Over the past few months, I've been trying to consume more media where women are more heavily present whether as lead characters, supporting roles, or just stories that focus on a decidedly more feminine role or point of view. One of my favorite finds during this time period is a movie called 5 Branded Women, a 1960 film directed by Martin Ritt set in a Yugoslav town controlled by Nazis. Here's a plot summary from IMDb.com:
Yugoslav partisans grimly crop the hair of a village quintet of women believed to have consorted with the occupational Nazis. Four, for various reasons, have indeed - and their seducer is a lone, swaggering sergeant whom the partisans briskly emasculate. Escorted out of town by the sheepish Nazis, the forlorn ladies link up, patriotically and romantically, with a band of tough mountain guerrillas.
Now, if the parts of the poster or description make you nervous that this is going to kick up the sensuality to 11, please, don't worry. Are there a few scenes that are a bit objectifying? Yes. But much of the movie is way more nuanced and introspective than that. I'm going to have a few spoilers below, so please stop reading if you'd rather see the movie first.
As the description notes, the movie follows five women believed to have slept with a Nazi sergeant. This "betrayal" angers some Yugoslav partisans, in some cases more because one of the men wanted one of the women for his own. They kidnap the women and forcefully shave their heads. Since a woman's long hair is a big part of who she is in that society, this is a big deal. Additionally, the revelation of the affairs breaks the peace of the town and the Nazi leader agrees it is in the best interest of everyone involved that the women be exiled from town. They are forcefully marched, with nothing more than the clothes on their back, through the town and outside the main entrance to town. They are left there to fend on their own with no food, supplies, additional clothing, or shelter. Sounds like the start of an adventure, doesn't it?
After leaving town, at least three of the five women make stunning confessions. One never slept with the man, she is still a virgin. Another is pregnant with his child. A third slept with him in hopes that she would have a child, something that being denied to her otherwise. That's something to note about this movie, each woman has her own beliefs, motivations, desires, and needs. Although they may superficially look the same, especially as most of them cover their heads with scarves, they are not.
Over the course of several days, the women have a number of adventures. Here's an example: [YouTube]
This scene happens after one of the women attempts suicide. The other women save her and they spend a night sleeping next to one another. The next day they continue their walk. Soldiers drive by them singing. As the soldiers round a bend in the road, gunfire breaks out. The women cautiously investigate and find a man shot by the truck. It's not shown here, but they grab his gun from his body, a tool that becomes useful later when another man attempts to rape one of them.
As they travel, no one will help them. No one that is, until they meet up with other partisan fighters. Eventually they are able to persuade the men to allow them to stay in their camp. They are taught how to keep guard, fire weapons, and the like. As often happens, one of the men and one of the women fall in love. Their attraction for each other causes them to miss an invader in their mountain camp and they are brought up before the group as a whole on charges. The group is required to make a difficult choice, follow their rules and kill the couple or give them a second chance.
What I loved about this movie is that it has a great mixture of perspectives. Sure, it has it's own message to tell, it is an anti-war movie after all. But it goes beyond that. I can understand what motivates the various groups, even if I don't agree with them. The women aren't all the same, they encourage and support each other, and often solve their own problems. It provides a woman's point of view on things as well as taking the tactic of working with what you have, rather than judging them.
So beyond the entire movie being a classic adventure, here are some things I found interesting:
- Exiled protagonists can be interesting, for the right group. What taboos exist in the setting's culture? How do the people in the setting mark those who break those taboos?
- Whenever there is a war, there is always a shortage of people. Part of the reason the women are able to become resistance fighters in the own right is because the partisans need everyone that they can get. The majority of the people just try to live their lives the way they did before the Nazis invaded. This need breaks down stereotypes.
- Love and pregnancy don't wait for a safe time. There's a good chance that if the woman who slept with the Nazi in hopes of having a child had waited for the end of the war, she would be too old to have children. This is a concern that is particularly pressing to those people with a uterus. It's a concern that arises again and again in the material I've consumed concerning women and war. Furthermore, sidelining the pregnant so that they are only in "safe" places leaves out this reality that many people face throughout the world and throughout time. Another great story resource for this is the comic Saga.
If you can find a copy of it, I suggest watching it and mining it for ideas.
Attention: Spoilers of the Lost Cavern of Tsojcanth ahead.
Some people questioned how I could have a problem with the Lost Cavern of Tsojcanth. The main character from history is a woman afterall, and a powerful one at that. She imprisoned the demon
Having an evil main character be a woman isn't necessarily a problem. Heck, in a world with gender equality, that should happen about half the time. I have problems with the fact that the only prominent women in the world are evil. In the societies presented, such as the gnomes, there are no strong women. In fact, the female gnomes are non-combatants even when the blood thirsty PCs are at their door attempting to slaughter them.
Furthermore, there are additional issues with Drelnza. First, she is literally called treasure. Now some people might want to spin this into a "Look, motherhood transcends pure evil for Iggwilv considered her daughter to be her treasure." I could almost buy this, although I'd find that too a bit problematic, but Drelnza is presented as literal treasure, a golden Sleeping Beauty or Snow White.
The sleeping maiden is armored from toe to neck in gold chased plate mail. A long bastard sword is atop her body, its quillons below her breasts, its point near her feet. The woman's gauntleted hands are crossed over the sword's pommel. Her pale face seems composed. Her lips are bright red and her raven-hued tresses are lustrous. A helmet with plumes as black as the maid's hair rests on the slab just above her head.
To play up this Disney Princess connection even more, she attempts to manipulate and charm the party.
Drelnza will then awaken and be fully aware, but she will remain still until someone enters the chamber. Drelnza will then sit up slowly, pass a hand across her brow as if coming out of a strange coma, and then blink her eyes open. When she sees the party, she will smile sweetly and welcome her "rescuers" -using a vampiric charm on each member of the party. She will attempt to charm as many persons as possible before the whole party comes down into the lower portion of the sphere. As soon as a lawful good cleric comes within 10' of her, Drelnza's sword will spring into her hands, and she will smite the cleric. Drelnza has a bonus of +2 to hit and +4 damage with weapons, due to strength.
So, yes, part of me wants to say, well at least she's strong and bad ass. However, I'm not entirely sure this is due to her strength or due to the weapon itself. In fact, she also stands out for having a sword that has its own ego and intelligence. The sword is so powerful, it overshadows her.
Her sword is a chaotic evil bastard sword +4 with an intelligence of 17 and an ego of 20. Its special purpose is to slay lawful good clerics, and any such cleric struck by it must save vs. Paralyzation or be paralyzed for 1-4 rounds. The sword also has the following powers: detect good, detect magic, detect invisibility, flying. The sword can communicate telepathically, read languages, read magic, and speak Common, Hill Giant, Minotaur, and chaotic evil. Drelnza wears plate mail +2, and slippers of spider climbing (see the end of the module for details on this item).
I need to pause for a moment and ask an obvious question. Full plate mail, gauntleted hands, a helmet, but her feet are covered with slippers?
Also, here we have one of the few examples of NPC women fighting in this module (the exceptions being Trogoldytes, Formorians, Female Wolfwere, and Alu-demons, most of them being evil), and she's pure evil. In the good aligned groups, we have lots of male warriors, but the women are listed as non-combatants, as with the gnomes.
We also have no idea going into that room who she is. The module plays on the trope of wanting to save the sleeping woman, someone who is very often a princess. Sure the armor might throw it off a bit, but it's shining! She can't be bad, she probably needs to be saved, even though we were warned against saving her, but just look at her. Besides, if we don't do anything, we don't get any treasure. Clearly she's part of the treasure we're supposed to get.
While I can understand that at first glance, she seems like a badass character, in the context of the story, it's all off.
So, what would I change? Well, first, adding some female warriors who aren't evil would help a bunch. Make some of the border patrol leaders women, and the same with the gnomes, dwarves, and elves. If you want to keep her as the sleeping beauty, I might suggest putting some clues as to who she is. Maybe place some images of Iggwilv throughout the dungeon and when the characters come upon the warrior-maid, have them roll a check to see if they notice the resemblance to give them a chance against falling prey to her wiles. I'm sure that there are other things to do, but I think this would be a good start.
I don't know how to write this.
This weekend, I tried to read The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth for an upcoming Tome Show episode. I had a copy of the original printing but I heard that text updates weren't really made in the recent reprint. I lost interest quickly. While reading the module, I noticed that while there were some exceptional female characters, a string of gender essentialism runs through most of the social groups.
For instance, why aren't there prominent female gnomes? Even the cleric and illusionist in the main defense group are male. Male clerics fill out group 2 and other groups. Although the women are the ones who are at home (and theoretically are in a safer place), they have less coin on them:
Each male gnome has 2d4 gp. Higher-level gnomes also have
1-4 pp, with the die roll for both gold and platinum multiplied
by level. Females will have 1-4 each electrum and sp. Young
will have 1-8 cp.
(Note: I believe 1 electrum is worth 5 silver pieces)
Besides the detail of how much money they carry, female gnomes only get mentioned in the last stand complex, the one that the PCs shouldn't really get to unless they are blood-thirsty bastards:
If the gnomes are attacked and the pass cannot be held, the gnomes
will fall back to their caves and burrows, making a stand in the cave
complex of the Laird Gwaylar. There are the following additional
forces at this place:
Illusionist (AC 4, ring, +4 bonus due to dexterity; MV 9"; 17; hp 33;
#AT 1; D 1-4) armed with dagger+2, a wand of illusion, and a
ring of protection +2. He has the following spells available:
FIRST LEVEL: change self, color spray, detect invisibility
SECOND LEVEL: blindness, hypnotic pattern
THIRD LEVEL: invisibility 10' r.
12 Guards (AC 4; MV 6"; HD 1; hp 8, 3x7, 6x6; #AT 1; D 1-8) armed
with longsword and dagger.
200 Female Gnomes: Non-combatant
120 Young Gnomes: Non-combatant
A while ago, I posted somewhere about some of the 2nd edition monster races that I felt were thinly-veiled swipes at feminism. People asked me why I cared about something that was written so long ago. This is why. Because during this playtest, people are being told to play the S-series modules if they are looking for more content. Because what is old is new again.
This doesn't even include the final scene of the dungeon, where the PCs find out lggwilv's "treasure" or the "Antechamber of the Garden of One Thousand Earthly Delights." I don't want to spoil it for others.
While this isn't the only reason I've pulled back from D&D recently, it is part of it. I can't wait until there's more meat there so I can create my own stuff, because reading this stuff just makes me sad. That said, there is some neat stuff in the module and I hope to talk about that part a bit more during the review episode, but I also wanted to explain why I haven't written much about D&D and D&D Next recently. Reading this stuff reminds me of the bullying I went through as a child because I didn't fit into neat gender stereotypes and the bullying I still get because of it.
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.
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.
In my last post, Exploring Women's Power, I gave a list of common restrictions on women during the medieval European time period and ended with the following:
So, that's the power structure you find yourself in if you are born a woman. While some women, particularly those of noble birth, can break those rules, for the vast majority of women, that wasn't really an option. And remember, you're still a person with basic needs and desires, such as food, water, shelter, sex, etc.
So, if you were a woman with those restrictions, how would you navigate society, providing for your own future and, perhaps if you have them, for your children?
The framing of the question is my first suggestion for how to deal with sex and gender in a more inclusive way in gaming books. I realize that D&D traces its roots to war gaming and in those games, it's common to provide modifiers to an entire class of people, such as all Greeks or all musketeers, based on commonalities within that group. This is common in other games as well, such as the Civilization franchise. For instance, in Civ, I often played the English because the benefits that country received fit well with my game play style and what I wanted out of the game.
But the thing with those games is that we are rarely playing an individual and are instead acting in a removed role, often from an almost god-like vantage point. These sorts of decisions make much more sense when we're dealing with a 10,000 foot viewpoint because fine details and differences are meant to be excluded because they are unimportant for the simulation we are doing.
However, when we move to a level of the individual, as we often do in games like D&D, this perspective can become stifling. We are often the protagonists of our stories, and those sorts of characters are usually most interesting because they struggle against or break away from the norms of their society. Bilbo and Frodo both go on adventures, something that is fairly scandalous for a hobbit to do. Part of what sets Drizzt apart is that he is male and that he was not sacrificed as a child, although tradition dictated he should have been.
In fact, we often strive to ignore these dictates, often through providing additional rules, classes, races, etc. Additionally, usually male norms of behavior for the time period are completely left off the table. Getting married and raising children was often considered a duty for both men and women. Likewise, I hope you don't start your adventuring campaign during harvest as every hand was needed to stave off starvation. In our works, somehow farm hands not only get swords but magically have the training to wield them.
With all that in mind, here's what I would suggest as a starting point.
Separate sex from gender
While some consider this a relatively modern thought, throughout history, there have been examples of societies offering the ability for people born of one sex to take on the trappings traditional for someone born of another. Shield maidens are a common fantasy example of this, women who act like men often at the cost of never having sex or experiencing motherhood and sworn virgins are a real world example. We can also find examples of this in How We Came to Live Here.
As studies of sex and gender have started to examine trends across cultures, we've found that many things people in the US or maybe even Europe thought were tied to one sex or gender doesn't universally apply across the globe. It appears that culture has a strong ability to determine how we act, what we're good at, and how we think. Furthermore, the differences within a sex are far greater than those between them.
Finally, as much as we like to think of sex as binary, the biology is way more complicated than that. While we think of testosterone as being a male hormone and estrogen as being female, both are present in just about everyone and hormone imbalance is a common condition. Furthermore, we have people who are XXY and some who are XY but their bodies lack the ability to process the male hormones to create male sexual features. Attempting to simplify the world into one with binary sex erases these people from existence.
Given these, I would like to suggest to game designers that they separate out sex from gender. When creating the game or the game world, be conscious of which elements would be biologically based and which would be the result of gender and gender roles in society. We don't have a great vocabulary for making the two distinct in the work itself, but if designers and developers learned to distinguish between the two, that would be a nice move, in my opinion.
For Sentient Races, Make Sex-Based Mechanics Rare
It's hard to find sex-based traits that are universal and, even with the ones that seem to be tied to sex, the differences within the group are often far greater than the differences between groups. Any limits imposed by sex will, as a result, seem arbitrary, something even Gygax pointed out when they removed sex-based ability caps.
So, when should they vary? We can all point to a number of animal species where there is obvious and clear dimorphism between males and females. Perhaps the males have horns or bright, showy colors. Carefully consider which of these differences you add to the game and, if you include any significant number of them, look at them as a whole to see if you are biasing them towards one sex over the other. For instance, if you are creating a game where the object is to go into dungeons and steal treasure from monsters, and the majority of your sex-based mechanics make it easier males to accomplish that goal, then I might suggest adding some mechanics so that female members would be better at it too.
Furthermore, by moving most of the differences from sex to gender, and having gender tied to culture, that makes sexism and gender stereotypes something characters can fight against if they wish.
Vary Your Cultures
Once we move most of the differences to gender rather than sex, it becomes easier to create an inclusive game world that supports the telling of many different types of stories. What if in culture X, the most famous military victory was won by a group of women defending their homes? How would that effect the culture as a large? Would children grow up studying the tactics used? Would there be statues and paintings of those women everywhere? What if the culture thought that only women had the patience to master math and science?
By the way, these different cultures don't have to be their own nationalities or tribes. Even within a larger group, there are often sub groups and people are often members of multiple subgroups at once. So a character's race, religion, class background, birthplace, and gender could all combine to make them unique and give them a unique set of tensions to work through (In the real world, this is part of intersectionality). What happens when someone who comes from a poor background where people use everything they can from an animal finds himself called to a religion that forbids using certain parts of the animal?
Recruit a Diverse Crew
When creating a fantasy game setting, look at the world as a whole and see that there are areas likely to be interesting to your different groups your fan community. I'd even suggest making a point of inviting and hiring people from those various groups to create parts of the world with you. No one of us can understand every perspective in the world, and hiring people from diverse perspectives helps us find our own blindspots and makes it easier to connect to those various groups. For instance, David Gaider has an excellent blog post about how a diversity of perspectives helped make Dragon Age better.
Playtest with Female Characters
As much as you can, try to get people to playtest the game with female characters. It can be hard on a read through sometimes, to find the issues that might discriminate against female characters in the game world, especially when the bias might come from an interaction between your work and the biases of your community. If much of the game text always mentions a female character's looks, that might be more obvious if you are reading it from the point of view of someone playing a female character.
What are the Male Gender Roles
If you are going to spell out female gender roles, make sure you put out there the male ones too. What are the men in society working against? Is it a belief that they have no intrinsic value? Are they taught to suppress their own desires because they must not only produce children but also provide for them and their mother(s)?
Remember, At the End of the Day, People Still Got Stuff Done
If I could leave you with only one thing to consider, it would be this. At the end of the day, women still had to get food in their stomachs, they still need some form of clothing and shelter, and, often, needed to get their sexual needs met. This is true regardless of gender. So regardless of the restrictions society attempted to place on them and their ability to do these things, those things still happened. How do they happen in your game world? Or, did you create the magical world where people never jaywalk or litter and no one tries to sneak out an extra slice of cake?
(By the way, this doesn't even begin to touch other areas such as LGBTQ.)
Recently, Amanda Valentine wrote a great post on her site about why story matters. In it she says, "Story matters, on a fundamental level. Fiction reveals reality and can, in turn, change it." This sentiment has been something that's been on my mind for a while now, and I think often gets lost in the discussions and critiques of story.
One of the issues I often face in reading fantasy books or in playing a number of roleplaying games is that it feels obvious that people knowledgeable of women's history weren't involved in the creation, either as creators or as an expected target audience. I can sense this because the historical feminine perspective, and in particular, women's sources of power are often left out of the world, especially when it comes to mechanics.
I can already hear some of you saying, "Hey, just wait a minute. Women were oppressed in ye olden times. They didn't have any power. What's this you're trying to sell us now?" I can understand that sentiment, it's a common trap we can fall into when discussing systemic oppression. We have a tendency to view things in the binary, you either have power or you don't. Our stories often reinforce this since complex stories are much harder to tell and don't give us a clear message. However, this point of view also dehumanizes women in history, painting them as powerless victims while we know that this wasn't always the case.
So, I'd like to ask you to put on your game designer hats for a moment and explore the world of women. First, let's talk about world building. We know that in the US and Europe (and some other places besides) certain rules affected women. Let's call the the default story of the world.
- Women are expected to submit and be subservient to men, especially in any area with a Christian tradition. This starts with them obeying their fathers and is expected to continue when they marry. This was meant to mirror the hierarchy in the church and there was a common belief that the two became one with marriage, with the husband at the head.
- Women are not allowed to own property nor enter into contracts on their own. When their husband dies, if they have any property, they may get that dower, meant to sustain them in the event they outlived their husband, but the rest of the estate was portioned out by the husband.
- Given that education was expensive, it was common to not educate girls to the same level as boys were educated and to restrict their education to subjects appropriate to their future lives as wives and mothers in the home. Many professions and guilds banned women members (although sometimes there were exceptions for women who worked under male relatives) and many universities would not accept women as students.
- Children were the retirement plan for many. A relatively large family of both boys and girls meant the costs for care could be spread around and would increase the chances of having a child alive when it became harder to work. In parts of colonial America, children could be compelled by the court to pay for their parents' care.
- Much of society is ruled by families, not nations. Being born or married into the right family can increase your prospects; the wrong one can lower your esteem.
- Upward social mobility is limited, but families that lose esteem or gain enemies can fall fast.
So, that's the power structure you find yourself in if you are born a woman. While some women, particularly those of noble birth, can break those rules, for the vast majority of women, that wasn't really an option. And remember, you're still a person with basic needs and desires, such as food, water, shelter, sex, etc.
So, if you were a woman with those restrictions, how would you navigate society, providing for your own future and, perhaps if you have them, for your children?
As I mentioned yesterday, the #1reasonwhy hashtag has been on my mind a lot. For those who don't know, on Monday, Luke Crane, a game designer and an employee at Kickstarter, asked why there weren't more women designers.
Why are there so few lady game creators?
— Luke Crane (@Burning_Luke) November 26, 2012
A number of us replied, with Filamena Young, a game designer and co-owner of Machine Age Productions, adding the now-famous hashtag to her response.
While a conversation about 'why so few women designers' was going on, I was taking my son to and back from the docs. #1reasonwhy
— filamena (@filamena) November 26, 2012
Most of us started using the hashtag and our circle of respondents grew. I haven't had time to sift through all the tweets, but I've heard others say that the number of participants numbered in the hundreds if not the thousands. That's some pretty important stuff.
What bothers me a bit is that the press stories often start with pointing out that Luke Crane asked the question. I'm not upset he asked it but it's not exactly news that he did. He and I have talked about this issue before and I know he's been in on other conversations about the same issue. All of the women who directly answered his question have talked, in public, about these issues before. We have multiple posts on Gaming as Women talking about these issues.
No, the real story here isn't that Luke asked the question. It's that Filamena's awesome hashtag gave us an easy way to unify our voices in a way that could not be diminished or ignored. It's that, even though Filamena Young, Meg Baker, Jessica Hammer, Elizabeth Sampat, Nora Last, myself, and others have answered this question and others like it many times, we answered it again. We answered even though answering takes time away from doing things like, say, designing games.
And, in answering, we were able to release a bit of the tension that eats away at us each time we have to suffer one of these injustices. The memories of some of being physically assaulted at a con. The fear that accompanies hearing a number of grown men who disagree with you about something talk about their heights and weights and saying it's too bad they won't be at the con they know you are attending. The knowledge that some people will refuse to give you an opportunity because they don't think it's fair that they might have to hire a woman, she might get pregnant after all.
For some, witnessing that tension release is uncomfortable. First, we often have a taboo against it. That's why we diminish it by calling it "bitching" or "whining." Also, seeing the pain and anguish caused by expressions of our privilege tends to make us uncomfortable. We want to defend ourselves, our actions. We are afraid of being considered less than human even as, through our actions, we had done just that to someone else.
However, sometimes this tension release is a necessary first step in the process of building a new community, a new us. We need to be able to acknowledge the problems without feeling like we are being blamed and without assigning blame to others. That's one of the great things about the #1reasonwhy hashtag. It doesn't attempt to assign blame. It just says, this, this is a reason why I don't do all the awesome stuff I know I'm capable of doing.
Now, it's time to do a post-mortem. It's time to look at the reasons people gave and find ways to address them. We've already started doing that. Pretty soon after the hashtag was created, the offers of mentorship came in. Mentors are a great first step and we can do so many more. Maybe it's time to rethink what qualifications are needed to create world-class games. Perhaps it's time to rethink how we use archetypes and stereotypes in our games. Additionally, maybe the game press should start following some of the female designers who are out there so that the next time something like this happens, they can see the whole story, not just that some guy asked a question that's been asked a thousand times*, even if that guy happens to be Luke Crane (who, by the way, has been supportive of me).