Gender Roles in RPG Texts

By John Kim < jhkim@darkshire.net>

         This is a study of the text in various recent role-playing game books, analyzing them for their portrayal of gender roles. There has often been controversy over the position of women within role-playing games. RPGs have a reputation for being male-dominated, and I thought one approach would be to look at how women are portrayed in RPG texts. Thus, I conducted a study looking at a number of RPG books from among my collection, and studied each text looking at all cases of female characters. Collecting these, I present the results.

         I consider this important in that there are many claims regarding the cause of gender disparity among RPG gamers -- i.e. why there are so few women in the hobby. I feel that close study of game texts is at least one approach that should bring light on the matter. Below I describe in general terms my findings.

         My methodology is to look only at examples of male and female characters appearing in the text. Illustrations are interesting, but they are difficult to analyze and present. Thus I do not consider them either way. The textual characters may be in fiction snippets, examples illustrating rules, or background information. The greatest focus is on examples of player characters, but other characters are also considered. As background, other comments on gender are consider as well.

         NOTE: The cases are listed below in order that I analyzed them. I analyzed the first ("The Greenland Saga") before I had decided on making a project of the study. After that, I picked randomly from among my collection. The first was arguably a biased choice, the sexism in it likely helped motivate my desire to study it. Having done the work of analyzing it, though, I felt it should be included. On the other hand, for financial reasons I was selecting from among works that I already own rather than buying new works solely for this study. That introduces a possible bias in the opposite direction, since I tend not to buy sexist works.


Case #1: The Greenland Saga

         This is a module put out by by Avalanche Press. Two others of Avalanche's D20 historical series in 2001 were awarded for Origins Awards (one of them twice). It received good reviews in Dungeon Crawler Magazine and rpg.net. I bought it thinking it might have useful material for a related RuneQuest campaign which I was GMing.

         The adventure begins with a 7-page introduction to the historical setting for the game: 15th century Scandanavia, and Greenland in particular. This includes a quarter-page section on women which presents a reasonably balanced view of women's social status in the time period. However, in terms of rules mechanics, there are only three adjustments which it suggests for D&D character creation. These are:

While each of these is individually justifiable as realistic, the module suggests no changes for bards, druids, sorcerers, or wizards -- all of which I think have far more effect on historical accuracy than females with average Str, Dex, and Con. So the selection is significant.

         Interestingly, the adventure itself flatly contradicts the historical introduction on many points. The introduction describes how the Icelanders are organized in extended clans, which is true. However, the adventure itself has the colony devoid of families or even explicitly married couples. The only extended community described is a group of men, of which the adventure notes: "No women are present, and the men of the Five Hundred speak often of sex and women in crude and sophmoric terms. However, if any female adventurers or NPCs come to Brattahild with the party, the men of the Five Hundred will show themselves to be painfully shy around them."

         Of the 31 NPCs in the adventure, three are female. The first two, Elisabeth and Sigurd, have charisma 19 and 20, respectively. They are both beautiful, high-level, unmarried noblewomen (7th-level Aristocrat and 7th-level Aristocrat / 2nd-level Sorceror, in an adventure for 2-4 level). The third, Katrina, is the "long-time companion" of a man subtitled "Norse Trash", and has the following notes accompanying her stat block:

Special: Barbarian Rage. For a period of three days, every 28 days, Katrina is able to invoke barbarian-like rage. During this period, her strength increases to 13 and she is also able to use the Improved Bull Rush feat. Changing Charisma. Katrina actually cleans up quite nicely - her charisma rises considerably [from 6 to 14] if she is bathed and out of the presence of Snorri [her "long-time companion"]. Illiteracy. Katrina cannot read or write, though she could learn to do so with intensive training. Lust: Katrina is consumed with lust for any male of reasonable age and appearance who is not Snorri. This obsession rules her actions.

And as if the reference to menstruation weren't enough, her description further notes that: "If Snorri is not watching, she 'accidentally' allows her blouse to fall open as she leans over near male members of the party, exposing her small and very dirty breasts."

         What is notable here is how the gender roles manifest. It is absolutely not the case of making women conform to historical roles. To the contrary, the women have no duties as mothers or nurturers. Instead, we have a contrast. Elisabeth and Sigurd are ultra-beautiful and powerful but inaccessible. As the module describes Sigurd:

Sigurd's intelligence and beauty have long made her stand out among her fellow Greenlanders. Over the years this has given her an arrogant turn of mind. She does not suffer fools easily, and reacts with ill-concealed contempt to what she considers silly questions or statements. There are many frustrated suitors among the Greenlanders who will bitterly claim that she considers herself too good for any of them. They're right, but so is she.

The other is Elisabeth Elisabeth Camilla, a 7th Level Aristocrat and titled as "Ruthless Merchant Princess". She appears in the beginning as the one who finances the PC's expedition. Her description begins:

She will appear very soon after the guard departs, a rather short but undeniably beautiful red-haired woman. In her wake will come several more strapping young men she calls her "entourage." Intensity radiates from her, and she is much more abrupt and focused than the genteel Marcello, moving directly to her offer with a speed verging on rudeness.

In contrast, Katrina is extremely accessible (as explicitly noted in her stat block!), but is also pathetic. Again, this is not caused by the historical period -- quite the opposite! There are no women who would be normal for the period: i.e. wives and mothers. Instead there are aloof beauties and trashy sluts.


Case #2: The Lord of the Rings RPG

         This is the core book for the "Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game" from Decipher (2002). It presents a very simple approach to the issue of women: they don't exist. There is no mention of a female character anywhere in the character creation or rules examples. Not only are the six character archetypes male, all other characters in the examples as well as players in examples are male. The game uses male pronouns for all generic references to players and characters. It ostensibly balances this by using female pronouns for generic references to the GM position. However, the named GM in the examples is also male.

         This approach is at least straightforward. All-male characters is implicitly assumed, and was most likely the case in playtesting and design. Some people have suggested that this simply reflects how the source material (Tolkien) is dominated by male characters. However, I think this is not a full explanation. First, the RPG expands in many ways such that play need not be an exact match to the events of the books. There are character types allowed that are minor or even non-existant in the books. Second, by not mentioning gender at all, the rules have trouble representing what female characters there are in the books. For example, if one creates a female of the Noble order, the character has skills like Armed Combat, Ranged Combat, and Intimidate -- which are ill-suited for a noblewoman.

         I think that adding real support for female characters would be more than just a token change. Accurately representing women in Middle Earth would significantly change and expand the scope of characters. It would require thought be given to social roles and the structure of adventures. For example, it would bring up the question about relations among the PCs -- because in a mixed-gender group of wanderers that would certainly be a question that arises. There is no discussion of this in the text.


Case #3: Hero Wars

         The third case is Hero Wars from Issaries, Inc (2000). This is similar to Lord of the Rings in that it portrays a medieval fantasy world with traditions similar to Earth. However, the mechanics do emphasize the possibility of power through relationships such as followers and friends. Moreso than Lord of the Rings, this allows for more traditional female characters. The question is, though, how are women actually portrayed?

         The character creation chapter establishes three players and their PCs which are re-used throughout the book. These are Rick and his PC Kallai, Peter and his PC Rollo, and John and his PC Rurik. Obviously, all are male. There are female characters mentioned in some of the examples. Below I include the complete text of these mentions:

The first is on page 34, as follows:

During the course of the game Rurik's younger sister grows up from a pest into a helpful young woman interested in Rurik's travels. John had originally conceived of Frieda as a tomboy who was always getting into trouble and needing to be bailed out by her older brother. After several sessions, however, Frieda's role has changed from dependent to something else. It takes a Hero Point to "buy off" her dependent role, but John can then make her into an ally or follower for free. If Frieda grew up to hate her older brother, she could move straight from dependent to adversary without spending the point.

The next example is from page 35,

The players have finished a session wherein they rescued the daughter of the king, foiling the plans of the king's brother. Kathy decides that the king is grateful enough to become a Patron of the hero band, while the brother has become their implacable Foe. The players are instructed to note these new relationships on their sheets.

Then from page 121,

Rollo tries to sweet-talk his way into the heart (or at least arms) of a pretty girl. His Fast Talk is 12W; her Chaster is 16W. Neither gets a bump. They both roll and both fail. Rollo's roll of 15 is lower than her 19, so his line is good enough to interest her, though not totally.

Then from page 136,

Rurik is courting Niquena, a comely lass. Kathy is running the courtship as an extended contest played out over months of game time. Every time Rurik and Niquena meet, they engage in another exchange, using running AP totals. After one adventure Rurik brings Niquena a bouquet of rare Voria's Blessing blossoms. Kathy judges that the flowers will give him an edge of 4 for this exchange. Rurik bids 5 AP and rolls. If he wins the exchange, his bid will be counted as 9 AP, while if he loses his bid is 5 AP. He rolls a success against Niquena's failure, resulting in Niquena forfeiting 2x the bid, or 18 AP.

In the magic section, a female character named Dabranila opposed to the PCs is introduced and used in seven examples total (pages 170, 173, 195, 196, 235, 236, 241). She is introduced as:

Dabranila tries to work her magic so that Kallai forgets the crime he has just seen her commit. One of Kallai's affinities is Truth. The Narrator says, "Dabranila performs an incantation, and you feel your memories slipping away from you. Everything is getting hazy."
"Using my magic of Truth," Rick responds, "I remember the truth of what I have seen." An extended contest over Kallai's memories, pitting the sorcerer's magical spell of Forced Amnesia against Kallai's Truth affinity, then ensues.

The last example is on page 250,

Rurik is going on the Hervald's Helm heroquest, and asks for his village's approval and support. His family and the priest of Orlanth give him extraordinary support, while the rest of the village approves and gives ordinary support. There are 20 people giving extraordinary support, for a total of +8. The rest of the village totals 260. The village support is worth +1, not 14, because there is a higher level of support.
The priestess of Chalana Arroy opposes the quest (objection) because of Rurik's disrespect in the past. The priestess has managed to convince nine others to join her protest of his quest for a -1 penalty.

So the text here at least acknowledges females as a part of the world, but it does little to support the idea of them as PCs. Dabranila unfortunately fits the "femme fatale" stereotype of a sorceress who enchants the minds of men. The other examples all fit into similar literary types: the innocent to be protected, the object to be courted, the jealous type to be appeased.

         While this fits with many genres, I do not think it is required for the period or setting. For example, historical sagas such as the Laxdaela Saga show the lives of a woman in her role as wife and mother. Hero Wars inherently allows PCs to have power through their relationships, but this is not illustrated in any of the examples of women. In the text, there are princesses but not queens. There are damsels to be courted but not wives or mothers. When women have power (such as the sorceress or the priestess), they are opposed to the PCs.


Case #4: Star Trek

         The fourth case is Last Unicorn Games' "Star Trek Roleplaying Game" (1999). This game ostensibly portrays a future society where equality for all races and sexes has come about. The game at least mechanically supports such equality. However, there are signs that this is not so in the designer's eyes. For example, there are 15 one-page sections of fiction: one at the start of each chapter. In those, about a dozen Starfleet characters appear. Of these, two are women. That is not very noteworthy, but what is interesting is what they do. Below I include the complete text sections where the two female Starfleet characters are mentioned at all.

The first is on page 25:

"...Open a channel, Lieutenant."
        Lieutenant Danna complied, not without a certain nervousness. First-contact situations were fraught with peril. The six-inch scar on her left thigh was testament to that, a souvenir of the ship's first brush with the Matapedians. Everything had worked out okay in the end, thanks to Captain Diamond's quick thinking. Moments like this still made her edgy, though.

The second is on page 263:

"Shall I open communications, sir?" Communications Officer Thursen's voice quavered slightly with the anticipation of announcing the arrival of the Yorktown.
        "Wait until we're through the Ring, Lieutenant," Captain Foster advised. "It won't hurt us to get a little closer to our destination."
        Thursen lowered her head to hide the slight flush that reddened her cheek. She wondered if her eagerness to take a more active role in the approach made her seem even more of a new recruit than her shipmates. She admired Lieutenant Vashenka's composure and Helmsman D'wara's complete concentration. Sometimes she thought her graduation from the academy was a fluke. She wondered if the others felt the same way.

         Frankly, I think this text speaks for itself. Throughout the rest of the example fiction, male characters have lots of heroic action beating aliens and so forth, while the females shiver with fright and nervousness when asked to open communication channels. Note the emphasis on Danna's thigh and Thursen's cheek. In addition, there are female characters included in six of the mechanics examples in the rules. Two of these (pages 87 and 93) are examples of taking medical problems as disadvantages. Three of them (pages 101, 103, and 161) have the character making a perception or sensor check -- never combat or an active role. The sixth (page 104) is this:

Nurse Purvis uses her own Charm skill to resist Ensign Genchoks' romantic overtures (i.e., his attempt to use Charm on her), since they wouldn't make a good couple -- his blue skin tone clashes with her uniform.

I think it is safe to say that there is a trend going on here. While females are ostensibly given equality in the background as described, there is a definite tone in the text which opposes this.


Case #5: Deadlands

         "Deadlands" is an alternate old west game from Alderac Entertainment Games (AEG). Deadlands makes conscious effort to overturn racist and sexist tendencies of many western films and novels. The following sidebar is given on page 29:

The Fairer Sex
        In the world of Deadlands, the Civil War has dragged on for more than 16 years -- from 1860 to the present date of 1876. Manpower in both the North and the South is at an all-time low. This is good news for women because now many of them are able to fill roles they could only dream about before.
        Women in Deadlands can play Marshals, gunslingers, gamblers, sheriffs, bank robbers, Indian medicine women and warriors, explorers, politicians (at local levels), and just about any other position you can imagine.

Now, this seems quite liberated in a way -- certainly moreso than prior examples. But there comes a basic question: why are women a sidebar? Why isn't there a section on gender which includes notes on both playing men and playing women. This might seem to be quibbling, but it demonstrates a pattern which holds true in play. Women are included in the western genre as an afterthought where they are allowed to take male roles.

         This then asks, how are the women who take such roles portrayed? The game provides 12 archetypes for PCs. Of these, three are female, titled "Buffalo Girl", "Pinkerton", and "Saloon Gal". Let me compare the text of "Buffalo Girl" and "Gunslinger" (a similar male archetype):

Buffalo Girl
...
Hindrances: Big Britches -3 [Deadland's version of Overconfident], Curious -3, Heroic -3, Intolerance -1: Feminine women
...
        Yee-hah! I'm the wildest thing this side o' the Pecos. I'm a whip-crackin', butt-kickin', pistol-packin' gal o' the plains.
        I've seen some ornery lookin' critters out here in the West, and I aim to rope me a few. Maybe I'll catch one and sell it to a rodeo or one o' them newfangled zoos. Or maybe I'll just stuff the durn varmint and mount it on my wall.
        'Course, I don't actually have a wall. The wide open prairie's the place for me.
Quote: "Yee-hah! Outta my way, boys!"

 

Gunslinger
...
Hindrances: Enemy -1: Someone's always out to prove he's faster than you, Heroic -3, Vengeful -3
...
        I was brought here because I'm the best. You draw that pistol, and I'll show you what I mean.
        You think you're bad news? I've seen things that would make you wet your pants. Now put that gun away, kid. And do it real slow like. The only live gunslingers are jumpy gunslingers.
        Walk away. You don't have to prove anything. And I've got enough notches on my pistol already.
Quote: "Are you going to skin that smokewagon or whistle Dixie?"

         Superficially these are both tough characters based on the same number of points. But there are a ton of things to notice. The male gunslinger emphasizes his past experience (notches on his pistol), while the female buffalo girl emphasizes what she intends to do and her overconfidence. Note how the Buffalo Girl is intolerant of feminine women, and the text goes out of its way to point out that she is homeless -- denying her femininity. Further, her quote emphasizes her pushiness and relation to men, rather than action on her own.

         The portrayal suggests a dichotomy for female characters. Either they are the traditional female roles of old westerns like the Saloon Gal Archetype, or they take on a male role and are portrayed as overbearing and anti-feminine. While Deadlands has definitely made an effort to be inclusive, the effort is flawed by its sidebar approach to gender.


Case #6: Dungeons and Dragons

         Dungeons and Dragons, 3rd edition, illustrates another approach which attempts to be inclusive. Here the issue of gender is never explicitly mentioned, but female example characters and illustrations are included regularly through the text. I should mention that the core rulebooks also do a better job than many fantasy game books in having the female illustrations be clothed and appearing competant.

         There is a roughly even mix of female and male characters in the examples of play from both the Player's Handbook (PH) and the Dungeon Master's Guide (DMG). The extended examples from the core books at least involve two female PCs (the wizard Mialee and the rogue Lidda) and two male PCs (the cleric Jozan and the fighter Tordek). However, the action in the examples seems to reflect stereotypical roles. The sole extended example in the Player's Handbook is the illustration of combat on pages 115-118. In it, one woman (Mialee) is immediately knocked unconscious on the first round and thus does nothing during the combat. The other (Lidda) wounds one orc with a crossbow, but then misses twice, and on the third round steps out of the way for the male cleric Jozan to enter melee. Meanwhile, Tordek attacks twice and each time downs an orc with a single hit. Jozan casts three healing spells, then steps in past Lidda on round 3 to attack another orc, which he hits and downs. The last orc then runs away.

         In the Dungeon Master's Guide, there is a single extended adventure example with two combat encounters, on page 130. This has the same set of four characters (Mialee, Lidda, Jozan, and Tordek). The first encounter begins with a PC being attacked from surprise while standing in the middle of the room:

DM: Mialee, you feel something land on your shoulder -- it feels hairy and moves toward your neck!
PC(Mialee): Yikes! What is it?
PC(Tordek): If I hear her call out, I'll turn around. What do I see?
DM: Wait, just a minute. First, Mialee, roll for initiative.
PC(Mialee): [Rolls] I got a 19.
DM: [Rolls initiative for the spider and gets a 14.] Everyone else should roll for initiative as well. Tordek, you heard Mialee gasp, and you turn to see a large, hairy spider on her neck.

The spider bites but does not incapacitate Mialee, and is killed by a critical hit from the male cleric Jozan. The second encounter (left unresolved) begins like this:

DM: You get up there, and you're looking around for a crack or something to wedge a spike into, right? Make a Spot check.
The Spot check is actually to see if Lidda sees the ghouls waiting in the darkness, but Lidda doesn't know that (although the fact that the DM didn't ask for a Search roll might have tipped off a more experienced player.
PC (Lidda): Oops. A 7.
Now the DM begins rolling attacks for the ghouls. The players ask what's going on, and why he's rolling dice, but his silence adds to the tension and suspense. The ghouls hit Lidda with their paralyzing touch.
DM: Lidda, make a Fortitude save.
PC (Lidda): Oh, no! Why? A trap? [Rolls] 1? Arrgh. This is where our luck runs out.
DM: [To the others.] You see a sickly gray arm strike the halfling as she's looking around at the floor where she stands, 10 feet above you. She utters a muffled cry, and then a shadowy form drags her out of sight. What do you do?

         Now, on the one hand, I don't want to blow this out of proportion. D&D makes a good effort in many ways, and is quite egalitarian compared to LUG's Star Trek (say). Still, it's not quite overturning the precedents set by other games (and earlier editions). The samples shown here are not just random cases, but rather are representative of a larger trend. The women are frequently victims who are attacked and require saving by the men.

ADDED NOTE: In response to comments by Wayne Shaw, I wanted to elaborate on this example a bit. He suggested that the poorer performance in combat of the female characters stems from their having fewer hit points and a lower Base Attack Bonus -- since they are a Rogue and Wizard compared to Fighter and Cleric.

The choice of class is a non-issue, I think. The female characters not only have lower bonuses -- they also roll worse than the male characters. Jozan and Tordek have average hit rolls 17 and 15 respectively vs 9 for Lidda. (That's raw 1d20 rolls before bonuses are applied.) Notably, Jozan and Tordek are both shown getting critical hits (threat on 20 plus confirmation), while neither of the females rolls a 20 ever. It is similar with damage rolls and the opponent's rolls against them.

The females are also targetted more. Mialee is the only one attacked by the orcs missle attack, and is the only one attacked by the spider. Lidda is the only one attacked by the ghouls (and rolls a 1 on her save).


Case #7: Space:1889

Space:1889 is an older game, first published in 1988. It only had a single edition. I included it later at the suggestion that my sample was biased by the first entry. A critic suggested that my conclusions from other games would be reversed by studying Space: 1889 (GDW), HarnManor (Columbia Games), The Way of the Unicorn (AEG), Delta Force (Task Force Games), Star Trek: the Next Generation (Last Unicorn) and Street Fighter (White Wolf).

         Space:1889 is a retro science fiction, set in an alternate 1889 where Thomas Edison invented a "ether flyer" spacecraft in 1860 that enabled colonization of the Moon, Mars, and Venus. Given the historical period, it is

         The text has numerous examples -- some of them named, while others are generic (i.e. "a character of Strength 5 swings..."). There are 19 rules examples using named characters, and none of them include women. There are also thirty-something examples without any names, where they use "he" for the generic pronoun throughout the book. There are five unnamed sample NPCs on page 39 of which one is female -- a maid.

         There are also a large number of characters mentioned as part of the game background -- some real and some fictional. In particular, there is detailed background in Victorian Age section on pages 22-33, and the fictional Mars and Venus background sections (pages 148-200). There are more characters and background scattered through the rest of the book. I counted roughly 45 named characters. With the exception of a special section on page 32, there are three women mentioned: Queen Victoria, Queen Elizabeth I (mentioned once), and Miss Jennie Jerome (mentioned once as the American wife of Lord Randolph Churchill). There is, however, a special section taking up page 32 and half of the following page entitled "Remarkable Woman" which describes seven women of the period in detail.

        


Conclusion

         At present, I would prefer that the examples simply speak for themselves. I studied the portrayal of women in a number of recent game books, and found a variety of results. In general, I would say that the portrayals of women are unfavorable compared to men. This in no way prevents a game played using the game system from having strong, positive female PCs and NPCs. However, I think the examples do have a subtle effect on readers even if they don't consciously identify the pattern. For example, I suspect that female readers would be turned off by this. Further, the examples may be symptoms of attitudes in the industry which have other effects.

         The point here is just to raise awareness of patterns with the text of games. I am sure that there are games which do not have these sorts of patterns. However, having selected these arbitrarily off my game shelf (except for #1), I for one was surprised at what I found.


John H. Kim <jhkim-at-darkshire-dot-net>
Last modified: Sat Feb 9 10:43:11 2008