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The Head of Vecna: Women in Gaming and Other Myths

Women Warriors, Part Two: Protecting the Squishy Bits

by Hilary Doda
July 17, 2001 re-edited July 22, 2001  

To take a break from last month's discussion of fantasy/historical weaponry, the next logical step would seem to be a discussion of how to best protect yourself from the folks trying to hit you with Sharp Pointy Things (tm). RPGs are full of enemies who would love to separate your head from your body, and the well-equipped fighter, be she Musketeer, Green Beret or Starfleet, will have some way of making sure that doesn't happen. Armor styles and function can vary wildly even within a given era or setting, granting various degrees of protection, but all of them -- excepting force fields and magical items -- must conform to the basic body type of the fighter they are attempting to protect.

While the basic construction of the human body remains the same for both genders -- organs on the inside, arms out the sides, head and legs at opposite ends -- the level of protection necessary for each (and for specific areas on the body) can vary according to general size, 'natural padding' and even hormonal changes. Women's legs tend to be longer than men's, especially their thighs in comparison to the rest of their bodies. Women also tend to be shorter-waisted than men, proportionally speaking, having a smaller distance between waist and armpit. Some women also experience dramatic physical changes, most notably bloating -- sometimes gaining over five pounds in water weight for a few days -- and higher sensitivity to touch, pressure and/or impact, just previous to and during their actual menstruation. This phenomenon, although perhaps most appropriate only for the more detail-oriented players, can demand a different armoring strategy than during the other three weeks or so of the month.

Armor in fantasy, historical and modern campaigns is generally assumed to be used by males, not to mention the fact that any extant historical examples have been designed for men, and the game statistics and descriptions, including sizing, weight and encumbrance, generally reflect that assumption. Some female characters will no doubt be able to wear male armor with little to no difficulty, but for a curvy or more feminine female character, adjustments will need to be made.

Armor Types

Armor for fantasy games tends to follow along the same lines as actual historical armor, with some leeway granted for magical effects, as well as modifications for no purpose other than coolness factor (not that there's anything wrong with that!). The armor tends to be quite stiff, losing flexibility in return for higher protection, relying on the thickness of the material to turn or blunt the effects of blows. Leather (tanned, waxed or boiled), metal (chain, plates, solid-cast), and combinations thereof (sewn rings, coin mail, etc.) tend to be the most prevalent forms. Linked armor such as chain is intended to turn aside blows from an edged weapon or arrow, whereas solid armor is much more effective against blows from crushing weapons. The flexible armor types will only need relatively simple modifications; snipping a couple of rows off of a chain mail hauberk is much simpler than reshaping a full steel breastplate.

Your standard modern light armor, on the other hand, far from the boiled leather of yesteryear, is made from layers of kevlar. Steel, ceramic or polyethylene plates can be added for heavier protection, against rifle shots and so on. Very little will protect the modern fighter from bombing raids or torpedo attacks, more's the pity. More flexible than the hammered steel of the pre-industrial era, bulletproof vests and leg guards can be purchased in bulk or custom-fit. Most companies acknowledge the existence of female security guards and law enforcement officials, and make vests which will accommodate a woman's different physique. The kevlar vests are used for protection against blunt trauma and penetration, but are not as useful against blades, which can slip between the fibers. Heavy, tin-can style armor is generally not used in modern combat, as the reduction in mobility is not considered a useful tradeoff for the added degrees of protection it provides.

When you head into the realms of science-fiction, the possibilities become limited only by your imagination. Grittier near-future campaigns and games can extrapolate equipment and styles from modern pieces, but when you head into the distant future or the physics-light worlds of space opera, technology can be created and changed wholesale. Basic armor types can include anything from personal force fields to steel-thread clothing to adamantium versions of medieval plate mail. The choices available will depend entirely upon the style of game you want to run, as well as the character concepts of the players, but as long as humans exhibit a certain degree of sexual dimorphism, the designer, be she GM, player or author, will have to keep a few factoids in mind.

Modifications and Changes

The first and foremost thing to remember, of course, are the differences in the basic male and female body shapes. While there are, of course, some women whose body shape approximates that of men enough to fit into male-designed armor with little to no difficulty, for the bulk of women there are some physiological differences that must be accommodated. Women are built, for the most part, with curves, whereas men tend to be much more angular. That means that a straight-line construction will be more constructing for women, and may not conform to her body enough to offer optimum protection. Armor bites, wounds caused by ill-fitting armor plates slipping against each other and catching skin and muscle in between, are unfortunately painful and common injuries for those wearing rigid plate armor not designed for their bodies.

On average, women have fuller chests, rounder and proportionally longer thighs, curving hips and rumps, and proportionally shorter distances between armpit and waist and between waist and crotch, than the average man. Adaptations would be necessary for even one of the above factors, but taken together they may well necessitate moderate redesign of even the most flexible of armor styles. The distribution of weight on a woman's body is different than that of a man -- many women collect weight in their hips and thighs as opposed to the belly -- and the difference gets more dramatic with age. Weight-bearing straps may need to be shifted to different angles to allow for the physical changes.

Assuming that a given female fighter has a body shape which is not entirely masculine, she'll need to make some changes in her gear. Women have longer femurs than men, on average, and that -- along with the more rounded shape of the female thigh -- necessitates not only plates with more of a curve to them, but longer cuisses or added tassets onto medieval plate in order to bridge the gap between torso armor and leg armor that would otherwise result. Modern armor is more flexible and the more malleable fabrics can fit a curve without too much trouble, although the inserted plates may have to be resized to accommodate.

The shortness of women's waists (referring to the distance between armpit and the 'hinge crease' that shows up when you bend to the side) means that breastplates, jackets and backplates must be shortened proportionally, in order to prevent bruises at the hip and armpit, shifting during combat (and armor bites!) and a reduction in flexibility caused by hampering the hinge motion of the waist. While armor designed for men may have a good number of the straps and weight-distribution points on the upper body, a woman's center of gravity and generally her strongest muscles are in her lower body. Suspending leg armor from a c-belt instead of from the breastplate and backplate can alleviate stress on her upper body, specifically the shoulders, and spreads the weight of the armor across her hips.

One thing that needs to be kept in mind when designing armor for female characters is the necessity for breast protection. While the first thing that comes to mind may be that ridiculous breastplate out of the D&D movie, the reality is that, for many women, the breast can be a very sensitive part of the body. While getting hit there doesn't, for the most part, hurt as badly as a man getting 'cupped', the chest is a part of the body that most female fighters will want to ensure is properly protected. There are a few possibilities, including (sigh) molded breastplates, layered straps, chain or plates that curve around the area, or simply extra layers of fabric in the gambeson worn under the armor piece. Modern women's fencing jackets tend to have pockets sewn into the lining which hold the colloquially termed 'disks of doom' -- hard cups, shaped to cover the breasts not unlike the way a cup in a jockstrap protects and supports a man's essentials. A number of female athletes and sport-fighters have noted the need to add and remove padding, adjusting for their changing sensitivity over the course of the month.

While women's internal plumbing makes groin hits from fists/kicks and blunt weaponry less immediately debilitating than for a man, a heavy blow to the pubic region can crack the pelvic bone, leaving her potentially immobilized and in extreme pain. The ovaries, also, while situated (usually) behind a protective fatty pad, are effectively unguarded by bone, and blunt trauma can, in the worst case scenario, cause an ovary to rupture. The best option for groin protection is something that comes up to cover the full extent of the lower abdomen, or a jacket/vest which comes down low enough to protect the groin. Extremely slender characters, or those races without the fatty pad over the woman's lower abdomen, may require more rigid armor than your average human female fighter, but rigid pelvic protection can limit some kinds of movement. For the modern era, vests and jackets which extend down and fasten between the legs are best suited for this purpose.

Shields in science-fiction games tend to be energy-based and as such, need no adjustments for the user's sex. Flat shields, those usually worn or held in the fighter's off-hand, can be problematic if a female fighter is large-chested, as it can be difficult to block a blow on the weapon side of the body due to certain -- er-- obstacles getting in the way of the cross-body arm motion. A shield constructed with a curve, so that it wraps around the body towards the weapon arm, is better for busty women than a flat shield, reducing the amount of cross-body movement necessary to protect the whole torso. A curved shield can also be held closer to the body than its flat counterpart, giving better all-around protection.

Game Tips and Tricks

Finding Armor: Much like with weaponry, a female fighter needs to get her hands on armor that will fit her body and fighting style properly. It will do a SWAT team member no good to have a flak jacket three sizes too large, or one whose rigid plates prevent her from dodging! In worlds where female fighters are scarce -- Pendragon, for instance -- it may be difficult to find a smith who is familiar enough with female physique to build armor to fit a fighter properly.

By Appointment Only: On the other hand, a smith who specializes in drafting armor and patterns for women can build quite a select clientele if he so desires, and coming up with the appropriate fee to get an appointment with this master armorer may take some convincing, or a large amount of bribery.

By Buckles Betrayed: The erstwhile transvestite character -- usually a girl disguised as a boy to escape some dramatic hardship or foul enemy -- is a standard archetype for heroic games, and well-meaning heroes, outfitting their new friend with some protection to help 'him' on their journey, may be very surprised to find out just how badly that armor fits... and why!

One Size Fits All: Men and women both come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, and the discovery of a magical metal/unstable molecules/new elasto-techno-superfibres that conform to the wearer's body when woven into a garment or hammered into a piece of armor, would certainly be of interest to heroes, villains and government/corporate interests worldwide.


Recommended Reading

The Armored Rose by Tobi Beck (known within the SCA as Duchess Elina of Beckenham)

Based on concepts taught in Ms. Beck's incredibly popular class, this book covers psychology, physiology, body chemistry and differences on the field, and how women can best make advantages out of those differences. There are also extensive notes on understanding 'women warriors' and the way they think and fight, almost certainly setting up nearly every reader for at least a couple of "Oh that's why they do that..." moments. Also included are "mini movies" (think of the flip books you did as a kid) to help illustrate movements and blow throwing. The book is SCA-focused as opposed to historical or gaming-oriented, and the techniques therein have all been field-tested over a number of years.

For ordering information, contact the author at duchesselina@beckenham.org.

Hilary Doda grew up in Toronto, but managed to escape to Montreal following the HentaiCon Tentacle Disaster of '97. Slaving away in the RPG sweatshop known to insiders as Dream Pod 9, she divides her time between managing the Tribe 8 game line and scribbling desperate cries for freedom on smuggled-in sheets of paper towel. She can be reached at hdoda@dp9.com 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

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The The Head of Vecna: Women in Gaming and Other Myths by Hilary Doda

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