Sarah Darkmagic's blog

A Look At Gender in Dragons of Stormwreck Isle

Warning: There will be some minor spoilers for the adventure, Stormwreck Isle, in this blog post.

I recently purchased the new Starter Set, Dragons of Stormwreck Isle, from Target. I have a bit of a soft spot for starter sets and I was interested to see how things have changed from the first 5e starter set, Mines of Phandelver.

My son has been asking to start doing his own YouTube videos so I convinced him to do an unboxing of Dragons of Stormwreck Isle with me.

Over the past few years, I've really felt that the adventures have become more inclusive and intentional, at least when it comes to gender. I know at the beginning of 5e, I used to be keep count of how often named characters were mentioned and which pronouns were used in the text, and, well, I decided to check this adventure using that methodology.

Before we dive into the results, I'd like to define my approach. I only counted characters that were named. So I didn't capture references to a certain type of dragon, the harpy, or to a character's unnamed lover.

Additionally, I'm struggling a little on how to talk about pronouns versus gender. I did a quick search on myconids and saw them referred to as gender neutral and no pronouns were really used for them. I captured when she/her vs he/him were used. I didn't notice any uses of 'they' about named characters but I may have missed something. There are some characters where nothing more than a name is given and they are listed as unknown.

I also did not look at any of the information within the appendices.

I want to stress this is something I put together in about two hours, so it's not scientifically rigorous. :)

Frequency of Names Mentioned

First thing I'd like to look at is just how often characters' names appear in the adventure. Each time a character's name was mentioned, I put a little tick and added it up in the end to create the following chart.

Number of Mentions vs. Character Name - Dragons of Stormwreck IsleNumber of Mentions vs. Character Name - Dragons of Stormwreck Isle

The counts show two primary NPCs, Runara (she/her) and Sparkrender (he/him) with Tarak (he/him) and Aidron (he/him) as secondary NPCs. There is then a fairly large cast of additional characters with about 47 named NPCs in total.

What's interesting here, is that Sparkrender has more mentions than Runara and overall the mentions of male NPCs is a bit higher than those of female NPCs.

Number of Pages Where Names Are Mentioned

However, one of the things I noticed as I read through is that often the character needed to be named repeatedly on a page in order to reduce confusion. This is partly due to the NPCs being in spaces together where they can interact. So when we look at the number of pages that each character is mentioned on, it looks a bit different.

Number of Pages vs. Character Name - Dragons of Stormwreck IsleNumber of Pages vs. Character Name - Dragons of Stormwreck Isle

One character, Runara, is mentioned consistently throughout the adventure. Sparkrender and Aidron are still near the top of the list, but we see additional characters come through as well, ones that often didn't have their name repeated for clarity.

Overall Comparison by Pronouns

The next check is to see how many named characters are in each pronoun designation.

Numbers by Pronoun Designation - Dragons of Stormwreck IsleNumbers by Pronoun Designation - Dragons of Stormwreck Isle

Here number of characters using he/him (13) is a bit more the number of characters using she/her (10). We also have 16 characters, Myconids, whose group doesn't have genders and 8 characters where no pronouns were used and are marked as unknown.

While the number of overall mentions is much higher for characters with he/him pronouns, the number of pages is much closer (47 vs 45).

Comparison to Mines of Phandelver

Next, I wanted to compare this to what I saw in Mines of Phandelver.

Gender in Mines of Phandelver and Dragons of Stormwreck IsleGender in Mines of Phandelver and Dragons of Stormwreck Isle

Here we're just looking at the number of named characters grouped by gender/pronoun groups. In Mines, we had 27 named male characters, 9 female, and 7 unknown whereas in Dragons we have 13 male, 10 female, 8 unknown, and 16 with no gender. This definitely explains why I felt the adventure was more balanced when it came to gender.

Qualitative Remarks

The numbers are definitely exciting to me but there were a few more qualitative things I noticed in reading through the adventure.

One of the characters has a former lover mentioned. We don't get a name and gender pronouns are never used, giving space for the Dungeon Master to add a non-heterosexual relationship to the adventure. In fact, I only remember reading two defined relationships, one that is heterosexual and this one. I'm a bit torn overall on this one, but it seems clear that the ambiguity was intentionally there.

The myconids and the lack of gender pronouns in that section was very interesting. I knew before reading this adventure that they had gone that direction but it was interesting to see it here.

I loved that detail given that Tarak (male) is the botanist and the best cook of the lot and that Varnoth (female) is a retired soldier who is well-known.

I'm sure I could go into more, but I don't want to give away too many spoilers. I hope to write up my thoughts on the adventure itself in a separate post.

Using Paprika 3 for menu planning and grocery shopping

Right around when the pandemic started, I had decided to make some significant changes to my life in an attempt to tackle my type 2 diabetes and sleep apnea. As I was talking about the changes I was making, Jeff thought it might make for an interesting podcast and we started Fit for D&D.

I had just changed my work schedule, going in slightly earlier so that I could have time to use the walking treadmill desk first thing and getting home in time to cook a meal that concentrated on vegetables and proteins. It also allowed me to get up early and hit the gym in the apartment complex we had recently moved to and to take a walk after dinner. Finally, I had started shopping at Trader Joe's while Fred was in the gym nearby, concentrating on lots of veggie options and semi-prepared meals.

This system worked for a good 2 months. My post meal blood sugars were in great ranges and I was feeling better about myself and had more energy.

Then the pandemic hit. The move to work-from-home, the concerns about going to the grocery store, and just trying to juggle parents each with a full-time job while having a 3 1/2 year old at home just proved too much for sustainability. I was able to hold it together for about a month and it started falling apart. It just about completely went away when I had to spend most of a summer in an uninsulated shed in my parents' backyard in order to just make everything sorta work while there was no childcare options.

While I'm still working on figuring out what works today and to try to get back to that combination of activity and good food choices for my medical condition, I wanted to share something that has worked for me pretty well over the past year, and that is Paprika 3 for collecting recipes, menu planning, and grocery shopping.

Paprika 3 Recipe ListPaprika 3 Recipe List

The foundation of the system is collecting the recipes. I'm blessed to have a number of cookbooks with sources of lower carb meals perfect for my diabetes, including some InstantPot ones. I've invested some time and effort to add them to the Paprika recipe manager.

For online recipes, it's super simple. I can use the built in browser to find a recipe I like and click on the Download button to import it into Paprika. It's been pretty good at parsing ingredient lists and instructions.

The recipes can be organized into a number of categories, which can work great for finding inspiration later.

Paprika 3 Meals ListPaprika 3 Meals List

Once the recipes are in the system, I can do two things. The main thing I do is on Saturday, I look at the next week and our schedule and I pick recipes to make for most nights of the week. Son has a baseball game after school? That's a great night to make a super fast meal, like frank and beans or grilled cheese.

Paprika 3 Menus ListPaprika 3 Menus List

The other thing I can do, and I've mostly just experimented with this, is that I can actually create menus for an entire week that work well together. I actually did this more when I first started because I had the idea of creating theme nights and then instead of thinking which of all of these recipes I wanted to make, I'd just see it was a night I had set aside for cooking an Indian-inspired dish and look for a recipe that fit that theme. I want to get back to this, at some point, especially since some recipes work well together, like crispy pork gyros (which is essentially carnitas) one night and then use the leftover pork to make quesadillas.

Once the week's recipes are in, I can choose each one and add the ingredient list to the grocery list. Paprika does its best to group like items together and if the ingredient is exactly the same, it will add them together. For instance, if you need a can of black beans for two different recipes, it will present one line with two cans of black beans instead of two separate lines.

Paprika 3 Menus ListPaprika 3 Menus List

Another helpful feature that I'd like to use more in the future is the pantry feature. If it knows you have an item in your pantry, it won't add it to the shopping list. And you can import your shopped items into the pantry.

After I've built the grocery list, it's super simple to split my iPad or laptop screen in half, with Paprika's grocery list on one side and my local grocery store's website on the other (they have online ordering for curbside pickup). I go through the list, add the items to the cart, check it off in Paprika, and then check out.

The only thing that hasn't been great about this system is while I can capture amount of time to prepare and difficulty of the preparation, it feels like no one is capturing how complex clean up is after. And for me, that's actually a big deal, as between work, chores, and living with a 6 year-old, I'm dang tired at the end of the day.

If you are interested in learning more, Paprika's website has a lot more detail. It is available for Mac, Windows, iOS, and Android.!

I'll be honest, trying to write, especially here, over the past few years has been a challenge. A LOT has happened to me and, well, everyone, over the past 6 years. Thinking about this site and who I was gives me imposter syndrome something fierce. But I really miss writing and sharing myself, so let's give it a shot.

First, my tech career sort of took a rapid incline. I've made it all the way to Sr Principal Engineer at this point and over the 6 years, I've sat in operations, development, and now security. My job takes a significant portion of my time and I haven't had as much to update this site, etc. Hopefully I can work on that some more now that other areas of my life are getting a little easier.

Speaking of which, the biggest project of my life turned 6 years old last week. I'm not sure who ok'ed that milestone happening, but here we are. He keeps me on my toes, loves games and silly voices and wants to be a YouTuber, so hopefully I can get him rolling some dice soon.

I did art. A fair bit of art. I'm getting...less embarrassed by it, so there's that! :)

And I kept podcasting, as much as I could with what's on my plate.

Speaking of which, the pandemic has been interesting for us. I was able to keep working through it (both kept my job and always found a way to keep an eye on the little dude). We moved to be closer to my parents which has also given some breathing room. We lost some folks in our network and had more who got long COVID, but overall we've made it through with our health and some sanity.

I'm hoping to get back to playing soon. I just got a new laptop which will help with the writing here and playing at least some computer games. Already installed Steam and played Botanicula of all games. Have lots I want to talk and write about. Have you seen the explosion of view points in D&D?

Anyway, thanks for being here.

Continued Conversations

Back when I was freelancing, during the 4e days, it was a fair bit more difficult to self-publish your own material for 4e. The fan policy at the time allowed for some stuff, but if you wanted to actually make money off of your work, you had to know a lot more about copyright law, what they were likely to go after and not, and there wasn't as much art available for the average user to be able to use for free. On the other hand, due both to the pace of release and the online Dungeon and Dragon magazines, it feels like there were more official opportunities. In addition, folks that were in the freelancing group were given a list of articles and other opportunities Wizards wanted writers for and you were allowed to pitch your own ideas. And every so often, they would have an open cycle where anyone could submit pitches.

With DMs Guild, we no longer need Wizards' "official blessing" on a lot of content because the license allows us to use wide swaths of their IP as long as it is published through the guild. This means that there's less gatekeeping and you don't have to convince a central group that there's a market for your material. But it does mean that, at least to me, it's way less clear how people are chosen to write, which feeds into this larger question about accountability and transparency.

In addition, since the DMs Guild has been around for a few years now and a number of people have been producing quality content, we have a group of seasoned, tested writers who are making in demand content but there's nowhere really for them to go. They could keep creating their own content and getting small amounts of money from DMs Guild but often this means that about 50% of what they earn goes to OneBookShelf and Wizards and that's very little overall.

And most of the more lucrative writing jobs, which by the way were stated as a potential reward for folks who wrote for DMs Guild and did well, still don't seem to be going to a lot of the folks who are creating that quality content on DMs Guild. At least, that's a big part of the perception I'm hearing from folks as I listen to them.

This situation is part of what is leading to the Fire Mike Mearls hashtag. Because the community understanding is that the reason why Zak and Pundit ever were listed as consultants is because of a personal relationship between them and Mearls. And due to the lack of transparency and accountability, it at least seems like the only way to get work is if you happen to know (and never piss off) the right people.

The solution to this isn't actually clear, which is not to say we shouldn't do anything, but it means it's hard to know what to do. And given the gravity and implications of the discussion, folks usually react to this by digging further into their respective positions.

One key issue is that there just isn't enough data. For instance, this happened a lot when it came to discussions of representation we were having during 4e and early 5e. People would point out, for instance, about the comparative lack of female characters, and others would respond that they saw a lot of female characters, and it was really hard to discuss because there wasn't actual data, just observations. That's when I started doing posts like Analysis of Gender: Hoard of the Dragon Queen because it became much clearer what I was describing and, perhaps as importantly, it provided a tool kit and approach that writers and companies could use before anything was even published. They could set an overall goal when it came to representation of various genders, and then decide if they had met it.

That's a lot easier when we're talking about the demographic makeup of fictional characters and a lot harder when we're discussing the makeup of creative teams. Part of this has to do with the informal networking nature of our work and how implicit bias and systemic discrimination interact with it, but also, with so few seats available for writing and a much larger number of people seeking to fill those seats, the discussion itself gets harder. In addition, how do we come up with a way of measuring our progress towards a goal that doesn't cause more harm that is necessary.

For an example of what I mean by that, let's say we decide that we want to increase the diversity of the creative staff and we decide gender identity is one of the measures we want to use to see if we have made any progress towards that goal. How do we handle folks who are not out about their identity, either folks who have not yet come out or transitioned or folks who have transitioned but the general population doesn't know that part of their identity.

These are hard problems, but again, they shouldn't stop us. But it would mean that we probably can't design this on Twitter with its short character limit. And maybe that isn't the right data to collect to determine if we are making progress towards our goal.

Some additional thoughts I have is that while it would be nice to have official and high level support from Wizards for this initiative, we could do this ourselves. From what I've been hearing, it also would probably be good for Wizards or OneBookShelf to really talk to the creators about the problems they are having and see if we can't come up with some solutions. Like the #PlayItForward campaign felt like it was addressing some real issues folks are facing and gave folks who are concerned about supporting Wizards directly a way to support third-party creators in the ecosystem.

If we could create some clear metrics for what we would like to see, that could also help folks like streamers or outside collaborators (e.g. Matt Mercer, Penny Arcade, and the like) put pressure on Wizards to make needed changes. We also could apply these same rubrics to other companies in the ecosystem and make things better for everyone.

I'd love to hear what you think. Please feel free to email me at tracy [at]

More Like This Please: Return to the Glory

Return to the Glory is a D&D Adventurer's League (DDAL) legal adventure for four to six orc or half-orc characters levels 6 to 8. All proceeds from the sale of the adventure go to Red Nose Day USA, a charity to help children in poverty. The adventure designers include DMs Guild adepts and members of the D&D Adventurer's League administrative staff.

So, one might ask themselves, what? A DDAL adventure that requires orc or half-orc characters? Why?

Because it's a chance to tell a different story about orcs, one that you might not find in your history books (I'm looking at you Volo).

Imagine that there had been an orc society, one with a bunch of different groups, with different ways of viewing and interacting with the world. That these groups built a large complex that celebrated their cultures, imbuing it with the wisdom and outlooks of each. And that eventually a cataclysm happened, that created an orc diaspora, the loss of identity, and that the history was now written by their enemies. And now, several hundred years after that event, those of orcish descent decide to reunite and reclaim their past. This...this is the story of Return to the Glory.

For some of you, this probably sounds very familiar. There are a lot of echoes here of what happened to many people in Africa, those who were stolen and enslaved. How there is a great sorrow and loss around that loss of continuity of culture and history.

And there was a large conversation recently about how the words and arguments that have been used to describe Black people, to argue for their enslavement or for discrimination against them, were also used to describe orc. And this conversation has been had several times because...because folks often refuse to understand and acknowledge it.

So, at this point, you might ask, what makes this product different?

The biggest difference I can say is intentionality.

We can discuss all day whether or not the various iterations of orcs in D&D and beyond were intended to represent Black people and probably not get anything clear and solid. But once the same arguments and descriptions that have been used as weapons against Black folks were used to also describe orcs; that connection becomes impossible to deny, regardless of intention.

So once we have this connection in at least some folks minds, what do we do with it? How do we move beyond it? The answer for this adventure is by intentionally invoking the connection in an attempt to fundamentally change it.

This adventure rewrites the history of the orcs. It puts orcs in a city of their own construction, a complex city with a story to tell as the characters explore it. It details out a variety of different groups that existed in that city, with their own viewpoints and creeds (here mentioned as omens). It provides a history of orcs that is written by orcs, through what was left behind. It challenges the history written by Volo (who is often known for being at least slightly untrustworthy and biased).

The adventure details 13 sections of the city and introduces an omens pattern that helps describe the creed and/or outlook of the group responsible for that section. The large number of groups with different viewpoints but under the same omen approach is an intentional method for dealing with orcs. There is a shared culture in the broad sense, but a range of diversity and opinions below it. And by incorporating the omens of that group into how the section functions, it reinforces that diversity and story and brings that history alive.

At least one section may have an owlbear.

Additionally, another part of the intentionality here is that there is an editorial assistance credit for Tanya C. DePass, who some might know as Cypher of Tyr, the founder and Director of I Need Diverse Games.

I really enjoyed reading through this adventure because I could see the thought and intentionality that went into creating it. I really enjoyed the application of what makes orcs unique and the omens structure to how different parts of the adventure play out. It made me think a lot.

It's an interesting adventure worthy of adding to a library without all of this of course.

Is it enough to reclaim orcs? I don't get to determine that. But I can't wait to see what discussion and play unfolds because of this adventure.

If you'd like to grab the adventure and discover it for yourself, you can grab it on DMs Guild here:

All proceeds from the sale are going to Red Nose Day, in case it's important for you to know where your money is going.

Send feedback using the contact form or through twitter, @sarahdarkmagic.

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