Female Fighters of Color in Reasonable Armor

Illustration by Julie Dillon for Martial Power II, copyright 2010-2012 Wizards of the Coast.

A post in which I talk about an art order gone wrong has gotten some attention in internetland, so I thought I’d celebrate an instance of an illustration becoming better in the transition from a designer’s vision to an artists’ hand. Above is Julie Dillon doing it right, below is my original art order:

Illo #4: Brawling Fighter
Specification: 1/4 page color

A FEMALE HUMAN FIGHTER grabs the wing joint of a GARGOYLE with her left hand while swinging a FLAIL towards the monster with her right hand. The fight takes place on the rooftops of a sprawling fantasy city, but the background is mostly dominated by the gargoyle’s spread wings. The figures are struggling at CLOSE QUARTERS, and the gargoyle is trying but failing to claw its way out of the woman’s grasp.

FEMALE HUMAN FIGHTER: She’s compact and sturdily built, with close-cropped curly brown hair and colorful earrings visible because the gargoyle has knocked her helmet off; it might be visible falling toward the bottom of the frame. She has dark brown skin and brown eyes; on Earth you’d guess she was from sub-Saharan Africa. She’s wearing SCALE ARMOR, a coat and Roman-style skirt of steel plates covered in colorful leather, with chainmail on her arms and greaves on her shins; in places the leather has been clawed away to show the metal underneath. Her FLAIL is a simple but brutal wood haft as long as her forearm, with a spiked ball on a chain about half the length of the haft.

GARGOYLE: The gargoyle should appear as depicted in the Monster Manual (115), except that it has moss and lichen growing on its surface.

The details that I described that weren’t picked up on, like the helmet falling off (to justify showing a face and still upholding reasonable armor), are more than made up for the sheer awesome of the gargoyle’s piteous expression as it tries to escape.

At the time I did these art orders I’d been reading about the Race in D&D presentation at Nerd Nite. In addition to having my own old-school agenda in describing weapons and armor that could possibly relate to the viewer’s experience of life and history, I was interested in seeing how many non-white depictions I could get into a D&D book. Here’s another Martial Power II illustration Julie did, followed by its art order:

Illustration by Julie Dillon for Martial Power II, copyright 2010-2012 Wizards of the Coast.

Illo #44: Arrowhead Commander
Specification: 1/4 page color

A FEMALE ELVEN ARROWHEAD COMMANDER squats on the ground and uses an ARROW to draw a TACTICAL DIAGRAM in the dirt, which looks a little like a football play illustrated with circles and arrows. With her free hand she points at an ally outside the shot, telling them what their part in the plan will be.

FEMALE ELVEN ARROWHEAD COMMANDER: She wears HIDE ARMOR made of the skin of a colorful snake and has a LONGBOW and QUIVER OF ARROWS slung over her shoulder. Her face is lined with age and experience, and the brown hair she’s braided over her ears is turning grey. Her skin is leaf-brown, and her nose and cheekbones are as bony and angular as the male elf shown in the Player’s Handbook (40).

Let me start by noting that a frequent reason my art orders didn’t come out the way I write them is that I don’t know what I am doing while art directors and artists are experts. Looking at this illustration, it is clear to me that if she was drawing with an arrow and pointing at someone at the same time, she would fall over.  Thinking about issues of representation has to ride on top of accounting for the pragmatic business of illustration, about which I am largely ignorant.

The character shown here was not taken from actual play. However I did write this around the time that I started using a d6 to randomize the age and gender of my PCs and NPCs, which caused elderly women to show up a lot more often in my games. There’s a little gray in the hair of Julie’s illustration, but it’s not striking. I don’t know whether the art direction process toned down the character’s age, or if my description passed through untouched but lined faces were just not something the artist was interested in.

I took the language about leaf-brown skin directly from the 4E PHB – I wanted to be sure what I was asking for was within canon, and it’s noteworthy that this was explicitly said to be a way elves might look – but that detail doesn’t seem to have made it into the finished piece. I’m inclined to think that it dropped out in the art direction step of the process, given Julie’s  proven flair for painting dark-skinned women:

Planetary Alignment, copyright 2012 by Julie Dillon. Click to purchase prints.

To give some props to my fellow writers on Martial Power II, its art director, and Julie once again, I’ll close with a kick-ass illustration fitting the title of the post which I didn’t do the art order.

Illustration by Julie Dillon for Martial Power II, copyright 2010-2012 Wizards of the Coast.

18 Responses to “Female Fighters of Color in Reasonable Armor”

  1. 1 Michael (Gronan) Mornard
    April 23, 2012 at 3:49 pm

    Okay, picture #1? That lady is SERIOUS. That is armor meant to keep herself intact. I LOVE it. I also like the expression on the Gargoyle’s face! “Helphelphelphelphelphelp!”

    Picture 2 is also very good, though her face isn’t as old as specified. I look at her and I think warm, humid climate, but she’s no chump either… no snakebite on the ankle!

    I love the “Planeship Captain,” or whatever #3 is… that’s just nice.

    #4… well, I have an objection to “boobs on armor” in general; real breastplates had a center keel with plenty of space, and the metal boobs would tend to deflect a spear or lance point directly towards the heart!

    Other than that, it’s a great, dynamic picture, and once again, she looks like somebody who intends to come out of this combat alive. Nothing like a company of Amazon heavy foot charging the enemy.

    For the record, I also like my MALE characters to be wearing historically authentic, or at least plausible, armor.

  2. 2 Bargle
    April 23, 2012 at 4:00 pm

    “compact and sturdily built”

    Becomes “skinny with big tits”. I guess it’s progress that females in d&d art can now be black and asian, but men are still allowed to be old, or homely, or ugly–i.e. representative of humanity.

    Where’s breanne of tarth?

  3. 3 Bargle
    April 23, 2012 at 4:07 pm

    It’s like women in suits. The point of which is not to highlight their sex, the business suit is neutral. All the females above a wearing things designed to draw attention to the fact they are female.

    That’s the opposite of progress. It highlights their sex without being sexual–the goal should be to be gender neutral. Armor is armor.

    It’s the business suit worn by lawyers in tv shows like alley mcbeal and cheap network comedies vs. business suits worn by real women who work at the state department (hillary clinton).

    Tits on armor is minimal progress over tits in a chainmail bakini, it’s just more conservative with the female body, but not more progressive towards equality.

  4. 4 Charlatan
    April 23, 2012 at 5:40 pm

    I think the business suit comparison is apt, but I disagree about how: Business suits are plainly not gender neutral. When women wear suits for business, if they include pants, they are still different in cut, fabric and proportion from men’s suits. When their suits tread too close to a men’s suit, we call it “drag”. There’s even a substantial area of grey beyond that in which we’re still working out our social norms, cf. the various criticisms of Hilary Clinton’s wardrobe in the 208 elections. I feel comfortable saying that there is no gender-neutral clothing that has become anything like a social norm: Even t-shirts have an aspect that is highly sexually charged.

    That said, it doesn’t resolve the question of what art for any given fantasy should be, since fantasy can be historico-nostalgic or speculative and thus (possibly) progressive, or somewhere on a spectrum between. This is really a broader question than depictions in visual art. In our actual art history, we do in fact put breasts on female armor- you can see this in a number of depictions of Joan of Arc or Germania. Of course, taking examples from our history is no counterpoint to your argument, since you’re striving for a progressive state that has not yet existed (which is, again, a totally legitimate expectation to have of fantasy).

    I think these images are clearly progressive vis-a-vis their genre, since 1) the women are portrayed as competent subjects, and 2) they are no more sexualized than heroic male figures in the genre, up to and including impractically sculpted pectorals on armor hewing to a sexual ideal. But the genre in question is one that does not question the sexualization of its subjects- if instead we are building a fiction that fights against that, then these are inappropriate in the same way that Frazetta, etc. are. Brienne of Tarth is instructive: She is counter-genre in a fiction that is pro-genre, and the result is omnipresent insults and a looming threat of retributive rape.

    I also think it’s quite decent of Tavis to try to stake his own critiques out with both positive and negative examples. Well done, Tavis.

  5. April 23, 2012 at 5:51 pm

    @Gronan, you can see me trying to get across realistic arms and armor in the descriptions, but it’s harder to specify. With Adventurer Conqueror King we compiled image libraries of historical styles; it helped that Ryan was an art history major!

    @Bargle, it’s interesting to think about whether “compact and sturdily built” would make that image work as well. This could be in the zone of things that sounded good to my wordy brain but visual thinkers know better.

    @Charlatan, I’d rather provide data than make a critique any day, and was glad to be in a position where I could submit some D&D art orders and test how they came out.

  6. 6 Guest
    April 23, 2012 at 8:28 pm

    I’d like to, respectfully, disagree strongly with absolutely everything in this thread.

  7. April 23, 2012 at 9:47 pm

    As is your right, Guest, but that contributes only two bits of information: that there are people who hold other views,. and that their representative prefers to remain anonymous.

  8. 8 Naked Samurai
    April 24, 2012 at 4:21 am

    Individualized plate armored breast-cups don’t really make sense, do they, I mean fighting-wise? A blow would as likely get shunted in between and into an increasingly lesser-armored space.

    But aesthetically I’m not complaining.

    The first one is fantastic. The image’s ‘punctum’ is the gargoyle face, which is splendid. And the fighter looks like a determined ass-kicker.

  9. 9 jdillon82
    April 24, 2012 at 3:35 pm


    Thank you for the kind feature!

    I’m actually a little surprised at how much your original descriptions got edited down before they were sent to me. Most notably, the art direction that I received on that second piece was indeed different. I couldn’t think how I could have overlooked something like that, because normally that kind of description would be something I’d latch on to. I was a little scared for a moment there that I somehow just completely overlooked it, so I went back and checked the notes that I was given by my art director, and it states, “Her face is still youthful, but her hair is shot with a little gray.” There was no mention of skin tone at all, so I went by what was in the style guide, and the end result is something that is quite different from your original notes (her poor posture, on the other hand, is entirely my fault, and something I’d correct if I had the chance). For the first illustration with the gargoyle, the lines about her compact and sturdy build, her earrings, and helmet were all edited out before they were sent to me. I apologize nonetheless! I always try to follow my art orders as best I can, and I assure you that if those descriptions had been left in, I would definitely had included them. :)

    Thanks again for featuring my work! I hope we can work together on a another project soon.

  10. April 24, 2012 at 6:34 pm

    Julie, thanks for contributing some more data! It’s great to hear from you.

  11. 11 Guest
    April 27, 2012 at 2:56 am

    I always post anonymously, when I can. People only object when I’m expressing a taboo opinion (I have many of those by the way).

    I didn’t want to do anything that could be construed as trolling or to thread jack. You guys are as entitled to your opinions as I am to mine. Kind of like agreeing to disagree in advance.

  12. April 27, 2012 at 12:32 pm

    Guest, you’re certainly entitled to your opinion but I don’t know what it is. You said you’d like to disagree strongly with everything in this thread; permission granted, but did you want to do anything other than that? I’d like to know what the nature of your disagreement is.

  13. 13 Guest
    April 29, 2012 at 12:02 am

    Art in a fantasy RPG is essentially an ‘example fantasy’. I think a feminist critique of male fantasy is so wrongheaded it’s basically insane.

    I despise this kind of political nagging of artists, because it defines what’s acceptable and that’s hard to ignore even if you want to. (I think one reason ERB was great is he pre-dates and is immune to this kind of thing.)

    This is different, because it’s your vision… but when playing D&D with females, no one has asked yet if she could be stocky and mannish. I have heard “can i be a sexy elf?” a few times.

  14. April 29, 2012 at 3:06 am

    Guest, I’m totally unqualified to make a feminist critique of male fantasy, and I don’t think that’s what Julie is doing either. Maybe you are confusing us with other people who are talking about female fighters of color in reasonable armor?

  15. 15 Chainsaw
    April 29, 2012 at 1:53 pm

    That art is terrible.

  16. 16 Michael (Gronan) Mornard
    April 29, 2012 at 4:48 pm

    “when playing D&D with females, no one has asked yet if she could be stocky and mannish. ”

    Back in the 1970s I had two women who wanted exactly that. One of them was my (first) wife, who, though not really tall, could never, ever, ever, ever, EVER be described as “mannish.”

  17. 17 Michael (Gronan) Mornard
    April 29, 2012 at 4:50 pm

    Also, in my last D&D game in Minneapolis, one of the female players decided what her character looked like by rolling dice. Among the choices were “six and a half foot amazon,” “square,” “skinny and wispy,” and three others I don’t remember.

  18. March 20, 2013 at 7:06 am

    i just ran across this [obviously. but i’ll be back to read other things!] i apologize for being so late to the party, but it was a wonderful column and i can’t resist… and i’d like to say something to your “guest” there.

    you are, in a way, correct – most women, while gaming, tend to want to play out their fantasies. and it’s rare for people to fantasize about being LESS attractive. [though i have. sometimes, it’s nice to NOT be the pretty girl and have people making assumptions – because pretty girls are A, or B, or whatever. then, of course, the assumption is that if you’re ugly in some way, that you’re wiling to X or Y because if you’re ugly you must be desperate, right? sigh. side issue, sorry[

    but there’s a bit of a difference between setting up a situation where women [and everyone, but we’re talking about women specifically in this thread] are encouraged to fantasize about themselves being more attractive, and setting up a situation where women are essentially placed in the game as SEX OBJECTS.

    like pretty much every person on the planet, i want to be wanted. i even want someone to want me sexually [part of why i adore my partner. he still wants me after 9 years :) ]

    but i don’t want to JUST be wanted sexually. i don’t want to be reduced to nothing but a thing.

    and that’s what a certain type of illustration encourages. in and of themselves, i don’t have a problem with sexy pictures. i’m straight, and even i would rather look at a picture of a beautiful woman than an ugly woman. we’re made that way [though i will leave aside discussions on beauty standards, beauty norms, and how culture creates what we consider “beautiful” in many, many ways – with a side note that a century ago, “beautiful” women were those who, today, would be considered “overweight.” even less than a century ago! Marilyn Monroe was 5’3″ and she weighed 150-160 at the height of her fame… and the medical standard for a woman that tall? is 110 pounds. hell, i’m 5’8″ and *I* am supposed to weigh 150. today, Marilyn would be considered “fat” and thus “ugly”. any way, digression over]

    but when ALL the depictions of women emphasize their sexual attributes over everything else? as an example, have you ever practiced archery?
    let me tell what the breasts of the average woman depicted in D&D-type fantasy would be like, if they practiced archery – FROM EXPERIENCE, i tell you, they’d be scarred. because a snapping bowstring…
    when i fenced, when i did kali and krav maga, and when i practiced archer, i bound my breasts. BECAUSE THEY GET IN THE DAMNED WAY. most every woman i know who practices ANY martial art, western or eastern, does the same if they’re over a B cup. we HAVE to.
    then there’s the issue that so many D&D-type pictures don’t show the appropriate level of MUSCLE on women adventures. the women depicted often look more like modern lingerie models. sorry, NO. muscle definition. it happens. i actually think the lack of muscles bothers me more than the presence of breast-cups no matter what [i would never, ever wear metal armor like that – if i fell on my breasts, the chances of it breaking my sternum are waaaaaaay too high!]

    it *IS* possible to show that women are WOMEN, even PRETT women, without reducing them to sex objects. most the depictions on this page manage [even if there are breast cups lol]

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Past Adventures of the Mule

April 2012

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