What I Learned From Women RPG Groups
Like many women who are part of the hobby, my first experiences in role-playing games (RPGs) were with groups predominantly composed of men. Although I had a blast playing with them and quickly grew to love the hobby, it wasn’t until many years later that I had a chance to run games for groups that were made up of mostly women or all-women. I was shocked by how the tone of the group seemed so different from what I was used to: cooperation and camaraderie reigned over competition and power gaming. As a game master (GM), these groups that skewed heavily female pushed me in a direction I’d always wanted to go, but had never had the audience for: role-playing, character relationships, and storytelling finally came to the forefront in a way I’d never seen them before.
The difference began to show itself in the types of backstories I received during character creation. I had to restrict the length of the backstories, lest some of the more writerly types turn in novelettes to me. Nevertheless, the player characters’ pasts were dripping with events and characters that had shaped them over the course of their lives, giving each of them a compelling emotional starting point and growth arc to pursue during the game. Many of them provided flaws for their characters without complaint or being rewarded mechanically.
As their characters stepped into the world, they immediately took an interest in the non-player characters (NPCs) that lived there. I hadn’t bothered to give names to the minor NPCs because I was used to players skipping over them in favor of the more powerful-looking NPCs, but I had to quickly improvise when the PCs took the opportunity to get to know nearly all of the inhabitants of the small village they first encountered. I felt compelled to bring back many NPCs as recurring allies or rivals unexpectedly because of how quickly the players had latched onto them. And I soon learned that the deeper the emotional connection the players made with these recurring characters, the deeper I could twist the knife later in the story through betrayal or loss.
Even this was nothing compared to the in-character role-playing they did with one another. I discovered early on that I could reliably devote ten to fifteen minutes (sometimes even more) of each scene to letting the player characters talk with one another. Many of the players took these chances to reveal their characters through dialogue and give their character a chance to grow and change. Each pairing took on its own dynamic, and I routinely heard players remark that they “loved the chance to interact with” other players’ characters. They were happy to help each other play through each character’s arc, both by revealing surprises from their backstory or by metagaming to enhance the drama at the table.
While PC are notorious for “ruining” the best-laid story plans of a GM or ignoring the GM’s adventure hooks, in my groups of all or mostly women, I finally had an audience for the intricate stories I’d longed to craft. The players were devoted to uncovering the next layer of the mystery, tying together the different plot threads, and seeing the consequences of their actions unfold in the world. They were so engaged in the story that they frequently offered suggestions for what might happen next or how certain NPCs might react. When they had an especially cool idea (which was often), I would blow up my original plans and instead follow the plot thread that they thought would be fun and interesting.
Last but not least, these women groups placed much less importance on combat and power gaming. They seemed to be as likely to try to de-escalate tensions and avoid combat as they were to fight, which was a huge departure from the role-playing norms I was used to. (“Hey, quit talking to my XP!”) When it came time to advancing characters, they would make choices based on their character’s theme and personality first, and optimization second. The players were less inclined to invoke obscure or complex rules to maximize their character’s chances of success, instead choosing to use the “rule of cool” or to increase the narrative drama of the moment. The players would choose to fail checks before they even rolled, because that seemed to be the best choice for the story or their character. Our greatest sessions were when dice rolling was rare and the rulebooks were barely cracked open. These players favored story and character immersion over interfacing with the game system.
Besides the appeal of the gaming style itself, I’ve found that all-women and predominantly women gaming groups can be a safe space for other women and marginalized groups looking to try role-playing games for the first time, especially if those prospective gamers are intimidated by the competitiveness commonly found in game groups or the number of complex rules they might be expected to memorize.
Thanks to the internet and social media, it’s easier than ever to create or find a group of women role-playing gamers. Players should look on Meetup.com, Facebook groups, or the bulletin boards of the local gaming stores where they’d want to play. Game masters can post advertisements on those sites to recruit new players. Attending a convention where ConTessa is running games is another great way to meet women game masters and players, or you might look for players or groups on the ConTessa Google Group.
You can also introduce your female friends to gaming by finding a fandom they all enjoy (Dr. Who, Dragon Age, Firefly, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars… the list goes on) and picking up the role-playing game corresponding to that license. Or, with a little bit of elbow grease, you might convert an existing role-playing game to the fictional universe of your choice.
If you’ve never been a game master before, there are many great resources out there to help you get started. You might begin by picking up a Starter Set or Beginner Game for your desired game system. The intended audience for these products is very inexperienced gamers, so they walk you through the nuts and bolts of role-playing games, and they are designed to teach the players and the GM the rules through play. Core rulebooks also feature chapters specifically written for the game master, so you can follow their guidelines for running published adventures or creating your own.
Have you ever gamed with a group that was predominantly women? Share your experiences in the comments below!