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The art of DnD in terms of depiction of women has vastly improved.

I noticed over on The Mary Sue an interesting post about a woman who got into a Dungeons and Dragons group for the long term, but only when playing with other women after bad experiences. While reading the post, I was immediately struck by some of the things I’ve mentioned in the past on this blog as being barriers or issues to women in Dungeons and Dragons (roleplaying in general). Most notably, the author of this piece at the Mary Sue was very dismissive of getting into Dungeons and Dragons on three primary points:

  1. The fact that a lot of “Geek humor” surrounding Dungeons and Dragons or roleplaying in general really, tends to fetishise women or alternatively claim they are mythical unicorns who don’t exist. Way to make it welcoming guys!
  2. She found it uncomfortable to play in a group of only other men in her first initial foray. The statement on the post “except the guys playing were obviously toning down the debauchery because a girl was in the room” is rather telling in several ways.
  3. She referenced that damn episode of the Big Bang Theory I dislike so much. I’m not going to dignify it any further in this post, but I do have a video and critique of it in the second link up there.

I’ll elaborate more on point 2, because I think there is something to really unpack about this statement and it’s actually come up before here too. In “Boys react to girls playing Dungeons and Dragons” there is an inherent expectation that women will approach, act and ultimately play roleplaying games to boys. Consider that the DM of the game – who is also the adult – was the one with the most interesting statement, where he flatly didn’t think the game had elements of interest to the girls. Likewise he noted how the boys played differently themselves and the behavior at the table inherently changed, but if that’s a good or bad thing is up to you to decide.

But what we have here is supporting this overall feeling that “Women are unusual” in roleplaying games. Intuitively, she picked up on that sense of being “different” at the other game table and that obviousness led to her towards not wanting to continue. This is despite the fact that she wrote that she did actually have fun playing the game, but that wasn’t enough to get over that feeling of being treated or regarded differently. Overall the uncomfortable combination of previous bias from jokes about women in DnD previously, an at the table atmosphere of being treated differently and finally, being regarded as “The person we need to tone down what we like to do around” is an extremely poor mix for wanting to make someone continue.

This feeling even carried over into when she was invited into a group with all women, where she still had quite a lot of skepticism about how the game might go. Pleasingly, she was able to find a group, a “table culture” and apparently between turns crochet (something a couple of players at one of my own games do actually). That’s excellent! Instead of being driven out of the roleplaying hobby entirely, she was able to find a group she was comfortable with and get into a game she’s always been able to enjoy – but just hasn’t had the right opportunity to do so.

Perhaps what I came away with most from reading the article, wasn’t how she had to get into a group with all women to feel comfortable roleplaying; it’s that I’ve heard this all before. Women playing roleplaying games is actually not that unusual when you start talking to various other female geeks, but what does come across is that they frequently form their own groups. All female roleplaying groups like the one in the article, form for many of the same reasons: It feels “safer” to play with other women, they feel less likely to be ridiculed for enjoying a “male hobby” and the game can be more “feminist” in tone (such as avoiding damseling/murdering every female character of note).

Now I’m not about to criticize just making (or finding) an all female group as a solution, because roleplaying games have a lot of variance in style, how they are run, what kind of stories are told and many more factors, of which compatibility between players at the table is an essential one. This is definitely a fine way to solve the problem that she has and if she’s enjoying the game that’s literally the only thing that should matter. On the other hand, this isn’t the solution that people should feel they are forced to choose. Being made to feel so alienated and generally uncomfortable about how women are portrayed or treated in roleplaying, where you can’t feel comfortable in anything other than a group of only “X” kinds of players is awful. The kind of culture and attitude towards women in roleplaying, which makes that atmosphere is unacceptable. The genuine meaningful solution is working towards changing how men and women see roleplaying as a hobby.

It shouldn’t take any guesses given the tone of my post that change should be “Roleplaying is a fun hobby that everyone can participate in”. Not “A boys club where women are ridiculed for thinking about participating and made to feel like unicorns at the table”.

At my own games, of which I currently run four, I have a mixture of men and women in all of them. In some of those games there is actually a majority of women in the group compared to men. Over time, I’ve found that mixture of different perspectives and attitudes bring the most interesting roleplaying possibilities to the table. As well as that, I can affirm that women occupy every single kind of roleplaying role and trope that any group of male players I had in the past did. This is because women, contrary to the expectations of crude humor and biased expectations, have as many varied interests and approaches of playing roleplaying games as anyone else. Their contributions have been as varied, valuable and surprising as any male players I’ve run a game for in the past.

Personally, the idea that there are women who would love to play roleplaying games, but would reject playing in a game with men (including myself) due to these existing biased stereotypes of women in gaming is pretty upsetting. Of course, I should note the important caveat to the above sentence that some of those men are perpetuating those stereotypes as well. There is an entirely valid and perfectly reasoned decision behind many women’s anxiety or fear of playing, or even entering into roleplaying, in a male dominated space. Thankfully I fight hard against those stereotypes and to ensure that everyone, including the men I play with, have a safe fun place to play roleplaying games every week with me. But most importantly, that everyone at my table feels they can be themselves while having fun. It honestly isn’t hard to do that and share your gaming space with others of different perspectives.