• Three Words That Will Change Your Game

    by  • January 22, 2015 • Design & Art, Essays • 4 Comments

    Early the campaign of my current Rothlingsmark game, I asked my GM (who is also my husband, Geoffrey) a simple question that completely changed the course of the game.

    The question was made half in jest. It was a sort of “I’m joking unless you’re serious” kind of joke, anyway. I referenced it in an earlier Gaming as Women post about the game:

    There was only one important question that I had to ask Geoffrey:

    “So is Rukkokainen hot?” I asked him one afternoon.

    Geoffrey thought about this for a moment, and said, “I don’t know. I haven’t rolled his stats yet.”

    A few days later, he wandered into my office and announced, apropos of nothing, that yes, Rukkokainen was in fact, “hot.”


    But I didn’t stop with Rukkokainen. I decided that I had to know about the attractiveness of every male NPC. It was still a bit of a joke, but Geoffrey always took my question seriously enough to have an answer for me (even if he had to make a few quick dice rolls first).

    Before long, I was thinking of every male NPC in terms of their attractiveness. This may not seem like much, but it completely changed the way I viewed the men in the game. Jarl Wyrmval isn’t only a scheming political rival, but he was also dangerously handsome. Runthorn isn’t only self-important, he’s also attractive enough to charm people into believing in his delusions of grandeur. Nadric isn’t just bookish and awkward, he’s also ugly enough that the servants gave him the byname Gul. Rukkokainen isn’t just a skilled veteran and keen advisor, he’s the most eligible Tauthra bachelor in the province.

    It occurs to me that this has never been true of any game I have played in. Even when I’ve played in games run by people who are sexually attracted to men, men are not described in terms of sex appeal. (I ascribe this, of course, due to our male gaze-centric and homophobic culture, because duh.)

    On the other hand, I’ve seen plenty of games where the attractiveness of female NPCs is spelled out explicitly. (Remember that skeevy guy from college who never got tired of the “huge tracts of land” joke? Remember how everybody thought you were a bitch for refusing to play in his games? Good times.)

    Conversely, it occured to me as I was writing this article that I had really no idea how “hot” the women of the setting were. This is even true for the women that my character has flirted with. This isn’t to say that I don’t know what they look like; I can readily imagine Herla’s lopsided grin and swaggering gait, or Trondvica’s round face and piercing eyes. But their sex appeal (as conventionally construed) isn’t even part of the way that I view the characters, even though they exist in a sexy context with my character. They’re sexual, rather than sexy. They’re subjects, rather than objects.

    Start your journey now, my lady.  Courtesy of Claudia Cangini.  http://claudiacangini.deviantart.com/ | plus.google.com/+ClaudiaCangini

    Start your journey now, my lady. Courtesy of Claudia Cangini. http://claudiacangini.deviantart.com/ | plus.google.com/+ClaudiaCangini

    On the other hand, the men get objectified all day. Women comment about the attractiveness of male characters frequently. They make suggestive jokes about them, and tease each other about them. (They even do that thing where women will flirt with each other while simultaneously talking about hot guys.) This largely makes sense because this is a solo game, and my character is predominantly attracted to men. The world, therefore, is largely filtered through her gaze. It’s a bit of a revelation for me, frankly, because I’m used to looking at my own world through the eyes of patriarchy. In a game, I can control the narrative in such a way that I erase the patriarchal gaze, and look at the world with a woman’s eyes for the first time.

    So how can you bring this into your game? Easy.

    When you introduce a male NPC, talk about his hotness. You don’t have to go completely Tom of Finland. You can use phrases like “handsome” or “good-looking” or “ugly.” If you’re world-building, then think about what “an attractive man” looks like in your campaign world. Does your culture prize slender, boyish men with doe eyes? Are men supposed to be big and muscular? Are battle scars sexy? What about body hair? Ritual tattoos? Does a luxuriant mustache drive the masses wild with desire?

    If you’re a player, though, you can just ask the GM a simple question: Is he hot?



    Dymphna posts frequently on Google Plus as Dymphna C.

    4 Responses to Three Words That Will Change Your Game

    1. avatar
      January 22, 2015 at 18:27

      I remember a GM being a little surprised when another player and I started commenting on an NPC. He said, “But this guy has a charisma of like 9, he’s all scarred and stuff.” One of us said, “what’s his strength score?” “Um, 18?”
      “See, he’s buff. Our characters appreciate a buff guy with scars. Shows he’s worthy mate material, a good warrior. We think he’s hot.”

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    2. avatar
      January 23, 2015 at 19:29

      For the past ten years my play group has been roughly 50% women and maybe 33% gay / bi. One player, a gay man, is very up front that he comes to the gaming table in part to have awesome romance subplots, so populating the NPC list with eligible hot guys is a must.

      There was also a woman in the play group (now departed to pursue her career) who would always ask me about the hotness of NPC guys to determine whether they were suitable for flirting with.

      We have a shorthand in the group of raising our hands to make a little imaginary movie screen, which is essentially sign language for “describe the hotness of the NPC currently being discussed.” Thanks to the group composition, it goes both ways at the gaming table (pun not intended)

      The group kind of runs the spectrum in terms of their interest in this department; I have a couple other players who don’t care about any of this one way or the other, but the ones who do care are really into it: “what is he wearing? Does he have that scruffy look? Aw yeah.”

      I’ve also had players (almost always the women) “cast” attractive actors for NPCs on the fly for strategic roleplaying purposes.

      It’s actually been really great for me as a GM because before these people joined the group, it was exactly the sort of male-gaze environment that you describe.

      Making the change wasn’t uncomfortable — I just hadn’t given it any thought because it hadn’t come up previously. I totally accepted the practice of describing attractive female NPCs, but not the males.

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    3. Pingback: Episode 197: What’s Wrong With Bein’ Sexy? | The Jank Cast

    4. avatar
      January 29, 2015 at 14:51

      When I played AD&D, back in the day, the relative attractiveness of characters didn’t matter all that much…and then the Unearthed Arcana was published with a new attribute called “comeliness,” directly addressing physical appearance, assigning it a hard number. After that, attractiveness of characters (both PC and NPC) became VERY important.

      My gaming group included players of both sexes, and DM duties rotated between two players (one male, one female). The campaign, which lasted several years, was pushed into other areas of exploration (outside of “dungeon adventures”) based on character attractiveness, character romances, relationships, political alliances, etc. at least in part because of the attention paid to this detail. There ended up being a lot of PCs of “elf” or “half-elf” blood due to comeliness bonuses, and the importance of “hotness;” there was also incidents of ridicule and derision heaped on individuals of lesser status.

      I think it’s interesting that later editions of D&D got rid of the comeliness stat while (mechanically) narrowing the focus of the game to combat and exploration.

      Strangely, in later years I ran games like White Wolf’s Vampire the Masquerade which had an “appearance” stat and no one gave a rip about characters’ relative attractiveness. In fact, there was little interest in more than blowing shit up and intriguing with the sole purpose of “getting ahead” in the game. This may have been due to the gaming groups…one long term group consisted entirely of men (who exhibited discomfort with role-playing anything other than straight physical conflict), and the other group (mixed sex) was entirely too large to run effectively…about 9+ people, all with different agendas.

      In the “real world” appearance and attractiveness are real, concrete influences on our behavior and actions towards each other. In gaming…at least gaming where we pretend to be individuals interacting with imaginary characters…you’d think it would be at least somewhat important. Instead, that aspect of “life” appears to have been discarded, unless specific to the objectives of the game (see some indie games with a focus on relationships as part of the story being created).

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