A post in which I prove Anna Kreider correct re her statement that The Watch is inspiring conversations about masculinity

watch-shirt.gifThe other day, I was reading up on a new RPG called The Watch, a game developed by Anna Kreider of Go Make Me a Sandwich and Andrew Medeiros of Northfire Games.  The premise as described is that a nebulous evil known as The Shadow is encroaching on civilization must be fought back by women and “female-of-center people”. What players do in this game and how they fight this Shadow is not described in any of the promotional posts I’ve read. It is, however, explicitly said that “The Shadow” represents “the Patriarchy” and you have to make saving throws against it any time you are “engaging in toxic behavior”.

It clicked in my head that The Watch has a very similar core premise as James Desborough’s gonzo Japanese Horror game Kagai!: Guro, Gore, Girls.147596

-Both games feature a mysterious existential evil force that is encroaching upon civilization.

-Both games prominently feature strong female characters fighting against this encroaching darkness.

The reason for why these games are female-centric and what they say about the masculine gender and masculinity are very different, however, and that’s what I’d like to talk about.

The Watch takes a very hamfisted approach to its message on gender. The Watch is described as “a low-fantasy game about women (and other female-of-center people) who are fighting to retake their homeland from the Shadow – a darkly sorcerous threat that has the power to possess men and use them for its own violent ends.”  Beyond this being a feminist’s game about women, the in-world and mechanical reasons why males would be absent from your party is that men are way more likely to be bad people because of masculinity: their 1st level Save vs. Being a Shitlord is 20. I kid, I kid, but, as “the Shadow is toxic masculinity” and ”the idea of “man” is what makes them vulnerable to its influence”, it’s probably safe to say that Men wouldn’t last a day adventuring in the Watch without losing their mind and posting Sad Pepes all over ye  Womyn’s Watch Barracks.

On the other hand, a just-for-laughs game like Kagai! actually has a fairly nuanced below-the-surface message on masculine disposability paired with its kick-ass girl-power. Sure, the game is about kendo girls, archery champs, and cool hacker chicks fighting weird monsters from other dimensions in between classes (because girls should be able to fight monsters too!), but there’s an important reason for why the party will likely be all female and why there will be few male characters in the setting: all boys and men who can hold a weapon are sent out of the city to nearly certain death to try to protect the women inside. There are only a few men who will be found in the city, and most of them are looked down on as cowards – those who were wealthy enough to buy their way out of service, those who left the front as deserters, and those who were too sickly or maimed to continue fighting.

The girls in Kagai! fight because they choose to, either for fun, to prove themselves just as good as men, or because they feel they have to (the perimeter defense is imperfect, hence why some girls choose to be monster hunters). Most of the characters in Kagai! would’ve lost fathers and brothers in the war.  Kagai! looks at and asks why women and girls would fight, and one of those reasons may be the men in their life who have suffered or died to protect them. That the women and girls, whom countless men are dying to protect, are in a situation where they may have to fight is indicative of how precarious society and humanity’s situations are in Kagai!  This message on masculine disposability vs feminine worth is subtly worked into the game, as it’s woven into the settings materials and character generation mechanics. It’s not the sort of thing that would necessarily come up in discussion during play, but you would probably think about it later.

I think it’s worth noting that the undercurrent of male disposability in Kagai! is featured nowhere in the promotional descriptions on Desborough’s blog.  Here’s his pitch:

The world has been invaded by monsters straight out of people’s nightmares and most of the world population is dead, or at war. One place is a little bit safer, a hyper-consumerist, high-tech Japanese arcology. Most of the remaining population is women and you’re a class of schoolgirls from the arcology who do a bit of vigilante monster hunting on the side, in a game styled after the hyper-kinetic, b-movie gorefests of Japanese B-list cinema. The system emphasises team tactics and differs from many games in that you roll first and then describe what you do from what you’ve rolled, rather than vice versa. You can also save dice for following turns, or push them into a pool for everyone to use.

Even in that short paragraph, I already have a much better idea of what this game will be like than I’ve been able to glean from at least three whole posts about The Watch.

While the Watch seems designed to promote girl power while attacking a strawman, Kagai! has powerful girls in a sandbox that can either be used to explore gender or social issues or to have an awesome time fighting weird alien monsters in-between cramming for finals.

You could probably stat The Patriarchy in Kagai!, though, if you really wanted to fight it.

Awhile back, I did a review of Kagai! which you can read here.

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Race & Gender Based Stat Tweaks and the Elder Scrolls

I was thinking about this because some article about negative stereotypes in video games was all “Black folks are too stupid to use magic in Elder Scrolls” as one of the several examples.

Just how bad are the starting racial and gender based stat tweaks?

There are no racial (or gendered) limits in any stats. All Races can eventually get 100s in all stats (except for Luck; that shit is hard, yo).

The differences in racial and gender based stats can be overcome within a single level with a little bit of effort and determination.

Racial and gender bonuses may reflect the base societal norms within each “race”. As they are quickly overcome and virtually irrelevant among adventurers, these stat differences say more about the values held by each fictional culture rather than what the developers believe to be the inherent strengths and weaknesses within various races and genders. (Crit theory says I’m 100% right about this, too, because it’s my opinion, and my critical opinion is more meaningful than creative intent)

All of that being said, I’m not really a big fan of systems that alter base stats on whether someone is playing as male or female. Usually, though, base stats are fixed for that character for the rest of the game, outside of magical items. Most systems don’t have any mechanism for a female character to overcome that -2 STR or whatever. But at least with most of the Elder Scrolls entries I’ve played, when a female character goes out and swings a sword for awhile, the game says “Well, since she’s been out there swinging a sword, clearly she’s gotten stronger.”

Racial stat traits or restrictions are more understandable when we’re not talking about the difference between a white guy and an asian or black but rather all whites, blacks, asians, whatever vs. hominid things with non-human morphology. Khajit used to not be able to wear boots, because they were uncomfortable on their kitty feet, until Oblivion (where the restriction would’ve broken the thieves guild and Knights of Nine quest lines).

The real problem is the uselessness of cultural understanding as a mechanic within the Elder Scrolls.  I’ve been playing as a high elven linguistic anthropologist in Daggerfall on and off for maybe 3 years now, and while I’ve got a full suit of elven armor, elven blunt weapons and dwarven edged weapons, I still can’t start the main quest because I’m only level 2.  At best, all of that cultural understanding merely allows her to improve her backstab and critical strike skills on the 1 out of every 10 orcs who aren’t immediately hostile.  “I strike you down in the name of the most benevolent Mara!”

Gender Swap Magic

Gender switching magic. It’s a laugh for the GM. It’s embarrassing for the player. But what about the character?

In WoTC’s hilarious illustrated walkthru of the Tomb of Horrors, there’s a bit that the “Palidin steps through magic arch of reversal and emerges as chaotic evil cha 18 anti-paladiness” and the “Neutral Illusionist ‘Accidentally’ walks through magic arch when no one is looking” and have “awkward moments with ex-paladin’s squire and illusionist’s friend from high school”. The concept is pretty funny, when it’s played for laughs.

But the Tomb of Horrors is a tomb of horrors, and, while not for the DM or players, for the characters, this is the sort of Kafkaesque existential nightmare that really gets the fear juices flowing.

Try to imagine for a moment, if you can, that you yourself are there, in the tomb. You pass through the arch. Your entire world changes. You are no longer who you were. What are the thoughts that go through your head? What are you going to do? Short term, long term? How do you explore your new place in the world and how will you fit back into society and your personal relationships? Do you go all out to change yourself back or do you eventually accept what you’ve become? What actions do you take and what do you learn about yourself, others and about the world around you along the way to that decision?

Gives you a bit of a chill, doesn’t it?