What it’s like for me, as a woman, to play Magic: the Gathering [BIG IMAGES]

I’ve written previously about why I don’t attend official Magic: The Gathering events (tl;dr – stereotype threat is zero fun). Still, I really enjoy sealed booster events! They tend to level the playing field for people with less experience in deck-building (unless someone gets crazy lucky with their packs). It’s also a fun challenge, having a completely random subset of cards and a time limit within which to build a competitive deck – especially since it often forces you to build something that’s outside of your usual comfort zone in terms play style.

So what we’ve started doing is buying a box of boosters and splitting it with friends so we can have our own sealed booster night in the comfort of our own home that is free of randos and dudebros. It’s expensive – even when you split the cost between friends – so we only do it 2-3 times a year. But it’s something my husband and I both enjoy immensely, so we’re happy to splurge occasionally to make it happen.

This past weekend was one of those occasions, as a matter of fact. And as always, I had a tremendous time. But even so, I couldn’t help but be aware of the fact that even while playing with friends, away from the weird males-only atmosphere of a game store or other official tournament venue, the game itself was punching me in the feels, in a very particular “This Game Is Not For You” sort of way. And while I was opening packs and sorting through cards, I found myself repressing a lot of comments and complaints that I wanted to make, because while the friends we were playing with are receptive to feminism and the things that I do, they’re not terribly interested in it – and being That Boring Person Who Only Talks About Feminism has become a big fear of mine these last few years.

And it sucked. I hate that this game I like (and spend money on!) makes me feel crappy, and I doubly hate feeling like I have to censor myself. (And to be clear, I would feel the compulsion to censor myself to a certain degree no matter who I was with. It was just that in that situation, I felt I had to censor a bit more is all.) So I was going to write a description of my internal monologue as the night progressed, but then I thought – hell. A comic would be a lot more illustrative of what I’m talking about. (See what I did there?) It wasn’t my intention to do two comics posts in a row. It just sort of happened that way.

This isn’t a comprehensive post, in that it doesn’t look at art from an entire set as most of my other M:TG posts do. This is just focusing on my reactions to art from the packs my husband and I opened during our sealed booster night. Also, I know the preview shrinks these down pretty small, so if you want more detail, be sure to click through so you can see the art I’m talking about in more detail.

Feels: the Punching (deck-building edition)





Swell of Growth

Bonus: Epilogue

While preparing for this post, I went through our cards one more time to get proper card titles so that I could look up larger versions of the card art online. While doing so, I found one card that I had missed altogether, although I’m really not sure how:


Despite all that, I still had fun, and it’s still something that I plan to do again. But is Magic a hobby that I would encourage other women to try, or plan on introducing my daughter to? Unless they start sucking a whole lot less at women, the answer is a resounding hell no. I’m not ashamed to admit that I got into Magic because my husband played, and I wanted to be able to play with him. But games like Magic live and die by word-of-mouth recruitment, and they certainly won’t get any of that from me.

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 Infogr.am – since Excel’s chartmaker makes ugly, hard-to-read charts. Sadly, Infogr.am’s embed code doesn’t get along with WordPress.com’s interface and I wound up having to cobble things together on their own

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

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.)

The importance of good art direction

So the big secret project that I’ve been working on has had me thinking about the importance of good art direction in tabletop games recently. Good art direction can make an already fun game compelling and engage new audiences. However, even art direction that is simply mediocre can have the opposite effect by alienating potential customers before they even get a chance to explore what your game is about.

There are a lot of things that go into what makes for good art direction – is the art well-crafted? Is it relevant to the game you’re trying to sell? Is it evocative and inspiring? Does it reflect the play experience you are trying to create? All of these are important goals to strive for in good art direction. But just as important, and sadly almost universally overlooked by major game publishers, is overall inclusiveness of artwork. And I say this not as a feminist culture critic, but as a game publisher.

The reason tabletop RPGs are so art-heavy is because good art sells more games. Quality art by artists capable of doing professional-looking work is not cheap, and acquiring art assets is expensive both in terms of dollars and time spent. Companies like WotC, Paizo, and the rest are ultimately in it for the profit, even if individual employees might happen to be passionate about the medium; they wouldn’t go through the tremendous hassle of procuring such large numbers of art assets if it weren’t ultimately profitable to do so.

By that metric, inclusiveness is every bit as important as craft or any of the other common standards of what makes for good art direction. I can’t tell you the number of times my very first exposure to a game has been through some piece of bullshit sexist art – usually a cover or promo image – that has completely turned me off ever wanting to purchase or otherwise support the game[1]. Given that women account for nearly half of tabletop gamers, this is a pretty huge failure of art direction. Good art direction should only ever expand your potential audience, not eliminate potential customers right off the bat – especially when those potential customers account for nearly half of your market.

The problem is that good inclusive art direction can be a lot more challenging than it looks. Even if you have a design and development team who want to create an inclusive product, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the end result will be stereotype-free. The sheer number of illustrations that most finished games contain means that most development teams will be working with multiple artists. Each artist will bring their own entrenched attitudes and biases, and none of the artists will be looking at the overall picture, so without a concerted effort to keep an eye on the big picture even a well-intentioned development team can wind up simply replicating the industry standard in terms of unfortunately stereotyped art.

So with all of that in mind, let’s take a look at two of the most common pitfalls that get in the way of inclusive game art.

Obstacle the first: Defaultism

First, defaultism is a bit of a tricky thing to define, so I’m going to quote the excellent Strix:

Defaultism is the idea that we fall back on the status quo when something is not defined. We go with what is most familiar and “normal.” White Americans are a little over two-thirds of the population, but the vast majority of our media is dominated by this demographic, not just in games, but movies, TVs shows, and books. Because of the primacy of white characters in media, if a character is not explicitly stated to be of a different race they are often assumed to be white. Similar problems arise with gender expectations and sexual orientation. … Most gamers unconsciously gravitate to the straight white male as our hero, our role model, and the baseline for play. — Whitney Strix Beltrán

(Really you should read Strix’s entire piece on Tor.com about defaultism, it’s quite wonderful.)

Given that the population of people working in professional game development skews overwhelmingly white and male, it shouldn’t be surprising that defaultism is a major problem in roleplaying games. Every numbers post I’ve ever done shows that across all sectors of gaming, depictions of men consistently outnumber depictions of women, and that when women are depicted they are often stereotyped in harmful ways. Defaultism at work, friends.

The problem with defaultism is that even when you’re aware that you have a problem and need to increase inclusiveness in your product line’s art, attempts to take action can have mixed results. Wizards of the Coast, the company behind both D&D and Magic: the Gathering, is a great example of this. With the new edition of D&D, WotC has done a fantastic job of making the new core books inclusive across both racial and gender lines. Unfortunately, the same can’t exactly be said of Magic.

While it’s true that recent expansions have gotten much better in terms of reducing the number of horribly stereotyped and objectified women, it’s also the case that the reduction in depictions of objectified women has probably directly resulted in a much lower number of female characters overall. Unfortunately, it seems that for a fair number of artists working on Magic, the priority is: 1) men 2) sexay wimmenz 3) men 4) non-objectified women with agency.

However, this shouldn’t exactly come as a surprise to the team handling art direction for Magic! Many of the artists illustrating for them are artists they have worked with for years, with known habits, tendencies, and preferences. Given the extreme willingness of some Magic artists to throw card concepts to the wind in favor of sexay laydeez, it’s actually depressingly predictable that an effort by WotC to crack down on depictions of bullshit sexism would result in artists just saying “fine, I won’t draw women at all then”.

Thankfully, there is a way to get around this: always plan for the big picture! Rather than leaving variables like gender and race up to chance or the whim of your artists, make a master plan of all of the illustrations that will be needed for a given project and assign gender/race to each spec before handing out specs to artists. In all likelihood, it will feel silly the first time you plan a project this way. But the reality is that each of us carries biases and stereotypes that require conscious effort and planning to counter.

Of course, taking steps to counter defaultism will likely mean that you’ll encounter…

Obstacle the second: Rogue artists

A nontrivial subset of established game industry artists are men with, shall we say, entrenched views on how women should be illustrated[2].  And quite often, when these artists are handed a spec that calls for a female character, they will find a way to make that female character sexxay even if it makes no goddamn sense. I’ve taken to calling this Wayne Reynolds Syndrome, as the eponymous Wayne Reynolds is a goddamn master at sneaking cleavage into illustrations where the art spec clearly called for a woman who is strong, competent, and not sexualized:

Illustrations by Wayne Reynolds

(God dammit, Wayne.)

Now look, I understand that the idea of telling legendary artists like Wayne Reynolds to go back to the drawing board (see what I did there) when they hand in a sketch with sphereboobs and gratuitous cleavage can be off-putting. And sure, Wayne’s women might be overly sexualized, but at least they are also powerful and have a real sense of agency – and that’s no small thing, right?

But again, that is a failure in art direction. Is it extra work having to send drawings back to be revised? Absolutely! Can artists accustomed to drawing objectified women be truculent about making appropriate revisions? You bet! Is it a hassle to have to write emails saying things like “can we have this without ridiculous cleavage” or “please get rid of the nipples” or “give her pants and also make this less crotch-ular”? For sure! But guess what, if you’re responsible for art direction, it’s also your job.

Thankfully, while rogue artists can be an irritating to deal with, they don’t present an insurmountable hurdle. As the publisher, you have all of the power in the employer/employee relationship – artists work for you and not the other way around! When an artist hands you a draft that doesn’t meet your standards, don’t accept it. You don’t need to be apologetic or defensive or embarrassed. Don’t make apologies or justifications, either. Simply be firm and say “this doesn’t meet our needs, these are the revisions that need to be made”. That’s why they call it art direction – you are there to provide directions for your artists.

Caveat: There are more obstacles to inclusive art direction than just these

…which should be obvious, right? One of the biggest problems with making game products that have truly inclusive art is the demographics of the industry and the terrible reality of privilege. Even with the best intentions, sometimes some nasty shit is going to slip right on through thanks to the effects of privilege. When harmful stereotypes don’t affect you, it can be really hard to see them even if you know you have to watch for them!

However, by taking steps to plan against defaultism and taking a firm hand with rogue artists, you will already have a huge leg up on the competition. Because the sad reality is that the bar is already so low that even a moderate attempt at inclusive art direction will still be a huge improvement over most of what’s already out there.

[1] Case in point: there are several people on my G+ talking up Smite right now. Apparently it’s solidly reliable fun! But with character design like this, there’s no fucking way I’m ever going to give it a chance.

[2] Although, honestly, there are a lot of amazing not-dude artists out there. And while there are women who do pinup style artwork as their primary focus, generally I’ve found that female artists tend to be a lot more receptive to not automatically sexualizing all female characters.

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.

D&D 5E: Why so many wimmenz??

I’ve actually avoided writing about the new edition of D&D, even though I have a lot of positive feelings toward it, mostly because of having my name tied to the shitstorm that was Consultancygate – despite never actually saying anything publicly about Consultancygate. (Other than referencing that it was a thing that was stupid. Go ahead and google if you need to. I’ll wait.)

But now that’s died down, albeit mostly because a bunch of shitstains succeeded in creating an even bigger and more embarrassing faux-“scandal” that’s currently being used to harass women and “SJWs” in gaming (ie #GamerGate or #GamerGhazi or #notyourshield or #SockPuppetGate or #WhateverTheFuckTheyreCallingItNow), I figured now would be a good time to write about my impressions of the new edition.

Or, wait, no. Scratch that. What I meant was that some butthead said some wrongheaded stuff about the art direction and I felt compelled to lay a smackdown[1]:

This quote is taken from an RPGnet thread, which has since been locked (thankfully) (@tablehop is not the butthead being referenced, I am saying the opposite of that)


Jesus, internet. Could you maybe try to be less awful some time?

So here we go. Because it’s a thing worth saying, here are some reasons why D&D 5E is great and is totally a thing that tabletop gaming needed. (Spoilers: it’s the art)

Guys the art is so good I just can’t even

In the interests of full disclosure, I will mention that D&D really doesn’t mesh with my play preferences[2], and although I do own the PHB 3E and 4E, I will not be purchasing 5E. But this is the first time that I’m actually sad about that, because YOOUUU GUYYYYYSSSS. LOOK AT THE ART YOU GUYS:

These are taken from different spreads

WUT. Fully-clothed, actively posed, heroic looking women? Brown people? Heroic looking brown women? NO BOOBPLATE??? [swoon]

From LEFT to RIGHT: art for the Soldier, the Hermit, the Paladin, and the Tiefling

CHECK IT OUT, A HALF-ORC PALADIN. This is something I never expected to see! The treatment of race in the Forgotten Realms setting has always been… problematic at best. Orcs and half-orcs have always been depicted with traits that read as a very thinly veiled analogue for blackness. So to see Paladins, who are the literal embodiment of good, being represented by a righteous-as-fuck looking half-orc? That’s revolutionary!

Also, taking a step back, look at the characters being depicted here. These characters all come from obviously distinct cultures. So not only do we have group portraits that include a variety of ethnic backgrounds, but we also have PoC adventurers who come from obviously non-white cultures, rather than being rolled into some White Fantasy Crypto-European culture.

Which is really just the best, because yay social justice! But also because White Fantasy Crypto-Europe has gotten boring as shit. So the fact that WoTC has taken effort to portray a variety of cultures that go beyond different flavors of white people is amazing, because it’s new and exciting.

And to anyone who is complaining that not-sexualized women are so booooring, I submit the following as evidence:

Illustration: the Bard, from the PHB


Seriously, look at that cocky smile. Look at that badass outfit. LOOK AT THE GUITAR. How could you not want to play David Bowie with pointy ears? What is wrong with you? Are you some kind of terrorist? Some kind of awful, freedom-hating anti-Elf-Bowie terrorist?

Seriously, though, look at the image on the title page – the very first piece of art you see when you crack the book:

PH Teaser 1

Holy crap! That is one seriously heroic-looking black guy, beating the ever-loving shit out of a group of goblins! And we’re not talking “slightly tan skintone” black guy, either. Rather, this is a very-dark North-African-looking guy looking totally heroic and not-at-all like a villain, which is just really refreshing. Because all-too-often in fantasy artwork, people with this sort of skin tone are depicted as either 1) not focal or 2) evil. (I’M LOOKING AT YOU, THE DROW.)

But awesome depictions of PoC aren’t just limited to men. Nope! There are plenty of badass PoC ladies too:


That’s right! The iconic human is a black woman! A badass, fighter-y black woman to boot. I guess you could say that makes her a social justice warrior?[3]

Now all of this isn’t to say that there aren’t still things that could use improvement. For instance:


…it’d be nice if this group shot included some non-white folks. (Although I’ll admit that the old elf guy reads as white to me, but his skintone is also a bit ambiguous?) But even saying that directed at one illustration feels like nitpicking; there’s a good mix of gender and ages depicted and no ridiculous boobplate, and the rest of the book is obviously making a clear statement that THIS WORLD IS INCLUSIVE DAMMIT.

Why we’re winning the culture war (in which I drop names)

To see this kind of dedicated effort to Not Failing At Art from what is arguably the flagship product of tabletop gaming is just the best. It feels like a vindication of everything that I’ve been doing here. And in some ways, it sort of is.

I’ve posted earlier about how I got a chance to have lunch with Tracy Hurley and Mike Mearls at this year’s GenCon:

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).

Another topic of conversation that we talked a fair bit about was how they’ve been trying to solve the problem of diverse art by creating a list of fictional cultures inspired by real-world counterparts and then making that part of the specs handed out to the artists. Instead of asking an artist to give them an illustration of a “human warrior”, they are asking for a “human warrior from [Fictional Culture]” to ensure that the art that is handed in isn’t mostly just white folks.

It also sounds like they’re making a point of cracking down on ridiculously gratuitous sexualization when initial art drafts come in. Without going into potentially incriminating detail, Mike Mearls did tell us a pretty funny story about rejecting a piece of artwork that had humanoid breasts on a non-mammalian fantasy creature – which is heartening to hear! (One of my greatest disappointments regarding 4E was that female dragonborn were described textually as not being visually different from male dragonborn, only ALL THE DAMN ART gave them boobs. All of it.)

So to bring this back to Hates Women and Brown People in D&D Guy… Sorry, random awful person on the internet, but this bygone era that you long for, in which women and brown people are either objectified or ignored in D&D? That ship has sailed, and it’s not too likely to return. And frankly, I can only believe that that is a good thing.

[1] Don’t get me wrong, GG is still a total fucking shit show and anyone who seriously tries to advocate for it as a “real issue” after 3+ weeks of abuse that has actually driven women out of the industry is going to land themselves straight on my block list.

[2] I’ve played a fair amount of 3E and 4E, and a lot of 3.5E. But now if I’m going to play “killing things and taking their stuff” games, I’m much more likely to play Dungeon World or Descent.

[3] I’ll be here all week.

GenCon First Impressions: HOPE FOR THE FUUUUUTURE

Well, folks. I’m back from GenCon! And there is SO. MUCH. I want to write about! So the goal is to get up a flurry of posts in the next week or so covering a wide range of topics related to GenCon and how my experiences there reflect on the community as a whole.

However, I have come down with the most instantaneous case of con crud I have ever suffered (I imagine I must have contracted it about 5 seconds after entering the convention hall) and am also deeply sick right now. So I might just collapse on a couch at home and play Final Fantasy while moaning about how miserable I am for several days (seriously, I’m so whiny when I get sick). I guess we’ll see what happens.

I have so much I want to write about! But I thought I’d start on a high note and talk about the many things this year that made me feel SO FULL OF HOPE FOR THE FUTURE YOU GUYS. SO SO FULL OF HOPE.


1. Things I saw while walking around the convention

Walking around the convention hall, I was pleased to see so many women attendees – in the dealer’s room they seemed to account for around 35-40% of attendees. And I was especially pleased to see lots of families with young children in tow. I didn’t see as many men wearing babies in slings as I have in past years, but I did see instances of face-meltingly adorable family cosplay. Like the mother and daughter both cosplaying as Super Girl, or another mother and her son both cosplaying as Iron Man. And then there was the mom in street clothes with an 11th Doctor fez, accompanied by her two daughters – one cosplaying as Elsa and the other as a princess (?) I admittedly didn’t recognize.

All of which made me so happy. It’s so great watching the hobby literally expand into the next generation. I can only hope that this new generation of nerds in training will do better than the generations that have gone before them.

The Women in Gaming panel (that I was on! Wow was that nerve-wracking!) was also something that gave me a lot of hope. It was packed(!) with women, many of whom were eager to jump into the discussion to tell their story. And all of the women who spoke emphasized the need for women to support each other in bringing other women into the hobby instead of turning into gatekeepers because we want to be “not one of those women”.

Also encouraging was the fact that there were men in attendance at the panel, and that they largely behaved themselves. Some of them did make comments, but they were largely on point and supportive. And they didn’t try to mansplain or dominate the discussion either, which was a relief. (Well except for that one guy who said we should just make games instead of speaking out about sexism. But there’s always going to be at least one, I guess.)

Lastly, I was about to triumphantly post NO CORPSE TITS IN THE DEALERS ROOM. Only someone on my G+ posted a picture of a life-size statue of Thay, so I guess I have to amend that to “no corpse tits that I personally observed”. [sigh] Baby steps?


Saturday afternoon, I was lucky enough to have a great lunch with Tracy Hurley and Mike Mearls where we talked about sexism and misogyny in the industry, and about the issues with trying to increase the diversity of representation in games themselves. The meeting was prompted by ConsultancyGate (if you don’t know what that is, be very thankful), but the conversation mostly focused on other 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. Coming from the head of the flagship product of RPGs, this means SO SO MUCH to me. I left our meeting feeling like the new direction of art in 5E D&D isn’t just competitiveness with Paizo, as some have suggested, but a genuine desire to do better. I look forward to seeing what comes out of D&D under his direction.

(Amusingly, I will note that when we asked Mike if we could blog about the meeting, Mike said “of course”, then said he hadn’t wanted to assume that we would because he didn’t want to sound all HEY FEMINISTZ PLS GIVE ME COOKIES THX. Which, ironically, made me want to give Mike feminism cookies, and I don’t even believe in feminism cookies.)

3. Games on Demand

This was my first year of running games at Games on Demand, although for the last many years I’ve spent most of my convention at Games on Demand. It’s funny, because the notes that I made for this post before writing it included “lots of women GMs”. But then when I asked one of the organizers, he told me that about 15% of the GMs were women or non-binary by his tally.

Which. Huh. Okay. I guess my brain fooled me on that one. But the women I saw who did come out to GM were really bringing it to their games and I saw people really having fun at those games. (Can I just take a moment to say that I am insanely jealous that I didn’t get to play Karen Twelves’ Apocalypse World: Olive Garden scenario? So very, very jealous.)

So yeah, the total number of not-dudes at Games on Demand might have left something to be desired (and let’s be clear, I am not attacking GoD here. This is a problem GoD staff have been working for multiple years to ameliorate, but it is hard because both the causes and possible solutions are difficult to pin down). But overall, the emphasis on diversity and inclusion was really a breath of fresh air.

For one thing, there were equality stickers freely available at GoD (I stuck one on the back of my badge – might as well make it a useful space since that’s what winds up getting seen half the time anyway). The ever-fabulous John Stavropolous also wrote an amazing “instruction manual” on how to run games with some great sections on how to help everyone feel safe at the table as well as tools for dealing with problem behavior and helping make sure everyone feels welcome. (And honestly, this is a great document for anyone who runs games, not just GoD GMs.)

And more generally, it was awesome meeting so many new people who are committed to building a supportive and progressive tabletop community. I was also lucky to run into a fair number of people who made a point of telling me that they appreciate my blog.

There was so much bile on certain parts of the internet prior to the convention that it was really hard to remind myself that things were getting better. But I talked with several people, not just women!, who made a point of thanking me for blogging that it made me feel really good that this is the direction that most gamers are heading in. Speaking out makes a difference, and things will get better.

Stuff for next time(s)

I’ve got so much more to talk about! There’s the inevitable picture post, where I go through my many shots from the dealer’s room. I’ve also got a not-so-happy post about Stuff I Didn’t Enjoy at GenCon. But on a more positive note, I do intend to do some post-GenCon followup writing about some non-WoTC publishers who I felt like were really Doing It Right – Pelgrane and Paizo. And I might also do some followup about a previously blogged about topic.


Why I don’t want Shelly Mazzanoble to represent female D&D players

[I’ve been promising to write this post for quite a while, and it’s long. Super-long. Like, the longest thing I’ve ever posted. You’ve been warned!]

I’ve wanted to write for a while about Shelly Mazzanoble and the problems I have with Wizards’ choice to promote her as presenting a female perspective of D&D players. Wizards first started promoting her back in 2007 or so when she published “Confessions of a Part-Time Sorceress” – a (supposed) guide to getting into D&D from a female perspective. Here’s what I had to say about it at the time on an indie tabletop forum:

Honestly? The book made me want to scrub my brain with Lysol. It’s one of the most sexist things I’ve read in a long time, and by sexist I mean ‘using women to reinforce stereotypes about women’. (Not all sexism is perpetrated by men. Not by a long shot. A lot of it is perpetuated by women.)

But ultimately, I’m glad I read it, even if it did provoke me into screaming “WHAT THE F*CK????” at it a couple times. I found it an instructive lesson on the mainstream view of women and gaming, which doesn’t much resemble (if at all) the view of women and gaming held over here in Indie Land.

Well, it seems that my adverse reaction to the book wasn’t a commonly held one – or at least not commonly held among the demographic that Wizards was targeting – since they subsequently gave Shelly Mazzanoble a column in their monthly Dragon Magazine called “Confessions of a Full-Time Wizard”. So I decided to dig up all of the columns from 2010 and see how they compared to the book.

[side note]

I wasn’t exactly filled with confidence when I saw the title image that is used with every column (though admittedly, it might not be fair to hold the art direction against Shelly. I desperately hope that she didn’t see and approve this.)

(presumeably) Tabitha Sparkles – Shelly Mazzanoble’s tiefling wizard (about whom she writes most frequently)

[/side note]

After reading all of the columns, I was just as irritated and infuriated as I remember being after reading the book. Shelly’s column is billed as a “lifestyle” column, a view into a female experience of D&D. But the problem is that in almost every column she portrays herself as a combination of all of the negative stereotypes about female tabletop gamers and/or women ever, and it makes me cringe because omigod I don’t want THIS AWFUL STEREOTYPE to represent me as a female gamer.

To break this out a little, here are the stereotypes that pop up most frequently in Shelly’s columns:

  • Women are insecure, neurotic, and occasionally irrational
  • Women are fashion and/or beauty obsessed
  • (when talking about player error) D&D has numbers and math is haaaaaarrrrrd!
  • (when talking about player success) Oh yeah! *tee hee!*
  • Women are incapable of taking the game seriously or being dedicated to the game.

Now the “D&D is haaard” stereotype is, in my books, the worst, because that stereotype underlies these themes – which are rife throughout Shelly’s columns:

  • Women can’t make decisions or perform complex tasks without someone’s help (read: a man)
  • Women shouldn’t try for system mastery. They should stick to the basics and let other players (read: male players) worry about min-maxing and system mastery.

Now I realize that all of this is some pretty harsh criticism, so here’s where the wordiness comes in. I’ve picked out columns that I felt were particularly egregious and selected quotes (so… many… quotes…) to help illustrate my points. For those of you playing along at home, the columns I selected were April 2010, May 2010, June 2010, July 2010, October 2010, and December 2010.

In Shelly’s words (many, many of them)

Women are insecure, neurotic, and occasionally irrational

You mean my sub-par D&D proficiencies are that obvious? Suddenly I feel like those people who order “Flab-Be-Gone” or face-freezing lotion from late-night infomercials. Oh please, let this work! (April 2010, Confessions of an Overwhelmed Duckling)

“Something’s different about me,” I told my boss.
She spun around in her chair. “You’re not wearing heels? You forgot your gym clothes? You finally stood up to your cat?”
“No.” Like I’d ever stand up to Zelda. “Something… bigger. I’m not nervous about DMing.” (July 2010, Canine Encounters Part 2)

“Congratulations,” Greg said about thirty minutes into our game. “You’ve managed to cover just about every perceived female psychosis.” To be clear, I wasn’t experiencing those psychoses. My newest Gamma World character was. (October 2010, Last of the Mojitas)

What if I make a fool of myself? Now, these guys were not serious or jerks, but they did appear to be good at roleplaying. And I’m the new girl here. I’ve got to join them or beat it. (October 2010, Last of the Mojitas)

Honestly, I wasn’t sure what was up with Mojita other than she obviously didn’t want to be a cockroach. Or gelatinous. Or committed to one emotion. (October 2010, Last of the Mojitas)

“It’s true what they say about cockroaches,” Josh said. “They can survive anything.”

That proves to be true of the whole game. We defeated the glow dragons, Mojita defeated her agoraphobia, and I defeated my irrational fear of roleplaying. (October 2010, Last of the Mojitas)

Look, magazines, I don’t pay you to make me feel bad! My cat does that for free. (December 2010, Arcana Lang Syne)

The thing that really bothers me about this is that almost every one of Shelly’s columns seems to follow the same formula, and that always starts with Shelly being adorably and/or humorously insecure about some facet of playing D&D. This then leads into neurotic and sometimes irrational attempts to wrestle with the insecurity in which a humorous result is achieved and a lesson of some sort is said to have been learned. Only it’s not learned, because the same insecurities pop up again and again and again.

That’s not to say it’s not okay to be insecure about stuff. Heck, no one is the perfect gamer, and D&D is a tough system to master. Some insecurity is justified – especially as a woman in a predominantly male environment. It’s the fact that at no point does Shelly ever express confidence about anything pertaining to D&D that bothers me. The tone, too, bothers me. If these insecurities were addressed in a genuine way, it wouldn’t be so bothersome. But these are clearly stereotypes being played for laughs.

Women are fashion and/or beauty obsessed

I must confess. Sometimes I’m a bit insecure. And no, not in the predictable “does this belt of vigor make my butt look fat?” way. (April 2010, Confessions of an Overwhelmed Duckling)

At least I’m doing something right. The book recommends you, “shop for particularly utilitarian or extraordinary flamboyant clothing”. Finally! My work as Player-in-Chief has paid off. It then goes on to say, “Come up with a couple of interesting possessions to wear or carry”. This must be a nod to Tabby getting a new outfit or accessory every time we finish an adventure. She’s been dressed by the best – bracers by Hershey, robes by Cote D’Or, feather boa by… well… someone’s Halloween costume. (April 2010, Confessions of an Overwhelmed Duckling)

Out of ten questions I scored three points each under ranger, rogue, and wizard, and one point under paladin. (How did that get in there?) For the record, question four about my wardrobe didn’t have any appropriate answers. A taxidermy shop? Maybe R&D should have consulted me before coming up with these answers. (April 2010, Confessions of an Overwhelmed Duckling)

Ah yes, one of my greatest regrets. I’ve clearly leveled up my shopping skills since then.  (May 2010, An Overwhelmed Duckling Part 2)

“Tabby knows what that is!” I shouted. I rolled a 2. “15?”

“Tabitha thinks this stone might be amethyst.” New DM says. “Maybe rose quartz. Real good for preventing intoxication and looks nice with jewel tones and Bermuda shorts.”

“What? Tabby would never say that,” I argued. Not only did I fail my Arcana check, but Tabitha failed her fashion check. Bermuda shorts? (May 2010, An Overwhelmed Duckling Part 2)

Once I had my villain and a little information about his habit and habitat, New DM suggested I go back to the setting of my previous adventure, the one I ran my group through when I first tried my hand at dungeon mastering (with disasterous results, I reminded New DM.)

“Ah, you’re an old hand at it now,” he smiled.

I looked sheepishly down at my hands. Yeah, I could use a manicure, I guess.  (June 2010, Canine Encounters)

What’s with the high-pressure minion sales pitch? Where am I, the Nordstrom shoe department? (July 2010, Canine Encounters Part 2)

Later at home, I moved the dog-eared Nordstrom catalogs, Lucky Magazines, and Sephora shopping bags off the dining room tables and laid out my dungeon tiles, difficult terrain, and traps. (July 2010, Canine Encounters Part 2)

Welcome to the world, Mojita Especiala, a lime green gelatinous cockroach. She’s not so much cockroach as she is gelatinous. Her blobby being was forced into a roach-shaped bundt cake pan which doubles as armor. It’s like squeezing into a pair of skinny jeans after a long workout. “Very painful,” I explained. Not to mention humiliating should someone be in the locker room with you. (October 2010, Last of the Mojitas)

The end of another year is upon us. I know this not because the calendar tells me so. It’s because my magazine subscriptions are yelling at me to clean this! Cleanse that! Change everything! Hey Shape, I already work out six days a week. And yeah, Lucky, I’d love to revamp my entire wardrobe to include the 379 “key pieces every woman should own”. Sorry Elle Decor – I don’t have a crawl space that I can make over into a reading room. I don’t even have room to read. (December 2010, Arcana Lang Syne)

The sheer number of fashion and/or beauty-related examples really says everything for me. You know what? There are lots of women who have interests that aren’t fashion. But even if you are a woman that does love fashion, I’m pretty sure that not everything in your life ever comes back to fashion. Seriously.

Of course, there was a metric shit-ton of fashion references in the book as well, which makes me think that this is just a cynical attempt by marketing bots that want to appeal to women outside their “core market”. But let me say that as someone who is female, I am probably outside that core market, and this does not appeal to me at all. I find this one-sided depiction of Shelly-the-character as a shallow, fashion-obsessed maniac who relates everything in her life to clothes or beauty to be insulting.

Oh yeah! *tee hee!*

Hmm. When did I get wizard’s escape? Oh yeah, I have a shield. I double-checked to make sure this character sheet said “Tabitha Sparkles”. (April 2010, Confessions of an Overwhelmed Duckling)

“When Herteus gets to here,” Chris said, pointing to the square I just passed through, “a large green blob falls from the ceiling and tries to attack”. Hmm. Didn’t I just approve some banner ads that mentioned something about wearing protective headgear? (May 2010, An Overwhelmed Duckling Part 2)

Ten minutes later, I hadn’t finished my cup of peas, but my unaligned female elf thief was in my arsenal. Holy moley, I did it! I made a character using a book and a pencil. (December 2010, Arcana Lang Syne)

The use of cutesy ‘oh yeah, I knew that’ or ‘oh yeah, I should have known that’ can die now and forever and never come back. Ever. I mean, seriously. Don’t be proud of being able to create a character from scratch. It just means that you are literate and don’t have any learning difficulties that would prevent you from teaching yourself complex tasks from a book.

D&D has numbers and math is haaaaaarrrrrd!

Instead of saying, “Sorry guys, I must have been out sick the day we covered force fields,” she may have been able to offer up some knowledge that would have helped the party in a skill challenge. Ugh. I hope they don’t read this. (April 2010, Confessions of an Overwhelmed Duckling)

A long time ago, Tabitha went and got herself all multiclassed as a warlock. Oh, I never mentioned that? Well that’s probably because I have no idea what to do with her fancy warlock sophistication. (April 2010, Confessions of an Overwhelmed Duckling)

“I know,” he said, rolling his eyes like he did last Tuesday when I insisted that Tabby was bending over to pick up a penny when that minion’s arrow came at her. “What kind of encounter?”

“How about a good encounter?” I said, not sure of what my choices were. I didn’t want it to suck. “And one that won’t give me an ulcer trying to figure out how to run it.” I still have anxiety dreams over the last one. (June 2010, Canine Enounters)

“Every encounter should be a free-standing adventure,” he said. “You want to include as much for the players to do as you’re comfortable running.”

Again, I suggested just one monster… a big, slow, lazy monster. “I can handle sitting back and substracting a few hitpoints here and there,” I said. (June 2010, Canine Enounters)

With my two gargoyles, remaining minions, and one dragon waiting in the wings, I realized the importance of placement. I was kind of throwing minions out there willy nilly and kept forgetting the gargoyles could make better distance by air than ground. Aeon had a minion and a gargoyle marked. Anwar was bloodied, and I was overlooking opportunity attacks at every corner. Dungeon Masters have a lot to keep track of! (July 2010, Canine Encounters Part 2)

What’s so hard about a little roleplaying? But it was too late. Panic moved in and tossed reason’s possesions to the curb. The guys were chattering back and forth, in character, with Greg interjecting important plot developments or story elements or Alpha Mutation cards now and again. It was only a matter of time before they discovered the new girl! Was it too late to remember an appointment with my therapist? Was it too late to make one? (October 2010, Last of the Mojitas)

I caved to my basic instinct. “Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!”

“Are you crying?” Greg asked.

And… scene!

Okay, back up. I wasn’t crying. But Mojita was. Way to go, Instinct. (October 2010, Last of the Mojitas)

“I know, but if you really want a female wizard named Berry White, then it’s time for you to make one,” he said. “Before our first encounter.”

Ha! That’s crazy talk! “You mean, like with this book? And a pencil? Right! I actually want to play this season, so I think I’ll just stick to the gender-confused wizard Chuck misnamed.” (December 2010, Arcana Lang Syne)

As a child, my father railed against “helpless female syndrome” and abjured me to never pretend to be helpless just because I felt it was expected of me. And that’s the feeling I get when I read this. Shelly expresses insecurity about system mastery, about playing her character right, about making good choices for character advancement, about creating encounters, about just creating a character, about roleplaying – about EVERYTHING. EVERYTHING to do with D&D is painted as this herculean task and it is just SO AMAZING when the people around her manage to do these things and do them well.

There’s no shame in genuinely needing help, but this just smacks of deliberate obtuseness.

Women are incapable of taking the game seriously or being dedicated to the game.

And he failed his first two death saves. “Oh no,” I croaked over the lump in my throat. “He hasn’t even had his first haircut yet!” (May 2010, An Overwhelmed Duckling Part 2)

If I don’t learn how to write an encounter, I’m going to use this space to psychoanalyze each and every Real Housewife of NewYork, which may be fun but probably not appropriate for Dragon Magazine. (June 2010, Canine Encounters)

“Wait a minute. I don’t know if I can kill a dragon,” I told New DM. “Dragons are animals too. I’ll feel bad.”

“Didn’t a dragon kill your beloved barbarian minotaur?” New DM asked. “What was his stupid name?”

Man, Kevin can’t catch a break. “Yes, but still. This is my dragon.” (June 2010, Canine Encounters)

“What if the dragon is susceptible to tickling, and if the adventurers tickle him he laughs so hard he spits out puppies? Unharmed, of course.”

New DM shook his head, then started mumbling things like help me, please make it stop, I don’t think we’re in D&D anymore.  (June 2010, Canine Encounters)

“But you get a mutation card.” Greg handed me a deck to choose from. I drew mind trick, which would grant me a bonus to an Interaction check. Helpful, if only the glow dragons understood us. Not one to let things go to waste, I decided to use it on Viktor to make him believe he’s in love with Mojita.

“Um…” Viktor said. “You are the color of spring, Mojita.” (October 2010, Last of the Mojitas)

“Ah, an eladrin wizard!” I said. “I shall love you and keep you and call you Berry White.”

“It’s Berrian,” Chuck said. “I named him. I should know.”

“Trust me. It’s Berry White,” I said, explaining once again that in addition to my role as Player-in-Chief, Zelda’s lackey, and most recently “sado maso cookiest” due to my unloading thirty-seven tons of holiday cookies on R&D, I am also the Pre-Generated Character Whisperer.

“I’m like that guy, John Edward, who allows dead people to communicate with their loved ones through him. Sara: someone whose name begins with a D, always smelled like ham and used to favor plaid shirts wants you to check behind the refrigerator. Does this make sense? I know what the pre-gens want. They speak through me.” (December 2010, Arcana Lang Syne)

Everyone is familiar with the unflattering stereotype of the woman who’s only there because her male S.O. is there. The woman who does stupid shit like name her warhorse Fluffy (I’ll admit it, guilty once upon a time), constantly looks at her watch, gets distracted frequently and can’t stay focused on the game. This is like that, only minus the male S.O.

Women shouldn’t try for system mastery. They should stick to the basics and let other players (read: male players) worry about min-maxing and system mastery.

I want to help the party solve puzzles and reap rewards. And yet sometimes I choose to have Tabitha cast scorching burst because I know she’s good at it. I can attack and roll damage without once referencing my character sheet. (April 2010, Confessions of an Overwhelmed Duckling)

Maybe Tabby should ditch her dreams of becoming a warlock and concentrate on becoming a really good wizard. (April 2010) (April 2010, Confessions of an Overwhelmed Duckling)

“It could run away,” New DM suggested. “Or negotiate.”

Yeah, but that would involve roleplaying, and we all know I’m not the best negotiator. I guess I could just pretend this is a game of make-believe and no dragons were hurt in the process.  (June 2010, Canine Encounters)

Then it hit me. The talking. And not just the “What are you having for dinner tonight” or “Would you rather have eyes in the back of your head or a giant lizard tail” table talking I’m used to. This was relevant talking. Like important to the game talking. This was – gasp! – roleplaying!

I know what you’re thinking: “This is D&D, you big dummy!” But maybe you don’t remember my irrational fear of roleplaying and playing D&D with people who are: 1. Too serious. 2. Jerks. 3. Really good at roleplaying.

This is why I usually create characters that are too sullen or naive or too apathetic to talk to strangers. (October 2010, Last of the Mojitas)

This makes me so very angry. Shelly Mazzanoble is presented as a very prominently female voice, one of the only female voices to come out of Wizards. And she constantly presents herself as this stereotyped caricature of a woman who is insecure and thinks D&D is hard and this roleplaying stuff is pretty scary. And you know what? That could be okay if she managed to soldier on and find a way to succeed despite her many insecurities. I could roll my eyes and move on with my life if it didn’t constantly lead to the conclusion that she should just stick to the basics and let other people worry about achieving system mastery. That system mastery is for other people and is too lofty a goal for poor little Shelly to achieve.

This makes me want to hit things, because this shit is insidious and toxic and just reinforces stereotypes of female gamer behavior. This more than anything says that when it comes to gaming, women are never going to be more than second class citizens because gaming is just too hard for our little female brains. And. Gah. This is so wrong. Being a dude does not automatically confer superior powers of mathematics and gaming. It just doesn’t. Like, times a million.

Women can’t make decisions or perform complex tasks without someone’s help (read: a man)

“Don’t you remember?” she went on. “We took you and your brother to Florida for spring break when you guys were in high school and Dad put a $100 gift card in your Easter Basket. You were so overwhelmed by what to buy you never spent it.” (May 2010, An Overwhelmed Duckling Part 2)

New DM has exacted the ultimate revenge! “He’s on vacation?” I whined. “He’s supposed to be helping me with my encounter!” Technically he did help, as you might remember from last month’s column. But that was a month ago. You can’t expect me to remember everything he said about traps and tactics. I can’t even find my notes. (July 2010, Canine Encounters Part 2)

I’m pretty sure they won’t love it, but if Chris Perkins, Dungeon Master to the Stars, says to do it, I’ll consider it. My number one priority is not to overwhelm myself.  (July 2010, Canine Encounters Part 2)

Once Chuck even helped me weigh the pros and cons of cognac leather versus mahogany suede when I found myself in a winter boot conundrum. (His arguments for both were so well articulated, I ended up buying both pairs.) (October 2010, Last of the Mojitas)

“Have you become so reliant on the Character Builder that you forgot how to roll up a character the old fashioned way?”

“That’s nuts,” I said in my defense. “Everyone knows I rely on Marty to roll up my characters.”

And I didn’t forget. It’s quite possible I never knew. The last character I rolled up the “old fashioned way” was Astrid, my 3.5 elf sorceress, and really my old DM did most of the work. (December 2010, Arcana Lang Syne)

Getting men to either perform complex tasks she should be doing or to make decisions for her is another theme that is super-prevalent in Shelly’s columns, which – again – makes me want to punch something. In a year’s worth of columns, not once did Shelly write about turning to a female to bail her out of whatever tempest in a teacup she’d created for herself.

She’s essentially handed over all agency to the men in her life and doesn’t even bat an eyelash at it, seeming to take for granted that of course these men should drop everything and roll her a character, or write an encounter for her, or whatever it is that she’s supposed to be doing. And it’s demeaning for everyone involved. It’s demeaning for Shelly-the-character to be completely dependent on men for everything. But it’s also demeaning for the men, who I’m sure have better things to do with their life than babysit someone who could learn to do all this stuff if she exerted herself.

This is so messed up it deserves a special mention:

This doesn’t actually relate to any of the above stereotypes, but it was so messed up that I had to specifically call it out. In a column in which Shelly angsts about preparing an encounter for her group, she ends with this paragraph:

I’d love to tell you, but I’m much too busy gathering up Dungeon Tiles and minis. And maybe creating some special actions for my monsters to appease Bart. And possibly a skill challenge for Kierin. Maybe a puppy for Laura and a chocolate torte for Hilary.

My jaw literally dropped when I read this because I could not believe what I was reading. The BOYS get skill challenges and monsters – stuff that engages them with the system. And the GIRLS get puppies and chocolate. Because all that stupid system stuff wouldn’t be rewarding for them, since they’re – you know – GIRLS. Which deserves a special mention and a particularly loud “…the FUCK???”.

Argh. So angry.

In summary: some closing notes (or – tl;dr)

(This is dragging on way too long, so I’ll keep this brief.) I will give Shelly one thing. There is a certain level of craft to these columns. If one can speak of comic timing in writing, then Shelly’s timing is good and her jokes are always well-delivered, even if I hate the content.

Now do I think that Shelly Mazzanoble is all of these stereotypes? No. I think that Shelly is being used by Wizards to try to broaden their appeal to women. Only their marketing department doesn’t really understand how to speak to women without being off-putting, insulting, and patronizing. So as a result, you get Shelly-the-character’s Fluffy Adventures in D&D is Also For Girls Land.

This pisses me off. It pisses me off because I don’t want the neurotic, fashion-obsessed, passive, please-decide-things-for-me, d&d-has-numbers-and-is-haaaaaard character she portrays herself as to represent me as a female player. In her columns, Shelly frequently refers to herself as Player In Chief. This implies that she is somehow representing players of D&D, which is what I am violently against. I desperately, vehemently, passionately want to be disassociated from pretty much everything Shelly’s columns say about women. Shelly-the-character doesn’t represent me or any of the women I know who play D&D, or even any of the women I know who play roleplaying games that aren’t D&D. Not at all.

Dragon Magazine in 2010: Pictures

Yesterday I got the boring numbers bit out of the way. I won’t spend much time discussing the numbers, since there isn’t anything new or terribly surprising about them. Today I thought I’d go through the art and pick out some interesting points. (As always, none of this art is mine, I own nothing.)

Now I will briefly mention that with regards to numbers, the number of male figures counted as suggestive is probably higher than it should be. Because I was consistent in applying my standards of what constitutes suggestive attire, it led to the classification of figures that are clearly not meant to be sexualized. I realize we’ve had the debate here over whether monstrous races like minotaurs can still be considered sexy, and I won’t rehash that debate again. However, I feel pretty safe in declaring that none of the “suggestively attired” males in these images are sexy:

As none of the goblins are wearing pants, they’re automatically counted as suggestively attired. Am I supposed to think that they’re sexy? No, I don’t think so. The giant also seems pretty clear cut. He isn’t wearing pants, but the artist has definitely taken pains not to make him an appealing figure. It might be a little less safe to say this, but I still feel reasonably confident in declaring that rocks are not sexy, even when they are ambulatory and intelligent. And then there is the dwarf. I recognize that some dwarves can be sexy, but I’m pretty sure that this guy isn’t supposed to be.

So, as with any of my posts of this sort, take the numbers with a grain of salt.

The uneven

One of the most irksome trends I noticed when going through the art was the inequality in class depictions between men and women. All too often female characters were blatantly sexualized while male characters of the same archetype/class were not. For instance, look at these two clerics:

That chainmail practically requires an exotic armor proficiency.

The male cleric is presented as a capable adventurer, seen with the weapons, tools, and implements of his trade. The female cleric is presented as a sex object, posed and costumed for the presumed male viewer. The illustration is especially ridiculous in light of the caption. Twice the training, determination, and grit? Does that outfit and that pose say “grit” to you? Really? I’m having cognitive dissonance here.

One of these cows is not like the other…

The minotaur on the left is, for some reason, wearing only leather armor that leaves her midriff exposed and is about as slender as an athletic human. Why the lack of armor? You can argue that human women might not have the strength to fight in full plate mail, but minotaurs are supposed to be giant, super-strong cow people. With the shield and axe, she’s clearly a melee fighter; with a minotaur’s strength there’s no reason she shouldn’t be able to properly armor herself. Furthermore, the cow head on a waifish human body is just ridiculous – with that slender build she wouldn’t be capable of standing that straight, not with that giant head and neck to support. There’s a reason minotaurs are supposed to be heavily muscled. Cow heads are proportionately large and very heavy – you need a muscular frame to support that kind of a head on a biped.


As with WoW, the biggest inequalities were mostly with depictions of mages. Male mages are almost universally depicted as wearing robes that completely cover them:

While female mages… not so much:

Cleavage – apparently an important somatic component for female spell-casters.

The only one of these that I would say approaches the amount of coverage of the male mages is the mage on the top right, even if she is wearing some sort of bizarre corset-robe that just barely comes up past her nipples. The amount of coverage that the mage in the lower left is ridiculous when you look at what’s not covered – the boob window exposes her cleavage and the undersides of her breasts, and that weirdo halter top shows her side, including a generous portion of sideboob. What makes that particular illustration even more ridiculous is that she’s an astral deva – a super-powerful angelic being from a higher plane of existence. Apparently cleavage as a somatic component is a law of physics that transcends all planes.

My favorite example of mage inequality, however, was this:

Illustrations within three pages of one another and by the same artist. It really doesn’t get any more blatant than that.

Except wait, it does:

So… tigers are badass animal companions when paired with male adventurers, and some kind of bizarre bedroom accessory when paired with females? This is just plain weird. And sure, some of you might be saying – dark skin, white hair, she’s a drow! Drow are supposed to be sexay! It’s, like, part of their culture and stuff. Or something. But what I don’t understand is if drow women are in charge, why don’t they make the men dress sexy too?

There’s clearly a double-standard going on here. If I was part of a matriarchal society in which being sexy was an important part of my culture, you can be damn sure that I would make the men in my life show just as much skin.

But wait, it gets even worse!

Worse that mages in club outfits? Worse than clerics in chain mail swimsuits with a slit down to their belly button? Worse than almost-naked sexy women with tigers? How can it be?

Every time I think I’ve found the basement, there’s always another level.

The one in the middle is bad. That’s a pretty big mace – clearly she’s going to smack something with it. While wearing armored panties, armored stripper sandals, one armored guantlet (because two just wouldn’t be fashion-forward) and a bustier. As ridiculous as the swimsuit cleric is, she’s wearing about twice the clothing than mace-wielding bikini warrior.

The one on the right is worse. She’s got to be doing several hundred crunches a day, because female abs are rarely that well defined. I’m also impressed that she’s managing to aim a shot while simultaneously thrusting out her tits and her ass. Seriously, with her spine arched like that, she isn’t drawing from a position of strength, so she must be doing lots of lifting to be able to draw that bow. Also, she’s not wearing pants. In the middle of a forest. I hope for her sake she doesn’t have the misfortune to fall into poison ivy – I doubt that there’s anti-histamine creams in the D&D universe.

The worst, however, is the one on the left. What the fuck is she supposed to be? Some kind of magic-sword-wielding bikini luchador? An S&M fantasy superhero? I don’t even know how to mock this, it’s just so bad. Talk about a good artist abusing their powers for evil…

This is not quite so bad as Bikini Luchador

Interestingly, there were some illustrations that were still revealing, but seemed to me to be trying to also present the women as having a real sense of agency or character:

The one on the left is the weakest to me, mostly because of the snow. I now live in Canada, and am going through what feels like the longest winter of my fucking life. When I see anyone in snow, I want to see them wearing clothes. Lots of clothes. Snow is evil and can only be defeated with clothes. The second one is another pet peeve of mine, the pantless warrior. But I do like the strength of her expression and the size of her hammer. (And that she’s holding it correctly and looks like she’s about to use it.)

The two on the right are the best – both of them convey such a strong sense of character. I love the cocky smirk on the rogue’s face, and I love how the dwarf is being shown as a strong defender. Both of them are such great characters and would make excellent avatars. I just wish the artist hadn’t felt the need to put a cleavage window in the dwarf’s armor, or that the rogue had something that covered her to the waist. Why can’t they be allowed to be awesome on their own terms without having to show some skin?

This is what I want. More of this. A lot more.

The assassin? Fucking epic. The bard? So awesome. The ranger is so fierce. And the fighter on the bottom right is exactly the sort of medium armor fighter I’m talking about. I just wish that women like this weren’t so rare. I’d take any of these women over a ridiculous bikini luchador anyday.