Sunday, April 5, 2009

Sex & the Hamlet?

I'm doing some thinking and research for a later post about sex and gender in d&d.  I'd especially appreciate any ideas or reflections from gamers on a set of related questions.

First, a little background information so that I don't give the wrong impression.  I was introduced to the hobby back in 1981/82 through the proverbial "older boys next door" and continued playing without serious break in a variety of "older" groups through 1988.   Thinking back on it now it seems that each of those groups played a variant of the whole game that was fairly common at the time: borrowing liberally and freely from the all the available editions (Basic and Expert sets, 1ed ad&d, at least), treating the primary source books as a near seamless whole fabric.  During this time we played a wide range of non-d&d RPGs as well, including some dabbling in Boot Hill, Top Secret, and even some early Rifts and Cyberpunk.  

But in each of these various groups d&d was, almost as a rule, the central game and the only one we returned to time and again.  And almost as a rule, these first gaming groups of mine were exclusively male.

I left the game rather abruptly in 1988 and with one or two exceptions didn't play or pick up a source book until nearly 20 years later.  Like many who have recently returned from the d&d diaspora of our generation, my return to the game came via nearly two years of 3.5ed.  And during this time I have grown progressively disenchanted with a number of this edition's features; problems which I have come to consider systemic.

But say what you will about the many problems of the d2o system or the "superheros" that PCs have become, it cannot be denied that during the move to 3ed a deliberate attempt was made to show examples of women PCs of a variety of classes and races as active members of an adventuring party.  This may have been the result of nothing more than WotC marketing strategy, but since no edition of d&d that I am aware of has ever placed ability penalties or other restrictions on women-PCs, it is a bit odd that that so few strong women PCs are depicted in earlier editions, no?

My admittedly anecdotal sense during this period of time was that an increasing number of women had entered the hobby of role playing games, at least compared to when I had originally left it back in 1988.  These new women gamers may not have all been playing d&d, but all one has to do is quickly scan the most prominent and popular RPG websites and forums and gamer podcasts and the increased presence of women in the hobby is easy to see.      

Now in the last year or so I have begun avidly following the very lively (and very friendly) discussions in the "Old School" blogging and forum community.  There is so much creativity and cross-fertilization currently going, especially via fanzines such as Fight On! and Knockspell, that I was quickly swept up into the fervor of this exciting "Old School Renaissance".  

And yet given the easy inclusivity practiced by most OSR bloggers, it remains striking that there are remarkably few women who actively seem to participate in this growing online community.

I understand that my judgement here is also based on my admittedly anecdotal experiences.  That is precisely why I wanted to throw the following questions out to the OSR community.  And given the anonymous nature of the Internet, I suppose I could be mistaken.   But, among other things, the widespread exclusive use of the masculine pronoun (both in singular and possessive tenses) even in retro-clone source books strongly suggests to me that I am not.

So, here are my questions:      

1.  Are women coming to the OSR at the same rate as women typically came to RPGs in general (and d&d in particular) over the last twenty years?  Please share any experiences with your gaming group - has it been easier/more difficult/about the same difficulty getting women to play an "old school" game and system?

2.  Why are women less visible as active members of the OSR online community compared to other RPG online communities?  Is this just a mistaken perception?

3.  Is there something about the OS format that discourages women's participation?  (Speaking just for me I find this highly unlikely, but I'd love to hear from those who might disagree)

Ultimately I am most interested in these questions because, like many of you, I now have a young daughter that I would like to introduce to the hobby in the coming years.  I know that many of you are at various stages of introducing your little girl to d&d, and I'd love any observations, analysis and tips.  


James Maliszewski said...

1. I have no idea -- and neither does anyone else, except anecdotally.

2. I suspect the preponderance of men in the OSR has a lot to do with the fact that it draws heavily on the early days of the hobby, when there were comparatively few women participating in it. Women have always been a minority of D&D players, probably moreso in the period from which the OSR draws its biggest inspiration. That said, there are women bloggers active in the OSR, just as there were women involved in the hobby back in the 70s (Lee Gold, Jean Wells, etc.)

3. The only barrier I see is a lack of exposure. My 9 year-old daughter really enjoys my Dwimmermount campaign and has found no difficulty fitting in and, unlike previous attempts at introducing her to roleplaying, I did nothing to cater to "girly" sensibilities to pique her interest. I suspect lots of women and girls would enjoy old school games if they were exposed to them, but very few are.

Jeff Rients said...

1. Anecdotally I have more female players in my Labyrinth Lord group than in any previous D&D outing.

2. I don't know if the impression is correct or not, but if it is I think the OSR's devotion to pulp fantasy swords & sorcery might be a liability in this regard. Personally, most of my favorite S&S stories come with a pretty heavy helping of portrayals of women as sex objects.

3. I have no idea what you mean by an old school 'format'.

Ironbeard said...

You raise some great questions, Post Festum. While there is much food for thought here, I would like to address your last point (3).

I assume by OS "format" you mean the rhetorical and stylistic presentation of of OS material as opposed to or in excess of its content. Please correct me if I'm wrong.

I just did a quick run through of my copy of the Swords and Wizardry core rules and I was surprised to find that there were only two illustrations of women in the entire book (none on the cover). There may be three illustrations if we count the elf on page 8 as woman. It looks more like an androgynous male to me.

I'm not sure if the lack of women portrayed in the core rules' would actually discourage women from playing the game, but it does suggest a slight masculine bias in the overall presentation.

I'm sure this largely results from the fact that, as Jeff pointed out above, the Swords and Sorcery source material that the game borrows heavily from itself had a masculine bias. It may be the case that this earlier bias is being inadvertently imported into the game.

I want to be clear though, before I set of any knee jerk anti-PC reactions. I am not in any way suggesting that the game is in any way bad or that people shouldn't play it.

post festum said...

James M.

>1. I have no idea -- and neither does anyone else, except anecdotally.<

True enough. However I'd actually take all the anecdotal evidence I can get right now given the absence of relevant statistical studies. The closest available that suit my purposes are routinely done at the request of the video game industry in general and do not contain break-out numbers for table-top RPGs. However, in the numbers that are available there is a very large spike in female participation 25+ and up since 1994. (FWIW -

So, in the absence of hard numbers I'm just wondering if others can report a similar rise in female participation in their table top RPGs during the similar period, especially in recent years.

>Women have always been a minority of D&D players, probably moreso in the period from which the OSR draws its biggest inspiration.<

Great point...I hope that is one of the aspects of the tradition that does not get reproduced.

Thanks for taking the time to share you thoughts, James. I'm particularly heartened by your comments about your experiences gaming with your daughter.

post festum said...


Your point about swords&sorcery is so seemingly plausible a place to begin that I'm embarrassed it didn't even occur to me.

In fact, and I might be unusual in this regard, I can say that it is my interest in sword&sorcery in particular that kept me role-playing and not the other way around. I think that if there were no such genre I would probably not be interesting in gaming.

If this is at all typical then we might well have the beginnings of one very plausible explanation.

Thanks for sharing your insights as always.

post festum said...


<3. I have no idea what you mean by an old school 'format'.>

Sorry - didn't mean to be cryptic in any way. It is hard to find the right synonym at times.

I take Matt Finch's "Primer" as a fairly standard presentation of "Old School Principles" and was broadly referring to games such as the one's he discusses.

Ironbeard said...

Just for the record, Len Lakofka wrote an article in the third issue of The Dragon (1976) that proposed alternate rules for women characters. Among other things, women would have a rating for Beauty instead of Charisma under this system.

The article is pretty interesting as a historical artifact, but this is one tidbit from the golden era that is probable best left un-resurrected.

post festum said...


Great catch on the Lakofka article. Obviously a child of a different time.

I think it's important to note that nothing remotely like the Lakofka rules were ever adopted in any official edition. Again, given what I think we can all agree was the different tenor of the time, this itself is quite remarkable.

Not to reduce these complex issues to simple observations, but a quick look over the first 10-15 pages of the 1e DMG finds several examples where Gygax goes out of his way to use sentence constructions that are often gender neutral. Several times he even uses the always awkward "his or her" construction that was certainly not common practice at the time. Good for Gary.

Jeff Rients said...

But it must also be noted that in the PHB Gary put limits on female strength scores in the name of realism.

trollsmyth said...

1. With James comments in mind, and remembering that the plural of anecdote isn't data, I haven't noticed much difference. At this point in my current Labyrinth Lord game, the one player who has made every session, since the beginning, is female. So I'd have to say that, as things stand right now, interest in old-school gaming has been stronger in women than men in my game.

2. Most of us are old farts, from back in the day, before women were invited to play RPGs much. That said, some of the best OSG bloggers are women. And I'm not willing to say that the ratios are that far off from the RPG blogging population in general. There's just not enough hard data to work with.

3. The old "discouragement" argument is a distraction. Women don't play because we don't invite them. If you invite them, they will play.