Sarah Darkmagic's blog
One of the tensions I often feel when designing game content, either for my home game or for publication, is figuring out how to bring the things that speak to me into the game. Often I feel a lack of my own experiences in games, especially when it comes to things that characters can interact with things that traditionally have been in the sphere of the feminine. One example of this would be childbirth and midwifery.
My own game has had pregnancy and childbirth in it. In my Arcadia game, the NPC they first helped had a housekeeper who had made a baby blanket for her expected grandchild and, since the PCs were going to the town anyway, asked if they might deliver it. The mother-to-be was the daughter-in-law of the local baron, so the group was more than happy to play postman. They later found out that women drank during pregnancy (something that really happened in the past), that she had made a Rumplestiltskin-esque bargain with A. Goblin, and they had a side quest to find some important herbs when there were complications in the pregnancy.
While we dealt with the pregnancy as a side story and none of the PCs were directly affected by it, I think there’s a draw for some to have it be something more in the game. Until fairly recently, midwives were an important part of the lives of women. Most women, once married, could expect to give birth about every 18 months or so. It was so regular that a common genealogical tip is to search for stillbirths or infant deaths when there is a large gap between births. And while it may have been frowned upon in some societies, many women gave birth before they were married. The importance of midwives can be interpreted from the fact they were discussed a fair bit in ancient texts, everything from tales in Exodus about midwives being asked to kill infants to medical texts written by Greeks and Romans.
A midwife has specialized knowledge of pregnancy and childbirth. They may be formally taught or have learned the trade from female relatives or a mentor. The tools and traditions varied by time and place. Some common items in a midwifery kit would be a birthing chair or stool (in many places, sitting was considered more conducive), something to cut the umbilical cord, dressings for any split skin (yes, that can happen), and ointments and powders.
In larger population centers, they may be many midwives and they may even have different levels of education and skill. Some may be technically proficient, learning on the job or from others but with no formal education. Others may have read a few medical texts on the art in addition to their apprenticeship. Even higher in the hierarchy would be those who had specialized medical training and would be considered a medical specialist. In other areas, there might be fewer midwives, and they might even travel from town to town, checking back more often the closer a woman was to giving birth.
In addition to delivery, some midwives would have received training in women’s diseases, particularly complications from pregnancy. They would have knowledge of herbs and poultices to ease various difficulties. They also might have knowledge few others know. They might know about secret romances, pregnancies that were kept quiet, and the like. Some of them might even wish to spread their knowledge to others, like a present-day Edna Adan Ismail.
If you’re looking for inspiration for a midwife character, I’ve come across two sources for inspiration recently:
Call the Midwife
A BBC period piece, Call the Midwife follows the midwives and the nuns of Nonnatus House, a nursing convent, in 1950s East London. The pregnant women are often working class, many of whom work alongside their husbands or are single. Their births often happen in the same beds the pregnant women sleep in, meaning the midwives are constantly making do with what they have at hand, not the sterile environments they trained in. The midwives are often from a higher socioeconomic class and have to adjust to the conditions they find. The nuns are a mixture of classes and backgrounds, often giving a different perspective on the world. I’ve watched the first series of the show and fell in love. But be warned, they do not pan the camera away once it’s clear that the woman is about to give birth. While they don’t show anything graphic, they show a lot more than many other depictions of pregnancy do. If you have US Netflix, you can watch series 1 online.
The Midwife’s Revolt
I found The Midwife's Revolt through the online book review site NetGalley and I’m about a third of the way through it. It too is more of a period piece, this time set during the American Revolution. It’s told through the eyes of Lizzie Boylston, a recently widowed woman whose husband died at Bunker Hill. Through her, we get to meet a number of important women of the time period, including Abigail Adams and get insights into what life was like at the time for women. I enjoyed the details and the look into the feminine side of life during the time period. At the time of writing, the Kindle version is $4.95 and Amazon Prime members can borrow it for free.
Note: I’d like to take a moment to talk about pregnancy and childbirth in games. For some people, this can be a sensitive topic. Because they can be difficult topics to talk about, we often don’t know if someone has suffered a miscarriage, stillbirth, maternal death, or the like, either themselves or someone they care about. Additionally, thinking about pregnancy and childbirth can be difficult for people facing infertility. If these topics are something you want to bring into your game, you may want to make sure that all involved are comfortable with it. Also, remember how comfortable they are may vary depending on which characters are affected by the pregnancy. For instance, some players might be completely ok with an NPC being pregnant, especially if they can avoid that character if they wish. That same person may feel uncomfortable if their own PC was involved in a pregnancy, especially if they felt they didn’t have adequate choice. Also be mindful that not all players of female characters agree that pregnancy should be something they have to contend with if their characters have sex, especially if the male characters have sex without any changes to what their characters can do.
Also, if you play Pathfinder, the Ultimate Equipment book has a midwife kit available. I wonder how it got there.
The first day of PAX East is over and I'm shoring up my energy for day 2. I had to cut day 1 a little short because I was losing my voice and I have a panel today, Campaign Doctors, at 3:30 in the Merman Theater. I didn't get to play many games during day 1, but here are the three I got to play:
Girls Like Robots
Girls Like Robots is a tile puzzle game summed up by the tag line "Adventure. Romance. Seating Arrangements." I played the first level yesterday and bought the game today. Most tiles represent people. Some people like to sit in particular locations or near particular types of people and don't like others. The goal is to sit everyone on the board in a way that maximizes their happiness. At the early levels, we have 3 types of tiles: girls, robots, and nerds. Girls like sitting near robots, and that makes robots happy too, unless they are surrounded by girls (4), at which point they freak out. Nerds like to sit next to girls but the feeling isn't mutual. They also like edges. Diagonals don't count. The girl/nerd relationship bothers me a bit, but if you can get past that, it's a neat game that's all about optimizing. As you play the game, a story unfolds. They all attend Four Corners University and often take the bus together (seating arrangements!).
Systems: iOS, Steam Greenlight, Windows, Linux, and Mac.
Save the cupcakes from the critters by smashing the bugs. But watch out, the tricky bugs are fast and can dodge your finger. This game is still in development, but some of its information can be found on their Facebook page. From the bit I played, it seems to be a cute game and I got a lot of enjoyment from smashing bugs.
Octodad: The Dadliest Catch
I had heard about Octodad back at the NoShow Conference and was happy to finally be able to play it myself. You control OctoDad, an octopus trying to just fit into a human world, with a human wife and human kids. The problem is, it's not easy. Since he's an octopus, he lacks bones and fine motor control. It's much easier to make a mess than it is to clean things up. But he tries, because he really does love his wife and kids. My instant reaction to the game is that I feel that this could help people understand how it is to be different, and in particular, to see how hard it is when your body doesn't respond in the way you think it should. You can download the original OctoDad here: http://www.octodadgame.com/octodad/download/
Systems: Windows, Mac, Linux
Odds and Ends
This booth has handmade jewelry, most with a dice motif. They have earrings, necklaces, and bracelets and they do custom orders. They also have metal charms.
Other games I want to try:
- Tearaway - Similar to Little Big Planet. Game is modeled in paper and then translated to digital form. http://tearaway.mediamolecule.com/
- Telepath Tactics - A strategy rpg similar to Avernum. Has a campaign editor so you can create your own game. http://sinisterdesign.net/products/telepath-tactics/
- Journal - A narrative driven adventure game at least partially explored through a young girl's journal. http://journal.lockeddoorpuzzle.com/
- Contrast - You play Dawn, an audience member, as she uses her tricks of light and shadow, to help performers succeed to their fullest potential. http://contrastgame.com/
- Smashmuck Champions - Reminds me of League of Legends, but in 3D and almost with a touch of the craziness of Borderlands 2. In Open Development, meaning you can play for free (at least for now). http://www.smashmuck.com/
- Lords of New York - An adventure RPG where games of poker are the main resolution system. You play one of five characters, each with their own goals and play style, set in Prohibition-era New York City. http://lordsofnewyork.com/
Dahomey's women warriors, also known as the Mino, were a group of women who served as guards to the king of Dahomey as well participating in battles. Their exact origin is unknown with some claiming it was as early as the mid- to late-1600s and others pointing to as late as the mid- to late-1800s. However, what is known is that the group was defeated for the last time in a battle with the French Foreign Legion on November 4, 1892.
A fair amount of inspiration for RPGs can be found from their history. Two articles gave me the most information, one from the Smithsonian blog, Dahomey’s Women Warriors and an article from the History in Africa journal, “On the Origins of the Amazons of Dahomey” which can be accessed for free with a JSTOR account. The same author, Stanley B. Alpern, wrote a book: Amazons of Black Sparta: The Women Warriors of Dahomey.
Over the years, people have presented a number of theories regarding the origins of the Mino. Not only do these explanations help us understand the people of Dahomey, but they can inspire us to add women hunters and military corps to our own games.
- Palace Guards One origin theory suggests that the group started as palace guards during the 1720s. Under this theory, Dahomean men were prohibited from the palace precincts at night. Women would then have an advantage as guards. Additionally, women were often given as a gift to the king, becoming his wives. These wives were divided into groups, one of which consisted of the women the king would not have children with. Some believe the Mino were formed from this group of women.
- Hunters According to some, the origins of the Mino can be traced back to women hunters, known as the gbeto, returning from a particularly harrowing elephant hunt. “A Dahomean tradition relates that when King Gezo (1818-58) praised their courage, the gbeto cockily replied that “a nice manhunt would suit them even better,” so he drafted them drafted into his army“ (Dash, Mike. “Dahomey’s Women Warriors.”)
- Filling out the Military An unreferenced story in a Wikipedia article on Dahomey relates that they may have been recruited in 1729 to fill out the army, being equipped with just banners. Some articles suggest that the Dahomey people were much smaller than neighboring tribes, thus requiring the recruitment of women to fight.
- Dahomey’s Women Warriors on Past Imperfect|Smithsonian
- Dahomey Amazons|Wikipedia
- On the Origins of the Amazons of Dahomey|History in Africa via JSTOR.
- Amazons of Black Sparta: The Women Warriors of Dahomey by Stanley B. Alpern
- The Amazons|Historical Museum of Abomey
One of the topics brought up and then dismissed is that their existence was proof of greater gender equality among the Fon, the people of Dahomey. This doesn’t appear to be true but rather the women who joined the Mino were, at least in some ways, considered to be men. This often happened through a rite of passage. According to the Smithsonian article, this rite commonly was when the women disemboweled their first enemy. The Dahomean women who went through this transformation often were provided with items that seem to traditionally be reserved for men including tobacco, alcohol, and slaves.
This reminds me of the game “How We Came to Live Here” by Brennan Taylor. One of the themes of that game is that one’s sex and gender are important. However, the game also provides mechanics for a person to choose a gender that is not the same as their sex.
I know I only scratched the surface, but I hope it’s enough to entice you to learn more about this historical group of women warriors.
Difficulties in exploring African History
I want to give a note about the difficulties in exploring African history. One of the problems we face is not only a lack of written record in many places, but that the records that do exist are often written by outsiders. For instance, let’s look at the way many Westerners position these warriors, calling them Amazons. It’s understandable why they do this, by using the word Amazons, their audience will instantly understand a number of things about the Mino, namely that these are women warriors. However, it also limits us. A large number of the myths connected to the Amazons have nothing to do with this group and, since we may get the impression that they are just part of this Amazon category, we might not explore further.
Additionally, since most of the sources we have are from visitors instead of the people themselves, references are scattered across the globe in numerous libraries and in many different languages. Finding them all and creating a centralized record is a time and resource consuming task.
The PBS documentary Half the Sky introduced me to the wonderful Edna Adan Ismail. The daughter of a prominent Somali doctor, she trained as a nurse in the UK and returned to serve her homeland. In the mind-1980s, she started to build a hospital in Mogadishu but the Somali Civil War interrupted the project and forced her to leave. From then until the late 1990s, she served in a variety of advisory positions, sharing her knowledge with others who wished to help the area.
When she returned to Somaliland, she built the Edna Adan Maternity Hospital using donated land. The hospital had two purposes: provide much-needed medical services to the people and rebuild the corp of trained nurses. The latter was a particularly important issue, the civil war had caused many nurses to flee and many of those who stayed had been killed. Since the hospital opened in 2002, a number of improvements and additions have been made. According to Wikipedia, "[t]he hospital now has two operating theatres, laboratory, library, computer center and a complete wing dedicated to training nurses and midwives."
While some of the nurses trained at the hospital stay there, many more network out into the surrounding area, bringing their skills and knowledge to the surrounding people. In particular, midwives often serve in an area, visiting the homes of pregnant women and tracking their progress. Given the traditions of the area, it's important that many of these midwives are women and that they visit the women in the homes rather than asking them to travel to a central clinic. Furthermore, these midwives often have to have specialized training since female genital mutilation is still a common practice here and the resulting scars provide unique and particularly dangerous challenges to women during birth.
When I watched the documentary, I instantly wanted to play a character like her. I already knew midwifery was one of those traditionally female occupations that often was left out of games like D&D. As a PC, I could see her traveling from town to town, teaching people in each area not only how to heal one another through nursing skills, but also teaching a few of them how to teach those skills to others, much in the way clerics might establish new temples. A PC might also want to learn about how pregnancy and child birth are handled in the various cultures he comes across. Many societies have special rituals for the birth of a child and, for some groups, exploring these are fun. As an NPC, why not replace some of those caravan escort missions with helping a nurse or a teacher? Or she could be a great teacher that a PC nurse and/or midwife wants to visit for future training.
Additionally, we could take inspiration from how she builds the community and bring that to our games. What if adventures did the traditional D&D things, such as killing monsters, but some of the rewards from the adventure built up the community and area. The Edna Adna Maternity Hospital was built on land that had been used as a garbage dump. Perhaps, the PCs could reclaim land for a similar community-oriented facility. Likewise, midwifery needs light but babies don't consider whether or not the sun is up when they decide to come out. What if a low level adventure required finding better sources of light?
Some videos of Edna:
 For example, when working on Pathfinder Ultimate Equipment, I noticed midwifery was on the list of professions for the game, but no tool kits existed. So I submitted one and it made it into the book.
 I'm also partial to coming of age ceremonies. When I wrote my ecology of the minotaur article for Kobold Quarterly, I included a few including a form of ritual combat and the importance of a person's first set of armor.
During my freshman year of college, I was fortunate enough to take a two-course class called Humanities. That class introduced me to an author that left a profound impact on me, Zora Neale Hurston. I had grown up in a working class household, my father worked at a junk yard, my mother at factories or, later, in the local school kitchen. I grew up surrounded by books but most of those books could have been placed in a fantasy world for all I knew; they rarely showed life from the point of view of me or my extended family.
Then came Their Eyes Were Watching God. In some ways, it too felt like I had stepped through a looking glass. While my family had visited Florida once when I was younger, I didn't have enough experience with the place to know the wisdom that those in the book had, the innate connection with the land. I had never considered what would happen to a cemetery in the event of a flood. Additionally, while I grew up in an agricultural area and each fall brought migrant workers, I still felt removed from that world. We merely passed each other in the small local grocery store.
Thus, unlike most books I had read until this point, it had the delicious mixture of the familiar and the fantastical, of people I could identify with in a land that seemed so different from where I lived in New York. As I learned more about the author, I started to understand why I loved the novel so much. Her books were an unapologetic presentation of the world she grew up in, one in which women are sexual beings, where people are a mixture of the rational and the spiritual, where love is not always the safe option but its pursuit can lead to adventure.
While Their Eyes Were Watching God is her best known work, Zora Neale Hurston was also a folklorist and anthropologist. She traveled extensively throughout the Caribbean and the American South and immersed herself in the local cultures and traditions of the places she visited. The stories she learned there lead to other works such as Mules and Men and Tell My Horse, both of which capture the stories and practices of the subjects. In Mules and Men, the stories are recorded in the words of the people telling them, but she also records how she got the stories, the little bits of everyday life. Tell My Horse explores Jamaica and Haiti, in particular the practice of Voodoo, but also touches on botany, sociology, anthropology, geology and politics. Many of the reviews note that this is a non-fiction book that reads like a novel, a nod to Hurston's incredible abilities as a storyteller.
Her books would be a great addition to an updated and expanded Appendix N and reading them helps provide another perspective on an aspect of world history that is too often told as if it is alien or exotic or with characters that are overly simplified. Additionally, Hurston would make a great character to add to many games that take place during the 1920s to 1950s. While she faded into obscurity by the time she died, she was a well-known author and she attended Howard University and Columbia University.