ARH 220H, feminism, games, media

Gender Representation in Dungeons and Dragons

What is Dungeons and Dragons?

Dungeons and Dragons, commonly known as D&D, is a roleplaying tabletop style game. Players create and act as characters they create, ranging from elven rogues to tiefling fighters. The Dungeon Master, sometimes referred to as the Game Master, is a player who organizes the campaign of the game, including the plot, non-playable characters, battles, world-building, and more. In order to make an action, particularly in battles, players roll dice to determine the level of success.

On the official Dungeons and Dragons website, a brief overview and introduction to the game is provided:

The first Dungeons & Dragons game was played back when Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson chose to personalize the massive battles of their fantasy wargames with the exploits of individual heroes. This inspiration became the first fantasy roleplaying game, in which players are characters in an ongoing fantasy story. This new kind of game has become immensely popular over the years, and D&D has grown to include many new ways to vividly experience worlds of heroic fantasy.

The core of D&D is storytelling. You and your friends tell a story together, guiding your heroes through quests for treasure, battles with deadly foes, daring rescues, courtly intrigue, and much more. You can also explore the world of Dungeons & Dragons through any of the novels written by its fantasy authors, as well as engaging board games and immersive video games. All of these stories are part of D&D.

Character Creation

Players have a wide variety of options for creating their characters. The most recent version, fifth edition, of the Player’s Handbook lists options for four major aspects of a character: race, class, background, and alignment.

  • Race
    • Dragonborn
    • Dwarf
    • Elf
    • Gnome
    • Half-Elf
    • Halfling
    • Half-Orc
    • Human
    • Tiefling
  • Class
    • Barbarian
    • Bard
    • Cleric
    • Druid
    • Fighter
    • Monk
    • Paladin
    • Ranger
    • Rogue
    • Sorcerer
    • Warlock
    • Wizard
  • Background
    • Acolyte
    • Charlatan
    • Criminal
    • Entertainer
    • Folk Hero
    • Guild Artisan
    • Hermit
    • Noble
    • Outlander
    • Sage
    • Sailor
    • Soldier
    • Urchin
  • Alignment
    • Lawful Good
    • Lawful Neutral
    • Lawful Evil
    • Neutral Good
    • True Neutral
    • Neutral Evil
    • Chaotic Good
    • Chaotic Neutral
    • Chaotic Evil

In addition to these four primary traits of a D&D character, players also get to customize their character in terms of appearance, gender, sexuality, personality, beliefs and ideals, skills, specific backstory, and more. With all of these aspects considered, two elven bards of the entertainer background and alignment chaotic good can be completely different characters, despite having the same skeleton.

Gender in the Player’s Handbook

Chapter 4 of the Player’s Handbook, Personality and Background, has sections on various character details, such as Name, Sex, Height and Weight, and more. Already the Player’s Handbook talks a lot about diversity in race, and so the following section on gender was welcomed.

You can play a male or female character without gaining any special benefits or hindrances. Think about how your character does or does not conform to the broader culture’s expectations of sex, gender, and sexual behavior. For example, a male drow cleric defies the traditional gender divisions of drow society, which could be a reason for your character to leave that society and come to the surface.

You don’t need to be confined to binary notions of sex and gender. The elf god Corellon Larethian is often seen as androgynous or hermaphroditic, for example, and some elves in the multiverse are made in Corellon’s image. You could also play a female character who presents herself as a man, a man who feels trapped in a female body, or a bearded female dwarf who hates being mistaken for a male. Likewise, your character’s sexual orientation is for you to decide.

Right off the bat, the Handbook mentions that there’s no need to adhere to a society’s standards and expectations for gender. This is a very casual statement, like a “hey, by the way, gender presentation isn’t rigid and you can break stereotypes if you’d like to,” which is very progressive and appropriate for an ever-evolving role-playing game today.

Many RPG games have faced critcism for their presentation of gender in the past. What we as audiences have often seen is female characters as highly sexualized, with long flowing hair and large breasts, barely covered at all in very unprotective armor, similar to what Princess Leia wore in Star Wars: Episode VI Return of the Jedi, and very similar in appearance despite racial differences. For male characters, we often see them presented as buff men with protective armor from head to toe, and full ranges of diverse appearances across races.

However, in the fifth edition Player’s Handbook, we don’t see that. Instead, all example characters are shown properly dressed and armored for their specific class, and none are hypersexualized. Of the nine races described in Chapter 2, six of them are depicted with females (Dwarf, Halfling, Human, Gnome, Half-Orc, and Tiefling), and of the twelve classes in Chapter 3, seven are depicted with a female character (Barbarian, Bard, Druid, Monk, Ranger, Rogue, and Warlock). Shown below are just a few of these depictions:

6.png          5.png

4         3        1        2

In the Player’s Handbook, male, female, and androgynous characters are all shown diversely, with different body types, facial structures, weight distributions, and conventional attractiveness. As well, the depictions of different genders is well-spread among the various races and classes, unlike many other RPGs in which only men are allowed to be “gruff and tough” (like barbarians, half-orcs, dwarves, and fighters), only women could be “pretty and passive” (like clerics, elves, humans, and bards), and only androgynous and non-binary characters were “mysterious and unusual” (like rogues, tieflings, half-elves, and wizards). This relatively equal distribution of genders among the races and classes is extremely powerful and beneficial, as representation reminds everyone that all genders are valid and present in both gameplay and society.

And again, as each player gets to create and design their own character, there are limitless options for representations of genders, as well as sexualities, religions and beliefs, body types, etc. In a time in which every aspect of our identity is under scrutiny and judgement, it’s relieving to have a game in which we can freely represent people of all backgrounds without fear of judgement, except if you roll a 1 and critically fail an action in gameplay.

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