Feminism, intersectionality and tabletop RPGs


#1

I recently started my first D&D campaign as a DM. I’ve been playing D&D for about seven years, and running my own campaign has been a lot of fun. But as a queer person who’s often read as a woman, D&D has been an interesting world for me – I was the only non-male in my first campaign, and we’re all white. They’re an awesome group of guys and we have a lot of fun, but it’s something I’m conscious of.

I’ve read countless comments on online forums or blogs about D&D are horribly sexist. My favourite was a guy complaining that an official piece of art from an RPG company was “unrealistic” because it depicted a woman fighting a dragon, and in medieval fantasy worlds women would “more realistically” stay home and have babies. Other things I’ve read are about how elves or other fantasy characters can’t be PoCs. It’s not always the most welcoming place to be any kind of minority.

When I started my current campaign, I asked every woman I knew if they wanted to join – at the end of the day, I ended up with one female player. A lot of the other women I talked to were too nervous to commit. But I’ve worked hard to build a world that’s welcoming and interesting, that has challenges but isn’t … uh, gross. I joke that rather than social justice warrior, I’m a social justice DM.

I’ll share some specifics later (I’m at a conference right now!) but I’d love to start a conversation around these issues and what you guys do to make your tabletop role playing games more diverse, welcoming and engaging.

Edited to add: this thread is intended to be for DMs and players to either talk about sucky stuff or really great stuff they’ve encountered or alternatively to talk about what they’ve done to make their games, characters, whatever more inclusive and less problematic.


[PBF][Recruitment Closed] A Horror Game
#2

Hi, white cis-het male here, i.e., the perfect and obviously most informed candidate to discuss social justice in gaming :wink: Also, one of the players in @slaughterhouse5’s campaign, so, like…

This is something I’ve become increasingly aware of as I’ve played games, both video and tabletop, and something I make an effort to address in my own approaches to them. It feels like in a post-GG world, despite the continued whining of the awful parts of Twitter, we’re finally starting to see some true visibility and representation in games, both within their narrative fictions and from the actual people who create and play them. Inclusivity is critical to creating representation, and that’s made possible by looking beyond how RPGs have been traditionally written.

For the longest time, I was fairly uncomfortable with playing any characters that weren’t simple fictional extensions of myself. In part, it was because I was so grounded in the way I thought and saw the world that I wanted to experience that through a fantasy-character-version of my outlooks. Once I moved beyond that, I’ve dealt with a sort of worry and anxiety over “misrepresenting” any character whose identity is different than my own. “I don’t have the experience or perspective of a POC or nonbinary individual, so I couldn’t possibly hope to play them realistically!” I’d reason. But there’s that word again: “realism.” That same word that guys who are afraid of seeing strong female fighters use when they insist it’s “unrealistic” to portray them in a fantasy world.

The more I’ve stepped outside that very small comfort zone and explored characters from all different identities, the more I’ve found it’s enriched my experience as a player. I’ve tried my best to represent this in my own campaigns as well, trying to write NPCs from all walks of life, and not falling back on tired old stereotypes. I’ll admit, it’s sometimes really hard because I’m not always consciously aware that I’m resorting to my own personal “defaults,” but it’s created a much more vivid world to write when taking intersectionality and representation into account.


#3

I think one of the best/worst things about table top RPGs is that the players help foster the atmosphere of the game. Ideally, the table engenders a safe space to be creative and live in a different skin while making stories with friends. At least, that’s my ideal.

I don’t often find these kinds of sexist displays often on the forums I frequent, like rpg.net, and when I do, they are often shut down by the majority of the users. In a world with dragons and magic leaning on “But Medieval woman wouldn’t do that!” is more a cry to a desire to keep “their” game a boys only club.

As far as making the table more welcoming, invite welcoming people. Toxic players ruin the ideas of games of new players. Heck, even players that just want a different kind of game (someone wants to dungeon crawl when the rest of the group want to have a more social intrigue style game) can bring down everyone.

My question is, are you talking about having players at the table roleplay as non-binary player characters, or if that is the goal of this thread to discuss. I personally find it hard to roleplay as something other than the Cis-Hetero Male character without leaning heavily on some kind of stereotypes, largely because I lack the life experience to do so.

Second question is what do you mean by playing in ways that aren’t gross? The murder-hobo style of dungeon crawling? Like I’ve mentioned, I largely lack a solid point of view to know what your specific issues are, besides forum communities containing toxic male members, which creeps up all over the internet with every feasible topic.


#4

I’m a cishet man and I’m currently running a 5e campaign where all the players are women. I’ve played in and run a number of RPG campaigns in my life, and while I like to think I have a fairly welcoming and conscientious group of male friends, this campaign has been noticeably different than the ones I ran that were primarily with male players. I tend to gravitate towards making puzzles in encounters of a certain type, expecting my players to do X, Y, or Z to solve them, and the latest group has shown me that I may have been inadvertently catering to people with similar experiences to my own. This mainly manifests itself when the players solve puzzles in ways I never would have anticipated. The first time this happened, I felt the urge to railroad them and shut down their proposed solution in favor of making them keep searching and find my “right” answer, though I backed down and let them succeed. Since then, it’s been incredibly valuable to me as a DM (and, frankly, as a person) to throw them into a situation where I think there’s only one simple answer, and wait for them to prove me wrong.

I can’t speak to anything in particular I’m doing to make my campaign more welcoming to the players - I do make a point to never describe the gender of an NPC and instead describe what the players can see about them, and I actually took some cues from Dungeon World and let the players run the worldbuilding when we mapped out the realm. Whether this made it more welcoming to them is hard to say, but it has certainly made my toolset as a DM grow.

I think back a lot to the first-ever D&D game I played - I think it was first edition, and I’d played RPG video games before, but never tabletop. I made a female character, and the DM (who was my friend’s father, and the players were all male friends of ours) put my character in a few situations that absolutely would not have come up if I’d made a male character. I remember feeling very uncomfortable about it since I was doing my best (as best a 12 year old kid can do) to roleplay and get myself into the mind of my character. I thought he was a very good DM otherwise, and at the time, I wasn’t really sure what was bothering me about the campaign so much, but I do my best to catch myself doing anything like that when I build campaigns now.

One thing I’ve left far behind - fantasy racism. It’s very tempting to make a world where everyone hates orcs and the orc PCs are always mistrusted, but I can’t imagine why I would want to put that kind of hardship in a game about escaping. I do my best to make sure that the hardships my PCs encounter are mind games and puzzles and beholders, and not real-world baggage lazily covered up with elf ears.


#5

For example, a lot of the tropes in pre-built campaigns can be a bit toxic. For instance, I mostly play Forgotten Realms based RPGs, but a lot of the material dates from from the late 80s and can be really problematic - in materials I’ve used, Amn, which is clearly based on the Middle East, is filled with horrible, greedy, money-obsessed jerks and are really common villains. It’s not surprising, since most of that material was written during the first gulf war, but I’ve had to make some updates to make it less uncomfortable.

The way orcs are traditionally written often sits wrong with me, as well. The savage, universally evil NPCs do read as being heavily based on Indigenous tribes and I appreciate campaigns that find a new, less racially problematic way to tell a story using that background.


#6

I think (hope) that as tabletop games themselves become less niche, as they have been doing for a while now, the old uncomfortable attitudes towards a lot of things that were really common are going to naturally die off. There’ll always be people lingering around with close-minded nonsense, but especially as more socially-concious folk continue to be involved in the community and production of the games we play I’d like to think it will certainly become a much more welcoming space. I’m really lucky to have always played with very inclusive GM’s and players, which has certainly made sure its a big consideration of my own in the games I run.

I’m running a game right now and half of them are old friends from certain online circles that are very lax on the language they use, and having to police that at my table is something new to me, being used to playing with people that are really concious of what they say anyway.


#7

Why do you care what these people say or think? Does their opinion have any sway at all on what happens during your game? D&D and other tabletop games are all about the world you create for you and your players, you’re free to not only change the setting but the rules. Stop looking at the rule books as rule books and more like books full of suggestions. Who cares that xXxN00b$layerxXx thinks elves can’t be PoC if they are not playing at your table?

For the first few games I’ve noticed people tend to try and insert themselves into the setting, that’s probably what is going on with your group. Give it time people will eventually branch out and want to try different types of characters once they start to get an idea of what kind of character they can play in the setting you created. Suggest some outside material that they can read to help come up with some ideas. Whenever someone joins my group I always strongly suggest they read Snow Crash because that book has a ton of really cool characters in a similar setting. I started recently a shared album with my group that just contains cyberpunk photos and others I feel help give them an idea of what my setting can look like.


#8

I like your point about getting rid of fantasy racism. I’m using a FR setting that has a lot of sexism written into the campaign – the “Northlanders” (basically Vikings) are super sexist and don’t really like women to fight or fish or sail. I talked to both of my players who are from that background and asked how they felt about it – would they prefer to have an escape where they don’t have to think about sexism and shieldmaidens are super common, or do they want to have that to push against? They said they preferred it as written, but both created characters who push back.

One (he’s in this thread) created a female cleric sailor who has zero time for people who don’t think she can kick ass; the other created a queer bard diplomat who wants his fellow Vikings to see his “frivolous” pursuits as worthwhile.


#9

Oh goodness, if we are talking about the history of games and game adventure, yes, absolutely. Imagine that you didn’t have access to the internet and the only way to expand your worldview was either by physically going to these other regions, watching hollywood movies, and books at the 1980’s library. I don’t think this is a great place to be able to create non-problematic material.

Have you looked at any more recent setting or adventure books for Faerun, like The Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide? I’ve also heard that Volo’s Guide to Monsters at least tries to make them not all evil stereotypes.

And Orcs, oof. Tolkien’s Orcs are easily identifiable as a racist stereotype. I’m not a big fan of D&D’s alignment system which supports this. I’m certainly not a fan of their being entire groups of people that are “evil.” Like I said, I think Volo’s Guide tries to remedy this, but someone correct me if I’m wrong. I feel like Wizards is trying to be more inclusive with its more recent products, but I haven’t looked at much outside of the Player’s Manuel.

As an aside, I wouldn’t invite my wife my current game. I’m probably going to stop playing in it myself, just because of a few members always using puerile, sexist, and racist language. I want to be in a gaming group, but I don’t want to associate with a number of these people. I’ve tried to get a few of them to start a different game together, but they are much more tightly knit into the friend group that plays. So, I guess I’ll be going back to not playing any games rather than place myself around toxic people more often.


#10

Yeah, there’s unfortunately a lot of that in FR, but I really love a lot about FR’s setting so I oftentimes will take what they’ve built, erase the parts I don’t like, and add my own flavor. It’s cool that you’re giving your players the option between the two, though - I probably would have just written the problematic stuff out of the world. I am curious whether I’m more comfortable writing that out of the world because I don’t agree with it, or because I don’t want to have to square off against my players using it as a device, given that I’d have to be the antagonist by default.

There’s definitely an aspect of “this isn’t a problem for me in the real world, so I don’t need to make it a problem for them in the fantasy world” in this for me, which is just an easy out for me, I guess.


#11

This is the key to having a good game and an inviting table.

Racism, sexism, gender identity are all things that can be explored at the table, but don’t need to be. Do you want a world where racism and sexism literally don’t exist at all, boom, done. Do you want to explore gender fluidity in a world where you are a magic spell away from changing your outward presentation on a whim, that’s possible. It’s about the game you and your players want to play, and the ideas that you agree you are comfortable exploring together.


#12

I absolutely love most of FR, it’s such a fun world to play in, but it requires a lot of editing. Which is fine and the great thing about being a DM, you can change whatever you want and every version in every game is different.


#13

I think everyone should use or at least read the X-Card, it’s made it easy for me to have conversations about boundaries and what my players want out of a campaign.

I also think it’s always worth being skeptical to default fantasy stuff and asking yourself (and your players) how you can make things more interesting. Because a lot of time that conversation can be “this sexist trope is boring, let’s do something weird & cool instead”.


#14

After a long hiatus on any pen and paper stuff - my wife and I both had awful experiences with some different groups due to the sexism and racism we see in a lot of RPG spaces - I got into running them myself and luckily have a great group of friends to play with now. It’s amazing how much some game systems bring out the worst in people though.

But that’s sort of a chicken and the egg thing, so much of the Toliken-inspired pulp fantasy and games are inherently bigoted. I mean they have to be to create the scenario of “the gets into like five lethal battles and kills a bunch of people to get some treasure” and still have it be “heroic.” Of course games like that will attract people who think like that, which was part of why I lost interest in playing at all for a while. But I’m glad I’m running stuff now with cool people. :slight_smile:

I love cyberpunk stuff, so when I decided to get some friends together for something I’d run I fell in love with Shadowrun again. Now despite the inherently diverse setting, Shadowrun ain’t perfect, but it does some things I always appreciated (especially in the fourth edition where they changed/got rid of some stupid stuff).


#15

I think you hit the nail on the head with the two options you have for fantastical racism and sexism in RPGs. You can either create a world that simply don’t have these issues, or you have an opportunity to make a world like that, and then have a PC actively oppose and destroy the prejudices.

I started DMing recently, and found it precariously easy to slip into fantasy stereotypes, that are just real stereotypes obscured by a layer. Orcs as indigenous people have already been mentioned, but it took me way too long to realize that hey, Gnomes as a greedy, short-grown, tinkering race with big noses is maybe not okay.


#16

Generally speaking my experiences with the tabletop community have been… bad. It likes to think of itself as a progressive place, but it is in many ways much worse than video games. Both have extremely nasty abusive elements, but in tabletop I found those people much more likely to be tolerated and given mainstream credibility.

Thankfully the nature of the hobby means that you can enjoy it with a group of friends or form more progressive sub communities (this I feel is what Friends at the Table does) rather than venturing into ‘the tabletop community’. And honestly that would be my advice to most people.


#17

There’s an inherent challenge here in creating RPG stories. Many stories, and especially those that are part of RPGs, are about conflict. Conflict drives narrative, as well as creating motivation for the players. The thing is, many writers get lazy and end up resorting to shorthands and tired tropes, which in turn, delves into stereotypes.

“Why are we fighting these orcs?”

“Because they’re evil”

“But why are they evil?”

“Because that’s just how orcs have always been.”

This is especially prevalent in fantasy settings, which are so largely informed by Tolkien lore and themes of medieval literature, and come laden with preexisting structures and problematic tropes.

In the campaign I’m running, my players recently completed an arc that focused on a traditional “Orc army threatens a town” narrative. But I didn’t want to resort to the same old tropes that we’ve seen a thousand times with this story, and instead wanted to look at the motivations of all parties involved. Yes, there was an army of violent orcs ravaging the countryside, looting and pillaging, demanding the town council open the gates and surrender to them. But it wasn’t because “orcs are evil”; to the commanders of this army, they were recapturing lands that had been taken from their ancestors, and fighting back against centuries of oppression.

The more I fleshed the story out and explored the character motivations, the more I began to consider the colonialist and racial themes that surround traditional Orc Army narratives. The army was made up of multiple generals representing different tribes who had squabbled amongst themselves for years, but united under a single banner and a common cause. One group was the violent, bloodthirsty “savage” group whose anger was born out of lifetimes of seeing the violence committed against their kin. Another group believed they could achieve a diplomatic resolution, but needed to fight to even gain a voice at the table. Another were simply mercenaries, joining their fellow orcs because the crusade promised coin. On top of this, (spoilered because some of my players post here) the armies were being manipulated by an even greater power who was simply provoking them into war, agitating their longstanding anger to use them as a tool to create chaos in their enemies’ territories.

On top of that, the causes for their anger was justified. They had been subjected to generations of oppression, and their attempts to fight back had been met with persecution, ghettoization, and racism. In the end, I’m still not sure if was a perfectly eloquent method of breaking out of the typical “savage orcs” stereotypes because they were still “The Bad Guys,” but I think that presenting a degree of depth in the conflict helped my players (and me as a GM) really question and think critically about the typical, regressive stereotypes found in D&D games.


#18

Yeah, it always confuses me when DnD bros complain about diversity in gender/race/sexuality not being period-accurate while they’re rolling magic damage on goblins and orcs


#19

People don’t see the inherent dehumanization of creating entire fantasy races that exist just to be the evil horde. I mean yeah it’s “just” a tabletop game but when that’s so prevalent across so much of fantasy and sci-fi pop culture? You get people that don’t want to play it any other way. I mean robot slave races, orks, hell undead hordes.

The same gamers that don’t want to have anyone that isn’t a white man doing anything in RPGs are like that because the entire notion of there being a generic bad guys faction plants the seed that we see our pop culture nurture into nasty elements and people that are tolerated and sometimes lionized by the community.

You could say some of that also goes back the kind of tabletop games we’re talking about having their roots in war simulations, but either way I’m so happy that I see more and more people talking about running games where is no generic evil horde menacing the lands.


#20

Full disclosure: I’m a player in this campaign, so some background on this from my perspective.

I had honestly not even considered anything along these lines when going into this encounter. To me, it was really simple, orcs are probably evil and we should kill them. (I was tempted to try and shoot one before combat actually started but my fellow players were more patient and I try not to burn down my DM’s world.)

And then the main “bad guy” started talking and there was this realizing that … oh shit, we’re the bad guys, in a way. We didn’t do anything directly, of course, but we hadn’t done anything to fix the problem either. Honestly, that encounter was what made me decide to start my own campaign, because I liked it so much. And it made me think more about the things I chose to include in my campaign when I started it, because I want my players to have those “ohhh shit” moments too.