• Superhuman Strength

    by  • July 16, 2012 • Essays • 13 Comments

    1979:  When I was in grade school, I started playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.  I had played the “red box” D&D, and a bit of a home brew Tolkien game, but AD&D was the first game I really got into.  I pored over those books like they were holy texts.  I made up scores of characters, each with detailed backgrounds, equipment lists, and (often) exotic animal companions :)  I remember being vaguely annoyed about some of the rules, in the way that a grade-schooler who doesn’t really understand any of the social ramifications is annoyed.  Specifically, I didn’t think that female human characters should be limited to 18/50 Strength, while male human characters could have 18/00 Strength.  So I ignored it, because it was silly.

    1988:  In high school, I started playing Villains & Vigilantes, a superhero game.  V&V does not have any direct rules about male vs. female strength scores.  However, I noticed something important.  In V&V, you roll to see how much your character weighs.  The dice roll is different depending on whether your character is male or female.  Your character’s weight is important, because it is part of the arcane formula you use to determine your carrying capacity, which in turn helps determine your damage in combat.  In practice, this means that a female character with superhuman strength does a lot less damage than a male character with superhuman strength.  What the heck?  The math was kind of hidden, and the people I played with were all guys.  So I was pretty sure they had just never thought about the rule in that way.  I was right.  I was also pretty sure that they would be happy to change it, because it was silly.  Here, however, I was wrong.  They were, in fact, fairly adamant about not changing the rule.

    2004:  I was running the gaming track at the World Science Fiction Convention in Boston.  There was a large group of gamers there from my alma mater, and I was excited to chat with them about the gaming scene there and how it had changed.  There was indeed a gaming club, sponsored and mentored by an assistant professor who had published his own roleplaying game.  The club got to playtest it and was very excited about it.  Flipping through the rules, I noticed that female characters had a strength penalty (or a maximum limit, I can’t remember which), and remarked upon it.  The gaming club was quick to jump to the rule’s defense.  It was balanced, they said, by the fact that women were better at magic than men were, or had a bonus to dexterity, or something.  I could not convince them, or the creator of the book who was there as well, that there was anything wrong with this.  I tried to explain that most modern RPGs had given up those types of gender rules, but this did not sway him at all.

    2012:  With D&D Next on the horizon, an article on the WOTC website discussed what rules from older editions of the game players might want to see incorporated into the new rules.  One of the options listed was gender-based strength maximums.  The poll was taken down shortly thereafter, so we cannot record what the support for this idea was, but judging from the many statements in favor of such a rule that I have seen, there was at least some support.  This is still an issue in the minds of many people.  Even among gamers who would not like to see such a rule in play, I have seen quite a bit of hedging that “it would be more realistic to have it, but it would drive away female players, so we shouldn’t.”

    Why is this such a unique issue?  It isn’t because we expect our games to mimic real life in every way.  These are fantasy games and superhero games.  Heroes can slay multiple orcs with a single swing of their sword and lift freight trains.  So it’s not about realism.  And it’s not about play balance.  We aren’t talking about making every female character super strong, or giving them other additional advantages over male characters.

    Here’s my theory: it’s about story.  The stories that these games are based upon, Tolkien and other early fantasy novels, and Marvel and DC Comics, contain worlds in which men are strong and women pretty much exist to be rescued.  Sure there are some female heroes, but they are rarely known for their physical strength.  Take Wonder Woman for example.  What most people know about her is that she has a magical lasso that can force people to tell the truth, bracelets that can deflect bullets, and (possibly) an invisible jet.  The fact that she is strong enough to kick the moon out of orbit (cartoon physics applying of course) is rarely mentioned.

    Power fantasies of being superhumanly strong are not for everyone.  But neither are they only for men.  In fact, a lot of women enjoy playing very strong characters that can lift up tanks and toss them aside with nary a care.  What I would love to see is more stories that have these types of strong women at their core.  We’ve all seen female characters who are strong because they have powerful magic, or because their will is unbreakable, or because they can keep fighting despite terrible adversity (and rape, but that’s another article).  Women heroes are smart, they are dexterous, they are brave, they are talented in a remarkable number of ways, but they are rarely physically strong.  And a story where a woman was the strongest person in the land/world?  Never heard of it.  But I can name five stories about the strongest man without thinking about it.

    So what we need, clearly, is more stories about women with superhuman strength!  I’m not a fiction writer, but I bet a bunch of you reading this are.  And if you don’t write fiction, write some characters!   For Keshta the Fox, my barbarian warrior, for Ursula Stormsdotter and her dwarven axe, for Magdu, my evil ogress wizard who dreams of godhood, let’s make some female characters that are strong.  Let’s make it a godamned trope!



    I am a gamer, a lawyer, and a mom. Not necessarily in that order.

    13 Responses to Superhuman Strength

    1. avatar
      July 16, 2012 at 16:28

      I think some of the weird persistence of this idea has to do with the fact that differences in strength between the medians and among top athletes is a place where certain men who want to have the cake of being “equal minded” while eating the cake of “male superiority” feel they can accomplish it. Why is a bigger question.

      While for me Wonder Woman is the quintessential super-strong woman, some characters better known as super-strong women might include Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and of course other Slayers) and Xena, Warrior Princess.

      There are of course, especially now, a number of other DC or Marvel characters who are women who are super strong from Power Girl (now without Boob Window) to She-Hulk to Captain ‘Marvel (formerly Ms Marvel) but of course these may not be as well known as movie starring male peers.

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    2. avatar
      July 16, 2012 at 17:21

      I think a lot of it isn’t just the lack of representation of strong ladies, it’s the idea that a man weaker than a lady has to give up his man card and never get any respect again.

      I realised reading the post that I’ve not only made two superstrong ladies in my own webcomics, but both first demonstrate it with boulders.

      Super strength in ladies (especially young ladies) is one of my favorite story tropes. :3

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    3. avatar
      July 16, 2012 at 19:16

      I’m glad someone replied because I couldn’t find this article from the original e-mail. The link was broken when I got to it and search wasn’t finding it. (BTW, springaldjack: I faithfully watched Wonder Woman, Buffy & Xena! I loved it when He-Man also featured She-Ra, too.)

      I brought up this exact topic in a “Depictions of Women in Gaming” hangout in Google+ a few days ago. I fell in love with the concept of D & D when a guy introduced it to me. I hadn’t played before and had only heard of D & D. I never even saw him and his friends play. However, I started reading on my own both the rule book and Monster Manual.

      I was in love! Except one detail: why in the world would I want my female character to be restricted in strength in a fantasy game I’m playing for fun? After my initial irritation, I handily tossed that ?!**%#$@!!! rule aside. I’m a woman. I know the average guy is stronger than the average gal of the same age after they hit about 10 years or so. But I also know I’ve never seen anybody shoot fireballs from their hands, dispatch endless streams of kobolds, or any of a number of other things that are not found in reality. The guys who I then GMed (yes, I GMed without having first been a player) never questioned my tossing out the strength restriction.

      I hope that D & D Next does not repeat such a stupid move. There are more female gamers now than ever. We get enough gender-related crap in real life. While there may well be some out there, I haven’t met a female gamer yet who would prefer that her character be restricted in potential grandness in the same way we generally are in real life, not even for the sake of “realism.”

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    4. avatar
      July 16, 2012 at 23:11

      Just thinking back to a few other examples of strong female characters in sci-fi, and the one that keeps coming to mind is River Song. I love Firefly/Serenity, and think that the better character is Zoe, she’s never looked at as being Wash’s wife, instead, he’s her husband. She’s strong in many ways, not just physically, but in the strength of her personality and resolve.

      River though, could clearly kick her ass, whilst being younger and skinnier. Stronger, but once again limited by size. I could go off on a bit of a wee rant here about why so many ‘strong women’ characters in movies and TV shows, are all young and skinny. yet in Aliens, the actual kick ass female, the hard as nails marine – who could have been a much more interesting character – dies early.

      Sorry for the slight drift away from RPGs, but I think the way a lot of people see women in heroic fantasy/sci-fi is influenced by what they’re shown in movies.

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    5. avatar
      July 17, 2012 at 19:59

      Avatar Korra from The Legend of Korra, Keladry of Mindelan from the Tortall universe, Bruiser (or Princess Powerful, depends who you ask) and Jessica Jones from Marvel (along with the ones mentioned by springaldjack) and that is just of the top of my head (I read more marvel comics then I do DC comics).

      Also I seem to be a little behind in my medical literature, what do you mean women are naturally weaker then men?

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      • avatar
        July 17, 2012 at 20:04

        It’s generally accepted that a woman at peak athletic form is weaker than a man at peak athletic form because of how sex hormones affect musculature. I think there are too many variables to really say that with 100% accuracy, and it’s really the sort of thing that shouldn’t matter in a practical sense because there’s such an amazing variety of human types.

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        • avatar
          July 17, 2012 at 22:27

          So you mean to tell me that the fact that women are weaker then men is just an assumption that has not been empirically tested and is just accepted as a fact instead of an untested theory?

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          • avatar
            July 17, 2012 at 22:30

            Assumed but untested gender differences? In MY culture?

            It’s more likely than you think!

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            July 17, 2012 at 22:54

            It’s actually not untested. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sex_differences_in_humans#Size.2C_weight_and_body_shape points to a specific study. A lot of articles I found in my search (because you two made me curious!) make references to studies, but this is the first one I found that really directly applies to the question here.

            The results are generalized, which means they do not state that all men are stronger than all women in all physical ways. It’s obvious that people are individuals and at different points of their lives have varying degrees of strength and health. Ex. It’s easier for me to carry a five-gallon jug of water up stairs than it is for my husband. It’s easier for him to turn it over onto the ceramic dispenser than it is for me. Guess who does which task most of the time!

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            July 18, 2012 at 01:01

            Has any of the research papers you found online done an analysis of the muscle mass ratio in men versus the ratio in women when they have the exact same cycle of physical activity in their lives, in other words has any scientist actually done a comparison of whether or not a woman who can do the exact number of physical tests and feats as a man until the chemical point of exhaustion (which is chosen and measured by the scientists) has the same level of body mass or not?

            And yes women currently have less muscle mass then men on average, but I have yet to hear a conclusive proof that such a statistic is related to a biological fact instead of just being a consequence of women being socialized to do less physically demanding jobs on average.

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        • avatar
          Grace Annam
          August 8, 2012 at 06:08

          In the real world, any given individual woman might be stronger than any given individual man, even if they do the same things and eat the same things, and so on. However, it’s not the way to bet; on average, women are not as strong. Further, among top athletes, performing to the absolute limits of their ability, women competing in the same events are not as strong. They are still amazing athletes, and glorious to watch, but the top male athletes will outrun them and outlift them.

          There exists a subset of trans people who live their lives, physically, much the same after their transitions as before. For instance, there are competitive runners: the women find that if they placed routinely in the 75th percentile for men while powered on testosterone, they place routinely in the 75th percentile for women while powered on estrogen; the men find the same thing in reverse.

          I am a trans woman. This has been my experience, with transition: lower body muscle remains reasonably easy to develop and maintain, but not AS easy; running endurance has decreased a bit, even with the same level of activity; upper body muscle mass is very difficult to increase and maintain, and requires a different approach than it used to (more frequent workouts, weights about 20% lighter and about 40% more reps).

          So, there’s reality for you, in anecdatal form.

          And it’s ALL IRRELEVANT. These are games. Unless you’re playing Squad Leader, realism is a lot less important than enabling players to create as freely as possible. You have to have a damned good reason to say, “you can’t do that”. Game balance and fairness are good reasons. I have yet to hear a good reason for limiting a hero who happens to be female, just because she’s female.

          In fantasy literature, there’s a loooooong tradition of people doing superhuman things. Beowulf rips Grendel’s arm off with his bare hands, and on another occasion spends SEVEN DAYS swimming in the sea in a contest with Breca. No human being could hope to do either of those things.

          But no, don’t let the wimminfolk be strong, because REALISM!

          Feh. *spit*


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    6. avatar
      July 18, 2012 at 01:20

      Like I said, I only found one that actually applied in a brief search. It didn’t state the ages of each subject or describe the similarities in life cycle. I didn’t hunt down more, but if you get a chance to, it would be interesting to learn what you find. Unfortunately, I have other research I have to get back to now.

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    7. avatar
      August 22, 2012 at 00:03

      Sorry this is so late. I tried to post it several time pre-Gencon with no sucess.

      As a statistician (at least I will be when I graduate in December) the “men are stronger than women” or “men are better at math than women” etc… that floats around irks me a good deal. First, though “everyone knows” that some study or another has been done, I’ve never seen one, let alone checked it to see if the statistics were done correctly or used valid samples. But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that such a study exists and it was done correctly. Even then, most people don’t have a clue what “on average men are stronger than women” means, and how it relates to this particular situation.

      Right off the bat, you have to understand that most human traits are normally distributed. ie: they follow that bell curve we all know and love so much. The normal distribution has a domain of all real numbers. What that means is that it can take ANY value from negative to positive infinity. Now, obviously that’s not the case for strength. Human’s just can’t lift 30,000lbs, nor is there someone who can’t lift more than -5lbs. It simply doesn’t make sense. BUT where the cutoff points are is a gray area. Could there be a person who could lift 1120lbs? Probably since 1117 is the current record. What about 1150? 1200? We won’t know until someone does it. What we DO know is that strength is pretty damn close to normally distributed, which means the endpoints theoretically go on forever, and that we haven’t SEEN those abilities. That goes for both women and men. So even if a woman who can lift 1200lbs is rarer than a man who can lift 1200lbs, there’s no reason to believe she doesn’t exist.

      What this means in game terms is that any system that prevents a female character from achieving the highest scores can never be called “accurate” or “realistic” so -1 to your strength roll, or a max cap for females is NOT realistic, no matter what your 2004 game club says.

      Further, in the context of a normal distribution, what “on average men are stronger” means is that men and women both have strengths that are identically shaped bell curves, and that the men’s curve is shifted slightly to the right. This results in something that looks like this:
      That chart is for height, not strength, but the same distribution applies. Note that there’s some area to the right that’s just men, some area to the left that’s just women, and a much bigger area in the middle where everyone is the same.

      Now, that chart doesn’t hold for ALL cases. If the averages are too far apart, you get a curve that looks like an “M” with a small overlap in the middle. If the two curves have very different standard deviations (how short and fat or tall and thin they are) the picture can be very different. See this picture for several alternatives:

      But the story we’re always fed “Men are slightly stronger than women on average” says nothing about standard deviation, and the average difference is only a small fraction of the strength that people have, so that first illustration is the one that most accurately depicts the supposed relationship. ie: for the most part, we’re all the same.

      So, back to applying this to RPG scores, any system that creates a big change in the probabilities of midrange scores cannot be an accurate solution. Thus, the -1 to your strength roll is out again, because it shifts the heaviest probabilities to lower scores.

      The best system that would accurately portray “men on average are stronger than women would be one that has effect only in the extremes and then only a little bit. So, for example, roll your 3-18 normally, and if you get an 18, roll d%. On a 5% or less, you get a penalty to your exceptional strength roll. Thus females would have the same possible range of scores, which is important, while having a slightly lower chance of getting very high scores (and if we had more granularity on very low scores, we could give them a slightly higher chance of them, but we don’t so we can’t). But honestly, that kind of system is a) a mess, b) no fun, and c) based on a shaky assumption so i don’t know why we would include it.

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