Sunday, February 19, 2017

Rules Cyclopedia Oddities Part 6: Diversity

Sorry for the silence, folks, I've been brutally busy only to catch a cold, start a new job after that and now I'm even more busy than I was before *sigh* Anyway, on with it. Thought I'd start with something short and easy, while I'm at it: a new part in my longest running series, the Rules Cyclopedia Oddities! Herein I collect observations about the little details in the great D&D Rules Cyclopedia and ponder on them a bit. Today I poke the bear and talk about the diversity presented in that book that saw the light of day some time in 1991, frickin' quarter of a century ago (yeah, I feel old now. too). This is NOT a political post, just observations ...

Diversity, what is it good for?

Diversity has been an issue among publishers for round about 2 years now and although I really don't think in those kinds of terms (I try to see people for their individual merits and flaws, not necessarily for the flags they carry) the notion that it is something that needs to happen in role playing games, today more than ever, managed to sneak into my (everyone's?) subconscious and I tend to notice attempts towards or against it more often than before.

It's neither a good nor a bad thing, it's just an additional thing. I mean, I think it's okay to build a certain awareness for how different we all can be by showing those differences and making the labels a thing (empowering stereotypes that way, but anyway), it's just that I learned to value human beings in general and go from there ... Just different angles of the same thing, I suppose.

Role playing games have always been about playing what you want (within agreed rules) with whoever wants to play, so as far as I'm concerned, diversity was always a given ... the kind of diversity where you try to find a way to play a 3 meter half-bear/half-human (Beartaur?) with laser-eyes, razor-sharp wings, a light-saber, a rail-gun and a never-ending cigar (which is a thing, I'm sure).

Never thought I'd get a second chance to post
this picture. Heh :) [source]
But munchkin fantasies aside, you can play what you want, that's the big pull of role playing games: it only has the restrictions the group of people that plays can agree upon. The sky is the limit and all that.

With publications, especially with rule books, it's a bit more difficult. Ideally a book should reach each and every possible reader, regardless of age, cultural background, gender, education or whatever. The funny thing about the human brain is, we as readers already meet halfway with every written text, as we learn to associate with the contents we read when we learn reading to begin with. Thus I had no problem reading and experiencing books with children or women or even sociopaths or elves or robots or what-have-you as main protagonists. That's just how we are wired. Immersion and all that jazz.

What a rule book has to do, on the other hand, was a matter of debate for some time now. It's something I followed loosely, but when I took a look into the Rules Cyclopedia just the other day, I started noticing a couple of (I think) interesting, well, oddities about it.

Diversity in the D&D RC

Going by the English version, the whole thing is in a very conversational tone and the author (Aaron Allston) speaks directly to the reader*. I think that's the ideal approach, actually. No matter what examples you bring, it's always to illustrate something to the reader, not assuming it is the reader.

Additionally, Allston always uses "he or she", not just one version over the other (like 3e did, for instance) and the word "male" and "female" are mentioned about the same time as often ("female" is used one more time, I think in the Monster section) ... So as far as gender is concerned, this is an even match.

As far as the rest is concerned, it gets a bit tricky to argue with just the text, so let's check the illustrations next. Actually, that's the thing I noticed that made me write this post right now: the illustrations are blissfully all over the place. Most (all?) of the book is illustrated by Terry Dykstra** and we have a broad range of ethnicities and cultures, with many female characters as a bonus.

Not the Gandalf we know ... [ill. by T Dykstra, D&D RC p. 20]
You might run to your book now and check if that's actually true (and you should, questioning is good), only to find that I am somewhat right, but most illustrations in the book still depict mostly white males. I would then agree with that observation but point out that (A) illustrations are sparse in the RC to begin with and (B) they made a conscious decision to show all kinds of diversity where it counts: the character illustrations.

This is crucial. With the 9 classes the book sports, we get 4 females (not the wizard among them, btw, but Thief, Cleric, Elf and Mystic), two black guys and one Asian (also the Mystic, for obvious reasons?). From all the illustrations in the book, those are the ones getting the most traffic on the table. Deeper into it (mostly stuff DMs look at the first couple of times and keep to the text after that) you'll find it a little bit more uniform, but still pretty varied. I think it's very well worth mentioning that the overall expression must be here that there is something for everyone, really. AND we are talking 1991 here.

All of that sums up to an atmosphere of cultural diversity and adventure, with some hints towards fantasy and danger. No gore and no hints of sexuality or sexual orientation, but that's totally fine.

Well, they all look like criminals adventurers to me.
[ill. by T. Dykstra, D&D RC p. 67]
One final observations: it's well known that the RC has no "gods", but "immortals" instead. I think most of that is to make the ascension from mortal to god in the game a little bit more palpable while offering a broad spectrum of possibilities for all kinds of worlds a DM could come up with. This general approach brings general rules that apply to all gods/immortals. One of them (and that's really just a "nice to know", because it had been part of many online discussions) is that an immortal is completely free to choose his appearance, gender, race, age ... everything you can come up with, really. Just like that. 1991. See page 221. No need to make a thing out of it.

Oh, and one fun fact: the Japanese translation of the RC chose (famously so) a very different route for it's presentation and made the book look like a manga comic. Now, is that more diversity (as in more diversity as far as how many languages the game exists in) or less diversity (as in choosing to cater just to the Japanese audience with a new layout and presentation). Couldn't say what else they changed (but would be interested to hear more about that).


The Rules Cyclopedia is, first and foremost, a collection of rules (and still the only complete set of D&D rules in one book, at that). It's the kind of book that should appeal to everyone interested in the subject it presents. I think it did that very well in 1991 and I was surprised to find out that it still holds true today. There is no politics in it or any kind of pretentious attitude. As a matter of fact, Allston keeps himself (and everything else, really) out of the book and instead makes it solely about D&D and what the game can do for you, the reader. I think that's a wise choice.

The guy in the full plate is Asian ... [ill. by T. Dykstra, D&D RC p. 126]
The RC really is the book we should find alongside all the other classic games like chess or monopoly, warts and all (also in a pretty box with pretty dice and pretty character sheets ... a boy can dream).

One final caveat: I'm not a scientist and I didn't analyze the whole text of the book in detail or from a sociological or linguistic perspective. If you did that and came to a different conclusion than me, I'd be happy to check out your results. But my impression is that they really tried to make this a book for everyone, everywhere.

If you liked this post, you might want to check out the other oddities in this series. Comments are, as always, very welcome. Especially if they praise the Rules Cyclopedia :)

* German translation is, of course, the same, but chose to use the more formal German version of "you" ("Sie" instead of "Du"), which, I think, was a mistake. But that's just an aside.

** Sorry for linking to that very empty Wikipedia entry, but there are close to none informations about that person online (he or she? couldn't say). If anybody reading this has more information about the artist or a better link, please share it in the comments. A mystery, no less :)


  1. I think you mean quarter of a century. I am currently struggling with an aspect of this: thinking about how to make pendragon more appealing to a group of female gamers

    1. Right you are ... and I don't know what you are talking about :P (thanks!, it's edited, I still feel old)

      Hm, there is The Great Pendragon Campaign this one blogger plays with his wife and it sounds really cool. Maybe you'll find some inspiration:

      And I heard once of a Princes of Mars camapign using the Pendragon rules with the knights in mecha instead of plate mail, so if you like the rules and if you are flexible about the setting, you can always go scifi (or whatever) and see if they like that better?

    2. Just knights of any sex and you're going to be fine.

  2. German translations of hobby texts are always difficult. No matter which option you choose to directly address the reader, it's always weird.

    1. I agree. And not only the hobby texts, there is, for example that very infamous last translation (is it still the last?) of the Lord of the Rings that tried to be a bit more modern ... It's cruel. I couldn't read it.

  3. The RC is definitely better than AD&D 2nd Edition on this front (at least the 1995 revision). The 2e Player's Handbook has every single one of its class and race illustrations as male (usually with handlebar mustaches for the humans), almost entirely white, and the only female characters I found in any of the illustrations were villains. And while the RC says in the beginning that it mostly uses the male pronoun, Allston generally uses gender-neutral language in the class descriptions (just referring to "A Cleric can do this," etc); the Player's Handbook uses "he" pretty much exclusively.

    Even with some of the examples of play having a female character, I'd hardly be surprised if 2e did a poorer job than 1e of attracting female players to the hobby. (After all, even 1e made sure to use both "he" and "she" fairly consistently.)