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Archive => Indie Game Design => Topic started by: james_west on February 14, 2004, 08:25:08 AM

Title: Feminist game design?
Post by: james_west on February 14, 2004, 08:25:08 AM
The Stranger, or Feedback

This is a game I wrote before breakfast this morning, based on the 'feminist game design' thread in RPG theory. I'm not sure if it's feminist or sexist, but in either case, I hope it puts the issue front and center.

So, my main question is, do you think that this system has mechanics that would work to address gender issues?

There is an American, perhaps universal, archetype, of the stranger with no past who drifts into town, solves its problems, and moves on. They are, perhaps, spirits given form by the need of the community for an outsider.

In this game, players adopt the role of a Stranger. The essential nature of the stranger is that it is entirely given form by the people it meets. In this game, the stranger always starts off the same, but has two essential traits;

(1) Feedback. The traits or skills that the people it meets believe it has, become stronger, reinforced by the impressions of the community. Moreover, the way a trait becomes stronger is by displaying it, so it is easier for a trait to become stronger if it already exists in some measure.

(2) Form. Each stranger has two forms; one male, one female. Traits and skills are tracked completely seperately for these two forms, as the community thinks of them as two seperate people. The stranger can only change between forms when unobserved. Clothing, weapons, or other possessions are not changed; just the stranger’s appearance.



Each trait has a value of between 1 and 6; this is the number of dice rolled in a contest, compared to a number of dice rolled by the GM for the opposition. More information on this later.

The following is a list of default traits, and what they’re good for. All characters start with the same values; they are intended to represent the community’s opinion of men and women. Values are listed for each, but an an option the GM can read through the list, and the players should decide whether men and women would be viewed the same (each gets 2 dice), or as inherently different (one gets 1 die, the other gets 3).

Aggression. Male-3, Female-1. Aggression is a measure of how dangerous the character is, and is perceived to be (which in this game are the same). This is the trait you use for physical intimidation, or for fighting.

Athletic. Male-2, Female-2. This is the trait you use for running, climbing trees, jumping out of the way of speeding cars, and in general any physical activity not related to sneaking or violence.

Authority. Male-3, Female-1. Authority is peoples’ basic perception of your competence, divorced from any particular skill. It is the trait used to make people give weight to your words when you talk. If you fail, it is not so much that they don’t believe you, as they don’t particularly believe you know what you’re talking about.

Empathy. Male-1, Female-3. Empathy is used to read people, to determine if they’re lying, and to generally tell where they’re coming from. Succesful use of this trait should give the player information about the NPC’s psychology. This is the trait used for normal social interaction.

Friendliness. Male-1, Female-3. Friendliness is used to make folks comfortable around you. Not so much to get any particular result, as to make them think you’re OK, and not mind having you around. This is good for establishing Relationships.

Stealth. Male-2, Female-2. This is the trait you use for sneaking around. If you want to be invisible in a crowd, use Friendliness, instead; this is for actual gumshoeing.

Other skills:
Technical skills (lawyer, mechanic, pilot) can be added if people believe the character has them; usually the trait used to make people believe you have a skill is Authority. Once you have a skill, you may add one to your authority for attempts to use authority within that field (although if your opponent also has the skill, they also add one). The skill can be used to solve problems in that field.

Relationships. For each level of relationship you have with somone, you may add 1 to authority, empathy, and friendliness when dealing with them. A level 1 relationship is a person, or group, who know your face and have already decided you’re OK. Default resistance to a level 1 relationship is 2 dice; if the group or person is particularly unfriendly or reclusive, this may be 3 or 4 dice. Only a normal success is needed to form a level 1 relationship. A level 2 relationship is someone who considers themselves a comrade, or mild personal friend. This may only be formed with individuals, not groups. Resistance to forming a level 2 relationship defaults to 3 dice, and a strong success is needed to form it. A level 3 relationship is someone who considers themselves a personal friend. A level 2 relationship must have existed in at least three scenes the characters were in together before attempting to increase the relationship a level. Default resistance is also 3 dice, with a strong success needed.

The GM may reduce relationship scores if the stranger harms the person with the relationship; relationships can be made negative.



Basically, roll dice equal to your trait, versus resistance dice. If your dice are greater, you have a normal success; if your dice are twice as great, a strong success. If your dice are lower, you have a normal failure; if your dice are beaten by a factor of two, a strong failure.

If you succeed or fail such that others are aware of you doing so, add or subtract a die, respectively, to the trait (note: this may need to be a strong success or strong failure).

You may never have more than an additional five dice in each gender; if you would add a die beyond that, remove one from the trait with the –least- dice added to it. Traits may fall below their starting values, but not below 1 die, either through failure leading to subtraction, or through losing dice to add to high traits.

For aggression, add one to the actual effect for a weapon like a knife, lead pipe, or the like, or two dice to the effect for a gun. If just using aggression for intimidation, add nothing for other weapons, or 1 die for a gun.  If you fail in a fight, you’re generally only lightly injured; if you succeed, everyone expects you to be heavily injured; you are unless you can role-play your way out of it. Only the form that was injured is injured, though. The opposite gender is still in perfect health. If you succeed in a fight, the opponent is generally driven away or lightly injured. If you strongly succeed, you have control of them, in the sense that they can be dead, or abjectly humiliated, at your option.

For other situations, effective role-playing and setting up of the situation will add a die. The player might also, for instance, think of a way of undermining an NPC’s authority before engaging in a contest of authority with him.

Determining resistance: if you can’t think of a reason it wouldn’t be, resistance is two. Authority figures will have more authority in their field; a policeman will have authority of four, except with criminals. A big guy might have a resistance to aggression of 3; a big guy with two of his griends would have a resistance of 5. Most folks have a resistance to empathy of 2; if they’ve got a strong reason to be secretive, increase it 1. Even if you think they’ll never give away their secret, a succesful empathy roll will mean they hint at it, perhaps obliquely.


Types of scenario.

I’m thinking Quantum Leap, or The Hulk, or Route 66. The character(s) show up in town, get off a bus, walk in, whatever, with a couple of dollars in their pocket. They need to find a place to stay, and a way to make a few bucks so they can move on. In doing so, they get enmeshed in the torrid relationship map that the GM has designed for the local feud.

Title: Feminist game design?
Post by: Matt Wilson on February 14, 2004, 10:43:31 AM

Wow, interesting stuff. People are influenced by cultural assumptions. Nice.

So does the community's view of men and women change from town to town? Say town A has aggression male 3/female 1, but town B has male 2/female 2. Then you can address the fluidity of gender construction.

Title: Feminist game design?
Post by: clehrich on February 14, 2004, 12:56:08 PM
Hmm.  Interesting.

I'd think that you would want to start with some sort of situation going on in the town, and then have the Mysterious Stranger enter that.  Without any starting characteristics, it's difficult to see how anyone will respond to {here we go!} s/h/it.  :->

Look at Yojimbo, or its knockoff, Fistful of Dollars.  The fact that the person entering is a Strong, Silent Man (tm) affects radically how the Mysterious Stranger is treated from the outset.

But let's suppose this person entered, heavily cloaked, in the rain, and had a kind of mid-level gravelly voice so that nobody could really tell whether the person was male or female.  Okay, so maybe the situation was such that everyone needs or wants a big tough man to deal with it.  That starts the ball rolling, and you have the game you want arising from there.

Does that make sense?  I'm saying that if everyone thought the situation needed a Mysterious Stranger who was female, they'd treat the Mysterious Stranger as female in hopes that it would turn out as they desire.  This would provoke your androgynous, constructed being to follow their lead.  I just mean, then, that the town has to take the lead in order for the game to work from there.

Chris Lehrich

Title: Feminist game design?
Post by: Mark D. Eddy on February 14, 2004, 03:33:46 PM
Here's another thought for this one: Invert the usual roles. The Mysterious Stranger is played by a singular Player, while the rest of the town is played by the collective GMs, which are the rest of the gaming group.

I don't really know how this would work, but I suspect that the Player would need to be a different person each session or so.

Interesting thought experience, overall.

(Aside: Each time I see "Mysterious Stranger" I think of Arnold Schwartzenegger as Handsome Stranger "I was named for my dad." in... whatever that film was.)

Title: Feminist game design?
Post by: Ben O'Neal on February 14, 2004, 07:24:53 PM
So, my main question is, do you think that this system has mechanics that would work to address gender issues?


i mean, it really sounds like an awesome idea for a game, and i'll definately keep an eye on your progress, but i'm just not seeing how this will be able to address gender issues beyond simple acknowledgement and manipulation.

having read the thread in RPG theory, i'm assuming your goal is to create a game mechanic that might be used to help people understand and question current gender roles and perhaps with a view to undermining the fundamental societal assumptions. but as i think was mentioned in that thread, such a thing cannot be achieved through a game. you can't reach the players through the characters, you have to reach the characters through the players.

i see your game enforcing gender perceptions, not questioning them. your characters develop only according to the perceptions of  the society they are in, and that society will not question gender, it will enforce it. all you are allowing is for the players to manipulate and take advantage of the stereotypes. sure it will bring gender issues to the fore, but it will trivialise them as tools to use to achieve various ends in a game... which sadly is actually fairly close to reality for many people i know.

i'm not sure it's possible to overcome this problem, but i have an interesting idea you might like to hear. what if the character didn't just choose which gender they wanted to be, what if even their gender only existed in the perceptions of others? so that they could be standing with two different people, and one could think the character was a male and the other could think it was a female? you could then really have fun with how strongly people believe their perception to be veridical. perhaps stirring up all sorts of interesting dramas, especially where relationships are concerned, if a man thinks he is with a woman, but his friend instead sees a guy, that could be funny :D perhaps your character could send a whole town into believing everyone else is psychotic, forming groups with people who agree on the characters gender. the group that thinks the stranger is a male could think the group that thinks the stranger is a female are all delusional, and vice versa. or perhaps the goal could be to avoid this sort of thing at all costs?

i dunno, just an idea. i think it'd be funny at the least, and interesting at best.

oh and one more thing. although i know you designed your traits with balance for the genders, the athletic trait is fairly inaccurate, unless it is supposed to measure "ideal illusions" held by society. all you need to do is watch the olympics to see that even at the height of performance, males and females do not perform equally. males are faster runners, better climbers and jumpers, and stronger. the only physical domain where women surpass men is sheer grace and agility. if you were to incorporate this reality, it might unbalance your traits, unless you added a trait for what girls are actually better than most men at: fine motor movement. girls are typically superior to men in things like typing, sewing, knitting, and all other things that rely upon fine and subte dexterity. i'm not just making this up, this has been studied and found to be true.

Title: Feminist game design?
Post by: Scourge108 on February 14, 2004, 10:48:52 PM
I just wanted to add that when I read that, I thought of Clint Eastwood's character in High Plains Drifter.  In that case, the town's main problem was its guilt, and he was a bit darker version of the stranger.  

So what female characters from legend and fiction would fit this kind of character?  Joan of Arc?  Who else?

Title: Feminist game design?
Post by: james_west on February 15, 2004, 10:16:22 AM
Hello, all!

The first thing that immediately strikes me is the extent to which I've picked the wrong setting (apparently) for the mechanic; seemed like folks didn't much like the fact that the mysterious stranger genre doesn't generally include women. I think that if I wanted to stay in genre there, it wouldn't hurt to keep the 'feedback' part, which has something interesting to say in itself (IMHO), but the ability to change genders is jarring for that setting. Unfortunately, dealing with gender issues was the design goal of the game, so that's bad.

I realize that the central mechanic for this game causes gender stereotypes to be self-reinforcing. However, it was my thought that making strong, self-reinforcing gender stereotypes so central, and allowing the -player- to choose which set of stereotypes they wanted to indulge in any given scene, would consciousness-raise, to steal an annoying phrase.

- James

Title: Feminist game design?
Post by: Mark D. Eddy on February 15, 2004, 10:37:39 AM
I dunno. Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote is one such character. As are Tarma and Kethry in the short stories by Mercedes Lackey. Heck, go back to fairy tales and look at Cinderella's fairy godmother. The problem that I had is that my mind went straight to Westerns, rather than to other genres. If you've read them, the entire family in the Amelia Peabody mysteries could be a single Mysterious Stranger (Amelia, Emerson, Rameses and Nefertiti: Older woman, older man, younger man, younger woman). I seem to recall that Miss Marple also fulfilled that role in some of Agatha Christie's books.

So it's not that there aren't female Mysterious Strangers, it's that many gamers tend to be unaware of them. I don't see a problem with your goals here, really. Heck, they could be extended to look at all kinds of social perception issues, especially if the "player group determines the division of the traits" mechanic is better fleshed out. The modification of perceptions idea is, I think, spot on. But I still think that you really don't want a group of Mysterious Strangers drifting into town.

Title: Feminist game design?
Post by: Paul Czege on February 15, 2004, 02:25:23 PM
Hey James,

I like it. Cripes, I wish I'd thought of it. Because I'm pretty sure I'd be working determinedly toward having an ashcan ready for sale at GenCon:[list=1]
  • I think your instincts are dead-on. Conventional wisdom would have you put the players in a position of personally questioning their own attitudes about gender; so you'd have player characters situated for exposure to a culture of alien or uncommon enlightenment. "The aliens have something to teach us." Or you'd require the players to adopt the enlightened roles and be exposed to a culture of unexamined repression evocative of our own modern society. "These other shoes sure do hurt my feet."

The problem with the conventional wisdom is that a game so designed would produce narratives that deliver the exact same thematic message across each of the player characters, every single time the game is played. Boring Sidney. In contrast, I think your solution is dynamic and powerful, and brilliant really: the players are empowered to choose how and when they will use gender to their advantage within the fabric of society. All the game has to do is problematize that decisionmaking, and what you'll get is player authoring and character protagonism such that play is, in essence, an engaging and committed player conversation about gender. In retrospect, I guess that isn't in line with the design goal of advancing a feminist agenda, but uh, who the fuck cares? Narrativist games aren't about what you can learn from the designer, or from the system, but what you can learn from each other. Create a conversation, and you might end up advancing an agenda. Focus on advancing an agenda, and you fail to create a conversation.

  • I'm not sure how I feel about the nature of the stranger being "given form by the people it meets." It's a bit too Clive Barker for me. You're giving the player character the ability to choose his/her gender, and everyone playing knows mechanically what that means within the game. I'm inclined to think envisioning Traits as societal characteristics, is the way to go. Having a 3 Friendliness means you can more easily form Relationships when you want to, and also that the drunk asshole won't likely resist cornering you at the bar to tell you his life story.
  • Is Empathy the basis for normal social interaction, or meaningful social interaction?
  • Regarding Skills, if a character somehow earns "Doctor," can they successfully perform operations? Or are you somehow envisioning Skills as getting characters through or out of situations. "This x-ray is interesting, nurse. What do you think?" And not raising any suspicion?
  • Regarding Relationships, are you thinking they'd actually be individually tracked over the course of play? "John Annapolis, level 2" Your text distinguishing among the three levels is so unambiguous that it would almost be no big deal to assess the level of a relationship only when/if it becomes mechanically important. It seems like there might be some potential for drama here as well, if you don't track it too closely:
Player: I need to talk to John, and get him to approach Mike about the money. He's level 2 to me.
GM: Well, actually, John was among the bystanders when you killed Laura, so he's more like a level 1 to you now.

  • I think any weapon, knife, gun, whatever, should increase an effort to intimidate. That's the intent of brandishing a weapon. If it didn't work, no one would ever do it.
  • Your guidelines for determining resistance are nice, and in my opinion, eminently more usable than the kinds of charts you see in a lot of games. Kudos. There's something about game text that speaks directly to me and treats me like a reasonable person. Charts always make me doubt my decisionmaking. I find myself splitting hairs.
  • And finally, I'm thinking you should abstract the game from a modern setting. For one, it would keep you from needing to justify your scheme of Trait values to folks with agendas. "The Traits are not intended to be reflective of any specific modern culture." But also, I think, you might powerfully use setting to problematize decisionmaking during play. Only the eldest male son can become king? So how does a character who can switch gender sympathize with the frustrations of the eldest male daughter of a dying king? Only a virgin can wake the dragon and ride him in defense of the city? How does the virginal male incarnation of a stranger character orchestrate that if the dragon priests are focused on selecting a woman, and he's not so virginal as a woman? What if he's betrothed to the crown prince, whose concern about his future wife's chastity has him looking forward to seeing her ride the dragon? No woman can wield an obsidian sword? What happens when the female incarnation of a stranger character picks one up and uses it?

Something you might consider as part of chargen is having a whole-group pre-game conversation to suggest and establish gender constraints for the setting. I think it would create shared player investment in the game.[/list:o]So anyway, I think it's a fantastic basis for a game.


Title: Feminist game design?
Post by: Doctor Xero on February 15, 2004, 06:41:35 PM
Quote from: Ravien
i'm not just making this up, this has been studied and found to be true.

Actually, it's been found to be cultural, not biological, in origin, after studies with countries with gender roles different from those common in U.S.-European cultures.  Evidence strongly indicates that a girl raised identically to a boy in every way will probably be just as muscular and that a boy raised identically to a girl in every way will probably be just as graceful.  However, that becomes a moot point in most RPGing since one is not likely to find anyone male or female in a U.S.-European culture who has not been raised within gender roles and most RPGs still take place in worlds based strongly on U.S.-European cultures.

Doctor Xero

Title: Re: Feminist game design?
Post by: Doctor Xero on February 15, 2004, 06:44:47 PM
Quote from: james_west
I'm thinking Quantum Leap, or The Hulk, or Route 66. The character(s) show up in town, get off a bus, walk in, whatever, with a couple of dollars in their pocket. They need to find a place to stay, and a way to make a few bucks so they can move on. In doing so, they get enmeshed in the torrid relationship map that the GM has designed for the local feud.

I can see how this might work for a single player or a single player and group Game Masters, but I'm not sure how this would work for a group of players.  How do their assumptions affect each other?  What about their own baseline assumptions?  A lot of players would feel lost because you are asking them to "outsource" their own gender assumptions to the NPCs in the game.

I think this would work well for problematizing gender roles with a group of players who are already trying to explore the limitations/restrictions of gender roles but would only annoy or seem exotically eccentric to a group of players who are not specifically interested in exploring gender roles.

Doctor Xero

Title: Feminist game design?
Post by: Ben O'Neal on February 16, 2004, 07:15:02 PM
Actually, it's been found to be cultural, not biological, in origin, after studies with countries with gender roles different from those common in U.S.-European cultures. Evidence strongly indicates that a girl raised identically to a boy in every way will probably be just as muscular and that a boy raised identically to a girl in every way will probably be just as graceful.

problem: no single person will ever be raised identically to any other person. it's not possible in this universe. regardless of what CAN be true, we can only ever face what IS true.

but now that we have identified that we can't ever actually test that hypothesis, we can draw on the clostest thing we will likely ever see; the olympics. every competitor in the olympics, male or female alike, every last one, trains as hard as they can to be the best. neither gender trains harder than another, and nearly all of them begin their training or olympic career very young, usually showing and building on their potential during early adolescence (except for some sports, but i'm generalizing). and we should all know that before adolescence, genitalia is really the only major PHYSICAL difference between the sexes. so both genders train for just as long, just as hard, beginning when it counts. but what is the result? women do not even compete against men in any event requiring speed or strength. it's a no brainer that if you stuck any woman in the top five in a race or weight lifting event against any man in the top five, she would lose by a significant margin. this is not something that can be accounted for by culture, age, or whatever, it can only be reliably accounted for by gender. because (drum roll): women have different bodies. more than just breasts and vaginas, women have wider hips, more body fat (even olympians when compared to male olympians), right down to subtle differences such as the rotation of their shoulders making their palms rest more easily facing more forward than a mans. this shoulder rotation is also the main reason why girls "run like girls" with arms flailing side to side instead of forward and backwards. that is the natural way their arms move. but i'm getting sidetracked now.

However, that becomes a moot point in most RPGing since one is not likely to find anyone male or female in a U.S.-European culture who has not been raised within gender roles and most RPGs still take place in worlds based strongly on U.S.-European cultures.

why only US-Eurpoean? do you know of any other countries that DON'T raise their children according to gender roles? i don't. if anything, female gender roles are more lenient and challenged in US-European cultures than anywhere else in the world, and with the recent "metrosexual" crap going on, male gender roles are beginning to become less well defined too, but everywhere else in the world, i would argue gender roles are stricter, and there is little tolerance for questioning them.

but yes, you are right, arguing about how in some ideal fantasy world -with no real basis in reality besides the fact that there are genders- males and females might be able to become truly identical in all but genitalia (considering the other biological differences, this is truly impossible), IS a moot point. they are different, for reasons biological and environmental, and that difference will never change until both biology and environment do.

Title: Feminist game design?
Post by: Ron Edwards on February 18, 2004, 08:49:07 AM

I am putting an immediate stop to the off-RPG discussion of "what gender is and how it works." Please take dialogues about this issue to private message or email.


Title: Feminist game design?
Post by: Paul Czege on February 19, 2004, 01:29:41 PM
Hey James,

Something you might want to decide for yourself is whether or not it's important for chargen to produce player characters that are meaningfully differentiated from each other. Right now with what you've got, they're all the same. And that's how it was for my first draft of My Life with Master too. But my gut told me a game with essentially uniform starting characters wouldn't hold much replay interest, which was a concern for me. Wrestling with it ultimately produced the More than Human/Less than Human mechanics, which I'm quite pleased with. But maybe for Strangers it isn't a concern?

Also, with the way you have traits/skills/relationships being produced solely through play, I think you might want to read at least the wrap-up thread I wrote about our group's play of EPICS. It is also a "define your character through play" system. The key point, I think, is that even uber-sketchy player characters can be miscast. I made the mistake of thinking "define through play" was synonymous with "define yourself in response to delivered antagonism." But going into a game, in fact, players still have preferences embedded in their sketchy characters that they're not going to compromise. It's just that as the GM of players with uber-sketchy characters you have less information about what those preferences might be.

So that's it. Good luck with the game. I'm definitely following with interest.


Title: Feminist game design?
Post by: Lxndr on February 19, 2004, 01:47:31 PM
1.  Who wins ties?  If your dice are greater, you have a success of some sort; if your dice are lower, you have a failure of some sort.  But if your dice are equal, is that "greater", "lower", or something else?

2.  Is Friendliness used for all attempts to establish relationships, or is it just "good" for doing so?  What does that mean in game mechanical terms, that it's "good" for doing so?  I don't see any note about why[/i Friendliness is better than the others.  

2b.  If Friendliness is the only option for male characters, then a male character has only a 9.2% chance of forming a level 1 relationship (16.2% if ties are successes).  Not saying that's a bad thing, just an observation.

3.  Can skills add to any other traits, or just Authority?

4.  What does a negative relationship MEAN, apart from reducing authority/empathy/friendliness scores?  What are the game mechanics for reaching a level 0 relationship from a level -1?

I love the basic concept of the game, so please take these questions in the encouraging spirit they're intended.  :)

Title: Feminist game design?
Post by: james_west on February 19, 2004, 03:37:52 PM
Thanks a lot for the input, everybody - I'll do another draft, incorporating my attempts at solutions to all of these problems.

- James

Title: Feminist game design?
Post by: MPOSullivan on February 20, 2004, 12:27:11 AM
the game actually kind of reminds me of the comic book the Human Target.  it's got the identity thing in there, the travelling-guy-solving-problems thing.  The only difference is the issue of sexuality, which i understand is the idea you want at the center of the game.  Still, it seems to me like the  game would just be awesome for the exploration of identity.  good stuff.  looking forward to where you go with this next.

Title: Feminist game design?
Post by: jrs on February 20, 2004, 06:35:13 AM

I want to back up Mark’s comments by pointing out that there are female mysterious strangers; Mary Poppins immediately comes to mind.  Although it seems that the point of view changes in that the female protagonist is thrust upon strangers, e.g., Alice from Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and Wendy from Peter Pan.  There is also a number of classic childeren’s stories that center on the orphan girl that must now live among strangers, e.g., The Little Princess.

Edited to add: Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz books


Title: Feminist game design?
Post by: aplath on July 02, 2004, 11:34:15 AM
Hey this is a very interesting idea James.

Somebody said that can't see it working for a traditional (?!) one GM/several players setup. I don't agree with that.

One example that comes to mind is the "Touched by an angel" TV show. The main characters even assume special skills according to the needs/perceptions of the community they are inserted in a particular episode.

That said, if you change the title from "The Stranger" to "The Strangers" it does sounds like a complete change of premise. Or is it just me ?

Keep it going man!