Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy: Berserker in a Skirt

Today we’re talking about sex and gender in Dungeons and Dragons, so this oughta be a hoot. I’ll go ahead and get things started with this quote, not directly from the essay, but instead from Shelly Mazzanoble and which appears in the essay:

One of the coolest things about D&D is gender equality. As in real life, whichever gender you choose to play is a matter of personal preference but unlike the real world, female and male characters are equals.

So trans people willingly choose to experience discrimination and dysmorphia for, I guess, the street cred? We’re not off to a good start, here.

Sex and Gender

These are the essay’s own section titles, not my own. Ordinarily I read the entire article before writing about it (with occasionally an exception for the introductory paragraph), but this essay feels like it demands a live commentary because of just how much tension it’s keeping me in regarding whether it’s going to have something interesting or deeply, deeply stupid to say. I lean towards the latter because usually if anyone other than Simone de Beauvoir is quoting Simone de Beauvoir it all ends in tears. Like, this section has the quote where Simone de Beauvoir (prominent feminist philosopher who wrote mainly during the lull between first and second waves) talks about how being a woman is seen as a specific character trait whereas being a man is seen as self-evident and communicating no information. It’s like the smurfs, with Brainy Smurf, Hefty Smurf, Papa Smurf who is defined not by being male at all but a specific male role, and Grouchy Smurf and Clumsy Smurf and then…Smurfette. Whose defining trait is “is a girl.” The standard Five Man Band has five characters summed up as “is the leader,” “is smart,” “is strong,” “is a loner,” and “is a girl.”

There’s all kinds of things you can talk about in relation to this concept. All of them are probably gonna start a flame war in the comments, but fuck it, at least the actual body of the essay is still potentially interesting. You could explore the idea that women are restricted to a certain gender role, and while that’s extremely well-trod ground by now, that at least gives you lots and lots of other essays to mine for interesting ideas. Conversely, you could talk about how men are excluded from the role of emotional support and physical beauty, and how a woman is not only required to be compassionate and beautiful, but that being a woman is seen as a requirement for being compassionate and beautiful. Relating to D&D specifically, you could talk about how this doesn’t happen in D&D because a character’s capabilities are defined by class, and no class has a specific sex as a requirement. “Girl” isn’t treated as though it were a character class because it can’t be treated as though it were a character class because there is a specific, finite list of character classes and Girl is not on it. I could keep going, but I’ve already satisfied the Rule of Three and if I exhausted the list of potential topics completely it’d be like five paragraphs.

Instead of any of that, the essay says this:

In all of [2e, 3.5e, and 4e’s Player’s Handbooks], we are told that the first deliberate decision that we make after we have taken our chances with the random role [sic] of the die is to choose our race and class. Certainly this makes sense – you need to know whether or not the “genes” of your rolls allow you to be a dwarf fighter or a half-elf thief – but why isn’t the decision about sex primary to all of it?

Well, I mean, at one point it was. Way back in AD&D women of most races had lower STR caps than men, and while those caps didn’t usually come up for any but the luckiest of rolls, it was still true that a melee character was at a flat-out disadvantage as a woman. Is Mussett suggesting we go back to something like that? The straightforward answer to her question is “because treating people differently based on sex is bad, and if we treat both sexes exactly the same than the decision between the two has no impact to any other step of chargen and can be made at any time.” That’s so blindingly obvious to anyone familiar with character creation – in any system, including computer RPGs – that I assume she has some kind of more shocking argument to present, but I’m struggling to imagine what it might be.

This was the moment I decided I should give a live commentary. We’re all going to find out together whether or not Mussett has some stunning reversal up her sleeve, something to make me reconsider whether the answer to that question really is so obvious, or if this essay is about to outpace Paragons and Knaves and set the new standard for shitty D&D-related philosophy. The way she fails to acknowledge that attribute arrays and point-buy exist doesn’t fill me with a lot of hope. By the way, if you aren’t rolling for stats, pick race and class first, then assign/buy abilities. This gives you a better idea of the character both narratively and mechanically before you hammer yourself down to any specific numbers for their abilities.

Gender Games

This section is two paragraphs long. In the first paragraph, Mussett brings up one of Simone du Beauvoir’s most famous quotes (“[o]ne is not born, but rather becomes a woman”) and also establishes that she was an existentialist. In the second paragraph, there’s a clumsy segue into how there are no limitations one way or the other for selection of sex in D&D. Which, okay, great? Other than both using the word “choice” in their descriptions, what does existential radical freedom and selecting a sex for a D&D character have in common? I mean, yeah, choosing your sex in a D&D game is technically an exercise of radical freedom, but so is choosing what topping to put on your ice cream. Generally speaking, examples of radical freedom are more along the lines of, like, “if the Third Reich demands you join the Wehrmacht and exterminate Jews in Poland, you can always refuse, even if they would kill you, you still have the choice.” That’s an actually interesting philosophical insight. “Only you can decide whether or not you want caramel on your sundae” is not so much.

Fantasy and Imagination as Vehicles for Social Change

There’s a paragraph here where Mussett lists off the myriad ways in which someone can appear to or actually change shape, and then laments that no one ever uses this to change sex, or if they do, they do it for pragmatic reasons.

Firstly, so far as using D&D as a vector for explaining things about gender roles, that last bit is fucking awesome. You couldn’t ask for a more straightforward demonstration of the ultimately arbitrary nature of gender roles than someone who has the ability to switch from one sex to the other and exploits that ability to assume whatever gender role is convenient to the situation. There is no possible argument that can plausibly claim that there’s something inherently masculine or feminine about [thing] when all the Bard has to do to pull it off is change their appearance, and the fact that the Bard does have to change their appearance to pull it off also highlights how, despite being perfectly capable of fulfilling the role, the Bard was previously excluded from it, just for appearing male or female. This is the kind of subtle demonstration by thought experiment that games are actually good for. Mussett doesn’t even mention the idea.

Secondly, Mussett ends this paragraph positing that playing a character who changes sex could be socially enlightening and such. Then she spends the rest of the section talking about how playing a character different from oneself is a way of broadening horizons. There’s also a bunch of gibberish in between, but seriously, let’s not even talk about the paragraph in which Juce Iragaray’s ideas are explained but then never really connected back to the point Mussett is making. It’s the same thing with Simone du Beauvoir’s existentialism and having the option to play either sex in D&D. There’s no connection whatsoever between the ideas, but a few of the same words are used to explain them both, and I guess it’s a chance to name drop some philosophers to build up respectability amongst people who judge arguments based on the number of famous people cited by them rather than whether or not they actually make sense and match reality.

So let’s ignore that and talk about how Mussett laments how no one ever uses Alter Self to change sex. Is she suggesting that the (presumably cis) reader should try playing a trans person? That would fit in with her spiel at the end, except she never mentions playing a trans character, even though she does suggest playing the opposite sex, a different sexual orientation, a different body shape, a different moral philosophy, etc. etc. She alludes to the possibility but then, when listing off suggestions of things to try, stops short of actually suggesting that one. So is she suggesting that a trans person play as a trans person in D&D, then? That instead of just playing their preferred sex, they should play their biological sex and grapple with the duration limits and dispel risk of shape changing magic? Why? The generous interpretation is that Mussett did intend the “play as a trans character, use magic to solve trans problems” interpretation, but the whole essay has been such a mess, quoting feminist philosophers with only tangential relation to what’s being discussed apparently just for the Hell of it, that I don’t know if it deserves the benefit of the doubt at this stage.

Berserker in a Skirt

This section brings us this quote:

This gendered nature is like a glamor spell that gets cast on us at a very early age.

Just in case you were afraid we might go a full essay without a strained D&D metaphor. Basic summary of the section is that gender roles are largely defined by behavior and you can behave however the fuck you want, so play a berserker in a skirt or whatever, it’s cool. The section lasts for two paragraphs and I got it in a sentence.

Liberation and Laughter

This whole essay had me waffling on whether or not I should hate it or if it’s actually perfectly reasonable and just kind of belabors the point a lot (which hasn’t stopped me from hating essays in the past, but that’s mainly for comedic effect), so this section is where Mussett does me a solid and says lots of dumb things to help me make up my mind. Here’s the opening line:

Do I want to be a large, smelly barbarian in “real” life? Good God no, how unfeminine.

So Mussett spends the entire essay establishing that gender roles are about arbitrary behavior rather than inherent or natural, states (without arguing, but it’s not an unreasonable premise to start from) that gender roles are harmful and oppressive, and then embraces them anyway. Because, what, actually doing something to meaningfully oppose the dominant narrative would be inconvenient? I mean, okay, this is clearly structured as a joke. Maybe it’s not meant to be taken seriously. Maybe she doesn’t actually care that being a barbarian is unfeminine. Maybe sleeping in a stable and caving skulls in just isn’t her jam. Except, then there’s this:

Do we laugh at drag queens in the Pride Parade? You bet. And do we laugh at ourselves, painstakingly painting our minis as if these avatars were really copies of the original us transported to Toxer, the mining town at the foot of the Slippery Mountains? Of course. And do people who don’t play RPGs laugh at us because we play D&D? Well, obviously.

These are all dickish things to do. That last sentence makes it pretty clear that we aren’t talking about “laughing at” the way you’d laugh at a standup routine or something. You shouldn’t be laughing at drag queens, you shouldn’t be self-loathing because you paint D&D minis, and you shouldn’t laugh at people for having different hobbies from you. That middle one is self-destructive instead of harmful to others, but they’re all things you shouldn’t be doing.

I keep wondering whether I should be giving this essay more benefit of the doubt, since it keeps wandering back to some fundamentally reasonable ideas, and then there’s stuff like this that just makes me think that Mussett has no idea what any of the concepts she’s throwing around actually mean. She keeps bringing up the “gender roles are arbitrary” idea so that seems to be her main point, but every time she starts discussing the work of a famous (or, in Luce Irigaray’s case, not so famous) philosopher, it doesn’t seem to have any connection at all. Talking about Simone du Beauvoir’s radical freedom is supposed to suggest that…players have the freedom to choose roles other than the ones society demands of them? But…only in D&D? That’s kind of bog standard existentialism, but this is a pop philosophy book, so that’s totally valid to bring up, except Mussett doesn’t explain it. If her target audience is philosophy nerds like me who already know what Simone du Beauvoir is about, then bringing that up without expanding on it is a waste of space. If her target audience is people interested in but unfamiliar with philosophy, then bringing it up but not explaining its connection to the rest of the topic is also a waste of space. That paragraph doesn’t do anything!

The Luce Irigaray aside doesn’t do anything either! The whole section is just “hey, did you know this philosopher named Luce Irigaray once wrote about gender roles and was under the delusion that playing a role to try and appear attractive to potential mates was a uniquely female experience?” Maybe Luce Irigaray’s philosophy is more flattering in context, because after watching Mussett botch up Simone du Beauvoir’s philosophy to the point where I can recognize its potential relevance only because I already know what it is (and even then, I can’t be sure if I’m making the same connection as Mussett, because Mussett never made any connection), I really can’t be sure if she’s doing any good at communicating Irigaray’s philosophy, either, so for all I know Irigaray really is talking about some unique element of the female experience (or never even claimed that in the first place and has been grossly misunderstood – Mussett quotes only sentence fragments of Irigaray’s work and mostly relies on summary in her own words), and Mussett has simply failed to communicate how whatever Irigaray is talking about differs in any way from the very universal experience of trying to look conventionally high-status and attractive in order to get a significant other.

And that’s sort of the essay in microcosm. The whole thing is clear as mud and I can’t even be sure if the theme of “gender roles are arbitrary, so do whatever” is actually there or just me projecting my own conclusions onto a hot mess that uses some related words but fails to actually articulate anything. So I don’t know if it’s fundamentally reasonable or the second coming of Paragons and Knaves, because having read it, it’s still not clear enough to make anything out.

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