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

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

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

The Good: Eoris Essence

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

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

The Meh: Song of Ice and Fire & The Laundry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway.

Lastly, we have this complete bullshit Shadowrun cover:

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

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

>Because clearly women don’t have adventures

>[Edited: True20 is the system behind Blue Rose, not Blue Roses.]

All right. So I’m going to shut up about Soul Calibur IV for a while and turn my sights back to tabletop roleplaying for a moment – specifically Green Ronin publishing. Green Ronin has published some pretty popular games like Mutants & Masterminds, Blue Roses, and the new Dragon Age RPG. Still, they command a much smaller piece of the RPG pie than either Wizards or Paizo.

Now, the problematic trend that Green Ronin displays with their products isn’t so much about cheesecake as it is about representation. Witness, the True20 cover – the system behind their popular Blue Rose RPG:

Check it out! She’s got clothes on! And pants! And isn’t overly sexualized! Which is great and awesome, but she’s also outnumbered three to one by male figures. And Green Ronin doesn’t really try to even the score with the covers of their True20 supplements either:

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So out of 21 figures on these five covers, only 6 are women. 7 if you want to be charitable and call the ninja a woman since the gender is ambiguous. That means that women account for between just over a quarter (uncharitable) and a third (charitable) of figures on these covers. Which, for a system that touts itself as being about “adventure roleplaying” is very disappointing. So, women don’t go on adventures? (And yes the female Indiana Jones has a ridiculous case of sphere-boobs that are bigger than her head. Whatever. We’ve seen worse, so… moving on.)

It gets even worse when you look at the covers of Mutants & Masterminds products:

(CLICK FOR MUCH LARGER VERSIONS)

Out of 30 figures with a discernable gender, only 7 of them are female! That’s even LESS than a quarter! And of the seven female figures, only two of them could be called focal to the illustration – as opposed to the True20 covers where at least the female figures had equal weight with the male figures in terms of cover real estate.

Now, Green Ronin is known as a fairly “trad” publisher, and trad gaming isn’t always the friendliest place for women. But still – it’s hard not to look at these covers and get the message that these are games for telling stories about MEN. Men having MANLY ADVENTURES. Which is kind of sad. I love superheroes, and I love adventure stories, but the exclusion leaves me kind of cold here.