Terra Mystica: a terrain-based Eurogame with puzzlingly bad art


My husband and I are board game aficionados, to the point where we actually try not to buy board games; we have a games closet that has already overflowed into basement storage, not to mention the fact that with a toddler in the house we just don’t have the time for board games (or really any kind of games) that we did pre-child. However, the exception to this rule for the last few years has been my yearly trip to GenCon, when Kit sends me with a shopping list of things to acquire – which is how I wound up purchasing Terra Mystica.

It’s not something that I would have purchased on my own; Terra Mystica is a eurogame[1] – which I tend to find hit or miss. (Also, I was annoyed at my husband for making me buy something full of hundreds of wooden tokens that I had to carry around all day. Terra Mystica is HEAVY!) More importantly, though, the art is pretty bullshit. Each of the game’s 12 factions is pictured on the box, and only 3 of 12 are gendered as female. And of course, the female-gendered art is some grade-A bullshit:



Great. So the two choices for the Green faction, which is tied to Forests and is thus the most “nature-ish” are both flavors of breastacular. And of course we have Mermaids, because Mermaids.

This is something that I actually found sufficiently irritating in our initial game (which has a suggested setup for faction selection when you’re playing with people who have never played the game before) that I refused to play female-gendered anything and played the Halflings instead as I didn’t want to deal with having to look at this bullshit cheesecake right in the middle of my damn play mat while I was trying to make decisions about how best to allocate my resources.

Now to be fair, the Witches do almost manage not to be bullshit. The fur bustier is pretty ridiculous, but she’s got a cloak and hasn’t been twisted into some ridiculous pose meant to show off her feminine “attributes”. It really wouldn’t have taken much for the witches to be actually not-terrible, unlike the Auren. She has the stiffest, most rigid breasts that are completely unaffected by gravity, and the drape of her garment only obscures enough to make things even more confusing. Like, where is her left leg? Does she have a left leg? What about her spine? What is it doing? And why is her torso such a perfect cylinder? That’s really not how ribcages work.

Even the Auren can’t compete with the Mermaid, though, who is so very broken that I decided it was time to do a redraw[2], since it’s been a while since I’ve done one of those. Looking at her, it seemed pretty clear to me that the artist had one priority in mind – show her breasts front and center and don’t let anything like “anatomy” or “perspective” get in the way of that.

I realize that the perspective of the pose does make it a bit difficult to tease out what’s going on here, so first let’s start with a draw-over:


Looking at this, I imagine the artist’s inner monologue while drawing the Mermaid went something like this: “Face. Okay, hot, because no ugly chicks. Also, she’s a mermaid so we gotta see her tits. Arms? Eh, I dunno, let’s just half ass some shoulders and slap some arms on there. I can hide the one arm behind her hair and nobody will pay attention, because boobs, right? And then, I dunno. A tail. Who cares about that, you can’t have sex with that part, so whatever.”


So there are a lot of things that are just flat-out wrong, and all in the name of putting TEH BREASTS front-and-center. First, how about her face, which looks to be sliding down and to the left? Because if she is looking UP and to the RIGHT, her face should not be DOWN and too the LEFT. I know this may seem like a minor quibble, but given the number of factors that seem to point to the artist literally not caring about anything other than her tits…

Her arms are an even bigger problem, and seem to be tacked on mostly because that’s a thing that people are supposed to have, right? At first look, it looked to me as though her right arm was bending backwards, but now I honestly can’t tell which way it’s supposed to bend. I do know that with her upper arm at that angle, that degree of foreshortening on the lower arm wouldn’t be possible, because human elbows just don’t bend in such a way that her arm could possibly be correct. Her left arm is even worse – the artist just hid it behind her hair, waved his hands and said “foreshortening”. Which. No. Given that the hand on that arm appears to be the same size as the hand on her right arm, which is supposed to be much closer to the viewer, there’s no way that foreshortening would account for what is going on with that arm.

The biggest problem of all, however, is her damn spine. In order for the viewer to have that full a view of her breasts and for her tail to be at that angle, it would require actually snapping her spine in half at a ninety degree angle, not to mention that it would also require not actually giving her a sufficient ribcage in which to store vital internal organs.

Now part of any redraw involves actually correcting the pose once the flaws have been pointed out. However, back bends are difficult – sufficiently difficult that I’m turning to pictures of yoga from Wikimedia Commons to help me cheat:


This level of back bend is just about the limit of human bending ability, short of actual contortionism[3]. I happen to think that it’s pretty damn unlikely that a swimming Mermaid is going to voluntarily twist herself into this sort of position while swimming, but it is important when doing these exercises (at least it is to me) to honor the spirit of the pose and replicate it as close as possible.

Now this picture is a side view, rather than a 3/4 front view, but it was still useful as a reference of what should go where, once I flipped it around to the appropriate angle:


There are several things worth noting here. First, regarding her breasts – when breasts hang – they become elongated and DO NOT retain a spherical shape. Admittedly, water would diminish this effect, but not eliminate it completely.

Second, when her spine is arched properly and NOT snapped in half, you should be able to see her rib cage clearly underneath her breasts. The breasts are flesh sacks hanging off the pectorals, which are attached to the front of the rib cage. They would not completely obscure the thing to which they are attached.

As for her arms, I can’t guarantee that they are totally correct – I would have needed to get assistance in having someone take my picture while I was twisting my arms around in front of a mirror, and as my neck and shoulders haven’t been too happy with me of late I figured I wouldn’t push it. However, while I’m not sure about her left arm (foreshortening is haaaard), her right arm should be pretty close to correct.

Lastly, her tail is where I’m on the weakest footing, given that I know human anatomy but am not not conversant on fish anatomy. Still, it seems that most artists draw the lower half of mermaids as though they were two legs fused with fish skin, so that’s the approach that I have taken – which means that her tail would not be able to fold in on itself to such an extreme degree.

Interestingly, when you look at my redrawn version, it doesn’t look all that much different – sure lots of things have been tweaked but the general structure has been retained, right? Well… Look what happens when I plunk the original pose (outlined in red) over top of the newly redrawn pose:


In deciding how to line her up, I made her head the same size as the redraw for the purposes of aligning the two versions. I nearly decided to use her breasts as the point of alignment, but that would have inflated her head to somewhat freaky proportions, so I left it as is. Which really emphasizes how incredibly squished this poor woman was. Anything that didn’t contribute to TEH SEXAY was either an extreme afterthought or completely removed.

Which, you know, call me crazy but if you’re going to sexually objectify women in your game art, can they at least look like real people? Because random assortments of ill-fitting body parts assembled in a haphazard fashion aren’t just unsexy, they’re creepy and unsettling. Which is distracting, when I am trying to figure out how to allocate my SEVENTY BILLION DIFFERENT RESOURCES in order to take my turn.

[1] Hundreds and hundreds of tokens! So many moving parts! Badly translated rulebooks that are confusing to parse! Super-complex strategy!
[2] And of course, having decided this I could NOT find my tablet’s stylus, so this was done using my old monoprice tablet. I apologize for the shakiness of the lines.
[3] As a matter of fact, I do know an actual contortionist who can sit on her own head. It’s weird and I refuse to call that a human ability, regardless of the fact that she is human and can do it. That level of contortionism requires some serious monkeying around with all sorts of stuff that usually does not get monkeyed with.

Reflections on Autonomy and embodied experiences of patriarchy [LONG]

This post is fragmented, and maybe bit disjointed, because my thoughts are similarly fragmented and disjointed; my apologies if it’s a bit hard to follow. I’ll also note that the people named in this post are all friends who were very influential over the initial game and my thoughts in the aftermath. So many thanks to Mikael, Aaron, Drew, and Amelia for agreeing to let me write about them.

Several months ago, I came up with a game concept that started out as an elaborate misandry joke. I’m honestly not sure what inspired it, beyond the fact that something happened to remind me of the debacle that was the House panel on contraception and religious liberty that actually featured an all-male lineup of witnesses, after the one female witness – Sandra Fluke – wasn’t allowed to testify. And suddenly it occurred to me that taking that entire scenario and simply swapping the genders would make for a gloriously misandrist LARP. I could teach men to behave like women, women to behave like men, and then we could sit around and torture a bunch of men for an hour of so of hilariously misandrist entertainment.

It was an idea that I wound up sitting on for several months, mostly because I thought it was a joke idea for a joke game and the games I’ve been working on lately have all been quite a bit more serious. That is, until there was a flap about game design and gender in a gaming community that I am a part of that made me think, “hey wait – maybe this isn’t a joke game I’m thinking about. Maybe this is a thing that needs to exist”. So I started tentatively talking about it to a few people in my gaming circles, and was surprised when it was men who were the most vehement about this needing to be a thing. It was over dinner at GenCon, after talking about my idea for the game and how I didn’t know if I should write it, that Mikael told me very earnestly that I should write the game because men needed to be uncomfortable.

Ultimately, we made a deal that led to me writing the first draft of the game. He agreed to run a different game I’d played at GenCon (and really wanted to play back in Canada) if I would finish Autonomy and run it at an upcoming mini-con we were both attending at the end of August. And it’s a good thing that he got me to make that deal, because otherwise I probably wouldn’t have bothered finishing it.

Anyone who has read my blog for any amount of time knows that I love misandry jokes – and with good reason. Men are shitty to me online (no, of course not all men, but enough), and to other women that I care deeply about. There’s only so many times you can be called a fat, ugly, jealous, man-hating feminazi before you start needing to find ways to distance yourself from the abuse that people are hurling at you. And misandry jokes are a way to do that, at least for me. KILL ALL MEN, amirite?

The problem is that at the heart of the joke, there’s a kernel of truth. The people who have hurt me the worst, that I am most afraid of, that I have to be most careful around are all men. There’s a reason why I used to describe myself as a misanthrope and now mostly describe myself as a misandrist. Because I realized that I don’t actually hate humanity, I just hate patriarchy.

I knew that in order for Autonomy to be successful, I would need to force players to have an embodied experience of gender opposite to their own daily lived experience[1]. And for that I knew I was going to need help, because while I was sure that I could teach men to assume typically feminine posture and body language, I knew that I needed help in knowing how to do the reverse.

Which is how I wound up having coffee with Aaron, as the two of us chatted about typically masculine body language and how to describe it. He wound up surfing PUA blogs (so I didn’t have to) to mine them for material, and the two of us were laughing and groaning and generally having a good time as we talked about “OH MY GOD that is a thing that men do isn’t this hilarious”.

At some point, Aaron observed that a lot of typically masculine body language is simply being willing to take up space – to say this space is mine, and that space in front of you is also mine. And then he abruptly leaned forward, keeping his spine very straight and looking straight at me as he planted his elbows so that he was occupying two thirds of the small table we were sitting at. And it was incredibly threatening.

As soon as I said so, he backed off immediately, but that feeling of threat was itself a revelation. Aaron is someone who describes himself as “approximately mannish”. Despite being tall he tends to slouch, and generally does a lot to not seem terribly masculine. As such, he is one of the least threatening men that I know. So the idea that he could intentionally perform masculinity at me and make me feel threatened was a bit unnerving.

After talking for a minute, Aaron said that he’d like to try it again, but a slightly different way. When I said it was all right, he repeated the gesture, but that time he made it slow, deliberate. Lean, plant one elbow, plant the other – keep eye contact the whole time. And despite knowing that it was going to happen, knowing that he was going to try to make me uncomfortable, it still worked. The slow, deliberate display of masculine body language was actually more menacing than the first time.

Running the game at the mini-con was quite an experience.

Despite being completely terrified (I had never written or facilitated a LARP before), I made a point of taking charge and not showing my discomfort. I took up space. I performed physical dominance and verbally dominated men, using the social power that the LARP’s scenario gave me to shut them down and humiliate them for the simple “crime” of playing real people with real emotions. The essence of the idea for Autonomy was creating a situation and social dynamic that would make men feel the way that I have felt, and I ran with that. I pushed the men to their limits, and beyond in a few cases – something I regret intensely.

Because contrary to my initial conceptions of “oh hey, wouldn’t it be fun to turn this around and be the one with all the power for a little while”, it wasn’t fun. While having coffee with Aaron, the two of us had giggled gleefully about his suggestions for sadistic things that could be done to the male players. (Make them apologize for introducing their characters! Have them introduce their characters while the female players listen with silent expressions of disgust!) But actually playing the game was agonizing. Because here I was, replicating an experience that has literally made me sick in the past, and I was doing it on purpose.

The instant the game was over and we sat down for the debrief, the very first thing I did was to cross my arms and ankles as I all but folded in on myself, going from masculine to feminine body language in an instant, and the very first words out of my mouth were a plaintive “I’m sorry”.

Because I should have known! I should have known that being “men” wouldn’t be “better”, because hurting someone the way that you’ve been hurt just because you can is a terrible feeling. And teaching other people to do the same is even worse. And being the person who had conceived of what seemed like this horrible idea? That felt the worst of all.

Autonomy consists of three distinct phases. There is a workshop on gendered body language, a workshop on gendered speech, and then there is the actual roleplaying portion where the hearing itself is played out. And the game did exactly what I thought it would do, which was equal parts surprising and not. (Imposter Syndrome Me was worried about running an alpha draft of a game, while Game Design Me was fairly certain it would do what it said on the tin.) What I wasn’t prepared for was how hard it would be to facilitate as the person who designed it.

I spotted cracks in facades almost right away. Amelia played the lone Democrat. She had the unenviable position of trying to play a clueless privileged person who still got crapped on by the less progressive people in power, and I knew that she wasn’t doing okay. I tried to keep an eye on her, but it was hard; it was raining and we all had our hoods up and she’s pretty good at keeping up a stone-face when she wants to. Then there was Aaron, who almost inverted himself over the course of play, taking the instruction to not occupy space as literally as possible. Near the end of the LARP, he actually called brake, which I’ve never seen him do. And Drew…

I’d actually talked over the design with Drew, and once play began he started out by giving me little smirks to acknowledge well-delivered twists of the knife. But as things kept going, the looks he gave me got less amused and more angry, and I could watch the wall he had set up to distance himself from the experience crumbling until I had to stop looking at him all together because it was just too hard to keep punishing him for his gender when I could see how it was making him feel.

When play ended, Amelia went and hugged Aaron and sobbed. Once she’d calmed down some, Aaron bowed out of the debrief – when he came back he said that he’d almost puked. Drew couldn’t even speak when it was his turn – he asked to be last and we skipped over him until he was able to talk about it. And yet all three of them, indeed everyone there, thanked me for running the game and told me that it was important, and I hated hearing them say it.

“I should have known,” he said. He was crying, and before that day I’d never seem him so much as tear up outside of a game. “It was only 35 minutes and I never want to feel that way again, and I have that option and you don’t.”

We were crammed in the backseat of a too-small-for-that-many-people car on our way home from the mini-con where we’d played Autonomy. As with any trip home from a convention, we were tired, slap happy, and in that sleep-deprived state where everything feels simultaneously too real and not real at all. The driver hadn’t played Autonomy, but was curious to hear about it since the rest of us had. And though this friend had been guarded in his responses during the debrief, now he was crying.

The same friend for whom arm punching and trolling were signs of affection, with whom I had joked about emotions being something that you bury behind humor and try not to acknowledge. And here he was crying about his sorrow about what his female friends experienced, and his shame that he hadn’t known, hadn’t understood, despite seeing it every day.

Part of the gendered speech workshop involves getting men to state an objective fact as personal opinion while women state a personal opinion as objective fact. In play, this devolved a bit into men saying things that were true and women telling them they were wrong – which was simultaneously hilarious and sad.

The day after the game, Drew turned to me and jokingly said “I think, I might, you know, be sort of hungry?”. He was smirking at his use of hedging statements, another part of the gendered speech workshop.

“No.” I said firmly. “You’re wrong. That’s not how hunger works”. And then I lost my shit as the two of us laughed uproariously.

Two weeks later, I found myself having dinner with some friends – a man and a woman. The woman asked what I’d been up to, so I started updating her on what was going on in my life and some of the convoluted bullshit I’m dealing with right now. Or at least that’s what I was trying to do, except the man kept interrupting me to explain “the context”. Of my life. That he hadn’t lived. And it kept getting more and more flagrant until I had to excuse myself and go to the bathroom, where I texted Drew about how angry I was about how I can’t even be trusted as an expert about my own fucking life. And suddenly my joke about “that’s not how hunger works” was a lot less funny.

[1] It’s worth noting that elements of the design of Autonomy are problematic with regard to issues of trans and nonbinary gender identity, in that there are only two choices of character gender: male and female. Autonomy also encourages the use of gender essentialist language and the equating of biology with gender. These are all intentional design choices; it is definitely a design goal that the flipping of this problematic language should highlight issues of cissexism as much as “vanilla” sexism, and that is something I am definitely focusing on playtesting.

Rape is not edgy, creative, or original [TW][CW]

[Trigger/Content Warning for frank discussions of awful portrayals of rape]

This isn’t the post that I was going to write today.

Originally, I had been planning on writing about my experience facilitating a game (that I wrote) called Autonomy, which centers around forcing men to have an embodied experience of sexism and gender-based injustice. It was a powerful, cathartic, and borderline traumatic (in a good way!) experience that I do very much want to share.

But all of that was before a friend linked to this piece by Emma Boyle on Gadgette, in which she writes about the character Quiet in the new Metal Gear Solid: Phantom Pain, and the many and sundry ways that Quiet is very much not an empowered feminist-friendly character:


And now there are so many fucked up things about her design that I want to yell at the internet about! So very, very many fucked up things! Like:

  • Quiet is arguably the least clothed female character in the MGS series (it’s a little hard to tell in this screenshot, but those are ripped nylons that Quiet is wearing, not pants), which is – frankly – sort of impressive, given how very not clothed many female characters in the MGS series are.
  • Quiet doesn’t dress that way because she chooses to; she dresses that way because she has to. Her backstory is that she’s photosynthetic, so wearing clothes would LITERALLY SUFFOCATE HER. You know, BECAUSE SCIENCE.
  • Speaking of BECAUSE SCIENCE, there is another character in the MGS series – The End – who is also photosynthetic, who does actually get to wear clothes. You know, on account of him not being a woman. (Funny, that.)
  • Quiet also DOESN’T TALK. At all. Because really, isn’t it just so hard to objectify a woman when she goes and opens her mouth and reminds you that she’s a human being with thoughts, feelings, and an inner life of her own? Yeah. Better to have her just not talk at all.
  • And let’s not forget the shit cherry on the shit sundae: the series creator, Hideo Kojima, tried to shame people who expressed concern about the problematic design of the character by saying that once the full story was released, critics would “feel ashamed of their words and deeds”. Because it’s important to not lose sight of the fact that of course people who are expressing criticism of a fictional character who embodies many problematic tropes are the bad guys, not the guy who actually created the character in the first place.


All of those things are fucked up, and any of them are things that I could easily get a full-length post out of. However, the thing that I am angriest about is the disturbingly scripted near-rape sequence that Quiet is only able to save herself from because sexualization:

At a later point in the game there’s a distressing scene where Quiet is attacked. Quiet is taken captive and dressed in prisoner clothing, which, in covering her skin, causes her to slowly suffocate. In this scene, a guard grabs Quiet by the throat and forces her head into a tank of water, holding her head under the surface until she stops resisting him. The camera zooms in on her lifeless face, holding there whilst the player can hear the sound of a zip being undone and Quiet’s clothing being removed. It’s with this removal of her clothing that Quiet’s skin is once again exposed and, able to breathe, she overpowers her attackers and escapes a grotesque rape. There’s a video, but we’re not going to link to it because it’s triggering and horrible. — Emma Boyle, Gadgette – A games company just came up with the worst excuse ever for their half-dressed female character

It’s bad enough that the BECAUSE SCIENCE that is used to justify Quiet being so undressed in the first place actually extends to the point that wearing clothes will actually kill her. Because as much as I hate choice feminism (“what I choose is automatically feminist because I identify as a feminist and I choose it”), that would still actually be better than a female character created by men whose only two choices are 1) wear revealing clothing or 2) die. But the near-rape on top of all that is, honestly, repellant. Repugnant. Horrifying.

And sadly, I’m pretty positive that Hideo Kojima thought that he was being “edgy” and “creative”. “Hey look! I set up a character who needs to expose skin to live, so that later when the villains think she is powerless and they want to victimize her they’re actually giving her what she needs to get the power to save herself! What a reversal! Hot damn, I am a genius!”


And here’s why:


“Edgy” is the word that a lot of (male) creators like to use when they describe work that contains rape or attempted rape as a plot point. But here’s the problem with that.

Work that is legitimately edgy is either at the forefront of a trend or the start of an entirely new trend. It is experimental or avant-garde, and by fucking definition definitely not mainstream.

Now I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but rape is kind of an epidemic in our society, and it’s been that way for, I dunno, just about all of fucking human history. Still, one might be able to make a claim that art featuring rape was “edgy” if our media and culture actually recognized the horror of the prevalence of rape in our society and it was taboo to portray rape and sexual violence in art. But rape in media, especially geek media, is depressingly common.

And yet, there are all these creators, these male creators who think that using rape to make their work DARK and GRITTY somehow makes their work “edgy” – because somehow they all lose sight of the fact that GRIMDARK is the new mainstream. You see it from creators like Hideki Kamiya’s portrayal of Bayonetta as a sexually “empowered” and “liberated” woman who still suffers rape as a penalty for mechanical failure. Or George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series, which is often touted as this revolutionary work of “realistic”, “edgy” “dark fantasy” – and yet everything about the books only reflects the power dynamics of patriarchy as it exists in the real world. Even Joss Whedon, whose work I am actually a fan of despite his tendency to fall into the same problematic traps regarding gender and race repeatedly, tried with Dollhouse to write a series that would be challenging and thought-provoking and wound up just being uncomfortably rapey.

In order to be truly, legitimately edgy, Phantom Pain would have to actively subvert and reverse common gender tropes and stereotypes. Instead, everything about the game, writing, and character design only serves to reinforce the status quo of patriarchy – which makes it about as far from edgy as it is possible to get.


The reliance of geek writers on rape isn’t creative. Creativity is experimenting with new thoughts, ideas, and processes to create something original. It’s taking something familiar and using it in a way that it wasn’t intended for, or using it in a way that it’s never been used before. It’s throwing out ideas about how a problem “should” be solved and trying approaches that “shouldn’t” work just to see what happens. Creativity is not reaching for the same tool every time you have a problem that needs solving, even if that tool is not the ideal tool for the problem at hand. When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail. And the problem is that for a depressingly large number of (usually but not exclusively) male writers, their go-to hammer is rape.

But when the default answer to “I need to show this person is evil, how do I do that” is “rape”, that’s not creative.

When the default answer is “I need to have this female character had to have overcome adversity in the past, what is it that she has overcome” is “rape”, that’s not creative.

When the default answer to “I need this female character to suffer a setback, what should happen to cause that setback” is “rape”, that is not creative.

I could write thousands, if not tens of thousands of words about how unbelievably fucking common rape is in geek media. But I’ve already done that, or tried to, and I was only able to just barely scratch the surface. It would be entirely possible to devote this blog to only writing about rape in gaming, and I would still never run out of material because seriously gaming is legit kind of obsessed with rape and it’s depressing.


It’s to the point where my advice to creators is now – does your idea include rape? Great. Scrap it and start over. Because I have literally never seen an instance of rape in any piece of media that I have consumed that I would say was handled well.

Every time I have seen rape in a piece of media, it has been about deprotagonizing women, either by punishing them for being strong or explaining their strength by victimizing in their backstory. It is about reducing women to plot objects that can be violated for the sake of story whenever it is convenient.

And it’s always about the reactions OF THE MEN to the rape, and never about the victim’s experience and journey. What’s important when someone (almost always a woman) is raped in a piece of fiction is how that rape gives strength of conviction and tragic purpose to the male protagonist in achieving their Plot Objective. You never get to experience stories about the experiences of the victim, of trying to navigate a system that blames and re-victimizes women for their own rapes, or of trying to balance recovery with the expectations of how “good” victims should behave – expectations which are often at odds with what will actually help in recovering.

Even when you have a character get raped and then get revenge on their rapist, that is such a simplistic, reductive take on rape that just isn’t helpful. The reality of rape is that in many cases, women have social, practical, or emotional ties to their attackers and violently attacking or killing their rapist would only be further traumatizing. That sort of story line also comes with the implication that women who don’t want to lash out violently at their attacker feel that way because they are weak. And if they were truly strong and “empowered”, they would hurt their attacker just as bad as they themselves were hurt, if not worse.

So despite the fact that I’m really not a fan of blanket “just don’t write about [x] in [y]” type rules, I’m calling it. We’re done. We all had our chance and we proved we couldn’t handle the responsibility. So from now on, JUST DON’T FUCKING WRITE ABOUT RAPE.

D&D 5E Core Books: Smurfettes and Sexy Corpses

Well folks, I lied when I said that I was going to focus exclusively on specific pieces of art in today’s post, because there is one very important meta-trend that I forgot. So, since I’ve already sunk more than 3800 words into this series already, let’s just jump straight to business.

Art Trend #3: Smurfette Syndrome

In the first post in this series, I talked about representation of women in group shots and how on the face of it the core books tended to do better  remembering to represent women in those than in the single-character shots – in which women were greatly underrepresented. However, the difference in representation between group shots and single-character illustrations is greatly exaggerated by the way that I counted, because I wasn’t actually looking at gender balance of figures within a group shot. I was just counting if a group shot contained women.

And depressingly, there were a significant number of group images that only contained ONE female character:


The first image might be a little unfair, given that there are two prominently placed female hero characters getting into a serious brawl in the foreground. However, if you take a look at the rest of the figures in the bar, ALL of the patrons shown in the background are men and the only other woman is a goddamn barmaid. The far right image, however, is more typical of what I’m talking about. On the face of it, I like the design of the female thief – she’s an interesting-looking WoC who looks like she’s a pretty capable lady. However, when you look at the image as a whole, the other characters all have discernable character traits – like “bruiser” or “mastermind”, whereas the female thief’s only discernable character trait is “woman”, which just exemplifies the problem with the Smurfette approach to group shot composition. Men can be anything you can imagine while women can be pretty.

The most ridiculous example, however, is the middle image which depicts a battlefield teeming with heroes and monsters, and only contains ONE figure that is discenably female. Because apparently it is easier to conceive of a titanic battle against ogres and skeletons and other monsters than it is to imagine a world where more than one woman might be found on a battlefield.

And it’s sad, because in some regards D&D has made great strides; when it comes to illustrations that are meant to depict a party of adventurers (ie player avatars), it’s clear that a lot of thought and care is being taken to balance gender and other factors. But that same level of care obviously isn’t being applied to the world itself, and the end result is a world creepily devoid of women. (Seriously. Where are they??)

Specific Things That Are Messed Up #1: Conditions

There are lots of specific illustrations that I could rant about, but instead I’m just going to hit the lowlights, as it were. Going from least to most fucked up, we’ll start with the illustrations done for conditions, found in the PHB:


This is some of the worst “heroes are always men” bullshit that I have seen in a fucking long time. Sure it includes women, but take a look at what roles they occupy. You have a princess, a witch who is obviously not a PC, and a woman who is too scared of a monster to fight. Way to implicitly tell women that they can’t hack it as adventurers, WotC.

…please excuse me while I go punch the world in the face.

Specific Messed Up Thing #2: Vampire and Vampire Spawn

Perhaps my least favorite pair of illustrations in the Monster Manual are the illustrations for Vampire and Vampire Spawn respectively:


To be honest, when I sat down to try to explain just why this made me so angry, all I could muster was the urge to furiously bang my keyboard.

Thankfully, aggressively curating my circles means that I have some wonderfully intelligent friends on G+, and they were more than happy to point out a whole host of reasons why this was pretty fucked up. (Paraphrasing their words here):

  • 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 out on this one.)

Specific Messed Up Thing #3: Women as nurses and sexy corpses

The set of images that most raised my ire were these images from the DMG. These are the only three images in the core books that deal with the aftermath of battle from a PC perspective (there are several of a party of PCs surveying the damage after they have obviously murdilated a bunch of dudes and/or monsters):




Looking at the image on the far left, you have a woman being cradled in the arms of a man. She’s suffered a gut wound, and there don’t seem to be any clerics or other sources of divine healing nearby, which reads to me as though she’s dying. I’ll admit that I do appreciate the way that he’s comforting her – there’s some real tenderness there which isn’t something that you often see in fantasy artwork of this nature. But given how the woman’s arms are raised and she’s clearly about to deliver some Touching Last Words That Will Imbue The Hero With Tragic Purpose To Achieve The Plot Point And Avenge The Woman He Couldn’t Save, it still leaves a bad fucking taste in my mouth.

But AT LEAST as awful as the subtext in the first image is, the woman isn’t being depicted as a SEXY CORPSE, like in the middle illustration. Yes she’s about to have (presumably) a scroll of resurrection recited over her, so she’ll get to not be dead, but look at how she’s twisted around to emphasize the sexy bits, especially that ridiculous fucking boobplate. (Which isn’t as bad as the boobplate in my previous post, but is still pretty fucking bad.) And of course, the cherry on the shit sundae is how she died by getting STABBED IN THE BOOBS.

Which. Seriously. What? NO.

First, the wound depicted would require her to have been stabbed through the sternum, which is one of the hardest points to penetrate on the human body – and with good reason. Your sternum protects some pretty important shit. Second, in order to penetrate BOTH her armor AND sternum with sufficient force to cause lethal damage, there would have to be a much bigger hole in her armor than that tiny-ass hole. I understand wanting to depict sanitized violence, but come on. It’s obvious that the artist just wanted to draw a dead lady who was dead from getting stabbed in the tits because tits.

So it isn’t so much the last image that I am angry about as the contrast between the last image and the first two. Those are some pretty fucking serious wounds that our male warrior friend is getting seen to; the chest wound especially could have been potentially very serious depending on the amount of blood lost. But don’t worry, ladies! He’ll live to fight another day. That is, after he grits his teeth and gets to be all stoic and stuff, and maybe talk a little about how being a hero is a hard job and somebody has to do it and he’d rather it be him than some kid who’s totally unprepared. And then maybe he’ll stare broodingly into the middle distance for a long while before banging that hot elf nurse chick.

I wanted this to be better

The depressing thing about writing this series of posts is that I wound up having so much material to work with. Hell, I have things in my notes that I may come back to and write about later, because it turns out there’s a surprising amount of messed up material enshrined in Forgotten Realms canon that doesn’t come across from just flipping through the books and looking at pictures. But I’d rather not beat a dead horse, so if it’s something I write about I will have to come back to it later.

And that’s not a great feeling, because frankly D&D 5E is still so much better than an awful lot of games out there! Because for all that I can point at specific pieces of art and rant about why they are messed up, at least doing better at depicting women is a priority for the D&D team and they are working on getting better at it. Which is, sadly, more than can be said for a pretty fucking huge portion of the industry.

So as much as I’ve gone on at length about things that D&D has gotten wrong, I feel it’s important to close by noting that they are moving things in the right direction and I hope that they continue to do so.

D&D 5E Core Books: Numbers Aren’t the Whole Story [LONG][MANY IMAGES]

In my last post, I wrote a detailed breakdown of the representation of women in the 5th Edition D&D core books, along with a basic analysis of what those numbers meant. However, as is the case with any numbers post that I do, it’s also important to note that numbers inevitably don’t capture the nuances of depiction that can be important to consider:

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.

…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.

To be honest, in going through the images (and there are a lot of them), I would be hard-pressed to nail down a definitive reason for why the numbers appear so much more equitable than the reality. But I can at least speak to some broad trends:

But first, an aside

As mentioned last time, one of the things that struck me about the imbalanced depiction of women was that it was “best” (ie most balanced) in the PHB and “worst” in the Monster Manual, with the DMG falling squarely in the middle. But once I took some time to reflect on that, it actually wasn’t all that surprising.

Consider that the PHB is aimed at depicting characters that would make appealing avatars in a game. Since WotC is taking greater pains to not alienate women, it makes sense that the art direction would be strongest with regard to cutting down on bullshit depictions of women in the PHB. In a very real sense, the art in the PHB is a reflection of what the players can aspire to be in the context of the D&D universe, so art that only depicts women as sexy objects to be consumed by a presumed male viewer would be counterproductive to the goal of getting more women to play the game.

The DMG, however, is focused just as much as on depicting the world and opposition that the PCs will face as it is on depicting avatar characters. And the Monster Manual is used pretty much only as an aid to the GM in fleshing out antagonists the PCs will face. (There are some circumstances, say if you play a shifter druid, where the Monster Manual can be used as a player supplement, but those circumstances are comparatively rare.) Consequently, the less explicitly player-focused the book is, the worse the art seems to get.

And, obviously, that sucks! Because honestly, yes it’s nice that D&D is doing better at portraying female characters who function as player avatars. But only doing well at player-avatars is it’s own special brand of fucked up, because you’re essentially saying that women who are heroes (PCs) are special snowflakes who have somehow managed to transcend sexism and oppression by just, I don’t know, shaking off patriarchy. Which just isn’t how it fucking works.

Art Trend #1: The men are men and the women are sexy

One thing I will say for the PHB is that as irksome as I find the lack of female representation, there were only five illustrations in the PHB that I found really objectionable, and those were mostly because it was obvious that the artist in question was doing their best to thwart art notes that called for characters that weren’t gratuitously sexualized:


All of these (except the woman in the middle) were counted as suggestively attired, owing to what the artist chose to reveal, though some of these are a bit more obviously egregious than others. For instance, the woman on the far left, and the druid with the tiger? Those are obviously bullshit. Leather bustiers as armor are one of the most common of cheesecake fantasy art sins, and sexy ladies with tigers is it’s own special subspecies of fantasy art bullshit I wish would go away forever. However, looking at the others, it’s still obvious that the artists were determined to squeeze in the maximum sexiness that they felt they could get away with.

Frex, look at the contorted pose that the elven mage is twisted into – I don’t care that she’s not human, that is an unnatural degree of spine bend, for no other reason than to emphasize her… attributes. Her top is also completely strapless and I’m not sure how she’s keeping it up, since double-sided tape isn’t exactly something you can find on an item table in the DMG. Or take the ranger on the far right – the artist was clearly hoping that no one would notice that she’s not actually wearing pants. (“It’s called barkskin, so clearly she’s gotta show some skin, right?”)

Lastly, check out the druid in the middle. This is one of the clearest cases of “draw naked, add clothes with extreme reluctance” that I’ve seen in a while. What the fuck is up with that ass perspective? And that ridiculous ass-leaf is only emphasizing how we can aaalmoooost see some rear-camel-toe, rather than doing anything to actually preserve modesty. But despite being worse than the pantsless ranger on the far right in terms of degree of sexualization, she is still counted as not suggestively attired while the ranger is.

It’s also important to consider that characters counted as fully-covered were also depressingly prone to being sexualized, even when they weren’t counted as being suggestively attired. Take, for instance, these four illustrations from the DMG which all depict women counted as fully-covered.:

The half-orc on the far left is the only one counted as suggestively attired, owing to the ridiculous cleavage window (which wasn’t even well done, why are her breasts so weirdly shaped, what the hell). And yet, out of all of these women, she’s actually the least egregious because at least she’s not overly objectified or distorted, and seems to be having an actual character moment. Whereas the left-middle woman and the far-right woman are both wearing some of the most fucking ridiculous boobplate I have ever seen[1] and are both shown in poses that I can only describe as “boob perspective”.

And while the right-middle woman isn’t wearing boobplate, the artist clearly got so wrapped up in drawing her strange armored stripper boots that he kind of forgot to pay attention to how the middle bits all go together, and then just kind of said “fuck it, I’m going to add a naked fire lady because who cares?”. So once again, despite the fact that the criteria for “fully covered” is clearly defined, sometimes images that technically fail to meet that criteria are better than the ones that do!

And of course, it’s definitely worth mentioning that even when there are male and female figures that are both meant to be sexy, the women are clearly more objectified than the men, as is the case with this illustration of an incubus and a succubus in the Monster Manual:


As a matter of fact, in all of the 5E core books, there was only one illustation of a male character that I would be willing to say was as equally sexualized as most of the sexualized women:


If even half of the male characters that were counted as suggestively attired looked like this guy, I don’t think I would have found the unequal sexualization nearly so bothersome. But unfortunately, what so many people fail to grasp (as witnessed by the fact that people commonly think that Conan is “as bad” as Red Sonja) is that simply not wearing a shirt/pants is not the same thing as being sexualized. Which brings us to…

Art Trend #2: Male figures counted as “suggestively attired” are almost never sexy; female figures almost always are

This is something that I have written about extensively on this blog in the past (you can find this point mentioned in pretty much all of my numbers posts); the prevailing trend in fantasy artwork is to use otherwise suggestive attire to make a statement about the “bestial” or “savage” nature of a culture being depicted. Because almost universally, characters shown in attire that would count as suggestive (no shirt, no pants, etc) are clearly not intended to be found sexually appealing.

There is also a tendency for “savage” characters to be depicted in hordes, which given that I am basing my figures on the numbers of distinct individual figures, throws off the numbers quite a bit. Goblins most especially tend to wreck my results, given that there’s always tons of them, and they’re never wearing any goddamn pants:


Now, I feel pretty strongly that none of the goblins in the above illustrations were intended to be viewed as sexualized. But since I realize that some people could still make an argument to the contrary, here are some even more extreme examples of male figures that were counted as suggestively attired that are really really not sexy:


All of these were figures that were counted as male, and all of these are really, really not sexy. Especially the two on the left! And yet just like the goblins, all of these are characters that counted as suggestively attired, which has the unfortunate effect of making it look as if the numbers of suggestively attired characters are close to balanced, when they’re really really not.

Of course, the worst book with regard to this trend was the Monster Manual, where any creature you might face is assumed to be male, unless it is female – and then it is sexy. Here are just a few of the my least favorite examples:



What the fuck is up with the black-armor demon’s broken spine pose? Why are the marilith and the ghost both making duckface? Why did they give A GODDAMN ROCK cleavage? Why would a drider wear midriff-exposing scale male when she’s a fucking spider? Why does the sea hag have so much goddamn sideboob?? I swear to god I couldn’t go more than about 10 or 20 pages without seeing some bullshit that reminded me of how much gaming hates women, which is just depressing.

The contrast only gets more ridiculous on the rare occasions when you have male and female depictions side-by-side (something which is surprisingly rare in the Monster Manual, but only because the Monster Manual doesn’t contain very many women at all). Take, for example, these merfolk:


With the male figure on the right, the artist clearly put a lot of thought into how this human-fish hybrid would work. There is a lot of detail put into the musculature of not just the torso as it joins with the lower half, but also the neck, shoulders, and arms. Whereas with the female figure on the left? About the only real anatomical considerations are giving this poor woman some sexay fish boobs.

However, the award for the absolute worst example of this goes hands down to the Yuan-ti:


Seriously? SERIOUSLY? What the fuck is this shit? What the hell happened that the general art directive was something along the lines of “make D&D suck less at women” and then this happened? Because the two male yuan-ti are side by side in a full page spread, and the Yuan-ti Pureblood is LITERALLY ON THE NEXT PAGE. Which is basically the visual equivalent of “OKAY BUT IF THERE’S ANY CHICKS THERE I WANT TO DOOO THEM!”


But wait! There’s more!

That’s it for larger trends, but believe me, folks, I’m just getting started. I’ve got about another 2,000 words that I want to write about some very specific fucked up things going on in the 5E Core books, but this post is long enough already. So expect more in a day or two!

[1] Seriously, in boobplate that extreme it would only take one reasonably-strong blow to the sternum to kill you. The purpose of armor is to DEFLECT the blow, not to channel force to the most vulnerable parts of your anatomy, for Christ’s sake.

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 Infogr.am – since Excel’s chartmaker makes ugly, hard-to-read charts. Sadly, Infogr.am’s embed code doesn’t get along with WordPress.com’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.




WTF, WotC? Your art direction is confusing.

The dilemma: two product lines, two art direction styles, one company

One of the things that has long been a source of irritation for me is the inconsistent art direction of Wizards of the Coast’s two major game products – Magic: The Gathering and D&D.  It strikes me as weird that M:TG and D&D are both product lines owned and operated by WotC, and yet they have such wildly different approaches to art direction. (To be honest, it seems like a bit of a branding issue to me, but then what the hell do I know. I’m just an indie publisher.)

This has become top-of-mind recently for a few reasons. First, despite both of us being Magic: The Gathering fans, my husband follows the design and spoiler blogs much more closely than I do. (In that he reads them and I don’t.) So he tends to show me previews of art that he knows I will either find hilarious or objectionable. (Or both.) Recently, he’s been showing me a lot more of the latter, alas.

Second, as I prepare for this year’s GenCon, I keep thinking about last year and how the release of D&D 5th Edition wound up being a pretty big deal for me – despite that I still have not purchased any 5E products or even played the game. I got to have lunch with Mike Mearls and discuss the future direction of D&D and D&D art direction – something which was way encouraging.

And everything that I’ve seen, at least observing from a distance, coming out of the new D&D line has been pretty great and inclusive! Like check out these illustrations that come from the starter set:


Pretty awesome, right? Fully clothed female characters that have personality, agency, and aren’t pointlessly objectified. And there’s lots more examples of this sort of thing!

Which, again, is baffling when you consider that Magic… Magic can’t decide what the hell it’s doing – if they want to do better by women, or exclude them, or have more of them but sexier, or just go back to their old awful ways and forget about trying to improve their depictions of women at all. As someone who has only seriously gotten into Magic in the last two years, it’s been weird and off-putting to watch.

So while I realize that the plural of anecdote is not data, it’s something that has bothered me sufficiently that I thought it would be worth taking a look at what Magic has been up to recently that has been getting under my skin.

M:TG’s recent art direction: I call shenanigans

I’ve written in the past about how I find the trend toward better art in Magic expansions to be (mostly) encouraging. Particularly in Khans of Tarkir – there were some really great illustrations of non-sexualized powerful women doing fantastically gonzo awesome shit! However, while Khans may have done much better in cutting down on the bullshit sexism, they did so at the cost of actually – yannow – depicting any women.

Still. I was hopeful that the overall trend of not fucking up at depicting women might continue! But alas, no joy.

First there came Magic: Origins – a core set focused on, well, the origins of the planeswalkers – characters that are meant to be player avatars. Being a core set, there are often a lot of reprinted cards, which tends to mean reprints of old art. So it’s not surprising that some old awful art (like the boobplate sideboob in Act of Treason) is sneaking through. But don’t worry, there’s still plenty of brand-new awful to be found – particularly with their treatment of female planeswalkers.

See, planeswalkers in Magic: Origins are actually double-sided. They start out as a Legendary Creature, then when they meet a certain condition you turn them over and they become a planeswalker. In theory, pretty cool, right? You get a chance to see and play with familiar planeswalkers in their pre- and post-planeswalker states. The problem is, as always, the execution. Take, for example, Liliana – one of Magic’s oldest female planeswalkers. Liliana is a pretty classic example of the evil woman who is evil because she is sexay (or maybe she is sexay because she is evil?). But somehow WotC dug deep and found a way to make Liliana even worse:


On the left, you see Liliana in her pre-planeswalker state. That’s right, young, innocent, demure, and not even remotely sexual. On the right is the art for Liliana once she becomes a planeswalker – definitely one of the more sexual Liliana’s that I’ve seen. Because women with power are evil and evil women are sexy. Or something.

Sadly, it’s not unique to Liliana – whose color is black, which has always been the color of “evil”. Nissa Revane doesn’t fare any better, and she is plain old green. Just like Liliana, she gets to wear clothes when she’s not a planeswalker, but then as soon as she’s a planeswalker? BOOM. CLEAVAGE WINDOW.

What the ever loving fuck, Magic? Are you trying to say that women can only have power so long as they are sexually pleasing to a (presumed) straight male viewer? Because that’s pretty fucked up, especially for a game that claims to be friendly for children.

It gets even worse when you look at more fringey M:TG products that WotC is working on releasing, like Modern Masters – a limited edition set that will be reprinting some of the most popular cards that have fallen out of legality with the standard format. These are just straight up reprints of old cards with old art, which means that there is some extra shitty sexist cards like these gems:


Man, that woman in Blades of Velis Vel is possibly the most Liefeld-ian piece of Magic art that I have ever seen – obscured hands and feat, impossibly thin torso, improbable levels of spine arch, and ridiculous 90s-ish costume. All it needs is some AWSUM POUCHES!!1! to complete the ensemble.

Meanwhile, Indomitable Angel is both weird and baffling. Is she wearing armor, or is she actually made of metal and is just naked? Does she actually have an 8-pack? What is up with her shoulders? Are those actually attached to her boobs? Does she have metal boob-pauldrons? WHY ARE BOOB-PAULDRONS EVEN A THING??

But even Indomitable Angel isn’t as confusing as Fiery Fall. It took a solid two minutes of staring at it for me to even figure out what was going on until I realized that it was a human woman falling upside down so that the artist could get in both upskirt AND underboob without the unwanted effort of trying to squeeze in humanizing details like a face. Because who cares about portraying her as a person about to meet a grim fate so long as we can ogle her tits before she messes them up by falling into lava?

Ugh. Just ugh.

But for me, the shit icing on the shit cake are these two card previews taken from From the Vault: Angels – a limited edition 15 card set reprinting old angels. 5 out of the 15 cards are even getting new art, which I would normally take as an encouraging sign! That is until my husband showed me these:


Nope. That’s not old artwork, folks. That’s NEW artwork. New artwork which took the old character designs and faithfully translated them into something just as bad, or possibly even a bit worse than the old art:

I KNOW that I prefer the old Angel of Wrath to the new art. Sure the boobplate is just as stupid and obvious phallic symbol is still obvious and phallic. But at least the old art doesn’t make her look like she’s five seconds away from humping the damn sword. As for the Angel of Fury, I go back and forth. It’s definitely artist that the artist got lazy when it came to the not-sexy bits – obscured hands and feet anyone? But at least the old art looks like she’s actually doing something – namely flying. Whereas the new art shows her… uh… vamping? Power posing? I’m not really sure what, to be honest.

Conclusion: I don’t know what the fuck to think

So all of this nonsense has left me feeling very conflicted about the state of Magic: The Gathering and whether I want to continue supporting it with my dollaz. I enjoy the occasional sealed-pack event, which is pretty much how I’ve acquired most of my collection. And despite the problems that the Magic division of WotC seems to have with not actually failing at depicting women, I was willing to cut them some slack given that things overall seemed to (slowly) be getting better. But given the amount of eye-rolling I’ve done lately, I’m starting to question my willingness to continue turning a blind eye.

Seriously – I get that it can be difficult to change the direction of a flagship product as large and entrenched as Magic: The Gathering. But the knowledge and experience on how to do so already exists IN THEIR OWN DAMN COMPANY. Someone on the Magic team needs to pick up the damn phone and have a serious conversation with the art team for D&D already.

(As for myself, this has me regretting that I didn’t keep all my old data on art from Magic sets for previous posts about Magic on this blog. I know it would be quite the undertaking, but I’m thinking it could be pretty interesting (if incredibly time-consuming) to compile numbers for every set for the last three or so years so as to be able to have some real numbers regarding trends.)


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