How to Play a Female NPC

Last month on Twitter, Megan (of The Redacted Files podcast, among others) was #sorrynotsorry for making 95% of her NPCs female.

I encouraged her since, as it’s been pointed out, I have an affinity for making my NPCs overwhelmingly female as well.

(And check out the hat trick I pulled in Jurassic Park: Legacy. All the rampaging dinosaurs were female! You may not have noticed, because I neglected to put them in high heels)

 

Inspiration for my next NPC... "Guns and Pearls" by Makeup Siren

Inspiration for my next NPC… “Guns and Pearls” by Makeup Siren

Any time the subject of adding more female characters to an RPG campaign comes up, there are a few well meaning people who say they’re worried about adding women. They don’t want to get it wrong, after all. Now, Megan and I might have a slight advantage when it comes to designing our female NPCs; we’re pretty much experts at playing women at this point. And I understand the fear of not wanting to “get it wrong” and be offensive. So here’s a handy guide on how to build and play a female NPC.

Decide that you want more women in your stories

This might be the hardest part, but as the GM, you first and foremost have to want to add more women to your stories. Unless you’ve been making a very conscious effort already to do otherwise, you’ve probably been defaulting to male NPCs. When your party unexpectedly stops in a tavern, it’s habit to go for the archetype of the world-weary tavern keeper – a role that’s usually been filled by someone using male pronouns. They’re hardly even a character, really, but by casually naming him “Bob” (because you forgot your list of creative NPC names) you’ve added one more dude to your list of NPCs for that campaign. So make a conscious choice. Try to set a really overreaching goal, maybe three female NPCs for every one male NPC. Unless you have a spreadsheet at the table, you’ll likely fall short of that really high ratio, and end up somewhere closer to a 50/50 male/female split.

Design an NPC…and then change the gender at the end

Famously, Ripley from Alien was originally supposed to be played by a guy. Luckily Ridley Scott chose to cast the inimitable Sigourney Weaver in the lead role, creating one of the most bad ass science fiction characters in history…and it happens to be a woman. Provided that the character was already complex and interesting, your NPC creation is done. If your character reads like a man with boobs…maybe they don’t have the most complex back story to begin with. Back to the drawing board. (This applies in reverse too, of course!)

Rip off an existing bad ass woman

There is nothing wrong in gathering inspiration for your NPCs from existing fiction – or even history! I would love to meet an ambitious politician in a Billy-verse game based on Leslie Knope, or a Ms. Smiley based on Red from Orange is the New Black (holy crap I think I just gave myself nightmares. I take it back!). Plus when it’s summer and thus way too damn hot to be doing anything else productive, a Netflix binge totally counts as game prep so you can really get into character.

Please don’t worry about “sounding” like a woman

If I hear one more simpering falsetto at the game table as a “serious” character, I will start chucking dice.

Some GMs have a gift for voices. Others don’t. There’s no shame in this! It’s a noble goal to give every notable NPC a distinctive sound, but that doesn’t have to mean changing the pitch of your voice. And while in contemporary US society there are some forms of speech that are stereotyped as feminine (see: uptalking), remember if your game is set anywhere else or at any other time, the idiosyncrasies of speech are going to be different.

If at first you don’t succeed…

I have created some cringe-worthy NPCs – and even some PCs – during my gaming history. Some I’ve been called out on, others I’ve reconsidered weeks or even years after the fact. Very rarely is it better to err on the side of caution and eliminate diversity from your game in favor of not offending anyone by your portrayal of “the other.” If someone calls you out on your NPC for an offensive portrayal, listen to their critiques with an open mind, and try again next session.

And to the players, or podcast listeners: if you hear someone mess up, try to listen charitably. Unless they’re Donald Trump, they probably were making an honest effort to play something different. You should absolutely speak up when mistakes are made, but aim to educate, rather than humiliate your GM.

What advice do you have for other GMs who want to add more female NPCs to their games?


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About the Author
A city girl with midwestern roots, Angela has been on the internet for far too long. A geek of many stripes, when Angela isn't pretending to be a different person every weekend she can be found reading, writing (that novel will come out some day!), or preparing for her eventual life as a crazy cat woman. Angela also blogs about gaming at the blog Gaming as Women http:///www.gamingaswomen.com

12 comments on “How to Play a Female NPC

  1. Barsher D Barsher says:

    It’s funny because I use to think that I was good about having ladies in my games as NPCs. I would have one or two important NPCs that were female and think it was good. And then I realized that every minor NPC ever was a male. And most likely named Gary.

    Now, with Fandible’s help, half my city is filled with NPCs named Linda and Gary! Progress!

  2. Warren says:

    I fail all the time to follow the below all the time, but when I’m clearheaded and trying (and I’m often very trying) I’m a big fan of the ‘change the gender at the end’ method.

    It’s easy for guys to fall into that ‘not wanting to offend’ thing (see opening 5 words), but I think we get in our own way, by over thinking. If we apply what we know from our daily interactions (when we’re in the moment), that women are as diverse as any slice of human beings, it can make things better.

    There’s one thing that I may disagree. I think an occasional ‘man with boobs’ character is fine, when that character’s gender doesn’t matter anyway.

    Take that Bob the innkeeper. Maybe his only purpose is to give some local colour and dangle some juicy gossip. He’s tired, isn’t interested in the flirting of anyone and lives in a world of gender equality. Does it matter if Jill the innkeeper is there instead, but doesn’t have any more if a rich backstory or multilayered personality?
    (That does seem to be very close to a restatement of your point)

    We don’t want a campaign full of Jill’s (but not Bob’s either)

  3. Warren says:

    Jills and Bobs

  4. Mawdrigen says:

    Aha! I recognise this conversation!

    I have an extra concern when putting female characters into games due to the fact that more than half the cult are women!

    That said the shadowrun game has been planned with the above in mind, so there’s a mix, we’ll s e how well that goes!

    Good article!

  5. Angela says:

    @Barsher – Dammit, why do you make excellent points AFTER I’ve posted, so I can no longer steal them and call them my own?!

    @Warren – Changing up incidental characters’ genders doesn’t necessarily give you a man with boobs. Bob and/or Jill the Innkeeper is likely to be a cardboard cutout no matter their gender, simply because the only reason they exist is to serve the party some ale. The man with boobs character is another flat character, but has a bit more background, usually as a mindless gun (or other weapon) toting thug who has been made female for tokenization purposes.

    @Mawdrigen – It’s awesome you’ve got a bunch of female PCs, but then in some ways it may feel even weirder if they are up against a horde of male NPCs. At least when Fandible is up against all guys, the rest of the group barely notices it because (and this is me theorizing!) they’re imagining a bunch of people that basically look like them. Maybe with green skin, but still recognizably dudes. Excited to hear the Shadowrun game though! Best of luck, I’m sure it’ll be fab!

  6. Warren says:

    Ah, I see it’s a term that has a specific meaning re tokenisation.

    Sure, there can’t be a glass ceiling when it comes to depth.

    I think that what I’m trying to say is that if trying to get you female/male balance right, there can and should be representation at the low end of character depth as well as the high. And that, when consciously making balancing a goal, we can forget that.

  7. Warren says:

    …actually, I think close to what Billy joking references. Excellent top tier representation but few to no Linda’s.

    Re-reading my posts, I realize that I have simply restated ideas already expressed. No more comment threads for me.

  8. Sam says:

    Ah Female NPC’s depending on the game and setting it can range from 40-60 to 60-40.
    In Dresden I play more mid-road.

    In World of Darkness I play more to what makes sense with the group and game so it can shift to one side or the other

    In Wild Talents I generally shift more to male villains but the female ones still exist. Ah Lady Margaret. She was 6’2″, green scaled with a head ending in a clutch of 20 tentacles, who had deep blue soulful eyes and a cantankerous hunger for alcohol and a love of challenging the pc’s to duels with her saber.

    And so on and so forth. It is all a matter of the game the ideas and so forth.
    I got a fun story of a Eclipse Phase PC who had edited memories negative trait.
    But yeah quick little topic and a fun read.

    Angela is awesome that is all. Now I’m off to find some of the good Powergirl comics like the one where she teams up with Batman

  9. Sam says:

    This also reminds me of all the awesome ladies in the Iron Kingdoms setting.
    And why I bring it up is because it is a great setting with some awesome ladies and they would all make awesome NPCs were they to appear in a campaign of it. So allow me to gush just a bit before I go to the topic about villains and gush there.

    -Harbinger the vessel and/or avatar of the God of Man whose presence inspires awe
    -The Old Witch of Khador who is just Baba Yaga with a 12″ tall bi-pedal chicken robot who is the avatar of slaughter
    -Haley whose mastery of magic lets her go back in time to do the whole doctor who regenerate thing
    -The Iron Mother who built a robotic body(in a steampunk setting) for herself
    -Rhyas who killed a dragon. Which becomes amazing when you realize dragons get Godzilla sized. They are lovecraftian. There blood grows dragonspawn which fight to protect it. They have a rock which holds there soul which has to be kept in a containment vessel otherwise the dragon will regrow a new body. And she killed one
    -Helga the Conqueror a Farrow(pig-person), who has earned the respect of her people, which in a society like the Farrow is badass not even her boss has that with ever person who works for him
    -Morvanha the Autumnblade who can raise people from the dead by hurting herself. And when her men do die she gets healed so yeah
    -Kaelyssa who is 19 or so. She killed a 60-80 year old archmage who could call upon the power of those that died to super-charge armies. Also he can summon a type of ghost that takes armies to kill.
    -Saeryn. She is Rhya’s twin sister and can stop people who are mind melding with her from seeing all her thoughts.
    -Lylyth. She drove off a dragon. Ripped out her own heart and then decided she did not want to die and with Saeryn & Rhya’s help recovered. Oh she killed Morvanha’s equal and kind of friend Bladur the Stonecleaver
    -Denegrha. Haley’s twin sister who in a duel from before the time lord stuff cut off Haley’s arm. Haley cut Denny in two. Denny got better
    -Issyria who is such a competent mystic that she doesn’t take a weapon into battle. And she really doesn’t need it
    -Kara Sloan. She shot the grand general of the Khadoran army non-lethally with a gun that tears limbs off of 20″ tall steel robots. And she did it to show him to retreat
    -Zerkova she’s a James Bond villain who had her eye cut out and spent the next year finding a magical object to replace it. She also has a pair of bodyguards who are driven mad by magical axes that should at every moment be trying to kill her. They don’t out of loyalty…
    -Calandra. She calmed a entity made of only primordial hunger and stopped its rampage of eating things
    -Girssel Bloodsong united all the kriels together when there original leader Madrak had to destroy an axe(Whose name is World Ender). I can’t remember her other stuff at the moment
    -Ashylnn who is a mercenary trying to get Khador out of her home kingdom. No major story stuff with her :(. But stat-wise in the wargame she is amazing, name a stat and it’s high on her except magic which is average.
    -Allison Jakes. Who bested her mentor in a duel after he had be re-animated and made stronger, faster, better. She also hurt the Butcher of Khador well still not getting hurt(The Butcher killed 72 men in a hour), among other stunts

  10. Robert? says:

    Out of curiosity does anyone else roll randomly for gender of their characters? I usually (barring in-game necessitates) roll for physical appearance and gender. But maybe that’s because I tend to build my characters backwards >.>

  11. Barsher D Barsher says:

    Hey, that’s one way to build a character! Props to you 😀 I don’t generally build characters that way. I think, over all, I’ve played like… one character who was female. But maybe next time, I’ll try rolling and see what the fates deal me.

  12. Vele says:

    Last year I played a one-shot of Numenera (my first time GMing a game ever!) and just…included a bunch of female characters. The head of the village, a couple side characters, stuff like that. I didn’t think anything of it, but one of my players (a guy) actually suggested that the big secret was that the monster of the game was attacking and picking off the men because there seemed to be so few in comparison to the women. I hadn’t even considered that, I just generally prefer female NPCs.

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