When talking about gaming, I think one of the more difficult issues to discuss is the role of women in RPGs. I think the difficulties arise when discussing the roles female players choose. Why? In the case of NPCs, the situation is usually quite simple. The scenario or campaign’s needs will dictate various male and female roles necessary to the story. So we are dealing with this cliché which – and it is normal in RPG – can be changed only by the GM and/or willingness of players to build vivid interactions with NPCs.
Why try to change and avoid the clichés? Because many female NPC roles are stereotypical (and not only in fantasy settings). Consider the following:
- The Witch or Crone – A nasty piece of work who can sometimes cause more trouble as a beautiful woman seeking to manipulate the PCs than as the hag seeking to scare them.
- The Noblewoman – A queen, princess, baroness, etc. in trouble and needing saving or strong and capable of shaking up kingdoms with her powers of intrigue and seduction.
- The Thief or Rogue – An extremely efficient thief or assassin used to using her feminine wiles and quick wits to get the job done.
- Warrior Woman – Usually in absurd armor “sewn” by the male imagination and does little on a battlefield to protect the body. (See Women Fighters in Reasonable Armor for some more appropriate armor choices.)
- The Sorceress – Usually unattainable, occupying the upper echelons of magical power.
- And then there’s the second line of female characters… Peddlers, innkeepers, waitresses, prostitutes, etc.
[Editor’s Note: For a great exploration of fantasy gender stereotypes, check out Faith Boughan’s set of articles on the topic at Fantasy Faction. Here’s part 1, part 2, and part 3. It turns out male characters are also subjected to cliché far too often for many readers’ tastes. My characters would never survive living in a Conan novel!]
So let’s go back to female PCs. Even in the modern world, women are still competing with men for jobs, money, and respect. [Editor’s Note: They shouldn’t have to fight for it – it should be a given.] In games, because of all the clichés, female characters are usually competing with male characters. And to do this they must break out of those stereotypical roles.
What do I mean by “competing with male characters”? A warrior woman has to prove that she’s equal to the male warriors. If she doesn’t have enough strength, she must make up for it with wits and agility. (Except in a few cases like the famous female dwarf Gumrunda! 🙂 )
Why try to avoid the stereotypes? Because most roles for women in RPGs are very limited. I don’t know many systems with special roles (professions, classes, etc.) created specifically for women (the Black Furies in Werewolf?). What is more, especially in fantasy settings, the roles of women are doubly-marked by the stigma of outsiders. Usually fantasy imitates the Middle Ages, where women were not recognized at a high rank in the hierarchy of power.
So if male characters were seen as outsiders, it didn’t rouse much controversy. A young nobleman as a mercenary? Ok. A young noblewoman as a mercenary? This is a double-whammy (outsider + woman) of a traditional social role.
Obviously gamemasters and players have considerable room to maneuver these days to escape the stereotypical roles of female characters. What do you do? My favorite method is a good one – history and inspiration. Without a story, each character is as flat as the paper on which their statistics are written. [Editor’s Note: History is full
of strong women breaking out of traditional roles in their societies and showing their grace, power, and poise whenever possible. I am married to a strong woman and have to strong young women as daughters, so I definitely recognize that women in fantasy settings don’t need to wear chainmail bikinis and swing swords to show strength!!]
Dear Ladies… I honor all role-playing sessions in which you appear. You make the RPG world more colorful and add new dimensions and points of view. So please – share with us your characters. Write about them in the comments – their histories and deeds. Share your inspiration!