• Dear Gaming As Women: GMing for Women

    by , , , and  • August 3, 2012 • Dear GAW • 4 Comments

    Welcome to the fourth installment of Dear Gaming As Women! We invite our readers to asks us anything – and we’ll do our best to offer informative, thought-provoking, and entertaining answers. In today’s letter, a reader who hasn’t GMed in a long time asks how to do so in a group with women, including new players:

    Dear Gaming As Women,

    My situation is the following. I haven’t GMed in a long time. Lately a couple of friends have insisted that we play, and that I GM. Fine I said.

    The group will consist of: a female friend of mine (which i’ve known since elementary school – and we’ve also played a few sessions together last year, with another guy GMing). And a couple. The guy is quite excited, his gf is mostly in it for the social side I think. She does have a fantasy gene (her older brother was my rpg mentor after all) and she enjoys reading books or seeing movies with fantastic elements (twilight a recent example) but i think she is a bit sceptical (slightly reluctant?) about playing and mostly agreed to it for the social aspect of it.

    Now even though I haven’t played in a long time, i’ve always considered myself a good GM. I did however only GM with blokes (teenage boys at the time actually, such as myself). Now at the risk of sounding reductive, the thing with boys is you can throw some gun shooting at them and a few explosions and you’ve snatched their attention. I know this, hollywood knows this. Somehow I don’t think this approach will work in this case.

    A. we plan to play Lone Wolf. Fantasy setting. Therefore no guns (mostly). I guess i can still do explosions.

    B. Different audience.

    Therefore I think i will need to expand my range a little bit. I like Robin Laws’ split of procedural vs dramatic scenes in a narrative. But except for waiting for that fine game to come out, i want to ask the panel: have you had an experience engaging a player, a woman in particular, in a game where they participated socially?

    If so, what techniques, themes and tricks did you use to achieve that?

    Also, do you think an inherently procedural fantasy game’s plotlines (quests etc) can coexist with a more dramatic thread? Or should I just wait for Hillfolk to come out?

    Cheers, George


    Giulia – This is a fantastic position to find yourself in. As you haven’t GMed since your teenage years, you shouldn’t have old, rooted habits which you’ve developed with a specific group – this means that you can start from a clean slate and adapt your style to the players as the game goes on. I mean: they’re women, newbies, whatever, who cares! What matters here is that you will be playing for the first time with this group of people, so go with the flow.

    This might sound like a cop-out answer, so let’s put it like this: be a careful GM, tread lightly. Keep your mind open. Do not expect your players to want something based on their gender (I, for one, love massive, ludicrous explosions.) Do pay attention to their reactions when you put something forward. It could be facial expressions while you explain the setting. It could be off-hand comments about NPCs. It could be something else you’ve talked about in a different social encounter (a person telling you what their favorite movie is, or commenting negatively a news item).

    You’re an adult with adult interactions with these people. A game with them should not be considered anything different.

    Angela – I’ve played in a few groups where one or more members were there simply for the social aspect – male and female alike. Some of these people wanted nothing more than to blow things up, treating the RPG like a first person shooter only with dice rather than a controller. Some of them wanted to stay in the background waiting for others to show them how to do this silly thing.

    And some of them surprise you, and possibly themselves, and turn out to be more than competent role players all around.

    Figure out what this person wants to get out of her social evening. You already know she has an interest in fantasy, so maybe you can find out what sorts of fantasy characters she’s interested in and model a character for her on that. Pulling from Twilight, maybe she wants to play someone cool and confident in her powers, like post-vampire Bella, or maybe someone with a tragic backstory, like many of the other vampire characters. If she has no idea what sort of character she’d want to play, then help her create a well-rounded character and make sure to throw lots of variety into your story for the night and see what sticks. Not every campaign can be the RPG-equivalent of The Expendables. And that’s okay. Throw in plenty of variety to keep everyone interested and you should be golden! Good luck!

    Michelle – I just finished a short foray into the Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying Game last night with a group, which ended up being equal parts intrigue and combat. First, pay attention to your players and the characters they make. One of my guys made the daughter of the household — he was a pretty pretty princess who could wield a sword who’d just returned from travel, so I incorporated a side story about an impending arranged marriage and some competition for her beau’s attention. One made a sneaky, sullen 14-yr-old, so I gave him things to sneak and be sullen about (all of his older siblings, for one). One made the dark horse of the family, so I gave him some issues with his mother and the family, where he gets called on to do the dirty work and gets misunderstood. One made a naive archer with a lust for life, and him I gave things to shoot and made his simple outlook complicated with a woman who was more than she seemed. One was a bannerman for the household, so I let him bodyguard and thump things, and one was a lady of the house who wanted intrigue, so I had the daughter’s beau take a shine to her and have an assignation.

    Your players will tell you what they want to do — figure out what they enjoy and throw each of them a bit of shiny plot or item or player interaction each game. Explosions and using skills and such are awesome, but it’s the story and the character interaction they’ll remember down the line — system is just a way of providing that.

    Meguey – Good questions. I’ll answer them in turn.

    Have you had an experience engaging a player, a woman in particular, in a game where they participated socially?

    Yes, but in my experience it’s been two different men in two different games who are just there to be social. Michele has really solid answers on this – take what they give you, magnify it and shine it back. They are coming along to see what’s going on, to support their friends, and to have a shared frame of reference for other non-gaming hang-outs with this crowd.

    If so, what techniques, themes and tricks did you use to achieve that?

    My biggest one is Step up – Step Back, which is just a fancy way to say watch your player’s “screen time”. If you have a player or players who are really digging the game and talking a lot, signal them to hold up a sec, turn to the quieter ones and ask them straight-out “What do you do?” Cut around a lot, as much as you can, to keep things moving and engaging.  At some point though, you have to accept that some of it is on them, too. If you are running a good game, and five of your six players are super-happy about it, but one of them is disengaged, maybe that’s just their thing? I once had a player who LOVED writing out totally complex back-stories and side-stories for his character, but at the table, he’d basically sit in his coffee shop and watch stuff happen. I brought the action to the coffee shop to engage his PC, but still, he was mostly doll-housing* in the corner, which was fine. He was happy, the rest of us were happy – no problem.

    Also, do you think an inherently procedural fantasy game’s plotlines (quests etc) can coexist with a more dramatic thread? Or should I just wait for Hillfolk to come out?

    Sure! Of course! If there’s not at least some dramatic reasons for what’s going on, it may as well just be a maze with a maguffin at the end. Make your NPCs whole people, with lives and hopes and agendas, and let them intersect with your PCs in interesting ways, and you’ll be set.

    *Doll-housing: creating lots of world-creation on the sidelines of a regular campaign. This could be in map making, in writing out back-story, or in always piping up when anyone asks for info about a certain subject of the game world. This is not sand-boxing, where the world is wide open to explore and play with; it’s more structured, and fits within the framework of a broader story or vision.

    Darla – Others have touched on this gently, but I really wanted to emphasize (and be more blunt), yes, you are being reductive, and please stop it.  Mainly, please stop it because stopping will make you a much, much better GM. Different people have different preferences, and making assumptions about what a new player’s preferences are based only on her gender or how she got involved is dangerous. For a personal story, I came very close to never discovering videogames, because my friends all assumed that, because I’m a girl, and because I am interested in tabletop RPGs, I would enjoy video RPGs. They pushed them really, really hard. Turns out, I really hate video RPGs. So. Boring. What I love is shooters. I simply cannot understand wanting to play a videogame where you don’t blow shit up. The only way I know this, is that I (very reluctantly) finally playing a game where the point is to blow shit up. (And, you know, shoot things.) Maybe your new player will similarly discover that she likes hack and slash.

    As for practical advice, it seems to me like you simply sometimes have to try out many different styles (or, for me, many different games), and see what people like. People often don’t quite understand and can’t predict themselves what they will like, especially when they’re not familiar at all with roleplaying games, so really there’s no way you are going to be able to accurately predict it for them. If I were you, and if your players are willing, I would run a short series of one-shots of very different games.  Make sure from the start that everyone understands that there are a lot of different experiences that fall under “playing roleplaying games,” and you’re exploring a few of them. Run something you’re comfortable with, but also try to get out of your comfort zone a bit and do something different and interesting.

    And, very important, after each session, sit down with your players and have a conversation.  Ask questions like: What did you especially like about this game? Is there anything you especially disliked? Was anything unexpected or surprising? What moment in the game was most fun and engaging? What did you like and dislike about your character? That sort of thing.


    Our mailbox is always open! To send your question to Gaming As Women, head over to the contact form and tell us what’s on your mind. For more info on this feature and the ground rules, check out the announcement post.



    Player of all sorts of games, tabletop roleplaying games publisher, engineer, and amateur designer. Based in northern Italy, I live with a pretty cool artist, a ton of books and too much technology.




    Lifelong geek and feminist, my geeky passions include YA books, movies, and role playing. I've been playing table top games on and off for almost ten years with a wide variety of games under my belt in that time. Born and raised in Michigan, I've fulfilled a life-long dream and now live in New York City with my spouse and three cats. My gaming exploits are recorded at http://www.fandible.com



    I'm Michelle Lyons-McFarland. I'm currently a PhD student in the English Department at Case Western Reserve University, and I'm also a writer and editor in the RPG industry and have been since 2000. My husband Matthew McFarland and I have a game company together called Growling Door Games. I not only write and edit (and even some design) but I play too, everything from tabletop to console to card to board to occasional minis games (the cost keeps me from jumping straight in). I have a vested interest in gaming as a woman on both the macro and micro scale, from moderating on RPGnet to attending cons to finding work in the field.



    Meguey Baker has been playing RPGs since 1978. Her most recent game is Psi*Run, a game about people with psychic powers and amnesia, released in 2012. She is currently working on Miss Schiffer's School for Young Ladies of Quality, a game about bold adventurous women scientists and explorers in the 1890s. Meg is also the mother of three sons, a sex ed teacher, and a textile conservation specialist.




    I am a player of indie tabletop RPGs, boardgames, and videogames. I am a programmer and an ex-computational linguistics researcher. I am a pro-sex feminist, and in general an advocate for social justice. I am a mother of a young daughter. I am a generally creative person; I draw, knit, sew, and occasionally try to write. I have lived most my life in the US, but I now live in Germany. You can contact me via my Google profile.

    4 Responses to Dear Gaming As Women: GMing for Women

    1. avatar
      August 3, 2012 at 17:30


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      • avatar
        Mattia Bulgarelli
        August 4, 2012 at 12:09

        (Italian) PNG = (English) NPC
        (Italian) PG = (English) PC

        We Italians have to manage two complete sets of technical shortenings for RPG stuff… sometimes they look or sound alike, too ^^;

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    2. avatar
      August 5, 2012 at 19:22

      Thanks for taking the time to answer with some very insightful comments, appreciated.

      Thumb up Thumb down +1
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