Why random roll gender?

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 10 August 2012

This morning, Pelgrane Press had a pretty awesome tweet:

So why is this awesome? Consider that while there are a large number of women who game, many groups are predominantly male and many of the content creators are male. As an additional layer, parts of the community feel uncomfortable about gender bending during games, that is having players play characters that are not their own gender. What this means is that many of the characters, especially PCs, are male and the focus is on male stories[1].

Artwork © 2012 by Susan Knowles. Available through the Prismatic Art Collection. Licensed under the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution-ShareAlike license.Artwork © 2012 by Susan Knowles. Available through the Prismatic Art Collection. Licensed under the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution-ShareAlike license.Given this focus on the male characters, it becomes easy to forget about women, particularly in games that claim some degree of historical accuracy. We've always had exceptional women and, in every society, women were rarely true victims and usually had their own sources of power. However, since those power structures tended to exist separate from the public sphere, they are left out of many history and gaming books. Furthermore the opportunities and challenges faced by women tend to vary depending on socio-economic class, but many of our stories focus on the interests of the ruling or upper classes.

Also, women's power tended to ebb and flow. Women have a long history in resistance movements in part because those movements often promised more freedom for them and also because the groups needed all the help they could get. During times of disease or war, women were called upon to fulfill traditionally male tasks. Someone needed to keep the farms and shops producing. For wars on local soil, women were called on to aid in defense. Even armies that marched elsewhere often had some women in the camp followers: wives of soldiers and officers, wives and daughters of the provisioners, blacksmiths, and the like, women who provided entertainment or other services.

The interesting thing about these stories is that while they were often promoted during the conflict, most often aren't spoken of after the conflict ends. Sure we might talk about the ones we can't ignore, especially if in the end it doesn't turn out well for the women, such as Joan of Arc. One reason for this is that it often didn't suit societies needs to talk about the bravery of its women when the men returned home. These acts of heroism and individual resolve were in direct conflict with the female gender role which stressed that a woman's worth was to be found through marriage and children.

My hope is this. Random rolling of gender should lead to a greater number of female characters. In order to make them unique and interesting, we'll have to look at history how it really was, complex. We'll start appreciating women's contributions to society and value what people like Molly Pitcher and Elizabeth Wynne. While I might hope that people would expand their ideas of what women are capable of, even if they decide to keep to the traditional definitions, I hope they might see that women often faced the same problems as men and found their own solutions within the framework they were presented. Finally, if more characters were women, I might hope that the audience would demand more artwork of women that was meant to fit their character and the world, rather than to serve as decoration.

[1] I don't point these things out to make a judgment about it but rather to explain how behaviors that are reasonable and rational might lead to unexpected and perhaps even unwanted outcomes.

The artwork is from Farewell to Fear.


I've been using this rule ever since somebody posted it on their blog (years ago?) – roll a d6:
1. young man
2. young woman
3. adult man
4. adult woman
5. old man
6. old woman

Short and simple and forces me to add some variety.

That's awesome. This whole concept is super cool. Screw you, ageism and sexism!

Maybe it's because I live in an area with several all-female colleges, and my corner of Western Massachusetts is considered "ultra-liberal", but I find lots of folks who start off wanting to play genders different from their own. As a DM, I often have to catch myself with pronouns, accidentally referring to a character by the pronoun his/her player uses, but I've had very little issue with gender diversity at my tables. And the issue of transgendered characters is a whole other ball of wax (that I've run into more often than I ever thought I would).

Still, I haven't always lived in these utopian situations where all players are excited to stretch their comfort zones. In the past, I've often presented games to my players as a chance to role-play someone who is different from who you are in your normal life. If that means playing a different gender, or a different race, or someone with opposite interests, or someone on the opposite end of the Meyers-Briggs personality spectrum... then that's great! That's how we expand ourselves... and that's what roleplaying is about. But it's always been an option... I don't like forcing gender on a player anymore than I like forcing railroaded plot down their throats. So while I encourage diverse choices, I don't know that forcing a die-rolled character choice on all players is the right answer in all situations. If I know a shy newer male player will have a hard enough time playing an extroverted Bard, I'm not going to also force him to play a female as well.

I love the idea of more female characters in games (and of course better, more representative artwork), but there have to be other ways to promote it in addition to the forced randomness of a die roll.

1) Part of it is about jumpstarting the process.
2) It's about being more true to the game world. These women exist but many players are blind to them because they aren't in the books and aren't necessarily on the players' minds. As with many things in gaming, people are more likely to break out of their mindset when given a challenge.

I agree with Joe: I think it'd be nice if The Industry started taking more notice of women in their materials, but the notion of forcing random gender rubs me the wrong way, just like random class, random race, or random stats would. It can be a useful option for someone who feels like they're in a rut and want to try something new, but I don't think mandating it (by Fiat or in the Rules) would produce useful results. As a player I want to choose the character I'm portraying.

Then don't do it, but realize your own biases.

In games where you define relationships, including romantic relationships, as part of character generation, that gender roll would also be determining sexual orientation.

Which I think would also be awesome, but it's definitely something to flag.

Would it help to have more people playing cross-gender characters that don't do it well? I'll admit that I cringe when I think of some of my older cross-gender characters. I've ogtten better over the years, but I know some people that still play the old stereotypes.

And let's not forget the old 1st ed D&D cursed magic item that forced your character to change gender. Of course, I believe that was back when women got negative Strength and + Comeliness modifiers... but it was still an awful thing to do to a player, and it still lead to some of the most horrifically stereotyped cross-gender play I've ever witnessed.

Gender equalization is still important... just a more complicated nut to crack.

Maybe the issue could be partially addressed if specific adventures? If it's a specific all-female adventure, perhaps due to some goddess setting a rule or some ancient man-hating cult's temple where only women can enter... and then make it a really fun/innovative adventure or the only way to get a particularly awesome magic item. That way, players will approach the project knowing that they're going into a gender-specific adventure, which might make it more palatable to folks who normally might be opposed to gender-forced gaming. Just an idea.

*IN specific adventures, that is.

I like this in principle, but but I think it could be asking a lot of the hobby to break down so many barriers. Plus, having seen some truly woeful cross gender playing, I really don't see it being much a help unless the players embrace the challenge and do it well. a random roll that may go against what the player is comfortable with could end up with them feeling hostile towards the idea, and that seems counter intuitive.

This seems like a better concept for a one-shot than a campaign.

Removing control of a person's character in a campaign seems like it has a potential for disaster that outweighs the potential benefit. Your character is your only area of control in a campaign. Everything else involves negotiation with other players and the GM.

Gender-bending can be a great learning experience, but it isn't one that should be a requirement without the consent of the player.

I am touched and flattered you have written this. It's so much more than my simple original idea.

At the very least, this gives me a pretty awesome idea for a female character pressed into service after the men go to war... and who never quite felt comfortable going back to the 'women's work'. Rogue or mage might work but something tells me a warrior with a strong right hook might have the most impact.

I like this idea quite a bit. Another form of the same idea (which I use in my fiction writing) is to regularly gender-switch characters through the conception and rewriting processes. A benefit is that if unconscious gender biases slip in somewhere along the line, the next switch will help to highlight those biases. Then perhaps a roll at the end can determine the result. It would also be interesting to roll gender and sex separately.

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