Sex and Gender in Aes

When we designed the character sheet, one thing we included was to have two separate boxes for sex and gender. This has attracted some attention from our players, since most have never seen that in any RPG before.

We treat sex in biological terms. Sex is determined by the biological attributes an explorer has. Gender, on the other hand, is the societal identification that explorer takes with regard to those biological attributes. For humans, baihu, qinglong, and zhuque, these two tend to be both binary and in sync. Male sex will typically mean male gender and female sex will be highly correlated with female gender. Binary sex is average for them and their societies assign their gender roles based on it.

Where the differentiation adds to the depth of the world is for the kindred who don’t follow the human normal arrangement. Sex binary is not a universal. The feichong, insects, are not wholly sex binary. Some versions exist with a third sex that contributes necessary enzymes to the reproduction process. The touzulei, who can manipulate life, have created myriad ways of reproduction with dozens of niches to fill.

Gender has greater variations, even among those kindred that tend to have binary concepts. Part of the punk aspect of steampunk is allowing explorers to defy what is average for a given society. A man can present as a woman and vice versa. Such subversion of Victorian mores are part of the steampunk genre. (The Constantine Affliction plays with this as a central theme.)

Tishli, predominantly female, have complex views on gender. The aggressive nature by which their masters in Zahnrad assign them a rigid place in society (i.e. economic slaves) leads some of the free tishli to question many kinds of apparently rigid structures, including how they present their sexual identities. The male tishli are deliberately genderqueer, since by design they are meant to represent the subconscious values of their creators. These creators have a false notion of masculinity (the bull-headed machismo stereotype), so they create the male tishli in response to that false image. They are a rebuttal to an argument that is only perceived to exist.

With baihu, the hyena variants are matriarchal, with males forced into a submissive role. Touzulei have as many genders as they do sexes, since they alter their forms and presentations on a whim. The sea going qinglong have variants that play with the “typical” gender roles, such as seahorse versions with males as the child caregiver. There are feichong that differentiate the gender between females based on their place in the hierarchy, with some breeding as others are expected to be asexual workers.

And, just as in the real world, there are those whose mental identification (gender) don’t align with the physical form (sex) they were born into. (Though, in the world of Aes, such a situation is much easier to fix thanks to evo control.) while it’s possible to play a transgender character in almost any game, we felt that splitting sex and gender made it at least somewhat implicit that it’s fine to do so here. As opposed to leaving it as an undocumented feature.

Currently, there’s a transgender character in playtesting: a biologically female tishli who identifies as male, who acquired shape shifting and identity theft abilities. Now they prefer to present themselves as male in more ways than one. At GamExpo, we had a bi-gender character, as well. Both did so to explore role-playing opportunities and to create explorers they thought were interesting.

We didn’t split sex and gender to be trendy or pander. Issues regarding transgender individuals are serious and deserve earnest discussion moving forward. Our decision to split sex and gender, rather than treat them as synonyms, was not an effort to try and make the game seem more legitimate by inserting that discussion into Aes. It was done because, in the context of the game world and the game’s themes, differentiating the two allowed for greater depth of lore and expanded options for players.

The questioning of what constitutes normal is where Aes draws much of the punk side of steampunk. At the same time, we avoid sweeping generalizations condemning all aspects of normal or deeming all rebellion as foolish. If an explorer wants to dig into the issues around a gender-sex disconnect they can. If they want to go with the average and have the two synchronize, they can do that, as well. Sex and gender, especially through a Victorian lens, are fascinating topics to explore, which is why we’ve put them in our game.

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