How Women Have Shaped and Changed the World of Roleplaying Games

About a month ago, I wrote a blog post about Elizebeth Smith Friedman, one of the founders of American cryptography as we know it. One of the goals of that post was to help correct the historical record and restore Elizebeth to the prominence, accolades, and attention she so richly deserves.

A friend of mine and fellow tabletop roleplayer read that post and pointed me toward this article from Kotaku last year about the early influence of women on the development of the iconic roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons. One of the first playable modules, the “Sage Advice” column of Dragon magazine, the inimitable art style (and maps), the long-running D&D series of novels… women played vital roles in crafting the world of D&D as many of us know it today.

This may come as a surprise to some people, given how pop culture tends to present roleplaying in general as an all-male nerdy pursuit. (The Big Bang Theory, for instance, often pushes the idea that girls don’t play D&D.)

But to me, it’s no surprise at all that women played such important roles in the development of one of tabletop gaming’s most famous franchises. Women have always been a part of roleplaying in my experience. Whether we’re talking LARPs (Live-Action RolePlaying) or tabletop, in my group of friends, female players were the norm.

The longest-running game I’ve ever been a part of — one that we’ve played on and off for over a decade — has had a brilliant female DM [dungeon master / game runner / storyteller]. Women made up half of the players in the Star Wars-based RPG campaign I ran for nearly seven years. The all-guy game that serves as the cliche sitcom punchline was rarely the case.

But I never want to assume that my experience is the same as everyone else’s. So I decided to reach out to some of the female RPG fans, game-runners, and creators I know to get their take on roleplaying games.

How did they get into RPGs? What effect has roleplaying had on their lives, their own personal creativity, and so on? And has the roleplaying world changed, either favorably or unfavorably, for them as women during their time as roleplayers?

To start, I think my friend Addie wrote the perfect intro:

Twenty years ago I was dating a guy who asked, “Do you want to play Dungeons & Dragons?” and not really knowing what it was I said, “Sure why not.” Ever since that first game it felt like I found something that I was looking for, a doorway to a fantasy world I was unfamiliar with yet interested in.

D&D was the first step into a world that introduced me to other means of roleplaying, from LARPing to MMO’s [massive multiplayer online games] to text-based games online. It allowed me to exercise my creativity and become more comfortable with writing. It lead me to learn that I love to write, especially creating characters, and eventually I even co-started a text-based Marvel game called MUCK that had a successful seven years until I burned out and couldn’t run a game on my own anymore.

Sometimes, it’s a boyfriend who introduces the game. Other times, it’s a friend, as in Lindsay’s experience:

I started gaming when I was 14 or 15 (1990ish) when my female best friend bought a copy of the AD&D Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual [the three core books required for D&D] on a whim one day and she ran a game for me and her brother and, I think, a friend of her brother’s.

I’d been exposed to the idea of D&D several years before when the blue box set came out, and another female friend’s brother had it and the dice on his desk. I was utterly fascinated by the idea and wanted to play, but of course we were the Little Sister and friends, so we weren’t invited.

In Jala’s case, it was her sister:

When I was 10, my sister brought home a boxed set of D&D (the original edition) which had a map, module & etc. She was my first DM and first tabletop RPG buddy… RPGs were a way to bond with my sister originally, and later on when online RPGs were a thing it was the manner in which my sister met her husband, and the way I met my best friend (now ex-husband, though we are still friends).

But no matter how they discovered roleplaying, it made an immediate impact.

Beverly credits quite a bit to her experience roleplaying:

It changed my life by helping me form and solidify friendships. I even met my second husband because of RPGs (online and not pencil and paper) and that’s pretty rad.

It also helped me gain some confidence early on when I started game-mastering. I was pressured (in a friendly way) to try my hand at being a game master. I didn’t think I could do it, but I was with a group of trusted friends and I tried it out. It went pretty well, and because being the leader and helping guide the story had gone well in that trusted environment, I felt more empowered to try it at a small convention with people I didn’t know as well.

Those people ALSO had a good time, and each experienced helped me feel more capable in speaking in front of strangers, and if I’m being perfectly honest, also how to fake a bit of confidence at first to help me get started.

Lindsay also credits gaming as a huge factor in her life:

How has gaming affected my life? I laugh: it has been one of the two biggest parts of my life for most of my life. I met the most important people in my life through gaming, whether it be tabletop, writing for the games, or LARPing: my best friends since high school, my general social group, and my husband.

Gaming certainly helped broaden my creativity — collaborating with my best friends when we wrote tournaments or created a whole world to set games in brought so much to the forefront. Cultural knowledge, intricacy in political situations, and depth of character all came into it and we all boosted each other’s creativity. I also like playing all different races, classes, attitudes, and genders when I play — just to see what it’ll be like and to bring different parts of my personality out.

That being said, there has definitely been a sea change in how women in roleplaying have been viewed over the last twenty to thirty years.

Beverly: I have been at it in some form or another since about 1992 and mostly I have had good experiences but there have been some pretty bad ones. I think it has gotten a bit better for me over the years, but admittedly I am not as into it as I used to be.

Addie: The world has definitely become more welcoming to female gamers, at least in my experience. For many years I hid my gender online when roleplaying or playing MMOs, tending to play male characters. I never told anyone I was female but I didn’t tell anyone I wasn’t male and just let them assume. I’m sure there are people out there who are still convinced to this day I was a dude behind the screen.

Now, I have no issues with hiding my gender. The harassment isn’t there like it used to be, I’m not the “golden egg” of female roleplayers anymore.

Lindsay’s experience working inside the world of RPGs grants her a particular insight into how things have changed:

As for my own career, I wrote and edited for several game studios throughout my 20s and 30s. White Wolf in particular liked employing women in the office, but I don’t think that was really because they were committed to diversity. I think it was more because “Wimminz In Gamez Iz Edgy and Cool.” Yes, the women were incredibly capable and remain powerful writers and gamers, but still.

I work in a comic, card, and game store now, the same one where I host and play games. The customers’ attitudes are a mixed bag, really, but overall they are friendly and respectful of me as a woman and an expert. Some are overtly sexist and assholes about it – “uh, can you get [man]? I have questions. No, I don’t think you know about this, can you just get [man]?”

And yep, I know more than the man does.

That idea of “nerd cred” being checked, unfortunately, isn’t the exclusive domain of male players. My friend Athena confessed that female players can also make it hard to get into gaming:

I didn’t want to identify myself as a female RPGer to those that may attack me. I readily tell people I enjoy tabletop, RPG, and other video games in real life, but often (especially in groups of people that already somewhat know me) when I say “oh I love that game”, I get checked for my nerd card. Testing responses from people trying to make me prove I actually am a gamer… I got into D&D in the early days of high school because it looked like fun and my friend-group played. Since then, I personally have always found it somewhat difficult to “break into” new groups.

It’s been a generation since the early days of D&D, and thankfully, being a female RPGer is far more common, even if it can be hard for new players to get started.

Addie: It’s also nice because female Roleplayers aren’t the rarity they used to be.

Lindsay: I also feel like being a woman among gamers gives us a way to feel special sometimes in a world that stigmatizes, belittles, or outright ostracizes smart, creative women who don’t fit the physical or otherwise mold of what a Strong Female Character ought to be. It seems like a poor sort of evaluation, but … it’s true. Among the usual population, we’re just kind of weird, with weird interests. Among gamers, we’re rare and fascinating. That’s nice to feel sometimes.

And on the other hand, that same rare and fascinating thing crosses very quickly, very often into creepiness and even sexual inappropriateness. It’s kind of scary sometimes as a woman to walk into a new game group and have no idea what the guys are going to be like.

Jala: I can’t say that I ever experienced the kinds of horror stories you read about on Buzzfeed, myself, so my personal exchanges have ranged from being blase (occasionally with new folks I didn’t know) to absolutely hilarious (when my gay male friend was playing a flirty straight woman and I was playing a straight man whom his character hit on for example, the role reversal was funny to everyone). The respect of my personal authority was never challenged even as a teenage female DM with older people as my players, although I did exasperate a DM or two with my out-of-the-box thinking as a player. That, however, had nothing to do with my gender.

Athena: Whenever I play tabletop games — Magic, board games, D&D. etc. — the (mostly male) players don’t care AT ALL who I am. It’s generally an extremely welcoming community in person.

Lindsay: Things have absolutely changed over time. Women have gone from being only princesses to be rescued; bar wenches; prostitutes; and the subject of lonely-artist posters to writing the rules systems; being the examples of particular classes or races in said books; having a voice and presence online and in media; and more respected equals as players and writers. We still have things to overcome, but we have come SO far.

Jala: Initially although my “core group” was comprised of my sister and whatever friends (all male) we could rope into it, these days there are many more female gamers of all flavors. From being an outlier in what was a fairly esoteric and clique-filled community, I have (female and male) friends who own comic & gaming shops and run games for kids and single-session adventures for those who can only drop in from time to time. I think that the voice of women is more pronounced now and there is definitely more representation of my gender out there which is great.

Addie: When I was at PAX EAST in 2014 and playing the Pathfinder Mods, one of the random groups my friend and I got put together with ended up being all females. We had so much fun we played three modules together and the GM was shocked to find out we weren’t a regular group, just a handful of pairs of strangers. We weren’t put together because all of us were female, we were put together because we were the players waiting for a group. Ten years ago, there wouldn’t be enough women at a Tabletop booth to put a 7-player group together.

Although things are changing and the pendulum of acceptance and inclusiveness is swinging in the right direction, it’s still amazing the impact that one or two strong female voices can have in attracting and empowering other players.

Lindsay: A guy came up to me at the game store I work at to ask me how many women play D&D. He said his wife and he had played some online D&D and loved it, but she in particular was hesitant to try it in person because she felt uncomfortable with the idea of being a female newbie in a room full of guys.

I realized that this reluctance might be more common than anyone realized, and I thought about the fact that even I, a lifelong gamer, am always reassured when there’s even one other woman on a table. Thus was born my Thursday women-only D&D table. Now I have more interest than seats available at the table! One of my players said, after the last session, that she really, really enjoys playing with just women, that there’s so much less pressure to know everything off the top of your head and that roleplaying is so much more fun.

My stated goal with the game is not only to give women a table of our own but also to welcome and encourage newer gamers or total beginners. It’s a safe space for all women, and I specified that trans women are women and therefore welcome too … Safe. Space. And we’re having a good time!

Addie: I’ve also found that being a female roleplayer with 20 years of D&D under her belt, I’ve been able to help other, younger, women with getting into tabletop roleplaying. A lot of the younger roleplayers I meet online nowadays are mostly younger females who do a lot of text-based roleplaying. Now that they’re starting to get their feet wet with tabletop, they’ve come to me with questions, and I thoroughly enjoy being a “Geek Mom” to young girls.

It was a privilege talking to these women and gaining some valuable insight into the world of roleplaying games from their point of view. Just reading these stories made me even more grateful that my personal experiences with RPGs have been so positive. Seeing these amazing, creative, hilarious, and brilliant women help to shape the roleplaying community for the better… it’s something special.

I’d like to close with something Lindsay said. It is part optimism, part mission statement, and wholly appropriate to the subject at hand:

When things like Gamergate simply don’t happen any more because women’s voices are automatically respected, we’ll have gotten somewhere. Meanwhile, I’ll keep reaching out to women in gaming and helping the ones I can as well as doing what I love best.


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Board Games: A Good Reason to Gather

Are board games the cure for what ails ya?

According to Quartz writer Annaliese Griffin, they just might be.

She suggests that board games provide a “temporary respite from the problems of 21st-century life.”

By bringing people together — something often lacking from today’s increasingly isolated lifestyles where people interact more through social media than face-to-face engagement — board games become a community builder, a catalyst for socialization.

From the article:

A good board game builds in enough chance so that any reasonably skilled player can win. Even in chess, famously associated with warfare and military strategy, the emphasis is not on who ultimately wins, but on the ingenuity that players display in the process.

In all of these ways, board games release players — however temporarily — from the maxim that life is divided into clear, consistent categories of winners and losers, and that there is a moral logic as to who falls into which category. As film and media studies professor Mary Flanagan tells The Atlantic, board games prompt us to reflect on “turn-taking and rules and fairness.”

[Image courtesy of Catan Shop.]

What’s interesting to me about the article is that she mentions Euro-style games like Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne — which are two of the industry leaders, no doubt — but still games that pit players against each other.

What’s interesting to me about an article that’s meant to be about how board games can make you “a nicer person with better relationships” is that the author focuses exclusively on competitive games. I am a huge fan of a smaller subsection of board games — cooperative games — which invite the players to team up against the game itself. You collaborate, strategize, and work together to overcome challenges, succeeding or failing as a group.

In cooperative games, the glow of your successes are heightened because you get to share them with your teammates. And the failures don’t sting as much for the same reason.

[Image courtesy of Analog Games.]

Co-op games like SpaceTeam, Castle Panic!, Forbidden Island, The Oregon Trail card game, and Pandemic — not to mention many roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons — reinforce the positive, social qualities of all board games. I highly recommend checking them out.

And with the rise of board game cafes like The Uncommons in New York and Snakes and Lattes in Toronto, plus play areas at conventions like Gen Con and events at your Friendly Local Game Shop, there are more opportunities than ever to engage in some dice rolling camaraderie.

You can even make it a regular thing. Every Wednesday, we play a game at lunch time, and it quickly became one of the highlights of the week. (This week, we celebrated winning Forbidden Desert on our Instagram account! I always intend to post something every Game Wednesday, but I often forget because I’m so focused on playing the game.)

Take the time out to enjoy puzzles and games. You won’t regret it.


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Demystifying Role-Playing Games

When you hear the words “role-playing game,” what comes to mind? A bunch of nerds in a basement, hunched around a table debating weird and esoteric rules? Practitioners of the black arts, thumbing their noses at God and all that is natural? Or nothing at all?

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Some TV shows, like Community and Freaks & Geeks, have displayed role-playing games in a positive light, but for the most part, role-playing games in general, and Dungeons & Dragons in particular, have gotten a bad rap over the last few decades, maligned as (at best) a game for lonely friendless types and (at worst) a tool to corrupt children.

(This might sound ridiculous to many of you, but folks like Pat Robertson continue to talk about role-playing games as if they’re synonymous with demon worship.)

But in reality, role-playing games are simply a way for a group to tell one collaborative story.

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There are two major elements to this storytelling. The first is managed by a single person who oversees that particular game or gaming session. In Dungeons & Dragons, this person is called the Dungeon Master, or DM; in other games, this person is the Game Master, the Storyteller, or bears some other title tied to the game or setting. For the sake of simplicity, from this point on, I’ll refer to this person as the DM.

So, the DM manages the setting and sets up the adventure. In this role, the DM will describe what the player characters (or PCs) see and explain the results of their actions. The DM also plays any characters the players interact with. (These are known as NPCs, or non-player characters.) Essentially, the DM creates the sandbox in which the other players play.

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Which brings us to the second element in role-playing storytelling: the players. Each player assumes a role, a character, and plays that character for the length of the session, or the game, if there are multiple sessions. (Some games last months or years, so these characters evolve and grow; players often become quite attached to their characters.)

The PCs navigate the world created by the DM, but their actions and decisions shape the narrative. No matter how prepared a DM is or how carefully he or she has plotted out a given scene or adventure, the PCs determine much of what happens. They might follow the breadcrumbs exactly as the DM laid them out, or they might head off in an unexpected direction, forcing the DM to think on the fly in order to continue the adventure.

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That’s what makes role-playing games so amazing: you never quite know what you’re going to get. The PCs usually don’t know what the DM has in store, and no DM can predict with perfect clarity what the PCs will do. You’re all crafting a story together and none of you knows what exactly will happen or how it all ends.

For instance, I run a role-playing game for several friends that is set in the universe of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and my PCs routinely come up with solutions to problems and puzzles that I didn’t expect, but that nonetheless would work. They constantly keep me on my toes as a DM, and it’s one of my favorite aspects of the game.

Oftentimes, major events and key moments are determined by dice rolls, adding an element of chance to the story. (In some games, players have replaced dice rolls with a Jenga-style block tower, and they must remove pieces from it to achieve certain goals. That adds a marvelous sense of real-world tension to the narrative tension already present!)

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And while I’ve talked quite a bit about the game aspect, some of you might be wondering where the puzzly aspect comes in.

Some of the best, most satisfying puzzle-solving experiences of my life have come from role-playing games.

These puzzles can be as simple as figuring out how to open a locked door or as complicated as unraveling a villain’s dastardly plot for world domination. It can be a poem to be parsed and understood or a trap to be escaped.

There are riddles of goblins and sphinxes, or the three questions of trolls, or even the brain teasers and logic problems concocted by devious fey hoping to snare me with clever wordplay. I’ve encountered all sorts of puzzles in role-playing games, and some of them were fiendish indeed.

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One time, during a LARP session (Live-Action Role-Playing, meaning you actually act out the adventure and storytelling), I thought I’d unraveled the meaning of a certain bit of scripture (regarding a key that would allow me to escape the room) and acquired a sword as my prize, only to realize much much later that the key I’d spent the entire session searching for was the sword itself, which unlocked the door and released me.

And designing puzzles for my players to unravel is often as much fun as solving the puzzles myself. Especially when they’re tailored to specific storytelling universes or particular player characters.

(Trust me, it doesn’t matter if you’re dealing with a Jedi or a paladin; riddles stop pretty much everybody in their tracks.)

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Whether it’s Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder, Legend of the Five Rings or Star Wars, GURPS or Ninja Burger, there’s a role-playing game out there for everyone, if you’re just willing to look.


This post was meant as a brief overview of role-playing games as a whole. If you’d like me to get more in depth on the subject, or if you have specific questions about role-playing games, please let me know! I’d be happy to revisit this topic in the future.

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