Friday, September 26, 2014

The Good, the Bad and the Clothed

I am of course referring to the art of different versions of Dungeons & Dragons--0e/1e, 4e and 5e.

Yesterday I argued that the cover of the 0e supplement Eldritch Wizardry, which features a fully nude figure, presents an interesting contrast with the art of the recently released 5e Player's Handbook, which features 100+ human and humanoid figures, virtually all of whom are almost fully covered, head to toe, in a manner that suggests rational outdoor attire in cold weather conditions or an irrational fear of sun poisoning.

Now, if you were to draw 100+ figures in different and varied contexts and situations, and they were all nude or close to nude, that would suggest a preoccupation with, well, nudity. 

But  if you were to draw 100+ figures in different and varied contexts and situations, and they were virtually all fully wrapped and draped in clothing that exposed very little skin whatsoever, that would also suggest a preoccupation with nudity, though a preoccupation of a different kind.

Back in the day, some would have called the first sort of preoccupation perverted. Then and even now, many would call the second prudish.

I owe use of the second very apt term to the astute comments of Paul Go. (See his comments on Google+). Note that 'prudish' is very often not defined as having a marked aversion to sexuality per se, but as a tendency to just be offended in general, or to be offended by nudity (defined in a neutral and not necessarily sexual way). A prude would for example be affronted by a prominently displayed loin cloth-attired Christ hanging from a crucifix. He would want to cover Him up.

Last night I said the 5e clothed thing was 'weird'. But tonight I'll accept that its prudish.

There are many who like 5e for a variety of reasons. Even many 'OSR people' seem to like it. It's understandable that if you like it, you're probably not going to like some upstart blogger calling it prudish, especially since these days, 'prudish' is thought of as about as bad a thing as, well, 'perverted' used to be.

That doesn't mean it's not true.

Now, two sorts of counter-arguments were given. The first was what we might call the moral argument:

1. Whatever else might be said, the art of 5e is morally preferable to, say, the John Norman, Frank Frazetta, chainmail bikini, women-exist-only-to-be-put-in-positions-of-peril (preferably while naked)-in-order-to-be-rescued-or-eaten style of fantasy art. That's sexist. it also doesn't give our daughters good role models.

The second is what we might call the practical argument:

2. The art of 5e more accurately or realistically represents what player characters actually look like, given the rule mechanics coupled with the equipment lists--in terms of armor, clothing and accessories--of the game. Whatever else one might say about the women (and men) in Frazetta paintings, they're not attired in the way any rational player would dress his or her character.

In what remains of this post I want to dispose of these arguments. Do not misunderstand. I'm not unsympathetic to the underlying views or motivations expressed in each. Indeed, I think they're reasonable.

But that doesn't mean they succeed in saving 5e.

1. Disposing of the first is easy. It's not an either/or choice. Just because you think that it's weird that very little skin of any kind is shown in the 5e Player's Manual, doesn't mean you want everyone to be nude, or all the women to wear chain mail (or non-chainmail) bikinis, or role-playing games partly intended for kids to sexualize our kids or provide bad role models for our daughters (or sons) or whatever. Selecting the cover of Eldritch Wizardry as the starting point of the discussion doesn't mean I want restrained nude women on sacrificial slabs to be the model for all of the art of the market leader in role-playing games. I can't even believe I have to say that.

2. The second argument or claim has two problems. First, the initial premise is just nonsense. 5e art is not more 'realistic'--in any of the meanings that term might have. The mechanics of these systems do not require that 5e (or any of the e's) mandate full body coverings for virtually all characters. They just don't. Should fighters often wear full plate armor? Of course. (And, incidentally, the 1e Player's Handbook has more depictions of full plate than 5e.) But do fighters ever take their plate armor off? Do they ever relax, at taverns and the like? And of course, aren't there other classes where armor is either not worn or not that important? Yes, yes and yes.

Exhibit A is the 5e Barbarian, above. For most of the various editions of D&D, barbarians were often the half-naked guys. They are, after all, barbarians--uncivilized and uncaring regarding the usual norms. They don't have access to effective armor or they prefer not to use much of it.

This is not only a fantasy trope, but also has reasonable historical grounding. Here's an excerpt of the text from the great Avalon Hill wargame, Caesar at Alesia:

The Gauls were an altogether fearsome lot. Many wore long red and blond hair and mustachios in tight braids. Their horrendous battle-cries were literally stunning. The warrior males of a family often linked themselves together with rope so that whether they prevailed or perished it would be together. Some GauIs, attacked without garments of any sort but with their hair and beards worked into fantastic shapes with a mixture of grease and pitch.

As I understand it, they also sometimes painted their naked bodies blue. How’s that for a cool 5e character?

But not that guy above. Except for the axe, I see his type at Starbucks every morning.

What about 5e game mechanics? Well, barbarians have a skill or feat (or whatever it's named) called 'unarmored defense'. Sure enough, the barbarian above does not seem to be wearing much armor save perhaps light leather. His arms aren't covered by armor. They're covered by...

...a long sleeved shirt.

That's just one example, but it could be multiplied 50 times.

The second problem is this: Let's assume that obsessive body covering is more 'realistic' (it isn't but let's assume it is). Does that mean that the pictorial representations must track that precisely? Well, the history of, say, science fiction and fantasy paperback book covers say No. Those of us who read such stuff have all had the experience of reading a novel or story where the cover doesn't quite match up with what's described. (Ironically, the Conan stories are a great example of that--as was noted in the Google+ comments by Jeffro Johnson's sharing of yesterday's post.) Is that phenomenon sometimes silly? Of course.  But does it also often make things more interesting, romantic and, well, fun? You bet.

What's wrong with fun?


  1. Those clothes look way too tailored for a barbarian to me. He looks more like a rustic gentleman than a barbarian; which might happen to a PC Barbarian after hanging with the town and castle folk for a few adventures.

  2. That's supposed to be a barbarian? I'd assumed he was some kind of woodsman

    I'm not terribly fond of female nudity in art, like dorian-x's cover for The Complete Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition Archive or H.R. Giger's The Spell IV (I'm gonna catch a lot of flack for that, I'm sure), but I've always liked the cover for Eldritch Wizardry. Something about it seems more tastefully done

  3. For adventuring in the high mountains, that seems like appropriate attire, although as JDJarvis points out, a bit too well-tailored. If he were depicted in a steaming jungle, or even just the temperate plains, then I'd think he's probably too covered up.

    The Half-Orc on p. 40 has a more traditional barbarian look going on.

  4. The second argument never said anything about 'realism', it dealt with the mechanics of the game. It makes no sense that every fighter would wear plate armor, but in a d&d party that is almost always the case.

    And if you run a scene at an Inn, most players will find some convoluted reason to have armor and weapons on at all times.

    Every class will wear as much armor or magic gear as they can. Only a class specifically given an ability like the barbarians won't. Wizards will wear their robes and cloaks, thieves leather, etc.

    1. Do the mechanics specify that every suit of armor, to have its full effect, must include a helmet? If they do, does the art always follow? If they don’t, then arguably a mail bikini could count as a suit of armor as well. ��

  5. I completely agree with this post, Oakes.

    I think the reason 5e art is prudish is also clear. It is a reaction to the perception that the game’s art has been overly sexist until now. If that were true that the art has been overly sexist (and I’m not saying it is or isn’t), then there is an argument (and I’m not saying it is right or wrong) that it needs to be prudish now before it can settle on a happy medium in the future.

    Or, perhaps more cynically, the business needs to be very clear to those who perceive the game’s past art as sexist that they are taking that criticism seriously.

  6. I am sorry. But considering the banner that this post is under...
    as much as this post is claiming this is not a complaint about not enough naked, defenseless women filling the pages of the 5E book...
    it is just not possible to take those disclaimers particularly seriously. I mean just look at the banner saying what D&D means to you. That alone makes it seem like you are upset that the PHB wasn't filled with softcore pornography pictures. Because for all the denial, a picture is worth 1,000 words and THAT is the context you chose to put this article in.

    1. Yeah, that's pretty stupid. Let's assume, for the sake of argument (though I don't believe this to be the case), that Oakes' disclaimers were disingenuous. How would that matter? We should still be able to consider his argument separately from him as a person

      The art isn't necessarily indicative of what he wants to see in 5e, either. There are other, non-misogynistic reasons he might have that banner. Judging his intentions on such a small and superficial basis is an unjustified leap in logic and a failure to award a basic level of respect

    2. Okay, I was on my iphone, so given my thumbs, the above curt comment was about all I could write. Also it sort of summarized my surprise and annoyance. Four points, re: 'naked (and) defenseless women, 'softcore pornography', etc.

      1. She's an Amazon, for goodness sake.
      2. In my own game, Seven Voyages of Zylarthen I made both Amazons and Witches into 'official' monsters. Witches are among the most powerful NPC's in the game. And yes, the Amazons explicitly wear armor. I personally don't think it means much of anything and I just did it because I thought it would be fun--not to satisfy any ideological agenda. But if you want to play the 'what have you done for or against female empowerment?' game, I'll play that card, please.
      3. I'm against pornography-soft core or any core-or sexualized text or images in any game at least partly intended for children. I'm against other 'mature' themed sorts of things as well--in games written in part for children-many of which are rampant in 5e and many other contemporary role-playing games (see my next post). Again, that's one of the reasons I wrote Zylarthen, which features exclusively the illustrations of a children's fairy-tale artist, and avoids player character demon worship, evil alignments and other things I don't want to expose my or anyone's) kids to.
      4. My blog is written for adults, but I think my friends on the banner are cute and funny, albeit mildly titillating in an almost g-rated way. Frankly I would (and have) had no problem showing them to my three year old twins. (My wife is a big believer in nursing even at their age, so they know what breasts are.)

      Now, if you think that after all that I secretly have a nefarious plan to infiltrate the philosophy of John Norman into modern RPGs, then, well, I can't help you.

  7. Just read yesterday's post (good stuff) and got to thinking more about the subject of clothing and depictions of women. I've noticed that the girls in my little sister's shows, that crap on the Disney Channel, bare more skin than what I've seen of the 5e art. Pretty good sign they've gone to far in avoiding nudity

    WotC needs to find a way to get back to the pulpy roots (yes, I know the audience is different now, but isn't the history part of why you buy the game in the first place? You want the latest version of that 80s craze, not a totally different game with the same name) without the art coming across as sexist or pornographic. Granted, they can't please everyone (some people don't even like seeing ankle) but there has to be some happy medium that they and we can be generally happy with

  8. Why are sexualized images of women supposed to be there in the first place?

  9. While I'm totally okay with the no-nudity stance and reduced sexualization of the female characters, the 5e art is just so drab and ugly. I thumbed through the book a month ago or so at a game store, all of the art just looked washed out.

    1. That wasn't the subject of the post but I totally agree. I confess I don't understand why others haven't mentioned that. It makes me feel better that you did.

  10. As a product of continental Europe, I and most accidentally geographically related peers of my acquaintance have always been somewhat bemused by the English-speaking world's fear of nudity. ;-)