Sword and Sorceress How to Make your Sword and Sorcery Fate Game Sexy (not Sexist)
by Kira Magrann
Imagine all those beautiful Frazetta Conan illustrations. Actually, don’t imagine them: go take a look at them on the internet! When women are featured in the shot, where are they? Most often they’re at the feet of our muscled hero, clinging pathetically to his mighty thews. This communicates an implicit power dynamic, one where the men are strong and the women need saving.
Now imagine a simple gender role reversal. Conan is a woman, and a beautiful beefcake guy, pathetic and scared, clings to the feet of our lady hero. Changes a lot, huh?
But unfortunately, the women in sword and sorcery tales are frequently the ones who need rescuing, the ones who are less than the hero. They might look badass, but they don’t get to _be_ badass.
Women in sword and sorcery movies and comics sometimes break this mold: Grace Jones and Sandahl Bergman were considered warriors alongside the main hero in the Conan movies and Red Sonja is often depicted as the lady version of Conan—although she is arguably the source of the chainmail bikini controversy that plagues the halls of geekdom. Despite their many problematic elements (mostly an un-equal objectification of their bodies), they’re still badass heroes in the Conan mythos.
I love the Conan setting—it’s super pulpy and amazing—but I always wished the gender elements were a bit more equitable. A few writers have seen this potential, among them Marion Zimmer Bradley; her long running Sword and Sorceress anthology sought to undermine these tropes. Most of the time though, women in this kind of fiction still end up damseled or following an unfortunate iteration of the rape revenge trope.
So how do you include and highlight gender and sexiness in a sword and sorcery style game without accidentally making your setting sexist? Here are some tips, tricks, and mechanics suggestions for your next sword and sorcery style Fate game.
Creating Gender-Focused Issues
There’s a ton of flexibility with settings in Fate, but the big focus is pulp fiction. All that stuff from early comics, sci-fi, smut, and dime novels are what really works in Fate. Manipulate that to your advantage! Sword and sorcery is already pulp fiction…but gender and sexuality in the default setting is extremely limited: very heterosexual, male, and normative.
When creating the setting for your sword and sorcery game, it’s pretty easy to accidentally default to one that doesn’t include everyone’s stories. We need to tweak such settings to make sure we’re including all genders in narratives that are meaningful to them. Stories specifically related to sex and gender of people who are not men are different than men’s stories, and so when we focus on these people we also have to focus on their stories. Otherwise, we’re just participating in tokenism—we have representation, but the gender narrative remains centered around the hetero cis man. In other words, including a woman in your story doesn’t make it a narrative that’s relevant to women’s stories.
One way to make settings inclusive is to focus on intersectional issues, especially social concerns invoked by modern feminism. Intersectional feminism posits that there’s not one, but multiple cultural issues that help to systematically oppress women and affect people in all kinds of prescribed gender roles. Why use intersectional feminist issues as inspiration? They’re core conflicts that your group can utilize to create the main thrust of the action in your game. Here are some common intersectional feminist issues that translate well into sword and sorcery fiction:
- Body Autonomy
It’s easy to use these to subvert traditional themes in sword and sorcery—fighting sorcerers and becoming more manly gets changed to plotting the takedown of a corrupt leader to gain freedom for the poor, for example—but you and your group can come up with your own too.
Avoiding sexist stories doesn’t mean avoiding sexism. Sword and sorcery stories are often about criminals, slaves, or other low status people rising to be great adventurers, leaders, or kings, the perfect metaphor for fighting the status quo as a gender minority and ending the oppression of people who, like you, have no power. Use that metaphor in your stories!
If you’d prefer not to have these issues be a major part of your character, PCs don’t need to be the characters who face these challenges. NPCs can easily get our heroes wrapped up in stories that address these problems. You can still be a big strong male Conan, and be a good ally to those around you who are fighting these fights!
At the start of your campaign, pick one or two intersectional issues and write them down on index cards to help you create your current and impending issues as usual. Find ways to make them fun and interesting; no one wants to play the “very special episode” of Conan.
Jeromy and Kira are playing sexy sword and sorceress Fate and decide to choose sexuality and spirituality as intersectional issues in their campaign. As they make their characters and talk about the setting, they create their issues based around those themes in a sword and sorcery style setting. They ask themselves, “What would our low status characters need to fight against to bring these themes into our setting?
After a little talking about what they’d like to see in the game, they come up with:
Sexuality: Sexual expression is strictly forbidden by law in the city of Qaath.
Spirituality: The cult of the God Queen of Snakes believes all men should be covered and modest.
Both of these setting details seem like fun places to engage the themes they chose!
It’s easy to fall into gender tropes with narratives too. Pregnancy, children, damselling, and rape are the most common tropes for non-male characters. It’s ok to include those things, but try not to emphasize them exclusively, or force them on the PCs as major plot points. If it’s meaningful for your players to engage in themes of family, you can introduce child characters, but don’t have a woman’s children be the only thing she can protect. Don’t just have women in danger and needing rescuing—put important male figures in danger too. Subverting those tropes may seem like small things, but it will make all the difference in your game.
Evan is running a Fate game and wants to include a conflict for Kira’s character. He thinks it would be fun for her to deal with pregnancy as an issue, since their game has sexuality as one of the issues. And since her character’s just hooked up with Jeromy’s character, it would make sense if she was pregnant from their lusty encounter.
So in the scene after they hook up, Evan says, “Kira, I think your character is pregnant! That’ll be a really interesting conflict for you. How will you keep up your roguish ways?”
Kira looks uncomfortable. She wants to decide when her character should be pregnant: “Actually, I’d rather not have my character get pregnant. That wouldn’t be a fun conflict for me, and I feel like it’s taking away my character agency in a very gendered way.”
Jeromy adds, “Yeah, and wouldn’t I be the father? Wouldn’t that affect my character too? Fathers dealing with pregnancy is also an important gender issue.”
Evan says, “You’re right, I didn’t mean to make such a biased gender assumption.” He thinks a moment. “Jeromy, it seems like you might be interested in dealing with a pregnancy storyline. What if I gave the pregnancy plot to you instead? One of your character’s exes discovers she’s pregnant, and now both of you have to figure out how to navigate that, with your budding relationship with Kira’s character?”
Jeromy nods. “That sounds like an interesting complication to explore.”
Kira agrees. “Yes! I think that’s a fantastic solution. Let’s go with that.”
Creating Inclusive Setting Elements
Making Culture Real
Creating different cities or cultures that treat sex and gender differently is a lot like the world we actually live in. Even in the US, there are certain cities that are more queer friendly, like San Francisco or New York City, as compared to Birmingham, Alabama. Showcasing those differences in your sword and sorcery cities reflects upon contemporary real world culture in a way that’s meaningful to your players and story.
Culture is a huge part of the setting in sword and sorcery stories because often characters spend a lot of time in cities and towns, instead of out and about adventuring in the wilderness. When thinking about the cultures the PCs come from, consider addressing some specifics. How does this culture think of marriage, for example? Does this other culture celebrate homosexuality more than heterosexuality? Are many gender dynamics reversed, or confusing, in this other culture?
The great thing about sword and sorcery settings is that they’re fantasy, so don’t be afraid to make radically different choices than what we see in the real world. Making those choices can be extra relevant to real world issues, pointing out those differences through metaphorical extremes in your fiction. Consider making some aspects for cities in the setting that are sticky but give the players goals to work toward—things that are true now (Homosexuality Is Illegal Here) that the characters will have the opportunity to change during play (Marriage Equality Is Finally Celebrated Here).
Using the issues cards based on the themes at play, drill down a bit further to get some city aspects.
Sexuality: Sexual expression is strictly forbidden by law in the city of Qaath.
Aspect: The Eyes See All in Qaath
Spirituality: The cult of the God Queen of Snakes believes all men should be covered and modest.
Aspect: Ruthless God Queen of Snakes
Diverse and Sexy NPCs
You’ll want the characters in your stories to represent a variety of interesting genders, races, and orientations. So, when you’re creating NPCs, consider this representation: avoid tokenism (having just one of any minority) and try to pass the Bechdel test (have two women in a scene together talking about something other than a man).
Three NPCs is a good default number to get the feel of a new place. Once you’ve created these NPCs, create aspects for each of them that tie them to one thematic issue, one PC, and one personal issue that creates conflict in this location. You may want to create these NPCs with your group so you all have some agency over what issues you want to hit in that city/town/area. If you can, try to tie the PCs to more than one NPC, so the conflicting interests of the NPCs create conflicts for the PCs.
Also consider writing down a few notes on how the NPCs look and how they’re presenting. Describe skin tone, hair, and one other feature about their body or decoration that seems to stand out. This method isn’t perfect, but helps ensure that you introduce diverse races in your stories. And if you create more complex descriptions of characters ahead of time, in the moment you won’t just default to stereotypes (as it is easy to do).
Here’s an example of three NPCs.
Magda, the Serpent Tamer
Light brown skin, dark kinky hair gathered in small buns, fiery eyes
First Serpent Dancer of My Family: A taboo religious practice, drawing from the thematic issue of spirituality.
Tarek’s Old Friend: A relationship with a PC (Tarek).
Fierce Protector of the Riverland: A personal issue that creates conflict in this location.
Yurin, the Brothel Slave
Beautiful brown skin, shaved bald, a light sandaled step
Born This Way: He’s queer, hitting on the thematic issue of sexuality.
Shereen’s Brother: A relationship with a PC (Shereen).
Owned: A personal issue that creates conflict in this location.
Philomena, the Pirate Queen
Dark brown skin, long glorious black locks with trinkets woven in, many ringed fingers
River Goddess: She worships none but herself, another tie-in to spirituality.
Shereen’s Rival: A relationship with a PC (Shereen).
This River Is Mine: A personal issue that creates conflict in this location.
Focusing on Steamy Screen Time
Sword and sorcery, Conan and Red Sonya style, is 100% sexy. Often in this genre we focus on our heroes slaying enemies, stealing artifacts, winning contests, and freeing spirits…and then going on a drinking and fucking binge until all their hard-earned gold is gone and they have to do another job.
Take these mighty appetites to heart and focus on those stories, giving them a bit more screen time than you might in a normal dungeon crawl. Shift the focus away from fighting monsters and stealing their stuff, and put it more on interactions between other humans and cultures in the city. Consider starting each session just returning from an adventure, jumping right into that tavern/bedroom/quiet walk through town. Fate is best when it focuses on aspects instead of hit points, drama instead of attacks of opportunity.
Sexy Sexy Aspects
Intimacy in sword and sorcery can be so many things. People with magical powers and who perform heroic feats of strength and wit tend to have megahuman ways of interacting too. Don’t limit characters to physical touching; perhaps there can be magical connections, altered perception, battles for dominance and competition, or picking that lock for an exciting side quest in the dark.
Just remember no matter what encounter you’re crafting, be transparent with the other players about your intent, and get consent both in and out of character. Be sure everyone playing the game is comfortable, and all the characters in the game are comfortable too.
An ideal way to focus on intimacy and communicate this to the other players at the table is to dedicate one of your PC’s aspects to an intimacy statement about your character. By stating these preferences explicitly on the character sheet, players can easily compel each other toward interesting interactions. These communicate both what types of interactions the player is interested in engaging their character in, but also hint at where they could happen. Aspects like:
- Wrestling Is Like Sex to This Barbarian
- Prefers Long Walks through City Markets
- Gifts Are My Love Language
- My Mind Is the Key to My Loins
Remember that, in sexy stories, you’re not really driving the narrative toward describing the sex. You’re ideally driving it toward the description of everything up until, and then after, the sex. If your group wants to describe all the sexy times, that’s awesome too, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with getting into those details. When it comes to the story, though, it tends to be what happens around the act of sex that really drives the story forward.
Consider the attitudes of various characters and NPCs in your game. For example: the women may be as forward as the men. Or perhaps the men are even shyer. The PCs can always drive the interaction, too. As a GM, offering players a romantic option and seeing if they bite is a fantastic way to get their consent to that option. Often when I do this in a game, I’ll roleplay what the character or NPC is doing, and then describe them about to make a move (“He leans in to kiss you”). Then pause. At this point, asking out of character, “He’s about to kiss you! What do you do?” is a great way of gaining consent to move forward with those actions and that description. It also gives the player agency, allowing them a chance to grab hold of the narrative and describe what they would do!
In Fate it’s easy to tie that into compelling aspects. One could compel a character’s intimacy aspect, so that you could ask the question while also compelling the aspect at the same time. It would look something like:
Sexy Character Descriptions
“He’s about to kiss you at the end of your long walk through the market. I’m going to compel your Prefers Long Walks through City Markets aspect with this fate point! Do you accept?”
Chainmail bikinis are sexy as hell. They’re also practically ridiculous, but a bikini isn’t about practicality, it’s about showing skin. It’s important to realize that the problematic issues aren’t with them as an article of clothing, but how the women wearing them are often described/depicted. The person wearing the bikini is on display, ass and tits front and center regardless of body position. A woman often isn’t depicted as muscular or as powerful as a man with just as little clothing on. Conan might be wearing just as little, but his strength, his dominance, his brutality are what his body is about, regardless of how much skin is showing.
Strong is sexy! When describing the characters and NPCs, especially in a sexy way, try to describe everyone with similar adjectives. Describe women as strong, men as seductive, trans men as classically beautiful. Think outside the descriptor box, especially noting what your own preferences and biases might be. A simple way to subvert a sexist view of sexiness and objectification of non-man characters is by describing everyone in sexy ways. The beefy barbarian or tricky sorcerer can be just as sexy and beautiful as a swordswoman or sorceress. Remember to include characters of all genders, including trans*, cis, and non-binary too. Keep the chainmail bikini if you like, but make it powerful, not powerless.
Creating Sexy Scenes
There’s a few ways to use Fate mechanics to structure sexy scenes, and then continue to encourage them to happen.
Contests are a non-violent way for characters to have challenges in a Fate game. Want to have a flirtation building up to your sexy scene? Here’s a way you could do that.
First, ask the players if they’re interested in doing a contest for each other’s affection. This could be a neat way to see if you get a sexy scene with that person or not that particular night. It’s essential to ask consent for the contest to happen, otherwise it could easily turn into one player forcing another player into a flirtation or sexy scene they don’t want. Once you’ve both agreed it would be fun, set up the scene for your contest. Where are you, what are you doing, what type of contest will it be?
- On the beach, drinking wine, a contest of flirtatious and witty conversation.
- In the gladiator ring, having a duel, a contest of flirtatious wrestling.
- In the market, stealing flowers, a contest of clever thievery.
In a contest, you go back and forth, setting up a series of overcome actions until you get to a conclusion. In this case, you’re competing for the same thing (each other’s affections) so there isn’t really a winner or loser here, merely someone who’s showing off more, is more flashy, or becomes the ultimate initiator of the intimate scene. The win condition should be defined ahead of time, so everyone knows exactly what you’re competing for. Remember, these types of contests are a flirtation. The ultimate goal here isn’t sex—you don’t win sex from flirtation. You might compete to see who makes the first move, who asks who on a date, or for one person to reveal how they feel about the other first.
Sexy, Not Sexist
This framework is a good start to getting your sexy (but not sexist) sword and sorcery Fate game going. Build with setting aspects, juicy situations, and character aspects to help drive the narrative toward fun encounters with your fellow players. So go forth, smoldering denizens of hot desert city streets, and have fun conquering each other!