Games I Love: Trine 2

Over the past few days I've played, oh, 16 hours of Trine 2 with the forever awesome Jared von Hindman. We both fell in love with the game's art and story (at least the original story line that constitutes the first half of the game or so, but more on that later) and it's an awesome co-op game, something that's been difficult for us to find. Before I get much further, here's a trailer of Trine 2:

At it's core, it's a side-scrolling game that combines action, puzzles, and platforming to tell a story. It's one of the best co-op games I've come across in a long time and we had a ton of fun working out the puzzles while talking to each other on Skype. I think it could be a great game for anyone close who has to spend time apart including couples.

Great Mix of Characters

You get to play one of three heroes:

  • Amadeus the Wizard - An older, reluctant hero who is married with kids. He doesn't have any direct combat abilities but his core abilities include levitating objects (which expands to monsters) and making boxes (which later expands to creating planks and monster cages).
  • Pontius the Knight - A rather large fellow who loves to smash things, with his sword or hammer. Besides bashing things, he has a shield that he can use to glide or redirect water or fireballs.
  • Zoya the Thief - Or as she likes to refer to herself, an entrepreneur. She has a bow and as she gains in levels, different types of arrows unlock such as anti-gravity, fire, and ice. She also has a super awesome grappling hook that lets her get up and over many of the challenges.

Each of these characters have unique talents, that when combined together and often with the environment, let you do some pretty awesome stuff. For instance, we found that Amadeus can't levitate a block while one of the other characters is standing on it. However, if Zoya creates an anti-gravity area with one of her arrows, he can place a block there. She can then jump on it and while she's in the air, he can push it upward. When she lands on it again, she can jump off and also gains the benefit from the upward momentum. Additionally, wooden blocks found in the environment aren't restricted in this manner when she's hanging from them with her grappling hook, so Amadeus can levitate her across obstacles in that case.

Beautiful Scenery

Much of the game is just beautiful. Some of it is creepy beautiful for sure, but a lot of work went into making it all work and it shows. The first half of the game plays through the adventure the Trine, an ancient artifact, summoned the characters for. I don't want to spoil the story, so that's all I'll say, but it has a wondrous, fairy tale vibe and there's a real story there. Throughout the adventure there's a bunch of notes, diary entries, paintings, poems, and the like to collect. Many of these reveal more about the land and the story. There are also lots of puzzles. Some of them are pipe puzzles involving redirecting air, fire, or water to either redirect the flow to make it possible to get through or to help magic plants grow and reveal new areas. Some areas are underground and others are even underwater.

Co-op

This game has awesome amounts of co-op. A fair number of the puzzles involved working together to solve them, using our special abilities to create some really cool stuff. While it wasn't impossible for us to get in each other's way at times, it also didn't happen all the time. We had so much fun with this game, we're going through again trying to find all the areas we missed and trying to unlock more of the achievements.

More Than One Way to Do It

Also, I have to confess I'm not the world's best platformer (that is, I'm not great at video games where the difficulty is in precision jumping). This games helps with this in a few ways:

  • There's often multiple ways around a problem. If you're great at platforming, then jump your way around. Not so great? Find a way to build what you need.
  • Working together often is better than working alone.
  • If one person gets to the next checkpoint, you'll be there if you die, so why not try. If the other person gets too far ahead, you'll be whisked there too.

A Note

One thing to note, we played the complete story. We weren't as thrilled with the second half. It felt much more like a generic video game and, at least on my end as the wizard, I felt constantly frustrated because I didn't have any combat powers. It also felt like there was a sudden difficulty shift and the art wasn't quite what we expected given the rest of the game. Of course, your mileage may vary.

So there you go. I highly recommend the game if you can get it. We lucked out and got it as part of the Steam Summer Sale. It's available for PC, Mac, Linux, XBox, PS 3, and Wii. That page also has a link for a free Mac demo and there is supposed to be one on Steam as well.

Survey on Anti-Harassment Policies at Conventions

There's been a lot of talk about anti-harassment policies at conventions lately. This isn't a scientific survey by any means but I'd love to gather your thoughts through it as well. All answers are anonymous and in about a week, I'll publish the responses thus far.

Exploration Through Games: Steal Away Jordan

Steal Away Jordan by Julia EllingboeSteal Away Jordan by Julia EllingboeIndie+ recently ran a day of events that focused on taboos in gaming. One of the events was a live play of Steal Away Jordan: Stories from America’s Peculiar Institution by Julia B. Ellingboe. In this game, players play the roles of slaves in the US during the 1800s. Since I haven't read the actual game yet, this will be about my reactions to watching the game play. Hopefully the game itself will be available soon so I can read the text.

Humanizing the Dehumanized

I don't know how the evils of slavery was presented to any of you growing up, but I remember that my school textbooks treated enslaved human beings as property or things even as we were taught how evil this was. They were full of pictures of white humans looking into the mouths of black humans to see how healthy they were with this act compared to the inspection one would give a horse. We saw pictures of them bound and chained standing on the auction block, sold off as individuals. Stories and images of whippings, beatings, and the scars of the same showed up over and over again. Then came the pictures of those who fought slavery, generally the white and upper class people of America who righted this wrong.

While I think those are all important things to learn, notice we haven't learned much, if anything, about how the enslaved people lived. We rarely heard their voices. I couldn't tell you what games they played as children. How did their parents comfort them during a thunderstorm? After a hurricane?

Douglass and Brown Argue: Douglass argued against John Brown's plan to attack the arsenal at Harpers Ferry by Jacob LawrenceDouglass and Brown Argue: Douglass argued against John Brown's plan to attack the arsenal at Harpers Ferry by Jacob Lawrence
In this game, we started with people. Each player described their character. How old he/she was. Whether or not they had attempted to run away before and, if so, what scars they had on their body that told that story. Were they literate? Did they have skills? Why were they there? Where were they born? What was their name? In the process, they created people and the possibilities of rich, detailed stories should not be glossed over.

After the creation of the people comes the assignment of worth and the slave name from the game master. If you watch, there's a interesting bit where one of the players gives a current name to his character. Julia steps in and says he doesn't get to choose that. It's the first time, in my opinion, that we start to see how these characters have two selves, their human side and then the part where they are another person's property. Whereas the earlier section reinforced the former, this drives home the latter. The game master decides what the details about your character are worth and assigns the players their dice based on it. Young adult typically is worth more than older adults, although being skilled mitigates that. Previous escape attempts as well as disobeying result in dice being taken away.

Community as a Resource

After the worth of each player character is assigned, Julia gives the worth of the NPCs, including the slave owner, Robert Ford. Robert has a lot of dice and Julia even suggests that the characters might want to combine forces if they want to have a conflict with him.

Understanding Motivations

I discuss issues of social justice a lot. One of the concepts I find hardest to talk about is why 1) people don't just rebel and 2) why some of the people in the oppressed group do things that reinforce the oppressive system. Between Julia's descriptions and the play in the game, I hope people get a better idea.

Because slavery is often taught as a means to an end, in this case understanding why relations in the US broke down to the point where we fought a destructive and costly Civil War, we often don't think of slaves as three-dimensional human beings. We don't think of them having a culture. We emphasize the property element to the point we don't understand that they might often travel within a limited sphere and have all sorts of relationships with all sorts of people. We also might not consider that, like all human beings, they have basic needs and wants and that one of the big differences between free and slave comes down to how you get those things. I'm going to simplify things for a moment. For me, as a free person in the US, my ability to meet my needs is largely self-driven. If I want more, I should either work more or find a job that pays me more money. I have the freedom of choice to attempt to do that (whether or not I'm successful is another matter).

If you are owned by another person, by and large your ability to meet those needs and desires is tied to the person who owns you. If he or she does well, there's a good chance you will benefit from that. If you sabotage that person, you may be harming yourself as well. The way I tend to view it is their status sets your base. Since material goods may be harder to come by and keep, as an enslaved person, your relationships with others are important whether they be the comfort of friends and family or the access to information and resources that others might provide. So, if you were to get caught attempting to escape or planning a slave revolt, you could easily lose most if not all of your resources through the punishment and the possible sale to someone else.

Re-examining the Hero Story

Emancipation: Credit Library of Congress / Thomas NastEmancipation: Credit Library of Congress / Thomas Nast

As I mentioned earlier, in my experience, the slave narrative is often not a tale of the slaves at all but of this epic battle between whites over the topic of the slaves. We champion Abraham Lincoln, knowing all sorts of details about his life, but rarely do people like Frederick Douglass get the same treatment. We have lists of those who died in the Civil War, but I have yet to see a book that lists the name of those who died attempting to escape slavery.

Detail from Freedom to the Slave: ca. 1863, lithograph - New York Public Library Digital Gallery, Schomburg Center for Research in Black CultureDetail from Freedom to the Slave: ca. 1863, lithograph - New York Public Library Digital Gallery, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
Instead of playing a white abolitionist or a slave owner who sees the light and frees his or her slaves, the players played slaves. They were attempting to free themselves, using their own wits. When we compare this to other games that attempt to explore these issues, such as say, Bioshock Infinite, this change of perspective is huge.

Summary

There's a bunch more that I could go into here, but I'd prefer to wait until I can read the game itself. While my knowledge of the specific subject matter the game covers may be limited, I saw a lot come out during the game play that made me excited, especially as someone who grew up in a lower class household and had to later deal with how people from the upper classes viewed people like me and our lives and choices. While the game is not currently available, I asked Julia about it and she hopes to have a PDF version available again soon. Also, I asked Indie+ if they would consider releasing it in audio only form for those who dig podcasts. It sounds like there's a possibility of that happening next week.

If you are interested in learning more, the Library of Congress has a collection of narratives from former slaves on their website.

(Also, notice how much of the art presented focuses on white people and their roles in the anti-slavery movement, often presenting them as the heroes. Understanding how common that presentation is is important to understanding some of the race issues that continue in the US.)

Desertification: The Dust Bowl

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.

Watch The Dust Bowl Preview on PBS. See more from The Dust Bowl.

Dust BowlDust BowlThe 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.

Goals for Druids: Reversing Desertification

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.Apple ValleyApple Valley

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/

Sources of Inspiration: End to End

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.

Inspiration

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.

Responses to Races

BerrornarBerrornarI 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!
~Chad

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

Understanding Life Expectancy

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?

Hans Holbein "The Dance of Death Woodcut"Hans Holbein "The Dance of Death Woodcut"
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

Now 20%
(1 + 1 + 8x)/10 = 35
2 + 8x = 350
8x = 348
x = 348/8
x = 43.5

Now 30%
(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.

Art SourceHans Holbein, "The Dance of Death [Woodcut]," in Children and Youth in History, Item #186, http://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/primary-sources/186 (accessed May 7, 2013). Annotated by Shona Kelly Wray

Dear WotC, please don't explicitly include gender stereotypes

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.

Sedille: "Sedille" © 2012 Jenna Fowler, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/Sedille: "Sedille" © 2012 Jenna Fowler, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/
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.

Adulthood, Sex, and Medieval Marriage

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.

How Reymont and Melusina were betrothed. From the Melusine, 15th century.How Reymont and Melusina were betrothed. From the Melusine, 15th century.
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.[17]

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?

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