Improving Diversity in D&D

If you’ve ever tried to introduce people to Dungeons and Dragons, role-playing games, video games, or even board games, you can be met with an alarmed bewilderment from the people you want to include. If someone has had no proximity to any of these hobbies, or maybe one or two, then they’re pre-existing notions of it will be either neutral or in the negative. Very rarely will you get someone who is so excited to play D&D, knows all about it, but just hasn’t gotten around to it yet.

Sadly these activities carry a cultural stigma, and it’s our job to change that, and to make it more approachable. Sitting around a table and pretending to slay dragons is something monopolised by a certain type of young male, and as such became a self-fulfilling prophecy as more and more used their roleplaying time as a time to truly be themselves. But you shouldn’t feel threatened about this ending just because someone not like you wants to join in.

“It’s unfortunate that D&D, the most popular tabletop game by a long way, is potentially alienating people from the hobby due to it’s over-reliance on combat and typical male fantasy appeal.”

I was very open with my girlfriend about the nerdy things I enjoyed doing. I explained tabletop roleplaying games in our first date – something I cringe a bit about now but I’m glad I did it. And whilst she has given it a go, it’s not something she is interested in doing regularly. However not for the reasons that you’d think.

It’s not because it’s too nerdy, uncool, lame or pointless, but because the game itself is more enjoyable to those who have:

  • An interest in gaming and game mechanics
  • An interest in the fantasy genre
  • An interest in medieval combat
  • An enjoyment from learning and utilising rules
  • A desire to conquer evil through violent actions

If someone has 3 or 4 of those, it doesn’t matter who they are, they will probably be a big fan of D&D. I find the idea of the hobby becoming more inclusive and inviting to others truly great, and so I pressed to find out exactly what could make it so. What would make her more interested? These are the kind of things that were lacking in D&D, from her perspective:

  • The setting is uninspiring and caters to the male fantasy
  • The story can mostly only progress through combat, which is not interesting
  • The social aspect – i.e. the roleplaying – is not integral, and is not actually useful
  • The quests and story are not intriguing or new or telling anything exciting
  • There is no cause to get behind besides ‘save the world’. Where’s the nuance?
  • The character skills and characteristics are mostly things that a man would measure himself in, you would more likely hear a man wanting to improve his strength, dexterity, charisma and constitution.

It’s definitely food for thought, and yes other game systems such as Blades in the Dark and Powered by the Apocalypse do do better with these aspects. Encounters can be solved through social skills, and fighting is more like a conversation then a drawn-out affair, and part of the narrative. It’s unfortunate that D&D, the most popular tabletop game by a long way, is potentially alienating people from the hobby due to it’s over-reliance on combat and typical male fantasy appeal. I recently saw a Twitter thread where multiple people – and they were mostly women from what I could see – admitted to feeling nervous, anxious, worried and pushed out because they couldn’t or didn’t want to take part in the mechanics and rules conversations happening at their tables. They were seen as outsiders because they couldn’t engage with D&D in a way that was being normalised by the players who were seen as the norm already established within the hobby.

I love discussing rules and deep-diving into game mechanics – using them and growing my knowledge to be better and conquer more challenges. It’s why I have always enjoyed online multiplayer games with a lot of depth and strategy that I can improve in. However not everyone is like that. And whilst playing Starcraft 2 online you don’t have to consider if your opponent is enjoying themselves, everyone at a D&D table should be doing just that. It’s a social activity, and if someone was bummed out in your group as you sat around the pub table having a laugh, you would take steps to rectify that and help them. So let’s do the same for our dungeon-delving fellows as well.

What Can We Do?

So how do we do this? Well, it starts with empathy and awareness. Make yourself aware of who is a hardened, long-term player, and who is new. Who would find it harder to get into and understand? And no, considering that your female non-gamer friend would find it harder to get into D&D is not being sexist.  Don’t treat her as such, but do allow for it, and find a way to help them as if it were a guy friend who just wasn’t getting it. Treat people equally, but also acknowledge their potential uphill struggle compared to others.

“Everyone laughed. I laughed. The only rules in this game were the ones that made sense in my reality, and that was the most addictive part of it all.”

Practically speaking, use tools like DnD Beyond instead of traditional character sheets and player’s handbooks, have cheat sheets of Actions on the table, and really find out what they enjoy most about the hobby. If they’re really enjoying roleplaying their character and interacting with others, encourage that. If combat and going through room after room of dungeons is ebbing their energy, consider ways to speed or circumnavigate it. This is good advice for bringing in all types of players, but we should take extra efforts to find out what various people like about it, rather then forcing them to join in at our level.

My first ever experience of D&D was when I was about 11 or 12. I can’t remember how old I was, and I can’t even remember having a character sheet. All I knew was that I was an elf ranger (basically Legolas because I was obsessed with Lord of the Rings), and I was a badass with a bow, who could do anything. And just like Legolas, I mostly hung around in the group, silently showing off, and then when combat broke out, I messed those kobolds up. The untold aspects, where curiosity and danger could hang, was unlike anything I’d experienced. What is a Kobold? Can I fight it? Where are we? What can I do? I remember trying to climb a cliff-face, and then wanting to shoot the bow, and the DM joking “What, are you going to hang on to the cliff with your ears?!” and did a funny impression. Everyone laughed. I laughed. The only rules in this game were the ones that made sense in my reality, and that was the most addictive part of it all.

And being a white young male, it basically was my reality. But now I’m the DM, and I want it to be the reality for others too, so that they can feel that sense of excitement and possibility. To my girlfriend, the possibility of having ‘high strength’ and beating a skeleton into the ground with a club and using ‘second wind’ (whatever that is), is not exciting. And I’m sure to many other people it isn’t either. I’m noticing what type of media and stories are, and why, and how I can bring it into my games of D&D so that maybe one day, we can both enjoy it together.

And have a D&D wedding and get married by Matt Mercer and have our children play D&D with us every weekend and…

Okay the first two things are ridiculous but the last one sounds kind of brilliant.

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