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Gender Play

On Gender in Sagas of the Icelanders and Dream Askew

My Favourite Cisheterotopia

A few years back, I was chatting with my friend Jay White about roleplaying games, a perennial event where we gush about the games we like to play and what we love most about them. I shared with Jay that one of my favourite games currently out there is Sagas of the Icelanders by Gregor Vuga, a game that takes place in the late 9th and early 10th centuries and explores the lives of the first Norse settlers on Iceland. I mentioned that Sagas is, in part, one of my favourite RPGs because of the ways it explores gender through play.

After reading the game himself, Jay was surprised and curious about why I would be so passionately into an RPG that applies a pretty strict gender binary. I didn’t even realize the dissonance at the time, but I laugh about it now. I’m pretty openly a nonbinary queerdo with a streak of gender abolition politics—what was it about playing in a cisheterotopia that felt so rich with potential?

Genders of the Icelanders

For those unfamiliar with the work, Sagas of the Icelanders is Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA), which means its design fundamentals draw from the work of Vincent and Meguey Baker, especially the titular Apocalypse World. For Sagas of the Icelanders, this is felt almost everywhere in the game, including through the presence and application of moves (which provide short procedures to propel the narrative) and playbooks (which establish your character’s role in the fiction and provide some moves to support that).

The funky thing is that both playbooks and moves in Sagas are, more often than not, explicitly gendered. The rules go to great lengths to establish and reinforce the roles that men and women were compelled to perform within their communities. As a result, the consequences of this gendering are threaded throughout the whole of the game.

To make a character in Sagas, you’ll choose 1 of the 11 playbooks (termed rolebooks) included in the text, each of which covers a social archetype at play in the community. The list includes a number of familiar archetypes that could have been pulled from Nordic fantasy, such as the Shield-Maiden, the Huscarl, the Wanderer, etc. It also includes a couple archetypes that draw on a historically rooted traditions in the Goði and Seiðkona. However, the first ones you’ll encounter in the text are the plainly named Child, Woman, and Man — and it’s these three that form the foundation for the rest of play in the game.

Of these 11 playbooks, 8 are gender-locked (4 male playbooks and 4 female playbooks). Depending on your playbook/gender, you will also be assigned 4 “Female moves” or 4 “Male moves,” which provide the social and mechanical vectors through which you can perform your gender in play. Finally, each playbook will also provide you with a selection of stat arrays which will give you scores in 4 stats: Versed, Young, Gendered, and Wyrd.

Though we’ve definitely seen plenty of wild stuff in the years since, this was a pretty unusual departure from design conventions in 2013. Gone are the days of characters with a Strength modifier of +2! Now your character is +2 gendered, meaning you can do this “woman” stuff (ie: having a baby) better. Not very good at being a woman? Enjoy your cursed baby.

Cracks in the Foundation

When I first played Sagas, I decided to play the Child. I did so primarily because I saw an anomaly in it; the Child is the only playbook that does not have gender moves. I also saw that as part of the Child’s advancements, they will eventually be have to take on either Male or Female moves, but that this is a choice. “Nothing in the rules says that choice has to align with what I had been sexed as”, I thought, devilishly.

And so Ida was born. The apparent daughter of a sopping wet spineless man, Ida grew to perform masculinity in a way their father could not and, at the end of the game, took on Male moves as their last advancement. If gender was the game, then I had made it my mission to play it.

I think there is an argument that might be made that I didn’t play the game as it was “supposed” to be played. Not an argument out of malice, mind you, but one that asks: “was this really the kind of story the game was designed to tell?” And while I haven’t asked Gregor myself, I have noticed that the Child isn’t the only place where this kind of crack in the gender foundation shows up. For instance:

Seeing the future and working magic (seiðr) is seen as the domain of women, who will then be known as a seiðkona (sorceress, witch) or völva (seeress). It is considered unmanly to practice magic and there is scarcely a greater offence to a man other than being known as ergi, or effeminate. (p.66)

In keeping with this tradition, there is only one “magical” playbook in the cast via the Seiðkona, but there is one other playbook that can access magic through a single move: the Goði. Although it is a male playbook, he can acquire the following move.

Forbidden seiðr: When you pick this move, gain any female move from the basic moves or from a rolebook. If it uses Gendered, you use Wyrd instead. (p.97)¹

This is a pattern. Sagas repeatedly provides the rules through which gender is enacted and leaves small holes in the structure. With a good strike in the right place, you might find yourself making a new pathway in the wall.

On Aesthetics

My friend Marcia has this fabulous blog post on The Representation of Gender in PBTA Games as Aesthetic or Ontology, which explores the ways in which a few PbtA games present gender. Among the titles she critiques is Dream Askew by Avery Alder. I recently read the full text of Dream Askew, which got me back into thinking about the political context that the work operates in and what it has to say about gender play writ large.

For those unaware, Dream Askew (like Sagas), is a descendant of Apocalypse World. While it mechanically diverges from the “canon” of PbtA, it in many ways stays true to those roots through its fictional framing: you play in an enclave after the apocalypse has begun, exploring the relationships and conflicts that emerge within a community struggling to survive a world in decay. The biggest difference, fictionally, is that you are all faggots and dykes.

Referring to Dream Askew, Marcia writes:

The items which Dream Askew collects under the category of ‘Gender’ may raise some eyebrows for those who not readily accept it. As pictured, the Iris might be androgyne, emerging, ice femme, void, or gargoyle. The Stitcher might be bigender, agender, cyber dyke, transgressing, or raven. The Hawker might be high femme, genderfluid, dagger daddy, stud, or raven.



Each of the types it represents as gender can be said to signify a set of aesthetics and behaviors. For example, I’m sure the gargoyle is a nasty little creature of a person. However, reducing gender to the conscious selection of aesthetic and behavior (or ‘identification’ with a certain aesthetic and behavior) trivializes its effects on subjectivity.

Among other things I’m sure, it disavows the role of the body in gender: that is to say that gender is the classification of bodies by primary and secondary sexual characteristics.



By reducing gender to a conscious selection of aesthetic and behavior, Dream Askew disavows the castration which underlies both the assignment and lived experience of gender, alongside its effects (conscious and unconscious) on the subject.

Marcia’s critique of Avery’s work here places Dream Askew’s “aesthetic” notion of gender in the trajectory of its antecedent works. In a conversation with me, Marcia clarifies: “Dream Askew elevates and expands those categories into ontological or essential descriptions of characters’ identities. The evolution is from ‘look’ in Apocalypse World, to ‘identity’ in Monsterhearts, to simply ‘gender’ in Dream Askew.”

This shift from gender to an aesthetic and the subsequent elevation to an ontological category parallels my experience of 21st century “Western” gender politics. Across social media in the mid-2010’s, it seemed as though a contingent of trans youth and young adults sought to legitimize their experience of gender in the public eye by articulating an alternate framework through which gender might be collectively understood. To this end, broad and simplified (mis?)applications of Judith Butler’s philosophy of Gender Performativity provided the necessary ideological substrate for gender to grow into an aesthetic category. It was a political maneuvre: the visual and behavioural qualities of the rigid male/female binary are no longer the product of the inherent qualities of the sexed body, but are reinterpreted as expressions of an imposed social category.

There is a slight logical misstep that seemed to occur in this process, however. Whereas Butler emphasizes this performance as a process of subjection — a making of gender as social category by process of performance — one common conclusion seemed to arise that because gender is performative, it is therefore alterable via re-performance or alternate performance. The “weird” genders tend to arise out of play in this space; by processes of hyperindividual self-analysis, the trans person alienated from their assigned sex can choose to reinterpret and express themselves through a new kind of gender-fucked performance. An aesthetic of gender is born and, in a quick turn, is re-codified as an ontological expression of the self.

It is somewhat ironic, then, that this is almost inconsiderate of the body that was sexed in the first place. Where is trans subjectivity if not in this incongruence?

it was this new liberatory politic that both provided me with an understanding of being nonbinary / nonhormonal transition, and simultaneously held me back from identifying as trans until my mid 20s. I remember one evening, late at night, my trans friend drove me home and we sat in the driveway to the place I was living at the time. Lit by the dim yellow porch light, she told me about her growing breasts and how excited she was to have them. My gender feelings were much less euphoric. I expressed general gender confusion and malaise. “I don’t feel like a man, but I don’t feel like a woman either. I know I can be something else, but if in two parallel universes I were a man in one and some other gender in another, I feel like I would look exactly the same. The world would see me as exactly the same. How would I be any different?”

Genders Askew

The thing is, though, I don’t think gender-as-liberatory-aesthetics is presented in Dream Askew without self-reflexivity. Under the heading, Genders of the Apocalypse, Avery writes:

Creating a character in Dream Askew involves contending with gender, but it’s a gender exploded, extracted from the society intact and made mutant. What do some of these words even mean?



The Arrival might be a man or a woman. That’s an easy binary. The option of transitioning reminds us that the binary isn’t immutable. But they might also be ambiguous or tomboy, existing in the gray area, between or around. Now gender starts looking like a spectrum. But turn to the other character roles, glancing through their options: transgressing, void, butch queen, warrior. Are they even about the same things? The spectrum starts to warp and bend. It begins looking more like an ongoing conversation and conflict, with little consensus about what’s included and what’s at stake. (p. 82)

It feels like Avery has very consciously made a game that realizes the curled-monkey’s-paw version of an “liberated community” that every 20-something pacific northwest radical queer feminist desires. (Yes, we organically garden for our food, but at what cost???)

This inconsistency in the category of gender in Dream Askew seems to tune into the desires of the communities that Avery inhabits, and reveals a desire to gently problematize them. The enclave, much like the various community groups that explicitly informed the design of this game, is an amalgam of people shed like dead skin from what she terms “society intact”. The Arrival, the playbook which is closest in social proximity to society intact, has the most conventional genders in their picklist. The farther away from the locus of power the character is, the less unified their ideas of gender becomes. The lists are in conversation with themselves and serve as expressions of apocalyptic dysregulation specific to this setting.

Contracts

There is something to be said, however, about the way queerness finds friction with established rules. As Ida, I engaged in a kind of subversive gender play which pushed at the boundaries of the rules as established by the text. This felt particularly resonant and stuck the memory of play in my body.

Gender, in Sagas and in my lived experience, feels like a kind of compulsory contract; a set of rigorous social expectations applied to a sexed body that establishes a set of rules around how that body can exist and how it will navigate the world.

Sagas has its own contract, its own ontology of gender, expressed through play. It is no accident that most women in Sagas cannot fight — their gender articulates a limited vocabulary of moves for how they will engage in conflict. Sure, they physically could fight, but to do so means to step outside of the established rules, a simultaneously literal and metaphorical gesture of play.


Notes

  1. Yes, this move does mean that rules-as-written you can play a Goði who acquired the Female move “When you lie with a man to conceive a child” and then gets ravenously bred via gay anal sex and actually becomes mpreg.

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