Everyone is talking about what features they want to see in the next version of Dungeons & Dragons. Personally, though, I understand that I will very likely not see my pet mechanics in the core of the game, or even in expansions, because I’m one of those crazy kids who grew up lurking on The Forge and has some pretty fucked up ideas about games, gaming, and game design. Also, I don’t think I have anything useful to add to the dialogue until I see the direction the design is going in. I can guess, and I can suggest a direction that I think would be beneficial to the game, but I can’t really improve a design I’ve never seen. I will be much more concerned with making D&DV the best it can be and much less concerned with pigeonholing it to fit whatever I think the essence of D&D is.
So instead, I’m going to talk to another very important part of the Dungeons & Dragons experience. I’m going to talk about art. Which is a pretty hefty step away from what I normally look at, because there are times when I write enormous posts (like this one) that don’t even have pictures. I’m very much a wall-of-text blogger, so it might seem a little unorthodox that I would be as worried about the direction of the art as I am. But I am very, very, deeply concerned about the direction of the art in this game, and I would like to invite the art department, particularly those in decision-making positions, to pay close attention to what I am about to say next:
Dungeons & Dragons is still seen as a sexist game, and you are the only people in the world who can fix that.
It’s not just sexist, though. It’s sexist, it’s racist, and it’s ableist in its artistic representation of people. Now, I’ve heard all the arguments against having people of color and women depicted in the art of a fantasy role-playing game, and I think they’re all hooey. And to be fair, there has been headway made. I have seen progress, especially from the chainmail bikini era of game art.
And I’m not accusing anyone of purposefully excluding people of color, the differently abled or women from their depictions of heroic figures. Anyone who is actively trying to exclude or belittle people from their game is a dickbag, and it is very likely that will come through in the game itself (Byron Hall, I’m looking at you). What is happening is primarily blindness to the issue. So I am going to make a request, and it is my sincere hope that you, the art department responsible for the look and feel of D&D Next will take it under advisement.
Women make up 52% of the world’s population. They can make up 50% of the people in your game’s art. Moreover, the exact number of pictures in which a woman is standing in an Impossible Position is 0. For every piece of art submitted, have the artist attempt to pose him or herself in the positions of the people depicted. If either person’s position is painful, that pose is very likely held by a female character whose breasts and buttocks are pressed out to increase her sexiness.
Wizards of the Coast has very clearly established that sexiness is not something they believe Dungeons & Dragons needs. If there were room for sex in D&D, the Book of Erotic Fantasy would have been updated to Fourth Edition. You specifically precluded the possibility of that happening in your licensing for a reason. If sexiness is a factor in how D&D art is chosen, something has gone terribly wrong.
Human skin comes in a lot of colors from black to white to yellow to red to brown. Human features come in a huge range of styles and types. I understand that we’re playing in a fantasy world where the various skin tones in reality may not be as prevalent. But I also know that in said fantasy world all of the monks look Asian. Even the elves.
Have some fun drawing black dudes in mage robes or brown chicks in plate mail. Evenly distribute the skin tones across the whole of your books, and the problem of racism mostly disappears (except, y’know, the “Goblins are evil because they’re green,” issue). And this doesn’t just go for the humans, guys. Elves obviously have some skin tone variation going on (Oh, hey Drizzt.). Dwarves can go from chestnut brown to fair skinned. I love the idea of charcoal-skinned halflings and a range of skin-tones for half-orcs from phthalo green to honeydew. All this does is make the art more interesting, and add depth that might otherwise be missing from the depiction of the game world.
Ableism is a tough thing to address in a role-playing game. I get that. It’s tough to be a bad-ass knight if you can’t walk. Being an amputee isn’t cool… Wait a fucking minute, yeah it is! Ahab lost a leg to a whale and was a total badass. Bran Stark is paralyzed from the waist down and he’s one of the most interesting characters in A Song of Ice and Fire. Rick Grimes loses a hand and goes batfuck crazy, but he’s one of the toughest assholes to survive the zombie apocalypse.
Making the differently abled a part of your game world is easier than it sounds. Hell, one of my players built a character whose hand had been cut off and some asshole was out there wearing it around his neck. It didn’t come with any penalties or anything, it was just a flavor thing that made him a total badass, and it was all description. Characters that are Big Damn Heroes despite having challenges above and beyond the norm are awesome, and should be shown to be so in game art.
This is sort of a minor point, but it’s one I’d like to make anyway: having characters of various sizes and shapes is not at all unrealistic, nor does it reduce the heroic aspect of the fantasy. Look at any successful fantasy series ever, and you’re going to find a bunch of different body shapes, because different body shapes are something we understand, something we _get_. Moreover, it doesn’t hurt to reduce the impact of stereotypical, hyper-sexualized imagery in the media you’re creating. Give me some pudgy mages and some scrawny fighters, please.
All I’m looking for, what I’m really asking you for, is to look critically at the message your art sends to the people who will be looking at it. ALL of the people who will be looking at it. Ask yourself, if you were in the shoes of a feminist, what would you think of this illustration? If you lived in a wheelchair, how would you feel about seeing nothing but able-bodied folk?
And you can argue, if you like, that this is just the opinion of a privileged white guy. Because, y’know, it is. I’m not a woman, I’m not a minority, and my only disability is depression. But I’m just the voice for a silent riot, guys. There are others like me, and there are some who have made a great show of picking apart the inherent sexism, racism and ableism of your art. And we’re speaking for a much larger group of people you will never hear from, but who feel uncomfortable playing your game because it depicts women, minorities and the differently abled as something less than the able-bodied white dudes on page after page.
Warp One Comics and Games
Go Make Me a Sandwich
Women Fighters in Reasonable Armor