A Tale of Two Characters
A description of two characters from one of my past campaigns illustrates the topic of what it really means to depict and focus on both genders fairly and equally in your role-playing games. It also shows that if you're interested in making sure that your game gives equal time to men and women, doing so may be an easier task than you think.
Hello, Gamegrene. Let's play a game (since that's what this site is about and all). In the next couple of paragraphs, I'm going to describe two characters from a game of Mage: The Ascension in which I participated several years ago. One is male, the other is female - but I won't use any pronouns that would give that away in the descriptions. (So forgive the stilted language; it's there for a reason.) Your role is to read the descriptions, and then decide based upon them which character corresponds to which gender. Ready? Here we go.
Character A is the leader of the PCs' cabal. They are a flashy, physically strong, frequently vulgar, and all-around imposing figure. They often lack subtlety and empathy, prefer direct and often violent solutions to problems, and can be somewhat authoritarian in their leadership style. Their magic style is based upon enhancing their pre-existing physical capabilities to be stronger, faster, and better. Prior to the game's beginning, Character A worked in a risky, physically demanding, and high-paying job, but was forced to give it up following a near-fatal injury that also led to their Awakening. They are not very comfortable in their new role as leader and would prefer to lead a self-centered and hedonistic lifestyle without needing to watch out for others. Character A is quite sexually voracious but avoids lasting attachments to their lovers, a tendency which they don't realize can hurt others (the phrase "trail of broken hearts" springs to mind). However, as the story continues they form a strong bond with the rest of the cabal's members and become increasingly invested and protective - particularly where their love interest, another cabal member, is involved.
Character B (the love interest) is a younger, less experienced member of the cabal who rarely takes on a leadership role, preferring instead to support others (that is, when their inexperience isn't getting them into trouble). They have few combat skills and their magic style centers mostly around enhancing their perceptions, gathering information, and assisting others. They have a powerful mentor who sent them to work with the cabal for unknown reasons. Character B and the mentor have a strange and disturbing sexual relationship with overtones of dubiously consensual BDSM. Character B takes the submissive role and claims to love the mentor (but they are still willing to fool around with others, with the mentor's consent). It is eventually revealed that the mentor is in league with the Nephandi (a group of evil mages) and is trying to recruit Character B, since Character B is an amazingly powerful magical artifact desired by all factions of mages (though they could not use these powers themselves). The climax of the game revolved around protecting Character B from people who sought to exploit their power.
...which do you think is the man, and which is the woman?
The relationship between these two characters was an important subplot in the game. They began a casual sexual relationship early on, but as time went on Character A began unexpectedly to develop unexpressed deeper feelings for Character B. Character A changed a lot through the process of admitting these feelings and experiencing all the angst and drama of discovering Character B's special powers, as well as wondering whether Character B felt the same way. The relationship also changed Character B, particularly when Character A forced them to confront the truth about their mentor. Character A (who was deeply suspicious of the mentor from day one and thus dug up all the dirt they could!) revealed to Character B that at one time the mentor had literally and repeatedly beaten Character B to within an inch of their life as part of a ritual, then blocked the abuse from Character B's memory later on. Learning of this betrayal was very difficult for Character B, but they were ultimately able to admit their love for Character A. The cabal ultimately defeated the mentor and the others who meant to do Character B harm, and the game (as well as the relationship) ended happily.
All right. Now that I've told you about these two characters, which do you think is the man, and which is the woman? Don't overthink this; go with your first, gut instinct. Get that idea fixed in your head, then read on for the answer.
No peeking now.
And now, for the answer. I'm guessing that most of my readers concluded that Character A was male and Character B was female; that's the usual outcome when I conduct this little thought experiment with people offline. But if you came to that conclusion, you'd be wrong. Character A is female and one of my former PCs - a Cultist of Ecstasy named Maggie. Character B is a male NPC, an Orphan mage named Skipper. Are you surprised? (If you figured out the truth, I'd love to hear in the comments section about what tipped you off - unless, of course, you were just operating under the assumption that nothing is as it seems in an article like this!)
The basic outline of the tale of Maggie and Skipper is quite familiar; you can look at season 5 of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, tons of anime series and action movies, or many computer RPGs to see variations on its theme. But when I played through this story, it seemed as fresh and new as if I'd never heard it before - partially thanks to the reversal of the participants' expected gender roles. Stereotypically speaking, in a story like this one we expect the female character to be the submissive one abused and controlled by the sadistic mentor and needing to break free of that control while everybody is trying to get their hands on the power she can't control, and the male character to the be one who needs to save and protect her while also getting in touch with his emotions. Turning those expected roles on their heads was a simple decision that made the game much more interesting for me.
...wouldn't it be cool if all games were like this one?
What was even more astonishing was that switching up the characters' gender roles was not a deliberate part on the choice of this game's GM. My character's behaviors were my own responsibility, of course, but it surprised me that the GM would include a male NPC who filled such a stereotypically female role. When, some time after the game had concluded, I commented on the uniqueness of what he had done and how much it increased my enjoyment of the game, his response was something along the lines of, "I'm glad you liked it, but I didn't really do it on purpose...it just seemed like it should be that way. I didn't even think of that before now." In a way, learning this made me appreciate the decision more than if the GM had done it on purpose. He didn't have to go out of his way or make a special effort to include an atypical male NPC in his game; it just came naturally.
And then I started thinking, wouldn't it be cool if all games were like this one in terms of how they depict men and women? It may sound like a tall order at first, but achieving it may be easier than you think. So if you're a GM, take a moment to think about the types of female characters (hey, and male characters too, as long as we're at it) who appear as NPCs in your game. Do they represent a variety of ages, races, classes, jobs, and even physical types? Do they display a range of different personalities, opinions, and approaches to problems? Do the PCs get the opportunity to interact with them and see them in a variety of roles? Do women appear in your game at all? (Yes, GMs do overlook this; I remember a Star Wars d20 game in which the appearance of a female NPC sent the entire group into a giggle fit when we realized that this was the first woman our all-male party had interacted with in the six sessions since the game began. "I sense a great disturbance in the Force...it's a girl!")
If, while considering the roles female NPCs play in your game, you realize that it's been a while since the PCs met a woman who wasn't a bar wench or a damsel in distress, everything's not lost. Think of NPCs who you plan to have the PCs encounter in the future, and decide here and now to make a few of them female. There's nothing else you need to change about your conception of these characters to make them "realistically female"; the point is simply to show the PCs a woman in a role they may not have seen before. You could introduce them to a grizzled female war veteran who serves as their contact for a job, a smart and ambitious priestess with aspirations to political power, a sneaky femme fatale con artist who the PCs are never fully sure they can trust, or any number of other interesting female characters who have fully-realized goals and unique personalities. The goal is to end up depicting women just as frequently and variedly as you do men. At times, this will mean putting women into the role of a villain or a victim - and that's okay. A world where all female NPCs are humorless ball-busters is no more fun or realistic than a world where women are only victims or sex objects. Variety is the watchword here, not an inflexible idea of political correctness. (There are times when I could stand to keep this advice in mind myself; I need to remember that people of all genders make mistakes, and I won't have to turn in my feminist card if female NPCs occasionally end up in need of rescuing.)
...in our third-wave-feminist world, women enjoy greater equality...
If you're a player who wants to make sure that women get equal screen time in the games you play, it may seem as though there's not much you can do except express your opinions to the GM and hope that they do something about it. But there is something you can do: consider playing a female character in your next campaign if you haven't already. I've talked about this topic before, so I won't get into too much about that here (though I'll probably revise some of my previous advice eventually - don't we all love sexist generalizations by my 18-year-old self!). Since the spotlight should stay solidly on the PCs through any good game, by seeking gender balance among the PCs in your group you're taking a big step in the right direction.
One final note: The work of including a variety of female (or male) characters may seem easier in a game with a modern setting like Mage: The Ascension. After all, in our third-wave-feminist world, women enjoy greater equality and many more opportunities than they once did. But even if your game takes place in a high fantasy or historical setting where gender equality is still a dream of the future, everything's not lost. Remember that even though the roles of women in some societies may be highly constrained, their personalities aren't. It may stretch belief for female characters in some types of games to stray too far from hearth and home, but you still can and should play each woman as a unique individual. (As an aside, I addressed this topic in a previous article here on Gamegrene, and what I said there still holds true about how to confront this situation in your own games.)
The advice I'm giving here isn't about feminism, necessarily. It's about keeping your players interested in the game. Nobody wants their game to consist of an endless parade of identical shopkeepers, brigands, and mysterious cloaked strangers in taverns. The more original and diverse a game world is, the better it holds players' attentions - and this diversity of setting and character should always include gender diversity. Changing things up and including a variety of character types will keep your players guessing and saying, "All the characters in this game are so cool." And isn't that what gaming should be?