Roleplayer
Roleplayer #13, February 1989

Women as Swashbucklers

Or, "Pardon me, madam, your sword is at my throat."

by Lisa Evans

The Comte de Lorraine coiled the whip over his arm as he gazed down at the peasant girl's quivering white shoulders. How dare the wench defy the will of her master!

"A taste of the lash will teach you to respect your betters!" he cried, raising the deadly leather to strike.

"Hold!" A clear voice rang through the fetid dungeon as a ribbon of steel sheared through the whip.

The Comte de Lorraine whirled, the useless whip dropping unnoticed to the straw. A slim figure clad all in black stood limned in the doorway, a confident smile playing on the soft lips. "Maupin! You dare . . ."

"Aye, I dare." Maupin assumed a fencer's stance and pantomimed an expert thrust in Lorraine's direction. "I dare challenge a heartless bully to face me, steel to steel. Unless you're afraid to face an equal?"

"Afraid? Of a renegado such as you? Never!" roared Lorraine, drawing his own rapier with a practiced motion. "I fear no man!"

"No man, eh? And where does that leave me, Monsieur le Comte?" Maupin cried, tearing off her hat to loose a flood of golden curls down her supple back . . .

Zorro. Scaramouche. D'Artagnan. The Scarlet Pimpernel. These are the greatest heroes of their time, fearless defenders of innocence, swashbucklers who protect the right and the true for no more than the thanks of their people and the love of their ladies. And always the ladies complement the heroes: beautiful, spirited and ever in danger, the average Marguerite or Louis or Rose is a fitting reward after a hard day rescuing the Queen's diamonds or spiriting aristocrats out of Paris. Truly, the swashbuckler is incomplete without a lovely heroine at his side.

But what about roleplaying? Most GURPS campaigns are set in worlds where the sexes are relatively equal. To go from space captain or sorceress to a glorified Dependent (mistress, fiancee, little sister) is a rude shock. Even a spy like Aphra Behn or a pirate like Anne Bonney is a far cry from a front-line fighter, and it can be difficult to adjust to playing a delicate flower of womanhood after you've been a fearless vampire killer with a .38.

Not to worry. Contrary to popular wisdom, women during the swashbuckling era did nearly everything but lead armies in the field, and a few bold queens even did that. An impressive number of women lived the heroic life despite official disapproval, and they make excellent models for the creative player.

History

The first woman to live a glorious and romantic life after the Roman Empire was of course Joan of Arc, savior of France. Barely 18 when she left her home to drive the English from her country, she turned the course of the Hundred Years' War in less than a year. A natural strategist and general, Joan had hardened mercenary leaders obeying her without question from the sheer force of her personality. The English considered her so dangerous they burned her as a heretic and transvestite, an unfeminine creature who dared wear armor and dress as a man. The French embraced her despite this, and she is their national hero, more legend than woman in her homeland.

Joan is unique in history books. Virtually no other woman warrior is mentioned until the modern era. Even then, the WACs and partisans are explained as women who fought out of necessity, not desire. However, a little digging turns up the following adventurous ladies, to name just a few:

Louise Labe: "La Belle Cordiere" was the beautiful, brilliant daughter of a bourgeois of Lyon during the early 1500s. A noted poet and humanist, Labe learned to ride and fight at an early age, and continued to do so for most of her life. She fought for France against the English near Calais, and was honored throughout Europe as a modern Amazon and paragon of womanhood.

La Maupin: One of a small number of female duellists active in Paris during the reign of Louis XIV, La Maupin was an actress and singer with the Paris Opera who challenged Musketeers and fencers to duels for a hobby (usually winning). She specialized in "trouser parts," male roles written in female vocal ranges, and wore men's clothing offstage. She was so handsome that most of the women of Paris were madly in love with her, much to the chagrin of their husbands!

Briliana, Lady Harley: This Englishwoman was the chatelaine of Brompton Bryan Castle during the English Civil War, and the wife of a staunch Royalist. When the Roundheads besieged her husband's land while he was with the King, she successfully defended the castle for most of a year, becoming an inspiring symbol of the Royalist cause. Lady Harley died in childbirth before the siege could be raised, but the Republican forces let her retainers leave the castle unmolested out of respect for her courage.

Catalina de Eranso: Catalina de Eranso entered a nunnery at her family's behest. She fled after an older nun molested her, and sailed for South America disguised as a man. As Don Alonso Diaz Ramirez de Guzman, soldier for Spain, she fought in Chile and Peru for many years. De Eranso distinguished herself as both warrior and impersonator; her own brother failed to recognize her when they served together! She returned to Spain in 1624 after being wounded, but received a special dispensation from Pope Urban VIII to dress as a man in recognition of her service to Christendom.

Deborah Sampson: Deborah Sampson was a farmer's daughter from Plympton, Massachusetts when the American Revolution broke out. She enlisted in 1778 as "Robert Shirtliffe," and fought with distinction despite serious wounds. Her sex was discovered by a Philadelphia doctor when she came down with a fever, and George Washington gave her an honorable discharge and money from his own pocket. Sampson married a local farmer after an unsuccessful attempt to enlist again, and received the land grant and pension due all Revolutionary soldiers.

None of these women had an easy time of it. In addition to the cultural bias against women who wanted to be anything but wives, the law and the church were quite strict about women daring to do anything traditionally reserved for men. One of the charges brought against Joan of Arc was intentionally wearing men's clothing, a sure sign of heresy. Transvestism, either open or hidden, was illegal in most of Europe, and considered a proof of witchcraft in the Protestant countries. Only the rich and the lucky could openly defy the law. Other women who tried were often harassed into conformity. La Maupin was prosecuted for sodomy, de Eranso and Sampson were both discharged from their respective armies, and Labe eventually gave up her sword and spent the rest of her life writing poetry. However, difficult as it was, women continued to cut their hair and live as boldly as their brothers, doing so in secret when they couldn't openly.

Campaigning

The player wishing to run a female D'Artagnan has two choices: running a woman swashbuckler as a woman, with all the problems that entails, or as a woman disguised as a man.

The first choice is easier. There's no need for maintaining a disguise and trying to hide the differences between men and women. She doesn't have to worry about discovery and betrayal, and the very rarity of a woman fighter can work to the PC's advantage. Nervous fathers might be willing to hire a female bodyguard to guard their beautiful but hot-blooded daughters (less chance for scandal). The character will stand an excellent chance of being recognized everywhere she goes, and tavern rowdies might be less willing to pick a fight with a well-known duellist. Men might actually vie for her favors, boasting that they had won the stony heart of an Amazon. Unusual Background works very nicely here ("my father raised me to be the son he never had"), especially if the PC comes from a South American or Asian culture where women learn to handle weapons.

On the other hand, -10 Social Stigma is almost mandatory, and Reputation penalties and legal restrictions will range from mild to severe, depending on how powerful the local Church is and how strict the authorities are about "unprotected" women. Puritan England and Protestant Germany would be uncongenial for a woman adventurer, while Catholic France might regard her as a charming and exotic curiosity. Plus, there's always the chance of arrogant young swordsmen practicing their skill against a woman before moving on to "worthier" opponents. Finally, prisoners, even female ones, were treated as traitors and heretics; openly female PCs will have to guard against torture, and worse, unless they are of such noble birth that ransoming them would be worth the bother.

Disguised women have the all freedom that men do. In an age when virtually no women wear trousers, a slim, boyish woman can easily pass for a boy or young man on casual examination. However, such women must be constantly vigilant against discovery, and must take such precautions as bathing separately, pretending to shave and using masculine pronouns. A woman swashbuckler in France should pretend she has a mistress, or acquire an unsavory Reputation. A single slip can lead to rumors, and rumors can destroy a character just as easily as a sword.

A woman PC disguised as a man should treat this as a Secret, with the point cost varying based on her military rank and how zealous the local Inquisition is. Paranoia and Compulsive Lying are other possible Disadvantages, since the PC must constantly be on guard against betrayal, and must invent a completely new identity, family, background, education, and so on.

Parties with two or more women swashbucklers will be rare. Possible justifications include sisters or close friends, or several women banding together for the protection a male mercenary company could never give them. One member of the group might be a "male" protector to the others, and would have to be as scornful of fighting women as every other man in the group. The players should decide whether the other women in the party know about their cross-dressing sister or not, and play it accordingly.

Sources

Swashbuckling women in literature are rare, but you can find them if you know where to look. Robert E. Howard's Agnes de Chastillon and C.L. Moore's Jirel of Joiry are excellent character models from historical fiction, even with the fantasy overtones in Moore. Fantasy swashbucklers are more common, with Robin McKinley's Harry Crewe and P.C. Hodgell's Jame being good examples. Collective biographies of famous women are also good sources, particularly if the campaign is set during a specific era.

Even better is the literature of the time. Such authors as Spenser and Ariosto regularly included women knights as characters. It was quite fashionable in France to be compared to an Amazon, and if certain ladies wish to live the fantasy in your campaign, so much the better. After all, anything's possible in the swashbuckling life of the seventeenth century!

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