Wednesday 4 July 2018

Gender in the Dolorous Stroke

I've been thinking about the role of women in the world I'm slowly building up for my Arthurian-inspired skirmish game. As False Patrick talks about in this post, gender roles are rather strong in the chivalric romances I'm taking inspiration from. Courtly love, questing to win the favor of a particular lady, damsels needing rescuing and so on are central to most of these stories. On the other hand, I'm a bit of a lefty, and I like playing chicks in the games I'm in, and this is a skirmish wargame about knights fighting each other. The normal roles of women in these tales would keep them from the battlefield. So, if I'm to find a place for women in the setting beyond 'the object of the main characters' quest', what should it be?
Right away, I rejected the idea that we just make the setting gender-blind. I've seen this done well; for example, the larp Empire has the nation of dawn, which are strongly Arthurian inspired and feature a lot of themes of courtly love and so forth, in a setting which doesn't distinguish along gender lines. However, I wanted to stick to the narratives seen in the stories I was emulating more closely.
In the end, I decided to flip the assumed power structure in the setting, making things essentially matriarchal. Essentially, the business of leadership is seen as a woman's task; the setting is ruled by queens and princesses rather than kings and princes. Men (at least as far as the nobility are concerned), are essentially subservient to female rulers. Their place is to serve a queen or other (female) liege. 
Of course, with women in all the positions of political power, the status of noblemen depends entirely on their queen's favor. This, naturally, leads to men jostling to attract the affection of their rulers. Which, in turn, leads to the quests for a lady's favor that make up so much of the canon of chivalric romances.

This, of course, contrasts with the ideas of knightly orders as a more exclusively male arena. Like with many esoteric societies (medieval mason's guilds, the cult of mithras, etc) there's probably quite a strong gay undercurrent here. Probably nothing worth going into in much depth, but in the same way that IRL the Navy has a reputation for being the gayest of the armed services...
Interestingly, in the historical medieval period, there was actually a similar phenomenon with monasteries and nunneries. People for whom normal marriage wasn't at all appealing often got out of it by joining a cloistered community, so the number of gay individuals in cloisters seems likely to be quite high. Indeed, the catholic church even had particular recognitions for pairs of male monks with 'a particularly strong brotherly love for one another'. Whilst not recognised as gay in the sense a modern audience might, the parallels are clearly there. But I digress.

I'm also writing the setting so that breaking expected gender roles is more possible than it was historically. A nobleman who's driven to rule as a seneschal can do that, it will just be seen as effeminate and out of place. Providing he's good at the job, though, nobody's going to stop him. Likewise, women who want to take up armour and become knights can do that, they just open themselves up to all sorts of scandalous gossip. At least a few of the example PCs I'm writing up subvert the expectations of their sex in this way.

So yeah. That's where my thoughts are on the matter. 
Incidentally, anybody who starts shitting up the comments by shouting about the culture wars/SJWs/pol/whatever is getting blocked and deleted. This is far more about creating the atmosphere I want for the game than any sort of political agenda.


  1. I've always thought it was interesting that, historically, England's most famous/celebrated rulers have almost all been queens. Elizabeth I, Victoria, now Elizabeth II who will never die.

    It's like, by accident, their image of "what the monarch looks like" is a strong woman. (Plus, you know, "The Faerie Queen.")

  2. Your solution sounds elegant, in that it cuts out the middleman (the king/lord) from the standard chivalric set-up. For a skirmish game, rather than a full-blown RPG, a more streamlined storyline seems a very good idea.

    From a purely gaming point of view, it also opens up lots of interesting tabletop scenarios in which the leader isn't a fighter. This is where I think the legacy of Warhammer has had a deleterious effect on most fantasy wargames; the leader is too often assumed to be a monstrously powerful hero. In the rank-and-file wargames that Warhammer descended from, powerful leaders make sense, because the single figure representing the leader is presumed to represent his bodyguard too.

    But I've always found that games where leaders lead from the back are much more interesting, because you've automatically got more risk/reward decisions to make. How close to the action should leaders get? How many bodyguards do they need? Song of Blades and Heroes can be good in this respect.

    Separating political power from military power also gives you plenty of interesting game potential, especially if the person of the leader is considered inviolable by both sides: "Come this way, my lady" (spoken firmly) rather than *slash*. Of course, there was plenty of that in real history, regardless of the sex of the leader. If capture is trickier in the game than killing (I'm thinking of "good old Merry" slashing off goblin hands at Amon Hen), there are more tactical decisions for players during the game.

    Then again, fairies and other supernatural beings might be quite devoid of chivalry or respect for human ranks - which would make skirmishes against non-human foes an entirely different proposition.

    Have you read Jack Vance's Lyonesse? It wouldn't be much help on this particular question, I think, but it's an amazing source of pseudo-Arthurian storylines and scenarios.

    1. Games Workshop has a number of things they really need to re-examine, but that trope of the leader always being the strongest and the best individual fighter is among the worst of them. Pisses me off every time I'm reading through their fluff and run across some of that.

  3. I like this, it's been done in fiction before (Melanie Rawn's forever unfinished Exile's trilogy comes to mind) but I like how this fits with the Arthurian Knight Errant mold so elegantly. Matriarchal rule has always made more sense to me from the "protecting the royal bloodline" perspective, if only because it's harder for there to be any illegitimate heirs.
    It would also reinforce the sort of poetic ideal of all these knightly guys just running all over the place and kicking ass and being beautiful, instead of all the busywork of ruling which didn't make for cool stories. They're just doing it to be the most impressive to the Ladies in charge.

    I have this empire in my setting which has very set gender roles, but also only allowed members of a certain bloodline with certain levels of "purity" to hold important positions. Because of there not being enough of the right gender for the right job they made this loop hole where if you were in the job and of the blood you had the identity of the gender for it. So for example all generals in the empire are men, even if they are otherwise women. So if you were born a woman but entered military service as at least one member of every noble family must, you are a man while serving in those duties. You have a different name, dress differently and are treated as such throughout society while in that guise. Outside of it you may and in some cases must appear as your other identity. This is not to make citizens feel better actualized it is to fulfill the law. Appearing outside of your gender role without reason is severely punished.
    Another example is the Emperor. There is only a seated Emperor never an Empress, though at times things have worked out where a female heir has the best claim. So she becomes the Emperor, if she is married her husband becomes an Imperial Princess and everybody carries on. This is all of course because of religion. It is very confusing but I feel like it's weird enough to be quasi historical. And it makes that empire and its subjects feel very foreign and strange while still seeming grounded. It also gives capitol "R" Roleplayers another facet to mess with when making characters.

  4. I've always admired the simple cleverness of Bretonnia in Warhammer. Because gender roles are so rigidly defined, anyone dressed as a knight *must* be a man, for example. Lets people play the character they want without hugely changing the essential Arthurian romance, and leads to lots of people sneaking around dressed as others because everyone is too polite to question.

    This, though, works too, and there is always more room for well-written settings with powerful women.