Friday, October 19, 2018

The Barbarian and the Baby

(This was written for my Worlds of Design column at, but was rejected by both outgoing and incoming editors, because they avoid any discussion that might compare genders.)

I read a long discussion recently that started with a GM asking others how to cope with a player who wanted to be a female barbarian fighter who carried her newborn baby along with her at all times, including adventures.


A major point of RPGs is that they DO relate to the real world - they are not abstract. How does anyone think that a warrior could do this without the baby dying soon? Even if the fighter somehow managed to protect the baby in melee (yeah, right), the first area effect spell that caused damage would kill the baby with its one hit point. (If you’ve ever had the old D&D familiar with its two hit dice, you know that sooner or later as you rise in levels the familiar is going to be turned into a popsicle or a burnt marshmallow. At least you didn’t lose hit points permanently when that happened. My original MU character lost three by ninth level and chose not to have any more.)

Your response depends on whether your campaign is a game or a playground. If it’s the latter, you might want to accommodate extremely unusual requests of players, because there’s no danger of actually losing a game. And “all about me” is part of the package. If it’s a game, then the barbarian’s desire is a nonstarter.

Some players wisely pointed out that the player who wanted to do this was going to be a big problem in general, and would probably be very unhappy when the baby inevitably was killed.

As any student of history knows, female fighters in the world of melee (pre-gunpowder) were vanishingly rare. Even with the “great equalizer” of the gun, they have been extremely rare until quite recently. (Effective bows through most of history required a lot of strength and size for use, no substitute for guns.) This has nothing to do with females lacking courage or killer instinct, as anyone knows who watches some women’s professional boxing or MMA matches. It’s a matter of two things: women are much smaller than men on average, and their hormones don’t produce dense muscle the way men’s do. There’s a reason why there are weight classes in combat sports, because the bigger and inevitably stronger person almost always beats the smaller person if of roughly equal skill. In other words, size matters a lot and brawn wins out in a melee world.

Aside from the problem of physical capability, there’s second reason. Until recently it was difficult for a woman to have sex and consistently avoid pregnancy. A pregnant woman is an easy target for physical violence. Furthermore, after pregnancy someone has to take care of the children, who will depend on women’s milk for a year or even two after birth. The legendary Amazons solved the problem by having no men around and no children. But the Amazons never existed. Moderns solve the problem with contraceptives and baby formula, both fairly recent inventions.

I don’t run “all about me” campaigns, I run games that are semi-military and mission-based. So it would be easy for me to cope with someone like this. I’d tell them first that the baby would certainly die. Second, the barbarian fighter would realize this and refuse to carry a baby along even if the player wanted to (no, players can’t make their characters do “anything”). Third, the other characters (not necessarily players) would realize that the baby would jeopardize the party in many ways (especially if they needed to be stealthy) and refuse to have anything to do with it or its mother. And if those didn’t persuade, I would Just Say No. Every GM has to Just Say No at one point or another or the campaign will become a brain-fever playground as players do whatever they want, however little sense it may make. I draw the line sooner than some people do.

Remarkably enough, some of the respondents actually tried to think of ways to avoid the death of the baby: for example, having the baby and the mother somehow share hit points and armor. You must be kidding! Why make up bogus rules just to accommodate this peculiar (and wholly unrealistic) desire? But if you like “All about Me” campaigns, if you like playgrounds, or if you have some other reason to disagree with me, as always I’m describing what I do, not prescribing what you should do.

For a lengthy discussion of the biological differences between men and women that affect athletic performance, see some of the answers (by both male and female) to this Quora question:
Equality is legal and social, not physical.


LouisDesyjr said...

What about some kind of campaign where the baby is someone important, like a member of a royal house or in line for the throne? And the party found the kid as the last survivor of some kind of disaster. In that campaign the party could be tasked with delivering the child to a place of safety.

Now, in such a campaign, I would expect that someone would be tasked with carrying and taking care of the baby, but also understood that such person (baby carrier or baby protector) was NOT to engage in any combat. In a combat situation the party would act to move the baby and carrier out of danger and to screen both of them from any problems.

Of course, the situation you are describing in your article seems more like someone seems to be doing a kind of 'take your baby to work' campaign. They have the vision that they will be carry the baby around with them in a backpack baby carrier. This is completely insane since as you point out, any area effect weapon would vaporize the baby.

I think the real reason the article was rejected by the editors is not just the discussion about baby in combat, but also your mention that on average women are weaker than men. You are generous in your estimates of the comparison between the average man and average woman with the woman only being somewhat weaker on average in physical strength. The data actually shows the comparison is much worse than what many people believe or want to believe. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that many people think men and women are on average about equal strength but find out they are wrong when a woman gets into some kind of situation and finds themselves completely outclassed by a male.

Part of the reason these narratives are being pushed is that a number of irrational radicals are of the ideology that 'gender is a social construct', so they believe that men and women are equal in all aspects and refuse to even entertain the possibility that there may be differences that can not be changed. Their view that the differences between males and females are all because of some kind of social conditioning and that a program of counter conditioning can make whatever changes they want to make to promote in society.

Lewis Pulsipher said...

Thank you, Louis, for the cogent explanation. Yes, the players could have a mission to deliver a baby somewhere, but then there’s a reason why the baby is there and there will certainly be guards who will not engage in combat in the normal manner but will protect the baby. This situation is entirely different.

The first, outgoing, editor didn’t even tell me had rejected the article. The incoming editor said that whenever there were gender comparisons on ENWorld, the site owner got vicious emails, presumably from people in cloud-cuckoo-land. So they took steps to avoid the vicious emails, which I think is unfortunate because I prefer the truth to win out.

There are weight classes in combat sports because size does matter, even amongst the same gender. And those weight classes are often divided into quite small segments, as in boxing. Some famous boxers have been able to move up a few weight classes (which allowed them to gain weight themselves) and win championships, but this is very much the exception.

About 45 years ago I looked up US census statistics for height and weight of males and females. The weight difference was 25 pounds, but they were using 18-year-olds as a comparison and some 18 year old males are still growing.

As an adult I’ve been 6 foot 7 and over 200 pounds, between that and the census statistics it never occurred to me that some people might honestly imagine that men and women are anywhere close to the same size and strength. I remember in graduate school attending a talk by an expert to tell women how to cope with potential rape (my wife couldn’t go so I did). He was quite clear that even a big woman gets her clock cleaned if she tries to fight, just as true today as it was then. (His solution for those who wanted to resist: play along until you can get your hands on the man’s balls, squeeze for all you’re worth, and then run like hell.)

“Gender is a social construct” not only ignores biology but ignores history. I cannot understand how people can believe that the clear subordination of women throughout history (until quite recently) was anything other than a consequence of biology. Do they think it was a giant conspiracy that always worked? What nonsense!

We are in an age though, where people tend to believe what they want to be true rather than find out what is actually true. At least, that’s so in the United States.

JD McDonnell said...

Well, D&D is a game where halflings routinely take down fire giants. Trying to inject reality into it is highly problematic and yet - omg - what the hell is she thinking? It's like the time I heard of a PC getting mad because his character's dog died when he took it into White Plume Mountain, only ten-fold.

I think what happens is that people latch onto a dream of their character, a single instance which defines them. The valiant barbarian mother fighting off hordes of orcs with a sword in one hand and a baby in the other. This is not much different from John McClaine being defined by Bruce Willis running around with bare and bloody feet in Die Hard. Yes, both are striking images and have probably happened in reality more than once, but John McClaine doesn't run around barefoot in every movie - not by choice - in fact, he would probably put on some shoes just as soon as he possibly could.

So as DM - really depending on the attitude of the player - I might allow it, but speaking as the voice of common sense I would highly advise against it, that the kid will probably die, and that her character is actually being a terrible mother by intentionally taking her child into danger. But you know what? The halfling can take down the fire giant because the rules are on his side and he just happens to be a 10th level fighter loaded down with magical items. Maybe she is too. If she is fifteeth level and wearing some Gauntlets of Ogre strength then who in the fantasy world is going to tell her no?

Of course, when they are trapped on a desert isle and hiding from the Tarrasque which inhabits it? It is really going to suck when that child starts wailing its head off.

Lewis Pulsipher said...

No matter how badass she is, other characters have the choice of not associating with her. Because having a baby in the party is asking to die. (And what it the barbarian goes berserk and kills party members when that baby dies? That depends on which rules you're using, of course.)

JD McDonnell said...

As DM I would allow that too :-)

One thing I was thinking about last night is that this player could be itching for a setup not unlike Ripley and Newt in the movie Aliens. There the pseudo-mother/daughter relationship sits at the core of the whole film, and yet Ripley doesn't ask to bring Newt along. She tries to place Newt out of danger whenever she can. The presence of a baby the party needs to protect is something the DM should bring into the picture.

This could be fallout from the whole story-gaming phenomenon. I've never played in one, but it sounds like everyone conspires to create an interesting story rather than going on an adventure which might be story-worthy if it all goes well. Who knows.

Lewis Pulsipher said...

Storytelling "machines" are that way, and often have no GM (no need). More common is the GM plotting a story and then telling it to the players through the game.

Emmett Fitz-Hume said...

I found this late, on the Castalia House blog. But two things occurred to me while reading it:

1-Someone wants to be Madmartigan.

2-This would make a great plot device for a whole party: A 'chosen one' baby or some other reason the baby must be saved and taken from point A to point B safely. One heck of a challenge.