SPOILER WARNING for Special Spirit Squad up until the end of Chapter 2
When I first envisioned Glurf, her gender was not something I considered. I knew that I wanted to play a cleric, because I enjoy the support role, and that I wanted to play something thoroughly weird, a stranger, an alien; I reckoned an amphibian race would be sufficiently out-there. After looking over the standard options Pathfinder provided, I decided on crafting my own home-brew toad-race, since Grippli – the closest thing to what I wanted – weren’t even properly amphibious; they were too humanoid for my tastes.
Toad Cleric. That was the concept I put together before playing. I hadn’t even bothered to fill in a gender on the character sheet; to me, it was an unimportant fact, like height, age or weight. I thought up the name ‘Glurf’ – in hindsight fatefully androgynous – on the spot because it sounded like a croak; I improvised her voice to be a mix of Kermit the Frog and Doctor Claw because I wanted my In Character expressions to sound distinctly different from my Out Of Character comments.
My concept was ready for application. The magic of role-playing could begin; randomness and circumstance would take over from planning.
The pitch we were working with was ‘Ghostbusters in Pathfinder’. The reboot movie had just come out, and our samurai, Koumi Ko, made an offhand joke about how the ‘other team’ (which hadn’t been mentioned and did not in fact even exist) must be doing poorly, since they were an all-female squad. It was meant as a tongue-in-cheek meta-level joke about the neckbeard Internet trolls that had been panning the new reboot with misogynist comments, but it would turn out to have a profound impact on the characters and plot of our group.
No, really, it would; sometimes it’s the stupidest, randomest things that shape your campaign.
You see, the moment the samurai and his players made that joke, a light went off in my head. I said to myself: “Alright, so the samurai is confirmed to have a misogynist streak. I haven’t declared the gender of my character yet. Obviously, by the context that has been shaped thus far – both in and out of the game – all other characters and players are assuming that my character is male. I can use this.”
Now would be a good moment to point out that the Special Spirit Squad’s players – including the DM – are all male. A question I would like to ask is whether that makes it alright to assume that the characters they would be playing would also be male. In my experience, guys are very hesitant to play characters of different genders, especially when they are playing at the table.
I had already decided that I wanted to play something weird and easily misunderstood; mistaken gender identity could prove a powerful source of both comedy and drama, if handled with proper care. Here then were the two factors that would determine my character: My initial conviction to play something misunderstood, and a random joke made in poor taste amongst ‘us guys’ over the table.
Could I safely assume that my character’s gender might be misidentified? This seemed like a simple ‘yes’. From the perspective of mammals, Toad-people would not have any discernible gender characteristics. Only those familiar with toad physiology would be able to tell the signs that are obvious once you know them; females tend to be larger than males, for example, while males have thicker arms.
So, in the precise moment that the samurai showed his misogynist colors, I decided that my character would be female. The innocent – if in poor taste – quip would become part of the fabric of our universe; it would prove a valuable and reliable source of conflict. In order to really drive the point home, I made her voice even deeper, to the point where long sessions actually hurt my throat. We humans associate deep voices with masculinity, but there is no reason to presume the same would be the case for amphibious races. These two qualities – size and tone of voice – were just two of the many ways in which I could use Glurf’s relative strangeness to call certain gender norms into question.
When Glurf finally revealed her gender when she refused to share a room with any of the boys – her piety ultimately overcoming her shyness and reluctance to assert herself – it was met with thunderous laughter from the group; it was mostly played for humor. But what may have started out as a joke has become so much more. Having Glurf keep such an important personal fact about herself secret and having her endure so much abuse for so long helped me craft a relatable identity for Glurf that went much further than a one-off gag. Glurf is a character that has gotten so accustomed to being misunderstood that she does not even bother to correct people anymore; she’s used to being mistaken for male in this mammal world. This has worn down her self-esteem to the point where she is really unsure about her abilities. She thirsts to be acknowledged and liked; she wants to make friends, but is too afraid to open up in fear of being misunderstood and mocked. Glurf learning to open up to her friends in the Special Spirit Squad and openly projecting her femininity with confidence will become one of her major character arcs in the first few chapters.
Ultimately, as a white cis-male, I am not sure whether I am qualified to write about and play through the struggles of having to endure gender misidentification, but empathizing with a character who deals with these issues sure helped me relate to these problems on a more personal level. Glurf has become one of my most cherished characters precisely because her personal struggles are so real, so current, so pressing.
Of course, like any real person, her gender isn’t the only thing that defines her, but when this facet about herself is chronically misunderstood, it tends to overshadow the other qualities she has. As she becomes more confident, we will see more aspects of Glurf: her humor, her bravery, her selfishness and devotion to her deity; but also her stubbornness, her recklessness and straight-up stupidity.
Look forward to that.
Here’s a picture of Glurf I had done by the very talented RPGtoons:
Since her being mistaken for male by mammals is an integral part of her character, it was paramount for her design that she not have any anthropomorphized female gender characteristics. No long eye-lashes or hair (Toads don’t even have hair), no red lipsticks and certainly no weird frog-breasts. I dislike these tropes in general and I would loathe for them to be associated with Glurf, since it would completely undermine the essence of her character.
In writing, I was very careful not to refer to Glurf with any gendered pronouns in the first three chapters in which she was featured. This helped form my decision to write the prologue in the second person from the perspective of Heqet, her deity; ‘you’ being gender-neutral. In the first two proper chapters, things were trickier. I decided that the narrator would use the neutral pronoun ‘they/they’re’, while all other characters – apart from the chief, who uses the even more demeaning ‘it’ – would refer to her with male pronouns. This might have gotten a little confusing at times, but that confusion was intentional. It was a real struggle for me, personally, since I knew that Glurf identified as female and I felt that I was mistreating her with my narrative. I triple-checked every chapter for female pronouns to ensure that the reveal would remain unspoiled. And every time I did, I found myself having to remove “she’s” and “her’s”. I am very relieved to finally be able to refer to her by her pronoun of choice, and I’m sure she is, too, even though there’s still a struggle for recognition ahead.