Are There Even Enough Women In Your Game Worlds?

I really want to write about how to make your gaming table inclusive for trans and nonbinary people, and how to make sure there is LGBTQ+ representation in your world.

But first, I have to ask whether there’s even female representation in your world, because, for the most part, the RPG community is so far behind on gender that it’s likely your table isn’t even managing to represent women equitably. Luckily, learning to represent women better will give you some tools to start with trans and nonbinary representation.

Let’s do a quick thought experiment:

Imagine the last RPG campaign you played, and form a mental list of every female character.

Got them? Are they all standing in a mental lineup? Okay, now pull out all of the player characters, and send them home. Then pull out all of the women with “female” jobs— the barmaids, the healers, the queens and princesses. Then pull all the women who only appeared in the story due to a gendered relationship— anyone who was primarily someone’s mother, sister, wife, love interest.

Who’s left?

Were there female guards? Soldiers? Farmers? Bandits?

Were a similar number of female characters in these roles as male characters?

Were the only female characters in these roles named badasses, in positions of leadership? Were any of them unplanned, throwaway characters?

The Nameless Guard Problem

No matter what your own identity is, as a GM, you’ve been trained since early childhood on media where the “default character” is male, masculine, cis, straight, white, young, thin, able bodied, and neurotypical. If you’re not careful, the overwhelming majority of your game world will reflect this very specific combination of identities.

Many GMs who are starting to undo their gender bias plan specific female characters to include in their games— those named badasses above, who defy our expectations about what kinds of roles to expect for women in stories. Of course, by existing to defy a gender role, they still exist solely in relationship to the gender role instead of standing as an independent character… but at least those female characters are there.

If they’re not careful, those same GMs forget to include women in the rank-and-file of their game world. Like a bad movie, none of the extras are women— only important characters— even though they set out to make an equitable game world. Even women GMs seem to fall into this trap, sometimes, because we’ve all absorbed the same cultural programming.

The trouble comes during play, not planning:

When we’re required to suddenly improvise characters, that’s when our biases are the most evident.

When we quickly sketch up a character, that’s when we’re most likely to turn to stereotyping. And that’s when women and other minorities get left behind.

Let’s go back to our thought experiment. Imagine your last RPG:

Did the players unexpectedly visit a smithy? A clothier shop? What genders were the owners?

Who served the players’ drinks at the tavern? What genders were the other patrons?

The players have loudly and stupidly broken the law. The guards are on the way. What genders are the guards? (What’s their skin color?)

Advocating for Women in Fantasy Worlds

You might be thinking, “Well, but wait, it’s okay that every Nameless Guard is a man, because historically, warrior roles were mostly filled by men, and society was very gendered!”

First of all, a fantasy world isn’t a historical setting, and doesn’t need to recreate the systemic oppression of the real world.

Second of all, women have been oppressed for a lot of history, including the medieval Europe that a lot of high fantasy is (or, really, fails to be) analogous to. But their roles were often not as limited as our modern depictions of those societies would have you think.

Third of all, there have always been women fighting against their assigned gender roles. There have been women doing “men’s work” in every culture since the dawn of time.

Fourth, and most importantly, if you’re playing D&D 5E, the base assumption is that gendered discrimination will be non-extant in the game, according to the player’s handbook:

“You can play a male or female character without gaining any special benefits or hindrances.”

Being systemically shut out of certain occupations seems like a hindrance to me.

Which is not to say that you can’t have sexism in RPG worlds— it can be empowering to fight against oppression in a fantasy game!— only that it should NOT be the default world that we imagine and play in. So it’s frustrating that the average D&D game unconsciously imitates the sexism of our world.

Female players deserve to know up front (and to have a say in) whether they’re going to be fighting the same discrimination in game that they’re forced to fight out of game.

(If you want to argue about whether it’s “realistic” to give women equal representation in fantasy, or quibble over the exact minutiae of historical women warriors, feel free to write me an email, and then print it out, and then use it as toilet paper, because you are so far behind in this discussion and I already want to move past talking about cisgender women and get to trans and nonbinary characters. So unless your game is ABOUT the struggle of women against their oppression, put women in your games and let them do everything men do.)

Solving the Improv Bias

So, knowing that everyone was raised on media with bad representation, how does a GM start to solve the problem of all nameless guards being male?

  1. Become aware of the problem. Hopefully, you’re aware of it right now as you read this, but you need to maintain this awareness after you close Monster Darlings and while you’re sitting around the gaming table. The end of this article is not the finish line.

  2. If you’re a cisgender male GM, you need to become comfortable with roleplaying female characters. There are tons of resources about this elsewhere on the internet, but the most succinct advice usually comes down to, “Men and women aren’t that different. Just play the character and have them also, incidentally, be female.”

  3. Slow down your improvisation process juuuuust enough to insert a step: Between “Recognize the need for an unplanned character” and “Start describing what they’re doing,“ add “Assign the character a gender.” You’ve already been unconsciously assigning characters genders, but now you’re going to try to do it consciously and equitably.

This last part— assigning different genders equitably— is tricky, but there are a couple of tacts you can try:

One might be to fully randomly generate every character and all of their traits, including gender. Unfortunately, if you’re playing 5E, the tables for randomly generating NPCs don’t generate a gender, so you’ll have to improvise your own. (You can even throw a % chance that the character is nonbinary, trans, or otherwise gender-non-conforming on there, this way.)

Randomly generating every character has the advantage of giving them surprising traits, which lead to better storytelling. But it’s also very slow. When the players are screwing around getting arrested again, and you don’t even want to be introducing town guards, you especially don’t want to pause the game for two minutes to generate the guards.

I’ve heard some GMs who try to tackle this problem say “I just alternate genders when introducing improvised characters.” That’s pretty good, easy to do, and players probably won’t notice. But this approach precludes the existence of nonbinary characters.

Both random generation and alternating genders also fail in one very specific way: Sometimes you will forget your “assign gender” step, and quickly improvise a character that conforms to your biases. Oops!

If this keeps happening, the randomized or alternating distribution can never actually create a “fair” gender distribution. You’ll be forever approaching 50% women, but you’ll never arrive. Blind chance still favors systemic biases if there’s any human error at all.

Instead, get in the habit of asking, for every single new NPC you introduce:

“Is there a compelling reason this character should be male?”

If the answer is yes, then you interrogate why you think that is. Why do you think a man is a better fit than a woman (or a trans or nonbinary person) for this role?

If the answer is no, then you make the character female (or trans, or nonbinary). Every single time.

That way, even if you’re sometimes forgetting the “assign gender” step, you’re counterbalancing your unconscious bias and catching up to a demographically accurate split.

“The last four characters I introduced were women” totally fits the criteria of “a compelling reason” to make the new character a man, so no, you won’t accidentally erase all men from your game.

In fact, asking this question actually ensures male characters get better representation in your game!

How? Well…

If you play by asking this question long enough, you’ll notice that the most compelling reason to make a character a man is that you’ve rarely seen a man in that role before: by asking this question, you get dads defined by their relationships to their kids, and husbands waiting for their wives to come back from war. Instead of a boilerplate “femme fatale” type, you get a flirty hitman who use his sexual wiles to get close to his targets. You get sweet, gentle princes trapped in towers and vain, treacherous fairy kings.

These are all great characters, but we don’t usually see them, because male characters are badly represented by our biases, too.

Once you get used to asking yourself this while improvising:

Start asking the question for other axes of identity: “Is there a compelling reason this character should have white skin? Should be straight? Should be able-bodied? Should be a young adult? Shouldn’t be depressed? Shouldn’t be fat?“ You’ll wind up with a more diverse and realistic world, and more memorable, multidimensional characters.

And then you’ll be ready to start representing transgender people in your game worlds.

(This article is part of a series.)