How our game about women is inspiring conversations about masculinity

I’ve got a lot of things to catch up on post-GenCon, including assembling notes about my experience as an Industry Insider Featured Presenter so that I can write in detail about that – since it was an amazing experience. But today I wanted to take the time to reflect on some compelling conversations that I’ve had about masculinity as inspired by The Watch – the low-fantasy game about female and female-of-center soldiers fighting to retake their homeland from a nebulous threat called The Shadow that I’m currently co-designing with Andrew Medeiros[1].

Explanatory sidebar:

What is The Watch? Well, to go into a bit more detail, here’s how I’ve described it previously:

The Watch is a low-fantasy game about women (and other female-of-center people) who are fighting to retake their homeland from the Shadow – a darkly sorcerous threat that has the power to possess men and use them for its own violent ends. So much has already been lost to the Shadow – land, loved ones, and traditions. But your people have come together, forming a new fighting force from those able to resist the Shadow, which they call the Watch.

That you will defeat the Shadow is never in question. What you are playing to find out is how much will it cost you? On the day of the Shadow’s final defeat, who is it that you will say should have been standing beside you? Which of you will burn bright and fast, and which of you will hunker down and see this thing through to the end?

The Watch is a game that is Powered By The Apocalypse, meaning it uses the Apocalypse World system – albeit with a ton of hacks, modifications, and innovations. It’s currently in beta testing, and Drew and I will be looking to KickStart it in 2017.

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Between the two of us, we ran a whopping seven sessions of The Watch, and I’m pretty excited about the fact that the people who played it were mostly male – by an overwhelming margin. (30 out of 35 total players, if you’re keeping score.) Admittedly, there’s always the potential for things to go a bit sideways when you have mostly men playing all female characters[2] (especially at a con game, where investment tends to be lower), but the guys who played it were super engaged with the premise – which was really gratifying! Especially in light of the difficulty that I’ve had getting men interested in playing The Starlit Kingdom, which is also kind of explicitly about women.

And sure, it would have been nice to have more women at the table. Both of the sessions I ran had five male players, and I always feel more comfortable when I’m not the only woman at the table. But there’s a pretty wonderful thing that happens with The Watch when you have a lot of men at the table because of this lovely little rule called Resist the Shadow.

PCs have to roll to Resist the Shadow “when [they] give the Shadow an opening into [their] heart by engaging in toxic behavior”, which is a reflection of internalized misogyny and the toxic scripts that people of all genders – not just men – internalize. But…

Well. …can you keep a secret, readers? Of course you can. I can trust you.

See, what I never actually say when I run the game is that the Shadow is actually patriarchy. Instead, I do a bit of a shell game when I introduce the game to men at the table – I tell them that the Shadow is toxic masculinity, and that’s why the men in this world are so vulnerable to the Shadow. Because the idea of “man” is what makes them vulnerable to its influence. And all of that is true!

But! Something that I’ve observed through running this blog and having conversations with men in other feminist spaces is that sometimes, it’s easier to get men to engage with conversations about patriarchy through coming at toxic masculinity. There can be a defensive impulse when conversations are framed around patriarchy, an impulse to say “not me – that’s other men”, because it’s hard to admit that a key part of your identity causes you to be complicit in harming others. I find that calling out behavior as “toxic masculinity” can make some men much more receptive, because that is more evocative of how toxic ideas of manhood are personally damaging. In other words, some men are a lot more willing to accept that unconscious attitudes cause you to harm yourself than they are to accept that those same attitudes cause you to harm others[3].

So. When I’m starting the game, I’ll read a few paragraphs of setting introduction, to explain the world and the situation. And then I’ll say to the players something like, “and spoiler alert – the Shadow is toxic masculinity”. People will nod, and we’ll move on and get right into playing, and then I get to sit back and watch for something fucked up and toxic. And when the men outnumber other players at the table, the chances are pretty good that I’ll get to tell someone to Resist the Shadow at least once[4] – which I love.

My favorite example of this from GenCon was an incident that happened in the first session I ran. I had used Shutterfly to print a bunch of photos off of Pinterest for players to pick a character image from at the table. One photo I included in the set was this picture, which I’d intended to set aside for a villainous sorceress – only I forgot and a player selected it for their super weird character. So when I introduced the sorceress character and described her in a way that was very similar – porcelain white skin, white hair – one of the players immediately jumped on it. His character started acting suspicious, then recruited the other PCs into helping him corner the weird PC – whereupon they started trying to interrogate the poor woman.

So I leaned forward and asked, “so just to be clear, you’re getting your other squad mates to help you police her behavior because of how she looks?”. The player in question agreed that was an accurate summary, so I said, “awesome. That’s super toxic. Please roll to Resist the Shadow.” The player looked surprised for a second, then nodded his agreement and rolled the move, and afterward we had a pretty cool conversation about it!

Another notable example happened a couple months ago where I was running (again at a convention) and one PC – played by a guy who looked to be in his early 20s – challenged another PC (played by Drew, actually) to a fight. So they started squaring off against each other, with all kinds of macho posturing for the benefit of the audience of NPCs surrounding them. Again I stepped in before things went any further. “Hey, guys. That’s some macho dick-measuring nonsense you’re engaged in. Roll to Resist the Shadow”.

Again I got surprised looks which were followed by nods of agreement. The rolls happened, and afterward we had a great conversation about macho posturing and about the difference between masculine bonding-through-insults versus bonding through real emotional intimacy. And it was during that conversation that Drew said that this game that we made to tell stories about women has actually been teaching him some great things about what toxic masculinity looks like – which mirrors my experience to a certain extent.

Obviously I won’t ever be able to fully understand what it means to experience toxic masculinity as a man. But through running this game so much and having these conversations, I’m getting a better feel for what it looks like. Which means that as a GM, I’m getting better at using The Watch to prompt those moments of introspection and reflection on patriarchy and toxic masculinity, and how it shapes our interactions. And that’s exciting! It’s a wonderful feeling, as a designer, to be able to run your game in a way that lets people have fun while also learning to see something that is normally unconscious from a different angle.

It’s also a cool feeling when you write a game intended to highlight a given issue, and you end up learning more about that issue than you’d expected. One of the great things about roleplaying game design is that roleplaying games are structured as a conversation. They only work well when everyone takes a turn talking and listening, and when everyone remains open and receptive to the experience and to each other. That kind of openness means that when you play with someone who comes at a familiar issue in a different way, it has the potential to put even concepts that feel like old hat into an interesting new light.

And all of this is just one of the many reasons why I’m excited to be working on this game[5]! I’m also excited about developing a game that requires you to tell stories of heroic military adventure starring women and non-binary people. And I’m excited to be writing a game that encourages queer content! And I’m excited to finally be working on a game that people actually want to play, unlike my weird harsh shit like Autonomy! Seriously. The Watch is already so good, and it’s not even done yet. I can’t wait to see what happens, and what awesome conversations it inspires next.

[1] Who, it should be noted, won a Silver Ennie at GenCon for his work as the co-designer of Urban Shadows! Well done!

[2] Several years ago, I ran a game of Zombie Cinema where some bros were playing women and they were the worst, most reductively stereotyped characters ever, and it was just painful.

[3] And, you know, that’s understandable. Privilege makes us believe that we aren’t complict in that harm, and even when we see the harm it makes us believe that our intentions (I didn’t mean to hurt you) matter more than the end result (I hurt you).

[4] Not because men are clueless or malicious! Simply because men are unaccustomed to doing the sorts of emotional labor around maintaining nontoxic group dynamics that women are commonly socialized into believing that they have to take on by default.

[5] Not to mention that Drew is generally an awesome collaborator who is fun to work with. That’s kinda nice too. I guess.

17 thoughts on “How our game about women is inspiring conversations about masculinity

  1. Super interested in playing this. Only thing I’m worried about however, is being able to spot the toxic behavior if I am the one running it — since I’m a white male. Hopefully I can run it myself and then also participate as a player with someone who can spot these things much better than I ever could.

  2. I was going to ask about whether the Shadow considers trans women to be women or men, since fantasy things that have different effects based on gender are fraught for nonconforming people. Then I saw your explanation of what it is and I was like “okay yeah, I see where you’re going with this.” It sounds like anyone who engages in that kind of behaviour has to roll, but because that’s the way male players are socialized anyone who isn’t “female of centre” is more susceptible.

    I want to ask, though, how does the Watch handle recruitment? What are its gender criteria?

    • The Shadow looks at what’s in your heart. So trans women can be part of the Watch, and trans men can’t. To do anything else would be to say that trans gender identity isn’t “real”, which would be horrifying. So trans identities turned out to be a lot “easier” to deal with than nonbinary identities. I’ve settled on “women and female-of-center people” as a descriptor, but man it’s tricky.

      • I may be missing a fundamental element of the world here, but how is the shadow deciding who can and cannot be in The Watch? I thought the Watch opposed the shadow?

        • The Shadow ‘decides’ only insofar as the Watch is on the front lines fighting the forces of the Shadow. Since the Shadow can possess men so easily, there are no men in the Watch. Exact details vary based on the playgroup, but the (remaining) menfolk are generally back at home–far from the battle lines–where they are safe(r) from possession.

          • That’s a fair point, but my question was specifically about the Trans question / issue. The justification for Transwomen being allowed in the watch was that the shadow knows what’s in their hearts, and (presumably) has a more difficult time influencing them.

            The question I posed was, how does *the watch* know what’s in their hearts? I.E. What element of the watch stops me, as a crafty GM looking for an intriguing plot hook, from importing a “spy” of sorts into the watch by way of a faux transwoman? Or, if it is left up to playgroups, are there any suggested means for The Watch to make this determination?

            • In my playtests games, I’ve had a spy for the Shadow in the ranks of The Watch before; they’ve been women of various identities as anyone can lose themselves to the Shadow if they surrender to it.

              Not every group I’ve run for has had this theme as the options I’ve made for the Shadow have differed. Some examples are if the Shadow wants to: ‘Sow dissension and disunity among its enemies’ *or* ‘For men to serve without emotion’, each of those will have different outcomes in the story and the threats I throw at the group. That’s one of the coolest things about running the game for me, I get to customize the Shadow to suit my MCing desires and the players get a good picture of what’s to come.

              Basically, The Watch accepts anyone who identifies as non-male and seems able to resist the Shdow’s hold; if you wanna have agents among them, it can be anyone really, as long as it fits your fiction as established.

              Hope that helps.🙂

            • Orangeslink and Andrew have summed up my thoughts on this so far, so I haven’t felt like I needed to step in, but…

              I wanted to say that I found this comment really unsettling. If we’re making a fantasy story about a world that doesn’t exist, why does second-guessing of what counts as “real” gender identity have to be part of that world? If we’re creating a world where a supernatural force called The Shadow has the power to possess people and make them act against their will, why does that world HAVE to replicate the invalidation of trans gender identities that exists in our world?

              There are SO MANY crafty ways that this game will give GMs to come at their players sideways. Including, for example, all of the sneaky stuff that I described in this very post about how to trick your players into talking about patriarchy in a critical light. There are also rules for revealing secrets to the wrong people, putting characters in a bad spot, having characters make enemies of powerful NPCs, having characters get caught between powerful political factions… Why does the very first question have to be “how can I use this game to invalidate trans and queer gender identities?”

  3. Great work on making a game that sparks some self reflection in players and refs. More of that!
    In your game are there any positive masculine behavoirs that are recognised or paths to redemption for NPCs from Shadow ? Are there any toxic feminine behaviours, are these also shadow tested?

    • About the first part, no, not really? The fact that you’re playing women and female-of-center nonbinary folks in an environment where the men have been removed means that men are secondary characters, at best. They’re just not enough of a focus.

      As for toxic behavior, we just plain call it toxic behavior. Backbiting and female cattiness will open you up just as much as macho dick-measuring.🙂

  4. This made me smile. Twice. First my smile for when I’m happy a cool thing exists, and then my smile I get when I’m not *quite* cackling like the witch I am. I love the way RPGs can redefine social norms at the table and it’s so devious to make one rule “let’s talk about patriarchy!” I cannot wait to play!

  5. Darn. I wish I had known about your play sessions! I would have loved have joined one while I was at GenCon.

  6. This sounds rad. I do hope you have some clearly defined examples of toxicity in the rules though! I can imagine people playing it and not “getting” what the toxicity is supposed to be, and then they throw out the toxicity rules entirely because they never come into play. But I guess that’d be hard to do, since their kind of the main point?

    Either way, awesome!

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