The Joys of Hosting Role-Playing Games

FAE: at the game table
On Google+ this week, Larry Spiel asked:

Why don’t we see more women gamemasters? […] In both my gaming at home and at conventions I have seen genders getting closer to even, but most of the games that have GMs still see the men more likely to fill those roles.  I’d like to see more women doing it.

He went on to ask about possible deterrents and roadblocks, and ideas for encouraging more women into the role, focusing on presence at conventions. This was a public thread, so everyone should be able to view it and, if they have a G+ account, to comment.

Because the first several posts were from men, I didn’t initially feel like chiming in but then John Stavropoulos re-shared the question privately to his circles and, for those who wanted to answer, established some ground rules requiring that men listen in only and women be the ones to answer. That conversation took off beautifully. And after Kira Magrann re-posted her answer to the original thread, several of us decided to contribute there as well, so it got better in terms of target respondents, but John’s protected thread out-commented it by four to one. And a variety of interesting additional threads sprung from this on ways of encouraging people who are not the usual suspects to try game-mastering. One was a a series of “Why do I GM?” posts where people described what they get out of the role.

Anyhow, I decided that between all of these threads I had written enough to consolidate this as a blog post.

Obstacles

I started gaming in 1983 when I was a fresh(wo)man in engineering school. I was used to seeing 2 to 4 men for every woman in all my classes, so gaming was just an extension of this (it was at an official university club.) I started GMing a year or two later, taking turns with the rest of my gaming group. I didn’t go to a convention until 1994 or so, but again I started running games at conventions the following year. I married a gamer (so we’d always have a GM in our house), in fact the very one responsible for my early conventions fun. In 2006 we started organizing game day events and working as staff on conventions. We still do.

All this to say I’m a childless older woman, with a long habit of the milieu, attending with an ally at my side, in metropolitan West Coast areas (Seattle and San Francisco Bay) where there is a big pool of gamers. That makes everything so much easier. There are many challenges on the path, but here are the top three from my perspective.

Barrier No. 1: The Jerk Factor. For me GMing was always easier for friends than strangers; I wager that is true for most GMs regardless of gender. But as many commenters pointed out, it’s worse for women because a lot of people talk over women or address only men (yes, “people” because it’s true that I’ve met one or two women who did this, but they’ve been rare). In my early years, I looked for gamers and hoped they would become friends; but eventually I decided that I had it backwards. Now I invite nice people because I think we can be friends and I hope we can game.

At conventions, though, you take the luck of the draw. Fortunately, I usually have my husband and several friends around, that offers some social scaffolding even if they’re not playing in my game. But just like you can pick the gamers in your regular group, if you’re in a good gamer area like I am, you can pick the conventions that are most likely to be women-friendly. Do they have a policy on harassment? Alcohol? Emergencies? Giving back to the community? etc.

In my experience, smaller conventions with an indie/story/hippie game and community focus (like Go Play, Nerdly, Good Omens, Big Bad Con) have a higher quality of staff, game-masters and players. They may sometimes be tone-deaf just like any other, but your odds are better.

Barrier No. 2: Family + Money. I’ve noticed when we organized free family-friendly game days, we got entire families and near numbers parity between men and women (forgive me if I don’t have clearer gender breakdown here.) But when I worked on staff for the regular, weekend-long conventions that charge a fee, I saw mostly the males of the species. When I had a chance to talk to some of the people I kept seeing, I asked and the women all told me they could afford neither the time nor the money for both to attend so the ladies largely stayed at home with the kids or at best bought only a day-pass.

Barrier No. 3: Exhaustion. When mothers DO show up at a convention, this is their weekend to relax and have fun. They haven’t had time to prepare a scenario, and they don’t feel like playing hostess to a bunch of ingrates; they want to play some nice escapist fantasy, by gum! As others have pointed out above, acting as GM has an awful lot in common with traditional women’s roles; in fact, I’ve said on occasion that three quarters of what I know about GMing boils down to what my mom would call “being a good host.” So when you’re tired and want your gaming fix, this may sound like work, not fun.

What to Do?

Some ideas for encouraging GMs among those who are not the usual suspects:

  • Establish and post a zero-tolerance policy on harassment. There are good models online.
  • During the year, form a local club and encourage new games and new GMs.  (I once wrote a wiki entry on how to do this on RPG.net.)
  • For the convention, recruit GMs personally, by invitation.
  • Organize a women-only workshop event (best if actually organized by women.)
  • Invite women GMs as panellists and ask them to share tips, to talk about why they do this and why it’s fun for them.
  • Have a special “merit badge” or other trinket for women who sign up to GM a game. (I love collecting buttons or ribbons at conventions!)
  • If you have a newsletter, social media page, podcast, or website which you use to publicize your event, invite women (and non-binary, non-white, disabled, etc.) gamers to write or talk about the hobby and the event.
  • Ask all the women gamers you can find in your area to ping their women gamer friends. (While you’re at it, ask them about their previous experiences at local conventions, and whether there are known problem-gamers that haunt the circuit…)
  • Make it easy for couples and families to attend: discount, day care, kids’ events, etc.

One of the spin-off threads resulted in Emily Care Boss creating a site called Our Many Games where people can post useful starter kits and convention playsets to make the GM’s job easier while showcasing “games have been created by people of color, women of all ethnicities, people with disabilities, trans folk, queer creators and other people from under-represented groups.”

At Tony Lower-Basch’s suggestion, she also started a Google+ community to promote these same games and provide resources for convention organizers to include more of them on the roster.

Why do I GM?

  • Because a game catches my eye and my brain and won’t let go.
  • Because I love to see the magic happening at the table, when we get together to create a story never read or seen before.
  • Because I love to introduce new gamers to the hobby.
  • Because I love giving back to my gaming group so other GMs can have a turn at playing.
  • Because I love giving back to my community by helping make conventions a success.
  • Because nothing is more exciting than hosting a game for a group of enthusiastic, creative, and generous people. (Generous because it’s best when everyone is trying to make others shine.)

Sure, I still get the jitters. I run events at every convention I attend but to this day, I’m still nervous before every game, especially the first of the weekend — something I know also happens to many of my male friends who GM. But by now I know things generally go better than I think they will, and I can accept the occasional “Meh” game without completely destroying myself over it.

I love this hobby and I want more people to get good experiences with it, whether as new players or new game-masters.


Credits: The top picture is an illustration by Claudia Cangini for Evil Hat Productions’ FATE Accelerated.

 

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