Wednesday, June 3, 2020

BECMI: They Keep Killing Aleena

This is going to irritate some people, but no honest discussion about the BECMI Basic set can occur without a mention of the doomed cleric Aleena and Women in Refrigerators

Briefly, Women in Refrigerators is a trope where the plot of a male character is moved forward by the death (or disability or rape) of an associated female character.  Also often the female character is not returned to the status quo; ie she stays dead or disabled.

This trope was masterfully, and somewhat depressingly, detailed by then comics-fan and now best-selling comic writer, Gail Simone (writer of Batgirl, Wonder
Woman, Red Sonja, and The Secret Six).  The name comes from Green Lantern #54 where then GL Kyle Raynor finds his girlfriend murdered and stuffed into a refrigerator.  So not just a murder, brutal one designed to antagonize the character by an enemy.

Now the issue of Green Lantern in question was from 1994.  Gail put up her original website in 1999.  If that was the only example one might excuse the writers a little.  But it was far from the only one.

Simone compiled a list in 1999, simply called The List, of all the comic book women who have been killed, depowered, raped, or disabled.  The list is long and sadly we could double it today.  Or as comic writer Mark Waid has said:
Jesus H. Christ in a birchbark canoe, is that a list disturbing in its length. And, yes, there are even more male characters who could make up a similar list--but it would be a smaller PERCENTAGE of male characters than this is of comics' females. Brrr...
Lots of comic writers do it.  Lots of television writers do it.  I spent a better part of the early 2000s (just prior to starting this blog) trying to draw attention to this trope and the damage it causes on television.

It's also lazy writing.

But What About Aleena?

Aleena, as many fans of the BECMI Red Box know, is the cleric in the first adventure who is designed to help the Character, and thus the Player, learn D&D.  The adventure is a solo deal, so naturally, there is a little bit of a railroad.  This can be excused because of the space needed and to serve the purpose of the text; It's not a "real" adventure, it is a teaching tool in the guise of an adventure. As a teaching tool, it serves this role well.  As an adventure, it is a bit contrived, but that is excusable.

However, no matter what the character (a fighter, and a male one as depicted in the art) does, Aleena will die.

Overtly this is designed to give the character a buy-in to the "Life and Death Drama" that is D&D.  Characters will die.   In that respect, it worked.  To this day you can find "Kill Bargle!" adventures and t-shirts[1][2] and other reminders of the fateful battle between Aleena and Bargle.  She has her own Facebook page.  I even contributed to a "Shrine of St. Aleena" adventure for 5th Edition.   If the goal was to get buy-in to D&D then one can say it worked.

That doesn't mean it still not lazy writing.

I know that is going to blow some of my old-school cred, but everyone that uses this trope always defends why their use of it is right and appropriate.  Granted this one was written in 1983, years before Gail ever wrote her essay or even before the Green Lantern comic appeared.  But it was not before the trope itself was known. Often called "Disposable Women" it has had a lengthy history in all sorts of literature.

In fact, the one that hit me the most was not Alex, Kyle Raynor's girlfriend, but Gwen Stacy, Peter Parker's girlfriend in the Amazing Spiderman issues #121 to #122 from 1973.  I remember reading these when I was a kid in the 70s.  My barber had all sorts of great comic books in his shop so I would read these.   Gwen's death bugged me. It was so pointless.  Even then I could see the purpose was to enrage Spider-man, but he was already committed. He was going to go after Green Goblin anyway.  I thought it was just dumping on the character and needlessly killing a character.

Another one was the original Batwoman, Kathy (not Kate) Kane in Detective Comics (Vol. 1) #485.  This was 1979 and was right at the start of my D&D involvement.   Her death also seemed to serve no purpose than to motivate Batman.  Well Batman, like Spider-man, already had lost people what purposes did this serve?  More to the point why bring a character out of retirement only to kill her? Unlike Gwen and Aleena, no one even remembers the sacrifice Kathy Kane made.

And don't even get me started on Batgirl/Barbara Gordon or Sue Dibny. Just to name two.

The point I am getting here is this.  If a kid reading comics can see problems with this in the late 1970s and early 1980's, certainly others could too.

None of this is made any better by describing Aleena in the books using the language one uses for a girlfriend. Which, in this case, Aleena was the stand-in for Frank Mentzer's ex-girlfriend Aileen and written to die.

In 1987, after pretty much of all the old guard of TSR was gone, GAZ1 The Grand Duchy of Karameikos was published for the Basic D&D game. In it, there is an Aleena Halaran, a mace-wielding Lawful cleric.  She is supposed to be the same Aleena, unless of course, you played through the Basic set, then she is Anielle Halaran.

Aleena and Baron Sherlane
My Own Takes and What Would I Do?

I ran a couple of adventures for my kids a while back using Bargle and Aleena. I ran T1 Village of Hommlet but included Aleena and Bargle and yes, she still died in it despite my personal objections. Morgan Ironwolf also made an appearance.  I later ran The Shrine of St. Aleena for the Second campaign.  The point here was to show that in this other campaign with the same players that somethings are "fixed points" in the multiverse.  Something not lost on my players.

Later I contributed to the 5e conversion of The Shrine of Aleena.  I guess I really can't change the past.

I guess to make my multiverse connections right I would need to have a raised from the dead Aleena show up in my third campaign, Into the Nentir Vale, and riff off of my 4e stats for her since that is my "4e converted to 5e" game.

IF, and that is a big IF, if I were going to change the intro adventure I would drop Aleena in favor of an older male wizard.  More of a Joseph Campbell-esqe mentor figure.  Someone of the Gandalf or Merlin mold to guide the new adventurer at the start of their own Hero's Journey.  Indeed in the Hero's Journey the older mentor or supernatural aid dies so the hero can go on.  Maybe even Bargle is a failed student of this mentor and you, as the "ego" character, take on this brave wizard's quest.

"But!" you say, "how can Bargle kill a wizard old enough to have an apprentice?"  Well, the same way Bargle killed a cleric of at least 2nd level. Aleena does heal the player at one point so she has spells so is at least 2nd level and an average of 7 hp. That is still more than a magic missile can effect.

"But!" you say again, "Aleena needs to HEAL the player how is a magic-user going to do that?" to which I say the wizard has one, and only one, potion of healing.  He GIVES this potion to you and you are healed.  Going back to the purpose of this whole thing is to teach you how to play D&D you have now learned TWO things you didn't know before. There are magic items that can heal you (and the wizard can always lament the lack of a cleric here) AND that such items need to be managed carefully, ie resource management.  The wizard gets to be heroic by giving you his last healing potion even though he needs more.  A potion of healing even gets introduced at the end of the sample solo adventure anyway.

Bargle and this Wizard have history.  So Bargle wants the wizard dead. The wizard wants to protect you because you are only first level. Another lesson learned! Protect the weaker members of the party, it is the right thing to do.

I would go as far as to say that a fighter and a wizard are much more iconic duo than a fighter and cleric.  Look at the cover of Holmes Basic, look at the cover of Moldvay Basic.  Look at the cover for Pathfinder. Having a wizard instead of a cleric makes far, far more sense to me.

Would it have had the same emotional impact?  Hard to say.  Hindsight is 20/20 and it is easy for me to point out these sorts of problems because I have been focused on them for so long.  Less certain is the cultural impact this isolated scene would have had independent or the cultural impact as the whole the Red Box Basic had in total.  For me, a wizard mentor falling battle would have had the same impact intended, because I have to say one of the big turn-offs for BECMI for me was this death. I had already at this time thrown out a copy of Lord Foul's Bane, I didn't have to spend my money here. So I didn't. Until now of course.

Morgan Ironwolf is mentioned in the same tones of reverence and often in the same breath as Aleena.  But we know far less about her and she is, as far as I can tell, still "alive" out there in the worlds of Dungeons & Dragons.

I want to end with a comment made by Sarah Darkmagic about Aleena.  She quoted me years ago and I would return the favor here.  Sarah has said, " I pointed out that the D&D art I saw growing up didn't make me feel welcomed." this is combined with the entire treatment of Aleena did not make early D&D a welcoming place to women. I believe her. It wasn't.  She was not there in the early days, but I was, and often times the only women playing were girlfriends of the players.

She also makes the claim that Aleena was not very empowering for her. Again I have no reason but to agree. Aleena is NOT empowering. She is cannon fodder. She is fridge material.  She serves only one purpose here, to further the ends of a male character.

Simone said "if you demolish most of the characters girls like, then girls won’t read comics. That's it!" This is also true for every reader. And every gamer.

I am reminded of Whoopi Goldberg when she first saw Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura on Star Trek. She went to her mother saying, "Come here, mum, everybody, come quick, come quick, there's a black lady on television and she ain't no maid!"  What would have happened if Uhura had been "redshirted" after an episode? What would've happened then?  What would have happened to Mae Jemison?

Granted this was years ago.  Today it is different. Hopefully, it is better.
It bears repeating, but representation matters.

But I still look at this section as the weakest point of the BECMI books and really kind of a low point for D&D in general.

My Posts On Aleena
More on Women in Refrigerators


Alea iactanda est said...

But if you swap the only woman in the adventure for a dude, it's not really all that much better...

Olde House Rules said...

Males Die. Females die. But this was a missed opportunity to show a successful adventuress and thereby invite female gamers to see themselves and buy the game...

Timothy S. Brannan said...

Exactly. The first female adventurer depicted in text in a core ruleset and she is killed.
Not at all encouraging.

Olde House Rules said...

Strange that TSR, as a business, didn't see the potential of a female audience...

Lee said...

You include the comment that if the only female character women & girls see is Aleena dying, thy could be less inclined to keep playing. That sounds reasonable.

As a semi-supporting anecdote, I can recall one of my female game-playing friends telling me that seeing Morgan Ironwolf in the Basic book is one of the reasons she got into the game. My friends & I are of the age that I never even heard of Aleena and Bargle until sometime on the Internet.

FWIW, I ran the Shrine of St. Aleena (converted to 5E; I didn't know about your version) about a month ago, that was a really nice low-level adventure. Now my players are working to support the Order, and rebuild it from the ground up.

Olde House Rules said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Olde House Rules said...

The B/X Basic Set's cover depicted a badass female magic-user getting ready to put some serious hurt on a dragon. The inside cover shows a female elf holding her own against a fire breather; and there's the aforementioned Morgana, not to mention a depiction of a female player imagining her own adventuress! And all from an earlier edition. Of course, Morgana's nipples somehow show through her chainmail coat and most seem impractically dressed (the only thing missing is heels); but as far as representation goes, B/X seemingly understood that females would also enjoy the game and sought to include them...

Sean Robert Meaney said...

Pretty sure we all understand Aleena is straight up conspiring to murder some wizard she tells you is Bargle. She is not the lawful authority of the government, rather she is a member of a religious faction in the community. Her plan is to kill Bargle.

Rob Barrett said...

Add Carol Danvers to your list of 1970s female characters fridged for the sake of man pain (a fridging so notorious that Chris Claremont devoted an entire Avengers Annual to calling it out as bullshit).

The solution to making the sacrificial NPC male and keeping a woman in the sample adventure is to make the protagonist a woman, yes?

Lance Duncan said...

Having grown up playing becmi, aleena wasn't part of our experience. We played the dungeon in the DM book many times, but I don't think any of us actually played the solo adventure in the players book. I doubt if any of my siblings would even recognize her name. Only reason I'm familiar with the solo adventure is because I was obsessed with reading/memorizing the rule books, while my siblings were happy just playing the game.

I do think your wizard mentor alternative has some real potential.

Also in becmi a magic missile does 1d6+1 damage (not a d4 like every other edition) so yes it could kill a cleric with 7 hp. But we really don't know how many hp she started with or if she was already injured.

JB said...

Doesn't irritate me at all. In fact, while I am familiar with the trope (and with Simone's original essay/list), I never put Aleena in the WIR category...though, of course, it's an obvious fit, once pointed out.

Wow. Huh. One step forward (with B/X), two steps back (with BECMI).

I didn't pick up Mentzer's red box till DECADES after it was released (when attempting to complete my BECMI collection) so the whole reverence for it, the tears for Aleena, the hate for Bargle...all that's foreign to me. Over the years I've found folks' Die Bargle Die t-shirts, etc. to be amusing and interesting, but now I see it as...well, something else. co-DM (and best friend) "back in the day" was a girl named Jocelyn whom I introduced to the game with B/X, but the Mentzer Red Box was the first set *she* picked up. I wonder what, if any, impact it had on her (this wasn't something we ever discussed). Not much, I suppose as we moved our campaign to AD&D as soon as we acquired the hardcovers...very shortly thereafter.

Good stuff, Tim.

Deep One said...

While it is certainly legitimate to subject Mentzer's writing to feminist criticism (and, I guess, attribute some sinister significance to "Kill Bargle"-shirts) , I still think the piece succeded in intoducing the game to the then-perceived target audience of ~12yo boys. As an aside, is there an introductory piece to gaming that uses an androgynous narrator like e.g. the novels by Sarah Caudwell have? (I suggest seeking out those novels for the sophisticated humor first and its take on gender roles second, If you were thusly inclined.)

JB said...

TSR did put out a line of Endless Quest (Choose Your Own Adventure) books in the 1980s that resemble BECMI’s introductory adventure (in that they introduce many D&D concepts). While the art for the protagonist characters clearly indicate “male” or “female” (depending on the story), the writing itself is fairly neutral in gender...I’ve read those books to both my children (boy and girl).

JF Caron said...

Agreed. I feel the same and I think that there's been a change for the better in that matter, in the rpg industry over the years. We must keep going.

Rob Barrett said...

It's interesting to me that Moldvay's sample PC for his 1981 Basic book (Morgan Ironwolf) is explicitly called out as created by a female player. Plus there's that nice little DSL illustration ( depicting a female player and a male player filling out character sheets as they imagine what their PCs will look like.