For the past two years, 99% of my gaming has been recorded and put on the internet for posterity (that remaining one percent is the odd con-game or game-we-played-while-too-drunk-to-be-coherent). Playing for a podcast has a whole set of challenges and rewards, with the number one being the fact that there is an Audience. An Audience who (usually) loves you, wants to help you out (I can’t tell you how many times we get reminded of bonuses we were forgetting to take in the comments), and makes suggestions.
And sometimes, they won’t stop making that suggestion.
Which is how the Fandible crew ended up tackling Warhammer 40K’s Deathwatch setting. Specifically, playing a bunch of space marines.
For those unfamiliar with WH40K canon, space marines are the elite of the elite. Giants of men, capable of superhuman feats of strength even before they strap on their ridiculous power armor, wielding weapons that can flatten a regular person with just a glancing blow.
They are also all, very explicitly, men. Space marines are made, not born, and “something” about that process doesn’t work on women. Women have a separate (oh, but totally equal /s) class, the Sisters of Battle, who are cool in their own right…but they aren’t space marines.
My group plays a lot of WH40K so, considering all of the questions we were getting about whether or not we were going to try Deathwatch, we knew we had to at least address it, either making some sort of unequivocal statement that it wasn’t going to be played, or figure out a way to make it work for our group. Our group that is 3-4 men at any given time, and then little ol’ me.
We figured there were three ways we could go about setting up Deathwatch:
- I play as a male space marine
- I play as a Sister of Battle
- I play the Inquisitor, a more-or-less badass normal who leads the Space Marines
- We say “screw canon” and include a female space marine.
Well, since I’m writing a post about playing a female space marine, I think it’s pretty obvious which route we decided to go with.
But my GM went about including my female space marine with what I found to be a fairly deft hand. He crafted a backstory that would explain my character’s existence and underscore how out of place she was without totally spitting in the face of WH40K canon.
Or, well, so we thought – when we posted the first podcast of our first session, we had one listener say that he loved our stuff and intended to keep listening to our podcast overall, but this particular game was going to be deleted without even listening to it, because “Deathwatch is a no go for me now so long as the above mentioned FSM is still around.[...] Seriously, if you have to change a basic, fundamental fact..[sic] if you must change the universe in order to tell a story, then you’re a bad story teller.”
But aside from that one voice of dissent, we actually had a lot of positive feedback from that first session, and Deathwatch became a four-part game telling the story of my character, The First, aka Boudicca.
It was a very interesting experience for me on multiple levels. For one thing, I’ve never been the center of a campaign before. My characters have been the focus of an individual gaming session maybe, but the whole story of this campaign was first, Boudicca proving herself worthy of fighting for the Emperor rather than being shot on sight, and second, tracking down the heretical Cardinal who thought he could overthrow the Emperor by creating his all-female space marine army.
Playing a space marine is a wholly unique experience. There is almost nothing that can stand in the way of an individual space marine, and fewer things that can stand in the way of three or four of them working together. So while there was often a moment when meeting new NPCs that they would be surprised to see a woman under the power armor of a space marine, no one outside of one NPC on our side was going to make a big deal out of it, because Boudicca could literally squish most people under her (massive) boots. Gendered insults and violence are often a risk in a “dark” and “gritty” setting like WH40K but, again, not for a freakin’ space marine.
But as a player and as a character, my female space marine was more cognizant of her gender than almost any other character I’ve played has been. Subconsciously at first, but eventually as a purposeful character choice on my part, Boudicca volunteered to run in first – or just would do it without consulting her male colleagues. The psyker couldn’t use his big fire blast abilities half the time because I was in the middle of melee combat with a horde. Even after it was no longer an explicit plot point, Boudicca was going to prove she was worthy of being a space marine – worthy of continuing to live – by following through with that old adage that a woman must work twice as hard and be twice as good as a man to be seen as competent. While for the first session I had her following orders like a good little marine, after that she started running in, chain sword blazing, to make sure no one could accuse her of being weak/cowardly/etc.
As the campaign went along, the GM crafted an amazing story to explain the existence of a female space marine – there’s a reason why her name became Boudicca and it was a name that was a surprise gift at the end of the first session. The GM knew me well enough to figure that all he would have to do is give my character a mysterious vision of an ancient battle against some Romans and mention the name “Boudicca” for me to get excited. You can’t tell in the podcast version, but at the table I remember doing a big fist pump at the first mention of the name before letting out a big “FUCK YEAH!” Turns out, in our group’s version of this universe, that the “souls” of great heroes never truly die. The soul of Boudicca found a scared, broken young girl, taken away from everything she knew and loved at the hands of a mad man with a heretical idea, and Boudicca gave this girl the strength to not only survive, but to thrive, and become the first successful female space marine. Boudicca wasn’t the only soul we ran into over the course of the campaign, and it was awesome to see this story get woven together bit by bit and piece by piece, until the epic, grand finale where Boudicca the space marine finally earned the respect and the trust of her fellow marines.
Deathwatch probably isn’t a game that we’re going to be returning to as a group. Boudicca’s story has been told, and the insane power level of space marines just isn’t something that holds my group’s interest in the long run. On the one hand, I’m glad that we tackled such a restrictive setting because I don’t think this story would have been as unique in a setting that had total gender parity. On the other hand, I think the idea of limiting a fantasy class to just one gender is boring and ignores that part of this hobby that is supposed to be fun. I’m already told I “can’t” do things in the real world because of my gender, why on Earth would I want games trying to pull the same line?