Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Taking breastplates too literally...

As I've said before, the way women are depicted in many fantasy RPGs is usually pretty poor. I was going to consider how this tends to revolve around the artists apparently being obsessed with showing cleavage no matter what, and that the depiction of women in armour was not immune from this. This was then going to segway into the impracticality of such designs - but someone has beaten me to it.

As that article points out, the type of armour shown in the above photo would cause problems to the wearer should she fall forwards. Even with a padded jack underneath, the amount of damage caused by blunt trauma wouldn't be at all pleasant. You also don't really want to have anything that acts as a handy channel for weapon strikes against vital organs. Traps and channels on armour, shield bosses and weapons are there to snag or interfere with the path of an attack in some way. Ideally that means that the attack is kept away from the vitals, limbs, etc. A similar principle occurs with another armoured thing - tanks. Certain parts of a tank can, if not designed correctly, act as 'shell traps' for incoming rounds. Sometimes this traps those rounds near vital areas, such as the drivers position. Not good.

The article makes note of female armour in Mass Effect 2, but I'd say that that's also barking up the wrong tree. First and foremost, it's pointlessly sexualised in a way that the man's armour is not. If the same thing was done with the man's armour - say, the inclusion of a large, protruding armoured codpiece - most people would say 'That looks ridiculous'. But for some reason this sort of silliness generally isn't pointed out when women's armour is sexualised. Secondly, it's not at all practical for someone who may need to lie prone when firing a weapon, take cover, crawl, etc (and the same rule would apply to the armoured codpiece). Take an illustration from modern body armour - here, for example. Note that there's no mention of women needing an armour that both seperates and supports. It just needs changing in a few key areas to better match the anatomical differences. The same factors would apply to women wearing armour in a fantasy RPG setting. 

What does this mean for an artist wishing to avoid the common cliches? Well, the simple fact of the matter is that there's pretty much little difference in the way that men and women look whilst wearing armour. This is especially so with plate armour, and if a full-face helmet is worn. However, that doesn't mean that there aren't subtle visual cues. If we consider the fact that, even in a fantasy RPG setting, men and women fighters would have had to have trained with their armour since an early age we could perhaps take our cues from modern imagery. One possible consideration could be male and female athletes from the same sports. There are similarities in their body shapes to a certain extent (depending on the sport), but there are also differences. At the end of the day this boils down to a couple of factors. One: an understanding of anatomy (hint: breasts aren't solid masses). Two: observation of how things can look in real life and drawing on that for inspiration. Three: developing an understanding of what's being observed (for example, how is the armour constructed? Is it part of a layered suit?). Whilst I might hesitate to say that many RPG artists lack such skills, it does seem that they are willfully abandoning them in order to follow a more hackneyed approach. That doesn't ultimately send out the right sort of signals, both about the outlook of the artist nor whatever RPG is using the artwork.

One other factor that seems to feed into this is the way women are portrayed in other fantasy art. I'd say the main culprit is comic art, of the super hero variety. Super heroines tend to wear 'boob socks', and it seems that the fashion has been translated into armour somewhere along the way. Maybe with a nod towards being slightly less silly, but silly nontheless.

But it's not all doom and gloom. We don't have to be stuck with chainmail bikinis and those breastcup cuirasses. There are depictions out there of women in armour that aren't rubbish. For example...

The above image is of Theresa Wendland, and comes from here
A nice example from LARPing...

Sourced from here
Some lamellar armour...

Sourced from here

Some more plate, this time worn by Virginia Hankins...

Sourced from here

And if you want something with more of an RPG flavour, there's this...

Sourced from here

And here's a more naturalistic pose (okay, it's not armour but there is a weapon involved)...

I wish I knew where this originally came from. I dug it out from Tumblr somewhere and haven't been able to find it via Tin Eye...

See? All pretty good! And not a chainmail bikini in sight. Okay, so perhaps some of the above are a little stylised. What if we consider how a woman might look when engaged in combat with a sword or other weapon? Here's one interesting video, featuring Theresa Wendland:

Their training weapons are a bit heavier than actual fighting versions, but you get the idea. Note the stances, attacks and parries used in the above clip - all apparently sourced from actual fighting treatises from the Medieval period. And a tad different from the sort of fighting stances one sees women posed into for RPGs. Here's something a little more florid, although equally of interest and featuring Virginia Hankins:

Hopefully all of the above demonstrates that we don't have to keep treading the well-worn Dreaded Path of Ye Olde Fantasy Clichés. Artists can chose not to go down it, and hopefully one day more of them will. Women don't have to be dressed up in silly 'armour' and costumes for RPG settings. It just takes a bit of time and effort, and less of a closeted mindview as to how women are depicted.


  1. You've got some really good points there. It's interesting to see how with most women it's not all that obvious a difference.

  2. Thanks! Yes, there are few obvious differences. Even if we take into account that armour may - in the case of plate, for example - have to be custom-made for a character, the differences would still be minor. Armour has to function in certain forms, despite the body that's wearing it. If not, it will be compromised.