#NotAllRolePlayers: A History of Rapey Dungeon Masters

By Tim Donovan

Photos and images provided by the author

Lucy was starting to hold back tears. We sat in her living room, my iPhone working overtime as my tape recorder, and she was so pissed off it looked like she might cry. She was telling me about our former Dungeon Master, who had exploited our Dungeons & Dragons game to live out his sad-sack fantasy after she'd already flatly rejected his advances just weeks before. "I really didn't want my character to go down that route and have fake sex with this character," Lucy explained to me on that sunny afternoon. But the adventure "didn't get anywhere else unless I let it get more and more sexualized. Once we went down that path that was the only thing that got me rewards in the game, if I kept doing those things. Or at least allowing it to happen to my character and not being like, 'Fuck that shit' and walking away." 

"Lucy" is an alias, by the way. 

Sporting a mousy face and thick-rimmed glasses, Lucy is the kind of woman simultaneously ignored, marginalized, and fetishized by the prototypical geek. She's attractive but doesn't seem unattainable, possessing that "approachable" look that seems almost tailor-made to appeal to dorky guys with gutter-dwelling self-esteems. Lucy's been a dork for most of her life: She was first introduced to D&D by friends in high school, and in college she was an officer in a video game club where she coordinated events.

"Lucy"

I first met Lucy when we both responded to a Reddit advertisement looking for players for a new D&D campaign in Williamsburg at the beginning of this year. Besides my wife, Lucy was the only woman in the party, and I was glad to see her there. I'd braced myself for the worst stereotypes of other players—a bunch of neckbeards with glandular problems. I was happy that I wouldn't be playing in a group like that.

At its best, Dungeons & Dragons is a game without limits, a game in which even the rules themselves can be subsumed by the logic and necessity of shared storytelling. D&D lets players take on different identities, different roles—even wildly different moral systems. It is an elaborate system of wish fulfillment, in which scrawny, socially awkward teenagers can become bruising hulks who wield massive great axes and slay dragons singe-handedly. The game's boundaries are limited only by the players—what they want to accomplish and what they are willing to attempt. And like any game that encourages the wish fulfillment of (primarily) teenage boys, sometimes these impulses will take a dark and ugly turn.

The leader of our group—let's call him Jason (because, well, that's his name)—had a thing for Lucy from the start, as he confessed to my wife and me soon after we first met him. Months later he finally gathered the courage to ask her out, but she firmly rejected him. And that should have been the end of it. 

My wife and I missed a session for the first time, and Jason made his move. He introduced a new character that he would get to control. The character, "Mercurios," was rugged and handsome, with "red wavy hair that seems to move like a flame covers a slightly tan face of man," as Jason would later write. All the "ladies" in the "town" fawned over Mercurios relentlessly, a weird piece of auto-erotic exhibitionism when one considers the fact that both the ladies and the man depicted were being controlled by Jason himself. In any case—the party needed this character's help, and Jason made it very clear that the only way to get it would be if Lucy's character made like she wanted to do the nasty. Lucy didn't like this idea. But when she tried other techniques to advance the story, they invariably failed. Eventually Jason—er, the character—suggested that they go somewhere more comfortable, somewhere more private. 

"It was just kind of guided in that direction."

Nothing else explicitly happened between these two quasi-fictional people, but that was Lucy's last session with our group all the same. For myself, it would be months before the real story of what had happened became fully clear.

And now that it is, I need to find a new D&D group.

Is this a problem, though, or just one ugly circumstance? When the question of harassment in role-playing games comes up in online communities, stories abound. But no form of harassment or exploitation is more controversial than fictional rape, particularly as it is always at the hands of either another party member or a character controlled by the Dungeon Master. In a game in which the character is of your own invention, in which you play-act what the character sees, how he or she acts, and what he or she desires, it can be a truly traumatic experience. "I have had characters raped," one poster noted on an internet forum that discussed the topic at some length all the way back in 1999. "I can say from experience that even though I know I am not my character, it is very traumatic. The GM in question did not give me an out."

One woman I spoke with online (who asked not to be quoted) recently had her character put into a "gimp suit" by her Dungeon Master—against her strong protestations, and in front of her younger sister. She left the game in disgust. Fortunately, the rest of the party was similarly offended and never invited that player back. (#NotAllRoleplayers, after all.)

According to a dissertation on gender in role-playing games from 2006, more than 55 percent of female gamers had been "made to feel uncomfortable, judged or harassed because of their gender," compared with 5.4 percent of male players. Similarly, 40 percent of women witnessed such an incident, as did 32 percent of men. Not all of these instances signify something as egregious as fictional rape, but the numbers are disappointing all the same.

Dungeons & Dragons bubbles up in our cultural consciousness every decade or two before receding back to the depths of niche weirdness, and it seems to be having one of its signature moments once again. A recent New York Times article highlighted the game's incredible influence on a generation of writers and artists, while other mainstream outlets have noted the admirable efforts made in this new edition toward inclusiveness of all races, genders, and sexual identities.

This year, Dungeons & Dragons celebrates its 40th birthday with the release of a fifth edition, which will take the game fully into the 21st century. Early in the new edition's rulebook, the authors suggest that players need not "be confined to binary notions of sexuality and gender." Dungeons & Dragons is a game arguably most famous as a shorthand for the deepest depths of geek culture. That it added this stipulation to its newest rules is refreshing—and more than a little surprising. An uncomfortable legacy remains deeply ingrained in the DNA of Dungeons & Dragons, a legacy that stretches all the way back to the origins of the game itself.

Originally created by Gary Gygax, an insurance underwriter, high school dropout, and avid gun collector, D&D is the child of a self-described "biological determinist." Gygax believed that while "it isn't that gaming is designed to exclude women," there's "no question that male and female brains are different" and that "females do not derive the same inner satisfaction from playing games" as men do. This, explained Gygax, was why "everybody who's tried to design a game to interest a large female audience has failed." These opinions, while fairly in line with the overwhelmingly male niche culture of war games that laid the groundwork for D&D in the early 1970s, have helped enshrine a legacy that the game has had difficulty leaving behind. 

In the first edition of the Dungeon Master's Guide from 1979, Gygax provided Dungeon Masters with a "Random Harlot Encounter Table." 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, surveys at the time pegged the number of female players somewhere between 0.4 and 2.3 percent. Still, it's impossible to say how much the attitudes displayed by the game's creator were a function of this gender gap rather than its cause. Regardless, it would be decades before the game's publisher—or its players—made serious efforts to recruit outside this cloistered circle.

In 1983, not ten years after the game's creation, the first truly comprehensive study of tabletop role-playing games was conducted. Shared Fantasy: Role Playing Games As Social Worlds by Gary Alan Fine was a study on the habits, attitudes, and demographic breakdowns of the practitioners of this new, weird hobby called "role-playing." And Fine's results were far from flattering. The book painted the picture of an insular boy's club consisting of social cast-offs and introverts, entrenching a perception that largely remains intact to this day. According to Fine, only between 5 and 10 percent of players at the time were women. But beyond noting this massive gender gap, Fine asked what accounted for this disparity.

"Girls don't have enough imagination," one woman quoted in the study explained. The games were just "too complicated." Some men surveyed for the study helpfully suggested that "females' greater commitment to social reality" was to blame for their lack of representation. The report also highlights a deep anxiety and violence toward women in the men he surveyed and observed. "It is striking," Fine notes at one point, "that players consider inhibitions that prevent characters from engaging in fantasy rape to be a problem, but such is male informal interaction." He also writes, "While it is not inevitable that the games will express male sexual fears and fantasies, they are structured so that these expressions are legitimate."

A number of the players he surveyed agreed. When Fine asked one individual whether women were accepted in his group, his answer was more than a little revealing: "Yeah, they're accepted. They're accepted and they're sort of treated special. I mean people make a little joke about them, or talk to them in kind of a kidding way... You know, they're making sexual remarks to the girls and teasing her about sex and so on. It's considered standard, no big deal."

Fine cautions, "The absence of females is not an accident of fate, nor is it something that will likely change rapidly." He also writes, "Females will not constitute a large percentage of the gaming world in the near future." When D&D's publisher, Wizards of the Coast, conducted a market research survey in 2000, they found that 20 percent of all players were women—a paltry number, but an appreciable rise from the early 80s. 

As countless players and industry professionals I spoke with—both male and female—were eager to note, Anna Kreider, who runs the blog "Go Make Me a Sandwich," is a vocal critic of much of the artwork and outreach that the industry attempts (or fails to attempt). Yet she noted over email that, "As much as I write about the ugly side of game culture, I am lucky to be part of a community of game designers who are some of the best, most amazing human beings I know. Games are an amazing medium and can be a powerful tool of self-examination and social change... Overall I'm very hopeful for the future of the hobby."

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