Diverse Dungeons (& Dragons)

I have started a petition at care2.com – why and what I’m calling for is below. The petition is here – if you agree with what I’m saying, please sign it, and please share it with your friends. We know that WotC don’t respond to reasoned argument alone, which is why it’s vital that we show them how many potential customers they’re pissing off.


Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) is the single most famous roleplaying game in the world, the route most people got into the hobby, and the flagship of the hobby. So it’s a tragedy that the game is pushing away potential fans through artwork and even game text that is overwhelmingly focused on one customer: the white male. This petition calls on Wizards of the Coast to improve this for the next edition of D&D.

  • We want to see artwork that reflects the diversity of the real world
  • As a minimum, 50% of people depicted should be female
  • As a minimum 20% should be non-white (in line with the population of the USA)
  • Such characters should be portrayed as no more submissive or weak on average than white male characters
  • WotC should lose the text that describes demihuman races as exclusively pale-skinned.

Please sign this petition if you agree.


More detail for the curious cat

60% of images in D&D 4th edition (specifically the DMG, PHB, PHB2 and Adventurer’s Vault) were of men[1]. On a range of measures designed to pick up on sexist depictions (active vs neutral stance, whether the character was fully dressed and whether the image was sexually suggestive) D&D scored badly, with well over a third of images hitting any given measure of sexism[1].

There was only one image of a non-white human character in the D&D 4th edition core books[2], and across the core books of all four numbered editions of D&D only two non-white human characters depicted [2,3]. Even the nonhuman races seem to be dominated by paler skin tones; looking at the playlet material for D&D Next, the nonhuman races available to play were stipulated as having skin tones consistent with a white human, with the possible exception of dwarves who are permitted to be “light brown”[4].

It’s only a fantasy. But it’s our fantasy and we can make it whatever we want. Everyone should be able to open a D&D book and not feel excluded. Wizards of the Coast are very likely saying behind closed doors “white male heroes is what our fanbase wants”. Well, then it’s up to us, as the fanbase, to tell them they’re wrong about that.

D&D Next is in development right now. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape the game. Most of the buzz has concentrated on mechanics. But there’s no reason why the game can’t take leaps forward on diversity as well.

What we are asking for

We the undersigned call upon Wizards of the Coast to make D&D Next at least as diverse as the real world. We want to see men and women of all colours in the artwork. And we want the fantasy races to reflect the full palette of human experience, too. Even though some of us are white men, we aren’t going to be put off our hobby by images of people that aren’t – in fact, just the opposite.

The USA represents the biggest market for D&D at the time of writing. As such, this petition proposes a minimum standard that reflects the demographics of the US. 50% of images containing a humanoid creature should be female, and where applicable 20% should be non-white. It is also important that these images should avoid displaying these characters as submissive or weak, or at least no more so than white males. Finally, text describing demihumans should be rewritten to make them as diverse as the people who play the game – not restricted to white skin-tones.

[1] From Anna Kreider’s article here: http://www.pelgranepress.com/?p=3501

[2] Robert Sullivan’s video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=utsvMDewdUA&feature=plcp

[3] Chris Van Dyke’s article here: http://raceindnd.wordpress.com/2008/11/18/nerd-nite-presentation-november-18th-2008/

[4] Chris Stone-Bush’s article here: http://www.doucheydm.com/?p=1043

Managing campaign endings

I was reading this article on Gnome Stew about keeping your campaign alive during the inevitable breaks you’ll be taking when holidays, life events and other momentum-breaking occurrences happen.

Loss of campaign momentum is a perennial problem. It is typically the result of one or more of the group losing interest in, and energy for, that campaign. If it’s a player, they start becoming harder and harder to schedule in, they stop paying attention in session, and they generally start to make the whole experience feel like a drag. If it’s the GM (and it often is!) they find it harder and harder to motivate themselves to prep and to book the sessions. This invariably gets transmitted to the players, who can tell the GM’s heart isn’t in it. The result is a zombie campaign that nobody is enjoying. To mix my metaphors, such campaigns often suffer death by asphyxiation – without the oxygen of the group’s interest they just wither, and one day nobody books the next session.

Image by ChaosRampantKaryn

The Stew article presents some great ideas for avoiding momentum loss during a hiatus, chiefly to do with stirring the pot during the break and avoiding shiny distractions that divert you from the campaign. But to some extent this relies on the group still having momentum; nobody will be bothered to take part in between-sessions activity if they aren’t feeling the love.

For me, the way you avoid losing the big Mo is by keeping the campaign within defined boundaries. Nothing can go on forever; we see this in all walks of life, not just gaming. How many times has a TV series overstayed its welcome by one or two seasons, leaving the whole thing feeling tarnished? Well, unlike the TV networks we aren’t in this to make money so there’s no point in keeping going past the point that we’re having fun.

So here’s my suggestion. Plan your campaign in self-contained chunks. 8 weeks seems to be a good number, but YMMV. Choose a period of time where everyone can largely commit to attending sessions, and in which a decent arc of the campaign can be played through. (You may find that things don’t quite go as you expected, and you need a session or two more – that’s fine! Better to exceed your budget slightly than to not have one at all.) Now everyone knows there’s a defined end-point, and everyone is working to reach a satisfactory conclusion in that time-frame. You’ll be more disciplined about your play, focusing on the stuff that really gets you going.

When you get to the end of a campaign chunk, you can pause for reflection. How are we all feeling about the campaign? Is there something else we’d rather be playing right now? Are we keen to continue, and if so what do we want to do in the next chunk? Is there anything we could change to keep the campaign fresh? My group has developed a tradition of going out for dinner once in a while for campaign reflection, and this would be a lovely way to mark the end of each campaign chunk.

Moreover, the end of a chunk gives you the chance to manage transitions and endings more effectively. Does anyone need to step out of the campaign for a bit – maybe someone has had a baby or is going through a busy patch at work? If so, this change will be less likely to break your momentum. Are people looking to try something different? Because you’ve built in a break-point, you’re managing the tendency for campaigns to peter out, and if/when the campaign finally does end it’s more likely to be a nice, satisfying ending that avoids a zombie campaign or death by asphyxiation.

Four types of post-apocalyptic character

Just something I’ve been thinking about. In fictional worlds like those presented in the Survivors, the Road and the Parable of the Talents (to name a few at random), there seem to be four broad character types:

Scavengers. People who are trying to make a living through picking over the bones of the fallen civilisation. They tend to be nomadic because the resources in any given area run out fast. They live hand-to-mouth and, in consequence, can be fairly suspicious of strangers who they may perceive as likely to take what little they have. On the other hand come scavengers might do odd jobs for settled communities they encounter. These people will value portable goods and food the most.

Settlers. People who are trying to make a living in a fixed location, through farming and perhaps trade. These people will value practal skills and re-usable resources (like farmland) most. They may engage in limited trade with other settled communities, if there are any, and may begin to develop the trappings of a fledgling civilisation as a result. They are nevertheless primarily focused on survival.

Predators. People who are trying to make a living through preying on others. Slavers, raiders, groups of armed men who seek to conquer settled communities. These people value strength and weaponry most of all, and are always on the lookout for someone weaker than them to dominate. Ironically their desire to rule could lead to the development of a basic civilisation – they will inevitably seek to dominate or destroy other groups who might threaten them.

Seekers. People who are seeking something more than simple survival. Sometimes they want something quite specific – perhaps they are looking for their lost daughter, for example. Often they are seeking to build something greater than a small farmstead or similar, either through building up infrastructure, trade and alliances, or perhaps through spreading a religion or philosophy. Despite the fact that their eyes are fixed on something more than survival, seekers will often turn out to be the most practically minded of the lot, never content to settle for scratching out a living by hand if they could be ploughing their fields with horses or a tractor.

Am I missing any important categories here?

Bringing you the Links that are not about Role-playing…but really should be!

I am terrible for wasting time surfing the internet. In my travels I am always finding articles, new stories and snippets of idea that make me think “I have to run a game about that!”  This is clearly just a wafer thin excuse to justify my web addiction.

Here are my top articles for inspiring RPGS this week:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-19049254 – beautiful and yet haunting, abandoned City scapes in China.  If I described a vast city with no people in it during an RPG then no-one would believe that it was due to poor city planning and bad transport links, not the Apocalypse.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/19248230 – Insects who have their behaviour programmed from birth by a song.  You cannot make this shit up!

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-19244888 – I can’t leave out some news from the Curiosity Rover. Funny thing, the idea of the Mars landscape is so embedded in my mind from films and sci fi novels that the first colour photo looks a bit cliched and derivative.

Read this wikipedia article about the family who invented Nutella very carefully.


I have always thought that this phrase in particular…

“The company places great emphasis on secrecy, reportedly to guard against industrial espionage. It has never held a press conference and does not allow media visits to its plants. Ferrero’s products are made with machines designed by an in-house engineering department.”

had great potential for sparking ideas for a role-playing game. Okay, in my head it is obviously a Cthulu game where the Ferraro plant houses a Great Old One. But your mileage may vary.

If any of these ideas make it into your game then please comment below and let me know – I really want to know I am not the only one who thinks like this!

Designer Diary: Disaster Strikes! : The Doomsayer

My personal favourite mechanic from working on Disaster Strikes! is the Doomsayer, aka the Cassandra. They’re there in every disaster movie[*]. The person who repeatedly warns that everything is about to go belly up, only to be ignored until it is far too late. Charlton Heston in The Towering Inferno, Ripley in Aliens, Dustin Hoffman in Outbreak!.

DS! turns this into part of the game rules. One person has the job of being the predictor of the doom to come.

Special: Prediction. During the first Act, your protagonist makes dire predictions which will come true, but which everyone else will ignore. At any time during the first Act you may make an In Character statement pointing out a risk, a weak spot or possible threat. Your statement is true. In this way you can help foreshadow the threat and what will happen in the second and third Acts. Don’t forget to stay consistent with what’s already agreed – no fair turning the volcano into a flood, or whatever. And of course, you must not use this ability to weaken the threat – your role is to enhance it.

Note: during the first Act, nobody except the person with the above special is permitted to attend to the threat. They either fail to notice it, ignore it, discount it as not as bad as it seems, or focus on other priorities. Meanwhile the nature of the disaster will be such that if the Doomsayer tries to stop it by themselves they will certainly fail. On the plus side, the disaster is only embryonic and certainly not out-of-control at this point.

Meanwhile the DM and the players have a perfect view of what is coming – just as they would in a disaster movie. The Doomsayer is handing opportunities to the DM for dramatic situations in later Acts, and to the player to figure out how they might deal with them. Not to mention getting to take part in the creative process like no other player – apart from the DM.

In DS!, Act I is for introducing the setting, the characters and their relationships, and foreshadowing the disaster. The doomsayer plays an important role in that. The remaining specials are chiefly concerned with Act II – when the threat kicks off in earnest. More on this soon.

[*] Possible hyperbole alert. I haven’t watched all or even most disaster movies. Yet.


Rating: ***

Type: RPG / world creation

# Players: 3-5

Recommended # Players: 4-5

Time to play: 2 hours or more

Summary: Microscope is a collaborative world-building game. More accurately, it’s a history-building game (in the sense of building a fictional history of a fictional world). Players take turns to create elements of the game history at any point in the game’s timeline, potentially changing the context and meaning of events further down the timeline. It’s badged as a GMless roleplaying game, but roleplaying makes up a relatively small proportion of the game unless you deliberately focus on it.

Gameplay: At the start of the game, players set broad parameters for the history they’re creating, deciding what the scope of the history will be (e.g. the rise of technology from fire to the singularity) and setting a short list of things that are banned from the story or definitely included in it. This is the phase in which everyone can discuss the vision for the history at a high level and make sure that everyone’s happy with it – which is important, because discussion is banned at certain points in the game.

Play proceeds round the table and on their go each player gets to create a single element of history – an era of time, an event within an existing era or a scene within an existing event.  Importantly, nobody is allowed to discuss, cajole or otherwise attempt to influence another player’s creation. In this sense, the game isn’t collaborative at all – the collaboration sort of emerges from individual isolated decisions. The selling point is that the world you create is genuinely an emergent property of all the players, never dominated by one mouthey player.

The history-elements are written on index cards and placed in a big timeline. You can create new elements anywhere on the existing timeline, which means that as you create new elements they add context and colour to the the bits of the timeline that follow them. So, for example, I could create the assassination of a major politician in one turn, only to have you create a scene preceding it which makes it clear the politician was actually an undercover agent working for another country. Again, the timeline emerges from the players as a group.

I said play proceeds round the table, but that was oversimplifying in two important ways. First, every round one of the players gets to be the lens. That means s/he decides what the focus of play will be for that turn (e.g. the invention of the wheel) and everyone else’s turns must relate to that focus. It also means s/he gets two goes, one at the beginning of the round and one at the end, and on each go s/he gets to create not just one history element but two, provided the two are nested (i.e. an era and an event inside that era, or an event and a scene inside that event). Being the lens is enormously powerful.

The second thing I omitted before was the “legacy” phase, which happens at the end of each go round the table. One player gets to create a “legacy”, a thing which will persist from round to round, and then create a history element relating to it or another legacy. In my view, this phase is a little under-used – the legacies could help to create a more cohesive history but because they can only be used once per round, they have a limited effect.

The scenes ought to be the most interesting bit of the game. In a scene, actual roleplaying happens(!) in contrast to the rest of the game. The player who creates the scene sets a question to be answered through it, a situation and some characters to be present in that situation. The players collectively answer the question by roleplaying out the scene. Maybe it was just my group, though, but the game as a whole put us in a mode where we were more interested in creating eras and events, and not so keen on relinquishing the creative control that our turn gave us to the other players. As a result, Microscope feels more like a world creation game than a roleplaying game. If you like the sound of that, I strongly recommend Microscope to you.

Components: An 81-page rulebook, with a simple cover and no internal art. You’ll also need index cards and something to write on them with, and enough space to spread yourself out a bit.

Designer Diary: Disaster Strikes! …and you’re Dead.

I’m currently working on a disaster movie game called Disaster Strikes!, aimed at simulating the feel of classic movies like The Towering Inferno, Volcano! and many others. The basic setup is, a small group of competent, brave and selfless individuals find themselves caught up in a major disaster, be it an earthquake, a virus outbreak or an alien attack. They must somehow escape or overcome the threat, while saving loved ones and bystanders from certain death. It’s a no-prep game that will give you the structure and tools to create an action-packed disaster in a few hours.

I’ve run a couple of playtests and will report on them soon. But for this article, I’d like to share with you a mechanic I created for the game which has really shown its worth.

See, the thing about a disaster movie is that it comes with a high mortality rate. Sure, the heroes don’t usually die, but they can do. And part of what has made the game exciting in playtests has been the uncertainty over whether the players will survive or not, and the tension created by putting yourself in harms way in order to save the lives of others. The trouble is, if you die mid-way through that kinda sucks. Fortunately I have a solution.

Special: Dead. You are dead. Bad luck! But on the plus side, once per game, at any time between now and the end of the game you can trigger a flashback scene. You can use this scene to shine a light on your character and their relationships. However, in addition, you can use this scene to give another character an item, advice, or some other resource, and they get that to use in the game, right now.

The Dead special went down very well in playtesting. It was used to pull surviving character’s fat out of the fire, proving crucial to the successful defeating of the threat in one session. As well as giving the dead player something to do, it gives them a reason to continue to pay attention to the game rather than, say, going off and playing computer games in the corner. I’m going to want to playtest it some more, as it’s obviously potentially very powerful (and in some circumstances you may be better off dead than alive) but I’ve been really pleased with it so far.