Sex, Gender, and D&D

UPDATE: Wizards has now posted an updated version of the poll which does not include gender-based ability caps. They have also stated that they did not intend to implement “such a pointless rule” and that they never meant to present it as a serious option. While I appreciate their efforts to set the situation right, the conversation’s been started, and my opinions on the matter stand. My original post follows.

Some time ago, Wizards of the Coast announced that they were officially putting D&D 5th Edition into development – and, moreover, that they were appealing to the fans to help them shape the new generation of their classic role-playing game. I’ll be honest: I haven’t been following the development process too closely. The announcement prompted me to officially sever all ties to 4th Edition, as I hadn’t run the game in months and didn’t really expect to run it again in the foreseeable future, but I’ve had my own projects to deal with, and I didn’t really want to spend all my time debating the finer points of D&D with the fan community. I’d see what WotC came up with, and if I didn’t like it, I’d happily stick to running the many, many other RPGs weighing down my shelves.

Sadly, in the immortal words of Veronica Mars, every time I think I’m out, they pull me back in.

(Yes, people, I do know that’s actually a line from The Godfather: Part III. I just prefer Veronica.)

Let’s flash forward to today. Monte Cook posted an article discussing the process of unifying the various editions of D&D – figuring out what they should bring with them and what they should discard. Now, to Monte’s credit, he started the article by saying that it was difficult to imagine certain things – including gender-based ability score maximums – making a comeback. But ‘difficult’ does not actually equal ‘impossible’. To make matters worse, someone at Wizards decided to go ahead and post a poll at the end of the article asking fans which features they’d like to bring back to D&D. And gender-based ability caps were among the poll options.

Which I checked the results earlier, something like 350 people had voted for the return of gender-based ability caps. That was just a small fraction of the people who had voted on the poll overall, and most of the votes were going to the other options. I can’t tell you what the results are now, because WotC has hidden them away. What I can say is this: it’s insulting that Wizards of the Coast even put this up to a vote. As Logan Bonner pointed out, the other options – THAC0, saving throws, feats, etc. – do not make half the population feel excluded from the game. They are not rooted in bullshit ideology or long-standing social prejudices.

Mr. Bonner’s own short opinion on the subject agrees with my own. Simply put, these rules have no place in D&D. Most of us know they have no place in D&D, and most of us know they’re not going to make a comeback. Opening them up to a public vote just opens a big sexist can of worms. It invites misogynists back into the conversation and that’s not going to be pleasant for the game’s more enlightened fans. It’s already been distinctly unpleasant.

We’ve all heard horror stories of groups that decided to penalize female characters’ Strength or Constitution or even Intelligence, throwing them a bone by perhaps boosting their Charisma in the process. (Because women are pretty, of course; this is our sole purpose, and women who are not attractive to men are useless. Oh, my, I just threw up a little bit in my mouth.) There are gamers who will happily argue that women cannot be soldiers, cannot be knights, cannot effectively fight. There are others who will argue that women are inherently bad at math or science, indicating an inferior intellect, meaning they can’t be wizards or scholars. Some of these people might turn around and penalize men’s Charisma or Wisdom or some such, to try and ‘accurately model’ the differences between the sexes, but more often than not, these ridiculous little rules apply only to women.

I’ve made a joke of that, in the past. Because it’s simply ridiculous on the face of it. If you were to look in the bottom of my t-shirt drawer, you’d even find an old -1 STR, +1 CHA shirt that I used to wear all the time. But the more I interact with these people, the more I realize that, no, they’re actually serious, the more I realize it’s not all that funny.

A lot of these folks try to back their points up with science. Let’s be clear: there are differences between the sexes, though these differences are not always as clear-cut as people like to believe, and arguably we may need to reconsider the man/woman dichotomy and admit the possibility of additional sexes. More importantly, however, we do not yet understand what the actual differences between the sexes are – and we don’t know how many of those differences are due to nature and how many are due to nurture. For a great deal of our history, women were not encouraged to pursue careers in math or science. Women were not encouraged to engage in athletic pursuits. Women were not given the same advantages as men. And, even today, women are still treated differently, still burdened with profound disadvantages in pay, education, and career opportunities. Despite claims to the otherwise, we still live in a male-dominated world. So until we have complete social equality, until women and men are able to seize the same opportunities and compete on truly equal footing, don’t tell me that ‘science’ has proven women to be inferior. Science relies on repeated observations under controlled conditions. Our society has yet to eliminate all the many, many factors that impact our physical, social, mental and sexual development and send us spinning off into a myriad of directions.

And yet, despite these problems, extraordinary women have found their way into a variety of traditionally male careers. Are you seriously going to tell me that women can’t excel in math and science? Why don’t you tell that to Augusta Ada King, a.k.a. Ada Lovelace, arguably the first computer programmer? Or Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, United States Navy, creator of the first program compiler and the first person to come up with the very concept of programming languages? Or poor Rosalind Franklin, robbed and slandered by James Watson? Or Marie Curie, or Lise Meitner (blatantly robbed of her Nobel Prize), or Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard (who thankfully did get the credit and the Nobel Prize she deserved for her research, in 1995), or Harriet Brooks, or Jane Goodall? In fact, why don’t you take a look at this whole damn category? If these women are outliers – and in some cases, they certainly are – then I would argue that it’s because it’s really damn hard to make it as a woman in the sciences, or in any male-dominated profession, and that’s only starting to change.

Women can’t fight? Well, it’s true that there are fewer female warriors than scientists in our history – but nevertheless, they are there. There’s Renée Bordereau, for example. Or Julie d’Aubingny, the French duellist better known as La Maupin. Or the numerous women who disguised themselves to serve on both sides in the American Civil War. There’s Princess Pingyang, who led an army against the old Chinese capital of Chang’an and played a key role in conquering China for the Tang Dynasty. Then we have the ancient Norse Shieldmaidens, and the Dahomey Amazons. And that’s just scratching the surface. The role of women in war continues to expand.

But hey – let’s ignore all that. Let’s pretend for the moment that women can never be as strong or as resilient as men. Let’s assume there really are physical differences that no amount of social equality, athletic training, or physical conditioning can overcome. (I will not for a second concede that women are less intelligent, because even I, dear reader, can only put up with so much bullshit.) Here’s the thing: that should still have no bearing whatsoever on any tabletop RPG.

Here’s the thing. RPGs are escapism. While I sometimes enjoy exploring difficult themes and concepts in the course of my escapism, I generally prefer to, well…escape. To leave all the shit I have to put up with day after day behind me and enter a world where none of that matters. As I said on Twitter, the great promise of D&D – the great promise of all RPGs – is this: you can be anyone. You can do anything. You can reshape the world. When you inject sexist preconceptions into your game, you break that promise.

And that’s something I cannot abide. As a GM and a game designer, my philosophy boils down to three words: maximum player agency. Yes, sometimes you have to tell the players no, but I don’t like to start from that position. I certainly don’t want to tell them they can’t play ass-kicking female paladins or supergenius gadgeteer superheroines or female space marines fighting hideous alien bugs. And I don’t want the rulebooks we’re using telling them any differently. No, not even as an optional rule. Sexism has no place in a game intended for general release. None.

The people who want to see these kinds of rules restored to D&D are a tiny, tiny minority. I firmly believe that. I also believe they’ll never go away. That’s fine. They have brains, or so I’m told. If they want to spew their sexist bullshit around their battered tables or in their horrible little chatrooms or on their awful little forums, they can go right ahead. That’s what house rules are for. But D&D itself should not – cannot – embrace that kind of utter crap. This is WotC’s world. They have the ability to make it a world free of the sexism that plagues our own. And they should never hesitate to exercise that option.

When you’re writing a period game that clings tightly to historical accuracy, sure, there’s a place for sexism and social pressure – as a setting detail, and one that can be resisted, albeit with consequences if you’re discovered. But D&D is not a period game. It is, by default, a fantasy world with little or no connection to Earth’s history. We can accept elves and magic and dragons. We should be able to accept women who can do anything men can do.

Sexism has no place in D&D. Period. And I do not want to have this conversation again.

6 thoughts on “Sex, Gender, and D&D

  1. The past several editions of D&D already have a built in method for people to express sexual dimorphism in terms of character stats. Each player can simply choose to assign one of the relatively low rolls to strength for his or her female characters, and place a higher stat elsewhere (perhaps in dexterity?). It’s just like a stat cap, except that it a. doesn’t mess up game balance, and b. leaves room for occasional female characters with high strength, who can be considered outliers on the strength distribution. Any game that includes a Girdle of Giant Strength can’t simply claim that “oh, women don’t get that strong.”

    Besides, whatever one’s beliefs about the distribution of attributes in the population as a whole, adventurers are not simply the top 1% of men and women. Instead, they’re the people who have both the inclination and sufficiently high stats to survive in an adventuring scenario. The level of strength that a man needs to be a successful strength-based fighter will presumably be the same as a woman needs to be a successful strength-based fighter. Therefore, given that a strength-based fighter of a particular gender is observed, the expected value for the strength of that character should be about the same regardless of gender.

  2. Speaking as a woman:

    I think gender based lenses are awesome, provided you go through and divide it up accurately and equally. At the end of the day, we’re the smaller gender – and it’s not “anti-feminism” to acknowledge that. It’s also not anti-feminism to acknowledge that men are the physically “bigger and stronger” species. It’s just, I don’t know, being able to SEE. And living without the delusion that somehow we are all identical. Equal =/= identical!

    (Though anyone saying “we don’t yet know what the differences between the sexes are” is occupying a different reality to me, obviously.)

    • Well, obviously I disagree. I don’t want to limit my players in any way. As Jonathan points out above, anyone who wants to represent their female character as smaller and weaker than the average man is welcome to go for middling or low Strength stats. When universal gender-based limits are included in the core rules, however, you limit player potential and ignore the fact that adventurers are ALREADY outliers and it’s not surprising that they would be extraordinary.

      As for our limited understanding of the differences between the sexes? I stand by that. Yes, obviously there are certain constants: most cisgender women menstruate, ovulate, and are able to bear children. Most cisgender men are capable of fathering children. Women and men tend to have different centers of gravity. That’s certainly not in dispute. Beyond that, however, there are serious questions as to how many of the differences we perceive are actually the results of genetics and biology, and how many are the results of the different choices and opportunities presented to men and women.

      Take athletic achievement: This year is the 40th anniversary of the passage of Title IX, which was intended to guarantee equal access to educational resources, athletic programs, and other federally funded activities. And yet there are still serious problems with its implementation, with various institutions finding loopholes to limit women’s athletic programs or simply ignoring the law altogether. There is still a tremendous social stigma attached to women who concentrate seriously on their physical development – seriously muscular women are frequently called unattractive or mannish. Now, it’s possible that women will always be smaller and weaker than man; that even the best female athlete in the world will never be a match for the best male athlete in terms of raw physical power. It’s possible that men and women will always possess different capabilities. But our society is not a laboratory. We are not studying this under controlled conditions. The sociopolitical factors involved in the development of men and women have not yet been eliminated.

      As for the mental and social attributes – Intelligence, Wisdom, Charisma, Willpower, whatever you want to call them – I certainly hope we can agree that the idea of inherent differences between the sexes is ludicrous on the face of it. There have been plenty of women in math and science, and plenty of examples (as cited in the post) of women in math and science being dismissed, ignored or outright robbed of the credit they were due, solely on the basis of their sex. For a long time, women were discouraged from pursuing careers in math, science, engineering, etc.; to some degree they still are. And yet some women studied, and yet some women explored the sciences, and yet some women excelled. And the number of women in math, chemistry, physics, engineering, astronomy, biology, and so on is expanding.

      Wisdom? There are women who are wise beyond belief and women who are astoundingly foolish, and women who stand everywhere in between, just as there are men all along the spectrum. Charisma? Well, that’s subjective, but speaking as someone who’s generally sexually attracted to women, I still have to concede that there are some very attractive men out there. And, while the stereotype as women as more social and emotional and men as more stoic, much of that, too, comes down to social pressure; in a truly equal society, we could probably expect more of a bell curve among both sexes. Willpower? Again, social pressure stands firmly against assertive, aggressive women, even now. If that pressure were somehow eliminated, I would expect things to change.

      But regardless of the science, regardless of what we may discover ten, fifty, a hundred years down the line, the main point remains: RPGs are fiction. They are fantasy. They are escapism. They represent the opportunity to go anywhere, do anything, be anybody. Even if the average woman is weaker than the average man, there will always be outliers, and if a player rolls up a super-strong woman, well, they can be such an outlier. I’m not going to tell them, okay, now knock two points off that 18 Strength because women in my world are always going to be weaker. And I don’t think that kind of arbitrary restriction belongs in the core rules of one of my favorite games.

    • Would anyone enjoy a game where kids, the elderly, and players with war wounds were capped in their Strength attribute and were less capable of dragon slaying? (My hypothetical game locks people in to playing the character that matches their real physical self. And maybe only fit people should be able to have good Agility.)

  3. Pingback: Media Mondays: Once Upon A Time | Diary of a Random Fangirl

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