Tell Me, Lady

Steerswoman cover

I said to myself, you’re an oddball. But what if the ways in which you were odd were actually the most perfect things to be for some particular situation?

I liked hiking; I loved maps; I loved science and discovery; I hated lies; I had a long gray cloak!; nothing would please me more than walking forever through the world, learning and discovering.

Rosemary Kirstein, on one of her inspirations for the Steerswoman books (Reddit AMA)

I love playing Dungeons & Dragons. And, obviously, I love reading books, very much including fantasy books. But I don’t love the genre of fantasy books that D&D grew out of. Often referred to as “sword & sorcery,” this genre has its roots in Robert Howard’s “Conan the Barbarian” stories and Fritz Leiber’s “Fafhrd & The Grey Mouser” books. Sword & sorcery is contrasted with “epic” or “high” fantasy (like Lord of the Rings), and tends to deal with grittier stories with more personal stakes, as opposed to epic tales of good and evil. Gary Gygax, D&D’s creator, was quite explicit about his preferred subgenre. For reference, look at the list of sources of inspiration gave in Appendix N of the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide. Tolkien does appear, but I think probably more on account of The Hobbit (which is a bit more sword & sorcery) than The Lord of the Rings. In 2020, I picked up “Ill Met in Lankhmar,” Leiber’s origin story for Fafhrd & The Grey Mouser. In short, I barely made it through. The writing was terrible, with no compelling story and lots of blatant misogyny.

As luck would have it, though, in 2020 I also read a book that might have salvaged sword & sorcery for me: The Steerswoman (1989) by Rosemary Kirstein (as well as its sequel, The Outskirter’s Secret). I might be going out on a limb by calling it sword & sorcery, but it felt to me like a salvaging of the genre. The story follows Rowan, a member of the eponymous steerswomen–a society devoted to the discovery and sharing of knowledge in a very low-magic fantasy world. The steerswomen are a sect of (mostly but not all female) itinerant explorers who go around learning about things, taking notes, and drawing maps. They don’t have any special powers, other than being trained in empiricism and logic. They live by a strict code–a steerswoman must truthfully answer any question put to her (often delivered with the formal preface “Tell me, lady”); in turn, anyone she asks a question of is expected to give a truthful answer. Anyone who refuses to answer, or is found to have lied, is put under ban, meaning that no steerswoman will answer their questions.

Demon drawing A Rowan-style naturalist sketch (source)

I’m currently reading the third of four books in the series, though word is that Kirstein is working on two more volumes. I have loved all three of them. Although the overall plot of the series is clearly shaping into something of fairly epic scale, the books themselves have a highly personal feel–focusing on Rowan, her process for learning about the world, and her interactions with others. Rowan is an extremely appealing protagonist (for bookish fantasy nerds!), making her way through the world with a keen eye for detail, but no special powers. Kirstein also does a great job drawing up her various associates (dare I say D&D party?), most prominently Bel the barbarian, but also Willam, Fletcher, Steffie (Steffie!), Zenna and others. It’s a wonderfully feminist book as well, with a smart female protagonist with more than one strong female friendship.

As a tribute to the books, I thought it would be fun to try building Rowan as a (5th Edition) D&D character. It seems like something of a challenge right out of the gate, as she doesn’t really fit any of the standard fantasy tropes. She’s most notable for her intelligence, but normally in D&D this would mean a spellcaster, and Rowan is definitively mundane. The key things to hit in this build would be her strong powers of observation and deduction, as well as her extensive knowledge, particularly of the natural world. At the same time, she frequently comports herself well with a sword in the books–though she’s certainly not the equal of Bel, she is good at identifying weaknesses in opponents’ attacks and putting people off-balance by feinting. I’d say the books correspond to a fairly low-level campaign, so let’s just build her up to 5th level or so.

  • Race (or ancestry): Human. This is a pretty obvious choice, since there aren’t typical fantasy people like elves, dwarves, and orcs in Rowan’s world, but it also matches the character well as we’ll use the variant human option that gives a feat at Level 1. We’ll take the Observant feat, which gives bonuses to passive perception and investigation, reflecting Rowan’s constant observation of the world around her. This also lets a character read lips, and while I don’t think we ever see Rowan do this in the books, it definitely seems like the kind of thing she could do. It also gives +1 to either our Wisdom or Intelligence scores–I’ll get to that when I do ability scores. We get an additional skill proficiency, and I’ll choose Perception, to reflect her observant nature. Finally, we know Common and another language. There aren’t really other languages in the books, but I’ll pick Orcish, as the warlike Orc culture is similar to Bel’s Outskirter culture.
  • Class: Rogue (Inquisitive). I think there are actually several ways this could work. A Scout Rogue instead of an Inquisitive would lean more into Rowan’s “wanderer” nature. And actually, with the options in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, a Battle Master Fighter would totally work too–the “Tactical Assessment” maneuver lets them add superiority dice to History, Insight, and Investigation checks. Plus Fighters get extra feats, which can be used for stuff like Keen Mind. A Ranger could work too, especially with some of the options in Tasha’s, but it’s too much of a spellcaster for my taste. Rowan certainly isn’t a classic “thief” archetype, but the Rogue class in 5e is very flexible. Most importantly for us, it gives the character a lot of skills and some skill expertise, reflecting Rowan’s wide-ranging learning. It can also hold its own in combat, and is (generally) a non-magical class. We get proficiency in any four skills–I’ll choose Stealth (reflecting her general caution), Survival (reflecting her extensive experience living in open country), Medicine (I think there are some scenes of her doing basic first aid, and she’s definitely knowledgeable about anatomy), and Persuasion (reflecting her ability to build a convincing argument). In a real campaign, I might give her Arcana and Religion instead of the last two, reflecting her general knowledge of important things in the world, but little to no knowledge of magic or deities exists in the world of the books. Indeed, you might say that the entire series is about Rowan gaining proficiency in Arcana! We also get proficiency with thieves’ tools, which doesn’t really connect to anything in the books.
  • Ability Scores: I’m going to use the standard array, which lets us place the following values into the six ability scores in any order we want: 15, 14, 13, 12, 10, 8. Here I’ll bow a little to in-game functionality and say we should make Dexterity her best score. Certainly in the books, her intelligence is her strongest trait, but a good DEX is important for making her capable in combat. Continuing on, in D&D terms I would say Rowan is actually pretty equal in Intelligence and Wisdom. INT measures “mental acuity, information recall, analytical skill,” while WIS is about “awareness, intuition, insight.” She has all of these traits pretty strongly. Let’s put the 14 in WIS and the 13 in INT. For the rest of the array, we’ll set CON at 12 (she’s reasonably tough from living her life on the road), CHA at 10 (the books often show her having some difficulty in social situations, but she can be an effective leader), and STR at 8 (just not something that’s ever shown to be important for her). Variant human gives us +1 to two different stats, and the Observant feat gives us +1 to INT or WIS. I’d put 1 in DEX, and 1+1 in WIS. That gives us a final array of 8/16/12/13/16/10 STR-DEX-CON-INT-WIS-CHA.
  • Alignment: Lawful Good. This was an interesting one, as “itinerant wanderer” types like Rowan in fantasy literature tend to be more chaotic. But I think Rowan is definitely lawful, largely because she lives her life by the very strict Steerswoman’s code (which can often be a short-term problem). I think her abiding belief that the universe is governed by knowable laws bleeds over into her own lawful character. And she’s definitely good-aligned–much of the book concerns Rowan putting her own safety on the line to help others.
  • Background: Sage (with slight modifications–fully custom backgrounds are allowed in the rules). This is pretty close to perfect for a Steerswoman out of the box. The “Researcher” feature means that, if she doesn’t know a piece of information, she often knows where or from whom she can obtain it–that’s perfect. Usually Sage gives proficiency in Arcana and History, but I’m going to pick Investigation and Insight as most closely capturing basic Steerswoman training. Sage normally gets two languages, but I’m going to change this to one language and a tool, because it’s very important that Rowan get proficiency in Cartographer’s Tools–drawing maps being a key part of the Steerswoman profession. There aren’t really other languages in the books so far, but let’s say Goblin. Finally, we possess “a letter from a dead colleague posing a question you have not yet been able to answer,” which, while not corresponding to anything specific in the books, could hardly be more perfect for Rowan.
  • Personality: We should pick two personality traits, and ideal, a bond, and a flaw. Rowan’s ideal is Knowledge, its general increase and freedom to those who ask. Her bond is to the Steerswomen organization and her fellow Steerswomen. One of the flaws for the sage background could hardly be more perfect: “Most people scream and run when they see a demon; I stop and take notes on its anatomy.” For personality traits, we can use two of the “stock” ones: “I’m used to helping out those who aren’t as smart as I am, and I patiently explain anything and everything to others,” and “I’m willing to listen to every side of an argument before I make my own judgment.”

This is already a really solid base for Rowan, and right from Level 1 as a Rogue, we get more stuff that helps the fantasy. We gain expertise (double bonus) in two skills, and I’d pick the two key Steerswoman skills of Investigation and Insight. Sneak Attack can reflect Rowan’s ability to strike with precision, especially while fighting with allies. Thieves’ Cant, OK, that doesn’t really do anything for us. At second level, Cunning Action allows a more dynamic and mobile fighting style, which I feel fits Rowan well. At third level, we get our Rogue archetype, which is really where the build comes together–we’ll choose Inquisitive, which gives a bonus to determining if others are lying (perfect for a Steerswoman), the ability to make checks to see hidden things during combat, and the ability to gain sneak attack by analyzing opponents’ tactics using an Insight check (which we have expertise in!).

Really, just going Inquisitive Rogue all the way would be a solid Rowan build. But it’d be hard for me not to take one level in Knowledge Domain Cleric, probably at level 4. For sure, Rowan is not portrayed as religious in any way, but consider this passage from The Lost Steersman: “Nothing equaled her love for that [the Steerswomen’s] ideal. She thought that, if she had a personality only slightly different, she might even pray to it.” There’s nothing in the Player’s Handbook about godless clerics, but it does say that Paladins can get their powers from their ideals as well as from gods. Why not? It also gives a lot of fitting stuff for Rowan. We get proficiency in medium armor and shields, which is helpful for defense until we get DEX to 20 (although I canonically picture Rowan with leather armor, a short sword, and no shield). We can take expertise in Nature and History (in case you were wondering why I didn’t take those proficiencies earlier!), and learn two more languages–let’s say Elvish and Dwarvish. We get three cleric cantrips, and although Rowan is decidedly not a spellcaster, it’s easy enough to pick ones that we can fluff as mundane skills: Guidance and Resistance (representing intelligent advice), and Mending to represent the practical repair ability learned from a life on the road. We also get two first-level cleric spell slots, and, because we have a +3 Wisdom modifier, 4 spells prepared, plus our automatically prepared domain spells of Identify and Command. Command doesn’t really fit the fantasy, but Identify definitely does, and works well with only two daily slots since it’s a ritual. As far as other first level spells go, I’d probably generally prepare Bless (representing effective cooperation and advice during battle), Detect Magic (on brand, and a ritual), Detect Poison and Disease (same), and maybe Detect Evil and Good.

From there, probably Rogue the rest of the way, although a second level of Knowledge Cleric does get us a channel divinity to gain proficiency in any skill or tool for ten minutes–which I’d definitely fluff as consulting Steerswoman logs. We get a feat or ability score increase at Rogue 4, and the powergaming choice is to increase DEX by two, but the best choice for building Rowan is the Keen Mind feat, which gives a photographic memory, improved sense of direction and time, and +1 to Intelligence.

Gear is pretty straightforward. Like I said, I’d generally picture Rowan with a short sword and leather armor. I’d probably give her a short bow too, for when ranged attacking is necessary (I think she is about to learn how to use a bow, mid-way through Book 3). Her “holy symbol” as a cleric is definitely her Steerswoman’s Mobius strip ring. Aside from these, the only must-haves are Cartographer’s Tools, a blank book, and a map case (along with quill and ink that we get from the Sage background).