Friday, May 22, 2015

Reasons why chauvinistic fantasy worlds *can* suck for female players

Now this is an area of some contention.  Some people love highly realistic medieval worlds - with or without realistically treated magic.  Now I'm not talking about those kinds of contexts.  In a world where my character can be slain by gangrene caused by untreated wounds and STDs are rife, I'm going to be way more chilled about dealing with chauvinistic settings. 

Though, of course, the GM would have to be comfortable with playing said chauvinistic settings realistically and not with the ham-fisted style of a 1950s "Girls can't be tough" and "Stay in the kitchen, girl" that seems to be more the product of a backlash against changing expectations and a need to reinforce gender norms.  In most societies where certain gender norms are just expected, people just do what they do and say what they say.  They don't need to say "You're a girl so we're not listening to you", they just don't listen.

But that aside....

The reasons why I'm not a fan of the average chauvinistic fantasy world is for a couple reasons.  These include:
  1. The male protagonists get it easy.  Unless they're playing homosexuals or disdained racial minorities, I'll have to struggle to do what my co-players get for free just because I chose to align my PC's gender to my own.
  2. Realism is normally judiciously applied to only certain scenarios.  We don't need to worry about STDs or gangrene, but we do need to worry about men looking down to us.
  3. What may look like empowerment by letting us undermine and exceed chauvinistic expectations can actually be humiliating.  It reminds us how easy it is for men to look down on us and how if we were not in a post-industrial society, the very men at this table would feel the same way about us.
  4. It also suggests that silencing women's voices (as sexist characters shouldn't be willing to listen to a woman's advice) and ignoring of individual women's strengths (when sexist commoners laugh at their years of training even though any trained fighter is bound to trounce them) is natural to the human species.  After all, this isn't a true medieval world.  Social structures would change to reflect that.
  5. Sometimes it's not even realistic.  Sorcery and alchemy on the scale often found in most fantasy worlds should have as much of a social impact as technology.  If my willpower can beat your sword arm, than why would society assume you could overwhelm me?  Also a world with alchemy and relics could conceivably have a herbal form of birth control and family planning is a real door opener for women in a society. 
  6. If there is no form of birth control, why aren't male character's alignments changed from Good to Neutral if they have sex with random women as they are conceivably damning dozens of women and babies to an unsupported and shameful existence for a quick roll in the hay?  At the very least, it shouldn't be Lawful.
  7. It removes female role models as the average GM naturally (due to media influences) includes more male characters anyway and when you add to that chauvinistic biases, you're going to have an almost all-male cast.  This is an isolating experience for many women which sends an unintended message that these sorts of adventures "aren't for them" and that they are somehow strange or different for wanting to be a part of them.
  8. It can also give chauvinistic players and GMs the chance to express their negative beliefs toward the very women at the table.
  9. Even if the players and GMs don't hold those beliefs, it can still leave the female player feeling targeted because she's having to hear these comments occurring around her a lot.
  10. Real world chauvinism is insidious.  Smacking down a single commoner for giving you lip would normally lead to retaliation for violating social norms.  If the social norm sides against the commoner, they shouldn't have given lip in the first place.  Just look at Brienne from Game of Thrones.  Random commoners don't mention what she should or shouldn't be doing because the class differences are way more important than gender norms and they have no right to counter her desires.
Now this isn't to say that it can't be done, can't be done well, and that some female players don't actually prefer these kinds of medieval worlds and struggles.  There's bound to be a contrary list out there where a particular female player outlines all the reasons why it's awesome to do.  I'm not denying that those reasons *also* exist only that this list can shed light for those GMs who struggle to retain female players or whose female players request an absence of sexism in their game.

My gender has a long history of being told we're not good enough to be involved in any historic event -- whether political, scientific, religious or military focused.  Those historic events that do revolve around classically female domains have either silence women or been ignored.  Having to grapple with those very expectations in a fantasy world can be really hard as it means we can't even imagine a world where we matter despite our genitalia.

And that *can* really suck.

Naturally, your female players' mileage may vary but it is important to consider.


  1. So many things to parse in this one Shannon!

    May I ask if it is from particular GMs you have had, groups you have been part of, experiences of friends etc?

    The bottom line is that there are a lot of jerks that need to be left behind. A Gms job is to present a good story, makes some cool challenges and battles, and give every player a spotlight moment. I hear stories like some things you mentioned, and I just am asking how do they think that's fun for the players? Is it more of a passive aggressive way of saying, "I don't want you in my group, I don't have the bottle to say go away, so I am going to be mean to you until you do."

    There is fairly well done D&D documentary that has a guy whose horrible commentary on how he was Dm-ing this girl...I just would like to punch him in the head. Such a Perfect example of a "bad example" as I have seen. It would make your head explode. I could post you the youtube link, but I will not sully your blog unless you would like it. I am not sure why that DM would tell that story, and not sure why the documentary people would include it.

    The problem with your post you are preaching to the choir. There's some good stuff there I can't argue with. It seems to make logical sense. It's a game, respect your players! Let's get everyone to have a good time and be creative! The ones who don't like it will stay who they are. I don't know. Maybe there's hope. It's exhausting.

    If you are up for it, I would like to banter a bit though.

    My AD&D campaign was started after someone mentioned that doing something Game of Thrones like would be fun. In addition to a GoT like setting I added a whole lot of: Downton Abbey. Social structure!

    My campaign is definitely a chauvinistic, very class-ist, and racist world. One point you made that is really good was: [Random commoners don't mention what she [Brienne] should or shouldn't be doing because the class differences are way more important..] SO TRUE! I think players get away with sassing important NPCs because they aren't aware that they have a station that may be far below the people they are addressing.

    I had one player mouthing off to the crown prince, and being rather insulting in front of a small, but prominent audience. I couldn't believe it. The other PCs couldn't believe it, but he persisted. The prince was not Joffery bad, but was a very hard edge character. The PC was a fairly rich commoner with no particular family power, title, or patron behind him. I could not see the prince letting himself be insulted in front of important people, so I had guards take him away and throw him into the dungeon. I told the player to reroll/pull out another character as we would not be seeing that one again. (We may....but I cannot let him know that! Shhhh....) It has been 2 game years of imprisonment so far though.

    The players have really liked the research I have put into the social classes (commoner, aristocracy/clergy, and noble) and I think it has enhanced the game. One aristocrat player was very pleased when he found he had 17 named household staff and a list of what they did at his farm and manor!

  2. Some points you made:
    [1. The male protagonists get it easy.] If this is true's not being done right! For my player wealth and titles make certain things easier but are the source of their own problems. The women do have their own specific issues too.

    [2, 3, 4] Communical diseases are now on the table! Otherwise right on.

    [5 . Sometimes it's not even realistic.  Sorcery and alchemy on the scale...] There's SO much magic in a lot of the worlds, the societies don't make a lot of sense (money also.) D&D's Ebberon setting took some very interesting views to try and address magic's prevalence. If you have not read about it, I might suggest checking out some internet reviews of the campaign setting to get a feel for it. It might be of interest to you.

    I prefer and run a very very low magic campaign. Magic level and economics are two things that seem messed up in a plethora of campaign settings.

    [6. If there is no form of birth control, why aren't male character's alignments changed from Good to Neutral if they have sex with random women...] This one is very tough. It's not something my group does, and I have not had to deal with it. I think we'd have to discuss specific situations and alignment philosophy to be precise about it. I do see where you are going though. Squirrly players and crass morons are going to do what they do, and unless the GM brings up issues and consequences, logic isn't going to help.

    [7. It removes female role models …] I am guilty of this one. I like doing voices for characters. When my player can recognize the NPC by my voice, I am very pleased with myself! I also can have conversations strictly among npcs, and when the PCs can follow what's being said by whom, I consider I have done the job well. But I... am not real confident doing women's voices, so I try to avoid it. It's by no means an “all male cast” of npcs, but it is heavier in that direction. Now that I think about it; I think I talk a lot in 3rd person narration with women more too.

    [8. It can also give chauvinistic players and GMs …] Yep. Hope they don't turn off any potential new good players off to rpgs. Experienced ones will hopefully move on to better groups.

    All in all good stuff. I don't agree 100% with everything, but you have some valid points. Well done.

    David S.
    Minnesota, USA

    1. As always, anything done with care can be done really well anyhow. I'm glad it gave you food for thought! Of course, you can run a high magic game in an egalitarian society and through thoughtlessness happen to never have more than 1 in 10 female NPCs (who happen to only run brothels) or a medieval game with skewed gender power dynamics yet still have more quality female NPCs and things for women to do (no male PCs at the female initiation ceremony) so naturally the most important thing about any setting is what people do with it.