• Dear Gaming As Women: Men Roleplaying as Women

    by , , and  • October 25, 2012 • Dear GAW • 14 Comments

    Welcome to latest 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 asks for advice on playing women:

    Dear Gaming as Women,

    They say a sensible starting point when playing in a tabletop RPG is to “play what you know” – make your characters some kind of variation on yourself, and have the character react to obstacles in-play as you would act yourself.  It’s advice I tend to flaunt myself – I get bored of playing the same characters over and over, so tend towards variety, trying to challenge myself with new characters different to what I’ve played before.

    Despite this, whilst the PCs I’ve played have ranged wildly in personality and outlook, they all have one thing in common: they have all been men.

    In my time as a gamer, I reckon I’ve played alongside maybe 40-50 men and 10-20 women.  Most of the women I game with regularly have played as men at some point in their gaming career.  I can count the number of men I’ve seen play female PCs on one hand – most of them have been for one-off games, I can think of only one guy to have roleplayed as a woman for a whole campaign.

    I’m not sure if my experience is typical or not, and obviously cannot provide reasons for why my male friends tend to shy away from female characters, but personally can think of two things that put me off.  The first is the default, unsatisfying answer: as a guy, I cannot “understand” a woman as well as a man, and would therefore find it harder to get into character.  The hole in this argument is easy to present, though, when one considers that I’m quite happy to roleplay as a rampaging, inhuman Orc Warlord, but playing a female character of my species, age and social outlook would be too alien to consider.

    The second reason is the fear of causing offence.  If I present my Orc Warlord as a one-dimensional Tolkien-esque caricature, I’m unlikely to offend any Orcs passing by in the real world.  But if I play a woman, such lapses into insulting stereotype and much more likely to be resented.  Though a sexist portrayal of a female character would obviously not be my intention (this character is my PC after all, I want her to have personality and I want to like her!), good old-fashioned bad roleplaying is a vice I’m as guilty of on occasion as anyone else.  Faced with the possibility that these lapses might not be brushed under the carpet, but instead cause actual insult, staying well clear with a male character seems the less risky option.

    I’m exaggerating my insecurity here – perhaps paradoxically, when I GM (which I do a lot more of than playing), I assume the role of female NPCs all the time.  Perhaps 40-50% of any of my NPCs in a campaign will be female.  I’m not sure why I’ve made an exception for them but not NPCs, unless it really is a matter of wanting to “understand” my PCs after all.

    Anyway, my questions:

    • What would you advise for men roleplaying as women in a tabletop game?
    • What has been your experience of men roleplaying as women in games you’ve run or played in?
    • Have you ever encountered negative experiences of men roleplaying as women in a game – and if so, how was it handled, and did this solve the problem?

    - Michael

    Brie - Michael, thanks for writing in! I think this is a good question because it is one that I have heard many times, but never had the chance to address publicly. I think it is possible for a man to play a female character without being offensive, but there are a lot of key points that you need to keep in mind. I’m pulling from what I remember of bad portrayals of female characters (in game and acting).

    First, be aware of your audience: are you playing in a group of just guys? If you are, it makes it much more likely you will drift into a stereotypical characterization, in part because there might not be anyone there to call you out. It is more important for you to represent a female character honestly when it’s just you and “the guys” than you think. Be more aware of sexism from other players and from the group dynamic both for PCs and NPCs. This also counts if you have a woman in your group who is “one of the guys”. She is probably really good at keeping herself wrapped up so no one sees that it bugs her when people dismiss her or treat women badly – most women who have gamed in that situation or who have a lot of guy friends know what I’m talking about.

    Second, try to play female characters in the most realistic way possible. It helps if you build a female character based on what you respect, not what you want. Sure, it might be fun to play the “sexy pirate chick”, but, if you’re trying to portray what you find “sexy” – well, it might be marginalizing, or even somewhat demeaning, without you even knowing it. When introducing your character, if you’re playing a “sexy” character, you would probably do a physical description – and guess what, there’s your boobs, your butt, and oh, her corset is so tight. Wait, what woman describes herself as that when she’s trying to be a hero or powerful? Instead, try to think of someone you would respect. Maybe there’s a teacher you liked – a woman who stood up straight and took no one’s shit. That’s where you start. When you describe your character now, you say, She’s carrying a firearm on her hip and a cutlass on the other, and she’d be twice as dangerous without her eye patch. There’s an implication of power there – a little bit of intimidation, maybe some people might think she’s sexy from that description, but what comes through is her strength and tenacity. Avoid picking out negative stereotypes, too, like the nagging wife or “slutty” cheerleader.

    Last, to really address your questions: In the games I played where women were badly portrayed, I didn’t speak up. I regret it now. Once or twice I made some offhand “oh, yeah, let’s be stereotypical and sexist, guys” comments – but I was a teenager gaming with a ton of older guys who were pretty set in their ways, and too afraid. Now, if it would happen in my current game group, I call it out. I tell them they’re being sexist, but say, how about you do it this way? Don’t tell them they’re sucking at it, tell them how to make it better. And as a guy, you should really think about calling them out, too – don’t just count on the women to say it. Most of the time, if a male player makes his female character do something sexist (porny, nagging, etc.), there’s almost a noticeable twinge through the room – you probably notice it too. Speak up. Even when you aren’t playing a woman in game, being a male player who promotes positive female characters will make a big difference.

    Elin - We are not all that different. Play a woman the way you would play a man, but keep in mind that she will meet different social expectations then a man does. If you play in a world where women are expected to be pretty, submissive and quiet, those norms that will affect the character no matter is she submits to them or not. If she breaks the social norms, people will react to her behavior and there will be consequences for her. If she submits to the social norms, people will react to that and there will be consequences for her. Simple. Just like a man, but with different expectations.

    But if you are nervous about playing a female character it can be a bit easier to play a character you have a bit more distance to. If playing a women close to your own age and outlook feels a bit to challenging, it’s probably because we are not so different –  it will be all about playing how subtle unspoken social expectations affects you character differently. To get around that you can play a female character that face very different expectations.

    My tip: Play a grandmother.

    People tend to have met grandmothers in their lives they respect, love and know. That makes them easy to play. It is also easy to guess what sort of social expectations a grandmother faces in different situations. People often relate to older people in special ways, which tend to create interesting relationships within the group. You can vary the concept of “grandmother” endlessly. Old mafia grandmother. Retired expert marksman grandmother. Old powerful diplomat grandmother. Old witch grandmother. Old assassin grandmother. Inquisitor grandmother. (Add the word grandmother to any concept and it becomes 40% cooler.)

    Jess – Your instinct about there being a difference between PCs and NPCs is right on the money. One of the best ways to avoid having your female characters be stereotypes is to have lots of them. That means any choices that fit into female stereotypes aren’t just, well, stereotypes – they’re part of a spectrum of how women behave. This works great when you’re the GM and you have lots of NPCs at your fingertips, but when you’re creating a PC, you just have one character to work with. That gives your choices greater weight, whether you want it to or not.

    I’ve had a lot of very successful cross-play at my table. My number one lesson? Create a person who is more than her gender. If your female characters are defined by their sexual activity, their children, or even their desire to break free of restrictive gender roles, they’re also more likely to seem like stereotypes.

    Of course, we all know it’s not that easy, so here are three great techniques for making that happen.

    Design based on someone you know. Pick a family member or one of your best friends – someone you know intimately, but not romantically. Use their personality and strengths as inspiration for your character and her choices. For example, I built a character based on my mother. My mother is fierce, creative, and stubborn. She finds strength in crisis, but when there’s no crisis happening she gets stressed out by inactivity. I built my character the same way. When I wasn’t sure what the character would do, I just asked myself how my mother would respond!

    Create trait tension. Our society defines certain traits as masculine (independent, aggressive, strong) and others as feminine (emotional, nurturing, innocent). When you’re creating your character, pair a masculine and a feminine trait together for each aspect of the character. That way you can avoid the two big pitfalls: making a character who is nothing more than a mish-mash of female stereotypes, and making a character who rejects femininity entirely. When you’re role-playing the character, alternate scenes in which you emphasize masculine and feminine traits – and show how having both traits makes her more than the sum of her parts. For example, one of my favorite characters was physically imposing and strong (stereotypically male), and also quite naive and innocent (stereotypically female). She’d kick butt on the battlefield, then come home and get cheated out of all her gold. It was lots of fun to play!

    Build believable needs. Women tend to get assigned a specific set of goals and desires, usually revolving around family or romantic relationships. Until you’re more skilled at playing female PCs, you’ll want to choose other kinds of needs for them. I like to steal drives from novels with male protagonists, because novels let you see inside the character’s head, and male protagonists have the whole range of human motivations open to them. For example, I built a character based on Edward Waverly, from Walter Scott’s Waverly. He wants to make his father proud and bring honor to his family tradition, but his hedonistic side often leads him astray. Well, that’s what my character wanted too – though in adapting it to her particular situation, I made the motivations her own.

    The few times I’ve run into men playing women in a stereotypical and awful way, I’ve framed the problem as “laziness.” Who wants to run for a cookie-cutter character of any kind? If they can’t be bothered to make a character who’s more than a stereotype, why are they in the game? I say this affectionately, but firmly – and then I offer techniques, including the ones above, to deepen the character or to help them do more interesting things with her in play.

    Good luck!

    Meguey – Playing what you know is good! So is playing what you want to know! Trying on the world from another point of view is one of the huge gifts of gaming, and it’s benefits are wide-reaching.

    As you noted, many women play male PCs without hesitation. There are some very interesting things going on with playing crossgender, and much of it is about power and agency in the real world. As a teenage girl, playing a badass adult male is taking on the most powerful role in our society, trying on that authority, checking out what it feels like to be that. As a teenage boy, playing any female is often…why would you do that? It’s very clear where the power lies in most of society. It’s crap, but it has solid sociological backing. I also think this is breaking down faster than we might think, if watching my teenage sons and other teenage boys is usable evidence.

    So say you are a guy who wants to play a cool female PC. You’ve got to overcome the culturally induced and possibly  subconscious anxiety over playing someone who is potentially less powerful than you, then you have to figure out what makes that character actually powerful and dynamic and interesting as a PC, then you have to check for stereotypes and hope you can pull off a really excellent character that doesn’t come across as a bad joke. Of course it’s easier to just play a guy.

    • What would you advise for men roleplaying as women in a tabletop game?

    My advice to guys who want to play female PCS? Do it! Do it a lot! Stumble through the weird bits when you question whether your female healer is a healer because she’s a healer, or because that’s a traditional role for women. Ask yourself if using your 18 Charisma to charm your way past the guards was good use of a great roll on stats, or if it was playing into stereotypes about flirtatious women. Check in on your comfort levels around your badass Gunlugger, and those sex moves, and whether playing a buff woman soldier who happens to just not have a lover is saying something about women and sex and fighting, or if it’s just your character. Do all that!* Also follow the above advice from Brie and Elin and Jess, because they have great points.

    *Women do this too! We have to choose how we want to portray women, with the consciousness that anything we do might be taken as a confirmation of the stereotypes we deal with, or overcompensating, or being the voice of all womankind, or playing to type. It’s not always easy, and I suspect that’s part of why you see so many women playing men.

    Finally, get a visual aid. If you are unfamiliar with playing women, and the folks you are playing with are unfamiliar with you playing a woman, find a picture of a woman that looks like your character and have that on the table in front of you. Pay good heed to Brie’s advice here, and don’t follow the standard default to models or actresses – having  the promo shot of Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft in front of you is not going to do a lot to help you play authentic-seeming female characters. Look for real pictures of real women doing what your PC would do. Women medics, women scientists, women disaster survivors, women teachers and explorers and etc. etc. This will act as a continual reminder to you and to the rest of the table that you are playing a woman, not a stereotype.

    • What has been your experience of men roleplaying as women in games you’ve run or played in?

    Mixed! Some guys play women effortlessly and believably and habitually. Some guys make a hamhanded mess of it and are just playing  male characters with female names (you can tell when this is happening, because no-one ever uses female pronouns for the PC – not the GM, not the other players, sometimes not even the guy playing the female PC) or they are playing some idealized stereotype of what they think women are like. That’s not fun, but it’s part of my “just do it!” advice recommended above.

    • Have you ever encountered negative experiences of men roleplaying as women in a game – and if so, how was it handled, and did this solve the problem?

    If the guy is fumbling around and trying to learn a thing, trying on what it might be like to be a female character in the world we are playing in, I’m willing to cut him a lot of slack. I’ll point out things that are overly stereotypical, or suggest things that he hasn’t thought of, if either of those are reasonable for me to do. I will call anyone one intentional meanness or sexist crap, because I have too little time and too many games and great players to play with to put up with someone who just wants to make jokes about how short his female PCs skirt is and how hot she thinks the main NPC is. I don’t make male PCs so I can sit around and be a jerk to the other folks at my table, and I’m not going hang around while someone makes a female PC who does that either. Does that help? Well, I can only think of one time an issue like this was actually a problem, and I can mark most of that down to misunderstanding and miscommunication.

    So to wrap up, if you have played female NPCs for a while,and feel comfortable doing that, and feel like you are not playing stereotypes in you female NPCs, it’s time for you to step up! Next time you are making a PC, and the thought crosses your mind “Hey, maybe this is a woman!”, go for it! See what you find out!

     


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    About

    I'm a 25 year old admin assistant from around Pittsburgh, PA. I am married, work and attend college concurrently, and have been tabletop gaming for about 8 years. I blog (very, very periodically), and write unpublished short stories. I play tabletop RPGs, board games, and both casual and RPG video games. I live for the social part of gaming, but do enjoy a good explosion, and am learning the ropes of creating worlds in which people can play.

    http://bravocharliesierra.blogspot.com

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    Elin is from the north of Sweden, she has been LARPing and playing roleplaying games for 12 years. She have organizing 20+ LARPs, been in the board of number of gaming clubs, been storytelling tabletop games on cons and at home for many years, playtested a lot of Swedish indiegames, and she appears regularly on the podcast NordNordOst in Swedish and English. She is also an digital and traditional artist.

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    Game scholar, game design educator, game designer, and most of all enthusiastic game player!

    http://www.replayable.net

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    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.

    http://www.nightskygames.com/

    14 Responses to Dear Gaming As Women: Men Roleplaying as Women

    1. avatar
      khayankh
      October 25, 2012 at 16:48

      Playing people who are unlike you in ways that mean, in the real world, they’d have less institutional privilege than you is really useful and can be a fantastic thing. It can also be an opportunity to mock those people and make their real-world counterparts intensely uncomfortable with you. Don’t do that.

      I’d advise looking at ways to play identities as a continuum between extremes: the super-backgrounded identity and the super-foregrounded one. I mean, I’d say Roy Greenhilt from Order of the Stick is a PoC in a super-backgrounded way: there is no indication that identity makes him different from anybody else and there is no discussion of culture or race or racism around Roy. This works for light-hearted campaigns and can itself be wish-fulfillment: wouldn’t it be great to play a non-normative character whose identity wasn’t A Thing or remarked upon as unusual by anybody? This, I think, is where “basically male” female characters come from.

      Super-foregrounded identities are riskier, but not uncommon in literature about certain people (especially YA lit). If I read one more book about a trans* teenager discovering their trans* identity and struggling with pronouns and having a coming out narrative and being trans* trans* trans* in a book where nothing else happens I’m going to throw something. If you try to play the character whose entire plot is about, idk, struggling with how their life is shaped by their mental health problems and neuroatypical status there’s a good chance you’ll be bored and/or you’ll bore other people and/or you’ll make people itchy. I mean, okay, I think a lot of people have had days that were all have feelings about this identity of yours because it’s causing issues and a lot of folks had a period in their lives that was all about self-discovery and coming out. You can maaaybe get away with building a super-foregrounded all-about-identity-problems character in, like, a four-hour LARP or a one-shot tabletop game. But I really wouldn’t advise playing the character whose only interesting feature and whose only plot is their identity for longer than that.

      LARP character design sometimes involves building a “to-do list” or set of goals for the character to make sure they have reasons to be present in game and stuff to do in game. If most of your to-do list for your female character is about being female (motherhood, sexiness, etc.) you may be likelier to run into trouble.

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    2. avatar
      triex
      October 25, 2012 at 17:32

      Hi, I’m a men that played lots and lots of female characters. I never asked myself if they were offensive or stereotypical. I surely hope they weren’t.

      I have advices too.

      The first is: Play Kagematsu. Kagematsu is a game in which each player will play a female character trying to win the love of a Ronin, played by a female player. It really helps in connecting with your character and understand her. Stereotypical characters don’t last very long in Kagematsu. You are forced to be tridimensional, or you will end up dying :P

      Second advice: Play A Penny for my Thoughts with other women. In Penny you guide a character but you don’t decide your actions or words. Losing control over your character can be a great help to understand how could a character move. I know it sounds weird, but it totally works.

      Third advice: Play with Passion. Play to find out what will happen and who your character really is. Because you don’t know. You can’t know her. You can’t possibly know what will happen to her and who will she happen to be. Pursue her desires, make choices. See what she’ll end up to be. If you can manage to do that, your character will never be a slutty cheerleader. Your character will be THAT slutty cheerleader. A real person.

      BTW I plan to be a slutty cheerleader soon. In MonsterHearts. Who wants to play with me? :P

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      • avatar
        blackhatmatt
        October 25, 2012 at 17:39

        I second the recommendation for Penny for My Thoughts. Awesome game.

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    3. avatar
      triex
      October 25, 2012 at 17:35

      Damn I misspelled man at the beginning. Now everyone will think I’m afftected by multiple personalities.

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    4. avatar
      vickeya
      October 28, 2012 at 01:49

      I don’t have any advice to add, but I do have some corroborating remarks. I agree with the advice about having an image of your character as the gender you’re playing if it’s not the one you have as a player. As a GM, I do my best to remember when guys play gals and gals play guys. I’ve GMed dozens of con and demo games and dozens at my groups’ tables, and if anyone is going to play the other gender, it seems to most typically be males portraying females. It’s helpful to have a visual reminder that “he” is really a “she” for game purposes and vice versa.

      I had a table a couple of months ago where a boy played a female and a girl played a male. I do mean that as it sounds: there were two young people at the table who just happened to prefer the pre-gens that were opposite in gender to themselves in real life. I wouldn’t say either did a stellar job acting like the other gender, but neither did anything that screamed “a woman (man) wouldn’t do that!”

      As I think of it, out of two regular game groups, I’ve had three different male players portray females for extended campaigns. These were PCs, not NPCs. One even played essentially the same character when his female PC died, but this time it was her twin brother come to avenge her death. The player did portray the two with different personalities.

      Vickey

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    6. avatar
      Sally
      October 30, 2012 at 12:38

      In my online roleplaying group cross-gender play is common, and very successful.

      Men who want to play female characters could do worse than remember Neil Gaiman’s comment that he was “of the belief that women, when alone with one another, sound like human beings.”I would also add that they act like human beings too.

      And don’t forget the Bechdel Test!

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      • avatar
        Richter_DL
        November 1, 2012 at 01:40

        @Sally I don’t think the Bechdel test applies to gaming groups, honestly. For one, it assumes scripted dialogue and a fractionary narration, where gaming has all improvised dialogue (if any) and a fairly continuous narrative arc for each major character. Also, there is no central editorial control over the plot … and seriously, soon as there is a female PC and a female NPC, topics other than ‘some man’ will happen naturally. All it takes is one female shopkeep, really (unless she sells men for some reason).

        That said, your advice is good. There’s is a truckload of good advice already given here, and very little to add. Maybe, to sum it up: If you look to play a woman, don’t fret (or a man, for that matter); design a character with real motivations first, and add one or maybe two gendered quirks or character traits, and you’re set. Treating a character as a character and not a supposed universal model for a diverse mass (this goes for both sexes) is a very good point to start. And really, don’t worry too much; the respective other gender doesn’T work all that different from you.

        Cross-gendered gaming is much easier online than at the table, of course, what with internet and dogs. at the table, having a fitting character image handy is a very good idea, one I myself practiced for many years.

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        • avatar
          November 2, 2012 at 16:40

          I think gaming groups are actually much more responsible for passing the Bechdel test than movies are. They’re not limited to two hours and can have a cast of thousands. Plus, as you say, the bar is damn low. What a shame that so many gaming groups still miss it.

          Speaking personally, I won’t run a game for groups of all-male PCs. And I run a damn awesome game!

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          • avatar
            Richter_DL
            November 2, 2012 at 18:26

            I don’t run a gender quota in my games, either among players (though I strongly prefer mixed groups for a variety of reasons, the more equally mixed the better) or among PC. PC, to me, are strictly player’s choice – and if the choice is bad, it’s strictly the player’s problem. If everyone wants to play one gender (I had both, in both cases with mixed gendered players), because everyone wants to play a female or male character today, that’s the players’ choice. It’s not my duty or right as a GM to dictate players who to play, at least how I handle things. I also occasionally run Deathwatch, which does dictate gendered characters (WH40K Space Marines), with a mixed group again. YMMV.

            I see no problems there, even with a Bechdel test scenario – the Deathwatch game had, for instance, a player’s Dark Heresy character tagging along as a liaison to the Inquisiton (secret service basically, the term’s massively misleading), who interrogated another (female) NPC to get to some information about the location of a warp gate. Test passed. And I did not try or anything, it just happened while everybody was busy finding that warp gate and dealing with all kinds of other things I threw at them. And Deathwatch’s rather extreme, what with all-male PCs.

            Unless you make an effort, it’s a guaranteed pass in games, since the medium forces female characters to do things with little author appeal. The Amazon and the Mage fighting who gets what loot already suffices after all (cliché used on purpose).

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          • avatar
            Lisa Padol
            November 5, 2012 at 06:49

            Remind me to talk to you some time about “Setting Sun, Rising Tide”, which had an all male PC cast for what I considered acceptable reasons — and which could have had a female PC if a) one particular set up was used and b) the scenario author was willing to go some even darker places than he went. I can really understand not wanting to risk that.

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          • avatar
            November 5, 2012 at 19:20

            Richter:

            Your game, your decision, obviously. If you ever want to play with me, though, you know how I roll; don’t expect me to make exceptions for you.

            Lisa:

            I’m cool with that if’s legitimately for plot reasons, as opposed to for “I’m incredibly imaginatively lazy so I’ll call it plot” reasons. I’m reading the scenario review on your site right now and it looks genuinely amazing!

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        • avatar
          Richter_DL
          November 5, 2012 at 23:23

          @Jessica: Sure. Your game, your rules, as you said.

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    7. avatar
      Lisa Padol
      November 5, 2012 at 06:52

      For what it’s worth: I’ve seen a lot of men play women and girls, and play them well. I have seen this so consistently that, a couple of years ago, I decided that it is no longer appropriate for me to be surprised that a man does a superb job of playing a woman.

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