The Promise of Fantasy

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 30 June 2010

One thing that often surprises me is how much, and yet how little, we change when we create fantasy worlds. For instance, we often radically change the look and feel of the world. We add new wondrous species, awe-inspiring locales and epic legends. However, rarely do we change the fundamental underpinnings of our societal structure such as our views on gender, race, and disability. In these aspects, our worlds are more likely to mirror our reality than our desire.

Why is this? For one, we have a hard time imagining people with motivations and a world outlook different from our own. This is evident in our insistence on giving modern motivations and sensibilities to historical events and people. Given how I was raised, I can't imagine what it was like before the advent of modern medicine, when most children did not live to see adulthood. Likewise, I can't imagine being willing to sacrifice a child or to kill someone for stealing the seed grain. But yet people did those things and made those value judgments. I can write them off as monsters or acknowledge that perhaps they thought about the world in a way different than I do.

Often, these societal views are tied to fundamental issues of identity. Our race and nationality often tie us together to certain value groupings and orderings in ways that are difficult to escape, or, at the very least, lead others to group us in ways that are unfair to our individuality. Gender identity confronts us every day, from the ways we address each other to which restroom we use. Those with disabilities are often acutely aware of them because they call out our individuality, often at times when we most want to be part of the crowd. We allow these things to define us because our societies define us by them.

The fundamental nature of these rules means it's often easier to change ourselves than change the rules. We go through great lengths to "fit in" whether it's neutralizing accents, getting plastic surgery or going into debt to have the newest shiny. It's no great surprise then that we have a hard time ignoring these impulses when we design our fantasy worlds. And, when we do escape their pull, we have a habit of pointing it out, often in a jarring manner.

This underlying issue is why the lack of character diversity in D&D upsets me as much as it does. I know that there is no vast conspiracy, corporate or otherwise, to keep anyone "in their place." Rather, the problem is that we lack a bit of imagination and a willingness to reshape the rules of our existence. Even in a world where trains move by magic and people can call lightning from the sky, we often have few female adventurers, far fewer than the 50% of the population they presumably comprise, and most adventurers are healthy without a scratch on them. Our characters still conform to Western European ideals of gender and color and the virility of man.

Not every writer, DM, or player is like this, but enough are that the promise of fantasy still outweighs the reality. I'm sorry that it saddens me a bit, but I would be lying if I said otherwise. It's an incredibly hard problem to solve and, for the majority of players, often not a fun one. I wish I had some easy fix and I know it's much easier to just shrug our shoulders and ignore the issue entirely. But I'm making a resolution to think about these things in my games and, I hope, that some of you will join me.


Part of the issue is alot of fantasy games use medieval values as a baseline. In medieval times women had virtually no rights. By extention it leads to less female adventurers. Alot of games include suggestions for how to include female adventurers in a party, despite what the "times" dictated. It is less about overlaying modern conceits and more about overlaying medieval conceits.
The same can be said for disabled persons. In medieval times they would sometimes be considered "spawn of the devil". Again a medieval conceit but one that fits in with the "setting". Personally I have found that most DMs tend to ignore that portion of a medieval setting and do not bring in bias against disabled (or female) characters.
As a visual example, lets look at the newest Robin Hood movie (like or dislike the movie, it illustrates a point). The female protagonist is seen as a "viril" individual. She runs an estate, shoes horses, runs a plow, etc. Most audiences can buy into that. There is a logical reason for why she is "allowed" to do these things (a missing husband and an aged father). However, at the end when she suddenly appears in armor fighting "as a man" it gets a bit weird. Where did she suddenly find armor to fit her? Where did she suddenly gain martial skill? In a normal medieval setting she would not have had access to those things. The movie also didnt bother to explain how it did happen. It was jarring to see her at the end of the movie in those scenes.
What you really need to do is have a setting step out of the usual medieval tropes; and yet the medieval setting is easy to use for most gamers and why you see what you see in games.

Another reason why there may not be as many settings that challenge our modern cultural assumptions is that there is the risk that any differences will be seen as an overriding theme or purpose of the setting/campaign. For example, if a setting deliberately included a social practice of aborting pregnancies before a certain age (of mother) or after a specific number of children (ex: no more than 2 children per family), then people might assume that the game was intentionally an RPG that explores abortion issues. If it included a slave race as a major setting component, then it might be viewed as an RPG about racism. In both cases, those may not actually be the purpose of the game, but including aspects that differ from our core values provokes an immediate awareness of the difference, possibly even generating a sence of "wrongness" that would be hard to ignore. Is this just or fair? Perhaps not, but the existance of such reactions does need to be taken into consideration, especially in a commercial setting.

From Elizabeth Wayland Barber book Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years : Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times (from the start of Chapter 1, "A Tradition with a Reason" starting on page 29):

For millenia women have sat together spinning, weaving, and sewing. Why should textiles have become their craft par excellence, rather than the work of men? Was it always thus, and if so, why?

Twenty years ago Judith Brown wrote a little five-page "Note on the Division of Labor by Sex" that holds a simple key to those questions. She was interested in how much women contributed to obtaining the food for a preindustrial community. But in answering that question, she came upon a model of much wider applicability. She found that the issue of whether or not the community relies upon women as the chief providers of a given type of labor depends upon "the compatibility of this pursuit with the demands of child care." If only because of the exigencies of breast feeding (which until recently was typically continued for two or three years per child), "nowhere in the world is the rearing of children primarily the responsibility of men...." Thus, if the productive labor of women is not to be lost to the society during the childbearing years, the jobs regularly assigned to women must be carefully chosen to be "compatible with simultaneously child watching." From empirical observation Brown gleans that "such activities have the following characteristics: they do not require rapt concentration and are relatively dull and repetitive; they are easily interruptible [I see a rueful smile on every care giver's face!] and easily resumed once interrupted; they do not place the child in potential danger; and they do not require the participant to range far from home."/em>

Just such are the crafts of spinning, weaving, and sewing: repetitive, easy to pick up at any point, reasonably child-safe, and easily done at home. (Contrast the idea of swinging a pick in a dark, cramped, and dusty mine shaft with a baby on one's back or being interrupted by a child's crisis while trying to pour molten metal into a set of molds.) The only other occupation that fits the criteria even half so well is that of preparing the daily food. Food and clothing: These are what societies worldwide have come to see as the chore of women's work (although other tasks may be added to the load, depending upon the circumstances of the particular society)./em>

Readers of this book live in a different world. The Industrial Revolution has moved basic textile work out of the home and into large (inherently dangerous) factories; we buy our clothing ready-made. It is a rare person in our cities who has ever spun thread or woven cloth, although a quick look into a fabric store will show that many women still sew. As a result, most of us are unaware of how time-consuming the task of making the cloth for a family used to be.

You're absolutely right. There's no reason a shared fantasy world has to conform to the iniquitous social relations of the real world. This discussion makes me think of George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series, where women have a strictly circumscribed social role, much like medieval Europe...but he still gives us characters that strain against that role, like Cersei Lannister and Catelyn Stark, as well as those who break out of it, like Lady Maege Mormont and her daughters, and Brienne of Tarth.

I've been re-reading Robert E. Howard's Conan and Kull stories, and despite some embarrassing racism and sexism, at the very least Howard's stories take place in worlds that have a dizzying array of cultures (even though he's none too kind to many of the non-white ones). Including more non-Western European settings and elements is something I've been trying to do in my own games - and I think many players would be excited about the prospect, since you can get away from the sometimes cliched tropes of standard fantasy.

I think there are at least two ways to go about this: 1, to correct real-world inequalities in-game, so that for example, female rulers and adventurers are just as common as male ones. 2, you can set up a world where inequalities exist, but use them to underline their parallels in the real world. This doesn't need to be the center of a campaign - you can use these social inequalities as background themes. The primary rule is for everyone at the table to have fun, so if players don't want to play in a fantasy world with racism and sexism, there's no reason they should have to. We shouldn't have a player play a female knight and then persecute the player for their choice for the sake of verisimilitude.

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