Reclaim Riverbend: Early Run

This past weekend I was honored to attend CarnageCon as a special guest. It's a wonderful con held this year in Killington, VT and previously at Lake Morey. I ran 12 hours of a D&D Next version of Reclaim Riverbend. Now, because it was a con, we didn't run with any crunchy rules for the exploration section, but we played with the premise of rebuilding after a war, playing in a sandbox, and having player driven stories.

I think it was a great success. A couple of the players played the whole 12 hours, and a number more played 8 hours worth. As a DM, I was really happy. Here's a picture from the second 4-hour slot.

Reclaim Riverbend: Carnage Con: Picture by Geoff Duke (@gcd)Reclaim Riverbend: Carnage Con: Picture by Geoff Duke (@gcd)

So the first thing about the game is that the set up really helped ease play. I started by giving each player character one NPC character they could bring with them. As an example, the cleric chose an underling acolyte and the rogue chose to know the military commander in the town. This helped in a number of ways. First, I think it helped the players feel like they had a bit of the world that they knew and could interact with. Additionally, as they played, they had someone else that they could also make up stories about. The cleric, for instance, named his acolyte Ned and would add flavor by talking about the types of sermons Ned was making and the reactions of the townspeople to them. He also set up Ned in the church after they cleared it of the undead and a dark priest. He even decided to create his own sect, the Order of the Radiant Heart.

In addition to the one NPC to start, each PC had 10 commoners each who came with them. These would be the people who did the basic chores of the town. They also served another purpose. As the PCs cleared out areas, one of the commoners would often step forward and take over a job. So, after they had cleared one of the small forests, one of the commoners stepped forward to become a forester. Likewise, when they cleared out the brewery, one of the townspeople had skills as a brewer and stepped forward.

Also, having a map helped them figure out where they wanted to go and what they wanted to do. I used the map from Village of Hommlet, and just described how every place except the Inn of the Welcome Wench was more or less rendered uninhabitable. They were concerned about where the villagers and decided to check out the old cottages first, which turned out to be a good thing because one of them was haunted by the ghost of any angry former inhabitant who had been killed in the great raid. Likewise, they often would balance where they went with the needs of the town. They cleared out the cottages and the docks (so people could be come fishermen) but also decided they needed better ale and cleared out the brewery. Then it was the mill so the town could grind flour.

Obviously I have a bunch more to do before I can make it a thing and I need to develop my own town map if I want to publish it, but being able to run 12 hours of gaming on this premise was a great confidence boost.

As a note, we played mostly theater of the mind style. I used the Noteboard product to draw rough maps to help the players visualize areas. This worked well with D&D Next but obviously might not work well for every game.

The main thing I'd love to work on before I did it again would be interactive environments. The setup worked well in showing the players that what their PCs did had an effect on the town, but I wish I had more traps, rituals, other interactive elements (like a complex arcane machine), and maybe some friendly NPCs in various areas that the PCs could interact with. More food for thought.

Finally, a tweet from one of the players after the game:

Also, I had the honor of being the first DM for a young boy and we had three other teenagers join in. That felt good too.

Reclaim Riverbend: Some Examples

I wanted to give some more concrete examples of where my thoughts around Reclaim Riverbend are currently. Since it's a well known module and fits pretty well, I'm going to use The Village of Hommlet as an example.


© 2012 Jenna Fowler, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license© 2012 Jenna Fowler, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike licenseVillage of Hommlet is great because it lays out an entire village complete with a village map as well as maps of a few of the buildings. My thought is that much of the town would have been destroyed by a combination of neglect by the evil forces that inhabited it (they did not agree that cleanliness is next to godliness) and the battles for control of the town. I think I would set everything except either the walled manor house (27) or the Inn of the Welcome Wench (7) as being in some state of being too broken to be immediately useful. I haven't figured out the mechanics of repair, but it would be something like filthy, cosmetic damage, structural damage, and beyond repair. Filthy buildings could be repaired without access to resources beyond labor. Cosmetic damage would require access to wood, either from other homes or a forest. Structural damage might require a carpenter. Beyond repair would require labor to remove the rubble before it could be built on again.

A nice thing about using something like Village of Hommlet as the underpinning is that we can tell the story of that village through this game even if we don't use everything from it. The people still existed and we can tell their story in the background elements and in the items left behind.


© 2012 Juan Santapau, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license© 2012 Juan Santapau, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license
Let's ignore the ability to harvest wood from the forest for now and only rely on reusing materials found in the town. Let's say each destroyed house provides 10 wood. Cosmetic damage requires 1 wood, structural damage requires 3, and new construction of a modest cottage requires 5. (I'm not sure how fine-grained I'll be when I get further along, so take this all with a grain of salt.) Repairing buildings with cosmetic damage doesn't require specialization and takes less wood. The issue is that the building the group really wants might not be one of the ones that are the cheapest to fix. Do the players focus on fixing the easiest to fix buildings first? Do they try to adapt the building to a different use than intended, costing them perhaps a few more resources and more time? Or do they focus their resources on the buildings they think would best serve them?

These are decisions constantly being made after a catastrophe. What do we have? What can we save? What is the cost of saving it?


© 2013 Kaitlynn Peavler and Cheeky Mountain Parrot Games, created for Conquering Corsairs, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license© 2013 Kaitlynn Peavler and Cheeky Mountain Parrot Games, created for Conquering Corsairs, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license
One of the issues after war is that many of the trade routes are disrupted. A village like Riverbend couldn't expect regular deliveries of resources from other places. First, the area is still far too dangerous for all but the least risk averse merchants. Second, many towns and cities need goods after a war and Riverbend isn't exactly a thriving place full of coin. It needs to make itself better known for that. So currently, the town can except a visiting merchant only about every month or three. I might increase the frequency if I specialize the merchants though. Additionally, costs might be higher for even basic goods that have to be imported from elsewhere. For now, let's say that there is a 50% rise in prices.

The Village of Hommlet module works well for this because it faces trade issues. In the case of the module, a bunch of bandits have been attacking trade caravans. They are holed up in the ruins of the moathouse, a complete adventure already written for DMs. Since Reclaim Riverbend is a post war game, I might change some of the bandit characters to fit into that theme better. Maybe they deserted during the war or they grew cynical from their experiences and decided to live for themselves after the war. They also could be left over enemies who didn't want to go home.

Defeating the bandits would improve trade through Riverbend in addition to potentially giving real items as treasure. So after they are dealt with, let's say the additional cost of goods gets reduced to 25%.

Forgotten Lore

An additional benefit to The Village of Hommlet is that it's tied to the Temple of Elemental Evil. I might have in one of the buildings some writings from one of the evil clerics or wizards that mentioned ruins in the area of the town. By this point, between the overturn in inhabitants and the amount of time that has passed, it's quite possible that none of the current inhabitants remembers the temple. This diary could talk about how the cleric or wizard wants to find the legendary ruin and increase their reputation. The PCs might decide to see if the other side was unable to uncover the ruin or decide that they don't care, they want to see it for themselves.

You could even run Temple of Elemental Evil as a flashback before they discover it in the present. You could then modify the ruins to take into account the decisions of your group and, who knows, maybe the past adventurers left something behind that could be used by those in the present.

So that's my thought on how the concept of Reclaim Riverbend can be used to tie together published adventures in a way that reinforces the core story being told and organically changes the world around the characters. I fully acknowledge it might not be for everyone. Obviously, if I were to create my own Reclaim Riverbend for publishing, I couldn't use Village of Hommlet as a base but it's a perfect fit as an example of what could be done. Additionally, the framework doesn't need to be limited to D&D as a resolution mechanism. Other games, such as Fiasco, could be used for certain types of adventures or scenes and still have an impact on the world. For instance, perhaps the players want to convince a wizard to take up residence in the tower but he wants the PCs to prove that they are worth his presence. A Fiasco-style playset could be a fun way of determining if they succeed at the task of wooing him.

Note: The first two images are from the game Farewell to Fear by Machine Age Productions. The third is from Conquering Corsairs. All are part of the Prismatic Art Collection.

Reclaim Riverbend: It's about the People

Now that a big writing project is done, I have more time to focus on this again. As a refresher, Reclaim Riverbend is my idea for a sandbox adventure that concentrates on the PCs building their community. In this particular case, a long 25 year war has ended and Commander Blackwell seeks to reclaim her ancestral home. Players build the town as a result of their adventures. Collect enough objets d'art and the town creates an art gallery or museum. Uncover enough gems and gain a jeweler. These NPCs in turn, provide benefits back to the PCs.

© 2012 Susan Knowles, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license© 2012 Susan Knowles, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license
A reason I started with Reclaim Riverbend is because I want to explore concepts of colony building and exploration while minimizing the issues of othering. This was their land. Absent the past 25 years, it had been in their families for generations. I haven't figured out what to do about the invaders yet, if they are going to be some concept of true evil or if they might seem that way at first but overtime become more understandable. I think for the first version, they are just going to be evil.

I've also been thinking a lot about how to do the community building. Some people pointed out the Pathfinder downtime system. I like the system and will draw inspiration from parts of it but, to me, it still seems a bit too distanced. It's also focuses a bit on the individual's influence where I'm not sure that fits with what I would like.

The other inspiration point I know about is Flatpack. This game features a lot of what I want, it's about overcoming obstacles and fixing the future. PCs go out, find flatpacks, and bring them home. These flatpacks provide resources to the town. They are buildings that you can put together and give the PCs access to specialists. In some ways, that's part of what's going on in Reclaim Riverbend but there's a bit more that I'd like to accomplish. I know sometimes DMs sometimes struggle with players who keep killing their hirelings or assume an unlimited supply of things. My thought is that this setup can address those issues. You can gain unlimited supplies of some things, but it requires building the town up enough to gain them. Likewise, you can kill as many hirelings as you want, but you might not then have enough people come harvest time. There are choices and those choices have consequences.

My thought is that players would start off with their initial expedition party. This will include the PCs, a number of unskilled laborers, and I'm thinking one or two skilled laborers per PC. I contemplated making these families instead of individuals but that might work better as an optional rule. Since the entire kingdom is in a rebuilding phase, it will be a while before they get reinforcements or more supplies. So they are pretty much on their own for at least 3 months.

In looking at the D&D Next rules, many of the backgrounds fit in naturally with this. Commoners form the lowest level and most plentiful type of human resource. They provide most of the raw resources for the town such as food, lumber, animal skins, and the like. The Artisans form the next level. They transform the raw materials into products and they require a certain number of Commoners to support them. So, we might not get a carpenter until we have 10 foresters because otherwise there wouldn't be enough lumber.

© 2012 Susan Knowles, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license© 2012 Susan Knowles, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license
I might make one change though. You can't gain access to certain types of Commoners until you have the natural resources to support them. One way to unlock natural resources will be to explore the hex map. So, explore enough forest squares and you can unlock a forester. Your exploration gives the forester confidence that the woods will be safe for him and his crew. Likewise, want fishers? Explore the waterways and determine their level of safety.

Gaining these more experienced laborers can happen in a few different ways. They can be part of the adventures. For instance, maybe you uncover a humanoid trafficking ring run by orcs that passes through the territory. As a result of raiding it, the PCs might gain a skilled laborer from the captives. Another way is inspired by Terraria. If you have an available storefront and uncover enough gems, either through treasure or as a result of uncovering a mine that has a vein of them, a jeweler might be enticed to live in your town. Or, if you uncover enough forest land, a laborer might decide to become a forester. Finally, as the town grows, the PCs might be able to pick particular types of skilled laborer that they would like to see more of and gain benefits from.

Another thing I'd like to focus on in this is that everyone has a role and is necessary for the functioning of the town. Food production is just as important as being a silversmith, even if it doesn't pay the same. Additionally, when the town suffers a catastrophe such as a natural disaster or a siege, each of these people are your resources for defense and recovery. My hope is that this would be closer to the reality of life in the middle ages. Adventuring brings great rewards but at a cost. You can decide to not teach the women basic defense skills but when you are attacked, you might find yourself at a disadvantage.

To summarize, here are some basic details and principles that I'm confident about.

  • Hex exploration uncovers resources to use, both general ones like wood and adventuring areas where more specialized goods and advanced technology can be found.
  • Simulate in a general way the hierarchy of resources and the people who refine them.
  • Resource limitations are tied to the town and its inhabitants, making people the most important resource.

More info soon!

Edit: The art comes from the Prismatic Art Collection and originally appeared in Farewell to Fear.

Con Harassment: Rape Culture and the "Silence is Sexy" Script

[TW: Sexual Assault]

In my previous post, I published the results from my harassment policy survey. Among the group that responded to the survey, they overwhelmingly felt these policies were important or very important (228 out of the 319 total responses). Twenty percent had witnessed or experienced something that made them wish there was an anti-harassment policy, and 15 percent had felt harassed or assaulted at a con. It's important to note here that nearly 72% of the respondents identified as primarily male/men and out of the 49 people who responded that they had felt harassed or assaulted at a con, 15 of them identified primarily as male/man.

As I pointed out in the last post, I can't extrapolate too much using these results. This wasn't a random survey. People shared them among their friend networks, starting with my own. People had their own reasons for deciding to click on the link and responding, sometimes because they were already in favor of the policies and sometimes because they were firmly against them. However, I have to say I'm not surprised by the responses. At the very least, I think it points to the fact that among some communities within the larger gaming umbrella community, this is a real issue and their lived experience.

Whenever we try to have a conversation about why these things occur, the topic of "rape culture" inevitably comes up along with it the numerous misunderstandings and misinterpretations, many of them based on little more than defensiveness. So, I'd like to talk about my experiences with rape culture a bit and my understanding of it.

Those who don't really understand the phrase often like to take the words as separate items, look them up in a dictionary or rely on their own knowledge of the meanings, and try to deduce the meaning of the term from there. This makes things really difficult. Rape culture encompasses far more than a culture that promotes rape. You can exist in a rape culture and never rape or be the victim of rape.

Like many academic terms, rape culture is rather abstract and can be difficult to identify in the real world. There aren't hard and fast boundaries. Here's a definition from Transforming a Rape Culture via Rape Culture 101 on Shakesville:

A rape culture is a complex of beliefs that encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent. In a rape culture, women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm.

In a rape culture both men and women assume that sexual violence is a fact of life, inevitable as death or taxes. This violence, however, is neither biologically nor divinely ordained. Much of what we accept as inevitable is in fact the expression of values and attitudes that can change.

That seems really abstract to some people and I get that. Here's an extract from a recent fantasy (as in the genre) novel (not a book meant just for adults) by a mainstream and well known publisher. The woman in this scene is the trainer of the "younger" man. I say younger because while his body is relatively young, he was reborn and had lived a rather full previous life and kept all the memories from that life. So, yeah. During a previous training session, the woman had kissed him, seemingly to distract him and win the fight. We also have hints that she is unsure about her feelings for him but seems to like him. R is the male character and D is the female one.

Why did you kiss me?"

She started to answer, but R's expression turned dark and he continued, "What did you hope to gain from it?"

D fell back another step, but then came forward aggressively, dropping her blade and putting her hands on her hips. She stood barely inches from R staring at him coldly.

"You cannot be mad at me!" R insisted.

"You have shown me-- you have taught me! You have taken me to those noblemen's grand parties and shown me how to use your charms to mainpula--"

D's hand came up faster than R could react and slapped him hard across the face.

She huffed and swung around to run away, but R caught her by the shoulder and tugged her back around, throwing himself at her. And when they crashed together, he hugged her tightly. He saw the moisture in her pretty brown eyes, and kissed her.

She twisted to get away. She pulled her mouth back. But R pressed in harder and rejoined the kiss and D's tension gradually melted away, and then she was kissing him as passionately or more.

"Do you doubt me?" she asked, and she twisted suddenly, dropping them both to the floor, her atop him.

"Have you never kissed any of them? Isn't that part of the game you play?" R asked.

This is an example of rape culture on at least two levels. Obviously, it sexualizes violence. The whole thing is violent from her slapping him to him being willing to gamble on committing sexual assault. If you want to quibble with that statement, reread the passage again. He doesn't know when he kisses her whether or not she's going to be ok with this. In fact, she has given plenty of signals that she says she is not ok with it at that moment.

Secondly, even after giving all of those signals. Even after all the "not being sure," she in the end gives in. Of course she does. Because that's a frequent rape myth, that, in the end women really want it.

Once I read this passage, I had to force myself to finish reading the book and I only did that because of other commitments. It sickened me and I couldn't believe that an author who often talks about the things he won't put into his books because he's mindful of his younger audience would put this in.

The hard part for me is I've lived this. I've been held hostage in a room because I wouldn't pay a kiss a toll to be able to leave the room. I've woken up with a male friend on top of me, kissing me, because he thought I really wanted it. At a dance, I had another man take my hand and put it on his erect penis not once, but twice, even after I said no. The second time, he forcefully held it there until I could pull myself away. I've had men, dozens of them, tell me that I don't have the right to tell people not to bother me because their right to try to bed me superseded my rights as a human being to live my life and network with my professional peers.

And this life imitating art imitating life reinforces that. This scene in the book, didn't need to be written this way. It didn't add anything to the story except that R is a complete idiot because after they have sex he has this realization:

He felt the fool for ever doubting this amazing halfling lass. She was playing no game for him; her feelings were honest.


What scares me is as I looked through the reviews for this particular book, many of them glowing, not a single person pointed this out. And that's the problem with rape culture. There's an acceptance that this is the way romance is done. That acceptance, in turn, is what allows sexual violence to happen at the high rates we see. It's why some try to differentiate between "forceable rape" and lack of consent. They don't know how consent works.

And among a portion of the people who commit harassment and assault at cons, this same lack of awareness holds true. After a well-publicized assault at a tech conference and the harassment and blame the victim received when she came forward, O'Reilly decided to look into the problem at their conferences. They noticed that among the people they found had done these things, had even admitted to doing them, a large percentage of them had no idea what they were doing was wrong. No one had ever questioned this behavior around them. Nothing they read had ever caused them to question it either.

That's why we need more stories like Saga, Sex Criminals, and Rat Queens. Take these panels from Sex Criminals #1:

Enthusiastic Consent - Sex Criminals © Milkfed Criminal Masterminds, Inc. & Chip ZdarskyEnthusiastic Consent - Sex Criminals © Milkfed Criminal Masterminds, Inc. & Chip Zdarsky

Checking In - Sex Criminals © Milkfed Criminal Masterminds, Inc. & Chip ZdarskyChecking In - Sex Criminals © Milkfed Criminal Masterminds, Inc. & Chip Zdarsky

In the first panel, the male character checks in to make sure everything is still good with the woman. She gives her enthusiastic consent. I find that pretty awesome. In the second, they are about to do something they haven't done before. He again checks in. Super sexy!

In this panel in Saga, two of the main characters are having a disagreement.

Going Off Script - © Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona StaplesGoing Off Script - © Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples

As couples often do, Alana tries to us sex to distract. Marko breaks our typical narrative by pointing this out and turning it down and continuing to work through their issues.

Why do we need more of these? Because we use all of these ideas, regardless of their source, to figure out our own ways of interacting with the world, especially at a con. Think about how many times you've repeated a line from a movie or book that you thought was freaking awesome and smooth. Now think about the number of lines that follow the "silence is sexy" script rather than the enthusiastic consent one? That doesn't mean no character can ever be the former, but it would be nice if the work was self-aware about it.

I've only scratched the surface on this one, I know. But I'd like to ask you to consider how at a con centered around a genre, the way that genre presents and deals with romance and sex might have an impact on how the people act at that conference. Let's create some fantasy characters we can actually aspire towards when it comes to sex and sexuality.

Con Harassment: Survey Results

Back in August, I asked people to complete a non-scientific survey on their experiences with harassment at conventions and conferences. Since I go to both gaming conventions and tech conferences and personally feel there are a lot of overlaps with the issues, I didn't restrict this to one community or the other. I also knew that given my history and the people likely to hear of it, there was a good chance of there being a polarizing response. But I thought it still might be useful nonetheless.

By the time I pulled the answers on August 8th, I had 319 people respond to the 10 questions. I put seven of those questions into an infographic. All of the questions along with the responses can be found in this spreadsheet.

I had expected this to be at least slightly polarizing however I actually didn't get more than a few responses that seemed more intent at attacking me than discussing the issue. I also think the data shows some interesting information for the group who responded. For the respondents, anti-harassment policies were important or very important (228 out of 319 responded this way) and since 229 of the respondents identify "male/man" as their primary gender, this isn't just a gender issue. Of the respondents, 64 out of 210 experienced something that made them wish there was an anti-harassment policy in place. That's 20% of the respondents. Fifteen percent felt something happened to them personally, either harassment or assault. Finally, fewer than half of the people responded that they have never witnessed or been the target of unacceptable behavior to the question about reporting unacceptable behavior to con staff. Of those who did report, 72 percent found the response from the convention acceptable at least some of the time, although 56% also reported it was unacceptable at times and 18 percent didn't have the data to respond one way or another.

Now clearly this isn't a scientific study. I didn't do a random sample of all con goers, I advertised this using my social networks which means that it's likely to be polarized. Many of the people who read what I write care about this issue in an affirmative manner, they would like to see more anti-harassment policies at conventions, and a few will be very against them. This mixing of groups is evident in the freeform responses to the question, "Do you have any questions about anti-harassment policies at cons?" Here are some of the responses:

  • Is there any evidence, other than ancecdotal, of draconian anti-harassment policies actually ever existing?
  • Has there ever been a problem with having one that not having one would have prevented/stopped?
  • Only "Why would any con choose to not have an anti-harassment policy?"
  • Why don't all cons have anti-harassment policies?
  • I find objections to anti-harassment policies on "free speech" grounds to be dishonest and loathesome. This is not a question, but I wanted to say it anyway.
  • I want to know why cons are hesitant to implement them
  • Are they really required?
  • Shouldn't you start suing these conventions until they shut down?
  • Why won't organizers protect fans? I can't think of a good reason
  • How do you ensure the accused is treated fairly? They're expecting to enjoy their time at the Con too
  • Jesus, stop trying to make a story where there ISN'T one.
  • Why are they not as plentiful as the "soap is your friend" snarks in con policies?
  • Why doesn't evey con already have one?
  • No. Why are you creating a new class of victims? That's so American....
  • I think harassment should be handled by law-enforcement, not con staff .

So what does this mean to me? Well, I think it says that in some groups, a significant number of people have personally witnessed or experienced harassing and/or assaulting behavior and that a significant number of people would like to see cons do something about those who are perpetrating these offenses. I think there's also a small, but vocal community of people who are dead set against anything that might address these problems. In the end, I hope this points to the need for better and more widely distributed surveys, perhaps with the backing of some conventions.

Comics I Love: Rat Queens

Recently Rat Queens #1 came out. I had seen a lot of ads for this one, especially in the back of Saga. It's what happens when you create a comic around four tabletop RPG characters, all of whom happen to be women. Our cast of characters are Hannah the Rockabilly Elven Mage, Violet the Hipster Dwarven Fighter, Dee the Atheist Human Cleric and Betty the Hippy Hobbit Thief. The quartet are known for causing trouble around town and find themselves thrown in the dungeon yet again. They might be able to secure their release...if they complete a quest. Fail, and they are banned from Palisade forever.

The bargain - © Kurtis J. Wiebe and John UpchurchThe bargain - © Kurtis J. Wiebe and John Upchurch
Of course, they aren't the only group. In addition to the Rat Queens, we have Peaches, Four Daves, Brother Ponies, and Obsidian Darkness. Of course, we soon find out that there's more going on here but I don't want to spoil that for you. Besides, if you don't mind spoilers, Weird Girls did a great review of the issue in this video.

There's also a free preview issue that introduces the characters and gives a sneak peak into their world. There are two pages from that preview that I particularly love.

Betty - Rat Queens © Kurtis J. Wiebe and John UpchurchBetty - Rat Queens © Kurtis J. Wiebe and John Upchurch

Violet - © Kurtis J. Wiebe and John UpchurchViolet - © Kurtis J. Wiebe and John Upchurch

As some of the sample images show, this is not a prim and proper comic. The world is dark as is the comedy. There will be swearing, drinking, drugs, and sex. They are adventurers after all! Oh and lots of bad ass women. I also love that the characters, in my opinion, aren't drawn for our viewing pleasure and yet still obviously have sexual desires and sexy fun times. The comic is often self-aware about this at times.

© Kurtis J. Wiebe and John Upchurch© Kurtis J. Wiebe and John Upchurch

So, if any of this sounds appealing to you, I urge you to check it out. You can find the free preview on the Image Comics website or through Comixology. Kurt Wiebe has previews and other information on his site. Issue #2 comes out on October 23rd.

PAX and the sexism behind some anti-boycott rhetoric

Justice: Attribution: Carptrash at the English language WikipediaJustice: Attribution: Carptrash at the English language WikipediaI’ve been watching the debates about PAX quite intently, but the public articles like Polygon, Rock Paper Shotgun, and others, and those that are happening in the communities of people I know. One thing I’ve noticed through it all is that many of the conversations illuminate unquestioned assumptions along with latent sexism even among those who believe that they are all supporting the fight against sexism.

This isn’t surprising. Sexism is deeply engrained in our culture and everyone is going to be sexist sometimes. What bothers me is that often the people engaging in it don’t see it for themselves. I love Polygon's explanation of this situation from their article.

You'd be forgiven for thinking that this is all just the recurrence of a stubbornly persistent gender divide — of straight men refusing to meet anyone else halfway because, even two centuries after Mary Wollstonecraft, it is still pretty much a man's man's man's world. Maybe so, but it's still worth thinking about Tychos and Gabes for the way they reflect what's specific to our particular moment. It may be that an inability or unwillingness to see outside of the context of male social prerogatives is a consistent feature of our cultural history, but the version we're most likely to encounter these days was shaped by a generation of men who, like Tycho, Gabe and their creators, were born in the decade or so after 1975.

That was a critical period in the development of the video game industry, of course, but also for nerd culture in general. Mainstream attitudes toward all manner of geeky media were beginning to shift, paving the way for a 21st century in which comic book adaptations dominate the box office while the short lists for literary awards feature novels about the zombie apocalypse. What ties the men born of that era into one big Penny Arcade generation is the desire for a public venue to call their own. To that end, they've staked out some of the venues that mattered to them most as young men: movies, comic books, video games, the internet.

To a Tycho or a Gabe, part of what makes those venues specifically theirs is the freedom to deal flippantly and without apology with troubles that most of them will never have to face directly. They need not bat an eye at a casual reference to rape, in no small part because rape victims are about nine times less likely to be men than women. They could probably manage the empathetic leap needed in order to see outside their own context, but to do so would compromise their claim on the venue.

While in this post, I talk about this being the actions and reactions of men compared to the actions and reactions of women, I mean this 1) in the general and 2) more as one group being considered the in-group and the other the out-group, even when all members of the group by and large enjoy the same things that should signify group membership. I also want to point out that while gender is presented as a binary in this post, many including myself do not see it as such. Finally, I'm not saying that the arguments and responses I discuss here were intended to be sexist or to reinforce existing patterns, just that they have the effect of doing so, often unintentionally.

Championing Masculine Heroism

First, there are those who are championing masculine heroism. This by the way, is what is behind many of the calls to not boycott. I’ve seen multiple conversations accuse those who might boycott of doing the equivalent of “taking their ball and going home” because they weren’t getting their way. Consider that for a moment? The first time I remember hearing that was when I was a kid and it was often accompanied with language like “don’t be a girl” or “be a man.”

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t times to stand firm, but there are plenty of times when not participating is the answer. Regardless of the work we do at the con, presence there tells other people who look at the numbers that Mike and Jerry still have plenty of support and those gate numbers will continue to undercut the protest. Additionally, people have been conditioned to believe that if you subject yourself to a particular environment, then you are partially to blame for anything bad that happens in that environment, especially if you are female. Finally, the stress that comes from a person subjecting oneself to that environment is a negative and not everyone has to spoons to handle it. Calling them the polite equivalent of a coward or wuss is horrible, just as horrible, in my opinion, as the overt misogynists.

Who gets to be made uncomfortable

Another problem I see crop up in these discussions is who gets to be uncomfortable. Hint, rarely is it men. If a man puts out an opinion like the one above and gets called out on it in any sort of aggressive way, I’ve seen the other men in the conversation suddenly rally around him instead of objectively looking at the arguments being made and addressing both parties in a proportional fashion. “Hey, we’re all learning here, why can’t you be nicer?” is a common response, one that is well known to be a derailing tone argument. “How dare you tell someone that they should be quiet! You’re in the way of discussion” happens even though 1) no discussion has actually taken place because no one has called the original person on the harm of their argument and 2) the original comment was often framed in such a way to make it impossible to actually have a discussion. These and more get followed up with exaggerations of the tone of the responder, especially if the responder is a woman. Even toned responses are angry and emotion filled. Anything with emotions becomes outright hostility and vitriol. The response from the self-appointed peacekeepers is to comfort the man who was “unfairly attacked” and maybe, if we’re all lucky point out that maybe they can see, however, where their arguments went afield.

How these reinforce the status quo

The problem is, underlying all of this, is a reinforcement of male privilege in society. The harmful and hurtful opinions of men can only be challenged as long as the challengers remember their place. In this case, their place is not to be anywhere near as aggressive as the original commenter. So even when the original commenter basically calls anyone who won’t directly confront the issues a coward, the responders can’t directly confront the commenter and must remain more docile and polite compared to the original commenter and often compared to the expected behaviors of their gender group.

This is hugely problematic. First, many times the reason people put forth these theories is because they don’t live in an environment that is often to constantly hostile towards them. They have the ability to “take a break” and, in fact, their participation in an event like PAX may be one of the few times each year that they put themelves in a potentially hostile situation. Also, even when they are at PAX, they often have the choice to not engage. They don’t have to reveal that they are a feminist if they don’t want to, whereas many women constantly have to consider that in terms of what they say and how they say it.

Secondly, I personally feel if you are going to put forth an argument that people have to actively put themselves in a hostile environment in order to enact change or otherwise they are part of the problem, you have to be willing to live it. If you can’t deal with a counter argument that is aggressive but doesn’t actually call you names or use profanity and your immediate reaction is to call to the sympathies of the other men in the conversation, then you should stop making that argument. You have just shown, that when push comes to shove, you are unwilling to take your own advice.

What bothers me is that the other people in the conversation often don’t see this. There are a variety of reasons for this. One of them is the belief that it could have been them who made the misstep and how dare that person not take his feelings into account. But here’s the problem, it’s clear that the original commenter didn’t take the feelings of others into account either. While two wrongs don’t make a right, sometimes being in the other person’s shoes for a bit is actually a good thing, especially in a country like the US where men’s needs and feelings are often catered to far more often than women’s.

At the end of the day, many of these arguments are about the rights and feelings of mainly men in the community. The sympathetic men who attend PAX don’t want to be grouped in with the outright misogynists and will attack anyone who talks about how PAX as a whole makes them feel uncomfortable. The so-called freedom of speech advocates want to say whatever they want without any societal consequences, whether out of fear of misspeaking or a belief that they shouldn’t have to care about anyone but themselves. They will wrap this up in a “America and apple pie” emotional appeal that isn’t based on actual freedom of expression. The misogynists want what they always want, the ability to prey on and terrorize women. They’ll use well-instilled misogynistic beliefs in our society to convince the other two groups to turn on those who might boycott or otherwise standup for themselves to take the pressure off of themselves.

And this needs to stop. I realize it’s difficult when so many of the women have opted-out of these conversations to remember that their voices aren’t being heard and that the arguments being repeated don’t have fair and equal input from all parties, but continuing these arguments in these ways is only going to continue that situation. I realize that many men are worried about being judged for having sexist and misogynistic beliefs, but realize that the way you are treating women is no better. If you don’t want to be expected to be perfect, don’t expect perfection from others. Learn about the biases well-known in our society regarding interpretation of women’s tone and aggressiveness. Learn about systemic and latent sexism.

What to do instead

Seriously, I suggest that whenever someone says that there is only one way to solve this (and pretty much any problem), someone needs to step in and say that’s simply not true and by saying it, the original commenter has framed the discussion in such a way to not only force an antagonistic/confrontational response, but that it really stops discussion.

We also need to start looking past tone to content. Too often we are lulled into a false sense of security when people use polite and distanced language to describe something, especially when that something is how other people should act or feel.

Sometimes telling someone to not be part of a discussion at this moment in time is a good thing. I get that some people feel like this is the ultimate worst thing that could possiblly happen, but that’s simply not true, especially when the person feels like nothing they say in that situation will be taken in a positive manner or in the way they intend it. This should be a huge flag to anyone that shutting up is a good course of action. Shutting up gives them time to think and reflect.

It might also be a big flag if everyone in the conversation is attacking the woman for being aggressive and most are not looking over the triggering comments and pointing out where they were problematic. I hope that people can see where this would further lead people to be concerned about attending a convention when the people who are claiming, “Don’t worry, we’ll make it a safe space for you,” can’t do that outside of the convention in an overall safer environment.

Conquering Corsairs: Celebrate Talk Like A Pirate Day with Art

In the most recent Prismatic Art update, we mentioned that Cheeky Mountain Parrot Games and Kaitlynn Peavler donated the art created for Conquering Corsairs to the Prismatic Art Collection. Today I've uploaded the last batch of the 48 images. Here's a gallery with them all.

The original images can all be found on the Prismatic Art Collection website, many with the original PSD files. In addition, they can be found on G+, Flickr, and Pinterest.

More information about the game can be found on the Conquering Corsairs website. Additional art by the talented Kaitlynn Peavler can be found on her deviantArt page.

"Master Gunner" © 2013 Kaitlynn Peavler and Cheeky Mountain Parrot Games, created for Conquering Corsairs, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license:

Dear PAR: Focus on the victims, not the attackers

Penny Arcade Report wrote an article about the recent reporting on racist tweets post the crowning of the recent Miss America winner, Nina Davuluri. The author is very much against these so-called shaming articles for a number of reasons. I'd like to break down where I disagree with his framing and arguments.

Racist tweets are a search away, they’re always going to happen after most big events, and you get big clicks from people who like to see how terrible their fellow citizens are and then they get to feel superior for not being racist.

I'd like to suggest that for at least some people, this is not what this is about. I mean, first, it assumes that the "you" referenced is part of the dominant group, right? In fact, this description is part of the issue, it leaves out that the people targeted by these tweets are our fellow citizens. Furthermore, they don't get to "feel superior for not being racist," they get to see in print something that may happen to them or those they care about on a rather frequent basis. While the public discussion can often seem messy, the private conversations can be enhanced by these pieces as people realize that this stuff still does happen in 2013.

First off, because we’re raising up the voices of a crazy group of people and giving them way more power than they deserve, and thus give the illusion that America is filled with vile racism.

It may be that's the reality. It may not. Tracking how Americans, as if it was even possible to lump a country into one homogenous group, feel about those of different ethnicities, backgrounds, and skin tones is damned near impossible, and doing a quick search for racist terms isn’t going to teach you anything about what the average American thinks, or how they act.

This emphasizes the abstract reputation and image of America over the effects those words have on actual people. I watched the reaction to the news that morning on my feeds. Among those I followed, many expressed positive words regarding those stories since finally their stories were being told, what it's like to be a person of color in America and get the spotlight shone on you for a few moments. What it's like to have some Americans lump everyone with a darker skin tone together regardless of background. The vile racism that they have experienced and the anger that many people attempt to sweep it under the rug.

Are there people of color who also disliked those articles? Of course! People are going to have mixed opinions about these things. But to the assertion that there is no value appears to be dubious at best.

Furthermore, if this is an illusion and you want to fight it, you don't do that by fighting these articles. It feels like you are expressing a fear that no matter what we do, it will never be good enough. But that is about our thoughts and feelings and not the thoughts and feelings of those who are the subjected to these attacks. Stop worrying about America's reputation and start worrying about those people.

This also isn't about the average American. To make this about the perceived reputation of the average American is to tell the people harmed by this behavior that the feelings of an imaginary person is more important than the feelings of the group harmed by this behavior.

Finding people who say vile things online is easy, it doesn’t tell us much of anything, and if we continually focus on those groups of people they'll begin to dominate the conversation and give a skewed outlook on how the United States actually deals with race.

Again, the emphasis is on how the United States deals with race and how the US is viewed, not with how the people who are attacked due to their race feel or are affected by these tweets. The racists are going to dominate the conversation so long as we focus on changing them rather than supporting the victims of their attacks.

And it makes sense that people victimized by this sort of speech are going to focus on it. Think of it this way. Every minute of my day is awesome but one. During that minute, I have to walk through jets of highly pressurized, extremely hot water. What part of my day am I likely to remember? What part of my day is likely to have the most affect on my planning? Don't you think I'm going to spend a portion of my day trying to devise ways to not get hit with the water for the day?

There is also the case that in many situations the names on the accounts don’t match up with the person doing the posting, and the video embedded below gives you some good information about why this is so problematic on so many levels.

So now we're supposed to feel bad because some accounts are not only anonymous but they may use real people's names in a false manner, thereby ruining the lives of innocent people? First, calling out these tweets does not have to involve people then writing letters to business, schools, homes, etc. It can in part because those are the tactics the racists use against their targets and humans are humans. It should stop but to say that it's inevitable is a bit of hyperbole. Second, again, the concern here is placed on the potential innocent or not innocent people who may or may not be harmed and not on the actual innocent people who are actually being harmed. I understand the argument that calling these people out raises their platform above what they would normally have. But in attacking those who point out racist speech online, the author shores up the power of the attackers. Also, perhaps we could start comparing the harm done by all the acts rather than automatically saying one is a matter of "journalistic ethics" and the other is "just life."

You can quote these tweets without posting links to the accounts writing the content, which will go a long way to stop the spread of fighting racism with harassment, and should keep minors and those whose numbers were used to sign up for the account safer from the Internet mob.

We can then use the racist tweets as a jumping-off point to discuss how to actually stop the thinking behind these messages, instead of going straight to calling the perpetrators terrible names and trying to get them fired, or worse.

Except this doesn't actually work. The reason why the actual tweets and other messages are included isn't centered on people being able to hunt down these accounts, at least in most of the cases I've seen. It's because people will demand proof. They will want to know when it happened. They will want to see it with their own eyes. They will want to see what messages the person wrote before and after it. In other words, they want citations.

When people don't use names or enough identifying information, people say it didn't really happen and they won't believe it until they see it for themselves. This is especially true when it comes from members of the group being targeted because our society tends to reinforce this belief that "those people" must be biased and those not harmed (mostly white men) are the only ones capable of being objective. Yet, provide that information and now you're potentially ruining a person's life. There's no winning in this cite/don't cite game and lack of citations run into so many issues. No one is stopping to think of the primary victim here or the secondary victims (those in the same targetted group), we're still concentrated on the attacker or a potential third victim.

Additionally, this issue with these types of posts isn't logically consistent with the writer's own points. To say that all those who read will go on these "witch hunts" is to commit the same fallacy as believing that all Americans are vile racists based on tweets gathered because they are the most vile. He objects to the collateral damage of the response but fails to put it into context of the original damage. We can only talk about the original damage if we are careful enough and moderate enough. This is how journalistic ethics can reinforce existing issues in society.

This is a very different situation than someone who had 50 followers a year ago suddenly having their message blasted in front of a few million people, and suddenly finding themselves the target of abuse and harassment. I don't really care if they have ignorant feelings on race, the answer is not putting people in a situation where they face very real physical harm.

People say these things because we allow them to say them. We allow them to say them by not providing them unfettered access to their targets. Also, what is the chance of them facing real physical harm versus say their victims? Why do we care more about them and their safety and feelings of comfort than those they are victimizing?

These stories don’t help anyone, they don’t spread awareness of any important issue, and the chances for collateral damage are high. There are ways to react to racist use of social media without feeding into the negative, hateful worst instincts of the Internet, but it takes more time and effort to do so, and that doesn’t really lead to advertisement buys, so it’s unlikely that a more measured approach will become popular.

Here are some ways posts like these have helped me.

1. Block lists. Look, it's clear that these people should not be allowed to reach the mentions list of some people. For people like me, these lists help me proactively block so that the next time I get a little attention, I'm not going to get messages from them. This is an awesome use of these sorts of posts that does not engage in aggressive behavior.

2. Support and Bystander Intervention. The other weekend I was at a post-con party when someone rather aggressively decided that they needed my take on the Feminist Frequency videos on video games. Had no one in the room spoken up, I would have walked away with the belief that I was the odd person out. What is important in person can be important online as well. Is it always perfect? Heck, no. But maybe instead of tearing down these sorts of posts assuming that they cause more harm than help, perhaps write an article talking about good ways to respond to them?

3. Identifying trends. By citing the original tweets in these articles, people who keep up on these trends might see some patterns in names, avatar use, etc, that they can use in a responsible manner to help the victims of these attacks. This sort of information gathering and reporting was important in the troll that was going after women in comics, for instance.

I get that this sort of thing can make people uncomfortable. But I feel that the arguments made in the Penny Arcade Report gives more weight to the comfort of the attackers and those groups that tend to have privilege in our society over those who are being attacked.

Time for Action, Not Words

Talking about PAX and Penny Arcade is never easy for me. The D&D podcasts with the Penny Arcade/PvP crew are what convinced me to finally play D&D after watching it be played and supporting others playing it for nearly 2 decades. While I'm not ok with every joke they make, I'm actually a big fan of irreverent humor amongst friends, as long as that humor isn't used to punch down. As someone who wasn't always great with understanding how to deal with racism, transphobia, homophobia, and the like, I have some amount of sympathy for those struggling through it and not being sure what to do. I was going to sit this out in part because everyone else is doing such a great job covering it.

However, after Mike's clarification, I've noticed a few things that I'd like to address and, yeah, I'm going to take advantage of my platform to say them. First, for those of you who don't know about the Dickwolves situation, here's a very short explanation. Penny Arcade released a comic that intended to demonstrate how messed up MMO morality is if you really think it through. Most quests rely on you doing something x number of times and forget about anyone hurt by the x+1 thing you didn't have to do. They decided to make this point by using rape through a made-up monster called the dickwolf.

This upset and hurt some people. I get that not everyone understands how this can happen. To some, in a perfect world, people would read a comic like this and not do the internet equivalent of scream obscenities at the creator. I'd argue that in a perfect world we wouldn't live in a world that constantly trivialized rape and creators wouldn't use it as a punchline in a joke that doesn't address the very real issues surrounding rape that many people face, especially without warning them first, but the main thing to remember is, we don't live in a perfect world and when people are hurt, they are allowed to express that anger, at least to a point. I'm not trying to defend all expressions of anger here; I know that some people said some rather nasty things about Mike, Jerry, and their families.

So, we had this wide range of response to the comic. Some brought up points in a calm manner, some brought up the same points in a more impassioned tone, others threw feces. In response, Mike and Jerry went after those they felt were throwing feces but in a way that included everyone speaking up. They went pretty nuclear. They weaponized the dickwolves concept. It now became not a symbol of how utterly fucked up MMO morality is and became a battle standard in...something. I still haven't quite figured out what. To add to this, t-shirts were created and there was a movement in the message boards for the Penny Arcade supporters to wear those shirts to PAX East to show those...those...PEOPLE that they weren't welcome. Because, in the end, that's what it was about. It was a statement to even people like me, who merely wrote about why the topic of rape is such a sensitive matter, that we weren't really welcome there.

When people pointed this out to Penny Arcade, it appeared that they decided to pull the merchandise. I thought that it was because they could see that it would mean that PAX would no longer be the inclusive space they claimed they wanted (and the apology supports this). I felt comfortable attending because even though I knew that there was this group who would hate me on sight if they knew who I was, I wouldn't be surrounded with messages. I wouldn't be forced to run games for people wearing the shirts. I wouldn't see them in my panels as I was trying to speak. It was a big deal.

Fast forward to just a couple of days ago. There have been other issues with Mike, but people have always been trying to give him the benefit of the doubt by and large. And now he says on stage that pulling those shirts was a mistake. And the crowd cheers. Not only does the crowd cheer, but someone feels confident enough to then ask for the shirts to be brought back. (Yes, both Mike and Khoo said no to that on stage). I get that Mike wishes he had said more. I even believe that he didn't mean to make it sound like that was the only thing he regretted. These things happen although I'd like to think that he has grown enough as a professional to have a full response to the dickwolves thing rehearsed. But it is what it is.

But I'm also tired of apologies and token efforts to make amends without real change and what our community needs is change. So Mike, I'm asking you as a person, as a fellow gamer, as someone who loved your work enough to name her first character after one of yours, please, please learn to be a better person. Not because people expect you to be a role model and not because you were thrust into a leadership role that you don't necessarily want. Change because right now, you are attracting to you the exact people you claim to dislike, the type of people who cheer like that over your misspoken comment because they assumed you meant that the only mistake was in removing the merchandise. You are attracting to you the types of people you lampooned in your League of Legends comic. You didn't ask to be their mascot but your actions have made you it nonetheless.

For everyone else, if you want to support Mike's clarification and apology and spread its good will, I might suggest this. Those people who heard Mike's initial comment, felt hurt by it, and spoke up are being hounded by some of the worst elements of the internet. They are getting all sorts of threats. Instead of defending Mike to everyone and anyone who might say even the slightest negative thing, how about standing up for those members of our family and giving them support? How about allowing them their pain and not trying to police them for once? If Mike actually made a mistake and he claims he did, we need people to be able to express their pain at it. But right now, Penny Arcade surrounds itself with a community that makes that impossible.

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

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