Gender Neutrality

In theater LARPs, the genders of the cast of characters are typically pre-determined by the writers as either female, male, or neutral. At large events where you’re drawing your players from a large pool of LARPers, (such as conventions like Intercon) neutral characters typically aren’t necessary, but if you’re drawing from a smaller pool of players, you can’t guarantee you’ll have as many male players as male characters, or as many female players as female characters. Writing characters that could be either male or female helps prevent the need for crosscasting, if that’s something the GMs would like to avoid.

This raises the question on how to write the character sheets. If one were to write the character as a male, using male pronouns, every time the LARP was run with a female playing the role, the GMs would have to go over the entire character sheet, correcting the pronouns (and gendered nouns that refer to them, such as “man” or “brother”), and go through many of the other character sheets, if not all of them, to correct all references to that character. And possibly any other writing materials that refer to the character, such as blue sheets. A tedious process, especially in larger LARPs.

People have various ways of addressing this. Some people just stick to writing characters with set genders exclusively, and rely on cross-casting when needed. Many (if not most) use the aforementioned method (going over all the writing materials and switching the gender of gendered nouns and pronouns as needed). This often comes with a disclaimer that says, “if any of the pronouns are off, we apologize, just be aware that this character is male (or female) in this run.” …This gets doubly confusing if the character’s gender is not what it appears to be. (I’ve played a handful of female characters trying to pass as boys- it’s one of my favorite tropes to play.)

I’ve heard people discussing technological solutions- using custom writing programs that allow you to tag words as referring to a particular character, and by setting that character’s gender, it would automatically adjust all the words tagged as needed. I don’t know if that was a hypothetical suggestion or if any of the LARP writing tools out there actually support this yet.

And then there’s writing the characters entirely gender neutral. Not an easy task in English, what with our gendered pronouns and a handful of nouns,  but English is probably one of the easier languages to do this in, since our verbs and adjectives and adverbs don’t pick up gender like they do in other languages. This method is typically dismissed out of hand, because it can result in very clunky awkward dialog.

However! I was reading my character sheet from Soul of the World, the LARP I recently played in NYC with the Harvard crowd, and at the end, it occurred to me that I was imagining one of the characters in it as male, though I knew it was cast as a female player… so I went back and reread it, and realized that not only was the character in question ambiguously gendered, but so was my own character and the other two characters mentioned in it. But it never came off as awkward or clunky.

A major part of what made this possible was the concept and structure of the LARP. The characters weren’t meant to be mundane people, and the descriptions of their lives were pointedly devoid of detail. When and where the characters lived was left ambiguous. We were free to interpret the specifics of our characters and where they came from however we pleased, and no interpretation was incorrect, even if they conflicted with others’ interpretations. The LARP was sort of set outside the realm of reality- we played archetypes, not humans. That lack of specifics made it much easier to avoid gendered pronouns, I think.

So clearly this method won’t apply to all LARPs; in fact it probably can’t be used for the majority of LARPs out there, but the point is, it’s possible to write gender neutrality and make it sound natural. No need to dismiss this method out of hand.

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About Fair Escape

I've been LARPing for years in all different styles, including both boffer and theater. I love classic LARP but I'm always happy to try something new. I have a sort of "gotta catch 'em all" attitude towards experiencing LARPs. I'm currently serve as a board member of NEIL, a member of proposal com for Intercon, the largest all LARP convention in the US, and as en editor for Game Wrap, a publication about the art and craft of LARP. I was also con chair of Festival of the LARPs 2017, and I'm on staff for NELCO, the first all LARP conference in the US. I'm
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26 Responses to Gender Neutrality

  1. It is really a tough writing process to write without the use of specific pronouns. I’m getting better at it, but it can make you crazy. I think I’ve even managed to write a romance plot completely devoid of gender specifics, but oh, my aching head. When the time comes, I’d love to have you playtest it and see if I’ve achieved my goal.

  2. I managed to do Delicious Friends (a fairly rough Echo Bazaar / Fallen London larp) with gender-neutral characters and gender-neutral romance. Though that was simply following the setting.

    Unfortunately you can’t do it for every game. Historicals, in particular are problematic, since they have much tighter gender-roles than th emodern era. SF OTOH is easy.

  3. Nat Budin says:

    Both GameTeX and LarpML support automatic gender switching. The way it essentially works is that every time you use a pronoun or some other gendered language, you mark it in such a way that the system knows to swap it out.

    Needless to say, this puts the onus very much on the writer. In my (limited) experience, it’s quite hard to get every pronoun the first time around and typically requires troubleshooting down the road once you find problems.

    • Fair Escape says:

      Ah, so not a hypothetical option. I suspect it takes a bit longer to write the LARP (and patience to tag everything) but much less time for future runs?

      • Nat Budin says:

        Theoretically yes. In practice, I’ve found that the same things that take extra time when writing take extra time when revising, and you almost never want to run a game again with no revisions the second time.

  4. I’m working on a small sci-fi game with gender neutral characters. The truth is the characters have gender, but sexual orientation is fluid. I am writing up each as male and female. It has been somewhat eye-opening at what tropes I buy into in the form of narrative stereotypes. Flipping the character’s gender highlights the dumb expectations I put into my plots.

    Typically, I rewrite a handful of characters and run full edits. Your character in Serpent Spiral was an example. I often prefer the full rewrite, anyway.

  5. Warren Tusk says:

    I’m glad you thought that the character sheets in SotW failed to be clunky. Not totally sure I agree.

    Beyond that…yes, ungendered dialogue in character sheets would be awkward. This is largely because, as far as I can tell, *all* dialogue in character sheets is awkward. In much the same way that you don’t want to specify the details of a character’s physical appearance (so that PCs don’t worry about their appearance or their costuming choices being unable to match up with canon), you don’t want to specify exactly how it is that a character talks (so that PCs don’t worry about their performance being “wrong”). When you leave backstory interactions in the realm of narration, your players are free to fill in the details in ways that seem reasonable to them, and even to RP out the conversations themselves if it pleases them. Furthermore, writing natural-sounding dialogue is actually incredibly hard.

    This is one of my random LARP Author High Horses, but I think I’ve never seen a written-out dialogue interaction in a character sheet that genuinely pleased me.

  6. Ivan Zalac says:

    It might be a language specific thing. E.g. Croatian is much less gender-neutral than English, our verbs usually have gendered endings. In fact, out of all languages I know, English is probably easiest to write in in a gender neutral form.

    Most larps which encountered the issue wrote in either male or female form (depending on the “preferred” player, sometimes typing alternate-gender name), and there was one in which authors actually put in the effort to type and edit all the permutations (for a six-player larp). It was amazing to see that huge paper pile and proud look on their faces.

  7. Alon Levy says:

    When I ran Part of Her Design the second time, I used the search function to find all gendered pronouns in the character sheet, and changed them when appropriate. (I also had to do this to some character names.) I think I didn’t miss anything.

    But yes, the extent to which it’s possible heavily depends on the setting. PoHD is not only science fiction, but also specifically a setting in which gender and sexual orientation don’t matter much. In a lot of far-future science fiction it’s pretty standard to do this, I think – the other projects I’m involved with both have a majority of neutral characters. In these games, canonical genders come from a combination of sources that can be violated in casting: past canon, things that are like but not quite canon (in PoHD, the angel characters have the canonical genders of the archangels they represent), the gender of any real-life people the characters are based on, the tropes we associate with the characters’ personalities in 2013’s New England.

    We often project futuristic society to be one that’s anti-essentialist to the point of character genders being interchangeable, unless perhaps there’s a canon reason for them not to be. The same is true of abstract settings, like Soul of the World and I think also Be Not Afraid, or for that matter Agent BOBO. In contrast, in genre fantasy, and in historical fiction, we don’t see this much, and a lot of LARPs in these settings run with zero neutral characters.

    • Fair Escape says:

      It’s interesting that historical LARPs tend not to have neutral characters (and more male than female, because males have historically had more agency than females, which makes writing believable roles for them easier), and those that do have neutral slots in sign ups don’t necessarily have characters that can either be run as either male or female, but might have male characters that lack aspects that can become awkward with crosscasting, like romance.

      • I think its an accurate reflection of historical settings. Gender roles are much more constrained, which makes things much more difficult for writers wanting flexibility. But it doesn’t have to mean a massive gender skew; that’s really a function of writer comitment to balance, not of setting.

        • Fair Escape says:

          It doesn’t have to be massive, but at events like Intercon, if a bunch of LARPs have a small skew (and there are very, very few that have more female roles than males to oppose it) you end up with a larger skew for the weekend. This partly means more neutral roles get taken by girls, and it partly means girls are more likely to be unable to fill their schedule.

          I don’t know if this is really an issue… personally, it doesn’t bother me. Possibly because I have yet to have real trouble filling my schedule with LARPs I like, possibly because I don’t mind playing male characters. Maybe it should bother me more?

          I’ve seen situations in which commitment to the setting and story trumped commitment to balance, and I think that’s sometimes a good thing. If you want to capture the gender politics of a historical setting, but don’t want to have too many contrived situations for why a female character gets to vote, or why females are trained in combat, that may result in fewer female characters. Or if your characters are all historical, it can be hard to find enough female characters. (Take Devil to Pay- all of the characters are historical pirates, so it’s skewed, 16 males, 10 females. Male pirates are just more common and better known. I think insisting on using more female pirates, when finding just 10 was a struggles, would do more harm than good. Cutting male roles might be one way to even it, but I think that’s also more damaging than good.)

  8. I’m a big fan of commitment to setting and story, and games which are highly skewed as a result of such commitment have a definite place (and Devil To Pay sounds like a good example of that). But my general principle as a writer is to try and get a 50:50 gender mix. This is difficult for a historical, but not impossible if you do the research.

    Ironicly, our local larpwriters’ commitment to gender equality and equal places means we have to deal with the “Wellington skew” – far more women than men in most games.

  9. Theatre; I’ve missed the last few live-combat events so I haven’t got stats on them.

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