This morning, Pelgrane Press had a pretty awesome tweet:
RPG idea: define your character. Last thing - roll for character's gender.
— Pelgrane Press Ltd (@PelgranePress) August 10, 2012
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.
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.
 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A few weeks ago, I came across the Spera graphic novel, written by Josh Tierney and illustrated by a number of artists including Kyla Vanderklugt, Hwei, Emily Carroll, Olivier Pichard and Afu Chan. Since I’m using the Comixology app on my iPad to read the comics, I’ve only read the first 3 issues of volume 1, but I’m already in love.
The tale follows the lives of two princesses, Lono and Pira. Lono is a more traditional princess, her days were filled with “sitting, reading, and dreaming.” Then one day Pira arrives with news of a grave threat and convinces Lono to flee with her. Together with Pira’s best friend and fire spirit, Yonder, they seek adventure and life. Along the way they fight a hill monster, climb a steep cliff, and negotiate for their meals and a place to sleep, all while pondering what it is they want from life and from each other.
As for why I love the series, well, first the artwork is amazing. Using multiple artists to tell the tale was a great choice, especially since the story seems to follow a traditional hero’s journey story line. The multiple artists reinforces the feeling that we often crave similar things, to be understood, to be in control of our own destinies.
Besides loving the graphic novel itself, the story could be a great starting point for a game. It also made me ponder using D&D Next for it since Pira’s reasons for leaving home, to find adventure and rescue the princess Lono, are such common motivations for fantasy, and by extension, D&D stories. As much as I love 4e, it’s not quite the right feel for it since it’s clear that Lono and Pira aren’t quite heroes yet (although Yonder is fairly powerful). In addition, the flexibility I see so far in D&D Next, especially its lack of master skill list and the equal emphasis on interaction and exploration, fit well with the narrative of the story.
Thus, the comic reminds me what I hope for most with D&D Next. I would love things to stay simple and flexible enough where I can create my own themes, backgrounds, and the like so that if I want to build a campaign world similar to Spera’s, I can do so easily. I could create a background and a theme for Pira that gives her access to simple fighting maneuvers as well as skills such as climbing, while creating another one for Lono to emphasize the skills she would have learned as a more passive princess. Yonder could be a character half controlled by the DM but also accessible to the players as a limited resource.
More information can be found on Spera-Comic.com. Also, I love the ComiXology app for the iPad. It has a special view option that shows you a panel or two at a time, creating movement, and providing composed scenes. It's also helped me learn how to read comics.
When Perseus was grown, Polydectes came to fall in love with the beautiful Danaë. Perseus believed Polydectes was less than honourable, and protected his mother from him; thus Polydectes plotted to send Perseus away in disgrace. He held a large banquet where each guest was expected to bring a gift. Polydectes requested that the guests bring horses, under the pretense that he was collecting contributions for the hand of Hippodamia, "tamer of horses". The fisherman's protégé had no horse to give, so he asked Polydectes to name the gift; he would not refuse it. Polydectes held Perseus to his rash promise and demanded the head of the only mortal Gorgon, Medusa, whose expression turned people to stone. Ovid's account of Medusa's mortality tells that she had once been a woman, vain of her beautiful hair, who had lain with Poseidon in the Temple of Athena. In punishment for the desecration of her temple, Athena had changed Medusa's hair into hideous snakes "that she may alarm her surprised foes with terror".
Athena instructed Perseus to find the Hesperides, who were entrusted with weapons needed to defeat the Gorgon. Following Athena's guidance, Perseus sought out the Graeae, sisters of the Gorgons, to demand the whereabouts of the Hesperides, the nymphs tending Hera's orchard. The Graeae were three perpetually old women, who had to share a single eye. As the women passed the eye from one to another, Perseus snatched it from them, holding it for ransom in return for the location of the nymphs. When the sisters led him to the Hesperides, he returned what he had taken.
From the Hesperides he received a knapsack (kibisis) to safely contain Medusa's head. Zeus gave him an adamantine sword and Hades' helm of darkness to hide. Hermes lent Perseus winged sandals to fly, while Athena gave him a polished shield. Perseus then proceeded to the Gorgons' cave.
In the cave he came upon the sleeping Stheno, Euryale and Medusa. By viewing Medusa's reflection in his polished shield, he safely approached and cut off her head. From her neck sprang Pegasus ("he who sprang") and Chrysaor ("bow of gold"), the result of Poseidon and Medusa's meeting. The other two Gorgons pursued Perseus, but, wearing his helm of darkness, he escaped.
Perseus is a bit brash and gets called on it by Polydectes, a moment of "Oh yeah, you think you're hot stuff? Fine. Bring me the head of Medusa." We fear for our hero because, well, Medusa is scary, but by doing some research and planning (and a little wit and luck), he's able to assemble a number of tools that make it a bit easier. This sounds a lot like the play sought in the diceless skill check system. The magic items are unique and separate quests are undertaken to find them.
While some people enjoy this type of play, others might feel too much like they are playing a game of read the DM's mind. It can also be interpreted as a way to force players to play through a particular story line. Also, planning all of this can add to a DM's workload, especially if the DM isn't keen on improvisation. I've heard some groups, including some of my friends, who aren't keen on how easy encounters can get after smart play by the players.
I'm interested in exploring another path. What if players, with the DM, could easily find out or even design the solutions that makes the challenge easier to overcome. Perhaps the character studied monsters with a particular keyword or from a particular location. Or maybe each player could contribute one idea of an item they would have to retrieve or create. We could even tie it into the various themes, backgrounds, and traits. Are you an artifact hunter? Great, you grab a trait similar to the blacksmith one but it lets you detail a new artifact in the game world (with DM permission). It could have a limit of once per day, once per creature or even once per level.
For inspiration, I'd turn to other games, like Spirit of the Century. It has a "Declaring Minor Details" action under the Academics skill. The player proposes a fact in the character's specialty. If the GM approves it, she asks for an Academics roll to see if it becomes true. It also has rules for how to conduct research and recall information that I wouldn't mind converting to D&D Next.
I recognize this won't work for every group. Some DMs enjoy tighter narrative control and sometimes players don't want to be responsible for creating content. After the character creation details come out, I'm sure I can provide more exact examples of what I mean.
Earlier this week, much discussion erupted over the D&D Playtest version of the Medusa. Much of it was either two "sides" arguing for or agains the inclusion of what is being called a "save or die" type effect. For some, a D&D game without some such mechanics just isn't D&D to them. For others, the inclusion of such a mechanic, particularly without any advice on how to handle it as a DM reminds them of previous bad experiences, often at the hands of either a "killer" or inexperienced DM. I've wanted to write this post for a few days now but wanted to distance myself from the original discussion a bit in hopes I could do it better justice that way.
So, how does the medusa work in D&D Next? Well, first, a medusa can turn the gaze attack on or off at will. So, unless one has it turned it, it is possible for a character to look at one and not turn to stone. So, one of the most common complaints, that a PC might be wandering around a dungeon, turn a corner, and wham, turn to stone, isn't technically true or at least depends on DM discretion. My reading of the Caves of Chaos adventure included with the play test documents, suggest that the medusa has the gaze attack turned off when the PCs first meet her.
Second, unless surprised, any character who tries to attack a medusa can decide to avert his or her eyes. If the PCs avert their eyes, they do not need to make a saving throw but they gain a disadvantage on their attacks and enemies gain advantage against them. If they decide to not avert, they have to make a saving throw against petrification. A failed saving throw means they become petrified and that character is effectively out of the game until the condition is reversed.
Let's compare that to a 3/3.5 era gaze attack as written here: http://www.dandwiki.com/wiki/SRD:Gaze. In this version, PCs have 2 options: avert their gaze and have to make a percentile check (50%) each round to see whether or not they have to make a saving throw against petrification or they can blindfold themselves, granting every creature total concealment and gaining huge penalties to trying to hit. I believe earlier editions had similar mechanics for gaze as well and the medusa had a snake poison attack that was a save versus poison or die.
In 4e, the petrifying gaze of the medusa is handled in two different ways.
Medusa Spirit Charmer, Medusa Venom Arrow
Stony Glare At-Will
Trigger: An enemy ends its turn within 2 squares of the medusa.
Attack (Immediate Reaction): Close burst 2 (the triggering enemy in the blast); +x vs. Fortitude
Hit: The target is petrified (save ends).
Third Failed Saving Throw: The target is petrified until one of the following conditions is satisfied.
: The use of an appropriate power, such as divine cleansing.
: The willing kiss of the medusa that petrified the creature (a medusa might do this to gain information or to luxuriate in the victim’s fear before returning it to stone).
: The medusa responsible for the petrification is killed and its blood is applied to the stony lips of the victim before a full day passes.
Medusa Shroud of Zehir (Female), Medusa Archer (Female)
Petrifying Gaze (standard, at-will) Gaze, Petrification
Close blast 5; blind creatures are immune; +x vs Fortitude; the target is slowed (save ends). First Failed Save: The target is immobilized instead of slowed (save ends). Second Failed Save: The target is petrified (no save).
In Stony Glare, we have a case similar to a save or die mechanic, combined with 4e's death saves idea and ways to reverse the death. In Petrifying Gaze, we increase the time it takes to petrify, allowing multiple save attempts along the way. It also gives the PC the ability to make the tradeoff between being blinded or risking the effects of the hit.
The D&D Next version puts a lot more in the hands of the players and isn't even a true save or die effect. First, petrification isn't death, it can be reversed. Second, as written, the only time the PC definitely faces that situation is when the character decides to attack without averting eyes. That is within the player's control, not the DM's. It's true that the surprise round complicates things, as the DM could decide the medusa has the gaze on, but I know of groups that enjoy that bit of DM discretion, such as Lair Assault or some of the deadly delve challenges I've heard about in the past.
So what do I think the solution is? As always, player and DM education about how to bring about the play experience the table wants. It means communication. Do you want a game that challenges your player knowledge/skill as much as it challenges the characters? How often do you want surprise to come up in game? What should the thresholds be for it?
For DMs, I'd suggest minimizing the chances of a surprise gaze attack. Consider how common it really it is for a medusa to be walking down the halls of a dungeon with her gaze on and leaving now signs of her presence. Leave hints in many places that one might exist, everything from weird stone statues where the subjects are all caught in awkward positions and with horrified visages to tavern rumors about a medusa's existence. If you're well versed in Greco-Roman legends, remember that not everyone might be, especially newer players who might not be used to asking lots of questions or who might feel intimidated by the rest of the group. Finally, if you decide to use one and your players just weren't expecting or up to the task of dealing with a medusa, figure a story way out or even talk to your group afterward and chat with them about how they want to handle the situation. Also, anytime you use an effect that might remove a character from the game for a bit, think about options for the player who is now without anything to do. Could he or she control some of the monsters or maybe the hirelings or henchmen?
For players, think about why you play the game. If you are really invested in your character, make sure your DM understands that so he or she can keep that in mind when choosing or designing adventures and picking the monsters. If you are interested in reacting to an ongoing story full of twists and turns, try to let go of control a bit and think of something like petrification as a challenge to create an interesting new story instead of as an end of the current one (or as a personal failure). If you're upset, consider stepping away from the table for a moment.
The issue isn't save or die mechanics or ones that seem like them. It's about communication, understanding what each other is looking for, and setting reasonable and fair boundaries.
While I may sometimes take exception with or point out the parts of D&D that bother me, I love the game. I love the people who make it, who play it, who talk about it, those who agree and those who disagree with me. Yes, I'm opinionated and strong-willed. Yes, I make mistakes. Yes, they sometimes make mistakes. But, at the end of the day, I still love the community and the people and the game and its offshoots.
I'd like to take a moment to point out something I really like, and that was the recent article by Jon Schindehette, D&D Art Philosophy. Is it perfect? Nah, but hell, nothing I write is perfect either. But it says a lot of really cool stuff. In it, he lays out his vision for the artwork for D&D Next, opening it up to public comment by the D&D community. That's awesome! It's what we've been asking for and I'd like to respect it for what it is. Here are his key philosophies.
- Storytelling is king
- Impact and drama required
- Great characters
- Cultural clarity
- Differentiated monsters
- Look to the past to create the future
With the exception of the last, I'm either in love with or am more than happy to support every item on that list (even if supporting realism gets me in trouble with a close friend). I want to see illustrations of wonder and action. I want to explore new lands, try my hand at figuring out how something breaks the laws of physics, and be scared by monsters. I want the art to take on new perspectives, different angles, and show us a world unlike our own.
I admit, the last is a little scary for me. D&D history is full of examples of things that leave some of us shaking our heads today. Then again, it was a product of its time and those times also leave me wondering how people could have thought those things. When Jon pointed out in the comments that they mean, "What would Gary do today?" I was still nervous but willing to see where it goes. And here's the thing. I had those worries before Jon said anything. If it wasn't for him saying something, me being able to comment on it, and him being able to respond, I'd continue to get sick with worry about what exactly they were going to bring back from the past.
In the end, it's an important conversation to have, out in the open, with as many points of view as possible. I wish we could have certain base rules, like women in D&D are equal to men, that sometimes they will be the rescuers, sometimes the rescued, and sometimes just background elements. I wish I could smooth away the years of distrust on both sides that have built up. The best I can do is present why some of these things make people uncomfortable and hope we can move forward. Sometimes, just feeling like someone hears and understands you, even if nothing can be done, is enough. Sometimes we can make small changes, like being a bit more circumspect in the types of images that get the most prominence. And other times, we need to be willing to bend and change, like perhaps finding room in the canon for new characters that fit our modern values.
If you haven’t read Jon Schindehette's article about Sexism in Fantasy, I suggest you go read it. I will reference it a fair bit in this post.
The portrayal of female characters in fantasy art, including how sexism affects the art process, is an important subject to me. When I read Jon’s article, I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. I know and am friends with many people at Wizards of the Coast. I have had chats with Jon on this subject among others. We even had him on a Tome Show episode. I write a column for the website celebrating the company. Yet the words I read on the screen left a mark.
You might ask why. For one, the “poll” set up to show that sexism isn’t well defined is a bit flawed as was the definition used. Like many academic terms, it’s easily misunderstood or misapplied. It is full of nuance. Whether or not something is sexist depends on lots of things, including context. While his test might have proved that the term is misunderstood by people in the community, it doesn’t mean we should stop trying to understand it, even if it makes us feel uncomfortable and perhaps even triggers guilt. It’s those feelings that cause some to feel that the term is “convenient, inflammatory, and polarizing,” a phrasing that itself is often used as a derailing and silencing technique.
So, let’s talk about those two images quickly. One of the issues faced by women is that they are seen as being present mostly for decoration. If most images of women looked like that first image, our artwork would play into that expectation and gender-based constraint of women. Another issue is that women are often put into the role of nurturer. So while a woman in that role is not automatically sexist, if the only times we depict women are when they are in that role, that can be. Finally, a third issue is what is commonly called the virgin/whore dichotomy, something that is illustrated when the two pieces are presented together. In one, we have the nurturing woman in modest dress, devoid of most if not all sexuality. In the second, it seems that if she uncrossed her arms, we would see her breasts. That hint of sexuality that goes beyond the normal bounds of our society is part of what makes that picture exciting.
Now that we’ve addressed the “sexism poll” Jon constructed, I’d like to discuss the issues of the portrayal of women in D&D. I don’t want to limit it just to the art because to be honest, both the art and the text often amplify each other in ways we might not intend. Beauty comes up often in the article, implying that women are beautiful objects and that artists are drawn to creating that sort of art. This, to me, points out some of the problems present due to latent sexism in our society. Why isn’t an older woman considered beautiful? When it comes to female characters, why is beautiful so often correlated to cheesecake and fan service rather than compelling stories and other aspects of the character? How does the descriptions of what the artists like to create explain the relative diversity of male representations? Wait, doesn't some of his statements assume a male artist?
Also, when I and other people often discuss sexism in D&D art, we’re talking about the art as a whole, across the product and across the entire game. We’re talking about the lack of variety in age, body styles, clothing options, composition, content, and the like when it comes to female characters. We’re talking about how much more often you are to find a character with an exposed midriff or cleavage than someone above the age of 25 and why it is that so many of the images with multiple characters perhaps one or two token women in them, if any at all. If you haven’t looked at which images are chosen for the covers and the half-page vertical images for the classes (and races), I suggest taking a look. William O’Conner appears to be used for just about every class image and he, almost without fail, shows off the female character’s breasts and adds elements like garters.
People often step in at this point and ask why I’m bringing “real world” issues into the game. I’d like to turn the question around and ask why they are insisting on bringing “real world” discrimination into the game. Whether they like it or not, the game world of D&D has a world full of women over the age of 25. The Forgotten Realms is supposed to be a game world where women are equal to men. In a world with magic and healing, there’s no reason why women would have to be relegated to a subservient role in the world.
But the thing that really got me about the article is that Jon goes out of his way to talk about and even demonstrate why he believes that “sexism” is such a loaded term. Ok, fine, but if you honestly believe that, why use it to frame the entire discussion, especially one as important as the role of women in the D&D world? Why feed the trolls who believe that discussions that myself and other people have often, almost every day at times, are just some attempt at political correctness run amok.
That’s what bothered me the most about the post and what led me to feel the most betrayed. I spend many, many hours talking to people about how awesome D&D is, about how much I love being part of this community, and how to get more women to play. Then the very real feelings myself and others have about how women are presented in the game world, in both the art and text, feel dismissed because we dared to use the correct term to discuss them.
As for the circle of finger pointing, the “it’s not our fault because it’s what the customers want or what the artists turn over to us,” well, that’s the reason I started the Prismatic Art Collection. Are there limitations on what people like Jon can do? Sure. But there are many things that they could still do within the constraints.
- Create a safe space for female fans to provide feedback. It feels so strange to me that I have to point out that many women don’t feel comfortable commenting publicly, either as comments on a post or in forums. There are many reasons for that. Give them a space to leave comments and listen to what they say.
- For D&D Next, create a less restrictive license, even if it’s only for certain groups. I want to create D&D content that is more socially aware for the current version of the game since past versions aren’t always conducive to that sort of content. It’s also easier for the people I want to reach with it to get the newer books than the older ones and for them to get support from the community.
- Create groups (not races) within the D&D world that hold a variety of beliefs about gender, sexuality, and the like. Then divide the characters presented in the artwork among those groups. Then the artwork and the game text will more often align with each other. Cheesecake art will be presented in a context where it makes sense instead of feeling like it’s fanservice to a presumed heterosexual male audience who wants that sort of artwork.
I think those would at least make a good start. I’ll have more to add once we get to the commissioning stage of the Prismatic Art Collection project.
Or at least make me create one. Paul Hughes, the person behind the Random Dungeon Generator as a Dungeon Map Kickstarter asked me if I'd be willing to design a dungeon if his project hit $20,000. It's close, but only a few days are left.
Many of you know how I feel about dungeons but I promise if it makes $20k, I'll give this project my all and create a dungeon I would love to play in. Who knows, maybe after I'll start singing the praises of Dungeons & Dungeons instead of Dragons & Dragons.
The $20k mark will also unlock dungeons by Mike Shea of SlyFlourish.com fame and Mike Mornard. Paul has a few interviews with Mornard on the Blog of Holding site and I've linked to a few of them in Joining the Party articles.