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Making gender matter: Lessons from tabletop RPG Night Witches

How can you make gender relevant and interesting without subsuming characters beneath stereotypes? Night Witches, a tabletop RPG based on female members of a real Soviet bomber regiment, has some answers.

Katherine Cross, Contributor

June 26, 2015

8 Min Read

In the oft-cited injunction to diversify the gender of characters in video games, there is a paradox: on the one hand, one does not wish to design female characters with a cardboard array of stereotypes, on the other something can be lost if their gender is made wholly irrelevant to the story, which unfortunate terms like "men with boobs" and what not have been coined to describe.

Both are products of feminist criticism, and while I have less sympathy for the latter as a line of argument (it often veers into a kind of orthodoxy where no existing human woman could satisfy the platonically ideal woman it implies), there does remain some truth to its critiques. How can you make gender relevant and interesting without subsuming characters beneath stereotypes? 


Jason Morningstar and Bully Pulpit Games have given us elements of an answer with their new Apocalypse-system tabletop game Night Witches, in which players roleplay as the women of the Soviet 588th Night Bomber Regiment at the height of the Second World War. I donated to the game's Kickstarter precisely for that reason: it was a game that did what very few others that trumpet "historical accuracy" do; Morningstar and his writers went out and found an area of real history where women could be the stars of the show. Too often, "historical accuracy" is used as an excuse to justify already-rampant exclusions of women and people of color, in spite of the fact that our very real history is replete with actual events and mythologies alike that could see non-white and/or non-male characters in the spotlight of a game. 

But it would be all for naught if Night Witches hemmed in its players through cheap hyperfeminine stereotypes of the women it stars. Instead, the game brilliantly uses its Apocalypse World-based system to do what the best PnP RPGs do, and gives players' imaginations room to breathe through crackling creative incitements. In a highly charged political environment, philosophy and gender are never far from the battlefield.

The women of the 588th face an uphill battle not only against the Nazis, but against the sexism of the male-dominated military and a hierarchy that prefers they didn't exist, as well as the ravages of Stalinism that seem to put a death clock on every soldier whether they're fighting the fascist enemy or not. The game doesn't hold back, using the Apocalypse system to bring the minefield of being a female pilot to life. 

"Social systems can be characters in your games too; they can be changeable, they can be interacted with, challenged, and toyed with."

For those not familiar, the Apocalypse system uses 2d6 rolls for all moves, with slight modifiers available from a small pool of stats. On a 10+ you succeed at what you were attempting to do without incident, on a 7-9, however, things get interesting. You succeed with some kind of consequence or a difficult choice that can have profound implications for the game. This is where the fun really lies because it excites the imaginations of GM and player alike. 

For instance, early on in a game I GMed this week, one of my players had rolled of a Junior Lieutenant named Serafima whose backstory included the following story: upon failing her flight test for suspicious reasons, Sera got her instructor drunk and absconded with his valuables. Fast forward to the time of our campaign and the 588th is sharing an airbase with the better-funded, politically-favoored male bomber regiment, the 218th. Sera has an old friend in the 218th, Sasha; they'd long mutually preserved the secret of the other's homosexuality athwart the purges and watchful eye of the NKVD. Now she enlists his help in securing some bombs for the 588th from the 218th's stores. Upon convincing Sasha to help, I have Sera roll. 

She rolls a 9. 

Who should she and Sasha meet in the otherwise empty warehouse but her old flight instructor who is not only furious to see her--and flying in a bomber regiment no less--but is also Sasha's new lover. From that one roll a whole delightful mess of drama spooled out that structured the rest of our four hour gaming session. Divided loyalties, mutual blackmail material, and of course sex, sexism, homophobia (i.e. gender), all played their part in making the theatrics on base interesting. 


The way gender is used here is instructive. Many of the moves are profoundly gendered, but they are written in such a way that there is clear recourse to the sexism of the environment these women are operating in. The framing matters. Sleeping with an NKVD officer to get a career-wrecking ideological black mark removed from one's record is cast here less as the act of devious femme fatales who wrap men around their fingers and more as an act of survival. The framing entails a perspective shift; the philosophical camera, so to speak, moves from stereotypical male fears to the realities of women's lives. 

Where women are normally cast as cunning sexual manipulators, the reality of that, cast in various moves throughout Night Witches is that women as a whole are like the regiment in specific: they have few tools at their disposal and survival means using anything they can find in the most creative ways possible. 

"Give players the ability to reach out into your worlds and find the mechanics that move them and the other characters; we might all be surprised at what happens next. "

This also includes playing with gender presentation, something the game mechanizes very well. One move is simply titled "Androgynous," which is an all or nothing move that allows your character to "act like a man" to get her way. If she fails, however, she is Marked--the game's countdown clock to embracing death. It's a good way of demonstrating the stakes that come with breaking gender norms. 


Night Witches is very much situated in its time and place, and it is, indeed a deeply sexist and oppressive one. Stalinist Communism is neither idealized nor written out of the story; the women are cast as fighting on multiple fronts, military and ideological, knowing that the enemies are out in the field and in the barracks with them as well. The paranoia and tightrope walking of living in a totalitarian nightmare during wartime is part of the game's environment. But crucially, this ubiquity of panoramic oppression is not used as an excuse for sexist portrayals. Quite the opposite: instead, sexism and homophobia become characters in their own right. 

What this means is that they are not merely presented as received wisdom about the way things are, inalterable, inexplicable air being breathed that cannot otherwise be interacted with. Instead, it's cast as something the characters have to problematize and play with. It takes on a character of its own. It is not used as a simple inflexible language to portray people in stereotypic code, but rather as a jumping off point to create tension, story, character, and drama. Fighting or at least navigating sexism and homophobia is part of the game. In most games, it's merely presented as "gritty" background flavoring that is imbued with an eerie, inalterable naturalness. 

That characteristic is the difference between a "sexist portrayal" and a portrayal of sexism. 

Social systems can be characters in your games too; they can be changeable, they can be interacted with, challenged, and toyed with. In Night Witches they imbue the characters choices. In my own game, it imbued the NKVD Colonel who flirted with one of the pilots during a high stakes interview, or with the lead mechanic who fell in love with the pilot whose plane she'd fixed for months, or Sasha and Sera who pretend to be romantic so as to throw off suspicion about their sexualities, or a young socialist zealot so deeply committed to the revolution that she feels the need to rat out any "homosexuals" in her unit (and a note to my players: I've got a few more curveballs in store for you!).


In 1963, the famous sociologist Peter L. Berger wrote of his discipline's perspective that "Unlike puppets, we have the possibility of stopping in our movements, looking and perceiving the machinery by which we have been moved. In this act lies the first step towards freedom." Giving players that freedom, then, is the first step towards doing things with your games that allow gender to matter without making it prejudicial or stifling. Give them the ability to reach out into your worlds and find the mechanics that move them and the other characters; we might all be surprised at what happens next.

Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in sociology who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.

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