Depiction of women in rpgs

OK, so both Jukka and Sami raised the question earlier, so I feel compelled to outline it in some greater length. That question is, of course, whether rpg illustrations debase women and how come that’s so. The matter has been extensively dealt with by many writers, some of them women (which might certainly give them some more leverage in complaining, if being offended justifies an argument).

Point the 1st: RPGs certainly do not flatter womanity

I don’t think that it’s very controversial that popular culture in general has been actively attacking women on the psychosocial level for quite a while now. One might even argue that this has been a constant of human civilization everywhere and always (perhaps such an argument would proceed on an evolutionary basis: elective pressure drives people to compete in exaggerating electibility signals, which are defined largely by societal consensus on a moment-to-moment basis), except that in the distant past we didn’t have media architecture for a concerted and global effort at breaking women to mould like we do today. It’s pretty much general knowledge that much of our service industry is predicated on a constant and concerted propaganda onslaught aimed at motivating people on the grounds of body security, sexual attractiveness and force of habit. Men are, of course, victims here as well insofar as they are often the means and motivation used against women.

(Reading my first paragraph, better get something out of the way here, as otherwise I’ll be misinterpreted in the context of generic gender discussion: I’m not a feminist by any activist definition that presupposes moral imperative to compensation or comprehensive commitment to a counter-culture that interprets the world through the lens of gender theory. As far as I’m concerned, injustice is a a case-by-case phenomenon.)

OK, so I might have described the cultural situation in pretty intense terms there, but the main point stands, especially for gaming culture: the concept of feminity is used in games in a hypersexualized manner that is far from flattering to womankind as whole. Certainly there are more and less blatant cases (and whole swathes of gaming culture where these generalizations do not hold sway), but in general women are always depicted with what amounts to fetish clothing and big weapons, unless they’re outright dominated and in chains. Both types are, of course, always pretty and primped. Real nice that, as the visual basis of an entire cultural medium.

A lot could be said at this point about depiction of males or women’s right to beauty, among other things. Certainly men are put through the ol’ genderizer when imagined into fantasy ideals; truly women do not need to be depicted as ugly losers to be respectful. This is again one of those cases for the golden middle, and, more importantly, for fine reading of the subtext offered by given art. I’m not annoyed by women in chainmail bikini, as somebody intimated, but I am annoyed by imagery that glorifies aggression and artificial gender ideals for the sake of short-term success. More on this below, when we move on to conclusions.

Incidentally, my favourite RPG in the context of respectable illustration, is Breaking the Ice by Emily Care Boss. It’s illustrated by some Emily’s friend who, if I remember correctly, works as an artist at a newspaper or something like that. (Can’t be bothered to find a copy of the game right now, and the internet doesn’t give hir name.) The illustrations are imaginative, funny, emotionally expressive, technically excellent, well tied into the game text, and it doesn’t certainly hurt that they depict normal people, not exotic power symbols. Those are much more like people I’d like to associate with than the blood-thirsty ballbreakers adventure rpgs provide in their illustrative oeuvre.

Point the 2nd: RPG writers strive hard to be politically correct

During the ’90s it became almost an industry standard in roleplaying to start referring to people with both masculine and feminine pronouns. A favourite arrangement was to have the GM be female and players male, perhaps, or have the characters be female and players male (or vice versa, I forget which way WW has it). This was usually accompanied by a short note about how the game doesn’t presuppose anything about player/character gender.

Meanwhile, games have also been very gender-neutral lately when it comes to depicting fantasy worlds that might or might not be very gender-equal. There are two ways this phenomenon shows up: one is that the game world just happens to be a pseudo-medieval society that has intentionally been revamped to be just like 12th century England, except women can be knights too. The other is that while the game setting might include some gender-specific features, the game encourages players to ignore that stuff to preference, as it’s not really that important. And player characters are exceptions anyway.

All this is, of course, pretty irrelevant fiddling to begin with, made all the more so when it’s really just an effort at aligning rpg entertainment with the rest of the entertainment world, which is rather conspiciously equal nowadays in the sense that entertainment depicts men and women with equal means and opportunity. Political correctness whitewashing, one might say, which of course leads to the question: what is one trying to whitewash? This is all pretty ridiculous when the companies most sensitive to gender equality issues in their writing and official GMing advice are also some of the ones that have been most keen in pandering to the lowest instincts of their target audience to gain impulse attention.

Subconclusion: Man, it’s all a big mindfuck

It probably doesn’t come as any big revelation to the reader if I hazard a guess that the way women an violence are depicted in fantasy roleplaying games has to do with riding the raging hormones, obliviousness and moral ignorance of the target demographic. It might even not worry most of you that image marketing tactics are used to sell stuff to men. Wouldn’t be the first time.

What is worrisome here is that while that target demographic of fantasy adventure games today might be begged pretty accurately to be 14-year old American boys (this solely based on how blatant and cheesy this stuff is; as an adult male I kinda expect a little more sophistication from my image marketing), the whole nerd culture has been busy to fall to rank in support of this new norm of thought and conduct. This is reprehensible of the intellectual leadership of our generation, frankly – hailing a whole genre of entertainment sold with sordid cleavage shots as wholesome entertainment and our own chosen art form is pretty demeaning, I should think. I’d be ashamed to show these fetish pin-up tomes that are sold today as fantasy games to anybody who’s not used to the visual language of modern roleplaying games.

(Well, we might discuss whether that novelty aspect if anybody cares; the nature of the emerging nerd culture in the ’70s is one interesting topic I’d like old-timers to write more about. To me it seems like roleplaying really started running with the exploitation when computer games started doing around the millennium; the old D&D stuff from the ’80s, to pick an era, is certainly sexualized, but it also belongs under my next point, which explains why it’s not as exploitative as one might think.)

I’m not primarily interested in the feelings of women in this matter, by the way. No, what I care about here is the general level of virtue in my hobby and in my own actions. And by “virtue” I mean those geek virtues, by the way: intellectual, scientific world-view finds nothing wrong in eroticism per se, but succumbing to marketing more suited to drunk rednecks at a Hooters bar is something else, again. Apparently this trend of marketing fantasy roleplaying games with nekkid women on the cover works, too, or they wouldn’t do it in such droves. What, do they think that the game actually is about those girls on the cover, or what? Exalted is actually a set of superhero conflict resolution rules, not a naughty comic book, and illustrating it like the latter is frankly just disillusioning. A good life is not made of that kind of superficiality, harnessing sexuality and violence for the purposes of marketing is short-sighted and uncaring when the benefits are ultimately paid by the buying public in the terms I listed in the first point: environmental sexualization, tense social relations, body issues and much of what we consider modern, urban social mores are greatly affected by this grand social experiment called image marketing. A social experiment that’s apparently become de rigueur in roleplaying games like they were vanity underwear or something.

(Heh, my grumpiness-gauge just broke, I must be on a roll. Pretty interesting to see what I get up to at the end here..)

Point the 3rd: Sometimes games deal with gender

Now, my actual favourite point in this blog post is coming up. The above is just your run-of-the-mill moralizing and doesn’t really require any thought to realize, just a subscription to a feminist blog or two. But now I’m going to draw a distinction between legitimate use of T&A and exploitation of cultural sexuality, which should be interesting. You see, usually when I see a roleplayer bitch about the portrayal of women in roleplaying games, the writer is too flustered by the morass of skinny legs drawn out by the hundreds in art studios over the decades to really differentiate between legitimate and illegitimate usage of the female body. – there’s little effort there at really looking for the reasons for what’s going on.

What I mean here is that all communication is a matter of context – and if your context happens to be one where nubile slave girls are de rigueur, then who are you to deprive the audience of them, again? Now, Conan is known as being into slave girls and naked pirates, which kinda makes me expect a teeny bit of both in a good Conan product. So I’m quite happy that Conan seems to be getting it on in this TSR adventure with both a giant mutant snake and a husky lady, both fine elements of a Conan story. The new Mongoose Conan products are annoyingly tame about this – makes a man wonder whether the nerdly players are playing Conan for to-hit bonuses instead of the damsels in distress, frankly, with all the man-to-man action going on. No pulp attitude at all in most of those covers.

Say that I wanted to write a fantasy roleplaying game about Conan… actually, I pretty much outlined my angle on that in the Alter Ego fanzine Alterations earlier this decade: Conan is about civility vs. barbarism and about male image, what it means to be male. Important points are macho relationships to women and dominating or killing men. If I were making a game about this, I’d totally pepper the text with those nubile slave girls – it’d help players get into the mood and perhaps inspire them to explore what it is that a barbarian warrior really wants for booty.

I don’t see anything particularly wrong in a game about macho lifestyle, mind – such a game might well approach the topic in a critical light and still those slavegirls would be rather appropriate. Even if the game totally glorified masculine domination in a total Gor-fest, well, if it finds an audience who can handle it, it’s no skin off my nose.

Conclusion: What is right and what is reprehensible in marketing

The point here is that the objectionable nature of cheesecake art in rpgs doesn’t, for me, rise out of some base objectionability of the female form – the issue is in what the production is trying to achieve. Exploitation of sexuality without context for short-term market boost is memetic terrorism on our culture, nothing less. The fact that roleplaying game companies increasingly follow computer gaming in accepting and glorifying narrow and artificial standards of beauty and mix sexuality into a mesh with violence and prude moral double standards makes this all the more damning.

It might be bad that a roleplaying game specifically caters to male issues, but that is a separate question! If a game is illustrated with nubile slave girls because it’s intended as male adult entertainment, the imagery can hardly be accused of exploitative image marketing. You might not like it and it might be in bad taste in polite society (pornography often is), but the image and word act in rather perfect harmony, thank you.

This is also the distinction I’d like to make to Jukka and Sami, who inspired this post: the reason I’m not that annoyed by the depiction of women in most rpgs from the ’80s and ’90s is that they depict those women in rather different, more natural contexts, even when the images themselves are clearly of a titillating nature. I was actually quite smitten with Alias from Azure Bonds when the game was more current, if I’m not mistaken: she’s very ’80s with the messy hair-do and funky accountrements; the contemplative expression is actually deeper and more touching than the game itself, portraying her in a rather protagonistic manner. I don’t find the image in the pertinent fashion context to be displaying the breasts in that aggressive a manner, but perhaps that’s just indicative of the subjective aspect in looking at art; for all I know youngsters are just as inured to all this stuff I label exploitative, and thus pick up nuances and a range of meaning I’m blind to due to growing up in a slightly different aesthetic world.

Point the 4th: Bonus point about my own tastes

Speaking as a consumer of entertainment, as susceptible to image marketing as anybody else, here’s a hint to prospective game publishers: I like variety in my women. (And men, too.) Give me natural variety in your imagery and personalities your games portray. I’m pretty tired of these stock types pushed on me. I don’t even particularly like long-legged blondes, which makes me incompatible with your current stuff. Also, I’m kinda too smart to think that the new D&D would be about sexually suggestive fetish posing, so putting that kind of art on all the game covers isn’t doing it for me.

A bit of googling (he says demurely, it’s not like anybody would know this kind of thing out of hand) confirms my suspicion that there apparently are significant number of men who are kinda aggreeing with me on the matter – at least if the existence of specialty fetish (heh heh, man I’m funny) porn on any given subject matter might be taken as proof of the meme’s being vibrant in the Zeitgeist at a given moment. Regardless, as superficial as pornography might be, I know that I’d like less stereotyping in the visual and textual depiction of women in fantasy roleplaying games as well. Give me a fantasy adventure game with ordinary-looking people on the cover, and I’ll promise to check it out just for variety’s sake.

(This one isn’t a cover image, but I wanted to use it anyway; Jukka picked it out for me here, and I remember seeing it in the D&D player’s guide and thinking at the time that that’s a nice, neutral bit of fantasy art that kinda makes me nostalgic and motivates me to play this new D&D, which seems to be about the ol’ good adventuring lifestyle my characters enjoyed during my teenage years in the early ’90s. Didn’t think about the female depiction angle then, but looking at this now, it’s actually a really nice picture in many ways. It captures the official line of D&D as a brave, pure, mixed gender, boyish adventure fantasy rather perfectly, with no exploitative nudge-nudge about it at all. She doesn’t even look like she’d want to kill someone, anyone, as they tend to so often in D&D art. I wonder who art directed that one.)

Point the 5th: OK, I need to stop already

Yes, I don’t have another point, I just wanted to showcase how rpgs are sold nowadays. I’m sure that the game about Vlad the “Impaler” is really just what the cover implies, and not at all a dry historical essay peppered with hit point totals for Vlad and his satanic minions. Or I would be if rpgs weren’t sold with completely irrelevant cheesecake these days.

(And also affirmative, pulling an Avalanche Press cover into a discussion of female depiction in rpgs is a cheap shot. When discussing stuff my co-hobbyists are inured to I need not only cheap shots, but bigger guns as well.)

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18 Responses to “Depiction of women in rpgs”

  1. Olorin Says:

    It’s a funny thing though, that White Wolf has a lot of female artists working on Exalted. And many of those scantly clad fetish princesses are drawn by these said female artists. Would it be proper to tell them “stop degrading yourselves”?

    But good points. It’s quite refreshing (and maybe a bit surprising, too) to have similars views on a matter, from time to time.

  2. Eero Tuovinen Says:

    Yeah, well, I don’t personally particularly think that women working on cheesy exploitative pseudo-manga are degrading themselves, except insofar that worthless and harmful work does not make for kudos from the wise. They are using the powers of art for something, on others, the question is whether the motives are pure and whether they’re exploiting or elevating the buying audience. Barring the horrid cameltoe girl on the cover of that one supplement, the 1st edition Exalted art tended to be pretty reasonable (haven’t really even seen 2nd edition stuff) in context; the whole insistence on a plastic aesthetic of cool übermensch annoyed the hell out of me, but in that context the art wasn’t particularly offensive – female Exalted dress like sluts and that’s that, all part of the genre. Now, take Vampire, and you’ll find a whole new realm of exploitative imaging…

  3. NiTessine Says:

    We have Jonathan Tweet to thank of most of 3E’s equality of sexes. He blogged about it on his blog at Gleemax.com. I’d direct link, except that the website doesn’t allow it.

    I think he went too far, in a few occasions, like the lamia which he mentioned as an example. Depriving creatures of their mythological aspects is never an improvement. If you need a certain type of monster, make a new one, but don’t take an apple and call it an orange.

    4E is doing much the same thing, currently, except with larger scale, less justification, and worse results. Here’s the worg they unveiled today. http://www.wizards.com/dnd/images/art_preview/20080505_114878_0.jpg

    Worgs, originally from The Hobbit, are monstrous wolves ridden by goblins.

    Yeah.

    But I digress from the topic.

    I do agree with most of your points. Alias’ chainmail, though, I can never take seriously. Allegedly, the novel has some sort of explanation, but I never could bring myself to read it.

  4. Brand Robins Says:

    For me one of the big questions I’m always left with is “why are there fetish-porn images all over a book that has no kind of fetish-porn inside the text?”

    I’ve written for companies in the past that gave me very stern instructions about the family friendliness of the text that I produced for them, that then filled the books full of low grade pornography (both sex and violence porn, always narcissistic in both modes) for art.

    Pictures of women as fantasy fuck dolls, apparently, is all for the good. Actually talking about vaginas, however, is way out of bounds. (Both talking about and showing a penis is TOTALLY OUT OF BOUNDS.)

  5. Eero Tuovinen Says:

    That is one weirdo worg, Jukka. It’s also certainly a part of the trend I originally got inspired to complain about in that first post: cheesy, superficial and violence-oriented fantasy adventuring. Wolf worgs are much cooler, they have that ambivalency about natural/supernatural/unnatural going on instead of being such Alien rip-offs.

    And I agree with Brand, the question about depiction of women is, why-ever are rpgs full of fetish imagery when the game text itself is anything but? My only answer is that it’s clumsy image marketing for which I have nothing but scorn.

  6. NiTessine Says:

    Eh, unfortunately Logan Bonner corrected it on the Gleemax boards. That’s not a worg, that’s a guulvorg, a weirdass super-worg. This wasn’t a design screw-up, it was a web-team screw-up.

  7. Eero Tuovinen Says:

    Such a shame for us complaining nit-pickers 😉

  8. NiTessine Says:

    Yeah, what a spoilsport. I was getting so much mileage out of that. The jokes were just writing themselves.

  9. Olorin Says:

    Dang, I knew I should’ve put a smilie after that degrading-thing. Because I wasn’t completely serious about it.

    “For me one of the big questions I’m always left with is “why are there fetish-porn images all over a book that has no kind of fetish-porn inside the text?””

    Now this, this is the really juicy question. But unfortunately, just like Eero, I can only make guesses about cheap marketing.

    If I want porn, I open my browser. Rpg-books are for other things.

  10. Shawn Says:

    Personally I think the ‘Big Picture’ has been missed here. The ones trying to sell these games are not targeting those of us who are already playing them. They know that we will always be looking for new forms of gaming entertainment. The main reason, I feel, that this cover imagery is used is the same reason that Coca-Cola, Harley Davidson, etc. use it. It is to grab the eye and get you to look at their product. As they are obviously attempting to increase their sales and marketing, they are trying to grab the eye of new people, not the ones who are already playing. When you stand in the store looking for new games, inevitably your eyes will hone in on the cover with the scantily clad female form. Strange is the man who’s eye is not drawn to a nearly naked woman on the cover of anything, not just games. This applies to EVERYTHING, including books, music, movies, etc. This is nothing more than the almost absolute fact that “Sex Sells”. It has next to nothing to do with demoralizing women (even though it does demoralize them), but rather it has everything to do with sales, marketing, and the bottom line … MONEY!

  11. rollenspiel Says:

    If I got you right, when reading the article, you mostly are concerned with the difference of portrayal in women outside (literally. On the cover) as to the content inside (the actually content of an RPG book).

    And I think I can agree with you on that term. I, however, do like those cheesy, exploitative scenes. I’m not looking for realism, I actually like cheesyness without the same cheesyness being drawn into rather ridicolous amounts by satiric games or games being pulled into the whole “what is a real male” theme.

    When I play female characters (and I mostly do. And yes, I am male. Also far beyond the teenage range, just to make sure there’s no mistaking my mindset) I am not looking for realism. I love to play scanitily clad, female, violent warriors or sorcerers and I see nothing wrong with it all. It’s a game and I am looking for fun and this role is fun to me.

  12. Eero Tuovinen Says:

    Sounds good to me, Rollenspiel, I’m nobody to spit on another person’s fun. It’s not about realism, either – my preferred styles of fantasy are not particularly realistic either, they’re just unrealistic in different ways.

    So if you can take all that stuff as content instead of a distracting mindfuck, then I guess it’s all good. This was my post about depiction of women, specifically, which isn’t such a large problem for me either in isolation. Where it becomes the problem is when I feel the fantasy world get disjointed and weird on me from all the purposeful idolization of sexuality and violence in a wafer-thin setting. It’s like I’m playing a music video instead of a game or something.

    Eh, who am I kidding? I’m not even sure myself if there is any reasonable explanation for my preferences. I just happen to like fantasy adventure rpg characters who fear death, carry around lanterns and dress in a subdued manner, instead of the opposite. I guess I should go play a game about garden gnomes or something. First have to design it, though (or perhaps just adapt red-box D&D).

    Also, Shawn: yeah, the question about why is pretty much a rhetorical one – I guess we do know that products are made the way they are for commercial reasons. I suppose that I can’t get whiny and threaten to not buy these games, either – I wasn’t particularly planning to buy the next D&D, for example, as I’ll get to read it soon enough when everybody else gets one. So in that regard there’s no reason for the publishers of such to care about my preferences in these matters.

    (I almost said that I didn’t buy the last edition D&D, either, but I now realize that I did actually buy some books for it around the beginning of the decade – used at Ropecon, if I don’t misremember. I guess it was either the Monster Manual or both that and the GM’s guide; my brother had already gotten the Player’s Handbook earlier.)

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  14. Dave M Says:

    Eero,
    Very insightful.
    I guess that the issue is both disturbing and trivial to me. The reality is that is how most things are marketed these days (check out CD covers, non-RPG book covers, etc). You don’t have to like it (I don’t), but I do not think it is isolated to RPGs
    Also, I wonder how much influence Comic books and the Comic book code has had on this issue. A lot of the poses, art styles we see in RPG cover art is almost a binary copy of art inside many comic books. And this evolved as a reaction to very prudish (almost Victorian) standards imposed on Comics by their own oversight committee. So this art style evolved that sort of “obeyed” the standard, but trumped it at teh same time. Hence the fetish-istic aspects to the art (tight cloths, provocative poses, etc).
    To me this feels like more of an influence/source than crass marketing. Although, no one will accuse a Marketing Exec of not utilizing an art style for maximum gains…
    What do you think?
    Dave M

  15. Eero Tuovinen Says:

    That’s a very believable historical influence, it seems to me – much of this stuff is, indeed, very similar to comic books. Another obvious source is pulp cheesecake, and a third is straight-out fetish erotica. Also, mainstream fashion, I guess; there is so much sexualization in the air, especially in the American culture, that it’d be pretty difficult to say where the hypocritical sexual posings come from, case-by-case.

    Regardless, you’re spot-on in that what we have here is not the demented work of isolated perverts, but a whole artistic subculture affirming and supporting individuals in their work. The audience is inured to it and doesn’t mind – heck, I don’t particularly mind it personally, it’s just visual noise to me. Still, I wouldn’t try to explain American comics to my mother, they’re so kinky.

  16. Nasuhorn Says:

    Once, in ancient times, I actually have read Azure bonds, the forgotten realms novel.

    If I remember this right, the main character- Alias- does not usually dress in such manner but was kidnapped and mindcontrolled by some cultists, who made her wear the outfit pictured for some fiendish occult ceremony. Apparently such clothing gives +2 to summoning Beelbhegor or something. When she gathered her wits, much mention was made about such armour being completely useless in a fight, and it was dispensed of as soon as possible.

    But… it’s still in the cover of the book!

    Also, that piece of cover art has some personal history for me: seeing it was the first time, I think, that the thought “Wouldn’t those metal links pinch something awful?” entered my mind.

  17. Josh W Says:

    That thing about nerd culture really got me. I was playing rpg’s as a way of moving beyond passive consumer culture in a non-intense way, enjoying the diversity of opinion and imagination inherent in even a group of five people, and my friend comes in and justifies 1d childishness by saying “we’re D&D nerds”. You can be mate, but I’m not wearing those lead boots!
    I got a little inspired by your concept of the intellectual leadership of our generation; with outwards horizons limited, the teenager has no-where to grow, and so commercial nerd culture circles it’s previous experiences.
    The advertising thrust of the “ideals” we are given is not onwards and outwards, but towards more and more restricted subset of possibility, with people thinking that their accidental success somehow verifies those things as “mythic”. This makes our dreams poor, in variety as well as in depth.
    Now in rpgs we have an artform potentially opposed to this reductionist attitude, a medium that can match the message of agency and creativity, the problem is that the art assets are created in a way that does not reflect that:
    Writing or drawing for some unidentified other can be difficult, and furthermore in art you often have to include details that do not interest you, rarely do people get away with drawing half a person, though in writing that is often allowed. Now those holes will be filled with whatever is about; you referred to it as noise, and I suspect that is exactly what it is, equivalent to rolling a dice for NPCs names, except that as it is a non-random method it reproduces whatever surrounds them. I suggest you look at Derren Brown’s trick with the two advertisers.
    The solution then it to match the degree of specified information to the artists limitations; many artists have no idea what a practical armour suit would be, they may not want to work out the relationships between characters in a picture off-hand. Using existing cultures dress-styles is also a good trick, particularly when some reasons can be found for why they are as they are.
    The most powerful source of information for interesting depictions is the artist themselves, and having them relate to the things they are creating in an empathic or loving way will come across in their drawings, because they will not look like people stuffed into a situation, but living in it. I’m not talking hippy stuff here, but an attitude to the people in pictures which is the inverse of objectification, considering their subjective experience.

    But turning this on myself, as you have done Eero, I’d say that what I like in fantasy is alternate reality in all it’s variability. Fantasy as a means of exploring and mentally reforming the world we are in, so I like it to have physical laws, culture and a character of it’s own. Some people like to turn the dial up on a few features “this is the most powerful sword in the universe”, or “I can crush continents with my bare hands” I tend to look at balance, trade-off and the relational/network kind of feel of stuff. I feel like I have gained the ability to zoom in and out, so things like the last Smith/Neo battle seems to me to be less good than the Neo/Sereph battle in the film before. It’s not the volume, it’s the tune. With that in mind I hate to see potential variety short-changed by marketing that gives people what they already have, or that overworks creative people so they must become photocopiers. Like you I’m quite happy with a bit of Conan, providing it is not everywhere.

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