Discussion: A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles Through Islamic Africa

I recently finished A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles Through Islamic Africa by Steve Kemper. The book tells the story of Heinrich Barth, a German scientist who joined a British expedition tasked with exploring Islamic North and Central Africa. Over time, his two other companions on this trip died and he went on alone, eventually reaching the famed city of Timbuktu. Starting in 1849, the expedition took five and a half years and covered 10,000 miles.

What is amazing to me is how this expedition appears to be forgotten by history. As Kemper argues, part of this may be due to timing. The expedition happened at the tail end of the error of discovering the unknown and at the dawning of imperialism and some of Barth's research and findings undercut the beliefs required for imperialism. These include that at least the parts of Africa he visited had governance systems and histories, including some written. These were not exactly lawless lands full of people with no sense of history. Part of it is also Barth himself. He is a character and was not always as adept at navigating European politics as he was dealing with those he met on the trail.

While some might not appreciate the level of detail in the book, I enjoyed it, especially since one of the great values in Barth's work is that he took a snapshot of Africa before colonialism came through and made that impossible. I also found the details important in dispelling many myths about Africa and in presenting many of the historical figures as complex individuals making rational decisions given the reality of their world. Along with other works, I wonder if the details of the Barth's original books could be used to create an interesting historical setting that explains the world outlook in a way that makes sense to outsiders.

For instance, I loved the description of harems in some of the cultures. Concubines were part of a consumption culture. The women were an outward sign of wealth because 1) it took money to feed and house the women and 2) any children that resulted were entitled to full rights, the same as any of the other children. The women were concubines instead of wives because Islam limited men to a much smaller number of wives. Barth describes one man who collected women from each of the tribes and was interested when he heard about a new group because it meant he could add a new woman to his collection. Another man discusses with Barth how strange it is the European men drink alcohol so much to which Barth replies that since Europeans are limited to one woman, they must get their pleasures somewhere.

The book also touches on slavery, something that was important at the time. Abolitionists feature at times, although Barth often points out the issues with their schemes. He describes the devastation wrought by the razzia or raids, sometimes for livestock or other plunder but often for slaves. The whole system often relied on a neverending loop, plunder to get money for guns to protect yourselves from other groups doing the same things, all the while feeding the gun manufacturers. He also describes the differences between slavery as practiced in Africa and the chattel slavery practiced mainly in the Americas.

I also find the work important because it's an example not only of the fact that there were people arguing against the racism of the time, the same sort of racism we find in the foundational works of fantasy, but also what happened to those who stood up against that train of thought. Often when I try to discuss how our history is political, people try to argue that there wasn't a group trying to keep these sorts of arguments out. This book points out that the truth is probably at least a little more complex than that. Additionally, it means that for those who lived at the time and afterwards can't claim complete ignorance. These books and ideas existed. Barth did have some degree of popularity.

There are lots of interesting insights and contradictions with frequently repeated "facts" about Africa. Between the adventuring, politics, and descriptions of the land and peoples, there's bound to be a bunch of inspiration for games.

New Pathfinder book: Mythic Adventures

Last fall I had the great fortune of writing for new Mythic Adventures book from Paizo. The companion book provides ways to give a more mythic feel to your game, allowing for heroes and villains that break the mould. The system is meant to lay on top of the current structures of the game, allowing access at any level, even 1st, and tying it in with the deeds and actions of the characters. While I haven't had a chance to read the final book yet, this concept is one I was excited about from the first email I received and that interest hasn't waned.

In addition to the public playtest, Paizo recently released two previews of the Mythic Adventures content. The first has some of the path abilities. Mythic paths, to me, are meant to tie in to the notion of the hero's journey. During their ascension phases, the heroes discover something that sets them on a separate and distinct path from those around them. The way I see it, unlike a character class, a character can have just one path to walk, one archetype to fill in our common stories. The path abilities help to set them apart from all others and make them truly legendary.

Here's an example:

Guardian, 6th Tier:
Invincible Stand (Su): You can expend one use of mythic power as a swift action to make yourself nearly invincible for a short period of time. You gain DR 20/— for a number of rounds equal to your tier. If you choose to move or are moved by another creature during this time, this protection immediately ends.

More can be found Mythic Preview—Path Abilities Mythic heroes need proper enemies. The book has a few monsters and there's a preview of the Mythic Lich.

As for me, I contributed a couple monsters along with some of the mythic adventure themes and adventure ideas. I had a lot of fun trying to come up with different levels of using mythic levels in a game. In my experience, it's not meant to be an on-off switch, but as a way of adding flavor and some additional mechanics in ways that suit the type of experience you want to build. Setting regular characters against mythic monsters will give a different feel from a game where mythic characters constantly fight other mythic beings. I also loved coming up with adventure ideas that played with some traditional tropes.

If you're at GenCon, the books are there! Jason Bulmahn posted this on his Facebook fan page. I couldn't make it this year, but be sure to say hi to the lovely folks in the Paizo booth.

Mythic Adventures at GenConMythic Adventures at GenCon

And here are the full credits:

Lead Designer • Jason Bulmahn
Design Team • Stephen Radney-MacFarland and Sean K Reynolds
Authors • Dennis Baker, Jesse Benner, Ben Bruck, Jim Groves, Tim Hitchcock, Tracy Hurley, Jonathan Keith, Jason Nelson, Tom Phillips, Ryan Macklin, F. Wesley Schneider, Amber Scott, Tork Shaw, Russ Taylor, and Ray Vallese
Cover Artist • Wayne Reynolds
Interior Artists • Rayph Beisner, Eric Belisle, Eric Braddock, Dmitry Burmak, Anna Christenson, Jorge Fares, Taylor Fischer, Grafit Studios, Tim Kings-Lynne, Diana Martinez, Brynn Metheney, Roberto Pitturru, Klaus Scherwinski and Luisa Preissler, Jason Rainville, Denman Rooke, Chris Seaman, Bryan Sola, Matteo Spirito, Sandara Tang, Tyler Walpole, and Ben Wootten Cartographer • Robert Lazzaretti
Creative Director • James Jacobs Editor-in-Chief • F. Wesley Schneider Senior Editor • James L. Sutter
Development Team • Logan Bonner, John Compton, Adam Daigle, Rob McCreary, Mark Moreland, and Patrick Renie
Editorial Team • Judy Bauer, Christopher Carey, and Ryan Macklin
Editorial Interns • Jay Loomis and Cassidy Werner
Senior Art Director • Sarah E. Robinson Art Director • Andrew Vallas Graphic Designer • Sonja Morris
Production Specialist • Crystal Frasier
Publisher • Erik Mona
Paizo CEO • Lisa Stevens
Chief Operations Officer • Jeffrey Alvarez
Director of Sales • Pierce Watters
Sales Associate • Cosmo Eisele
Marketing Director • Jenny Bendel
Finance Manager • Christopher Self
Staff Accountant • Kunji Sedo
Chief Technical Officer • Vic Wertz
Senior Software Developer • Gary Teter
Campaign Coordinator • Mike Brock
Project Manager • Jessica Price
Licensing Coordinator • Michael Kenway
Customer Service Team • Erik Keith, Justin Riddler, and Sara Marie Teter
Warehouse Team • Will Chase, Heather Payne, Jeff Strand, and Kevin Underwood
Website Team • Ross Byers, Liz Courts, Lissa Guillet, and Chris Lambertz
Special Thanks • Ryan Dancey, Clark Peterson, and the proud participants of the Open Gaming Movement.

Il Fior di Battaglia (The Flower of Battle)

The Getty Museum recently made about 4600 items available as Open Content, meaning they are freely available for any use. While looking through the collection, I found a series of images that appear to be training information on different forms of combat. Through further research, I found out that they were actually part of the Il Fior di Battaglia (The Flower of Battle), by Italian master Fiore dei Liberi.

Fiore dei Liberi was a late 14th Century knight, diplomat and master-at-arms. This work is the third oldest European fencing manual to be discovered.

Here are some example images.

Equestrian Combat with Sword
Fiore Furlan dei Liberi da Premariacco, author (Italian, about 1340/1350 - before 1450)
Equestrian Combat with Sword, about 1410, Tempera colors, gold leaf, silver leaf, and ink on parchment
Leaf: 27.9 x 20.6 cm (11 x 8 1/8 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. Ludwig XV 13, fol. 44

Combat with Lance
Fiore Furlan dei Liberi da Premariacco, author (Italian, about 1340/1350 - before 1450)
Combat with Lance, about 1410, Tempera colors, gold leaf, silver leaf, and ink on parchment
Leaf: 27.9 x 20.6 cm (11 x 8 1/8 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. Ludwig XV 13, fol. 40

The full manuscript covers topics such as unarmed combat, sword fighting, daggers, pollaxes, lances, mounted combat, and more. Since I found the Getty website a bit cumbersome to use, I created a Pinterest board with the images, all of which link back to the original.

Il Fior di Battaglia from Getty Museum


Beyond just being cool to look at or inserted into publications, here are a few ways to use this in games:

  • For martial characters, what about having a life goal of becoming one of these masters. With the Game Master, you could work on developing and mastering your own sets of techniques. As you did so, you could create your own treatise of techniques that your character would be known for.
  • Background artwork in NPC's houses or shops to give clues about previous experiences.
  • In some types of games, where you might have expertise in a particular weapon instead of class of weapon, you could give expertise as a boon or reward for certain types of quests. Giving the player an "illuminated" sheet might be a nice way to record this.
  • Assistance in visualizing and describing training scenes in towns and elsewhere, a staple of fantasy fiction.

Survey on Anti-Harassment Policies at Conventions

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

Desertification: The Dust Bowl

In school, most discussions of the Great Depression talked about the Dust Bowl. I knew things were bad during that time period, but I didn't quite understand how bad it was until I watched Ken Burns' The Dust Bowl. The way it was always described to me focused on the drought and the lack of food, both horrible on their own for sure, but not necessarily awe-inspiring.

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

Dust BowlDust BowlThe Dust Bowl was the result of a decade-long drought combined with farming practices not only ill-suited to the area but destructive. The two amplified each other until we had an ecological disaster that is almost unfathomable. Here are some of the things that happened:

  • Gathered by the winds, dust storms covered hundreds of miles and would sweep through much of the US in a single day. In some areas, they would cause dust drifts that reached the rooftops and deposit inches if not feet of dirt in a new location.
  • These storms could destroy most if not all of a crop across several states during one storm.
  • The dust clouds could black out the sun. The static electricity they caused would make it impossible to use the phone.
  • The clouds would drift into cities like Chicago and New York, thousands of miles away from where the dust originated, causing damage and blocking out the sun.
  • The dust was small enough to get into the lungs. Man and beast alike could suffocate if caught out in the storm without protection. For some it lead to dust pneumonia.
  • The drought caused plagues of grasshoppers and rabbits. The rabbits in particular would get so bad at times that towns would hold special events to kill them, asking townspeople to bring the whole family for the chore.

If you are looking for a cataclysmic event for your game, this should qualify. Depending on what type of story you are going for, it could be based on the same reasons as the real world dust bowl, human ingenuity gone awry in the struggle between man and nature. However, I could see other things working as well. Nature spirits upset at the defilement of a sacred location create massive winds. Fire elementals summoned by a an evil wizard (or a spell gone awry) parch the land and burn away the top layer of soil and sod.

For me, I see ecological disasters as a good way to provide tensions in a game without relying on stereotypes or things like racism, sexism, etc. I feel story-wise it also provides both an impetus for groups to have tensions against each other as they compete for limited resources as well as providing a way for players to solve those tensions without genocide if they choose to do so. Does it work for everyone? No, but it's what I happen to like.

Anyway, I definitely suggest checking out the documentary and learning more about this chapter of US history. If you have US Netflix, it's available for instant play.

Goals for Druids: Reversing Desertification

I like adding elements of environmentalism to my games. This came out in my article for Melora and in my Acadia game where one of the tensions I explicitly set up was between the ship builders and their need for a certain type of timber and the gnomes and other forest folk who made their homes in those trees. I recently heard about the underground forests in places like Niger and the work being done to make them rise again in an attempt to combat desertification.Apple ValleyApple Valley

Basically, in some deserts, there are stumps or seedlings of trees that, with care and cultivation, could turn into trees. If this is done, they not only provide their own goods, in the form of shade, firewood, etc, they also make the land around them more productive. We didn't know this because for years we destroyed them, allowed cattle to feed on them, and didn't prune them. Some farmers purposefully destroyed them believing that they would decrease yield. According to the article, in some areas crop yields increased 2 to 3 times after practicing these techniques.

Introducing in Game

There's a few ways one could introduce this in game.

  • Have local groups fight over land where these procedures aren't being used. Allow nature-type checks to be used to find out a non-violent solution to the conflict.
  • If the PCs leave the well-travelled roads, have one of the communities they meet practice this type of cultivation. If you are making a morally grey world, it easily could be one of the "monster" groups, similar to some groups of Horde in World of Warcraft. However be careful to not make this into a typical "savages" narrative that we find all too often in fantasy.
  • Make finding such a solution the life's goal of an NPC and have him or her ask one or more PCs to aid in the development of these techniques.
  • Providing Information and Implementing

    What information to provide and how to provide it depends on what type of game you are running. For instance, if the game is primarily about dungeon delving with very little social interaction, downtime, or character backstory, providing detailed information to your players about what needs to happen to produce one of these green zones isn't necessary and may be overkill. Providing a journal or tome that details this information that they can then redeem in town for rewards should work and, if the campaign goes on for some time in the game world, you can describe the changes that are occurring when the enter town after a trek.

    If the characters are interested in being more directly involved, I'd suggest doing some research on the techniques and the outcomes. Then decide if the PCs should research and experiment themselves on what techniques work best or if they are going to be more involved in the implementation stage. It all depends on what you and your players find interesting. This would be a great use for in-game-world downtime and I'd suggest going for simplicity and success over simulation.

    Also, remember that the challenges presented to the PCs don't have to be limited to finding information or providing physical labor. If you listen to Tony Rinado's story, you'll notice that he had to convince a lot of people, at many different levels of society, that this worked and was a good idea.

    Describing The Changes

    In the video, Tony Rinaudo discusses how the environment and the local culture changed due to these techniques. I'd suggest figuring out a time line for how this could change the local game world and play it out as either NPCs or PCs employ these techniques. Change the description as they venture outside of town. Have the NPCs thank the PCs for making it easier to get firewood or for the increased prosperity for town. Decrease the number of conflicts based on competition for resources. Add new people to the town, people who were enticed to come there based on the developments.

    What ideas do you have? Feel free to leave them in the comments below.

    Image: "Apple Valley" © 2012 Gwyneth Ravenscraft, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/

Sources of Inspiration: End to End

I love to use fairy tales as an inspiration for my games. Ralph, the talking chicken, was a prince transformed by a witch's curse. Rumpelstiltskin served as inspiration for a bargained child tale. Given this, I'm always on the hunt for new tales, especially given how often the current Grimms' versions don't have great roles for women.

Enter End to End, a book of four fairy tales written by Jocelyn Koehler. I was fortunate enough to get a review copy. Set in the mythical land of the Nine Kingdoms, near the borders of Faerie, these tales often mix the real with the fantastic. A forbidden wood. Dancing sisters. A kingdom in decline. Medicine required for survival. These all feel familiar and yet new. What I love in particular, plenty of strong women who have their own agency.

Pearl Against Diamond: When Pearl meets Lin in a forbidden forest, it is the beginning of a romance, and the beginning of a tragedy. For Lin is the slave to a faerie queen, and Pearl must journey through dangerous realms to save him. But Lin hides a secret of his own. A reimagining of the legend of Tam Lin, this story pulls inspiration from not only the original, but also the dreamland of ukiyo—the “floating world” of forgetfulness and pleasure.

The Solider Underground: Alexander Stargazer is a wanderer and a mercenary. One day, when he stumbles into a new kingdom, he hears about a mystery he can’t resist. For a full year, the twelve princesses have disappeared every night to go dancing...but no one knows where or how. Many have tried to solve the mystery. All have failed. Stargazer uses his wits and magic to discover the secret, which lies far below the castle in a subterranean world too fabulous to be believed...and far more sinister than it first appears.

Wise Marah: We all know the legend of the Sleeping Beauty. Or do we? When a beloved queen falls into an enchanted slumber, a whole kingdom is dragged down into a shadowed grief. Can a simple housemaid break the spell? She can...if she is wise enough.

When the Wolves Returned: In a forgotten kingdom severed from all others, life is incredibly dangerous, and survival depends on not falling prey to the sickness that ravages the land. The key to survival—a precious medicine—lies beyond the forest. A strong young woman named Red is the one who journeys through the woods, wary of wolves and other perils. But the largest threat may prove too powerful for Red to fight...until she makes a fragile, remarkable alliance with a former enemy. Together, they will bring their benighted land back into the light.

I enjoyed these so much that I am going to buy the previous book in the series, The Way Through the Woods.


This section may contain some spoilers.

  • Part of the story of Pearl Against Diamond involves her being swindled. If your players are looking for ways to be heroic without killing everything in sight, righting a wrong like this could be a good way.
  • Pearl also receives a few magic items created just for her by Lin. Consider allowing extremely limited magic items like these in your game without worrying too much about what the rules say NPCs can create.
  • In the Soldier Underground, it's not until he drinks from a fountain that he sees the underground world for what it is. It's a risk for the players to drink from random fountains but having rewards like these can encourage them to take those chances and explore.
  • Likewise, a few of the art objects in the underground palace give hints at the story of the world. Providing these hints throughout a game rewards exploration and helps ensure the players don't look at you confused when they figure out the mystery of the world.
  • Wise Marah reminds us that sometimes an outsider can see things that locals cannot. In my experience, players would react in a similar manner to Marah, questioning any restrictions, especially without a firm reason why they shouldn't explore further. With some groups, I wouldn't necessarily have an end story in mind, I'd present something like the sleeping queen and let the players work out an explanation that works for them.
  • What happens when the old ways are no longer necessary? When the Wolves Returned reminds us that someone always profits off of these things and they are often reluctant to give up their revenue streams. The same can be adapted for a fantasy world.

I hope you try them out. If you'd like to read some excerpts, the publisher was kind enough to provide me with some.

Responses to Races

BerrornarBerrornarI got a few responses to my post on D&D Next races that I would like to discuss here.

First, a comment from Impressions on the D&D Next Races Section by Deran.

I agree, that women have been treated badly in the past (and by some these days). I don't think this type of mentality should be portrayed in games. I think there are fundamental differences between the genders and should equally be addressed in the documentation. Describing male Dwarves as generally a little huskier than females doesn't seem to me that female Dwarves are any less important. I would like to see more information on female Dwarves and why some wear beards and others choose not to.

There are a few problems with this argument. Applying human sexual differences to dwarves has no basis in the game reality. Dwarves neither evolved nor were created by an Abrahamic god. They were created by Moradin and, as far as I can tell, before 3.5 (and maybe 3rd, I don't have a 3rd edition players' handbook), they were near impossible to tell apart physically. In fact, even Moradin's wife has a beard, one that has its own mythology associated with it. The only real sex or gender difference I could find, from Roger E. Moore's "The Dwarven Point of View" in Dragon #58, was an explanation that for whatever reason, fewer females were born than males. My understanding is that dwarven culture in general viewed adventuring in a negative manner, so given the low numbers of women born each year, it makes sense that a female dwarf adventurer would be rare. In everything else, it seems that males and females have approximately the same opportunities. If a female dwarf wants to spend her life as a craftsmen, she is allowed that freedom. If a male dwarf gets married, it was expected that he turn his focus to his home life. So these beliefs in fundamental differences between sex/gender make no sense in the context of a dwarf.

However, that tidbit about there being fewer female births leads me into the next question.

When I read (skim, really) over the races section, it reads to me like the guidelines for art orders got included in the draft. I find it really easy to imagine someone deciding that that information (art guides) would be useful in the draft races chapter, which might be part of why I read it that way.

Independent of the specific choices for very specific things like female dwarven beards (which is an interesting topic, but you guys have it covered already), I wonder what you think about gender dimorphism in art orders? I know that you've spent some time and effort on the topic of gender representation in fantasy art, and I think we agree that the very blatant differences characteristic of, for example, WoW are disturbing. I'm not sure how I feel about simpler and subtler indicators like half-elven facial hair, or `slight' height/bulk differences for elves.

Part of my motivation is this: I have several trans friends, and social cues like facial hair, grooming, and muscle bulk are important to them. In your opinion, is this something that's worth preserving in fantasy games, or is the cart pulling the horse?

I wanted to post this as a comment, but couldn't find the comment link. Thanks!

I'm not sure if they were the art orders, but if they are, that makes me rather sad. That would mean that these things could not be addressed before the books come out and would be part of the game without discussion from the community. However, after doing some research, it seems likely that it came from 3.5. I'm also curious if it's related to video games and the such where there seems to be some difficulty in making females in general anything but skinny and big-breasted.

I want to be upfront, I'm no expert in transgender topics or issues and my experience is that many of my readers are not either. So I'd first like to give my definitions for a few terms before we discuss them. These happen to be my understanding of the terms and, in general, they can be quite hard to define precisely, I think in part because they are intended to define things that are, in reality, quite ambiguous. (Please, contact me if I'm grossly misrepresenting the meanings.)

sex - In it's most basic form, the label (male or female) assigned at birth based on physiological characteristics.
intersex - People who fall outside the physiological norms making labeling them with a sex difficult or results in them being labeled with a sex they do not have.
gender - Societal expectations and norms surrounding people of a particular sex and how we perceive ourselves. Gender is often referred to as a societal construct.
cisgender - People whose physiological expression matches their gender.
transgender - Peoples whose physiological expression does not match their gender.

I'm leaving out sexuality/sexual preference for now because it really deserves a post of its own.

I think the first thing we should discuss is that while we might label people as being cis or trans, that doesn't mean that all members of that group feel the same way about something. We cover up a lot of diversity in doing so, sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for neutral, and some for bad. So, while these sorts of cues are important for some, they might not be for others, regardless of their gender.

However, we know that for some people being able to express gender in a story or game can be very important. When people complain about having too many strong women characters being nothing more but men with a different facade, what they often mean is that it feels like the gender of the person is completely irrelevant, we call that character a woman but nothing about what it means to be a woman in her society seems to affect her decisions or reactions. Generally they don't mean that no women can be portrayed in that way, but the lack of diversity in portrayals gets to them.

This lack of diversity in the D&D Next races is what bothers me. If three out of the four races present as males are larger than females, we lack a bit of diversity in our stories. That sex characteristic doesn't add much, if anything to the game. How is my gender as a dwarf different from gender in elves or in humans?

Additionally, in the case of the dwarf race, I find it detrimental to dwarf cis women. The aspects of society that are discussed in the description focus on mining and battle, two areas that regardless of historical accuracy, many people in the audience align with strength. People also tend to align smaller size with less strength. Thus, you take the one race that is supposed to be all about strength and create a sexual dimorphism that can easily imply a difference in prestige along gender lines, something that, as mentioned above, was lacking in some earlier editions of the game. Additionally, while I can imagine a world where magic users provide permanent body alternations, altering one's size and shape doesn't seem to be as interesting as figuring out the issues of how one fits into society or changes society to fit oneself.

Thus, while I agree that for a portion of the players, gender differences and representations of sexual dimorphism will be important tools in helping them play the character they want, I think we should be careful in what those differences can imply within the setting's society and have a preference towards including them when they increase our story options rather than repeating our own biases in the setting without thought.

To me, that's one of the most interesting things about having fewer dwarf females born each year. Dwarfs are a society built on tradition and clans. For males, family is both important (clan-based) and many of them will not have one (not enough females). For females, while one can choose to become a craftsmen or an adventurer, there has to be a lot of pressure to reproduce. For everyone, are clans patrilineal, matrilineal, or maybe not even based on genealogy but interest? Are daughters celebrated more than sons due to their rarity? Do some societies decide to go with a polyandry system instead of monogamy? Do some cis men marry non-dwarves instead? How do their families react?

In this case, the sex-based change in society provides a character with a wide range of decisions based on sex and gender. Instead of limiting character development, for players who want to, it expands it.

I'd argue that the size difference in elves, while breaking with traditional representations of elves in some ways, isn't as important as with the dwarves. Elves aren't particularly known for their strength and size doesn't have the same implications in regards to the things they are known for, such as their bonds with nature or affinity towards magic.

Note: A good starting point for understanding transgender is Transgender 101: 15 Things to Know

Understanding Life Expectancy

In discussing things such as age of majority, age of marriage, etc, one thing that often comes up is the statistic that life expectancy in medieval Europe was 35. They argue that since it was so relatively young, people were treated like and became adults much earlier. It definitely has a ring of truthiness to it, doesn't it?

Hans Holbein "The Dance of Death Woodcut"Hans Holbein "The Dance of Death Woodcut"
However, there are a few potential issues with this view. For one, this number is life expectancy from birth. People often forget or don't know that life expectancy from birth for a group where all members are currently dead, is a simple average of age at death for the population. So, if I have the following set of ages at death [1 29 15 31 76], the life expectancy would be 34 years from birth. Using an example from the Wikipedia entry on life expectancy, "in a hypothetical stationary population in which half the population dies before the age of five, but everybody else dies at exactly 70 years old, the life expectancy at age zero will be about 37 years, while about 25% of the population will be between the ages of 50 and 70." As you can see, the average life expectancy on its own doesn't give us a ton of information about actual life spans.

The problem is further compounded by the fact we just don't have a lot of data from that time period. However, that's not to say that we can't make some guesses. According to this write up of the issue, we know that countries like Canada had an infant mortality rate of 10% in 1921. While it's possible that the infant mortality rate was lower in medieval Europe, all data we do have points to that being unlikely.

So, let's take our 35 year life expectancy and figure some stuff out.

Let's start with that 10% number.

(1 +9x)/10 = 35
1 + 9x = 350
9x = 350
x = 350/9
x = 38.9

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

Now 30%
(1 + 1 + 1 + 7x)/10 = 35
3 + 7x = 350
7x = 347
x = 347/7
x = 49.6

These are rough numbers and they only account for infant mortality, but hopefully people can see the issue. We are confident that many more died after infancy but before reaching adulthood. Of course, for each of these, x is also an average, obscuring a range of ages.

Why is this important? Well, if much of the low life expectancy numbers can be explained by infant and child mortality, it doesn't necessarily follow that people would be forced to become adults at a younger age. If they passed the riskiest parts of youth, they'd have plenty of time to live their life and mature.

Additionally, at this point, we're not looking at things within the context of their times. Given how hard it is for us to get this information, it's unclear how much they would have had it at their disposal, especially since recording vital records wasn't particularly important for much of this time. It also assumes that the things we find important are the same as what they would have found important. In these discussions, I feel like we often take out their humanity, treating them as another piece of data instead of living, thinking beings.

Finally, even if many people died by the age of 35, that doesn't mean older people would have been a rarity and that people wouldn't have tried to plan for a longer life. An explanation of how many older people would have been around given different mortality scenarios can be found in Life Expectancy and 'Age of First Appearance' in Medieval Manorial Court Rolls by L. R. Poos.

In the end, there's a lot we don't know about this time period. But understanding life expectancies and the limits of what we can assume from them is a good start.

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

Dear WotC, please don't explicitly include gender stereotypes

One of the common reactions to my discussion of the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth was, "Oh come on, that was written so long ago. Why are we talking about it?"

The reason why I discuss it is because if you immerse yourself in D&D material from that time period long enough, you start bringing the points of view into the current project. I already pointed it out a bit with the races, but it's even clearer in the deities section in the classes.

Sedille: "Sedille" © 2012 Jenna Fowler, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/Sedille: "Sedille" © 2012 Jenna Fowler, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/
Here are the deities: Arcanist, Lifegiver, Lightbringer, Protector, Reaper, Stormcaller, Trickster, and Warbringer.

Now, I happen to like the creation of archetypes instead of specific deities. This is important because D&D Next is meant to unite editions. By using archetypes, they can provide mechanics for the different deities that work in Greyhawk and in Forgotten Realms. It's weighted a bit towards martial, but that makes sense given D&D Next development until this time, it's largely been dungeon crawls.

However, I do have issues with the descriptions of three of them. Lifegiver, Protector, and Stormcaller. Suddenly, out of nowhere, these deities and the concepts and traditions they represent become gendered. The Lifegiver deity, the one involved with growth, healing, and fertility, is "usually female." The Protector, the domain of defensive strength. As a martial deity, it's usually male, but as the community building, caregiving version, it's usually female. Finally, Stormcaller, which represents storms, wars, physical might, and courage is commonly barbaric and male.

At this point, some will argue that this is traditional, we shouldn't get upset at this. Yes, in patriarchal societies, this was typical but far from universal. But, those are patriarchal societies, something that should not be assumed for all games of D&D. What happened to not setting the thermostat?

Additionally, some may point out that well, we're talking about the deities themselves, not the player characters. The problem with this is that it still implies that there are gender-based distinctions within the setting itself. That men are war-like, courageous, and barbaric. Women are the lifegivers, community builders, and caregivers. Add on top of this the sexual dimorphism, and we're right back in the 1970s. Sure, there are strong female characters in the setting but they are rare and exceptional.

My suggestion, leave out the "usually male" and "commonly female." It doesn't add anything while still setting the thermostat as it were. For those of us who don't want that in our games, it's one less thing we have to explicitly fight against. Our players won't be reinforced into believing that genders are a particular way in our game. People who want this gender bias in their games will bring it to the game on their own. They are still fully supported, especially since the settings mentioned have this bias in them.

Please, don't explicitly put gender stereotypes into your setting, Wizards of the Coast.

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