The Fifth Edition of Dungeons and Dragons has begun its staggered launch. The Player's Handbook hit game stores just last month, the Monster Manual is due out September 30th, and the Dungeon Master's Guide will arrive November 18th. With a new edition comes new rules, and there are a number of big changes being introduced to the game.
You would think that new rules for how to play the game wouldn't impact the roleplaying very much. The rules generally tell you things like how combat works, how magic works, and that sort of thing. How people interact is generally left up to the roleplaying, so why would any of those parts change?
Well, times change, and the Player's Handbook is making a big step toward getting with the times in its language on character sex and gender.
The new language says:
You can play a male or female character without gaining any special benefits or hindrances. Think about how your character does or does not conform to the broader culture's expectations of sex, gender, and sexual behavior. For example, a male drow cleric defies the traditional gender divisions of drow society, which could be a reason for your character to leave that society and come to the surface.
You don't need to be confined to binary notions of sex and gender. The elf god Corellon Larethian is often seen as androgynous or hermaphroditic, for eample, and some elves in the multiverse are made in Corellon's image. You could also play a female character who presents herself as a man, a man who feels trapped in a female body, or a bearded female dwarf who hates being mistaken for a male. Likewise, your character's sexual orientation is for you to decide.
Okay, so I might have overstated and clickbaited a bit by saying it's a natural 20 (for my non-gamer readers, a natural 20 means that on a roll of a 20-sided die, you rolled a 20 before any modifier - a very, very good result, in many circumstances in 3rd edition an autosuccess). It's not perfect language by any means - "man trapped in a female body" is not exactly the preferred diction. But hey, acknowledgement is a good first step, right?
As Bryce Duzan of Gaygamer.net puts it, this is a "rocky, unsteady step [...] on the road to inclusion." And boy howdy, something this inclusive is pretty radical for tabletop games in general, and as Bryce points out unheard of in a game as large as D&D.
I feel that to better appreciate what a step this is, and it is a step and not the end of the journey, we should look at how far D&D has come since its origins.
Basic D&D and AD&D
Before Wizards of the Coast acquired Dungeons and Dragons, the game was under the direction of a company called TSR (founded by Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson, Brian Blume, and Don Kaye). The TSR versions of the game, which include OD&D (Original Dungeons and Dragons) and AD&D 1e and 2e (Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, first and second editions) featured numerous fascinating rules regarding character sex and gender.
My D&D Basic box set, for example, tells us that
Charisma is a combination of appearance, personality, sex appeal and so forth [...] someone with a charisma of 18 can win over a large number of followers (men or monsters) who will probably stand by him to the death. Also a female with high charisma will not be eaten by a dragon but kept captive. A charismatic male defeated by a witch will not be turned into a frog but kept enchanted as her lover, and so forth.
Yeah. That's all pretty much exactly what it sounds like. As for strength, I'll just flip to my AD&D 1e Player's Handbook and let's look at the strength table.
Now, a thing to know about Dungeons and Dragons as played in this era is that you rolled dice for stats. In OD&D, it's 3d6 (three six-sided dice) six times, and assigned the scores in order. In AD&D 2e, that was Method I, the primary way the rules expected you to make your scores. In AD&D 1e, Method I was more forgiving, being 4d6 drop the lowest, six times, and arrange as desired.
You can see how insane these methods really are, though, by looking at things like the strength table here. In OD&D and AD&D 1e (2nd edition ditched this, fortunately), your ability scores were tied to your character's gender. If I want to play a female Dwarf fighter (Dwarves are stereotypically good at being fighters in D&D) and I roll an 18, I am either going to have to pick a lower score for my strength stat (the one I want to be highest if I'm a fighter because I swing swords and stuff) or be a man. Because Dwarf women are limited to 17 strength, while dwarf men are only limited to 18/91-99 strength (the second number is a superstrength modifier).
There are crotchety old grognards out there who argue that these things mirror realism better. Some of them even say that they have seen "no compelling reason to remove [gender-based stat differences] is offered than 'sexism' or 'unfair'" (actual quote in the comments there).
Setting aside that those are pretty good and compelling reasons, and the fact that texts and cultural artifacts do reflect the values of the culture producing them, it's also just pointless. Let's say for argument that the grognards are right - women are inferior to men in terms of strength in real life. Why should women have to be inferior to men in terms of strength in the game? I can't shoot a fireball at a dragon by muttering some words and throwing bat poop at it. Maybe that should be removed from the game too.
Early editions of D&D are generally friendly to grognards like this. They don't address character sex or gender except in ways which reinforce certain dominant binaries and expectations of gender roles in our modern culture (and don't really have anything to do with gender or sexuality in the Middle Ages).
Items like the Girdle of Femininity/Masculinity (referenced and then parodied in a story arc in Order of the Stick, a webcomic you should definitely read if you are at all insterested in D&D or humor) existed in these editions. In a way, it's support for trans characters. As long as you don't mind requiring a powerful curse to do it, and don't mind the 10% chance it "removes all sex" from your character (though there you have another option). And if your character gets the girdle and isn't trans, you pretty much need divine intervention to get it off and return to your normal.
Early, TSR-made D&D was not the most productive or welcoming environment for creating queer characters. But in 1997 Wizards of the Coast bought TSR, and three years later they launched Dungeons and Dragons 3rd edition (revised and updated in 2003 to 3.5 edition).
Wizards of the Coast made several major changes to D&D with the third edition of the game. The text of several (notably the core three) books in 3rd edition is gendered based on the example characters used (rules referring to Paladins use she, because the example Paladin is a woman), and where no example is relevant neutral expressions like "a character" predominate.
As nice as this is to see, since it avoids the generic he dominant in prior editions, the main rules do not provide much - which could be good or bad.
The Player's Handbook for 3.5 doesn't say much, for example, on the subject of character sex and gender:
Your character can be either male or female
The spell Bestow Curse can be used to change a character's sex. On the plus side, divine intervention isn't required to change back anymore.
The 3rd edition books Book of Exalted Deeds (BoED) and Book of Vile Darkness (BoVD) also do some unfortunate things. Necrophilia is touched on and treated as irredeemably evil in BoVD, but so is S&M. BoED introduces a number of sacred vows for characters who want to be the as Good as angels, including the Vow of Chastity (and the attendant implication that while sex is not inherently Evil, if you aren't denying yourself sex you're not as Good as you could be).
There's also the odd gender-restricted prestige class lurking in some of the books, mostly relating to deities with female priesthoods.
Other than those, in the basic game, third edition does not put very much mechanical emphasis on sex or gender. Things are pretty generally heteronormative in third edition. One thing which began to knock that down, however, was Keith Baker's setting: Eberron.
Eberron introduces four new character races which radically open up the game to queer performance, almost by design. While it's easy enough to play a Dwarf lesbian character or a Halfling trans woman, the races introduced in Eberron bring an extra mechanical punch which simply makes playing with concepts of gender and sexuality very attractive (and personally, I favor playing these races in any D&D setting above all others).
The Kalashtar are a race descended from humans who had entered a symbiotic relationship with a spirit from the realm of dreams. The Kalashtar have memories of their quori (the dream spirit) ancestor's life, as if it were both part of and separate from their own existence.
Shifters are the descendants of lycanthropes and have some limited ability to shift into a form resembling their anscestor's.
Warforged are, essentially, magic robots. They have no physical sex.
Changelings are, well, what they sound like. They're shapeshifters who can alter their bodies at will, including sex.
As free and blatantly queer as these characters inherently are, the text in 3rd edition is still largely aimed at downplaying that queerness.
Kalashtar are hunted by another race called the Inspired and their quori spirit and their human body are always in accord in terms of sex and gender.
Shifters are limited - they see their lycanthrope ancestors as capable of attaining freedom from the physical form which binds them and long for that freedom, which they do not possess.
Warforged are created without genders, and some are comfortable with that, but "many have instead adopted a male or female personality to which they adhere in their daily lives."
Changelings often fear being found out for what they are - other races and cultures persecute them. Changelings also do have a definite sex in their birth form, unlike the completely sexless Doppelgangers who were their ancestors.
Eberron's success in 3rd edition was the result of many factors . The ones commonly cited involve bringing a dungeonpunk aesthetic to the game, new character options, and a flipping of numerous traditional D&D paradigms. I think, though, that one of the main (though vastly understated) draws was how blatantly queer the setting was and how the game just revels in that.
Third edition, as near as can be measured, remains the most popular edition of the game. Second edition might be second, might even be first, but who really knows. But even 3.x had to be replaced sometime.
In 2008 Wizards of the Coast launched a new edition, aimed at addressing the fact that while fun, 3rd edition was wildly unbalanced and tried way too hard to be simulationist.
Fourth edition can be generally (perhaps unfairly) described as a very stripped down approach to the game. Character options are quite balanced, with most character powers being given a name and a mechanical effect and maybe a sentence of description.
The Warlord class feature Inspiring Word, for instance, tells you everything you need to know about what it does: you can use it twice per encounter but only once per round, it targets an ally, it heals them. The entirety of the fluff (descriptive text) is "You call out to a wounded ally and offer inspiring words of courage and determination that helps that ally heal."
This ability is often brought up by those aiming to take a dig at 4e - "How can a guy without magic say a word and heal the guy? It doesn't make sense!" you'll see them say. Mostly, this complaint comes to a lack of imagination, because the game doesn't give too much information beyond what's directly relevant to using the ability. Is it really so hard to imagine the Warlord character looking at yours, saying "Get up, come on, it's just a fleshwound!" and your character going "You know, it is just a fleshwound" and being "healed"? Hit points are an abstraction anyway, so come on. At least attack the system on things it fails at.
Like not really touching on anything that is not directly relevant to gameplay. I've flipped through my 4th edition Player's Handbook back to front and back again and the only mention I can find of character sex or gender comes in this section:
Is your character tall, short, or in between? Solid and muscular, or lean and wiry? Male or female? Old or young? These decisions have no real impact on the game, but they might affect the way that nonplayer characters—and even the other players—think about your character.
That's it. That's all there is. It's great that character sex and gender won't mechanically affect gameplay, but that's the extent of it. And it reflects the larger design paradigm in 4th edition where almost nothing without mechanical relevance made it to print.
Fourth edition was not especially popular. It has a following, but it seems that the game was almost too abstracted for a number of gamers, especially when Paizo released Pathfinder at the same time and provided a game experience similar to the very popular 3.x while promising to fix its most egregious excesses.
Announced as D&D Next, one of the main goals of lead designer Mike Mearls was to reach to the broadest possible audience. Fourth edition was highly polarizing, 3.x and Pathfinder are quite popular, and the OSR (Old-School Revival) crowd has been gaining steam. All of this has contributed to the fracturing of the gaming base for D&D. 5th edition is meant to get the gamers who have moved elsewhere to come home, so to speak.
And it seems that part of that drive to appeal broadly is acknowledging both the vast number of queer gamers out there, as well as the vast number of queer characters played by the players of D&D. Order of the Stick author Rich Burlew, himself a veteran of the industry and contributor to published D&D books in 3rd edition, tweeted his appreciation and congratulations to 5th edition contributor James Wyatt:
Rich's responses to Wyatt are also worth reading:
Not everyone's in love with the inclusivity being spelled out - here's a dude on tumblr to that effect - but those guys can go grognard elsewhere. A summary, for those who wish not to click - SJW, pandering, D&D was already inclusive so this just implies it wasn't.
To which I say
You say that like it's a bad thing.
Every time I see someone say that someone is pandering, they really mean "appealing to people who aren't straight, white cismen and whom we can safely ignore." It's an interesting pattern.
D&D might have been inclusive, but it was kind of shit at inclusivity for quite a while, and when it wasn't shit about inclusivity, it was very coy about the idea at all.
5th edition hasn't been on shelves for very long, but I've started playing, and I like it. It plays smoothly, doesn't get bogged down in numbers the way earlier editions were, and it isn't almost completely abstracted like 4th edition (seriously, 4e movement isn't measured in feet but squares, because miniatures and the aborted "Virtual Tabletop" which was promised but never came).
We're looking at probably the next six or so years of Dungeons and Dragons, and I have to say, it looks good. And the designers acknowledging potential queer experiences in roleplaying is the cherry on top. Roleplaying is already a little bit queer to begin with, and many players move across gender lines when playing, which only increases the queerness. It's about time the game acknowledges the ways it's already queer. A long time coming, I say.
Header image thanks to the gracious permission of Rich Burlew. You can read his comic, The Order of the Stick, starting here.