A More Inclusive D&D?

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 09 July 2014

Contains spoilers for the D&D Starter Set adventure, Lost Mines of Phandelver

For those who haven't heard, Basic D&D 5e is out as a free pdf download and some friendly local gaming stores already have the Starter Set (everyone else can get it starting July 15th). I was fortunate enough to get a press-preview copy of the Starter Set for review. There's a lot I want to talk about but since Mike Mearls was kind enough to give us some hints about inclusivity in the new edition when we interviewed him on the Tome Show, I want to talk about that today, focussing on gender.

There are two obvious big things in the Basic D&D pdf rules that I'd like to mention upfront. The first is the inclusion of a comparatively progressive discussion of sex, gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation, in the game. Found on page 33, here is the full text:

You can play a male or female character without gaining any special benefits or hindrances. Think about how your character does or does not conform to the broader culture’s expectations of sex, gender, and sexual behavior. For example, a male drow cleric defies the traditional gender divisions of drow society, which could be a reason for your character to leave that society and come to the surface.

You don’t need to be confined to binary notions of sex and gender. The elf god Corellon Larethian is often seen as androgynous or hermaphroditic, for example, and some elves in the multiverse are made in Corellon’s image. You could also play a female character who presents herself as a man, a man who feels trapped in a female body, or a bearded female dwarf who hates being mistaken for male. Likewise, your character’s sexual orientation is for you to decide.

Some Opinions on the Wording

First things first. The intent here is nice. I mentioned the existence of this passage to one of my nonbinary friends over dinner and her eyes lit up. The fact that a game company the size of Wizard of the Coast was willing to start the discussion of these topics is important to me. That said, there is definitely room for improvement. Many people who don't feel quite comfortable with the way it was presented have been saying great things. I implore you to go out and listen to them. For instance, one person I admire, Avery Mcdaldno, wrote this:

First off: if that "X trapped in an X body" narrative works for your friend, that's great. We all find different narratives helpful.

The trouble isn't that the narrative exists, but that it has been used for decades as a single story. If the phrase single story doesn't mean anything in particular to you, this is a really good video: http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story

So, there are a couple reasons why this narrative is a harmful one to perpetuate as the single story about trans bodies.

The first is that it implies that total medical transition is necessary in order to belong to your body. In my case, that would mean: collarbone restructuring, jawline shaving (the face is opened up and the bones are scraped down), tracheal shaving, full-body electrolysis, vaginoplasty, breast augmentation, hormone replacement therapy, and more. At the end of it I'd still be trapped in a testosterone-sculpted bone structure. The "trapped" narrative suggests that every trans person needs to commit $10,000-$120,000 toward rehabilitating their body... and that until they do, it's still a wo/man's body.

The thing is: if you identify as a woman, your body is a woman's body.

To say that trans people are "trapped" in the "wrong body" implies a limited range of solutions for finding happiness: pay endless dollars or kill yourself.

Again, if it's a narrative that individuals adopt to make sense of themselves / their lives, that's awesome. I 100% support them. But it's different when others push it on you as a monolothic trans narrative, and lots of people see it as exclusionary / reductive / regressive.

"X trapped in an X body" puts the burden of change upon individual trans people, who are presumed to be broken and then instructed to fix themselves. We need a new narrative. One that says, "Navigate gender on your own terms, ask for the support you want, demand the resources you need, break the binary where you ought to."

There's a really important piece of writing by Little Light, Elena Sims - http://takingsteps.blogspot.ca/2007/01/seam-of-skin-and-scales.html

Another person, Caoimhe Snow, said this:

I will add that as far as I know, this is the first time that Corellon has been called "hermaphroditic" -- previous descriptions of the god referred to something like (from memory) "he, she, both, or neither" which is an example of genderfluidity (and/or divine shapechanging powers), and not of intersex genitals.

There's a lot of other problems with it, ranging from possible confusion of the "female character who presents herself as a man" with a trans man to the fact that most trans people aren't themselves outside of the gender binary.

They had good intentions, but it's clearly written from a cis perspective to a cis audience in way that casts trans people as outsiders -- even explicitly so by referring to intersex magic elves.

Some people pointed out that they would love to see a rewording of the text instead. neongrey posted this new wording:

Gender Roles

You can play a character of any gender without any mechanical effect, but you can consider how that might affect your roleplay. You might think about how your character's gender and personality relate to their culture's expectations of them. Do people think it's unusual that your fighter is a woman? Did your drow cleric leave for the surface because his temple wouldn't accept him?

Neither do you need to conform to binary notions of gender. Elves and dwarves are often perceived as androgynous in two very different ways, for example. You could also play a character who feels no gender applies to them, or a woman unhappy with the body she was born with. Don't forget the prevalence of magic lets you explore these possibilities in ways you couldn't in real life, no matter what your own gender is. Your character's identity is entirely up to you!

I hope Wizards of the Coast listens to these various perspectives on the language and updates it in future versions to be even more inclusive and welcoming. I loved that it was pointed out that this is not the first time D&D attempted to address these issues, for instance I believe it was 3e who said you can play a male or female character. Unfortunately, that inclusive left out others because it reinforced the gender binary.

Does the product meet its stated goal?

So, leaving aside where the wording definitely can be improved, let's look at whether or not the promise of the section is matched with the reality of these two products. I've read over both the Starter Set and the basic rules a few times. I think the hints Mike gave about the inclusivity in the art hold true, at least when it comes to gender. There's only one piece of art in the basic rules. While I think there could still be some critiques regarding it, it can be read as having parity between male and female genders and the female characters aren't the only ones not on the front line.

This trend also carries through to the art in the Starter Set. (Sorry about the quality, as far as I can tell they didn't release the art online and I'm not near my scanner.)

Lots of women who are by and large similarly posed and dressed to the male characters. There's another image where I'm not even sure if one of the characters is of a particular gender. At least two of the female characters in the Player's Handbook continues this trend according to previews sent out by Wizards of the Coast.

I'm happy so far with the way the art has been done and I think it meets the promise of the sex and gender section of the Basic Rules. So what about the writing?

First, let's look at how gender is portrayed in the races section of the Basic Rules.

[Elves] Males and females are about the same height, and males are only marginally heavier than females.

Halfling men often sport long sideburns, but beards are rare among them and mustaches even more so.

Male dwarves value their beards highly and groom them carefully.

Human skin shades range from nearly black to very pale, and hair colors from black to blond (curly, kinky, or straight); males might sport facial hair that is sparse or thick.

So, first, let's acknowledge that they had very little space to talk about these races and that none of the descriptions are sexist. However, they do start to reinforce the gender-binary and cisgender norms, no? Also, the inclusivity text asks us to think about how our characters act in accordance with or in contrast with the gender expectations of where they are from yet the only gender expectations set here are for the male characters. It doesn't intend to, but it can give the impression of the male character traits being more important. I've discussed this in more depth in a previous post.

Also in the Basic Rules, they talk a bit about two fighters from D&D novels and how they can both be the same class and yet very different. It's great that they give a male and a female example. However, both examples have elements that are stereotypical when it comes to gender:

Tika Waylan is innocent, almost childlike, believing in the value of life and the importance of appreciating everyone. Neutral good in alignment, she cleaves to ideals of life and respect. Artemis Entreri never allows his emotions to master him, and he constantly challenges himself to improve his skills. His lawful evil alignment gives him ideals of impartiality and a lust for power.

Tika Waylan is naive and emotionally vulnerable, younger than her companions and annoyed that they still think of her as the kid they knew years ago.

Artemis Entreri is completely walled off from any personal relationships and just wants to be left alone.

I think it's important to say here that part of the issue is dealing with the history of D&D is that it has a checkered past when it comes to gender. As with the inclusivity statement, I believe Tika was likely added in an attempt to counteract gender stereotypes but, also like the statement, there may have been some blindspots during her creation and development and in the way that the examples were picked and presented in the Basic Rules.

While the Starter Set rules are also pretty neutral when it comes to sex and gender, the adventure, in my opinion is a mixed bag. Let's start with named characters where the gender is known from the text.

Female characters
Sister Gareale
Qeline Alderleaf
Halia Thornton
Mirna Dendar

Male characters
Nezznar/Black Spider
Gundren Rockseeker
King Grol
Sildar Hallwinter
Toblen Stonehill
Thel Dendar
Elmar Barthen
Nundro Rockseeker
Tharden Rockseeker
Daran Edermath
Harbin Wester
Iarno Albrek/Glasstaff
Sir Aldith Tresendar
Hamun Kost

There are a few other characters that I wasn't quite sure how to categorize: Tsernoth, Palien, Ander, Thistle, the dopplegangers Vyerith and Vhalak, and Tergon. Now, not all characters need to have a clear gender designation, but the gender ambiguity on some of these characters leads to further issues. Let's look at some of the +1 weapons one can obtain through the adventure:

The chest also holds a +1 longsword in a silver-chased scabbard. The sword is inscribed with the name “Talon,” and its hilt is worked in the shape of a bird of prey with outspread wings. It once belonged to a great knight named Aldith Tresendar, known as the Black Hawk. A character who succeeds on a DC 15 Intelligence (History) check recognizes the sword and recalls this lore.

Beneath the coins is a rusty old battleaxe of dwarven manufacture. Runes in Dwarvish on the axe head read, “Hew,” and the rust is misleading. Hew is a +1 battleaxe that deals maximum damage when the wielder hits a plant creature or an object made of wood. The axe’s creator was a dwarf smith who feuded with the dryads of the forest where he cut firewood.

This +1 mace was made for a cleric of Lathander, the god of dawn. The head of the mace is shaped like a sunburst and made of solid brass.

This +1 breastplate has a gold dragon motif worked into its design. Created for a human hero of Neverwinter named Tergon, it grants its wearer advantage of saving throws against the breath weapons of creatures that have the dragon type.

None of these items are directly connected to an obviously female character (I'm holding out slight hope that Tergon turns out to be a female character). In fact, one of the +1 weapons appears to be connected to killing dryads, a race that is specifically tied to the female.

There's also an uncomfortable plot line in Phandalin. One of the male characters, Thel Dendar, was killed for standing up to the Redbrands after some of them leered at his wife.

Thel Dendar, a local woodcarver, stood up to the Redbrands a tenday ago when they came by his shop and leered at his wife. The ruffians murdered him. Several townsfolk saw it happen. The Redbrands grabbed his body, and now his wife, daughter, and son have gone missing too.

It's not their shop. They didn't stand up against the Redbrands together. He wasn't killed during a fight after she stood up to them. Only he counteracted the leering. She and their two children are then kidnapped by the Redbrands, who also turn out to be slavers. Mirna, the wife, and their daughter are in one cell and the son in another.

A pair of disheveled human women are held in a cell to the south, while a human boy is confined the north. All are dressed in plain gray tunics and have iron collars fitted around their necks.

I'm willing to bet no one thought about it, but this feels uncomfortable to me. Redbrands leered at her, she is kidnapped by them, they are slavers, the two women are in their own cell, and only they are described as disheveled.

Let's also look at how some of the female characters are described:

Elsa, a gossipy barmaid
Trilena, the innkeeper’s wife
Linene Graywind, sharp-tongued
Halia Thornton, ambitious and calculating
Qeline Alderleaf, wise
Agatha (a banshee), vanity

None of these are necessarily a problem on their own and in a diverse world with lots of examples of women, they wouldn't raise an eyebrow. But to me, they don't really push gender stereotypes much. Why is Trilena a wife of an innkeeper and not an innkeeper herself? Why have the banshee be vain, a trait commonly associated with women? Also, where are the women who are described like Sildar?

Sildar Hallwinter is a kindhearted human male of nearly fifty years who holds a place of honor in the famous griffon cavalry of the great city of Waterdeep. He is an agent of the Lords’ Alliance, a group of allied political powers concerned with mutual security and prosperity. Members of the order ensure the safety of cities and other settlements by proactively eliminating threats by any means, while bringing honor and glory to their leaders and homelands.

or Daran?

Daran Edermath is a retired adventurer who lives in a tidy little cottage beside an apple orchard. A fit, silver-haired half-elf well over a hundred years old, Daran is a fighter who served as a marshal and herald for many years…

It's also important to note that none of the women are/were adventurers. While a few serve as liaisons for larger groups in the Realms, many of them exist to do nothing more than point the PCs in the right direction to get more information or help with many of those destinations being male characters. Now sure, some of the male characters are presented in stereotypical or negative ways, such as the townmaster.

The current townmaster is a male human banker named Harbin Wester--a fat, pompous fool. Completely intimidated by the Redbrands, he claims that they’re “just a mercenary guild, and not all that much trouble, really.”

But we also have men in the town who are actively standing up to the Redbrands, something that the women aren't doing.

I want to acknowledge that they are trying. There are parts where we can tell that. For instance, the list of important NPCs has parity. But there are still quite a few blind spots. No one of the items I brought up above are necessarily an issue on their own, but the overall trend is. I have faith that they will continue to work on it.

As for the question asked in the title: Yes, I feel like it is a more inclusive D&D, but that doesn't mean that there isn't still work to do. We need to iterate and improve.


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