Representation in D&D 5E Core Books: “better than the rest” unfortunately still falls short [CHARTS!!]


Right before leaving for this year’s GenCon, I put up a post about my frustrations with the lack of consistency of art direction between Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons and Dragons; both product lines are owned and published by Wizards of the Coast, so I’ve always found it confusing that their art directions are so divergent wrt depictions of women. Happily, this actually wound up being a major topic of conversation during my lunch this year with Tracy Hurley and Mike Mearls, and as a result I found myself wanting to take a more definitive look at the D&D 5E core books to see how they compared to M:TG’s recent art direction in terms of actual numbers. Because while I’ve done some work that I’m very excited about aimed at increasing the diversity of representation in D&D products, there’s no real substitute for looking at actual numbers and getting a clear picture of where something actually stands.

Now, I’ve written about the D&D 5th Edition Player’s Handbook in the past, which can be summed up as ZOMG! SO MANY AWSUM WIMMINZ!! So I was honestly a bit reluctant to go through and examine all of the images in detail, because I was afraid that my overwhelmingly positive feelings would be complicated by the actual reality. And it turns out that I was right to be concerned, unfortunately. (But I’ll come back to that part.)


In writing my initial post about 5th Edition artwork, I only had access to the PHB. However, this time around I decided to examine the PHB, Dungeon Masters’ Guide, and Monster Manual, because those are the three books required to “make the system go” as it were. (Though certainly a large number of players who didn’t plan on GMing would only own the PHB.)

As with all of my other “numbers” posts, I was specifically interested in tracking the following criteria:

  • total breakdown of figures by gender
  • prevalence of fully-covered versus suggestively-attired figures by gender
  • class archetype depicted by gender

(For a more detailed explanation of what I mean by these criteria, you can read my very first such study here – starting with the heading “Determining Methodology”.)

However, because of trends that I noticed flipping through books, I did make some modifications to my criteria and how I counted things. For instance, as there were a large number of illustrations where it was not possible to determine the gender of a given figure, I counted “humanoid figures without discernible gender” separately from male and female figures.

One thing that I also noticed while flipping through the books is that there seemed to be a marked difference in representation between group shots (shots with multiple figures) and shots with only one character; as such I looked at the gender-breakdown of single-character shots as well as group shots that contained male figures and group shots that contained female figures.

Results and Analysis

Looking at such a wide variety of criteria across three books means that I wound up with four pages of hand-written tallies, numbers, and notes. So this section gets a bit chart-happy[1]. Do bear with me.

Base Demographics

As previously mentioned, my fear that women would turn out to not be as well-represented as I had thought they would be was supported by the actual data once I started counting things. (Although interestingly, I will note that one trend that held almost universally across each of the criteria that I examined was that representation was almost always best in the PHB, worst in the Monster Manual, and about halfway in between in the DMG.)


As positively as I had remembered the representation of women in the PHB being, it turns out that female figures accounted for only 30% of figures. The DMG did almost as well, but not quite, with female figures accounting for 26% of all figures, while the Monster Manual was clearly the worst with only 19% female representation.

However, specifically with regard to the PHB… It is true that ungendered figures make up only 7% of all figures, and if these are not included in the overall tally the percentage of female representation does increase. But given that ungendered figures represent a much larger portion of the total number of figures in the DMG and MM, it seemed important to retain this as a separate category.

Now overall, these figures tell a compelling story, but something that occurred to me when I was flipping through the books for a second time[2]. It seemed to me as if the women were being better represented in group shots than they were in single-character illustrations – as if when it came to group and environment scenes it was a no-brainer most of the time for artists to say to themselves “well I gotta make sure I include at least one woman in here”, but when it came to single-character illustrations that the default impulse to depict a man was largely going unquestioned.

And again, the data largely supports that impression:




In both the DMG and PHB, only approximately a third of all multi-character illustrations did not contain women. Which, let me just say is still an atrocious total. If women are 1/2 of the population, it’s pretty terrible when 30% of your environment shots don’t actually reflect that – especially since I wasn’t actually counting the gender balance in each group shot. I was just counting if a group shot contained women.

The Monster Manual is a bit harder to draw conclusions about, given that there are only 11 multi-character illustrations in the entire book. However, I’m inclined to say a 2-to-9 ratio is pretty obviously terrible, even given the small sample size. Especially when you consider that the lack of representation is just as bad in the Monster Manual’s single-character illustrations.

The last bit of demographic information I looked at was class archetype:


In fantasy and gaming artwork, it’s still an unfortunately common stereotype to see men depicted overwhelmingly as fighters and women overwhelmingly depicted as mages. Because of course it is the job of the big strong mans to hit things with swords while the women stand safely in the back and twiddle their fingers. [sigh]

This is perhaps the one area where the DMG can be said to have clearly done better than the PHB, because the balance of character archetype depiction by gender was the closest to even in the DMG. With regards to the depiction of fighters, the imbalance in the PHB is disappointingly large – with 61% of all fighters in the PHB being depicted as male and a measly 22% being explicitly gendered as female. Whereas the Monster Manual once again comes in dead last with a whopping 82% of all fighters being depicted as male.

Style of Depictions

The second set of numbers collected were intended to convey data about the differences in how men were depicted versus women. However, the only numbers that wound up being even sort of clear-cut were the numbers regarding active poses versus neutral poses:


The Player’s Handbook had the closest to an even split of active and neutral poses, which I found hugely encouraging. However, things start getting a bit confusing with the DMG – women are actually more likely to be depicted as active than men. And in the Monster Manual, despite that the illustrations in the MM were clearly the worst about portraying women, the numbers of active versus neutral poses are again pretty close to an even split.

Things got even more confusing when I started looking at the results of my tallies of fully-covered and suggestively attired characters. After going through each book so many times, the impression that I got was that the most thought had been put into balancing depictions of women in the PHB, a bit less thought had gone into balancing the DMG, and that the Monster Manual had been very much “business as usual” as far as the artists were concerned.

But the numbers that I collected didn’t tell that story at all:


Looking at the gender ratios for both fully-covered (characters shown as being covered from neck to ankle and shoulder to wrist) and suggestively attired (characters with either portions of exposed torso or exposed portions of upper thigh) characters, the numbers collected make it appear as though depictions are pretty evenly balanced across all three books. However in all of the PHB, there were only 6 illustrations that I outright rolled my eyes of, whereas I just plain wanted to chuck half of the monster manual in the garbage for how bullshit it’s treatment of women is.

It’s about more than just numbers

I suspect that a large portion of the reason behind this is my decision to include ungendered figures in my counts for the first time; that is probably throwing off my results in ways I haven’t figured out how to account for yet. This in combination with the fact that how I define “suggestively attired” and “fully covered” and how consistently I apply these definitions are intended to over-correct for the difference in depiction, since my own personal bias is admittedly… pretty strong.

For example, in doing such posts in the past, I almost always end up with at least a few corpses counted as suggestive. Often I end up with (male) animal people who are clearly intended to be seen as “bestial” rather than alluring. And once I wound up counting a zombie that had been turned into furniture as suggestive.

So it’s important to point out that the numbers will only get you so far – especially when what is being discussed is something as inherently hard to quantify as art. So, as I’ve already put an inordinate amount of work into putting this post together and it’s getting pretty long, that will be what we take a look at next time.

I should note that all of these charts were made using – since Excel’s chartmaker makes ugly, hard-to-read charts. Sadly,’s embed code doesn’t get along with’s interface and I wound up having to cobble things together on their own

 As it turns out, because I wasn’t exactly sure how I needed to change my criteria around, I wound up going through each book and doing detailed counts FOUR TIMES. Ugh.

Kat Jones’ Revived: “Zombies are a metaphor for everything”

One of the things that I was most looking forward to about this year’s GenCon was the chance to play lots of LARPs (freeform roleplaying LARPs that is, not WoD or boffer LARP), and that hope was realized in full. I played in no less than four LARPs, but without a doubt my favorite was Kat Jones’ Revived. It was was smart, compelling, and intense. But more importantly, the issues that came up in play mirrored so many of the conversations that I had at the convention surrounding issues of diversity that I found myself chewing over the game for a good week afterward, processing what I had gotten out of it.

So today I’m going to be writing about Revived, what made it so compelling, and why it’s an excellent tool for illustrating privilege to the “uninitiated” (as it were). Before we get started, however, I’ll note that Revived is currently in external beta-testing, to be released at a later date (you can contact her here for details, website forthcoming in the future). If you’d like to see more of Kat’s work, you can find the much-more-light-hearted There’s a Fanfic For That here. (It does pretty much exactly what it says on the tin.)

Premise: Zombies as a metaphor for literally anything

On the face of it, the premise sounds a bit absurd – in Revived you all play members of a zombie support group. But as the success of media properties like iZombie, In the Flesh, and Warm Bodies demonstrate, zombie fiction where zombies themselves are the protagonists and not just shambling nameless horrors is fertile ground for rich, dramatic storytelling.

The setup of Revived most resembles In The Flesh[1], in that there has been an outbreak of zombie-plague which wreaked havoc, but a cure was found and zombies are now simply normal people with a chronic condition that needs managing. However, characters in In The Flesh – which is naturally set in the UK – where there is universal healthcare. Whereas Revived takes place in the United States, where issues of inequality of access to healthcare make the premise instantly more complex, and forces players to be much more socially aware. To be fair, In The Flesh does touch on issues of inequality, such as assimilation, passing-privilege, and acceptance movements like Pride. But adding in the extra complication of unequal access to care has the potential to put every type of inequality on the table, depending on what the players are interested in tackling. Because, as Kat pointed out to us in the setup, zombies can be a metaphor for everything.

Now because there are so many widely varying, and often mutually exclusive, tropes surrounding zombies, before play we all worked together to create a “FAQ” about zombies. Ostensibly, this was to ensure that everyone is starting on the same page, but it didn’t take long for us to veer from “how zombies behave and think” into “systemic injustices that zombies have to deal with”. And that is the real brilliance of Revived; in a typical convention game it would be typical to have mostly or entirely white and cisgender players. In such a group of gamers, an overt conversation about privilege and systemic injustice would probably go… badly. (To say the least.) But through the lens of a game about the real-life struggles of zombies? Players can feel free to explore otherwise forbidding territory, because of the familiarity of the tropes involved.

Here’s what our “FAQ” looked like, minus a few notes added in Act 2.

In play: Exploring intersectionality with zombies

In our game, the setup wound up looking pretty bleak once we were through with it. Some of the major setting elements we came up with to start with:

  • There are two types of drugs needed to manage the “condition” – antivirals and antimicrobials (to prevent decay). The government provides antivirals to all sufferers free of charge, but antimicrobials are expensive and not covered by most insurance plans.
  • Many conservative religious groups actively advocate against “zombie rights” and religiously motivated violence against zombies is common
  • Only 2 states have protections for zombies in hate crime legislation, whereas Arizona (which, due to its climate, has seen a huge influx of zombies) is developing a registry
  • The zombie rights movement is splintered, with political activists, militant activists, and violent extremists all disagreeing on the best way to fight injustice.

And it got even bleaker in play thanks to the characters we saw in play: (my character) a homeless Mexican kid whose parents had declared him an abomination and thrown him out when he tried to come home, an “undocumented” zombie struggling to pass as living while navigating the difficulties of undocumented life in the US, and a zombie cop trying to do his job despite persecution from his fellow cops and lack of access to antimicrobials.

Of course, the foil for all of these characters is the facilitator character (or “counter player”) – the woman in charge of the support group. She is also a zombie, but has been essentially adopted by the state and is having all of her housing and medical needs provided, including antimicrobials. Of course, this means that she’s almost entirely insulated from the injustices that the other characters face, which makes her the White Feminist[2] of the post-zombie world.

Interestingly, however, it didn’t turn out to be the three players versus the counter player in terms of conflict. (Or rather, it didn’t until the very end.) The differing privileges of the three characters meant that they conflicted with each other in ways that highlighted intersectionality in fascinating ways. I clashed with the undocumented character over my refusal to assimilate or even attempt to “pass” as living. The zombie cop in some ways was the most powerful, given his position as a cop, but was also the most affected by the illness, as the only one without access to some form of antimicrobial – which meant that he was the one highlighting issues around disability and access. And no one could agree on what the best approach was with the living to best achieve progress be it civil disobedience, militant activism, violent resistance, pride movements, or appeasement.

In the end, each of our characters – even the facilitator character – wound up crushed by systemic injustice. My character was homeless and living under the radar due to his activities as a militant activist for zombie pride and illegal dealer of street antimicrobials. The zombie cop was weeks away from total disability due to lack of access to antimicrobials, that is if he didn’t first get tossed into the industrial shredder the police used to dispose of “ferals” and zombie malcontents. The undocumented character was trapped in a system that didn’t recognize his rights as a human being and ended up on a watch list for potentially “non-compliant” zombies – a one way ticket to resettlement in a feral compound, a trip through the shredder, or worse. And the facilitator character saw her one chance at government-sponsored change crumble, due to the failure of her pilot program, not to mention the potential loss of coverage and housing.

Post-Game reflections

Revived wound up being a very strange experience for me, in that playing my character was very much informed by the bullshit I’ve had to deal with as a result of my feminism while simultaneously allowing me to access an experience (however vicariously) of oppression that I will never face. As a white, cishet, able-bodied middle-class Christian, I will never have to worry about passing, or pressure to stay closeted, or dysphoria, or assimilation, or racialized violence – and yet all of these were things that wound up being very important to my character.

The things I found myself getting most angry about – assimilation, pride, refusing to feel guilty about my identity – were issues that I will never have to fight against in my daily life. But the language that I used was very much the language of intersectional feminism that I try to practice here on my blog, and the frustration that I felt felt toward the other characters felt incredibly familiar. I found myself saying things like “it is not my job to educate you”, “you do not get to prioritize your feelings over actual injustice”, “I refuse to not express anger about my lived experience of injustice”, “you do not get cookies for being a decent fucking human being”, and “this is about the radical idea that I am a person who deserves to exist” – all things I have actually said in conversations about feminism on the internet.

All in all, it was a strange and eye-opening experience, even (or perhaps especially) for someone who devotes a lot of time to writing about these issues. I sincerely wish there was some way to make this required material for all gamers, because this was hands-down the best and most accessibly illustration of privilege that I have yet experienced.

[1] If you haven’t seen In The Flesh, I can’t recommend it enough – even if you’re normally not a fan of zombies. It is amazingly compelling and hard-hitting and is just wonderfully acted.
[2] Please note that I say this as a feminist who is white; there is a difference between feminists who are white and White Feminists.

GenCon followup: On “Industry Insiders”, Recognition, and Unequal Access [LONG]

Part the First: GenCon’s “Industry Insider” Program

The lack of diversity of GenCon’s Guest of Honor lineup is something that I’ve written about before, and rather stridently so. After the complete embarrassment that was 2011, in which the lineup of 16 Guests of Honor included only 1 woman – Margaret Weis – GenCon has been making noises about wanting increased diversity in it’s GoH rosters. Their track record on that front, however, hasn’t been all that great. 2014’s lineup was actually LESS inclusive of women than 2012. And a lot of the changes that have been made, supposedly in the name of greater inclusiveness, have been pretty fucking tone deaf.

Take, for example, the name of the program – which used to be the “Guest of Honor” track. It was pointed out by myself and others that having Guests of Honor that were almost exclusively white and male was hugely problematic! Because, as I said in my first post on the issue:

A convention as large and as venerable [as GenCon] can be seen as affirming the status quo of a male-dominated games industry. Even worse, it seems to lend credence to the idea that women just aren’t doing work worth honoring in the games industry, which isn’t true – though there are (I’m sure) plenty of people who would like to believe that’s the case so that they can continue to justify the sexism that runs rampant in game marketing and development.

So how did GenCon respond to these concerns? Well, aside from some half-hearted attempts to get more women to apply, they just… changed the name of the program. First to the “Industry Insider Guest of Honor Program” in 2014, and this year to “Industry Insider Featured Presenters“.

On the surface, it’s nominally a good change – and is something that I actually pushed for in last year’s post on the matter. The problem is that the name change was suggested as a way of having a two-track Guest of Honor program – one for the startlingly not-diverse pool of Industry Insiders, many of whom are honored several years in a row, and an actual Guest of Honor track that would allow for not-hetciswhitedude GoHs that would be able to actually bring diverse programming to GenCon. And that’s the part that GenCon has completely failed to follow through on. (You know, the part that actually matters.)

Changing the name of the program doesn’t actually do anything to resolve any of the concerns that have been expressed about lack of diversity. Call the program what you will – Guest of Honor, Industry Insider, whatever. But functionally speaking, the Industry Insider program is indistinguishable from what any other convention would call a Guest of Honor program. What is being honored by GenCon is whiteness and maleness, and that is something that a name change simply can’t fix. Changing the name on the box doesn’t actually fix any thing if what’s in the box is THE SAME FUCKING THING IT ALWAYS WAS.

Now have some improvements been made? Certainly. This year’s lineup featured 8 women out of a pool of 26 GoHs, which means that women made up 30% of the lineup. And sure that’s still a depressing minority, but at least it’s moving in the right direction with regards to gender equality. However, acknowledging that it’s incredibly fucking difficult and hugely problematic to make assumptions regarding someone’s racial identity based on their appearance, the fact remains that range of skin tones is still monochromatic! If the only meaningful representation that is increased is the representation of white women, then it cannot be claimed that diversity has been achieved.

A defense that has been raised “against” these concerns by some has been “well women aren’t applying to the program”. Which. Just. NO. I’ve already written a couple thousand words about why “women aren’t applying” is NOT an acceptable response to concerns about lack of diversity in an organization, and they’re all on-point so rather than quote myself I’ll just say go here and read if you haven’t already.

Part the Second: Recognition

I had what felt like an important moment at the Diana Jones Award ceremony (which I enjoy going to because I always meet at least one cool person and I also get to see friends I wouldn’t see otherwise). When Matt Forbeck got up onstage to announce the winner of this year’s award, I was talking with Ajit George and Mark Diaz-Truman, who are both visibly not-white guys who have done a lot of work to increase diversity in gaming.

So the winner is announced (Guide to Glorantha, if you’re curious), and six white guys got up on the stage and had their moment of recognition. I honestly can’t remember which of us said something first, but I do remember observing that this year was my fourth year attending the DJAs and I had never seen anyone other than a white guy on that stage to win the award. After which there was a moment of depressed reflection, because Jesus. It’s such a sad indictment of this fucking industry.

The games industry has this fucked up masturbatory circle of recognition that only includes men recognizing the work of other men – the overwhelming majority of whom are white. And it’s fucking HEARTBREAKING, because I know so very many amazing people who are women, queer, nonbinary, PoC, and various combinations of some or all of those traits who are doing amazing and valuable work that enriches the game industry and game design as a whole. And yet year after year AFTER YEAR, the people who get recognized are most often white guys who have been part of the old boy’s club in the industry for decades. And I KNOW someone is going to say that I think all work by white guys is garbage and should be killed with fire, and that’s not what I’m saying at all. But when the only people winning awards are white guys who are getting awards from other white guys and this is a pattern that persists, you gotta admit that it’s pretty fucked up.

And yet, the people who attempt to point this out are reviled, castigated, and demonized.  Last year, I found myself having to send the following email to someone about an industry dude who was really unhappy with what I’d written about the Guest of Honor program and used his status in an obvious show of power meant to make me feel bad: (serial numbers filed off to protect the guilty)

I was meeting up with some folk in the dealer’s room at the end of the day when I happened to encounter a Really Big Deal Industry Guy. And RBDIG? Apparently not happy about things I’d said about about GenCon and it’s GoH program – specifically the part where I was arguing that we need to decrease the representation of hetwhitecis dudes. He was very aggressive and made me very defensive as I tried to explain the context of my comments, that I wasn’t disputing the merit of any individual, that I know and respect and look up to a good many people on the list.

So then RBDIG aggressively declared that if women don’t apply to the program, there’s nothing to be done. End of story. Still feeling defensive, I tried to explain how women can be made to feel like they’re not really welcome to apply (I didn’t even try to broach the topic of how economics is a barrier for a lot of women, what with the wage gap, lack of accessible childcare options, and the expensiveness of the con) and offered some of my personal experiences where I had been made to feel unwelcome in the gaming community.

Finally after about fifteen minutes of back and forth, RBDIG just said sarcastically “well I’m going to go own my privilege and have a steak”. And it made me really, really angry.

This was a situation where RBDIG, as the industry professional with the big name, had all of the power. And despite the fact that I was polite and re-explained the context of my remarks and stuck solely to discussing my personal experience and feelings, he was aggressive and rude. And he closed our interaction with a passive-aggressive remark seemingly intended to drive home the power imbalance between us. I literally had not exchanged more than two words with RBDIG before this, but I’d only ever heard good things about him and people that I know in our community have expressed respect for him. And again, nothing about my remarks were intended to question anyone’s qualifications or merits as a Guest of Honor. They were simply intended to address the fact that in order to increase diversity, they need to stop including so many white guys.

It fucking sucked. And yet that’s the BEST of the sort of bullshit that not-hetciswhitedudes get when they have the temerity to question the status quo regarding recognition in the industry. At least because I’m white, no one was actually afraid of me for being angry, which is a thing that actually happened in real life. One of the people who also spoke out against the lack of diversity in 2014’s lineup had an industry person actually express fear of them when they met face to face this year.

Part the Third: Access

GenCon, unlike pretty much every other convention on the planet, doesn’t actually offer any monetary support for GoHs beyond providing a badge and some marketing – so the Guests of Honor they attract are mostly industry people who would have attended anyway. The Guest of Honor program essentially gets no budget, and when the issue of providing a budget for travel expenses for GoHs arises the response tends to be a lot of helpless shrugging. “It’s not in the budget”, you see – the implication being that GenCon couldn’t afford to provide travel expenses for it’s GoHs since it’s such a large program.

And to that, I say bullshit. Here are this year’s numbers from GenCon’s own website:

Gen Con 2015 has set an all-new attendance record with a unique attendance of 61,423 and a turnstile attendance of 197,695, creating a six-year span of record growth. Since 2010, Gen Con has more than doubled in attendance. Year-over-year, Gen Con has experienced 9% attendance growth, primarily driven by 4-Day and Family Fun Day badge sales.

The growth in badge sale revenue alone is staggering. DOUBLE the unique attendees in five years, with the largest growth seen in the most expensive badge types? GenCon badges are not cheap. There’s also the revenue that GenCon earns selling booth space in the Dealer’s Room. Prices for booth space have risen nigh-exponentially year over year, with no ceiling in sight because vendors are still fighting for the space – there are always more interested vendors than available space, and they’re more than happy to continue paying whatever GenCon wants to get that space. As an indie publisher, I’ve witnessed it first hand. Over the past five years, indies have been almost entirely pushed out of the dealer’s room, with the only vestiges of indie presence being Indie Press Revolution and the Indie Game Developers Network. And prices for booth space will only continue to rise, with no ceiling in sight.

So the idea that GenCon somehow “can’t afford” a budget to support travel expenses for GoHs is laughable at best, and borderline offensive at worst. Because the economics of the thing are actually the largest barrier to increasing diversity!

Getting to GenCon is expensive because Indy is far from fucking everything, hotels are expensive, the badge is expensive, and the food is expensive and not even remotely nutritious. (By the end of the convention, I’m desperate for anything resembling a vegetable.) And the wage gap is still a very real thing, which puts convention attendance out of reach of the sorts of people that the program would most benefit from including! (To say nothing of the issue of childcare, which is a responsibility that disproportionately falls on women and is its own barrier to convention attendance, but that’s a separate issue. Mostly.)

To use a personal example, in my conversation with Ajit George, he asked me why I hadn’t applied to be an Industry Insider for this year’s convention. For me the answer was simple – I had to do too many GM hours to get my room and badge covered for the convention, and I wouldn’t have been able to afford to go without that support. I didn’t want to do yet another 4-6 hours of panels on top of my already-pretty-bonkers GMing commitment, because then when would I actually play any fucking games? Or have time to eat? Or sleep? Or enjoy hanging out with awesome folk? I’m not getting paid to come to GenCon, and despite that it is as much business as pleasure, I wouldn’t go if it was actively unpleasant or stressful.

And here’s the thing, I joked about doing PovertyCon whenever people asked if I wanted to go get drinks, but the uncomfortable reality is that being in Indy made me blindingly aware of my privilege. Here I was at GenCon, with the ability to spend what I saw as “a bit” of money in the dealer’s room. And yet all of the bathroom attendants? Hispanic and South-Asian women. The porters at the hotel? Overwhelmingly black and brown. The employees at the food court in the mall? More brown and black than white. I may have had to “pinch pennies” to get to GenCon, but I still fucking got to GO TO GENCON.
So if the economics keep me as a white, cisgender, middle class as fuck woman with enough connections to get a room and a badge for free from applying as an Industry Insider, you can sure as shit bet that there’s a whole lot of WAY LESS PRIVILEGED PEOPLE who are going to look at the program, what it’s offering, and say “nope, not even a possibility”.
So, if GenCon wants to put its money where its mouth is in regards to increasing diversity of it’s GoH lineup? It needs to… Well. Put it’s money where its mouth is. Give the GoH program a fucking budget and start actually giving money to qualified applicants who wouldn’t be able to be part of the program without economic support. It won’t fix the problem overnight, but it’ll remove the largest barrier to continuing to move in the right direction.

GenCon Follow-Up: Mike Mearls and D&D Consulting

Before Getting Started:

GenCon was, as always, an amazing experience and I have quite the list of topics that I want to write about – in some cases rather extensively. It may take me a bit to work through everything that I have to say; the things that I intend to cover include the economics of GenCon and how that privileges a certain class of attendee, the lack of diversity of GenCon’s Industry Insider program and what that says about the future of the industry, and reflections on excellent games and conversations that gave me a lot of food for thought. (There are a few more things rattling around that I may yet shake loose as well.)

However, before I get to any of that, what I’m writing about today is something that I actually laid the groundwork for at last year’s GenCon, and which I’m very pleased to have gotten permission to talk about now that it’s over…

Recap: Last Year’s Lunch and an Exciting Offer

Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while will be aware of this, but due in part to a bunch of internet asshattery that happened in the run-up to last year’s GenCon, Mike Mearls invited Tracy Hurley and I to lunch and we got to have some really great conversation about our experience as feminist games bloggers and publishers in an industry that is overtly hostile to both of these things:

Mike was very open about the difficulties that he’s faced in trying to push inclusivity in the game products he’s worked on. He talked about how he’d been assuming diversity of representation was the default, only to realize later that there were many others who had assumed the opposite, who feared they might face consequences if they pushed their content “too far”. And now he’s working to actively make D&D products more inclusive going forward (something which I will write about in further detail later).

All in all, it was a really great conversation in which both Tracy and I were encouraged to be honest about our feelings and personal experience, which – let me tell you – is not always the case when talking with male industry professionals.

It was a great experience – not feeling as though I had to walk on eggshells when describing my feelings about everything that had happened was both cathartic and encouraging. However, what I didn’t write about at the time – as I didn’t want to jeopardize it from actually happening – was the fact that I came out of that lunch with an offer to do some (paid) consulting work regarding issues of inclusivity for the D&D team. It wound up taking many months to set in motion – personal real-life stuff for both of us delayed matters, as did the fact that WotC is part of Hasbro, which is a big company and not all that inclined to move quickly on anything. But this past spring I finally got a chance to do some of that consulting work! (Though of course I was under an NDA and wasn’t sure until I talked to Mike what all I would be allowed to talk about.)

The Work: How to Portray Women (and Visible Minorities)

In the end, I wound up doing research and writing that culminated in the creation of a (somewhat) brief document on guidelines designed to aid in the creation of positive depictions of women in D&D products. It was a tough project! Essentially, I was being asked to distill everything that I’d been thinking about since starting this blog into only a few pages – which seemed a Herculean task. Especially as I felt that I would be remiss if I were to write such a document and not say anything about the positive depiction of both visible (ethnic) minorities and invisible (people with disabilities, LGBT people, etc) minorities! The outline for the initial draft was… formidable. It required a lot of hatchet work to get it down, and writing the actual draft was a challenging exercise in brevity – something I’ve never excelled at. Still, the end result is something that I am proud to have written, especially knowing that it will get used.

Much of it is fairly dry and specific to the publishing processes of a large game company like WotC – ways to plan the structure of new products in ways that would challenge default white-and-male assumptions that tend to go into world-building, ways to write art notes and plan art direction that would do the same. But in the end, the document that I created was well-received, and the few revisions that Mike and his team suggested were super on-point. Even better, speaking as a freelancer, it was definitely one of the best experiences I’ve had doing work-for-hire writing. The work that I contracted to do reflected a fair rate for the amount of research and revision that needed to be done, rather than being a simple flat per-word rate. In fact, even though I would have liked to have been paid a bit quicker (again, Hasbro is a big company), it stands as one of only two freelance assignments I’ve ever taken where I felt that the total compensation is a fair reflection of the time, effort, and energy invested into it. (Which is no small thing, as recent conversations in the indie-sphere have helped to highlight.)

I did get permission to share part of that document (not a done deal, since WotC owns the rights to what I wrote, per the agreement that was signed when we were negotiating the work) that is totally accessible and useful and not dry and publisher-specific! But I’ll come back to that in a minute since first I’d like to talk about…

Lunch: The Sequel! (or if you prefer – Mike Mearls and Tracy Hurley: The Revenge!)

Convention season is a busy time for publishers, and what with this year’s GenCon falling extra early in the calendar it wasn’t a done deal that we’d be having lunch until about a week beforehand. (And for the second year in a row, I showed up in costume. But that’s a different story.)

Once again, it was a really great experience. We did talk a bit about the circumstances that had lead to our original gathering the year before and how those circumstances were currently playing out at this year’s convention. But mostly we talked about things pertaining to the need for diversity in the industry, such as the lack of diversity of GenCon’s Industry Insider program and the forces working against the push for increased diversity of voices. I’d also sent Mike a link to my recent post about the… uh… inconsistent art direction coming out of WotC. Quite happily, he’d actually had a chance to read it, and we had some excellent conversation about that issue specifically. A lot of the points that I raised were things he hadn’t been aware of (not surprising, since he works on D&D and not Magic), and I’m cautiously hopeful that this year’s lunch might also see some positive change! I’m keeping my fingers crossed!

All in all, it was a much needed breath of fresh air. Just as with last year, Mike, Tracy, and I had some really great and positive discussion. And given that last year’s meeting led to real, honest, actual work that can be used to help create change, I’m hopeful that things will keep moving in that direction. Moreover, it’s heartening to see a major company like WotC taking up the banner and pushing for positive depictions of diversity in their products. WotC has the sort of customer base that most indie publishers can’t ever hope to match, so their commitment to doing the work is something that really matters.

Last: The Excerpt – Do’s and Don’ts of Inclusive Writing and Art Direction

Because I said that I’d post an excerpt, and because it’s work that I’m proud of, and because I really do think that it will be helpful to publishers looking for metrics to use in ensuring that their games/settings/scenarios aren’t riddled with unfortunate stereotypes, here are the starting DOs and DON’Ts that were included in the document. Though it references fantasy-specific tropes, these are guidelines that can be applied to just about any game product.


Basic Dos and Don’ts of Writing Inclusive Characters

This is far from an exhaustive list of guidelines (many volumes could be written about specific stereotypes, their tropes, and examples of their usage “in the wild”). However, it is a good general framework to help get started in writing inclusive material:

…ensure equal representation of major and minor NPCS. Women are 50% of the population, they should be 50% of your NPCs….portray female characters with a wide range of ages, professions, outlooks, and power levels.

…especially make sure that women are represented as authority figures, leaders, and other NPCs integral to a plot or setting.

…write female characters that are important in their own right

…ensure that hero NPCs are racially diverse.

…consider representing typically invisible minorities such as people with disabilities or LGBT people.

…write your first draft, then look for where you have inadvertently included harmful stereotypes.Question your use of every one of them. Are you missing the chance to introduce a more memorable, noteworthy character? Are you passively using harmful stereotypes rather than making an active choice to support diversity? Can you defend the use of a stereotype in each instance?

…replicate stereotypes about women or other marginalized groups….portray female characters who are exclusively young, attractive, romantically available, and/or passively depicted.

…include women in only stereotypical fantasy roles such as barmaids, healers, and prostitutes.

…write female characters who are only important because of their relationships to men

…write heroic NPCs who are all white and antagonists who are all black, or analogues for blackness (Drow, Orcs, etc).

…have your only instance of a character from an invisible minority be a villain.

…assume that you are too open-minded to include stereotypes in your work. We are all the product of a flawed culture and each of us carries unconscious stereotypes.



Basic Dos and Don’ts of Inclusive Art Direction

…be specific about age, gender, body type, and ethnicity for each art note

…ensure an equal balance of sexualized character illustrations. If there are sexualized women, there should be an equal number of sexualized men.

…be firm with artists in insisting on revisions for art that does not meet the specs requested

…ensure that female characters are interacting with their environment and other characters around them

…depict a wide variety of ethnicities and gender expressions across all character types

…include fat women as non-monstrous characters. Healthy, strong, heroic women can also be fat.

…consider writing your art notes “backwards”: age, body type, description, attire, action, pose, and only THEN gender and/or ethnicity.

…leave the details up to the artist. Defaultism means that your illustrations will come back predominantly white and male.

…confuse “sexualized men” with “male power fantasies”. When in doubt, confer with someone attracted to men.

…accept illustrations that objectify or dehumanize. Sexy people are fine, collections of sexy body parts are not.

…allow more than a few pieces of art depicting passively posed female characters not interacting with the world around them.

…portray angelic or explicitly good-aligned beings as exclusively blond. (This is problematically Aryan.)

…allow the only depictions of fat women and/or mothers to be inhuman or monstrous.