From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Guttersnipe: Girls Do Play D&D

This piece originally appeared in Cerise magazine

When I was a kid, I made up stories for my siblings and the neighbourhood kids we could press-gang into participating by the hour. Let’s Pretend was by far and away my favourite game, second only to reading as my favourite activity. We hunted down dinosaurs, enthusiastically swung sticks at each other in pirate battles, saved ourselves from floods of molten lava by jumping on the bed and, in possibly my finest hour, prevented alien plague infection by eating most of my friend’s stash of M&Ms.

I do exactly the same thing now, only I call Let’s Pretend “writing”, and I supply my own M&Ms.

When I got to intermediate school, I started acting classes and playing theatresports, which are improvisation games. I learned how to create a character, improvise plot, and react to the input of other people to make up a complete, satisfying story on the spot. I don’t do that now so much, because people tend to mistake “impromptu improvised theatre” for “telling enormous lies”.

I loved fantasy and adventure and brave heroes and cunning spies and noble Halflings. I had developed all the necessary skills. And yet, I didn’t play my first game of Dungeons & Dragons until I was 23.

Because D&D was for boys.

Really, that was it. I’d heard of it, and it sounded fun, but I didn’t investigate any further, because everyone knew it was for boys. And while I was ornery from about, oh, birth, I really didn’t get into the habit of questioning my own assumptions about what was and wasn’t for anyone until I hit my late teens.

And by then I was aware that while D&D wasn’t just for boys, finding a group of players that knew that, and who might treat me as a serious (if newbie) player might be a lot more trouble than it was worth just to try out an interesting new hobby. If something like Robyn’s current all-female D&D group had been around at the time, I would have jumped at it. There might have been; if there was, I didn’t know.

Eventually, aged 23, I moved into a new flat with a confirmed geek (always good housemates), who had a D&D group who played most Sundays. I mentioned that I was interested. He encouraged me to ask the GM.

So I did.

“You really want to play?” the GM asked.

“Yeah! I’ve done other roleplaying games over IRC, but never D&D. Will that be a problem?”

“Uh, no,” he said, in good-natured bewilderment. “But… girls don’t play D&D!”

16-year-old me might have given in right there.

23-year-old me smiled, lifted her left eyebrow (also something 16-year-old me couldn’t do), and replied, “This one wants to.”

So I played, and of course I loved it, not least because I never had another “girls don’t” moment with a single member of that group.

But how many girls get put off there? How many girls never question that first assumption? How many young women are missing out on extraordinary adventures and the amazing architecture of imagination that D&D offers because of that generation-old perception that women are inherently uninterested?

I hate to think. I’m glad I’m no longer one of them.

Karen grew up in New Zealand, taught English in Japan for a couple years and is now living in Australia and writing a dissertation on superhero comic fandom. On weekends, through the power of the internets, she turns into a teenage boy at a special school for mutants and fights evil-doers. The rest of the time, she can be found blogging at Girls Read Comics (And They’re Pissed), or at KarenHealey.com.

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