Ennie Awards Cover Nominations: the good, the bad, and the awful

So in the post that I made linking to my interview over on The Id DM, a commenter suggested that I take a look at the cover nominations for the Ennie’s Best Cover Award, which will be announced at this coming GenCon. Those of you who aren’t familiar with tabletop games might not have heard of the Ennies, but they’re a pretty huge deal. Besides the Diana Jones Award, the Ennies are pretty much the most important tabletop RPG awards out there. Sadly, they tend to skew a little too much towards “establishment” companies and ignore the great stuff going on in indie tabletop design, but that’s not terribly relevant so we’ll leave that discussion for another day…

Anyway, the commenter got me curious about the covers being nominated for this year’s Ennies so I took a look. I discovered, much to my chagrin, that most of the covers are… really quite bad. Not in terms of execution – all of the covers that made the list are from large publishers who can afford highly skilled artists. However, many of the covers include what I consider to be highly problematic elements, so I thought I’d throw up a quick post here:

The Good: Eoris Essence

So let me first say that I have absolutely no familiarity with this game. I know nothing of the game, the system, or the publisher. However, considering that this game features the only cover that doesn’t depict humans, it’s also the easiest to deal with. It passes!

Now I will say as an aside that I do hope this book wins best cover art, because it’s honestly the most original of the covers submitted for this award. It takes a lot of guts not to put people on the cover of an RPG, and I think the gamble paid off. These covers are stunning, original, and totally what I’d love to see more of. In a world full of RPGs with large-breasted women on the cover, this title really stands out, and I can guarantee that if I make it to GenCon I’ll be keeping my eye out for this title in the hopes of talking to the brains behind the cover. Kudos, guys. I’m a fan.

The Meh: Song of Ice and Fire & The Laundry

The next two contestants we have are for the Song of Ice and Fire Campaign Guide and for an RPG called The Laundry which seems to be about zombies. I realize that there isn’t much objectionable about these covers in terms of naked boobage, so this will probably seem a bit picky. However, here we have a classic case of Adventures Only Happen to Men. Notice that the focal character of each cover is male, and how only one character on one of the covers (The Laundry) is female:

So while there’s nothing objectionable about the covers themselves, I classify them as Meh because while they don’t have large-chested women not wearing not much clothing, they don’t really show women at all.

I realize that this will lead some people to nod their head sagely and say to themselves (and others) that this clearly illustrates how clearly I hate men and desire superiority of women in all things, and frankly I don’t much care.

The Bad: Shadowrun: Attitude,The Danse Macabre, and Mutants & Masterminds 3rd Edition

Now it’s worth noting that the Danse Macabre (a White Wolf title that is part of their Vampire line) is only an Honorable Mention, and thus not actually in the running for the actual award. Still, it seemed notable to me that half of the titles in the category were clearly problematic and displayed obviously sexist imagery. Hell, these three images were the impetus in me deciding to write this post…

So first off, we have two titles in which the cover is dominated by male characters plus One Female:

Now I’ve written about Green Ronin (Mutants & Masterminds) in the past, specifically about how the covers of their products in various lines have a disappointing but overwhelming trend of depicting women in the vast minority of figures on the covers of their books. Green Ronin covers are disappointing in that they depict MEN having MANLY ADVENTURES and doing MANLY THINGS. The few women that do show up on Green Ronin covers are invariably sexualized or placed in a non-focal position, and this cover is no exception.

While the female character on the cover of the 3rd Ed M&M book isn’t the least focal character, she’s certainly far less focal than the three male characters in front of her. Secondly, while all of the other male characters fit recognizable superhero archetypes design-wise, the lone female character displays no recognizable superhero traits at all. Even worse, she is the only character to be showing any amount of skin at all. (Okay, yes, the beast-man isn’t wearing any clothing. But I’d still argue that’s not the same as actually showing skin, as our female character is doing.)

As far as covers go, frankly it’s pretty mediocre. It’s Male Action Characters in Male Action Poses with a Gratuitously Sexualized Female Character – which is so unoriginal in tabletop RPG art. I will be very disappointed if M&M 3rd Ed actually gets the nod for the Ennies this year.

We also have the Danse Macabre, a Vampire supplement I’m honestly not too familiar with. I won’t dwell too much on this since the fail should be pretty obvious. We have… dude vampire, dude vampire, dude vampire, dude vampire, dude vampire, and…. exsanguinated female victim, probably a corpse.

…really, White Wolf? Really? You’ve been the one RPG company that has at least tried to market its products in a female-friendly manner. So what the hell is with this cover? Five dude vampires and a drained female corpse? Do we really need vampire gang rape scenarios on the cover of RPG books? It’s especially disappointing from a company that made a point of using the female pronoun to refer to Storytellers (GMs) in its second edition books.

So… seriously, White Wolf. Clean up your act. I’ve been a long-time player of your Mind’s Eye Theater (read: LARP) systems, and frankly I expect better from you than this bullshit.


Lastly, we have this complete bullshit Shadowrun cover:

I swear to god, if this cover wins I’m going to hunt down all of the Ennie’s judges and bash their faces in with a longstaff. What the hell is this, and how the fuck did it even wind up on the list of “best covers” nominations without being laughed out of the running? Are gamers just so used to seeing shit-tastic boobular women on the cover of RPGs that the ridiculousness of a cover like this doesn’t even register anymore? I honestly can’t think of any other explanation than that.

Her hips are wrong, her waist is wrong, her ribcage is wrong… And what the hell is with the gravity-defying spherical Picasso-boobs? This anatomy is just terrible, and yet this cover is considered one of the best in the industry for THE PAST YEAR? Honestly, if this cover winds up taking the title, the Ennies will have lost all credibility with me forever. I realize that there’s not a lot of choice when one is looking for art that doesn’t blatantly objectify women and distort female anatomy past the realm of the physically possible, but there’s GOT TO BE something better than this bullshit. There’s just got to be.

35 thoughts on “Ennie Awards Cover Nominations: the good, the bad, and the awful

  1. You’re right. I think the reason the Attitude cover was put forward wasn’t due to the woman but because the image had, well, attitude. It seemed to fit the book very well, from the look on her face to the gun and general impression of defiance. Nevertheless, you make some great points about the covers. If I get a chance to participate in the awards again, as I did last year, it’s something I’ll keep in mind.

    • Good to know. Still, she’s even less focal than t-shirt and jeans girl, and doesn’t read to me as female, so I don’t think that obviates much of what I said…

      • I don’t know that I completely agree on Ultramarine. She’s in the rough center of the cover, and the male figure who is the most focal is in one of the spine-bending ‘OMG Sexxxxy!’ poses that we all hate so much. As for “reading as female”, what would you do to make Ultramarine read as female without either sexing her up or making her armor have the incredibly annoying titty bumps that fantasy artists love to put in plate mail? She’s wearing a power suit, which is awesome, and what’s even more awesome is that her power suit doesn’t have metal high heels or armored boulderholders or is pink. Her suit kind of reminds me of Samus’ suits before they decided that Samus wasn’t sexy enough. Hell, not even Princess (T-shirt and jeans girl) is wearing heels! She’s wearing athletic shoes, which sparks a tiny light of hope in my rage-blackened heart. 🙂

        I’m not an artist, so please take this question in the honest, information-seeking way it’s intended — as an artist, how would you redraw Ultramarine so that she read as female while keeping her fully covered in a powersuit?

        • Honestly, I don’t know. The fact that she’s a non-objectified character makes me happy, honestly. It’s just that I really don’t know how to address the perceived gender imbalance on the cover…

          I guess I’d say take a look at the power armor designs from Mass Effect as a good way of gendering power armor without objectifying it?

  2. Okay, this is where I pull out my fangirl and wave it all about.

    The Laundry game is based on the novels by Charles Stross (“The Atrocity Archive”, “The Jennifer Morgue” and “The Fuller Memorandum”). The Laundry novels do centre around a male protagonist (I think that’s supposed to be him in the t-shirt at the centre of the picture with the gun) but the main setting there is a world where demonology works by means of mathematics, and thus computers (which are machines to make mathematical calculations quickly) make demonology a lot easier than it used to be. The protagonist of the novels works in the secret British government agency which is responsible for keeping the lid on all of this, and ensuring that such demons as are called from the vasty deeps are returned there as quickly as possible, preferably with the minimum amount of property damage. Yes, there are zombies, demonic possessions, things with tentacles, and lots of Lovecraftian elements.

    The books are really good, a sort of an intersection of “Yes Minister”, “The Office”, the Bastard Operator from Hell, and Lovecraft with a decent dose of snark mixed in for seasoning. I’d recommend them to anyone who enjoys seeing overbearing micro-managers get their come-uppance. The game I can’t comment on, since I’ve not played it.

    (But yeah, the cover for the game is pretty “meh”, and you’d have to know what you were buying in order to want to buy it – given that cover, I’d only get it because I’m a mad keen Stross fangirl, AND I had cash to spare and nothing else to spend money on).

  3. I agree it is nice to see RPGs that do not center their art around humans and human-like beings but I do not know a thing about the first one so without more info I can not say if the art is spot on for said RPG.

    Now the meh pictures thing, I agree with you that there should be art representing females in adventures holding their own with the same skills as men do, but that does not mean I want more women then men in the art I see, I want an equal or near equal number of characters of both genders represented in as many roles possible and equally filling them too.

    Now the bad thing:

    Does The Danse Macabre have an alternate version of that cover where all the vamps are female with a male corpse on the floor?

    A guy who posted before me said that there is another character who is female on the Mutants and Masterminds cover but I do not see anything on that cover that points that ,,fact” out and yet for the guy in the red skin suit we have bodybuilder plus musculature to point that out to us. As for the only visible chick on the cover my only objection is that she is wearing a tube top instead of a sports bra (and yes I object to the breast shape she is given too, but I think if an artist went for the sports bra option he would not have drawn her boobs like that, oh dear I think I’m an optimist).

    In her spare time the police woman depicted on the shadowrun cover is a model/contortionist that likes to have her photo taken for a calendar.

    • Well, let me kick that back to you: we have a female character on the cover who is engaged in an active superhero pose and isn’t showing *any* skin at all. How would you indicate that the character inside the Iron-Man-armor is female without resorting to gendering the suit in some optional (and probably equally sexist) way?

      (You can’t put links in these reply boxes, so here goes, spaced out: http:// grfiles. game-host. org /3e_files / TheSentinels_Ultramarine .pdf)

    • Well, let me kick that back to you: we have a female character on the cover who is engaged in an active superhero pose and isn’t showing *any* skin at all. How would you indicate that the character inside the Iron-Man-armor is female without resorting to gendering the suit in some optional (and probably equally sexist) way?

      The PDF with the character is available for free from the Green Ronin site; links aren’t permitted in these reply boxes, though.

  4. I don’t think criticising the Song of Ice and Fire book’s cover on the basis that it depicts only men is particularly fair – it’s showing what is essentially the setting’s pivotal event, and that happens to involve two men. If anything, the problem is that the setting doesn’t have any defining/”cover-worthy” events involving women.

    That Shadowrun cover is particularly atrocious, though.

    • Or rather, any event that would be cover-worthy for this particular book (there are still only a couple of events in the entire series that involve women, though).

      • (there are still only a couple of events in the entire series that involve women, though)

        I’m not sure that’s a particularly fair assessment…? There’s a good half-dozen female viewpoint characters, with Daenerys having an entire side of the plot to herself (and none of the others being slouches either), and some non-viewpoint women who do important things too.

        The series has some significant issues in regards to gender, but I don’t think a lack of women who do stuff is one of them.

    • “I don’t think criticising the Song of Ice and Fire book’s cover on the basis that it depicts only men is particularly fair”

      I thought the same thing, I was like… Le sigh. Also did anyone notice that his scabbard is on his right hip as if he is left handed yet he is using his right hand? …would be interesting when you try to sheathe/unsheathe your sword.

  5. I am not impressed with the ASoIAF cover. At all. “Oh, look, Jaime Lannister(?) under lots of sickly green lighting.” Ugh.

    • Not as bad as the Shadowrun cover in terms of sheer WTF factor, mind you. However, it’s just…generic and nondescript.

  6. @Meg – I’m a big fan of the Laundry series, but I do think that the cover of the RPG is missing a trick – Mo is a fantastic character, and could easily have been included alongside Bob.

  7. The Song of Ice and Fire cover, while a nice painting of a crucial scene from the source material, isn’t really appropriate for an RPG sourcebook cover, anyway… if you have all of Westeros at your fingertips and yet find yourself playing The Epic Saga of Jaime Lannister, you need to find better GM. RPGs are supposed to be about creating new heroes and stories, not rehashing old ones.

    Also, is it just me, or is the one lady-zombie on the Laundry cover posed a lot more sexily and less threatening than all the dude-zombies?

      • I mean, I really don’t want to play the “Is that zombie sexy?” game, but the figure arrangement is giving me a little bit of a Frank Frazetta-tribute vibe. (Uh… the image in that link is probably NSFW. It’s Frank Frazetta, after all.)

  8. I thought the SoIaF book was an Exalted book before I actually read the words. I swear, there’s only two artists in the whole field, they just have pseudonyms.

  9. At the comic shop tonight, I saw Terry Moore’s “How to Draw Women.” Just out. Didn’t really take a close look at it but thought you might like to check it out. I enjoy your blog. Thanks.

    • If you’re going to mention Terry Moore’s suggestions for drawing women, I’m going to have to link this and this (which I found here for reference). Seeing his own reasonably-proportioned characters reacting to the standard comic book heroine is really amusing. XD

      (And if I’m going to link to something from Wizard’s How To Draw, I’d be amiss not to post a link to the gender-swapped version)

  10. The only thing that springs to mind when I look at the picture of Shadowrun lady is “non-Ecludian anatomy” because seriously, trying to figure out her figure is taxing my sanity. Also, I’ve never done figure drawing, so I’m not an expert, but are necks supposed to work that way? It just looks off. The whole picture looks off, but the neckbones? Are driving me crazy.

    • Either the artist’s grasp of anatomy is tenuous, the model looked nothing like the cover character, or there was no actual model.

      And I’m fairly flexible—not like I was in my amateur gymnast days, but even so. And when I tried to duplicate that pose, it was both awkward and uncomfortable, and looked silly.

  11. Re: M&M3

    You might be pleased to know that the red-skinned alienoid with the golden X costume, Xeno, can also be considered female…


    As a point of interest, 2 other male iconic Sentinel characters weren’t featured on the cover… Kid Robot and Victor



    The Ennies determine winners by a majority-wins online anonymous voting system, so you don’t have to cause any physical harm to the judges. 😉

  12. Hey, this is kind of a late reply, but no one else touched on it, sooo…

    The woman on the Shadowrun: Attitude book is not a shadowrunner, she’s a starlet who plays a shadowrunner on a trashy trideo show in setting. The first paragraph in the first chapter of the book is Fastjack bitterly complaining that this show is so popular, and now a lot of their potential employers expect shadowrunners to look like that–wearing caution tape instead of body armor. So he’s put together a series of files to help shadowrunners give a professional, dangerous appearance without resorting to dressing up like simsense starlets (and getting shot).

    I’m not sure she belongs on the cover, but since the book’s theme is helping runners deal with the irrational expectations people have of them from the culture (and giving an overview of 2071 entertainment, which is crass, and exploitative, very bread & circuses) I can’t say she doesn’t belong there either.

  13. So, does it take a gold or silver to get you to “hunt down all of the Ennie’s judges and bash their faces in with a longstaff.” Because, yeah being violent and judgemental is fine in American culture, but sex is just weird.

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