In Defense of Gender-Based Ability Limits

Q: How many feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb?

So there’s been a bit of a brou-ha-ha over at the WotC website, because they included gender-based ability limits in one of their online polls, asking whether or not it should be kept. Well, the Politically Correct excrement hit the atmospheric agitator, and then Wizards was forced to backtrack and say that it was all a joke, they never would THINK of including gender limits on ability scores because it’s obvious that anyone who would dosuchathingisamisogynisticbastardwhoprobablywantstokockwomynonthehead

Ahem. I have a slightly different take on the subject.

Aside from the fact that I find Political Correctness stupid and insipid, taking a look at the actual rules for gender limits in Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (as opposed to blindly flailing about, protesting something of which one is wholly ignorant) yields some interesting results.

Page 15 of the Players Handbook gives us the horrible, horrible gender limits in Character Race Table III: Ability Score Minimums and Maximums. The first thing that jumps out at me as I look at the list is that humans are conspicuously absent. [Edit: It is mentioned in relation to exceptional strength for fighters.] What!?!? You mean this isn’t some sort of attempt by the Patriarchy to imply a disparity (or superiority, which is NOT the same thing) between men and women? Well, no. It only applies to dwarves, elves, gnomes, half-elves, and halflings. Heck, even half-orcs have identical maximums for males and females down the line.

Looking at the ability scores themselves that are affected, we see… strength. That’s right, all of the five other ability scores have exactly the same maximums for males and females. Dwarven and half-elven women have a maximum strength of 17. Elves 16. Gnomes 15. Halflings 14 (and male halflings can only have a 17 strength).

That’s it. That’s what all the hooplah over the last 30+ years on this subject has been about. Not that the rules imply that women are somehow inferior/weaker/whatever compared to men, but that the strongest female elf isn’t quite as strong as the strongest man. And just how “quite as” is that? Well, the exact percentage depends on how you roll ability scores in the first place. But to take 3d6 (because it’s easy), that means that there’s a 0.46% chance that you’ll have a character with an 18 strength. That’s one person out of 200 with an 18 strength. We’re talking the rarefied upper atmosphere, here. There’s a 1.85% chance that it’ll be 17, and 4.63% that it’ll be 16. And just assuming that there’s a 50-50 split among character genders (a more than generous split), that means there’s a 0.23% chance that you will have to lower an 18 strength, a .83% chance you’ll have to lower a 17 strength, and a 2.32% chance you’ll have to lower a 16 strength. Get the picture? The odds that this will even ever come up are miniscule!

So I have no sympathy for those who say that gender-based ability limits are somehow unfair, or misogynistic, or whatever. First, they don’t even apply to non-fighter humans. Second, they only apply to strength, (in which, in the real world, the strongest men really are stronger than the strongest women). Third, the odds of it actually applying are incredibly small. Fourth, IT’S ONLY A GAME, PEOPLE! Stop trying to turn it into some sort of Politically Correct statement of principals! Yeesh.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

43 thoughts on “In Defense of Gender-Based Ability Limits

  1. Mr. Bloch, I absolutely 100% disagree with you on this one. That's no big deal. Adults can disagree on stuff. But I resent the implication that because I disagree that I have not actually read the rules. That was uncalled for.

  2. I wouldn't be surprised if the "WoTC hubub" was instigated by a few loud trolls that go our of their way to just be dicks.

    I don't see the problem, it's a bloody game, not real life. If it was real life woman would make less money and until recently not be able to join and fight in the militia to begin with.

  3. The issue is about the why gender based limitations. Not the impact.

    If you being simulationist and note that male champion weightlifters lift more than their female counterparts, should you also make note of male runners being faster? Should you also make note of a woman's typically lower to the ground center of gravity? Should there be constitution differences?

    Or do you just declare: This is fantasy… Men and women are the same. Even if you can argue some real world differences.

  4. Quite simply, when a woman can run just as fast, throw just as far or lift just as much as a man then you'll have no comeback from me.

    But in the meantime, the number of times I've been asked to open jars, lift heavy things, carry bags of compost into the back garden as my wife is physically incapable of doing so, then I remain to be convinced that we are – or should be considered – the same.

    By the way, 'political correctness' is not law.

  5. Fair enough, Jim, but plugging that into the math only makes it less relevant. It will apply to 0.115% of fighters, roughly, assuming a 50-50 gender split. I'm not going to shed any tears over that.

  6. Simon: Or, to use your argument, do you just declare, the strongest female elves can't be as strong as the strongest male elves, and leave it at that? If the one is okay, surely the other is, unless you're trying to make some sort of statement.

  7. When we're talking overall population samples on a bell curve do we really care about where the cut-off is at the ends? Is a female fighter with strength 17 noticeably different than one with strength 18?

    Isn't it just so statistically unlikely to matter that it might as well not be in the game?

  8. Sex based. In the simplest terms gender is action, sex is biology.

    I understand your sentiment but,

    1. They apply to the characters of real world humans. It may not apply to the OSR crowd but many gamers are younger and the way they think about their world is influenced by the media they consume. The distinction between difference and superiority/inferiority may not be clear to them. The distinction is often missed by plenty of adults.

    2. Why does it matter if we would have a strong-as-men woman in a world where characters shoot fire from their hands and call lightning from the sky. I don't buy simulationist arguments if you have magic spells, magic items, lizard people, dragons etc. The rules don't represent real life anyway. If I exercise the right way I get stronger. No amount of "magic book" reading or "amulet", "belt" or "girdle" wearing will make me stronger.

    3. If the odds are so small why include them at all? If it's truly irrelevant then remove it. Save paper.

    4. It's only a game. Slurs are only words but not MANY would argue that we should call people names.

    The line that you're giving us here is not much better than "well girls don't play D&D so it doesn't matter".

    But these are my opinions and I do think we have a duty to represent both men and women in ways that "build" positive examples. I don't think we can easily tease out the "real world" differences between nature and nurture. I don't feel constrained in a "fantasy" world by real world differences.

  9. Isn't it just so statistically unlikely to matter that it might as well not be in the game?

    Again, if it's so insignificant, and comes up so rarely, why would its inclusion be offensive, unless you were trying to make some sort of real-world statement?

    That said, there are a *ton* of things that are described in a lot more detail than this in the 1E rules, that are just as unlikely to actually transpire.

    While I like rules-lite as well as anybody, that's not what 1E is, and it still comes down to why remove this rule, and not dozens of others, unless you're trying to make a point.

    And if you are, why are you afraid to come out and say so?

  10. You're seriously arguing about realism in a game that contains – among other things – dragons, giants, psionics, arcane magic, divine powers bestowed by gods, multiple planes of existence and the ability to rise from the dead.

    And the notion of it isn't OK just because it's statistically improbable. Rolling an 18 on 3d6s is more likely than me being able to call lightning up to fifty feet away.

  11. My wife who plays (and loves) her female fighter has no problem with it, doesn't feel diminished, disenfranchised or otherwise belittled by an arbitrary cap on strength.

    If people want to argue that a game based on fantasy will damage their children then I'll laugh at their utter lack of parenting skills.

    If people want to act like the vanguard for the feminist militia coming over the hill then I'll laugh at just how pathetic and small their self-worth must be to believe this harms them in any way.

    If people want to argue that it's absolutely reprehensible that a writer should use his own discretion when writing terms for a fantasy rule set then I'll laugh at how much more of an offensive way of thinking that is than anything written in D&D.

    Like Phil, I'm asked to open, lift, carry and move things all the time. Does it mean I arbitrarily believe my wife to be weak and incompetent? No. So why in all the merry blue fucking hells should the fact that at the atmospheric limits of statistics males are stronger than females make me think any less of any woman anywhere?

    People that think this is a vast social discrepancy, honestly, completely boggle my (rather limited) mind.

  12. I'm saying no such thing, David. In fact, if you'll re-read my post, I say in big all capital letters, "IT'S JUST A GAME!"

    However, as far as 1E goes, the rules regarding gender caps on strength are there. Thusfar, in 25 or so years, I've never heard a compelling argument for removing them, other than "it's not fair!" or "it's offensive!" or some variant on that theme.

  13. The argument always annoys me: "Well it doesn't matter if it is unrealistic because so are wizards and dragons"

    If we accept that magic is real within an RPG, then they are "realistic" as long as they are internally consistent.

    Just my .02 on that bit.

    Now onto the subject at hand – I fail to see how gender-based ability score caps improve the game. Can someone tell me how their gameplay experience is enriched by these?

    However, having the gender penalties removed improves the game in a very palpable way – it is inclusive. It doesn't give half of the potential player base the impression that they will always be at a disadvantage. Even if it is only a matter of perception, it still matters. Being open and accepting of every player and character matters.

    As to the original point I made about "internally consistent", then why not use magic for this problem too? We could easily say that any character with "exceptional strength" has been supernaturally gifted with this. Remember that only warrior types are allowed that roll, wouldn't these be the heroes who have been touched by some supernatural or divine force which embiggened them? This makes the gender issue simply melt away.

  14. Grag: You seem to imply that female players will always have female characters, and male players will always have male characters.

    Stop victimizing me by imposing your gender role assumptions on me!


  15. Joe,

    It's unwise to invoke the specter of Political Correctness when you anticipate criticism. It's almost always a thinly disguised *ad hominem* attack, and usually an admission that you can't argue your point on its own merits, so you're going to dismiss your critics peremptorily.

    That said, sex-based attribute caps are probably as useful as the weapon vs. armor class modifiers, and if we're willing to endure more number crunching to "realistically" model men vs. women, why don't we have a female saving throw chart (where women might have an advantage in some cases), or revise the aging table to reflect the fact that women live longer than men?

  16. Joseph – No, I don't assume that.

    However I don't stress one way or another about including that group. Men who play female characters aren't as likely to be upset because of a strength limitation because they're actively choosing it.

    Also the odds of that hypothetical player being something other than a rogue or sorcerer is pretty low.

  17. I guess I view this much as I do the level limit thing. I don't like it. Why? Cause I don't. I don't care if it's realistic or not, it just doesn't seem to do anything for me in game so I don't see a point in having them.
    I ignored the limits when I played editions that had them, and would ignore them if they appeared in a new edition that I was playing.

  18. It only happens rarely is not a defense. It's always been there isn't a defense. (Even when I was 7, I would have ignored that rule.) I can't in good conscious tell my female friends that their fighter would be better if they played a male.

    How is the game improved by having such a limit in the game?

  19. From my perspective, gender based limits in no way make for a better game.

    If a person wants to add them into their own campaign and game table then by all means go ahead, but for a baseline system, which is what 5E is attempting to accomplish, they serve no positive function.

    They bring a lot of negative aspects for certain people and nothing positive. The potential gains of including them do not match the negative aspects of including them.

  20. I think that the point being missed here that a game is designed by humans. This isn't reality where biology is king: D&D is a construct made by people.

    It was a decision made by people to paint one sex as inferior (even if it's just on a single vector, like a strength stat) and that sends a clear message. That's why this is all indefensible, sexist, and really distasteful. "Simulation" has little to do with it.

  21. Joseph: I probably should have gone on at a bit more length.

    I was posing a question: What is the motivation for including gender based strength limits in the game?

    And providing some comment on an answer I expected.

    Personally, I fail to see the point of gender based strength limits. ("Do it that way 'cause that's the way it was done back in the day" doesn't strike me as a good argument.)

    There may be good reasons to let the strongest women be unable to lift as much as the strongest man, but trying to simulate that reality is the only one I've ever encountered.

    And if one argues simulation, then are there not more characteristics than just strength that should probably be gendered?

  22. Via Gragsmash:
    Now onto the subject at hand – I fail to see how gender-based ability score caps improve the game. Can someone tell me how their gameplay experience is enriched by these?

    Bingo. What does this add to a game besides arbitrary limits on a section of the PC populace that represents a real-life minority among the player base? D&D has always been a game about possibilities, limited only by the imagination and by game balance. Imposing a limit to represent a single, solitary real-world inequality just seems baseless, bizarre, and counter to the entire spirit of Dungeons & Dragons.

    If you want to set up a campaign that explores inequality like that, go wild. But it shouldn't be hard-coded into the rules.

  23. One of the surest ways to identify privilege is that those who enjoy it are so often ignorant of it.

    Of course, it's always entertaining to watch a man tell a woman how she's suppposed to feel about the experience of being a woman.

  24. What is the motivation for including gender based strength limits in the game?

    No idea. You'd have to ask Gary Gygax. The point is that they're there, and once more, no compelling reason to remove them is offered other than "sexist" and "unfair".

    In a game where wizards shoot fire from their fingertips, you're worried about the fact that a female gnome can't have an 18 strength but a male one can? C'mon.

  25. I have found the limits irritating and pointless. They made female characters less "attractive" in the Gold Box SSI computer games like Curse of the Azure Bonds.

    @Black Vulmea
    You're argument is unfalsifiable in it's circularity.

    For example,
    "You're clearly an alien in league with the Free masons.
    Denial is the first sign."

    Similarly, I could accuse you of being able to fly, you just don't know it. People who can fly usually are unaware.

  26. it's always entertaining to watch a man tell a woman how she's suppposed to feel about the experience of being a woman

    Indeed. All these men telling women they should be offended somehow because non-existent female elves can't be as strong as male elves when they go off to fight griffons and dragons is, to put it mildly, weird.

  27. Me: What is the motivation for including gender based strength limits in the game?

    Joseph: No idea. You'd have to ask Gary Gygax. The point is that they're there.

    They are not there in the past few editions (I can't recall 2nd nor BECMI). So we have an old way of doing this and a new way of doing this, and seemingly no argument for the old way, other than "it's the way we did it back then"

    I may have mis-read your post and assumed that it was supporting putting gender based ability limits into WotC's new edition. That facet in particular of the gendered ability scores debate was what I was addressing.

    As to should Gygax be castigated for doing as he did? Seems kinda pointless to me. We should, as readers be able to comprehend differences in social norms between now and 40 years ago.

  28. "The point is that they're there, and once more, no compelling reason to remove them is offered other than "sexist" and "unfair"."

    And I see no compelling reason to keep them (or add them to 5e) aside from "it's the way it used to be".

    "…you're worried about …"

    Personally I'm not. Mildly annoyed that people might want to put it back into the game, perhaps, and confused as to why people think it's something worth defending… but not worried.

  29. Between the original post and the comments, it looks like we've hit about 9 of the 25 points on the Anti-Feminism Bingo so far.

    – I’m a woman and I don’t have a problem with this stuff.

    – You’re reading too much into this.

    – This is fantasy.

    – It’s only a game.

    – This is such a minor problem in the game.

    – Just change it in your own game.

    – Most people don’t care one way or another about this stuff.

    – It’s not historically accurate to treat women equally.

    – That’s just a relic from a previous edition.

  30. @Joseph I think this conversation is going a bit in circles.

    No one is saying they will remove gender-based ability limits from 1e.

    What WoTC said is that realistically they will not include gender-based ability limits in 5e.

    Not having them in D&D does not prevent it from being D&D. No other edition of the game included gender-based ability limits, and many people have said they never even realized the rules existed when they did play AD&D 1e.

    No WoTC police is going break down your door and stop you from playing your game.

    Out of curiosity – in all the years you played, how many times did a player have to change their stats because of the gender-based ability limits?

  31. I may have mis-read your post and assumed that it was supporting putting gender based ability limits into WotC's new edition.

    Not at all. I was commenting on the deluge of emotion this issue brought forth and the rather disingenuous way WotC tried to walk it back as "just a joke" when they were caught unawares by the heat of the PC Police.

    I personally don't care one way or another if it's in 5E. I think it's a safe bet that it won't be, and I'm not exactly clamoring to add it in (although it would certainly be amusing to publish an optional rule for it in 5E, just to tweak the Permanently Outraged crowd).

    Truth to tell, I don't think it's ever even come up in one of my games, and I've had plenty of female players (and characters) in my games over the years.

  32. I have no problem with the gender limits being in the 1E reprints since they were in the originals. I do care if they're included in further versions of D&D because they ARE rather pointless. They don't add anything to the play experience beyond pointless bickering about their inclusion. Pointless rules don't need to be included because they just take up page space, thus either crowding out actually useful rules or increasing the price tag.

  33. It is not sexist to say that IRL, in general, males are stronger than females. It is either sexist or a sign of a severely handicapped imagination to say that because of that fact female characters cannot be as strong as males.

    The analogy with magic is also 100% accurate. "This is just like our world except with magic," is about as internally consistent as saying, "This is just like our world except where it's not." Wave your hands and say that magic lets females be as strong as males if you need to justify it to yourself.

    But i really have to wonder, why do you even want to defend this position? Your (let's be nice and just call it) inflammatory tone makes me think it's just an attention grab, and judging from the number of responses here, it's working.

  34. It's crappy simulation. If you absolutely must model the differences between men and women, it would make sense to actually model them, as opposed to only modeling the subset of differences that penalises women.

    At the very least, women should gain CON bonuses over men, as statistically they tend to live longer, have better tolerance for pain and experience better health.

    Personally, I consider modeling sex differences mechanically to be a hassle that doesn't reward the effort to do it "correctly".

  35. For all those people that claim the blogger is basing this whole idea on 'realism' in an already-established fictional GAME, look hither: CONSISTENCY. Not 'realism', but consistency! This is a lovely tool that allows for suspension and disbelief, for even in a world with magick and lizardfolk, there still is a way in which it goes on and exists. There are rules and chaos!

    But this is all just horses for courses. Me, I wouldn't mind playing games with these sorts of limits, and I wouldn't cry if I ran into a female halfling with strength 18.

  36. There was no way gender-based limits were ever going to be included in the new edition. It has as much chance as THAC0, and that's none. As soon as I saw the poll I thought, using only common sense, its just there for fun.

    This explosion of stupidity is why I won't bother visiting the polls or Wizards website until the public playtest comes out.


  37. I totally agree with Mathew's comment. I have been a pretty longtime follower and like alot of your stuff. I respectfully have to say that I don't understand at all where you are coming from on this one, and I don't see what you are trying to defend.

  38. Fair enough, Jim, but plugging that into the math only makes it less relevant.

    Oh, come on, Mr. Bloch. To my ears that sounds a lot like "So what if my evidence is incorrect! I'm right anyway!"

    What percentage of all possible characters a rule applies to does not matter one iota when it comes to the perception of the game. If I put in my house rules a .001% chance that your PC is a pedophile and I expect you to abide by that rule, would it not radically affect the way you perceived my campaign? If not, it damn well should. Even if the percentage of adults in a random population are that likely to be pedophiles.

    The gender limit rules as written send a message. And that message is "You are all equal in the eyes of the Great God 3d6, except for you icky girls." If you want to send that message, that's fine. I don't and I stand by that position. And pre-emptively calling me and everybody else who agrees with me Politically Correct doesn't change that.

  39. Again, if it's so insignificant, and comes up so rarely, why would its inclusion be offensive, unless you were trying to make some sort of real-world statement?

    Why are you so hell-bent on saying it should be there, unless you're trying to make some sort of real-world statement?

    *eyeroll* Good to know over the decades some things don't change in some arenas, and someone with a Y chromosome is still going to tell the rest of us whether we can be bothered by something.

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