In school, most discussions of the Great Depression talked about the Dust Bowl. I knew things were bad during that time period, but I didn't quite understand how bad it was until I watched Ken Burns' The Dust Bowl. The way it was always described to me focused on the drought and the lack of food, both horrible on their own for sure, but not necessarily awe-inspiring.
The Dust Bowl was the result of a decade-long drought combined with farming practices not only ill-suited to the area but destructive. The two amplified each other until we had an ecological disaster that is almost unfathomable. Here are some of the things that happened:
- Gathered by the winds, dust storms covered hundreds of miles and would sweep through much of the US in a single day. In some areas, they would cause dust drifts that reached the rooftops and deposit inches if not feet of dirt in a new location.
- These storms could destroy most if not all of a crop across several states during one storm.
- The dust clouds could black out the sun. The static electricity they caused would make it impossible to use the phone.
- The clouds would drift into cities like Chicago and New York, thousands of miles away from where the dust originated, causing damage and blocking out the sun.
- The dust was small enough to get into the lungs. Man and beast alike could suffocate if caught out in the storm without protection. For some it lead to dust pneumonia.
- The drought caused plagues of grasshoppers and rabbits. The rabbits in particular would get so bad at times that towns would hold special events to kill them, asking townspeople to bring the whole family for the chore.
If you are looking for a cataclysmic event for your game, this should qualify. Depending on what type of story you are going for, it could be based on the same reasons as the real world dust bowl, human ingenuity gone awry in the struggle between man and nature. However, I could see other things working as well. Nature spirits upset at the defilement of a sacred location create massive winds. Fire elementals summoned by a an evil wizard (or a spell gone awry) parch the land and burn away the top layer of soil and sod.
For me, I see ecological disasters as a good way to provide tensions in a game without relying on stereotypes or things like racism, sexism, etc. I feel story-wise it also provides both an impetus for groups to have tensions against each other as they compete for limited resources as well as providing a way for players to solve those tensions without genocide if they choose to do so. Does it work for everyone? No, but it's what I happen to like.
Anyway, I definitely suggest checking out the documentary and learning more about this chapter of US history. If you have US Netflix, it's available for instant play.
I like adding elements of environmentalism to my games. This came out in my article for Melora and in my Acadia game where one of the tensions I explicitly set up was between the ship builders and their need for a certain type of timber and the gnomes and other forest folk who made their homes in those trees. I recently heard about the underground forests in places like Niger and the work being done to make them rise again in an attempt to combat desertification.
Basically, in some deserts, there are stumps or seedlings of trees that, with care and cultivation, could turn into trees. If this is done, they not only provide their own goods, in the form of shade, firewood, etc, they also make the land around them more productive. We didn't know this because for years we destroyed them, allowed cattle to feed on them, and didn't prune them. Some farmers purposefully destroyed them believing that they would decrease yield. According to the article, in some areas crop yields increased 2 to 3 times after practicing these techniques.
Introducing in Game
There's a few ways one could introduce this in game.
- Have local groups fight over land where these procedures aren't being used. Allow nature-type checks to be used to find out a non-violent solution to the conflict.
- If the PCs leave the well-travelled roads, have one of the communities they meet practice this type of cultivation. If you are making a morally grey world, it easily could be one of the "monster" groups, similar to some groups of Horde in World of Warcraft. However be careful to not make this into a typical "savages" narrative that we find all too often in fantasy.
- Make finding such a solution the life's goal of an NPC and have him or her ask one or more PCs to aid in the development of these techniques.
Providing Information and Implementing
What information to provide and how to provide it depends on what type of game you are running. For instance, if the game is primarily about dungeon delving with very little social interaction, downtime, or character backstory, providing detailed information to your players about what needs to happen to produce one of these green zones isn't necessary and may be overkill. Providing a journal or tome that details this information that they can then redeem in town for rewards should work and, if the campaign goes on for some time in the game world, you can describe the changes that are occurring when the enter town after a trek.
If the characters are interested in being more directly involved, I'd suggest doing some research on the techniques and the outcomes. Then decide if the PCs should research and experiment themselves on what techniques work best or if they are going to be more involved in the implementation stage. It all depends on what you and your players find interesting. This would be a great use for in-game-world downtime and I'd suggest going for simplicity and success over simulation.
Also, remember that the challenges presented to the PCs don't have to be limited to finding information or providing physical labor. If you listen to Tony Rinado's story, you'll notice that he had to convince a lot of people, at many different levels of society, that this worked and was a good idea.
Describing The Changes
In the video, Tony Rinaudo discusses how the environment and the local culture changed due to these techniques. I'd suggest figuring out a time line for how this could change the local game world and play it out as either NPCs or PCs employ these techniques. Change the description as they venture outside of town. Have the NPCs thank the PCs for making it easier to get firewood or for the increased prosperity for town. Decrease the number of conflicts based on competition for resources. Add new people to the town, people who were enticed to come there based on the developments.
What ideas do you have? Feel free to leave them in the comments below.
Image: "Apple Valley" © 2012 Gwyneth Ravenscraft, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/
I love to use fairy tales as an inspiration for my games. Ralph, the talking chicken, was a prince transformed by a witch's curse. Rumpelstiltskin served as inspiration for a bargained child tale. Given this, I'm always on the hunt for new tales, especially given how often the current Grimms' versions don't have great roles for women.
Enter End to End, a book of four fairy tales written by Jocelyn Koehler. I was fortunate enough to get a review copy. Set in the mythical land of the Nine Kingdoms, near the borders of Faerie, these tales often mix the real with the fantastic. A forbidden wood. Dancing sisters. A kingdom in decline. Medicine required for survival. These all feel familiar and yet new. What I love in particular, plenty of strong women who have their own agency.
Pearl Against Diamond: When Pearl meets Lin in a forbidden forest, it is the beginning of a romance, and the beginning of a tragedy. For Lin is the slave to a faerie queen, and Pearl must journey through dangerous realms to save him. But Lin hides a secret of his own. A reimagining of the legend of Tam Lin, this story pulls inspiration from not only the original, but also the dreamland of ukiyo—the “floating world” of forgetfulness and pleasure.
The Solider Underground: Alexander Stargazer is a wanderer and a mercenary. One day, when he stumbles into a new kingdom, he hears about a mystery he can’t resist. For a full year, the twelve princesses have disappeared every night to go dancing...but no one knows where or how. Many have tried to solve the mystery. All have failed. Stargazer uses his wits and magic to discover the secret, which lies far below the castle in a subterranean world too fabulous to be believed...and far more sinister than it first appears.
Wise Marah: We all know the legend of the Sleeping Beauty. Or do we? When a beloved queen falls into an enchanted slumber, a whole kingdom is dragged down into a shadowed grief. Can a simple housemaid break the spell? She can...if she is wise enough.
When the Wolves Returned: In a forgotten kingdom severed from all others, life is incredibly dangerous, and survival depends on not falling prey to the sickness that ravages the land. The key to survival—a precious medicine—lies beyond the forest. A strong young woman named Red is the one who journeys through the woods, wary of wolves and other perils. But the largest threat may prove too powerful for Red to fight...until she makes a fragile, remarkable alliance with a former enemy. Together, they will bring their benighted land back into the light.
I enjoyed these so much that I am going to buy the previous book in the series, The Way Through the Woods.
This section may contain some spoilers.
- Part of the story of Pearl Against Diamond involves her being swindled. If your players are looking for ways to be heroic without killing everything in sight, righting a wrong like this could be a good way.
- Pearl also receives a few magic items created just for her by Lin. Consider allowing extremely limited magic items like these in your game without worrying too much about what the rules say NPCs can create.
- In the Soldier Underground, it's not until he drinks from a fountain that he sees the underground world for what it is. It's a risk for the players to drink from random fountains but having rewards like these can encourage them to take those chances and explore.
- Likewise, a few of the art objects in the underground palace give hints at the story of the world. Providing these hints throughout a game rewards exploration and helps ensure the players don't look at you confused when they figure out the mystery of the world.
- Wise Marah reminds us that sometimes an outsider can see things that locals cannot. In my experience, players would react in a similar manner to Marah, questioning any restrictions, especially without a firm reason why they shouldn't explore further. With some groups, I wouldn't necessarily have an end story in mind, I'd present something like the sleeping queen and let the players work out an explanation that works for them.
- What happens when the old ways are no longer necessary? When the Wolves Returned reminds us that someone always profits off of these things and they are often reluctant to give up their revenue streams. The same can be adapted for a fantasy world.
I hope you try them out. If you'd like to read some excerpts, the publisher was kind enough to provide me with some.
I got a few responses to my post on D&D Next races that I would like to discuss here.
First, a comment from Impressions on the D&D Next Races Section by Deran.
I agree, that women have been treated badly in the past (and by some these days). I don't think this type of mentality should be portrayed in games. I think there are fundamental differences between the genders and should equally be addressed in the documentation. Describing male Dwarves as generally a little huskier than females doesn't seem to me that female Dwarves are any less important. I would like to see more information on female Dwarves and why some wear beards and others choose not to.
There are a few problems with this argument. Applying human sexual differences to dwarves has no basis in the game reality. Dwarves neither evolved nor were created by an Abrahamic god. They were created by Moradin and, as far as I can tell, before 3.5 (and maybe 3rd, I don't have a 3rd edition players' handbook), they were near impossible to tell apart physically. In fact, even Moradin's wife has a beard, one that has its own mythology associated with it. The only real sex or gender difference I could find, from Roger E. Moore's "The Dwarven Point of View" in Dragon #58, was an explanation that for whatever reason, fewer females were born than males. My understanding is that dwarven culture in general viewed adventuring in a negative manner, so given the low numbers of women born each year, it makes sense that a female dwarf adventurer would be rare. In everything else, it seems that males and females have approximately the same opportunities. If a female dwarf wants to spend her life as a craftsmen, she is allowed that freedom. If a male dwarf gets married, it was expected that he turn his focus to his home life. So these beliefs in fundamental differences between sex/gender make no sense in the context of a dwarf.
However, that tidbit about there being fewer female births leads me into the next question.
When I read (skim, really) over the races section, it reads to me like the guidelines for art orders got included in the draft. I find it really easy to imagine someone deciding that that information (art guides) would be useful in the draft races chapter, which might be part of why I read it that way.
Independent of the specific choices for very specific things like female dwarven beards (which is an interesting topic, but you guys have it covered already), I wonder what you think about gender dimorphism in art orders? I know that you've spent some time and effort on the topic of gender representation in fantasy art, and I think we agree that the very blatant differences characteristic of, for example, WoW are disturbing. I'm not sure how I feel about simpler and subtler indicators like half-elven facial hair, or `slight' height/bulk differences for elves.
Part of my motivation is this: I have several trans friends, and social cues like facial hair, grooming, and muscle bulk are important to them. In your opinion, is this something that's worth preserving in fantasy games, or is the cart pulling the horse?
I wanted to post this as a comment, but couldn't find the comment link. Thanks!
I'm not sure if they were the art orders, but if they are, that makes me rather sad. That would mean that these things could not be addressed before the books come out and would be part of the game without discussion from the community. However, after doing some research, it seems likely that it came from 3.5. I'm also curious if it's related to video games and the such where there seems to be some difficulty in making females in general anything but skinny and big-breasted.
I want to be upfront, I'm no expert in transgender topics or issues and my experience is that many of my readers are not either. So I'd first like to give my definitions for a few terms before we discuss them. These happen to be my understanding of the terms and, in general, they can be quite hard to define precisely, I think in part because they are intended to define things that are, in reality, quite ambiguous. (Please, contact me if I'm grossly misrepresenting the meanings.)
sex - In it's most basic form, the label (male or female) assigned at birth based on physiological characteristics.
intersex - People who fall outside the physiological norms making labeling them with a sex difficult or results in them being labeled with a sex they do not have.
gender - Societal expectations and norms surrounding people of a particular sex and how we perceive ourselves. Gender is often referred to as a societal construct.
cisgender - People whose physiological expression matches their gender.
transgender - Peoples whose physiological expression does not match their gender.
I'm leaving out sexuality/sexual preference for now because it really deserves a post of its own.
I think the first thing we should discuss is that while we might label people as being cis or trans, that doesn't mean that all members of that group feel the same way about something. We cover up a lot of diversity in doing so, sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for neutral, and some for bad. So, while these sorts of cues are important for some, they might not be for others, regardless of their gender.
However, we know that for some people being able to express gender in a story or game can be very important. When people complain about having too many strong women characters being nothing more but men with a different facade, what they often mean is that it feels like the gender of the person is completely irrelevant, we call that character a woman but nothing about what it means to be a woman in her society seems to affect her decisions or reactions. Generally they don't mean that no women can be portrayed in that way, but the lack of diversity in portrayals gets to them.
This lack of diversity in the D&D Next races is what bothers me. If three out of the four races present as males are larger than females, we lack a bit of diversity in our stories. That sex characteristic doesn't add much, if anything to the game. How is my gender as a dwarf different from gender in elves or in humans?
Additionally, in the case of the dwarf race, I find it detrimental to dwarf cis women. The aspects of society that are discussed in the description focus on mining and battle, two areas that regardless of historical accuracy, many people in the audience align with strength. People also tend to align smaller size with less strength. Thus, you take the one race that is supposed to be all about strength and create a sexual dimorphism that can easily imply a difference in prestige along gender lines, something that, as mentioned above, was lacking in some earlier editions of the game. Additionally, while I can imagine a world where magic users provide permanent body alternations, altering one's size and shape doesn't seem to be as interesting as figuring out the issues of how one fits into society or changes society to fit oneself.
Thus, while I agree that for a portion of the players, gender differences and representations of sexual dimorphism will be important tools in helping them play the character they want, I think we should be careful in what those differences can imply within the setting's society and have a preference towards including them when they increase our story options rather than repeating our own biases in the setting without thought.
To me, that's one of the most interesting things about having fewer dwarf females born each year. Dwarfs are a society built on tradition and clans. For males, family is both important (clan-based) and many of them will not have one (not enough females). For females, while one can choose to become a craftsmen or an adventurer, there has to be a lot of pressure to reproduce. For everyone, are clans patrilineal, matrilineal, or maybe not even based on genealogy but interest? Are daughters celebrated more than sons due to their rarity? Do some societies decide to go with a polyandry system instead of monogamy? Do some cis men marry non-dwarves instead? How do their families react?
In this case, the sex-based change in society provides a character with a wide range of decisions based on sex and gender. Instead of limiting character development, for players who want to, it expands it.
I'd argue that the size difference in elves, while breaking with traditional representations of elves in some ways, isn't as important as with the dwarves. Elves aren't particularly known for their strength and size doesn't have the same implications in regards to the things they are known for, such as their bonds with nature or affinity towards magic.
Note: A good starting point for understanding transgender is Transgender 101: 15 Things to Know
In discussing things such as age of majority, age of marriage, etc, one thing that often comes up is the statistic that life expectancy in medieval Europe was 35. They argue that since it was so relatively young, people were treated like and became adults much earlier. It definitely has a ring of truthiness to it, doesn't it?
However, there are a few potential issues with this view. For one, this number is life expectancy from birth. People often forget or don't know that life expectancy from birth for a group where all members are currently dead, is a simple average of age at death for the population. So, if I have the following set of ages at death [1 29 15 31 76], the life expectancy would be 34 years from birth. Using an example from the Wikipedia entry on life expectancy, "in a hypothetical stationary population in which half the population dies before the age of five, but everybody else dies at exactly 70 years old, the life expectancy at age zero will be about 37 years, while about 25% of the population will be between the ages of 50 and 70." As you can see, the average life expectancy on its own doesn't give us a ton of information about actual life spans.
The problem is further compounded by the fact we just don't have a lot of data from that time period. However, that's not to say that we can't make some guesses. According to this write up of the issue, we know that countries like Canada had an infant mortality rate of 10% in 1921. While it's possible that the infant mortality rate was lower in medieval Europe, all data we do have points to that being unlikely.
So, let's take our 35 year life expectancy and figure some stuff out.
Let's start with that 10% number.
(1 +9x)/10 = 35
1 + 9x = 350
9x = 350
x = 350/9
x = 38.9
(1 + 1 + 8x)/10 = 35
2 + 8x = 350
8x = 348
x = 348/8
x = 43.5
(1 + 1 + 1 + 7x)/10 = 35
3 + 7x = 350
7x = 347
x = 347/7
x = 49.6
These are rough numbers and they only account for infant mortality, but hopefully people can see the issue. We are confident that many more died after infancy but before reaching adulthood. Of course, for each of these, x is also an average, obscuring a range of ages.
Why is this important? Well, if much of the low life expectancy numbers can be explained by infant and child mortality, it doesn't necessarily follow that people would be forced to become adults at a younger age. If they passed the riskiest parts of youth, they'd have plenty of time to live their life and mature.
Additionally, at this point, we're not looking at things within the context of their times. Given how hard it is for us to get this information, it's unclear how much they would have had it at their disposal, especially since recording vital records wasn't particularly important for much of this time. It also assumes that the things we find important are the same as what they would have found important. In these discussions, I feel like we often take out their humanity, treating them as another piece of data instead of living, thinking beings.
Finally, even if many people died by the age of 35, that doesn't mean older people would have been a rarity and that people wouldn't have tried to plan for a longer life. An explanation of how many older people would have been around given different mortality scenarios can be found in Life Expectancy and 'Age of First Appearance' in Medieval Manorial Court Rolls by L. R. Poos.
In the end, there's a lot we don't know about this time period. But understanding life expectancies and the limits of what we can assume from them is a good start.
One of the common reactions to my discussion of the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth was, "Oh come on, that was written so long ago. Why are we talking about it?"
The reason why I discuss it is because if you immerse yourself in D&D material from that time period long enough, you start bringing the points of view into the current project. I already pointed it out a bit with the races, but it's even clearer in the deities section in the classes.
Here are the deities: Arcanist, Lifegiver, Lightbringer, Protector, Reaper, Stormcaller, Trickster, and Warbringer.
Now, I happen to like the creation of archetypes instead of specific deities. This is important because D&D Next is meant to unite editions. By using archetypes, they can provide mechanics for the different deities that work in Greyhawk and in Forgotten Realms. It's weighted a bit towards martial, but that makes sense given D&D Next development until this time, it's largely been dungeon crawls.
However, I do have issues with the descriptions of three of them. Lifegiver, Protector, and Stormcaller. Suddenly, out of nowhere, these deities and the concepts and traditions they represent become gendered. The Lifegiver deity, the one involved with growth, healing, and fertility, is "usually female." The Protector, the domain of defensive strength. As a martial deity, it's usually male, but as the community building, caregiving version, it's usually female. Finally, Stormcaller, which represents storms, wars, physical might, and courage is commonly barbaric and male.
At this point, some will argue that this is traditional, we shouldn't get upset at this. Yes, in patriarchal societies, this was typical but far from universal. But, those are patriarchal societies, something that should not be assumed for all games of D&D. What happened to not setting the thermostat?
Additionally, some may point out that well, we're talking about the deities themselves, not the player characters. The problem with this is that it still implies that there are gender-based distinctions within the setting itself. That men are war-like, courageous, and barbaric. Women are the lifegivers, community builders, and caregivers. Add on top of this the sexual dimorphism, and we're right back in the 1970s. Sure, there are strong female characters in the setting but they are rare and exceptional.
My suggestion, leave out the "usually male" and "commonly female." It doesn't add anything while still setting the thermostat as it were. For those of us who don't want that in our games, it's one less thing we have to explicitly fight against. Our players won't be reinforced into believing that genders are a particular way in our game. People who want this gender bias in their games will bring it to the game on their own. They are still fully supported, especially since the settings mentioned have this bias in them.
Please, don't explicitly put gender stereotypes into your setting, Wizards of the Coast.
While it wasn't one of my main points, people picked up on my comment regarding humans having adulthood set at 15. One of the things it brought to the forefront is that what adulthood means is rather nebulous. It has no meaning in the rules or even necessarily the setting. Outside of elves who decide when they are adults after their 100 birthday and take on an adult name at that time, we know only that it happens when a human turns 15, halflings at 20, and dwarves at 40.
Some people asked why I thought it was creepy. I can understand why it might seem like a weird thing to say. Fifteen to sixteen is a common time for coming of age stories, many of which take the form of a quest or adventure. The difficulty I have is that in the same literature and folk stories that have tales of late teen male adventurers, many of the girls are being sent off to be married, quite often against their wishes. My fear is that we would see more stories about the 16 year old princess kidnapped by the old creepy wizard to be his bride or part of some dark ritual. And, because she's an adult, I'm afraid of that being sexualized in a way that's really uncomfortable to me.
Additionally, it reinforces some misconceptions we have about history. For instance, while it's true that some girls were married at very young ages, it appears that may have been more predominant among the nobility. According to the Wikipedia entry on the Hajnal line.
[A] thousand marriage certificates issued by the archdiocese of Canterbury between 1619 and 1660 show that only one bride was aged thirteen years, four were fifteen, twelve were sixteen, seventeen were seventeen, and the other 966 of the brides were aged nineteen years or older when they married for the first time. The church stipulated that both the bride and groom must be at least 21 years of age to marry without the consent of their families; the most common ages of marriage were 22 for women, 24 for men; the median ages were 22.75 for women and 25.5 for men; the average ages were 24 years for women and nearly 28 years for men. The youngest brides were nobility and gentry.
Here are some more tidbits collected from the Wikipedia page on marriage:
- According to Aristotle, the prime of life was 37 for men and 18 for women.
- The Visiogothic Code of Law (7th century) placed the prime of live at 20 years for both men and women.
- It can be presumed that most ancient Germanic women were at least 20 years of age when they married and were roughly the same age as their husbands.
- The average age of marriage for most Northwestern Europeans from the late 14th century into the 19th century was around 25 years of age; as the Church dictated that both parties had to be at least 21 years of age to marry without the consent of their parents, the bride and groom were roughly the same age, with most brides in their early twenties and most grooms two or three years older, and a substantial number of women married for the first time in their thirties and forties, particularly in urban areas, with the average age at first marriage rising and falling as circumstances dictated.
Outside of marriage, there was no clear line for adulthood. From Family and Household in Medieval England, medieval theorists had three divisions for childhood. The last, adolescentia, was from 15 to the age of majority. As time went on, the age of majority became more commonly 21, but much of that was tied to inheritance laws. "For society in general the defining point came when the young person was married and began to live with his or her spouse as husband and wife."
Given this connection between marriage and the definitions of adulthood, the young age for adulthood bothers me on another level. Children are a common result of marriage. It's fairly common these days to discuss older age and its effect on fertility on maternal mortality, that women tend to lose fertility as they get older, until menopause hits, and older women are at a higher risk for complications. What isn't as often discussed is the impact age has on maternal mortality, in particular, that girls and women under the age of 19 tend to have a higher mortality rate. According to Advocates for Youth, pregnancy is the leading cause of death for young women ages 15 through 19. They "are twice as likely to die during pregnancy or child birth as those over age 20; girls under age 15 are five times more likely to die."
So, when we start discussing setting adulthood in a fictional world at age 15 for humans, those are the types of thoughts that come to my mind. Obviously there are other thoughts to have as well. But given that adulthood was a nebulous concept, even historically, that it can have different implications for women in the setting, often limiting them or raising issues of child brides, I might suggest it's something that is better left to each table to decide. There's no need to set the thermostat in this case, especially since setting the thermostat can lead to some rather uncomfortable conversations. I should know, I've had to had a few of them just by pointing out how it made me feel.
All that said, I loved the suggestion some people had which was to create rituals that signified the passage into adulthood. If we look at the elves, they have that in a way. After turning 100, the elf decides when adulthood starts and even takes on an adult name at that time. Many human cultures have this. Perhaps this would be a better way of going than giving a definite age, particularly for humans given that race description discusses how variable humans are?
Today the Dungeon Bastard released an awesome video about gender and gaming.
The person was seeking advice on how to break some of the men in the group of the habit of playing women. It starts of with a general question of why someone would want to play a character of another gender and then goes on to how he wouldn't mind but the other players are playing women poorly.
Bill Cavalier's answer starts off simple, "Who cares?"
In my experience, gender often gets handled in a strange way in our community. As Dungeon Bastard posted with his Facebook share of the video, "Playing a 3-foot tall gnome-like creature with an insatiable appetite and hairy feet? -Not weird at all. Playing the opposite gender? WHAT'S UP WITH THAT!" I see similar things like this quite often. We play in a world with magical fireballs, dragons, floating land masses, swords with their own ego and motivations, but women still need to be physically weaker than men or things are off and our suspension of disbelief ruined. We can roleplay a dwarf poorly, but when it gets to be a man playing female character, it's something that must be stopped?
The reason I love the Dungeon Bastard is because it's important to point out that it doesn't really matter. When we frame it like it's a weird thing for a man to want to play a female character, it can send an unwelcoming message to others. When we are willing to suspend our disbelief and the physics of the world for things like magic or dragons, but not for a person who wants to play a stronger than real life female character, it sends a poor message about what we think is important.
And that is why gender-based attribute caps, penalties, and bonuses can be harmful. It's not about whether or not there are real life physical differences in strength. It's because by including them in a game we create, we're saying that that thing is really important about a real life thing, in this case gender. So important that we can't possibly play the game without having the mechanics enforce one particular vision of a fantasy world. It breaks my suspension of disbelief and fun to say, "I can imagine a world in which I can cast a fireball but I can't imagine a world where a woman can be just as strong as any man."
So, thanks, Dungeon Bastard, for pointing out the arbitrary nature of these things. Now let's kick some ass and have fun!
By the way, if you love Dungeon Bastard's advice as much as I do, you might want to check out his Kickstarter, The World's Worst Dungeon Crawl!
Over the past few months, I've been trying to consume more media where women are more heavily present whether as lead characters, supporting roles, or just stories that focus on a decidedly more feminine role or point of view. One of my favorite finds during this time period is a movie called 5 Branded Women, a 1960 film directed by Martin Ritt set in a Yugoslav town controlled by Nazis. Here's a plot summary from IMDb.com:
Yugoslav partisans grimly crop the hair of a village quintet of women believed to have consorted with the occupational Nazis. Four, for various reasons, have indeed - and their seducer is a lone, swaggering sergeant whom the partisans briskly emasculate. Escorted out of town by the sheepish Nazis, the forlorn ladies link up, patriotically and romantically, with a band of tough mountain guerrillas.
Now, if the parts of the poster or description make you nervous that this is going to kick up the sensuality to 11, please, don't worry. Are there a few scenes that are a bit objectifying? Yes. But much of the movie is way more nuanced and introspective than that. I'm going to have a few spoilers below, so please stop reading if you'd rather see the movie first.
As the description notes, the movie follows five women believed to have slept with a Nazi sergeant. This "betrayal" angers some Yugoslav partisans, in some cases more because one of the men wanted one of the women for his own. They kidnap the women and forcefully shave their heads. Since a woman's long hair is a big part of who she is in that society, this is a big deal. Additionally, the revelation of the affairs breaks the peace of the town and the Nazi leader agrees it is in the best interest of everyone involved that the women be exiled from town. They are forcefully marched, with nothing more than the clothes on their back, through the town and outside the main entrance to town. They are left there to fend on their own with no food, supplies, additional clothing, or shelter. Sounds like the start of an adventure, doesn't it?
After leaving town, at least three of the five women make stunning confessions. One never slept with the man, she is still a virgin. Another is pregnant with his child. A third slept with him in hopes that she would have a child, something that being denied to her otherwise. That's something to note about this movie, each woman has her own beliefs, motivations, desires, and needs. Although they may superficially look the same, especially as most of them cover their heads with scarves, they are not.
Over the course of several days, the women have a number of adventures. Here's an example: [YouTube]
This scene happens after one of the women attempts suicide. The other women save her and they spend a night sleeping next to one another. The next day they continue their walk. Soldiers drive by them singing. As the soldiers round a bend in the road, gunfire breaks out. The women cautiously investigate and find a man shot by the truck. It's not shown here, but they grab his gun from his body, a tool that becomes useful later when another man attempts to rape one of them.
As they travel, no one will help them. No one that is, until they meet up with other partisan fighters. Eventually they are able to persuade the men to allow them to stay in their camp. They are taught how to keep guard, fire weapons, and the like. As often happens, one of the men and one of the women fall in love. Their attraction for each other causes them to miss an invader in their mountain camp and they are brought up before the group as a whole on charges. The group is required to make a difficult choice, follow their rules and kill the couple or give them a second chance.
What I loved about this movie is that it has a great mixture of perspectives. Sure, it has it's own message to tell, it is an anti-war movie after all. But it goes beyond that. I can understand what motivates the various groups, even if I don't agree with them. The women aren't all the same, they encourage and support each other, and often solve their own problems. It provides a woman's point of view on things as well as taking the tactic of working with what you have, rather than judging them.
So beyond the entire movie being a classic adventure, here are some things I found interesting:
- Exiled protagonists can be interesting, for the right group. What taboos exist in the setting's culture? How do the people in the setting mark those who break those taboos?
- Whenever there is a war, there is always a shortage of people. Part of the reason the women are able to become resistance fighters in the own right is because the partisans need everyone that they can get. The majority of the people just try to live their lives the way they did before the Nazis invaded. This need breaks down stereotypes.
- Love and pregnancy don't wait for a safe time. There's a good chance that if the woman who slept with the Nazi in hopes of having a child had waited for the end of the war, she would be too old to have children. This is a concern that is particularly pressing to those people with a uterus. It's a concern that arises again and again in the material I've consumed concerning women and war. Furthermore, sidelining the pregnant so that they are only in "safe" places leaves out this reality that many people face throughout the world and throughout time. Another great story resource for this is the comic Saga.
If you can find a copy of it, I suggest watching it and mining it for ideas.
Attention: Spoilers of the Lost Cavern of Tsojcanth ahead.
Some people questioned how I could have a problem with the Lost Cavern of Tsojcanth. The main character from history is a woman afterall, and a powerful one at that. She imprisoned the demon
Having an evil main character be a woman isn't necessarily a problem. Heck, in a world with gender equality, that should happen about half the time. I have problems with the fact that the only prominent women in the world are evil. In the societies presented, such as the gnomes, there are no strong women. In fact, the female gnomes are non-combatants even when the blood thirsty PCs are at their door attempting to slaughter them.
Furthermore, there are additional issues with Drelnza. First, she is literally called treasure. Now some people might want to spin this into a "Look, motherhood transcends pure evil for Iggwilv considered her daughter to be her treasure." I could almost buy this, although I'd find that too a bit problematic, but Drelnza is presented as literal treasure, a golden Sleeping Beauty or Snow White.
The sleeping maiden is armored from toe to neck in gold chased plate mail. A long bastard sword is atop her body, its quillons below her breasts, its point near her feet. The woman's gauntleted hands are crossed over the sword's pommel. Her pale face seems composed. Her lips are bright red and her raven-hued tresses are lustrous. A helmet with plumes as black as the maid's hair rests on the slab just above her head.
To play up this Disney Princess connection even more, she attempts to manipulate and charm the party.
Drelnza will then awaken and be fully aware, but she will remain still until someone enters the chamber. Drelnza will then sit up slowly, pass a hand across her brow as if coming out of a strange coma, and then blink her eyes open. When she sees the party, she will smile sweetly and welcome her "rescuers" -using a vampiric charm on each member of the party. She will attempt to charm as many persons as possible before the whole party comes down into the lower portion of the sphere. As soon as a lawful good cleric comes within 10' of her, Drelnza's sword will spring into her hands, and she will smite the cleric. Drelnza has a bonus of +2 to hit and +4 damage with weapons, due to strength.
So, yes, part of me wants to say, well at least she's strong and bad ass. However, I'm not entirely sure this is due to her strength or due to the weapon itself. In fact, she also stands out for having a sword that has its own ego and intelligence. The sword is so powerful, it overshadows her.
Her sword is a chaotic evil bastard sword +4 with an intelligence of 17 and an ego of 20. Its special purpose is to slay lawful good clerics, and any such cleric struck by it must save vs. Paralyzation or be paralyzed for 1-4 rounds. The sword also has the following powers: detect good, detect magic, detect invisibility, flying. The sword can communicate telepathically, read languages, read magic, and speak Common, Hill Giant, Minotaur, and chaotic evil. Drelnza wears plate mail +2, and slippers of spider climbing (see the end of the module for details on this item).
I need to pause for a moment and ask an obvious question. Full plate mail, gauntleted hands, a helmet, but her feet are covered with slippers?
Also, here we have one of the few examples of NPC women fighting in this module (the exceptions being Trogoldytes, Formorians, Female Wolfwere, and Alu-demons, most of them being evil), and she's pure evil. In the good aligned groups, we have lots of male warriors, but the women are listed as non-combatants, as with the gnomes.
We also have no idea going into that room who she is. The module plays on the trope of wanting to save the sleeping woman, someone who is very often a princess. Sure the armor might throw it off a bit, but it's shining! She can't be bad, she probably needs to be saved, even though we were warned against saving her, but just look at her. Besides, if we don't do anything, we don't get any treasure. Clearly she's part of the treasure we're supposed to get.
While I can understand that at first glance, she seems like a badass character, in the context of the story, it's all off.
So, what would I change? Well, first, adding some female warriors who aren't evil would help a bunch. Make some of the border patrol leaders women, and the same with the gnomes, dwarves, and elves. If you want to keep her as the sleeping beauty, I might suggest putting some clues as to who she is. Maybe place some images of Iggwilv throughout the dungeon and when the characters come upon the warrior-maid, have them roll a check to see if they notice the resemblance to give them a chance against falling prey to her wiles. I'm sure that there are other things to do, but I think this would be a good start.