A short Q&A with Whitney “Strix” Beltrán, co-creator of Bluebeard’s Bride

Bluebeard’s Bride is a game that I have been following from a distance with a good deal of excitement. Co-designed by three awesome women, Bluebeard’s Bride is an amazing tabletop game of feminine horror, and is currently funding on KickStarter. I’m excited about the game and wanted to help boost visibility, so I was happy when Whitney let me ask her a few questions:

First of all, can you give an elevator pitch of Bluebeard’s Bride for those who haven’t been following the game in development?

The game is based on the originally grisly fairy tale of Bluebeard, which was meant to be an object lesson to women to obey their husbands. We’ve turned it on it’s head and made the game an exploration of feminine horror. We’ve taken back the story as our own. Gothic feminine horror is great genre and we think it’s about time tabletop got a piece of it.

In the game you explore themes of agency (or lack thereof), delicious, ephemeral horror, and scathing sacrifice while playing an aspect of the Bride with your fellow players. These aspects are like pieces of her mind, for instance; the Witch the Virgin, the Mother, the Animus. Maybe they all work together, but maybe they don’t. It’s up the players. Together as the Bride you are trying to figure out who Bluebeard really is, and if he loves you or is simply a danger to you. SPOILER: Yeah, he’s a super bad guy.

I find it really interesting that you can choose to believe in Bluebeard or not, but if you don’t the text presents that as a moral failing on your part – it reads to me as a reflection of the social pressures that women feel to stay with abusive men. Was that your intention?
It was definitely intentional. What society wants from you and the pressure it puts on you does not always align with what is actually good for you. We wanted to evoke that trapped feeling of having no good ways out.
This game is a game of feminine psychological horror that forces the players to play cooperatively, which is really interesting and unique in tabletop gaming. In light of that, can you talk about the genesis of the game and the design decisions that were made to reinforce those themes?
I’m one of three co-designers on Bluebeard’s Bride. The other two being Marissa Kelly and Sarah Richardson. This game originated out of a game jam for women two years ago. We wanted to tell the story of Bluebeard from the Bride’s point of view, from our point of view as women who live in a a sometimes untenable world. We wanted to encapsulate our own lived experiences authentically. That meant challenging the notion of agency that players often bring to the table. This is not a game that you can “win” by beating up the bad guys. Hurting them hurts you too, and it’s not a sustainable action. We baked our worldview and our experiences into the mechanics themselves. There aren’t any “just because” moves in Blueabeard’s Bride. We also made the game very transparent. You know how it’s going to end, and it’s not going to end well. We were purposeful in making this decision, and many others.
I’m very interested in games that de-center violence as a resolution mechanic, so I was very excited by how Bluebeard’s Bride handles the issue of violence. What are your thoughts on re-framing agency in ways that gamers aren’t used to, ways that – as you say – don’t make “beating up the bad guys” an automatic solution to any problem?
There’s lots of ways to play games. This is just one, but I think it’s an important one. When you can’t solve your problems through violence, what is your world like? That simple question opens up a whole bunch of experiences that you can have in a game that you wouldn’t get in the traditional “I stab it with my sword” ethos. For me, games are about explorations of experience, and it’s my goal to make all kinds of experiences more accessible, especial those that align with the lived experiences of minority groups. I’ve said a lot about this elsewhere. I’d suggest reading my article over at Tor, “Why Minority Settings in RPGs Matter.”
Bluebeard’s Bride is a game about critically examining female roles, and there is a lot of language in the text designed to put a presumed female reader in her place. What was the thinking behind that?
We’re making a point and setting the mood. We’re attenuating the players to how the game is going to treat them. We’re getting them in the right space. This is important There were so many times when we were drafting this that we would stop, and we would collectively feel squicked out, or we would go “ewwww,” and then we would grin maniacally and keep plugging away. We are inviting people into a space, and helping them be brave enough to occupy it.
What is it like being a game designer who is a woman of color, and how does that affect your approach to design? How has it affected your work on Bluebeard’s Bride specifically?
I think I’ve said this before, but I’ve written for a lot of other people’s games. This game was the first game that was mine. I wasn’t writing to any one else’s vision or bottom line, but my own and my co-creator’s. Our work is informed by who we are and how we see the world, and my approach was to be as authentic as possible. Honestly, I think it’s worked out. The small circle of indie gamers that I surround myself with have all been amazingly supportive, enthusiastic about the game, and willing to be our playtesters. In fact, we’ve immediately sold out of playtesting spots at all the cons we’ve brought this to.  I couldn’t ask for more than that. I’ve kept my Bluebeard work unplugged from whatever else was going on in the larger gaming scene. For me, Bluebeard is led by it’s own voice and spirit, and I’ve let that guide me above industry trends.
Have you found that groups with different gender compositions approach the game differently? For instance, would a group with all or mostly women tend to play differently than a group of all or mostly men?
I think some folks are intimidated by this game. They get nervous about “doing it right.” There are definitely ways where you could play this game in bad faith on purpose, and it would make me sad if I heard about people doing that. But if you trust us, the designers, to lead your experience you’re going to have a good time. As I said, it’s all there baked into the rules and moves. Some of the most excellent experiences I’ve had with this game has been when men were running it and playing it. That being said, I do see some typical reactions. Keep in mind that I’m painting in very broad strokes here. Women often feel jazzed. They feel validated, some sense of catharsis, or like, SEE, do you see this? This is real. They have a thing to point to that maybe they didn’t before, to give shape and context to things that were undefined for them. Women will also feel more comfortable with more extreme content. Men will sometimes feel a little more overwhelmed. They’re not used to feeling so hemmed in and aggressed upon without being able to take effective action to stop it. They’ve also been some of the most moved. The bottom line though is that the game is very, very fun if you like horror, no matter where you’re approaching it from with your own lived experiences.
Thanks to Whitney for her time, and if you want to learn more, you can check out the Kickstarter here.

Curse of Strahd continued, problems with gender and mental illness [CW]

In my last post, I took a look at the troublingly racist depictions of the Vistani (who are crypto-Romani) and “mongrelfolk” in the iconic Ravenloft D&D adventure Curse of Strahd that was republished for D&D 5th Edition. Today, I’ll be looking at the other half of my analysis – which focuses on troubling things around gender, “edginess”, and depictions of mental illness.

(Before I get started, it is important to note that there is a content warning for discussion of violence against women and children, as well as ableist portrayals of mental illness.)

The one thing they got right: the core scenario and strahd’s entitlement issues

The heart of the Curse of Strahd scenario revolves around Strahd’s origins and the role that his “tragic love” for a woman named Tatyana played in his bargain with the Dark Powers that doomed Barovia and turned him into a vampire. Before Strahd’s transformation, he fell in love with Tatyana, but she loved his much younger brother Sergei. So Strahd did what any insanely jealous man would do, he murdered Sergei on their wedding day, drank Sergei’s blood, then chased after the grieving Tatyana until she threw herself to her death from the castle walls. (Like, literally chased her, not just “tried to romantically pursue her interest”.)

It was subsequent to this that Strahd was killed and rose again as a vampire, as a fulfilment of his bargain with the Dark Powers. This is also when Barovia became its own isolated demiplane of existence – in which all souls were trapped and could not move on to any sort of afterlife – which means that Tatyana’s soul was eventually reborn into a woman named Marina (who looked just like Tatyana). Strahd pursued Marina, but she was killed by another man. And now, in the “present day”, Tatyana’s soul has been reborn again into a woman named Ireena (who also looks just like Tatyana). Strahd, being the monster that he is, reasons that because Tatyana should have been his, Ireena actually belongs to him because he is entitled to her soul in any incarnation.

…which is fucked up, for obvious reasons.

And here’s the thing. It would have been easy for that to be incredibly problematic in presentation. But the scenario presents this motivation as one of the key features of Strahd’s monstrous inhumanity. Strahd’s obsession with Ireena and inability to let go of his “love” for Tatyana – who never wanted to be with him – are only ever presented as things that make him monstrous. In the scenario, Ireena is an NPC who can end up traveling with the party, and it is obvious from the beginning that if she is traveling with you, you are to help keep her free of Strahd’s influence. Which is great! It was great to see Strahd called out in the introduction as an abuser, and to see that consistently depicted in the scenario itself. Ireena represents a trope common to gothic literature that is cleverly subverted – she gets to be Mina Harker without being reduced to a human McGuffin.

Which is why the disastrous execution on the stuff that follows was so disappointing. And it also highlights why I’m being so hard on other things in the book, like the depictions of the Vistani and the mongrelfolk. There is a difference between critical examination or subversion of a harmful trope and mindless replication thereof. Strahd’s obsession with Ireena is the former, while everything else I talk about in this post (and the previous post) is the latter.

Problem #1: Strahd as vampire and his “brides” as spawn

The original Curse of Strahd module has been pretty influential on subsequent editions of D&D. For instance, in the 5E Monster Manual, the entries for “vampire” and “vampire spawn” are obviously inspired by Strahd and his “brides”. So rather than re-explain things I’ve written about previously, I’ll start by quoting myself:

This art is taken from the 5E Monster Manual, NOT Curse of Strahd
  • The man is depicted as an aspirational monster – a monster a PC might want to become, while the woman is crazy and clearly can’t be reasoned with – the sort of monster you don’t want to become
  • The man is depicted as reasoned and intelligent while the woman is shown as bestial and insane (bitches be crazy, amirite?)
  • “He’s talking to you, she’s stalking towards you. Also note the exaggerated hip/shoulder twist, is she doing a runway strut?”
  • The man is a person. The woman is not.
  • They reinforce social power dynamics; the man is a human-looking noble, the woman is a ragged, filthy-looking peasant
  • The woman is “spawn”, and is depicted as clearly inferior to the “original”
  • Given that the “spawn” is unreasoning and feral, the woman is clearly subject to the control of the master
  • Which makes it pretty fucking gross how sexualized the woman is; if she is feral and unreasoning and subject to the whims of her “master”, the degree of sexualization also implies some pretty rapey stuff about how her “master” could use her for sex
  • Especially because when you think about the process for becoming a vampire spawn in the first place, obvious rape metaphor is obvious
  • And there’s definitely a subtext that this is what happens to women who have sex, because she couldn’t resist his sexual advances and now she is damaged goods

(Many thanks to Laura Hamilton, Paul Czege, Joanna Piancastelli, Andrew Medeiros, Mikael Andersson, Arlene Medder, Sean Nittner, Brianna Sheldon, Brand Robins, Steve Dempsey, John Stavropoulos, Josh T Jordan, and Chris Chinn for helping me [make this list].)

Now it’s important to note that the depiction of the vampire spawn in Curse of Strahd is sliiightly better, but not much. The spawn in CoS aren’t depicted as being bestial as the example from the 5E Monster Manual. Instead, the female vampire spawn are all depicted as being very elegantly dressed and regal in bearing – if still monstrous in nature and completely subservient to Strahd. However, this is because they are all Strahd’s “brides”, whom he marries, turns into vampire spawn, and them locks them into crypts beneath his castle. So. That’s not great.

It’s also important to note that not all of the vampire spawn in Curse of Strahd are women – although the ultimate fates of those Strahd turns into vampire spawn seem to depend entirely on gender. Escher is a male vampire spawn created by Strahd who is free to roam about Strahd’s castle. The other male spawn named in the book is Doru; Doru ends up locked in a church basement, but it’s his father (a priest) who imprisons him, not Strahd – which, again, implies a degree of freedom to Doru’s movement that Strahd’s “brides” certainly did not enjoy.

Unfortunately, while Curse of Strahd portrays Strahd’s belief that Tatyana’s very soul belongs to him as being monstrous, the “brides” of Strahd are not depicted as centerpieces in Strahd’s depravity. They are relegated to one or two paragraphs provided for tragic color, and their transformation and confinement isn’t examined critically, which is unfortunate.

Problem #2: using murdered children to make the scenario grimdark and “edgy”

While it’s not ever said that Curse of Strahd is attempting to be “edgy”, the sheer number of murdered children in the book argues for at least a semi-conscious attempt to go for shock value – and that sucks. It sucks because fridging women and kids for the sake of cheap shock value is gross, and because things that are “edgy” or done for “shock value” are almost always done in ways that happen to reinforce the patriarchal status quo, as I recently had occasion to gripe on Twitter:

The other reason it sucks is because it’s just plain lazy writing. And it’s especially lazy writing when that same “shocker” is returned to over, and over, and over again – as it is in Curse of Strahd.

There are a number of children whose murders you can prevent:

  • Arabelle (7) – the kidnapped Vistani daughter of Luvash, is murdered by Bluto – a drunk villager who believes that killing a Vistani will make him lucky – unless the party stops it. However, this is pretty hard to prevent as Arabelle is tossed into a lake while in a burlap sack – the text says that she can’t be seen while in the boat, and there is a DC Strength check of 15 to rescue her in time once she’s been thrown in – which will be pretty hard for most adventurers to pass if they’re wearing armor. If you fail, she’s dead.
  • Morgantha, a night hag disguised as a witch, takes Lucian Jarov as payment for her dream pastries (more on that in a second) unless the party intervenes. The party can stop her, but unless the party kills her it says that she’ll just come back for him later.
  • Morgantha and her two daughters, also night hags, have two captive children in cages that they are fattening up to eat – Freek (7) and Myrtle (5). You can free them, but once you do they’re effectively orphans, since it was their parents who sold them to the night hags in the first place.
  • The Barovian werewolves have a number of children that they keep penned up, waiting for gruesome battles to the death – after which the “winner” is bitten. You can set them free or not.

There are also a number of children whose murders just happen as part of the background color of the setting:

  • Kiril, the leader of the Barovian werewolves, has been making children fight these duels for a long time, and the “winners” are traumatized as a result (obviously). There is a child transformed this way named Kellen that is specifically mentioned.
  • Rudolph Van Richten – the famous vampire hunter – has his son Erasmus stolen by Vistani and delivered to Strahd, who transforms Erasmus into a vampire spawn. Van Richten “saves” his son by murdering him. It’s not explicitly stated that Erasmus is a child when this happens, but it’s strongly implied.
  • Morgantha and the night hags require “bones of the innocent” in order to make their dream pastries, and they require the bones of children who have souls. (Because of the whole “souls can’t go to the afterlife” thing, a lot of people in Barovia are born without souls because… reasons?) They test children by poking them with needles to see if they cry (children without souls don’t cry), then get their parents hooked on dream pastries to the point that they’re willing to sell their kids for more dream pastries. Morgantha and her daughters also eat the children before using their bones.
  • The optional level 1-3 module at the end of the book – Death House – has two child NPCs named Rose and Thorn, who plead with the party to destroy the monster that lives in their basement. Only it turns out that Rose and Thorn are actually ghosts! Their parents were evil cultists who locked them in the attic and “forgot about them”, so they starved to death. The adventurers find their skeletons still in the attic of the house – despite the fact that Rose and Thorn also have crypts in the family cemetery. (Which is sort of baffling, but whatever.)

And. You know. I’m not saying that no one should ever write content about the death of children. It happens, and it’s hard and traumatic and awful. But trivializing it to the point of “murdered children in indeterminate numbers as setting wallpaper” in multiple instances is just really gross.

Problem #3: so. many. murdered. women.

I’m not going to go into why fridging female characters sucks. That’s pretty 101-level territory, not to mention that I couldn’t ever do a better job of explaining it than Anita Sarkeesian already has. So we’re going to take that as a given and proceed from there.

There are seriously so many women who meet violent ends at the hands of men that it’s a little bit sickening:

  • Tatyana, the object of Strahd’s desire and the reason he murdered his brother. Technically she kills herself, but only because Strahd won’t stop pursuing her – and one has to question what he was going to do with her once he caught her. The implications of that smell pretty rapey to me.
  • Varushka, a maid in Castle Ravenloft, took her own life after Strahd began feeding on her because she didn’t want to be made into a vampire spawn. Again, I’m pinning responsibility on Strahd, since he forced himself on her. And again, the situation is pretty rapey.
  • Marya is a woman who is murdered by a noble named Endorovich by accident; bitter that she had chosen another man over him, he tried to poison her lover and poisoned her instead. Endorovich gets a crypt in Castle Ravenloft, but it’s not said what became of Marya’s remains.
  • Petrina Velinkova was a dusk elf wizard who wanted to marry Strahd so that she could increase her own power. Her people got wind of her plans and her brother and the rest of the dusk elves murdered her to keep her from being corrupted by Strahd.
  • In response to Petrina’s murder, Strahd subsequently murders all of the female dusk elves in Barovia so that they can’t reproduce and will eventually die out. Because, you know, genocide is totes okay, as is reducing women to their reproductive capacity. (uggghhh)
  • Marina – the second incarnation of Tatyana – is seduced by Strahd, then murdered by her family to keep her from being turned into a vampire spawn.
  • The nursemaid in Death House (who is never named) was having an affair with the murderous, child-neglecting master of the house when she got pregnant with his child. Despite that he cared so little for his own children that he let them starve to death in the attic and never retrieved the bodies, he was so incensed when she miscarried his child that he and the rest of the cult all stabbed her to death.
  • Lastly, the Abbot at the Monastery of Saint Markovia is a corrupted deva who has embarked on making a flesh golem bride for Strahd, whom he names Vasilka and is giving comportment lessons when the adventurers encounter her. Elsewhere in the abbey, you can find a collection of dismembered female body parts – discards from the process of making Vasilka. It’s not explicitly stated that women were murdered for the pieces, but it’s strongly implied.

Jesus. That is a lot of murdered women, and all of them murdered by men because of male entitlement. Especially distressing are the women murdered by loved ones because of being “contaminated” by Strahd – Petrina, Varushka, and Marina. Because the obvious rape metaphor of Strahd feeding on lovely young women is obvious, the implication is that once a woman has been raped, sorry, “corrupted” by Strahd, she is damaged goods and is of no further use to anyone. And that is some seriously damaging victim-blamey shit.

Problem #4: depictions of “madness” and what happens to people labeled as crazy

Lastly, we have the issue of how madness is depicted and what happens to people labeled as crazy. Largely, people who are “mad” are locked up for the protection of others, and are never let loose again. The Monastery of Saint Markovia is now home to hundreds of mongrelfolk, all of whom are said to be mad. They have been imprisoned in the Monastery in order to “contain their madness”, and the conditions that they are kept in are horrifying.

The descriptions of the rooms read straight out of the worst stereotypes of the Bedlam mental hospital. Worse, in the courtyard there are nine sheds, and in each there is a “howling or mewling” mongrelfolk who is chained in filthy conditions. And the mongrelfolk are not fed on a regular schedule, which leads to a perpetual state of panic over food and starvation.

The worst part of all of this is that there is never any serious discussion given to what would happen if you were to free the mongrelfolk from their tormenters. The text says in multiple places that the mongrelfolk are irredeemably mad, and just sort of takes it as given that of course you’d just leave them there. I mean, they describe it as “a madhouse overrun by wickedness”, so even though the only wickedness described is the Abbot’s, I mean, just lock them up and throw away the key, right? Even outside of the Monastery, there is a theme of “person goes mad so they are locked up” running through the book, which – as someone who has been told that I should be involuntarily committed for daring to have opinions while mentally ill on the internet is just seriously offensive.

Additionally, nowhere does it ever detail what happens if you let them go free, but it does detail what will happen if you attempt to take toys or other obvious objects of comfort from certain NPCs. Which. Come on. Jesus.

There’s also a serious issue with who the label of “mad” gets applied to, at least for human NPCs, and what happens to them – because it is very gendered and not okay:

  • The Abbot – a deva who has been twisted by Strahd and the Dark Powers into twisted and depraved actions – isn’t “mad”. He’s been “corrupted”. You know, despite thinking it would be a totes great idea to make a flesh golem bride for an evil vampire wizard and then give it comportment lessons, because what’s most important in that situation is proper feminine behavior.
  • Stella Wachter, the daughter of Lady Wachter, goes “mad” after Victor Vallakovich – whom Lady Wachter wanted Stella to marry – was mean to her: ” In fact, he spoke such unkind words to Stella that she went mad, and Fiona had to lock her daughter away” (page 110). Which. …really? She’s so fragile that a boy being mean to her is enough to make her go “mad”? So of course, because she’s a woman and FEMALE MADNESS IS A THREAT TO EVERYONE, she gets locked up, obvs. Never mind the fact that her “madness” is that she thinks she’s a “kitty” – BETTER LOCK THAT BITCH UP SO SHE DOESN’T SHED ON SOMEONE.
  • Victor Vallakovich, on the other hand… When he’s not being so mean to young heiresses that he breaks their hold on reality and makes them think they’re felines, has been teaching himself magic from an old spellbook. Currently, he’s trying to build a teleportation circle that will allow him to leave Barovia, but so far he’s just screwed it up – as he discovered when he tested it on some servants. He’s disintegrated two servants already, but, you know, DISINTEGRATING PEOPLE and not showing any remorse isn’t at all crazy so let’s just not say anything and let him roam around free. What could possibly go wrong?
  • You know who else isn’t crazy? Baron Vallakovich, who has decided that being happy is the key to getting rid of Strahd and has been throwing mandatory festivals every week for the past several years. He’s started locking up malcontents, or even people who just aren’t happy enough, but that’s totes normal behavior right? Not at all insane, nope.

So when men are crazy, no one calls them crazy – they’re just allowed to roam free and do whatever. Chop up women for flesh golem parts, disintegrate servants, imprison people for not being happy. Whatever! It’s all good. But women who go crazy? Even inoffensively crazy in ways that don’t harm themselves or others? Well shit, LOCK THAT BITCH UP.

…and, look. Calling women crazy has been the number one way of dismissing women for millennia. It’s literally where the word hysteria comes from, because the ancient Greeks believed that the sheer act of having a uterus is enough to make you crazy, and that crazy belief has pretty much stuck with us for a couple thousand years. (And yes, not all woman have uteruses – I’m simply referencing the origin of the stereotype here.) So all of this is a nice little gender cherry on an ableist shit sundae.

Am I saying no one should play Curse of Strahd? No.

One of the things that got me to look into this again was the fact that a friend asked me about how feasible it would be to adapt CoS so that it didn’t have all the horrifying anti-Roma bits. And for all that I think there’s a lot of replication of terrible stereotypes, a modicum of preparation by a reasonably skilled GM would be sufficient to overcome this book’s shortcomings.

For example:

What would happen if the PCs decided to free the mongrelfolk from captivity? How could you encourage the party to act humanely in that situation?

What would happen if you switched the gender of certain characters to subvert particularly awful tropes? What if Strahd’s spawn were equally men and women, and you made it more about him needing to derive nourishment from ensouled people than just an obvious rape metaphor with Strahd dominating a large number of pretty young women?

How could you change the Vistani to make them not offensive crypto-Romani caricatures? Could you remove them altogether?

A savvy GM could map out the bits of the module they want to use, then modify appropriately to preserve the flavor of the setting – which is very evocative! – while still delivering a story not rife with unsettlingly problematic stereotypes.

Curse of Strahd: correctly labels Strahd an abuser, yet troublingly racist

Several months ago, I got an email from a reader – Daniel – who asked me if I would be willing to take a look at the republished Curse of Strahd for D&D 5th Edition, because he was concerned about how Curse of Strahd depicted the Vistani – who are a thinly veiled analog of the Romani people.

Daniel’s concerns were namely that:

  1. The Vistani were depicted according to current and historical negative stereotypes about the Roma people. They are shown as drunks and thieves, charlatans and cheats, and child stealers.
  2. The Vistani are depicted as having fortune-telling ability and can cast curses and the evil eye.
  3. With one exception, all of the Vistani characters in the book are either neutral or evil, while many (though certainly not all) of the non-Vistani villagers in the book are either good or lawful good. Furthermore, a large proportion of them have the keyword “bandit” as their creature type.
  4. As the Roma are one of the most abused and persecuted minorities in Europe, a perpetuation of such stereotypes might still be harmful.

Those all sounded like really compelling reasons to want to look at Curse of Strahd – especially since something that I have always felt very strongly about is the fact that mindless replication of harmful stereotypes is in itself harmful. Unfortunately, between one thing and another, I ended up flagging Daniel’s email as something to look into, and then didn’t get around to actually getting my hands on a copy until a few weeks ago.

Originally, I was just going to scan through for mentions of the Vistani. But things kept catching my eye and making me go, “really?” – to the point that I ended up reading through the book twice and taking notes. And. Man. It turns out that I had so much material it will have to be split into two posts. Because despite the fact that the foreword was actually quite encouraging in that it called out Strahd, and the historical person of Lord Byron – whom characters like Dracula and Strahd are heavily modeled on, are nothing more than serial abusers, Curse of Strahd is incredibly problematic when it comes to gender and mental illness. Additionally, its problems with racism go deeper than just the Vistani.

So! Since the Vistani and concern over racist tropes is what got me started looking into Curse of Strahd in the first place, I’ll handle that today and come back to gender and mental illness next time.

Before I go any further: an important note

It’s important to note that the Romani, or Roma, are often commonly referred to as “gypsies”. However, the term “gypsy” is an ethnic slur, and as such I have taken pains to use Romani or Roma when referring to real actual people – past or present, or Vistani – when referring to fictional characters in Curse of Strahd.

That said, there are a few places where I will reference supporting material that uses the term “gypsy”. This is for two reasons:

“gypsies” are a common literary trope in Gothic fiction (and British literature as a whole) and

It’s impossible to talk about the visual stereotyping of fictionalized Romani/Vistani characters without linking to material that uses the word “gypsy”, because the stereotypical “gypsy” costume is a fictional construct that doesn’t actually exist. Linking to resources that depict traditional dress of Roma people would be misleading, because traditional Roma dress does not look like the stereotypical “gypsy” costume. So I want to make very clear that I don’t in any way endorse the use of the word “gypsy”, or its commonly used derivative “gypped”. (Yes, saying you got “gypped” is racist.)

End note.

Problem the first: the Vistani

The first dodge that will inevitably be used to claim that the Vistani are not problematic is the fact that they’ve been renamed. However, this argument is cheap sophistry, because any person who reads through the material will recognize the Vistani as being Romani.

First, the descriptions of their clothing and the artwork in the book depict the Vistani in stereotypical “gypsy costume”:

vistani

And no, this piece isn’t an isolated example. Compare the Google Image search results for “gypsy” and for Vistani, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Everything about how the Vistani are depicted in artwork heavily references stereotypical depictions of “gypsies”. Further, if the authors of the book didn’t want the Vistani to be read as being Romani, they shouldn’t have used an actual Romani word to refer to the Vistani wagons. Vistani wagons are called vardos, which is the real life Roma word for traditional Romani wagons. Additionally, descriptions of the Vistani vardos adhere closely to the real-life Romani vardos.

In other words, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. Any reasonable person would recognize the people being referenced by the fictional Vistani as Romani. WHICH IS A PROBLEM, given that the Vistani in Curse of Strahd adhere closely to just about every negative stereotype ever used to persecute actual Romani people. Such as:

The Vistani are criminals who menace good honest society:

  • Adventure hook – Mysterious Visitors, p19-20: “[the duchess] voices her concern about a band of wayward travelers camped outside the town’s walls. They seemed harmless at first, but Morwen has received reports that they have begun harassing townsfolk and other visitors as they come and go, demanding money and wine, and threatening to put hexes on anyone who doesn’t pay up
  • Random wilderness encounter – Vistani bandits, p32: These evil Vistani march through the Barovian wilderness … they are searching for graves to plunder or hunting small game.”
  • Vallaki Lore – p96: “There’s a Vistani camp in the woods soutwest of the town. The Vistani there aren’t very friendly. Vistani aren’t welcome in Vallaki.”
  • Lady Wachter’s Wish, p124: Lady Wachter has a letter delivered to the Vistani camp “that asks the Vistani to dispose of the characters once they have left town. The Vistani burn the letter after reading it, as per Lady Wachter’s request”.
  • The keywords used for Vistani NPCs are almost universally villainous keywords. There is one mage, one group of commoners, the chaotic neutral fortune teller Madam Eva, and Ezmerelda D’Avenir – who is a chaotic good vampire hunter. Aside from those exceptions, all Vistani are either assassins, bandits, bandit captains, or thugs.

The Vistani are all drunks:

  • Random wilderness encounter – Vistani bandits, p32: “These evil Vistani march through the Barovian wilderness without much concern for their well-being, smoking pipes, drinking from wine skins, and telling ghost stories.”
  • Tser Pool Encampment, p36: “Twelve Vistani … are standing and sitting around the fire, telling stories and guzzling wine. They are intoxicated and have disadvantage on attack rolls and ability checks.”
  • Vistani Camp, p119: “Even at this distance, you can smell the odors of wine and horses that emanate from this central area.”
  • Vistani Camp, p119: “the Vistani have exhausted their supply of wine and are eager to obtain more”
  • Vistani Tent, p121: “Luvash is so drunk that he has disadvantage on his attack rolls and ability checks … in addition to Luvash … there are six intoxicated Vistani … lying unconscious in the tent.”
  • Vistani Tent, p122: “Luvash is unhappy because his seven-year-old daughter, Arabelle, has vanished. She’s been gone for a little more than a day. Because everyone in the camp was drunk and Arrigal was away, no one remembers hearing or seeing anything strange.”
  • Vistani Tent, p122: “he agrees to do business with them if they accomplish one of two tasks: either find his missing daughter, or procure six barrels of wine and bring them to the camp”
  • Luvash’s Wagon, p122: “Luvash’s wagon is a mess inside. Empty wineskins, dirty clothes, and mangy furs are strewn about.”
  • Wagon of Sleeping Vistani, p122: “Each of these wagons contains 1d4 intoxicated and unconscious Vistani”

What’s notable here is that the Vistani are such drunken degenerates, that a little girl went missing from their camp for AN ENTIRE DAY and nobody noticed because they were too drunk. And when you treat with her father, Luvash, you can gain his trust either by bringing back his daughter, or by bringing him SIX MORE BARRELS OF WINE. You know, because one is as good as the other to a no good drunken Vistani, right?

The Vistani are untrustworthy liars:

  • Adventure hook – Plea for Help, p19: “The letter, which seems to have been written by the buromaster, was actually penned by Strahd. … The letter is bait to lure the adventurers to Barovia.”
  • The Vistani lie about their allegiance to Strahd: page 19, page 27
  • The Vistani lie about having potions that will allow characters to travel safely through the mists: page 19, page 27, page 122

The Vistani steal children

  • Rudolph Van Richten’s son, Erasmus, was stolen from him by Vistani, who sold him to Strahd: page 230, page 238

(There’s only one instance of this in the text, but given that this is one of the most serious and pernicious stereotypes against modern Roma it’s worth calling out as a distinct stereotype.)

The Vistani are cheats, gamblers, and thieves:

  • Strahd’s Vistani Servants, p27: “They readily tell adventurers that they have a potion that protects them from the deadly fog that surrounds Barovia. Although this is a lie, they attempt to sell their fake potion for as much money as they can get.”
  • Vistani Tent, p122: “For a hefty price, he offers to sell the characters potions that allow safe passage through the deadly fog … The potions don’t work, of course.”
  • Wagon of Gambling Vistani, p123: “the Vistani are playing a dice game for wine and favors, since they have no money”
  • Tower, Fourth Floor, p171: “…a human Vistana named Yan. … Yan reveals that he was banished from his clan for stealing.”

The Vistani have mystical powers to lay curses, tell fortunes, and use the evil eye

  • There are literal actual mechanics for cursing and the evil eye on page 28
  • Madam Eva, the Vistani fortune teller, whose fortunes come true: page 21, page 37, page 44, page 233-234

And. You know. So what? Who cares? This is just a roleplaying game, right?

EXCEPT. 250,000 Roma people were executed during the Holocaust because of racist views about the Roma. Today, Neo-Nazis harass Roma people here in Canada, partly because Canada has been accepting larger numbers of Hungarian Roma refugees and asylum-seekers as anti-Roma persecution in Hungary continues to escalate. Also, French authorities removed a five-year old blonde girl from the care of her Romani caregivers – who were raising the girl with the permission of her Bulgarian birth mother – because she “didn’t look Roma”; despite proof that the girl hadn’t been abducted, she will NOT go back to her adoptive Romani parents.

When the stereotypes of Roma people as murderous criminals, child-stealers, no-good gamblers and drunks, and a general menace to good and honest society are the reason why European Romani face tremendous persecution and violence, mindlessly replicating those stereotypes is just gross and irresponsible.

Problem the second: Miscegenation!

(Miscegenation is an ugly term referring to “the mixing of the races” through breeding.)

In Chapter 8, which details the village of Krezk, one of the key locations is the Abbey of Saint Markovia – which has become an insane asylum for mongrelfolk – humanoid creatures with random animal features who are all incurably insane.

dca9mongrelfolk

Which. Okay, we’ll skip over the grossness of “lock up the mentally ill and throw away the key” until next time and just focus on the mongrelfolk for now, starting with the name. Because “mongrel”? Is a racial slur meaning someone with a mixed-race background, with a pretty disgusting history:

“…in the ugly history of racism, “mongrel” has been used to demean couples of different ethnicities and children of mixed race.

This last sense of mongrel invokes another nasty word, miscegenation, which is a derogatory term for couples of mixed race who marry and have kids. In many states anti-miscegenation laws made it a crime for two people of different races to have a relationship or engage in intimate activities. The Supreme Court found these laws to be unconstitutional in 1967.” —source: blog.dictionary.com

You have a literal mixed race with random animal traits, which are referred to as deformities. Most mongrelfolk can’t speak Common, or they speak fragmented Common “mixed with various animal cries and nonsense”, and “aren’t sophisticated enough” to use the animal sounds they produce as communication. And where it gets extra gross, almost all children of a mixed mongrelfolk/human union will be mongrelfolk: “about one child in every hundred is born looking like its non-mongrelfolk parent”.

So why is all of that so terrible? Let’s break it down.

First: the mongrelfolk are inherently inferior subspecies of humanoid. Their nature as a mixed race adheres to the historical panic over miscegenation, which stems from the idea that the superior humans are those who are racially pure. (And, you know, white.) The fact that they are called “mongrels” is what ties the backstory of the mongrelfolk to deeply ugly historical anti-Black racism in the United States.

Second: The fact that mongrelfolk can’t speak Common intelligibly and lack sense enough to use the sounds they can make as communication with one another is mirrored by deeply racist anti-Black stereotypes about the intellectual inferiority of Black people. These stereotypes were used to justify the existence of slavery in the United States (and elsewhere) prior to the Civil War. More important, these stereotypes still persist today. No less a personage than James Watson (of Watson and Crick fame, who stole Rosalind Franklin’s data and with it the Nobel prize she should have won for discovering the structure of DNA) said in 2007 that Africans are less intelligent than Westerners.

Third: the fact that 99% of babies born to mongrelfolk/human couples are mongrelfolk has a historical analog in the One Drop Rule, which held that only one Black ancestor, no matter how far back in your family tree, was required to make someone Black. This rule was made into law across the American South during Reconstruction and Jim Crow, and was part of the DNA of Jim Crow Segregation laws. This by itself might not be so bad, but together with the previously mentioned mirrors to anti-Black racist stereotypes might just make the mongrelfolk the most racist thing I have ever seen in a roleplaying game. (It’s hard to say – I’ve been doing this for several years and there are a lot of examples to choose from.)

So. You know. Slow clap?

And that’s about enough for today.

Next time I’ll tackle CoS’s problems with gender, mental illness, and use of “edgy” tropes.

Handling difficult material as GM or facilitator: Part 1

Before I get started, a note about my previous post:

Some asshat on the internet[1] wrote a screed about my last post calling me human feces and an actual lizard person. Why? Because I had the nerve to blog about a game that I’m making, with a MALE co-designer, btw, that has feminist themes. And somehow me and my SJWness and my making games about feminism is DESTROYING GAMING and will KILL D&D FOREVER.

Which, look internet MRA gamerbros. Calm your testes, okay? Literally no one is forcing you to think about, buy, or play my game. The existence of my game doesn’t THREATEN ALL OF D&D. Jesus. Calm down, okay? I wish I was that awesome, but I’m not.

calm-your-testes

Also, worth noting that a good half of his screed (when he wasn’t talking about what a pox I am on gaming) was devoted to bitching about how I CAN’T WRITE A GAME ABOUT TOXIC MASCULINITY BECAUSE I’M NOT A MAN. Which, you know, conveniently ignores the fact that I specifically gave credit to my male co-designer (the eminently fantastic Andrew Medeiros) at the end of the first paragraph. Whoops.

ANYWAY. Moving on.

Handling difficult material in game spaces you are responsible for

I write a lot here about how to be a responsible publisher, in terms of creating diverse and inclusive game content that doesn’t fuck up with regards to reductive stereotypes. I also write a fair bit about how to be a good ally, by way of common ally traps and how to avoid them. But a few months ago, a friend pointed out that she wanted to read about how to be a responsible GM – especially when running games for players with marginalizations that she doesn’t share. Between GenCon and being a full time student, I haven’t had as much attention to devote to blogging as I would have liked. But now that I find myself with a bit of breathing room, it’s a good time to look at the issue of safer gaming spaces and how to facilitate those spaces even when you’re handling difficult, intense, or potentially problematic content.

This post expanded a bit beyond what I was expecting, so today focuses more on safety tools and the space itself. Next time I’ll get into a bit more nitty gritty detail about techniques for GMs.

Also, I wasn’t able to work them in to the outline of this post, but Meguey Baker has written pretty extensively about two cultures of safety in play called I Will Not Abandon You and Nobody Gets Hurt. Most of the discussions around this are buried on forums like Story-Games and happened a long time ago, but I would be remiss in not acknowledging Meg’s work, as well as the work of others, in starting this conversation in the first place.

First: Always use safety tools

The three safety tools that I always, always, always use when running games are:

I don’t run games without them anymore; even if a LARP doesn’t mention Cut/Break or The Door is Always Open in the facilitator instructions, I still always introduce it to the players as part of the rules, because that’s how strongly I feel about it.

However, just having safety tools doesn’t actually solve anything. The use of safety tools at the table in convention spaces is getting to be pretty common; at GenCon we had printed X-Cards at every table, the files for which we actually got from Kate Bullock who runs Breakout Con. And every LARP that I’ve ever played at a convention has included Cut/Brake and The Door Is Always Open as part of the instructions on how to play.

And yet, despite the increasing prevalence of safety tools, we haven’t actually solved the issue of player safety. Simply putting a safety tool on the table (either literal or metaphorical) and telling people how it works IS NOT ENOUGH to get someone to use that tool when they need it. Because…

Second: People need to feel they have permission to USE safety tools

One thing I’ve noticed is that how I approach safety tools in games tends to vary widely based on who I’m playing with. For instance, in convention games, I’m far less likely to use safety tools, even when I’m not having a great time or am feeling uncomfortable with content that is coming up. I’ve written previously about an experience that I had running Zombie Cinema at GenCon 2014 for a brunch of bros who made sexism a running joke in the game. And despite introducing the X-Card during the game introduction, and despite that the sexist jokes were really bothering me, I didn’t say anything.

Similarly, also at GenCon in 2014, I played in an Apocalypse World longcon than ran all three nights of the convention. And it was an amazing game, but there was a moment in particular that stood out for me as deeply, starkly uncomfortable. There was this weird psychic contagion, and at one point one of the players failed a roll against an NPC. The GM had made it clear that if this happened, the psychic contagion was going to take control, and after the roll he gave the player a choice: either you’ll have to kill her or have sex with her. And I was really not okay. Because after a previous bad experience at GenCon, even implied possible sexual violence in a roleplaying game in a convention space was something that got close to some ugly emotional scars. But I let it go to see what the player would do, and he chose to kill the NPC, and play moved on and I didn’t end up using the X-Card.

Compare this with my use of the X-Card in campaigns with my local gaming group – the one I’ve been playing with for almost two years now, and you get a very different picture. During a campaign of Urban Shadows, I perma-X-Carded a friend’s demon clown character, who transformed into demon form by ripping off their skin and generally doing a lot of body horror shit. I told that friend they could mime their actions or do sound effects, but not both[2]. Or another time I actually X-carded how a scene had played out because I was having a really rough time with my anxiety and needed the session to end on a positive note.

Both of those instances are “smaller” uses of the X-Card – things that made me feel more comfortable but weren’t things that affected my overall fun or ability to feel emotionally safe. I could have managed just fine with the demon clown descriptions by plugging my ears – it wasn’t something that would ruin my fun completely. Similarly, X-carding how a scene wrapped up at the end of a session wasn’t something I needed to feel safe. But in both instances, I knew that my friends would understand that these were things that would make me feel more comfortable.

The difference between how I approach the X-Card in home games versus how I have approached it at conventions comes down to having a pre-existing relationship and having trust in the GM and the other players. Often, the situations where people need safety tools are not the situations where they feel they have that relationship with someone. When I run a tabletop campaign, I know my players. I know that I can narrate X in a way that will skeeve out player Y, but I also mostly know where to stop.

But I mostly don’t have that kind of relationship with players at con games. So when I introduce safety tools, I do more than explain how it works. I explain why it’s there.

For example. One of my favorite games to run at conventions if I have to do a two-hour slot is The Shab al-Hiri Roach at Hogwarts. The Shab al-Hiri Roach is a game of dark comedy in which you play bad people doing bad things, and transplanting that game into Hogwarts – a setting which canonically includes children, has the potential to cause some bad times. So when I’m introducing the game to folks, my X-Card speech looks a little something like this:

“Because Hogwarts is a setting which canonically includes children, I want to emphasize that we’ll be playing with the X-Card firmly in place. The X-Card is a safety tool that anyone can lift, point to, or tap whenever content comes up that makes them uncomfortable or they’d rather not see, and we’ll edit out that content without any judgement or recrimination. I’ll say right now that I’ll X-Card anything that involves harming children, but the X-Card can be used for anything – big or small.

I say all this not to be a downer, because The X-Card is actually a really important tool to help us have fun. When you’re playing a gonzo silly game at a convention, there’s no way you can know everything that makes the other players uncomfortable. So the X-Card is our safety net, in case something comes up, so that we can put our energy into playing and having a good time and not worrying about something that might come up and ruin our fun.”

Similarly, I was really glad when I ran a session of Unheroes when a player asked during setup if anyone had an issue with him playing very intensely, because he liked high-intensity, high-bleed experiences. I was able to say something like, “that’s a great question! I’m glad to hear you like to play that way but are aware that it might cause some people some issues. Here are some tools we’ll be using to help manage those issues, so you can feel comfortable playing intensely and other people have the tools they need if they start to feel uncomfortable. That way we’ll all be able to have fun together.”

So to break it down, I use language to sell why it’s good to have, if possible I include an example of content that I would use a safety tool for, and I talk about why everyone benefits from the use of safety tools in gaming spaces.

BUT. Even then it’s important not to forget that…

 

Third: The existence of safety tools don’t negate the need to keep an eye out for player safety

In the debrief after the Apocalypse World longcon where that really uncomfortable moment of “kill her or have sex with her” had happened, I talked about how uncomfortable that had been for me and that I had been really close to not being okay. And the GM nodded and said, yeah, I could tell. And I was so, so grateful that he’d picked up on it! Just as I was then really upset with the person who spoke up in response and said that if I hadn’t been okay, it would have been my fault for not using the X-Card.

And that was such a completely bullshit response that I couldn’t even. Because sometimes the situations making people feel unsafe are rooted in real, actual trauma, and one of the responses to trauma that is pretty fucking common is for people to freeze up or shut down. For me, my experience of being sexually assaulted at GenCon made the possibility of narrative sexual violence in a convention space feel very threatening. And luckily, in this instance, the triggering element in the game was something I could see coming, so I could prepare to X-Card it if it got too close. But sometimes triggers come at you hard and sideways, too fast for you to react, and you can find yourself shutting down and unable to use the very tool to get you out of the situation.

Which is why it is SO IMPORTANT as a GM to keep an eye out for this. And I promise you, you’re already better at this than you think.

As GMs/Facilitators, part of learning our craft is learning to recognize when your players are having fun. If you’ve been GMing for any length of time, you know the difference between a good con game and a bad one. When someone asks how your game just went, it’s the difference between “Eh, it was a B- game. Two players really loved it, but the third player really wasn’t feeling it” and “it was totally great! Everyone was super into it! The energy was high and we all had a great time!”

When a player switches from “having fun” to “not”, you should always check in – especially if that transition is sudden or abrupt. The reason could be entirely mundane – their blood sugar could have bottomed out, or they could have a headache coming on, or they might feel they’re not getting enough spotlight. But it could be something bigger.

You don’t need to make a big deal of it. Something as simple as “hey, you got kinda quiet, everything okay?” between scenes can make all the difference.

And that is where I stop for today

All of this was laying the ground work for the question I actually wanted to answer, which is – how do I include problematic content safely and inclusively? So we’ll get that next time.

However, because I don’t want “calm your testes” to be the preview image, have a picture of a baby rabbit:

[1] I won’t provide links, but his title image was a bald eagle in front of an American Flag, and his bio describes himself as a culture warrior. The self-satire, it hurts!

[2] They reminded me recently that I ALSO banned them from describing their actions while they acted them out, and I was like, “what really? I don’t remember that”. And then they started miming pulling the flesh off their face while also describing it until I was like “NOPE NOPE NOW I REMEMBER OKAY STOP YES I SAID THAT”.

How our game about women is inspiring conversations about masculinity

I’ve got a lot of things to catch up on post-GenCon, including assembling notes about my experience as an Industry Insider Featured Presenter so that I can write in detail about that – since it was an amazing experience. But today I wanted to take the time to reflect on some compelling conversations that I’ve had about masculinity as inspired by The Watch – the low-fantasy game about female and female-of-center soldiers fighting to retake their homeland from a nebulous threat called The Shadow that I’m currently co-designing with Andrew Medeiros[1].

Explanatory sidebar:

What is The Watch? Well, to go into a bit more detail, here’s how I’ve described it previously:

The Watch is a low-fantasy game about women (and other female-of-center people) who are fighting to retake their homeland from the Shadow – a darkly sorcerous threat that has the power to possess men and use them for its own violent ends. So much has already been lost to the Shadow – land, loved ones, and traditions. But your people have come together, forming a new fighting force from those able to resist the Shadow, which they call the Watch.

That you will defeat the Shadow is never in question. What you are playing to find out is how much will it cost you? On the day of the Shadow’s final defeat, who is it that you will say should have been standing beside you? Which of you will burn bright and fast, and which of you will hunker down and see this thing through to the end?

The Watch is a game that is Powered By The Apocalypse, meaning it uses the Apocalypse World system – albeit with a ton of hacks, modifications, and innovations. It’s currently in beta testing, and Drew and I will be looking to KickStart it in 2017.

[/sidebar]

Between the two of us, we ran a whopping seven sessions of The Watch, and I’m pretty excited about the fact that the people who played it were mostly male – by an overwhelming margin. (30 out of 35 total players, if you’re keeping score.) Admittedly, there’s always the potential for things to go a bit sideways when you have mostly men playing all female characters[2] (especially at a con game, where investment tends to be lower), but the guys who played it were super engaged with the premise – which was really gratifying! Especially in light of the difficulty that I’ve had getting men interested in playing The Starlit Kingdom, which is also kind of explicitly about women.

And sure, it would have been nice to have more women at the table. Both of the sessions I ran had five male players, and I always feel more comfortable when I’m not the only woman at the table. But there’s a pretty wonderful thing that happens with The Watch when you have a lot of men at the table because of this lovely little rule called Resist the Shadow.

PCs have to roll to Resist the Shadow “when [they] give the Shadow an opening into [their] heart by engaging in toxic behavior”, which is a reflection of internalized misogyny and the toxic scripts that people of all genders – not just men – internalize. But…

Well. …can you keep a secret, readers? Of course you can. I can trust you.

See, what I never actually say when I run the game is that the Shadow is actually patriarchy. Instead, I do a bit of a shell game when I introduce the game to men at the table – I tell them that the Shadow is toxic masculinity, and that’s why the men in this world are so vulnerable to the Shadow. Because the idea of “man” is what makes them vulnerable to its influence. And all of that is true!

But! Something that I’ve observed through running this blog and having conversations with men in other feminist spaces is that sometimes, it’s easier to get men to engage with conversations about patriarchy through coming at toxic masculinity. There can be a defensive impulse when conversations are framed around patriarchy, an impulse to say “not me – that’s other men”, because it’s hard to admit that a key part of your identity causes you to be complicit in harming others. I find that calling out behavior as “toxic masculinity” can make some men much more receptive, because that is more evocative of how toxic ideas of manhood are personally damaging. In other words, some men are a lot more willing to accept that unconscious attitudes cause you to harm yourself than they are to accept that those same attitudes cause you to harm others[3].

So. When I’m starting the game, I’ll read a few paragraphs of setting introduction, to explain the world and the situation. And then I’ll say to the players something like, “and spoiler alert – the Shadow is toxic masculinity”. People will nod, and we’ll move on and get right into playing, and then I get to sit back and watch for something fucked up and toxic. And when the men outnumber other players at the table, the chances are pretty good that I’ll get to tell someone to Resist the Shadow at least once[4] – which I love.

My favorite example of this from GenCon was an incident that happened in the first session I ran. I had used Shutterfly to print a bunch of photos off of Pinterest for players to pick a character image from at the table. One photo I included in the set was this picture, which I’d intended to set aside for a villainous sorceress – only I forgot and a player selected it for their super weird character. So when I introduced the sorceress character and described her in a way that was very similar – porcelain white skin, white hair – one of the players immediately jumped on it. His character started acting suspicious, then recruited the other PCs into helping him corner the weird PC – whereupon they started trying to interrogate the poor woman.

So I leaned forward and asked, “so just to be clear, you’re getting your other squad mates to help you police her behavior because of how she looks?”. The player in question agreed that was an accurate summary, so I said, “awesome. That’s super toxic. Please roll to Resist the Shadow.” The player looked surprised for a second, then nodded his agreement and rolled the move, and afterward we had a pretty cool conversation about it!

Another notable example happened a couple months ago where I was running (again at a convention) and one PC – played by a guy who looked to be in his early 20s – challenged another PC (played by Drew, actually) to a fight. So they started squaring off against each other, with all kinds of macho posturing for the benefit of the audience of NPCs surrounding them. Again I stepped in before things went any further. “Hey, guys. That’s some macho dick-measuring nonsense you’re engaged in. Roll to Resist the Shadow”.

Again I got surprised looks which were followed by nods of agreement. The rolls happened, and afterward we had a great conversation about macho posturing and about the difference between masculine bonding-through-insults versus bonding through real emotional intimacy. And it was during that conversation that Drew said that this game that we made to tell stories about women has actually been teaching him some great things about what toxic masculinity looks like – which mirrors my experience to a certain extent.

Obviously I won’t ever be able to fully understand what it means to experience toxic masculinity as a man. But through running this game so much and having these conversations, I’m getting a better feel for what it looks like. Which means that as a GM, I’m getting better at using The Watch to prompt those moments of introspection and reflection on patriarchy and toxic masculinity, and how it shapes our interactions. And that’s exciting! It’s a wonderful feeling, as a designer, to be able to run your game in a way that lets people have fun while also learning to see something that is normally unconscious from a different angle.

It’s also a cool feeling when you write a game intended to highlight a given issue, and you end up learning more about that issue than you’d expected. One of the great things about roleplaying game design is that roleplaying games are structured as a conversation. They only work well when everyone takes a turn talking and listening, and when everyone remains open and receptive to the experience and to each other. That kind of openness means that when you play with someone who comes at a familiar issue in a different way, it has the potential to put even concepts that feel like old hat into an interesting new light.

And all of this is just one of the many reasons why I’m excited to be working on this game[5]! I’m also excited about developing a game that requires you to tell stories of heroic military adventure starring women and non-binary people. And I’m excited to be writing a game that encourages queer content! And I’m excited to finally be working on a game that people actually want to play, unlike my weird harsh shit like Autonomy! Seriously. The Watch is already so good, and it’s not even done yet. I can’t wait to see what happens, and what awesome conversations it inspires next.

[1] Who, it should be noted, won a Silver Ennie at GenCon for his work as the co-designer of Urban Shadows! Well done!

[2] Several years ago, I ran a game of Zombie Cinema where some bros were playing women and they were the worst, most reductively stereotyped characters ever, and it was just painful.

[3] And, you know, that’s understandable. Privilege makes us believe that we aren’t complict in that harm, and even when we see the harm it makes us believe that our intentions (I didn’t mean to hurt you) matter more than the end result (I hurt you).

[4] Not because men are clueless or malicious! Simply because men are unaccustomed to doing the sorts of emotional labor around maintaining nontoxic group dynamics that women are commonly socialized into believing that they have to take on by default.

[5] Not to mention that Drew is generally an awesome collaborator who is fun to work with. That’s kinda nice too. I guess.

Indie publishers donate money to Pulse families and survivors [Freebie]

[Edited to add: The total has been updated to reflect a donation at the time that wasn’t reported back to me. Thanks to Emily Care-Boss for contributing and for letting me know.]

It’s been two and a half weeks now since the Pulse shooting in Orlando, Florida. Unfortunately, while I’ve seen some good, heartfelt conversations in private channels about the tragedy from those I know in the games community, the largest game publishing companies have been largely… silent.

At E3, the only AAA game publisher to address the Pulse shooting in their press conference was Microsoft, who led their event with a moment of silence. (Bethesda’s presenters did wear rainbow armbands, and their Twitter avatar was briefly given a rainbow background – though their avatar has been changed back already.) The lack of commentary from an industry famed for its continued reliance on misogyny, toxic masculinity, and heteronormativity to drive sales was disappointing, to say the least.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any contacts to speak of in the video games industry. But I do have contacts in the tabletop industry. Like, a lot of them. So I did some research and ended up contacting all of the indie publishers I know. Here’s a portion of the message that I sent:

The Pulse Tragedy

The mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando was a horrific tragedy that has already touched so many lives. But worse than the loss and trauma, there is a real fear that I have heard expressed by many of my LGBT friends about how to navigate a world that hates and fears them when even their safe spaces, their spaces of refuge, are not safe.

There are so many talented and wonderful LGBT people in game development – developers, publishers, editors, designers, writers, that have contributed so much to our hobby. Without their voices and their talent, our hobby would be infinitely poorer. Unfortunately, while there are LGBT-friendly enclaves within gaming, the hobby as a whole continues to be unwelcoming to LGBT gamers. And I think the lack of response by “leading lights” in the gaming industry might contribute to that perception of gaming as an unsafe space.

And I get it! It’s hard to know what to say or do in the face of such brutality! And it’s hard to figure out how to express support in ways that are meaningful beyond “thoughts and prayers” or in ways that center the conversation around your distress and not the real needs of the people affected.

So Here’s What I Propose

I would like to have an informal donation drive, of sorts, to have publishers come together and donate money to a charity directly doing the work of providing services to families and survivors; The GLBT Center of Central Florida is a charity that has already been providing these services – you can read about their ongoing efforts here.

And I’m pleased to be able to report that people stepped up. Because much as I devote a lot of space to the problems that the games community and industry faces, there are a lot of good and conscientious people on the publishing end of things who are trying to make a real difference.

The Outcome: $1173 Raised for the GLBT Center of Central Florida

Indie tabletop publishing is an industry with incredibly narrow profit margins – it’s tough when RPG consumers expect stunningly beautiful, art-rich, 300 page game books for rock-bottom prices. So I’m pleased to be able to say that between the ten publishers who participated, we were able to raise $1173 $1223 in contributions. Here are the publishers (in no particular order) who donated:

The contributions were made individually by each publisher, who communicated the amount of their donation to me, for the purposes of knowing the overall total only. Publishers were linked to the GoFundMe campaign as well as the direct PayPal donation link, so that contributing publishers could use whichever was more convenient or ethically preferable. (Myself, I prefer to avoid GoFundMe whenever possible, because of the company’s problematic business ethics.)

(It may be worth noting that Peach Pants Press (aka me) is one of the listed contributors. I don’t believe in asking people to do something that I wouldn’t do myself.)

I’m grateful for the contributions made by my publishing peers and hope that this can be at least a small step from one corner of the games publishing industry to indicate that we care about LGBT people, and want to continue doing what we can to make safer spaces within the gaming community. All too often, silence can feel like a lack of support and caring. This small gesture can’t possibly erase all of the awfulness that happens within our community, but hopefully we can signal that there are lots of people who make games who want to do what we can to continue making gaming spaces better – more safe, more inclusive, and more welcoming.

New 7th Sea core book: lots to be thrilled about, but still comes up short [LONG]

A few weeks ago, Mark Diaz Truman of Magpie Games approached me about doing a review of the art in the new 2nd Edition 7th Sea core book, in advance of the book’s final release. (7th Sea isn’t a Magpie product, it’s by John Wick, but it’s being project-managed by Mark and Marissa Kelly, who are 2 of the 3 owners of Magpie.) I thought this was pretty exciting, given that I had previously been a huge fan of the fantastically inclusive art direction in Urban Shadows, so I said that I would be very interested in taking him up on the offer of early access so that I could have time to work on the review.

It turns out that the 7th Sea art was simultaneously exciting and frustrating, in the same way I find BioWare games exciting and frustrating. 80% of the art in this book is so so good, and there is exciting stuff I have never seen in a game book before, period. Which is why I find the areas where the book falls short all the more frustrating! Because it’s a fantastic book, but in terms of representation of women it still falls short.

Analysis numbers

Just as I would do with any large game book, I went through and did counts of the gender distribution of figures in 7th Sea core book art. I won’t clutter this review with lots of pie charts, but all of the results that I reference in this post can be found in this Infogr.am here, if you’re curious for specific figures.

While there were a lot of things to be excited about, the gender breakdown ended up being only slightly better than D&D 5E’s player’s handbook; of all the figures counted in the 7th Sea corebook, 35% were women, 55% were men, and 10% were unknown – which is only 5% better than the 5E PHB’s 30% representation of women.

When I mentioned these initial results, it was suggested that overall representation of figures isn’t necessarily the same as representation of focal figures – a point that I don’t necessarily agree with but thought worth investigating. However, when I re-did my counts focusing only on focal figures and eliminating background figures, there was only a 2% increase in female representation – which isn’t exactly a significant difference.

That’s not to say that the 7th Sea core book is as universally poor at equitable representation as the 5E PHB or the Pathfinder books that I examined, however. When it came to single-character illustration, 7th Sea fell just shy of parity with 19 women (47.5%) to 21 men (52.5%), which means that group illustrations are where the numbers fell apart and dragged down the averages for the rest of the book; out of 43 group illustrations, 8 had only one woman out of 3 or more figures, and 7 more had no women whatsoever.

So, not absolutely terrible – not by a long shot. But given the people involved and the high quality of art directions on other projects Magpie has managed, certainly disappointing.

Now of course, numbers don’t always tell the whole story – and there are a number of things worth looking at in a bit more detail. (It’s worth noting that I don’t want to end on a negative – since my overall feelings about this book are quite positive – so don’t let the fact that the first half of this post is pretty critical mislead you into thinking that I’m saying this is a terrible book, because that’s really not the case.)

My personal pet peeve: when men are men and women are sexy 

One of my absolute least favorite kinds of stupid game cheesecake artist is when you have depictions of a man and a woman shown as the same character type where then man is completely covered and the woman is dressed more revealingly. So I was rather annoyed when I spotted not one, but two instances of this irritating trope.

The first are these depictions of male and female highlanders: Highlander-m-f

I do appreciate the fact that the dress in both of these instances is historically accurate, but showing the female highlander with a sword and shield while her top hangs low enough to show off quite a lot of cleavage? Aggravating. And while the number of layers she’s wearing makes it a bit difficult to say for sure, I suspect that there’s some hip-thrusting happening for a more appealing pose – which is irritating in comparison to the male highlander who has his feet firmly planted with his weight distributed evenly between both feet. In other words, the male highlander is depicted as heroic, while the female highlander is depicted as pretty.

Still, mildly irritating is still a whole lot better than actually infuriating, as is the case with the male and female Jarls:

vikings-m-f

The female highlander is at least historically accurate, while all semblance of accuracy for the female Jarl is discarded in favor of sexy historical-ish flavor. A shield maiden should have armor that actually provides coverage of her arms and tors0, not some sexy leather tunic with a plunging v-neck that shows off her great rack. The male Jarl is heavily armed and armored, while the female Jarl is just a fashion icon.

And sure, only 2 pieces in a nearly 300 pages book is pretty impressive, given the overall art density. And while the Jarless earns a whole lot of side-eye, she is definitely a damn sight better than a lot of the bullshit art I lampoon on this blog.

Gender imbalance in group images: either you’re good enough to be a hero or villain, or you’re invisible

It’s not enough to simply say that the group illustrations are where things fall apart, because they’re the ones dragging down the overall average, because that would convey the notion that the group images are universally terrible – and they’re really not.

There are a large number of two-character images, and the great majority of two-character images depict men and women together in equally strong and interesting roles. There are far too many to pick out, but here are some of my favorite examples:

awesome-duos

When it comes to the duo shots, women are depicted as strong, interesting, and in a variety of roles – from magic-wielding warrior, to powerful noble, to alchemist, to daring swashbuckler. And there’s a lot to love! I love how the upward perspective on the female warrior in the first image is purely for heroic emphasis and not to emphasize her [ahem] feminine attributes, which is a gratingly common trope in fantasy art. I also love how angry the female noble looks as she steps on the back of the dead man at her feet, or how it looks like the female alchemist is the one running the show and the man is just her lab assistant. And the dueling swashbuckler? Epic.

Which is why it’s so disappointing that when the focus widens to larger depictions of the world, society, or a larger group of individuals, that things fall apart in a pretty bad way. 16% of the group images in the book don’t have any women at all, such as this illustration here:

no-fem-sailors

Admittedly, 5 of the 8 figures have no gender, but the three focal figures in this image are all gendered as male – which is disappointing given that the text says that women can do just about anything within the world of Theah.

Even so, that image isn’t nearly so egregious as this image, which comes from the section describing the Samartian parliament as being tremendously egalitarian, because Samartian citizen – regardless of background – may participate in the parliamentary process:

sarmatian-parliament

I see an awful lot of skin tones on display, but there are TWELVE MEN, and only one woman – who isn’t by any means focal. This lack of imagination on the part of the artist is as depressing as it is predictable. When told to depict a government, they drew mostly men with a token woman. Granted, that’s slightly better than the percent of female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies (4.4%), but not much! In a book that depicts tales of swashbuckling, heroism, magic, and adventure, I’d hope that it wouldn’t be too much to imagine that women might actually participate in public service.

Now that image has the most skewed gender ratio of any image in the book, but nearly every other image in the book that depicted 3 or more characters had more men than women – and usually by a large margin. (There were a few notable exceptions, like the image with five female witches, but those were more the exception that proved the rule.) 1 woman to 4 men seemed to be one of the most common gender ratios in group images, such as:

1-woman-witch

One villainess, four focal male figures. And sure they’re all cowering from her, and she’s center focus, but that doesn’t change the fact that there aren’t any other visibly female figures in what looks to be a pretty crowded public space.

It happens with images of heroes too:

crowd-1-fem

Again, one woman – this time a hero – and 4 men. I do appreciate that in this instance, the woman looks heroic and capable, but the fact that in all of the 7th Sea core books henchpeople are depicted as nearly universally male is disappointing. In either good or evil, it seems that in Theah if you are spectacularly exceptional, you can aspire to be a true hero or a true villain – but if you are female and ordinary, well best keep you out of sight.

You even see this on the cover of the book:
Cover

And man that’s frustrating – because this cover is awesome. I absolutely love how fucking badass the female hero on the cover looks – the pose and cocky expression are just fantastic. Morever, she’s centrally placed, not just shoved off to one side – which is a thing that you see on an awful lot of fantasy RPG covers with similar ratios of gender representation. This is a great cover! It would just be nice if it had more than one woman.

Things that fucking rock

I’ve gone on at some length already about the things that frustrate me about this book – but there really is a lot in this book that I’m quite happy about! Like the copious quantities of completely awesome female characters:

awsum-laydeez

You don’t even know how hard it was restricting myself to just a few favorites. There are so many examples of strong, active, and awesome women of all types – women that get to interact dynamically with their environment. Each of these women is a character that I would absolutely love to play – and in general the depiction of women as consistently appealing avatar characters in this book is fantastic. For all that I’ve devoted a lot of space to complaining about “where are the women??” – the standard of depiction for women who do appear in the book is one that a lot of other mainstream RPGs would have difficulty living up to.

However, how the 7th Sea core book really sets a new high-water mark is in its depiction of gay relationships between heroic characters:

gay-kisses

It’s possible that I may have seen lesbians that weren’t outrageously pornified in a trad RPG text, although if I have I can’t remember it. But I know that I have never seen a gay kiss in a mainstream RPG – so even by that standard this art is groundbreaking. But better than that, these depictions are genuinely fantastic depictions of gay romance. Both sets of characters are appealing avatar characters and not Evil Gays! And in both images, the romance is shown as tender and genuine and real – which knocks my goddamn socks off.

In Conclusion

Obviously, 7th Sea is a game property with an enormous amount of reach and popularity. Given that it raised 1.3million on Kickstarter, an awful lot of publishers are going to be looking to learn lessons from the 7th Sea phenomenon. So despite my disappointment that I feel like the new core book didn’t live up to its potential with its representation of women, overall I feel pretty encouraged that this represents a large step in the right direction when it comes to overall inclusiveness of art direction in a mainstream RPG product – given the influence that this product will have over future mainstream RPG products. And it’s definitely my hope that Magpie can continue to improve upon what they’ve already done. There’s still an awful lot of 7th Sea content in production, and hopefully they’ll take all of this into consideration and work on finding ways to do even better.