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Building a Matriarchy in a Campaign Setting

by Jocelyn Robitaille

The most important thing about any campaign setting is that it should be rooted in some kind of logical frame. Thus, the first issue one should deal with when creating a matriarchy for any world, is figuring out why women have the power, and not men or furry animals.

Broadly, there are three ways one can go about to explain this situation.

The first and most simple way to do it is simply to reverse the roles of men and women. Most settings tend to portray men as more physically powerful than women, as is generally true in real life. Since RPG settings are usually violent environments, it makes sense for the stronger sex to have most of the power. Even in modern settings where firearms (or other proxies for strength) play a major role, the dominance of men can be deduced simply from the fact that there was a time where guns didn't exist.

Getting back to matriarchies, the simplest way to bring it about in a campaign setting is simply declaring that, from the start, women were the stronger sex. This method is somewhat crude, clumsy and lazy, but was used successfully (at least from a commercial perspective) by TSR in their depiction of the Drows, or Dark Elves, in the Forgotten Realms campaign setting, for AD&D.

The second method to explain matriarchy is the Act of God/Goddess or some other supernatural edict. Again, this is an easy method, ultimately consisting of stating that "the Gods said women, in their infinite wisdom, shall rule the land". Another variant is to explain that women are in power by analogy. The most powerful deity, the majority of deities or all deities in the world's pantheon are female, and thus it was deduced, almost unconsciously, that women should rule, either because it is assumed that the mind of women is closer to the divine too, or because they are more likely to bring the favours of the divine.

While this is almost as simple as the first method, closer inspection reveals that it is in fact much more elegant, since it has the possibility of generating more stories. While biology and physical feats can't really be tested or examined at any depth, religion and faith can, so you can easily create drama around such things as holy-gender-wars, the apparition of a male god, the fate of the now long-dead male gods (maybe they killed each other while warring, maybe the female gods killed them, etc.) and plenty of other issues related to religion, power and gender. A good example of matriarchy by Act of Divine can be found in DP9's Tribe 8, although in that game the gap between men and women where political power is concerned is small, and strength, both physical and magical, is gender-neutral.

Another use for this kind of setting, provided that you keep the men physically stronger than women, maybe even more physically stronger than in real life, is that you have a nice little magic-strength opposition. (Assuming that women truly are chosen by the divine and that they and they alone get to do miracles.) This can either serve as a device for game-balance, conflict (a war or rivalry between warriors and priestesses) or even opposite-gender-acceptance (if a beast requires both magic and strength to be defeated, man and woman will be forced to work together and recognise each other's capacities and thus their complementary nature).

The third option for explaining the matriarchy, and by far the most interesting in my opinion (maybe because, to my knowledge, it hasn't been explored yet in RPGs), is to have women, while inferior to men where strength is concerned, hold a non-religious and not overtly supernatural "wild-card" that allows them to rule over men. Here, the possibilities are limitless; the wild-card can be of any nature.

A good, yet classic, example of a wild-card can simply be that women are better at plotting and thus outwit most men in treacherous ways almost every time. A more flattering wild-card could be that women are better diplomats, and took power at some point to prevent humankind from destroying itself because of its incessant warring. A more neutral and puzzling wild-card could also be used, such as solidarity - the sisterhood ascending through unassailable co-operation.

An interesting twist on solidarity comes to mind: perhaps women seized power by organising a revolt that came down to the ultimatum "give us power, or we won't bear your sons any more.". Now, this idea sounds like it sets women as the villains, but what if they were treated so badly that this gesture was their last, nay, their only hope? Under such circumstances, this kind of ultimatum could be devoid of cruelty, since they might perhaps manage to better their condition without hurting anybody. In other scenarios, of course, there might be civil war between those men who support the women and those who do not, or many other possibilities.

Other wild-cards might include accidents of history, or twists of science, environment or evolution. As far as I know, there is no RPG currently in print which centres on the matriarchy through a wild-card theme.

While not a method in itself, a fourth possibility should be mentioned. In combination with method three, or some variations of method two, a setting can feature an hidden matriarchy, where the men think they rule but are in fact puppets of the women, who rule from the shadows. A perfect example of such an hidden matriarchy is in Frank Herbert's Bene Gesserit, from his well-known novel Dune.

Okay, now we have the reasons for our matriarchy. The next essential thing to do to build a coherent and detailed campaign setting is to figure out what impact the matriarchy has (and has already had) on the world's culture. Since creating the culture(s) of an entire campaign setting is an endeavour way beyond the scope of this article, I'll only list a few of the things that will be influenced by the wielding of power by women. You'll have to figure out how they might actually be changed yourself. For the sake of parsimony, we'll take for granted that method two or three was chosen, since method one is basically just a reversal.

  • Art & Knowledge: Power means resources, and resources mean you can send your children to nice, respected schools, academies, universities, mentors, etc. And since women are in power, women are the ones in whom the resources will be invested first, leaving the men with what remains. So, in a matriarchal culture, you can expect that a majority of the artists, sages and scientists will be women. Men in such positions may face social stigma or prejudice.

  • Feats of strength: While still appreciated (hey, lifting a rock under which a child is caught is useful no matter who governs), feats of strength won't have as strong an impact on people than in usual settings. Since women govern and men are stronger, strength and power will lose their often synonymous nature because most commoners will be stronger physically than most rulers. It's possible that strength may be seen as barbaric and disgusting, or simply as petty "men's business" (since devaluing what rulers can't possess is a nice way of retaining your image as all-powerful). Alternatively, men may be discouraged to show strength, and women encouraged to do so, but if this is applied too strongly, we produce the reversal seen in method one.

  • Language & Literature: Most protagonists in literature will be female and their stories will focus on what are perceived as female strengths and female issues (which may stem from the above). The gender-neutral pronoun will be "she" if matriarchy was installed when grammar was created.

  • Symbols: Most symbols, both in art and language, will have a feminine connotation. If you want to fall into clichés, that means that water and natural cycles will be recurring themes. And if good ol' Sigmund Freud was right (he wasn't, but hey, let's roleplay), a lot of ovoid entrances will be found in monuments and palaces. These ideas are only meant as quick examples; finding less cliched ways to express these ideas will make for a unique and interesting world. Symbols of love and romance may also be significantly different, as might the rituals or processes involved with such things - especially for rulers.

  • Stability: Power will most likely be a bit more unstable. Women in places of power will still have to bear their children, especially their daughters, so that means that they'll be more physically vulnerable at some point(s) in their lives. Any matriarchal society will have found some way to guard against this problem, and said system will probably form a big part of the political and societal elements of the culture. The same is true of whatever process exists for finding a father for said daughters - a process that must again guarantee stability and a minimum of risk. As always, use your imagination.

Once all of these points are considered, you'll have the roots (the method of ascension) and branches (cultural aspects, provided you detail them a lot more than I did) of your setting, and you'll be ready to go. Whether you use the matriarchy as just a canvas or as a major story device, whether it's a way to ask some hard questions about our own sexual politics or simply a cool way to keep reminding your players that they're in an alien world, a well-designed matriarchy will be a source of good stories, and hopefully, a lot of fun. Try it.

Jocelyn Robitaille is currently working as a game designer for Avatar Roleplaying Games Inc.'s upcoming game, the eponymous Avatar. He is also the director of marketing of A.R.G. Inc.

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