I am not quite a turtle. I have had my head under a rock, but then again, when a new edition comes out of your favorite game systems, wouldn’t you go hide in the sand? I would. I always do, a least for a little while. It happened with White Wolf’s World of Darkness 2, and I was slow to adopt, yes, but the system has merit, as does the setting. I always eventually poke my head out, sniff the new binding, peruse the shiny new books, and settle myself in to find a gaming group. I am referring, here now, to the June release of Wizards of the Coast’s new 4th edition of D&D. I can say I don’t like the system; the books are very dry and video-gamy in their descriptions, which doesn’t suit a game which is in large part based one one’s imagination.
But now that I’ve finally made it out to the bookstore a couple of nights in a row and poured over the pages of these new tomes, I slowly realized something else was bothering me about them. It wasn’t the simplified pages reading like lists, no, that observation hit me straight off… mainly because I was reading for system. No, the something of which I speak was the artwork. Passing enough of these pages trying to figure out why they decided to limit skills so strictly by class, I realized I was flipping through page after page of cleavage, accentuated female figures, and female faces that screamed sex.
Anyone familiar with the history of fantasy art as a genre has probably seen Boris Vallejo prints, has likely experienced the visual of the chain mail bikini, and has almost undoubtedly stumbled upon an (all to common) image of a naked lady with a sword. I begin to wonder if she’s the same naked lady in every picture, just a different dye job and a different sword. I wonder if the pay is good, to be a model for naked sword lady pictures.
D&D was no stranger to this stereotype. I remember clearly the images in the 2nd edition AD&D Player’s Handbook, text printed in black and blue, with the occasional full-color, full-page picture plate. Rarely were women depicted. When they were, there was the (near) naked sword lady, but more often, her spell-slinging cousin was portrayed… also wearing next to nothing. There was one picture plate in all that which looked quite different. One of the earliest in the book, it depicted the carcass of a small dragon, strung up by its legs, surrounded by a party of adventurers. There were more men than women portrayed in that group, but the thing which made me stare at that picture until it was burned into my soul, the thing about that image which kept me from slamming the book closed and never learning the rules at all, the thing of it was that the women in that picture plate were fully armored, and there was no trace of sexuality about them. They had just helped down that dragon, for goodness sake! Who on earth was going to look “sexy” after that? But here these women were, looking tough, rugged, and above all else, competent, and I wondered to myself why weren’t there more portraits like these?
3rd edition D&D answered that a little. There were suddenly more and more women painted, drawn, and rendered like people who had just gotten back from a long day’s ruin-raiding rather than a night as a Las Vegas show girl– not that there’s anything wrong with being a show girl, but the job description includes being a girl for show. Last time I checked, being a adventurer in a D&D campaign did not include that kind of language in the list of skills and specializations required of female PCs. But here they were, a growing number of fully clothed women portrayed in D&D books. Correspondingly, there were more and more scantily clad men, the kind without the huge rippling muscles, the kind that set this woman’s heart a-flutter. It wasn’t a perfect balance by a long shot, but as nods at inclusion go, it went a long way.
So what to do with 4th edition now? The cover art for the Player’s Handbook is only the tip of the iceberg. There is more cleavage within. The men are thoroughly muscled. The women are petite. There are dwarf boobs. There is a plate mail bra on a female dragon. And through all of this ogle fodder, I kept thinking, “Where are the images of the characters I might like to play?” I could only find one. In the section on player character races, there is one fully armored halfling woman, dark skin, locked in a dual-wielding death dance with some foe standing where the viewer is.
Now, this doesn’t even get into the issue of the term “race” in a fantasy setting, or the fact that this halfling is the only non-white person portrayed– which are all glaring problems with every edition of D&D I’ve encountered. With the release of 4th edition, they’ve told me something with big, bold brush strokes. Wizards of the Coast told me that I don’t matter. That I, as a female gamer, don’t have tastes, don’t bear marketing-to, and in fact, don’t exist. Black, Latino/a, Asian, Native American/First Nations gamers all don’t exist either. We’re all mythical. Like gaymers. And lesbians in general. Is it really so much to ask for a few images that actually look like the people I know, some pictures of competent-looking women, and a Hennet thrown in for good measure (sexiest sorceror ever)?
But I keep returning to this one fact that stealthed up on me like a rogue with a sap: in a whole book about roleplaying in a fantasy universe, there was only one image I could find of a woman after whom I’d like to pattern my own character. At least in that 2nd edition picture plate, there were two women standing there.