Thursday, September 11, 2014

Fighting Women

[in which JB starts down the road to crucifixion]

Forget Robert E. Howard's Conan character for a moment. Or Karl Wagner's Kane character. Protagonists that are uber-strong, super-cunning, catlike in their speed, steely-thewed, and charismatic "leaders of men." In other words, forget the characters that (if modeled in D&D) would not only have a high level and (perhaps) multiple classes, but exceptionally high ability scores across the board. Forget that.We used to see the occasional character like that back when we used the ability score tables from the 1E Unearthed Arcana (Type VI method of generating abilities? I think that's what it was called), but since then I've seen very few uber-statted character's rolled up at my B/X sessions. Maybe one (named Farnsworth). And he ended up down four levels to a vampire and fleeing for his life, so I'd hardly compare the dude to "Conan."

Heroes in fiction are known for being exceptional...usually in one or two ways...but for me, the best heroes aren't exceptional in every regard. They have some normalcy that we can relate to (if not outright weakness). Superheroes are fun and all, but if they are infallible godlings most of the time...well, they can get boring.

In the new FHB ("fantasy heartbreaker") I'm writing, I have players (mostly) roll 2D6+6 for their ability scores  (this is something I've started to incorporate in all my "B/X based" designs lately. Um...a total of three, at the moment). This gives a range of 8 to 18 for player character ability scores with an average rating of 13. Since the normal human range of ability is still 3 to 18 (average 10-11) this makes the heroic player characters a "cut above" the average slappy.

Mechanical bonuses for ability scores start at 13. Exceptional range of abilities is 15 to 18. Since a player would need to roll a 9 or better on 2D6 to hit 15 (a 28% chance), most PCs on average will have one or two "exceptional" the fictional heroes I prefer.

Please note: there is no mechanical disadvantage for a low ability score. The game doesn't even have a "roll under ability" mechanic, so there's really no penalty for having a low score. You just don't receive any bonus.

Now, I did said "mostly." As I wrote in yesterday's post the exception to this is female characters (not players) who roll 2D6+3 for their strength (STR) score. This is done with the purpose of reducing the average strength of a female character (from 13 to 10) and capping a female character's maximum strength at 15. Now there is some recompense for this...female heroes have learned to compensate for their lesser muscle mass in other ways, and receive 3 bonus points to distribute among their ability scores (which is pretty good since each point increase above 12 is it's own "breakpoint").

Why would I do this? And no, I don't just mean, "why would I open myself to criticism" (I can be something of a masochist at times). Instead, I mean:

"Why bother to write sex-specific game mechanics in a day and age when we are striving for inclusivity and working hard not to be part of the problem by carrying forward old fashioned stereotypes into fantasy tropes...especially given a fantasy setting with magic and dragons, etc.?"

[notice, I said "sex-specific," not "gender-specific." Spent half a day yesterday researching transgender lingo to make sure I've got my brain on straight when it comes to sensitivity. "Sex" is considered distinct from "gender" because the former is a product of biology and the latter is a mental-societal construct and, thus, open for interpretation: see Uruguay for the logical reinterpretation of this census datapoint. Regarding my game mechanic: it doesn't matter what gender the player or the character consider himself/herself to be, the mechanic is tied to the biological status of the character's sex: male or female]

*ahem* Where was I? Oh, yeah...why would I do this? Well, two reasons: one good and one bad.

The Bad: I hate Wizards of the Coast. Well, "hate" is probably too strong a word, but they have been rubbing me the wrong way for years now. And their abstract ability scores that (in 3rd-4th edition) went "to infinity an beyond" with no real rhyme or reason or justification just bugs the hell out of me. What does it mean that a 16th level elf girl fighter has a strength of 22 (for example) and a burly half-orc dude has a strength of 17? Not a blessed thing. It's just abstract numbers giving you a mechanical bonus that makes ability scores O So Important for killing folks and collecting those XPs.

[yes, I realize ability scores are capped in the new 5E rules]

So given a choice between being like WotC and "doing something different," I usually opt for the latter (usually...I'm totally stealing the advantage/disadvantage mechanic for Cry Dark Future). I want ability scores to represent something...and if a character can have a strength of 20-30, just what does that represent? By my game's definition of the Strength ability score, that would be "one big honking brick shithouse of a person." Which leads me to my better reason...

The Good (or, at least, "Justifiable in My Mind"): I'm trying to model something specific. 

No, no, not that "women are the weaker sex." Even if that is a biological reality (across most of the animal species on planet Earth), we're still talking about a fantasy game. There's no reason to say that women (or for that matter, men) of a certain subset can't grow to a size and muscle mass of equal proportion to any NFL linebacker. Call them the "titan" sub race of humanity. I can even picture them: they are all (male and female) around 7' tall with big hair (80's style), anime-fantasy garb, and sporting two-handed great swords in back sheaths that "normal" humans couldn't even lift. They only live in the southeastern part of the continent, but some have emigrated to other portions of the game world where they mix and mingle freely with other humans. People with strength over 15 are presumed to have at least some "titan blood" in their ancestry.

See how easy that is? Easy-shmeezy.

What I'm trying to model is what I see in fantasy fiction: the heroic female adventurer. They're there, though sometimes it can be hard to find them. Teres in Wagner's Bloodstone. Jirel of Joiry. Howard's Dark Agnes de Chastillon and Red Sonya of Rogatino (and their directly inspired Red Sonja...she really deserves her own post) as well as his character Valeria from Red Nails. Eowyn. Lythande and (many) other characters by MZB. Aspirin's character Tananda (from the Myth series). Kildee Wu (from Steve Perry's otherwise fairly bland Black Steel novel; I haven't read the other Matador books, but they appear to feature female assassins as protagonists). "Harry" from Robin Kinley's The Blue Sword (and Aerin Dragon-Killer from the prequel-sequel). And, sure, Brienne of Tarth.

Ride, Harry, Ride!
These are all "warrior women" of some form or another. There are other female sorcerers and thieves and minor "adventurer" characters scattered through fantasy literature (Cythera from David Chandler's Ancient Blades trilogy comes to mind as a good one), but right now I'm just talking about good fighters in fantasy fiction...fighters that happen to be female.

Some are exceptionally clever, some are fairly ignorant and uneducated. Some are charming seductresses, some are awkward with potential partners. Some are lesbians, though not the majority. Some use magic or sport "psychic powers." All are deadly combatants in hand-to-hand.

None of them are iron-thewed, 'roided-out monsters.

But then, my new fantasy heartbreaker doesn't require a character to have a high strength to be deadly in combat. "Fighting skill" (that is, one's capability in mortal combat) is a product of the character's experience...i.e. the character's level. And remember, a character that gets a better "roll over" result on his or her attack is going to score more damage. Strength does not add to one's attack roll (though a character with "exceptional" (15+) agility does receive a +1 bonus); instead, it simply increases the maximum damage the weapon can do. You still need to hit...and hit do that damage.

My purpose here is to model the types of female adventurers one finds in fantasy fiction. Outside of video games and the superhero genre, I don't generally see super strong or brawny heroines. Instead, I see highly capable women who use their other attributes...brains, fighting spirit, make up for any "deficiencies" their lack of muscle might cost them. And that's what I want to represent. Not all male adventurers are "brawny" types either (see Elric, for example)...but then, that's why all players have the option to swap an ability score to better fit their character concept, right?

But perhaps, perhaps, perhaps I am being insensitive here or marginalizing female players by having sex-specific creation mechanics. Because even though a male or female player can choose to play a character of either sex, real live people reading the game book are going to say, "O look...girls are so weak!" and we will have all sorts of mayhem ensue because of it.

If that's the case, um...sorry? Should I put in some sort of disclaimer in the book? Or essay? Or apology? Because I really, really don't want to change the mechanic. I have another B/X game (a more pulpy action game) that doesn't even have a "strength" score because, you know, who cares how much Indiana Jones can bench press? Fitness and physical prowess are better ability scores for that type of genre...and in such a game, biological sex really doesn't matter.

Okay...gotta' go. Please comment as I'd like to hear folks thoughts. Thanks!


  1. Well, as a dad with two daughters, I wouldn't use the strength level caps for their female characters in AD&D. It hasn't come up, so far, anyway, but I would just drop it. I don't remember there being sex-specific difference in rolling strength for Moldvay, Mentzer, and Holmes.

    By the way, you may want to check your assertion about most males being bigger than females across the animal kingdom. I'm pretty sure that is true amongst most mammals, but not for invertebrates, especially insects, who make up most of the world's population of animals.

    1. @ Darn:

      Just to weasel a bit...I did say "even if." I don't profess to be a zoologist or anything.

      [that being said, yes, I was thinking mammals, not insects. Thanks for calling me on it]

      : )

  2. I don't see anything wrong with the mechanic. You're modeling something specific, and these are heroines we all enjoy. There's still room for larger women with an 18 Strength as a separate character choice (if you're that worried about keeping people off your back, maybe be sure to include something like that). And here's the big thing: you're providing a trade-off. The problem a lot of people had with the rules in 1e was men were strictly better, even if it rarely came up. This sends a message that no rational person would ever want to be a woman

    Looking through old issues of the Dragon, it seems most people think women should get a +1 to both Constitution and Dexterity (not so sure about the former, personally). A +1 to Wisdom or upping their max Strength to 18/75 have also been suggested. Your solution seems pretty reasonable

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I thought this was going to be a Ray Rice post.

    1. @ Scott:

      I almost...ALMOST...tried to work something about Ray Rice into the post, but thought better of it.

  4. Well-argued points JB, I think modelling the fiction is fine. Looking forward to your game.

  5. Two problems that I see

    1. You need to pick the gender of your character before you roll dice so you are putting character concept before ability generation. I am a huge proponent of generate abilities then pick a concept that works with the abilities rolled. But that's just me.

    2. It seems that you are given an advantage for choosing female as your non Strength scores will be on average higher and you get a point buy to manipulate the randomness and allows you to build towards a class.

    That being said I agree with much of your post that ability scores make little sense. In my FHB (Peril and Plunder) I use racial ability score caps because I don't think a Halfling or a Dwarf should be able to be as strong as a Human or a Half Orc. I don’t apply them to gender because it seems more trouble than it is worth in a rules light game.

    1. Simple solution to #1, if you play a female character subtract 3 from whatever strength you rolled.

      2. This fits with the tropes of most female protagonists compensating for disparity in strength with other attributes.

      Ironically, female heroic protagonists have an advantage in that they are generally allowed to be more interesting and clever since they do not come with the expectation that they need to be 'strong' in a typical male fashion. Occasionally, one sees a male fantasy protagonist, like Taran from the Prydain chronicles, who doesn't adhere to the typical model of "male protagonist = strong tough fighter" or the inverse "male protagonist = weak but cunning thief/mage" (which largely existed to subvert the former) but characters that nuanced are rare.

    2. @ Seven:

      I, too, am a proponent of "character before concept," but this game has some inherent concept ideas...also, I acknowledge the odd cat who decides to play it will probably have conceptual ideas in mind (but maybe not).

      Cirsova has a good, quick fix that can be easily implemented textually.

      @ Cirsova: thanks!

  6. One thing that's interesting to me is that even renown feminist fantasy authors like LeGuin or Yolen NEVER write their female protagonists to be hulking she-beasts who cut a swath through the paths of their enemies but rather give us female protagonists who are clever, witty, and charismatic who bravely go up against and defeat bigger, stronger foes by playing to their own advantages.

    Unfortunately, because of the focus on numbers and number crunching in gaming systems, the question becomes "Why aren't all women as strong as all men?" rather than "What are the different types of heroic characters that can be explored other than the meat slab with 18/00 strength?"

    1. Exactly. It would appear that such questions are sacrificed in the name of "game balance," a thing with which I'm not terribly concerned.
      ; )

  7. Yeah, I'm not sure why you would want to model the misogyny inherent in so much pulp fiction.

    That aside, If "players have the option to swap an ability score to better fit their character concept" works for men, why not women? Why limit or skew their characters in one direction or another? After all, couldn't you model the characters you list using your standard 2d6+6 with the attributes moved around?

    Ultimately I suppose it is no different than racial caps on attributes but it seems strange to me that you would have a specific type of female character in mind that you want to model but not a specific type of male character you want to model.

    1. @ Monk:

      And you're absolutely right (um...starting with paragraph #2. I'm not sure there's "misogyny inherent" in the writing of all pulp fiction; some of these authors are considered front line feminists).

      Yes, swapping can work for women as well as men (and THAT mechanic is present for characters of either sex). But it is your last point that hits home:

      " seems strange to me that you would have a specific type of female character in mind that you want to model bot not a specific type of male character..."

      You're pointing out a real blindspot I have as a male author. That men are without limits (your concept can be anything!) but women DO have inherent limits. Men DO have inherent biological limits...we cannot give birth or nurse our children...but unlike strength (in this particular game's example), it's not a limit to gameplay in the adventuring sense.

      Now that I consider it, I am strongly considering removing the attribute altogether, in order to remove the question/issue from the game.

    2. Blogspot keeps eating my comments, so this is my last try. My proposed solution:

      Allow female characters to put the 3 STR points anywhere, including back into STR. It actually makes female characters superior to male characters because only they can stat dump.

    3. I don't think this is any different than letting the player swap 2 of the scores if desired. Maybe the ability to swap is enough. Then it becomes an individual's decision rather than the designer's.

    4. @ Roxie:

      Keeping the stat swap may well be enough. If a person (of any sex/gender) doesn't want to play a burly human, they don't have to.

      Thanks for the input.

  8. I've never once seen a game (or novel, or video game, or movie, etc.) where giving specific currency to inclusivity or social justice made the product better.

    Sure, it might quell the predictable complaints from the usual suspects, but honestly--who really pays attention to the usual suspects anymore anyway?

    1. So, never watched Alien, or Firefly, or read any Samuel Delany, Ok (shrugs)

    2. Ripley in Alien was very feminine, therefore your inclusion of her as an icon of social justice seems out of place. And no, I never watched Firefly. And no, I've never read Samuel Delaney. Nor would I, given that he's an vocal supporter of NAMBLA. I don't know that everything he ever wrote is bizarre and disturbing child porn like Hogg was or not, but I'd rather not take the chance.

  9. Interesting, I've been doing the 2d6+6 thing for about 12 years now.

    Since I allow the players to put the stats in any order, I would let them decide if they want a physically strong female character.

  10. As a woman player, mechanics like this turn me off.

    They make me feel like the game designer is actively choosing to model sexism in their game system. Why would I want to sign up for that?

    I want just as much chance to generate Brienne as a guy gets to generate Conan. I don't want to play her every time I game, but most guys don't want every character of theirs to be Conan, either.

    I don't think you can conclude that just because no writer (either modern or historic) has written a female hulking barbarian doesn't mean that nobody wants to. There is still such a thing as editorial interference and working writers need to be able to sell. And sell to publishers, who are overwhelmingly guys who don't think there can be a market for such a thing.

    If you want to model sexism, go ahead. But don't try and justify it as something else. It's a game with magic and dragons and whatever. Why is a statistically equal chance of being exceptionally strong as a woman a thing to be avoided? Why do you care about emulating that particular quality of the source material?

    Because, let me tell you, I'm not the only woman who is going to see that mechanic and think other design choices might be "even worse" from a "safe and welcoming" point of view.

    1. @ Unlikely:

      Yep, I hear you.

      It's challenging at times to get past one's cultural blinders when you're trying to focus on "what you want to see." Unfortunately, 'accidental sexism' is just as bad as purposeful sexism...and very antithetical to what I'm trying to do.

      But it's being changed...see my follow-up post.

  11. I gave up rolling ability scores altogether... let the players select their gender and place their stats as desired...
    Every PC, Assigns each ability score one of these six values; 10, 11, 12, 13, 15 & 17; no duplicates allowed, and place as desired.
    Next, select your character’s race as non-human races (Table 1.3.p.2) have modifiers to specific ability scores. Finally, declare your desired character class.
    everybody gets to play what they want and
    none feels slighted by poor rules or undesirable mechanics

    1. @ Clovis (& Lloyd):

      Part of the issue here is that I don't want to require players to have a concept in mind...this is a "basic" game being aimed at new players.

      Maybe I'll throw in some "advanced" options for experienced players.
      ; )