Firs & Furries: 4e’s Most Disappointing Fumble

Let’s talk about that one time 4e ignored its own design philosophy and made a really stupid decision about party goats.

(Hi. This is going to be a pretty opinionated piece, so I hope it’s clear that I’m talking about what I think is important about 4e design. Also that I’m not interested in debate, and that if you ask for my sources I’m going to laugh at you.)

I’m obviously a huge fan of 4e. A big reason why, is its willingness to separate out flavour ideas from mechanical entities, and give players as much control over them as possible. Unlike virtually every other D&D edition, 4e is less interested in pushing its specific lore than it is in giving you a toolbox to build on your own D&D-like ideas. This ideology is critical in allowing players the freedom to realise whatever character concept they can imagine, regardless of whether it aligns with the conventional image of a given class or creature.

However, with the release of the Essentials line, this philosophy started to erode. We saw the return of alignment restrictions to classes—which should have stayed in the garbage bin forever, since all they serve to do is limit player creativity. We saw classes diverge from the universal progression and ongoing build choices, to a bunch of weird class-specific tables and fixed powers. We saw the bafflingly inconsistent replacement of existing class names with clumsy variants that nobody (at my table at least) liked or wanted.

We also got the most ill-conceived player races of the edition: the satyrs, and the hamadryads. I don’t remember either of these Heroes of the Feywild creatures rating much of a mention in the discourse at large. Their mechanics aren’t remarkably bad or especially exciting, their feat support is unremarkable, and their flavour did nothing out of the ordinary for the creatures or the setting. They were really only noteworthy because they—like their weird little friend the pixie, with its collection of bizarre rules exceptions—were pretty unexpected additions as “standard” PC choices.

And, unfortunately, some BS about gender.

The garbage of antiquity

It’s not like D&D came up with these creatures, of course. Their mythological pedigrees go all the way back to ancient Greece, complete with their single-sex designations. People are going to defend this crap based on “mythological accuracy”, so let’s start by establishing that that’s nonsense.

All mythological creatures are amalgamations of belief and fantasy, popularity and loss and rediscovery, export and translation and localisation. The idea of a “correct” version is itself a fantasy; there’s only this version, your version, where you choose what to keep and what to discard. If you don’t discard the nastiest aspects of the creature when you get the chance—the ones so overtly rooted in racism or misogyny or colonialism or toxic masculinity that it’s not even a serious question—then I sure don’t have any use for your version. Choose better.

So, what did they see fit to carry over into their 2011 interpretation of these creatures, as an exciting new PC race featured in a book explicitly hoping to draw in new players to the game?

“Always male”. “Always female”.

Were they trying to make us look like retrograde neckbeards? Did they intend that even as a player choice, neither of these creatures should transcended their origins as a tedious as hell gender stereotypes? Who thought “men be horny party animals, women be supernaturally hot but unattainable” was an idea worth making text in the freshest, most daring edition of D&D we’ve ever seen?

I will give some credit—at least the authors steered clear of the explicitly hetero rules of older editions. And rolled the charm effects back to something less, you know, rapey. But, you still can’t present these two male-gaze-ass stereotypes as-is without heavily endorsing a heteronormative, cisnormative world. If only they had left out that gender/sex designation! They could have invited players to subvert these gender stereotypes—observe the delightful party goats of Magic: the Gathering‘s Theros setting—but instead, they took the same boring route we have since antiquity.

Let’s pretend it’s not a bad idea to say that a species reproduces sexually but only has one sex (it is). Let’s pretend it’s not a bad idea that this one sex would unambiguously correspond with one of human sexes (it really is). But then we’re seriously expected to believe that these species have existed for millennia, in cultures that are shown to codify and assign male/female genders, and not a soul of either species has ever been transgender?

Absurd. That’s the kind of thing you only write out of blithe ignorance, or a desire to actively exclude transgender people. Either one should be unacceptable to any forward-thinking nerd.

As for Escarnum…

Do I really think these creatures are so interesting that it’s worth going out of our way to save them from a really crappy design choice? Not especially. I doubt I will ever play or GM for one. But if D&D has taught me anything over the years, every creature is somebody’s favourite. Why should that player, with their heart set on making a trashy lesbian party goat or a stunning tree twunk, be told that their fantasies have no place here?

Ultimately, it’s about the principle. No matter how minor, this is a rule that reinforces a less welcoming environment for LGBT+ folk. I don’t want that for D&D, and I will never accept it.

Fixed-Gender creatures

For all monsters and player heritage options with the trait “Male Only” or “Female Only”, delete this trait. Players are always free to assign their character any gender, or none.

Let’s be clear: in Escarnum, your choice of character heritage will never force them to be male or female. While some creatures (like warforged and wilden) may have no sexual characteristics or have different sexes from humans, their gender identity and expression are for the player to determine.

Likewise, some cultures (like felbraug) don’t really have a concept of gender, or have different gender designations to those we generally use (which are themselves tied to deep-rooted issues of control and colonialism). Once again, your character’s relationship to those constructs is owned entirely by you.

And if you do play a lesbian party goat, buy your girlfriend a drink from me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *