Over the past couple of years the topic of sexism in D&D (and role-playing games in general and gaming in meta-general) has come to the forefront of online discussions (and hopefully irl conversations as well). Especially after Wizards of the Coast (WotC) artist Jon Schindehette publicly approached the topic of “Sexism in Fantasy” on WotC’s website last year (but overall, the topic of sexism in gaming is still very fresh, as can be seen by Aisha Tyler’s response to sexist comments about why she shouldn’t host E3 this year).
As a preamble note: when speaking about gender here, I am either referring to the real-world gender to which an individual identifies (including androgynous) or the in-game gender to which the player or GM assigns to a character or non-player character. Because the majority, if not all, the treatment of gender in role-playing games focus solely on female/male dichotomy that is what is primarily addressed here. However, it is my hope that with a more varied and equal treatment of the two opposites sides of the gender issue in role-playing games that we will see more inclusion for androgynous and other aspects of gender.
With regards to Schindehette’s post, Vivian Abraham from Gaming as Women site has a poignant response here and Sarah Darkmagic discusses the article here.
Now I know, in writing on a topic that’s a year old some may say I’m late to the party. But my perspective is; I’ve been at the party the whole time, I’m just a wallflower and I need to watch how others are dancing in order discern what the dance is about. In other words, as a cisgendered hetero white able-bodied male it is important for me to shut the hell up and listen to what non-[cis-het-white-able]-males are saying about the subject and then attempt, to the best of my ability, to empathically put myself in their shoes.
On the off chance that in reading the above articles it’s not clear what I’m addressing here is my central foci are around 3 points; 1. Art & Game-rule text in RPGs being either overtly sexist or failing to recognize that women also play the games. 2. Sexism within the game setting, “the world,” itself. 3. Self analysis of my own fantasy world both as it relates to 1 and 2.
1. Art & Game-rule text
Claudia Cangini has a wonderful post in which she talks about how she approached fantasy game art with sexual/sensual overtones (includes mildly NSFW examples of her art). Unlike Schindehette, who just passes the buck by approaching the issue of sexism in fantasy art and then saying “I’d like to dismiss the term sexism for a bit and get down to the meat of the subject. I think that the term “sexist” is convenient, inflammatory, and polarizing. It doesn’t actually address the issue that most folks are asking me to address—and that is the issue of the role and depiction of women (and I get a surprising number of requests about men as well) in fantasy.” Cangini hits it dead on by describing exactly how to address the issue; (paraphrasing) 1. Equal gender ratios of scantly clad individuals. 2. Avoiding portraying women as weaker/more passive/more victimized than men. 3. Action scenes over simple one-character posing which allows for more varied displays of the personalities (characters as “human” that are active in the world not as objectified things passively waiting for something to be done to them).
A fourth point I would include is focus on “realism” over “fantasy” for the portrayal of individuals in the fantasy art. The quotes are there because I mean for people to be drawn with a coherent internal-to-the-fantasy-world realism. The easiest example of this is how armor is drawn. Armor is for protection and if a female knight is drawn in plate mail that has her legs, midriff, arms, hell, any flesh exposed it says her sexuality is valued more than her effectiveness in combat. It says the artist, art director, and the game company value portraying women as sexual over realistic actors in the game-world to be taken seriously. It also implies that the customer who purchases such a book has the same values, whether it’s true or not, conscious or not, and the only way for the customer to disagree with the company’s choice in their portrayal of women is to either not buy the books or speak up and let the company know how they feel.
Now some at this point may think that I’m arguing that sensual/sexual images in fantasy game art is outright wrong, that there should be no depictions of scantly clad women or men in the game books. But this is an outright incorrect reading of this blog post. For example, if the art director needed the image of female knight and they still wanted to show sexuality/sensuality in the image, following Cangini points above, having the knight be in the process of removing her realistic armor with her male page to her side behind her pulling the spaulder off her shoulders, her one un-gloved hand resting gently on his leg as they look each other in the eyes tenderly…there you have a women in power in a sensual situation that implies there is more than just a “business” relationship between her and her page with a reason for showing her skin. But if the same knight is to be shown in battle, then what’s the reason for showing any flesh? The only reasonable reason would be because at some point during the battle some part of her armor had been destroyed and here the artist runs into a risk of depicting/fetishizing violence towards women (especially if the destroyed armor heavily sexualizes her at the same time). Having male and female allies in the same state of harm in the battle would help to mitigate that risk. At the very least, having another image in the book that presents a male character in the same level of harm would help to balance things out (role-playing games tend to be combat orientated so violence is, well, a fun part of the game but predominately showing women as passive victims passes into the realm of moral reprehensibility).
If art directors and artists kept those three/four simple points in mind when laying out a game book it would go a long way to saying “we value both our male and female customers.” Schindehette says about approving the Tisha character image that he “made a decision based upon the business goals, the sales channel, the audience as it was defined, and what was acceptable in the market at the time.” None of these are acceptable reasons for sexism (hint: there are none). Just as state run eugenics programs, slavery, and Japanese internment camps were morally wrong before, during, and after they occurred, agreeing to continue to promote sexism because of business goals, sales, the audience, and acceptable market practices doesn’t make it any less wrong. Producing white-supremacist literature with accompanying art meets the racists’ business goals, sales channel needs, pleases its intended audience, and is acceptable in the (racists’) market…it’s still wrong.
The text in role-playing games has, on one hand, come a long way. Most notably in the conscious use of gender-neutral pronouns or alternating between “his” and “her,” etc.
But there are other subtle issues that still exist. Sarah Darkmagic wrote up her impressions of the races handout for D&D Next where she points out that in the section on dwarves there’s the description that “Male dwarves value their beards highly and groom them very carefully.” But there is no indication of what the other half of the dwarven race “have,” the only gender distinction given as being males are slightly taller and heftier than females, and she sees this as implying that if female dwarves do not grow beards and are slighter in build then they will be seen as lesser. I tend to read it as uninformative (still sexist for being uninformative) rather than assigning any implication.
The 4th Edition D&D Player’s Handbook address both male and female dwarven grooming, “Male dwarves are often bald and braid their long beards into elaborate patterns. Female dwarves braid their hair to show clan and ancestry.” But the Pathfinder Core Rulebook entry completely supports Sarah Darkmagic’s assumption; “Male and female dwarves pride themselves on the length of their hair, and men often decorate their beards with a varity of clasps and intricate braids. A clean-shaven male dwarf is a sure sign of madness, or worse-no one familiar with their race trusts a beardless dwarf.” So the first clause of the first sentence talks about both genders, but then the rest of the description is all about male dwarves. There is no clear indication if female dwarves in the game follow the old-school “all dwarves have beards” or not and for those unfamiliar with the old school then they would assume female dwarves have no beards…essentially clean-shaven which would imply the women are the “mad” gender.
Because of the fairer treatment to the genders in the dwarf physical description section of the 4th ed. D&D Player’s Handbook I thought I would check out the “Adventurers” examples in each class section to see how they come out. Here’s what it boiled down to:
Dragonborn: male warlord, female fighter, male paladin
Dwarf: male paladin, female cleric, male fighter
Eldarin: female wizard, male rogue, female warlord
Elf: male ranger, female rogue, male cleric
Half-elf: male warlord, female warlock, male paladin
Halfling: female rogue, male ranger, female warlock
Human: male fighter, female ranger, male wizard
Tiefling: male warlock, female warlord, male rogue
Cleric: 1 Female, 1 Male
Fighter: 1 Female, 2 Male
Paladin: 0 Female, 3 Male
Ranger: 1 Female, 2 Male
Rogue: 2 Female, 2 Male
Warlock: 2 Female, 1 Male
Warlord: 2 Female, 2 Male
Wizard: 1 Female, 1 Male
Total: 10 Female, 14 Male (5:7 ratio)
While they do a good job of alternating between male/female/male examples, they don’t alternate across the race sections (if they did then the ratio would be evenly split). Additionally, the two races that get the female-majority of descriptions are the Eldarin (the most physically attractive race) and the Halflings (the most child-like). I was surprised to see that across all the races there was one female and one male cleric represented. However, it was disappointing to see no female Paladins represented and that the one place where women outnumber men is as warlocks (the stereotypical witch-class) and where men outnumber the women are in stereotypical masculine roles (fighter, paladin, and ranger). So on one hand it’s good that female adventurers were described, but on the other there are still marks of sexism there.
I did not read each entry in-depth to see if there was a predominant passive-entry into adventuring for the female entries vs. active-entry for the males.
2. Sexism within the Game Setting
The game setting, the world in which the game takes place, is different from the rules. It forms the background in which the stories of the heroes take place. It is important for the game designer to explicitly state how cultures (purely fantastic or based on real-world cultures or somewhere in between) are going to be treated in their products. “Campaign books,” the books that set out to describe the world and its inhabitants, should include a disclaimer at the very least, a trigger warning of sorts, if some or all of the world contains sexism (and racism, sexual content, etc.).
Why? Because; A. By being up front with your audience (or possible audience) you are showing you give a damn about them. You’re letting them know, up-front, what kind of content your presenting and giving them the choice to dive in or walk way based on what they think is best for them instead of letting them stumble upon things that may upset, anger, alienate, or otherwise harm them. B. It shows you, the creator, are aware of the subject matter you’ve created, that you consciously chose to include such subject matter because you feel it is necessary for the setting. C. It helps to keep you, the creator, aware that sexism is an issue, you’re prone to it and need to actively work against it.
For example, in Sarah Darkmagic’s response to Schindehette’s “Sexism in Fantasy” article, she writes, “People often step in at this point and ask why I’m bringing “real world” issues into the game. I’d like to turn the question around and ask why they are insisting on bringing “real world” discrimination into the game. Whether they like it or not, the game world of D&D has a world full of women over the age of 25. The Forgotten Realms is supposed to be a game world where women are equal to men. In a world with magic and healing, there’s no reason why women would have to be relegated to a subservient role in the world.”
This is entirely the correct way to go about designing in-game content. For what reason are gender stereotypes being promoted within a fantasy world? If the designer’s answer is “they’re not,” then it becomes important to consciously work against that in the writing. Making sure there are inns that have equal distribution of male and female waitstaff, positions of power being split between genders evenly, especially as sample sizes get larger (if you’re only looking at one position of power, then that will be filled by either one or the other gender, but in looking at 100 positions of power then the distribution should be closer to 50/50, and so on).
If the designer’s answer is “they are,” then it becomes exceedingly important for the designer to explain why. If a designer is going to go to the lengths of including in the rules something like “male humans have a -2 penalty to Intelligence at character creation,” then an explanation as to why, in this particular game-world, this is the case as well as needing to develop the human cultures around this game mechanic with the understanding that this penalizes the game-play experience of any player choosing the play a male human. But flip that around, what if the designer includes the penalty for female humans and not males? This both plays into a real-world stereotype (which is utterly false) as well as penalizing any player choosing to play a female human. For this reason, in-game mechanics that differentiate between genders are best to just not include in the game (which, thankfully, most professional games no longer include).
But what about non-mechanic differences? There’s three basic choices for the designer (with a sliding scale between them). On one side is to just not include sexism in the world. As Sarah Darkmagic pointed out above, this is the default position of the Forgotten Realms (how well it accomplishes this is another matter) for the playable races.
In the middle is to add sexism in sparingly, which is closer to what actually happens in the Forgotten Realms where; A. The majority of figures in position of power are male but there are several notable exceptions (which appears to be an unconscious outcome of the creators of the world) and B. Where there is or has been cultures with inherent sexism it’s largely been in reverse (namely the drow matriarchal society, and the pre-4th edition D&D half-drow nation of Dambrath). What’s particularly of note about the reverse sexism is that it almost always portrays the ruling class (the women) as inherently evil as if acknowledging that sexism is morally wrong while failing to recognize the predominant male powers in the rest of the world. A more conscious application of this middle road would be to include some cultures that had varying degrees of sexism, some with males in the privileged position, some with females, and others more egalitarian all the while avoiding assigning any cultural-version a predominant alignment but those with sexism being slightly more evil than the egalitarian cultures (this is not to say that sexism isn’t morally wrong, but only taking into account that the culture is comprised of both those in power and those who are not so declaring the culture evil further ignores the rest of the society).
At the other end of the extreme, a designer could go full bore into including sexism into their game world and mimic it to the worst that real world humans have created throughout their history. For me personally, I’d only be interested in playing in such a game world if a central plot to the campaign was fighting against the oppression. But it’s still a viable option, especially if the creator openly outlines how and why the world is sexist while acknowledging that sexism is morally wrong.
While on one-hand I love the drow, spider-loving demon-summoning bad-guys from below, I think they only further harm gender understanding within the game. If Greyhawk or the Forgotten Realms had more examples of non-inherently evil matriarchal societies, then the drow could be the deviate from the norm, but as it stands it’s a glaring “don’t let women into positions of power,” implication.
Drow lead into another issue: the majority of female enemies in role-playing games are often highly objectively sexualized to the point of that being their defining characteristic. Alu-demons, drow matriarchs, marilliths, nymphs, nixies, succubi/erines, all play into the “whore” archetype/stereotype as are just about any humanoid female enemy in the game, often stripped of agency (see Sarah Darkmagic’s “Drelnza, The False Disney Princess” write up). While hags, and similar monsters play into the “crone” archetype. And the damsel in distress playing into the “virgin” archetype. None of which being fully integrated complex individuals. Then, on the other hand, the monstrous races like orcs, goblins, kobolds, lizardfolk, giants, etc., predominately present masculine aspects while totally ignoring females of the population. For example, the Pathfinder prd entry on the orc only mentions gender once, and then only to describe the average male’s height and weight (implying female orcs are unimportant and won’t ever come up in game).
Deities are another area in which sexism can appear. In D&D 4th Edition, there are 19 gods detailed (the evil and chaotic evil ones only mentioned). Of those 19, 8 are female, 11 are male. Of the 8 female deities only one is Good (none are Lawful Good), 5 are Unaligned, one is Evil, and one is Chaotic Evil. Of the 11 male deities two are Lawful Good, one is Good, two are Unaligned, 5 are evil, and one is Chaotic Evil.
The female gods have the following key-words/portfolio aspects: Adventure, Autumn, Civilization, Death, Envy, Fate, Freedom, Frontier, Greed, Illusion, Knowledge, Lies, Moon, Prophecy, Scheming, Sea, Shadows, Skill, Spiders, Trade, Travel, Trickery, Treachery, Wealth, Wilderness, Winter.
The male gods have the following key-words/portfolio aspects: Artisans, Arts, Assassins, Battle, Beauty, Conquest, Creation, Darkness, Destruction, Domination, Honor, Jailers, Justice, Necromancy, Nobility, Poison, Protection, Secrets, Spring, Strength, Summer, Sun, Thunder, Time, Torturers, Tyranny, Undead, Underdark, War
So 10 out of the 26 key-words for the women are inherently negative traits (38.5%). While 10 out of 29 are for the males (34.5%, where, given the nature of the game, Battle, Conquest, and War are not considered negative nor positive).
Additionally, the female gods’ traits of Illusion, Lies, Moon, Scheming, Sea, Shadows, Trickery, and Treachery are particularly playing to stereotypes. As are the male gods’ traits of Battle, Conquest, Creation, Destruction, Domination, Honor, Justice, Nobility, Protection, Strength, Sun, Thunder, Tyranny, and War.
3. Self Analysis
So how do I hold up? From the outset of creating my fantasy world I began with the inherent decision to make the majority of my cultures (especially the human cultures) non-sexist and non-racist (where for me racism is applied to what would be called in standard D&D sub-races) but heavily species-ist (where in my campaign I define dwarves as a separate species from elves which are separate from humans, and so on). I essentially went with the idea that in a world where there are multiple sentient humanoid species then the demonizing of the “other” is going to more easily and frequently be applied to those other species than focused within the species own society (whether racially [D&D sub-races] or by gender).
No species (D&D race) in my fantasy world have gender-dependent game mechanics (like +2 to this or that attribute, skill, etc.), but I do include information on the sexual dimorphism of every playable species which includes average weights and heights for each gender or each species. I’m still open to the idea of sexual dimorphism in humans having arisen from cultural constrains, but as far as I have been able to discover there is ample evidence that sexual dimorphism differences in height and weight are inherent in our species (and even in our distant ancestors), but I just assume that even if there is a predominance of one gender being physically stronger or more resistant to pain than the other that, at least for my game world, these differences between genders translates to less than 1 point on the 3-18 attribute scale and so, rounding, there is no need to add game-mechanic modifiers based on gender. The height-weight averages are presented as just that, averages, and the players are free to choose the height and weight (within reason, no 10 ft tall, 120 lbs, humans).
However, intent does not always translate to reality. Surprisingly enough (to me), after reading Sarah Darkmagic’s complaint about no details about dwarven women in the D&D Next races write-up, I went and looked at my own write up of the dwarves and found I did the exact same thing. I described a bit on beard grooming but nothing about female dwarves (my campaign’s female dwarves are beardless). So I added in a bit about female dwarves’ grooming/hair styles. I then did a quick read-through of the rest of the species and if I mentioned only male traits then I made sure to include mirrored female traits but there were only two other noticeable (to me) instances (which I fixed). The description of dwarven grooming was the most glaring issue, where for the other species I largely don’t discuss grooming/dress-styles/etc., as I plan to address those within the specific cultural entries which I haven’t yet reached for the most part.
For my persons in position of power in the local region (human), where I’m play-testing the game-world, I wouldn’t give myself a terrible score (given my intent of making the society non-sexist). Of the 23 listed positions of highest political power, 13 are male, 10 are female, and 2 are not yet defined. But out of the 23 that are defined there are 15 noble houses (which includes the Marquis of the city), and of them, sadly, 10 are male that lead their noble house and 5 are female.
For the heads of the 9 churches in the play-testing region (where there is some overlap between noble houses), I do better, with 5 leaders being male and 4 being female where one male church leader is also head of a noble house and one female church leader is head of a noble house.
Two places that I utterly fail at are my kings lists and the deities. My kings lists are abhorrently (for a fantasy world that says sexism is minimal to non-existent) male dominated. Luckily all but one of them has been handed over to the players so I can make changes as needed before ruining consistency-of-play. For the one that has been presented to the players, there are 15 emperors of the fallen human empire, of which only 3 are female. With the empire fallen, and five major kingdoms emerging from the ashes, 2 are currently ruled by women (which I wouldn’t consider terrible if not for the 3 of 15 female emperors).
The deities have the following issues: There are 4 primal ancient and elemental gods, 3 are described as male and 1 as female where I realize that they should be dual-gendered with individual societies (and groups within those societies) recognizing/worshiping one gendered aspect or another or as a dual entity.
There are 4 children of those primal gods and they are evenly split, half male, half female. The god of day is male, the god of night is female and while the portfolio descriptions are light, day, and luck for the one and darkness, night, and dreams for the other, I have one negative epitaph for the female god, “the Sleeping Curse” and no negative titles for the male god. The other two gods, assigned to the two moons, are more neutral but their portfolios do play slightly into sexist/stereotypical ideals with the female god being assigned thought and patience while the male god is action and impetuousness.
These 4 children gods should be changed like the primal gods to be dual-gendered and dependent on the culture worshiping them.
Next I have the Progenitor Gods and the Gods of Civilization. The Progenitor gods are the gods of the species, considered by each species to be their creator, and with them I was intent upon the sexism inherent in the species. The minotaurs, lizardfolk, elves, and kobolds all have a dual-gender “father/mother” god that created them (at least as those species view themselves). The humans, dwarves, and orcs have both a male and female progenitor god, they were created by their two gods joining in some way. Finally the gnolls and goblins only have one god, male and female respectively which reflects the sexism inherent in their cultures.
The gods of civilization number 19 in total. 7 are female and 12 are male, which is a worse ratio than the 4th edition D&D ratio especially considering that the humans are supposed to be non-sexist in my world and I include the specific statement about the civilized gods that “Unless otherwise noted, the [civilized] gods are presented in the way that the…humans interpret them, both in their typical descriptions and their dogma.” Given the number of alternate universes out there it seems that, among those where the humans have non-sexist cultures, there should be a few whose pantheons are more female than male. In which case there are already 2 of the civilized gods that I can easily change to female and I’ll have to take my time to see which other one to switch.
It’s highly probably that other instances of sexism are in my project. But I will be looking for them with the intent of changing them where not appropriate/unintended and explicitly pointing them out as a moral lacking in the in-game society where it is intended.