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The Head of Vecna: Women in Gaming and Other Myths

Women Warriors, Part One: Choose Your Weapons Wisely

by Hilary Doda
June 19, 2001 updated June 21, 2001  

Fantasy games are where this hobby began, and the fighter archetype is one of the most recognizable figures within the sword-and-sorcery milieu. From burly barbarian warriors to sleek oriental assassins, creating 'guys with blades gives us a chance to play out some fantastic stories. Female fighters are not all that uncommon anymore, a good number of men choosing to play cross-gender, and many women taking an opportunity to create a character who can truly kick some ass. Some (mainly older) game systems attempt to take the female fighter into account, giving modifiers (usually negative) to strength and size statistics in an attempt to reflect female physiology. These same books, however, tend to treat the tools of the fighters trade -- their weapons, armor and even their basic fighting styles -- as completely gender-neutral.

These generalizations can be problematic sometimes. Not because they assume that women are weaker or smaller on the whole -- humankind certainly shows a certain degree of gender dimorphism -- but because they assume that the gender difference can be regulated in play simply by making female fighters smaller and/or weaker. This concentration on size ignores other biological differences, which can affect everything from how armor is constructed to which weapons are better suited to each gender.

A quick caveat -- there will always be female fighters whose body type is close enough to the male that no real adjustments are necessary; not to mention that some of the levels of detail that can be explored are just simply unnecessary for many styles of gaming.

Nonetheless, for groups intrigued by the mechanisms of combat, paying attention to the issue can be rewarding both in and out of game play. As well, gender dimorphism as it relates to close combat may be less of an issue in modern or science-fiction games, due to the prevalence of long-range uber-weapons and vehicular combat. The effects of G-forces on the male and female bodies are different, however, and the twinned issues of piloting and combat in science-fiction games are subjects I'll deal with at a later date.

On the whole, the differences discussed here are predicated on a few generalized assumptions about the physiological makeup of the human female. To whit: on average, the adult human female is shorter than the average adult human male by a good few inches. Her center of gravity is lower, focused in her hips and lower torso, as opposed to the mid-to-high torso center of gravity in men. Women, on the whole, have lower upper-body strength and weaker wrists, as well as slight differences in tendon and joint configurations.

Along with a higher pain threshold and more stamina than men, women tend to have more mobility in their hips, and the muscle structure of the abdomen changes significantly in a woman who has gone through a pregnancy. Men tend to have what some have termed a "fast-twitch" musculature, able to act and react with startling speed, with an attendant decrease in aim, while women have a "slow-twitch" musculature, slowing reaction time slightly, in comparison, but increasing precision and accuracy as aiming time increases.

The same issues can be brought into play when considering fighters of different species, especially those such as Tolkien-esque Elves and Dwarves, who share similar departures from the adult human male --most notably, the shorter size and reach, and the change in center of gravity. The game effects discussed below can certainly be modified to reflect species differentials, but those, unlike gender differences, tend to be covered in thorough rulebooks.

The Blades the Thing

A fighters best friend is her weapon; she needs one that she can use to full effect! Whether youre playing in a generic medieval European fantasy world or some strange alien planet, weapons come in a few basic types: Big-Ass Blades (swords, battleaxes, etc.), Little Blades (knives, daggers, etc.), Thumping Things (maces, morningstars, etc.), Polearms (glaives, pikes, spears, etc.), Shooting Things (crossbows, wands, etc.) and Throwing Things (throwing daggers, shiruken, Holy Hand Grenades, etc.).

Big-Ass Blades, covering swords of all different origins and coolness levels, are the standard weapons for most fantasy fighters. When you think of characters such as Caramon Majere or Red Sonja, its hard to picture them without the massive swords that have become their trademarks. The basic sword-and-shield combination, however, relies heavily on a combination of shoulder strength, wrist strength and the height advantage to get in over your opponents shield, all factors which make the sword a more advantageous weapon for men.

The force of a sword blow is generated, for the most part, in the muscles of the shoulders and upper back, the forearms and wrists delivering the control and precision necessary to land a solid shot. While a woman is certainly capable of becoming quite skilled with a sword, it is not a weapon which plays to her strengths, and she may have to put far more time and effort into training than a man of similar background and potential.

Little Blades, the tools of the assassins trade, rely on speed, balance and precision to land a hit. They are infinitely more useful in informal combat, as small blades offer very little in terms of added reach or leverage, but as a hidden weapon, a last resort or a thiefs tool, they can be invaluable. Strategies for using Little Blades are very different from those for larger weapons, shifting mostly due to context.

In most cases, however, a Little Blade will be used when speed is of the essence, and a womans lower center of gravity, combined with lower-body strength -- useful for jumps and lunges -- becomes a real asset. More deftly able to keep her balance than a man of similar size, a woman can strike and get herself out of range again with more ease, especially if she keeps her profile low and lower body crouched.

Thumping Things, encompassing everything from simple clubs through to massive flails, are similar to large bladed weapons, in that they tend to be used in an over-the-head and downward strike, or a one-armed blow from the side -- maneuvers best suited to those with a height advantage as well as the upper-body strength to add some real force behind the blows. The weight of these weapons, especially those with large metal and/or spiked heads, demands arm and shoulder strength, as well as a solid grip; you dont want your weapon to go flying out of your hand in the middle of a swing!

If mounted on horseback, a shorter wielder can effectively compensate for any height disadvantage against an opponent on foot, but arm strength is still a vital factor in the effective use of this weapon style.

Hit Me Baby, One More Time

Polearms are primarily distance weapons, the added length (usually 5 and up) enabling the wielder to strike without putting herself in range of her opponent. Two techniques are possible with polearm-style weapons, and each has its own merits. Polearms which have an attached blade or weight at one end are best used from a vertical position, using a pivot point between the hands to generate the extra power during the downward snap. Weapons with a thrusting tip, like spears or pikes, are best wielded in a horizontal manner, either one or two-handed, the tip driven forward and into the opponent. The increased range granted by a polearm compensates dramatically for womens slighter stature, and her shorter height actually becomes an advantage, giving her opponent a smaller target.

The force needed to snap a polearm down from the vertical is generated throughout the entire torso, coming up from the twist of the hips and through the shoulders. Balance is imperative here, as a polearm cannot be used in concert with a shield -- one stumble, and the fighter has left herself wide open for attack. A womans build makes her ideal for this sort of weapon, her balance, center of gravity and hip structure all working in concert.

When using a stabbing or thrusting motion, as with a spear, the force of the thrust comes from the hips and waist again, but forearm and wrist strength is necessary to control the aim; it is a stance which depends entirely on the fighter being able to lift and control a 6 long, 10-15 lb. stick solely with the arm and shoulder muscles on one side of her body. This method enhances the range advantages of the weapon, but tends to be more difficult for women with only average or slightly better Strength scores.

With the noted exception of short- and longbows, both of which rely upon human musculature for their power, Shooting Things -- weapons which propel an object through the use of tension/gunpowder/magic/etc -- can be used by both genders without any real difference. Once you stop relying on kinetic energy transfer from the human body, physiological differences between the genders become immaterial.

Drawn bows, including the historical short- and longbows as well as the more modern recurve, rely on the muscles which extend from the neck and shoulders through to the fingers. This straight plane provides the line of tension which feeds into the arrow as it is being fired, and hand strength -- along with fine motor control -- is a vital component of the skill. Women tend to have a steadier hand when shooting, their aim, on average, more precise. They take longer to fire off a shot, although this can be measured in tenths of a second.

On the whole, women can be expected to draw lighter bows than men (25-50 lb., as opposed to 35-60 lb. for men), but they shoot them with more precision. Armor penetration and the depth of the entry wound is thus affected, but a shallow wound to the gut can be just as deadly as a deeper wound to the leg.

Throwing Things rely on the whole body of the fighter, the movement of the hips and legs as important to the final distance and accuracy of the object as arm strength. Watching baseball pitchers in action can give you a basic idea of the coiling and release of the muscular tensions required to hurl a projectile with any real speed. The differing structure of womens joints and the arrangement of their tendons indicates that women will have a slightly different throwing style than men, drawing power from their abdominal muscles and obliques rather than focusing on their arms and shoulders. The body turn is vital here, adding the full power of the hips to the force of the snap and throw.

If a female fighter is given training which takes her differing abilities into account, she can easily become the equal of a male fighter. If she is trained exactly the same way as a male fighter, however, it may take far longer than it normally would for her to reach the same level of competence as her male counterpart, and it can take years of trial and error to discover forms of fighting to which she is better suited. Every weapon has modifications which change the necessary techniques slightly, and different fighting schools in different game worlds may have their own ways of training to compensate for the gender differentials.

While perhaps not necessary to take into consideration for every combat session in every game, as a basis for character backgrounds, abilities and story seeds, the requirements of female fighters can provide intriguing material for gaming groups to work with. Fighters in general are a group not to be messed with, and bringing in more potential for interaction, choice and conflict is always fun!

Getting the Point

When choosing weapons for female PCs and NPCs, its important to keep certain things in mind -- body shape and size is going to be a major factor in the characters weapon preference, as well as the techniques she is most likely to employ. Even ignoring the details of the weapon categories, the one vital piece of information to remember is that womens physique generally lends itself to mobility over mass; testimony from women engaged in sport fighting (rattan fighters in the SCA and boffer fighters in the Kingdom of Amtgard) emphasizes that distinction for training, melee and tournament play.

It is possible to incorporate other game effects if you so choose, keeping in mind that systems which already compensate for the gender differential may have to be approached differently, so that female characters are not inadvertently penalized twice.

Weapon Modifiers: When training is in short supply, whether fighters begin as rank newcomers or the characters are uncertain conscripts, physiology plays more of a role in ability than you might think. Female characters take more quickly to polearm-style, small blade and accuracy-dependent weaponry, and male fighters find themselves more at ease with crushing weapons and large blades. Add a small bonus (+1, 10%, etc.) to Attack rolls for untrained or partially trained fighters using weapons which match their body types, or reduce the point/time cost necessary to gain a specialization in the body-appropriate weapon.

Off-Side Hits: Larger-breasted women (or rotund men) may have difficulty drawing a weapon that is kept on their off-side (the opposite side of the body from the arm used to wield it), or bringing their weapon arm across their body smoothly, without training specifically designed to deal with that issue. If a female character is top-heavy and has not practiced drawing her weapon or making attacks which bring her arm across her torso (possible for new fighters or newly created/young/first-level characters), she can get hit with a small negative modifier to that motion, depending on armor design (see next months column for more on armor) and the 'interference factor of her specific physique. Use -1/-10% for a 'D cup, or thereabouts, if no flattening or binding clothing or armor is worn, subtracting another (cumulative) -1/-10% for every two cup sizes above that again.

Finding a Weapon: 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 and fighting styles to craft weapons appropriate for their use. While women can certainly use weapons intended for men, they may find them unwieldy -- height differences, smaller hands and fingers, weight issues and balance differences can prevent a woman from using a weapon designed for a man to its full potential. Refitting a weapon properly or finding a craftsman willing to make a custom blade can be a subplot -- or even an adventure! -- in and of itself.

Counterweight: A womans better balance and lower center of gravity give her an advantage in some situations and can be a noted disadvantage in others. Fighting in slippery, wet and/or other situations with treacherous footing (in an earthquake, on a rooftop, etc.) may be easier, garnering a combat bonus for her if she is facing a male opponent. On the other hand, anything that takes her out at the hips or knees is likely to have a greater unbalancing effect than on males -- a negative modifier to defense rolls.


  • House Ironrose, from the Society for Creative Anachronism. Andra Barrow, Tobi Beck
  • House Morrigan, of the Kingdom of Amtgard. Laura Brashear
  • R.J. Bachner, Bowyer and archery expert. brokenaxe@canada.com.

    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 vecna@rpg.net

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

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