Friday, August 12, 2011

I weigh in on "Dungeons and Dames"

So, there's a bit of a kerfuffle going on at Jeff's Gameblog regarding historical accuracy of racism & sexism vs. the fun of inclusion rather than exclusion.

This post isn't so much a rebuttal or a "you're both idiots" post; I just wanted to make a comment that I felt was relevant and felt that if I posted it there, it would be swallowed by the flamewar and never seen again. Plus, if I'm going to wax eloquent, might as well do it here and increase my post count by one.

As anyone who's read my Pellatarrum series knows, I'm a big fan of fun over accuracy, to the extent that one of my mantras is essentially "Please keep your filthy realism out of my game of epic magic and elves and dragons and bigass swords, thank you very much." But I'd like to take a moment to describe a game I'm currently running where there is, in fact, a high degree of sexism, and I think it works within the setting. That game is Legend of the Five Rings.

For anyone who doesn't know, L5R is basically a samurai game with monsters and magic (or if you're old school, it's Oriental Adventures, only better.) One of the key features about this setting is that the structure of the Emerald Empire hasn't changed for over a thousand years. To western eyes, that would appear suffocating and petrified, but to the Rokugani, it's a sign of stability and evidence that their civilizations works properly, thank you very much.

But the thing about structured, conservative caste systems is that they're rather the opposite of the typical "anything goes" style of western fantasy adventure. That means, if a GM is going to make the setting ring true, there needs to be a certain amount of prejudice and -ism in order to make it seem authentic; otherwise it's just D&D with funny names. On the other hand, too much prejudice makes the game un-fun for a significant chunk of the player base. How does a good GM balance this?

It's with no small amount of irony that I haul out a phrase from the Civil Rights era: make things "Separate but equal." This is a lot easier to do in a game system in real life, as mechanical systems are easier to segregate and balance. In L5R, for example, there are only 4 kinds of PCs (character classes, if you will): Bushi, Shugenja, Courtiers, and Monks.

Monks are easy. Anyone can become a monk; just shave your head, join a monastery, and seek enlightenment. Technically female monks are called nuns, but other than that are treated no differently than their male counterparts.

Bushi are warriors of the samurai caste. As history has shown, war is predominantly a man's occupation, and with their greater upper body strength and large reserves of testosterone, they're perfectly suited for it. So in my game, nearly all bushi are male. Note that I said nearly.

Shugenja are the priests of the samurai caste, part wizard and part cleric. They are rare and command immense power. I have made shugenja in my game predominantly female, for much the same reason that bushi are male:

  • It provides a counterbalance.
  • Magic in L5R is elemental in nature, so linking "the moon and the tides influences menstrual cycles" to "women are better at elemental magic" makes perfect sense to me.
  • While the men are at war, the women will be staying home studying.
  • First born sons are going to be pressured to be warriors regardless of their ability with the spirits.
Courtiers are politicans, faces, and bards. Since this job is based more on people skills than swordsmanship or spellcasting, both males and females may perform its duties. 

Now let's look at this. Out of 4 classes, two are completely gender-neutral. The other two -- the two most common in PC parties-- are biased strongly in opposite directions. This gives the illusion of in-system sexism while actually only restricting one option in four. 

But wait a moment! I said nearly up there, didn't I?

Yes, if you really, really want to play a female bushi, or a male shugenja, you may. And you might even get away with it if you come from a family that supports such things, like the Utaku Battle Maidens of the Unicorn. But unless you do, you're going to be treated very, very funny.

At first glance this may not seem like a big deal. The only drawback is social in nature and not mechanical?

This is true. Mechanically speaking, a female bushi is mechanically no different than a male bushi. But in the stratified society of Rokugan, this is a huge deal. But a female bushi is regarded as butch and unmarriable, and a woman who will not bear children brings shame upon her family. Shamed familes are huge, huge deals in this setting; it's the kind of thing that can result in angry ancestors, curses, and being cast out (declared ronin). 

Male shugenja don't have it any better. They're regarded as effete crossdressers -- not only unmarriable, but also unmanly in that gay, swishy sense. They will be mocked by "proper" samurai until they are miserable, their abilities doubted and mocked (the equivalent of "Get back in the kitchen and make me a sandwich!") until they finally snap and do something impulsive. And in Rokugan, impulsive samurai end up dead more often than not. 

In conclusion, my point is this: while I understand that sometimes it's necessary to "pick on" certain genders or cultures or races or whatever for the sake of campaign flavor, there are ways to do it that give the simulate unfairness without actually being unfair. Simulation is what is key here. We don't actually want realism in games, we want verisimilitude, the appearance of realism. The same should be done for all the other -isms in your games. 

1 comment:

  1. While I enjoyed reading your article, I don't really want to get into the conversation about realism vs. fun. 

    As someone who has heard of L5R often, but really never knew what is was about, I come away from your article with an intense desire to go buy the game.  Right now.

    I feel like I've been missing out...



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