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[Guest Post] D&D, and Who It’s Packaged For

2013 January 8

Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) is the single most famous roleplaying game in the world, the route most people got into roleplaying, and the flagship of the hobby. So it’s a tragedy that the game is pushing away potential fans through artwork and even game text that is overwhelmingly focused on one customer demographic: white men.

A D20 dice. Image creative commons.

Photo via Flickr user Megan Knight (

That’s a pretty provocative statement, right there. But I’m confident in making it, because the evidence is there for anyone who wants to see it. You could start by flipping open a copy of pretty much any D&D book and looking through the artwork. See how many women and people of colour you can find – and then see how many of them are half-dressed or made to look weak or submissive.

Actually, you don’t need to, because someone already did it for you. Anna Kreider reviewed the artwork in the D&D 4th edition books (specifically the Dungeon Master’s Guide, Players Handbook, Players Handbook 2 and the Adventurer’s Vault) and rated the images therein.

Kreider’s findings were striking – of the 40% or so of humans (and demi-humans) that were depicted as female, well over a third hit each of the measures she chose (being half-dressed or posed in a sexually suggestive way, for instance). Needless to say, the remaining 60% of images, the ones which were of men, tended to be wearing more clothes, in more active, non-sexual poses.

It gets better, because Chris Van Dyke had a look at D&D from the perspective of race. He was able to find only two examples of a non-white character in the core books of all four numbered editions of D&D. That means non-white folks are practically invisible in D&D.

Now, these findings are based on subjective judgements. That’s unavoidable, because things like “sexually suggestive” and “white” can often only be judged subjectively in artwork. You can go and judge for yourself if you doubt their conclusions. But I think if we’re honest, these results only confirm what most of us already knew from experience.

It isn’t the end of the world. I’ve enjoyed lots of pop culture replete with sexism. And after all, it’s only a fantasy! But then again, shouldn’t our fantasy worlds contain a richer variety of creatures than real life? And what does it say to potential new gamers if they can’t find a picture of someone like them anywhere in these books? Is D&D really just a game about white dudes slugging it out in a dungeon somewhere? I don’t think so.

OK, so what to do about it? I love roleplaying, and despite years of moaning about the mechanics, I still love D&D. The fact that it’s not exactly a beacon of gender and racial equality is, for me, an obstacle to be overcome rather than a sign I should give up on the game altogether.

It so happens that Wizards of the Coast are writing a new edition of D&D right now. That’s why I put together a petition calling on them to do better.

If you’ve read this far, maybe you agree with me – and if so, it would be great if you went and signed it, and better yet share it with your friends and encourage them to sign too.

The petition won’t change anything in itself. Wizards of the Coast could ignore it, and maybe they will. But if they can see that there are hundreds of gamers out there who want more than whitewash and chainmail bikinis, maybe they’ll respond. We owe it to the hobby to give them a clear message.

  • Rabalias is a leftie, feminist Londoner and veteran roleplayer. He plays and GMs more than any normal person and less than he’d like to. He designs games in the time he has left over from playing them, and blogs about roleplaying at Black Armada. Rabalias has two cats and a lady companion who also roleplays, which is pretty sweet.
One Response leave one →
  1. January 8, 2013

    I was actively involved in RPGs in the 1980s and early 1990s, and would now like to return to them if I could find anyone with whom to play. I used to write for the Call of Cthulhu game. The most recent version of D&D I’ve seen is the one published between 1983 and 1985, so I can’t comment on the way it looks now. Even so, perhaps my observations on an old version of the game may be interesting.

    I’m now looking at the 1980 edition of the D&D Basic Rulebook, and have mixed feelings about the cover. It depicts three figures: a monster (dragon?) of indeterminate sex, a very short male (dwarf?) and a female (human or elf?) who looks more than twice the height of the male. The way in which the female figure towers over the male pleasingly transgresses against gender stereotypes. The female is actively engaged in the conflict, evidently about to hurl some (magic?) missile. More problematic, perhaps, is the way she’s clothed: in a long dress slit to the hip, from which a bare leg emerges. Her breasts are covered, but are remarkably large.

    The interior artwork starts off well. There’s a picture of a female player and a male with their characters in ‘thinks’ bubbles. Neither female portrait reveals a breast fixation on the part of the artist, and the female character is more fully dressed than the male. Unfortunately, the artwork deteriorates as it progresses, and on page 20 there’s a depiction of a woman with enormous and unnatural-looking breasts.

    The 1983 Basic rulebooks show, to my mind, an improvement on the 1980 one. Female characters are reasonably well represented, none of them have overly-large breasts and none are dressed in ways likely to make young women feel uncomfortable. Some of them wear rather snugly-fitting trousers, but no more so than one can readily see on the streets of London.

    Some of the subsequent rulebooks of this era (the Companion and Master level books) show very few female figures — perhaps female players weren’t expected to progress that far. Also, the word “Master” for the most expert of the four stages of progression is both gendered and carries implications to do with power dynamics.

    Turning from gender to race, not one of the books from this era (as far as I can see) contains a picture of a non-white person.

    In the AD&D books of this period, the word “race” is used to signify the distinction between humans, elves, dwarfs, etc. — which strikes me as unfortunate. In the Monster Manual we are told, for example, that elves are chaotic good. If the elves are a “race”, and their character can be covered by such a generalisation, it seems to me that we have a serious problem. This was amongst my reasons from turning away from the D&D family of games to those designed and manufactured by Chaosium.

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