Playing with Gender in D&D

Playing with Gender

This all started with goblins, but ended up being this little brainstorm I had during Save Against Fear. There are little kernels of this idea in D&D already, but I wanted to play out a view of sex and gender for the major intelligent species of D&D that fit with the lore as it is but was more interesting than just assuming two sexes and two genders in every case (which is ridiculous even with humans alone, not to mention every other intelligent species in D&D).

Note: this is not me wishing we could have lots of discussions and arguments about pronouns, multiplied times all of these intelligent species. That does not sound fun for me. He, she and they should cover it for these options in my opinion.

Goblin Gender

Otherwise this will be alphabetical, but I’m starting here because this was the first thought I had that led me along this path. I’ve always wondered about goblinoids: goblins, hobgoblins, and bugbears. Where do the drastically different body types come from? Do they intermarry? Can they interbreed? In previous editions they were just an outlier – where most intelligent species are ‘humanoid’ they are over there, the ‘goblinoids’, the other.

I realized, wouldn’t it be fun if all goblinoids are the same species, except they have three sexes, and the three types of goblinoids are their three sexes? So one sex is goblin, and one sex is hobgoblin, and one sex is bugbear, and it takes all three to reproduce. They all are born goblin-ish, and then have a big growth spurt if they are going to grow up to be hobgoblins, and then another growth spurt to become bugbears.

If you ask them how they make babies with three sexes, they of course attack you, because that’s an incredibly rude question.

Dragonborn Gender

Dragonborn (and maybe lizardfolk as well) are hermaphroditic with three genders. A dragonborn self-fertilizes when they are ready and lays a clutch of eggs. This is taxing and difficult, and when the dragonborn hatch they are much more helpless than normal for reptiles and require years of care like human infants and children. So the three genders are the One Who Lays, the One Who Guards, and the One Who Gathers. The first one is obvious. The second gender is taken on by a dragonborn who takes responsibility of guardianship for the layer and for the young. The third gender is for the dragonborn who takes responsibility to go out into the world and accomplish what needs to be done to support all three – hunting, gathering, earning gold, whatever.

Dwarf Gender

Dwarves have two sexes and one gender. Every wonder why all the jokes about dwarf women having beards and looking a lot like dwarf men? That’s because dwarves only have one gender. Though males tend to have thicker body and facial hair than females, they all are performing the same gender for all intents and purposes. Perhaps there are nuances there visible only to fellow dwarves.

Elf Gender

Elves have two sexes but are genderfluid over time. When you meet an elf, you are meeting someone on a 700 year long journey of exploration.

Gnome Gender

Ancient gnomes had a very strict system of two sexes and two genders. Modern gnomes are all transgressive about how they perform gender, and often take on aspects of the genders they see around them among other intelligent species. Intersex gnomes are held in high regard, meaning that they now functionally have three sexes.

Half-Elf Gender

Half-elves are normally born to human and elven parents at some point in the elf’s centuries-long life. What they call their parents could be unique to a particular half-elf, and they might very well be born to a mother who later, when the half-elf meets them as an adult, is now a man, and possibly even a father to new children. So half-elves tend to cling to their human side for stability, or embrace the fluidity of their elven side.

Half-Orc Gender

Half-orcs raised with orcs are given their purpose from the gods. Half-orcs raised with humans tend to choose and perform a human gender, though sometimes they encounter orcs later in life and are given a purpose then.

Halfling Gender

Halflings have two sexes and three genders. The three genders for halflings are male, female, and bachelor, in honor of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. And, as far as we can tell, Merry and Pippin and Gaffer Gamgee and loads of others. Of course, women can be bachelors too. No self-respecting halfling would call her a bachelorette.

Human Gender

Humans have two sexes and three genders. But you don’t need terminology for this. You just describe men and women and intergender/nonbinary people, and then some of the men happen to be trans men and some of the women happen to be trans women. You have a lot less baked in bigotry, which is fun anyway.

Some Other Thoughts

Kenku Gender

Kenku keep their sexes secret from outsiders, though most assume they have two. In a kenku community, there is the gender of the sitter and the gender of the builder. A sitter is the one who primarily sits on the eggs while they develop, though a group might trade off on this activity, one tends to be primarily. The builder is the one who is responsible for building a nest, initially to garner the interest of potential sitters.

Orc Gender

Until adolescence orcs do not acknowledge gender. At adolescence, an orc goes into the wilderness to commune with the gods (this could be a metaphorical urban wilderness). The gods tell them their purpose and place in society, and that is functionally their gender. Some will have the purpose of parenting, but others won’t, and the part in society they perform is more important than what other species tend to think of as gender.

Curse of Strahd: Non-Racist Vistani

I haven’t run Curse of Strahd (one of my players hates vampires so I’m not likely to do so any time soon) but I have read through it, and have read about it, and parts of it are racist AF. Here’s a great article that lays out how the depiction of the Vistani and mongrelfolk in particular are deeply racist. I’m going to talk more about the Vistani – the mongrelfolk have been in D&D monster manuals for decades and need their own consideration, in the context of all of the racism that is baked into D&D.

I’m not going to go through all of the problems and questions of Curse of Strahd either – I think there are things that a DM can adjust about the module, and other things that require some more consideration, and which definitely might or might not be good for a particular group; there’s a lot of violence against children baked in that I would have to remove, for example. (Pun intended)

I was thinking about the Vistani and how I would run them, because there are some aspects of them as a story idea that I like. I like that they can travel between worlds, and that they are the only ones who can traverse the Mists of Ravenloft. What struck me is how similar they could be to a carnival or circus – I imagined adolescents of the multiverse running away to join the Vistani, and I had my answer.

The Vistani is a carnival.

Now, there are plenty of stereotypes about “carnies” as well, though they tend to have more to do with social status than race, as with the Roma on whom the Vistani are obviously based. The advantage of a Vistani carnival, however, is that it can divorce the idea of the Vistani from race or species entirely. They are bound together not by ethnicity or even culture, but by sub-culture and profession. They are entertainers who wander from place to place.

I think that this retains a lot of what’s potentially interesting about the Vistani while getting rid of most of what’s problematic. You can still have a fortune teller – she can even be “Madam Eva”, a changeling playing up to tropes and stereotypes about fortune tellers at carnivals. Some of them can still be shifty thieves, since people who wander from place to place are more likely to take a loose view to the laws and customs of any place in particular. They can be insular, secretive, and highly loyal to one another; they can be exotic and play to tropes if they want because they are entertainers. They can even keep the reputation for stealing children, coming from young people running away to join them periodically. They can retain their dramatic, colorful dress, as I can see them taking on articles of clothing and jewelry (and magic items) from the various places they travel as a way to mark how long they have been part of the carnival and how far they’ve traveled.

The key is that none of this is linked to a real-world ethnic group, or even an imaginary one. None of these traits are intrinsic to them, and you can just as easily find honest, forthcoming, or even boring Vistani, because Vistani just means something like Circque du Soleil or Ringling Brothers. Oh, the Vistani are in town! That’s so fun! Also, the Vistani are in town, so watch your coins.

Given this idea, I think it would be cool if the Vistani kept showing up in all kinds of campaigns. You need some random group of people to give the PCs some cryptic hints or sell them some magic items? Hey, look, the Vistani. And so what if these particular Vistani happen to all be kenku and loxodon with a fire genasi ringleader? Now something racist has become something cooler, more interesting, more versatile, and more fun.

RPG Setting Round-Up #3: Villains by Necessity

Villains by Necessity is a novel by Eve Forward, and reading it was the start of my ongoing ideas about running a D&D style campaign where evil PCs save the world despite themselves. I start from the germ of her idea, which is very D&D-esque, and have built outward from there. I’ve run what I call, uncreatively, “The Evil Campaign” three times so far, and it has been consistently really fun for me and for the players. For one of those run-throughs, we handed off DMing so I also got to play in a version of it. The premise is pretty simple, I can just bullet-point it:

  • The Last Battle against evil has happened, and good won. The Dark Lord or Lady or Whomever was cast down in ruin, their towering iron fortress leveled (or recycled), and their armies scattered.
  • In the aftermath, the forces of good deal with the question of how to handle all of the leftover ‘evil’ people and races (yes, this campaign takes racial alignment starting at face-value, as a way to criticize it – it is an assumption of many in the world that is false). Basically, Sauron is defeated, so what do we do with all of these Orcs, Easterlings, and Haradrim?
  • Rehabilitation Camps are opened, where evil creatures are redeemed through calisthenics, encouraging mantras, re-education, and of course some quiet slave labor.
  • 100 years pass, and the PCs are the last evil people they know in the whole world. They find out that there is a scheme to magically eliminate evil forever, and they grudgingly come together for mutual survival and to stop that scheme.

To me this is a fun campaign idea that addresses some of the problems that evil campaigns run into, and I encourage you to spin it off and run your own. Here are some notes and ideas I have for my next one.

D&D Roadside Attractions

DnD needs more roadside attractions as PCs travel around. They could be related to the rise of the Heroes of Legend, or to things that used to exist, like a theme park that is modeled after an orc village, where you can buy “authentic handmade orc crafts” and drink “traditional orc blood-mead.” The kinds of roadside attractions you create would be a great way to tell the players what people think their history is, what they value, and even what they have forgotten. A 1st level adventure could clearly be the PCs coming across a mysterious roadside attraction. Someone is charging admission, but they go further in than they’re supposed to, and find out this “ruin” is still active.

So, google some real-world roadside attractions, and then create D&D versions of those. A giant concrete dragon advertising a caravanserai. The world’s largest ball of hemp rope, the very rope that was once given to adventurers 50 feet at a time! A library named after a famous barbarian princess and decorated with taxidermy monsters.

An Angel for Every Town

Every city has its own angel. And the angels should be freaky, like Bible angels and mythical ones more than D&D ones. The angel will become the theme of the city – angel of rivers, angel of trees, angel of iron, etc. This angel should be a constant presence while you are in the city. It could be the reason there isn’t much of a police force, and not many soldiers guarding a city. What would make this more interesting is to have the angel maintaining its own priorities that are not understood by the mortal populace, who assume the angel is there on behalf of their religion, and the angel lets them think that in order to accomplish what it wants to accomplish.

I like this as a call-back to Revelation, where there are messages for each of the angels of seven early churches.

Goblin Dimorphism (Trimorphism?)

Hobgoblins are just female goblins, kind of like the etymology of names for female humans in many languages (man/woman, ish/ishah). Maybe bugbears are a third gender, but goblins won’t explain how it all works to non-goblins. Humans took to calling them bugbears from folklore, and because they didn’t have a word for a third gender. So goblins are just three genders, and if you ask them how reproduction works for them, they tend to kill you in your sleep. Maybe goblin children all look similar, but then grow up and hit puberty and some grow larger to become hobgoblins, or larger and hairier to become bugbears.

Arcanotech Religious Interface

This would also work for a religion in a setting like the Ninth World – I’m imagining an arcano-technological interface that lets you select from a number of gods with which to make contact. Contacting the deity is like talking to Alexa or Siri. Clergy charge for access, a one-question amount, or by the minute like a phone-sex line, and they keep timekeeping devices handy to make sure you don’t go over your minutes. Addicts show up, wanting the experience of talking to a deity again and again. Are these really gods, or AIs, or demons, or complex algorithms telling people what they want to hear? Cold-readers in another room with remote access?

Truly the Darkest Timeline?

The defeat of the Dark One caused a rift in the multiverse, and there is an alternate world where the Dark One won, which is demonstrably worse than the default setting for the evil campaign (which is far from perfect). It is like the Midnight setting, a place of widespread misery, repression, and necromancy. In part, this is just my reaction to the vapid morality of “good and evil are just two sides of the same coin”, which is of course absurd. Good-intentioned people can create a dystopia, which is what the evil campaign is about, but good and evil aren’t both somehow needed for “balance.”

In part this comes from my own daydreams about an alternate universe where Al Gore was declared President by the Supreme Court, climate change was mitigated, and we’re all in self-driving electric cars enjoying our socialized medicine, there never was an Iraq War, etc.

Have you ever run an evil campaign? It’s tricky. How did yours go?

The True Pillars of D&D

Sorry, this one sneaked out less finished than usual.

If you ask WotC, they say that D&D has three pillars: social interaction, exploration, and combat. If you watch a game of D&D, or listen to an actual play, though, I think what you actually see are the four true pillars of D&D, which are as follows:

Zany Plans

Some examples from actual plays I’ve been listening to lately include “My only weapon is a bear trap, so I helicopter it around my head to slow my fall”, “I put the vampire’s head in a bag of holding, then destroy the bag of holding”, “I disguise myself as the love of Strahd’s life to save my friends.” I’m not sure what it is about ridiculous plans and D&D – maybe it’s a problem with how clearly D&D is aimed at a single outcome (a fight) and players get squirrely. Why would I do the obvious thing again when I can do something absurd and make my friends laugh?

Part of it is that players don’t want to stop. They come to a challenge, and they lack the obvious means to overcome it, but don’t want the fun to stop. So they try something ridiculous.

Shopping Trips

Few people talk about how ridiculous it is that the default D&D setting is rooted in capitalism. It isn’t the slightest bit medieval, really, apart from some of the color. But shopping trips have been a part of pretty much every trad TRPG I’ve ever played. I mean, these books have extensive lists of prices for a reason.

This is a pillar of D&D that I don’t find all that much fun. I make house rules to avoid it, but it usually doesn’t work. About half of my players at any given time hear the siren call of a shopping trip.

And it’s understandable: why risk their lives to scrape together piles of gold except to go spend it?

Long Conversations with Unnamed NPCs

Few things will make a NPC more fascinating to D&D players than not bothering to name them. Present an Important Person who has a cool name and will be central to the plot later, and players might not even notice. But they walk into a tavern and there’s some rando behind the bar, and suddenly that random person you came up with on the fly is the center of attention.

My advice: take the plot things you had for the named NPC and give as much of it as you can to this suddenly-fascinating roasted-insect vendor or whomever.

Checking Your Phone During Combat

This pillar comes from in-person play more than actual play, though if you are playing over Discord it is easy to have any number of other windows open or your phone offscreen. But combat is slow, even at a well-run table, and it’s hard to keep people from wandering off and checking their phones. It just is.

What Are the Pillars of Your Game? 

Altered Backgrounds for D&D Villains

I’m putting together house rules and players guide type information for the Evil campaign I’d like to run again sometime in the future. Maybe it’ll even be the next game our home group plays – get some things out of their system so to speak. Briefly, it is a campaign inspired by Villains by Necessity by Eve Forward, where the BBEG has been defeated by the Heroes of Legend and the world made right. Then 100 years pass, and the PCs are some of the last villains in the world. They have to band together (because no one else will put up with them) and save the world from itself. It’s a lot of satire and is aimed at tongue-in-cheek rather than delving into the heart of darkness.

One of the things that I realized I’d need are altered backgrounds for the player-characters. When I went through the backgrounds in the PhB, I found that most of them would work with some slight alterations. For some background, this setting includes the idea of Rehabilitation Camps where criminals (what few are left) and ‘evil’ creatures are sent to be taught to be good citizens. I just mention that because it comes up in some of these backgrounds. The main thing I felt needed a change was the Feature for each. As a house rule I’m fine with players choosing any proficiencies that makes sense, whether listed or not.

Evil campaign needs subverted backgrounds. Also maybe start level three as well

Cult Initiate (Acolyte)

Feature: as with the Acolyte, but it applies to other members of the secretive cult you have joined. Have fun defining the cult with the DM. Maybe it is dedicated to the corpse of one of the old gods, or to the teachings of a mind flayer.

Rehabilitated Charlatan

Feature: unchanged, but you have a probation officer with whom you need to check in. The officer works for the Ministry of Rehabilitation, and functions a lot like any probation officer – making sure you are gainfully employed, have a place to live, etc.

Rehabilitated Criminal

Feature: as above, you have a probation officer. Maybe the same one if another PC is also recently Rehabilitated.

Questionable Entertainer

Feature: Grudging Patriotism. You can always find a place to perform as long as you play songs approved by the Ministry of Rehabilitation. When you do so, you roll with disadvantage.

Variant: Sports Hero. You can find welcome wherever there are official games, expos, or heroic feast-days being celebrated.

False Hero

Feature: similar to the Folk Hero. You have a reputation in the area, except in your actual hometown, where they know you’re a fraud.

Guild Traitor

Feature: You no longer have the Guild connection – in fact,  you have the enmity of a Guild. In exchange, you begin the game with a stolen masterwork worth a few hundred gold – determine what it is with the DM.

Escaped Quarantine

You spent time in Quarantine, under even higher security than a Rehabilitation Camp. You were seen as a significant threat, and kept in isolation for a long period of time. You were released because you were determined to be harmless to the Empire. In Quarantine, you could have crossed paths with any number of powerful evil creatures, consigned to remain long-term.

Feature: Discovery. You learned something you were not supposed to know while in Quarantine. Determine what it is with the DM.

Disgraced Noble

You have embarrassed your blue-blooded family for the last time with your behavior. You have a stolen signet ring, and might be able to impersonate a member of the family somewhere where they are not known well. You made off with a family heirloom worth a few hundred gold – determine what it was with the DM.

Migrant (Outlander)

You are not from around here, and live on the fringes of society. You and your family are viewed with suspicion, which makes them even more eager to prove their loyalty and patriotism to anyone and everyone.

Feature: Plausible deniability. If you are caught for a minor crime or infraction, you can argue that you didn’t know better, and expect lenience, especially the first time.

Variant: Scavenger (Wanderer). You are able to scrape up food and relatively clean water for you and five other people each day by scrounging, begging, and so on. You won’t starve, but you won’t be happy either.

Refugee (Sailor)

You have come to these shores from a far-off land, though not so far that you haven’t heard of the fall of the Dark Lord and the rise of the Empire. Your family and friends are currently being processed and some have been moved to Rehabilitation camps until they can be reintegrated into society.

Feature: Passage. Because you are a refugee, you aren’t expected to have the same papers and references that others would need to travel from place to place. Just remember to be obsequious.

Deserter (Soldier)

Feature: Military Intel. You have of course lost your military rank, and there are some who would love to have you in for a court martial, but you did learn how the Empire functions, and know more about the military than any others (who aren’t part of it).

Runaway (Urchin)

Your family (or orphanage) is still seeking you, but you have lived on your own for a long time now. Pretty much the same as Urchin, though, otherwise.

 

RPG Mechanics Round-Up #12: D&D Again

Time = XP

In D&D and similar experience-driven systems, xp roughly represents time spent playing. This is true when WotC says that Adventure League standards should be about 4 hours to level to 2nd, and then 8 hours to 3rd and the same for 4th, etc. This is what it has always meant, and the way it functions is to incentivize certain behaviors and play styles.

Why not just have XP = time played? This would work equally well for your home game as for organized play, and would work better than every system for leveling in organized play I’ve ever heard of. It would be easy to track across games, including for players and DMs without consistent play-groups.

This system can be hidden behind a milestone leveling system, and just have milestones equal X time played. Honestly, it’s what most DMs and GMs who use a milestone system are doing anyway, and is the thinking behind xp going back to the beginning. In terms of design, experience points are a reward for the player, so why no reward the players for their time? This would also unhitch xp from certain behaviors. So PCs would not need to go out and kill things and take their stuff. They would level just the same for RPing, or shopping in town, or exploring new places, or doing upkeep on their holdings. They can do whatever they find to be fun in game.

Yes, this drifts D&D significantly from its design, but I don’t think that’s a problem.

Using 5E Exhaustion More Often

Exhausting is an interesting mechanic, and almost never gets used in games of D&D 5th Ed I run and in which I play. I think it was used for the fist time in the 10th session of our current home game, and it was funny because I was the only player who even knew about exhaustion rules. So here a few other times to engage the exhaustion rules, imposing a level of exhaustion for each of the following:

  • When you are dropped to zero hp, even if immediate raised back up (i.e. by Healing Word)
  • When you take damage in excess of a threshold (maybe that threshold = 2x your Constitution score) to represent a sudden, significant injury
  • When you roll a 1 on a saving throw
  • When you fail a high-risk skill check, but the DM wants to let you fail forward (you miss an Athletics roll to jump a chasm, so the DM says you cling to the far side and drag yourself up, but it costs a level of exhaustion)

Healing Potions

As written, healing potions in 5E restore 2d4 +2 hit points per level of potion (i.e. 4d4 +4 or 6d4 +6). Why not have a healing potion instead restore 2 hit dice +2 for each level? This would mean that higher-hp classes like Barbarians would benefit more from a healing potion. As it is, past level 1 or 2 a barbarian won’t want to use an action to restore 7 hit points on average, and higher level barbarians who have more powerful potions won’t bother using them either because they’ll make such a small difference.

  • Healing potion: 2 hit dice +2 restored
  • Greater healing potion: 4 hit dice +4 restored
  • Superior healing potion: 6 hit dice +6 restored

Stolen Skill Challenge Idea

This is an idea my friend Brett, who is our current DM, stole from another DM, and I’m stealing it as well. The idea is that for shared skill challenges (like the ubiquitous Dexterity (Stealth) checks made to let the party sneak around), you set a total that they have to hit with their rolls.

  • Relatively easy challenge: 10x number of characters
  • Opposed challenge: passive score x number of characters
    • Ex: if the PCs are all trying to sneak past a guard, and the guard has a passive Perception score of 14, then their Dexterity (Stealth) rolls would have to total more than 14x number of PCs
  • Normal (?) challenge: 12x number of characters
  • Really challenging: 15x number of characters or higher

RPG Mechanics Round-Up #11

Out of Combat Advantage

The scene is that your adventurers are taking a break from danger, hanging out in town. There is some kind of local festival happening, and they decide to enter the various contests. The ranger joins an archery contest. It doesn’t make sense to me that the ranger would roll the same thing that she would when she is in a life-or-death combat situation – I think of studies showing that the most accurate police officers, the NYPD, still miss 2/3 of the time when they use their weapons. These are people who know what they are in for, train regularly, etc., who probably do great when they are at the gun range. So it occurred to me that in a situation where a D&D-style adventurer is using an adventuring skill in a safe environment such as a local fair, she should roll with advantage. This is also a way to let PCs shine in comparison to locals who only shoot at stationary targets and the occasional rabbit or deer.

Fixing Call of Cthulhu Sanity (Again)

There are obviously problems with Call of Cthulhu’s Sanity system: all of the problems of any hit points style system for modeling trauma; it can be problematic with regard to real-world mental health; it is hard to get players to act against themselves when suffering a bout of madness; the madness that you suffer might come from a list or a table, and therefore feel arbitrary.

As a way to address three out of these four concerns, I thought that it would be interesting to just treat Sanity as hit points. When you run out you can’t play anymore. But when you lose Sanity, take Sanity ‘damage’, you can choose to ‘soak’ some of that damage by taking on a bout of madness. The player chooses the madness that makes sense, maybe from a list the Keeper provides. This way players who want to power through and keep control of their characters can do so, but they will take big hits to Sanity (and for this rule, I would basically double Sanity damage as written). Otherwise, players get a say in what happens, which hopefully gives them buy-in, which hopefully makes them more likely to actually play the insanity to the hilt.

In systems other than Call of Cthulhu, even like D&D, the idea I would use is to provide XP when a character suffering from madness acts against their own best interests.

This also makes me take a moment to consider my house rule for Hold Person type spells. Hmm…

Social Abilities and Hierarchy

I like the idea that social skills function differently when interacting across a social hierarchy (it’s why I designed Parsec that way). Taking D&D’s social proficiencies as an example (Deception, Intimidation, Persuasion), I might say that all three work best with someone who shares your place in the hierarchy; Deception works when dealing with someone higher than you (“Of course, m’lord”); while Intimidation is the default when dealing with someone beneath you (“You address me as ‘Your Grace'”). If you are using those social skills in other ways, you roll with disadvantage (a pauper Intimidating a Prince, a Prince trying to Persuade a pauper, etc.). I also like what this says about how differences in power shape (corrupt) all social interactions, even when the people in those interactions don’t mean to.

If you don’t buy the Deception rule – when was the last time you were honest with your boss? If you don’t buy the Intimidation rule – how do you feel when a cop pulls you over and starts asking you questions with a hand on his gun?

Passive and Active Perception (The Investigation vs Perception Problem)

D&D, even RAW, has an Investigation and Perception problem. The problem is that they are used inconsistently in the rules text. It isn’t clear what it means to use Investigation as compared to Perception. Both have a passive score on the character sheet. Both are used for searching. Perception is the far more useful of the two, honestly. In most games, there isn’t much reason to take either Insight or Investigation compared to Perception.

For my own games, if you are actively looking for something, I use Investigation, and when we are rolling to see whether you happen to notice something, it’s Perception. Investigation is something like active senses, and Perception is something like passive senses.

I had the idea to clarify this someday with abilities in a game. For active perception, I’d use Attention, and for passive perception, I’d use Sensitivity.