Pre-Gens and Reskinning


Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 18 June 2010

Yesterday, I came across an article called Is D&D Encounters Sexist? Intrigued by the article title, I read it and agreed with most of it. However, it was one of those moments of, "Well, yeah, that sort of thing bothers me too, but I understand the economic and social realities Wizards of the Coast has to work within." Then I made the mistake I often make and read the comments. The comments riled me a bit and when I was still upset a few hours later, I decided to tweet about it. I tried to be as level-headed as I could and wrote, "Ugh, saying the lack of female pre-gens isn't a problem because you can reskin them misses the point."

A fair number of people noticed and spoke about the lack of female pre-gens, and that was to be expected. I heard lots of reasons why there would be a lack of them, everything from the low percentage of female players to the social and economic realities Wizards of the Coast needs to work within. As a woman who both works and plays in male-dominated industries and hobbies, I've made my peace with most of these reasons. That's not to say that I don't get upset by them, but rather, that I'm intimately familiar with them and try to ignore them. What really bothered me, were two things, the remarks about feminism and reskinning.

When I bring up issues like the lack of strong female characters, or in some cases, any female characters, it's not part of some big feminist agenda. I understand that political correctness has quite a few people, especially men, on their toes. But when I mention these things, it's in hopes of finding books and games I might enjoy, commiserating with allies and, perhaps, indicating to others that there might be a market for such things. Stating that including more female characters isn't what feminism is about seems dismissive of my feelings. I really don't care about feminism in this case. What I care about is showing up to the table and having a good chance of picking up a character that I will feel a connection with. If I can do that, you are more likely to have me return. And since gender is one of the primary ways we identify ourselves, if not the primary, the lack of female characters is going to make people like me feel a little left out. I'm used to that feeling but please don't make it worse by talking about feminist theory.

The other part that really bothered me was this comment:

D&D is also a game run by a DM, not by a corporation. Your DM has the ability to change whatever she wants. Make the story your own; make the characters your own.

While I agree that DMs and players should feel empowered to change the characters however they wish, saying that it's no big deal to reskin our characters misses the point. If reskinning gender was a true neutral, then the addition of more female characters to the mix wouldn't be an issue. If there were more men in the group, then they could change some of the female characters to be male or decide to play them as they are. But the reality is that, at least in the U.S., gender identity is a huge deal and asking men to reskin characters is not ideal. As a result, female gamers are asked to do the work instead, largely because they are both a minority and less likely to complain about the situation. These are the real issues at play, either consciously or subconsciously, and acting like they don't exist feels like a slap in the face to me. I don't expect a big company like Wizards of the Coast or even my DM to cater to my every whim, but please, let's at least acknowledge the realities of the world.

So, how can we make things better? For a program such as D&D Encounters, providing more characters with a greater variety would be great. I know in Season 1 they allowed people to create their own characters as well, and they hinted they will do that in the future, but this solves only a small part of the issue. Part of D&D Encounters is about bringing new people to the gaming table. Many of these new people will be the ones relying on the pre-gens so not having interesting and diverse pre-gens for them to play will still be an issue. Another possibility would be to leave age, name and gender blank for some if not all of the characters. This means the cards would not look as cool as they do now, since character portraits would be hard to do, but it might help make some groups feel more welcomed.

As a side note, I know this is a controversial topic and extends beyond gender into other issues of identity such as race and sexual orientation. As a white, heterosexual woman, I only feel comfortable discussing matters of gender. Also, I want to acknowledge that every woman is different and I, by no means, mean to speak for my gender. I'm just a girl, with a blog, who loves to play D&D. :)

Edit: The author of the module responded on his blog.

tags

Interesting post!

I definitely agree with what you're saying about feeling a "connection" to the character. I do think the Pre-Gens should try and appeal to a wide variety of people, not only the "core" selection of players.

After all, wouldn't it be good to make D&D Encounters appeal to an even wider range of people? Get more people interested in the game?

I do wonder what a female player, new to the hobby, would think if they turn up to a D&D encounters game at a local store and finds there are only male characters available. Sure, the DM could encourage them to reskin the character but like you say, it misses the point.

For things like D&D Encounters, I *personally* would love to see a very wide range of Pregens available, with a good selection of female characters (say out of 10 pregens, 3 female ones). The cards with portraits look awesome and seem like very helpful things for newer players.

Anyway, think it's good you put your thoughts out there on this one.

~Mark

Agreed all around. One of my female friends was originally going to join us for the Dark Sun D&D Encounters sessions (but couldn't do to work scheduling), and she probably would have been disappointed that there is only one female character to choose from! Especially since I had put dibs on the ardent the week previous! ;)

Well stated:

"If reskinning gender was a true neutral, then the addition of more female characters to the mix wouldn't be an issue."

This cuts to the heart of the matter and presents the very real concern. On the occasions where I write one-offs or convention games, it has been my practice to create equal numbers of both genders for potential players. This is done specifically with the intent of not alienating potential newcomers to the hobby. It's not difficult to think in terms of role and say, "I'll need a tank and someone for support from range." then go on to create two characters (one of each gender) for those roles.

Another (somewhat unrelated) point: Cookie-cutter "re-skins" (disgusting image there) don't help show off a game's breadth and depth of options either. I work at presenting characters who each have unique ways to address the needs of my scenario.

In reading the post which spawned this one, I would have made the "only female" character an NPC. If her motivation and drive are that closely tied to the plot of the scenario, she needs to think differently than a player character would anyway.

Thanks for your thoughts on this! I'm glad to see there are people willing to address these things with the industry.

~pax~

"What I care about is showing up to the table and having a good chance of picking up a character that I will feel a connection with."

And that's why there are more male pregens. Because guys deserve that too, and there are way more of them coming to the table. Having a 50/50 mix or even a 70/30 mix when the actual gender mix at the table is 90/10 would be unfair to the guys.

Personally, I'm a female gamer who plays about an equal mix of male and female characters, and doesn't feel a stronger connection with the female ones. I don't think I'd even notice the difference in pregens. Gender doesn't affect stats; I'd pick the class and race I wanted and worry about everything else later.

I don't play encounters, so maybe I'm missing something, but it seems like you could just leave the 'gender' line off the sheet all together. Do the characters have intense backstories where their genders matter? I thought it was more of a dungeon crawl-y game.

While you may not have an issue with it, a number of women do. If the goal is to expand the number of women at the table, then it's an issue that should be addressed. Having more characters than participants is one way of accomplishing this. That way, there would be greater choice for everyone, including guys who prefer to play female characters.

In this case, they also provided backstories for the characters and I know in some of the Dark Sun modules, they've been integrating a part of that backstory into the game itself. This also made reskinning the characters harder since you would have to remember the changes you made, but there is no easy way to make note of that on the character sheets themselves.

To take a bit of the counterpoint here (and then a bit of a non-counter-point), as I did on Twitter yesterday:

I understand your point. I really do. I agree that "Oh you can reskin it!" isn't a valid excuse, from either side.

But how many female characters do you think there should be?

Should there be 6 males and 6 females, so everyone has an option open? We'd probably have to say goodbye to those pretty colour cards with art.

Should there be 3 and 3? The stats from 2001 say women are 20% of gamers, but that's probably changed, so lets say 30% as a rough estimate.

Well, out of every 6 players, that means 1.8 are female. A 1-2 female/4-5 ratio seems logical there, unless you want to start forcing the males to play characters that they don't feel a connection with, just like you don't want to do. So we obviously can't get what you want while staying at 6 PCs.

I'd love to see a 6 male/3 female pack of pregens, to give everyone a good chance of finding a character they want, while not forcing many to reskin anybody. The trick there is that the adventure designers are now less certain of what PCs to expect. Especially ones that have connections to the story, or important roles. If you have 2 Leader characters out of 9 potential PCs, do you write your adventure for a group with or without a Leader?

The other option is to remove the fluff, or at least the gender fluff, from all 6 characters. I don't think this meets your criteria either, though, as you can't easily identify with a block of mechanics. It would also likely exclude the pretty printed cards, once more, as art is difficult to do for an unflavoured, ungendered block of stats.

So I ask: what would your ideal solution be? I'm legitimately curious.

Personally, I'm all for a 6 male/3 female package (or even 5 male/3 female, as most play groups are 5 people), as it seems like the best balance of costs, adventure design (throw in 3 leaders and at least one should get chosen), and ease of finding a character. It still fails for female-dominated groups, but those are the vast exception, so it's hard to justify going out of your way for that set.

But what would your choice be?

In the first season of encounters, people were allowed and encouraged to create their own characters, with even more points going to people using PHB3 races and classes. They couldn't do this in Dark Sun for a number of reasons, but I'm not sure how much the adventure writers should really be guaranteed about which characters will be played at the table.

I think the problem with relying on the 20% number is that number is across the industry. My gut tells me that a group with 1 female participant is more likely to have more than 1. Thus, while 1-2 female characters per group of 6 might work out proportionally across the entire gaming population, it's likely to cause problems within the group.

I'll admit, I'm a bit selfish. I really don't care about the pretty cards and most published adventures are written not knowing the makeup of the group that will go through it. Yeah, it's more work for the company, but that's the cost of trying to expand the player base. To keep costs down, they could do really pretty cards for a small number of PCs, perhaps with that 1-2/5-6 female-male ratio and provide several more basic cards for to fill it out so that overall there is about 50% split or at least one male and one female character in each of the group roles (controller, defender, leader, striker).

As I mentioned at the beginning of the post and on Twitter, I care far less about the overt issue of few female pre-gens and more about the subtle sexism in the response that the easy answer for female players is to just reskin.

While you are definitely correct that any given group with 1 woman will likely have more, remember that these are not home groups.

In a pickup game with strangers, I'd be willing to bet you'd skew closer to the mean on average.

You are right about the designers not knowing who will be there. I'm thinking more game days than Encounters, as that's what I have more experience with.

Ah well. Fortunately, Dark Sun is an odd case that won't likely be repeated: a new setting where every character gets new mechanics, played in Encounters before the mechanics are released.

-

As far as the subtle sexism in the "easy answer", well, it is the easy answer. It's also the easy answer for a group of 6 guys who don't want to play the female character. It's not the best solution, no, but it is, in fact, the easy one.

Personally, I see more sexism in the original article's assumption that because the brother is mentioned in the female PC's backstory, that's her driving force and she's no longer a strong female character.

There are so many people out there who just assume male sexism by default, I wonder if they realise that that is also sexism...

(Also, Your captcha seems to only be showing up for me once I submit once and fail. am I just ignoring it somehow, or is this the case for others, too?)

I know they are not home groups. However, even in a pickup game with strangers, I'm more likely to try to get into a group with another female than not. And a fair number of women who would like to try out D&D might be more willing to go together as a group than not. :)

Overall, cost not being an issue, I like my idea of having 1 character per gender for each party role. It would take just 2 extra character sheets and, for the most part, fits the current ratio of 1-2 female characters per group of 6 so I'm not asking for more concessions on the part of those who prefer male characters.

Regarding the captcha, it's supposed to only show when it thinks the comment might be spam but it seems to be doing it on nearly every comment. I changed to a different plugin so I hope things will be easier for you guys while still making it easy for me to administer the site. Sorry about that!

For the first time it didn't accuse me of being spam - YAY!

The only thing I can imagine is cost.

It wouldn't be that difficult to have a male version of the character on one side of the pregen, then a female counter part on the other, except that would cost Wizards more. It's additional art work, and additional man hours to change a couple of lines of text and have them typeset and printed.

I'm pretty sure that Wizards aren't purposefully attempting to exclude female pregens, in the same way that, considering most of the development team is male, that it's not a conscious decision to create more male pregens than female.

Mind, this is all speculation anyway.

Or they could leave art off the pregen character cards altogether. They can add fancy art in a way that everyone will enjoy it, but that is genderless and doesn't affect the players' choice of PCs. For example, have a 8.5 x 11 piece of art that depicts the world in one particular scene of the encounter, and throw some applicable creatures on it. That will save WotC money by reducing the art load for the DnD encounters along with removing the gender issue.

I agree that they probably aren't PURPOSELY excluding female characters. I also understand that more male pregens are probably just a function of the WotC staff being mostly male. However, for such a progressive company one might suggest that they can just as easily consciously decide to make more female pregens OR consciously decide to make pregens genderless and do a good job of making the encounters cool.

Maybe they should have just let us make our own characters! That's one of the coolest parts of the game, imo. I love to design a character and see how he or she interacts with the world and how effective her battle style is.

WotC is not trying to define your world. It's just a game, not law. What about guys who would like to play as a girl character? I'm female, I play as a guy character quite often, by choice.

Pre-generated characters are just that. Maybe I feel slighted because there was not a cleric. Maybe I only play clerics. You could make all different arguments about any element of the pre-gen characters. The fact is, that's what they gave you to play with so play with it. They're not some evil mafia trying to oppress all of female kind. Why would they want to do that? That's not good business practice. It makes no sense.

What about other skin colors? I didn't see any characters with dark skin in there? Why don't I hear anybody complaining that WotC is racist?!? That seems like just as valid an argument! Also, all the characters had black hair. Why not have some blond or brown haired characters!

It's all just silly. They can't cater to every single person or group with only six characters.

Since Dark Sun isn't out yet, it wasn't possible to make our own characters this time, so that solution doesn't apply. Apparently, in later seasons, they will make that an option.

"It's all just silly. They can't cater to every single person or group with only six characters."

Yes they can - by simply leaving gender, name, and picture off of the character sheets they can do exactly that. They could leave those things to the player, even ones who could not bring their own pre-gen.

You are correct that they can't cater to all classes, at least not in a cost-effective manner, but they could attempt to give at least two pre-gen PCs of each role, which may alleviate some of that.

While you make valid points, I still maintain that they could make small, relatively cheap changes that would open the experience to everyone, not just a subset of new players.

Lena, I respect your opinion, but I disagree, particularly in the case of D&D Encounters. I thought you made great arguments up until you said "it's all just silly." And I've heard people complain about the lack of diversity of skin color as well. I'll reiterate, my issue was with the response to the original blog post. Sure, I would love to see more female pre-generated characters and when pressed, will give my opinions on how they might be able to do that, but my real issue is with the dismissal of a known issue in the gaming industry.

Dark Sun generally lacks anyone with the Divine power source, that is a core tenet of the setting. The gods have forsaken this world, arcane power is considered evil by most, and psionics are commonplace.

Clerics are mythical creatures here, probably only found in lost temples buried in desert wastelands.

Yes, I know clerics don't exist in Dark Sun. It was just an example.

Yes, I know the Dark Sun books weren't out yet. Maybe they should have waited to do this campaign until they were so we could make our own characters. I understand for the game days it is easier to play with pre-gen characters. But don't make me play with a character I might not like for weeks in a row.

Leaving the name, gender, and age blank would be a supremely easy solution to this issue. Except that the character art would be really hard to do.

Also, I think it was a great idea to have more than 6 characters available so there are some to 'discard' if nobody in that group likes those characters.

There are very good solutions being creating in response to this issue even though I don't see it as a problem personally. But that's just me.

Let's look at this from the other side and do something extreme. If the issue is "just silly" or "no big deal" then let's just make ALL pre-gen PCs female and with dark skin.

Then, if any guys complain about it, we can just say "well, it's no big deal, just reskin them!". Do you think anyone will be upset by that? Will the men be upset? Will they pull out statistics that say they are in the majority so the majority of pre-gens should be male? I don't know the answer to these questions but I could guess what it would be...

I'm a white, middle class guy in his mid thirties. And I even have a problem with the "just reskin them". This is an easily fixable issue and to shrug it off is ignoring a much bigger, pervasive problem in the industry.

I don't think that I'm demographic that is targeted by the encounters program. I think the demographic includes women, people of color, and young people with no prior D&D experience. So if that is the case, why not make the pre-gens reflect the real target audience?

When I used to make pre-gens for convention games, I always left the name and gender blank. I also had a couple of other quick methods for the player to finalize his or her character.

When I had to create characters for a Game Day (since the shop didn't get the package it was supposed to, but that's another story) I had to work with the miniaturs I had available. Fortunately, I had a variety of both male and female figures that I had multiples of, so was able to offer more than one female character.

Another thing I tend to do is offer more than the minimum number of characters. This gives me some flexibility in the type of character offered and allows me to sit another player or two should I get more than the minimum.

Perhaps, in cases like the Dark Sun preview, they should skip the fancy art and add a couple of extra characters. As I understand it, they don't include miniatures, but rather use tokens like pogs. Cutting the color might save enough money to allow them to package a few extra character sheets and pogs in the package. I think if I were to run an DnDEnc, I would add a few characters to the mix. The might lack the new feature from Dark Sun, but that didn't seem to come up in play while I listened to the PvP Dark Sun podcast.

BYOC is really the best way, but I can understand the need for pre-gens.

In each of the Game Days that I ran, there were at least two females at my table. Yes, one of them was my daughter, but that still counts.

So, to make a long story short, I think it is a problem, but one that can be solved.

An argument for having zero female characters would be that D&D players are usually sexist and having a female character in the group would make that apparent, thereby driving off female gamers. OTOH, exploring gender roles is one of the fun things about D&D -- and that includes men playing males, as you can explore hyper-masculine behavior that doesn't fit into real life. My history is about a 50-50 mix of male and female characters.

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

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