This essay was originally published in the March 2008 issue of Cerise Magazine.
Women’s Gaming Group: First Impressions
It’s five in the afternoon, and I’ve just changed my outfit for the third time. I’m not preparing for a date; it’s the first meeting of my new, all-women gaming group, and I want to make a good first impression. Since two of my four players this evening have never played a tabletop game in their lives, and the other two have had only a little experience, I’ve decided that I’d better tone down on my natural nerdiness as much as possible. Unfortunately, every clean shirt I can find says “geek” somewhere on the front.
I finally locate a shirt that doesn’t have any text on it at all – just a picture of Darth Vader, and everyone knows Star Wars, right? – make sure the mechanical pencils are arranged on the table just so and press the button to run the Roomba one more time. Suddenly, it occurs to me that the only drink we have in the house is Mountain Dew. There is no way I’m going to pass for normal.
Though I panicked a little over my lack of social preparation during the half hour immediately before the first all-women game, I had the more game-oriented prep well in hand. I’d decided to run a D&D 3.5 game, since it’s the system I’m most familiar with as a Game Master, and I figured that with a bunch of novices at the table, my own knowledge of the rules would be even more important than usual.
Two of my players had met with me before the game to roll up their characters and decide on all of the customizable bits, with Heather choosing a ranger while Brandy opted to play a rogue. Because of our busy schedules, not everyone was able to meet with me before the first game. I spent some time creating an assortment of characters on my own so that my other players would have a range of ready-mades to choose from when they arrived for our first session. I left details like names, descriptions and gender up to the players.
Then I set to work creating some encounters.
My phone rings. It’s Brandy, letting me know that she’s running a little late but that her friend Jen, whom I’ve never met, is waiting on the landing outside my apartment. I get a few identifying details, then go out to let Jen in.
There’s no one there. After several more phone calls and a lot of wandering around the complex (“Tell her that I’m wearing a Darth Vader t-shirt,” I say to Brandy), I find Jen and introduce myself before leading her back to my apartment. Brandy had directed her to the south side of the building. I live on the north.
I make a mental note: Brandy is probably the wrong person to draw maps for the party if I send them on a dungeon crawl.
Heather and Brandy arrive as I’m helping Jen put the finishing touches on her character, a human paladin. I suspect that she chose the paladin character sheet because I mentioned that it’s my favorite class to play rather than because she really preferred it to the fighter or cleric, herself, but I’m okay with that. Paladins are awesome!
Brandy tells us that the fourth player, Mau, is going to be joining us a little bit later. I get started describing the background of the campaign world.
I wanted to come up with some in-game logic that would explain why all of the player characters would team up to whack monsters together, rather than going with the classic, “you’re all sitting in an inn…” approach. Fortunately, the last campaign I had Game Mastered for, which took place in my homebrewed setting, had ended with a lost queen being restored to her throne and uniting the shattered pieces of her war-torn country under her benevolent rule.
But uniting a country under anyone’s rule, benevolent or not, can be a long process, even in a fantasy world. It seemed to me that the happy ending to one campaign would make a perfect chaotic beginning for another. So I created Hildra Thurrsdottir, the characters’ first contact and a Captain of the Valerian Guard tasked with hiring mercenaries and adventurers to help keep things running smoothly during the kingdom’s restoration.
The player characters, adventurers seeking paid work, would hear that the Valerian government was hiring and seek out Captain Thurrsdottir and her roster of situations needing attention, mostly monster attacks on outlying villages and the like. The promise of bigger piles of loot at the end of greater challenges would be a natural reason for the players to combine their forces.
So, What do You Do?
Just as the players are getting their first assignment from Captain Thurrsdottir (they’ll be traveling to a small village to do a little monstrous pest control), Mau arrives.
“Sorry I’m late! I fell asleep,” she says, taking her seat at the table.
“It’s no problem. You wanted to play a magic user, right?” I dig through my folder of character sheets and find the one I’m looking for. “Is a sorcerer okay?”
“Oh, yeah. Great. But Brandy says spells are a little complicated, and I’ve never played before – is that okay?”
“Everyone’s new at it,” Heather reassures her.
Mau turns to her. “So what does your character do?”
“I shoot stuff from a distance.”
“I’m sneaky and persuasive,” Brandy says.
“And I,” Jen puts in, “am bossy. And hard to kill.”
I beam. She’s got the paladin mindset down already.
Heather and Brandy both knew right from the beginning that they wanted to play half-elves. I told them that there are three groups of elves in the setting we’d be playing in, only two of which ever breed with humans at all (the third group, the Trynt, prefer to eat them). The Sheans, in the North, are xenophobic, and though they’re fascinated by and occasionally attracted to humans, any half-elves born in that area would be shunned by their elven parent and raised in human communities. The southern Hyulwyn elves have much more open communities, and half-elves from the desert where they live, the Barra, are likely to have spent at least some time with full elves growing up.
Though initially attracted to the angsty possibilities of playing a semi-outcast northern half-elf, both women chose to play southerners, in the end, and opted to have the dark skin of most of the inhabitants of the Barra. I put human down as the race for the pre-generated characters (mostly because it saved me some math), but left details like origin and skin tone up to each player. By the end of the first session, Jen had tentatively decided that her character, Lali, would be from the north, looking “like Hellga from American Gladiators.” Mau remained undecided.
I had expected that everyone would want to play female characters, but Heather was on the fence for quite a while before finally choosing to put “F” in the box on her character sheet, and Brandy decisively announced that she was going to be a dude. Jen had asked if there was a difference before making her choice, but when I told her that gender wouldn’t affect any of her statistics one way or the other, she decided to play a woman. Moments after receiving her character sheet, Mau opted for female without a second thought.
Her status as the only male character in the group has not escaped Brandy’s notice.
“So Taliesin’s the only guy, huh?” Brandy pastes on a silly leer. “And I’ve got high charisma, too!”
She’s already familiar enough with D&D to make gamer jokes, but not everyone at the table is there yet. Mau looks puzzled. “Charisma?”
“It’s basically how good you are at getting people to do what you want,” I say. “Most of you are pretty charismatic. Sorcerers have to be to cast their spells, and it’s helpful for paladins to be, too. And Brandy wanted to play a really persuasive character. People sometimes think of charisma as how attractive you are.”
Heather pouts dramatically. “I’m ugly.”
I shrug. “Silen doesn’t need to be pretty to shoot things. Anyway, maybe she’s just got terrible interpersonal skills.”
We laugh and move on, dealing with the purchase of trail rations and other equipment before the party departs on their first adventure. But Heather’s joke sticks with me.
Hot or Not?
It’s not the first time Heather has made a comment about her character being particularly plain, and her affected distress over Silen’s lowest stat is quickly becoming an in-joke. But it’s true that rangers really don’t need a particularly high charisma. And every other character has a low score somewhere. Brandy’s Taliesin had better be persuasive enough to avoid most fights – it’ll only take a hit or two to knock him out, and he’s barely strong enough to swing a sword, much less carry all of the loot he desires. Mau’s sorcerer, Cerel, is similarly frail. And Jen’s Lali is not the brightest fireball in the proverbial spellbook.
Heather is definitely more likely to joke about Silen’s looks than Jen is about Lali’s brains, though. And as often as Brandy despairs over Taliesin’s low hit points, she rejoices much more frequently over his ability to make everyone like him.
I don’t believe for a moment that the mild focus on charisma over other statistics has anything to do with the gender of my players, though. My previous experience as Game Master for an all-male group has shown me that guys are pretty likely to be interested in everyone’s looks – including their own – too.
But it’s really too early to be making conclusions even about each of my new players’ gaming styles at this point, much less comparing them as a group to others I’ve gamed with. Exploration of gaming preferences will come later – right now, my women’s gaming group is busy just learning the rules of the game.
Same Time Next Week?
They’ve just vanquished the last monster, and are preparing to return to town.
“That’s probably a good place to stop for the night,” I say.
Brandy nods. “Yeah, it’s getting late.”
“I’ve got work in the morning,” Mau says.
“Okay, we’ll stop there then.” I mark our place in my notes, and look up at everyone from behind my GM screen. “I like to take a moment at the end of each game to do a little check-in, though. Find out what everyone liked best and least about the session. Is that okay?”
Everyone nods, and we quickly move around the table, sharing our impressions. The group is united in that their least favorite aspect of the session was not understanding all of the rules yet. Fortunately, that’s something that will come easily with a little time and practice. Brandy notes that she felt really comfortable sharing her ideas for how to proceed with the group, and everyone seems to be pretty pleased with their ability to strike fear into the hearts of their enemies. A good beginning, I think.
“So when should we meet again?” I ask. “I know everyone’s really busy with kids and work and all… It looks like Mondays are pretty good, though. Should we try for another one this month?”
“What about next week?” Jen says.
“Yeah,” Mau says, “I think we should do it again next week.”
Heather grins. “Every week is great for me.”
Brandy snags a piece of paper from my notebook and cuts it into squares. “We should all exchange phone numbers. Oh! And maybe next week we can bring some snacks.”
Definitely a good beginning. Next week, I think I’ll wear my “This is What a Feminist Geek Looks Like” shirt.