Women at the Table, Part 1: In the Beginning...
About once every two to three months, I see a post shared somewhere claiming to spell out the secrets of getting women to join your game and stick around longer than one session. They're almost exclusively written by men, and they almost always focus on something to do with sex or bad nerd hygiene / manners. This series of posts isn't about either of those things.
Instead, we're going to talk about all the ways common male communication styles shut out the women at the table. This series of posts are especially directed at male GMs who already have well-behaved groups that bathe regularly and don't try to grope the women at the table, but still find they're having a hard time keeping the women interested and coming back. Chances are, you or your players are doing things that are perfectly natural to you, but that are off-putting to the women at the table.
It's super important to walk into this with a wide open mind. One of the things that depresses me about this subject is the tendency for male writers to talk about women as if we need to be treated like porcelain dolls. I find this insulting. Women aren't fragile. We're not going to run away screaming at the first sight of a chainmail bikini, or the first time someone at the table says 'fuck' or makes an off-color joke.
I believe this tendency occurs at least partially as a result of the thinking that anything marked 'feminine' is somehow weaker and inferior. I don't think this is something that many people consciously decide, but it's still there, nonetheless. It makes any sort of change to adapt to women in the group sound like pandering.
So, rather than think of it that way, I'd like you to pause and consider that the way you and your group are talking to one another and collaborating in the game may not be the most conducive to all parties. Typically, men and women are socialized very differently, and that has an effect on how we communicate. Very few of us consciously think about how we're talking to one another, but it makes a pretty big difference in group cohesiveness because roleplaying games are entirely about communication.
Now, a disclaimer... I'm going to use a lot of generalities to save some time. I don't want to have to qualify 'women' every time that I write it... so, I'm going to say it here once, instead. Women are not all the same. The communication styles and behaviors I talk about are the ones I see and interact with most commonly. Similarly, none of the things that I'll talk about in these posts are unique only unto women. These are all things I've seen more commonly present in women than men, and that are a repeating pattern among women.
None of the solutions listed are gender-exclusive, either. You may well have a male player that could benefit with a slight change in the way people are talking at the table. For a less complicated discussion, and because I'm a woman myself, I'll be talking about these things from a woman's point of view.
Lastly, there's no guarantee that any of this shit will work with your particular group and your particular problems. Not every group has the same problems for the same reasons, so not every group can benefit from the same solutions. Some improvisation and changes on your part to adapt to your particular group may be needed.
What qualifies me to speak on this subject?
- I am a woman. Most of the things I write about are things that I've experienced or observed first-hand.
- I've been running roleplaying games for over twenty years.
- I founded and run ConTessa, an organization promoting women in leadership within the RPG community.
- As a web developer, I've spent my entire career in a heavily male-dominated profession, including a decade in the video game industry.
- I've been a life-long feminist.
- I read lots of stuff really smart people write.
I'll be tackling this subject from a practical perspective. I'm not going to examine very closely why these things are the way that they are. The answer to that is always: it's complicated. Instead, we're going to talk about what the issues is and offer solutions to that issue.
One last thing before I finish this long preamble and get into Part 1. In many posts about this subject, I see the author advocate changing the content of your game to suit female players. I'm not sure if there's anything more insulting than believing you know better than I do what sort of content I want to experience. Not every woman dislikes chainmail bikinis, and not every woman who dislikes chainmail bikinis is going to avoid games that use that sort of artwork. You should be having conversations with your whole group about what kind of content is good, and what they'd rather not have to deal with. Issues with sensitive content is never a gendered issue.
Before You Start a Game
Previous experience gaming makes a big difference when starting up a new game, whether you're playing or GMing. So many games are so similar that once you've played a few different styles of games, picking up on new games becomes faster and easier. For those of us who are time-strapped that experience can be a pretty big blessing. Having a general idea what you can skip over, what you can skim, and what's most important for that first game saves a lot of time.
People who are newer to gaming often think they need to read an entire 400+ page book before playing. While that is, of course, an option, it's not at all required. I rarely see this communicated to players. More often than not, the GM chooses the system, hands over the book or tells the group to go and get their own books, then just expects everyone to either be ready or not be ready at the first game.
This plays into perfectionism, a personality trait common to many women. Perfectionism cuts both ways. Normal perfectionism can very helpful in producing quality work of all sorts. Maladaptive perfectionism, on the other hand, can freeze us in our tracks and keep us from doing anything at all before meeting some lofty goal of knowledge that's mostly impossible to reach.
Tackling Over-Preparation Syndrome
There are many things you can do to set expectations from the get-go and get the group warmed up to each other.
- Make sure everyone knows what they need to know for the first game. This may be as little as 'nothing', or as much as 'the whole book' (though I wouldn't advise that last part). Just make sure everyone knows the minimum of what they need. Otherwise, perfectionists will default to needing to read every word.
- Provide the players (especially those new to the system) with the golden path through the book to read what's minimally necessary to create a character. Some books are organized absolutely horribly. A list of page numbers can get a new player to the most important parts of the book without having to get caught up in the least important parts. I favor adding page numbers and explanations wherever possible on the character sheet. This can be especially easy if you use a digital sheet in something like Google Docs or Google Sheets where you can add that information as notes or comments, but even a quick sheet of page numbers works.
- Pre-gen characters help in more ways than one. Pre-gen characters fill a rather obvious role in allowing a player to come into the game without having to learn character generation, but they also fill a not-so-obvious role in helping figure out what certain things mean on the character sheet. Not every game provides these, so it can be helpful to have a couple of 'example characters' available.
- Run through character generation together. It'll help everyone understand how their characters fit with each other, and it also serves as a good ice breaking session. I've even been known to add ice-breaker party games to the mix that help flesh out people's characters while getting to know each other at the same time. As a GM, I also find this session helpful so that you only have to answer questions about things that apply to everyone once.
The bigger the hurdle, the less likely a busy, modern adult is going to be able to clear that hurdle. Most of the GMs that I know don't expect you to know anything at character generation, and aside from some very complex games like Shadowrun, I don't think it's at all necessary to know anything about the game before you hit character generation.
Another thing I favor, but didn't put on the list... whenever possible, start on the same page. I didn't put it on the list because it's not feasible for every group. Starting a fresh game in a fresh system that no one at the gaming table knows can function as a great equalizer. The people with a lot of experience will still pick the game up quicker, but they'll have just as many questions as the people who have been gaming forever, so it feels a lot less intimidating.
I always like to try to reiterate to my players that by and large, we're all learning this stuff together. Even when I read books all the way through as a GM, I often have to go back and look rules up again during gameplay because I forget the specifics. It's a good thing for people to know they're not expected to know everything on the first day.
Well, that's all I have for part 1! In the next part of this series, I'll get into talking about how you talk to each other once the game has already started. Feeling like you're a valuable member of the group is pretty important to have fun in roleplaying games. Sometimes it takes a little help from the GM to make sure that everyone gets a chance to throw in their really cool ideas.