• Pendragon, Locker Rooms, and Lady Knights

    by  • March 17, 2014 • Essays • 4 Comments

    Image supplied by Geoffrey McVey.

    Image supplied by Geoffrey McVey.

    It’s Sunday afternoon in the weight room at the rec center, and the guys are all here. They’re in good spirits today, and the banter and trash-talk is lively. Which of us has the biggest muscles? What about the biggest dick? Which of us needs to work on his legs more? Who gets the most girls to spread their legs for him?

    I know all of these guys — if not by name, then at least by sight. Normally we would exchange greetings and some small talk. But today is different. Most of the time,  the typical conversations among the men at my gym are about sports and money. The language is rough, but it’s not the sort of thing that you wouldn’t overhear on a city bus.

    But today, something is different. The fact that the dominant topics of conversation have become so starkly gendered and macho has changed the environment of the gym in a subtle but undeniable way. To say this place has suddenly become a “men’s space” would be inaccurate — it’s always been male-dominated. But today, they don’t say hello. I nod a greeting at a group of guys I know, and they look right through me.

    The conversation today is more akin to locker room banter, and that changes everything.

    See, this kind of talk — profanity-laden trash talk and the occasional vaguely misogynistic tale of sexual conquest —  is the kind of talk that  men are not to engage in when women are around. Even the young guys know that you don’t talk about the size of your dick in mixed  company. Women are reckoned as the keepers of morality in our society, and the mere silent presence of a woman can be enough to make some men feel chastened or strangely defensive.  Typically, when guys catch themselves engaging in macho locker-room talk in front of women, they respond in a few different kind of ways of varying levels of politeness — from the sometimes contrite, sometimes humorous variations on “Sorry, ma’am,” to the more hostile, actively othering responses (e.g., sexual harassment).   On that Sunday, though, they just opted to ignore me.  I smiled and nodded at the men I knew, but they looked right through me that day — though every other man who came in after me got a hearty greeting.

    If I sound like I’m lamenting this situation — I’m not, not exactly. I enjoy listening to their banter. Some of them are genuinely funny, and hearing them clown around makes me laugh. They weren’t saying anything grossly offensive or misogynistic, and they weren’t harassing me. I don’t need to be the center of attention at all times; I don’t need to be included in every conversation. But when you get the feeling that you’re being purposely ignored because your presence would ruin the game for everyone? It’s a very a strange sort of feeling.

    I’m not a stranger of this feeling, of course. I’ve been lifting for long enough that I’m used to being either objectified or othered in various ways.  And I’m quite accustomed to being a woman in men’s spaces. I’m a gamer, after all.


    A group of men that I am acquainted with but don’t know amazingly well have invited me to join a game of King Arthur Pendragon. I have mixed feelings about the game.

    On the one hand, I’m a great fan of British mythology and folklore. I’m the sort of person who decided to learn Welsh even I’ve never been to Wales, because I am an nerd and a masochist. (Are there such things as Anglophiles any more? Did they all become Japanophiles? What indeed do you call insufferable Wales-nerds who aren’t from Wales? Welshophiles? Cymrucariad?) At any rate, sitting around with friends and telling stories about King Arthur and various other figures is carrying on the traditions of my Welsh and Cornish ancestors, in a strange and intensely geeky sort of way (though I would prefer Rhiannon and Gwydion to Arthur and Merlin, to be honest).

    On the other hand, the game is about men.

    Well, it’s about knights, and the author is quite clear that in King Arthur Pendragon, there are no female knights. The author argues that the game is about emulating a certain kind of story, and in this particular kind of story, the protagonists are knights — and knights are, always and without exception, men. You can include women as knights in the game if you want, but it is pointed out that this is weird and never happened in the “real” tales, so by doing so, you are going against the spirit of the game.

    (It is somewhat pointless to debate the historicity of this. The game is based on stories , not on what actually happened in Britain, though the author does go on to defend many of his design decisions reflecting the grim reality of the times. Though I suppose if you’re one of those people who thinks that Camelot was real and lies sunk somewhere off the coast of Land’s End or whatever, then you may find no contradiction in this.)

    In our upcoming game, the GM has decided to allow lady knights. He has explicitly stated that he will not stand for in-character misogyny and has no intention of singling out female knights based on their gender. I don’t know some of the men in the game particularly well, but they seem to be liberal and thoughtful enough. Yet l have reservations about the game.

    Some of them are strictly mechanical and can be talked out before the game. For example, a knight is expected to marry and have children. Because the game takes place over an eighty year time period, each PC must have children if they wish to carry on the legacy of their old characters. (The game notes that, while a player can roleplay romance and marriage, you can also roll on a random table to determine who your wife is and regard her as an abstract asset thereafter.) This presents some challenges for the lady knight, as a woman has a ten percent chance of dying in childbirth for every year in which she attempts to have children. It also complicates inheritance and married life in general, but I suspect these are things we will all sort out during the game.

    There are other, subtler concerns. Speaking for myself: I have little interest in playing the typical Lady Knight story.  I am tired of hearing that women did nothing of significance in the past — that we stood on the sidelines and cheered while men made the decisions, and when those decisions went poorly, we beat our breasts and lamented and were occasionally raped and did nothing more. It’s a load of nonsense, and deeply misogynistic nonsense at that. There are other stories I am tired of. I am tired of hearing the story about how men can either be Good Soldiers or Good Men, and that Good Men must do Terrible Things For The Greater Good/For Honor/For the King (though they may feel Deeply Conflicted about it), though we spend an awful lot of time on vivid technicolor depictions of these Terrible Things that our noble soldiers with humble hearts must reluctantly do.

    And yet, by voicing my concerns, perhaps I’d just be ruining the boy’s fun. But I’ve been invited, so I can hardly say I’m trespassing on some sort of sacred masculine space. It may simply be that I’m playing the wrong game. At least the storyteller seems share my general sympathies with regard to violence and war, so perhaps I’m worried for nothing.

    I suppose I’ll find out soon enough. Character gen is tonight; I’ll let you know how it goes.



    Dymphna posts frequently on Google Plus as Dymphna C.

    4 Responses to Pendragon, Locker Rooms, and Lady Knights

    1. avatar
      March 18, 2014 at 19:37

      As a long-time Pendragon GM and player, I can tell you – there does not have to be anything sexist in the material, unless the GM wants to champion the gender bias’ of history even while adding in dragons and fairies.

      For Pendragon the main problem is – like with all roleplaying games on every socio-political issue – the experience is entirely subjective to the GM. If the GM feels like there should be no real different between male knights and female knights, then there is none. If the GM is looking to embrace a sexually oppressive framework, that is what will happen instead. If you trust your GM, then you have nothing to worry about with Pendragon.

      Every game I’ve run or played in has had knights of both sexes – in fact, I’m playing a female knight right now in a Pendragon campaign, and I identify in real life as male. This happened because I was playing my character’s brother, but he went crazy so my current character had to step up and take the lead on my family even though she’s the middle child. It’s been tremendous fun.

      I hope you have fun, too.


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    2. avatar
      Stronty Girl
      March 21, 2014 at 13:33

      I’d be intrigued to find out if the GM is including Lady Knights because (a) he thinks they are cool, (b) because you are a woman and he feels socially obliged to provide a ‘girly’ character option for you, or (c) one of the men wants to play Lady Knight. Or (d) none of the above.

      Hope the game goes well.

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      • avatar
        March 28, 2014 at 00:28

        I think it’s probably something like B in this case, but I don’t consider someone feeling socially obligated to be inclusive a bad thing.

        When he mentioned the game to me, I immediately got excited and told him that I wanted to play a female character. He was enthusiastic about the idea of including Lady Knights, and told me right off the bat that he wouldn’t include a load of in-character misogynistic bullshit in the game unless I really wanted that for some reason (I don’t). I have a good amount of faith in him to let me control the narrative around femininity in this game, and I don’t say that sort of thing lightly.

    3. avatar
      April 1, 2014 at 17:28

      Hey, so, I agree that Pendragon’s take on gender is problematic, but there is some really interesting stuff here if you want to explore it. (You may not want to, and I think it’s a good sign that the GM is making a point of saying he doesn’t want to push these topics.)

      Our game included a female player who ran a female knight; sadly, we, her adventuring companions, went to war that year and didn’t explain about fighting defensively. A young knight, of whichever gender, is pretty easy to strike down if the enemy gets a lucky hit, and poor Lady Aethelflaed didn’t survive our attack on Byzantium. We gave her a proper Saxon funeral however, and her noble death helped win over some Saxon chieftains.

      One of the more interesting RP challenges I’ve had was running my character’s wife, during a time when my regular character had gone mad inside the Vatican. Lady Madule, an acquaintance of Morgan Le Fay and a sorceress in her own right, didn’t have much in the way of knightly skills, but was well-trained in court intrigue. (A big part of Pendragon’s mid-game.) She was also intelligent enough to realize she lived in a sexist society and sensible enough to resent it, and all of the privileges associated with knighthood. She was present during the first Grail Quest to represent the Pagan faiths.

      I stopped one time to figure out her economic situation given the laws in place at the time, and her marriage to my idiot knight suddenly made perfect sense:


      Madule had her own love affairs, managed the manor however she pleased, initiated subtle rebellions against her husband’s liege (who had been exploiting her property during her spinster years), and generally raised hell.

      She eventually got accused of witchcraft, simply because she summoned a Fairy Cow, oh and set a castle on fire. The threat to her life eventually caused her husband to snap out of his madness and rescue her. After six years of marriage, they finally consummated their vows … only for her to die in childbirth. It was devastating.

      Anyway, Madule was a great character, stuck being an intelligent woman at a time when intelligent women had few options, but she was determined to exploit as much as she could to her advantage. And it was a fabulous counter-point to the main narrative of these dopey knights riding around without a care in the world, completely self-entitled. RIP.

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