Six days ago, I was discussing representation in various media, including games, with an ad-hoc panel of friends and new people I just met at the local comic con because we just weren’t ready to let the conversation end when the scheduled panel discussion was over. During one of these discussions I stumbled upon a turn of phrase that I think is pretty clever: there is no such thing as a token character. Today I will explore that and contrast it with the character token, a practical craft for the tabletop roleplaying game such as D&D.
Tokenism certainly exists, I won’t deny that. But if a depiction of a person is a two-dimensional inauthentic caricature of a gender, a culture, or a sexuality then one can hardly call it a full-fledged character. Likewise, a well-rounded character with their own strengths, weaknesses, hopes, dreams, fears, and role in the narrative does not become a token simply by existing while being something other than the “default” straight white cis-man. Our ad-hoc panel was unanimous in declaring our frustration with increased representation being tagged as tokenism. When you look at an all-white all-male starship crew that is supposed to draw from the whole Earth and perhaps beyond, you aren’t engaging in tokenism when you take a character and make them something else. You’re just looking critically at what the “default” is and deciding to more accurately reflect the human race as a whole.
And so, when it comes to the cast of characters in tabletop RPGs that I run, I encourage crossplay around genders, colours, and cultures. Stepping out of your usual demographic is part of the cool thing about playing customized characters: you can be something else without making a token character. That brings me to the character token. In my post where I proclaim my love for the grid map, the photo I use also shows what I consider to be an essential accessory for the grid map: the character token. When I run a D&D game I like to make one of these for each player as a way to complement the map visually, for the practical purpose of tracking each character’s position on the map, and because it is a tangible representation of the character. “Pen and paper” tabletop RPG in the age of the video game may be about eschewing the finest graphics in favour of the theatre of the mind, but the tangibles are nice and if your character isn’t “default” then it only makes sense to have a token reflecting that rather than just settling for the white-skinned archer you found in your dad’s collection of AD&D miniatures. Because playing 4th Edition D&D was the first time I got to sit down with a group to play a real tabletop RPG, the tokens became even more practical than the miniatures because of the highly tactical nature of combat encounters and the rules that allowed player characters to share a space. Tokens stack much more neatly than miniatures.
Before the first session of a campaign, I ask the players for character names, backstories, and general concept. I don’t get into character sheets and numbers until the first session, which is often more character creation night than it is the start of the plot. But I also ask for a picture. As someone with almost no talent in sketching I’ve never felt comfortable with the demand that I draw my own character. So I don’t ask that. I ask for a picture whether it is a scan of original artwork, copyrighted material we don’t own the rights to that the player found on Google Images, or just a detailed description that I can use to come up with something. In today’s example I will only be using copyright-free images and original work that I created or commissioned, but you can see from “How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Grid Map” that some of the tokens in my collection are obviously taken from other sources for private use.
So how would I go about making some character tokens for the players? Suppose I ask for pictures, and from one player I receive a link to an image of an elf from Pixabay (a wonderful site offering copyright-free images where almost all the stock photos and illustrations used on this blog come from) and a description from another player: “She is a humanoid, with a head like a cat, and an eerie green glow.” The submitted image is easy to handle. Open up the good old word processor and insert the image on the page. I don’t need software that is any good for page layouts, just something to ensure that the scale is close enough to what I need. Most word processors can handle the task of drawing simple shapes at specified dimensions, so for use with a 0.5″ grid map I can draw a circle or square at that size on top of my image to make sure the scale is correct.
For the second one, I will take a picture from my own media library of a suitable cat and fire up a good image editor. In case you haven’t noticed by now, I am a big fan of cheap or free stuff whenever it is made available morally and legally above board. One of the reasons for this that the 90/10 rule of program optimization also applies to usage cases: it is likely that 90% of Photoshop users will use 10% of the available features. I know I am firmly in the 10%. I don’t do advanced image editing; I just need something that isn’t as appallingly featureless as MS Paint. Sensible methods for cropping, basic colour adjustment, and the ability to do some simple masking is all I need. Paying for the latest version of professional-grade software seems pretty steep when all I want to do is take my picture of a cat, crop it, then mess around with the hue and saturation a little bit. For my purposes I find that paint.net is fantastic because it does all of this and it’s a free download. So I open a photo of a cat, crop it, then adjust the hue to emphasize green and crank up the saturation. A cat with an eerie green glow.
I will lay out as many images as I need to make the tokens, then print the page. I find my consumer-grade colour laser printer produces a high enough quality of image for this purpose, but I could take it over to a local shop if I had no printer at home or a truly awful inkjet. Then I apply two-sided tape to the back of the page well beyond the edges where I will carefully cut them out. This, for anyone not familiar with design terms, is called using a bleed. It means that your image is printed first, then cut down to size allowing the image to go right to the edge. I will affix the image to a small piece of cardboard taken from my household recycling bin. The finished token will look something like this.
So, if your fictional character is as simple and flat as the character token I would use to represent them on a grid map, perhaps it is worth reconsidering how you portray the character in general. But there is indeed more to your elf than being slim, glamourous, and skilled with the longbow then I think its worth celebrating the character with a unique visual element even if you yourself lack the skills of an artist. Like the grid map or the graphics that give you an impression of the world, so too can your tokens represent the diverse array of characters in your game. I hope today’s foray into practical tablecraft had provided a little bit of inspiration even if it’s not something that you’re going to do for your group and your game.