Friday, November 15, 2013

Bigotry in RPGs and the writing of GM guides

I had a really interesting debate today with people about RPG worlds and the way that bigotry in them is justified.  An awful lot of game worlds are brutally sexist whether it be through chainmail bikinis, male dominated power structures, or other degradations of women and much of it is defended as being realistic.  Realistic, in this case, means that it is a really inaccurate but culturally normal portrayal of the way in which some people see European centric medieval culture in order to justify sexism.  Is it true that way more men that women were in power in medieval Europe? Yes.  Does that have anything whatsoever to do with how a fantasy world with dragons, teleportation, and fireballs should be or is organized?  No.

In the GM section of Heroes By Trade I talked about this and emphasized that the most important thing to do was to make sure that all the players were happy.  If your world design made people (most often but not at all limited to women) unhappy then you did it wrong.  However, I included a justification for a non male dominated world if someone was really looking for one.

Characters with inborn power (which includes all player characters) have equal combat prowess and other talent regardless of gender so the serious sexism that exists and existed in the real world did not develop in the world of Heroes By Trade.

Of course you didn't need this justification.  Saying "the world we are playing in doesn't work that way" is plenty.  After all, magic and frostbolts and flying and such, even if you ignore the fact that the real world has an immense variety of different cultures which have very different standards for the way that people relate based on gender.

However, I concluded that even providing that justification was an error; I was wrong.  The idea that women being unequal is realistic and therefore worth considering as a fundamental game structure is bullshit.  There is only one rule:  Have a good time.  That's it.  Make it realistic isn't a rule or even a guideline and the idea that feminine oppression is somehow necessary for things to feel realistic is misogynistic in itself.  If you are willing to accept flying across a mountain on a pegasus without losing immersion then clearly you can accept people all being treated as people in the same way.

Instead of staying home we go out to smite evildoers.  Instead of getting cut by swords and dying from infection we rest awhile and then keep on going.  Instead of being in a world where people are systematically discriminated against we play in a world where such discrimination does not exist.  None of these things make a good reality simulator but they all make the game more fun and that is the whole point.  Screw realism... give me fun every damn time.


  1. I'm curious why you used the phrase "European centric medieval culture". Do you have a non-European non-traditional pre-industrial society with better gender roles in mind?


  2. Yeah, there are lots of societies that didn't have a pure 'men rule' setup. You can find some examples among many Native North American societies (they were really varied though and can't be usefully generalized). There were societies where men and women shared ruling power but with very different spheres and some where women were largely in charge. A big part of the differences is also in how leadership was passed on - many societies passed leadership father to son but many others had very different models.

    If you want a bunch of interesting gender role examples I would suggest the book Sex At Dawn. It talked about lots of different societal standards for pairing and reproduction across a wide range of different times and locations.

  3. Wouldn't you consider those societies as traditional? Normally fantasy exists with more technology social cohesion that that.

  4. Normally fantasy has technology that wasn't widespread in the Americas, that is true. I can't see why you couldn't use technology from medieval Europe in a setting otherwise filled with other cultures though. I don't know what you mean by technology social cohesion.

  5. Sorry, that was a typo. I meant "Normally fantasy exists with more technology AND social cohesion that that."

    My point is that you can have magic and fantasy stories with different levels of technology, but that "generic fantasy" tends to want iron swords, crazy cults, kings, currency, hamlets with taverns, writing, and those types of things. I don't think this limits you to being Eurocentric in that you can get this in a Three Kingdoms type setting, or with Samurai, or in a version of Medieval India (I'd go Delhi Sultanate) and with some modifications probably even in a society based on Aztec or Incan civilization (no iron swords though). None of these societies had good gender roles though. My point is that I don't think people are necessarily being Eurocentric, they might just be fixating on cultures were you swing an iron sword.

  6. I think that you are right that many people take their fantasy cues from a technology level rather than a particular geographical or racial background. My thought is that you can easily take that kind of technology and slap it into any number of different cultures and make it work quite reasonably. In particular you can get away from father to son rulership with very little work and swapping to a whole different gender role paradigm isn't that hard.

    Native American culture actually had plenty of social cohesion. There were large and very durable empires in fact but when 90% of the populace is wiped out by the plagues that arrived with Europeans it totally shatters whatever culture was there before. The trouble with learning about this is that the large part of the record reflects what the Europeans encountered as they entered the Americas which is really a record of 'what happens after an apocalypse'.