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30 June 2011 @ 09:39 am
Fiona Campbell-Howes on how tabletop role-playing games can be surprisingly progressive...

There is a place where being female isn’t seen as a character weakness, where the glass ceiling doesn’t exist, and where your gender has no bearing whatsoever on your life chances. No, it’s not Iceland. Or Sweden, or any of those socially progressive Scandinavian countries with a lesbian prime minister and a municipal crèche on every street corner.

I’m talking, improbable as it may sound, about the world of Fourth Edition Dungeons & Dragons.

Dungeons & Dragons, you’re thinking. Eurgh, you’re thinking. The last refuge of the irredeemable nerd. Horrible, smelly, teenage boy stuff, for horrible, smelly teenage boys who haven’t mastered any social skills. Or worse, for horrible, smelly adult blokes who haven’t mastered any social skills, other than asking people if they’ve tried turning it off and then turning it on again.

I know this is (possibly) what you’re thinking, because in true 21st century investigative reporting style, I asked some people on Facebook. More specifically, I asked 20 girlfriends on Facebook if they’d ever played D&D or another tabletop role-playing game (RPG), and if they hadn't, why not.

Most answers were pretty much as I expected. “It’s something only the terminally sad do,” replied Clair. “The thought of playing D&D fills me with horror,” said Jane. “It’s just for nerds and saddos, isn’t it?” Kim had watched boys play at sixth-form college, but never joined in because “it was a boy thing.” Astrid avoided it “because I thought it was just for boys who liked Lord of the Rings, which I thought was the most boring thing imaginable.”

Even among the more positive responses, there was an acknowledgment that RPGs aren’t always friendly territory for women. “I never played Dungeons & Dragons for the simple reason that my brother wouldn’t let me,” recalled Annie. Robynn, a regular player while at university, said she’d once met a male player who “told me quite frankly that his mates would never play with a woman as it would totally inhibit their raping and pillaging.”

This is only a tiny sample of female-kind, but I don’t think it would be going out on a limb to suggest that fantasy role-playing games tend not to inspire wild enthusiasm among the vast majority of women. That’s probably because the genre as a whole is usually associated with its first and best-known product, Dungeons & Dragons, whose characters, settings and monsters were always going to appeal to more boys than girls.

“Tolkien has a lot to answer for here,” says Jessica Tiffin, an active role-player, lecturer in science fiction and fantasy at the University of Cape Town and the author of Marvelous Geometry: Narrative and Metafiction in Modern Fairy Tale. “His male-centred heroic narratives horribly marginalise women, and Middle-Earth is an enormous influence on early fantasy games.”

This disdain for women is carried through into the official game scenarios, figurines and artwork that accompany D&D, where, in Tiffin’s words, "the [background] detail is frequently extremely reactionary: women are healers, tavern wenches, occasionally busty heroines or sultry enchantresses or femmes fatales, but in a very high proportion of settings there are trends to minimise well-developed or egalitarian roles for women.”

Given this unpromising context, there might seem to be little point even attempting a positive appraisal of D&D and its ilk from a female point of view. But I think it’s worth doing, because there are two core aspects of fantasy RPGs that make them surprisingly progressive on the gender front.

Firstly, at the heart of Dungeons & Dragons, and many other RPGs, is a rules system that makes no judgments or distinctions based on gender. When creating a character, players roll dice to establish that character’s various strengths and weaknesses, but the character’s gender has no bearing on this process.

My most recent D&D character, for example, a retail manager-turned-adventurer called Daisy, is the only female character in the group, but also the handiest fighter against very large monsters. Daisy’s particular combination of attributes and abilities makes her adept at rolling underneath large creatures and stabbing them in their fleshy underparts - a highly valuable skill in many D&D encounters.

Similarly, throughout the game, the outcome of any decision or encounter is decided on the roll of the dice, giving each character an equal chance of succeeding or failing. As someone who’s continually frustrated by gender-based discrimination in the real world, I find that quite refreshing.

Secondly, one of the best things about tabletop RPGs is that once you have a set of rules, you don’t actually need much in the way of supporting material in order to play the game, which makes it pretty easy to avoid depictions of scantily clad warrior ladies and busty tavern wenches if these don’t interest you. (In three years of role-playing I’ve never so much as leafed through the D&D Player’s Handbook, and have no real intention of doing so.)

Instead, the most enjoyable sessions happen when the players and the GM (the Games Master, who establishes the setting and directs the game) use their own imagination to narrate the game as a collaborative story, using minimal physical props or even no props at all. I’ve had few spookier experiences than a recent winter’s-night session of Call of Cthulhu, a 1920s-set RPG based on the supernatural horror fiction of HP Lovecraft, which had everything to do with a group of friends creating a genuinely terrifying story, and nothing at all to do with elves, orcs or female objectification.

It’s this capacity for collaborative storytelling that gives RPGs the potential to create fantasy worlds that aren’t – unlike most of the fantasy fare offered by mainstream film and television – presented from a single, overwhelmingly male standpoint. It’s possibly no coincidence that Joss Whedon, creator of some of the most gender-balanced ensembles in genre television, spent his college years playing D&D.

And with hundreds of RPGs to choose from – a campaign I’m playing, in a game called Gamma World, is set in a post-apocalyptic version of my own home town, in which I play a seven-foot female cat/yeti hybrid who has just commandeered a hot air balloon from the wreckage of the local Sainsbury’s – it could be time for geeky-but-RPG-allergic women to check out what they’re missing.

As Jessica Tiffin notes: “a good games master and an enlightened group can make whatever the hell they want to out of a system and setting - they'll simply discard the bits which offend their sensibilities, allowing the system to become the mechanism rather than the controller of the role-playing experience they want.” In other words, they can create their own immersive world to play in, which to my mind is a much more entertaining thing to do on a rainy weekday evening than watching Emmerdale.

This article was originally published in issue 2 of Re/Action. Illustration by The Alchemy of Art.