Wizards of the Coast have been doing a lot in recent years to make Dungeons & Dragons more inclusive to a myriad of different people who might be interested in the game. There is a small blurb in the 5th edition D&D players handbook that outlines you can play a character of any gender whether male, female or non-binary with no penalty. It’s your choice how your character wants to identify and express themselves and why should it matter?
Character art has also vastly improved, a glance through the 5th edition D&D players handbook reveals a dearth of the likes of boob plate and other egregious examples of the male gaze. Instead, the art of female characters shows them in similar positions of strength, action and levels of armour as their male counterparts.
One thing dawned on me when considering this commendable approach to player inclusivity within the game. There are no depictions of overweight characters within the game art throughout any of the 5th edition books, nor any mention of what it means to play as an overweight character. It’s certainly noted you can pick whatever height or weight you want for your character. Yet in 10 years of play, I can’t think of one example of a character I played or saw someone else play who was in any way overweight.
Why is this? Are we socialised to believe that if you’re overweight you’re simply not capable of the heroic feats and daring adventure? Or do overweight characters just not have a place in medieval fantasy worlds?
If we look to real life as an example, below is the armour of King Henry VIII. At this point in life he had gained a fair amount of weight, however, he still commanded the respect of men on the battlefield and would not be a figure you’d relish charging towards you.
I understand that in your average game of D&D players spend a lot of time going on 24-mile marches, subsisting on 1 lb of rations and regularly engaging in endless calorie burning fights. So how could any character ever become overweight, to begin with?
This does assume that for one any game must be one in which travel and combat are huge aspects. What about a game set in a noble residence where most of the drama is over daily banquets? Or how about a character who is a bookish wizard who is fond of pastries, travels by horse and avoids running about too much in fights preferring to teleport around with magic?
This further assumes every character happily subsists on a starvation diet and eats nothing more than that. The 1lb of rations a character in-game needs to survive is equal to around 1200 calories which is a low amount for someone not getting strenuous exercise on a regular basis.
Our overweight character also need not be one who isn’t capable of a fight, if you take a look at men who compete in strongman contests they do not appear as chiselled bodybuilders but are none the less incredibly powerful.
What about then from our fantasy sources? Characters such as Sam Tarly from Game of Thrones, Samwise Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings or Elisa in The Girl of Fire and Thorns are all overweight characters in a fantasy context. They all prove that even in a fantasy context you can carry a little weight around.
So what could be done to improve this?
This can be tackled in exactly the same way that Wizards of the Coast has approached the issue of gender within their games. A relatively soft-handed approach that none the less has had a positive impact on the amount of representation within the community. A small blurb that explains your character can be one of any size and that this won’t unnecessarily penalise them in any way. This can be coupled with some artwork that shows characters that have different weights to one another and suddenly over 60% of your potential demographic now feel like they are to a degree represented.
Yet you object. Is this something we should do?
Isn’t being overweight unhealthy? Isn’t it something we should be discouraging. Gender isn’t a choice but surely your weight is right? Well, it’s true that growing levels of obesity is a serious issue linked to heart disease, diabetes, cancer and all manner of difficult health prospects. There’s certainly a large degree of personal responsibility for the individual who wants to control their weight but there’s also a lot of powers within society such as the fast food industry which makes this task difficult due to the incredible power of marketing and advertisement.
From experience, as someone who has always struggled with their weight, the worst thing you can do if you actually care about encouraging people to attain a healthier weight is shaming them. Shame only serves to fuel many of the mechanisms that cause the likes of emotional eating, binging and mental health disorders associated with. I was only able to lose a significant amount of weight myself when I flipped the script and saw that even as an obese person I was worthy of love, respect, and care from others and most importantly from myself. Then I lost weight. Broader representation of overweight people would, therefore, help to reduce this sense of shame and might actually go towards helping the issue.
Who knows, perhaps seeding the idea that overweight people can be as equally capable as anybody else might actually help improve people’s self-confidence enough to take the steps to lose weight, or at least let them know they can be overweight and that’s ok. Because why should it matter?