Friday, January 23, 2015

Fantasy RPG Realism & Patriarchal Norms

One thing I am tired of hearing about in the average fantasy game is how the subordination of women in fantasy world building is realistic and therefore here to stay.  I get it for medieval tales, I get it for certain fantasy tales, but what I don't see is why I have to deal with it in the grand majority of tales.

Why do I have to confront the reality that for the majority of world history my gender has been a second-class citizen, limited not just by the practicalities of birth and child rearing (which would limit soldiering among some women) but by the prejudice of the world itself?  Childbirth doesn't prevent women from being brave, being leaders or mages, either, and a world with magic could be a world with contraception and lowered infant mortality rates anyway so it could more easily become a society similar to our own.

But logistics aside, would you feel equally comfortable turning to a black player and saying: "Well, since this fantasy game is in a predominately white setting, you have to play a slave because that's only realistic?"

No, you wouldn't, because the implication there is that the natural place of a black person is as a slave and to countenance any alternative would be a misconception.  Yet we quietly happily churn out book after book, tale after tale, RPG after RPG, where we ram that thought down the throats of female consumers:
"If you were in this world, you would be thought inferior.  No matter where you went.  No matter what you could do.  No matter how many variety of magical spells a woman can cast ... men will always think themselves superior to women and look on in shocked surprise when a woman proves to have her own opinions."
Again, I have no problem with what people play at their own tables.  Both men and women enjoy playing with a variety of subjects, chauvinism and misogyny being one of them, but it is painful when the majority of texts pretty much say that it is the natural and ordinary state for women to be powerless and forced into a narrow section of roles.
What prompted this rant?
Why, Pathfinder Tales!  Although Pathfinder novels are exceptionally well-written with strong female lead characters, I've noticed that the grand majority of them are bereft of any minor female roles of note.  Many describe the soldiers, guardsmen, leaders and aristocrats as men and when the adventurers are led into the village they find women hanging out the washing and gossiping among themselves. 
Okay, that alone can be understood.  Child rearing does make it harder to be a soldier, though a complete lack of female soldiers indicates a law rather than a likelihood, but then you meet the leaders of these towns and villages and you find them to all be men.  Occasionally there's even comments about not wanting to stay behind with the women that the lead female has to roll her eyes and grit her teeth at.
This just really upsets me because the Adventure Paths have been so inclusive of women while touching on issues of sexism in just a few countries.  Now I have to look at huge swathes of Avistan and know that my female PC would be seen as an abnormality.  And people wonder why I prefer playing male PCs!
The Winter Witch shows how the Realms of the Mammoth Lords tribes are mildly matriarchal with a leading woman over an otherwise egalitarian tribe and this is shown as a counterpoint to both Irrisen (whose leaders are women though I don't know the norms of the general community) and the Varisians (where the women all seem to be flirty dancer types and the caravan guards are all men).  Korvosa, which is predominately Chelish colony, actually seems to give women more options than native Varisia.
Certainty (web fiction) explicitly states that the women stay back from the front lines of Mendev, by and large, because of the Worldwound, and though women are not in a subordinate position and while this makes more sense than most other options (since the Worldwound can taint your offspring with demonic essence), it still adds one area where you don't get to see the average woman in a cool light.
NOTE: The Worldwound Gambit turns this on its head by having powerful female Sarkorian barbarians, a female assassin offered inheritance rights over her older brother because of her father's preference with mention only of age-based inheritance, and a general mix up of male and female characters in both major and minor positions. 
Plague of Shadows has only two named female characters that I recall off the top of my head - a jealous baroness married to the victim and a barely seen shadow priestess.  All other characters - from troops to grey gardeners - were men.  I can't recall if any of the important VIP corpses were women, but I don't believe so.  The leader of the elven community and his troops were all men and his daughter appear to have no real skill.  The desire to have a son and heir was mentioned relating to Brevoy and the Brevoy-based baron's son refused to stay back because his pride wouldn't allow him to stay back with the women (never mind that there were two male soldiers and a single woman looking after the horses).
Master of Devils plays with some of the assumptions in Tien with a couple kick ass female paladins and other powerful female folks, but isn't very clear on general gender relations since while the monastery seems to be populated by men, that could likely be an artefact of sensible gender segregation among those who need to focus.
Song of the Serpent is one of the worst for all of the guards and miners met in Druma are male; mission involves a Kalistrade noble sending a man out to collect his daughter back; all dwarven soldiers, leaders and minors are men while women are only seen to be cheerfully raising kids; and the only named female character is a spoiled princess trope.
Nightglass, on the other hand, shows an egalitarian Nidal.  Chelish chauvinism is visible in the mining "boom town to be" with the jobs taken by men and women while the Strix are seen to be egalitarian.  Cheliax has always been noted as chauvinistic, which is funny because compared to the other books they seem far more progressive than several other nations with an important female wizard wielding real power.
The Crusader Road involves an Ustalavic noblewoman settling in the River Kingdoms and though there is a little shock at the fact the lady was taught how to slay monsters by her husband, that could very well be because nobles aren't supposed to do that sort of thing.  People quickly learn to ensure everyone is trained to fight and there's no comments about it being unwomanly to take up a bow or a sword.  Needless to say, I liked it.
Now, take any one of these books in isolation and I will agree with you that I am over reacting, but with each book I read I find that the places in Golarion where I can safely imagine myself to be an equal member of society is slowly slipping away.
So if we go by the books descriptions we have the gender relations thusly:
Patriarchal: Cheliax (less so than the others on this list), Brevoy, Galt, Five King Mountains outpost, Kyonin outpost, Varisia, Druma.
Unknown: Tien (unclear gender relations), Ustalav (unclear).
Egalitarian: Mendev (dependent on author), Nidal, Realm of the Mammoth Lords, Irrisen, River Kingdoms (implication that most towns would end up this way).
I am about to read The Wizard's Mask and learn the author's take on Molthune and Nirmathas.  Fingers crossed that they won't be bastions of masculinity like all these others!


  1. I hate this kind of thing. There seems to be some impression that because something wasn't common or important in mediaeval Europe then it doesn't belong in D&D-or-whatever games either. Not only is this just a little bigoted but it's also really stupid -- as bigotry so often is -- because in most cases D&D-or-whatever isn't set in mediaeval Europe.

    So if someone wants to have women in positions of authority, or people stomping around in plate armour while wielding revolvers, then I say they go for it. It's a fantasy game, not an exercise in "realism".

    Too often, the attitude of "we can't include that, it's not realistic" is a cover for, at best, a lack of research and at worst, plain bigotry. I want it to stop.

    1. This is very true, especially in any self-empowerment fantasies that involve the One True Hero. It's not like most of those fantasies include dysentry, gangrene or the requirement for armies to defeat evil kingdoms rather than the Chosen One.

    2. One True Hero or adventuring parties.

  2. Pretty much the only fantasy games I've run where we have deliberately not said "We're leaving sexism at the door as far as this setting is concerned" have been those set in mythic equivalents to medieval Europe, and in both cases there've been alleviating factors.

    In my Pendragon campaign, we made an overt decision to keep the sexism in because one of the players wanted to do the whole "woman pretending to be a man so she can be a knight" thing, and that story doesn't really work without a background of sexism; a big plot arc in the Anarchy Period involved discovering some lore which would allow at least some tolerance of woman warriors in the setting in the long run. (Essentially, the female knights in my campaign are members of a pagan knightly order founded by Amazons, who accompanied Brutus of Troy to Britain - this being Pendragon, naturally the crazy Geoffrey of Monmouth prehistory of Britain applies - said order having been suppressed by the Romans and revived by the player character in question. So it isn't 100% accepted because Christians are a little suspicious of the whole thing, but it isn't beyond the pale either.)

    I've also got my Ars Magica campaign, but in general Ars Magica is quite good at this because a) they actually do their research and note the existence of actual awesome women who lived in the medieval period and b) the Order of Hermes is notably more egalitarian than the rest of medieval society, as you'd expect in a world where gender is no barrier to someone burning the flesh from your bones with their mind.

    In both cases, the sexism involved is an affectation of society, not something which is cosmologically mandated. In Ars Magica the Magic/Faerie/Divine/Infernal domains don't care about gender even remotely to the extent that human beings do; in Pendragon King Arthur is praised for his courtesy towards women in part because he was brought up amongst the trainee warrior women of my Amazon knight's family and he learned from a young age to treat them with respect, so his chivalric edicts to protect ladies stem less from "Women are weak and feeble creatures and need our strong manly protection" and are more along the lines of "Our society treats women disproportionately badly, so chivalry demands that we both protect women from that and set a better example in our interactions with them".

    In general, I think people who talk about historical accuracy in regards to sexism in fantasy settings also vastly underestimate how many awesome, important women actually existed in history despite the challenges they faced as well. They fall into the classic "everyone must match the statistical average" trap of assuming that just because sexism was pervasive and most women weren't able to overcome it and gain recognition in their own right, that means pretty much zero women were able to overcome it, so their fantasy worlds end up devoid of important women altogether. Whereas in our world we had Joan of Arc, Empress Matilda, Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, Eleanor of Aquitaine...

    So yeah, as a rule of thumb I think if your fantasy world actually looks more sexist than real history, then that says more about your own unexamined attitudes than it does about "realism".

    1. Also I imagine a lot of villages would differ as well even in the medieval era with strong women giving advice or even leading in quiet. But yeah, put magic in a world and you might as well give it technology. The Information Era has been quite freeing to women, High Magic should do the same.

      But yes, I'm glad to say that the Pathfinder Universe of Golarion is pretty welcoming except for some of it's tales. I'm reading The Pirate's Honor Pathfinder Tale and that one's pretty awesome with assuming an egalitarian backdrop, so that's good.