Monday, April 20, 2009

Male vs. Female RPG Table Dynamics (Rethinking)

So a brief follow up to yesterday's post (not more about the Vampire game, finally finished with that riff). I mentioned my thinking about group dynamics and my original association of that with gender dynamics. About 4 1/2 years ago I wrote up a post with some assessment of that for The Village board. Some of my thinking came from running some games with more balanced male/female ratio, and of course running the all-female player supers game. I'll present that post below and then make a couple of comments after about the change in my thinking.

Male vs. Female Dynamics
« on: January 27, 2005, 10:51:18 AM »

Before I begin I should say a couple of things: first, what I say is anecdotal. I’ve played in games with or run for about two dozen female gamers and a significantly larger number of male gamers. That’s still a pretty small sample size. Second, broad generalizations are dangerous; I don’t believe any conclusions I draw here apply 100% (or less) of the time. I'm also ignoring the issue of cross-gender play. Now that I’ve properly punked out...

I think the key in examining this is to look at group behavior based on the ratio of male/female gamers:

*All Male Group: I’ve found that in general, an all-male group is fairly competitive. The level of competition is based on the age, relative social maturity, and number of games they’ve played in. There are exceptions to this as some male players never grow up, instead perceiving games as a competition between players or between players and the GM. The longer a group has played together, the weaker this sense of competition becomes, but this takes a while. Except in Cro-Magnon gamers, I don’t believe that these players consciously or explicitly compete with one another. Subjects of competition: bragging rights, loot, character advancement, play time at the table, GM attention, exclusive NPCs. This competition can be expressed through not listening when other people have their scene, becoming irritated when players talk to “their” NPCs, stepping into other people’s areas of skill, inter-party killing or combat, and so on. All male groups are likelier to have players try to hose other players. In my experience, all male groups dislike planning except in the most tactical sense. Problem solving that doesn’t involve either a combat board or a map of how to break in doesn’t appeal as well. All male groups have fewer interesting “in character” moments at the table. Romantic sub-plots are more difficult to deal with.

*All But One Male: I’ve seen a couple of different versions of this mechanic. Now before I start, I have to delimit a particular situation here. This dynamic alters dramatically if the female is unattached, non-psychotic and even vaguely attractive. The definition of psychotic here will be stretched liberally as many gamer males lack the radar to pick up on certain cues that indicate a person with severe emotional baggage. The situation changes even further if the GM is attracted to said female and the GM lacks social skills. Anyhow, it is creepy to watch. That’s all I’m going to say about that.

Assuming that the female is attached and everyone has gotten that message-- [Side tangent: gamers sometimes don’t get that message. Again you might find it surprising that gamers at times don’t catch social cues. I had one female player who didn’t want to play in certain games because another married male player was continually inappropriate with speech and physical contact. It says something about my dimness that I hadn’t picked up on this dynamic.]—then the female player has a difficult path. This depends on the number of players. If the female is the only one is a group of three or four, usually she there are less problems. In a larger group, male players will tend to ignore female comments and talk over them. I’ve seen this happen many times, even in groups where players have played together for years or know and like each other. This is especially true where a female player moves to area of less interest for male players (and perhaps even GMs): social interactions, non-combat problem solving, planning, romantic sub-plots and “in-character” speaking. Again, I don’t think this is necessarily deliberate; I do think it is habitual. I’ve seen it in very different groups.

Now, to this I’ve seen several reactions on the part of female players. The three most common are: Crazy, Quiet and Direct. The crazy reaction means that the female just does whatever she wants: inappropriately attacking NPCs, stealing things in dangerous places, demanding to play character types explicitly forbidden by the GM and so on. I believe this is a way for the female player to make themselves heard and in some cases, to passive-aggressively respond to the snubbing at the table. The drawback to this strategy is that the player can gain a reputation as thoughtless and unwelcome at the table. The quiet reaction means that the player simply goes along with what is happening. She rarely initiates actions on her own, feels detached from the progress of the story and even when the GM puts the action in her lap, has trouble deciding what to do. Unless a female moves out of this role, she will likely give up on gaming. Direct…in the direct route, the player will call male players on interrupting her, will point out lack of planning, and will make sure she has equal time at the table. This seems to be a viable strategy, but it can earn the female player a reputation as a bitch and in some cases encourage male players to shut down and sulk whenever things like “planning” or “discussions” come around.

I really think one of the key things a female in a bad situation like this has to do is to make the GM and at least one other player aware of this dynamic. If they don’t believe or dismiss their suggestions as whining, then they should be playing with another group.

*Split Group: In the several split groups I’ve seen, there can be a fair balance between planning and dynamic operations. Females can support each other, so that even if the nature of the game doesn’t interest or include them as much, they can make the game engaging by interacting with the other PCs. I ran a game that switched from being one female, four males to two females and three males. That change shifted the level and kind of engagement of the players at the table. The lone female player began to play more and clearly felt more comfortable about doing things, expressing her opinion and just “playing”. On the other hand, I’ve also seen lone bad apples who, even in a split game, don’t interact with the female players. In the Exalted game in play in one player doesn’t listen when the female players are speaking, addresses his comments and discussion exclusively to the GM, and only chats game stuff with one of the two other male players. He noticeably interrupts the female players but never the male ones. I hate him. I hate him bad. My perception is that he clearly sees rpgs as boys night out; he is also highly competitive and I think that plays in as well. In another game split game I played in one player rarely interacted with the female players and usually sulked when they had scenes. It was very strange.

*All Female But One: In both games that I’ve run with this ration the emphasis has been on non-combat planning, interesting interactions with NPCs, building up and developing resources and drawing out the elements of the story. Now, both of these games that I’ve run have been modern so that may impact this. The female players are active and vocal and the command of the direction of the game seems to be shared. Plans that I would normally expect to be pushed forward in a male group get shot down. For example, NPCs whom I’d usually have the PCs screaming to kill or running into bad situations to attack simply get written off. It is harder to bait a mostly female group into attacking someone stupidly. On the other hand, it is much easier to paralyze their decision making by presenting them with a variety of options. The male player in this instance may feel awkward or isolated and may react in the same patterns as those mentioned in the all male but one section.

*All Female: As above but even more so. Quite honestly and if may be the people I’ve run for, but an all female group will never do exactly what this male GM expects them to. I’m just not wired that way. If find that all all-female group makes sure that everyone has their time at the table, revels in the little details of the game world, and shares well. On the other hand…they move the story forward slloooooooowwwwwlllllyyyyy.

This is a start of observations, I'd be curious of other people's perspectives. I know it may sound that I'm partisan to one style or the other in this, but I think both are interesting to run for...but as a GM and player I think it is important to be conscious of dynamics at the table that potentially exclude or isolate players.


So, what do I think several years later. Well, more recent experience has shown me that gender may have a role, but it certainly isn't the whole of it or even necessarily the major factor in player interaction and play style. As I mentioned yesterday, I'd seen some female players in the far past who certainly didn't hold to my original conception. I think I didn't give that enough consideration in my original assessment.

Instead what I saw not long after this original post in 2005 was that it was heavily determined by individual preference. And though, while I do think society often reinforces certain approaches, the comfort level of a good table can and usually does erase those differences. Unless a particular player is so imbedded in those modes that they can't adjust. In this case, I had a sole male player in a group of female players who wanted to act unilaterally. The dynamic at the table worked against that, causing him frustration.

I assumed that might be a gender-based role/problem. However, when I increased the male female ratio in the next campaign he remained dissatisfied. He asked for a certain male player to be added when the original other male left, and then proceeded to trash talk that new male player. That, I believe, was based on the fact that the new player didn't operate unilaterally and instead enjoyed the cooperative aspect of the table. So that ended up a mess.

In any case, I think a lot of what I originally said was superfical-- and assigned causes where they didn't necessarily exist. I think better to create a general typology of individual player styles, player wants, and the kinds of campaigns and see where those perhaps overlap.


  1. Thanks for writing this! It was fun to read.

    I think I agree more with your current interpretation. I'm not so much into the game moving "slloooooooowwwwwlllllyyyyy" I like talking, fighting, planning, DOing, etc. I like _playing_.

    I think your games are a lot more thoughtful and you create more types of playing and interactions that most GMs. I can tell you are trying to bringing something to the table for everyone.

    I look forward to hearing about the playing styles and wants. Maybe I'll see myself in there. :)

  2. I think you are very correct in that last paragraph.

    I also think the male replacement you speak of was the wrong replacement person, if the male player wanted another more classical male player (in his mind). Let's face it, Scott and I don't bring the same set of rpg skills to the table. Blatant fact, better or worse whichever way you like. No worries, either way, in my mind.