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Author Topic: Trollbabe, feminism, and the chain mail bikini  (Read 15464 times)
KingstonC
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« on: March 27, 2004, 10:44:37 AM »

Ok, so I just finished reading Trollbabe. I liked it. A lot.

Reading it, I noticed two things about Trollbabe that I think work together in interesting ways.

1) Trollbabe is in many ways about the hot warrior woman in the chain mail bikini (or HWWiCMB or just plain HWW). The HWWiCMB is a figure of much controversy in the role-playing world. Much discussion about sexism in RPGs centers around HWW.  Much fantasy art centers around the HWW. And in Trollbabe, the PCs MUST be hot warrior women. The chain mail bikinis are optional.

What is the effect of having every PC be a Trollbabe? It means that the HWW, which is so often passive and objectified in traditional RPGs, is made the powerful, important, central subject of Trollbabe. Trollbabes are not just HWWs they are empowered female protagonists. Their power is central to the resolution of every Trollbabe story. Much like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Trollbabe takes the sexist assumptions that underlie a genres conventions (that HWWs are window dressing in an RPGs text, objects to be ogled and not three dimensional characters to be played ) and turn them upside down. By doing so, Trollbabe not only facilitates addressing of feminist premises  in actual play, but addresses feminist themes in the game books text.

2) The text of Trollbabe contains a lot of, well, cheesecake. The cover is cheesecake. A lot of the interior art is cheesecake (although, importantly, the Trollbabe is rarely passive; Shes almost always doing something). Sex and sexual situations are common occurrences in Trollbabe comics. The sexual appreciation of the trollbabe is encouraged by the games text, and the text facilitates the addressing of these sexual themes in actual play. Trollbabes are not just powerful female protagonists (its not called Trollwomyn, after all.) They are, most definitely, hot warrior women.

Whats going on here? I think that at least one of Rons design goals for Trollbabe was to show that feminism and gamer cheesecake are not necessarily incompatible. In this way, Trollbabe is much like the work of many sex positive feminists, who try to create pornography free of sexist assumptions. Its also a challenge to those in the gaming community that find the HWWiCMB offensive on their face. Its like Ron is saying This game is clearly not sexist. But its chock full of hot warrior women. So, either your opposition to hot warrior women in gaming is satisfied or you must admit that it is not fear of sexism, but pure prudery, that drives your opposition.

Questions:

1) Did I get this right?

2) What does this say about the possibility of message game design?
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #1 on: March 27, 2004, 04:03:28 PM »

Hi there,

You nailed it! Everyone, that is it exactly.

I'd like to call attention to the physicality of the trollbabes in the illustrations. These women have haunches; they are not anorexic models or impossibly long of thigh. Their breasts are not hyper-huge and they have space between them like real ones do. And as you pointed out, few or none of the pictures are objectified "here she is, look at her" shots, but rather the character is doing something or expressing some unique feature of her personality.

All of these were and are explicit instructions to the artists for the original game, the upcoming book, and the comics.

I suspect that the term "cheesecake" is subject to a great deal of interpretation. For instance, I don't think the cover is cheesecake, not even with the astounding sexual impact of the exposed thigh/hip zone. Which, incidentally, was all Veronica's doing and none of my suggestion at all. But I'd really like to avoid debating the use of the term, because I do readily admit and support the raw content of all the illustrations: that beneath these women's clothes is moving, muscular, and fatty anatomy, which is fully functional.

My plan was always to keep the trollbabes clothed in the book illustrations, partly because players (both male and female) are often inclined to strip their characters during play - more often for completely casual scenes, like skinny-dipping, rather than in overtly sexual ones. So it seemed to me that showing them clothed in the pictures made more sense. And that their clothes are really clothes, which is something else I'm picky about with the artists.

A recent comic story showed Retta nude, and an upcoming Tha story will do the same. The point of these is to "get it over with," in that we've seen them clothed (or, in one case, in a bubble bath), and everyone's developed a mental image of them unclothed, so - here it is, yup - and now the clothes can return. I'm a big, big fan of Allison Bechdel's brilliant comics work (Dykes to Watch Out For), and one detail she has utterly mastered is the use of frank nudity for sexual, personal illustrations, with no hint of pornography whatsoever. Ditto for Alex Robinson's Box Office Poison. I really wanted to get that same effect into the Trollbabe comics eventually - with the question being, can that effect be obtained when the topic is literally a fantasy-female adventure hero?

Naked? Yup. Helpless sacrifice? No freakin' way.

Quote
... Trollbabe is much like the work of many sex positive feminists, who try to create pornography free of sexist assumptions. Its also a challenge to those in the gaming community that find the HWWiCMB offensive on their face. Its like Ron is saying This game is clearly not sexist. But its chock full of hot warrior women. So, either your opposition to hot warrior women in gaming is satisfied or you must admit that it is not fear of sexism, but pure prudery, that drives your opposition.


I just had to quote this, in order to be able to read it twice when I review this thread. It is not only consistent with my explicit goals for Trollbabe, but also lays bare many aspects of my own life-history and upbringing.

Yeah, you nailed it. But you also saw straight into my own person, quite deeply. As a rule, I think author-audience communication is blind - we can see The Text together, and our minds can meet in it, but not necessarily touch directly. In this, however fleetingly, I feel* as if they have.

Thank you,
Ron

* No, I don't use this word much. I have chosen it carefully here.
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kwill
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« Reply #2 on: March 28, 2004, 08:46:08 AM »

I won't bother requoting, but this is exactly what smacked me sideways in reading about trollbabe and, personally, helped clarify my own perspective on the cheescake issue

(and I haven't even seen any trollbabe art apart from what's on the adept website)

to me this cheesecake vs empowerment presentation is the hook for the game, much like the unsettling term "demon" hooks the player and drives the metaphor in sorcerer (I haven't identified such a thing in elfs, but maybe I haven't looked hard enough? my thoughts on trollbabe & elfs are founded on discussion while I await their appearance in print)

ron, I am always impressed to hear how much thought goes into the direction of your game products
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d@vid
ethan_greer
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« Reply #3 on: March 28, 2004, 09:11:09 AM »

Yep.
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montag
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« Reply #4 on: March 28, 2004, 09:47:05 AM »

So this explains the "certain demographic" stuff and why part of the game text was irritating to me. Personally, I could have done fine without the message, but that may be an cross-cultural issue.
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markus
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"The real problem is not whether machines think but whether men do."
--B. F. Skinner, Contingencies of Reinforcement (1969)
KingstonC
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« Reply #5 on: March 28, 2004, 01:31:39 PM »

Ron,

Your welcome.

So, what does Trollbabe say about the possibility of "message" gaming, anyway? I know that you've been skeptical of the possibility of message game design in the past, but this game has "message" all over it.

Is this a question of a games design facilitating the addressing of a specific "message" in play rather than dictating that message in text, as, say WoD games often do?

Kingston
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #6 on: March 28, 2004, 06:54:47 PM »

Hi Kingston (name?),

My call is that Trollbabe is highly focused in terms of Premise, which is to say, a problematic issue which permits a wide variety of interpretations and answers. But "message"? I'm not sure. It's certainly not a message in terms of the answer to the problematic issue. If anything, Trollbabe offers an absolute nullity of "answer-ness."

Let me try to explain that a little more carefully ... one thing that has struck me repeatedly during play is how immediate and intuitive a player's decisions for his or her trollbabe are - often from the first nanosecond of play. Again and again, people refer to scenarios as "obvious choices," even the ones which I play many times for different people, observing different answers each time. In this, Trollbabe is very similar to the In Utero Sorcerer scenario: people are so grabbed by the immediate situation that their own answer to the Big Question it poses is not perceived, by them, as a choice, but rather as "the answer," a priori.

So yeah, the game delivers a message ... but it's the message that the player of a particular trollbabe wants to say, to the rest of us, and it's only realized through play itself.

Are the issues that you brought up, regarding sex-positive feminism and the role of iconic sexuality, themselves a "message"? I don't think so, not in the sense that I want people who don't get it to get it from reading or playing Trollbabe. Rather, it's more like a litmus test. Either you get the whole "powerful female sexuality" thing, or you don't. If you don't, you'll go hissing and puffing away, indignant about how awful this fantasy-female game is ... and in my opinion, much to my relief. I'm not interested in dealing with Trollbabe players who can't hack that particular issue.

So I'm not sure it's a message at all, because it's not aimed at people who don't get it. It's more of a recognition-thing, on a certain non-verbalized level, based on my many experiences with women who know about role-playing but do very little or none of it.

Best,
Ron
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Spooky Fanboy
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« Reply #7 on: March 30, 2004, 10:46:42 AM »

Had to add my $.02 to this.

I enjoy Trollbabe immensely; as a narration engine, I think it's nigh flawless. But yet again, my view of the Premise and the creator's has apparently diverged. ;-)

See, what hooked me into the game was not the "powerful female sexuality in a stereotypically cheesecake environment" Premise. In fact, this thread was the first to smack me upside the head and challenge me to explore that part of the game. Now, of course, I can't not see it. But fear not, I approve, and heartily so! I've always had a sneaking suspicion that certain fantasy artists were trying (in a clumsy, backhanded type of way) to emphasize and reify the power of the female, but ending up with "cheesecake" as the result of not having a clear idea of what they were doing or how to go about doing it. (The good ones, anyway; the rest were interested in softcore porn and selling it under the guise of "art.") Ron's game brings thought and planning to the mix, and now the way should be a little clearer.

No, what hooked me into the game was the Premise of The Eternal Outsider.    
Quote from: Ron Edwards
I'm not bothering with whether or not trollbabes are troll-human hybrids...Hell, I don't care. What matters is that trollbabes do not exist in the setting except as player-characters, and you shouldn't think of them as being a race of any kind...(A) trollbabe is neither troll nor human-she is functionally apart, yet tied into the fates and interactions of both peoples...The trollbabe may be automatically percieved as an automatic friend or and automatic foe by both humans and trolls, yet her perspective is not identical with either one's. (emphasis mine) Her presence cannot help but destabilize the status quo...Ultimately, she may become the means of resolution.
Quote from: Ron Edwards
The story opens with a cool trollbabe hiking along...
Now, what ran through my mind upon reading that was not "female empowerment" but The Man with No Name, or Conan, or any number of archetypical wandering troubleshooters throughout fiction. What capped it for me was the mechanic of Relationships being the primary reward for roleplaying. What else ties The Man with No Name to the world around him, save the possibility of genuine emotional contact with another? Consider: the PC is always treated as an omen, good or ill depending on the party involved. What the PC's goals or perspective on the situation is is usually deemed irrelevant by the outside parties, unless the PC makes it clear that they are not tangental to the issue at hand. In any event, the outside groups will react to the PC in any multitude of ways except the most important ones: with love, respect, or any consideration of the PC as an actual person. The adventure wil most likely end with the PC walking off into the distance, uless the PC establishes a Relationship to tie them to that community.

Because of that, for me, the issue of "Hot Warrior Babes in Chainmail Bikinis" was at best an interesting aside ("Why did Ron choose to go that route in portraying the Eternal Outsider?") when I bothered to notice it at all. And I'm not the only one; consider the number of Trollbabe-derivatives on display in this forum: superheroes, my own Sorcerer/Dying Earth hybrid After the Fire, etc. They all fall neatly into the Eternal Outsider premise of Trollbabe without addressing the (for me) secondary Premise of female sexuality and empowerment in a stereotypical fantasy environment. (Not saying that Ron has created a stereotypical fantasy game, mind you. Far from it! But the environment is similar to many fantasy games, and I'm sure that was done deliberately, given the now-focused Premise of how a trollbabe lives with or inverts the role many female characters endure in a fantasy environment.)

To my way of thinking, if you were inclined to really bring the issues of gender roles in a stereotypical fantasy out into the harshest possible light (and I see no damn good reason not to do so!), your version of Trollbabe might look like this:

WORLD-WALKER

Your character is a contrary, a shaman chosen by the spirits to walk the worlds: both the human plane and the spirit world. Your mission is to defuse the conflicts between the humans, the spirits, and humans versus spirits should the need arise. Why were you chosen? Simple: you never fit into your community's ideas of what a man/woman should be, or at the very least turned a jaundiced eye toward your expected role. You had no "use" in your community, and the spirits decided to give you one by communicating with you. In their view, you are neither fully "human" nor fully spirit, and therefore you are the perfect intermediary between the worlds. If male, your character adopts "female" clothing, crafts, and pursuits, and vice versa if you're female.

And you have to walk the world; the spirits deep down couldn't give donkey-shit about your specific community unless you bring it to their attention. Fortunately, most other human communities have some familiarity with the contrary's role, and thus s/he is not greeted with outright contempt and hostility in the neighboring communities. (Though there is that "Eternal Outsider" thing occuring with great frequency...) For added fun, there are Weirdborn; essentially they are humans in monster drag, similar to elves, orcs, dwarves etc. who are the descendants of spirit/human mating. The Spirits keep a close eye on them for various reasons. And of course, there are those less-successful offspring who play the part of monsters for this setting.

And yes, you have to play the part of a contrary, meaning in this case the spirits (and the tribes) expect you to play the opposite gender role of your character, as well as be odd in general. (You complain of the heat during the winter, the freezing cold during the summer, etc.) Your character, if female, is expected to be good at Fighting, while your male character is expected to be good at being Social. What your character expects is treated as a secondary issue. Establishing Relationships may well be key to maintaining your character's sanity during this game.

Er, to bring this back in line with the thread (sorry!), I would like to state that while I like the Premise for Trollbabe as the author intended it, I'm sorry Ron, but for me the Premise of Eternal Outsider holds more of my attention. I cannot personally see it as anything other than a Secondary Premise to the game. But I love the game regardless.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #8 on: March 30, 2004, 11:40:29 AM »

Carl (Spooky Fanboy),

I see no reason for your post to be a challenge of any kind to me as the author, nor does it require any sort of apology. So the "outsider" stuff grabs you more? Fine, enjoy it.

A great deal of your post assumes a particular relationship between author and audience that I have very little interest in developing. The initial post of this thread is exceptional in that it did hit that connection, but that doesn't mean that, due to this, it was exceptionally good or (ugh) my "goal" as author.

If someone wants to know what I think about sex-positive feminism, I'll just tell them. No need to write a game for it - most especially not a game which opens up questions rather than answers them.

One more point, though, Carl ... you're male. I expect that the potential for the sex-positive feminist Premise is not going to be spread evenly across the genders. It's not so crudely generalizable as females-yes, males-no, but I do expect a certain skew there.

Best,
Ron
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KingstonC
Member

Posts: 51


« Reply #9 on: March 30, 2004, 06:15:01 PM »

Hi,

Quote from: Ron Edwards

So yeah, the game delivers a message ... but it's the message that the player of a particular trollbabe wants to say, to the rest of us, and it's only realized through play itself.


I see. Actual play creates the "message", not the game designer, although a game can be designed to ecourage the adressing of specific premices through play.

Quote

Are the issues that you brought up, regarding sex-positive feminism and the role of iconic sexuality, themselves a "message"? I don't think so, not in the sense that I want people who don't get it to get it from reading or playing Trollbabe. Rather, it's more like a litmus test. Either you get the whole "powerful female sexuality" thing, or you don't. If you don't, you'll go hissing and puffing away, indignant about how awful this fantasy-female game is ... and in my opinion, much to my relief. I'm not interested in dealing with Trollbabe players who can't hack that particular issue.


I guess the "powerful female sexuality stuff" isn't a message of the game so much as a feature of the games text. So, a game's text (ie the book) is not the same thing as the game (ie the thing people play).

Best,
Kingston
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #10 on: March 30, 2004, 07:32:15 PM »

Hi Kingston,

Dead center.

Best,
Ron
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james_west
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« Reply #11 on: March 30, 2004, 09:03:48 PM »

It has occurred to me that a lot of the play examples I've seen (and my first impulse as well) was folks grabbing their wife/girlfriend and running it solo. This ties into this somehow ...

- James
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rafial
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« Reply #12 on: March 30, 2004, 11:49:29 PM »

Quote from: james_west
It has occurred to me that a lot of the play examples I've seen (and my first impulse as well) was folks grabbing their wife/girlfriend and running it solo. This ties into this somehow ...


Call me a big cynic (no wait, I am a big cynic) but I think this can be explained by the same logic that causes every (male) comic store clerk to shove "Strangers in Paradise" in front of every female person that wanders into their store and asks for a suggestion.

"Well it's about girls..."
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