The Austen Effect


I have introduced quite a few people to gaming. I explain what PnPRPGs are and how the work, always try to have newbies observe a healthy group in action before throwing them in, and coach them one-on-one through the character creation process. And to date this has worked pretty well, new gamers come in with a grasp of what is going on around them, a foundational understanding of the rules, the conventions of the genre, and the expectations of the social contract.

But I've noticed a trend which I consider a problem. About half of the women I've introduced to gaming (which I know sounds like I'm throwing down the gauntlet in front of gamerchick, but I'm not) come up with characters that seem to come out of Jane Austen novels:

  • characters almost always from aristocratic background, usually with high wealth and lots of posessions
  • characters have no combat skills or refuse to use them
  • characters have excessive, convoluted backstories, but often real motivation or objective
  • players have a passive play style, always reacting, never taking initiative
  • player takes intensive interest in exposition and metaplot, to the exclusion of other phases of storybuilding
  • players seem fixated on own characters, taking actions and building on subplots that ignore the needs and interests of rest of the group

This is all RP and no G. While I normally push players to take a level of diplomacy, attempt play styles other than hack-'n'-slash, and generally be more well-rounded, Austen Effect players are game-breaking on the other end of the spectrum - a narrativist/simulationist response to the powergaming munchkin. I wish it was just a bad player, a fluke, but this has come up six times on two continents. So,

- Has anyone else noticed this?
- What do you suspect are the causes of this effect?
- What should be done about it when it occurs? (Can anything be done about it? Does anything need to be done about it?)

This is very interesting. I'm gonna say first that I don't think this is a woman problem, but one that, given the general cultural viewpoint on women (and I mean most cultures here, not just American) is more likely to occur to women. For instance, I've got a girl I game with who is totally the opposite - she likes to roleplay but is just as willing to hack through an army of goblins. Also, her characters have short backstories and are usually rejects or low-class type characters. But, she is also not your typical female.

Ironically, however, I being male, find many of these "problems" you've mentioned apply to myself. Tons of my characters come from aristocratic backgrounds (there's only one major character I can think of that doesn't apply). I once wrote a backstory (actually for my non-aristocratic character) that was 14 computer pages long (12 point font, Times New Roman, the whole deal). How's that for excessive? And I have a serious problem with fixating on my character to the exclusion of others at times.

I think this ties into a host of cultural things. First, woman in many cultures either are or see themselves as having less than others or being at the bottom of a social scale (no woman president, things like that). So, it fits into their fantasy to be a successful, rich character, one that's at the top. This is reflected with men. Men in western culture are traditionally given the "protector" role, even now, but really can't act on that (either because of social constraints or opportunity). So men are more likely to play violent characters to act out this role. In real life you can't kill someone that hurts your sister, but you can in-game. You get to be the comsummate protector with both the power and the leeway to visit your rage on your enemies.

I don't know why I'm that way. Maybe I'm I'm just interested in story and character above all other things.

I think the best way to deal with this is to talk about it. Explain, for instance, if you're playing D&D, that it's a primarily combat game - they're going to have to fight. Help them find what you think is missing.

I'd say more, but I've got to get off. Maybe later.

Chicks seem to be some of the only people like Jane Austen novels so its only natural that their selection
in characters should reflect that.

Dudes just like to kill stuff, so all their characters are just going to be a whole bunch of Drizzts and Conans.

Not all the ladies all like this, not all dudes are like this. Its just nature.

Oops...Edit: characters have excessive, convoluted backstories, but often [no] real motivation or objective.

Tzuriel, I concur - the other half of the ladies I've brought in have been just as comfortable kicking ass as the gents. And I enjoy an amble dose of diplomacy as much as the next roleplayer. But it's not just about that, it's about selfishly ignoring the context of the campaign and the goals of the group.

Gazgurk, it is not nature. It's culture, and it's not something that just has to be expected and accepted.

Why not? Their's nothing wrong with it.

The player I have run for more than any other is my fiance and best friend of well over a decade now. She does tend towards this "Austen Effect" from time to time (though not always); and the characters she makes that don't start that way tend to end up that way rather quickly if she has her way. I've asked her about it from time to time, and the constant reason/reply is that "she can".

I guess what I mean is this; there's nothing wrong with these gamers you speak of, and there's nothing wrong with you as a GM. It's a case of the wrong person on the wrong bus. There's just as many guys that play that way as girls, and they aren't all playing Vampire. If you get enough of them together, you have just as good of a group/game/campaign. All my characters were like the ones you describe as well...but then I realized that I wasn't the "wrong person on the wrong bus"...I was the right person, I was just in the wrong seat. Now that I sit behind the screen my over-exposition serves me well as a career GM. And yes...we play D&D. I actually hate that name. We use the d20 rules to play RPGs, but D&D is the furthest thing fom what we do.

The payoff for me is that I'm always running a solo campaign for Tara on the side, so she gets to play those characters there. In group play she generally plays a quiet yet extremely useful character that stays to the sidelines; mainly because she knows more about my setting than anyone else but me, and we both know more about it than the real world; but also because she would rather not be the "party leader" and before she started making dumb fighters with no world view she inevitably *always* got put in that role by the other players.

For Gazgurk's benefit:
The most bad ass fighter or barbarian type I ever saw was an insane swordswoman, played by a female.
The most opposite-of-that character I ever saw was a rogue with no thumbs, played by a male.

Beware the vastly generalized world you live in my brother in gaming. Not only will that bite you in the ass some day in real life, but it might make your gaming palate narrow and dry up some day too...unless smashkillgrab never gets boring at your table.

For what it's worth, in my group campaign we haven't touched dice for two sessions (well, *I* did; but that was just for show)

A quick aside on the culture vs. nature thing - our cultures are influenced by our natures, but as to how much we really don't, and can't, know. There are several cultures where women are at the top of the social scale, even to the point of having multiple husbands! I'm positive that in that culture, the characters would be very different, and this trend would be non-existent.

All of this really comes down to people getting stuck in their rut. Right now, both by inclination and necessity, I'm trying to make characters that are very light on the history, but full of personality regardless. It's more difficult for me to not have a "reason" for every character trait, but I'm learning (slowly...). People tend to play what they find is fun first, and, in most roleplaying, you play out your fantasies first thing. I know I did. I wanted a character who was special, but not loved in society, had a destiny, but still developing who he was. And I wanted magical powers. So I played a sorcerer who I felt was destined to save the world from some elf-hating tyrant (a really terrible history, as I think back on it). Luckily, I guess, I never got a chance to enjoy that character and moved on to other things, developing into who's typing this today. I believe that, if your players can handle it, as a GM it is your duty to challenge your players and move them out of their ruts. If they're all used to D&D, throw World of Darkness at them (but don't lord their mistakes over them and make them hate the experience). Take them out of their comfort zones. If they're all used to playing powerful (and rich) characters, make them play commoners in a psuedo-medieval Europe world. They'll hate you, then they'll love you. Help them expand. That, in my opinion, is what storytelling's all about.

I consider myself a pretty balanced, 'middle way' gamemaster, and from that position Austen Effect players are just as dysfuntionally game-breaking (and group-breaking) as classical munchkins. But yeah, I suppose if you have a group and a GM who are all willing to role that way, I guess that can work, just like an all-munchkin group can.

Don't get me wrong though, our campaigns are just as action packed as most; it's just handled in a much more cinematic way. Behind my screen some true crunchy "gaming" does indeed go on; I just do my best to make that as transparent as possible to my players because they really don't care about all that stuff. They're ex-actors turned roleplayers that didn't really get into it for the "game" aspect in the first place. To them, the most important thing is the story and their characters. That works good for me, because I was getting tired of having to have every encounter down to the exact footage and having every NPC or encounter religiously stated out by the rules of the game.

It does work out quite well for us...but whenever a "typical" (I use that term lightly...there is scarcely a "typical" gamer as far as I've noticed in more than two decades roleplaying) gamer joins our group they have a hard time adjusting and generally don't last long. I always warn them extensively ahead of time, right down to an hours-long session of talking over pints at a pub about the nature of gaming and the dynamics of how we play, before they ever sit down and even make a character. I'd say that 75% get weeded out by this process, 20% get weeded out during the first two sessions, and 5% enjoy the switch up of how they previously saw gaming.

I should mention though that "weeded out" isn't negative in context. We just aren't willing to change what we do or how we do it, and so no one should be stuck playing with a group that they feel are over-indulging their creatabone and undermining the other aspects of play. I look at it as "freeing up their future" so that they can find a group that suits them better. I've never told someone to leave over the difference in style...they feel overwhelmed by too much detail (or underwhelmed by lack of tactical or strategic style gaming) and leave on their own. Only one left in a huff, and he was a special case. His was a personality issue, not a gaming issue. I often send them on to my friend Brian (an amazing actor/player, almost to a fault...ask me some day about the "cheese and butter subplot"), as he runs very crunch heavy campaigns that generally seem more like Mordeheim with personalities asigned to his mini collection, as opposed to what I see as "roleplaying".

World of Darkness! Commoners! Eeesh, do you like keep the head of every munckin you meet in your room or something?

Having gamed under you, I would agree that you are a 'middle way' GM, but your story lines are often so rich that they lend themselves more frequently to the role play side than some other hack/slash campaigners. Also, during character creation, if I remember correctly, you required a back story. Don't get me wrong, I always loved that about your games, it forces you to consider personality and motivation, which is important. However, when you ask anyone, maybe even especially women, to create a story, a character, etc. there is a tendency to become attached, to empathize. One could say that your requirement for back story meets up with the self-indulgent imaginations of your gamers and creates your "Austen Effect". Maybe they just need to be a little more bloodthirsty to counteract their fantastical narcissism. Maybe you should just run 'em through a good old fashioned dungeon crawl right in the beginning every time to give them a taste for orc blood :)

I used to, but it started to smell. Now I keep their heads under the porch.

Yeah, the stench did start getting really bad for me, too. So I went the old-fashioned way and shrunk all the heads I collected from then on.

The best part? Police came over one time asking about them. I explained they belonged to former munchkins and they let me go!