Sex in Role-playing


'In a world without women, what would men become?'
'Scarce, ma'am. Mighty scarce.'

Mark Twain.

The imagery sometimes associated with role-playing games cannot be very encouraging to women who are considering becoming involved in the hobby. I have just taken four games, more or less at random, down from my shelf. The cover of one ('Shattered Dreams') depicts a female in a very low-cut dress, being touched below the breast by a sinister shadow-creature. Another ('TORG') depicts a woman wielding a very large gun. 'Nothing wrong with that,' you may say — but she evidently thought that it would be sensible to go into combat wearing her bathing costume. She has another gun strapped to her naked thigh, which also sports a tattoo. The bearded clergyman she is standing next to is fully clothed. Freud would have had a field day.

Pictures of this kind are probably symptoms, rather than cause, of the maleness of the role-playing hobby. Since most gamers are young males it is not surprising that games companies decorate their games with pictures that the think young males will like to look at. Such artwork is more often the result of thoughtlessness rather than any desire to smuggle pornography in by the back door. Fantasy artists put their women into silly clothes because that is what women in fantasy artwork have always looked like. The two games that I have so unfairly picked on are not particularly sexist in their content or themes; it's only the artwork that is at fault. I've never met a man would admit to liking this sort of thing, and most women in the hobby tend to regard it as sad and silly rather than sexist and offensive.

The other two books in my very un-scientific survey were 'GURPS' supplements —'Robin Hood' and 'Arabian Nights'. One shows a male wizard and his male apprentice calling up a male efreet; the other, a group of merry men ambushing a much less merry but equally male group of Normal soldiers. No women were in evidence in either case. Here, one cannot blame either the writers or the artists, since it is obviously the fault of the subject matter. The yearns of Robin Hood and the Arabian Nights are the stories of a man's world.

That, of course, is the problem.

Most role-playing games still address themselves to what have generally been regarded as 'male' themes: combat and the military. Characters spend their army severance pay on space-craft to become mercenaries and bounty hunters; they are approached in bars by greybeards who want them to rescue their daughters from wizards' towards; they aspire to become Knights of the Round Table or Imperial Space Marines. Whole role-playing supplements have been given over to pictures of military uniforms; whole books have been written containing nothing but games statistics for guns, or lovingly developed rule systems for dealing with cars, tanks, space-craft and giant weapons-laden robots. When has a role-playing product ever primarily addressed the art, music, or agriculture of an imaginary world, let alone that world's fashions or child-rearing practices? Someone will say, 'Those subject have no application to role-playing games; they are dull and unexciting.

I repeat. That is the problem. Why did role-playing games become obsessed with the warrior to the exclusion of the nurturer.

Furthermore, many role-playing games are set in archaic cultures in which politically incorrect values are the norm; not only in the romanticised Middle-ages, but also Victorian England and the 1930s. In such societies, the roles of women and men were more sharply differentiated than they are today. Could it be that, for male gamers, this is part of the appeal? Perhaps it appeals to the same ethos as the Wild Man culture; that some men — particularly, perhaps, rather studios, un-athletic 'nerds'--yearn for a world of heterosexual male friendships; of hunting, honour and warfare. Cinematic science fiction, much more obviously, calls up the male world of the barrack-room. Ursula Le Guin commented that 'Star Wars' ceased to be interesting at the half-way point, when everybody got into uniform. At one level, there is probably nothing very wrong with this. If men really do have an inborn urge to kill animals and each other, then role- playing games are probably a very harmless way of getting it out of their system. But some of us hoped that there was rather more to it than that.

This is not to say that it is impossible to play women in role-playing games, nor that women never role- play. I can only think of one game that explicitly rules out female PCs. Most games fall over themselves to admit them. The science fiction militaries envisaged by 'Traveller' and 'Prime Directive' recruit men and women on equal terms. The Order of Hermes allows female wizards. 'Warhammer FRPG' lets women take up any career. 'Castle Falkenstein' emancipates Victorian women so they can join in the swashbuckling. 'Space:1889' leaves the ladies unliberated and patronised, but invites them to play missionaries and explorers, or dress up as boys. Perhaps this latter suggestion is the most honest; how many RPG females are in fact little more than women in men's clothes.

The one game that assumes that most PCs will be male is 'Pendragon'. Since it specifically sets out to tell the stories of knights in a romantic medieval world, there is little point in censuring the game for this. If you are going to go off to war, or on the quest for the Holy Grail, you are likely to leave the women-folk at home. A supplementary volume makes some interesting suggestions about incorporating women PCs into the game. There is a small precedent for female knights in medieval literature, and since this is fantasy, there is no reason why Arthur should not operate an equal opportunities policy at the Round Table. It is not too difficult to imagine Valkyrie-like warrior women among the Saxons. If that fails, you could always generate a lady wizard to join the lads on their adventures. Given the type of thing that 'Pendragon' is trying to do, this is a valid approach. But it makes a massive assumption: that the way to admit female characters into an RPG is to come up with a reason why they should be joining in the murdering and pillaging with the blokes. We admit women into our games, but they have to be macho women, preferably with guns.

It may work for 'Pendragon', but as a general rule it seems terribly restrictive. Rather than giving swords to the women, why not try to persuade the men to put them down? Why not write scenarios about the things that the other fifty per cent of the population were doing while the men were engaged in mass slaughters. Things like raising children, learning and teaching, making thing, wielding subtle political power, creating and telling stories or (in the mythic version) practising magic.

We will, of course, be told that a game of 'women's pursuits' in a fantasy society would be boring: and doubtless, a game about embroidery or bathing the children would be dull-- every bit as dull as a game about polishing armour; digging a latrine or repairing a tank. But would role-playing games really become less interesting if their focus was broadened; away from combat and power, and into the issues of real human relationships , in which, throughout history, both men and women have been involved? Are the stores of Florence Nightingale, Tess Durbeyfield or Moll Flanders less interesting because those women rarely took up weapons or engaged in physical action?

Some people will say yes. Some gamers find it impossible to imagine a role-playing game that does not take combat as its primary focus. A recent review in a British games magazine made the mind-boggling assertion that 'a role-playing game is only as good as its combat system.' If that is the view taken by the majority of gamers, and by the games industry, then we have answered a question that role-players have often been concerned about. Perhaps they should not have been asking why so few women play role- playing games, but why so few people play them.