It was several years ago, over a vacation from college.
“Robert, you should run a D&D game.” said one of my friends.
I was not initally up for this; I had only two people from my normal player group there, I would be going back to college in a few days (and was not yet initiated into the ways of Skype, Roll20, and other online remote-presence gaming tools), but most of all, I wasn’t feeling the desire to tell a story in a particular world.
“OK.” I said. “But we’re doing this by the book.”
My edition of choice at the time was Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 Edition, which is famous for two things; having rules for everything, and publishing those rules under an open license.
And they do have rules for everything. D&D is famous for its random tables, but 3.5 brought those to new heights of organization and standardization. 3.5 has population statistics for its example towns, so you can decide to be from a place and pick whether you’re part of the 60% human majority, the 15% dwarven minority, and so on. Once you’ve picked your race, you can roll for your attributes, your age, your height and weight, and so on.
And so, this was the conceit of the game I played; I would go into a situation with only the vaguest idea of what was going to happen, and only the barest outline for who would be doing things. I would randomly generate plots and characters based on the tables, throw them together, and watch sparks fly.
I used this tool wantonly. I limited myself only to the data the tool would allow as inputs, created agents, looked at what I was told about them, and built plots on the fly from there.
And it worked surprisingly well. When you throw away preconceptions of who needs to fill dramatic roles, you end up with some interesting results. One bog-standard save-the-princess quest turned instead into bad guys kidnapping the king, and the princess being the one sponsoring the adventurers getting him back. Elves became blacksmiths, dwarves became poets, and in one bit of stunning synchronicity, a randomly-generated NPC meant to play a bit part as watch officer managed to synch up with one of Pratchett’s most memorable characters in all details but one, such that I had to immediately discard the character’s rolled name and instead use “Samantha Vimes.”
And this delighted my players, who of course held to the idea that there was no reason a cigar-smoking ex-alcoholic hard-boiled cop couldn’t also be a woman. This was the 21st century, and we would all have said that women were the equals in men in all things (saving niche and rarely-relevant things like anatomy).
Then in the third session, we ran into the bandits. It was meant to be another standard encounter. The party was ambushed on the road, their mounts hobbled, attacked by hidden archers while armored bandits under shield cover moved in to engage; all standard stuff.
The battle was joined, the players fought back, spells were tossed, swords flashed – and a player scored a critical hit with his longsword on an injured bandit! Flavor text was called for. So I looked back at that bandit’s description, and started to narrate.
“You sidestep the bandit’s rush and swing your sword cleanly through the bandit’s neck. Her ash-blond hair flares in the moonlight as her head spins and-”
“Her? Wait, her? I was fighting a woman the whole time?”
Yes, I confirmed. However, ‘bandit’ and ‘trying to murder you’ had been overwhelming that particular bandit’s description, and I had generally made a point of avoiding pronouns for the characters until I pulled in their randomly-generated description.
“Wait a minute. How many women has my character killed, then?”
The math was clear. Characters were randomly determined. The nature of D&D (at least, from third edition onwards) was that there were no inherent gender differences in ability and temperament; there was no reason to assume that “bandit” mapped to male any more than “doctor” would in today’s world.
The game disintegrated shortly thereafter.
I don’t really have a thesis here about soceity, or attitudes in general. I do think, however, that regardless of what people say about gender equality in gaming, there are certain gender roles which are sacrosant, and the role of “expendable minion who is defeated by the score” is inescapably a male role, because most people don’t enjoy playing in games in which women are cut down like wheat before the scythe.
So, what can you do about it? You can try to push back, but my observation is about what is, not what should be. You can’t make people play out a scenario they don’t want to play, no matter how progressive or transgressive.
Personally, I think I was onto something with my tool-assisted NPC generation. As with the famous adoption of blind auditions for orchestra museums, people never know how much their biases are influencing their thinking until you take those biases away. And, for the purposes of gaming, I think you get a fuller, richer world if you do take a close look at the biases of your players, and understand them, whether you choose to pander to them, challenge them, or quietly accept them and work around them.