Why I Always Play Female Characters in D&D
As I was creating my latest D&D character, a young halfling rogue thief, my husband Chris asked me, “Why haven’t you ever tried playing a male character?”
It’s true, in all the games of D&D I’ve participated in, not once have I ever played a man.
I’ve had bards, druids, wizards, rogues, artificers, and sorcerers. I’ve created teenagers and middle-aged women. I’ve played halflings, humans, and gnomes, as well as other less common races like hengoyaki, kappa, and spirit folk. I even tested two homebrew classes Chris created: a shaman and Wu Jen wizard!
But not once have I ever played a man.
Why? Why is that?
My first reaction was to say to Chris, “I just don’t play male characters.”
There’s something in me that rebels against the idea of playing a man, and it took me a while to sit down and really think about why that is.
Lack of Female Players and Characters in D&D
I’m the only female character in 3/4 of my D&D games right now. Let me repeat that: If I weren’t playing a female character, there would be no female party members in 75% of the games I play in.
My D&D Games Have Been Male-Dominated
Now, I’m definitely not the only woman in my D&D games, but I can’t help but notice that the players in my games have mostly been male. For the majority of my D&D career, I’ve either been the only girl, or one of two.
It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that some shifts in two of our games made both these parties an even 50-50 split (if you don’t count Chris as the D&M). But it’s crazy to think that it took over three years of me playing for this to happen!
But still, when you count the players across all four of my games, there are 13 male players and 5 female players. Granted, I am playing four times, so if you count all of the players who are playing more than one game, it’s 14 men and 8 women. That’s still a big gap!
It isn’t just my games either. Chris is running four more paid games right now that I don’t play in, and across these four games, there is only ONE WOMAN out of 24 players. One. Let that sink in for a second.
DM’s Note: In 24 years of DMing, I have DMed for precisely three women prior to this current batch of campaigns. There is no personal reason for this, but I imagine the fact my groups were predominantly male would have been off-putting to somebody looking to learn the game, especially with so many of them having experience. There definitely also seems to be a stigma around D&D that previously painted it as a game for socially-awkward men, which doesn’t help!
Women Play Men More Than Men Play Women
Now, these numbers get even more skewed when you factor in that in my experience, women are way more likely to play male characters than men are to play female characters.
In my four games, there are a total of four other women playing aside from me. Three out of four of those women are playing male characters!! In case that isn’t clear, in the four games I’m playing, there is only one other girl playing a female character.
So not only are there not very many women playing in my games (only five of us including me), the majority of them are playing male characters.
Obviously I skew the numbers a bit since I’m in all four games and I play female characters in all of them. So if we take me out of the equation, 75% of the women in my games are playing a male character. With me added back in, I bring that number down to about 38%.
Now let me just clarify that there is absolutely nothing wrong with a woman who wants to play a male character. But unfortunately, men just aren’t playing female characters at the same frequency.
Right now, across my four games, there’s only ONE man playing a female character. When you add up all the male players across my games, that’s a rate of about 7%.
SEVEN PERCENT?? Compared to 38%?? Or if you take me out 75%??
That’s right. If I wasn’t playing, we’d have a rate of 75% of women playing male characters, and 7% of men playing female characters across the four games I’m in. That is absolutely ridiculous.
In Chris’ other games, there is also only ONE man playing a woman too. That’s a rate of 4%.
Adding to the Folklore and History
About two years ago my group finished Tomb of Annihilation, solving the curse of death. Now I’m playing a new game set in Chult after the curse has been vanquished. All of the heroes from our first game are immortalized as statues along the shore in Port Nyanzaru, and I couldn’t help but notice, only one is a woman.
If I hadn’t been playing that game, there would be no female statues. How sad is that?
Statues Have Meaning
A few weeks ago in one of my current games, my sorcerer sacrificed herself to kill a demon and save an entire city. It was an incredible character moment for a person who started the game out as an extremely selfish, somewhat cowardly person.
With most of the players in the party down and the battle going south, my character, conscious on one hit point, sacrificed her life to a magic sword that she used to slay the demon and save the city.
Because of this brave sacrifice, the rest of the party requested a statue of her be erected in the city. This actually really meant a lot to me, and it took me a while to figure out why.
How many stories do you hear of brave women sacrificing themselves to slay a monster with a magic sword? How many legends do you know of where a physically weak (negative strength) female saves an entire city with her bravery? How many statues of strong women are there in your real-life town right now?
Probably not many, if there even are any.
Female Characters are Overly Sexualized
Now that I’m playing four games and creating a lot of characters, I’ve started to notice how overly sexualized most female character art is. To be honest, it’s kind of ridiculous!
I’m Tired of Bikinis and Boob Plates
I love to compile a little folder of images of what my characters look like. I use them for my bio photo, my token, and just to help me get a feel for the character. But wow, is finding a good image of a female character that isn’t traditionally “sexy” super difficult!
It’s like every single piece of female character art is made for the male gaze. Why would my athletic druid have double D’s? Why would my rogue be drop-dead-gorgeous in a catsuit? The whole point is that she’s supposed to blend in.
I’ve cropped out the chest of my bio photos to de-sexualize my characters. I purposely search for hours to find something that’s realistic and not some sort of sexualized fantasy of a woman. But, wow, it’s not very easy.
Sure, there’s a part of me that wants a character that’s at least somewhat attractive, and I think that’s fair. But what I don’t need are boob plates, bikinis, catsuits, and massive cleavage in every fantasy art photo.
I wouldn’t mind if the men were sexualized just as much, but we all know they aren’t. Why is it that all the female tabaxi are weirdly sexy (guys, they’re CATS), meanwhile all the male tabaxi look cool and actually have clothes on?
The Struggle to Find My Female Artificer
One of my characters is a female battlesmith artificer in her 50’s, who’s wiry and athletic with disheveled grey hair and steampunk-esque night vision goggles. After about three hours of searching, I eventually just gave up finding a photo to represent her.
I searched for everything, even photos of real people! I now have a very good idea of the difference between Steampunk and Dieselpunk which is not something I ever thought I’d know, and now my Pinterest feed is weird.
But on a serious note, it was extremely easy to find grizzled male artificers or mechanics in their later years, but why aren’t there any women? Why are the female alchemists and artificers all sexy or super cute? What is with the lack of older female characters in character art that aren’t just witches or hags??!
I love the idea that someday I can save up enough money to splurge on getting character art done for all of my unique characters, and some woman somewhere else in the world will see that art and go, “thank god, this is what I’ve been looking for!”
For now, I’ve compiled a collection of awesome character art on Pinterest that you can use to create your character. You can also have a look at the character art I’ve chosen for my characters too!
I’m Tired of Token Female Heroes
In my life, I feel like I’m surrounded by token female heroes. When you look at superhero movies or other fantasy films, there’s often one token female, who is beautiful, strong, intelligent, and probably a love interest for the main protagonist. Just look at the first few Avengers films, the first Guardians of the Galaxy, Fantastic Four, Justice League, Lord of the Rings…
While I love me some Wonder Woman, Black Widow, or Gamora, it’s not hard to notice some major similarities.
Where’s my female anti-hero genius like Tony Stark? Where are the wizened intelligent female wizards like Gandalf?
Sure, they exist. But it’s not the norm.
I Get to Create My Own Female Heroes
One of my favorite things about D&D is the ability to design your own hero, with their unique personality traits, flaws, and backstory. There’s no need to be a sexy cookie-cutter hero, and I love it!
I can create my own female heroes who have more to offer than being the hot token girl badass.
I can make characters that aren’t beautiful, or who are specifically not charismatic. I can create female characters that are old, morally compromised, or are just super weird.
I designed an unhinged spore druid necromancer who makes zombies with fungus. I created a forest gnome bard anthropologist who wrote ethnographic novels about the jungle civilizations we encountered. I made a water shaman kappa that heals people by pouring magical water from inside her head onto them (and she makes it super awkward every time), and a disorganized teenage Wu Jen wizard who’s taboo is that she can’t eat food but can eat literally anything else, so she specifically eats rocks.
I just want to explore all of the unique ways in which women can appear as heroes. Women can be just as diverse and unique as men, and I want to showcase that with my characters.
How to Bring Gender Equality to Your D&D Games
Now, I just want to clarify that I’m not out here to make anyone feel bad! If you’re a woman who wants to play a male character or a man who prefers to play his own gender, more power to you. If you want to play a character who is beautiful, strong, charismatic, and super sexy, that’s totally fine too! (I’ve done it myself)
But I know that there’s literally no reason to point out an issue if I’m not going to come up with a few simple ideas to fix it. So if you’re looking to diversity your D&D games after reading this post, here are a few ways you can do it!
Invite and Include More Women
I’ll admit, the first D&D game I showed up to was super intimidating. I was the only woman in the room and I had almost no idea what I was doing. I also didn’t really know anyone aside from Chris, and no one really made a big effort to make me feel comfortable. After one session, I wasn’t super keen on returning.
Thankfully Chris convinced me to join a different game using Skype and Roll20 with some of his childhood and college friends. This game was much less serious and more inclusive. People were happy to help me and explain the rules, and it definitely helped that I wasn’t the only girl in the group!
So if you talk to a woman who is interested in playing D&D, encourage her to join your group if you have room! Know that it can be a bit intimidating to be the only girl in the party, so make a little extra effort to ensure that she feels comfortable and included.
Also, don’t assume that women aren’t interested in D&D! Some “geeky” hobbies can be really gatekept by men (remember gamergate?). Women can be just as interested in RPGs as men, so if we seem keen, encourage us to get involved!
Create Characters that Aren’t Defined by Their Gender
Your female character doesn’t need to be defined by her gender. If you’re a man trying to play a female character, just design a character like you normally would, but make her female.
Out of all of my characters, I can only really think of one who I couldn’t easily make a man just by changing her name. People are people. We all have emotions, fears, desires, strengths, and weaknesses. You can make any character a woman if you want to.
Do you want to have a badass female fighter? A heroic paladin woman? Barbarian lady with rage issues? Go for it!
DM’s Can Create Equality in Their Games
Chris has actually been very good at introducing strong female NPCs in our games, especially in his homebrew content. The mayor of one of our towns is a woman, and so was the head ranger who trained one of our male rogues in archery. We’ve run quests for powerful female merchants and bengoshis and he truly makes it seem completely natural in the game.
I’ve often been very impressed by the amount of competent female leaders in Chris’ games. He really thinks about it and it shows.
Some DMing Advice From Chris
For a Dungeon Master looking to encourage more equality in their games, there are a few things that you can do to make your table a more welcoming place for female players. While I’ll write a full post on this at a later date, here are a few quick changes you can make to your game to make your table a more welcoming place.
Avoid Reinforcing Gender Stereotypes: Just as racial ability modifiers and the like are fast falling out of vogue for reinforcement negative stereotypes, so too is it irresponsible to grant advantages or disadvantages to characters based on their gender. Don’t automatically assume that a female character using Persuasion is being seductive, while painting a male character doing it as being a good speaker.
Thankfully, modern D&D does not enforce such arbitrary distinctions through ability modifiers or restrictions based on gender, but you should still be careful to ensure you’re not treating female characters differently than male counterparts with similar or identical abilities.
Sexual Violence is not a Narrative Device: This should go without saying, but don’t threaten sexual violence against a female character as a means of getting across how evil or sleazy a character is. If this kind of thing is okay at your table and everybody has given consent, I would still argue that you shouldn’t do anything to a female character that you wouldn’t be willing to do to a male one.
Subvert Stereotypes: Why does the sleazy bartender have to be a rotund man intent on seducing the female character? Why does the bad guy always have a leather-clad succubus at his side rather than a well-oiled incubus? Why can’t the town’s brave and fearsome leader be a female while the simpering prince needs rescuing from a dragon?
While it can absolutely be fun to play into established fantasy tropes, always presenting your female NPCs as weak, sexualized, or any other negative portrayal of their gender is only going to discourage players – male and female alike – from wanting to play a woman at your table.
Monitor Your Table’s Vibe: If you’ve been playing with the same group of guys for some time now, you might notice that you fall into certain unattractive habits. It’s a sad fact that growing up, men are often encouraged to belittle women either directly or indirectly.
If you’re looking to bring female players to your table, it is a good idea to spend some time looking at the way your table speaks when it comes to matters of gender. Are you making sexist jokes as part of your banter? Is there a player at the table who finds it funny to play an overly sleazy character that might make a female player uncomfortable?
You may be playing D&D to ‘escape’ from the real world, but that doesn’t mean that you should say or do things in game that you know others would find distasteful in another social setting.
Creating a welcoming table that avoids stereotypes or play that demean or marginalize women is not a difficult thing to do, but you do need to make some conscious choices to get around any in-built biases you might have developed over the years.
More women are interested in joining D&D every day, and it’s getting easier and easier to diversify your party. As of 2018, 40% of D&D players are women. (Where are all of you?? Why aren’t you in my games?). This is up from 20-25% in 2012!
We’re also seeing a rise in female creators on sites like DM’s Guild, like Anne Gregersen (Creator of the Monster Loot series) and the women behind the Adventurer’s Domestic Handbook (Lydia, Sadie, Ciarra, and Kayla).
Dungeons and Dragons is a game for everyone, regardless of your gender. So when you’re making your next character or starting up a new game, be mindful of how inclusive and representative your game is, and have fun!
What Do You Think?
Do you have any tips for creating a more inclusive D&D game? Are you as fed up with the sexualized character art as I am? Do you completely disagree with something I’ve said here?
I’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions in a comment below! (But please keep it respectful kthanks!)
Thank you so much for this. I’m in a game now where we’re a 50/50 gender split in a very gender-balanced world, but I have had to leave other tables due to the largely unintended but very present misogyny. I once played a female drow and was agog at all the men at the table who insisted on opening doors for her, ignoring her ideas until a man spoke them, and mansplaining everything. I mean, a DROW woman. We actually left that game in part because just watching that made my fiance furious (which is so much of why I’m marrying him).
And the thing that most frustrates me (and this is true of fantasy novels too) is that these are often worlds that we’ve created. Why do people assume gender norms in game would at all be the same? “Men are bigger and stronger” is an explanation in this world (still not a good one), but in a world of magic where someone can light you on fire from 30 feet away, regardless of their size or gender? It doesn’t even make sense for gender to be a source of power disparity and the resulting lack of visible women in the world.
Anyway, long rant to say I love what you’ve written here and your thoughtful approach to it. 🙂
That is so true Kathleen and thank you for bringing that up! In some of my games my female characters are quite literally the powerhouse. My spore druid is definitely the strongest and the only hand-to-hand character in my party aside from our NPC barbarian! When magic exists it doesn’t make any sense that women wouldn’t be just as respected or powerful.
I’m also really sorry to hear about that group you played with. They honestly sound super toxic, and you were right to leave that group (and marry your fiance… Congratulations by the way!).
One of my friends was literally telling me tonight that she purposely played an ugly character in her game and the men in her group didn’t know how to react. They said to her, “but you’re pretty so it’s hard for me to imagine your character as ugly!”. Seriously?! You sure as hell don’t look like a 6’4″ handsome fighter but guess what, it’s a fantasy game where you create a CHARACTER that’s NOT YOU. Also, she said they purposely ignored her in favor of the prettier characters at the table because “she’s not pretty so we wouldn’t want to talk to her.”
Thankfully she left that game just like you left yours. Seriously… #Not All Men but definitely some of them….
Your personal perspective is enlightening. I really appreciate you bringing this up, because I totally see the tropes everywhere. In my only in-person game, the male playing the female character was quickly and unfortunately nicknamed ‘Boobs’, despite the most defining part of their character being that they have a squishy demon attached to them. I have had similar experiences before in other groups when it comes to female NPCs, but at least things are getting better these days.
I’m planning on playing a female for the first time in one of Chris’ games if Chula proves to be deadly enough to her evil retainer who’s out researching for her.
As far as your 50s artifice goes, I think that the real life portrayal of Madame Hooch from Harry Potter sounds kinda close. She wears goggles, in several pictures, too!
Anyways, love your articles. Cheers!
Fair points. I just changed my next character’s name from Barnaby Seabiscuit to Bianca Seabiscuit.
I honestly think that’s super awesome and I’m so excited to eventually get to meet Bianca!! 🙂
If you’re a woman who isn’t willing to play a male character, why does it surprise you that men aren’t interested in playing female characters?
Normal people prefer what they know and are familiar with. You won’t find your average guy doing the mental equivalent of cross-dressing, unless it’s a sexual fetish.
It seems like you missed the part where aside from me, 75% of the women in my games are playing male characters, but yet the rate is only 7% the other way around. Me playing a female character is in response to that. I’m perfectly capable of playing a male character, and if I were in a party where there were more female characters, I might consider it.
Perhaps you were too preoccupied with thinking about sexual fetishes to read the article?
As for wanting to play something you’re familiar with, I hope all your characters are human fighters and you’re a swordsman in real life because otherwise, D&D must be super hard for you.
. <- The point ............................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................ -> This guy #notallmenbutprobablythisguy
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