Foul Relics of the Past and D&D 5E

I haven’t been following the 5E development much. I figure that if something interesting comes up, it will intrude upon my consciousness in one way or another, via IRC, forums, an instant message one minute after I’ve gone to bed, or the like. I’m also waiting for the damn thing to come out before passing judgment on it, unlike the online army of prophets and oracles that has looked into the future or received a divine message and thus know for a certain fact that 5E will either be a terrible flop or usher in a new Golden Age of roleplaying games.

However, my fears of the former were grown today when I had to witness a flamewar on Monte Cook’s newest 5E poll, Uniting the Editions, Part 3. There’s one thing among the poll options that gave me pause, as it was not like the others. There’s an option there that does not belong in the 21st century, was a poor idea when it was first conceived over 30 years ago and wholly deserves the quiet grave it has lain these past three editions. The option has no place in a serious discussion on game design except as a warning example and should not be brought to light except to reflect on how far we have come as a hobby and as a society. The option conjures images of the worst stereotypes of roleplayers and will, if actually included in a finished product, bring deserved scorn upon the game and the brand.

No, not THAC0. I’m talking about gender-based ability score maximums. Though the term is pretty self-explanatory, I’ll explain it anyway. It’s a relic of AD&D 1E, where the Player’s Handbook contained this little chart:

It’s a bit small, but the only difference between the sexes is that female characters cannot have as high a Strength score as males. The chart lacks humans, but the earlier Strength Table I notes that a female human’s Strength caps at 18/50, while a male’s goes all the way up to 18/00. Basically, it makes women second-class citizens.

The only purpose these rules serve is to take up space on a page and, well, to be sexist. It’s worse than the Random Prostitute Table (from the Dungeon Master Guide), because that’s at least amusing in its pointlessness. This is just odious. Seriously, it brings nothing positive to the game, and this shit right here and shit like this elsewhere are a major reason the gender makeup of the hobby looks like it does. It is indefensible, useless, and offensive, and the only reason I can figure out for it to be trotted out every now and then like it was a good idea is because some people have this masochistic desire to be thought of as troglodytes.

Now, I’m not numbering Monte Cook among them. From what I’ve seen, he’s one of the good guys, but still, including the option in this poll even as a joke was a bad call. They’ve now made the results secret, but when I cast my votes, it had Feats leading with around 2000 votes, Skills coming up behind with over 1000, and Gender-Based Ability Score Maximums in the bottom end with 324, or about half again as many as THAC0. I think it was also leading over System Shock. The poll is also just begging for goons or Anonymous or a particularly vile strain of Redditor to dump it full of votes for chauvinism. This particular old hat has resurfaced a couple of times online during the last year, and we’ve had some lovely flamewars indeed (and I’m mostly writing this because of those other flamewars – it feels like something of a current topic and this poll isn’t just a single, strange anomaly).

The usual argument is for “realism”, which I suppose would hold water if the game were committed to absolute realism and Phoenix Command level of simulation. However, it isn’t. The hit points and ability scores and armour class are all abstractions, and the player characters are supposed to be exceptional individuals unrestrained by how much the “average” human can bench press. No “average” person decides to go down that hole in the ground and hunt some orc. 3.0 had rules for swimming up waterfalls and balancing atop clouds as feats theoretically attainable without the use of magic. This is not a level of realism the game has ever been particularly interested in replicating. Hell, as things are, most D&D settings even have gender equality, certain trends in armour fashion notwithstanding. We have a game where characters going to the sauna would spontaneously combust, and this is where you choose to make a stand on “realism”? (Besides, enshrining the gender binary in the rules like that also excludes people who do not fit in it, which is unrealistic. Somehow, that notion tends to make people advocating this crap rather uncomfortable.) And no, giving female characters a bonus on Intelligence, Wisdom or Charisma in the name of “balance” would not fix things, it’d just turn this into a different load of bollocks, since then it’d also discriminate against men.

The arguments against it are far more compelling. It discriminates against women and punishes a female player for wanting to play a character of her own sex. It enforces outdated and offensive sterotypes. It’s sexist and drives women away from the game, and its inclusion would be pandering to the pig-ignorant mouthbreathers and social also-rans that this hobby is trying to rise above. Indeed, one player I know has mentioned that she doesn’t want to play D&D because the game’s portrayal of women makes her feel like her character would be dead weight to the party – and this two decades after the chart above was consigned to the wastebasket of history.

Approaching from another point of view, even a less socially enlightened mind would perhaps wish to consider the notion that effectively excluding 50% of humanity from your game might not be the soundest financial decision, either in terms of directly lost sales or the public relations issues it would cause. This could actually be damaging to D&D, since it’s notable enough that mainstream media outlets like Forbes ran stories on the 5th edition announcement. If a generic fantasy heartbreaker someone released out of their garage has a 1920’s attitude about women, the most flak it can expect to catch is three pages on and maybe an irate blog post somewhere. However, if D&D pulls a stunt like that, it’ll be all over the place, and not necessarily limited to the geeksphere.

Seriously, now. That chart has no place in this game or any other game, even as an optional rule. Put a picture of a dragon or a random sock colour table in there if you can’t figure anything else to fill the page. If I need to throw a player from my table, I don’t need the rulebook to help me.

Afterword: And then they figured it out, fixed things, and posted a follow-up, all before I got this blog post up. Good job, guys. However, I spent a couple of hours on this rant and I’m not about to let it go to waste.

16 thoughts on “Foul Relics of the Past and D&D 5E

  1. I’m suprised if I got that right more people want gender based stats than they want Thac0. Both are relics of old times but gender cap on stats is just ugly and Thac0 is the iconic mechanism (though kind of quirky). Got to wonder about priorities.

    I guess WoTC will pretend they never asked this.

    I’m also pretty happy I was brought in to gaming by Mentzer edition rather than with AD&D.

  2. Well, more people had voted for gender-based ability score maximums than for THAC0. They may have just been trolling. I hope they were. And I hope that the THAC0 people were just a better class of troll, because eww.

    Actually, they’re owning up to the mistake and admitting it was a bad joke. They even left the original article up, sans the poll. This is good practice, and I applaud it.

  3. +1.

    On the other hand, if we ignore the mention of gender-based ability score maximums, otherwise that article seemed quite promising to me. In fact, it made me wonder if they’re not making a D&D that’s so good that they can never make a 6th edition afterwards, because there simply isn’t anything to improve on anymore… (at least not without making it an entirely different kind of a game)

  4. For what it’s worth I voted for gender caps to demonstrate to WotC how useless online polls are for this kind of thing and as a protest at the inclusion of that feature in the poll.

    To be honest, allowing the poll to be voted on with no barrier to entry is opening it up to easy abuse by those who want to skew the results for shits and giggles because they are categorically not D&D fans.

  5. I’m personally worried whether or not the atrocious quality of the polls themselves is indicative of the effort they are putting into actually developing the system.

    Not only was putting gender-based caps in the poll a stupid idea, their follow-up basically amounted to “It was a joke guys, sorry!”

    If they’re sprinkling joke options into polls that should actually reflect what people actually seriously want in the game, it doesn’t speak highly of their commitment to the game.

    Also, their other polls have also been lackluster at best, with really, really silly choices of options.

  6. I would never accuse them of half-assing game design, but with a fanbase like this, I could forgive them just laying down a smokescreen to get the rabid lunatics off their back so they can write the damn game.

    Half-assing the smokescreen would be embarrassing, though. Experienced Dungeon Masters should know better.

  7. How does that enforce stereotypes? Because it is true that women are physically weaker than men. The context and the spirit these rules are presented in are dicriminating against women, but the facts cannot be.
    And btw, THAC0 is still alive and well, because THAC0=BAB. I know that subtracting is psychologically more difficult than adding, but I always wonder how people go grocery shopping if THAC0 is difficult for them.

  8. Ah, but a stereotype is not necessarily untrue – in fact, they’re always based on something. Wiktionary has a very convenient definition for our purposes here: “A conventional, formulaic, and oversimplified conception, opinion, or image”. Emphasis mine. You did it yourself, there – “women are physically weaker than men”, which is a very inaccurate statement, because not all women are physically weaker than all men. For instance, I’m a thin slip of a man and would get my ass kicked by most of my female acquaintances if it came to that.

    This all becomes very problematic when the society and culture begin to enforce the concept of women as something weak and dainty. We’re slowly breaking out of that, but we’re not there yet. Generally speaking, it’s still not okay for a woman to be physically strong, and if a woman does happen to be physically strong, “bull dyke” is at the mild end of the epithet scale. It’s kinda like if a guy wants to be a ballet dancer, except likely worse. There’s a huge cultural and social resistance to overcome if you want to go against that stereotype. There’s the entire toy industry, for example, going “no, you cannot be that, you must be this”. I’m not even going to start on physical attractiveness and today’s beauty standards. With a background like this, is it any wonder that women are, on average, weaker than men? There’s biology, yes, but there’s also the crushing weight of literally millennia of socially and culturally enforced gender roles that, today, due to advances in technology, healthcare and education, we should be able to disregard as the irrelevant historical baggage that they are in both our society and in D&D.

    Of course, this will all vary depending on the country and things like whether you live in a rural or urban setting, but it’s still there, and it’s frightfully strong in some places.

    So that’s how it enforces a stereotype, and why it is bad.

    Also, to deflect the inevitable counterargument that D&D is a late medieval/early Renaissance world, pretty much all the published D&D settings are more or less late 20th century in their egalitarianism. And like I stated in the post itself, the PCs are pretty explicitly not average. Averages mean precisely dick.

    I’m not gonna touch that THAC0 thing, because there’s a quagmire that’s not worth anyone’s time.

  9. A poll managed to cause an online ruckus, thus generating more hits.

    Chalk down one for the marketing department.

  10. You say averages don’t mean shit? Okay, sure, let’s see what’s the highest achieved results in sports are, here: or in any other article with the similar statistics. You’ll notice that the best women cap at about 10% worse than best men. This is exactly why they compete with athletes of the same gender, after all.
    What do you think sexist: gender-separate competitions (which are held, apparently, under the assumption that one of the genders performs worse on average) or one of the genders consistently performing worse on average in mixed-gender competitions, like the record lists seem to suggest?

    I’m not saying that gender attribute modifiers have a place in DnD, not any more than rules for seduction or tables of random harlot types. It’s a game of dungeon exploration, and should focus on that. Actually, I for one believe that it’s that focus on action as opposed to drama-driven plot what lowers the number of girl gamers, not some table three editions prior.

  11. “Emphasis mine. You did it yourself, there – “women are physically weaker than men”, which is a very inaccurate statement, because not all women are physically weaker than all men. For instance, I’m a thin slip of a man and would get my ass kicked by most of my female acquaintances if it came to that.”

    No, I didn’t. When an average man meets random women, he is stronger than, say 9 out of 10 of them So, it is really a very helpfull generalisation to say men are stronger than women. And even if you are small, you can still match larger women than you.
    So, no, I didn’t oversimplify. I just stated something which is true for a very large portion of men and women.

    And don’t confuse that with saying women are weak. These are two different things. One thing is a comparison, the other one not.

    I really believe that facts should come first. PC nad facts often don’t go along well together.

  12. I am just surprised so many people have a bad opinion of THACO. Seriously that s***t was SO much better than the huge list that existed in editions prior to 2nd. I mean whats so hard about taking your classes THACO and subtracting your enemies AC to determine the number you need to roll to hit? Anyway my 2 cents.

  13. The character creation system in Dungeons & Dragons is an incredibly abstract system for creation fictional characters who are adventurers who in some versions of the game literally have the potential to eventually achieve godhood. Given what the ability scores in D&D do and don’t represent, I really couldn’t care less what real life statistics have to say about the matter.

  14. 18/50 isn’t weak. It’s very strong – Olympic lifter strong.

    And the statistics are partially based on real life statistics.

  15. Pingback: Magia i Miecz 4/1993 – rozmowa z drozdalem | naked female giant

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