Thursday, June 17, 2010

Is D&D Encounters Sexist?

This was something of a discussion that cropped up yesterday around the D&D:E table. Holly and I just got back from our European vacation, and as the place in Amsterdam that was holding D&D:E was not, in fact, holding D&D:E, we didn’t get to go. So this was our first hit of the Dark Sun Encounters season. Holly was none too pleased about not being able to build her own character for the event, and when she took a look at the pre-made characters, she went from unpleased to livid.

“There’s only one female character?” she asked. Honestly, I hadn’t taken too close a look at the pregens, so I shrugged and said something non-committal. “And the only reason she’s adventuring is TO FOLLOW HER BROTHER!?!?!”

Now, for some gaming groups, having a single female character at the table isn’t going to change anything. In a 2001 marketing survey done by Wizards of the Coast, it was found that only a small fraction (some 19%) of tabletop role-playing gamers were women, which would lead me to believe that there are probably a lot of groups that don’t have a single female player. That’s not something I’ve ever personally experienced, though. Here’s why:

Vacation 819

This is a group of four women and two men. I’m sitting behind the Game Master’s screen, and if you can’t tell from the size of the picture, that’s the D&D: Encounters adventure book, and one of the Dark Sun maps on the table. This is from yesterday.

I’m not saying that all of my groups are predominantly women, but I’ve never experienced the gender slant of role-playing games. I’ve been gaming with women since my earliest days rolling funny-shaped dice, so I can’t say as I really understand where the bias comes from.

Three of the girls above had to re-skin their pre-made character because they didn’t want to have to cross-dress to play. That’s one half of my second flight that day. That’s one quarter of my total player count for this week. They are very unhappy that their needs as players are not better catered to, especially by a company as big as Wizards of the Coast.

The first season of D&D Encounters had two female characters in it, the monk and the cleric. It’s interesting to note that out of the three total female player characters pre-generated for us by Wizards of the Coast, two of them are healing leaders. Only one of them, the monk, is capable of dishing out damage, and as the girls at my table noted yesterday “A lot of the women gamers out there just want to beat face, they don’t want to heal anyone…”

So yeah, Wizards is coming off pretty sexist right now. They’re marginalizing female gamers, and there’s at least one group of those gamers that are pissed right off about it.

The fixes is pretty easy, too. If you’re not going to let people make their own characters, make a much broader group of characters to choose from. Keep the table limit at six, but give us some twelve or fifteen characters to choose from. Or, for every male character you provide, give us a female alternative in the same class. Or, you can provide us character stats without character details, just give each character a minor quest they want to get done by the end of the adventure.

I mean, it’s not hard to make gender-equal gaming a reality. We just need to try a little harder…


Anonymous said...

While the number of obvious female characters is 1, the thri-kreen is potentially female (this came up with a scientist player at my table last night).
You also make comment about the fact that the healing leader isn't a damage dealer. So far, in the 6 games on season 2 i've run, Phye, the female healer is leading the kill count...

imnotjesus said...

I am the author of DDE:Dark Sun, and i take this allegation _very_ seriously. While the adventure was designed with only one explicitly female player-character, Phye is not just following her brother; she is trying to protect him. He is aloof and a danger to himself and others. Phye is very strong and independent, as is typical of many female characters in D&D and Dark Sun in particular. In my mind's eye, she's the strongest of the bunch.

My "day job" is as a PhD student, and i read and use the work of a number of feminist scholars: Iris Marion Young, Alice O'Conner, Leonie Sandercock, J.K. Gibson-Graham, just to name a few. I can't write a single paragraph without considering their thoughts.

Could i have included more female characters? Yes. But i'm not sure that's what feminism is about. To me, it's about including a diversity of views, something that D&D is arguable incredibly good at promoting. None of the characters (except Barcan and Phye) are defined by their gender, and even those two are only loosely so. If I or another author had written content that promoted the degradation, oppression, or marginalization of women, then i would be upset. As it is, your DM should freely allow you to express your character in any way you'd like. In fact, if you aren't happy with the pregens, i would tell you not to use them. Make your own replacement.

I am not an employee of Wizards of the Coast, but in my experience, Wizards is a very progressive company. I'm sure they'll take these types of allegations just as seriously as i do as a content creator.

I applaud you starting this discussion and i hope that my contribution helps to clarify some of the decisions that were made in the creation of this adventure.

Kristoffer said...

The lack of female characters is only a part of it, and it's not just your adventure. Two of the three female characters we have in the whole initiative thus far are nurturing healer types. The fact that there are very few female characters in the initiative at all is compounded by sticking two thirds of them into healing roles.

I'm not suggesting that the content of the adventure is in any way degrading to women. I'm suggesting that there's a sexist slant in the representation of women in the D&D:Encounters initiative thus far that I would like to see addressed in the future. I think it's important that Wizards provide more female characters, and that those female characters are given a wider variety of roles. It was a problem that spurred a 2-hour discussion at the end of our session last night, which is usually a good indication that, to my group at least, it's a glaring problem.

Also, this is hardly an "allegation." I'm not out to prove some dire and evil scheme to keep women in the kitchen; I'm criticizing what I see as a failing on the part of the D&D:E initiative, and suggesting ways in which that failing could be addressed.

imnotjesus said...

@Kristoffer I don't really know anything about the first season of D&D Encounters, but in the second season, i wouldn't consider Phye to be just a healer. In fact, her role is Leader, and there is no explicit healer role in 4E D&D.

I agree, more variety would be nice. I wanted to provide 12 pregens, but for a variety of reasons, it didn't happen. I will be sure to pass your feedback on to Wizards staff i have been in contact with.

I think your suggestions are sound. I'm happy that you're willing to discuss this. I happen to disagree with your description of Phye as a weak-willed healer who's only adventuring to follow her brother.

Here's the original text for her background as i submitted it:

"Phye never intended to become an adventurer. Yet she was not content living as the daughter of a petty noble either. When her brother, Barqan, disappeared unexpectedly, she convinced her father to let her search for him. She was trained in the art of combat after all. And it didn't take her long to uncover his trail. He isn't one to carefully cover his tracks.
Once she found him, though, she didn't want to return, so she and Barqan decided to journey together and see what the winds bring."

D&D is also a game run by a DM, not by a corporation. Your DM has the ability to change whatever she wants. Make the story your own; make the characters your own.

Cassie said...

While I can understand your initial annoyance, it is a role playing game.

My background is in console video games (not PC MMO's) where the female character is one of the following:
1) in a dungeon/castle/tower/cage and needing to be rescued
2) is the hero but scantily clad, racy, and "bouncy"
3) is the information catalyst to propel a story, usually dressed as a sexy secretary with a large bosom.

When I started playing D&D just 6 months ago I was surprised to find that I could play as ANY character I wanted. The DM asked who my heroes were in sci-fi or fictional tales, and my first answer was the female cast of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer (TV). He helped me create a character the embodied the top characteristics that I liked from Buffy, Willow, Anya and Faith.

Admittedly, I've not attempted D&D: Encounters yet. However, it is a pre-determined set of characters, and a "pick up and play" multiplayer game that gamers can drop into at any time - quite similar to video games like Left For Dead or Borderlands. If I were to participate, I'd probably just ask if I can change the sex and/or name. If that was impossible, then I'd just pretend the character was female in my head.

Borderlands is the best example of this scenario. While I could have easily chosen the woman, I didn't. I preferred the stats of the little skinny dude, and renamed him. In my head, as I role play while playing, he is a girl, kicking butt, saving lives, killing skags and zombies.

When I play a 4 player MP game with my female friends, like Modern Warfare 2, we are forced to play as dudes. That doesn't mean that I'm going to give the company flack, it just means that the game transcended my yearn for a woman fighter. After all, I'd rather play as a fully clad male than a sexy, unrealistic, heaving woman. I'm just glad that D&D can offer so many choices to really be who or whatever you want, even when using pre-made characters.

Finally, the same can be said for homosexual characters, which are never called out specifically. Are all tough women immediately lesbians? No. Are all men instantly hetero? No. This is up to the player to decide. So, if you want to play as Yuka, then be a fearless, driven and intense FEMALE Yuka named Sue. After all, this is not the cause to burn bras over.

Cheesepie said...

Hey, Sarah Darkmagic posted a blog post on the same subject, and why reskinning really isn't a good solution:

Kristoffer said...

I was actually wondering if Sarah Darkmagic would have anything to say on the topic, and I'm glad she did.

@imnotjesus: I'm not implying that Phye isn't a strong character in her own right. That her backstory is intrinsically tied with that of a male character lends itself to some misinterpetation, though, especially as she is the only female character in the season. If there had been even one more female character, having the siblings intrinsically linked would be far less focal.

For my opinion on the issue of the DM as the force of arbitration on these things, I would urge you to see Sarah Darkmagic's comments, as they mirror my own closely enough that I feel it would be redundant to repeat them.

The real issue I see, though, is this: sexism is, at it's basest, a distinct preference for one gender over others, which is something D&D: Encounters has shown in its pregenerated characters. This is, as I said before, not related directly to your own adventure, but instead to D&D:E in general.

@Cassie: One of the ways we're spoiled by D&D is that we get to play whatever we want. Even in a drop in game, you want to play a character you can identify with, and for a lot of female players, it can be difficult to identify with a male character. Also, they shouldn't have to. They should be able to pick a character they identify with, in a gender they prefer. I would, again, send you to Sarah Darkmagic's post, because her opinions are much better worded than mine would be, and they're basically identical opinions.

Matt said...

This comment hits the nail on the head. Within reason, there's only so much catering to the players you can do, and the same argument you make for sexism can easily be transferred to racism. If WotC tried to address every potential "I can't identify with this" problem that comes up, eventually there would be no room for the author to craft a story as every challenge would have to take every subset of human existence into play every time.

Eliminating the pictures off the sheets is a potential way around it, but I find those to be the most attractive part of the whole package, and potentially instrumental in getting new players (which I would argue it doesn't, not at our store anyway).

What they should have done is institute a "banned list", much like Magic, of feats, classes, abilities and whatnot specific to Dark Sun. Then the players could make their own character and get around this entire problem.

CHRIS said...

Well I understand the horrible restrictions of pregens, I also know that for some of the people it helps them make some decisions about who their character will be. Pregens seem to help my party with their inability to write their own backstory. Why this is I do not know. There are also no females playing at any of my tables. There is one female character however. Honestly, 2/6 beats the math you provided.

It could be worse. You should have seen how mad my group got when one of them had to play the invoker.

I have yet to see someone that does not harbor scorn to the invoker.

Kristoffer said...

The math I provided was from 1999. Women are still a growing sector in the role-playing game market.

Invokers are, indeed, deeply silly.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for sharing this link - but unfortunately it seems to be down? Does anybody here at have a mirror or another source?


Anonymous said...

Not sure why you can't just change the sex of the pre-gen characters.