Friday, April 9, 2010

The Problem with Xena

Of course, I’ve never actually watched Xena: Warrior Princess…ever [for many, many reasons, I just didn’t watch very much television at all for most of the 1990s]. So I really have only the most superficial idea of the show and little knowledge of the draw that got people so enthused about it in the first place.

In other words, this post may be coming straight out of my ass…again.

But here’s what I wanted to say: from MY perspective, shows like Xena don’t help the fantasy RPG game-playing environment. At least, not necessarily in the way I'd like to see it helped. I mean, the show was popular (in many countries). It did revolve around a “fantasy adventure” premise. It did feature a strong female protagonist…

Wait! Stop! Let’s talk about that last sentence.

A strong, female protagonist. Xena. Hmm…now to whom exactly did she/does she appeal? What was the target demographic of the program?

From my outsider’s perspective, she seemed to be an ass-kicking, bad-ass hero-type.

Um…is that what young women are looking for in role-models?

For some, sure. For most? I don’t know…to me it seems like it’s more the boys who would like to see an ass-kicking bad-ass protagonist, male or female…and of course many young men are happy to have their hero be an attractive woman clad in a short, leather skirt.

A male might believe that such an image is a pro-feminist one, one that would appeal to women-folk…and possibly even INSPIRE women-folk to want to play fantasy games.

[after all, isn’t that a great appeal of fantasy RPGs? They allow us to play out our heroic fantasies with ourselves as the main characters in the story?]

But is that really the case? Is it inspiring to the average woman to see a “strong” woman wielding a bloody sword and carving a swath through mobs of bad guys?

Sure, it’s a step up from seeing women perpetually portrayed as damsels in distress. It’s a nice change of pace with the whole “role-reversal” thang. But long-term, is that what will draw women-folk to the hobby?

Personally, I don’t think so.

And the point of this post is not to lambast Xena by any means. What I am railing against (if indeed it appears I’m railing) is the IDEA that portrayals of women as “ass-kicking bad-asses” is the way to bring women to the hobby.

And why do I even care? Because it is important to bring more people to the hobby. And more than 50% of the people in this country (the USA) are female. And far less than 50% of the people I see around the gaming table are female.

Do women enjoy fantasy and myth and escapism? They sure do. I don’t know if more women buy figurines of faeries and unicorns and crystalline dragons than men-folk, but they sure take a lot less shit than men-folk for owning ‘em. Same with reading fantasy novels…at least, that’s been MY experience.

Are most RPG designers men? Yeah, I think so. I don’t know. I don’t have statistics, but the names I read as authors on the covers mostly seem to be masculine names. And what do we find in most RPGs?

Combat systems. Skill systems. “Advancement” (achievement) mechanics. Ass-kicking powers.

Hmm…well! Those things sound great to me as a man (well, besides the skill systems, of course). How much do they matter to women?

Actually, I don’t know…I’m musing here and half of this is rhetorical. But let me share some of my role-playing experiences that involved humans of the female persuasion:

- Lilly (a girl of about 12 or 13) was very enthused by the idea of fantasy role-playing. She liked the idea of playing a game where you could be a wizard and spells and have adventures. She had no interest in fighting or kick-assing ANYTHING (she is also a fan of Harry Potter and Twilight…two fantasy series written by female authors, in which the ass-kicking action is definitely secondary to the plot). Oh, yeah, her favorite superpower? Invisibility. About the least ass-kicking power there is.

- My wife (a non-gamer who has nevertheless joined me in games of D&D3, B/X D&D, and Ars Magica). Enjoys character creation. Abhors combat…hates the thought of her characters getting hurt or killed. Does not really “get” why anyone would want to go down into a dungeon. Enjoys interacting with NPCs; likes organizing plans of action. In Ars she played three characters: an owl-themed magus that spent most of his time in research, a female “knight” (a la Joan d'Arc), and a young man with a gift for languages. The linguist was probably her favorite character, but he kept getting hurt because I (as the GM) kept putting him and the knight in combat situations.

- Jocelyn (my friend from the OLD Old Days) played the fighter Bladehawk for a couple years, generally using her wits as often as her sword…but she got tired of the character and evolved through multiple different characters (the kender-like Halfling Mouse, the bard Tempest, the twin brother and sister pair Orianna and Jolith) into our regular DM. In the role of DM she could introduce plots and intrigues, love triangles and vendettas…adventures based more on the relationships between characters than anything “dungeon-related.” We also played a lot of Marvel Superheroes which turned out much more like the soap opera X-Men of the ‘80s than the “Secret Wars.”

- Crystal (Jocelyn’s friend) only played with us briefly but had a memorable character…a fairly blunt (as opposed to “sharp”) female fighter…who’s claim to fame was the elaborate back-story of being on the run from an ex-husband of the arranged-marriage variety. Hmmm…she also had a Halfling traveling companion with whom she spent most of the time interacting and making mischief.

- Andrea (friend in college) a fellow actor that also role-played; we gamed a lot of White Wolf stuff in the 90s. Regardless of the game she always ALWAYS went for the faerie/fae option. Merinitas, Changelings, merits and flaws that made her half-Sidhe or whatever. Her characters were always more interested in mischief, pranks, and trouble-making/double-crosses than any “ass-kicking.”

- Jen? (ugh! Can’t remember the name of another girl from college) played Vampire with her (she ran a Tremere…again, interest was in intrigue and hierarchy, not ass-kicking). She spent most of her role-playing time playing in a different friend’s Call of Cthulhu game…the “Anti-Ass-Kicking” RPG if ever there was one.

These are direct experiences I can recall…I’ve read plenty of anecdotes posted by women on blogs and forums that seem (to me) to echo in similar vein.

Here’s what I’m saying: sometimes game designers get hung up on this idea that girls aren’t as into RPGs because the games appear to depict the female person in an un-flattering way (this is true) and they then try to RECTIFY this by portraying women as ass-kicking bad-asses…or giving them ass-kicking, bad-ass options. Which may or may not be anything a female gamer actually wants. It's thinking that women think like...well, like how they'd like someone to address inequities done to them (men-folk), the Do Unto Others philosophy.

I'm not sure that's quite least not every time.

What got me thinking about this in the first place? Well, for one thing I’ve been watching a lot of Battlestar Galactica with my wife, who loves the show as much as myself despite the fact that superficially it appears to be a SciFi-Military drama (she’s not big into SciFi OR Military). Oh…and Lucy Lawless (Xena herself!) shows up in the cast.

The other reason I’m thinking of this is that I’m writing an adventure module, and I keep making weird or random-ish choices in its design. I’m not designing it to be a straight ass-kicking venture; that’s not really what high-level D&D play is about…at least not in my experience. I find I’m writing more situations than encounters even if I’m calling them “encounters,” and I’m doing this in part because of my role-playing experiences. INCLUDING my experiences with “the fairer sex.”

[note to interested parties: yes, there are straight encounters in the module as well]

I’ll be interested to see what people thing of the end product.

Hope everyone's having a good Friday! Lent is over, so I'm back at the Four Spoons, blogging over a plate of sausage! Prost!

: )


  1. I think this is spot on, and I would love to see some "combatless" (or nearly so) fantasy-game scenarios.

  2. Also, I think it's a pity that the Blue Rose RPG never took off. It seemed like a very interesting fantasy game that was recognisably D&D-ish while at the same time being quite different in tone.

  3. I think RPG gaming without combat is acting or live action RPG.

  4. Here is my experience, and the grain of salt to go with it.

    - I did watch Xena, a lot, and as an academic I have read a bunch of scholarly articles on what Xena meant to the female viewing public. Do not undersell Xena, it was because of her that we also got shows like Buffy, Charmed, Dark Angel and even Alias. Charmed in particular was known for it's largely female veiwership. Women, at least the ones watching TV and talking to Neilsen Media, like strong female characters.

    - My playtest groups for Buffy (female hero) and Ghosts of Albion (female author) were almost exclusively female. They were also fans of Xena (so much so that we ran a Xena one shot) and they liked the idea of kicking-ass. Yes we had more character development than my mostly male groups, but really the differences were minor.

    - as a game designer I also think all the time "how do I make this more appealing?" and that includes "more appealing to women" and "more appealing to the novice role-player".
    I think as long as you are thinking of such things you are going about it the right way. But don't forget the main design philosophy of any game or adventure, "is this something I would have fun playing if I didn't write it?" If you answer "yes" then good.

    There are a fair number of women RPG designers. Cynthia Celeste Miller, designer of Cartoon Action Hour, was responsible for one of the neater combat systems I have seen.

  5. Yeah, don't sell Xena short. Yes, she was an ass-kicker, but fairly restrained on that front compared to most female D&Ders I have known. Beyond that, though, the show was about the network of relationships Xena navigated: her on-again-off-again alliances with the god Ares (an ex-lover from her "bad boy" period), her off-again-on-again kinda-sorta-no-maybe-oh-yes-it-is lesbian romance with her sidekick Gabrielle, threading the social politics of amazons and centaurs who were constantly in the throws of on-again-off-again genocidal wars, dealing with her past as a cold-blooded reaver, and so on.

    In my (not at all scientific) experience, most women enjoy the ass-kicker fantasy, but when they do it, they want it to have context and meaning.

  6. I watched Xena a few times. I didn't dislike it for the reasons you gave, I disliked it because it was a funky spinoff of the funky Hercules show.

    But I think you're right about needing more non-combat encounters in the adventure. But an encounter becomes violent when one side or the other attacks physically. Of course, conversational and philosophical attacks could constitute a non-combat encounter :P

    So the referee can decide when and if any NPCs want to attack and turn the encounter toward combat. But the PCs also get that choice, and anyone who chooses combat will change the encounter. It cannot change back to non-combat as easily - everyone needs to agree to stop fighting.

    And of course hungry carnivore animal / angry monster NPCs are likely to attack immediately.

    Perhaps it is for these reasons that combat seems so likely. If you have a group of pacifist PCs and one violent PC, and a group of average creatures encountered, the violent PC will start a combat encounter quite often even though he's in the minority.

  7. "What I am railing against (if indeed it appears I’m railing) is the IDEA that portrayals of women as “ass-kicking bad-asses” is the way to bring women to the hobby."

    Yeah, no.

    All my female players, and I currently have five of them right now, LOVE ass-kicking. They all think Xena is awesome, think Buffy and Sydney Bristow rock the house, and there is much fist-pumping when Scully gets to cap someone.

    There are two sides to every story, of course, but I have found that women who grew up in the age of Xena, Buffy, Scully, Sydney, et al, are much more into kicking butt that you might expect. You're talking the generation that considers kickboxing and krav maga just as valid a form of exercise as yoga.

    And again, the key with all of these characters? They weren't vapid, girl-in-chainmail-bikini heroines either. They are all smart, they are all capable, they don't take crap from anyone, and yet, they aren't over-bearing or "bitchy" either.

    Who else do we have...

    Gabrielle from Xena as well...
    Samantha Carter from Stargate SG-1,
    Erin Sung from Farscape,
    Zoe from Firefly,
    Echo from Dollhouse,
    ...I'm sure I'm missing others.

    Plenty of strong female characters who "kick ass", but are also more than just ass-kickers. In fact, I think Sci-fi has done, overall, an amazing job of creating a host of strong female characters who can fight just as well as they can think.

    Frankly, you don't know what you're talking about, and shouldn't be writing this in the first place. You should have watched some of the series (I own all of it) before trying to make this argument. Dismiss "ass-kicking females" as an RPG gateway at your own peril.

  8. And before you think that last paragraph is some sort of personal attack, it's not. I'm just serious in saying if you're going to try and comment on one of the most popular "Heroine" characters of the 20th century, you should at least have watched a season or two before talking about the series. Just reading your description of the show and how she acts, it's entirely clear you don't know what went on in the series, at all.

  9. Let me be even more bold than Tim Brannan and Trollsmyth and say, bluntly, that most of your analysis is shit (which you suspect, what with the "talking out of your ass" comment).

    As mentioned above, Xena was popular with men (often for fetishistic reasons), but also incredibly popular with women (including the sub-group of lesbians). Many of them liked the ass-kicking woman trope, which is why we had a whole slew of them appear in the late 90s. This coincided with what is often called a third-wave feminism, wherein women wanted to be both pretty and strong, which was demonstrated not to be paradoxical.

    But many critics/feminists counter-argued that third-wave feminism is/was just an offshoot of second-wave feminism and to do so point to one very popular (and occasionally controversial) character: Wonder Woman.

    Remember her? She's been kicking ass since 1941. It has been argued that all the Xena clones are really just nothing more than the metaphoric daughters and granddaughters of Wonder Woman.

    Now, as to how you connect the ideas of character archetypes to game-playing, there is a large body of research on how kids of the 2 sexes play. Think about it: Girls are exposed to the sea of pink, given dolls to play with, and often, quite visibly, encouraged to be polite and nice. Meanwhile, the boys are given guns, taught rough and tumble games, and often rewarded for being rambunctious. This still seems to be the status quo in the US.

    This is the contributing factor to why women are not equally drawn to RPGS as men. It's also why there are no major professional women's football or baseball teams ...and why the WNBA still struggles to fill seats.

    While the idea of mythic archetypes as role models does connect to why women are not drawn to RPGs, it's just a strong correlation, not a causal connection.

  10. Oh yes, Wonder Woman. Seasons 1 & 2 were recently watched in my house, and yeah; great combination of Strong Ass Kicker and Smart Problem Solver.

  11. The_Myth: My love for Wonder Woman known no bounds.

    But I am willing to give JB the benefit of the doubt here. He said he didn't watch the show and that is fine.

    Xena on surface was about kicking ass and taking names. But get past all of that and what do you have? A show about a strong woman, that made some mistakes and now wants to do good. How does she do that? With the help of another woman.
    The love of another woman made her a better person. No wonder Xena had such a huge lesbian following.

    Reminds me of an ad I saw in a paper about Xena. It was for Subaru and it featured two women camping out. There was one tent, a fire, gear and basically a camp scene. Except there was only the two women and the car's plates said "XENA LVR". Companies were willing to spend the money because it worked.

    For Buffy most of my players were lesbians. They loved to kick ass, but they also loved Tara. Tara was not an ass kicker, but she was extremely popular.

    JB: Regardless of your thoughts pro or con on Xena, I think you are trying to do something cool here. I want to hear more.

  12. I don't think a preference for or against combat + power in RPGs is a male of female thing. I think some people prefer the adventure more than the battles, and solving mysteries more than gaining power.

    In our game night this week there were only 3 "combats" in which there was a single shot + a retreat in the first encounter, only 2 of the 3 characters attacking in the second encounter, and everyone keeping their heads down and running for cover in the 3rd encounter. I'd say 90% of the evening was non-combat. All of the players made choices for their characters based on what seemed more "in character" or "interesting" rather than powerful -- not carrying a gun or wanting to use one, getting drunk in the bar because their character was "freaked out" etc.

    Even the guy playing a Bounty Hunter has his character more interested easy money and womanizing than being an ass kicker. :)

  13. A lot of women really liked Xena. But, to throw some support your way, Paranormal Romance and the Romance/Urban Fantasy mix in novels, is really, really popular with women readers, nowadays.

  14. I agree with what most everyone here said except on one point. You can't pigeon hole an entire gender comprising millions of people into either "non-conflict encounter lovers" nor "ass-kickers", nor any other category.

    Come on, how old are you people? haven't you figured out there is a range of personalities, desires that cover all possibilities for each gender? Whatever you do some people will like it. And no matter what you do you'll never attract a large percentage of people cause we're all different and no we don't just get along.

  15. Oh, and JB do your own thing. It sounds like the circle of people you know would enjoy it. I'm sure there's others that would to. And you really should watch Xena, at least one season (cause after that you will be hooked ;)

  16. Wow...thank you to everyone. I truly appreciate the feedback (even the "you're full of shit" comments!). Not only is it nice to know people read my blog, it's cool you folks care enough to comment. Honestly, I appreciate it.

    Rather than reply individually in this comment section, I plan on making another post on this topic (probably tomorrow) that addresses what I want to say.

    Again, thanks...I appreciate the honest feedback.
    : )

  17. Every female player I've ever had likes the ass-kicking, too. Lots cite Xena and/or Buffy. But women like exploring interpersonal relationships and consequences to people's actions, too; which is why my games in rules like RuneQuest or Cyberpunk have always had a better female-to-male ratio than that of any other rules I have run. I mean, like 50% female in RQ vs. 10% in D&D or Traveller, for example. Rules matter.

  18. I watched Xena pretty religiously. I was in high school at the time and tv and movies were pretty much lacking in female characters who were not Damsels in Distress, so I watched it almost without fail every week. What appealed to me so much as I look back now with a daughter of my own was that she wasn't just one thing. She was a well rounded character that you can't really define easily with a single archetype. Sure she was strong and could kick ass, but she was also a reluctant teacher. She was fierce in battle one minute then taking part in the high culture of the setting the next, being you know, a warrior princess after all. She was strong AND beautiful and never had to sacrifice one for the other. She was self reliant on one hand but inevitably like all human beings, can't escape the web of relationships that gives us strength and helps us conquer whatever challenges we face. And she had relationships with men too and they weren't all bad. The show has a big lesbian following but as a character I don't think that her relationships were formed around gender. If you watched the show over it's entirety you'd see all of the relationships between characters form and change over time even though it was mostly episodic in nature.

    As a girl gamer, I like all sorts of character archetypes. Sometimes I make characters who kick ass and sometimes I don't. I'm more interested in creating and playing an interesting character than I am with what that character can DO. Building a character that's stacked to be good at something is easy.

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  20. sorry....bad post before.

    Your post has prompted me to pull out my Xena and Gab characters for Army of Darkness.

    Looking forward to your comments on our comments here!

  21. My wife has every season of Xena (I bought them for her). Oddly, I have never watched a full episode.

  22. I've pretty much got to echo what everyone else here has said. Go watch Xena, just one season. But I appreciate that you're thinking about it!