Archive for November, 2007

Dungeons & Dragons is a game that’s based in fantasy, but there is a degree to which reality must be represented, lest we risk disrupting a player’s sense of disbelief. The problem is that sometimes, our perceptions of reality are based largely on personal biases, rather than actual fact. If not dealt with carefully, these biases may come into conflict with other people’s perceptions, and may serve to alienate players whose beliefs don’t agree with ours. This is particularly true when discussing game mechanics that try to take into account the physical differences between men and women.

In the foreword of the 1st Edition Player’s Handbook, Mike Carr states, “D&D players, happily, come in all shapes and sizes, and even a fair number of women are counted among those who regularly play the game – making Dungeons & Dragons somewhat special in that regard.” I think it’s interesting to note that he separates out women specifically in this statement, almost as if he’s surprised that ‘a fair number of women’ play the game. Of course, it should seem surprising, when you consider the fact that the game’s mechanics of 1st Edition actively exclude women from the game. Take, for example, the Strength Table, on page 9 of the Player’s Handbook. Female characters are listed as having a maximum possible strength based on their race. These limits on their strength scores significantly reduce their effectiveness in combat, compared to their male counterparts. This is most notable when you look at the differences between the maximum scores for female and male human characters. The maximum Strength score that a female character can have is 18/01-50, giving her a +1 bonus to hit probability, and a +3 to her damage adjustment. Compare this to the maximum 18/00 for a male human character, who gains a +3 bonus to his hit probability, and a +6 to his damage adjustment. When you also take into consideration the fact that many of the player classes in 1st Edition grant additional XP to characters with a high Strength score, the fact that there are no comparable, maximum ability adjustments made for male characters on any of the other ability score tables, the fact that many classes require players to have a minimum Strength score, and the fact that females of some races (the female Halfling being a prime example) can’t meet these minimum ability requirements1, you begin to see the preference that is placed on male characters in the game. This can be frustrating to female players, who may prefer to play a female character, but who feel that their class choices and capabilities are limited because of their gender.

Thankfully, the current incarnation of Dungeons & Dragons has done away with these gender adjustments. Whether a barbarian, a cleric, a paladin, or a wizard, a female character can be just as strong, wise, intelligent, dexterous, charming, and/or intimidating as her male counterparts. Nevertheless, the myth that women are somehow inherently weaker than men, and therefore there should be adjustments in game to their statistics, is one that persists to this day. For example,  in a thread on the D&D General message boards, called Yeah Old D&D Humbug Female Strength Scores, the poster states “I don’t think even the most rabid feminist will claim that females are physically stronger than men… so how about women get -2 strength, and +2 to an ability score of her choice?” Meanwhile, in a thread on the d20 Design General boards, called Rules for Males vs. Females, the poster states “Everyone knows that the average male is physically stronger than the average female. Does anyone use any rules to show this?” These rules may not be core, but the very fact that people are discussing the creation and use of such rules suggest that there is still an inclination to use game mechanics to further marginalize women from the game.

Now granted, part of the problem is cultural indoctrination. We are brought up believing that women are physically smaller and weaker than men. In fact, if you look at most societies, men are, on average, taller, heavier, more muscular, and have a lower proportion of body fat to women2. However, there is some evidence to suggest that this is more cultural than biological. In Balinese society, for example- a society where neither men nor women traditionally do much heavy work- the physical differences between men and women are often so slight that European visitors complain about not being able to tell them apart3. Also, several studies have shown that while a woman’s muscle mass may not increase as quickly as a man’s (women can increase their strength by 50 to 75 percent without any increase in muscle bulk), a woman’s strength actually increases faster than a man’s when training with weights4. So while there may be differences between the sexes in our own society, it is possible that many of those differences are actually cultural, rather than biological. Given that, is it all that difficult to imagine a fantasy society, where women are equal in strength to their male counterparts?

Men and women do have physical differences, and those differences should be celebrated, rather than condemned. However, when it’s not even clear in reality, whether those differences are biological, or cultural, is there any reason to reinforce those differences with game mechanics? After all, if we can accept a magical world where creatures the size of tanker trucks can fly, and the boundaries between life and death are quasi-membranous, can we not also accept the rather mundane idea that a woman could be an equal in strength to a man?

1. Advanced D&D Player’s Handbook (1st Edition)

2.Advance Data from Vital Health Statistics (2004).

3. Hubbard, Ruth; Henifin; Mary Sue; Fried, Barbara (1982). Biological Woman – The Convenient Myth (pg. 97). Cambridge, Ma.: Schenkman Publishing Company, Inc.

4.Hubbard, Ruth; Henifin; Mary Sue; Fried, Barbara (1982). Biological Woman – The Convenient Myth (pg. 95-96). Cambridge, Ma.: Schenkman Publishing Company, Inc.

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“In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/femqale. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. Woman displayed as sexual object is the leit-motif of erotic specatacle: from pin-ups to striptease, from Ziegfeld to Busby Berkeley, she holds the look, plays to and signifies male desire.”

~Laura Mulver (Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema)

 There is nothing wrong with sexuality, or even hypersexuality in artwork. Sexuality is a part of who we are. It’s part of what defines us as beings on this planet. For thousands of years, we’ve been portraying both men and women in artwork as sexually active creatures. To remove sexuality from artwork altogether would be to deny part of who we are. Nevertheless, we must be careful when we portray sexuality in artwork. While sexuality is a part of what defines us, when only one gender is portrayed as sexual, while the other is portrayed as strong and capable, people beging to develop active and passive attitudes towards those genders; marginalizing and excluding the gender group that is passively portrayed. When creating a game, like Dungeons & Dragons, it is important to make sure that both genders are portrayed equally as sexual beings, lest one gender feel alienated and excluded from the game.

When 3rd Edition first came out, the artists made an effort to portray women and men as equally active and capable. This is still evidenced to some degree in the artwork that was carried over from 3rd Edition to 3.5. The female druid, on page 34, for example, is equivalently armored to the barbarian on page 25 and while not actively posed, appears as ready for battle as the male cleric on page 31. The female monk, while less armored is no more scantily clad than the male sorcerer on page 51 and appears just as active and well muscled as the barbarian. This design of the female, iconic heroes was a leap forward in inclusive game design for Dungeons & Dragons, because it provided female gamers with examples of active, capable heroes to emulate.

Unfortunately, when 3.5 was published, rather than carrying on this tradition of equal treatment of the sexes in artwork, there was a dispiriting reversal in the quality of the artwork. Male characters, which were originally drawn in passive poses, were redrawn to appear more active and capable. Meanwhile, female characters, which were originally drawn in neutral poses, were redrawn in hypersexual, passive poses designed for strong, male, erotic impact. Perhaps the most glaring examples of these changes involve the satyr and the nymph. In 3rd Edition, the satyr is depicted as reclining on a tree branch, his pipes hanging passively from his neck. In 3.5, he is depicted as as pouncing over a fallen log, his arms flexed, his expression ferocious and feral. The nymph, on the other hand, is portrayed in 3rd Edition as a fully clothed, female. In 3.5, the nymph stands back arched, her eyelids ddrooped, with a thin, quasi see through sheet draped over her naked body. In mythology, both of these creatures are hypersexualized. Satyrs are portrayed with erect phalluses and nymphs portrayed as nude dancers. While one might argue that the portrayal of the nymph in 3.5 is closer to the classic representation of the nymph in classic mythology, the same cannot be said for the satyr. This artwork sadly reinforces the stereotype of the active/male, passive/female stereotypes that serve to exclude women from roleplaying games.

Now some might conclude from this line of argument that the game would be best served by introducting hypersexualized artwork of male characters and creatures into the game. This would certainly provide a balance of both men and women being depicted as equally, hypersexualized creatures. However, there are problems with this as well. First, Dungeons & Dragons isn’t primarily about sexuality. It’s about strong, physically capable individuals adventuring in a fantasy world filled with monstrous creatures and sinister villains. By focusing on the hypersexualization of both male and female characters, it runs the risk of alienating players whose primary interest is in the adventuring aspect of Dungeons & Dragons. It also runs the risk of alienating players who don’t want to be exposed to such artwork in the first place. After all, is there anyone who would want to see this included in the 4th Edition Monster Manual?


With that, I rest my case.

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Roleplaying is a curious thing. What starts out as a whimsical fancy, an expression of the imagination, suddenly becomes an outlet for feelings that we’re afraid to express, and ideas that we’re afraid to explore.  We create an alter ego- another self- a person that’s allowed to be aggressive, or passionate, or fearful, or cold.

But then something strange happens. The character that we created begins to have its own feelings, its own desires, its own needs. It begins to act autonomously, performing actions that we never expected, doing things that run counter to our own thoughts, our own beliefs, our own control. As time goes on, it begins to feel like we’re watching the life of another person, rather than playing the part of a character we’ve created. We celebrate their victories, and we mourn their losses. We enjoy their company, and miss them when we’re apart.  These characters become our teachers, our companions. They shape our lives, our thoughts, our beliefs, and our dreams. They teach us not only about ourselves, but about the perspectives of others. They become so much a part of our lives, that they almost become real.

If you frequent Astrid’s Parlor on the Wizards of the Coast website at all, you’ve probably read my post Dove Arrow and Why I Think This Forum is a Great Idea, and are aware that by playing this character, I felt frustrated that I couldn’t play a female character in a roleplaying situation. However, it’s more than just that. I didn’t just feel frustrated that I couldn’t play a female character. I felt like my character taught me about feminist issues by sharing her life, and her experiences with me.

So that’s why I’m writing this blog. I want to share what my character shared with me. I want people to see how the roleplaying industry could improve the marketing of Dungeons & Dragons so that the game can become more inviting to female gamers. I want people to understand how frustrating it can be to feel objectified because of your gender, and that taking away the things that make a person feel objectified will improve the game for everyone.

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