The Satanic Panic did things to the culture. We can pretend it wasn’t really a thing (because it was a thing about a thing that wasn’t a thing), but undeniably, a bunch of angry parent-types bellowing about the way their kids were being exploited until the exploitation changed colour did pervert the course of business interests. It was largely, just not worth the fuss to do things that could annoy that vocal body, and you could just change the decals on some of the stuff you did. I mean, having a bunch of weird outsider kids who liked playing D&D doing things like ‘being friends’ could be super upsetting for the parents of those kids, especially if those kids were having fun with their friends and not wanting to have fun with their family. Maybe the family sucked? Anyway, point is, that the Satanic Panic had a direct and meaningful impact on the big business juggernaut that was Wizards of the Coast. Famously, they stopped using demonic imagery on Magic: The Gathering for seven years.
Was that why 3rd edition Dungeons & Dragons and its followup edition 3.5 thought sex was bad?
Nah probably not, this was probably just further building on the game’s pre-existing protestant ideology that thought Sex Was Bad. Let’s talk about the Ace Rights prestige class.
Content Warning: Acephobia! And uh… amazingly, just general talk about sexual assault? THIS WAS SUPPOSED TO BE A FUN ONE.
I’ve complained in the past about how the Book of Exalted Deeds branded itself with a literal sticker as being ‘mature’ content, meaning the book was an opportunity to finally talk about some heady, complex topics that D&D normally chooses to avoid. You have mind control spells, so perhaps a conversation about consent and agency would fit here. There’s the classic scenarios of violently killing defenseless children, as a form of defensive practice and how we justify the idea of ‘inherent’ evil, or even how justice and law are not necessarily aligned. The book promised a chance to finally grapple with this complex stuff, and even use its prestige class and player options as ways to emphasise to players what a heroic character did or didn’t do, the different ways you could stand up and say being morally good is an important and vital part of who I am. It was a space to say this is what good people do.
What good people don’t do
Look, The Book of Exalted Deeds is a coward’s book because most of its complexity is burned on just repeating the old arguments. It doesn’t meaningfully expand on anything the Player’s Handbook doesn’t already completely fuck up, so it’s the same essay in bigger font. What’s wild though is that by being allowed to talk about sex, the Book of Exalted Deeds gets to talk about the kind of hero who has sex, or rather, who doesn’t have sex.
There’s a prestige class in this book called the Beloved of Valarian. If you’ve seen a ranger or paladin style prestige class, the ones that you can jump into as a fighter or something, then you’ve seen this class. In addition to having some really ropy rules (weapons that are ‘generally made of wood’ have a hard time hitting you, but is that, like, a battle axe? A bow that’s shooting metal arrows? What goes into a dart?), it’s also just kinda unimpressive, since there are classes like the Holy Liberator from the Complete Divine. The holy Liberator had the same boosts and benefits, the Paladin’s spellcasting list, turning undead (helloo broken feats), smiting evil, immunity to charm and compulsion, easier requirements to get into and gained the ability to talk people out of being mind controlled, which we’ll, you know, yeah, put a finger in that one, and its mission was to free people from injustice. It was a chaos paladin of killing fascists and you even got a cool pet that gained special magical abilities and could even talk.
Beloved of Valarian follows the template, and what sets it apart is that its special companion is a Unicorn, which, at level 13, gets to cast spells like a level 7 cleric. A level 7 cleric. A level 7 cleric. While this class feature is obviously better than the fighter, because everything is, at level 13 by comparison, a Holy Liberator is casting Divine Persistent Spell Holy Swords and McSmiting The Shit out of things. And that Holy Liberator isn’t operating under the same Exalted restrictions as the Beloved of Valarian.
Those restriction are that the Beloved of Valarian must be chaste. Like, more chaste than that. Like totally chaste. So chaste that you take two feats to specify that you have taken a sacred vow and that you’re chaste. Oh and only females. No nonbinary Beloveds of Valarian, no Men. I’m going to give the benefit of the doubt here to assume Valarian isn’t a TERF or anything, but like, the chastity and the gender restriction makes me pretttty confident that we’re dealing with a real dickhead of a Belover here. I wouldn’t be surprised if they had some British-Style Posting Detected moments.
When I started on this I kinda thought it’d be funny to make an article about the Beloved of Valarian and how it obviously owed its genesis to a kind of vision of Artemis with her Bows Before Bros style iconic asexuality, I was going to doll up the graphic in ace flag colours, maybe paint a unicorn, I was going to have some fun with it. More I looked into it though the more I kinda started leaning away from the book while mumbling ‘yikes.’
Mechanically, the problems just are… a pile of things. Sacred Vow is literally a feat tax – it’s an Exalted Feat, which makes it harder to access than normal, it gives you a +2 to diplomacy, and that means it’s worse than Skill Focus. Then you take Vow of Chastity, which gives you a +4 bonus against Charm and Compulsion effects… which the Holy Liberator, as I mentioned, just gets to be immune to, and they didn’t spend a special feat to get there. The capstone of the Beloved of Valarian is once per day, the Beloved can turn everyone around her into little squirrels and chipmunks and stuff, which sounds kinda cool, except it relies on her Wisdom stat to make the difficulty hard, cast as a level 10 druid when she, herself, is level 17. It’s all bad, it’s not worth it, and it’s hard to get. The Unicorn is the big appeal of the class, but that unicorn is… a completely valid kind of mount for a Paladin to get as well, and the Healer, at around level 5. The whole class feels like a pile of things thrown in a heap, filtered through a familiar shape and nobody ever bothered to playtest it or see if it worked or felt meaningfully good.
I had this idea that maybe you could re-examine the class from the other end; that hey, if there’s this group of women, out in the woods, who will accept any woman into their organisation ‘who is chaste,’ but also absolutely no men, I’d assume some of the following are true:
- They probably mean something different by ‘chaste’
- That meaning probably implies ‘no sex with men’
- The people in the group are probably okay with this arrangement
There’s a lot of reasons for this that make total sense. Heck, there’s room for this to be a super fun idea, of this gang of ace, aro, polyamorous or just plain garden-variety gay women who made an enclave away from the world and use a unicorn as their symbol, using the folklore of the unicorn as their excuse. Hell the unicorn’s sentient, they might be in on it. But instead, there’s this idea of chasteness in the book that’s… just… kinda like, this is a universal experience? It operates on the assumption that every single person wants sex and a lot of it, and we need social rules and regulations to ensure we have the right amount of it, which is almost none. In fact, the best way to do things here would be to have no sex.
Wait, where’s that idea come from?
BY GOD THAT’S PAUL THE APOSTLE’S MUSIC!
Dungeons & Dragons in third edition was still clearly holding on to the values of its creators who were all holding pretty tight to the Protestant Christian ideology of its forebears and those people comfortable with those forebears. In this case, it’s the Christian vision that sex is just… bad. Sex isn’t a good thing. We don’t talk about why sex is bad, just that everyone who we mention sex around is bad, and people who are good don’t talk about sex.
Kinda like the two books themselves.
It’s simply there in the text of the two books. In the Book of Vile Darkness, everything that can be is sexual. Demons mention lovers not because of what they love or why, but just to make it clear they have multiples, that they are polyamrous and have a lot of sex. Characters are depicted as being sexual and malformed and having sex wrong – not just in the obvious icky ways like the father-daughter couple, but also just in the general ‘this demon indulges in pleasures of the flesh’ because even in the book that’s got a sticker on the cover, they couldn’t bring themselves to say ‘has sex.’ Dispater is seen as being unsettling because he is attractive, bondage equipment is a type of vile trap, and all over, the book is just hard on (hah) the notion that even if they don’t want to say having sex is evil (because that would make Ed Greenwood’s boner sad), they definitely want to point out all the people we mention having sex are evil, and all the people who we know don’t have sex are in fact really good.
Alright, so it’s a dumb trend in the book, whatever, why am I so hepped up about it and not just making my silly Ace Rights Unicorn alternate lore?
Because of how the feat Vow of Chastity is worded.
Special: To fulfill your vow, you must abstain from any sexual contact with any other creature. If you intentionally break your vow, you immediately and irrevocably lose the benefit of this feat. You may not take another feat to replace it.
If you break your vow as a result of magical compulsion, you lose the benefit of this feat until you perform a suitable penance and receive an atonement spell.Book of Exalted Deeds, page 47, Vow Of Chastity feat
If you have sexual contact with someone because of magical compulsion, you are considered ‘not chaste’; you lose the benefit of this feat; and you have to pay penance and for an atonement spell.
This is victim blaming.
This is saying that hey, if someone in this game where you get to stab orcs mind controls you into a sexual scenario, you’re going to be punished for it.
And suddenly it feels really gross to make jokes about how this cult of Unicorn Lesbians are all ace icons living in the woods. Because the text of the feat they all have to have has this clause that need never come up, and even if I personally find the idea of chastity odious, the idea of societal sexual constraints and control like the notion of virginity and chastity to be genuinely evil and a byproduct of treating women like property, this rulebook still decides to have rules in place for if your character is raped and those rules make fixing the thing that happened to you your problem, with a fucking price tag on it. And all this to have a slightly shitty cleric cohort unicorn, which you could have by taking the Leadership Feat.
I like Dungeons & Dragons and a big part of what I love about it is that we get to every day, look at it and make it better, and part of how we do that is by pointing at shit like this and going ‘What The Fuck.’
I want to remind you that the Holy Liberator, which predated this class by a year, and which works and is pretty good, makes you immune to being mind-controlled, and gives you abilities that let you break people out of mind control.