Where Did All the Girls Go?
Girls generally have more social skills at a younger age than boys. They also tend to be involved in more elaborate pre-school roleplaying than most boys. As girls get older many enjoy videogame RPGs, puzzle games and ARGs. They also take part in fantasy gaming 'spin-offs', such as writing fan fiction, visiting videogame forums and drawing fantasy art. However, very few female gamers seem to become involved in tabletop RPGs at all and even fewer go on to run games.
Many, predominantly male, tabletop RPG players express surprise at the low number of teenage and adult female players. They might, perhaps, do better to ask themselves why so many naturally-gifted RPG players aren't drawn into playing tabletop RPGs.
It's easy to shrug the shoulders or even suggest girls don't suit your style of play or 'get it', but that doesn't stack up as an explanation. In truth, from an early age, girls are likely to offer deeper characterisation, better collaboration and more sophisticated roleplaying behaviours than the majority of boys.
If you begin to scratch beneath the surface, it soon becomes clear that much of the tabletop RPG industry and the related gaming community are, in many ways, turning girls and women away at the door.
This, surprisingly systematic, refusal to welcome women into the hobby operates at design, community and gameplay levels. Much of the exclusion operates implicitly, but there are clear examples of choices being made despite the likelihood that these choices will discourage female participation.
Rather than simply 'beat up on the guys', it might be more helpful to ask them to consider making a few changes to the design, community 'profile' and gameplay available to all potential players. Unless, of course, they're scared the girls will show them up?
Many games companies continue to use artwork to portray female characters in ways too ridiculous to believe. This often involves breasts too large to allow anyone to swing a sword without falling over and 'bikinis on the snowslope'. Are girls really expected to play along with hundreds of pages of rules about accurately simulating combat, only to see all realism set aside at the first sight of a female character?
If an RPG company really feels the best it can offer is a sleazy cover image, they could at least put the image or images inside and stick a clear warning on the cover.
Tabletop RPGs which use large rule sets to proceduralise gameplay in the name of realism tend to reward expert knowledge and experience of applying the rules. New players need to learn 'the scriptures' and serve an apprenticeship to get a 'front seat' at the gaming table. Such systems tend to discourage imaginative, open-ended play in favour of lengthy combats. This can result in girls' roleplaying skills going unused and unrewarded by the rules and at the table. Consequently, RPGs that place more emphasise on using and rewarding a variety of in-game skills, rather than knowledge of the rules, seem more likely to appeal to female players.
The characterisation of females in tabletop RPGs is consistently weak. The worst villains, the most exquisite thieves and the 'heroes of legend' are almost always male characters. Setting after setting, and module after module, brings the same 'bit part' female non-players characters (NPCs). 'The girls' did get to be in charge once; when the AD&D Demonweb Pit module portrayed the female rulers as hideous, demon-worshipping spider-queens.
Don't expect too many girls to join in if everyone in your group insists on three hour combats, waging resource wars and a rule for everything. Female gamers are likely to be much more interested in subtle forms of conflict, shared narratives and participating in task-focused challenges. If you want to play a system that's notionally an RPG but really delivers a wargame, the girls will see through it instantly.
Tabletop RPGs have been the target of absurd accusations about cults and witchcraft for a long time. The 'religious groups' behind the accusations don't make the same complaints about many ultra-violent videogames, but they do keep coming back to tabletop RPGs. That's because some tabletop publishers invite just can't help trying to look a little 'cool' or 'edgy' by including blood-splattered back stories, images, and comics where they're not needed. The saddest amongst this group are equally happy to use sexual references to 'sex-up' their product line.
A recent infographic shown at Kotaku charted the core plot lines favoured by videogame RPG companies. Most were, ultimately, rescue missions and by far the most common choice wasrescuing princesses. Why princesses need more rescuing than princes went unexplained, but it's fairly safe to say that tabletop publishers need to do a bit better than that on many levels.
In particular, plots which marginalise female characters and are really just there to string together a series of battles are unlikely to support the kind of shared narratives and in-character social interactions which may appeal to female players.
The tabletop RPG market supports several medium to large forums focused on discussing rule sets and gameplay. These communities tend to be persistent but fragmented, as disputes often arise over the relative merits of different rule sets and the interpretation of rules. Fragmentation attracts online trolls and it's not unusual for 'newbies' to be taunted and/ or ridiculed.
Potential female players are likely to be at a loss to understand why rules can't be negotiated, why systems can't co-exist on the basis of their relative merits and why anyone would want to hang around in a place where the conversations can be as combative as the games they're about. Which is a bit unfortunate given that the vast majority of those posting set out to welcome new players.
Conventions, local clubs and individual groups are where actual tabletop RPG gameplay takes place and forum posts suggest that these communities are also fragmented and inward looking. Any group is entitled to decide who it meets and plays with, and which style of play they adopt. However, this can lead to community stagnation, where 'things are done a certain way'. New players often seem to be expected to 'fit in' instead of being welcomed as a chance to mix things up a bit. Female players can 'fit in', but why should they? It's so much easier for them to simply go elsewhere and play games that let them make a few of the choices.
It's difficult to find enough players willing to take on the commitment of running a campaign at the best of times. Unless groups actively encourage and support female players, to the point where they can be confident about running games, the chances of ever reaching a stage where female players feel 'at home' are non-existent.
Imaginative play has been linked to a whole series of improved educational outcomes for girls and boys. As a result, parents and carers have a strong interest in get involved in kids' imaginative play at as early a stage as possible. It is also clear that the benefits of imaginative play are best supported by one-to-one, shared play with an adult 'tutor'.
Shared play can take many forms, but it requires an awareness of the child's perspective and a willingness to let children shape their own imaginative play. Under such conditions many kids can learn to think for themselves, learn to adapt to novel circumstances and learn to anticipate the consequences of their actions.
There's no need or particular benefit to introducing formal game rules to early imaginative play. Simply making up open-ended, shared stories is all the 'formality' young kids need in their roleplaying. In time, boardgames and playground games can help to prepare kids for the procedural side of roleplaying, but there's no rush.
Young kids can see something of the imaginative, freeform play they love being stolen away with every new rule. It takes time to get used to striking a balance between open-ended gameplay and using rules to make a game world feel more 'real' or tangible. It's important to take this into account, as pre-school and primary age kids are so open to imaginative play that they often don't need rules to act as a springboard for their creativity. Rule-bound adults can be in too much of a hurry to bolt everything down.
With girls, rules outwith their control and repeated dice rolls can easily be seen as interrupting or obstructing freeform play. Particularly when the roleplaying is put on hold to calculate combat outcomes. Simpler mechanics seem to work better, because they don't get in the way of the story. Checking for outcomes can be introduced in-game by tossing coins, throwing Jacks, drawing high or low cards, or playing stone/ paper/ scissors. Adjusting outcomes can be introduced in-game by agreeing which tasks are easy, hard or next to impossible. Along similar lines, using 2D6 to resolve outcomes is a shorter first step than gong straight to D4, D6, D8, D10, D12 and D20 options.
It's tempting for parents and GMs who already play an RPG system to try to slot new players into the systems and settings used by more experienced players. This doesn't help to bridge the skills gap between novices and experts, and also puts kids in the position of having to conforming to adult regulation. Useful if you're looking to train a future factory worker, but not so helpful if the kids are going to cut it in the high skill-high wage knowledge and creative sectors.
Giving kids an active, independent role at the gaming table allows them to contribute to designing and guiding the gameplay. That in turn gives them 'ownership' and tells them that they're equal partners at the gaming table. These kind of unspoken messages cut across all gameplay and present a valuable opportunity to make it clear that girls can and should make their own choices and decisions.
When the time comes to try out a tabletop RPG system and make play more gritty, (rather than simply 'real'), it's helpful to select a system that allows play to make sense to potential players. If those players are looking for open-ended, imaginative play with plenty of social dynamics, it's going to be a lot easier to deliver if the RPG system supports roleplaying over procedure.
Straightforward systems that use rapid, zonal movement instead of hexes, emphasise exploration over combat and act as 'springboards' for freeform or 'sandbox' play are likely to be suited to younger players and many female players.
Branding, which links tabletop RPGs to combat, wars, sieges and armies of painted figures, sells a lot of tabletop RPG systems and accessories to male players. They are drawn in by cover pages, boxed sets and online media plastered with the confrontational characters, plots and adventures. Unfortunately, these often heroic images seem likely to present tabletop RPGs in an unfavourable light as far as girls are concerned.
There are plenty of hooks available for girls and they're just as likely to be able to appeal to boys as well. Games like Witch and Buffy, (which use strong female characters), modular systems like Traveller, (which encourages open-ended play) and design games such as Treasure, (which make it easy to 'jump' into freeform play and design), are good options.
Making play more appealing to girls under such systems is easier than 'watering down' a 700 page rule set. Character generation can be roleplayed, players can have pets and rides that they're able to train, rules can be reinterpreted 'on the fly' or with 'time outs', and 'combats' can be played out as rivalries and sub-plots. From there, gameplay can mix exploration, investigation, social interaction, plot development and combat much more flexibly.
Overall, it appears that the shift towards more mechanical and procedural tabletop RPGs has 'closed the door' to many potential female players. Their interests are more likely to be closely associated with imaginative, 'sandbox' or open-ended play. Of course there are some female gamers who will enjoy 'battle-gaming' RPGs, but probably not that many, as suggested by the much greater female presence within videogaming and the world of ARGs.
Publishers, gaming communities and groups can all make a difference by looking at how they design, re-design, present and play games. Some will be unwilling to do so, but others can take some of the steps outlined above and 'grow' markets, communities and games that welcome female players on a number of levels. If they do so and don't attract more female players it becomes reasonable to look for other answers. Until then,