Rolling for Progress: How D&D’s Surge in Popularity Is Tackling Sexism Head-on

Dungeons & Dragons' popularity exploded in recent years, with the fantasy role-playing game and related search terms enjoying a 5000% increase in Google search interest. 

Despite its shift to the mainstream, the game hasn’t been able to break its seedy reputation as a “boys club” rife with sexism.

Many women face toxic atmospheres and uncomfortable situations when attempting to join a quest, while others avoid the game altogether due to the stigma. But  the tide is slowly turning. As more and more women take their rightful seats at the table, players of both genders join the fight against sexism. 

Dungeons & Dragons' Increasing Popularity

According to Google Trends data, web searches for the term “Dungeons & Dragons” steadily increased from 2015 through 2023, spiking in March and April with the release of the feature film Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves.

The Dungeons & Dragons character archetypes such as chaotic neutral and lawful evil dropped into pop culture vernacular as fans began describing their favorite fictional characters through these lenses and making charts showing where each character from a given series falls in the alignment charts. Captain America's lawful good, for instance, constantly bumps heads with Iron Man's chaotic side, but they band together to fight the evils of the world.

A Historically Sexist World

Dungeons & Dragons, and tabletop gaming in general, has a long history of sexism and exclusion. It started in 1976, only two years after the game hit the shelves, with The Dragon magazine article titled “Notes on Women & Magic” by Ken Lakofka. 

The article placed female characters in different categories than men. “Charisma” was replaced with “Beauty.” Female fighters consistently rank behind male fighters but have specialized, sexist talents such as “charming men” and “seduction.”

Women who dared enter this male space faced ridicule and harassment. Verity Lane, an avid D&D player who works in the industry, said her mother loved the game but stopped playing due to sexism. 

“My Mum was driven away from D&D by sexism back in the 70s, and even though she loved the game, she never went back to it,” Lane said.

Female Players Still Face Problems

Although some gamers would love to pretend sexism in Dungeons & Dragons is a thing of the past, women still face challenges while trying to enjoy the game.

A female player who, for privacy, prefers to be quoted by her gamer tag ofairand-darkness says she's had numerous problems with sexism while playing.

“I've been on the receiving end of lots of creepy comments, I've been told I can only play certain types of characters because I'm a woman, I've been told I can't DM [Dungeon Master] because I'm woman, I've had other players talk down to me but treat everyone else with respect,” she shared, listing the wide range of negative experiences she's encountered due to her gender.

Rdohla Monk, who loves playing as a chaotic good Ranger High Elf, said she was kicked out of a D&D Discord after the DM learned she was a woman. Although he apologized, he made the reasoning explicit, “saying he didn't want female players,” recalls Monk.

Khay Oberon, an avid gamer who runs an online jewelry store, loved the idea of D&D, but her experiences with the players turned her off. 

“It started the moment I sat down at the table,” she reported. “One guy sitting at the adjacent table, in another group, shouted loudly to my DM, ‘Hey, can I change to your group?’ whilst pointedly looking at me and smirking.”

She said it only got worse from there. “The snarky comments and outright cringey behavior by these individuals ranged from ‘another fake nerd here to make it all about her' through to clumsy invasive lines like ‘So, how come you're single?' and ‘Wow a hot chick that plays DnD, how do I find a girl like you?' I felt as if I were a crew member on The Enterprise, surrounded by Ferengi.” 

Oberon only played for a few sessions before giving it up because she didn't want to deal with the sexism. 

Getting Better

The good news for women wanting to try role-playing games is that the environment is improving. Sexism is an ongoing problem, not just in tabletop gaming but throughout the world. Although some tables still feature a “men's club” atmosphere, most embrace inclusivity and welcome female players.

Lane remarked on the difference between her experience and her mother's. “I now work full-time in TTRPG [Table Top Role-Playing Game] writing and editing and have never had a problem based on my gender. So, I think things have gotten a lot better,” she says.

Gamer ofairand-darkness also stressed that it's getting better. “I do want to make it clear that it's not as widespread as my comment might make it sound,” she said, adding that dealing with sexism is just part of being a woman. “Sadly, every community will have its issues with sexism,” she said.

Daniela Aached, former Dungeons & Dragons player with a soft spot for sorcerers and founder of Italian travel resource Italien Entdeckenn, said she left the D&D community due to her experiences with men who constantly belittled her skills and treated her as the “token girl,” but sees things improving. “I am glad to see that it is slowly becoming more inclusive and welcoming. It's important for all players, regardless of gender, to feel accepted and valued in this hobby we all love,” she says.

Katie O, a longtime D&D player, said she's never experienced sexism. “I'm a 34-year-old female player who has been a part of clubs and parties since high school. I have always been treated with respect and perhaps even preferential treatment compared to male players,” she said, adding that she realizes the preferential treatment could be considered problematic by some but that she enjoys it.  

The Stigma Lingers

Despite the rising popularity and reports that the atmosphere is getting better, the negative stigma surrounding Dungeons & Dragons as a “boys’ world” rife with sexism keeping women away remains. However, the truth is that the sexism in Dungeons & Dragons is no different than it is anywhere else.

Longtime D&D player Ace Baldwin says, “Take any hobby or industry, and you'll find the same cultural issues you do at large. It's just about the variance within the microcosm.”

Baldwin likens D&D to the tech industry, where the situation is slowly improving since the sexism isn't as overt, but there’s still a long way to go toward total inclusivity.

Combating Sexism

As in the tech world, the best way women can get a seat at the table is to confront sexism head-on.

As more women show up and demand respect, more tables will welcome them, and more and more male gamers will call their counterparts out on sexist behavior.

Alex Jakeman, a D&D player from the UK, says a person just needs to poke their head into a D&D horror stories community to see that sexism exists but points to the many communal clubs as signs it's getting better. “Communal RPG [Role Playing Game] spaces such as clubs and shops are largely intolerant of these sorts of behaviors and storylines now,” he says.

Even though the change hasn’t come overnight, many women see the progress and are optimistic about the improvement. “I hope that as the community continues to grow and evolve, we can create a safe and respectful space for everyone to enjoy the game,” Aached explains.

Much like in the rest of the world, there's still a lot of room for improvement at the Dungeon Master's table. However, things are improving for women in gaming and in real life.

If you're a woman who's avoided tabletop gaming due to the negative stigma, now's the time to give it another go.

This article was produced by Media Decision and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.