This is the first in a (possible) series in which I discuss the highs and lows of being a woman in the D&D/tabletop gaming universe.
IN THE BEGINNING…
I started playing D&D about two months ago. It was something I’ve wanted to do for many years, not some hipster joke or because I once watched an episode of Community. I’d never played because it seemed so daunting, with endless books to read and DM kits and minis to buy. High school me was broke and, really, two people (myself and my BFFL) were hardly enough for a full party anyway. (People joke about nerds playing D&D and not having friends, but really the two ideas are incongruous. A nerd needs at least four friends if they want to play D&D in real life.) I finally got my chance to start playing when the group my boyfriend’s brother-in-law played with had a schism, and a new group was formed.
I was excited to begin. I selected a bard, because I liked the idea of fighting monsters with my “rock.” When it came time to choose my character’s race, I thought being either elven or human was lame, so I settled on the telepathic Kalashtar instead. Feeling damn pleased with myself and my character (and her ability to viciously mock people to death), I played contentedly for over a month.
Then some of us thought it would be nice to get our own minis. We had been using the more economical tokens that come with the DM kit and from a monster’s set. These are ok, perfectly acceptable for gameplay, but they have neither the flash nor the majesty of minis.
I knew it would be a challenge for me from the beginning. I wanted a female mini who was neither an elf, nor a sorceress, nor opposed to wearing clothes (let alone armor!). I figured there would be some official Kalashtar minis, and looked online. A single blonde, pale-skinned Kalashtar bodyguard answered my search. Apparently, the Kalashtar come in a variety as wide as humans, so I suppose that despite all the brown skin and black hair in the character builder’s Kalashtar pictures, the Aryan look of this bodyguard is acceptable. I also know the Kalashtar are a somewhat obscure race, so I’m not complaining about having only one option. In fact, this lone bodyguard is a blade-brandishing, well-covered woman who, despite the size of her breasts (the universal C-cup of all women), does not look simply like the sexual fantasy of a man-child. So kudos there. Unfortunately this figurine is no longer being made, and doesn’t at all fit my character, anyway. The fact that this is the only Kalashtar figure that has ever been made does bother me. If a Kalashtar could be any color or combination thereof, just like humans, why only produce a white, blonde Kalashtar? It is the same question that makes fantasy in general unappealing to many: Why, if you could create absolutely anything you wanted, would you simply re-create the inequities in race and gender you see in real life? Why are the good guys always white?
I digress only slightly. The challenges that women can face in the geek world are similar to the challenges that people of color can rub up against. (Not that one cannot simultaneously be a woman and a person of color.)
To return to my search for a figurine: I am fortunate enough to live down the street from a RPG/tabletop gaming store. The store is little and packed with wonderful things, from card games to paint for your mini. They do regular tournaments of every game you could want. It definitely has a feeling of a bunch of guys hanging out in a basement, with all the good things and bad things that entails. It’s a place I don’t know that I feel entirely comfortable in, a place where I don’t want to spend too much time in case women ever do come up, and I learn things about the proprietors I don’t want to know. (The “Skanks in Space” (fake?) movie poster prominently displayed behind the counter doesn’t make me feel more secure, even if I don’t really know what it’s referring to.) Don’t get me wrong: the two guys working there have never condescended to me or treated me like I don’t belong there. There isn’t anything actively hostile about the environment. But there isn’t much to convince me they’re welcoming me either.
A quick look at their minis, D&D and otherwise, proved my suspicions about the kind of female minis this shop would sell. It isn’t just that the women aren’t sensibly dressed; it’s the fact their nipples are more prominent than their weapons. It’s the fact that I can even see their nipples. It’s the fact that some guy seriously sat down and designed this woman and thought to himself, I need to make her nipples show. For every female mini that looks like this, there are 10 more that look like this. So I left that shop empty-handed, and with a little emptiness in my heart, too.
I realize I could paint a figurine myself. I could choose a woman figurine who is wearing clothes and wielding a weapon (or a musical instrument, because I can’t forget I’m a bard) and paint her so that she is brown-skinned like my character. I’m not doing that because I know that would end sadly, leaving poor Darshana a bleeding mess of paint. But the real point is that I shouldn’t have to. There should be figurines I can choose from that don’t make me feel like less of a person, figurines that wouldn’t get me laughed at or leered at if they went on a campaign. There should be figurines of brown-skinned women, if brown-skinned women exist in this universe.
And a barbarian woman, like any class of woman, shouldn’t be wilting like a porn star, posing for the men she pretends to fight, but rather, ferociously cutting her way through a sea of foes. I look forward to the day when barbarian women like those are in the majority, and I can go to my local RPG shop without seeing bare breasts.
NEXT WEEK: Matriarchal vs. patriarchal societies in D&D and why it matters