Update (20 April 2019): I’m not sure why I never posted this, but anyway, I just discovered this among my draft posts. Maybe I was planning to publish thoughts on all four of the Gen Con LotFP books at once? I’m not sure, but anyway, I’m busy and the other Gen Con books (which I have, but which I haven’t looked at yet) will have to wait, so I’m putting this out there now.
Original Post (20 January 2019): This is a quick look at Elizabeth Chaipraditkul’s She Bleeds supplement for Lamentations of the Flame Princess. As the back cover text reads:
She Bleeds is a gaming supplement for Lamentations of the Flame Princess, offering characters unique abilities if they engage with an otherworldly entity. This is not an adventure, but a supplement adding new character features. Therefore, this supplement most likely requires an adventure and most certainly needs at least one adventurer who is seduced into making questionable choices in exchange for the weird.
The book was surrounded by controversy, in part because one warehouse apparently destroyed some copies on the grounds that someone found the book offensive. Here’s the author’s original statement, and here’s the publisher’s clarification. Probably a little bit of a tempest in a teacup, but a telling one, perhaps.
I’ve just read my copy, and figured I’d share my thoughts.
This is one of those Lamentations of the Flame Princess books that came out as Gen Con exclusives last year: everyone who couldn’t go to Gen Con was, of course, a bit miffed and worried about them being hard to get. Me too, to be honest: living far-from-everything, I have become used to stuff being hard to get as it is, but when it becomes artificially extra-hard-to-get, that just annoys me. I understand why this kind of release is appealing to a publisher. It just sucks if you’re not someone in a position to get to Gen Con. That said, they weren’t that hard to get, in the end: I managed to purchase copies from someone who picked them up at what I think was almost no mark-up to what they’d have cost at the con itself, so I can’t complain too much about it.
I’ve been slowly making my way through the set—slowly because I am reading a lot of stuff at the moment—and recently got a chance to read through She Bleeds. It’s essentially a supplement containing a bolt-on character “expansion”—I guess I’d call it a character “condition” titled the Initiate/Blooded—that can be added to a character of any class in LotFP. Imagine a transdimensional entity that, encountering humans for the first time, finds everything about them baffling except menstruation… and then imagine it using menstruation to build a bridge between itself and a small, select number of beings.
That’s pretty much it: the book details how and why a character would be “approached” by this being, and the stages of the rite or ritual that follows if she fails to avoid its call, or chooses to enter into an exchange with the being. (I say “she” but male characters can enter into this contract too… as long as they’re okay with becoming physically female in the process, an apparently irreversible transformation.) With each phase of the moon, the rite progresses, often presenting the affected character with a choice; depending on the choice, the character gains certain powers or suffers certain penalties, and at the end of the process, if the character “performs” well enough, she enters a symbiotic relationship with the entity, gaining certain powers permanently (as long as she re-performs the rite with each cycle of the moon).
There’s guidance for how to deal with this if you’re running a game where strict time records are not kept (because, hey, not all of us live up to old Gary Gygax’s standards), as well as the suggestion that portions of the rite don’t need to happen “onscreen” if it’s likely to derail a group game where only one character is Blooded. Though this section is brief, I think the guidance is pretty sensible.
Of course, I think there’s another layer here: in her “End” notes, Chaipraditkul talks about why she chose menstruation as a theme for the book:
No monthly event in my life has made me feel more weak or, at times, more powerful. There’s something integrally beautiful about menstruation and something terrifyingly brutal—much like being a woman—much like playing Lamentations.
I think there’s a few ways to read this:
First, there’s the fact that fantasy RPGs are built on a fundamentally male set of assumptions about characters and the world. I’m not just talking about the gamer dudebros who do dumb shit like what was described in that incendiary post last February, “Honey Let the Real Gamers Play”:
One of the older men, mid-to-late 40s, at the table introduced his character. Freya. His description of her left little to the imagination, “She’s tall, slim, with incredibly voluptuous curves. Her breasts are almost fully seen underneath her clothes – she isn’t wearing much more than a thin robe, hardly tied on. Her legs are really long and she is barefoot, as many in the courting profession are, and she’s wearing red lipstick and her long hair runs down her large cleavage.” I was a tad taken back, though not surprised, at how focused the description was around her breasts.
Either way, we continued our character introductions and the session moved onwards. It wasn’t until we were in the depths of the sewer and actually adventuring that the descriptions of Freya began to get old…fast. “Freya is going to jog ahead to scope out the next corner. As she runs towards it, her tits bounce sloppily, almost flopping out of her robe.” Was that…was that really necessary? I shrugged it off. If this was truly the visual he wanted to conceive as a player, it didn’t quite bother me, just unnerved me a bit with the terminology.
… but, well, I am talking about that, too. Wanna bet Freya (somehow, magically) never has to take a day off from scouting and “being hot” because she’s having a heavy-flow day? Wanna bet she never has to deal with menstrual cramps?
My point isn’t that that stuff has to be included. We also rarely deal with, say, viral infections or gangrene in RPGs, though they’d be an inevitable danger in any fantasy adventurer’s life. My point is that the emphasis has for so long been on how guys fantasize about women that when a woman actually finds a way to gamify some basic, quotidian aspect of womanhood, it seems kind of radical. That, in itself, is telling.
Lamentations of the Flame Princess has taken some heat for the way female characters are depicted in some of its art:
… but I think most of the time it’s not terribly male-gazey, and doesn’t look like misogynistic sadism to me. I remember a long discussion of that on Reddit, with reasonable people making reasonable points on both side, but in the end, I ended up agreeing with those that pointed out art like the above is inevitable for a publisher who has iconic female characters and a game focused on a grimdark, gritty, deadly version of dungeon-crawling FRPG.
Sure, sometimes the art flaunts its own 18+ mandate, but this feels more like art trying to convey something along the lines of, “This is not your Daddy’s D&D,” even while being the leader OSR publisher. Female protagonists, an emphasis on horror and gruesomeness, graphic violence and monstrosity seem the dominant themes to me, not sexism.
That said, it’s a game line that seems to be mostly written and illustrated by straight (cishet white) men. Not exclusively–there’s a major trans illustrator, and one major writer no longer associated with the publisher is part of the LGBT community as far as I know—but mostly, and so stuff like menstruation has always remained offscreen, like responding to the call of nature or clearing one’s sinuses of mucus.
But menstruation isn’t just like blowing your nose or going to the bathroom: it’s something that different women experience in different ways, sure, but it’s often at least part of the identity of those women who experience it, and most women who do experience it will tell you about the pain, the discomfort, the logistical considerations that become a part of their daily life.
In some sense, then, I think She Bleeds might qualify as a sort of highly metaphorical—or even allegorical—discussion of menstruation (as an empowering experience, as a curse, as a royal pain in the… (well, you know). It’s just that it happens to be expressed in the language of an OSR RPG supplement.
(It’s a bit like how some of the songs in the Carmina Burana used the forms fo the Latin Mass to structure songs about sex and getting drunk, or the way one couple used to the form of the computer game to explore and articulate the experience of having a kid who was dying of cancer.)
That Chaipraditkul would attempt it at all is impressive, but that she could create something that translates it into the game in a way that facilitates play, instead of just complicating or inhibiting it, is even more impressive.
Of course, I can see a lot of women gamers saying, “Ugh, I play fantasy RPGs to get away from real life annoyances like that!” and that’s cool. For gamers—male or female—who don’t feel that way, though, I think this is a really interesting supplement, and perhaps instructive in terms of how one might approach integrating into an RPG other stuff that usually ends up being “offscreen” or “invisible” in traditional RPGs, such as, say, the joys and struggles of in marriage, or parenthood, or living with a disability, or living in a foreign land, or whatever. I also have to say that I’m pretty impressed with Chaipraditkul’s thoughtfulness here, and really look forward to seeing more of her work in the future. (Which is not to make her sound like a newbie designer: she’s got tons of experience, it’s just that she’s new to me.)
The only negative thing I can really say about it is that a few unfortunate typos seem to have gotten though. That’s too bad, but there’s nothing there that is impossible to decipher with a moment’s thought. Otherwise, I thought this was a great, fascinating little book. I also like that it describes a “condition” for a player character of any class: I think these “bolt-on” conditions are a great way to expand or personalize characters in D&D-basic/OSR-type games. Instead of creating new classes (which are kept limited and simple for a reason), we can bolt on conditions. I dig that idea.