Wednesday 31 March 2021

Image archaeology: Paladin Girl

Who knoweth not of Paladin Girl?

M:tG card art for Knight Exemplar, by Jason Chan (2011). Exemplary in more ways than one!

Paladin Girl has become a cliche of modern fantasy art. She always looks the same. A young, slender woman in plate mail armour (often improbably form-fitting), no helmet, straight hair usually worn long and loose, conventionally-attractive face. On horseback, she might have a spear or lance. On foot, she usually carries a sword. 

Paladin Girl is a fairly straightforward combination of traditional masculine and feminine signifiers. Her weapons and armour convey traditionally masculine power and 'hardness'; her face, hair, and figure convey traditionally feminine 'softness' and prettiness. The optimistic reading would be that strength and heroism are compatible with femininity. The pessimistic reading would be that women only get to be powerful as long as their strength remains compatible with conventional standards of female beauty. Either way, she is clearly associated with a particularly chaste and non-threatening form of sex appeal, with her armoured body symbolising her guarded sexuality. Unsurprisingly, she mostly turns up in works targeted at predominantly male audiences.

I became curious about where this image came from, and did a little digging. Here's what I came up with.

One obvious source is Joan of Arc. A sketch from her own time depicts her like this - 

but by the later fifteenth century she was being painted like this - 

- and by 1505 like this:

Then there's Bradamante and Clorinda, the original 'female knight' characters, who appear in Arisoto's Orlando Furioso (1532) and Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata (1581), respectively. Around 1600 they were being depicted like this:

Paolo Domenico Finoglia. Clorinda's the one on the right.

Antonio Tempesta, Bradamante Valorosa.

This, in turn, is not dissimilar to the way Joan of Arc was being depicted in the early seventeenth century:

Reubens, Joan of Arc (1612)

William Marshall, Joan of Arc (1642)

So 'attractive female knight in armour' is clearly not a foreign concept in Renaissance art. But the armour looks like real armour, and there's little sign yet of the extravagant hairstyles that are so much a part of contemporary Paladin Girl imagery. Reubens shows Joan with long hair, but that's because she's literally letting her hair down. In battle she's obviously going to be covered beneath the black helmet on the ground beside her, relying on her plumed crest rather than her bare head to ensure she stays visible in combat. 

Like most of modern fantasy iconography, Paladin Girl derives much more from nineteenth-century art than from anything actually medieval. As late as 1856, Delacroix was still painting Clorinda pretty much in the Renaissance style - 

But three years later he also painted this image, of Ermina, also from Gerusalemme Liberata :

Classic Paladin Girl, right? Except the whole point of this image is that Ermina isn't a female knight: she's a princess disguised as a knight. (More specifically she's disguised as Clorinda, whose armour she's 'borrowed'.) Thus the long hair and the skirt: this is less wargear than cosplay. Clorinda, who's the real deal, wears full armour, has a more practical haircut, and carries a rather unfeminine bearded axe.

The real shift comes with the Pre-Raphaelites, whose chocolate-box medievalism lies at the root of most modern fantasy art. Here's Millais 1865 painting of Joan of Arc:

We're getting very close, now; and Walter Crane's Britomart, from his 1895-7 illustrations to The Faerie Queene, gets us even closer. Note sword, long hair, armoured skirt, and the large rondels on her chest that give the impression that her armour has breasts.

Leighton's 1901 painting The Accolade isn't a Paladin Girl image as such, but it clearly fed into the subsequent iconography.

There are plenty of other late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century examples:

Charles-Amable Lenoir

John Gilbert

Albert Lynch, 1903 - surely the secret inspiration for the haircuts used by 40K's Sisters of Battle!

Paul Antoine de la Boulaye, 1909

Note that more form-fitting armour is becoming the norm, here, with tapered waists and armoured skirts allowing these painters to display a classically feminine 'hourglass' figure even in full armour. (Contrast this with the armour in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century images, which would mask the wearer's gender.) It's this iconography that fed into the 1948 Joan of Arc film starring Ingrid Bergman, although the need to make a costume that was actually wearable clearly led to some concessions to practicality.

Ingrid Bergman as Joan of Arc, 1948.

Bergman again, in the 1946 play the film was based on.

Paladin Girl went into abeyance somewhat during the 1970s, when warrior women in fantasy art tended more towards the 'valkyrie' or 'amazon' archetypes. (E.g. Red Sonja, Valkyrie from Marvel Comics, Hildebrandt's interpretation of Eowyn, every woman Franzetta ever painted.) She only started to make her way into D&D via Larry Elmore's illustrations of everyone's 1983 fantasy waifu, Aleena the Cleric.



It took much longer for her to become the default, though. In the very same book, Elmore's other female cleric - an idiosyncratic reworking of the 'valkyrie' type - looked like this: 

Most 'female fighter' illustrations in 1980s and 1990s fantasy media tended much more towards 'sexy' designs with lots of exposed skin, and armoured female fighters in D&D-adjacent media were more likely to look like this - 

Clyde Caldwell, cover illustration to Dark Heart (1992). 

When D&D 3rd edition came out in 2000 there was a self-conscious push against this kind of imagery, with Elmore's influence rejected wholesale in favour of the 'dungeon-punk' iconography for which the edition is famous (or notorious). Its iconic female paladin, Alhandra, looked like this:

However, in 2004 World of Warcraft launched, and all its female paladin-types looked more or less like this:

What had happened in the interim, of course, was an explosion in the popularity of anime, manga, and JRPGs in western geek circles. Manga and anime had a long preoccupation with 'female knight' characters, from the original Princess Knight manga series in 1953-6 to the epochal Lady Oscar (1972-3), and modern Japanese fantasy media is littered with 'cute female knight/cleric' figures. From the female priest in Dragon Quest III (1988), whose chainmail bodysuit, tabard, boots, mace, and haircut seem to have been directly based on Aleena five years earlier - 

to the iconic figure of Saber from Fate / Stay Night (2004), who basically defines the type going forwards. 

These Paladin Girl types grew out of the older pre-Raphaelite Joan of Arc figure reinterpreted through a manga filter, and in the early 2000s they were reimported to the West, with immediate effect. This anime-by-way-of-World-of-Warcraft style was everywhere in the fantasy art of the period. Tellingly, the 9th Edition of Magic: the Gathering (2005) saw the art for the iconic white card Serra Angel shift from this cone-bra stripper-samurai horrorshow -

To this - 

And that's where we've been ever since, basically. In 2009 Pathfinder even made it quasi-official by having their actual goddess of paladins, Iomedae, look like this:

And finally we end where we began, with Joan of Arc.

Art from the Joan of Arc board game, released 2019 by Mythic Games.

So what does it all mean? Paladin Girl, I'd suggest, represents a compromise between the sexualised 'warrior woman' designs of the 1980s and 1990s, with their loincloths and armoured bikinis, and the ideals of equal-opportunities empowerment that most modern fantasy media pays at least lip service to. She's 'empowered' - she wears full armour! She's got a sword! - but in a way that emphasises her 'good girl' femininity, rather than clashing with it. (The armour emphasises her breasts, waist, and hips rather than hiding them, she's obviously wearing make-up, and her power is clearly wielded on behalf of the existing social order, not against it.) She stands for female empowerment in its most non-threatening, least socially-disruptive form. Probably this is what led male artists to develop the type in the first place, against the backdrop of the original women's suffrage movement of 1897-1918, which presented them with much less comfortable models of what female power might look like.

But I wouldn't want to paint too bleak a picture of Paladin Girl. She can get pretty silly in her more fanservicey incarnations, all bare thighs and miniskirts and breastplates with cleavage windows: but, despite this, I've known several women to whom this iconography really appealed. As I mentioned early on, the optimistic reading of the archetype is that femininity is not incompatible with martial fantasy heroics. Think of it as the Legally Blonde of fantasy art cliches. 

Because if Elle Woods ever played D&D, you know her PC would look something like this...

Sunday 7 March 2021

Failing better: a GMing retrospective

Ever tried.

Ever failed.

No matter.

Try again.

Fail again.

Fail better.

- Samuel Beckett

Learning to run an RPG, like most things, is mostly about practise. You can read all the theory and advice you like, but fundamentally you learn it by doing it. Bluntly, this means that before you run a really good campaign you're probably going to have to run lots of really bad ones, hopefully getting a little bit better each time. Luckily, the nature of RPGs is such that even a 'bad' campaign should still be a lot of fun as long as everyone approaches it in a spirit of good humour: and each one will inevitably yield lessons for next time, even if it might require a post-mortem chat with your players in order to draw out exactly what they might be.

I've been GMing games for an embarrassingly long time, now: and while I wouldn't claim to be any kind of gamesmastering genius, I've got to the point where I can run a game with little or no preparation and still be pretty confident that both I and my players are likely to have a good time. The last year has really pushed me on this, as I've been running my City of Spires campaign weekly online, alongside a crippling increase in my professional workload that has cut my prep time virtually to zero. Every Wednesday morning I wake up with a sense of dread, remembering that on top of everything else I have to do that day I somehow have to run a game in the evening. Every Wednesday afternoon I seriously consider calling the session off. But every Wednesday night I sit down and log in and everything actually goes fine. There are a lot of reasons for this: I have great players, the campaign is friendly to low-prep play, the system is minimalistic to the point of invisibility, etc. But I think the biggest one is the simple fact that I've had a lot of practise.

I'm not really sure how many campaigns I've run over the years - dozens, probably - but in this post, I'm going to briefly run through ten of the longer-running ones, with a few notes on what worked, what didn't, and what I learned from them. I may not have really succeeded straight away, but I carried on learning and experimenting and I got there in the end. Hopefully this can provide some reassurance to anyone out there currently contemplating the wreckage of their latest campaign: and maybe some of the lessons learned will be useful to someone else, as well!

Campaign 1: Stormbringer (Stormbringer 1st edition)

  • What it was: Not the first campaign I ever ran, but the first one that lasted for more than a few sessions. I ran it as a 12-year-old high on too many Moorcock novels, and I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. It was terrible.
  • What worked: In retrospect, the chargen system gave an early example of how random rolls can generate much more interesting and memorable characters than a bunch of 12-year-olds would ever have come up with unaided. I didn't really appreciate this at the time, though: I just used it because the idea of not following the rules as written genuinely hadn't occurred to me yet. 
  • What didn't: Everything. My idea of encounter design was 'suddenly, seven hawks attack!' There was no story, no role-playing, not even any tactics beyond 'scream and charge and hope the dice are kind'. Characters died in droves. Unsurprisingly, no-one took the whole thing particularly seriously.
  • Lessons learned: Even at the age of 12, it was clear to me that I'd need a more consistent tone and less random character death if an RPG campaign was ever to be more than absurdist black comedy. I didn't have a clear idea of how to achieve that yet, but I tried.

Campaign 2: Heroes of Greydawn (AD&D 2nd edition)

  • What it was: The D&D game that my friends and I played at school as teenagers: one main campaign that ran from level 1 to level 12, plus three side campaigns set in the same world that gave everyone a chance to play different characters for a change. It remains the longest-running game I've ever run: all told, probably well over 600 hours of actual play. Given that (a) I am no longer a teenager and (b) it is no longer the 1990s, I don't really expect to ever run a game this long again. 
  • What worked: Quantity, as the saying goes, has a quality all of its own. This game started with primitive kill-em-all wilderness treks and dungeon bashes, but it ran for so long that it built up its own momentum: lore, narrative, recurring NPCs, and the rest. PCs who started out as blank slates gradually accumulated so much history that by the end of the campaign it was actually quite moving to say goodbye to them.
  • What didn't: My early games were horrible railroads, which simply ran PCs from one scripted encounter to the next, often with heavy hints about the 'right' way to proceed. It took me a long time to finally relax and accept that it was OK for PCs to circumvent encounters, develop creative solutions, cause meaningful change to the campaign world, etc. (A lot of this was forced on me by the levelling process: it's pretty hard to push PCs around when they can teleport, walk through walls, and raise the dead!) 
  • Lessons learned: That the most important thing is just to keep the campaign rolling. That it's OK to let PCs be clever, and awesome, and change the world. That the best games are the ones that don't go the way you expected them to. (This was something I noticed at the time, but it took me many more years to properly internalise it!)

Campaign 3: The Sign of Fourteen (WFRP 1st edition)

  • What it was: The WFRP game we moved onto after deciding we'd 'outgrown' D&D. (We were about 17 at the time.) Started off as an embarrassing exercise in grimdark nonsense masquerading as maturity, but improved greatly as we moved onto the published Enemy Within adventures. (Only parts 1-3, obviously - I wrote my own final chapter!)
  • What worked: The Enemy Within was a triumph, though I don't think I could have run it successfully if I'd been any younger. (Power Behind the Throne really pushed me to my limits - so many NPCs!) In retrospect I think that some of the horror imagery I came up with in my own adventures stands up pretty well, although other parts are pretty cringeworthy. ('And then the skaven eat the babies! GRIIIIIMDAAAARK!')
  • What didn't: Railroading remained a vice to which I frequently succumbed, right down to forcing PCs to sit through villain monologues. I also struggled to write adventures without using combat as a crutch, meaning that players with non-combat-focussed characters were often left without much to do in the inevitable 'suddenly, mutants attack!' scenes.  
  • Lessons learned: This campaign taught me how much could be achieved by maintaining a consistent pattern of mood and imagery, which my previous campaigns had never really had. Running The Enemy Within also served as a crash-course in running investigative adventures, although it wasn't until later that I fully understood why an adventure like Shadows Over Bogenhafen works as well as it does. 

Campaign 4: The Arltree Campaign (Mage: the Ascension 2nd edition)

  • What it was: Like all pretentious teenage roleplayers in the late 1990s, I decided to tried my hand at running a White Wolf game. It was going to be Deep and Meaningful and full of Themes. Unfortunately I wasn't nearly as clever or sophisticated as I thought I was, so it basically ended up being a street-level superhero game, which in retrospect was probably for the best.
  • What worked: This game saw my first fumbling attempts towards character-driven drama, character development, and even PC-NPC romances, which represented quite a milestone for me at the time. The PCs and NPCs were certainly much more vivid and three-dimensional than in any of my previous campaigns. 
  • What didn't: Every attempt to raise the tone above the level of 'pulp action-horror' crashed and burned on the rocks of my limited GMing skills and lack of general life experience. 
  • Lessons learned: This was the campaign that really taught me the value of having a cast of colourful NPCs for the PCs to bounce off. To the extent that it worked as a campaign, it did so largely on the strength of its supporting cast.

Campaign 5: Smoke and Mirrors (Delta Green)

  • What it was: A horribly over-ambitious attempt to run a David Lynch style game of surreal conspiracy horror. It had symbolism. 
  • What worked: The point of the campaign was to transition steadily from reality to surreal nightmare, without ever making clear at exactly which point the PCs had moved from one to the other, and in this I think I was moderately successful.
  • What didn't: The actual game. I had a head full of scenes and symbols and metaphors and I was going to use them, damn it, with the result that most of the campaign was a massive railroad from one symbolic set-piece to another. In retrospect I would probably have been better off just writing it as fiction, instead. 
  • Lessons learned: Your set-pieces are never going to be as cool as you think they are. If the PCs aren't making real choices then there's no point in playing an RPG!

Campaign 6: To the Ends of the Earth (Exalted 1st edition)

  • What it was: An attempt to run a properly open-world fantasy epic, with the PCs as reincarnated kung fu heroes on a mission from God to save the world. Go anywhere! Do anything! Kick people in the face!
  • What worked: Breaking away from D&D-style fantasy into epic-scale anime-fantasy mythic weirdness was very creatively liberating, and I'm still quite proud of some of the fantasy imagery I came up with for this one. 
  • What didn't: I was simply not prepared for the level of power and agency the PCs brought to the campaign, meaning that most of my epic villains turned out to be paper tigers. The system was also an absolute nightmare in terms of complexity: I'd spend ages statting out each NPC, only to have the PCs splatter them in a couple of combat rounds. The campaign ultimately became so unsatisfying that we abandoned it in mid-adventure - the only campaign of all those listed here to come to such an ignominious end.
  • Lessons learned: This campaign taught me an important lesson about the limits of my tolerance for complex systems, starting me on the long slide towards minimalism that ultimately brought me to OSR D&D. It also taught me to recognise that giving PCs certain kinds of agency over the campaign world can actually make the game less fun for everyone, pushing me towards an interest in lower-powered games. 

Campaign 7: The Red Queen (Vampire: the Requiem 1st edition)

  • What it was: A tightly-contained vampire game dealing with one mystery, in one city, over the course of about fifteen sessions.
  • What worked: Almost everything. This was the first campaign where, at the end, I was able to look back and think that everything had gone pretty much the way I wanted it to.
  • What didn't: There were some moments where I was over-ambitious with horror content that I wasn't really able to do justice to, emotionally, and which consequently fell a bit flat. 
  • Lessons learned: This was the campaign where I finally started to understand the power and value of sandbox play. One location, one cast of characters, one unstable situation, enter the PCs, stand back and watch the fireworks. (I should have been able to work all that out from Shadows Over Bogenhafen several years earlier, but I was clearly a slow learner...)

Campaign 8: Falling Towers (D&D 3.5)

  • What it was: A fairly tightly-scripted D&D campaign, running from level 3 to level 7, and dealing with a single extended plot. 
  • What worked: By this point I'd become pretty confident in running games. I could reliably run exciting chase scenes, heist scenes, fight scenes, exploration scenes, and so on. I was relaxed about letting the PCs have major impacts on their world, and even dabbled a bit in collaborative world-building.
  • What didn't: This campaign was fine, but it didn't take risks. I kept to my comfort zone throughout, complete with balanced encounters and a mostly-linear plot. Everyone had fun, but the game as a whole was not a particularly memorable one.
  • Lessons learned: That you can't learn any lessons if you don't try anything new!

Campaign 9: The Pale Man (D&D 3.5)

  • What it was: A low fantasy D&D game, with a setting loosely based on Dark Ages Scandinavia. Initially it was only meant to run for a few sessions, but it kept getting extended, with the result that what was originally meant to be a short and tightly-plotted adventure ended up expanding into something much more ambitious.
  • What worked: This was my first real attempt to run a game in which the players tried to take on the mindset of people from a culture very different from their own, and it sort-of worked, at least in relation to the animistic religion of the setting. It was also probably the most character-driven game I'd run to date, with a plot that essentially boiled down to 'different people want different things, this generates conflict, enter the PCs.'
  • What didn't: This was a very low-key game: relatively low stakes, relatively low risks, most situations defused by diplomacy and negotiation. That's fine as far as it goes - not every game has to be about saving the world! - but I struggled to invest these purely personal stories with the energy and significance that they deserved.
  • Lessons learned: That while I might want to run deeply personal, emotionally-charged, character-driven games, I'm actually much better at running action-adventure material, and I should probably play to my strengths.

Campaign 10: Team Tsathogga (B/X D&D)

  • What it was: The first game I ran after discovering the principles of oldschool D&D, and the longest one in years, with well over 200 hours of actual play. A vast, sprawling weird science fantasy sandbox, with player agency placed firmly front and centre.
  • What worked: I put the OSR principles into action and they fucking worked. Having no set story, no plot armour for PCs, and no prior assumptions about what might or might not happen was incredibly liberating, both for me and my players, leading to a gloriously freewheeling campaign that surprised and delighted me at every turn. 
  • What didn't: As I discussed here, what was gained in breadth was lost in depth. Many of the people and places that the PCs interacted with were very lightly sketched in, mere backdrops for their latest insane adventure.
  • Lessons learned: That sometimes less is more. This is the lesson that has informed 'City of Spires', where, by focusing on a single ruined city, I've been able to bring the people and places within it to life much more vividly than I ever could have in the previous campaign, where the PCs would just have wandered in, wrecked some stuff, and wandered off again...
So. Those were the campaigns that I learned the most from running. Feel free to tell me about yours in the comments!