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The Play's the Thing

Dude Looks Like a Lady

by David Goodner
Aug 18,2004


The Play's the Thing

By David Goodner

Dude Looks Like a Lady

Welcome back, for the latest installment of problem character types. Today's topic is one near and dear to my heart: the dreaded Cross-Gender Character. I may have a hard time writing this one, because I really lack experience in the bad side. About half the characters I play are female, and a few people I've played with have played cross-gender characters over the years. In all that time, I've only dealt with one really annoying guy, and his male characters pissed me off to no end, too. He was just annoying.

The classic problems are these: Some players play cross-gender characters as ridiculous stereotypes with over-the-top falsetto voices or whatever. Others seem to play cross-gender to indulge juvenile sexual fantasies. And of course, some do both.

So the simple answer for this month's problem is "don't do that."

But leaving it there would make for a very short column. So let's see if we can go a little deeper.

(Yeah, I know. I'm sorry. I couldn't help myself.)

Question 1: Why?

Let's begin with motives. Why play a cross-gender character? The "Straight" camp generally holds that men can't really understand how to play women, and vice-versa. Then they look rather uncomfortable when someone asks them how much insight they have into the minds of nigh-immortal Elves or whatever. But the question is a good one.

The simple answer is "because I want to" of course. But we can head off a lot of trouble if we can get into why someone would want to.

For me, the answer at first, way back in the ancient days of High School, was that I didn't really roleplay very well. My characters were pretty much pieces I moved on the game board. Their only goals were to go on adventures as laid out by the GM. If I found a cool female miniature, why not play a female character? There was a seed of the thought that in the stories we were trying (poorly) to emulate, there were female characters, so we ought to have some in our games, but I doubt I could have articulated it very well back then.

Since my High School gaming group was not made up of particularly mature, or even functional people, there followed some fairly depraved scenes, which should have really soured me on the subject, but didn't. I suppose it's because back then I never really identified with one of my characters. I cared if they did well only to the extent that it was a game.

But over time, my reasons changed a little bit. I got more adept at the art of portraying my character, instead of just directing his (or her) movements on the metaphorical game board. The decision of my character's gender became more than whim. I was still playing about half female characters, though. And a few years back, I finally became curious enough to think about why.

What I determined is that, as far as I can tell, there are two good ways to make a character. Most gamers who care about more than stats and bonuses will favor one of the two. Of course, without the other, you're not really gaming, so there's some pretty heavy crossover.

Group one is the Actors. These gamers primarily draw on the skills of acting in their gaming. For an actor, what's really important is the portrayal. The script is written, and all that remains is to take the words the playwright has given you and bring them to life. Gamers like this tend to focus on dialogue and mannerism.

Group two is the Writers. These gamers draw primarily on the skills of writing in their gaming. For a writer, what's really important is the narrative. It's at once a deeper and a shallower approach than that used by an actor. A writer needs to build everything from the ground up. He's going to bring his characters to life through words, using not just dialogue and description, but also internal monologue and narration.

I'm pretty much a "Writer" type gamer, and one of the places this comes out is in character creation. When the GM proposes a game, and I start thinking of what I want to play, the question going through my mind isn't "Who do I want to be?" It's "Who would be a good character for this story?" How I'll actually play the character once the game begins remains to be seen. (And every so often, the answer turns out to be "very poorly.")

As an example, let's take a theoretical Pendragon game. In this fantasy world, my friend Chris has decided to run Pendragon. (Hint, hint, Chris) And we start making up characters. Chris tells us it's going to be a somewhat mystical game, following four cycles of characters through the four stages of the Arthurian Mythos: pre Arthur, Rise of Arthur, Pax Britania, and post-Mordred. There will be a kind of Tarot theme, with the Sword (Excalibur), the Staff (the lance of Longinus), the Cup (the Holy Grail), and the Shield (which I can't remember the name of right now) each being important in turn.

I'll start my brainstorming for characters. Always immediately, the idea of a Roman Knight trying to be nobler than his decadent Empire while preserving its treasures springs to mind -- but I've done that. A Pagan Knight, powerful and mysterious, might work. And, cause I've never played one before, I might come up with an Enchantress, raised in an isolated tower and now sent out on a quest. The idea with her would be to fill the role of group "magic expert." It would give me the chance to come up with a cool mystical order, and make up a nifty story about why this contemplative, soft, fragile creature was sent out into the cold, cruel world. And I'd have a nifty development path where she has to come to terms with her new environment and find hidden strength within herself. It'd be fun. And the challenge of playing a relatively powerless character could be fun, too.

The character I'd pick amongst those three (and any others I thought up) would be based pretty much on what the group seemed to need and what the GM liked. If the GM's eyes light up while you're describing a potential character, that's probably the one you should play. If he looks uncomfortable or bored not so much.

What inspires me for a character is generally a story, I want to play a character with a history and personality that leave him (or her) in a dramatic situation. If the character "works" better as a female, she'll be female. What makes the character work is just whatever happens to resonate in my imagination. I wonder to myself if I'd want to read a story about this character, and the ones I answer "yes" are the ones I present to the GM.

Of course, that's just my reasons. Other people have different ones. "Just to try something different" is an acceptable reason if you do a good job. Playing out your lesbian striper ninja fantasies is probably not, unless your group doesn't mind. I'm willing to accept that people play in ways I wouldn't enjoy. Just so long as I don't have to play with them, that's fine with me.

Question 2: How?

The big question, of course, is how you play a cross-gender character without annoying your fellow gamers. A lot of people seem to think this will be very hard. Oddly enough, in the writing circles in which I move, nobody seems to think it's too impossible to write about characters of the opposite sex. But the nay-sayers do have a few good points.

The biggest one is that it can be hard to imagine a slight, willowy elf-maid in robes of dark green when she is being played by a big, hairy guy in a Black Hand Gaming Society T-shirt. Of course, it would be hard to imagine the same guy as a thin, reedy wizard in sable robes, with a gnarled, wooden staff. But people's tolerances vary. Some people just don't want anything to do with cross-gender gaming (with an exemption for the GM to include tavern maids or whatever). If you're playing with some of them, then you'll have to decide what you want to do about it on your own. I haven't yet encountered a player who cared if other people played cross-gender characters, but I'd probably forgo the character if I otherwise liked the group. I've got more characters floating around in my head than I'll ever play.

I will note, here, that I think the best cross-gender characters I've ever played have been in PBP or IRC games. The screen of anonymity helps me open up a little more, and not seeing the other players leaves my imagination nothing but descriptions to work from.

The second problem is psychology. How do you portray a character of the opposite sex?

In my experience, it's not really that hard. I think one of my favorite compliments came from the Buffy game where I was playing Juri, the Japanese schoolgirl vampire hunter. (Yeah, I know. Playing around with the stereotype was part of the point of the character.) Several sessions in, the wife of another player joined up. After a few games, she told me that when she'd heard about my character, and that I was a guy, she was afraid Juri was going to be a stupid caricature. She said she was pleasantly surprised that I didn't play Juri as some kind of sex-fantasy or clich, just as a person.

So, other than proving that I'm easily pleased, what does this example say?

It says mostly that you don't need to emphasize the femininity or masculinity of your character. Most of our behavior is "gender neutral" at least to an outside observer. There are a few tags you need to work in. I gave Juri a few "girly" hobbies, like a collection of Hello Kitty stuff. That also served to sharpen the contrast of her double life. On one hand, she was a grim vampire hunter, trained almost from birth. And on the other, she slept under a pink comforter, with a Hello Kitty Fairy doll.

Just pick a few typically male or female (as the case may be) things and try to do one or two every session or so. They don't need to be sexual, or relate to toilet habits. In fact, it's probably best to skip those since the potential for unintentional humor is so high. Mention that your tough as nails, old school cop guy goes to a sports bar. Or describe your female Occult Investigator trying to pick out the right outfit to meet a contact. (Actually, be careful with that one, too. Unless you want the parody)

Steal from TV, movies, or books. Juri was slightly based on various anime characters, since playing around with the Warrior Girl stereotype was one of my goals with the character. There's a Star Wars character lurking in the back of my mind based on Sarah, from CSI. I want to see how the driven, introverted technology expert works in a group of Rebel agents. (But if Chris decides to run Pendragon instead, all bets are off, of course)

You can probably skip any deep psychology and nobody will ever notice, unless you're playing with profoundly better roleplayers than the ones I know. (If you are, drop me a line. I might enjoy gaming with you.) John Grey's "Mars and Venus" books, and a few others, do a good enough job to give you the basics if you're really interested.

In general, women are more relationship oriented, and men are more task-oriented. But those generalities quickly break down in an average roleplaying setting. Player Characters are hardly typical psychological specimens.

Most of "How to play Cross-Gender" really boils down to "What Not to Do."

  • DON'T speak in a squeaky falsetto. It's not really all that funny.
  • DON'T go on about how your character does "Girl Stuff" (or Guy Stuff, I suppose). Just do stuff. There's a game going on. Play it.
  • DON'T use your character to play out bizarre sexual fantasies (unless that's what your whole group is into, I guess). There's a huge world of pornographic fiction of varying levels of deviance. Lots of it is put up on internet websites, so you can even have an audience for your brilliant portrayal. Your gaming friends who are really interested in clearing the Temple of Elemental Evil can log on and read, too. After the game.

Which isn't to say that your cross-gender character has to be straight. The one I'm playing now is a lesbian, mostly because another player thought a love-affair would be fun to play, and I agreed. The one before that was bi-sexual because she had some pretty severe psychological scars. Sex scenes were far less important to the game than the aftereffects of her self-inflicted degradation. But in both cases, there were reasons that made the game as a whole better. I didn't just choose it for titillation value.


Well, more "summation."

Playing cross-gender is not as scary as some people think it is, but to do it well does require a little maturity. I guess the big factors are (a) have a good reason, and (b) do a good job.

The first part is about your motives. Everything you do as a player should be aimed toward making the game more fun, both for yourself and for the other players. What constitutes "more fun" will vary from group to group. But in general, flat, or laughable character concepts aren't going to make most games better. If your big hook is that your character is "a chick," you're probably on the wrong track if you're part of my target audience.

(There's a large swath of gamers who aren't, and who are very happy that way. If you're one of them, Game ON! But not much of what I say will be helpful to you)

The second part is about your execution. Once again, you're supposed to be making the game fun. If you can't play a given character in a way that really entertains the other players -- AND the GM in an way appropriate to the campaign, it's probably not a good idea. But if you can, then it probably is. I've played some really good characters who just wouldn't have been as good if they were male. Unless your game is set in Amazonia, you can't do a male Joan of Arc type character, you know?

So anyway, that's it for this time. Next up will either be "Comic Relief" if my buddy Chris has time to help me, or I might wrap this series up with "The Leader."

Unless I change my mind.

See you next time.

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    TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg