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The Head of Vecna: Women in Gaming and Other Myths

Rites of Passage

by Hilary Doda
October 25, 2001
Edited by Drew Meger  
In RPGs, as we do in the real world, characters grow and change. They move from raw and inexperienced neophytes to, by the end of some long- running campaigns, heroes and villains of legend. The question of how to mark changes in status and ability crop up in any system discussion - level-based systems are currently seen as obsolete and unrealistic in the extreme.

In some respects, the argument is very correct; skills don't simply appear or improve in a single moment as the character hits some kind of arbitrary plateau of ability. Personality and status, however, can change in the blink of an eye as characters live through epiphanies and (forgive the resort to po-mo academic jargon) paradigm shifts that can completely alter the ways in which a character sees the world and the way she is seen by others within the societies of the game universe.

Obvious rites of passage, ceremonies and/or rituals which mark a change in a person's physical and/or social status, are prevalent in many of what we cavalierly term 'primitive' societies, but they can also be found within our own cultures, albeit sometimes in more covert forms. While some rituals, such as male or female circumcision/genital mutilation upon puberty, are disdained in the west, others -- the bar- or bat-mitzvah, the housewarming party, the extremes of wedding traditions - serve the same purpose: to publicly proclaim that a certain person has entered a new stage in her life, and to give her some tangible or intangible marker by which to signify her changed status. The change may happen on its own - mainstream western society no longer overtly marks puberty with any conscious rituals - but the public declaration is always vital. It is that recognition which makes the difference between Life Before and Life After event X.

Rites of passage can take any number of forms, depending on the kind of society in which they are instituted. Some can involve sequestering, where the character is removed or sent to a distant location on a vision quest, or for a private ceremony, to return altered in some physical or emotional way. Alternatively, they can be public spectacle, where the character is marked before an assembled crowd of friends and family, present to bear witness.

Examples of the first in Western society include the post-high-school backpacking trip (seen by strangers, but only indirectly shared with the social circle through letters and cards), and often the act of giving birth. Interestingly enough, some families have converted the private ritual of childbirth into a public one, choosing to have members of the social circle in the delivery room, or even taping the birth itself for public broadcast [link requires Flash plugin]. Other public rites include, of course, the Jewish tradition of the Bar Mitzvah, where an adolescent child reads scripture before the congregation for the first time, and the tradition of the wedding/baby shower, where a woman's (almost invariably) intimate circle organizes a public display of acceptance for the subject's new phase of life.

The Gender Gap Widens:

Rites of passage are, historically, one of the most obvious places where girls and boys are divided. The first real rite of passage for many boys growing up in the traditional cultures of the Amazon is the moment they are removed from their mother's home and permitted to join the company of men, along with new lodgings in a communal 'bachelor's quarters.'

Rites for male children often involve some test or expression of traditional qualities of masculinity, symbolically removing them from the world of women and children. These rites of manhood often involve some kind of physical marker, including (but not limited to) tattooing, branding, circumcision, subincision [WARNING: do not click this link if you're squeamish, under 18, or if images of genitals are illegal in your area], fasting and so on.

Female puberty rituals tend to revolve around the girls' burgeoning sexuality and fertility, whether enhancing or repressing. These can include genital mutilation, symbolic pregnancy and birth, and/or isolation for a period of time.

Both males and females undergo dramatic changes during puberty, but while the adolescent male has a more gradual shift from boyhood to manhood, living through what can be a few traumatic years of a cracking voice, growth spurts and hormonal surges, the beginning of the menstrual cycle provides girls with a precise ceremonial moment at which they officially become women. The puberty rite, then, marking the transition between childhood and adulthood, can be held at any point between first signs of puberty and that final growth spurt for boys (10-18 or so), while puberty rites for girls are more likely to be clustered around that time of first menstruation.

Puberty rituals are not terribly likely to come into play during your standard game scenarios, but for settings such as Little Fears, where the transition from childhood to adulthood is a vital piece of the world, it may be an interesting idea to incorporate something of the sort - perhaps, to carry on the example, a farewell party of sorts for a child who is no longer innocent or aware. Rituals which would be more appropriate for a standard game would be those marking an important victory, a level increase (for level-based skill systems), or marking a significant event in an adult character's life, such as the achievement of a long-term goal, acquiring of status or personality changing titles or items, or even resurrection. Some of these will be dealt with later on in the article.

The emphasis on childbirth and fertility in real-world rituals for girls, commensurate with the assumption of new responsibilities to go with the adult status, usually appears in societies which have high death rates, encouraging girls to embrace their roles as mothers in order to keep the population level somewhat stable. This can be expanded to include fantasy or alien races with low natural fertility or shorter lifespans, warlike societies where warriors die off rapidly, agrarian societies where large population levels are necessary for the work of food production, or societies located in dangerous geographical areas where accidental death is a very strong possibility.

Reactions to rites and rituals can vary between the genders as well, depending upon the significance carried by the ritual's enactment. Jockeying for status within a group manifests itself very differently for males and females, and when a new status is granted, the attitude of the recipient can change dramatically. A sense of distaste at being forced to associate with those not of the same status - those who are still 'children' - can be common for the first little while for both genders, but the manifestation of that distaste will be quite different. The initiation of a boy into a warrior-sect can be a perfect time for displays of machismo, and increasingly risky behavior, as the new initiate tries to prove himself to be worthy of the honor. Girls are less prone to this sort of attitude, often casually referred to as 'testosterone poisoning,' and would be more likely to display changes in social attitudes and interactions, shunning or slighting those now 'below' her.

I Just Made Seventh Level!:

Rites of passage can be used to mark any major event in a character's life, from birth (if characters have children during the campaign, or if you're really starting them young!) to puberty, the end of schooling/apprenticeship, marriage/loss of virginity, achieving some new form of title or status, and so on, until death itself marks what may (or may not!) be the final transition.

The act of creating a vampire or raising the dead can be seen as a very potent rite of this nature, reversing what was once thought to be the ultimate and final status change. Promotions, defeating a major enemy, death and rebirth/resurrection/reincarnation or preventing some form of mass destruction - essentially, coming through a definite story arc in a game - can all be used as fodder for inserting a rite of passage (or be turned into one!) for a character or party.

Level-based systems, especially D&D, that old favorite, lend themselves very well to the inclusion of this sort of ritual. The 'unrealistic' mechanic of 'leveling up' can be given a game-world justification, if the level increase is 1. held off until after a certain arc is completed and the characters have an opportunity to perform a rite or have one performed for them and 2. made dependant upon the successful completion of said ritual, which should probably include some form of schooling or release of a mental block, or some other justification for the immediate increase in perfectly mundane skills.

It would be a bit ridiculous, it must be admitted, to go through a pseudo-religious ceremony only to have your cooking skill somehow upped from 'sous-chef' to 'gourmet.' The rite could be used solely in circumstances where an extreme skill-increase is to be given, to prevent the ceremony from becoming ridiculous or seeming too mundane.

As a means of marking character growth, rites of passage can be created to reflect almost any theme within a game. Horror games, or those with a generally dark feel, lend themselves well to creepy midnight rituals, held in haunted woods or a creepy underground temple, at the time of the new moon Superheroic or epic games can incorporate rites which incorporate the uplifting feel of the game themes, the returning heroes lauded before the populace for their mighty deeds before being granted new abilities or sent on an historic challenge by the high priest/mayor/mentor/divine influence.

Celebrating the Liminal:

Designing rites for female characters specifically works best within a gender-segregated game-world, but can be done to great effect with almost every female PC. The format depends on the world ion which the game takes place, of course, but some ideas can easily be adapted for a variety of time periods and settings.

We Are Family: Turning a disparate bunch of characters into a tight-knit group can be a difficult task for even the best of GMs. Forcing the characters through a gauntlet of some sort may be just the thing needed to force them to learn more about and begin to appreciate each other. The old standard for this seed is to chuck the PCs up against a 'big baddy' and set it up so that every PC has to contribute to the killing, but psychological trials can work very well here, instead. Send the PCs into a labyrinth or into the mind/dream-realm of an enemy. Catching a glimpse of your fellow party-members' dark sides can give you better understanding of where they come from, but it can also be dangerous to know too much

The Edge of Mystery: Sometimes brute force just isn't enough to solve a problem, or a certain antagonist may be too tough to beat without some real understanding of the universe and the character's place in it. Sometimes, the best way to gain that insight is through a vision- quest - a spiritual journey usually instigated by drugs, fasting, self-castigation or deprivation, or a combination of the above. Can the character face her inner demons long enough to find the answers she's searching for? Coming out the other end, she can't help but be dramatically changed by the answers she's found.

The Body Magnificent: An intense physical experience, such as severe blood loss, a near-death experience or deliberate torture, can leave a person changed in dramatic and lifelong ways. Whether deliberately chosen by the character as a means of marking a psychological epiphany or status change, or inflicted against her will by a captor or enemy, physical manipulation and modification leaves a glaring outward sign of an inward change. The reactions of everyone she meets, once the modification has been made, will never be the same as they were before.

If the physical change reflects a raise in social status (entering a warrior caste, marking a certain number of enemy kills/allies rescued, reaching a certain age, completing an arduous challenge, etc.), then reactions from other members of that society will improve, depending on the status marked by the modification, even to the point of hero worship where appropriate. Enemies, on the other hand, now have a means of identifying the character. Markings which signify some form of lowered social status or undesirable group (outlaws, law enforcement, gang members, failure at a vital task or quest, treachery, cowardice, etc.) will worsen reactions, possibly to a point dangerous to the character. Be sure to check reaction rules for the specific game to judge how best to tweak the system effects.

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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