rpg


Looking Back: Aleena

As I look forward to 2015, there's one thing left from 2014 that I feel the need to write about. Back when I was getting a bunch of hate directed at me over the summer, leading to the "What happens when you engage" series of posts, Stuart Robertson, who had a disagreement with me in the past, decided to not only drag up the old disagreement, but misrepresent my positions. This led not only to more attacks and harassment along the same type discussed in the engage series, but as recently as a month ago I had two different people reference the distorted and incorrect arguments as if they were true.

So what is this all about? Why Aleena the cleric?

The original discussion started because I pointed out that the D&D art I saw growing up didn't make me feel welcomed, especially when combined with things like the gender-based attribute score stuff. Someone, I forget who, decided that since Aleena existed, my argument was incorrect, as if my lived-experience is something that can be disproved. This led to a long discussions, some of which I recorded here.

But let's say, for the sake of argument, that we could disprove lived-experiences. The argument still falls flat on a number of levels.

  • Even if Aleena was a character that would have made me feel welcomed, they admit that she is an outlier in regards to the art at the time.
  • Likewise, they ignore that Aleena came out when I was 2 or 3 and around the time that my brother was born. Since he was my conduit to the published D&D stuff, by the time he was ready to play, there's a good chance I don't see Aleena, especially with the lack of ebay and online pdfs.
  • They make the argument that since she is so much closer to what I suggest I would like in female representation for D&D, I must then be happy with her. This would be akin to saying that because most things are red and I love blue, I have to be content with green because it's closer on the color spectrum or else there is just no pleasing me. They go even further to allege that I wouldn't be happy until everything was blue.

The above is the actual image they chose to make their argument. It has some things going for it. She in a more active pose. She's actually standing up to a bad guy. She is covered nearly head to toe.

But there are some things that are, in my opinion, rather silly too. Her chainmail is rather form fitting (which we'll see even more in the image they didn't share with me that day). To me, she's in a rather strange stance for someone facing a magic flying arrow. It reminds me of a batter's stance from baseball, but seems all wrong for the perspective. The long tabard seems impractical and she seems more like a model than someone actively going up against an enemy. While the phrase "women in refrigerators" hadn't been coined yet, Aleena exists solely to die and be a reason for the player character to continue on. Her main role is to teach and heal the player character.

And they don't argue with most of these criticisms, not really. They'll say things, like "What do you expect, the artist is Elmore, king of fantasy cheesecake?" Or they'll take issue with the desire for "realism" even though many of them prefer certain other games for their "grittiness" or verisimilitude. If you read a number of forum posts about her, you'll see that a number of men fell in love with her when they were boys and some fantasize about her in a sexual way. None of these things would have made me feel welcome as a kid and they still make me feel unwelcome now, especially the exasperated "well, obviously" tone that accompanies a number of the arguments.

Of course, a number of them felt the need to take an argument calling for a diversity in art (yeah, she doesn't go far enough) into an argument against diversity (she shouldn't exist). That's why they try to force me into a yes or no answer on whether or not she's sexist and, when I refuse to play their game, claim my lack of yes or no answer is a statement that she is. Sorry, boys, it doesn't work that way. In addition to not engaging with what I'm actually saying, they are oversimplifying and presenting a false dichotomy. Let's explore this.

Whether or not Aleena is sexist has nothing to do with the question of whether or not I felt welcomed by the art. To turn it around, let's say we got rid of all female characters in art who were sexy. Even if that were the same as eradicating sexism, we would still have a problem of some women not feeling welcomed by the art. The sexism comes in the frequency of representation and lack of other types of female characters which leads to the feelings of not being welcomed by women who aren't interested in the limited representations offered. Making it about whether or not I think the individual character is sexist is an example of pitting women against each other.

Additionally, things don't have to be sexist or not sexist. Many of the those who try to enforce this binary are the same people who claim that saying something is sexist is the same as saying it shouldn't exist or that the creator intended it to be sexist. Most people I know who try to talk about issues of sexism and representation consider sexism to be more of a spectrum (ok, some of us get even more complicated than that, but that's beyond the scope of this post). So, while I think there are a number of elements of how Aleena is presented in the work that are problematic and the fact that she is the outlier is an example of the sexism common at the time, I don't see the need to reduce the discussion to a yes or no checkbox.

Finally, saying I have to accept her is an attempt at control and dominance. When I refused, they have spent multiple years attempting to marginalize me by misrepresenting and libeling me. Others accept their lies as truth because it fits with the societal narrative about feminists and spread them further, reinforcing them.

Whether or not I see her as sexist is one of the least interesting questions out there to ask. It's asked not because my answer has any chance of being interesting but rather because if I answer no, they get to dismiss the issues with her being the best case they can make about the art at the time and if I say yes, they get to spin this narrative about insatiable man-hating, sex-negative feminists who want nothing more than censor cheesecake. They get to look like they are having a rational discussion while really making it about me.

And we see this same sort of reductionist argument style again and again. The follow up to the lie that I said it was sexist was to say that I won't be happy until all female characters wear burkas. When it was pointed out that I've said positive things about both Saga and Gail Simone's Red Sonja, the argument was twisted that I wouldn't be happy until everyone dressed like me. This is more of what happens when you engage with them, which is why I've decided to block the bunch of them.

This isn't the first time they've done this and it won't be the last as long as people allow it to continue. Aleena is important to discuss both because of how far ahead she was for the time but also for how far she had to go.

P.S. Some interesting facts about Aleena.

  • The character art is based on one of Frank Mentzer's ex-girlfriends.
  • While we do hear her voice before we see her, the very first thing we learn about Aleena is that she is a "beautiful woman."

    You carefully start down the corridor into the unknown, your lantern held high and sword ready.

    The corridor leads to another small cave. As you approach, you hear a voice, and see a light.

    You pull the shutters closed on your lantern, so you can hide better, and care- fully peek around the corner. To your right, sitting by the cave wall, is a beautiful woman, wearing armor like yours. She has no sword, but has a rod with a metal ball on one end; this is a weapon called a mace. A lit lantern is on the floor next to her. She seems to be meditating or praying.

  • I'm pretty sure chainmail wouldn't hug one's rear the way it does in the picture of her dead.

P.S.S. Here are some descriptions of her I found on the internet. Yeah, my reaction to her was sooooo off.

I met Aleena, the cleric, her long blond hair flowing from beneath her finely crafted helm, her luminous eyes. . . err, where was I? Sorry.

-- source: "Mentzer Reflections, Part 4: Bargle and Aleena"

For those of you who may have forgotten, we meet the blonde-haired cleric shortly after wounding a goblin in a cave. As we cautiously pursue the fleeing goblin, we come upon her silently meditating in a corner of a cavern chamber. She is drawn to our high charisma and invites us to join her for a rest. After instructing us on several aspects of an adventurer's life, the cleric not only joins our expedition but kindly offers to heal us as well (that 16 charisma really pays off). Aleena becomes a mentor of sorts as we explore the remainder of the caves together but she can do more than just offer instruction. She exhibits her skill and power as she uses her clerical abilities once again, this time turning the undead ghouls that block our route. We are beginning to fall in love with this woman!
But our love affair is not meant to be. Bargle, the roguish magic-user that has been terrorizing the countryside around Threshold slays the beautiful young cleric with a deadly spell. She falls in battle and no matter what we do, we cannot alter that fate. We either kill the evil Bargle after making our saving throw or unwittingly aid him while under a charm spell. Either way, Aleena the cleric is no more.
With either outcome, we do manage to recover Aleena's body and return her to the local church. Hearts are broken, both in the game and in real life over the death of the cleric. No matter how many times we play the scenario or what we do, we cannot save her. The cleric's fate is preordained. It is with great remorse for her loss that we begin our adventuring careers in the world of D&D. But with her loss comes wisdom and the understanding that death is real in the game and the hero does not always win. We are shown just how dangerous the adventuring life can be. This would have been a profound lesson to those new to the game and perhaps this is why the Metzer boxed set remains so ingrained in the collective memory of D&D players worldwide.

-- source: "Aleena the Cleric

I liked Elmore's art, always have. That alone seems invalidate my Old School street cred. I love his witches (no surprise) and love how he draws women. So when I finally got my hands on a Mentzer basic set, I loved the art and yes, I found Aleena. Though there was no emotional connection there with me. I felt that killing her was a cheap attempt to get the players involved. This is called a "Women in Refrigerators" effect and its a cliché.

That all aside, it also worked.
People to this very day still remember Aleena and hate Bargle.

-- source: "Aleena, doomed cleric for D&D 4 Essentials

Aleena and the Bargle incident are often remembered with tongue in cheek fondness by many gamers, and for good reason, she's a memorable NPC, it's a cool campaign starter adventure hook, and Larry Elmore's art for her is D&D cheesecake gold.

--source: "Aleena, and the fine art of annoying the party with their hirelings"

If the original red box basic set was your first experience with Dungeons and Dragons, then chances are you will remember this cleric. The introduction solo adventure was a great way to ease into what D&D was about if you did not have friends to play with just yet. And who could forget the beautiful illustration of the first non player character you run across. She saves you from a pack of undead and chances are she ends up dying in the final battle. She was probably a level 2 cleric then, but no stats were provided. Later on, she was described in the gazetteer for Karameikos and given a last name. Some time must have passed as she is a level 12 cleric and active in church politics of the town of Threshold.

--source: "Iconic Basic Dungeons and Dragons Characters Part 1

havard wrote:
Bargle and Aleena... Were they from Frank's campaign or just created for the purpose of the introductory adventure?

Just for this. There are analogues in my own campaign of course, especially of Bargle. But none of my clerics are as foxy as Aleena. ;>

--source: Mentzer, Bargle and Aleena

Frank Mentzer wrote:
Just for this. There are analogues in my own campaign of course, especially of Bargle. But none of my clerics are as foxy as Aleena. ;>

Too bad. I was hoping I could leech some information about Aleena from you. Ofcourse, foxier Clerics than her would be hard to come by wouldn't they? :)

It is weird. When I pick up an RPG these days, I rarely even read through the introductory adventures. But this was the game that introduced me to RPGs. I guess that is why I will never forget those characters. Elmore's illustrations probably helped too!

--source Mentzer, Bargle and Aleena

Quote:
Does anyone else have as strong memories of Aleena and Bargle?

Hmmm.... Bargle? Aleena? Never heard of em'.

Okay, Okay, I might have seen them before.

I was introduced to RPGs through the Epic Hotness of Aleena, and the Evil Bargle. Elmore's illustrations aside, I will always remember that intro adventure.

--source: Mentzer, Bargle and Aleena

So just imagine you are the clerics at the church where the fighter returns Aleena's body...

Are YOU going to let someone that hot stay dead?

--source: Mentzer, Bargle and Aleena

On Liberation and Empowerment

Found this recently through a reblog on the deviantfemme tumblr (NSFW).

sexual liberation comes not just from having sex
but from the decision to have your sexual experiences on your own terms
which can mean deciding to have sex with whomever and however many times you want
or deciding to have no sex
the empowerment comes from the decision and having that decision respected

Source: Young Black and Vegan

I've been letting it roll around in my head ever since.

When I talk about things like how women are portrayed in games, a common response is to attack me as a person. The claim is that I don't get it because I'm supposedly sexually repressed and a prude, a pearl clutcher, a Tipper Gore. Clearly, living in the US, I must have a fainting couch and smelling salts.

What I love about the quoted text is that it acknowledges that sexual liberation is way more complicated than how comfortable you are with taking your clothes off or with seeing sexual imagery. It's about being able to choose and part of choice is the ability to say no. When that decision isn't respected, as in the case of the "You're just a prude" response, we are not talking about a sexually liberated world. We're still talking about one that is built for others' pleasure.

And it's messed up because the world isn't liberated for anyone. As much as it sucks for me to deal with an environment that sends the message "Tits or GTFO," I statistically have less to worry about than those who make the choice for yes. Yesterday was the tenth annual "International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers." An important image went around with stats about the violence sex workers face.

From HIPS.orgFrom HIPS.org

Sex work is just that, work. The risks sex workers face don't have to be inherent to their job. They are risks we create through our treatment of them. The collective and common disdain shown towards sex workers allows the people who attack them to do so. It allows bad cops to abuse them, especially with the artificial power differential we create through criminalization and non-legalization. That attitude gets reflected in our stories and games. Women who engage in sex work often are seen as one of the few classes of women where it's ok to either watch or participate in violence against them (via movies, books, video games, and the like) and that view is rarely if ever questioned. We live in a world where once you've done sex work or anything people might consider sex work, you're considered tainted for the rest of your life and can lose your job if anyone ever finds out, no matter how many decades have passed.

It needs to stop. We need to question narratives that normalize violence against sex workers (which is what that petition in Australia regarding GTA V was about). We need to question narratives that say their lives don't matter or that focus on their lives through an outsider lens. We need to stop telling women that they are only good for sex and we need to support women's choices about how to express their own sexuality, whatever that choice is. Policing women's choices, whether by calling them a prude or a whore, needs to stop and we need to stop pitting women against each other for these choices. We need to stop acting like women's sexuality is binary, you're either sexual or your not. We need to stop telling women that they either need to be comfortable with little to no clothes or that they have to be happy with being modest. We have to allow for complex emotions regarding pornography, monogamy, sexual desire, and more. We need to change media rating systems that rate expressions of sexuality commonly equated with women's pleasure as more mature than those commonly equated with men's pleasure.

If you are looking for different narratives, here are some suggestions:

There are so many more, but this is a good start. Challenge the narrative. Don't be compliant. Become empowered.

Stop Pitting Women Against Each Other

Discussing female representation in gaming art, especially tabletop role-playing games is complicated by a number of factors. One of the first issues is that it's often presented as a zero-sum discussion, leading people to react as if it's a conflict situation over limited resources rather than a cooperation situation where we could be improving things for everyone and even end up with more art.

It reminds me a lot of the Robbers Cave experiment done in the 1950s. During this experiment, boys were invited to camp out in a park. The first phase of the experiment involved the boys getting to know each other and forming a group. Unbeknownst to them, they were not the only group invited and during the second stage, they not only found out about each other, but were put into positions of conflict over limited resources. During this phase, they grew hostile to one another, especially when there was something that only one group could "win."

While there are definitely more than two groups when it comes to how female characters should be represented in art, I do think there's a generally feeling of limited resources when it comes to those representations. There are only so many books printed per year by the larger companies after all and while there's theoretically no cap on what small publishers can produce, there is a bit of a limit to how much money is available in the market.

We also know that a fair number of the marketing axioms over the past several decades, in particular the narrowing in on measurable demographics, tends to reinforce and add to the market for certain consumers while limiting the market of others. This trend is what Douglas Lowenstein, then President of the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), was referencing in his 2005 state of the industry speech. People in public relations and marketing would continuously focus on a certain portion of the audience, reinforcing the belief that that audience was "core" and representative of the audience as a whole when the truth was that the audience targeted was 1) incapable of supporting the market on their own and 2) may not even constitute a plurality of the market. In fact, there's an argument to be made that the group they picked happened to be easier to market to and people from the other markets didn't complain enough for them to be forced to broaden their focus.

This combination of factors leads to a situation where people who feel adequately served by the status quo find it easier to be involved in the hobby and often feel that other people who want something different are their competition. It gets even more complicated because often the people currently here, especially in this case women, aren't even necessarily well-served by the current content but they are afraid of losing what they already have.

Add into this that women (at least in the US) are often taught to see each other as competition anyway and that ways of thinking and acting that fit into the feminine stereotype are often denigrated, and the situation has all the required elements to become intractable if not downright explosive. The conversation becomes hostile and combative rather than cooperative.

Take for instance how my arguments for a wider representation of female characters are often received as requests to exclude certain types of representation. I remember a few years ago on Twitter someone was arguing with me from the point of view that I was saying "no sexy art evah" and was surprised when I took a step back and said, "No, it's about the percentage of art that is sexy." He was further surprised when the percentage I said that would make me happy, say about 20% of female character art being meant to emphasize sexiness, was higher than his own.

The problem, as I see it, is that sexiness for female characters is still the default. This isn't some big controversial opinion. My detractors argue that this default setting is why we have it. They'll write long pseudo-scientific supposedly evo-psych treatises on it. Or often they just don't see anything wrong with it and, even when they do believe it's something that maybe should be changed, they suggest that asking artists to be aware of their own biases is a step too far (self-censorship!). No, no, in order to change the percentage we just need to hire artists who think in other ways, but heavens forbid that anyone point out that a particular artist has a tendency to draw characters in that way.

They often then point to the women who are seemingly satisfied by the status quo as a sword against those who are not being served by the market. Since we're artificially being limited to just one female viewpoint, those women then feel the need to defend what they already have. Thus the conversation gets derailed from the larger issue of how do we broaden representation to one where we're arguing for the existence of any one piece of art. Any attempt to explain the pattern using particular pieces of art as references becomes a fight over defending the existence of that piece (this, by the way, is why Anita Sarkeesian didn't list 3 games when asked to on the Colbert Report). The women who do like the piece feel attacked and lash out.

Another example of this had to do with Team Unicorn. The public face of Team Unicorn is conventionally attractive. This isn't a problem but in my extended circles became an issue when people started using them as the norm for how other women should think, act, and look. In fact, some people I know decided to use Team Narwhal as a counter, insinuating that unlike Team Unicorn, they were real.

These situations for a no win situation that those who want to continue the status quo continuously exploit. They set up certain women, those who they see as supportive of their position, as the "good ones," further reinforcing the us vs them mentality. We all know what happens to those women who stand up to this.

It needs to stop. We need to stop taking the bait when these people set up women as being in competition to one another. We need to learn to recognize when we are being baited like this. By doing this we can grow the pie. We can have a bigger market, potentially with more overall number of illustrations and chances for a diversity in representation. We can start cooperating and listening to one another.

We can even improve the existing representations. Take for instance how sex workers are often portrayed in games. I don't know many people who are sex workers who like how they are portrayed. But they also don't want to be erased. What if we could get to the point where we improve the depictions of sex workers while also diversifying how women are portrayed? Wouldn't that be an all-around win?

Let's stop setting women against each other and instead work together on meeting everyone's needs. Maybe we could have a world that looks something like this instead. (Love this t-shirt by the way) We will still have disagreements and even fights, but they will be because of irreconcilable views, not because we start off the conversation pitting women against each other.

PS: While not directly related, I thought this article about scheduling in polyamorous relationships is an interesting example of how what initially can look like a competition for limited resources can become a cooperative and even more fulfilling way of viewing the world.

The Purpose of Reviews

Recently I attended my aunt's birthday party. While I was there, I had the chance to talk to my cousin Christina and her friend. Both love games and were happy to tell me about what games the liked, which games they wish they could afford, and ask me for game recommendations. They also related their frustrations about games.

You see, both of them have physical conditions that make playing many games difficult. They can't afford more recent computers or consoles, let alone the types of controllers that would make it easier for them to play. I instantly remembered the AbleGamers website and suggested they check it out. I figured if anyone out there could give them the advice and information they needed, it would be them.

Imagine my great sadness this weekend when people started attacking the Able Gamers website because the charity did not want someone to fundraise for them under the GamerGate banner. I wasn't surprised by the obvious attacks, the "how dare they not accept our money" expressions of anger. I was surprised, but guessed I shouldn't have been, when they started going after the types of reviews that AbleGamers produces.

First, let's back up a bit. All reviews are, to some degree, arbitrary and/or subjective. For instance, I recently saw an argument that review scores should be tied to quantifiable items like number of found bugs, frame rate, etc. But really, that's just as arbitrary as saying it should be about the number of female characters or how many challenges can be solved in non-violent ways. Reviews say far more about the expected audience of the review than the game itself.


AbleGamers, as a website, has a rather specific audience. Their audience consist of game consumers who have specific requirements for their games that may not be covered by reviews from other outlets. Just like the average consumer needs to know the technical requirements of a game so that they don't buy games their system can't run, people with disabilities need to know if the game's physical requirements match their own proficiencies. If it doesn't, why should they spend the money on the game to be disappointed?

What this incident shows is a fundamental lack of understanding regarding the nature of reviews and how a significant number of gamers care more about how games are talked about than they do about fellow gamers who have needs and tastes different than their own. Reviews should be about helping consumers find the games that meet their individual mix of wants and needs. Given how many people game, there is no way that one, unified set of reviews will do this. Reviews can and should be different from each other, talk about different points, even deduct points for things like racism, sexism, etc.

We, as the consumers, are then given the task of finding the reviewers who best deliver information pertinent to our tastes. Often this will mean a reviewer who matches our own tastes, but don't be surprised if a reviewer whose tastes are different from your own provide needed insight into a game.

That's what reviews should be. I think if people want something that compares what are essentially technical specs of the product, they should found something like Consumer Reports, a product testing company that rates and compares various products in a category against the same set of standards.

In the meantime, if you would like to support AbleGamers, you can donate here. They also have some great shirts available in their online store.

Moving Beyond Scorched Earth

Recently I talked about the dueling definitions of sexism. I'd like to talk about a related issue I encounter frequently, the belief that we should limit the use of the word sexist to those offenses egregious enough that we should take a scorched earth policy towards the action or event.

AtaculdeNoapte

There are a few issues with this approach:

  • It leaves us without a term to use to describe arbitrary decisions or trends based on sex and/or gender that don't rise to the level of require a scorched earth policy.
  • It conflates labeling the behavior with how to respond to the behavior.
  • We're left with one response to sexist behavior, without any insight into whether or not that response has a positive impact.

This definition of sexism causes much of the defensive behavior we often complain about because the originator is now anticipating a scorched earth response towards them.

Others, including myself, would prefer that we label behavior what it is and then decide the best way to deal with that behavior. Basically, we would decide whether or not the behavior is sexist and then determine what to do. The decisions on both the definitions and the remediation (if any) can be decided by individuals as they see fit.

This would accomplish a few things:

  • Lower defensiveness because potential punishment is not implicit in the argument. I can say, "Yeah, I did a sexist thing" without worrying about people automatically ostracizing me.
  • Allow for us to more easily see the more insidious forms of sexism since we will no longer be concerned about whether or not they meet a certain threshold of severity. This could help in areas of institutionalized sexism.
  • Allow for a wider range of fixes. For instance, sometimes just talking about the issue can help. Additionally, acknowledging that something is sexist can help with another common issue, that when people eventually do speak up, the response to them often feels worse the original incident.

Being able to talk about the issues without implying punishment or requiring it to meet a arbitrary threshold of severity, we can start to identify the parts of our media and our society that create or amplify sex- and gender-based discrimination and oppression.

While we're on the subject of punishment, something else that often annoys me in these conversations is the conflation of ethical with legal. While there can be overlap between the two, for instance murder is both unethical and illegal, there are plenty that are separate. Many incidents of sexism are unethical but not illegal. Legality is often, but not always, tied to the seriousness of the event. Does it make sense for the full force of the government to be brought to bear against the perpetrator? That doesn't mean that incidents that fail that test should be done without community repercussions.

Also, I'd like to point out that sexist opinions and actions exist throughout our culture and 1) are often reinforced by people regardless of their own gender and 2) often harm people regardless of their gender. For instance, a recent study on hiring practices showed that using a female name on an otherwise identical resume resulted in lower salary offers and a more common expectation of incompetence. Many gender role expectations that automatically place men, especially fathers, in positions of authority (patriarchy) harm people of all genders even if that harm is felt disproportionately by some groups.

In addition to allowing gradations in severity when it comes to sexism, removing the implicit response allows us to talk about works and people as the complex entities that they are. Rarely can we reduce a work or a person to one label, such as sexist. Take, for instance, two female characters that many who identify as geeks would know: Princess Leia and Eowyn. Both characters have what can be viewed as empowering moments. Leia participates in her own rescuing. Eowyn kills Lord of the Nazgul. Yet there are times when they are used to reinforce gender stereotypes such as when Leia is enslaved and when Eowyn sets aside her sword. In both Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, we can also point to the lack of other female characters as being sexist. We can talk about these elements of the thing without necessarily declaring the thing as a whole sexist.

We can't move forward if we continue to enforce the "if sexist then scorched earth response" definition of the word sexism. We need to move past introductory understandings of sexism and get to that more nuanced discussion. We need more responses than "kill it with fire." There will still be times for scorched earth, but we should not think it is implied anytime someone says something is sexist.

More Like This Please: Zumanity


Recently, I spent about a week in Las Vegas for a tech conference. While I didn't get to do too many Vegas things because I was getting over a horrible cold, I took the time (and walked 2 miles) to see Zumanity, a burlesque show by Cirque du Soleil. In short, it was wonderful all around and I left the theater thinking that every game designer, heck every gamer, needs to see it.


Why do I say that? Well, for me it is one of the best examples of what healthy sexuality looks like as an art form and media. The show had a number of acts, everything from two women swimming in a water bowl to a male stripper to a delicious milk bath scene. One of the more interesting acts to me was an aerial silk act where the female performer's routine is a metaphor for female sexual pleasure. The soundtrack is of a woman gasping and moaning. We also have a homoerotic cage match where the men become jealous of each other because of their mutual interest in the woman watching their fight. It looks like it's going to break out into a fight when they realize they can all have what they want. In addition, one of the male performers had an amazing pole routine. The hosts for the evening were a 1950s inspired couple who interacted with the audience. The "wife" found a boyfriend in the audience pretty early in the evening and the husband modeled how to handle that without getting mad, something that is meta to a degree given the amount of audience participation in the show.

I know that can be a lot to absorb at once, especially if you haven't seen the show, but really what I found is that the show overall was a great example of something I had found earlier in the week. Since I often talk about female representation in games, especially the overrepresentation of sexualized women, I'm often accused of just being anti-sex. This saddens me because it suggests that the people making these accusations can't imagine a world where all types of female sexuality are equal and respected. We've become so used to the versions of sexuality churned out by our media that we believe that it is the way sexuality is.

I wanted to find a tool to help explain the difference between how sexuality is most commonly portrayed and healthy sexuality. Not long before the show, I found a framework called CERTS. It stands for Consent, Equality, Respect, Trust, and Safety. Underlying the framework is a basic belief that healthy sexuality is positive and can enrich our lives and that there are many forms it can take but they are grounded in the CERTS model. (More info can be found here)

I believe that CERTS isn't just useful for person-to-person interactions, but also for media. Zumanity itself is a great example of this.

Let's start with consent. The show is upfront about its content manner. They make it clear, in a non-judgmental way, that the content is going to be sexual in nature. The female ushers wore shirts that gave the illusion that they were naked, so if the nudity or upfront nature of the show was going to make you uncomfortable, you would know early. They told attendees that the show often used audience participation and gave instructions on how to opt out of that if you wanted to. Not only did they work hard to gain the consent of the audience, none of the skits I saw even hinted at anything other than enthusiastic consent.

Besides being consensual, the show stressed equality. Unlike my previous burlesque experience, there were men performing on stage and women weren't the only people being sensual or sexual. In addition to numerous heterosexual couplings, we had the aforementioned women in the champagne glass and a long kiss between the two cage fighters (I think the only kiss of the show). We also had people of color, two larger ladies (the Botero sisters), African dancing, an awesome male dancer with a pink mohawk, and more. There was something for many different groups.

In terms of respect, no one group's desires were seen as more important than anyone else's and everyone's sexuality was shown in a positive and embracing light. Even the fake ad for a product called Titties (baggies filled with scotch) seemed to have the message that we can have fun with the desire for bigger breasts and also with how women's bodies change as they age.

Trust is one of the required components of the show. It's a physical show with a lot of acrobatics and stage craft. Things need to be done correctly and well. But the trust wasn't just between performers. In order to have audience participation, the participants needed to be free to do things that might be seen as bad out of context. As a result, no photography or recording was allowed during the show. Ushers seemed to be pretty good at spotting it too. A couple near me came in a little late and took a picture during the pre-show. An usher promptly arrived and asked them to stop.

For a theater show like this, there wasn't much needed beyond the norm for safety. While alcohol was served, the ushers were always around. Audience members were asked to remain seated during the aerial acts.

By meeting all five parts of this model, Zumanity as a show allowed attendees to explore their sexuality in a healthy way. I think games could take a similar approach and that this model could illustrate how we can have a broader diversity of female characters without taking all sex and sexuality out of games. In fact, I think how often our conversations concentrate on the overrepresentation of sexualized female characters points to a lack of multiple elements of the model. For instance, if I pick up a product that's about exploring a basic castle and all the female characters look like they should be in a Victoria's Secret catalog, how is that equal? How could I have opted-out? Is the combination of content and lack of consent, respectful of me as a consumer? How can I trust other products?

I think if we can move towards a CERTS model, we'll get a lot closer to pleasing everyone.

Hoard of the Dragon Queen: Raiders' Camp - Part 2

Today I worked on my dungeon master's cheat sheet for Hoard of the Dragon Queen Episode 2: The Raider's Camp. I previously wrote about my reasons for creating a DM playbook, mainly that the adventure is a mix of sandbox with a required story line. Personally, I found that hard to approach and was worried about remembering details. So the playbook is a bit of a cheatsheet. While a more detailed one might give you everything you needed to know to run the adventure, this one is meant more to remind dungeon masters of important bits and/or goals for sections of the adventures. You can find the current playbook here.

First, the adventure set up itself. Player characters have two primary motivators for going to the camp. One motivation is gathering information. Governor Nighthill offers some generous rewards for collecting information about the raiders and why they raided Greenest. He also says if you can bring back some of the treasure, that's great, but it's unclear how you would actually get rewarded. The second is provided by a monk by the name of Nesim Waladra, who tempts you with his tale of woe. He was hurt during the battle and is very concerned about his master, Leosin Erlanthar. From his description of Erlanthar, we should realize that he has all the answers to Governor Nighthill's questions, thus guaranteeing us that sweet 250 gold piece apiece reward if we can bring him back alive (although who knows if there's a raise dead spell around if he doesn't survive).

Previously, I had said that the goal was to rescue Leosin Erlanther, but if you read through the adventure, he's quite capable of rescuing himself and, in fact, might fight the party on being rescued. It would be tempting to say that the goal is to then gather as much information as possible, but while each PC gets an XP reward for gathering information, as long as Erlanther lives, the party gains all the information about the raiders that is possible. Also, gaining all of the information provides the same amount of XP as rescuing Erlanther while being smart about it.

Instead, I feel like the real goal of this chapter is a meta game goal, to provide a number of opportunities for role play and exploration while providing a sense of tension at getting caught. Given that, I decided to play up the sub-factions part a bit in my DM cheat sheet, naming six factions that seem obvious from the description of the camp. Mike Shea of SlyFlourish mentions doing this a bit in a recent Behind the DM's Screen episode, but he goes even further with descriptions and names. I figured that this might help with an unclear part of the adventure too, namely, asking too many questions or being too nosy can raise suspicion in the camp (and potentially lead to an alarm). If each of the six factions can give away up to two pieces of information before feeling suspicious, that can help with pacing. And if the PCs ever do get roped into a work duty, you can use that introduce them to various groups that they might not have found a way to meet yet.

Learning that 1) not everyone agrees with everything and 2) that many have their own goals and desires is important for the rest of the adventure since it's a recurring theme. Learning how to navigate those differences can provide an interesting challenge, especially those who like to role play. In fact, several pieces of information you can gather while exploring the camp provide roleplaying hooks, such as the cult's salute and sayings. Having the threat of being caught hanging over them helps the dungeon master with pacing and determining when this part of the adventure is over.

Given that Erlanther doesn't really want to be freed, I was a little concerned about players not feeling heroic enough. I think finding a way to rescue the other 8 prisoners would help with this, so it might make sense to mention it pretty early on arrival to the camp. Also, it's interesting that the episode rewards bold play more, if you are too careful, you are more likely to arouse suspicion.

Leaving aside the purpose for this episode in the overall story arc, I think with the right group, it can provide a bit of fun story telling moments that players will enjoy. If the players enjoy that, please indulge! If your group doesn't like that, I might suggest finding a way to run it more like a big skill challenge.

Group Spotlight: After School D&D

Yesterday I received a tweet from someone about the article I did on the Dynamite! Magazine image of three teens playing Dungeons & Dragons. It turns out that he runs a D&D group at school and that his students adopted that image as part of the official flyer for the group. I asked him to tell me his story via email. It's really awesome and I'm glad he agreed to let me share it with all of you.

I teach middle school science at a small private school in Seminole, Florida. I started a board games club after school and a few people came for a couple of weeks and it was fun. Then two of the girls started asking me about D&D because they knew I played with some teachers and they knew it from the Big Bang Theory. Many kids their age seem to only know the game from that show. So I said we could try it in the next session to see if they liked it. So I made some characters for them and we played the next week. At first three girls showed up. Three of the quieter girls. We had a really good time. And that was the end of board games club. The next week two more showed up and the week after that two more. So now we've leveled off at seven and it's officially Dungeons and Dragons Club. I bought each of them a set of dice to use in whatever color they wanted. They love them. It's all about the color.

One of the really quiet girls really got into the game. She told me specifically what she wanted her character to be and wrote a whole back story for her and her character's family. It was great. A few weeks in she told me her dad used to play and they started having these huge conversations about his experiences when he was her age. He dug into his old keepsakes boxes and found his old set of dice. He passed them on to her so she could use them, and now she plays with them in our games.

There are some boys that I can tell who want to get into D&D too but they can't get past the stigma of being a "geek." I work at a very sports-centric school. The girls all get along and support each other so there wasn't an issue with them. In class the other day, a "cool" boy started giving the group a hard time, saying "that game is for people with no friends." To which one of them replied in front of everyone, "No friends? There were 8 of us playing yesterday. Who did you hang out with after school that wasn't your mom." I have to admit I laughed out loud. And that was the end of that attempt at bullying.

Like I said, I started with the Dungeon Delve and moved on to my own stuff. I used to teach English, so I've been loving the writing. Two of the girls already want to learn how to DM and are developing some side quests for us.

It's been by far the most rewarding after school thing I've done. The social interaction and imagination and cooperation and confidence I've seen in the girls is really fantastic.

Anyway. Thanks for listening to my completely random story. I like what you do and will be an avid reader starting today!

Steven

This is awesome, Steven, and thanks so much for sharing!

How about the rest of you? Do you have a story like this you'd love to share? If so, send an email to mygroup at sarahdarkmagic dot com.

Hoard of the Dragon Queen: Raiders' Camp - Part 1

So, chapter 2 of the Hoard of the Dragon Queen. Just a reminder but I’m going to look at this in depth, so there will be spoilers aplenty. I think the easiest way to describe this section is that it’s a sandboxed area that requires a number of things to happen.

This chapter has three subsections.

  • Stragglers - Really slow and not too bright raiders that the party should be able to not only take but also get information from.
  • Rear Guard - Soldiers meant to either stop people like the PCs from attacking the camp before the raiders have had a chance to rest and regroup or at least warn the camp of an impending attack.
  • Camp life - Infiltrate the camp, find information, and save the monk, Leosin Erlanthar.

The Stragglers

I feel like the stragglers serve three purposes. First, a reminder to the players and the DM that not all of the NPCs are super bright or tactical. I mean, these characters just raided a town, are in no rush to get back to their camp, and they have a campfire that can be spotted from miles away. The second purpose is to show and/or reinforce that there can be factions even among the raiders, an important point when the PCs realize that the camp is full with a hundred or so raiders. Not only do the humans and kobolds do different things when attacked, they provide different information when questioned. Finally, they can provide information to help with the upcoming challenges, potentially allowing a party to skip a challenging fight and having their cover blown before they even reach the camp.

Rear Guard

This one has me scratching my head a bit. The text of the adventure even states it’s the smart thing to bypass this encounter. It feels like a trap encounter for a hack ‘n slash party. In some ways, that’s fine, there are upcoming challenges that will have serious consequences if the party adopts the hack ‘n slash approach, but it also makes me wonder if there are better ways of handling this. Also, it doesn’t really provide the party with a safe space to learn this lesson. If the runner successfully reaches the camp, the person who has to “pay” for the party’s decision is really the DM, I think it becomes both more difficult and less fun to run.

There’s also an issue, maybe due to editing, of conflicting information. In the rewards section, the description says that the cultists outfits and weapons could be invaluable to the PCs when they try to enter camp but the camp section says “[i]f characters are wearing Cult of the Dragon regalia taken from the rearguard, the characters have disadvantage on [a recognition] roll because no one returning to camp at this time should be in uniform.”

The Camp

Obviously, the primary quest in the camp is to free Leosin Erlanthar. Personally, I’m not sure my groups would necessarily care unless I did work upfront to weave Leosin into their backstories.

When they decide to attempt to free him depends on two things: do they want to try to collect information first and if they are recognized. These two things provide the main tension for the area. The more the PCs can learn about the cultists’ plans, the easier the rest of the adventure will go, both from them and the DM. However, with each question they ask, they risk revealing themselves as newcomers and/or running across someone who recognizes them. So, for me, I’d approach pacing by using this tension to work for me.

Now, SlyFlourish has some great suggestions on his blog for how to run this part of the adventure. I particularly agree with not being afraid to split the party here. Safety in numbers isn’t going to work when you are easily outnumbered 20 to 1 anyway and the dramatic tension that can occur when you switch to the next person right after the current PC realizes they have been recognized can be priceless. Of course, it depends on your group.

One of the difficulties I’ll stress here is that while this section fits perfectly within the hero’s journey narrative, it works against the self-concept many people have of heroes, since you can’t directly challenge the bad guys here. I can see this being frustrating for some players. Adding injustices within the camp that the players can defeat might help relieve some of that frustration if it happens. The hunters mght be an interesting place to add this in. For instance, they could steal some of the meat back for them or something. Finding ways to secretly aid the prisoners could also work or even somehow making the prisoners’ guards look bad.

Well, that’s it for now. Next time I’ll come up with a cheat sheet similar to the one I created for the first episode.

Games are about Stories or How We Got Here

One thing that sometimes gets lost in discussions about gaming is that games, at least most of the games we talk about, are about story just as much, if not more so, as they are about mechanics. The stories are how we differentiate games. Otherwise, why create another point and shoot after Duck Hunt? Why have SpyHunter and Bump ‘N Jump? Why can’t Dungeons & Dragons just be the game system to rule them all?

Once you accept that the story is as important to the game system, it becomes impossible to divorce the story from the game play. I’m trying to be a bit light here, but did we not just have a war by some against 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons because some felt it relied too heavily on disassociated mechanics, that it lacked verisimilitude? If not, please let me know because that means I have truly walked through the looking glass.

Given that the story is what makes each game unique, which helps inform and contextualize the mechanics, we cannot review a game without reviewing its story. Ok, that’s a bit of an understatement. In theory you could if your only audience consists of people whose primary care is overwhelmingly about the game’s mechanics, those for whom the story, in the end, doesn’t matter.

However, there is no proof that those people constitute the majority or even the plurality of the audience. I’d argue that for the majority of the audience, story matters. This is nothing new. I’ve heard my friends discuss the stories of games for a long time, and not just in tabletop. The fact that people will attempt to criticize Anita Sarkeesian’s videos with in story rationalizations, including from fiction not included in the game, speaks to the importance of story.

That leads me to ask, what has changed? Why, today, is a game review that adds or deducts points for story so controversial? My understanding is that it’s the internet but not in the way people normally discuss it.

People blame the internet for a wide range of things. They see the toxicity and blame the ability to remain anonymous. However, I don’t think that explains what is going on here, but first I need to explain something else.

You’ve probably heard the song that claims the internet is for porn. If not, look it up, I laugh every time I hear it. The song has a fair bit of truth behind it. A lot of the advancements we enjoy today do, at least in part, come from the developers and systems engineers who kept the porn sites up. (It’s ok to laugh!)

But it hasn’t been a one-way exchange. The internet has also influenced porn. Before the internet lowered the costs of distributing porn, one common critique was that the porn being produced often focused on a limited array of body types. This can still be claimed today with which porn is most often marketed. However, when we start to look at what is being watched, a different pattern emerges. People, it turns out, have a wide range of sexual interests and people like April Flores disprove popular perceptions that heterosexual men are interested in only particular body types.

As people started analyzing web logs and releasing data that proved the wide array of interests, people started talking about how alone they had felt in their interests for a while. The data helped show that they weren’t the exception. But something else happened. People who were well served by the status quo in porn also started pushing back. They felt that these people explaining that the dominant narrative regarding what heterosexual men desired didn’t fit them were a judgment of those for whom the status quo fit their particular interests.

Consumption data can be enlightening and show that the things we believe to be true might not actually be. I think that this is happening in gaming. For a long time, a particular group held dominance over the common narrative. Those who didn’t fit that narrative kept playing, but they were invisible to the group that claimed the label as “core” for themselves. Since so little data about people who bought and loved games was available, there was no way to challenge this position. As a result, we entered a self-reinforcing cycle that isolated certain groups more and more and allowed this fiction to be seen as fact.

I’ve seen this from the actual marketing side. Most of the companies I’ve worked for have been involved in helping others do online marketing. I saw the push from just basic demographic information such as age, gender, residence, etc, to user stories where those individual pieces are used together to create more fine-grained demographic groups. It’s no longer a world of male versus female, young versus old, but middle-aged women versus teenage boys.

With that data comes the inability to continue the pretense that there is a unified core audience in gaming that constitutes the plurality of game-related revenue for game companies. The “gamer” identity, built on years of fiction, turns out to perhaps not be true.

But identity is hard and when you’ve internalized something, when it becomes not only how you see the world but something you find integral to part of who you are, well, that’s going to cause a lot of pain. That’s honestly what I see as happening and has been happening for at least as long as I’ve been writing. It’s going to keep on happening. Some people are never going to leave that denial phase. They are going to fight this for as long as they have breath. But I’ve seen minds change, not all of them, but more often than not people start to see. It just takes time.

This is why the attacks are most strong against people who don't fit the stereotype of gamer. This is why it's being called a culture war and why SJW and other terms are a common thread in the articles in favor of GamerGate. Our existence as gamers as people who are just as important to the video game makers as they are, forces them to reexamine this fiction and see where it is false. That's why women and people of color who don't challenge their narrative are welcomed while they attempt to silence others.

As to what to do, that's difficult. I fear that only time can help this, along with an attempt to speak to the true issues. But it's really hard when my own humanity is apparently on the table for negotiation and debate. So I'll continue with what I can do and have faith that the progress I've seen already will continue into the future.

Art: "Cherry Blossom Knight" © 2014 John W. Sheldon, used under a Creative Commons Attribution license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/

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