Contains spoilers for the D&D Starter Set adventure, Lost Mines of Phandelver
For those who haven't heard, Basic D&D 5e is out as a free pdf download and some friendly local gaming stores already have the Starter Set (everyone else can get it starting July 15th). I was fortunate enough to get a press-preview copy of the Starter Set for review. There's a lot I want to talk about but since Mike Mearls was kind enough to give us some hints about inclusivity in the new edition when we interviewed him on the Tome Show, I want to talk about that today, focussing on gender.
There are two obvious big things in the Basic D&D pdf rules that I'd like to mention upfront. The first is the inclusion of a comparatively progressive discussion of sex, gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation, in the game. Found on page 33, here is the full text:
You can play a male or female character without gaining any special benefits or hindrances. Think about how your character does or does not conform to the broader culture’s expectations of sex, gender, and sexual behavior. For example, a male drow cleric defies the traditional gender divisions of drow society, which could be a reason for your character to leave that society and come to the surface.
You don’t need to be confined to binary notions of sex and gender. The elf god Corellon Larethian is often seen as androgynous or hermaphroditic, for example, and some elves in the multiverse are made in Corellon’s image. You could also play a female character who presents herself as a man, a man who feels trapped in a female body, or a bearded female dwarf who hates being mistaken for male. Likewise, your character’s sexual orientation is for you to decide.
Some Opinions on the Wording
First things first. The intent here is nice. I mentioned the existence of this passage to one of my nonbinary friends over dinner and her eyes lit up. The fact that a game company the size of Wizard of the Coast was willing to start the discussion of these topics is important to me. That said, there is definitely room for improvement. Many people who don't feel quite comfortable with the way it was presented have been saying great things. I implore you to go out and listen to them. For instance, one person I admire, Avery Mcdaldno, wrote this:
First off: if that "X trapped in an X body" narrative works for your friend, that's great. We all find different narratives helpful.
The trouble isn't that the narrative exists, but that it has been used for decades as a single story. If the phrase single story doesn't mean anything in particular to you, this is a really good video: http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story
So, there are a couple reasons why this narrative is a harmful one to perpetuate as the single story about trans bodies.
The first is that it implies that total medical transition is necessary in order to belong to your body. In my case, that would mean: collarbone restructuring, jawline shaving (the face is opened up and the bones are scraped down), tracheal shaving, full-body electrolysis, vaginoplasty, breast augmentation, hormone replacement therapy, and more. At the end of it I'd still be trapped in a testosterone-sculpted bone structure. The "trapped" narrative suggests that every trans person needs to commit $10,000-$120,000 toward rehabilitating their body... and that until they do, it's still a wo/man's body.
The thing is: if you identify as a woman, your body is a woman's body.
To say that trans people are "trapped" in the "wrong body" implies a limited range of solutions for finding happiness: pay endless dollars or kill yourself.
Again, if it's a narrative that individuals adopt to make sense of themselves / their lives, that's awesome. I 100% support them. But it's different when others push it on you as a monolothic trans narrative, and lots of people see it as exclusionary / reductive / regressive.
"X trapped in an X body" puts the burden of change upon individual trans people, who are presumed to be broken and then instructed to fix themselves. We need a new narrative. One that says, "Navigate gender on your own terms, ask for the support you want, demand the resources you need, break the binary where you ought to."
There's a really important piece of writing by Little Light, Elena Sims - http://takingsteps.blogspot.ca/2007/01/seam-of-skin-and-scales.html
Another person, Caoimhe Snow, said this:
I will add that as far as I know, this is the first time that Corellon has been called "hermaphroditic" -- previous descriptions of the god referred to something like (from memory) "he, she, both, or neither" which is an example of genderfluidity (and/or divine shapechanging powers), and not of intersex genitals.
There's a lot of other problems with it, ranging from possible confusion of the "female character who presents herself as a man" with a trans man to the fact that most trans people aren't themselves outside of the gender binary.
They had good intentions, but it's clearly written from a cis perspective to a cis audience in way that casts trans people as outsiders -- even explicitly so by referring to intersex magic elves.
Some people pointed out that they would love to see a rewording of the text instead. neongrey posted this new wording:
You can play a character of any gender without any mechanical effect, but you can consider how that might affect your roleplay. You might think about how your character's gender and personality relate to their culture's expectations of them. Do people think it's unusual that your fighter is a woman? Did your drow cleric leave for the surface because his temple wouldn't accept him?
Neither do you need to conform to binary notions of gender. Elves and dwarves are often perceived as androgynous in two very different ways, for example. You could also play a character who feels no gender applies to them, or a woman unhappy with the body she was born with. Don't forget the prevalence of magic lets you explore these possibilities in ways you couldn't in real life, no matter what your own gender is. Your character's identity is entirely up to you!
I hope Wizards of the Coast listens to these various perspectives on the language and updates it in future versions to be even more inclusive and welcoming. I loved that it was pointed out that this is not the first time D&D attempted to address these issues, for instance I believe it was 3e who said you can play a male or female character. Unfortunately, that inclusive left out others because it reinforced the gender binary.
Does the product meet its stated goal?
So, leaving aside where the wording definitely can be improved, let's look at whether or not the promise of the section is matched with the reality of these two products. I've read over both the Starter Set and the basic rules a few times. I think the hints Mike gave about the inclusivity in the art hold true, at least when it comes to gender. There's only one piece of art in the basic rules. While I think there could still be some critiques regarding it, it can be read as having parity between male and female genders and the female characters aren't the only ones not on the front line.
This trend also carries through to the art in the Starter Set. (Sorry about the quality, as far as I can tell they didn't release the art online and I'm not near my scanner.)
Lots of women who are by and large similarly posed and dressed to the male characters. There's another image where I'm not even sure if one of the characters is of a particular gender. At least two of the female characters in the Player's Handbook continues this trend according to previews sent out by Wizards of the Coast.
I'm happy so far with the way the art has been done and I think it meets the promise of the sex and gender section of the Basic Rules. So what about the writing?
First, let's look at how gender is portrayed in the races section of the Basic Rules.
[Elves] Males and females are about the same height, and males are only marginally heavier than females.
Halfling men often sport long sideburns, but beards are rare among them and mustaches even more so.
Male dwarves value their beards highly and groom them carefully.
Human skin shades range from nearly black to very pale, and hair colors from black to blond (curly, kinky, or straight); males might sport facial hair that is sparse or thick.
So, first, let's acknowledge that they had very little space to talk about these races and that none of the descriptions are sexist. However, they do start to reinforce the gender-binary and cisgender norms, no? Also, the inclusivity text asks us to think about how our characters act in accordance with or in contrast with the gender expectations of where they are from yet the only gender expectations set here are for the male characters. It doesn't intend to, but it can give the impression of the male character traits being more important. I've discussed this in more depth in a previous post.
Also in the Basic Rules, they talk a bit about two fighters from D&D novels and how they can both be the same class and yet very different. It's great that they give a male and a female example. However, both examples have elements that are stereotypical when it comes to gender:
Tika Waylan is innocent, almost childlike, believing in the value of life and the importance of appreciating everyone. Neutral good in alignment, she cleaves to ideals of life and respect. Artemis Entreri never allows his emotions to master him, and he constantly challenges himself to improve his skills. His lawful evil alignment gives him ideals of impartiality and a lust for power.
Tika Waylan is naive and emotionally vulnerable, younger than her companions and annoyed that they still think of her as the kid they knew years ago.
Artemis Entreri is completely walled off from any personal relationships and just wants to be left alone.
I think it's important to say here that part of the issue is dealing with the history of D&D is that it has a checkered past when it comes to gender. As with the inclusivity statement, I believe Tika was likely added in an attempt to counteract gender stereotypes but, also like the statement, there may have been some blindspots during her creation and development and in the way that the examples were picked and presented in the Basic Rules.
While the Starter Set rules are also pretty neutral when it comes to sex and gender, the adventure, in my opinion is a mixed bag. Let's start with named characters where the gender is known from the text.
Sir Aldith Tresendar
There are a few other characters that I wasn't quite sure how to categorize: Tsernoth, Palien, Ander, Thistle, the dopplegangers Vyerith and Vhalak, and Tergon. Now, not all characters need to have a clear gender designation, but the gender ambiguity on some of these characters leads to further issues. Let's look at some of the +1 weapons one can obtain through the adventure:
The chest also holds a +1 longsword in a silver-chased scabbard. The sword is inscribed with the name “Talon,” and its hilt is worked in the shape of a bird of prey with outspread wings. It once belonged to a great knight named Aldith Tresendar, known as the Black Hawk. A character who succeeds on a DC 15 Intelligence (History) check recognizes the sword and recalls this lore.
Beneath the coins is a rusty old battleaxe of dwarven manufacture. Runes in Dwarvish on the axe head read, “Hew,” and the rust is misleading. Hew is a +1 battleaxe that deals maximum damage when the wielder hits a plant creature or an object made of wood. The axe’s creator was a dwarf smith who feuded with the dryads of the forest where he cut firewood.
This +1 mace was made for a cleric of Lathander, the god of dawn. The head of the mace is shaped like a sunburst and made of solid brass.
This +1 breastplate has a gold dragon motif worked into its design. Created for a human hero of Neverwinter named Tergon, it grants its wearer advantage of saving throws against the breath weapons of creatures that have the dragon type.
None of these items are directly connected to an obviously female character (I'm holding out slight hope that Tergon turns out to be a female character). In fact, one of the +1 weapons appears to be connected to killing dryads, a race that is specifically tied to the female.
There's also an uncomfortable plot line in Phandalin. One of the male characters, Thel Dendar, was killed for standing up to the Redbrands after some of them leered at his wife.
Thel Dendar, a local woodcarver, stood up to the Redbrands a tenday ago when they came by his shop and leered at his wife. The ruffians murdered him. Several townsfolk saw it happen. The Redbrands grabbed his body, and now his wife, daughter, and son have gone missing too.
It's not their shop. They didn't stand up against the Redbrands together. He wasn't killed during a fight after she stood up to them. Only he counteracted the leering. She and their two children are then kidnapped by the Redbrands, who also turn out to be slavers. Mirna, the wife, and their daughter are in one cell and the son in another.
A pair of disheveled human women are held in a cell to the south, while a human boy is confined the north. All are dressed in plain gray tunics and have iron collars fitted around their necks.
I'm willing to bet no one thought about it, but this feels uncomfortable to me. Redbrands leered at her, she is kidnapped by them, they are slavers, the two women are in their own cell, and only they are described as disheveled.
Let's also look at how some of the female characters are described:
Elsa, a gossipy barmaid
Trilena, the innkeeper’s wife
Linene Graywind, sharp-tongued
Halia Thornton, ambitious and calculating
Qeline Alderleaf, wise
Agatha (a banshee), vanity
None of these are necessarily a problem on their own and in a diverse world with lots of examples of women, they wouldn't raise an eyebrow. But to me, they don't really push gender stereotypes much. Why is Trilena a wife of an innkeeper and not an innkeeper herself? Why have the banshee be vain, a trait commonly associated with women? Also, where are the women who are described like Sildar?
Sildar Hallwinter is a kindhearted human male of nearly fifty years who holds a place of honor in the famous griffon cavalry of the great city of Waterdeep. He is an agent of the Lords’ Alliance, a group of allied political powers concerned with mutual security and prosperity. Members of the order ensure the safety of cities and other settlements by proactively eliminating threats by any means, while bringing honor and glory to their leaders and homelands.
Daran Edermath is a retired adventurer who lives in a tidy little cottage beside an apple orchard. A fit, silver-haired half-elf well over a hundred years old, Daran is a fighter who served as a marshal and herald for many years…
It's also important to note that none of the women are/were adventurers. While a few serve as liaisons for larger groups in the Realms, many of them exist to do nothing more than point the PCs in the right direction to get more information or help with many of those destinations being male characters. Now sure, some of the male characters are presented in stereotypical or negative ways, such as the townmaster.
The current townmaster is a male human banker named Harbin Wester--a fat, pompous fool. Completely intimidated by the Redbrands, he claims that they’re “just a mercenary guild, and not all that much trouble, really.”
But we also have men in the town who are actively standing up to the Redbrands, something that the women aren't doing.
I want to acknowledge that they are trying. There are parts where we can tell that. For instance, the list of important NPCs has parity. But there are still quite a few blind spots. No one of the items I brought up above are necessarily an issue on their own, but the overall trend is. I have faith that they will continue to work on it.
As for the question asked in the title: Yes, I feel like it is a more inclusive D&D, but that doesn't mean that there isn't still work to do. We need to iterate and improve.
When I talk about my experiences and the experiences of others who have shared their thoughts with me, I am often presented with a paradox by some commenters. They present two ideas, often within the same comment.
1. When will you acknowledge that there are just differences between men and women?
2. I though this was a gaming blog. When will you get back to writing about gaming and not women and politics?
Sometimes I think people have become so desensitized to those arguments that they can't see how confining and paradoxical they are. For instance, if it's true that there are differences between male and female genders (we can leave aside which are due to nature versus nurture for now), then why wouldn't what I write be influenced by my gender? Why call it political rather than just another perspective on gaming? Why aren't the posts that focus on things traditionally coded as masculine called political as well? Why don't we ask men why they can't seem to write about more than men?
The people who say these things often have the best of intentions. What they often see is me banging my head against the wall and complaining about the headache. Much like the joke, "Patient: Doctor it hurts when I do this, what should I do? ::pause:: Doctor: Don't move it!" it's easy to treat the symptom and not explore its cause.
That's why I can't help but to write about gender and biological sex and gaming. My culture raised me differently than it raised its sons. Having a uterus means my body does things that others don't. All of those things affect me and my approach to games and stories in the same way that others are affected by their own backgrounds. Not talking about those things would be like I was role playing in real life, taking on a personality and character that is not my own.
At the same time, there is so much we all hold in common regardless of our background. Intra-group differences tend to be much more pronounced than inter-group ones. When you have the time, take a look at your favorite "gender" study and notice the spread within a gender versus the difference in average between the genders. It might surprise you. For instance, while men outnumber women when it comes to being an NFL fan, the spread is actually along the lines of 56-44 with 55% of women watching the sport.
For some, it's hard to deal with the reality that we are all different, that gaming isn't about a monolithic world view with "us" versus "them." That saddens me. These are often the same people who constantly confront me with this gender paradox. At the end of the day, they want me to either conform to their standards or shut up. They misrepresent my arguments, trying to say that I won't be satisfied until everything is done 100% my way, but those libels and slanders are false. The real issue is that they cannot and will not see a pluralistic world. They only see things in terms of hierarchy. There can be only one....
If you wonder where my anger comes from sometimes, that is where. The harm being done is often hidden away under academic pretext or polite phrasing. It comes in the form of seemingly reasonable and rational arguments that never get more than superficial scrutiny. "Men notice breasts. Breasts are a secondary sex characteristic. Therefore all women who show their cleavage do it to attract mates." Sigh.
And it's difficult because others in the discussion, often because they are in over their heads themselves, think all sides are equal, that all theories are valid, even though we know academically it's not the case. In addition, we are so terrible as a species at actually being objective, even when we think we are. But often we don't actually judge people on an objective measurement of concepts like niceness, but on what we expect from the individual. So, when we live in a society that tells us that women should be quiet, demure, nice, and then men should be aggressive, loud, steadfast, we will call women vitriolic for saying the same thing that we considered to be a symbol of restraint from a man.
It's strange to me sometimes that gamers don't notice this. Games, in many ways, are meant to deal with those exact issues. That's why people can be so picky about dungeon masters who fudge dice rolls. They don't want their success (or failure) to come down to how the DM was feeling at that moment in time. That's why many games that allow for narrative control often have a system for bargaining and a lot of advice about talking about things up front.
So, what I ask in the end is that people start questioning some of these assumptions they've made about all manners of things: gender, biological sex, race, ethnicity, sexuality, sexual orientation, the color of the sky, etc. Try to find ways to talk about these things that don't create a paradox. And let's see where it can take us.
War Witch (also called Rebelle) follows the life of 12 year old Komona (Rachel Mwanza), a child soldier from a rural village in Africa. The movie starts with her being kidnapped from her village and forced into service. The invaders give her a horrible choice, kill her parents with a gun or watch them butchered with machetes. The movie doesn't pull many punches. There is kidnapping, war, rape and attempted rape, and murder. However, under all of that is also a tale of love and survival. It keeps the protagonists human despite the inhumane acts around them.
The rebels drink "magic milk," a hallucinogen created from tree sap that is believed to give magic powers. When Komona is the sole survivor of an ambush due to warnings from ghosts, her group believes she is a witch and it falls onto her to be able to determine when and where government soldiers might attack next. She befriends a fellow soldier, an albino boy named Magicien who is protective of her and practices a form of magic of his own.
The movie was written and directed by Kim Nguyen, a Canadian of Vietnamese and French ancestry. He was inspired by a Burmese story of child soldiers. It was filmed primarily in the Democratic Republic of Congo, using local actors. While it is written and directed by a foreigner, this story stays local. Unlike many movies set in Africa, it is not told through the eyes of a white person and no one is saved (or directly harmed) by whites.
I love this movie. Komona and Magicien aren't portrayed as helpless victims. The complicated feelings that can result from these experiences comes through. The struggle Komona has between the traditions of her family and the world she finds herself in grounds her character and help the audience to connect with the story. Nguyen did a wonderful job of changing the story beats to help the audience along. There are moments of levity and hope mixed in at just the right time amid the despair and loss.
I also think the movie did a good job at showing how gender would influence a child soldier's experience. At the age most of these children were taken, there isn't a ton of difference between the sexes, especially when you factor in that most of the "work" is being done by guns. While not directly addressed in the movie, it's important to note that about 40% of the world's child soldiers are girls and that their role is much more complex than the typical "sex slave" narrative often propagated.
As for using the movies as inspiration for tabletop roleplaying games, the use of children in war is nothing new. Many fantasy and science fiction stories explore similar themes. For some groups who want to roleplay a similar scenario, this movie would provide an insight that perhaps isn't always seen or discussed. Given the use of magic in the story, I could see a number of the scenes translated into many fantasy world setting. I could see it working best in a system with narrative currency, since part of the movie is about people who lack power trying to carve out a life for themselves. It also provides some examples of how someone can try to come to terms with the horrors of what they've had to do during war. How do you work past being forced to kill your own parents?
I found the movie through Netflix and it was available in the US for instant streaming. It appears to also be available through Google Play and Amazon Instant Video. It is primarily in French with English subtitles. The movie won a number of awards and was a nominee in the Best Foreign Language Film at the 85th Academy Awards.
Jared and I watch a lot of video game play throughs together. There are more video games out there than we have the time (or money) to play but knowing about them is a great idea given what we love to do. Additionally, some of the commentators are just awesome. Recently we watched one that just blew us both away, Jesse Cox playing the first act of Broken Age by Double Fine Productions.
Two years ago, Tim Schafer and his company Double Fine Productions asked fans to fund his idea for an point-and-click adventure game through Kickstarter. Originally asking $400,000 to create both the game and a movie about creating the game, they raised $3.3 million. Promising to put the extra money into the game, the result is just beautiful. Not only does the game use great voice actors such as Masasa Moyo, Wil Wheaton, Jennifer Hale, Jack Black, Ginny Westcott, and Nicki Rapp, the art is amazing under the lead of Nathan Stapley and the music ties the whole game together.
Over the course of the game, you play two different characters, both question authority and tradition in their attempt to be heroes. Vella, a maiden from the village of Sugar Bunting is expected to dress up in a fancy costume and sacrifice herself for the greater good. In this case, it's to appease Mog Chothra, an ancient creature from far away who visits the villages every 14 years. Out of fear of having their villages destroyed, they hold maidens feasts where the girls are on the menu. Vella, encouraged by her grandfather, thinks there has to be a better way and sets off to find a way to kill Mog Chothra.
The second character is Shay, a boy in spaaaccceee...er, sorry about that...a boy in space. He is watched over by the ship, largely through a computer interface that represents his mother. After a hearty breakfast of cereal (I particularly liked the one named Soylent Dreams), he's given a choice of missions to undertake such as saving people from an ice cream avalanche. We quickly learn that he is in a protective bubble in the form of a ship. He feels like there has to be something more out there.
I can't quite give a proper review of the game as I had watched the entire play through by Jesse Cox before playing it myself. I grew up playing point-and-click adventure games like Kings Quest and I love the genre even if I didn't always love the finickiness of some of the older games. For instance, Jared and I have been watching "I have no mouth, and I must scream" and I don't think I'd ever play that one. The people playing it are often frustrated with the difficulty in clicking just the right pixel and figuring which of the commands are the right one to use.
Broken Age is different. Gone are the multiple commands and limited vocabulary. With very few exceptions, the pixel areas are rather forgiving. You interact with the environment by clicking and/or dragging items from your inventory to the environment element you want to interact with. While watching the play through, I never felt stuck although there were times when the commentator wasn't quite sure what to do although I imagine it's hard to give commentary while playing. The simplicity of the game play isn't for everyone, but I thoroughly enjoyed the game.
The humor throughout was refreshing and often made me laugh. While I think gender definitely influences the adventure each is on and what is expected of them, no element of the game feels gendered. I also love that Vella is definitely a self-rescuing heroine while Shay is someone who likes to rescue others and that the creatures he rescues don't have a gender. Overall, I found the game delightfully subversive.
The main difficulty I see with the game is the price. On Steam it is currently $24.99 for the base game and $29.99 for the game with soundtrack. I played it in about 3 hours but I had already seen a play through. In one of the reviews I read, the writer said he played it in about 5 hours of casual play. I was worth it for me and I'm glad to support the game but I could see it an issue for wider adoption. The other difficulty I see is that the second act isn't out yet and there doesn't seem to be a firm release date for act 2. Act 1 leaves on a cliff hanger, so I could see some fans wanting to wait so that they can play the whole thing through at once.
All that said, please check this game out. Not only does it have a female protagonist, but she is a person of color. Both main characters question the world around them in important ways. The story, art, and music are all superb. It's a great example of innovation in gaming. Now I must find some way to be patient until Act 2 comes out.
I enjoy props at a table and I find that toys can often make for wonderful props. For example, at a variety store a few years ago, I bought a miniature Stonehenge set.
Inside the box there are three groups of things: puzzle pieces for creating the base of Stonehenge complete with numbered areas to help you with placement of the pieces, the "stone" pieces, and a booklet of information about the site.
Even without the stone pieces on top, the base could be used to help describe an area in a game. Anything could be in those numbered squares. For instance, they could be statues (or living things turned to stone). You also could hand out the puzzle pieces over time as pieces of a map or an ancient scroll that showed how certain artifacts had to be placed in order to complete an intricate and ancient ritual.
In addition to the base, the construction of Stonehenge could be used in multiple ways. For instance, it could be off to the side as a form of clock to show how much progress an adversary has made towards obtaining their goal. Or the PCs could be tasked with finding some or all of the pieces of Stonehenge and put it back together. Or maybe the dragon they fought had knocked the pieces down and it is up to them to set everything up right again. Additionally, the fully finished model could be used as part of a puzzle that involves how light would shine on the location at a certain date and time.
The Stonehenge set was made by a company called Running Press. Amazon has a number of their kits.
Similar to this set is another toy I found (although I didn't buy it quite yet). At a local store, I saw a toy penguin that is made up of seven stackable wooden pieces.
As with the Stonehenge set, this could be used as a clock for either the PCs or their adversary and help illustrate their progress towards a goal. Similarly, one could take the image of an important NPC or location in the game and create a puzzle out of it using card stock or cardboard. The nice thing about the puzzle is that it's possible that the players can guess it before the final piece but it helps keeping you from giving too many clues at once. However, if they still can't get it after they have all the pieces, it may be time to allow them access an expert or take 20.
What sorts of toys inspire your games?
When we talk about women fighters in medieval-inspired fantasy games, people will often go on about how we're really trying to reinvent history. In some ways, they are right. Few women fought in organized armies at the time and most of history was written about those armies. However, in many ways they are missing the point.
Most Men Didn't Fight
A combination of ancient and modern warfare clouds our understanding of much of Medieval Western European combat and armies. We're used to large standing armies and large drafts to create larger and larger armies, especially in the two World Wars. We're used to large percentages of young men and smaller percentages of young women shipping off to war.
This view of war would have lost many Medieval wars. The simple reason: food. We have much higher crop yields today, coupled with machines to make harvesting easier, and this frees up more hands for the war effort. I read on one site that we're talking about something like 1 in 30 seeds would mature to feed us in Medieval Europe versus 1 in 2 to 1 in 7 today.
Lower crop yields required much more land and labor than today. To send significant numbers of men, especially young men, off to war would have put the fields and harvest in jeopardy. The exception to this would be the sons of nobility. Since one of the defining characteristics of the nobility is that they didn't work with their hands, they often didn't work the fields. And since titles couldn't be shared or split and a titled family often needed as many resources as possible, spares didn't always have much of a future to look forward to.
Since the overwhelming percentage of men were commoners tied to land and were needed to farm it, the vast majority of men simply wouldn't have been involved in the formal military campaigns of the period, the very same campaigns we often rely on for our information about medieval warfare. We ignore this for games like D&D because it's just not exciting. If it's not exciting for male characters to keep to historical realism, I might suggest it's not exciting for female characters either.
Overlooked Combat Opportunities
With the focus on formal military campaigns, other sources of combat experience often are overlooked. For instance, we know of a number of peasant uprisings during the period. Rebellions have long recruited whomever they could get and have been a source of opportunity for women who yearned for something more. Likewise, when under attack, women could be employed in a variety of defensive positions. They could pour boiling water from above.
In addition, women have long provided combat support roles throughout history. Wives, daughters, and other women might accompany a military campaign. Some would have been noble women, often attempting to get pregnant since that was their and their husband's duty.
Why Do I Find This Important?
There isn't as much documentations on women in these positions in part because it just wasn't that important to the people at the time. Portraying women as independent and strong went against the typical narrative of the day. But when we look at the vast amount of data from the past 300 years, we see plenty of evidence that the formal narratives of the time often differed from women's lived experiences. We should keep that in mind as well as remind ourselves of the limits of history:
- Someone had to find the information important enough to record.
- Future generations had to find the information important enough to save.
- Our generation has to find the information important enough to seek out.
With all of that said, I'm not arguing for historical realism in the majority of games, such as D&D. Instead, I'm suggesting that we cease using inaccurate "historical realism" as an excuse to perpetuate the gender bias and stereotypes we have today.
To celebrate my birthday, Fred and I decided to try out a new boardgame cafe in Brookline, MA called Knight Moves. We met a coworker and his wife there and played a game of Shadows over Camelot. I had a lot of fun and it's a wonderful space.
The cafe has three rooms. The front room has the cafe area including Equal Exchange coffee, pastries, tea, hot cocoa, and chocolates. There are also at least 4 game tables, the game library, and a chess table in the window. Most of the tables easily sit four, although we had to put two of them together to play the Shadows over Camelot game.
The middle room has a bunch of science decorations including a microscope. It also has a nice looking fireplace with mantle. I didn't take a picture of the table because it was in use but there was one decent sized table in there and room for more. Devon, the owner, said that there were additional tables for the room that he could bring out when needed. There's also a curtain between the front room and middle room so that area of the store can be reserved for special events and the like (more on that later).
The back room has one large table as well as the facility's restroom. One thing to note about this place, they put in a fair bit of time and energy to make it look nice. Since it doesn't serve double-duty as a retail establishment, there's lots of room and the emphasis is on you and you being able to try out a bunch of games. Since they don't have a retail portion, though, that means that there is a cover charge. The price for a single entrance is $10, but for that price they don't mind if you pop out for a bite. As far as I can tell, there's no limit on how long you can stay so compare that to say a movie ticket. If you want to save some money, you can buy a pack of 6 of entrances at once for $50. If you're likely to frequent Knight Moves often, they also have memberships. The casual membership is $15 a month and it lowers the price to $6 per entrance or gets you 3 additional entrances if you buy the multipack. You also get a free coffee per visit. A premium membership is $120 per month but gets you unlimited visits. Additionally, you get a free coffee plus a free snack per visit. At least the casual membership also gives you a 5% discount at Eureka! up the street.
Overall the cafe was inviting and Devon has a love for games and, from what I could tell, was good at explaining them. The selection seemed pretty good although I'm half tempted to get copies of some of the games they don't have. I know the price may seem steep to some, but when I thought about what I spend on other venues, I think it's pretty reasonable and may help keep overcrowding to a minimum while keeping them open. He also mentioned that if I wanted to throw a special event that we could work out a deal, so keep that in mind if you have a monthly get together or if you want to do a launch party for a game you designed. I'm looking forward to visiting again in the future. Next time I'm going to bring Race to Adventure so he can try it out.
I recently found a profile of Samantha Swords from the Fight Like a Girl blog (part of Combatant Magazine). For those who are unfamiliar with Samantha Swords, she is a Western Martial Arts (WMA) fighter, actor, prop maker, stuntwoman, and more. Earlier this year she won the long sword competition at the World Jousting Invitational in New Zealand.
I particularly enjoyed her insights into fighting and I think it could be useful to gamers and other creators of fantasy stories. Too often I hear that women are just smaller and, thus, have no chance in combat. She talks about this a bit but points it out as an advantage.
We ladies have a unique advantage over our sword brothers. As well as having a lower centre of gravity, we’re predisposed to be physically inferior, which means that we have to work harder, be accurate and quite cunning to maintain the edge against most of our competition.
It may sound like an illogical advantage, but developing these attributes should happen anyway as a fighter; it’s just necessary for women to get a headstart because we have less to offer in the brawn department. Due to WMA being in the infancy of its revival and having no solid divisions of weight or gender, we’re allowed to be outmatched in competitions. This is good, it teaches humility for learning proper defence. We need to apply tireless dedication to getting things right, because the result is much more obvious when we don’t.
While I know a number of women who are physically bigger and stronger than the vast majority of men out there, I agree with the overall point that not being to fall back on brawn means that women fighters often have to dedicate themselves to their craft. While I don't always find it important to replicate our sexism based on differences in physical size in fantasy literature and games, I do think the concentration on training and practice would be important to anyone of a smaller size regardless of gender and especially among women.
Additionally, Swords points out a number of martial arts that work well for people who aren't as large or physically strong.
I’d advise any female fighters to look at aikido, kumi uchi, goju ryu, and all the fighting guides you can find that use biomechanics to take a pressure or force, and redirect it to compromise your opponent. This will enrich your understanding of historical European combat, because they all point to the same concept: that effective martial arts don’t rely on speed, strength or agility, but an artful understanding of physics and how to apply it to the human body. If your technique doesn’t work because “you’re not fast or strong enough”, you’re doing it wrong!
Often in fantasy stories, we often think that only the strongest or best capable served in combat. The reality was far more complex. We have many different combat styles in part because we were at the mercy of who happened to be available at the time and their capabilities. The challenge put before those responsible for martial maneuvers was how to use what they had to get the result they needed or wanted. We know women have always fought, we just don't always have records of who they were and how they fought.
In a world that didn't tie leadership to combat and/or didn't believe in the natural inferiority of women could easily be set up to teach people of all genders how to fight in a way that used their natural attributes and skills to the best possible advantage. This often didn't happen in the middle ages, at least in the rhetoric, because women's supposed inferiority was an important part of the governance structure, which relied on divine right to rule combined with patrilineal and patriarchal customs. If your fantasy world doesn't have those same strictures, it's harder to argue for the continued lack of women warriors in a society.
I'd like to ask you to consider one further reason why you should include at least athletic girls and women if not women warriors in your stories. Earlier pulp novels could assume an audience that reflected the sexism of the time. This is becoming less and less true. For instance, since the introduction of Title IX in the US, women's athletics has increased dramatically with a 560% increase at the college level and 990% in high schools. Additionally, around that time self-defense courses grew in popularity as a rape counter-measure. Few girls and women my age and younger want to hear that they are physically incapable of defending themselves or others and fewer people, regardless of gender, are used to a world in which girls and women are kept from physical exertion. It does not reflect our reality and will break suspension of disbelief for many, disregarding the fact that many of us want to be strong when we use literature as escapism.
So, if you want to include more women fighters but also want it to make it feel "real" enough given our society's current views of women, this might be a good start. In fantasy literature, Arya from Game of Thrones is a good example of this. If you want more examples of warrior women, especially those who study WMA, the Fight Like a Girl blog highlights more. I also know quite a few women who fight in the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) such as Jeanie Davan.
Also, while I'm on the subject of women fighters, I must point out these awesome sketches by Tess Fowler. Here's an example and you can find more here.
Patriarchy seems to be a difficult concept for some and so I’d like to present what it means to me and, in particular, how it influences fantasy literature and games, particularly those influenced by medieval Europe.
First, I want to say that this article by Finally, a Feminism 101 Blog has an excellent breakdown not only of patriarchy but also kyriarchy. Both are ways of organizing the power structure of a society in an hierarchical manner. Here are the definitions for both that the article references.
Kyriarchy – a neologism coined by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza and derived from the Greek words for “lord” or “master” (kyrios) and “to rule or dominate” (archein) which seeks to redefine the analytic category of patriarchy in terms of multiplicative intersecting structures of domination…Kyriarchy is best theorized as a complex pyramidal system of intersecting multiplicative social structures of superordination and subordination, of ruling and oppression.
Patriarchy – Literally means the rule of the father and is generally understood within feminist discourses in a dualistic sense as asserting the domination of all men over all women in equal terms. The theoretical adequacy of patriarchy has been challenged because, for instance, black men to not have control over white wo/men and some women (slave/mistresses) have power over subaltern women and men (slaves).
- Glossary, Wisdom Ways, Orbis Books New York 2001
So basically, patriarchy represents the preference of men as a group over women as a group, especially in terms of power and authority. When we look at history, it’s hard to argue against this being an element of most if not all of the civilizations referenced commonly used as inspiration in fantasy games and literature. For instance, in many sects of Christianity women are often forbidden from holding leadership positions, especially over men. We talk about founding or town fathers but rarely founding or town mothers. Until relatively recently, male heirs were preferred over female heirs when it came to succession for the British throne, and other titles still follow that preference structure.
However, it is also easy for it to be argued that this view is incomplete. The English didn’t go through every living man before settling on a woman as regent, women were still allowed to rule. Better someone with royal blood rule than a commoner after all! Likewise, African-American males in the US often had a lower social status than white women, especially white women of the upper class. That is why it’s important to look just beyond gender, which is part of the concept of kyriarchy.
Examples of the influences of a patriarchal system
Now, for me, it’s quite obvious that we have lived, and continue to live, in a patriarchal culture. Take, for instance, the founding of a city. A group of people, often lead by one person or a small group of people, travel from one place to another and decide to set up a community. Many times the leader or leaders are married men and their wives perform duties expected of them due to their status as spouse of a founder. However, the history books often don’t record what both of them did, but rather record the man’s name as the founder. Both of them were there at the same time. Both of them were often instrumental to the success of the endeavor, and yet the man is the person who gets the credit, the statues, etc.
Likewise, if you ever do genealogical research, especially in the US, you’ll see that it is often difficult if not impossible to trace female lines. Wives often were referred to only by the husband’s name. I have one obituary for my great-great-grandmother and her surviving family is listed as follows: “She is survived by a sister, Mrs. Frederick Westphal and three daughters and one son: Mrs. Herman Schnoor; Miss Dora Gandesbergen, of Bremen, Germany, and Mrs. William Puetz and William Fillmer of Newburgh Gardens, also by three grandchildren.“
Similarly, if you look at the US Census before 1840, you’ll notice that the only name listed is the “Head of Household.” There are columns for males and females where census takers were expected to enter the number of each age group living under the head of household, who was usually male. Slaves were kept under a separate list and, of course, were listed under a white head of household.
Additionally, sayings like “it’s a man’s world,” “who wears the pants in the family,” and the like point to an assumed male head and female subordinate. In a gender equal world, no gender could claim ownership and, even if clothing was gendered, it wouldn’t matter who wore what.
But many men don’t have it easy!
Besides arguments that patriarchy does not, and has never existed, the second most common argument I get is that many men don’t have it easy and, therefore, I need to stop talking about how women have it so bad as if it’s men’s fault. There are multiple issues with that argument. First, no one says that only men reinforce patriarchal systems. We’re all raised in them from the time we are young and we have a bias to the status quo.
Additionally, while patriarchal systems tend to favor men as a group over women as a group, there is still a hierarchy and not all men are going to come out at the same level in that hierarchy. For instance, sons are also expected to be subservient to their fathers (“Honor thy father and mother”). Men without families of their own might never find a time in their lives when they rule the roost. Likewise, if you read Cathedral, Forge and Waterwheel: Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages, you’ll see that too much subdivision of property meant that a resource such as farm land or manors would cease to support the family. Thus, often the eldest son would inherit the land and other sons may be left out.
By the way, if you’ve ever heard of concepts such as the disposable male (the belief that men’s lives are expendable whereas women’s lives are not), this is where it comes from, meaning the blame rests on the natural results of a patriarchal/kyriarchial system, not feminism. But the belief that we would have to get rid of all of the negatives groups of men face as a result of these hierarchies before we can start on women’s equality is also a result of patriarchal thinking which values male interests above those of other genders.
But this woman I’ve heard of supports patriarchy!
If the system was set up to favor men in these ways and you were a woman, it was in your best interest to reinforce the hierarchy in ways that provided benefits to you and/or your male guardian. When we wonder how it is that women can reinforce a system that restricts them, it’s important to remember this.
What does this have to do with fantasy games and literature?
Understanding how our society’s hierarchies formed and function is important when creating new worlds that make good on their promises. For instance, I’m often told that the Forgotten Realms is a gender equal place. But as I look through the content being created for that world, I see the content often doesn’t match that vision.
The difficulty of course is that it can be difficult to write fantasy worlds for readers in a way where they feel at home and can identify with the characters. Books can’t give us every detail for life and when details are left out, we substitute our own experience in. Since these products serve a wide range of backgrounds, especially ages, and we’ve had a fair amount of change since the end of World War II until now, it’s hard to create the worlds that each broad group expects.
For instance, someone born in the US before the women’s lib movement might find it disconcerting to be in a world where one’s gender wasn’t called into question when it came to business, education, or combat. On the other hand, someone who grew up with stories of the Night Witches and the other women who fought in WWII might find it difficult to believe that women would be excluded purely on their gender alone. People like me might find it unsurprising that some people question whether or not a woman can do “x” but may also dislike highly gendered occupations and societies, especially when we’re asked by the writer to identify with characters who espouse those beliefs. I know many people much younger than me find the gendered messages in early D&D modules strange and disconcerting. Details that were provided as hints that a woman was evil, for instance, don’t resonate with them in the same way.
By understanding how the patriarchal and kyriarchial nature of our society influences us, we can more easily separate out what is reliant on those beliefs being commonly held and which are truly based on sex-based or gender-based differences. I believe that can help us in providing content that speaks to a wider range of audiences and also helps us create worlds closer to what we say we want.
For a closer examination of the lives of women in the Middle Ages, I highly recommend Terry Jones' Medieval Lives : S1 Ep 3 - The Damsel and Women in the Middle Ages by Frances and Joseph Gies. I've also found a bunch of examples of warrior women from the time period in Warrior Women: 3000 Years of Courage and Heroism. Also, after my last post, David Donnelly recommended Nancy Godstone's Four Queens: The Provincial Sisters who Ruled Europe, Helen Castor's She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth, and Susan Ronald's Heretic Queen: Queen Elizabeth I and the Wars of Religion.
Recently the British Library released over a million images to the public domain. They were taken from 17th, 18th and 19th century books that Microsoft digitized and released via Flickr Commons. These images should be free of copyright restrictions although it doesn't hurt to consult a lawyer if there are any concerns.
When I was looking through the collection, one book caught my notice pretty quickly, Sketches of England. By a Foreign Artist, Mons. Myrbach ... and a Foreign Author, Mons P. Villars, etc. Published in 1891, the book features a number of sketches from England, including a fair number of crowd scenes. What caught my eye was the number of women in them. For example:
From what I can tell from just the images (I haven't had time to read the book yet), women make up a decent percentage of the crowd scenes and a number of the smaller group pictures. While I realize this is just one book, I still found it interesting in comparison to a recent report that among the 101 top grossing G-rated movies from 1990 to January 31st, 2005, just 17% of the crowds were female. That would be approximately 1 in 6. While I haven't sat down and counted every person represented in these sketches, it seems like women constitute a much higher proportion of the crowd than that. In my quick count of the first 19 images with people in them, I counted approximately 60 people who appeared to be male and 47 that appeared to be female.
For more info on the research on the numbers of female characters in media aimed at children, check out this video by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.
I think these images could be useful in a number of gaming encounters set in the 1890s, especially in England. They also can serve as inspiration for people seeking to draw more gender inclusive crowd scenes.