Header image: Uncaged Vol. 1 cover art by Samantha Darcy
Uncaged, a TTRPG anthology that aims to subvert TTRPG tropes in the name of intersectionality, is released today. Our reporter Reuben talks to its curator, Ashley Warren, about the idea, creation, and purpose of the anthology.
Dungeons and Dragons would be nothing without its monsters. From the iconic reptilian behemoths of the game’s title to the lowliest goblin, the players come to know and fear them just as dungeon masters treasure their favourites. For every original creation, many more are ripped wholesale from the pages of worldwide mythology and given stat blocks and challenge ratings to match. But, as we’ve seen with orcs, in importing these creatures from other works, the game’s designers risked bringing along the most harmful tropes and clichés that inspired them.
However, the upcoming adventure anthology Uncaged aims to turn tropes on their heads and demonstrate that monstrosity is relative. The anthology, which takes a fresh look at female monsters from world mythology, is the brainchild of writer and narrative designer Ashley Warren, who was kind enough to answer some questions for us.
Can you tell us a little bit about your personal history with tabletop RPGs and D&D in particular?
I’ve only been playing D&D and tabletop RPGs for a few years now, but I’ve been passionate about fantasy roleplay for most of my life. I’m drawn toward any media that allows me to create my own characters and navigate through fantastical worlds and adventures. Until recently, video games served that purpose for me, but I find tabletop RPGs much more meaningful. I am also a creative writer, so writing RPGs has really fulfilled what I look for in storytelling.
Why did you decide to produce Uncaged?
It was less of a decision and more of a revelation. I had been sitting on this idea for MONTHS. It was supposed to just be an independent project — I wanted to write a series of one-shots that each featured a female creature from folklore. I shared the idea on a whim via Twitter and the RPG community was like “YES!”, and I started getting an overwhelming amount of emails and DMs from people who wanted to help and contribute. That’s when I knew that I didn’t need to do this project on my own, and that the goal of it would be better accomplished with a community-produced anthology. Knowing that the project could highlight voices of marginalized creators sealed the deal. I will always do anything I can do help with that. I hope that participants will feel empowered to start their own anthologies. That’s been the best part of the whole endeavor — our community of creators is amazing. It brings tears to my eyes just writing this! To me, it represents the future of RPGs: an inclusive, intersectional community telling stories that are challenging and entertaining.
Was it originally planned as 4 volumes?
No way! I had NO idea it would become this big. I thought I’d maybe get a handful of interested people, but the submissions came pouring in. And the ideas were all so good that I knew it would be hard to limit it. Because we’re producing digital content with a print-on-demand component, there’s really no reason we couldn’t expand the project (other than testing my sanity, haha).
How were the contributors were chosen? In regards to both writing and art?
I held an open call for submissions in fall 2018. I used to be an editor of literary and art journals so this process felt pretty familiar. My criteria was fairly broad — I was looking for concepts that would be well-suited to a game, of course, and also prominently featured a mythological creature/monster in a new, fresh, interesting way. I am hardly the arbiter of feminism, but I tried to be mindful of how their stories addressed and reinvented their creature of choice. I had some back-and-forth exchanges with authors before accepting their work; I didn’t want to turn down ideas that had potential and sometimes all it takes is a bit of workshopping. The artists volunteered their contributions, which really took the anthology to the next level.
Additionally, I did want to prioritize contributions from marginalized creators. The creatures in the anthology come from folklore that spans the globe, and it’s important that writer communities reflect the diversity of the stories they produce. I found that I was often the only woman, or one of very few, in many of the community-wide projects I was currently part of, and I was becoming frustrated by that. Now, most of the projects I do are with amazing non-binary and female creators from all over the world and I can’t imagine it any other way!
When writing/GMing/playing your own games, do you find it difficult to reconcile the problematic tropes of the game with the stories you’d like to tell?
I try my best to update or change tropes that I think are problematic. My work heavily features female and non-binary characters and places them in fairly standard fantasy settings. People remark all the time about how many female characters are in my stories — it’s like, why not tell classic stories with new heroes? I like tropes because you can bend and break them a little. I am currently playing in a classic Ravenloft game for a show called Tales from the Mists, and much of that setting has been problematic in its treatment of race and sexuality. So, we’ve updated it — it doesn’t lose the horror atmosphere, but the horror isn’t rooted in the problematic elements. What’s amazing about RPGs is that, once you’re at your table, the story is yours — you never have to run a game as written. I always hope that people take my games and remix them.
Do you have a favourite of the monsters featured in Uncaged?
Medusa was the inspiration for the whole project, and why we made her the cover creature for Volume 1. I was inspired by a statue by artist Luciano Garbati, which depicts Medusa holding the head of Perseus. She’s a special figure to me and her story is representative of the whole project. I’m very much into classic mythology, so I tend to gravitate toward creatures like that. Plus, aesthetically, she’s cool and fierce as hell.
Are there any monsters that you’ve come to like more as a result of this project?
I’m really into monsters in general — when I play RPGs, I always seem to make characters who want to protect and save all of the monsters, haha. But this project has exposed me to monsters from various cultures and that’s been exciting. There is a monster from Philippine folklore called a Mandurugo that I’m obsessed with now. It’s essentially a version of a vampire.
Do you have any advice for people looking to create their own D&D/RPG content?
Get involved in the community, read and support others’ work, and be open to learning and making mistakes. I believe that creative work should be treated somewhat academically, even if you are an independent creator — make it a point to study the craft. For me, this means that I read a LOT of RPG work by authors I admire. Don’t be afraid to take a risk, even if it’s your first title. Play and DM whenever you can. This all puts you in the mindset of a narrative designer. Embrace the label and own it! Many, if not most, of the Uncaged contributors are first-time authors who have already gone on to score exciting contract work with other companies. You just have to jump in with both feet!
Volume 1 of Uncaged is scheduled for release on 12/3/19, with Volumes 2-4 to be released across the year.