Chestnut Lodge Wargames Group

Some thoughts on ” Exploring female roles in wargames/ megagames/ roleplaying”

by Brian Cameron

I thought Deborah’s article very thought provoking.  As this is quit elong I thought I’d post it as a separate item rather than as a comment.  I’ve included a couple of extracts (marked in italics) from the article to make the context of my comments clear.

Could I emphasise that this a my personal view; I’ve been a member of Megagame Makers since it started but I’m not suggesting that this in any way represents a collective viewpoint.

I have attended megagames where women have been distressed by aspect of the game including female role design and the behaviour of a male player. 

MM really needs to be aware of these instances at the time so we can address them.  I’m only aware of one incident, decades ago, which was addressed.  At a game a while back I was aware that a female player had left the hall so I went to see what the problem was.  It turned out to be a bad umpiring decision which was unrelated to gender and I offered to roll it back.  I’d certainly have no problem tackling someone about ‘inappropriate behaviour’.  We always start the day by saying “if you have a problem, come and see us” but it really does need people to raise issues at the time, not afterwards (more on this later).

Positioning myself

Thanks for that.  My background: As always, many of my views are driven by experience.  My father, a coalminer, died in an accident in a mine when I was seven.  My mother then brought up two sons on her own and did everything that was needed.  Prior to marriage she’d worked in a shop and during the war riveted tail planes on to Fairy Gannets (a real ‘Rosie the Riveter’).  Later on she joined the Red Cross and trained many people in first aid.  So a strong, capable woman.  My first stepfather was an abusive, violent drunk who the world would have been better off without.  The lesson I derived was that there was little that a woman couldn’t or shouldn’t do that was regarded as a male preserve and I couldn’t see why the world treated them as inferior – I recall the compensation for my father’s death being handled by a (male, of course) solicitor; my mother couldn’t spend anything without his approval.

I think the world has changed a lot during my lifetime (I’m 67) but obviously has a long way to go whether in respect of women, minorities, class, or whatever.

My working environment was largely male (aerospace and materials science) and prejudice against women very common so I assumed that if I encountered a women was in a senior role it was a safe assumption that she would be very capable as it was the only way she would get there.  In the last twenty years or so women have occupied many roles that they couldn’t have years ago.  I last worked in professional standards and many of the engineering institutions have female presidents or chief executives and in many cases the staff are largely female.  That’s not say that they don’t face prejudice: I remember the female president of Institute of Mechanical Engineers telling me of being on a broken down train and some railway staff discussing the issue.  She’d offered a comment and there reply had been along the lines of ‘it’s all a bit complicated, luv’.  I think she (rightly) took pleasure in mentioning her role and position as a professor of engineering.  Sadly engineering fails to attract many young women onto courses and the gender imbalance is huge with less than 5% of engineers being women (hopefully it has grown since I retired).

Fiction – books, movies, TV – I think there are far more leading roles for women now which is really good to see and hopefully inspiring.  I’ve noted that in, for one instance, that John Scalzi’s SF many, if not most of the main and minor roles are female and I see no reason why that shouldn’t be the case.

Apologies, I ramble as I often do.  The conclusion of all this is I see no reason why a women couldn’t play a male role in a game (or megagame).  I’ve done a few non-historical megagames which certainly provide far more opportunities for female roles and were I writing one these days it would be good to do so though I’d really want to ask female players what they want out of such roles.

When it comes to historical games the situation is obviously rather different.  Strong female roles are rare though I’m managed a few in some of my games: Maria Theresa, Louis of Savoy, Margaret of Austria, Eleanor of Austria, Isabella of Naples and there’s been a few in games I’ve co-designed with Jim.  In a recent conversation (which spurred Bernie’s session) I suggested that a game could be done from the point of view of the female figure beside these historically more powerful men, in my case, a renaissance setting where the wives of the various leading figures would be the roles played, with the men just as non-played figureheads; I’d hope that would be seen as an interesting perspective.  We’ve certainly had men take female roles and women take male roles seemingly without problems.  Not a megagame but I recall a role-playing game many years ago where I played a female role and I really enjoyed it as it require a different outlook.

What I’m not prepared to do is to change history so that, for instance, you can have female roles in eg the senior ranks (the level we usually focus on) of the Catholic Church. Like many long-time megagamers (30+ years in my case) I came into megagames via wargaming but I got into wargaming via a passion for history (I would have preferred history to science but as a lower class boy who’d been lucky enough to get to grammar school I was pushed towards science as many were in the 60s).  So, as when Becky signed up at the last minute for Renaissance & Reformation I was happy to search for and find a female role for her but it would have been very difficult to find another at short notice.  One thing which did become apparent as we started trying to cater for more female participants was that we needed to realise that women did not necessarily want to play female roles.

Design Principle 1

Would a man playing this character/role have plenty to keep themselves busy, occupied and engaged?

If not, why would a woman be interested in playing it?

I’ve long advocated that every role needs to be carefully reviewed so that it will provide an interesting and rewarding day.  The role needs to have the capability to make decisions and resources to carry them out.  This doesn’t strictly apply to operational games with formal military structure (where I’d suggest the focus is on working as a team in a hierarchy of teams) but I don’t design that type of game as my interests are generally in earlier periods.

Design Principle 2

What helps you make the switch from thinking about the design of male characters and roles to that of female characters and roles?

While there’s a lack of female military characters there’s clearly no reason why all the players shouldn’t gather round the military map.  In my Barricades & Borders game the main map was more focused on political and technological developments and not on military events so it was entirely appropriate for everyone to gather round it.  The same would apply to other non-military focused games such as At Right Angles to Reality, City of Shadows and others.  Oddly, although we often have a large military map, that really just serves to make the mechanistic parts of the game easier to resolve; the real focus of the game is the interaction between the players as they discuss strategy, make deals, etc; it doesn’t depend on a single position at the venue.  In my Renaissance & Reformation game I was really pleased that the religious struggle along with marriages took precedence over military matters for many, if not most, players.  Yes, I started as a wargamer but that’s not to say that I want my games to focus around the detail of wars.  I’m much more interested in gaming the context from which wars are one possible outcome.

Design principle 3 History or archetype?

I’ve covered this ground above.

Problems on the day.  We always address this at the start of the day by saying “if you have a problem, come and see us, we can sort it” and I and others keep an eye out for anyone ‘struggling’ – I can think of a number of instances in the last few games I attended (a little while ago now) where help was needed by someone new to get into the game.  But it really does need people to raise issues at the time, not afterwards.  I used to get that with events I ran at work, in hobbies, people saying afterwards “it’s a pity there wasn’t…” and I often reply “if you’d mentioned in during the event I could have sorted that”.  It’s really frustrating to an organiser not to get the opportunity to improve a participant’s day.

Types of role – I’d hope that we have a reasonable track record of taking into account people’s preferences – a team they want to be on with someone else / military or political / nationality, etc.

In summary, I think the view which is likely to get me into trouble here is that I can’t see the difference between designing a character as a male or female role.  Either way, there needs to be a lot of meat to the role: issues to consider, challenges to tackle, lots of people to potentially interact with (I say potentially as time is a big constraint) actions to take.  When I wrote the role for Maria Theresa, head of the Austrian team in my Ancien Regime game, I tackled that in the same way I tackled all the roles/briefings for the heads of state / every other player in the game.  Why would I not?  If I were doing a game setting of the old pulp magazines and Saturday morning cinema serials I wouldn’t write all the female roles as the hapless objects to be rescued that they were in the genre.  What would be the point, they wouldn’t be entertaining to play.  I’d be writing them as Ripley or Buffy, tough action heroes, fully as capable as Flash Gordon, or Ming as a femme fatale, able to twist the men around her little finger as well as being able laugh as she orders them cast into the pit of carnivorous slime worms.

I’d like to think that my heart is in the right place and I’m right lines here but, yes, I would like to hear more about what female players want out of a game.  I may be old, white man but I’m still a firm advocate and practioner of continuous improvement.


  1. Peter Merritt

    Very interesting, as usual. I think there are two key but very different issues:

    1. Roles for players – as far as I am concerned, *all* players need to be gainfully employed and have the chance of an interesting and perhaps fun experience; these are not compulsory, weekly college ‘what if’ essays/exercises, they are voluntary pursuits. This is irrespective of gender. If someone really goes to the trouble to ask to play my take on Attila The Hun or Mary Magdalene (let alone pay money to do so sometimes), then their strategic opinion is as good as anyone’s and I owe it to them to try to make it a good game. It doesn’t matter to me what sex/race/age they are, with perhaps the caveat that this isn’t a creche (“can my 9yr old come along and play Napoleon?” F***off.); and truly strenuous roles (up/down flights of stairs) are a bit beyond some of us now!

    2. Instances of RealWorld *isms – Not on my watch; I’ve fought ignorant bullies for almost 50yrs and I ain’t stopping now. If someone is brow-beaten or abused then I’m happy to stop a game if necessary. However, it is also worth emphasising that certain roles may involve less library-quiet pen-pushing (German Army Group A HQ in Springtime For Hitler, listening to pens scratching paper!), and more toe-to-toe argument (Spanish Civil War, Roman Senate etc). As long as it is in game context, then that is part of the experience, but this has to be emphasised in briefings and advertisings – a ‘nice’ version of the Fall of the Jacobins, err, isn’t history…

    As for games with female roles, well – I design what I’d like to see run and what piques my interests, be it ‘hard’ operational WW2, Balkan politics, modelling historical idiots, fake colonial exploits on Mars etc etc. But I will bear it in mind, next time, and for that nudge, thank you…

  2. Andrew Grainger

    As another old white man I agree with Brian’s comments. That said, I have learned a lot from recent programmes about black perspectives from David Olusoga’s programmes on BBC TV. I learnt a lot in terms of information but also in terms of perspective – it goes without saying that the perspective of what I will call native or colonial soldiers was not fully understood by their white officers – though I suspect it was a better understood than Olusoga implies or they would not have performed so well. New perspectives might therefore arise from a discussion about what female players might be looking for. Deborah’s preferences seem to be not very different from most male players. One slightly different perspective comes from a book I have just read by Sophie Ambler “The Song of Simon de Montfort”. It looks at de Montfort from the point of view of what drove him and throughout the book she makes the point that the wives, not just of de Montfort but many others played key roles. These C13 barons worked as family units. Whether women would necessarily want to play the female as opposed to the male half of the duo and vice versa is another matter.

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