This article is crossposted from my latest feature for the Border House; that version can be seen here.
What is staggering about much that passes under the banner of “fantasy” is how decidedly narrow its escapist vision tends to be. In both fantasy and sci-fi, far from transcending the fetters of real world limitations, we see our own world with its myriad failings reinscribed in uncritical verbatim form with only a smattering of chrome, Medieval grit, or magic to poorly disguise the copy. Dungeons & Dragons, long the towering mainstay of fantasy roleplay whose name is synonymous with its genre, has at times been either a magnificent carnival of fantasy or a pitiless mire of the same tired clichés about gender, race, and sexuality that bedevil so much of nerd culture. This schismatic approach to its material is, I believe, a psychic scar left by the culture wars of the 1980s when D&D was accused of various and sundry evils; all ranging from reefer madness with dice to charges of blood drinking Satanism. The game remains gunshy about introducing content that might be deemed something less than family-friendly. Even its excellent Book of Exalted Deeds compendium—a supplement geared towards elaborating the concepts of virtue and divinity in D&D—came with a “Mature Content” warning sticker. The offending content was, well, a boob, along with a frank discussion of torture (and why it was morally unjustifiable).
This flinching instinct on the part of D&D’s inheritors, Hasbro-owned Wizards of the Coast, has kept LGBT characters far away from public acknowledgement in the game’s content. “Family friendly,” that delightful euphemism for wilful ignorance of and prejudice against sexual minorities, has become the catchphrase of the granddaddy of RPGs.
While my love for D&D was immense and filled with innumerable fond memories, many immortalised on a shelf groaning under the weight of 2e and 3.5e books, I lamented the fact that such a fantastic genre should be hamstrung by senseless timidity. It was not just the issue of LGBT inclusion, of course; the writing had ossified, the taken for granted dimensions of the setting had become set in stone, routinized and underdeveloped. Flashes of brilliant creativity were smothered in the gloom of playing it safe as the controversial Fourth Edition went to press.
Enter Paizo Publishing’s Pathfinder. For years I’d ignored it blithely, thinking it was a low rent, grittier D&D that had nothing new to offer, save a nostalgic continuation of the 3.5e ruleset. How wrong I was. The long, in-depth second look it deserved from me was occasioned by a friend’s breathless Facebook post about a trans woman character being introduced in the game’s latest adventure module. A lesbian trans woman, married to a half-Orc Paladin of a Lawful Good goddess. My attention was well and truly piqued.
From Representation to Creative Flourishing
It is a common complaint amongst those determined to preserve a patriarchal status quo that characters ought not deviate from a white/male/hetero/cis norm unless there are “good narrative reasons” for doing so, whatever those might be. Curiously, nothing ever seems to fit the bill for such people; any deviation from that norm immediately occasions passionate metaphors about shoving things down throats and other vaguely sexual musings. But for those of us who, in good faith, worry about tokenisation occasioned by well-intentioned efforts at inclusion, there is a legitimate concern about ensuring that, say, LGBT characters are drawn to be people first and queer second, lest they be defined entirely by one facet of their identity.
Paizo gets this balance just right, in my view.
The 73rd issue of their Adventure Path modules—self-contained cycles of adventures that provide detailed information about settings and campaigns a DM can use to start a plot for her players—The Worldwound Incursion by Amber E. Scott might well serve as both illustration of inclusion done well and an example of what that inclusion can look like in the specific medium of a pen-and-paper roleplaying game. (Cover at left; art by Wayne Reynolds).
The eponymous Worldwound is a scar in the world of Golarion, spewing forth demons and other hellish beasts who break like a tide against the increasingly beleaguered defenders in the nation of Mendev. Divine wardstones help keep the fiends at bay, but when one of them is sabotaged, one of the great citadels of the nation—the crusader city of Kenabres—falls to the horde. It is into this maelstrom that your adventuring party is thrust. Spared from the invasion by a virtuous dragon’s last minute intervention, your party and a few NPC citizens of Kenabres awake in an underground cavern—you must find your way back to the surface and do what you can to ease the fate of the fallen city.
One of these NPCs broke her leg in the divinely cushioned fall from the surface, Anevia Tirabade, a forthright rogue of a woman who served the city as a scout and archer. The story from here on out is very well treated by Ms. Scott; Tirabade is one of three NPCs of varying strengths and personalities with whom your party must work, negotiate, and assist. The mechanics of this, and the story possibilities that emerge, are a delight to read; one’s imagination really takes flight with the help of the complicated entanglements Scott writes for each character— the other two are Aravashinal, a blind wizard whose membership in a secret society drives a subplot, and Horgus, an arrogant noble whose gossipmongering about the other two could bring about the downfall of the group.
The genius of this module, I believe, lies in its strong emphasis on relationships and the deep elaboration that Scott gives to the myriad ways they impact the story, even as Kenabres crumbles. Rare is the writer who captures the fundamental humanity of apocalypse (beyond clichés about survivalism, at least), and Scott certainly rises to that challenge. The depth of these relationships, the conspiracies, triumphs, and tragedies they all entail, emerge as rewards for good investigative roleplay—and it is only here that Anevia’s story emerges.
One discovers that Anevia Tirabade is a trans woman who is married to a Half-Orc Crusader named Irabeth. Irabeth Tirabade is, in this campaign, helping to organise the resistance against the demonic horde. There is a beautiful and romantic story behind Anevia’s transition that is inextricably bound up with the love shared between the rogue and paladin, there for the taking if one wishes to learn it. But it is neither the focus of the story nor Anevia’s raison d’etre for being in it. Like Amanda Downum’s Savedra Severos, Anevia is a trans woman who is many years post-transition and whose role in the present story is akin to that of her cisgender counterparts—being a person of some power and influence in Kenabres pitching in after its destruction.
Anevia’s story is presented neither as a joke, nor as the driving motivation of her character. Like all trans people, her transition was merely instrumental in helping Anevia live a liveable life; her true adventure lay in the work she did for her adopted hometown, and the labours she would come to share with her wife. She is now part of the resistance and thrust into the epicentre of a renewed crusade against the forces of Hell, all of which are entirely orthogonal to the fact that she happens to be a lesbian trans woman. This is inclusion done well; Scott’s backstory for Anevia does not render her invisible as a trans person, but it also does not centralise that aspect of her as being the only worthwhile or interesting thing about her. Instead, it threads through her life in a seamlessly realistic way.
She grew up as part of her mother’s criminal gang, dysphoria leading to asociality on her part, even as she both learned to pick pockets and escape into art about strong women heroines. When at last the forces of law broke up the gang, Anevia’s mother sent her away to a temple of Desna, where a priestess would raise Anevia as her daughter—initially as a disguise, albeit one rather eagerly donned by the young Anevia. Her foster mother let her set off on an adulthood of adventuring, like the women from the stories Anevia so loved, with her blessing for this new life. On that long series of adventures in which she lent her services to other temples of Desna, she would meet Irabeth and fall head over heels.
I shan’t indulge in telling the whole story but it’s very sweetly written (aside from pronoun mangling when discussing the pre-transition Anevia, but it’s a forgivable lapse considering the audience; it’s still a dramatic and graceful step in the right direction).
The one artistic suggestion I might make is as follows. After falling for Irabeth, Anevia, according to the text,
“had revealed herself to actually be a man… but this didn’t matter to the paladin, who had learned to value a companion’s personality over her appearance. In fact, Irabeth had spent a fair amount of her personal wealth (including selling her father’s sword) to fund the purchase of an elixir for Anevia, one that would shift her physical gender to match the rest of her.”
(Okay, so maybe I will recount a bit more of their adorable love story). But the point is that it is rather unfortunate to recycle the “actually be a man” language which, although well intentioned in its use here, probably engenders more confusion than not amongst those unfamiliar with trans people. Generally speaking, any talk of ‘actually’ being one’s birth sex tends to be the spearpoint of a lot of transphobic arguments, and it’s best not to legitimise that.
When I have written trans people into my sci-fi and fantasy settings, I’ve always made sure to give them a unique name (“transgender” and “transsexual” being too deeply ground in our own world’s political and medical rhetoric to be truly distancing). One Pathfinder playing friend, writer Katie Berger Tremaine, suggests calling trans people “Arsheans” after one of the empyreal angels devoted to, amongst other things, diversity of gender expression. (That angel, Arshea, is another of Ms. Scott’s inspired creations and merits their own article).
The Fundaments of the Inclusive Adventure
One of the more darkly hilarious criticisms levelled at Irabeth and Anevia was that they were improbable due to being “too many identities at once.” This bizarre charge, being the inverted version of the vituperatively bigoted joke that says one must be a “disabled black lesbian Muslim” to get ahead in the world, is merely another irksome spasm of privilege and the myopia it inculcates— but it merits special comment nevertheless.
Behind the slur lies the idea that such people do not exist—that one might be a lesbian, or trans, or biracial, but surely not all at once; that is merely a fantasy of leftist diversity maniacs, after all. Yet, we actually do exist. As I joked more than once on Paizo’s forums to people making such prejudicial criticisms, Anevia and Irabeth’s story is actually all the more affecting because it maps onto the contours of my own life. After all, I’m a lesbian trans woman in an interracial relationship, myself. And given Irabeth’s biracial heritage as a half-Orc who struggled against racial prejudice and aspired to fit into human dominated institutions—she is also someone in whom I saw a rather lot of myself. It’s the kind of story not often enough told, and Ms. Scott captured it with aplomb.
It is here we return to the question of creativity in writing and the benefits of artistically-crafted diversity (as opposed to hamhanded tokenism): it makes stories better, more original, and more interesting. While transphobes were attacking Anevia simply for being in the story, and Irabeth for simply being a lesbian—occasioning all manner of scrutiny not given to Worldwound Incursion’s several straight cis male characters—they ignored how much lore and roleplay grist each woman added to the tale. The Worldwound Incursion is remarkable for its emphasis on the many social relationships—be they interpersonal or at the level of organisational conspiracy—that make up a city, even one smouldering in ruin amidst a truly hellish war. Unlike many adventure modules, Pathfinders’ as a whole place a good deal of emphasis on fleshing out the NPCs who are a setting’s truest ambassadors, imparting the living and breathing soul of a fantasy realm.
In this light, Anevia and Irabeth are, in their ways, part of Kenabres’ essence; each woman and her history says something about the hopes and failures of their adopted homeland, and their love is a perfect symbol of the virtues they tirelessly defend from the Worldwound’s spew.
What the critics of these two characters miss is how elegantly Amber Scott drew their fundamental humanity (with apologies to Irabeth’s Orc-ness, of course). Diversity does not just exist as a discrete property of a person fully coterminous with one aspect of their identity. There must also be diversity within a character. Anevia is not just a transsexual woman; she’s the crafty child of the streets who speaks forthrightly to all, regardless of rank, and who fights back the memories of her scarred past, trying to live in the here and now. She’s the Worldwound scout who found love on the edge of the abyss and who, at the present point in this campaign, limps her way through a cave with several strangers on her way into a strange, new adventure that has turned that world upside down.
Well done, Ms. Scott.
Concluding Thoughts: To Tell The Untold Story
The adventure module itself is also a testament to everything Pathfinder is doing right as a roleplaying game; rich in lore, technical rules that intrigue but don’t bog one down in math, an epic story that drops level 1 players into the midst of an incredible tale, a lavish gazetteer for the city of Kenabres, a short story, and some unique monsters thrown into the fray—there’s a lot to keep you busy. My personal favourite detail has to be Scott’s exalted magical sword, Radiance, (which inspired this article’s title); it was the sword of an outspoken crusader, a woman named Yaniel, who witheringly condemened her superiors’ negligence and took the fight to the demons. The weapon, in the hands of a virtuous paladin, can ‘level up’ with you. From Amber Scott’s fast paced and captivating plot, to Jerome Virnich’s evilly cute Sin Seeker monster, the module presents a peerless toolbox for adventure. If Pathfinder excels at anything it’s finding ways to tell stories that fantasy RPGs haven’t before.
I’m going to have to resist the overwhelming impulse to make a cheesy pun on the RPG’s name by saying something like “there’s a new path being found in roleplaying games!” and instead simply say that Pathfinder’s latest books merit a closer look. Paizo’s Creative Director, James Jacobs, has gone on record to say that LGBT characters exist in the world of Golarion and that all freelance writers are advised of this canonical fact. The iconic Cleric, Kyra, has been officially revealed to be a lesbian woman, and we can—apparently—expect more ‘out’ NPCs in the near future. It is no less worth mentioning that Pathfinder has overtaken D&D as the world’s bestselling PnP RPG: it’s yet another nail in the coffin of the dreadful cliché that “diversity doesn’t sell.” Wizards of the Coast might do well to take note.
*The banner image and Worldwound Incursion cover art are by Wayne Reynolds; the art of Anevia is uncredited in the book but I will add a name as soon as I can find one.