Feminism, IRL, RPGs

Sisters-in-Arms: Rallying More Women to Tabletop Gaming

Dungeons & Dragons

I think we’ve all probably heard the stereotype of the tabletop nerds huddled around in a dimly lit basement, desperately rolling their dice. For decades, it’s been the sign of the ultimate geek. You know, the ones with pocket protectors and pants up to their armpits. Admit it: you’ve wanted to give it a go, right? I know I have.

When a good friend of mine invited me to an evening titled “Sisters-in-Arms,” I jumped at the chance. A local game and comic store called The Badcave was hosting the inaugural event and promised to be a good way to ease into tabletop gaming. A night booked with the express purpose of introducing more women to tabletop gaming? Sign me up! After all, finding your way into a new hobby can be difficult. You can easily end up confused and outclassed by others who have been doing it for yonks, whether it’s knitting, surfing, or gaming.

I caught up with one of the hosts, Bridget Hughes, before the event. A lot of work goes into managing events like these and running the games, too. The time and energy people like her put in makes it a fantastic community. “It’s a great hobby, and it’s a very social one,” she told me. And she was right. The problem is, it’s not exactly a diverse hobby. It’s not that guys involved with tabletop gaming are horrible people who deliberately exclude women; I can absolutely confirm that they’re great people with a lot of passion and a great sense of humor. The problem is the lack of diversity. “When there’s literally two female-presenting players, it’s easy to feel outnumbered,” she says. On this night, however, the tables were turned.

Twelve newcomers turned up eager to learn. All women, all interested in trying out tabletop gaming. So, good news! I talked to a few of the people there and there was definitely an underlying theme of ‘wanting-to-try-but-unsure-how-to-start’ going on. I think the majority of us were glad that an opportunity like this had come up.

Courtesy of Ellie
Courtesy of Ellie

For all us newbies, there were four types of games to try; Dungeons & Dragons (5th edition), Pathfinder (4th edition), Call of Cthulhu (6th edition), and Lasers & Feelings. Dungeons & Dragons is by far the most well-known of the four. Even if you’ve never heard of it, you can probably guess the nature of the game by its name. Pathfinder is an RPG modified from an older edition of DnD and, in this case, the campaign called for the players to take on the role of malicious goblins. Call of Cthulhu spins off from these more traditional games, however, and is a horror RPG which focuses on—you guessed it—the mythos surrounding H.P. Lovecraft’s creation. Lasers & Feelings, on the other hand, has a more sci-fi-like flavor, throwing you on an interstellar spaceship called Raptor.

So with these choices in front of us, we split off and I found myself sitting around the Dungeons & Dragons table with four other newcomers. Hey, if you’re new to the genre, what better way than to start with the RPG, right? To make it easier on us, we were given premade character sheets. I have to admit, there were an intimidating amount of numbers on it—not to mention I wasn’t entirely sure what kind of creature I was playing as. Tiefling Warlock? What the hell is that? I was surrounded by Paladins and Halflings and rogues and we were headed for fame and glory, one way or another.

You could tell that with five newbies in our group, we were taken aback by the amount of freedom we had. The Dungeon Master (or DM) told us the story of how we had traveled from far and wide to become adventurers and we were setting off on our quest to investigate a mysterious plague that had ravaged the kingdom. After setting the scene for us, we were kind of struck into silence at his question of “What do you want to do next?” Sure, I’ve had experience playing RPGs, but only on a screen. There were usually glowing quest markers or shimmery chests to loot. What did I want to do next?

We started off hesitantly, questioning the DM rather than telling him what we wanted to do. “I … move forward?” Turns out, that’s totally something you can do without having to ask! Eventually, we ran into an ambush and we got our first taste of combat. This is where the dice come in. We each had a handful of dice in front of us. The famous 20-sided dice were there and a whole host of others: eight-sided, ten-sided, the list goes on. By the way, imagine a four-sided dice. Then Google it. Is that what you thought it would look like?

Courtesy of Ellie
Courtesy of Ellie

For the newbies out there, let me enlighten you on what the dice do. But please bear in mind that I may actually be wrong here because, believe it or not, one night of gaming does not an expert make.

Anyway, there were a lot of dice, but before we got to rolling, we were introduced to the idea of ‘checks.’ Our first one was a perception check. Basically, we all picked up our 20-sided dice and made a roll. A check in this context does exactly what it sounds like; it checks whether you have the skill to do something, whether it’s noticing something or dodging an attack. Depending on your character’s stats as well, you might have a modifier that you can add to the number that you rolled. For example, in our case, the number we rolled had to be above a certain threshold to notice that the people behind the ambush were only poor farmers and not hardened warriors.

Once we actually got into combat, we started picking up what the whole handful of dice were for. So, say you wanted to shoot an arrow at an enemy. Great. But do you hit it? Does your arrow land? You need to roll a die (a 20-sided one) to decide. Now, you might land a hit. But how much damage did it do? That’s where the other dice come in. Different weapons need different dice to determine how much damage was done.

Once we had some of the basics sorted out, we started getting into the swing of it. By the time the next fight rolled around, we were planning out our moves, really working as a team, and I was having a hell of a good time to boot. Time was against us, however, and we came back to the real world with a bump. Good news, though—everyone was keen on continuing our campaign and a date was set for us all to return and finish what we started (i.e. stopping an evil plan from destroying the world).

So, considering how much fun we all had, why aren’t more women involved in tabletop gaming? We all know by now that women are interested in all sorts of geeky pursuits. What stops more women from joining in? Speaking from personal experience, it’s an intimidating game to get into. Aside from the in-depth nature of tabletop gaming, finding a group that’s all-inclusive can be difficult. Tabletop gaming is a sphere dominated by men. “It doesn’t even have to be that anyone there is actually aggro towards you, it’s just that, because it’s so dominated by one group, many of them can forget that your perspective even exists,” says Bridget.

And that’s why nights like Sisters-in-Arms are so encouraging to see. These types of tabletop games are such a great creative outlet, and the more diverse the community, the better these things get! The night overall was a success and the organizers are hoping to make these kind of events a regular feature at The Badcave. I know that I’m definitely looking forward to seeing where my Warlock and I end up next time. If you ever get the chance to give tabletop games a chance, do it. You definitely need to feel the power of a natural 20.

By the way, as a bonus for reading to the end, here’s a picture of a four-sided die for you because—don’t lie—I know you didn’t Google it when I told you to.

Dungeons & Dragons

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10 thoughts on “Sisters-in-Arms: Rallying More Women to Tabletop Gaming”

  1. I’ve been tabletop gaming since high school! It’s great fun, but I haven’t been able to find a local group with any open places since I moved. 😦

    Just finished reading a book by a woman who didn’t get into RPG until adulthood, when she started working for Wizards of the Coast. Sherry Mazzanoble may be a good writer to inflict upon the more femme ladies you’re interested in introducing to role-playing.

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      1. I’m completely ok with overseas members for the group, and other ‘chapters’ or something starting up in other countries, under the sisters in arms banner or not. Basically, under the ‘banner’ would just mean following safespace guidelines etc, and being able to use the logo and graphics and other resources. The fb group is definitely open to anyone, and the more gamers we get in there the more fun talkings there shall be!

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      2. Well, eventually I’m hoping to fundraise enough to set up a website ^_^. I’m a web designer by trade but I can only take so many hours out of my work time so I’m hoping eventually we can meet somewhere in the middle. And this awesome site here will hopefully have more to say about sisters in arms in the future ^_^

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  2. I’m so glad to read about your experience with Tabletop RPGs. While I agree with what you said, generally, the community isn’t bad, however, when looking through the cesspool that is Youtube comments, there are still bad apples who still exclude women due to internal biases. One of these gems include “Where do you find female players who can play? All the females I DM’d sucked.” The fact he called them “females” is just cringe-worthy. Plus, he assumed that ALL women can’t play because he already went in biased with this assumption. I wrote to him saying that maybe they just weren’t good players, their gender isn’t relevant. Unsurprisingly, he disagreed.

    Your article has inspired me to write about my first experience this coming Sunday over at Roll20 with a group I found via a Critical Role forum (for anyone who hasn’t heard of it, it’s a livestream series on Geek & Sundry showing voice actors playing D&D!).

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