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Thursday, 6 December 2012

Warrior women: how to include female characters in a historical RPG?

David asked me these questions this morning: How many female characters should you include in a fantasy role-playing game? If it has a historical setting, does historical accuracy mean female characters should be excluded?


My own answer to this is somewhat subtle. In a high-fantasy setting, I personally feel your sexism should be checked at the door: to put it more forcefully, if you are down with fire-breathing dragons and magic swords but have a problem with me playing a female warrior, you can fuck right off.1

In a historical or pseudo-historical setting, things get more tricky. There weren't any female Knights of the Round Table. A woman centurion in the Roman army would have had a tough row to hoe. There is a distinct lack of female samurai on the record. (Oh my goodness, I just googled that and discovered the onna bugeisha!) Does this mean we can dispense with gender parity altogether when playing in those times and claim we are striving for historical accuracy?

No, we shouldn't. In designing an RPG campaign set in a past time, I would aim to include around 50% female characters, though without aiming for genderblind casting of equally combat-ready men and women.2 David calls this genderblind approach 'whitewashing'; I think it ignores the roles played by the women who were really there at the time. I want to include the Joans of Arc and Tomoe Gozens, for sure, but there will also be nuns and countesses and strong-armed female farmers.

For example, yesterday David and I played a dry run of a Call of Cthulhu-based game he's been developing, set in 1815 Devon. I controlled three characters: a male surgeon, a 'gentleman detective' type and the female half of a brother-sister pair of con artists, Alice Stanton. Alice was arguably slightly over-powered for the time, but a good fit for this game. She had a high fighting score as well as the professional skills of being able to charm people and pass herself off as a lady. Off the top of my head, though, I can think of some other female roles that would fit into the setting. Female servants—a cook, a maid or a midwife, who would have very useful skills to offer. A self-willed, upper-class adventuress who insisted on joining the party. The surgeon's wife. (My gentleman detective, preferring the company of his own sex, was unmarried.) Although mathematics and the sciences were mostly the province of men of means and leisure, there were exceptions to this rule and a woman mathematician could be an interesting party member in a Lovecraftian universe.

Perhaps a historical game that includes female characters will be less of a hack'n'slash, but you can hopefully see that interesting possibilities are opened up this way. Women have been largely left out of much of the historical record, because men did most of the writing down, but they have always been present and had their own stories to tell. I think that leaving female characters aside would be less accurate than to include them.

Montsegur 1244, in which the playable characters are gender-balanced, handles this well. So does Kao, a FATE variant set in feudal Japan, which Johannes Kling created for our indie games group a few months ago. The seven roles we took included the widow of a daimyo (lord), a shinobi in disguise as her attendant, and a shrine maiden. Just like the male characters, all three had good reasons to be in the party as well as relationships and goals to drive play.


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This post was kicked off by a conversation David and I had this morning, which in turn was spurred by this article on The Mary Sue: An Analysis of Sexism in Historical Fantasy. Because I wanted to get my own thoughts down before I read the original article, I didn't realise that it was about fiction (rather than RPGs) until just now! I definitely agree with its points regarding fantasy fiction, but also want to repeat the comments David made on Twitter:

I think portraying hist. societies as more equal than they were *is* whitewashing. But no excuse not to include nonwhite nonmen. (link to private tweet, with permission)
I really dislike making the fake-past nicer than it was: feudal relations portrayed as good, magic healing potions, etc. (link to private tweet, with permission)

What do you think?

Edit: Alex also wrote down some thoughts on this topic. The MetaFilter thread on the original Mary Sue article is also interesting reading.
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1: Actually, in our current Labyrinth Lord campaign I play a dwarf whose gender is not a matter of public record, although he uses male pronouns for convenience.

2: I play in a fortnightly indie games group that tries out a new game every session or two. Whoever is leading will often roll up a set of characters for players to pick from, to save time at the start of the evening. Character creation might be handled differently in other types of game, but my point remains the same!

3 comments:

  1. I think I'd go for genre conventions, thus if we're playing a historical RPG, then the histories written by men are my guide. For my Pendragon campaign, for example, I felt that the fiction and the campaign focuses on the deeds of men. The rules also have a separate section for female characters that I could have ignored but which decided to keep in the game, wondering whether they'd add variety. Then I realized that it was going to be hard for me to run adventures mixing martial prowess and female characters created with these rules and so I ended up with an all-male cast of characters.

    For me, that is a reason not to play a historical RPG. I'd prefer a fantasy or alternate history version where we either have characters of all genders or the game is about the inequality itself. Much like I don't like to have slaves in my games unless we're playing a game about fighting slavers.

    I don't enjoy importing real world problems into my games unless we can engage with them.

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  2. Most of the people I know roleplay in order to play larger-than-life characters. Playing the kind of woman who gets taken seriously in a patriarchal society counts as larger-than-life in my book. Yes, there will be different obstacles for some characters, and one of them is that women will find some of the NPC's are chauvanists. But part of the game is overcoming obstacles. I probably play the average person as a little less bigoted than reality, with the intolerance mostly coming from a few bad guys. I tend to play racial intolerance in the same way.

    I guess I see the day-to-day problems as being less enjoyable for both me and my players. It gets dull when the people of every town go over how improper it is for a woman to be travelling with unrelated menfolk. By focusing on a few villains, you still get the historical feel, plus it makes for such fun when the bad guys get what's coming to them.

    Of course this is something that requires a little understanding and communication between the people in the group. If people don't want to deal with these serious issues in a game, I'm okay with toning it down. Yes, it's not historically accurate. But I'd rather that everybody had fun than having a historically accurate game.

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  3. Alex: Yes, Pendragon was actually one of the counter-examples I thought of when writing this post. I really enjoyed the one session we played with the Monday group but I don't know if it's something I'd play longterm.

    I don't enjoy importing real world problems into my games unless we can engage with them.

    That's a good way of looking at it!

    Philo: I very much agree with your comment, especially this part:

    Most of the people I know roleplay in order to play larger-than-life characters. Playing the kind of woman who gets taken seriously in a patriarchal society counts as larger-than-life in my book. Yes, there will be different obstacles for some characters, and one of them is that women will find some of the NPC's are chauvanists. But part of the game is overcoming obstacles.

    That's something I was trying to get at with my post.

    There are definitely historical settings where it doesn't make sense to include female characters—but if someone find themself consistently choosing to play in those settings, I think it's a good idea to think about why that is.

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