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!