How D&D created the female gamer
October 10, 2014 6:23 AM   Subscribe

While it did not set out to rectify the gender imbalance in gaming, Dungeons & Dragons opened the door just enough to let women gamers in. TSR’s early efforts to include women explicitly in its fantasy games sometimes did more harm than good, but the foremost rule of role-playing games is that gamers are free to innovate, to vary the system to suit their needs. Both men and women have since used these tools to invent and enjoy their own adventures, both through Dungeons & Dragons and the many games it influenced.
Jon Peterson looks at the history of female gamers and how Dungeons & Dragons was so much more successful at getting women to play than earlier war and fantasy games. (For those interested in the early history of roleplaying Peterson's blog may be of interest.)
posted by MartinWisse (40 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
 
I think Vampire is the first game that really brought women into RPGs, though.
posted by empath at 7:00 AM on October 10, 2014


Vampire did bring things much closer to gender parity, but they couldn't have done it without the however grudgingly trailblazing done by D&D.
posted by cuscutis at 7:08 AM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


Interesting article, although it's hard to extricate D&D's rise from other things going on around it. D&D grew out of wargaming, but it distinguished itself from wargaming very quickly. D&D could be just as easily compared to improv theater. I also would have appreciated a deeper examination of the treatment of women after 2E and beyond.

Choice paragraph:
So why exactly did Dungeons & Dragons appeal to women like Van De Graaf more than earlier wargames? This cannot be reduced to a pat answer. If we review the hypotheses recorded in Greene’s interviews, we might identify a few contributing factors. Tom Shaw and Redmond Simonsen worried that society discouraged competition in women, but Dungeons & Dragons is not a game you play to win: it is largely a collaborative game, where a party works together to achieve objectives, and while the dungeon master represents antagonists, the role of the dungeon master is not inherently antagonistic. Van De Graaf’s distaste for masculine competitiveness seemingly corroborates this data point. And if, as Linda Mosca suspected and Randy Reed affirmed, men were reluctant to invite women to games because they didn’t want to compete with women, the collaborative nature of Dungeons & Dragons also removed any such discomfiture: it created an environment where men and women could game together without trying to best one another, as the game had no winner.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:09 AM on October 10, 2014 [2 favorites]


Vampire did bring things much closer to gender parity, but they couldn't have done it without the however grudgingly trailblazing done by D&D.

You're not wrong, although I would also add that D&D has cast such a long shadow over tabletop RPGs, LARPing, etc. that it's hard to avoid anything having been trailblazed by D&D.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:11 AM on October 10, 2014


An article in the pages of Paul Jaquays’s fanzine The Dungeoneer entitled “Those Lovely Ladies” reinvented the Fighting-man, Magic-user, and Cleric classes for women as “Valkyries,” “Circeans” and “Daughters of Delphi,” respectively.
It should be noted that the author discussed in this line has come out as a trans woman and is currently called Jennell Jaquays, although Paul is the name on all of her classic work. Which is interesting given the article written back decades before she came out or transitioned. (She's frequently held to be one of the best dungeon designers in the industry and went on to work on video game level design after her RPG work.)
posted by graymouser at 7:15 AM on October 10, 2014 [9 favorites]


I think it is kind of amusing how the men playing female characters helped a push back against game design that handicapped based on gender. More than anything else, it points to how the need for more female roles in games helps combat sexism by making it easier to identify with women.
posted by Phalene at 7:18 AM on October 10, 2014 [2 favorites]


I think Vampire is the first game that really brought women into RPGs, though.

Aided and abetted by timing to come out at the same time as Anne Rice's movies did, too.

But really, AD&D laid the groundwork, but by the time you got to Mechwarrior, ShadowRun, Twilight2000/Traveller, Paranoia, and so on, the fact that women chars were equal had far more to do with the campaign than the rules themselves. The gender was basically a checkbox.

And really, we would cheerfully create "house rules" to accomodate characters not supported in the rules - centaurs and mermaids and so on.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 7:19 AM on October 10, 2014


Great piece, and it provides yet another reason to dislike Len Lakofka.

(The weird thing is, I don't even remember any more why I dislike him. Did he author some really crappy modules?
posted by Slothrup at 7:27 AM on October 10, 2014


So, tangential but not directly related, how did everyone deal with women in their Pendragon games?
Did you restrict them to gender specific roles?
Have them play as exceptions to the rule? Like a foreigner from a country that allowed women knights or a woman pretending to be a guy.
Or just say, "It's fantasy England. *POOF* gender equality."

We generally let the players choose but the one time we did the latter was a complete blast. The guys played squires and the girls played the knights and we went about rescuing third sons from having to become priests.
posted by charred husk at 7:35 AM on October 10, 2014 [7 favorites]


TSR’s early efforts to include women explicitly in its fantasy games sometimes did more harm than good,

Oh, indeed. Dragon issue #3 (October 1976) had -- so far as I can tell -- the first article TSR ever published on female characters (editited to add; slothrup, this article was written by Len Lakofka). Highlights include a change to the attributes; while female characters have Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity and Constitution, they do not have Charisma. In its place:
Instead of Charisma BEAUTY is rated on 2 20 sided dice numbered 1-10 (so the range is 2-20, not 2-40).
As well, there is a spell that is hardly ick-inducing at all:
Charm men
Charm men is used versus hirelings and low level fighters, Thieves and Magic Users (it is ineffective on clerics).
And despite a headline that includes the weirdly antiquarian subhead on the article -- Bringing the Distaff Gamer into D & D -- it is about characters, not women who might play the game. That would have to wait another four years, when issue #39 in July of 1980 ran two pieces on the topic, both by female writers. Well, one was co-written by Jean Wells -- the first female game designer hired by TSR and thus probably the only woman paid to work creatively in that field in 1979 -- and Kim Mohan, the male editor who often had to explain to convention goers and correspondents that despite his first name he was actually male.

Wells and Mohan mention a couple of anecdotes that draw a depressing view of the hobby then:
One reader, Sharon Anne Fortier, related a story about a female dwarf character of hers that was forced by the males in the party to seduce a small band of dwarves so the party could get the drop on them and kill them.

Another reader wrote of being penalized by her DM because she was a Cleric and had the misfortune (as it turned out) to become pregnant. The DM said that Lawful Good Clerics didn’t do that sort of thing, he forced the character to undergo a change of alignment, and the player eventually had to roll up a new character.
The topic was not addressed again in those pages until February 1982 (#57), when contributing editor Roger E. Moore wrote an editorial entitled Dungeons aren’t supposed to be ‘for men only’. He mentioned a DM of his acquaintance who was notorious for savage, bloody campaigns:
One afternoon he was showing me the long lists of non-player characters from each city on his mapboards. “If you’ll look at all the women characters,” he said, “you’ll see that I made their charmismas [sic] really high and their strengths really low. That’s so they’re easier to rape when their city gets conquered.”
Moore is calling the guy out for his Neanderthal tendencies in the article, but it is telling that there were still people running D&D games who thought that way.

Things have come a long way since then, and the most recent edition -- released earlier this year -- has a section on character personality and background:
You can play a male or female character without gaining any special benefits or hinderances. Think about how your character does or does not conform to the broader culture's expectations of sex, gender, and sexual behavior. For example, a male drow cleric defies the traditional gender divisions of drow society, which could be a reason for your character to leave that society and come to the surface.

You don't need to be confined to binary notions of sex and gender. The elf god Corellon Larethian is often seen as androgynous or hermaphroditic, for example, and some elves in the multiverse are made in Corellon's image. You could also play a female character who presents herself as a man, a man who feels trapped in a female body, or a bearded female dwarf who hates being mistaken for a male. Likewise, your character's sexual orientation is for you to decide.
... although there is still some criticism.

In short, D&D and its descendants were a huge part of my pre-teen and teenage years, but I was a straight white boy. If I were not, I do not think I would have been nearly as welcome in gaming culture in the late seventies and early eighties.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:41 AM on October 10, 2014 [13 favorites]


I think it is kind of amusing how the men playing female characters helped a push back against game design that handicapped based on gender. More than anything else, it points to how the need for more female roles in games helps combat sexism by making it easier to identify with women.

Playing female characters (more so in online text-based games, where most of the awkwardness was removed) actually helped me come to terms with my own nonbinary gender identity, though it took several years for me to really catch on and put it together.
posted by Foosnark at 7:56 AM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


The main thing about D&D is not that it kicked the door wide open; it's that it recognized there was a door in the first place and at least voiced some desire to unlock it. Despite occasional roll-for-prostitute-type headdesk moments, it didn't go out of its way to impose 'realism.' From the Preface to the 1st edition AD&D Players Handbook:

Naturally, every attempt has been made to provide all of the truly essential information necessary for the game: the skeleton and muscle which each DM will flesh out to create the unique campaign. You will find no pretentious dictums herein, no baseless limits arbitrarily placed on female strength or male charisma, no ponderous combat systems for greater "realism", there isn't a hint of a spell point system whose record keeping would warm the heart of a monomaniacal statistics lover, or anything else of the sort.

Of course, it then printed this three pages later. But it was a START.
posted by delfin at 7:57 AM on October 10, 2014


Anecdata: Every player in my home campaign is female -- my two daughters, their two friends and a friend of mine. We've had male players join for single adventure sessions at cons but the core group is all female (though my oldest daughter's elf assassin character is male).

My D&D Encounters group right now is all male (because my younger daughter has a schedule conflict, and so we play Expeditions on a different day), and it occurred to me how pleasing it is that I consider such a composition a rarity.
posted by Gelatin at 8:02 AM on October 10, 2014 [2 favorites]


how did everyone deal with women in their Pendragon games?

By playing PenDragon Pass instead. We did early third age instead of second.
posted by bonehead at 8:04 AM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


Slothrup: "Great piece, and it provides yet another reason to dislike Len Lakofka.

(The weird thing is, I don't even remember any more why I dislike him. Did he author some really crappy modules?
"

If you were reading Dragon Magazine in the early 80s, he had an regular column (Leomund's Tiny Hut) that always rubbed me the wrong way.

He also wrote two modules (L1 - The Secret of Bone Hill, L2 - The Assassin's Knot). I haven't read them myself, but Wiki describes the reaction as "mixed."
posted by Chrysostom at 8:13 AM on October 10, 2014


I was indeed reading Dragon in the early 80s, so it must have been his column.
posted by Slothrup at 8:18 AM on October 10, 2014


I always have mixed feelings when I see D&D folks patting themselves on the back about letting girls in the game and being open to girls. My early experiences with the game involved boys not wanting me to play with them (this was junior high, so would have been 1979-80 or so) or when I was finally "allowed" to join a different group as a senior in high school, a lot of gross sexual behavior, all in character, and a lot of the "you have to decide if you're going to be one of the guys and play or be a girl and not get to play" out of character-- this continuing until into the 90s. I know other people whose experience in the 70s and 80s was very different, but what that difference drives home to me is that D&D was more or less welcoming because of the group and players and not because of the rules.
posted by immlass at 8:22 AM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


As best I can recall, he always had a "this is the right way to play the game" attitude that I didn't care for. It reminded me of Gygax's columns (like the disastrous "Poker, Chess and the AD&D Game"). Which I guess is unsurprising, since they were cronies.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:23 AM on October 10, 2014


patting themselves on the back about letting girls in the game and being open to girls

That's not what Jon is doing here at all. He views D&D with a historian's eye and is looking into why D&D suddenly injected active female interest into a wargaming hobby that, before it hit the scene, was almost completely male. And Alarums & Excursions was there a year after D&D started, with Hilda Hannifen and Lee Gold as conspicuous and opinionated female contributors.
posted by graymouser at 8:30 AM on October 10, 2014 [6 favorites]


I think Vampire is the first game that really brought women into RPGs, though.

This is so true it hurts. I met one of my oldest/best friends that way when I was 15. She was cute and enthusiastic, which was enough for our lecherous/narcissist GM. The game let her pretend to be a vampire, which was enough for her vampire-obsessed teenage self. I don't think she ever played anything else, but that group ended up sporting a number of women, and their numbers really exploded by the time our GM converted the game to LARP, though by then I'd lost interest (because I can only suspend my disbelief so far).
posted by echocollate at 8:31 AM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


Our groups were always about 1-3 women, and 4-6 men. One of those women though, was so fantastic at tactics, role playing and scheming that she managed to co-opt the game, and years later her PC is still mentioned in equal terms awe and horror :)
posted by triage_lazarus at 8:32 AM on October 10, 2014 [3 favorites]


Our groups were always about 1-3 women, and 4-6 men.

/gets out dice
posted by Celsius1414 at 8:35 AM on October 10, 2014 [15 favorites]


Our groups were always about 1-3 women, and 4-6 men. One of those women though, was so fantastic at tactics, role playing and scheming that she managed to co-opt the game, and years later her PC is still mentioned in equal terms awe and horror :)

My best friend's former stepfather, who taught us both to play, had a long running campaign in the late seventies that featured at least two women. Their characters, along with the male players, were NPCs in adventures he ran with us, and we revered them in a way that seems quaint and adorable to me now.
posted by echocollate at 8:37 AM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


My last D&D group was 50/50 men and women (including Jon and his wife). In high school, it was 100% guys, though, which makes sense as we usually played in a late night timeslot after which wise parents were sure to separate the sexes.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 8:39 AM on October 10, 2014


That's not what Jon is doing here at all. He views D&D with a historian's eye and is looking into why D&D suddenly injected active female interest into a wargaming hobby that, before it hit the scene, was almost completely male.

And the data that he's working with suggests that a big factor is the difference in social structure between the woman-hostile wargaming world and the somewhat less hostile D&D world, plus the narrowed focus on single characters. You may not consider his article back-patting, but given the antifeminist backlash going on in greater nerd-dom right now, it's hard for me with my life experiences around D&D in the 70s and 80s not to see an article presenting D&D as somehow better and more attractive to women and in some ways more welcoming to women than the hobbies it grew out of as a little self-congratulatory.

(Also, frankly, my inner historian feels that the focus is too narrow to be worthwhile. You can't really talk about what women were doing in the 70s without discussing broader social trends, which are clearly beyond the scope of the author's knowledge and interest.)
posted by immlass at 8:44 AM on October 10, 2014 [4 favorites]


You can't really talk about what women were doing in the 70s without discussing broader social trends, which are clearly beyond the scope of the author's knowledge and interest.

I don't doubt your experience at all, and that really sucks. By the late 80s, my male gaming friends were usually ecstatic when girls showed interest in our games, partly because most of us didn't really date much and it was the closest we got to socializing with members of the opposite sex, but also because it changed the dynamic of the group in some subtle (and no so subtle) ways that were, at least, different and interesting. As far as I can remember, girls were treated as serious gamers, provided they took the game seriously.* I wonder what changed in ten years.

*Srs bsns
posted by echocollate at 8:58 AM on October 10, 2014


given the antifeminist backlash going on in greater nerd-dom right now

But is this backlash all that dominant in tabletop RPGs, esp. games like D&D and Vampire? Where that backlash does exist, isn't it responding to the fact that, overall, women have made significant headway in certain forms of tabletop gaming? My subjective experience is that D&D-style games and their fans are generally more progressive than things relating to video games, comics, and so on. This doesn't take away from the sexism which women nonetheless still face, of course, but it's worth looking into how the game itself forces interactions which result in positive results, viz. by creating a fantasy world and letting everybody cooperate within it.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:15 AM on October 10, 2014


To clarify, I am not suggesting that sexism is over in D&D, or whatever. What I am saying is that, in contrast to other forms of nerdery, D&D has been generally more progressive when it comes to gender. This is in large part baked into the game itself, as it forces empathy and cooperation and fluidity.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:18 AM on October 10, 2014


given the antifeminist backlash going on in greater nerd-dom right now

Backlashes only happen against people that are winning.
posted by empath at 9:32 AM on October 10, 2014 [4 favorites]


Which is to say that the gamer-gate people are a loud, obnoxious minority.
posted by empath at 9:33 AM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


When I get together with my high school friends from 30-odd years ago, I'm still remembered as The Guy Who Tried to Bring Girls to D&D Games.
posted by lagomorphius at 10:02 AM on October 10, 2014


When I get together with my high school friends from 30-odd years ago,

That is the nature of high school boys 30-odd years ago. The only RPG I am involved in that is 100% XY players has the nucleus of high school classmates I gamed with in the early eighties. Another group is almost exactly a fifty-fifty split, and the third, which is coming into view over the horizon, looks to be all female players.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 10:25 AM on October 10, 2014


I am not suggesting that sexism is over in D&D, or whatever. What I am saying is that, in contrast to other forms of nerdery, D&D has been generally more progressive when it comes to gender.

I was pleased to note that the art in the new edition of D&D appears to take pains to avoid the "chainmail bikini" trope.
posted by Gelatin at 11:04 AM on October 10, 2014


A quote from the unfortunately-hibernating thesneeze.com:

Interestingly, playing Dungeons & Dragons is how I met my first girlfriend. (That's actually not true. Sometimes I just like typing sentences that no one has ever seen.)

posted by Killick at 12:27 PM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


I have a t-shirt from The Sneeze!
posted by Chrysostom at 1:02 PM on October 10, 2014


Very interesting to contrast this with the piece on Zak Smith and the game he's currently running for his primarily female alt-porn friends and the discussion that followed (found here). If nothing else, it's tremendous how much social change has happened in the last few years, and how much people are actively taking over their own cultural artifacts.
posted by emmet at 1:11 PM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


What I am saying is that, in contrast to other forms of nerdery, D&D has been generally more progressive when it comes to gender.

D&D is definitely now more progressive on gender than many other forms of nerdery but it is not, even now, without its problems. See, for instance, the round of internet dogfighting about various contributors to the new edition, discussed here on the blue. Your experience may have been that it was more progressive in the old day--and I'm glad if yours was!--but that experience was not universally applicable.
posted by immlass at 1:14 PM on October 10, 2014 [4 favorites]


(Not directly related, but holy shit, James "Rape is an awesome plot device" Desborough is doing a World of Gor RPG because of course he is.)
posted by kmz at 1:40 PM on October 10, 2014


Interestingly, playing Dungeons & Dragons is how I met my first girlfriend. (That's actually not true. Sometimes I just like typing sentences that no one has ever seen.)

But... that is how I met my first girlfriend!
posted by Kattullus at 3:25 PM on October 11, 2014


I think Vampire is the first game that really brought women into RPGs, though.

In my experience, the first game to bring women n was the James Bond RPG, which actively encouraged female PCs, and had a very non-wargamy system that was concerned with other things than the armor penetration of a glaive-guisarme. Two of the women I knew who ran games started with JBRPG.

My gaming area was also odd in that the other major game to bring women in was Chapions. The ability to create exactly the character one wanted, with important personality traits called out was considered more desirable than D&D.

On the other hand, one of the women I knew in that group started with D&D. A game where in something like the first ten minutes of the game her character was gang-raped by a hundred orcs. When the DM recited the story, he gave us a bewildered look at our response: "...what? She failed her Hide in Cover roll!"

With guys like that, I'm amazed any woman played rpgs in the 80s.
posted by happyroach at 9:02 PM on October 11, 2014


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