Lust’s passion will be served; it demands, it militates, it tyrannizes.- Marquis de Sade
Honestly, I was a bit terrified when I first approached this sin. At first, I thought I’d side step the issue as the heart of the matter was so aptly handled by Phil Foglio many years ago when he finally did his “Sex in D&D” comic strip at the End of What’s New 2. However, there are still important issues related to sex and gender that are worth considering at some length.
Lust is not a sin that many of us necessarily associate with D&D, but I will argue that attitudes towards women and gender in the hobby have been a significant problem for establishing the legitimacy of role-playing gaming and to extending and growing its base. Fortunately, that has changed significantly in the past few years, and a particularly significant shift has occurred as a result of the new edition’s explicitly tolerant and inclusive stance.
I believe tabletop role-playing games are undergoing a critical watershed moment wherein the hobby is approaching something akin to mainstream status. That might seem an overstatement, but one simply has to look at what has happened to comic books over the last decade and a half to extrapolate a similar potential trajectory for gaming. However, the transformation of games like D&D from niche hobby to a respected field of entertainment will be impossible if the genre refuses to grow up and embrace the whole of its potential audience.
It isn’t hard to find examples from the brief history of role-playing games that flubbed the portrayal of women. From the chainmail bikini to the scantily clad sorceress, the hobby has long harbored images of women that are highly sexualized and even exploitative. To be fair, many fantasy artists have treated both male and female subjects of fantasy literature and gaming as canvases for libidinous constructs. However, the plain truth is that the vast majority of masculine images portray strength, power and puissance, while the corresponding images of women depict vulnerability, dependence and submission.
While such images may have appealed to the libidinous adolescents who made up much of the early gaming audience, the demographics have shifted, and indeed may have never been as monolithically white, male, and straight as they were assumed to be. The treatment of women in gaming has spawned a host of commentary and even scholarship, ranging from intense historical analysis of the participation of women in the hobby to academic analysis of the depiction of women in role playing games. Clearly this phenomenon is not limited to the role-playing game community, but it is part and parcel of gaming culture in general. That wider culture has already gone mainstream and suffered the growing pains that often attend such developments. Most recently, the larger gaming community has had to deal with the sometimes schizophrenic nature of the population that comprises it in the form of the “Gamer Gate” debacle.
Even when aware of the problem and actively attempting to correct it, many male gamers have continued to miss critical elements of the underlying problem and the degree to which this issue permeates the gaming culture. Wizards of the Coast started addressing these concerns in earnest back in 2012 with former D&D senior creative director, Jon Schindehette, in his article “Sexism in Fantasy.” Sadly, you can’t find it on the Wizards archives anymore, but it’s been preserved on the web at least in part. Many responders had significant issues with some of his analysis, finding him overly defensive or even feeling betrayed by his perceived dismissal of claims of sexism. Interestingly, some of the critiques that resulted from this discussion seem to have significantly influenced the new edition of D&D quite substantially. Indeed, the new edition has been lauded for its explicit messages of inclusion. Its evolution is welcome news indeed, and both the correct and the most practical approach to creating a game that appeals to an increasingly diverse audience.
One need look no further than that front cover of the new Player’s Handbook which features a magic-wielding woman leaping into the air to attack the king of the fire giants. This is encouraging on a number of levels, not the least of which is that the first and primary image of the game puts a female protagonist front and center. Moreover, she isn’t showing a lot of skin. In fact, I’ve come to believe that this particular image is perhaps an intentional and ironic commentary on the past depictions of women in gaming cover art. Here, battling a fire giant in a lava cave, the female protagonist for once has a legitimate reason to perhaps wear a bit less clothing, but is instead swaddled in some sort of anorak that sheathes her from neck to toe in bulky padding. The message couldn’t be clearer: This is not your father’s D&D game. And that is a very good thing.
The simple truth is that half the world’s population is women. If the portrayal of women in tabletop role-playing games continues to exploit and marginalize one half of the potential game playing population, it is unlikely to ever achieve the mainstream status it so richly deserves and appears to finally be reaching towards. The problem is worse than that, of course, because it is not just women who will continue to back away from role playing games if the industry cannot capitalize on this watershed moment of opportunity to become inclusive and welcoming of a diverse potential audience. Many men will also shy away from a hobby that carries a stigma and reputation for blatant sexism so as not to be tarnished by association. That in turn could, in a vicious circle, leave the hobby in the hands of less tolerant individuals, perpetuating a negative reputation for gaming. That must not happen.
Role-playing games must be reclaimed by those able to recognize both the moral imperative for inclusion and sensitivity and the very practical argument that the hobby will never achieve the mass audience it so richly deserves without embracing the diversity of its potential audience.
And that responsibility falls primarily to GMs. For better or worse, Angry GM is right that the industry relies on GMs to recruit new customers. We are the gateways to the hobby. It’s also an economic and cultural truth that if you’re not growing, you’re shrinking. If we fumble this pivotal moment, women may continue to see the game as a refuge for awkward young men and Frazetta-style masturbation aids, they will stay away, and many men will follow suit. If we run inclusive games in which women (NPC or PC) have agency, the hobby will grow and thrive–and, frankly, be more fun.
To any min-maxer, the course should be obvious. †