Table Reflection: Playing with Women

Okay, I’ll admit it, I’m a guy (as in male, XY chromosomes, plentiful testosterone). Most of the people I hang out with and run games for are too. I don’t have insight into women from a marketing perspective, so I’m not going to try to talk about how to interest women in gaming. Instead, I’m looking at a simple thing; handling women and men at the tabletop while playing roleplaying games (this applies a little to any community which is male dominated and often perceived or legitimately believed to be actively hostile to women), mostly from my own experiences as someone whose table often includes a woman, written to guys who wonder why women don’t want to roll up a barbarian and join them.

First, the thing that I see a lot is that women are treated differently in gaming. Some of this is ill thought out, like marketing ploys (“You can have a pink laser rifle!”), but others are more subtle. For instance, guys often think that women want to play characters with traditional gender roles; that is, they’ll play female characters in a support role, mimicking some idea of domesticity. This isn’t always true, but it’s partially helped by the fact that often times the easiest classes to play in games are the support ones, since they find themselves away from the battle lines, and have powerful healing or survival-enhancing abilities. Of course, this isn’t always sexist, but most of the women in my games, given a chance, choose a front-line combat role, rather than a support role. There’s this idea that men and women come to the table to get different things from the experience; this isn’t really true-there may be different tastes (for instance, swords and sorcery rather than social intrigue), but typically everyone’s there to have a story told, and nobody wants their character to stand out of the spotlight forever.

Second, one thing I see is that women often experience a mixed perception at the table. Typically, at the table, people leave behind who they are and assume a persona. It’s not that you can’t do stuff outside of your character-I’ve even had political discussions cut into my games-but it’s the same sort of attitude as when you go over to watch a sporting event with a friend at his home. Nobody wants to be constantly judged, and while the guys sort of get a free pass on any obscenity, women are constantly singled out for being women. The best situations I’ve had happen when gender is entirely ignored at the table-which may mean players taking a hit on their romantic aspirations for the good of the game. If you want women (or for that matter, men in the minority) to enjoy a mixed-gender session, it’s important to ensure that the perception of each player as a figment of themselves, rather than the whole of themselves, applies-they’re not in their normal “all-elements” mode, they’re there for relaxation and an experience; romance, business, and personal lives get left at the door.

GM impartiality is important. I often run games for smaller groups where I make characters and throw them in as a sort of GMPC (I’ll probably write about this later as well), and while I don’t always follow the exact rules on them, it’s important to treat them like any other character in the setting. The same rules go for women’s characters. I’ve seen several games where a female player gets special treatment (and I’ve run one myself, which was a cataclysmic mistake), and it’s not pretty. On one scale, perhaps the more tempting one, the player’s character has everything made easy and child-safe. Now, this can be appropriate for novice players, but it’s important to remember the distinction between novice and woman; as the spelling of the words implies, there’s no correlation. Roleplaying is just as much about challenges as it is about successes-the mood of the game may change how frequent they are, but constant success quickly becomes boring, especially if players are not given the opportunity to push their characters above and beyond the boundaries of safety. On the other hand, which I’ve never seen, but I’ve heard about, is the “Let the boys take care of you, honey.” difference, where women are given an increased challenge-everything becomes an opportunity for the men to shine and outperform their counterparts. I don’t really need to tell anyone why this is bad, as it’s distasteful even to think about for most people, but let’s just say that you’re not going to get repeat players that way.

The final thing I’ll touch on is the importance of manners. There are lots of derogatory words about women, and not that many about men-I think it’s too easy for men who swear to forget how foul their language is. Just as anywhere else, everyone has a tolerance, and if you’ve been having problems getting women to join in your games, consider whether or not you, as a stranger, would feel comfortable in your game. I’ve run games for people who swear pretty casually, and while I personally find it distasteful, and avoid doing so myself, I tolerate it more than I probably should. Am I surprised when players don’t come back after meeting my more vulgar players? Not necessarily. It may be time to dig out a “swear jar”, if you want to wean your players off swearing, or just accept that you’ll have to confront your players’ antisocial behavior before you can get a woman, especially a woman that considers herself a non-gamer, to join your group.

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