The gaming industry has been in a state of turmoil recently over the general treatment of women not only within the community, but around the world. But while the video game field continues to struggle with acceptance and inclusiveness of all genders and sexual orientations, a handful of roleplaying publishers have been serving as a shining beacon among the filth and garbage that surrounds us.
Recently, Dungeons & Dragons was warmly featured in the limelight for its inclusive language of sexual identity within the new 5th edition rules. The system encourages players to disregard our real-world notions of sex and gender:
“You could also play as a female character who presents herself as a man, a man who feels trapped in a female body, or a bearded female dwarf who hates being mistaken for a male. Likewise, your character’s sexual orientation is for you to decide.”
While these are all important steps towards promoting inclusiveness within gaming, Wizards’ primary competitor Paizo Publishing has taken social progress to the next level. After the jump, I discuss Pathfinder’s new icon that is making waves and interview the person behind her creation.
Last Thursday, Paizo revealed the latest of their new iconic characters that will debut with the upcoming Advanced Class Guide, the dwarven shaman Shardra. Written by esteemed contributor Crystal Frasier, Shardra is particularly unique because she is the first transgender character to join the ranks of other iconic characters in Golarion, Paizo’s world created for Pathfinder. In fact, from my own research, the dwarf might currently be the only transgender character that represents an entire roleplaying product.
These iconics serve as the primary representative for their respective class, and many are regularly featured throughout the publisher’s entire catalog of products; they appear within the art of published Adventure Paths and Modules, they are used as pre-generated characters for the Pathfinder Society organized play program, and act as the main characters of the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game. They carry the incredibly important task to serve as identifiable personas for players, and for many, the iconics are the first interactions that a new gamer may have with the system.
However, it bears mentioning that Shardra’s story is remarkable regardless of its social importance; it’s written by Crystal Frasier after all, who remains one of the most captivating storytellers in the business. Shardra’s gender is irrelevant compared to the rest of her beautifully-written backstory.
While Shardra’s position as an iconic character is certainly a milestone, Paizo has been pushing the boundaries for inclusiveness in their adventures for years. F. Wes Schneider, Paizo’s Editor-in-Chief, recently compiled a list of 50 notable LGBTQ characters in the Pathfinder universe with one gay couple dating back to the very first chapter of Rise of the Runelords, the company’s first Pathfinder Adventure Path. The publisher has taken great steps towards creating a world that lacks “modern terms” like homosexuality and transgender, instead offering a world where these elements are commonplace and accepted without hesitation. It’s easy to see why many players find Golarion to be a welcoming and inviting place.
I wanted to know more about Shardra and Paizo’s push for inclusion across the board, so I reached out to Crystal and asked a few questions about the shamanistic dwarf and the reception she’s received thus far.
What was your inspiration for Shardra, the dwarven shaman? Is she inspired by any previous character or story?
Crystal Frasier: Shardra isn’t inspired by any one character or idea; she’s pulled from a lot of different sources. She’s a little bit of Stranger in a Strange Land and a little bit of Doom Patrol, and a little bit Coraline, with a lot of influence pulled from Roman, Arabian, and Mesoamerican traditions of gender variance. Her personality is a mishmash of some of my awesome and fearless trans lady friends, and her version of spirituality is cribbed a bit from Avatar: The Last Airbender meshed with Joseph Rodes Buchanan’s 19th-century writings on psychometry.
Being an artist yourself, did you create the original design for Shardra that Wayne Reynold’s art is based on? Or did Reynolds or other Paizo staff create her physical appearance?
CF: I have only produced sketches afterwards based on Wayne Reynold’s incredible work. I would never deign to turn over my scribblings to a modern master like Reynolds and say “just make her look like this.”
Paizo trusts Wayne Reynold’s imagination to produce awesome iconic characters given a vague outline of what we need, and then we further refine a character’s identity based on his artwork. His work is so rich and detailed it brings flat descriptions like “give us a female dwarf shaman with a fantasy version of a tuatara,” and turn around a full-formed character who practically whispers her background to you.
Did Paizo originally plan to include a transgender character among the new Iconics, or was that an idea that you brought to the table?
CF: Since I was a Paizo employee for quite a while, I imagine knowing me and working with me switched the idea of trans woman from a theoretical concept that exists “out there” into a very real human experience who sometimes buys you lunch, but most of the credit goes to Paizo themselves for recognizing they were failing a part of the fanbase and wanting to do better. Several fans pointed out that the company was great for homosexual inclusion, but dropped the ball when it came to the T in LGBT. To the great credit of James Jacobs, Jessica Prince, Wes Schneider, and the rest of Paizo’s creative team, they swore to do better. With ten new iconic characters coming in the Advanced Class Guide, the unspoken assumption around the office after GenCon2013 was that one of them would be transgender. I was certainly the biggest cheerleader of the effort, blundering and unsubtle as I am, and volunteered repeatedly for the opportunity to write her, but I wouldn’t have found any traction without an awesome and inclusive company looking to make sure every one of their fans can feel like a hero.
How has feedback and reception been to Shardra so far?
CF: Overwhelmingly and shockingly positive! Across Reddit, Tumblr, and Twitter I think I’ve seen all of four negative reactions to Shardra, and those complaints are outnumbered a dozen to one by people cooing over her adorable reptilian pet. People literally think it’s more noteworthy that Shardra has a tuatara familiar than that she is a trans woman. Almost everyone’s response so far has been “This is awesome” or “I do not understand but would like to learn more.” That’s a major swing from when I transitioned back in the mid-nineties.
Paizo has done a remarkable job promoting the “lack of gender/sexuality” terms like transgender or homosexual within their world. How do you feel about Golarion as a whole in terms of its inclusiveness of all genders and orientation?
CF: I love it! Words like “homosexual” and “transgender” are very new and very specific words for aspects of humanity that have been around forever. There’s no sense in trying to cram the vast variety of identities that have existed into modern, western words when our modern, western world is so much different than past cultures. I think it’s great that Golarion focuses more on people’s lives and realities rather than adhere to a modern philosophy (or worse, arguing semantic definitions). Pathfinder draws a lot of inspiration from history, and history doesn’t always mirror modern sensibilities. We can, for example, have a god like Arshea, who advises their clerics to live as different genders to better understand the world, without saying “This is the transsexual god”—because someone like Arshea is an awesome god to have and mimics a lot of real-world religions, but is a poor analogue for the modern idea of “transsexual.”
What are some steps other publishers or communities can do to promote inclusiveness within the hobby?
CF: A lot of what can be done is just listening to feedback from minority groups and try to do better. Everyone screws up. Paizo certainly has in the past. God knows I have. You learn what you did wrong and try to remember that next time. Hand-in-hand with this is making sure minority groups have a safe space to give feedback; that your forums or Twitter feed or company blog aren’t filled with diehard fans who will shout down any criticism or chase out non straight, white, cisgender viewpoints. That last part can take some time and deliberate effort, but the shift in community tone is amazing when actual members of the company speak out. I doubt the Paizo.com community would have been so vocally accepting of Shardra without so much work on the part of Paizo employee to make sure the message boards are a safe and inclusive space.