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

Essay

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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