rpg


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/

Black Rock Bandits - Part 1

On Friday I released the main text for Sickness in Springdale. Here's the main text of Black Rock Bandits.

The Black Rock Bandits

In this adventure, the PCs attempt to deal with the infamous Black Rock Bandits, a band of local bandits who have been terrorizing the caravans who pass through Black Rock via the King’s Road. Many of the characters provided with this adventure have direct ties to the bandit leader. Others, like Zazzel, are interested in the ruined temple the bandits currently call home.

Background

The King’s Road winds through the Black Rock Hills. Some say these hills are so named for the large chunks of black limestone mined from the area generations ago. When polished, the stone turns a deep and shining black. Others believe it’s because the rocks on the ground often turned black from blood after the numerous wars fought here over the centuries.

Regardless of the origins of the name, the area now is known for the infamous Black Rock Bandits, a group of caravan raiders who collect their own tolls from the caravans that travel along the King’s Road. The tithe is enough for the bandits to live on but not enough for the King to send out his knights to deal with the problem. Others, would-be bandits and adventurers alike, fear the numerous stories of ghouls and other foul creatures that are said to haunt the hillsides. Thus the King is forced to hire bands of inexperienced adventurers to deal with the problem, paying them so little that they either join the bandits when they see their amassed wealth or they are so inexperienced that they easily suffer death at the end of a bandit sword.

The Village

Here are some of the more interesting locations and individuals in the town of Black Rock.

Blacksmith – The town’s smith is a quiet man by the name of Roland, also known as Roland the Lion. In addition to horseshoes and other necessities of rural life, he can make decent but mundane swords, daggers, arrow tips and other simple weapons. Roland’s mischievous daughter Hope ran away from home a year ago. He and his assistant Tamil are available as player characters.

Apothecary – Sister Rose, cleric of Melora set up shop in the town. In addition to maintaining a small chapel to the goddess, the cleric raises funds by running a small apothecary shop. PCs can buy a variety of herbs and potions from her. She is available as a player character.

General Store – A small general goods store imports and sells most of the necessities for the town. Simon Small, a rather short, quiet man, runs the small shop. Its popularity is due to the work of his daughter, Samantha, or Sam as she is often called. She is close friends with Roland’s daughter Hope and is available as a player character.

Bakery – Zazzel loves nothing more than to study his musty old books all day, but unfortunately books don’t pay the bills and no one was wiling to pay for his research into the peculiarities of the Black Rock region. Most of those with coin view the area as an uninteresting backwater and swear that anything of value has been taken long ago. So Zazzel runs his bakery, using bits of magic to produce the most exquisite desserts and lightest loaves found outside of the major cities. His young apprentice, Paeter, does most of the work both in the bakery and in field research. Paeter is available as a player character.

Town Guard – Sylvia heads the local town guard. She hates the Black Rock Bandits. In truth, she’d prefer the group suffer some horrible accident rather than dealing with incarcerating the band. Sylvia is available as a player character.

Scene 1: An Ambushed Caravan Arrives

One of the caravan leaders, a human named Maynard, decided not to pay the toll. He and his guards fought off the bandits, but at a great cost. They lost 5 of their own and one of their wagons. However, they did bring a prize, a captured bandit by the name of Phaelon.

The adventure starts with the PCs in the center of town. If they play the pregenerated characters, they have reasons for being interested in the caravan’s arrival. If they decide to make their own characters, find a reason for each of them to care about the caravan’s arrival and weave that into the adventure. Perhaps they are waiting for a letter, package or even a visitor to arrive or they are friends with some of those traveling with the caravan.

Quest (500 XP): The town guard wants the Black Rock Bandits defeated. Dead or alive, each bandit is worth 10 GP and 20 GP for the leader. If you run this as a one shot adventure, the Baron pays the reward at the end. If you want a reason to send the characters elsewhere as part of a continuing campaign, tell the players that the town doesn’t keep that sort of money in its coffers but will pay with promissory notes redeemable in one of the kingdom’s larger cities.

Quest (100 XP): The caravan leader, Maynard, asks the group to retrieve a trunk for him. It’s a worn traveler’s trunk, full of dents from years of travel. During the raid, he placed his young son, Theron, within the trunk for safety, but it was on the wagon the bandits stole.

Quest (100 XP): The Baron’s 50th birthday is in a month. Zazzel ordered some special cake flour to use for his cake. It was among the goods the bandits stole.

Interrogating Phaelon
When the party first meets Phaelon, he snarls and snaps at them as if he was a wild creature. A PC who makes an Arcana check, DC 8, or an Insight check, DC 12, learns that an evil spirit took over his body. The PCs aren’t high enough level to cure him of the possession, but they can restore his sanity for a short time. If the players decide to not use the pregens, have Sister Rose or Zazzel step forward in town and mention its existence. They can teach the ritual to a PC trained in Heal.

Glimpse of Sanity
Allow a creature possessed by the spirits of the Black Rock temple a few brief moments of sanity.

Level: 1 Component Cost: 10 GP
Category: Restoration Market Price: 50 GP
Time: 10 minutes Key Skill: Heal
Duration: Special

Glimpse of Sanity allows a character driven insane by the evil Black Rock spirits to temporarily become sane again. The Heal check determines how long the person remains sane. If this is used as part of an interrogation, the DM decides how long each question can be but generally it takes 1 minute to ask and answer a question. The DC is set by level of the spirit possessing the creature, if known, or by the level of the party if not (since it’s assumed that the party is facing enemies of their level).
This ritual helps the person beneath fight off the evil spirits for a time, and as a result physically exhausts the recipient. He or she will be unconscious for a number of days equal to the number of minutes of sanity.

Heal Check Result Effect on Target
< Easy DC The spirit realizes what is happening and turns the target unconscious for 24 hours.
Easy DC 1 minute of sanity
Moderate DC 3 minutes of sanity
High DC 5 minutes of sanity

Questions Phaelon might answer:
How many entrances are there to the temple? There are two. The well-known front entrance and the relatively unknown rear one. His description gives a +4 to perception checks for finding the rear entrance.

How many bandits live in the temple? A couple dozen and a few dogs.

Are there any traps? Yes. His information gives a +4 to perception checks checking for traps.

Who is your leader? A girl named Hope, the daughter of the blacksmith Roland. Since they moved to the new headquarters, she wears a horned helm and swings a mean battleaxe.

Scene 2: The Temple

History of the Temple
Hundreds of years ago, the current bandit enclave started as a temple to the demon lord Baphomet, carved from the black rock beneath one of the hills. Minotaurs carved out a simple maze in honor of the Horned Lord himself.

Eventually gnoll followers of Yeenoghu overran the minotaurs and they made some changes to the original temple to better fit their practices. They tore down some of the maze walls to create kennels for the hyenas they preferred to sacrifice. They carved a skylight in the middle of the central altar, allowing the moonlight to filter inside. The last active worshippers in the temple left over a hundred years ago.

As a result of the years of sacrifices performed in the temple, a number of evil spirits haunt the maze. They try to possess whoever they can and currently control the bandits’ bodies. When the creature they possess is killed (not knocked unconscious), they leave that creature’s body to find a new host.

Areas of the Temple

A. West Entrance – This is the main entrance to the temple. A large rotted oak door hangs open in the entrance. An Insight check, DC 12 (use passive), suggests that the bandits aren’t concerned about unwanted guests. Daylight doesn’t penetrate more than a few feet inside the door.

B. Intrusion Detection Traps – A thin string, painted black to match the floor, is tied across the passageway. A Perception check (DC 12 base, normal vision penalties for darkness apply) reveals the string. Countermeasure: step over it with an acrobatics check, DC 8. If triggered, bones and gore fall from the ceiling, doing 2 damage, causing a loud noise and covering the PC in ichor. PC takes a -2 penalty to stealth checks unless the character removes or disguises the scent.

C. Storage Area 1 – This area holds extra cloaks, boots and other outdoor gear of the bandits. In addition, a Perception check, DC 8 reveals a small pile of rocks, each carved with an eye in one corner. A Perception check, DC 18, reveals a bit of the wall that is oddly shaped and a shade darker than the others around it. A Thievery check, DC 12, reveals the mechanism for opening the niche. Inside is a ceremonial dagger with a handle of bone inscribed with runes of death and destruction. (Magic +1 Dagger).

D. General Sleeping Quarters – These two rooms serve as the sleeping quarters for most of the bandits. To provide some airflow, the doors to the rooms are open as are the doors between the rooms. If the PCs trigger one of the bone traps or runs into a guard, these bandits awake. Their personal belongings are in the room. (See page $page for encounter information)

E. Storage Area 2 – Once used to hold creatures for ritual sacrifice, this room has an air of deep foreboding. Many of the larger items from the caravan raids and collected tolls fill this room, including bolts of cloth, wagon wheels, trunks full of traveler’s clothing, and the flour for the Baron’s cake. If the characters left the town within half a day of the caravan attack: In the northwest corner, a knocking noise emanates from one of the trunks. It is locked and bears marks of someone trying to open it with an axe. An Arcana check, DC 8, tells the character the chest is magically enhanced. A Thievery check, DC 12, unlocks it. Inside is Theron, the caravan leader’s son. If the characters spent more than a half of a day before leaving: In the middle of the room is an open trunk, matching the description given by the caravan leader. A pair of small shoes lies in one corner of the trunk and the inside is smeared with blood.

F. Shrine to Yeenoghu – Long ago, worshippers of Yeenoghu fastened the bones of their victims to the wall in the form of the triple-headed flail. Thick, red water seeps from a crack in the wall above the flail, giving the appearance of blood dripping from the heads of the flail.

G. Ritual Room/Mess Hall/Kitchen – Once the room where creatures were ritually sacrificed, first to Baphomet and later to Yeenoghu, this room currently serves as the mess hall and kitchen for the bandits. The large opening in the center of the room, that once provided moonlight during the sacrifices to Yeenoghu, makes a natural chimney. (See page $page for encounter information.)

H. Shrine to Baphomet – Bits of ancient bones litter the floor. The current occupants have been creating a sculpture out of the bones of their victims. Instead of a skull, a cracked obsidian mirror (250 GP and see below) serves as the head. With a Religion check, DC 8, a character recognizes the broad shape of Baphomet, the Horned Lord. With an Arcana check, DC 12, a character recognizes the obsidian mirror and recalls that such mirrors are often required as a focus to trap spirits or create portals to the planes below. Trap Spirit – Standard Action. Close burst 1. Intelligence vs. Will. Target: Black Rock Spirits in burst. Hit: Spirit is captured in the mirror.

I. Food Storage Area – This dank alcove serves as the pantry for the bandits. Bits of moldy cheese, salted beef and pork, bushels of potatoes and apples fill their larder. Among the foodstuffs are 2 potions of healing, which can be spotted with a Perception check DC 12.

J. Hope’s Bedchamber – A feather bed, complete with four posts and bed curtains fills the southeast corner of the room. Across from it is a small dresser, with a silver brush and mirror set, inlaid with semi-precious stones (set worth 50 GP).

K. Backdoor - Hidden and locked, Perception check, DC 18, to find and Thievery check, DC 12, to unlock. It is on the east side of the hill.

Running the Temple
Run each half of the temple as one encounter. Most of the bandits are in the main encounter locations, although some Black Rock Bandits patrol the halls. When combat starts in a main encounter area, draw the patrols into the fight. If the PCs try to take a short rest after killing a patrol, throw more patrols at them. Remember to give them XP for the additional bandits.

After the Temple

After the PCs finish the temple, there are a few things they can do.

  • If they retrieved the mirror, with an Arcana check, DC 18, they recognize that the spirits left it when it cracked. If they repair the crack (e.g. the Make Whole ritual) within 48 hours, any spirits already trapped inside will remain there permanently.
  • While the bandits share some responsibility for their crimes, the spirits that invaded their bodies had some influence as well. The PCs can learn this through an Insight (DC 8), Arcana (DC 8) or Religion (DC 12). From there, they can decide how they would like to deal with that information.
  • If they remove the spirit who possesses Hope, she will show remorse for the crimes she has committed. The PCs then decide if they want her and the other bandits to answer for their crimes (collecting the bounty along the way) or find some other way of dealing with them.

Black Rock Bandits Map - No KeyBlack Rock Bandits Map - No Key

Black Rock Bandits Map - KeyBlack Rock Bandits Map - Key

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