I woke up to dust and cave rocks falling on my face. The last tremor dealt quite some damage and left me lying prone on the ground. As I picked myself up, I caught a quick glimpse of what was happening around me. Scattered all over the lair were the heroes risking their lives to slay the Red Chromatic Dragon. Each and everyone one of them had a role to play in this battle. I had my own. Brushing off the dust from my robe, I looked up at the dragon and prepared to fire a Magic Miss—
“You should use your other spell. I saw your sheet a while ago, and that one’s definitely more effective.” Maria was interrupted. “And while you’re at it, make sure to cast it at Level 4!”
I looked up at the Red Chromatic Dragon gripping my arcane focus tight, and started casting Ray of Fro—
“No, not that one. Here, give me your sheet. He looks up yadda yadda yadda and casts Lightning Bolt. Oh, and he’s casting it at Level 4!”
A stream of crackling blue energy jumped from the crystal rod in my hand to the dragon’s shoulder. The red glow from the lair’s magma faded into the pale blue flash of lightning. In that brief moment, I saw the blast illuminate the face of Maria who stood across from me. Fear visible from the Rogue’s eyes, she stood there frozen.
“Okay, Maria. Here’s what you do…”
Voices like these have plagued the many worlds of Dungeons & Dragons since the game’s conception. The creator of the game himself, Gary Gygax, proudly identified as a biological determinist. In other words, Gygax was a misogynistic asshole.
This was highly evident in the first few iterations of the game. The 1979 Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st Edition (AD&D 1e) placed restrictions on the stats of female characters. This design ensured that women in the game were intrinsically weaker than any of the male characters. AD&D 1e also featured the infamous Random Harlot Encounter Table. Gygax created this matrix as a DM’s guide to the kinds of sex workers the adventurers could come across. Roll high, and you may encounter an “expensive doxy” or an “aged madam.” Roll low, and you’ll find the likes of a “cheap trollop” who would probably steal your treasures.
When a game actively restricts and objectifies women, it comes as no surprise that the game becomes a boys’ club with the “No Girls Allowed” sign to match. For most women, finding their way into the table is already a quest in itself. The gates and defenses that Gygax built endured over the years. Fast forward to 2012 and women in D&D are still greatly outnumbered making up only 20-25% of the community. But once they’re seated, that’s when the battle really begins.
With patriarchal social structures codified into the game, cis-heterosexual male players have been equipped with the mindset that women can be dominated. This makes it easy for them to extend their domination from the women in the game to the women at the table. A Mind Flayer’s Dominate Person pales in comparison to a man that’s been enabled to speak over you and micromanage your gameplay. Even DMs have been known to coerce female PCs into non-consensual in-game sexual acts. And while these forms of gendered violence alienate and harm female players, queer players also have a lot to lose.
The first time I donned my wizard robes was back in 2015. On a rainy September afternoon at the common area of our university residence hall, a Wizard, a Witch, and a Rogue embarked on their first adventure with their Dungeon Master.
As we were preparing to pop my D&D cherry, our DM imparted some sage advice on character creation: Roleplay as yourself first. By playing as George, I had the opportunity to focus on familiarizing myself with the system without having to worry about staying in character. And thus, Thomas William Archibald Tennyson abandoned his life as a prince to travel Faerun and train as a wizard.
Before you call me out on the caucasity of this name, Thomas and William are the sons of the Scarlet Witch and my favorite comic book characters (that, and the initials would spell out TWAT). Thom and I share almost the exact same attributes, from a relatively high Intelligence and Wisdom, to a mediocre Constitution and Charisma, to a non-existent Strength and Dexterity. Thom also stands six feet tall and is a skinny legend. He even has the daddy issues to match. Thom and I were practically identical, except for one tiny detail.
At a time when I only had one foot out of the closet, Thom had already Misty Stepped his way out of his. Our DM even wrote in one of our enemies as one of Thom’s exes. Playing Thom became a chance for me to project this version of myself that I hadn’t acknowledged yet. But the more adventures that we went on, the more that the line between George and Thom began to blur. Fantasy was bleeding into reality. This experience wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for the system that we were playing. I am a child of Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition.
In 2014, Wizards of the Coast conjured up a brand new system and released D&D 5e. The game’s latest edition came with quite a number of changes. From the introduction of Advantages and Disadvantages to Character Backgrounds limiting a character’s set of Skills, 5e marks a significant shift away from the numbers and onto the storytelling.
One of these changes can also be found on Chapter 4, Personality and Background, of the new Player’s Handbook. Under the section on Sex is the following passage: “Think about how your character does or does not conform to the broader culture’s expectations of sex, gender, and sexual behavior… You don’t need to be confined to binary notions of sex and gender… Likewise, your character’s sexual orientation is for you to decide.”
D&D’s latest edition is a giant middle finger to the game’s problematic past. With more women, queer people, and POCs behind the game, D&D was able to travel forward in time and ground itself in the diverse and progressive present. Chapter 4’s section on Sex only takes up a quarter of a page in this dense Handbook but the potential that it holds is far greater than any treasure or magical item could ever have.
For most queer people, these prompts aren’t new. We have had to learn and unlearn these notions on sex and gender as we navigate our identities. These are parts of our story. So with this addendum to the system, D&D 5e has been able to do what its past iterations have never done: include our story. D&D 5e tells us that there is space for us at the table. Here, we are invited to come as we are, and play without apology.
The Red Chromatic Dragon was part of a one-shot from a gaming event I signed up for. Joining a table full of strangers to play D&D was an adventure that I wanted to try. Unlike my old DM, the DM at the event leaned more towards action rather than adventure. About an hour and a half into the game, our merry band of misfits found ourselves thrown into a dragon’s lair. It was exactly what I hoped for. But as Spell Slots were expended and Hit Points decreased, it became apparent that there was another battle at the table that I had to fight.
It started out small. If they didn’t agree with my choice, they would call it a mistake. When they got tired of calling me out, they would simply override my decisions. My place at the table started to matter less and less as the game went on. And as if policing my actions wasn’t enough, all of this eventually escalated into them ordering me around. But I wasn’t alone in this. The only girl in our group of five also had her gameplay micromanaged. With their laptops and excel sheets out on the table, I could feel them reduce the two of us into numbers and statistics. Their screens felt like a Wall of Force separating us from them. The game that I adored for giving me the freedom to play was turning into the boys’ club I was never invited to as a kid.
This experience was leagues away from what we had at my first table. One thing that the Player’s Handbook doesn’t tell you is that the first few sessions are always the messiest. Players break character. Spellcasters forget their spells. Metagaming is at its finest. But for the Wizard, the Witch, the Rogue and the Dungeon Master, none of that mattered.
Even if we derailed our DM’s plans 75% of the time and no one could seem to remember what they can and can’t do, we still had a fucking good time. At our table, we only had one rule: There is no wrong way to play D&D.
It wasn’t difficult for us to establish this rule. Before the four of us banded together to save Faerun, we were just friends trying to make the most of our last two years in college together. And when you have a party composed of literature majors, this kind of gameplay comes easy. However, it was only later on that I fully realized that what made our table a safe space was that not a single soul in our party was straight.
At a table filled with queer people, empathy is always palpable. As people whose voices are often ignored and silenced, no one would dare speak over the other. Commands turn into suggestions. “What do you think?” “How do you feel about doing this instead?” “Would this be a good idea?”
And while some still consider our existence as mistakes, we’ve learned to stop seeking perfection. We embrace flaws and tell stories of people who have them. Yes, D&D is still a game and games are supposed to be won. But when optimization overtakes storytelling, D&D loses its magic. Point A only goes to Point B when D&D gives us the option to take a detour at Point G and get lost at Point Z.
Queer people also develop a strong sense of community as a means for survival. This is something that we carry over into our gaming. When we join a party, we acknowledge that there are other people at the table. This isn’t a video game where the goal is to be the one to slay the dragon or get the treasure first. In D&D, the real treasure is in the friends you make along the way.
More than just a game, Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition is a break from reality. For queer people, this means so much more. When reality deprives us of power, fantasy is there to provide. D&D has become a space where we can be who we want to be and have the agency to make the decisions that we want. But the system can only do so much. We also need players who can protect this safe space the same way they would protect a fictional town from a Red Chromatic Dragon.
And it doesn’t have to stop there. If there’s one thing to be learned from the history of the game, it’s that oppressive systems can be dismantled and rewritten. Play can be transformative. Once we make every table out there a safe space for all players, maybe our fantasy can become our reality.
Header art by Lucas Mendieta
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