Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Mucking with gender in D&D

"I want to know if he's male, female, or elf."

That's one of those phrases that came out in a D&D game this summer. Its stuck with me, because I was realizing I've wanted to do something different with gender in D&D for a while now.

Back around 2007, Z, T, and I started a 3.5 campaign and we did some collaborative world building. Basically, we decided that your character choice let you make world decisions. I'm almost 100% certain that one of my examples was if you play an elf, you get do decide how elves work. They might be come crazy hermaphrodites or smurf-gendered folk, but you're playing the elf so you get to decide. No one really ran with that back then.

While there are stories of great elf queens or princes (I'm thinking Lord of the Rings, Dragonlance, and 13th Age), elves have also often been portrayed as a bit more androgynous. Certainly the joke about Varsuvius from Order of the Stick is one of indeterminate gender. In a different way, the drow are strongly segregated into male and female sexes, but do muck up gender roles by having females dominant over males. So while gendered elves are the norm, they've got a bit of room for some non-binary gender or sex types and are still a bit transgressive in their canonical portrayals.

Likewise, dwarves have a bit of some odd gender and sex to them. Namely, it used to be the case (joke? bad joke?) that dwarven women had beards and were indistinguishable from male dwarves. This leads to a smurf type of situation, since the prototypical dwarf is a bearded male wielding an axe or hammer. Now a days, there are some nice illustrations of plenty of beardless female dwarves. Did we lost anything in downplaying the 'joke' version of dwarves though (I think we did gain quite a bit by doing it at least)?

In first edition, we saw different ability score maximums for male and female characters (generally with females having less strength potential). But we also saw gender play into some races like the Bariaur of 2nd edition Planescape. Males and females had different class options and distinct abilities. While a little odd, I'd like that brought back in a new version of Planescape. Even though the sexes and their gender roles are more "traditional" it's kinda nice to see and explore that in a way that is codified by the rules (a bit indie in style there, eh?). In 4th edition, the Feywild book presented hamadryads (female only) and satyrs (male only). I don't recall it explicitly mentioning how these fey races procreate, but it was also an interesting take on traditional gender roles (and a hold-over from earlier editions). I understand that some people might be upset by having some races enforce traditional sex and gender roles. And these are "hard-coded" in the rules: its your home-brew or variant to allow a male dryad or female satyr. But you can't have transgression if there isn't a norm to rebel against.

Rarely, we get races which are not gendered per se, but become gendered in play. Warforged or Rogue Modrons (or Shardminds?) don't have a gender, but some might adapt a male or female gender for themselves (letting players grasp onto something, I suppose. Or at least draw boobs on constructs). A few races don't show gender dimorphism or don't have strong gender roles, like thri-kreen, making the idea of gender generally irrelevant for those races. Then there's the ubiquitous boobs on dragonborn, which probably just shows the puerile mores of a few years back: how else would you know a lady dragonborn is a lady?

We shouldn't forget the iconic girdle of masculinity/femininity either and other sex-swap curses. Interesting to note that they are curses and reversible.

Also, half-elves (and half-orcs, along with half-ogres, muls, and planetouched) show that interspecies breeding happens. So sex is largely identical across many major races.

One last aside, the Fading Suns game has a vulcan/romulan or elf/drow pair of races, the Obun and Ukari. At least for the Obun, hermaphroditism (the easily graspable, two genitals kind, I believe) was featured in their chapter of their race book. Nice.

Up to now, gender/sex has basically been a joke at best in D&D. Or at least heteronormative sex and gender have been the norm. But it's easy to see why. Obviously, the gender studies crowd has taken of and gotten some of their jargon to take hold among educated college types in general. I think most people who went to college have a passing familiarity with a theory of gender-sex that distinguishes gender or gender-roles from biological sex and sexual orientation. Beyond that, I'm not sure much of the jargon or theory has caught on or is really particularly useful/needed in daily life for most people. But issues of gender in character actually are rather peripheral to slaying monsters and finding treasure. Save the princess (or prince) doesn't come into play quite as much in most D&D games (which aren't Conan d20 with its temptress class).

Things seem different now. The new PH has some more inclusive language, about considering your character of any gender or sex or orientation or whatnot. People may quibble that the wording didn't go far enough, or is flawed in one way or another. Because things are basically presented as male or female. But change is happening. Pathfinder apparently has a transgender character as their new iconic shaman. A few other books might touch on the subject or introduce less traditional views of sex and gender. But there are some other interesting things to explore in any D&D game if you're willing to get creative and make some changes for a particular campaign.

Though the term hermaphrodite is nebulous and dispreferred these days and there's many different ways of classifying intersex people today, the race of both genitals could make for some interesting stories. In the musings here, I'm going to focus on sex types here and leave implications for gender. This obviously ignores all varieties of intersexuality that happen in the real world in favor of standardized non-binary sexes in a fantasy game. A few interesting options might be (wikipedia as our guide):

  • True or Simultaneous Hermaphrodites. This race would have both sets of genitals at the same time. This might be apt for plant-based races (ala treants and treefolk, not so much dryads). But if adapted to elves or gnomes, it could also make for some interesting stories.
  • Sequential Hermaphrodites. These are beings of one sex which can change their sex. They might start out as one or the other, they might change more often. You can easily envision dopplegangers or changelings in this way, but it'd be an interesting take on elves or dragons as well. Why would an elf change sex? Does it add to or take away from any innate magical power? Is one sex more highly regarded than the other? Is the change permanent or reversible? Do all the types of that race (e.g. high, wood, dark elves) believe the same thing or even have the same biology?
  • Pseudohermaphrodites. This is the case of the hyena, where females look dramatically similar to males. You can imagine this being the case with dwarves easily, and races like lizardfolk or dragonborn may be trivially pseudohermaphrodites if there are no obvious differences between the sexes. For pseudohermaphrodites, even the genitals are, superficially at least, similar. Obviously something to consider with Gnolls as well.
These are just some of the obvious ways that you might change gender and sex elements in a fantasy (or sci-fi) setting. Elves, dwarves, dragons, treants, and gnolls aren't the only races you might apply this sort of thing to anyway. The standard humanoids (Kobolds, Goblins, Hobgoblins, Bugbears, Orcs, and Ogres) could easily be some type of hermaphrodite (kobolds, with their ties to dragons, might be key on the list here). They're generally portrayed as all male (when's the last time the random orcs you fought were female, really?). It could make for an interesting setting element, depending on how you play up these races. In fact, as the DM, it may be easier to introduce some non-binary sex and gender types here than in the PC races.

Finally, its worth remembering that the actual player characters are special. I like how 13th Age brings that to the front of the line with the One Unique Thing idea. So if someone wants to play a male dryad, that's really cool. How did it happen? What do the other dryads think? There are so many story possibilities. Just like what if your male drow is a priest of Lolth, or homosexual, or finds (intentionally or accidentally) that girdle of masculinity/femininity? A basic spell like Alter Self might really make some of these categories more fluid, if you want.

This sort of thing isn't for everyone. In fact, it might make some people really uncomfortable. But I'm really considering that dragons and kobolds and gnolls might warrant some of this treatment in my games, if only to help distinguish them from the other types of humanoids and let me play with these categories as a DM.

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