Tropes vs. Women in RPGs
Last night I was recounting to Jenn what Adam and Mike had told me about the “overt sexism” they experienced in one of their games this past weekend at Carnage. (Which, at first, I misheard as “avert sexism” and thought it was some kind of weird mechanic built into the game — roll to avert sexism!) Apparently they were playing a game set in ancient Rome, and there was one female player playing the one female character who was a courtesan. Despite the GM informing the group that at this time courtesans were a respectable role with some level of authority, this did not prevent some of the other players from immediately assuming courtesan is a synonym for prostitute, and making “clever remarks” in that direction. And despite the female player’s obvious discomfort, and Adam and Mike’s attempts to move on to other topics, the comments persisted throughout the game.
It’s unfortunate that some RPG players will always jump to the conclusion that roleplaying a character in a time period when sexism was more prevalent that this means it’s OK to be as big of a jerk as possible, and we’ll all enjoy a laugh at their foibles. Roleplaying really does require buy-in and trust on both sides of the table though.
I could ramble on about the need to read your audience and have trust at the gaming table, but that’s not my point here. What I found most interesting was Jenn’s reaction to this anecdote, which was along the lines of “Yeah, if you’re the only girl at the table you should never play the only female character.” It was such an interesting statement I started prodding into other edge cases. What if there were other female characters to choose from but only male players? (Wait to see if some of male players play one of the female characters first.) What if there are other female players but only one female character? (Skip the female character, play a male character.) What I found so surprising here was not necessarily the actual answer, but the fact that Jenn had them so readily at hand. Clearly she had thought this through and had made a set of mental rules.
This is kind of disappointing really. I never think of such stuff when sitting down to play a game. Generally I do prefer to play male characters over female, but only in the same way that say I prefer playing humans to elves and dwarves. I have certainly played my share of female characters at convention games. I suppose this is male privilege for you.
Also, over the years I have become accustomed to Jenn playing male characters at my own games, so much so that it is now ingrained in me to ask any female player if their character is male or female before accidentally using the wrong pronoun. But I don’t do this to my male players, and that kind of sucks. I am really not sure if this means I should try to stop myself from doing this, or do it to everyone, or just continue on as I have been. Is asking this question being open and accommodating for players more likely to be playing a different gender? Am I being insultingly sexist by only asking the girls this question? Would it be overly PC to ask everyone?
And in pondering all that, I realized one of the problems is in the characters themselves. I bring about double the character sheets I need for any game I run at a convention.. This is in part to give players options, partly to allow for the occasional character death, and partly because I use a random generator so it’s really very easy to do so. My random generator in turn uses Chris Pound’s “Silly” fantasy name generator, which I absolutely adore. The names are fantastic. This weekend we saw a dwarf in full plate wielding two magic daggers named “Grisha the Killing Machine”. We also had a hammer wielding fighter named Rodor the Laborer, backed up by Orzaize the Blue Wizard, whose player decided to describe all his spells as being colored in blue in some way, and some discussion was had about his hopes for promotion to Silver Wizard and tenure when he returned to the magic college.
Some players change the names, which I have no problem with, and I even often make the point that they should feel free to do so if they like at the start of the game. Many players though (the good ones in my opinion), will pick a character in part because of the name. All that said, in looking over the names spat out by that generator, I’m noticing a strong lack of female names. In fact, I’d say all the names are either obviously male or ambiguous. There are no clearly female names in the entire thing. And that means that at the table when I turn to a female player and she’s playing “Grimbold Oakshield”, it does not seem unreasonable to ask “is your character male or female?” And perhaps it explains why I’m more likely to do this with a female player than a male player.
OK, so resolutions:
- Find a way to incorporate some obviously female names into my random characters. This may mean having a poke into Chris Pound’s name generator to figure out how it works so I can modify the output, or perhaps simply taking a dump of names from it and then hand-massaging some percent of them to feminize them.
- When starting up a convention game I often go around the table and ask for character name, race, class, level, and AC, just so I can make a quick cheat sheet and not have to ask those questions over and over while playing. Perhaps I should add gender to that list, that way I get it from everyone and just don’t have to think about it later.
I am quite satisfied that resolution #1 there includes digging into some new code. This reinforces what I’ve always found obvious: all problems can be solved with better code. I am the man with the hammer.