseus, Piazza della Signoria, Florence: From WikipediaStatue of Perseus, Piazza della Signoria, Florence: From WikipediaEarlier this week, much discussion erupted over the D&D Playtest version of the Medusa. Much of it was either two "sides" arguing for or agains the inclusion of what is being called a "save or die" type effect. For some, a D&D game without some such mechanics just isn't D&D to them. For others, the inclusion of such a mechanic, particularly without any advice on how to handle it as a DM reminds them of previous bad experiences, often at the hands of either a "killer" or inexperienced DM. I've wanted to write this post for a few days now but wanted to distance myself from the original discussion a bit in hopes I could do it better justice that way.

So, how does the medusa work in D&D Next? Well, first, a medusa can turn the gaze attack on or off at will. So, unless one has it turned it, it is possible for a character to look at one and not turn to stone. So, one of the most common complaints, that a PC might be wandering around a dungeon, turn a corner, and wham, turn to stone, isn't technically true or at least depends on DM discretion. My reading of the Caves of Chaos adventure included with the play test documents, suggest that the medusa has the gaze attack turned off when the PCs first meet her.

Second, unless surprised, any character who tries to attack a medusa can decide to avert his or her eyes. If the PCs avert their eyes, they do not need to make a saving throw but they gain a disadvantage on their attacks and enemies gain advantage against them. If they decide to not avert, they have to make a saving throw against petrification. A failed saving throw means they become petrified and that character is effectively out of the game until the condition is reversed.

Let's compare that to a 3/3.5 era gaze attack as written here: http://www.dandwiki.com/wiki/SRD:Gaze. In this version, PCs have 2 options: avert their gaze and have to make a percentile check (50%) each round to see whether or not they have to make a saving throw against petrification or they can blindfold themselves, granting every creature total concealment and gaining huge penalties to trying to hit. I believe earlier editions had similar mechanics for gaze as well and the medusa had a snake poison attack that was a save versus poison or die.

In 4e, the petrifying gaze of the medusa is handled in two different ways.

Medusa Spirit Charmer, Medusa Venom Arrow

Stony Glare At-Will
Trigger: An enemy ends its turn within 2 squares of the medusa.
Attack (Immediate Reaction): Close burst 2 (the triggering enemy in the blast); +x vs. Fortitude
Hit: The target is petrified (save ends).
Third Failed Saving Throw: The target is petrified until one of the following conditions is satisfied.
: The use of an appropriate power, such as divine cleansing.
: The willing kiss of the medusa that petrified the creature (a medusa might do this to gain information or to luxuriate in the victim’s fear before returning it to stone).
: The medusa responsible for the petrification is killed and its blood is applied to the stony lips of the victim before a full day passes.

Medusa Shroud of Zehir (Female), Medusa Archer (Female)

Petrifying Gaze (standard, at-will) Gaze, Petrification
Close blast 5; blind creatures are immune; +x vs Fortitude; the target is slowed (save ends). First Failed Save: The target is immobilized instead of slowed (save ends). Second Failed Save: The target is petrified (no save).

In Stony Glare, we have a case similar to a save or die mechanic, combined with 4e's death saves idea and ways to reverse the death. In Petrifying Gaze, we increase the time it takes to petrify, allowing multiple save attempts along the way. It also gives the PC the ability to make the tradeoff between being blinded or risking the effects of the hit.

The D&D Next version puts a lot more in the hands of the players and isn't even a true save or die effect. First, petrification isn't death, it can be reversed. Second, as written, the only time the PC definitely faces that situation is when the character decides to attack without averting eyes. That is within the player's control, not the DM's. It's true that the surprise round complicates things, as the DM could decide the medusa has the gaze on, but I know of groups that enjoy that bit of DM discretion, such as Lair Assault or some of the deadly delve challenges I've heard about in the past.

So what do I think the solution is? As always, player and DM education about how to bring about the play experience the table wants. It means communication. Do you want a game that challenges your player knowledge/skill as much as it challenges the characters? How often do you want surprise to come up in game? What should the thresholds be for it?

For DMs, I'd suggest minimizing the chances of a surprise gaze attack. Consider how common it really it is for a medusa to be walking down the halls of a dungeon with her gaze on and leaving now signs of her presence. Leave hints in many places that one might exist, everything from weird stone statues where the subjects are all caught in awkward positions and with horrified visages to tavern rumors about a medusa's existence. If you're well versed in Greco-Roman legends, remember that not everyone might be, especially newer players who might not be used to asking lots of questions or who might feel intimidated by the rest of the group. Finally, if you decide to use one and your players just weren't expecting or up to the task of dealing with a medusa, figure a story way out or even talk to your group afterward and chat with them about how they want to handle the situation. Also, anytime you use an effect that might remove a character from the game for a bit, think about options for the player who is now without anything to do. Could he or she control some of the monsters or maybe the hirelings or henchmen?

For players, think about why you play the game. If you are really invested in your character, make sure your DM understands that so he or she can keep that in mind when choosing or designing adventures and picking the monsters. If you are interested in reacting to an ongoing story full of twists and turns, try to let go of control a bit and think of something like petrification as a challenge to create an interesting new story instead of as an end of the current one (or as a personal failure). If you're upset, consider stepping away from the table for a moment.

The issue isn't save or die mechanics or ones that seem like them. It's about communication, understanding what each other is looking for, and setting reasonable and fair boundaries.

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