As we continue the #Rethinking series, we are looking at Amazons: the mythological (and who knows, maybe historical? More on that later) all-female warrioress culture of the Greeks. The concept of an "Amazon culture" is actually hotly debated by the few who really care, though you tend to see it pop up in roleplay games, stories, and movies regardless.
And when you think about "Amazons," you probably think that you know everything there is to know: a bunch of female fighters that often hate men, love hunting, and live in isolation, right? And if you think you know everything about a culture, you will not find it as interesting in a game.
And that's a shame, because new cultures and peoples should be one of the exciting things in an adventure, especially cultures that are so foreign to our experience as modern people. So let's take a look at how to make your Amazon tribe more unique and interesting in your roleplay game or story.
I. What Is an Amazon?
Amazons, admittedly, are a mystery, so answering this question is harder than for the other entries in our series. In truth, we don't even know what the name means, as it's only mentioned within the context of the amazonomache (Amazon wars). So we need to remember upfront that Amazons should be mysterious, causing the party to stop and think when they interact with them.
The few things we do know about them give us a baseline for how to build the culture: they are an all-female culture that practices the art of war, have some background with hunting, and are willing to work with men in specific circumstances. And this is where most people get it wrong: they paint their Amazons as man-haters who will not work with men, complicating relations off the bat with the protagonists.
Herakles for one of his labors was asked to retrieve the Girdle of Hippolyta, an Amazon queen, and she struck a bargain with him that if he could perform a task for her she would give him the girdle. So unlike some portrayals of Amazons, some Amazons were at least willing to work with men, if not all of them. More on this later.
We also have a rough idea of where they came from: the stories point toward the steppes of Eastern Europe, in the region that was dominated by the Scythians. The Scythians were excellent horse archers, and some scholars believe that the raucous and debauched portrayal of centaurs is also intended to point to the Scythians.
But we also hear of Amazon clans on the island of Lesbos, and of course Jason and his Argonauts come across a clan of them on their journey as well, so a non-calvary coastal emphasis for your Amazons is also consistent with the lore.
And finally, we know that they were equipped with arms and armor. These are not your scantily clad gals in a Justice League movie (though they did a really good job on the arms and armor in the Wonder Woman movie): these are gals that, if you were to face them in battle, would be hard to wound past their spears, shields, helms, and cuirasses. Naturally you can change the loadout based on your technology level and theme for your campaign or story (think Israeli IDF female units for a modern era, or a "female space marine chapter" for a sci-fi era), but the concept is the same: they prepare for battle like all others do, using conventional weaponry and armor to keep them safe from harm.
II. Rethinking Amazons
There are many ways that we can make Amazons different in their cultures and customs to make them more distinct and fascinating to the party. The first way goes back to the idea of Amazons trusting or distrusting men, as your roleplay party will be predominately male (or at least male players, if statistics are true). I recommend having some of your clans be open and willing to work with men, and maybe others have been burned in the past and thus are wary. This gives you variety, and will encourage the party to work with, say, the Tribe of Janys over the Tribe of Halda, for example.
Another thing you can do is to have Amazon adventuring parties meet the party while they are in a different town. This not only introduces them initially to the fact that there is an Amazon tribe nearby, gives the party common ground with the tribe before they meet, and allows them to ask some of their questions before they meet them for real.
The trick with this is to cut off the conversation early: don't spoil the mystery. Let them ask some questions, then have one of the Amazons say, "You ask so many questions! We will not share all of our secrets with you, men folk. If you wish to know more, you must meet our queen. She shall tell you all." And then have them leave.
And here's the thing: adventurers are used to not sharing their whole life story with complete strangers. So naturally don't be mean about it, but adventurers will get it and will not take it personally. You haven't spoiled relationships by not spoiling the whole of who this tribe is.
(Also, as an aside, they may just assume that you're making it up on the fly and that you hadn't thought of anything else so the players will also let it slide. Jokes on them for assuming that we threw this together last-minute)
Third, make them nomadic. This makes them harder to find, and thus adds to the mystery: they aren't on the map, because they keep moving, or perhaps there is a region of the map that is circled with a note that says, "Here there be Amazons." This can be easily justified by making them a hunting society (consistent with the lore) or a herding/ranching society (also consistent with the lore), but subliminally adds to the mystery of the tribe. It also subliminally gives the message that they are free and independent, as nothing - not even houses - can keep them in one place.
If you really want to make them different, have them be ranchers, but they herd dinosaurs or some other large creature that your lore allows. This takes a concept they will automatically understand and raises it to the next level. Plus it means you can give telltale signs that the party is getting close to finding their camp: fallen trees, massive footprints, etc.
Fourth, think through the intersection of their technology and their trades. Are your Amazons a hunting-based culture (trade)? If so, they will likely rely on bows, spears, and slings more than swords (technology). Do they have mines and smithies readily available (either by trade or through their own industry)? If not, then they will likely lean more toward cloth and leather armor over metal armor (with cloth armor being likely regardless if the climate is cold). This helps to create that element of realism for your clan, which is more immersive for your players.
Fifth, how do they repopulate? You don't need to volunteer this information, but in case the players ask it's good to know. In the world of Zurn, for example, the Amazon Tribe of Janys has a simple way of repopulating: they marry men and have children. The men are not considered part of the tribe (often they are humans or Wild Men from neighboring villages), and when a girl is born the girl is added to the tribe while the boys are added to the husband's tribe.
But this presents a concept that is interesting and unique to players: the idea of a family unit that regularly spends time together that is split between two tribes. The notion of members of two tribes sharing one roof is a radical thought that will draw the attention of your players. As a complete aside, it also opens up the avenue for romance for a player character, as they can marry an Amazon even though they cannot join the tribe, so it leaves plot points open for player agency.
And finally (though the list could go on), consider why an Amazon tribe exists in your world. Did something happen to a group of women that made them think it would be better/easier/safer to live amongst only women? On the flip side, are there any tribes of Amazons that gave up their ways and married into another clan, and if so for what reason?
Stories get better not only when there are interesting people and cultures to encounter, but also when those cultures 1) make sense, and 2) show the interplay of different virtues, priorities, and situations. It makes the world feel more real, and that's a great asset to us as we game master or write a story.
Our players have a weight of expectation on them (or at least they should): the story will rise or fall based on the actions they take. Because of this the game master also has a weight of expectation: we need to create a world that is vibrant and evocative enough that will keep them engaged, while still being open-ended enough that they can make meaningful decisions. And by rethinking the Amazon trope we can both increase player agency and make the world more unique with a little bit of extra care and forethought.
In our next post we are returning to our "Let's Play" series, discussing a unique character concept that has huge ramifications for playstyle and character design, especially if your world has verbal magic: the mute.
Until next time,