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What's with the name?

Allow us to explain.

Essay

Roll A Strength Check: Why Tabletop Games Are Awesome For Women (and Everybody Else)


To people outside of the geek community, there is one phrase that conjures up a stereotype like no other: Dungeons & Dragons. I think folks see it as the crystal meth of geekery. You start innocently, just experimenting with a bit of Star Trek, then get sucked into comic book conventions in search of a more powerful kick, and before you know it, you’re rolling polyhedral dice in a dank basement, all hope of sex and hygiene lost forever.

And as we all know, it’s a hobby that girls want no part of.

Tabletop gaming doesn’t have the most glamorous reputation. But I am here today — a battle-grid-drawing, regularly-showering lady — to roll a natural 20 against those who might cringe or laugh at the mention of folks gathering around a table with sacks of dice and miniature monsters. Old-school gaming is indeed crazy good fun, but more importantly, it’s the perfect opportunity for women — nay, everybody — to stretch their imaginations and become the heroes (or villains) they’ve always wanted to be.

If you’ve been raised on video games, like I was, you might not see the appeal of a game that makes you write your character stats by hand on, y’know, paper. Video games operate on the same sort of probability-based systems, but these are calculated automatically behind the scenes. Looking up spell range in a book seems downright archaic. But once you become used to the pace, you begin to see that tabletop games still have some advantages over video games. That is not to say that they’re somehow better than their digital cousins, but they do satisfy certain cravings that video games often don’t.

First of all, D&D (which I’m henceforth going to use as unorthodox shorthand to reference to all tabletop roleplaying games) is a game in which you can play whoever you want. The cool thing about that is you can play whoever you want. Want to play a scar-faced barbarian woman wielding a two-handed bastard sword? Go for it. Prefer a petite male wizard with a penchant for fine silk robes? He’s yours. Scrawny, heavy-set, ugly, beautiful, good, evil, somewhere in between — anything you can imagine is possible.

You can play any gender you want, too. The grand majority of D&D players have no qualms whatsoever about people playing characters of the opposite gender. In fact, it’s almost expected that you’ll switch it up from time to time. Veteran players have an amazingly easy time of separating player from character. All we care about at the end of the day is telling a good story, and gender-bending can be a part of that. Seriously, I have never met a D&D player who cared if a dude wanted to create a female character (or vice versa). Not once. I’m sure such a player exists, but I doubt very much that he or she would be welcomed into many groups.

Your armor will always fit. Always. Unless you don’t want it to, which is fine, too (though I will say that if you ask for a midriff-baring set of platemail while I’m running the campaign, you’re going to take a penalty to your Armor Class; them’s the breaks of leaving your vitals exposed). In D&D, you will never encounter that heartbreaking moment of finally getting an epic armor set, only to find upon equipping it that you look like you’d be better protected if you were wrapped in a sheet of tin foil. The disconnect between who the character is and what he/she is wearing doesn’t exist here.

You will make new friends and strengthen old friendships. D&D is often thought of as the activity of choice for the anti-social, which is odd when you consider that it is a game that forces you to talk face-to-face with several other human beings over an extended period of time. If I’m feeling cooped up after a long week, my first thought is to rally the troops for a game night. Not to knock online gaming (and indeed, I’ve made and maintained many long-standing friendships over Vent and guild chat), but there is something comforting about being able to play with friends without the help of a microphone.

The other part of D&D that brings people together is directly linked to the game mechanics themselves. Collaboration through play is one of Mother Nature’s most tried-and-true methods for skill building (if you don’t believe me, go watch a few videos on lion packs). See, D&D attracts two primary types: number-crunchers and storytellers. Number-crunchers dig maxing their stats and ability scores, and storytellers love any opportunity they can find to craft backstories. These are folks with very different skill sets, but in order for the game to go well, everybody has to learn new things and help each other out. A D&D session without roleplaying is about as much fun as watching paint dry, and a session in which no one understands the rules quickly devolves into chaos. A good group is one in which everybody is willing to both teach and learn. As a storyteller, I have relied heavily over the years on the guiding hands of number-crunchers patiently helping me through the rulebooks. On the flip side, I love coaxing a bit of roleplaying out of a number-cruncher, especially if I know that it’s tough for them (it helps if I do the silly voices first). After a couple months, or even just a few weeks, a good D&D group becomes a hive mind, capable of coming up with ridiculous, hilarious ways of tackling new challenges, and feeding off of the strengths of the others without a second thought.

What could be more sociable than that?

Allow me to switch gears for a moment and address the ladies. While it’s true that tabletop gaming has a history of being a boys’ club, I’ve joined tabletop groups in three different countries to date, and never — not once! — have I been the only woman at the table. Purely by happenstance, the group I’m currently DMing has but one man in attendance. When I go to a gaming store, I am rarely the only woman in there. The stereotype of the sun-starved social misfit who freaks out over seeing a girl buying dice does have some small basis in reality, but honestly, I’ve had more uncomfortable exchanges at bars or concerts — you know, amongst the muggles — than I ever have at a geek shop. As is true in any group of people, there are always the weirdos, but most of the tabletop players I’ve known are the most friendly, socially competent folks you’ve ever met.

Therein lies tabletop gaming’s big advantage over online gaming: when people meet face to face, they remember their manners. Trolling a la John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory just doesn’t work out here. Jerks don’t get invited to D&D sessions (or if they do, then you know to take your dice elsewhere). If you are looking for more gamer friends, but have had bad experiences with harassment online, joining a tabletop group could be exactly what you need (especially since virtually all tabletop fans play video games as well).

My advice? Go visit your local gaming shop a few times and chat with the folks there. Find out for yourself who the cool people are. If you’re really keen to find other girls to play with and you’ve got nowhere to be, have a seat, flip through rulebooks, and wait for a fellow female to show up. Trust me. She will. And if you’re not feeling bold enough to talk to strangers, the lady or gent behind the counter will be only too delighted to help if you walk up and say these magic words: “I want learn more about games but I have no idea where to start.” Ask them if they know about any groups looking for new members. The shop itself might even host beginner games on weekends (a lot of places do this, as do some public libraries and brick-and-mortar bookstores). Online, noobs often get pushed around, but out in the real world, gamers tend to love taking new recruits under wing.

So if D&D and its ilk foster these magical, gender-equitable gatherings of fun-loving friends, why then the anti-social stigma? You could ask that about a lot of things, but in D&D’s case, it suffers from the fact that it is generally played in someone’s living room; in other words, in private. Tabletop gaming has hung around for decades, but it’s been hit hard by the ascent of video games. If this hobby is going to stay alive, it needs a fresh face and some new players. So give it a shot. Sit in on a group, check it out. And if you’re already playing, don’t let it be your quiet little weekend secret. Don’t get all sheepish and self-deprecating when you tell the muggles that you play Dungeons & Dragons (or Call of Cthulhu, or Shadowrun, or whatever your game of choice is). Own it. Love it. Invite them to play. You might be surprised to see who comes to sit at your table.

Image credit: Encel Sanchez

Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. She blogs over at Other Scribbles.

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  • Anonymous

    Awesome article!  As a GM and husband I am always trying to convince my wife to play.  

  • John Wao

    I once played a session of D&D in the armory of the Air Force Base I was stationed at. One of our members was on duty that night so we decided if the Mohammed can’t come to the game… good times.

  • http://twitter.com/curiositykt curiositykt

    I play in one game that is 3 females and 1 male DM, and we are all playing tiny creatures (two halfings and a gnome) so our tactics are entirely different than a usual balanced party. We tend to use trickery and subterfuge to lure the monsters to us and then trip them up and ambush them. Every encounter is a problem solving opportunity rather than a smash and grab. The dynamics of the game are so entirely different from the other two games where I play with a mix of male and female players and there generally is at least one guy who’s been playing since he was a very young boy, thus insists that we have a balanced party and use normal fighting tactics. I feel so much more comfortable in the all girl group where we go much slower and we explore and plan our attacks vs being bullied into doing what is numerically the best plan. I do not feel comfortable roleplaying in the mixed group, but I am entirely comfortable with the all girl group. 

  • http://twitter.com/Selkiechick Selkiechick

    Gaming- better than TV, and cheaper than therapy.
    I love gaming, playing at being someone I am not, telling stories with friends! Almost everything I know about leadership and real teamwork I learned at a gaming table.

  • Anonymous

    And it isn’t all swords and sorcery! There’s super heroes and science fiction and horror and just about any genre you can come up with. There’s either a game for it or you can use a system and make your own game of it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=813165390 Annika Raaen

    Aw!! This past summer, we bought D&D for Dummies (4th Edition). I started to read it, but got distracted by real life stuffs. This really makes me wanna read it and start playing. I even have a set of dice. :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1462777535 Deb Knight

    …..I wish the mary-sue was around 21 years ago when I rolled my first drawf….I’m glad things have changed for the better.  

  • mea.glitch

    Great article – summed up a lot of my gaming experience and part of why I love D&D style gaming (the other being the sheer unpredictability and fluidity of it).

    In the late 90′s, I got to be part of an all girl group in an Imagine Tournament and DragonCon- there were about a dozen of us girls, not all of us knew each other nor had played before, and we drew the only female GM they had in the tourney.  One girl was kinda shy at first, being completely new to role playing and was there because of her friend, and before it was over, she was on her feet eagerly describing how her character was diving under the flaming cart to avoid the arrows in the midst of combat.  It was wonderful.

  • http://twitter.com/amber_stone Amber Stone

    Our local shop is mostly devoid of women. I’m not going to argue or about D&D being a male oriented pastime, but, in our group at least, it is. We have had some girls rotate into and out of our group over the years (I’ve been playing in the same group for about 9 years now), but, even at our height, we’ve not had more than 3 girls at one time. When I got into the games, starting out with White Wolf, that wasn’t the case. Our WW group was usually about half and half but it was also informal (the D&D and Pathfinder games are sanctioned).
    At any rate, if you go to our shop and try to wait for a girl to talk to, you’ll be in for a long wait unless you want to wander to the book side and chat with the owner.
    Maybe it’s as simple as girls not prioritizing it. I have to ask off for the dates we play or at least ask to come in late. Another girl who had only been playing with us for 2 months didn’t show at this week’s game and her husband said she got a new job and can’t play those dates anymore. I worked with someone (the one who invited me in the first place 9 years ago, actually) and he always asked for the date off. He flat out said he would quit rather than work those dates. I thought that was kind of insane but maybe that’s why we don’t have more women players. Come of that, the wife that I mentioned above asked if I would be interested in joining their home game. I got all excited and then she told me it was usually Saturday night. I had to tell her that I always work Saturday nights so I can never make them. So, really, even I’m guilty of it.

  • http://twitter.com/ThunderBeetle Abby Hernandez

    I played D&D for the first time my freshman year of college. It was totally fun and I miss it dearly. However, I was the only female in the group and I think I might have made it awkward/uncomfortable for the guys in the group. Granted there’s a bit more to the story, but I certainly had fun while I played. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=15911509 Rachel Brekhus

    Our current D&D group is 3 women, 3 guys (1 teenager plus his dad and the rest of us 30-40-somethings).  We love it, but wish we could get together for the game more often.  All of us have a lot going on in real life (babies, jobs, grad school, divorce, basketball games…), so twice a month is a really good month, and once every 2 months is sadly more common.  It’s still worth it, though.  Our DM is a guy – his wife is a more experienced DM but he’s a good one, too.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1266041746 DanDan McGru

    I totally love RPing! It’s my major passtime. I’ve been playing for over twelve years now and as a female GM it has its moments of brilliance. I’ll never stop being creative as long as I keep gaming!!

  • Anonymous

    I’m currently getting a 4e D&D game together. Every player is new to the game except for me, but all are very eager to play. And I’m the only guy. I asked a few of the players if they were going to feel uncomfortable with a man “telling them what to do.” They essentially scoffed at me and said, “Who cares? We just want to play.”

  • Anonymous

    It’s so true! I don’t play D&D, but I play Call of Cthulhu and Game of Thrones (and we dabble in other things as they suit our fancy). I play with my husband a couple of other guy friends regularly, but we’ve roped in some girl friends of mine on occasion, too. Inevitably, I try playing a female, and always end up as a giant, fearsome, hulking beast. Doesn’t bother me, though. She always comes in handy in a pinch…=)

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_AOFTU2AM7WRZZFDC6SPN4XF6KQ Null

    I always thought if it weren’t for historical reasons RPGs would be a primarily female pastime. Collaborative storytelling? Almost entirely verbal? Based on character development?

  • http://twitter.com/halfling94 Sherry Parker

    Your article is right on the money.  Table Top rpgs are a great escape from reality for males and females.  I have been running games since I was 12 and really enjoy doing so.  And while there is a certain social type that fits the “gamer” profile it has never been a problem, even though I have often been the only female at the table.  Where else do you get to escape who you are in daily life and try out so many different personalities and approaches to life?

  • Rose-Heather Mikhail

    heh, anyone in  N. London want to start a game group?

  • Joey Cruz

    Great article! My group (an even split between genders) recently wrapped up a 5 year D&D campaign. It was… one of the most important experiences of my life. I wrote about it on my own blog here: http://fartherroom.blogspot.com/2010/04/letting-that-character-go.html

    I can’t stress enough how rewarding tabletop gaming can be to ANYone with a creative mind (which constitutes more of the population than many let on). And our group was as far from the anti-social stereotype as possible: a doctor, a bookkeeper, an environmental biologist, and… well, the guys’ titles weren’t nearly as impressive. But we had a doctor, yo!

    Anyway. Yeah. Awesome game. Awesome article. Good times.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Susan-Stahl/100000586235905 Susan Stahl

    Bravo!  I would not have met my hubby if it were not for D&D.  We’ve been playing together since 1979, and 2012 will be our 19th wedding anniversary.

  • http://profiles.google.com/hcrawford81 Hughes Crawford

    We played an RPG once sitting in a train station while waiting for our train. We got some people arround us interested (or possible bored) enough to try and we all had fun.
    One of the best systems for traveling is the FUDGE system, its designed to be used on the fly. 
    Sadly, despite all my efforts, I can’t get my wife into it. She’s a number cruncher by day and doesn’t want to do it on her free time.

  • http://tinyglimpses.blogspot.com Meg P. W.

    A fellow nerdy female friend and I were talking about gaming recently. She said that her non-geek female friends complained about finding good guys to date. “They’re all around the gaming table!” my pal cried in frustration. And she’s right – I’ve yet to meet a guy who games that fits the dread stereotype mentioned at the beginning of the article. Instead, they’re generally a pretty nice bunch (and all the game ladies I’ve met are uniformly awesome).

    Also, I am proud of myself for opening explaining the basics of a roleplaying game to a female friend of mine on the bus. At first I was shy, asking if she was still thinking of joining our campaign, but by the end I was regaling her with the story of a roll so bad that my character’s fireball not only went backwards, but started a forest fire. I felt so delightfully geeky. <3

  • Adam Whitley

    That’s just the kind of thing that happens as people get older. I’ve had to quit runs because of other priorities before. Also my experience lines up with yours in terms of females playing it’s only more recently that we’ve had girls play consistently before it was always just people bringing their girlfriends over who only had passing interest in the game and they did a poor job of actually including them anyway.

  • Adam Whitley

    I never understood where this stereotype of dnd players came from. None of my friends…well most of my friends…are awkward virgins or anything.

    And congrats on sticking with a 5 year game and staying alive! I’ve been running the same campaign for about 9 years now this is probably gonna be the last year of it the players did something pivital and I fast forwarded time about 1000 years and converted it over to dragonstar. 

  • Joey Cruz

    NOICE! I love a good epic campaign. We managed to see all of Eberron, spend a year in an alternate dimension leading alternate lives AND travel back to the beginning of time as a secondary group of characters whose actions deeply influenced the lives of our main PCs. Three of us died (one of us died twice) and we all ended as godlike superheroes between levels 34 and 39.

    Every D&D game I’ve been invited to since feels like Pong.

  • http://pebblerocker.dreamwidth.org/ Pebblerocker

    I’ve only ever played Fighting Fantasy (very simple d6 system, you can do it alone — low barrier to entry) but I just love the dungeon-crawling adventuring thing! I recently spotted a gaming shop out the bus window, and thanks to your encouragement I might just go in there and talk to people as well as buying a set of dice.

  • http://twitter.com/SylviaSybil Sylvia

    “they did a poor job of actually including them anyway. ”

    That’s why I loved my first DM: when someone brought a friend in, she quickly whipped up something to hook them into the game, and encouraged the other players to help the newbie learn. That’s how I got started. :)

  • http://twitter.com/elennare Melissa H

    Great article! I’ve just been invited to play my first ever RP (Pathfinder), and I’m really exited about it. I think there’s an even number of men and women in the game (or maybe more women!), too.

  • http://www.facebook.com/HelenOfSnupin Helen Worrall

    Out side of muggle territory, it seems rather strange to me that you would feel there is a stigma of DnD being anti social or a boys game. Maybe this is a difference between America and Britain? Even before I came to university I was aware of DnD games and the only people I knew (geeks, of course) who were interested in finding out how to do it were women. My university has a students union RPG society (for tabletops, LARPS etc) which is an even split, as far as I can tell. I’ve never once come across the attitudes or stigmas you mentioned. I’m not aware of my friends, who went to unis in other parts of the country experiencing those things either.

    What do you think? UK vs America or just a coincidence in terms of my experience?

  • Mariana Suarez

    This article made me cry!! How much I miss those days of Runequest and Cyberpunk!! I need to find new groups, in a new country, and a different language. I don’t care, I know at the end all that social magic that you mentioned, happens.

  • philo.pharynx

    I hear often about women who discovered roleplaying through a boyfriend. Our current GM in one group was the one who introduced her husband to gaming. And things are looking good for the next generation. They are starting to indroduce their older daughter to roleplaying at six. There are some groups out there that make it uncomfortable for women. I’ve seen it. I encourage women who’ve experienced that to keep looking for another group. Or even speak up and explain what makes you uncomfortable. Many of the guys aren’t aware of what they’re doing and can change once they know what they’re doing. I know that I’m often pretty oblivious, but I don’t want to make other people feel bad.

  • http://acksed.myopenid.com/ Colin

    Check out the archived threads of /tg/:

    http://suptg.thisisnotatrueending.com/archive.html

  • http://www.facebook.com/JaneWilliams20 Jane Williams

    Just one question, why “girls”? Are adult women excluded, in the gaming sessions you’ve experienced?

  • http://www.facebook.com/QueenKate71 Kate Lord

    Yes, I joined a group of five men in my mid-30′s.  It was all wonderful until I started dating, and later broke up with, the DM.  I haven’t played D&D in the three years since, and miss it dearly.  I’m thinking of getting a group of girlfriends together to play…

  • Anonymous

    Not only do I, an adult female, play RPGs, but my husband runs a D&D game for our 3 kids and their friends.  They started when the youngest was 4 – he’s 11 now.  Their ability to collaboratively problem-solve – both in and out of game – is much better than many of their peers. My 15 year old daughter even tried her hand a GMing a few years back, but gave up when she hit high school due to time constraints.

  • http://twitter.com/mysterycycle Devin Parker

     It may be. In the US, the stereotypical view is that D&D is for social outcast virgin guys, so much so that when the topic comes up on late-night talk shows (Colbert Report notwithstanding), it’s used as a punchline.

    However, as the article suggests, it doesn’t necessarily line up with reality. Yeah, I’ve seen those guys, but I don’t think I’ve ever actually gamed with them. The people in my gaming groups have been a mix of genders ever since I got out of junior high school (and this was back in the 80s). The 90s saw a big influx of women, I think, due to the popularity of Vampire: The Masquerade (which brought a lot of new people into the gaming hobby), but I had always known women who played D&D. My fantasy LARP group has had about an even mix of gender since I joined in the late 90s.

    So it’s an American pop culture stereotype that, like many stereotypes, doesn’t reflect the reality.

  • http://twitter.com/amber_stone Amber Stone

     One of the girls that played with us for a time was the daughter of another player. When she started, she was 12 or so. She was used to her home games in which they would cater to her to make her like it more and a lot of the plots revolved around her so when she moved to our public game she was bored a lot. We would all watch out for her in the game. Years later, it led to her being a bit spoiled in the games and when bad things happened to her she would get upset. I’m not talking bad things as in character death. I’m talking failing a spot check or missing someone on a throw or failing to find a trap and getting hit with it (she was our rogue). Eventually, she stopped showing up because the story wouldn’t cater to her.
    It’s great to get people interested, but sometimes it goes too far and we went wrong there.

  • http://twitter.com/amber_stone Amber Stone

     I think I may have only been invited to play my first time because I saw that my friend had a D&D book and I lamented how much I missed playing white wolf games. The fact that I was already an RPer and missed it had more to do with it than the, “Hey, I would like to spend more time with you; do this thing that I am also interested in,” aspect of it. I’ve tried to get my boyfriend to play before. After a while, it becomes not worth it.

  • brae_brae

    even when I was the only girl in the group, I still loved it, but I’ve found a camaraderie with other gamer girls that I truly love. We’re not just the girlfriends of the players anymore, we Are the players :)