Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Stellaris Builds

Here are the Stellaris builds I've been playing with. Some are min/maxed; others less so. Feel free to comment with your own builds and adjustments.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Representation in the D&D Player's Handbook

It has been a little over two years since the fifth edition of the Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook came out, to acclaim on the part of players who despised 4th edition (forever the Windows 8 of D&D—deservedly or not). Reviewers of fifth edition generally lauded the gameplay as easy to pick up if you’d played any edition from second onward. The digital tools were improved, and combats were streamlined but recognizably D&D.

Another cause for acclaim was the game’s diversity. The Player's Handbook (PHB) explicitly mentioned gender beyond the binary, sexuality beyond the heteronormative, and culture beyond that of Western Europe. The list of recommended reading at the back included Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon and N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. A review in io9 stated that the PHB “goes out of its way to be inclusive.” 

I was excited. The Player's Handbook is the first book people see when interacting with Dungeons & Dragons. For this reason, representative art and language is particularly crucial. When I got the new PHB, the first thing I did was look at the images. There were a lot more than in recent editions—more akin to the second edition of the PHB. I was delighted to see a female dwarf swinging a hammer and a black human woman in full body armor. But as I leafed through the book, my smile faded. It didn’t seem as diverse as I’d expected. Was it just my imagination?

Only data could solve this problem.

Fortunately, my brother and I have played D&D for thirty years, and my brother, who keeps everything, had older editions of the PHB. I took a stack of them, went home, and started counting. My questions:

· How different from previous editions was fifth edition?
· How easy was it for a person of color, a woman, or a nonbinary person to find representation?
· What form did that representation take?

It’s easy to see the change over time with the genders in Dungeons & Dragons. The first PHB was almost entirely populated with males of comic book buffness. The third had less of a picture budget, it seems, but the ratio of men to women improved significantly. In fourth, the first ambiguously gendered characters began to appear, and women shot up in representation. By fifth edition, there were more pictures of women than ever before, and definitely more characters who didn’t have large breasts, heavy brows, or overly broad shoulders.

In terms of ratio, note that fourth edition was actually closer to parity between men and women than fifth. The number of images of women did not significantly increase from fourth to fifth edition, even though images of men did. What did increase were portrayals of characters whose genders weren’t easily determined by appearance—a big change, considering how second edition went out of its way to gender everything. Gender neutral armor or robes, characters in shadow, or characters with their backs to you who weren’t exaggerated or sexualized added an ambiguity that could allow for representation beyond the binary. That said, I’d have loved to see more full frontal, well-detailed characters who presented an androgynous appearance or performed gender in less normative ways in fifth edition.

While the number of images of people of color was higher in fifth than in any previous edition, in the percentage of image share, fifth edition was no more diverse than third. Fewer than 20% of the images were of PoC. To approach the demographic reality of the United States alone, we'd need to see a good 30-37% PoC. To approach that of the world? Far more.

It gets sadder when you think about how I did this survey: if the person looked brown in any way—even if it might have been the lighting, I counted it. My gut feeling was that this wouldn’t be enough to even get close to a representative percentage. And it wasn't.

I did try to break it down a bit by race, though there were obviously limitations, because all images were interpreted through my own racial assumptions. I avoided most categories because of this, and only considered an image black or Asian if I felt it was meant by the artist as representative. The breakdown did show some trends. While the number of brown folks without one obvious origin stayed relatively the same over the course of the editions, the promising thing is that images of unambiguously black or Asian characters increased. On the very first page of fifth edition there's a badass dual-wielding black warrior. Black characters were represented in spellcasting and warrior classes, male and female. The half-elf in fifth edition was brown—the first time I’d seen that in a PHB, too. And there were plenty of Asian females—but not, I felt, any examples of a non-elf character who was unambiguously Asian and male. This is a known issue in game representation

To my earlier statement: I noted that there were more PoC images in fifth edition than ever before. So if there are increased numbers of PoC, how did the ratio end up so bad in the end? And here we get to the main two problems with representation in RPGs (and really, in any game):

1. The NPC problem. 
2. The demi-human problem.

If you have your fifth edition PHB handy, pick it up. Leaf through it. Look how impressive all those PoC are at the beginning! But as you move through the text, notice something? It’s getting whiter and whiter. Moreover, while there are big flashy images of lone PoC characters, do you see groups of them? No. You see mixed or wholly white groups.

This is the NPC problem. You might have noticed it in video games like Dragon Age. In these games, you have a range of skin options for your character, but whatever option you choose, everyone around you in the game—all of the people with whom you interact—is probably going to be white, even if they're your own in-game parents. The message is that PoC are exceptional, unusual—they stand out. They aren’t presented as part of a cultural system that includes other people who look like they do.

Mialee is not amused
Next, let's look at the mass of demi-humans. Specifically: elves, dwarves, halflings, and gnomes. (Dragonborn, tieflings, and especially orcs have their own issues, but they did not fall within the scope of visual representation in the PHB here.) Counting them, I realized that with a few exceptions, every single demi-human image in every PHB is white. I counted one unambiguously black dwarf in the PHB. An elf or two. And then there's Mialee (who nonetheless tends to get whitewashed in fan art).

This is the demi-human problem. Artists can conceive of humans as diverse, but apparently have a harder time with demi-humans. I know that D&D got halflings in particular from Tolkien, but I also know D&D is open to change: the company has taken pains to make halflings physically different from hobbits, especially in fourth edition. And even if you feel the need to say that Tolkien made hobbits to reflect the UK alone, the UK is not all white. If you’re going to use human colors, there need to be halflings of color and there need to be gnomes of color. For example.
Surprise! Halflings don't have
to be white. Or have two legs.

The elves are another can of worms. Mialee and a few exceptions aside, the only dark elves are—you guessed it—drow. I didn’t count drow in my PoC survey because they’re gray-black and thus not a human color, but they’re important to touch on here. I know we all like Drizzt, but what does it say about skin color when the only dark elf society is evil, with evil members, worshipping an evil goddess? Sure, there are lots of dickish sun elves, but they aren’t all codified as evil with some exceptions: they have diverse alignments. Not so the drow. The exceptional drow “breaks the mold,” according to fifth edition. Really? REALLY? It fits right in with the PoC exceptions problem in D&D art. 

And it isn't as if the language is a barrier. The PHB has “red” wood elves, “blue” moon elves, and “bronze” sun elves. Yet we're not seeing red-brown people or bronze-brown people; we’re generally seeing white people with tans. Most elves are still essentially Caucasian. We know elves live without forests—Dark Sun did that—so why can’t they live without white skin? What’s keeping us from making Maya wood elves, Thai sun elves, or Nubian moon elves?

Fortunately, there’s nothing keeping YOU from putting more PoC in your adventures. But as for folks claiming that D&D has gotten vastly more representative? They might want to roll another perception check.