Saturday, July 18, 2009

RPG Gender Bending

So, I'm signed up to play in Patrick's new B/X D&D game...something I'm very excited about. Although he's not using any of the optional rules I've suggested in my blog
: (
...I am still totally excited to play.

He rolled our attributes for us and mine came in at S11, I10, W12, D9, C9, Cr8. My gamist nature immediately draws me to the Cleric class as with a quick Strength adjustment I can raise my Wisdom to 13 and get a +5% XP bonus (unlike some folks, I don't mind doing the math). Still pretty weak stat-wise compared to my old AD&D characters, but a totally viable character for B/X. Looking at the stats, I was thinking one thing:

Joan of Arc

I mean this is TOTALLY the crazy holy zealot martyr Saint-type I've been blogging about as the archetype for a B/X cleric. A young French maiden with Strength 9...strong enough to wield a sword, but no body-builder. Intelligence enough to disguise herself as a man, but not smart enough to hide it for very long. Constitution 9...well, she wasn't a well-fed noble.

Some might argue ol' Joan should have a Charisma higher than 8. I prefer to think of her as a slightly crazy outcast type who inspires folks through her courageous actions and the miracles she shows on the battlefield, rather than some sort of commanding presence or striking beauty. Higher than average wisdom...I mean she IS a Saint-to-be and she does pretty good with her cross-examination in the court room...though not enough to save herself from the stake.

Just my take.

But I didn't make Joan of Arc. If Pat was allowing clerics to use edged weapons, I would have strongly considered it. But the thing is, I'm a guy and I don't want to play a chick in front of a bunch of strangers I've never gamed with.

Gender bending in RPGs is a weird thing. Certainly most gamer folks of the 21st century are (I hope) enlightened enough not to be judgmental of people's real life sexual preference, cross-dressing, or trans-gendered nature...I mean gamers themselves have faced a bit of ridicule the last couple decades, no?

But damn, I'm still afraid of what people who don't know me might think or assume.

Which is patently ridiculous. This is just a "straight dude" hang up, I'm sure. Certainly as a DM, I never batted an eye at a player who wanted to play a character of the opposite gender...or did I?

Women playing male characters are easier to understand...they have real reasons for doing so. My wife, for instance, is playing a male character because she's basing him on the character of Legolas...there are more heroic role-models of the male variety in fiction than female. In AD&D, female characters get the shaft in the attribute department. A human female fighter has a max strength of 18/50 while her male counterpart has 18/00? It's tough to praise the 'realism' when the game's a fantasy one with an abstract combat system. Sure, give 'em a higher carrying capacity (make the men-folk the pack mules) but don't vary the hit and damage bonuses based on "muscle mass."

Of course, one of the major reasons women play male characters is because of in-game trauma and de-protagonization their characters have suffered at the hands of abusive male DMs. I was a teenage asshole, myself, so I know of that which I speak. Even if you're playing a "gritty" or "pulp" campaign, PCs are heroes, and some things should be negotiated outside of in-game play. But that probably deserves its own post.

For male players that wish to portray female characters, the first question that pops up in a player's head (at least mine) is, "why?" The proper response of course is "why not?" If you're already playing make-believe, the sky should be the limit for character.

And of course it is...if I play a hulking muscular brute I am nearly as different from my real life self as a young female zealot; the only difference is that I can empathize with being kicked in the balls and not...well, with being kicked other places.

Is it a "macho" thing? I don't think so...I mean if I'm playing a pansy elf or kender (or D20 halfling) I'm already saddling myself with a pretty effeminate character type. Especially in games like B/X or even D20 where there are no distinctions between gender, why is it a big deal?

I honestly don't know. I've had no problem portraying female NPCs (but the game world isn't male only). There's just something about saying, this is my character, this character represents me...and it's female. It makes me feel...sketchy, somehow, regardless of whether or not I'm in touch with my "feminine side."

Heh...I know that in on-line computer games many of the players are using avatars of gender different from their own. But there's a difference when you can remain anonymous behind a computer screen. Looking at someone over the table top and saying "I am woman, hear me roar!" is a whole different story.

Anyway, I came up with a pretty decent MALE character concept, so I'm not going to change to Joan of Arc now...even though I feel like this post is an exercise in self-shaming. 

Hey!  Flagellation!  I am totally ready to play a cleric!
: )


  1. I know for at least one of the campaigns I played in, back in the day, we rolled for gender. Never seemed to matter to anyone either way. And the character I remember best, of whom I am most fond, was a female Ranger. She ended up being the A**kicker of the party and reluctant leader. I can't say I didn't a particularly good job of portraying a women. She was a Ranger who just happened to be female.

    I did read one comment on this topic recently, that guys who played female characters tended to play them like the girfriend they WISH they had. I have no idea if there is any truth to that point of view. But it wouldn't surprise me if it were so.

  2. Rolling for, that is so random! And yet so fair! Not a bad idea. Did you find yourself faced with any gender-related restrictions? For example, did you have to sell down a high strength or face impositions because of a "patriarchal game world?"

    In my old gaming group (the circa 1981-88 one), one guy ran a female thief of elven descent (I don't remember if she was half-elf or full elf) that ended up killing herself (great.). He never played one again. Another guy played at least one female Drow of the "over-sexed" variety. Everyone in our group (male and female) found this to be in fairly bad taste. Whether his motivations were "power gamer" couple with teenage libido, or whether he just wanted to "try out the other side" (he was a Libra after all, and they're so intellectual about examining all sides of a situation...hell, they'll even argue with themselves!)...well, I don't know. The end result wasn't very pretty, though, I'm afraid.

  3. I think it was roll a d6 1-4 male 5-6 female. I don't recall anyone being forced to play a different character if they didn't want to, really never was a big deal IIRC. The only restrictions would have been whatever AD&D caller for - I believe just the 18/50 Strength restriction.

    My female Ranger - Cheroom ( I think some C.J.Cherryh influence on the name there ) was created in part so I could avoid being a leader in the group. Our D&D group was made up of players I had introduced to the game or people they had subsequently gotten to play. I also DM'd quite a lot. So I tended to get deferred to a lot. And I was tired of it. So the character was created as a female (not rolled for gender, different group) and a loner (ranger) specifically to exploit any sort of "patriarchical" feeling to keep in the background. Nevertheless she ended up as the "tank" of the party and defacto leader. Still my favorite character as we had gotten past the hack n slash shoot n loot style of gaming from early days.

  4. Dude, that's pretty friggin' awesome. I assume you are straight? Non-transgendered, non-cross-dressing, non-gay? And yet a female character was your favorite character? And became the group leader DESPITE taking it to be a "lesser role?"

    Man, who needs affirmative action? You took role-playing to the hilt and told a story with a female protagonist! That's cool in my book.

    NOW...that's NOT the same thing as telling a story with a feminine sensibility. As in: did your character ever have to address issues of a familiar (i.e. family) nature? Did you ever face choices between being a matriarch and being a mother/sister? In other words, did you ever have to make decisions that called on YOU as a player to get in touch with YOUR feminine side?

    I ask this because I have forced feminine type issues on male characters/players (not in D&D but in other games) and the (male) players became acutely uncomfortable with the whole proposition. I am simply curious about your experience...were you just "a dude in a dress" or was there ever anything more thrown at you by the DM?

    Thanks for sharing, BTW.

  5. Yes, I'm straight and shop in the Men's Department. I think she was my favorite character because she had the most character development of any character I played. Most of my prior characters were more defined by what they could DO. Magic weapons, abilities etc. defined them. Cheroom was more defined by her personality. What she could DO, influenced how others reacted to her (e.g. pushed her into a leadership role), but didn't always dictate her actions.

    As for feminine issues, the only one I/we had to deal with was another PC, trying to make amends for some offense; giving her presents, trying to protect her. She rebuffed those advances for character reasons (alignment, class and species).
    Also we were teenage boys, it would have been a little too weird.

    No other femine issues or perspective, it was very much a "so's she's female, big whoop" attitude in the group.

  6. Thanks, Stuart. All us men-folk were teenage boys once. Heck some people may look at our gaming hobby and say we're STILL teenage boys. To which I say: you can grow up without growing old.

    (and vice versa chumps!)

    Anyway, thanks for the input. I may blog more about it later. I'm going to have to re-read my copy of Ron Edwards's "Sex and Sorcery;" he's a bit more eloquent than myself and he has quite a bit to say on the subject in that particular supplement.

  7. If I ever play male characters, they are invariably fighter-types. I just have less of a problem getting males mashed up in combat.

    My (female or whatever-else) characters tend more toward the thiefy-swashbuckly-assassiny sort of party roles. Go figure.

    I just haven't found a magic system in someone else's RPG that I enjoy enough to play a Wiz/Sorcereress, but do play Druids fairly regularly because they can still mix it up in combat (to a degree).

    I work in a 99.9% male field (High Risk Armed Security) so I get mixed reactions in the gaming world, mainly due to my tactical insights and viciousness (in game).

    It'll take a few years or decades before folks in general stop judging other folks by what in (or not in) the underpants they wear. 'til then, I think strong but believable female characters in Sci-Fi/etc. films and TV shows (etc.) do a good bit toward toppling mental fences.


  8. Hmm...unfortunately, I'm not sure we see too many "strong but believable" characters. Now I may not watch enough SciFi, but many of the characters I see tend to be similar to Stuart's ranger. That is, they are a female ass-kicker but they may as well be a "man with breasts" for all their personality or dramatic stakes.

    I probably need a whole post to explain what I mean by this...sorry for the confusion.

    Hey, Time: I think it is incredibly interesting that you make the distinction (in your mind) that male=fighter and female=swashbuckly rogue. Does this make more sense to you BECAUSE of what you see in your line of work? Or is that based on fiction (film, lit, TV) that you enjoy? Or is there some other reason you make that connection?

    Thanks for the feedback!

  9. Good Female Sci-Fi Characters-

    * Ripley from the Alien (and to a lesser degree Aliens and Aliens II) is my primary example.

    * Dr. Elizabeth Weir from Stargate Atlantis series is another great example, but I'd peg her as a 'Cleric'-type over anything 'edgy.' -{I've wanted to write a dissertation for a academic Feminist Journal regarding this character, just as Ripley had received in her heyday.}-
    * Likewise Teyla Emmagen, although slow to develop more depth, by series' end, she demonstrated an remarkable inner strength, intuition, wrapped-up in a rather beautiful warrior exterior. The episode in which she receives the Wraith enzyme and goes head-to-head with Ronan demonstrates how tough she can be in a fight. Plus, the actress, Rachel Luttrell, would be a great choice for a film adaptation of my Fiction-Milieu primary character, Lthrus X'a.
    * Dr.'s Samantha Carter and Jennifer Keller are both very 'female' without being scared by mice, not being hyper-butch parodies of strong women.

    As regards men & combat: No, I just don't care that much if capable men bleed as seeing harm done to non-combat women, children, or the elderly (or defenceless animals). ;)

    I personally need to find lateral tactical strategies as I am not as strong at most males (although considerably stronger than most females), and so I must use manoeuvring and cover/obstacles to my fullest advantage so as to never close with the target without significant advantage of arms or what have you. This suggests a more swash-buckly sort of character, and perhaps gives me opportunities to test ideas out in mindspace before putting them in practise.

    You are welcome. :)

  10. Thanks for the examples...Ripley is an excellent one, and is exactly what I'm talking about (note her aspect as the strong maternal figure, not just in caring for Newt, but in smacking some sense into the marines when they start losing their shit).

    I've never watched the Stargate shows, so I'm not familiar with the other women you mention.

    The female characters from the Firefly television show are all pretty good as well, though it's not what I'd call a fantasy action flick (the film is moreso).

    Regarding your own lateral, tactical thinking...again I find it fascinating that in a fantasy GAME like D&D you 'port in real world considerations.

    For example, in B/X D&D there is no difference between a male Fighter and a Female fighter. Either can wear the same armor, have the same hit points, the same Strength and Constitution. But you choose to distinguish them in your own mind. That's fascinating.

    Even strong men will cry like children when they've lying shot and bleeding in their own juices. We really aren't that much different.
    ; )

  11. I know, and I do actually care, but in the context of the game, not as much. :D