Gloomhaven And Representation: A Designer Journal

Gloomhaven is a massive game in more ways than one. The game boasts a staggering 21 pounds of product in a single box. It has over 90 playable scenarios. It touts an extensive and winding RPG-style dungeon crawling campaign. It gives players the ability to develop characters and make permanent changes to the world. And its physical quality is nothing short of impressive. With all of those major discussion points, it becomes really easy to miss some of the game’s more subtle attritbutes that are equally praise-worthy – such as its concerted effort to avoid the typical traps and tropes of female fantasy character depictions.

But don’t take our word for it. We’ll let the designer of the game himself explain why he made such a commitment early on in the game’s creation.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally posted on Cephalofair Games’ website on Aug 18, 2015 . It has been reposted with the author’s permission with only minor edits.

Okay, we’re in a fantasy world. Crystal dudes are throwing fireballs around. There are weird horned creatures that walk upright and hit people with giant axes. Elemental demons from another plane of existence are running amok, crushing people with boulders. So why is it important to have a realistic representation of women? Why can’t their proportions and postures be just as ridiculous as that giant dragon flying around breathing fire on everyone?

Changing perceptions, one game at a time

Changing perceptions, one game at a time

It’s a difficult question to answer, and clearly a lot of people throughout the history of fantasy don’t even think it is important. If you throw a stone in any game store (though I wouldn’t recommended it), you’ll probably hit an example of unrealistic depictions of women. It’s a little pervasive.

And I’m not here to stand up and be a prude. I mean, sure, when I’m playing a board game, my brain is far more interested parsing mechanics and strategy than looking at sexualized images, so I personally just don’t see the benefit in alienating half of your potential fan base out-of-hand. But more than that, even in a fantasy setting I think it is vastly important to build a consistent and logical world – especially if you are emphasizing theme in your game design.

Again, it all comes down to world-building. If all the women in your world are walking around in their underwear with broken backs, what is the in-world explanation for that? What is the creative reason for its existence? How does this behavior enhance the story of your world? If a giant, winged lizard is ravaging the countryside, that provides conflict for a story, which drives a narrative forward. Unless you’re specifically going for a more “adult-themed” type of game, I fail to see how lingerie-as-outfits add to that narrative at all. It simply makes no sense.

Who would have figured that all warriors like armor?

Who would have figured that all warriors like armor?

When I’m playing a thematic game or reading a novel, things need to make sense. There has to be that consistency of logic in the presentation of the world or I am taken out of the immersion and then the story fades into the background. The novel becomes simply a collection of words on a page, the game a bunch of bits on a board.

The number one thing that brings me out of an immersive experience is unrealistic depictions of women, simply because, like I said earlier, it is just so pervasive and cliche. “Oh, yep, there’s that again. That’s certainly bothersome.” And then I’m out.

So this is something I am struggled to do right with Gloomhaven. I say “struggled” because this practice of unrealistic sexualization is so routine in the artistic community, it took quite a while to get my artist (who is amazing) to realize that this wasn’t what I wanted in the portraits. There were a lot of emails asking for more clothing or for everyone to not be rail-thin.

And don’t even get me started on the whole concave breastplate issue.

Orchids don't

Orchids have no use for vanity…or digestive systems

In the end, I made some allowances where it was consistent with the world. The rich, vain merchant at the center of the box cover might be inclined to wear more revealing clothing when showing off her wealth around town. The meditative Orchid race would have reason to be incredibly thin.

I’m pretty happy overall with the result. The portraits of the female classes show strong women in positions of power, just like the male classes. If you are offended by any of the depictions of women in Gloomhaven, let me know. I certainly don’t want to bring anyone out of the immersive experience of the game.

Gloomhaven creator Isaac Childres was gracious enough to supply this game design article. He can be found most readily via Twitter.

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Photo Credits: Gloomhaven image and campaign snapshots by Reihon Games.