Gender Representation in Tabletop Role-Playing Games: A Personal Memoir

Dungeons & Dragons

Tabletop gaming, specifically role-playing games, have an interesting history when talked about with gender issues in mind. Granted, this is all from my perception, but I do recall a number of those events well. I have been playing tabletop games since 1978 when some friends of mine introduced me to the blue-boxed Dungeons & Dragons. I thought the idea of the game was really fascinating; how, by working together with the Dungeon Master, the players would be able to elevate simple imagination games like War and playing with dolls to create something more epic. I didn’t know the term then, but it was and is most definitely collaborative storytelling—where we all made the story up as we went along using dice to adjudicate conflict resolution.

Since then, I have played many, many systems from D&D, to Gamma World, to Serenity, to HackMaster, to GURPS, to Mutants & Masterminds, to Rolemaster, to Palladium and more. Things they all had in common were the dice and the collaborative storytelling. The joy of creating a character, their personality, the way they looked, and the way they acted in different scenarios was fascinating and engaging, and I have never lost that love for it. However, one thing I did note was that there was very little equal representation of gender—especially in early games.

When Dungeons & Dragons came out, besides Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, their spouses and friends were credited with helping to make it a reality. In fact, one of the supplements my parents bought me included the initial character sheets of their first gaming group with all their names and everything. It warmed my heart to see that there were women involved in this right from the start and have been there forever. They played characters that helped shape the game and helped make it great.

That women were involved in the role-playing is understandable, as women seemed to be socialized towards collaborative activity more so back then as opposed to now, whereas men seemed geared more towards individualized activity. Those are just tendencies towards and not absolutes, mind you. On a whole, women are far more used to creating stories with their dolls, stuffed animals, etc. and coming up with things together when able, since that was the approved method of play then. They are already used to working together to create a narrative.

Men, on the other hand, are more given to playing games such as War or, back in my day, ‘Cowboys and Indians.’ These games are more an excuse to run around and yell “bang!” than anything else, with each person trying to be a hero. The kinds of games that were more prevalent at that time were combat simulations such as Squad Leader. However, given that the majority of combat simulation games were played by men, it seemed that Dungeons & Dragons, having evolved out of combat sims, was geared more towards that audience. That doesn’t mean that there weren’t women playing from the start, the least of whom played when the game was being play tested. However, they were few and far between, and at least for some, there was little to no artistic representation in many of the core rulebooks.

Dungeons & Dragons

I met a second lady gamer in 1980. I will never forget her because she made a huge impression. She was this awesome woman in her early 20s who happened to be albino in addition to being a great gamer. Her character was a touch less erratic than Elric, and it was great fun to play with her. I learned a lot about gaming in that group. As time went on, I ran into more and more woman gamers as D&D grew in notoriety. I mean, hell, at this point Dame Judi Dench played after she learned how from Vin Disel. She Game Masters for her grandkids now, according to interviews.

After the first wave of games came out, which simply introduced the ideas and created a breadth of game worlds, there was a lull before a second wave came through. With the publication of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, structural flaws began to pop up. Several systems, in an effort to make tabletop role-playing more “realistic” and complex, introduced new bonuses and minuses for things like age, family status, and in a few places, gender. If you played a lady character in one of those systems, you would get hit a little bit in your stats, such as strength and constitution. These decisions seemed based on stereotypical assumptions about men and women, which was irritating. Rolemaster was the worst, to my memory, though AD&D had that mechanic in there as well. It was essentially nonsense, but it was there, and some Game Masters used it.

Thankfully, the backlash from that idiocy just made things equal in terms of stats, like it had been at the beginning. There was still a lack of women players due to cultural issues, but that was changing. As geek went from bad to good in the late 80s, so too did women find greater acceptance with most gamers who were men. This was despite the fact that gaming conventions and game stores were still heavily advertised as spaces for men where they treated women as an oddity. The introduction of Forgotten Realms, a major campaign world, helped as it had a strong lady presence and the designers created a number of women gods and NPCs. It was not bad, and even rather interesting.

Dungeons & Dragons

One other thing that brought women more to the forefront of gaming was destigmatizing them in the comic Knights of the Dinner Table. The comic/gaming magazine created by Jolly Blackburn and currently published by Kenzer and Co. began as a backup comic in the Shadis gaming magazine. This eventually spawned a long-running comic series that celebrated 25 years of publication. In the comic, there are a number of women gamers the characters interact with, having varied play styles and personalities. There is an organization in the comic called Ladies of Hack that these characters belong to, which was spawned to help women gamers. These things were a great normalizing force across the board, helping some men understand that women gamers were not really all that odd.

Now, the tabletop RPG world has a very inclusive presentation. It’s not perfect by any means, but various companies are trying to make differences in terms of gender, sexuality, etc. less of an oddity and more of a norm. They are giving women and other minorities greater representation. Pathfinder from Paizo Publishing have been doing a number of really interesting things lately, including the introduction of a transgender main character in their books. The movement of things from little representation and exclusion (in some cases) to wider, inclusive representation has been a great development, recognizing that women like to play RPGs as well. However, many people who aren’t aware of this history figure that women are a recent addition to the gaming community when, in fact, we have been there since day one.


2 thoughts on “Gender Representation in Tabletop Role-Playing Games: A Personal Memoir

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  1. Great history! Also don’t forget the huge impact of White Wolf who for most of the 90’s was the #1 RPG publisher. They decided in all of their books to use the feminine as the “default” pronoun. It made a huge difference.


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