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Jared's Campaign Setting: How The Undead Led to Gender Equality.

Lame title, I know. My original setting for D&D (Called Season of Change if I'm forced to call it something) has been going on for longer than I've actually been playing real Dungeons & Dragons. It's all about the Tropes in Fantasy that I dislike, tropes people don't typically see, and trying to make sense of them. The second one is easy but I'll talk about how to sort out the Dwarfs are Masculine/Elves are Feminine Dichotomy another time because that's interesting. I will say that it heavily hinges on the Greek Myth that Zeus found a creature too powerful so he split in twain, creating men and women. In my setting? This is the origin (more or less) of why Dwarfs and Elves are split but both iconic to the genre. Yet that's not what we're talking about today.

Warning: The Next Paragraph is Soap Box. Skip it if you just want to steal stuff from me and use it in your own game. I don't mind.

I just got done with a really frustrating conversation about bringing Gender issues into Dungeons & Dragons. It made me sad. Partly because I feel that just telling people not to following the traditional gender tropes isn't enough. And hell, it kind of insults people who have been using them. I'm not going to do a lot of second-guessing myself here but if you didn't know by now I'm a huge fan of equality. The thing is? I think we can't just make Gender Issues or Sexism off limits. I don't want to judge people for their past games or force people to jury-rig parts of their fantasy game to make it more inviting to women. I want them to WANT to do that. Bringing strong female roles shouldn't be a chore it should be something exciting. And make sense. Fifty years ago, women had to fight to wear pants in the real world. Things aren't perfect today but they've definitely improved. If we backtrack this to fictional medieval history? Jesus. The point is that I think that if we're going to really swing this we need to make it inviting....and not just gloss over the tropes that have plague the genre by throwing down the RetCon card to create a spontaneous Women's Rights Movement that happened 500 years ago and now has made everything totally equal. I think there's a place for Gender Issues in a game. We really are separated as men & women in the real world. It's part of how the world is even if we hate it.
From David Cronenberg:
"Anybody who comes to the cinema is bringing their whole sexual history, their literary history, their movie literacy, their culture, their language, their religion, whatever they've got. I can't possibly manipulate all of that, nor do I want to."
Not every game has to be power fantasy. Or blind fun escapism. I know that. But I also don't want to pretend that people aren't people. It's what to do with that. Ok, screw the Soap Box. I don't think every game should be all about Gender Issues. In fact, my game isn't about that but it is part of the setting. We keep arguing in vague terms about how to handle it...what offends people and what might work. This is what worked for me and, hopefully, someone else sees how we can make equality in the Fantasy Genre a choice rather than a Burden.

You might have noticed the image I attached to this post. It features a strong but feminine character using turn undead against an undead horde. This, ladies and gentlemen is the perfect breakdown of how I made equality part of my campaign. No scoffing. No accusations of trying to be Politically Correct. Just storytelling.

I run two games in my campaign setting. One takes place in the "current" day (which is the Year of the Titan because Fantasy date-keeping is a fool's game) and another that takes place roughly 100 years in the past. The "Past" game? Is playing out what you're seeing below. A lot of this is meant for a Mechanics-Free Campaign Book I was plotting so forgive me if I keep it abridged. Shall we?

In my campaign setting the Divine Classes haven't been around since "Forever", an established part of the universe. Wizards, however, have been...advisers to kings and guilds and wartime interests. Then, one day, the Undead Plague struck the land. No, not "just" Undead. The problem with the Undead in traditional fantasy is that they've lost a lot of their luster. There's just an established branch of necrotic biology that tells us how different zombies are made, mutated, and exist all in some kind of isolation. So I wanted to do something different. I wanted to explain why every Divine Class seemed to be custom-built to slay zombies. If you've read my recent D&D Outsiders, you've already read my thoughts on the logical loops this can put you through. So perhaps the God of Death vanishes and all the Dead return. Mayhaps some adventurer steals the beloved of the God of Death and She raises everyone that has ever died to be her eyes and ears upon the Material Plane. The backstory doesn't matter. We have to figure out why people in Fantasy Tropes hate the undead and necromancy but still totally approve of Clerics using Raise Dead. Did I mention that I wrote all this before playing Dungeons & Dragons but after writing that Stupid Monsters Article? I still find that weird.

The thing is, Undead didn't rise as Ghosts. Or Rotting Zombies. Or Flaming Skeletons. They arrived as pale, fully dressed, armed as they were in life creatures of sound mental state and solid form. Just wrap your head around it for a moment. In D&D terms, imagine if the Raise Dead ritual brought someone back only now they were pale and just a little unearthly. (There is a side effect to being raised from the Dead in my game and, in fact, one of my PCs has risen enough to have this Pallor. Unless you let the Sea Queen raise you, in which case you gain one aquatic trait. That's right, you can live forever as long as you pray to Dagon and don't mind taking a few levels of Lovecraft, but that's a story for another time.) Point is, The Undead are back. And no one is dying.

Did I mention LOTS of Undead are back? They don't want to eat your brains. They don't want to destroy the world. Hell, they're not even amassing into armies of some sort. They're just "back". No conflict there, right?

Wrong. Imagine if this happened today. Imagine if every culture of yesteryear suddenly was back, asking why you were living in their house, living on their land, wondering why you weren't speaking ancient Liftlitic. Violence solves none of the confusion as no one can be slain and suddenly a fantasy world built on ownership being passed down/inherited is turned on it's ear. There's more to this but let's just skip ahead to the outcome that suddenly the cities and kingdoms were being run by committee. The Undead outnumbered the living, forcing them to become a minority who, not only had the least status due to their age (or lack thereof) but also would never be able to rise up. Respect your Elders indeed.

The thing about how people change over time is that generally they become more Liberal. Forget the real world for a moment just because I know that if I go into real world "What Ifs" this will end poorly and get derailed. Imagine if the same tribe that created Marriage and defined it as "Women are property to trade for favors/wealth/land" were suddenly back. Followed by a society that....this post is long enough. What I'm saying is that if suddenly every kingdom of the past came back and suddenly was an inescapable part of your daily life, it would suck to be a woman. Hell, it would suck to be one of the living but since I'm focusing on why my campaign setting has equality in it, there you go. If you're not sold, seriously do the Real World "What If" in your head. Civil rights victories would be out-voted by generations of Sexist Societies. Voting? Gone. Ability to go out in public without a man? Gone. Ability to speak after the sun has set? Gone. You get the idea.

Long story short, there is a revolution. The history books would re-write it as a great Undead Horde, their rotting flesh and bony claws raking at the innocent people across the land. This is, of course, propaganda mixed with revisionist history. The living fought back, armed with the power of the Gods, which only spoke before through Prayers and Rituals before. Paladins and Clerics, no longer mere priests strode across the land, cleansing the earth of that which should have died long ago. The undead scattered, holing up in crypts, caves, isolated places across the world to simply "wait out" this campaign of divine judgement. The thing is though? The dead, in my campaign setting, need to be near the living to maintain their "humanity". Without contact, they rot away body and mind, warping to grotesque mockeries of their original lives. This is why vampires drink the blood of the living and why zombies instinctively crave the taste of flesh. It also explains why the hell so many crypts are filled with zombies in almost tactical positions, surrounded by treasure. But this is a rant for another time. I told you, I have a novel of this stuff on my shelf. I am a nerd who didn't think to share it.

The thing is that with the Undead gone, there is a backlash in society. Suddenly the super-conservatism of every society that existed before was seen in any modern reflection of it. I honestly think that this is how it might go down, kind of like how American sent its own citizens to camps during World War 2 because they were Japanese. Perhaps. The point here is that this fantasy kingdom sat under the oppression of every freaking sexist society and rose above it. The Gods appointed both men and women to be their champions and suddenly the old power bases held by the Wizards were uncertain, those universities of dusty old men with their long white beards looking quite similar to the men of the vanquished oppressors of yesteryear. In unrelated news, said universities suddenly started taking in Female Magi, now no longer to lurk on the outskirts as Witches & Warlocks. There are real world parallels here (To World War 2 aftermath & Women's Rights for instance) obviously but no one creates a fantasy kingdom in a vacuum. (This is a creepy notion & I do not suggest thinking about all the women-chained-to-walls we saw in early modules.)

Man do I feel weird explaining my fantasy setting publicly like this. This is just a small part of it but really my goal here is to point out that if you create a story so that things make sense, it's much more inviting.

Why are women equal to men in my Campaign Setting? Because I built a world that is only a few generations past having to violently confront their past. Overt symbolism? Maybe. This isn't about Guilt. Or What's right. I mean it is, but this is a story that explains how social change could come about in a Fantasy Setting using the very tropes that are inherently there already. Maybe you don't see it. I am a little biased as this has been my main game world and I'm literally just writing about a tiny blurb found on one page here. This isn't what my game is about. But it allows me to engage in a Fantasy World where, if the issue of Sexism arises, I have in-game explanations that aren't forced or mere Political Correctness stabbing role-playing in the heart.

In closing, I decided to share this today because I think that we need to be positive if we're going to talk about straightening out Gender Issues in Fantasy and making things inclusive. People need to know why they embrace certain tropes and if we want people to know they don't HAVE to choose them we need to give better options. Maybe I went a little overboard on the crazy with the above, but it's part of my campaign setting and screw you, it's an alternative to "generic fantasy kingdom were they magically are equal but don't seem to be number 37".

Next time on "Jared Talks about his Campaign Setting", we'll discuss how Gnomes are just children who stepped though the mirror, never growing up Peter-Pan style...eventually turn both fey and unearthly as time passed.

Oh and then I make some D&D Traditionalist Cry.
-Jared.
"with apologies to Peter, my player who was hoping to find out some of this stuff at the gaming table"

PS: Feel free to comment if you've read the whole thing. Remember, I don't want to change your home game. I'm just trying to say that there are ways to do this without having to hammer things in. In my case my players found the backstory of the setting interesting enough that they asked to play a Retro-campaign of it where they got to take part in it. I'm a proud father, I have to admit. Ok, no more words. My keyboard is dry.
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10 comments
 
"Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. "

G K Chesterton
 
While there are times I need to tap out of gender discrimination (causing me to seek out games where it's not even on the table), part of the reason I ended up there is because too often sexism is just added to the game with no way to change it. It's just an omnipresent "fact" of the world that is meant to constantly grind down female characters.
 
+P Duggan I think I officially owe you a coke because I have that very same quote doodled in my book about this. As in, the Season where this escalates in-world is called Democracy of the Dead. Well played my good sir!
 
Couldn't help but think that's' what you were riffing on.
 
+P Duggan The funny thing is that I didn't know about that quote until one of my players showed it to me. They showed it to me when there were only vague clues (and a vague definition) to the setting's back story and it kind of hammered everything into place.

+Susan Morris Thanks! The funny thing is when I pseudo-pitched this at GenCon they gave me the card and number for their book department. I'm still kicking myself for not getting that into gear at the time.
 
Totally nifty.

I like this idea, and I love the thought and story that went into making it.
 
+Susan Morris Thanks. Really I think that's kind of the plan. I was planning on talking about this possible even doing a Kickstarter or something to get it off my shelf where it just keeps getting thicker and thicker. I was waiting until I caught up on my the art projects that've been building up (I had a bought of work paralysis that caused issues) but arguments about Gender in Gaming forced me to blather on G+. I'm really glad I did...I'm one of those people that is just getting used to the idea that people want to read this kind of stuff. Well, from me. Or are responding positive to it. I'm dumb like that somehow.
 
Oh, Jared. You have such crazy awesome ideas. I'm in awe of you often.
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