Here at Intelligence Check, we’ve spoken before about issues of cheesecake art in fantasy role-playing games, and while we’d love it if you read the entirety of the previous article (and thank you if you have), the part we want to call attention to is this:
Instead, [the illustrations] often present sex in a manner that’s often wildly incongruous with even the minimal context set up by the picture itself. Does it make sense for the barbarian woman to be wearing nothing but a chainmail bikini when she’s fighting off the orc horde? Nope, but that’s how she’s dressed.
Now, that’s a charge that still sticks, but it’s also just one facet of several different ways of looking at the issue of cheesecake art (of women) in fantasy RPGs. Today, we’re going to try and get a more holistic view of what it is we’re talking about.
The first thing to do in any particular discussion is clearly define what’s being discussed. To that end, what is this particular blog post actually about?
The answer, quite simply, is to examine the different rationales behind the whole idea of “women in impractically sexy armor” and see if any of them have a practical motive – in other words, if there’s a justifiable reason for her wearing something that sacrifices utility for sex appeal.
On a final note, this discussion isn’t limited to chainmail bikinis per se, despite the article title. There’s a continuum between “form” and “function,” and as sexy armor moves closer to the former category, it can reach the point where it’s not considered armor as much as it is an accessory. Boob-plate belongs in this discussion as much as a chain-link g-string does.
Perhaps the most familiar context in which the debate about sexily-armored adventurers takes place is the one about the practical impact they have on the people who read the books such illustrations are in. This tends to run the gamut from “eh, sex sells” to “this is what drives women away from the game table.”
There can be no doubt that this is a discussion worth having. It’s also not the discussion that we’re having here.
The reason for this is that – at least on the internet – there’s virtually no way to have this discussion without it degenerating into a flame-war. The best-case scenario that you can hope for when discussing this is that everyone agrees that they all have their own individual opinions, and that’s okay. Needless to say, this rarely happens.
What’s more likely is that you have a general mash-up of people stating their opinions as objective truths (“This is sexist! Anyone who thinks otherwise is a sexist!”), people trying to explain why other people’s opinions are invalid (“Stop being so sensitive!”), anecdotes (“my ex-girlfriend wouldn’t get into gaming because she saw the pictures in the rulebook!”), and poorly-referenced “data” (“I read in an article that 83% of women actually wish they looked like these pictures!”).
Ultimately, the discussion here is a microcosm of a much greater discussion regarding the impact of sexual art and imagery on the people who view it. It’s one about psychology and sociology, and even for the people who are educated on such topics, there’s little agreement. For now, at least, we’re going to put a pin in this one and move on.
This particular viewpoint focuses on criticisms directed at sexy armor from a realistic standpoint. That is, on how such armors function in the real world.
In this case, there’s a fairly inarguable conclusion in that sexy armors make major sacrifices of function in favor of form. Note that when we say “fairly inarguable” we mean “completely and utterly inarguable.” Even if you didn’t have actual armorers telling you about how horribly impractical, and even dangerous, such armor is for the wearer, it should still be obvious on sight.
So yeah…no redemptive value whatsoever from this point of view. Moving on.
The third and final stance that you’ll commonly find in regard to sexy armor is as a visual representation of something within a role-playing game world. That is, someone will have found a particular way to utilize the rules of the game to create a character which has adequate defensive capabilities, despite wearing such sexy armor.
The in-game justification for this tends to follow one of two lines of logic. The first is that the game rules and mechanics are largely silent on the visual appearance of such things, allowing for a “flavor” modification with no impact on the game stats whatsoever. In other words, the character’s leather armor is leather armor, and has all of the defensive properties of mechanical armor in the context of the RPG, regardless of the fact that the picture of it has it showing a lot of cleavage and ending in a skirt.
The second way that this particular representation is accomplished is by effectively eschewing armor altogether. In this case, the character is given defensive abilities from sources other than armor, allowing her to put a great deal of her body on display without actually being vulnerable. (Sometimes, there may be some token armor added to the visualization, but as mentioned previously, that skirts the line from “armor” to “accessory”).
In Pathfinder, this second method is particularly easy, as there are myriad ways to increase your AC without using armor, or even shields. Just a few are: the Dodge feat, fighting defensively, a total defense action, bracers of armor, amulets of natural armor, rings of protection, defending magic weapons, Combat Expertise, belts of incredible dexterity, dusty rose prism ioun stones , monk levels, and so many defensive spells. Granted, not all of these stack with each other, but most do, and many have bonuses that can be escalated with enough gold or caster levels.
That’s all just from the Core Rulebook, too. Add in additional materials, and your options skyrocket. There are even third-party books with materials specifically designed to let your characters wear sexy armor, or no armor at all, while still being reasonably well-protected.
These examples are a Pathfinder-specific way of showing that the representative view of sexy armor does, in fact, allow for a practical rationale. Within the context of the game world as defined by the mechanics, female characters in revealing armor can still fight while being reasonably well-protected.
While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that these three views are, respectively, the Narrativist, Simulationist, and Gamist answers to the issue of sexy armor, that does help to illustrate an important point – that people often approach this issue from completely different mind-sets, and so tend to talk at each other, rather than to each other, not realizing that they’re starting off with differing assumptions, and defeating any hope of a real dialogue before it ever even begins.
Hopefully, this article has made such discussions flow a little easier, and in doing so made the game a little better for everyone. Because in the end, isn’t that what chainmail bikinis are all about?