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 RPG.net 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.