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Gender and Setting

Started by Simon JB, December 07, 2008, 04:07:35 PM

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Simon JB

I'll get straight to it. If you read the following as a part of the setting description, how would you react?

QuoteWoman and Man

The Kingdom is a clearly patriarchal society. Even if there are nuances between different states within the empire, there is usually an overwhelming majority of men in most ruling circles, both in the political and the financial sphere. Because of the ever-present war for domination of the planet, the military has a central role in society, and there the male dominance is even greater than in politics or finance. There are some armies or regiments that have more women soldiers than others, but they still make an extreme exception.

The Church, however, is quite the opposite. The highest religious offices are only open to "Brides of the King", and many Orders Militant belonging to the church are all female.

In private life there is a widespread view that relations should be monogamous and that the husband has the responsibility to provide for the family while the wife cares for the household and the children. There is also a greater acceptance for violence from men and for passivity in women.

This order of things is in no way given by nature nor exactly the same in every human society, but it appears to have taken root quite thoroughly in most of the lands of Man. In many academic circles there exists an ideology of equality, but it is extremely different from country to country how well spread and well accepted this is.

Discussion about gender in rpg settings in general is also welcome in the thread, but I'd like to see this as a starting point to refer back to if the discussion becomes very unfocused.

Paul Czege

Hi Simon,

A game text telegraphs a game's important themes. I'd expect players exposed to this text to create characters that take sides on gender issues in the setting. You're telling them gender issues are going to be important.

"[My Life with Master] is anything but a safe game to have designed. It has balls, and then some. It is as bold, as fresh, and as incisive  now as it was when it came out." -- Gregor Hutton

Eero Tuovinen

What Paul said. Also, your last paragraph sounds like Nordic apologism - I've read similar affirmative denouncements from writers and designers who are keen to discuss an issue they feel is extremely sensitive and where they themselves wish not to be branded as regressive. This is typical of the progressive cultural politics here in the ultra-liberal Nordic countries; even raising the questions of gender equality, religious freedom or ethnic diversity is largely impossible without being apologetic about it. It makes you seem vulnerable when you do that in a fictional account of a fictional setting, though - you'd seem more confident if you'd let the art stand for what it is and trust in the reader to realize that you're not advocating sexism even when some characters in your setting are.

Also, speaking personally, this text alone is a bit ambiguous in functional terms: should the player created character advocate or challenge the status quo, or just take it for granted? You could just outright say which you want; even if the game is Solar System and the assumption is that the player can challenge whatever he wants, you'd still do a service to your setting if you telegraphed your intent unambiguously. Do you want a patriarchaic society because it's necessary background for something else, or do you want it so player characters can challenge it? I know that I've played my share of fantasy games where the patriarchal society has not been the point of contention; I like historical tropes, and doing gender-egalitarian historical fantasy just seems awfully shallow to me. So when I present a patriarchal society in that sort of game, it's definitely not because I want players to zoom in on this perceived injustice and start toppling it.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.


  It looked great. A very thorough treatment of the setting. Until you got here:
QuoteThis order of things is in no way given by nature nor exactly the same in every human society, but it appears to have taken root quite thoroughly in most of the lands of Man. In many academic circles there exists an ideology of equality, but it is extremely different from country to country how well spread and well accepted this is.

  If you are really sensitive about presenting your stance on sexism, save it for the designer's notes. Your clarification right next to the setting text draws attention away from your setting text (which is a shame, because it seems like a good treatment).

  My reaction reading this was standard medieval setting, until the female religion bit. Then I forgot all that when I saw your little disclaimer.

  Good luck with your setting!
Dave M
Author of Legends of Lanasia RPG (Still in beta)
My blog
Free Demo

Simon JB

Very interesting points about the apologism and the ambiguity. I wasn't aware that the text communicated that until you told me, but I see what you mean.

My intention was for all of this to be setting description. I'll wait with including more about the specifics of the setting, but there are fantasy elements that separates the setting from our reality, so "this order of things is in no way given by nature" was intended as a piece of setting fact, but I can see that it looks like a designer's apology, and that's not good for what I want.

Would you read it differently if it looked like this instead?
QuoteThis order of things varies between different parts of the Kingdom of Man, and in the academic circles of Paradise City there is a strong ideology of equality that has spread to other large cities. Also in the old nobility it is quite common for the Lady of the House to take the active part in politics.

I can add that the Kingdom of Man is a large empire made up of many smaller countries and city states.

Eero Tuovinen

Actually, the revision is interesting in that it sort of gives us a very common roleplaying fluff symptom, the weasel-wording (also familiar from Wikipedia content guidelines). What I mean is that if you look at many roleplaying setting texts, they're often written to first strongly state something and then back-pedal with all the writer's might to make room for all the exceptions that player characters and other dramatic individual considerations inevitably introduce. This revised text sort of reminds me of that sort of back-pedaling: first you state strongly that patriarchalism is the order of the day, but then you give several exceptions that give an overall vague impression: are you saying that players are free to ignore the patriarchal stuff when they feel like it, or are you saying that this is a definite list of the exceptions, or are you saying that the conceived majority opinion is not that at all, for in fact everybody disagrees with it somehow? (That last one might seem idiotic, but you'd be suprised how far some writers have managed to take this wishy-washy "something for everybody" writing style. In some '90s rpgs it seems that there are so many exceptions to the common rules that the exception is the rule. This becomes even more vague when the writer has chosen to be clever and undermine his own claims about the setting to provide a thematic statement of some sort.)

I sort of like how Greg Stafford does this stuff in early Hero Wars publications, in which it is quite clearly stated that the "Orlanthi all" means 85%. What this means is that when the books about Orlanthi barbarians say that everybody worships Ornald or Ernalda, or everybody belongs in the fyrd (the fighting body of the rural community), or everybody knows that war is only for men, it's not really everybody, it's just a rough 85% of the community the writer is discussing. There are always exceptions, and not just dramatic ones, but marginal minorities that influence the setting even when the writer can't be bothered to back-pedal on every definite he chooses to claim.

Now, the back-pedaling is a high-order thing, so you're not probably suffering it here in this small excerpt. If you wanted to clarify for my sort of picky reader, though, you could just plain come out and say that the traditional societal structure presumes patriarchalism, and while other ideas are not unknown, they are only theoretical. Your revision is very vague in saying that this order of things "varies between different parts of the kingdom", which seems like an invitation to outright not care about the long explanation just prior. Also, the text already says in the first paragraph that there are nuances, so repeating that gives it perhaps more weight than you intend.

Ultimately, though, I think that this is, in a way, fiddling with details that only become problems due to an insistence on keeping to the kayfabe. I know that this sort of challenges the very premise of setting-writing, but I'm not so sure if it's a good idea in the first place to try to write about fictional places like they were real when we're discussing immediate roleplaying implementation. For myself, I'm planning to develop a new voice in the new TSoY I'm supposed to start writing this month - the text will be written from the viewpoint of play, not as a fictional travelogue. This means, among other things, that I don't need to be careful about picking the right words and right emphasis to transmit how many bars of pressure the gender roles are putting on different parts of society, exactly. Rather, I can just state that this society has this idea of patriarchalism embedded, and I added it because I want this thing to be a theme / because I need this thing to ground my theme / because I want to play tricks on players who want to play female characters / because I want all clerics to be females in the setting / because of some other reason. Then the people using the setting can actually make informed decisions about which parts are important and which are not; if I just wrote a florid description of how these people make the women do the cooking and they also have pretty clothes, how could I ensure that the reader understands to take each of those facts for their operative roles in the roleplaying process? I know that I myself get quite lost (and worse, bored) with the travelogue format of rpg writing that almost all setting-heavy rpgs have. All facts about a setting are not created equal.

Note that the above approach depends strongly on actually recognizing the role of each snippet of text you choose to provide. If this is a generic overview of the setting, for example, then why would you spare a single word for the marginal exceptions? Bold strokes, man! If 90% of the society, and more importantly, the parts of society relevant for play, accept the traditional gender roles, then just use that "Orlanthi all" and have a caption later for "different thinking" where you introduce your brave heroes, the academicians who dare to speculate about egalitarianism. Or don't, if you find that your only reason for introducing these counterpoints was to ensure that the players can play an egalitarian character if they want. That is better achieved by telling them to play against type if they want, not by trying to encourage it via setting description.

Let me know if the above discussion escapes the bounds of the present dialogue, though - I understand if you find it annoying that I question the whole premise of setting-writing when you're just asking about how people react to your choice of words. For what it's worth, the second formulation of the last paragraph doesn't sound apologetic anymore, just extraneous - you might consider leaving it out altogether, whatever you think of my repudiation of traditional setting-writing.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.


  Well, I guess it depends. If this is the entire write up for the Kingdom of Man, then it does come off as a little wishy-washy. But, if this section is immediately followed by write-ups for the various fiefdoms, then its a great way to prime the pump. Does that make sense?
  To summarize what you have written so far (with thenew erata):
The kingdom is sexist
Politics is sexist
Economics is sexist
The Military is sexist
The Military leads, society follows
This society is very warlike
Religion is reverse sexist
Marriages are sexist
Cultural norms are sexist
Academics are mostly not sexist
Sometimes Female nobles can engage in politics without breaking taboos
Oh, and these rules do not apply to the entire Kingdom.
  Is that the message you wanted to convey?
Dave M
Author of Legends of Lanasia RPG (Still in beta)
My blog
Free Demo

Simon JB

Wow, I've been away from here a long time! One computer crash, holidays and different projects taking your time can do that, I presume... ,-)


I'm not sure I'm with you about the weasel-wording and back-pedalling here. Firstly, my intention is to make sure the gender structure of the setting is visible to the player, even while it is to a large part very similar to that of our society. Many RPG settings include a lot about power strucures along the lines of ethnicity and class, which is all well and good since power structures are food for drama, but with few exceptions leave out any mention of gender-based power structures in the world. Or, even worse, mentioning something about how this is a gender equal society but failing to draw any conclusions from that statement, reinforcing the invisibility of these issues, leaving it to the players' unconscious assumptions about the way of things. I see this as a major flaw in writing RPG settings.

But that's just basics. What I want with having this text as a part of the setting description, not a major part, but very much there, is to encourage players to make characters that take sides on the issue, as Paul put it above. But for characters who break the norm to be interesting, there needs to be a context, an idea of how the society views those women who believe they are great officer material. For those characters, I believe it is essential information about the setting that their belief would find support in the intellectual circles in the big cities or possibly with radical nobles, which are not that uncommon. In this light, I would be negligent in leaving that last paragraph out, wouldn't I?

Or am I missing something?

Now, I'm sure what I want could be written better, but hey, I'm working on it... ,-)

As for the voice of the setting description, I'm not at all sure how that's going to be. Up to this point I have mostly been working on putting the ideas I have finished in my head down in text, to be able to share and discuss them with others.

The setting that this is for is a diesel-punk fantasy world heavily inspired by Warhammer 40,000. The "Kingdom of Man" will be discussed mostly as a framework, since it is a large imperium with different countries within it, while I will put the focus on a smaller Border Town in a corner of the world. This gender text would be a part of the birds-view description of the Kingdom and the setting in general.


Reading the last paragraph didn't feel like an apology or back pedalling to me. It reminded me of similar discussions in 7Th Sea and Victoriana. To me it said this: This is a product of culture, not any divine or physical causality. Like most medieval culture, it is entrenched and widespread. There are idea of a more equal treatment of poeple is present if the players need to use it.

As a GM, I saw it as shorthand that lets me know whats going on in the world, and how special I should treat exceptions. Not that I should restrict them or not. And like any issue in a game world, whether the players or the GM want to set folks up in opposition is a specific game choice. &th Sea has no real support for advocating change save anonymous academic discussion, Victoriana is set up to point the players directly at these issue. Neither seem to apologize for either apporach.


Simon, I just found this thread today.  I'll give you what occured to me, in pretty much the way it hit me.

First paragraph:  Ok, pretty standard stuff, no biggie.

Second paragraph:  HEY...this is interesting.  If this is a real faith based religion (as opposed to just a power faction masquerading as religion) and the women are in charge of the religion...what does that say about the how and why the rest of society has remained so patriarchal.  That's some interesting things to explore.  Or if this church is just a front for secular power, there will still be interesting things to say...just very different things.

Third paragraph:  Yawn.  See, I would expect the interaction of the first paragraph and the second to produce some really interesting points of view on the hows and whys of gender role in the society.  To have instead those gender roles to just be bog standard ordinary "old fashioned" gender roles seemed not only not very interesting, but down right disappointing given my thought process after paragraph 2..

Honestly the last paragraph didn't effect me one way or the other, because I'd already stopped caring.

So to me.  If you don't want to feature gender roles as anything more than a "be aware this is how this culture is" thing, then I would stick to making the church patriarchal just like everything then have an ordinary "old fashion" cultural view and its consistant.  But if you're going to do this thing where the church is entirely the opposite...well, then I recommend thinking bigger, and really reflecting on how that divergence might effect the broader social norms, because I doubt very much that Old Fashioned Old World Patriarchal norms would look the way they do if the Pope, the Cardinals, the Bishops and the Templars had all been women.


So, I don't care much about the last two paragraphs.

In fact, I dislike the third because it undermines the interesting parts of the first two paragraphs (more on that in a minute), and the fourth paragraph just says to me "so its a culture, and works the way most cultures work." (Which is in line with Eero's "Glorantha 85%" kinda... its at least a simple way to talk about it without having to get into the deeper structures of how cultures work.)

The first two paragraphs I like because I find them at odds with each other. We've got a world in which the Knights Templar are women, but the majority of the non religious military is men. We've got female cardinals in a world where all the money is controlled by men. How the fuck is this going to resolve itself? Its a fucking mess!

I love it. I mean, culture is a fucking mess. And a good gaming culture should be a total fucking mess. There should be all sorts of places for people to run both within and without the lines. And this is doable without Eero's "weasel words" if you make and present a culture with some obvious gaps and then leave them to be played.

I guess that's where I diverge from Ralph, who normally says most of what I'd say. For me, looking at it as something to game with, the contradictions and ambiguities of the first two paragraphs are all story meat. What the players chose to have their characters do with that: to use it, abuse it, but to have to deal with it as the established order... that's all great. I can see a million ways people could play off that dramatically and fruitfully.

So I don't want it resolved. I don't want it worked out and aligned and explained. I don't want to be told about what the culture's attitude towards men and women and violence is -- I want to work that out through play and what the characters say and do to each other.
- Brand Robins


I can see that.  But people in a culture generally have a pretty good idea what the cultural norms are in their culture in advance.  The interesting part to play is where the culture is all a mess, but I think knowing the expectations of the neighbors is important for knowing how and where to challenge those expectations...or reinforce them as desired.


I don't want to sound hostile, but if the product is a setting with significant cultural details, and the buyer desires a product with some basic framework where the players will fill out the hows and whys in play, it seems to me that either the product isn't for them, or they should just cross out all the details provided and not worry abotu them.



But I don't have that product. I have a short write up and question about how I feel about it. So how I feel about a hypothetical dense tome of setting detail is a different thing, isn't it?

And for the record, I generally like those. But I like those when they make settings with gaps and ambiguities, not when they try to smooth everything over and explain how everything works as a coherent, changeless whole.


Yea, that's all good too. I still think we're probably a couple steps different from each other in how many things we want explicit vs implied, but I think we're mostly agreeing in that way folks do on the internet.
- Brand Robins

Graham W

Simon, I don't know. If you'd given me "This is a patriarchal society", I could do a character to engage with that. If you'd given me "This is an egalitarian society", likewise, and "This is a matriarchal society, suck up the role-reversal", I could do something with that.

But I wouldn't know how to make a character to engage with this. It's neither one thing nor the other.

It's an interesting idea, but I'm not quite sure how I'd play in it, or whether I'd want to.