Friday, February 13, 2009

Romance, Sex and D&D: Women are from Venus, Men are from Nowhere

I'm having a great time with my Thursday game. In spite of relearning old rules, exercising a few disused mental and gaming muscles, and a bit of player attrition due to the hassles of Real Life, things are rolling along nicely, and I'd like to thank my players for making it such a pleasant experience.

And now that I've done that, I'm going to tease them in public, in honor of the feast of St. Valentine. ;)

Seriously, we have a great cast of PCs to play with, and things are threatening to get even more interesting in the near future. I can't wait for next Thursday. And they also fell fairly closely into a pattern of character creation I'd noticed back in my college days.

Here's the relevant part of the character creation outline I posted:

What I absolutely need are the names and current whereabouts of your character's family, and what your character did before hopping on the boat to Pitsh.

Let's take a look at what I got in response, in no particular order, with names changed and other details omitted to protect the innocent:

Player A gave me a character descended from a long line of heroes who has just finished his training to take part in the family business. However, no names are given, nor do we know anything about the character's parents or siblings, if any.

Player B's character's mother “was a serving wench at a big city inn/brothel.” Obviously, figuring out who dad was in this case is clearly problematic. Mom, unnamed, passed away when the character was 14. The character's mentor, however, is named, and “has become a surrogate uncle” to the character. It was this uncle/mentor who sent our hero to the island of Dreng Bdan to seek his fortune.

Player C first asked me if these family would be nearby where the adventures began or far away, the only one to do so. Player C then named the home community, father, mother, and two siblings of the PC, and explained what those siblings were currently up to. The character's life of adventure was precipitated by a nasty quarrel with the PC's family, leading the PC to head for the horizon, vowing never to return, or, at least, not to return until the PC had proven there's more to life than what was offered at home. Player C also provided me with a mysteriously vanished relative.

Player D's character “is the third child of five from a reasonably wealthy family” but no members of this family are named or described. This PC is “still on good terms with” this family, but “has more interesting things to do.”

Ok, time to cue the music.

Now, keep in mind that I'm not saying anyone did anything wrong here. The differences between them are what make for great interplay between the PCs, and I love it when my players play with each other in addition to interacting with me and the world. And while I prefer to get characters more like Player C's, I'm more than happy to work with the others. After all, if you don't give me the details, I consider that carte blanche to fill in the gaps as I see fit. plotting

But that's not my point today. My point today is that Player C is a woman and this falls right in line with a difference I've noticed in how women and men play RPGs.

Clearly, nothing like this is universal. I'm notorious for deluging my poor DMs with mountains of family detail and background info, and last time I checked I was a guy. And I've known gal gamers to have a great time playing Paranoia,where every PC is a clone with all the family life of a tube of toothpaste. But I have seen a trend in my horribly-not-scientific experience. Keeping in mind that the plural of “anecdote” isn't “data”, I think a lot of it has to do with the reading habits I've mentioned before.

Think of the novels by Anne McCaffery, Mercedes Lackey, Elizabeth Moon, or Jacqueline Carrey. The characters in these novels are either surrounded by family, or immediately work to make a new family once the old one is lost. Family is a source of strength and support, and even villains tend to have family of their own. Stories can become generational epics, with the children of the previous heroes picking up the torch and continuing on in their parents’ footsteps. In the past, this has been true of the women playing in my games, and I've seen it in others games as well. Relatives become resources, not just for in-game goodies, but also in a meta-game sense, becoming touchstones for dramatic RP or bringing the spotlight onto a player's character. And these women worked to create and maintain relationships in the game, fought over them, and worried about them.

And it's not just my games either:

Legwork begins. Rather than roll social skills on the handy-dandy legwork tables and assume a lot of networking has gone on, the girls decide to RP out their search for info. Randi comes up with the idea that Sasha's decker contact is her little brother. We have an awesome RP moment when we find out that Brian, who styles himself "Lord High Emperor of Ultimate Matrix Badasses" is at least as much playa' as Decka'. We meet him in a decker bar, surrounded by teenage weefle-runners held rapt by his descriptions of his most recent datasteal. He is very obviously putting the make on several attractive, illegal female decker-wannabes. In ten minutes of pure character development, we learn that Brian resents the hell out of his sister, blaming her for the mysterious deaths of their parents, and points out that since their party lost their own decker, whom Brian had been involved with, perhaps running with Sasha wasn't such a good idea. There's some verbal sparring about previous events between Brain and Sasha that could have been scripted, but were totally ad-lib. Very much the brother and sister. Finally, with promise of challenge and payment, Brian dismisses his entourage and asks what the girls want, making sure to sidle up to Tyna, who has obviously made him forget the young deckers from moments ago.

It's an amazing technique for massaging more out of a game. Not only has Sasha's player subverted the system somewhat, by making the contact more than just a contact and thus far more valuable an asset than she probably paid for in character creation, but we have a great moment of RP, a cool new NPC, and all sorts of hooks for interesting play in the future.

Most men don't create these opportunities, partly, I think, because the books we read don't really prepare us to think these sorts of terms. And while we all desire the closeness of family, all need to find a place where we belong and fit in, the mystique of the Man With No Name is heady stuff for guys. We all know exactly what Captain Jack means when he says, “But what a ship is, is freedom!” In the novels of Steven Brust, George R.R. Martin, or Robert Jordan, family is something to escape. The sins of the fathers are the torments of their sons. The characters constantly weave about, like moths drawn to a flame, wanting the closeness of intimacy, but constantly veering away, pulled by duty or fear or whatever else. Family is often something that must be escaped before the adventure can begin (as for Fritz Lieber’s Fafhrd) or so trivial as to be hardly worth mentioning (Robert Howard’s Conan). Heroes in these novels might see family as a spur or lash, a burden either dutifully or resentfully shouldered, which I see something of in Player A's character. But generally, family is the past, a point of origin from which the character's trajectory into the future constantly takes him further and further away. Compare that to Player C's character, where multiple paths for reconciliation immediately present themselves, and avenues are readily offered to include her character's family in the campaign.

Now, I'm sure some will say that people who create characters who have severed all ties with their family are just protecting themselves, and that past DMs have taught them to do this by using family as a way to screw with the PCs. To that I must ask, do you really think that makes a PC safe? Say, just to create an example at random, someone gave me a character sheet that read “family – all dead”, do you really think that would thwart a creative and sadistic DM? Or do you think I would find a way to make certain that this dead family came back to haunt them? mwahaha

UPDATE: Spike of Ubiquitous Orcs has more thoughts on this theme.


Spike Page said...

I am always eager to see other folks' perceptions concerning gender and gaming, but yours brings up a fresh point. And you're right too. I think back on almost all the other female players' characters I've encountered, not to mention some of the characters I created, and I see a pattern of (for lack of better words) built-in family drama and how their relations directly influence their motives.

Natalie said...

The most active male roleplayers I've had are also the ones who give me the most information about their character's families. (One of them once cribbed his story from Tekken, but still.) But they're definitely outnumbered by women who detail their families -- in the current campaign I've got going, all the women have given me something about their families (father who was in the Navy, fiance, dead mother and father who she hates) while one of the guy's hasn't mentioned them at all, and the other, after prompting, decided they were mostly far, far away. For reasons that make sense, sure, but all the women have family in the subsector.

On the other hand, I'm still working on breaking my own habit of "My entire characters family was murdered by Mysterious Enemies!" and providing something of actual use to the DM.

C'nor (Outermost_Toe) said...

Hmm. Interesting. My backstory for a current character is something like what you describe for the "average" guy (which fits since, you know, that 'male' in my profile isn't there for show), but here's the section that's more player C like:

He wears an iron ring which he has carved the word "Adrie" into. Adrie was a female elf he knew three years ago. They became separated when robbing the house of (then recently) deceased Lord Arquilan.

trollsmyth said...

C'nor: Nice! Yeah, that little detail could be a lot of fun.

Obviously, it's not an all-or-nothing thing. I'm notorious for turning in 1k+ word backgrounds for my characters, especially in games that involve lifepath character creation. But it's a strong trend I've been tracking for about 20 years now.

C'nor (Outermost_Toe) said...

Arggh. There should be a bit in there at the end which says "and she has not been seen since". What I was hoping for was that the DM/I would be able to go in a lot of different directions: Bringing Adrie back vengeful and bitter about having been caught, bring her back friendly and see where I go, have it turn out she's dead or scheduled for execution and see what I do, have another player bring in Adrie as a secondary character later on... Or for me, bring Adrie in as a character at some point and play out the stuff between them.

C'nor (Outermost_Toe) said...

Ugh. That bit is optional, as I meant to say.

C'nor (Outermost_Toe) said...

And having just seen your reply: Thanks!