d&d and men’s jobs

When I’m coming up with spur-of-the-moment NPCs, I have a bad habit of falling back on medieval gender roles. Unless I’m alert, I keep women out of certain NPC jobs.

In modern D&D, if you want to be a female barbarian with 18 strength, you can. Pronouns and sample characters in the 3e PHB and 4e are carefully mixed. (Although read John H Kim’s fascinating essay on gender roles in D&D and other RPG rulebooks: female sample characters in D&D books generally roll lower and get targeted by more attacks. But that’s beside the point.)

D&D is run by DMs, not rulebooks, though, so unconscious assumptions about gender archetypes will creep in. Thats why, in an anecdote I now can’t find, one of the 3e designers (Williams? Tweet? Cook?) designed NPCs first, and then flipped a coin for gender. This let him design an egalitarian world, despite whatever gender blinders he was wearing.

I always like to know what blinders I’m wearing, so I’ve been compiling a list of “men’s jobs:” NPC roles in which it doesn’t occur to me to put women. I’m going to try to change that, because unconscious stereotypes are boring and lead to the same types of NPCs appearing over and over.

Fence: I was designing a city for my picaresque thieves’ guild game, when it dawned on me that I could have my players sell goods to a female fence. Somehow this had never occurred to me. I blame literature, which has presented me with lots of examples of greasy, bearded old men acting as fences and pawnbrokers.

Come to think of it, I haven’t seen a lot of young men in this role either. My thieves’ world city has two fences known the the PCs: a greasy, possibly bearded old woman and an 8 year old boy.

Minion: D&D campaigns often feature lots of awesome female warriors, but where does that get you? 6 of the 12 Greek gods were female, many of them awesome, but ancient Greek women weren’t allowed to go outside.

I have some mental block that prevents me from putting women into the disposable minion category. Probably some gentlemanly impulse that it’s not OK to hit weak girls, but that it is OK to hit weak guys. But if there aren’t any low-level female fighters in the world, where do the high-level ones come from?

Sailor: Same deal as minions. My brain runneth over with pirate queens, but not with able seawomen swarming up the rigging to unfurl the mainsail. Sure, the Royal Navy, on which most shipboard fantasy is based, is a guys-only affair, but this is D&D, dammit! Women can have just as much aptitude as men for getting eaten by sahaguin.

Wizard: Some schools of magic suggest female NPCs and some do not. Enchantress? Sure. Witch? Sure. But I’m not likely to come up with a spur-of-the moment necromancer or alchemist woman.

Army officer: This is a strange one. The women I picture at the head of an army are usually warrior princesses, that sort of thing. Hereditary rulers. For some reason, I usually picture generals, colonels, and other high-ranking officers as male. What REALLY blows my mind is the idea of two armies facing each other, both led by a female general.

Innkeeper This one just occurred to me now: I have never, ever made up a jolly old female innkeeper. Barmaid, sure.

The next inn I make will be owned by a white-haired, talkative woman, probably with a name like “Tubbs”, who will do nothing but polish glasses and talk about broaching another cask of ale.

Farmer When I’m not careful, all the peasant women in my D&D countryside are farmers’ wives. In the D&D world, presumably property laws are egalitarian, and there are some gentlewoman farmers. Let’s get the ladies out there driving ploughs!

OK, with a few exceptions, these NPC jobs aren’t very high prestige. Maybe the women of my campaign world aren’t thanking me for their chances to become fences, peasants, and cannon fodder. Still. Breaking the glass ceiling! Or floor.

10 Responses to “d&d and men’s jobs”

  1. Laura says:

    Greasy old female pawnbrokers in literature: “Crime and Punishment.” (And, come to think of it, weak women killed in one hit in literature.)

  2. paul paul says:

    Dostoevsky was a great dm!

    Brothers Karamazov would also make a good D&D campaign. Dmitry is the fighter, Ivan is the wizard, Alyosha is the cleric, and Smerdyakov is the rogue.

  3. Rory Rory says:

    Using female minions or chumps does always feels a little weird since I feel like a jerk describing how these male PCs mercilessly slaughter all these women in battle, which is the default for the party against any group of monsters.

    I guess it’s partly the fact that bothering to distinguish them in any way (since my default assumption is that they are male) highlights their humanity. It is partly that it reminds me of creepy violence against women. And it is partly the gentlemanly bias that men shouldn’t beat up women even if they are in a legitimate battle with each other.

  4. Baf says:

    The Sierra adventure/rpg hybrid Quest for Glory 2 had a young, female fence who flirted with the PC. Mainly this was because they were trying to make the Thief version of the PC into a ladies’ man, and the fence was one of the few characters who interacted mainly with the Thief.

    Also, see Order of the Stick’s Tsukiko for a good example of a female necromancer in a D&D setting. Technically, she’s a Mystic Theurge, but she specializes in creating undead, which she dotes on like a mother. So, less power-mad and scheming than your stereotypical male necromancer, and more creepy and demented.

  5. anarkeith says:

    A kick-ass female general? Joe Abercrombie’s Monza Murcatto, in the book “Best Served Cold” Not for the faint of heart, or young readers.


    Or, try Amanda Downum’s Isyllt Iskaldur, a forensic necromancer secret agent.


  6. NUNYA says:




  7. mbeacom says:

    I base my NPCs on the society in which they reside. In my case, women are important and do lots of great things, but fighting is not common. I think it goes without saying that women are far too valuable a resource to be used for combat, regardless of what “blinders” we where. I could easily put in women soldiers but it would make no sense in the world so I don’t. My group did just interact with a well-to-do female inkeeper though, and I commonly use female farmers and storekeepers. I’m sure I’ve got some blind spots but I just try to stay true to what feels “natural” in the fantasy world we’ve created. One of the players is a woman, as is her character, a Ranger so its not impossible, but it’s incredibly rare. And we role play it appropriately, she gets some extra attention from many people she meets because she’s unexpected, much the same was a halfling wizard would be or a half-orc cleric. Sometimes, its nice to have preconceptions simply because then it will have more meaning when you break them. If anything goes all the time and there are no native expecations, drama is a greater challenge to manage.

  8. Claire Claire says:

    I think that D&D can be particularly appealing to women as a place where we can kick ass & take names without it even really being remarked upon! See Mazes & Monsters, psychodrama. I love the effort the developers make to make it a totally egalitarian society. It’s funny, because I super love gender stereotypes and play with them a lot in my real life, but in D&D I find myself trying to make female characters who aren’t obviously marked by gender, and who don’t conform to fantasy stereotypes for women: I don’t want to be a prissy, difficult princess, or a female warrior who has been tormented all her life by the conflict between her class & gender, or a sexy rogue with a dirk in her teeth & another one in her boobs. I just want gender to be one aspect of the character, something unmarked. That’s why I felt kind of uncomfortable playing that cross-dressing paladin in our last game: I wanted her to be a Joan of Arc figure, and I liked her story, but I weirdly want my PCs to be unvexed by gender conventions, or at least by kind of obvious fantasy conventions.

    The two female generals are tricky: you can certainly read it as a cat fight! But on the other hand it could be pretty badass, like Elizabeth I vs Grannia or Mary Queen of Scots. Criminal queens!

  9. Tavis says:

    Interesting! If you were watching my dice carefully when we played Metamorphosis Alpha, you would have noted that I also roll for the gender of my NPCs at the point when I introduce them. I also roll for their age, to correct for my tendency to make all females appear in a narrow band of ages I consider sexy: 1 young man, 2 young woman, 3 middle-aged man, 4 middle-aged woman, 5 older man, 6 older woman. I didn’t know that Cook/Tweet/Williams did this first – nothing new under the sun, of course, but usually if I am ripping off those guys I am quick to boast of the pedigree!

  10. paul paul says:

    I was watching your dice carefully, and I was wondering if you had some chart for that (the young woman, middle-aged man, and old woman slug riders seemed randomly generated).

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