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

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

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

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

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

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

…which is fucked up, for obvious reasons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For example:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daniel’s concerns were namely that:

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

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

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

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

Before I go any further: an important note

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

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

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

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

End note.

Problem the first: the Vistani

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

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


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

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

The Vistani are criminals who menace good honest society:

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

The Vistani are all drunks:

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

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

The Vistani are untrustworthy liars:

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

The Vistani steal children

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

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

The Vistani are cheats, gamblers, and thieves:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Problem the second: Miscegenation!

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So. You know. Slow clap?

And that’s about enough for today.

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

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.

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Results and Analysis

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

Base Demographics

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


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

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

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

And again, the data largely supports that impression:




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

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

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


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

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

Style of Depictions

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


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

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

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


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

It’s about more than just numbers

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

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

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

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

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

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.)

Women working on D&D: my complicated feels

Necessary disclaimers

This post might seem a little arcane, since it is rooted in a Twitter dustup that stemmed from a misunderstanding (funny how 140 characters makes it easy to lose context…). However, I also think it’s a good look at the messy what-goes-in-the-sausage side of game development, and how increasing diversity in game development isn’t as straightforward or as easy as it sounds.

(Before I get started, let me assert that this post isn’t meant to be seen as taking sides, in any form or fashion. Nor is it meant as a personal condemnation! I know the internet doesn’t like nuance, but that’s what’s being expressed here, so deal.)

Let me explain… No. Is too long. Let me sum up.

So here’s how it all went down. Tumblr user teal-deer made a post called “There are now Zero Women working on Dungeons and Dragons“. From that post:

Jennifer Clarke Wilkes, an editor who previously worked both on Dungeons and Dragons and Magic: The Gathering, was laid off on January 28th.

This means of the mere eight remaining employees working on Dungeons and Dragons, zero of them are women. This is a huge problem. –teal-dear (follow link for full post)

Subsequent to this post, rollforproblematic made a post about WotC D&D demographics as compared to Paizo’s demographics. Which is where Jessica Price, a project manager at Paizo, stepped in to provide comment about demographics at Paizo and the realities of uncredited work that might add to the perception of lack of female participation. Jessica’s post is classy and professional, only commenting on her direct experience at Paizo and not mentioning WotC or D&D even in passing.

However, Jessica Price has her tumblr set to push tumblr posts to Twitter, which – because of the format restriction – only includes the first line in the tweet; when making a response to a threaded Tumblr post, what appears in the pushed tweet is very often not written by the replying person in the first place. So it’s pretty understandable that there was some confusion about what it was that Jessica Price was actually saying. Unfortunately, how people reacted to that confusion was to start making angry posts on Twitter.

Mike Mearls got the ball rolling by making this rather combative tweet:


Now to be fair, he did follow up his tweet with this one:


…which is a sentiment I agree with! And plan to blog about in the future! But wow is this not the way to express that sentiment. Especially when you follow it up with a series of tweets listing women on the team in non-design positions without actually mentioning their names in the tweets. (This is something that happens to women all the damn time, where we are credited by position as “a woman” and not actually by name, and it sucks.)

So what could charitably[1] be seen as preventing the erasure of women in development suddenly starts look a lot more like an ally using the mere existence of women as a shield against criticism, which is the “I have coworkers that are black” of feminism. Furthermore, you have a male developer using the existence of these unnamed female coworkers as a bludgeon to demand an apology from a female developer for criticism that wasn’t actually hers. Which reads as an ally demanding feminism cookies at best and a man in a position of authority using their status to silence a woman making unwanted criticism at worst.

All of which is… incredibly problematic.

Even so! Jessica Price kept it classy and responded with:

…But the original post isn’t mine, and my responses are addressing comments about Paizo’s demographics. I have no expertise/interest in commenting on WotC’s demographics; if you want to talk about that, please remove me. … –Jessica Price (you can read the full thread here, or most of it)

And Mike Mearls apologized for the discussion, and that was pretty much that. (At least as far as I’m aware. Phew.)

All in all, pretty short-lived for a Twitter dustup. However, it left me with… well… a lot of complicated feels.

The feels and their complications

1. Mike Mearls’ response was not okay.

Regardless of the intent behind his tweets, the response that Mike Mearls chose to make was not okay. Women in the industry already have to deal with a bewildering array of harassers, trolls, and sea lions. So this kind of belligerence directed at a prominent female industry figure by one of the luminaries of the TRPG world is just not okay. Even if Jessica Price had been the one making the original criticism, this kind of combative defensiveness is not an appropriate response to what was actually a civilly expressed criticism, despite Tumblr’s shortening of the post making it appear otherwise.

Mike Mearls has expressed a desire to be an ally in that he wants to work for increasing diversity and inclusion within D&D products and the industry as a whole. Well part of being an ally is being able to take criticism on the chin. Yeah, it fucking sucks. But as a person of privilege, you do not get to prioritize your feelings over a marginalized person’s expression of marginalization. That is allying incorrectly.

2. Women in gaming who assume non-design roles are valuable

There is a weird cult of the Game Designer in TRPG circles, which sucks because there are an awful lot of women out there in non-design roles doing work that is vital to the community. Convention organizing! Event organizing! Community building! All of these are vital! Gaming is a hobby that requires community, and that requires a space and a time to happen. Without the women doing this work, our hobby wouldn’t be what it is.

Furthermore, we need to erase the myth of the Solitary (Male) Game Designer, because game design is not a solitary pursuit. It’s a craft that requires community to be successful. And so often it’s women providing vital first feedback and design advice who aren’t even recognized for the importance of their contributions to the final work.

2a. Credit where credit is due

If women are going to start having their contributions recognized, men in positions of power need to vigorously highlight the participation of women.

2b. Women often get pushed out of design and into support roles

Over on Google+, David Hill made the point that very often, women working in non-design support roles don’t want to be working in those roles.

Gosh, I think I’ve heard this story before. One of my good friends was hired for design and concept work at a major video game studio. Immediately upon relocating and starting, they decided she’d be a better fit off the design team, and as a community manager. With a pay cut.

Wait. This isn’t one of my friends. This is a lot of them.

Which still doesn’t change the fact that there are no women on the game design team. That’s a fact. Yet, people have to apologize for saying this empirical fact, because it erases all the non-game design people working on the property. –David Hill, (entire post here)

I know women who do great work in non-design support positions, and who are passionate about what they do. But it’s undeniable that women do get shunted away from design positions because of gendered workplace expectations.

And unfortunately, it’s impossible to know which is the case here. Because a bunch of internet people descending on them to demand that they talk about their job satisfaction for the purposes of resolving an internet argument isn’t exactly going to elicit honest responses.

3. Silencing women is not okay, community that demands our silence is toxic

I’m going to quote myself from a rant I made on Twitter (albeit lightly edited for grammar) that was partly inspired by this Twitter dustup, but also by a messily complicated situation I’m dealing with in my real life:

It is important to recognize that the work that women do in building community IS work and that it IS valuable. Women who build community are not less valuable because they are performing the role they were socialized to adhere to.

But it’s also important to recognize that women also serve and foster community in other ways than building community structures/supports. Most women I know have at some point chosen to be silent on an issue that harms them in the interest of community. Community is often a thing that is not built FOR women, but built ON women. A thing that requires their complicity and silence.

The penalty of not remaining silent is not being allowed to participate in the thing that they helped build/grow/foster. I make the choice to remain silent on certain things every day. Some days it is easier than others. Some days it’s an eyeroll and a whatev – nbd. Some days it’s a weight on your chest that makes it impossible to breathe or ask for help.

And I don’t know how to fix it, any of it. My silence won’t fix it. But I can’t deal with the consequences of not-silence. Community that requires the silence of the women who perform labor in its service is not healthy community, but how do we move on from that? I wish I had more than just questions.

4. Female and non-binary designers exist. There are lots of them.

Something that Mike Mearls failed to address is the fact that the core design team is exclusively male. And that is absolutely something he should have acknowledged instead of handwaving about ‘well look at all these women over here!’. Yes, I’m sure that the men on the design team are all eminently qualified and have an impressive roster of design work. But you know what? There are a lot of smart, talented, and experienced non-male designers out there who would be more than qualified to take on designing for D&D.

So getting defensive about the fact that they do have women… who aren’t designers? It feels like moving the goal posts. 0 out of 8 is a shitty ratio, and at the very least it should be acknowledged that, yeah, they could have done better wrt diversity.

4a. No I’m not saying fire Mike Mearls or any of the other male designers and hire a woman

FFS, don’t even start with the strawmen, okay?

5. Fucking up is inevitable. What matters is how you respond when called out.

Seriously. I’ve embarrassed myself plenty of times – it’s something that happens to everybody. You’re going to fuck up. Period. And it sucks being called out. Because dammit they should know that you’re not the enemy, and that you had good intentions, right?

Thing is, intent isn’t some magical cure-all. You can’t say “well that’s what I meant was…” and expect that to solve everything, because it won’t.

6. Lastly, walk the fucking walk

This past year, I had an encounter with a Big Name Game Industry Figure that highlights the kind of bullshit that game industry women have to deal with. First he belligerently make mocking comments about positions I’ve taken on my blog, then he attempted to silence me by making dismissive sarcastic remarks. It was an obvious show of power and status wielded against a woman who said things that he didn’t like, and IT FUCKING SUCKED.

And this guy? Someone who has said that he wants diversity in the industry. Someone who has worked to bring in more female writers and designers. And yet when faced with a woman who expressed opinions he didn’t like, he too thought it was totally okay to weaponize his superior status in order to shut up a woman having opinions he didn’t agree with.

It made me furious! Hell, I’m still mad about it! That kind of thing is the kind of shitty microaggression that piles up and drives women out of the industry. So if you’re a dude working in the game industry, you HAVE TO be conscious of the fact that you are always operating from a place of privilege and status, and that weaponizing that status is just not fucking okay.

In summary

It’s a complicated situation! And again, this isn’t intended as a personal attack against Mike Mearls. I’ve written previously about how I like the new direction of D&D and how meeting Mike Mearls gave me hope for the future of the hobby!

Still, this was a giant red flag for me, and yet another check mark on my list of “Reasons Why I’m Glad I Publish My Own Fucking Games” ie “I’m Glad This Is Shit I Don’t Have To Deal With”. Because if I had been Jessica Price, I sure as hell wouldn’t have been so classy in my response.

[1] I’m a bit fan of always making a strenuous effort to read charitably. Mostly because so much of what I say here gets deliberately quoted out of context elsewhere.