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Dungeons & Dragons Has Caught Up with Third-Wave Feminism

The newest version of the game encourages players to think critically about gender as a historical construct at the same time that they're deciding whether to be "Quarion the elvaan druid" or "Havilar the dragonborn sorcerer."

Illustration by Jonathan Tune

Unlike the last person who wrote about D&D for VICE, I have no sordid tales to tell of being caught by a bully in flagrante dragono—for the uninitiated, that's playing Dungeons & Dragons—in the school library. That's because D&D wasn't part of my life when I was a teenage girl in the suburbs. But a lot of people (6 million of them, in fact) are fighting made-up dragons in made-up dungeons with made-up fantasy alter egos. As Giaco Furino recently reported, "Dungeons & Dragons Is Officially Cool Again," and it is not only cool but inclusive. Did you know that not just neckbeards play D&D, but so do hip guys like Mick Jagger and Vin Diesel and your local male American Apparel employee?

But there's more to the story than neckbeards and testosterone-rich celebs. A lot of women play D&D (which occasionally means encountering rapey dungeon masters) and more of us every day are picking up our first 20-sided die. It's no small thing, and worth celebrating: the newest version of the game has—no joke—caught up with third-wave feminism.

Dungeons & Dragons has come a long way since 1977, when your horny geek friends could consult the "Harlot Table," a set of statistics used to score some in-game sex with "wanton wenches" or "slovenly trolls." And just in case ladies back then had any doubt about being able to match up to their male counterparts (no), female-identified characters' strength scores were capped below men's. In fact, just a few years ago, some lucky (read: doomed) woman's husband-to-be posted a craigslist ad for a topless woman to be the Dungeon Master at a D&D-themed bachelor party. Sign me up, asshole.

But gradually, and sometimes awkwardly, Dungeons & Dragons has become exponentially more female-friendly. The newest version of the game, which hit stores on August 19, debuted a sensibly armored black woman, plates covering all her vital organs, as its example of the "human" race option. No chainmail bikinis here. To wit, women throughout the pages of the Player's Handbook exhibit more varied body types and skin colors than ever. Coming from a franchise whose art director wrote a piece (apparently since removed) justifying hyper-sexualized female bodies in fantasy art, this is noteworthy. And these illustrations are just the face of deeper changes made to entice more women to play.

More strikingly, the new Player's Handbook explicitly talks about the gender binary and gender fluidity. "Think about how your character does or does not conform to the broader culture's expectations of sex, gender, and sexual behavior," it reads. "You don't need to be confined to binary notions of sex and gender . . . You could also play a female character who presents herself as a man, a man who feels trapped in a female's body, or a bearded female dwarf who hates being mistaken for a male." So D&D players are being pushed to think critically about gender as a historical construct at the same time they're deciding whether to be "Quarion the elvaan druid" or "Havilar the dragonborn sorcerer." Dungeons & Dragons is a game that hinges on the collective process of imagination, and now we're being asked to summon a world that doesn't share in our dominant heteronormative paradigms. This, friends, is cool.

One could argue that just because the D&D tomes give a shout-out to the third-wave notion that gender is a historical construct, the actual culture around the game hasn't necessarily caught up. Lisa Renke, who works in theater and has played the game for 14 years, tells me that she's had to deal with her fair share of sexism throughout her time gaming. The dungeon crawlers at her high school were unwelcoming, and years later, she still had problems fitting in: "Sometimes I was the only woman in a room with 30 guys. I also had a few uncomfortable moments declining men who wanted to take me back to their apartments to teach me how to make a better character." Terry Romero, a cookbook author who has been playing since 1988, relayed a similar story of heinous sexism at the table. Once, the guy running her D&D game "deliberately kept forcing my character to trip, fall, or be pushed down by monsters the entire game with a not-so-subtle rape context. I played for less than an hour before walking away," she says.

But gaming communities are finding ways to ensure less-than-creepy play among the genders. The Twenty-Sided Store, a gaming spot located in Brooklyn that hosts Dungeons & Dragons sessions, has a strict code of conduct forbidding "slights against intelligence, gender, sexual orientation, race, etc." You will actually get kicked out if you're a douchebag, and no one's gonna fist-bump you for making lewd comments to some made-up elf queen.The Twenty-Sided Store has even adopted the "X-Card" practice, which allows a player to hold up a card—without explanation—if something disagreeable goes down.

Lauren Bilanko, a co-owner of the store, says that the gender makeup of people who come in to play D&D is about 60 percent male and 40 percent female.

Nicole Kuprienko, a graphic designer who started running D&D games more recently, says she's rarely experienced sexism while role-playing. The majority of women I interviewed agree, suggesting that women (and female-identified individuals) are having less trouble than ever contributing to the D&D community, and generally face less overt misogyny and harassment.

The reason for this evolution in D&D culture is actually pretty simple. A two-year play-testing period, open to anyone who had opinions about the game, preceded the newest version's release. Jeremy Crawford, lead designer and managing editor for Dungeons & Dragons at its parent company Wizards of the Coast, highlighted the fact that the design team made a concerted effort to boost inclusiveness. Asked to comment, he told me, "There has often been a perception that such games are for straight white men. One of our goals for the new edition of D&D has been to make it as welcoming as possible to its large, diverse audience: people of different races, ages, gender identities, and sexual orientations. D&D is for anyone who wants to gather with their friends to weave tales of heroic adventure. Our team wants there to be no barriers to that, and for our text and art to imply no barriers...It's hard to have that sense of identification or interest if a character is marginalized or objectified."

His point is underscored by the fact that the newest version of the game credits women as contributors to its design more than any previous one: About 26 percent are female, as opposed to 20 percent in the last version and 12 percent in the one before that. It's also telling that three-quarters of D&D's branding and marketing team is now female.

Maybe you're still wondering why women would even want to sit around in some sweaty basement pretending to slay orcs. From a female perspective, what's the deal with pretending you're some gallant knight or evil sorceress? Katherine Cross, a sociologist and PhD student at CUNY who studies gender in role-playing, says that her D&D characters "were always the kind of characters that were lacking in major television shows—someone who was not reduced to her sexuality. For a lot of women, role-playing gives us an opportunity to author our own visions of power." While white men have had a myriad of heroic characters to emulate and improve upon over the centuries, women are often starved of these role models. Lord of the Rings arguably includes no heroic female characters, and I'm not so sure Xena: Warrior Princess was particularly representative of girls I knew.

Besides, women tend to grow up learning how to adjust our faces and outfits to express ourselves. Role-playing isn't much of a leap from there. That being said, I don't really need to rationalize why women role-play—it's fun to kick it with your friends and, in collaboration, craft a fantasy.

But maybe it's not such a big deal that D&D is becoming more inclusive. It could just be symptomatic of how far we've come since 1977, when third-wave feminism didn't even exist. Lauren Bilanko, owner of the Twenty-Sided Store, points out that "It's not just the gaming community. We're seeing more people be present to their surroundings, be aware of how their actions affect society." She's right, even if we still have a long way to go. At this point, I'm glad that when I walk into a gaming store, no one asks if got lost on the way to the mall.

Follow Cecilia D'Anastasio on Twitter.