Damsels Slay Dragons Too: Women and RPGs
Updated: Apr 2
Stranger Things recently took lovers of thriller, sci-fi, and horror by storm, introducing us to Eleven, The Upside Down, and for many--Dungeons & Dragons. Although D&D has been around since the 1970s, I think it is a pretty fair leap for me to say that it is definitely not a mainstream pastime (although Stranger Things has really shed some light on it). The show put some real-life action behind a game that tends to fall under the categories: nerdy, abnormal, and not really that cool.
I started playing tabletop RPGs about four years ago, at first hesitant and unsure if it was really “my thing”. I was mostly nervous, but started my first game acting my heart out (And rolling poorly, I’m sure. I didn’t even have a dice-set at that time, and was using a d20 simulator online). I fell in love right away. RPGs were an escape from whatever I was currently dealing with, because for three beautiful hours once a week, I was emerged in another world. I could take a break from being me, and instead be Claire, Salem, Trym, Anyanka, River, or any other number of characters I’ve played over the years during various campaigns and one-night adventures.
Currently, I’ve been playing my friend and housemate’s (Orey’s) homebrew, Drowning Ikallas, for the past 14 weeks. Like I’ve mentioned before, Orey is also GM-ing another homebrew, Coven at Warstone Parade, that we are mostly playing bi-weekly. Sprinkled in, my boyfriend recently DM-d a D&D campaign (5e specifically) that took us about 18 hours to get through over a span of two weeks. Orey is going to DM another D&D campaign in January with our Ikallas group. So uh, yeah. You could say I really do this a lot.
A good "calm before the storm" picture of us starting a new game. Notice the rogue d20 in the corner, going straight for the cookies. Aw guys! Can you picture little dice with tiny mouths eating cookies?
Now, before I get into the meat of what I’m really trying to say (I didn’t mean to have such an intro, so sorry), let me first identify a few things for anyone who may be reading and unfamiliar with what I’m talking about:
A Tiny Baby Dragon Glossary:
Dungeons & Dragons: A fantasy role-playing game set in an imaginary world based loosely on medieval myth.
Homebrew RPGs: A role-playing game that someone has designed (not a commercial role-playing game). The rules are often adapted from standard D&D and fitted to your players or game.
PC: Player Character. The players in the game.
NPC: Non Player Character. A character not controlled by the PCs but instead by the GM.
GM/DM: The narrator and person conducting the game or the campaign. Game Master/Dungeon Master.
Okay, now pause for a second as I struggle to get onto my soapbox with my tiny legs (Side-story: I was at a restaurant the other day sitting at a high top and LITERALLY got stuck so a server picked up my stool and lifted me closer to the table. It was mortifying.) Before I go on, I wanted to make a quick case for homebrew games. I’ve found that a lot of the time, strict D&D players look down on those who play homebrew because the rules may vary, or it’s not a “real” RPG. Homebrew games are very difficult to come up with, often use D&D’s system almost exactly, and allow for different freedoms. Say a group wants a certain theme, or wants to do less math and more plot/role playing, then a GM can cater to them by writing something that works for the whole group. I love Dungeons & Dragons, but it isn’t for everyone. However, the world of RPGs could be.
While I’m sitting on this soap box, with my legs swinging, unable to touch the ground, I also want to say that I am mostly talking about RPGs in a tabletop capacity. I enjoy video games, but don’t really play video game RPGs, therefore I don’t feel I have a super valid opinion on the matter. I do love a good sandbox game, however, and mourn the loss of Toontown Online every day. It truly was a lifestyle. RIP Toontown.
So, here we go, into my main point. One of the biggest reasons I was hesitant about starting to play RPGs is because games like Dungeons & Dragons are mostly dominated by men. Whether it’s men who don’t want to play with women, women who don’t know how to find communities to start playing, or simply that women do not always feel welcome. I wanted to feel accepted, and wasn't sure if I would be. When playing tabletop games or having some sort of discussion with men that could be branded as “nerdy”, I often feel attacked or like I am not good enough to like whatever shared interest we have. Sometimes, certain men may think that women want to play D&D to be quirky, different, or to intrude on something they love and have previously been made fun of for. But RPGs are for everyone, and people play for different reasons. Plus, this mindset and assumptions are totally sexist and keep people who could enjoy these games from ever experiencing them.
At Columbus, Ohio’s recent Comic Con, I went into a D&D panel with Orey. The audience was small, at about thirty people, and there were only two other girls in the room. I was thrilled when I saw that there was actually a woman on the panel! As they went through introductions, I learned that she was another speaker’s daughter. Would there have been a woman on the panel if she wasn’t related to another male speaker?
Everyone took their turns giving advice on DM-ing and answering questions or telling stories about their experiences. However, whenever the girl went to talk about an experience, her dad (or another person) would correct her or start talking over her to finish the story. I deflated in my Mulder/Scully 2016 t-shirt. I often have similar experiences while playing games with men, and to be fair, the guys don’t always realize how they’re making us feel (which still does not make it okay). These men were taking up space not letting the one person I wanted to relate to most on the panel speak. I deal with this with work situations on almost a daily basis, with men speaking talking over top of me, even when I am giving a presentation to a group of people. I don’t need to deal with it then, and especially not when I’m trying to participate in and explore another world with friends.
My Ikallas group has six players. We all get excited, especially during battle scenes, and it’s easy for one of us to talk over another. My group consists of our GM, four men, and two women. For a while, we weren’t rolling initiative for battle scenes, and my fellow guy players would continuously talk over me and take multiple turns. I would get angry, and sometimes a little shitty to be honest, because I was tired of being interrupted or looked over. I had 16 throwing daggers! Let me use them!
In RPGs, self-awareness is always important. Are you dominating the game and making it about you? Are you on your phone, not paying attention, and haven’t done anything to help the party all evening? It’s important that the groups complement each other and work together to fulfill the biggest goals, and then your personal goals along the way. Everyone should be having fun and participating equally, especially girls. Guys, we like playing with you and want to be accepted and valued. Be a good feminist. Girls are warriors too.
So, women, here are five things that I can suggest to girl RPG-ers to help you have an awesome game experience:
Don’t be afraid to speak up. If it’s your turn, or if there is something important you have been trying to do for five minutes but you keep getting talked over, say something. “Hey, guys. There is something I want to do and I’m playing too. Be cool and let me go, because I didn’t interrupt you.”
Have an honest conversation with your group and GM if there is a problem. Tell them how you feel and that they are intruding on your space and right to exist in the game as a fellow player and as a woman. Your GM wants everyone to have a good time, and sometimes are so busy looking at their own information and keeping up with what’s happening that they may not notice things upsetting you.
Demand to roll initiative. In Dungeons & Dragons, this shouldn’t be a problem. In homebrew games, it may not be a rule. Rolling initiative gives every player, despite gender or level of outgoing-ness to get a turn to do something in battles. If someone tries to go out of turn, gently remind them that they have to wait until everyone else is finished. People get excited to fight, it happens, but let everyone have a shot.
Consider finding an all-girls group. Besides Orey GM-ing, Coven is me and two of my close girl friends. Orey wrote a lot of really cool feminist moments, and it’s awesome to be able to bond with a group of women and absolutely dominate whatever comes our way. It’s super empowering and a different dynamic.
Slay the dragons. Attack the goblins. Be the first one to speak to the mysterious floating orb-head on the second floor of the castle. I often make characters who are intelligent, quick, and quiet. Orey recently told me that he was seeing a pattern and that I had more ability than I was giving myself credit for. I was playing characters who reflected how I feel in life. Quiet in scary situations, trying to blend in and just get by, while being scared to mess up. But in RPGs, you can be whoever you want to be. RPGs have actually given me a lot of confidence and courage. Don’t let the guys do all of the heavy lifting. My past couple of characters have been strong fighters, running at monsters and stabbing them in the head without permission. And let me tell you, it felt good.
The Coven characters. Mine, River, is to the far right. She specializes in necromancy.
Interested in joining a group? Check out your local board games stores or see if there are any board game bars who host RPG nights near you. You can even order a Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition starter pack for like $15 online. And guys, please show your feminism and inclusiveness by helping girls in your group feel welcomed and valued, both in and out of game!
Because it’s not just Mike, Lucas, and Dustin sitting in their moms’ basements anymore. Eleven is here, and she wants to battle demogorgons as well. Damsels can slay too (you know, if they roll high enough).