From Final Fantasy to Skyrim, Black women the world over have been enjoying role-playing games (or RPGs) for years. But there is a particular type of role-playing game that has seen slightly less participation from Black women: the tabletop role-playing game. While video game RPGs are certainly fun, tabletop games are also an involved social experience more Black women should have the opportunity to participate in.

Tabletop role-playing games are collaborative story-telling games in which players take the role of a character, describing their actions through speech. The actions succeed or fail based on a set of rules, usually including dice rolls. In 1974, TSR published the first commercially available tabletop role-playing game called Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). The game was a smash hit and opened the door for many types of RPGs being played today. Many people think of tabletop RPGs as “old school” given the proliferation of MMORPGs and other role-playing video games they influenced, but D&D and other tabletops have experienced a resurgence and are more popular than ever.

In Dungeons and Dragons, gameplay is generally conducted around a table with one player designated the Dungeon Master (DM). While each player is responsible for their own Player Character (or PC), the DM controls the action, story, and the other non-player characters (or NPCs) in the game. The DM provides quests and obstacles, and the players work together to achieve their goals. Together, they weave a rich story full of action, danger, puzzles, and teamwork. Often, the success/impact of an action is determined by chance. Players roll different combinations of special dice to see if things turn out as they expect. Handbooks provide information and stats on everything from weapons to spells to monsters. The adventure itself can be “homebrew” (written by the DM) or purchased pre-made from Wizards of the Coast (D&D’s new owner).

RPGs have always appealed to me ever since I was a kid, but their highly fictionalized nature stands out to me as a Black woman in particular for a number of reasons.

Many of the interactions between your character and other characters are different than real life because you are literally playing another role. Unlike code-switching, you are not altering your own way of interacting with the world, but stepping into a different character altogether. While many fantasy worlds have racial strife and privilege hierarchies, you can generally choose where you fall on the ladder. In this way, RPGs allow Black women to experience life from a number of different perspectives since the character is not necessarily perceived as a Black woman. They are whatever race and class you’ve designed them to be. Black women are given the option to move smoothly through the fantasy world in a way we simply cannot in real life.

Another thing that stood out about multiplayer RPGs is that role-playing allows Black women to feel comfortable playing different roles within the group regardless of the stereotypes of how Black women “should” behave. In real life, Black women are often expected to fit certain stereotypes: strong, caretaker, loud, angry, etc. In RPGs, Black women can explore any personality type/traits without catching flak for breaking a stereotype or conforming to it. It’s possible to play a raging half-orc barbarian without people writing you off as an “angry Black woman.” You can choose to be the group healer, but can just as easily choose to be an evil damage-dealing wizard without being judged too harshly. If your character is the most boisterous one in the tavern, other characters will think it’s probably just because she’s a bard.

Many Black women play RPG video games for these reasons and more. Video games have the added bonus of anonymity, so Black women don’t feel as much pressure to create and play their character in a certain way. Though we are all aware of the damage anonymous trolls can do, anonymous users often feel more empowered to be themselves in-game.

However, tabletop RPGs offer a unique sense of accomplishment and camaraderie. There is something special about sitting around the table with your teammates, rather than being on separate computers scattered around the world. There is nothing like exchanging a high-five with your teammates after winning a battle or solving a puzzle together, and the team-building aspect can lead to real friendships down the line.

Unfortunately, the barrier entering tabletop RPGs can be quite high for Black women, when compared to video game RPGs. When you think of Dungeons and Dragons, most people picture a group of nerds who look something like the cast of The Big Bang Theory or the gang from Stranger Things huddled around a table in Mike’s basement. The most common places (outside of your friends) to find games are game stores and gaming conventions, both places known for being somewhat hostile territory for Black women. Unfortunately, unlike video games, tabletop RPGs are hard to play alone. You generally need at least three willing participants to start up a game. This added requirement, in addition to the constant cultural refrain which dictates that Black women don’t play games, leads to fewer Black women trying out tabletop RPGs in general.

One solution is to create groups that are friendly to Black women. To help facilitate this, I’ve started a group called the Valkyries. The Valkyries are a San Francisco Bay area-based Meetup aimed to connect Black women who are interested in trying out tabletop RPGs in a safe, welcoming environment. The hope is that groups like the Valkyries will spark a movement for Black women everywhere to learn and play tabletop games together. Increasing the diversity of the tabletop gaming community will lead to safer and more fun environments for everyone.

Additionally, there are perks to an RPG group composed primarily of Black women like being able to enjoy more natural teamwork. Project Aristotle was a Google study aimed to discover the secret behind high-performing teams. They found the top predictor of an effective team was psychological safety.

“In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.”

When a Black woman joins a table full of strangers primarily Black women, she will experience much higher psychological safety than with a typical group encountered at a game shop or convention, which would be primarily white men. The expectation that Black women will support each other will lead to players naturally opening up and offering their own ideas in a way they might be reluctant to in a group in which they are the minority.

At the end of the day, tabletop RPGs are a great way for people to relieve stress, work together as a team, learn, and grow as a person. Black women should be able to enjoy the games just as much as other people. I hope that as more people join/form groups like the Valkyries, there will be an increase in the number of Black women involved in the tabletop RPG community. A diverse community is a strong community!

By: Lauren Frazier

About the Author: Lauren Frazier is a software engineer at Unity Technologies. She enjoys video games, board games, and tabletop games. She is the founder of the Valkyries, a San Francisco area meetup for black women to play tabletop games. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @laurenfraz.

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  • Arlene Medder

    And there’s a game for whatever genre you like; romance, sci fi, cyberpunk, epic fantasy, pulp, alternate history, etc. There are really complex games and really simple ones.

  • John Kusters

    This was a good and encouraging read. Thanks! My table tends to be distressingly older, white, and male (myself included), so I really see the need for the industry to be much more welcoming to non-whites and women. I’m encouraged to see a wider variety of people at my FLGS, so I’m hopeful for the future. Best of luck to you and your Valkyries!

    • Pinkie-Dawn

      Just make sure those non-whites and women know how to play the game because we don’t want to include new players ONLY for the sake of diversity alone.

      • Brandon Stewart

        Why not teach anyone that is interested?? Seems like a good enough reason.. Especially if its for diversity because it can maybe feel hard to approach for poc and women given the stigma many have to deal with in these subcultures.

      • zid

        This is a really ignorant comment and one I’m surprised to see a fan of MLP:FIM making. It’s super non-inclusive. Diversity is important and should be more important than people measuring up to your arbitrary ‘geek cred’ standards. Standards which happen to be pretty bs. I mean who are you to speak for others?

        • Pinkie-Dawn

          It’s standards for any type of activity such as work. You can’t just hire someone based on diversity’s sake alone, you also have to make sure if he or she also has enough understanding on how to do the work or else business plummets.

  • Mo Jave

    Do the Valkyries have any interest in small group larps?

    • Lauren Frazier

      We are currently focusing on tabletop gaming, but never say never! If there is enough of an interest it could definitely happen! Our goal is for members to plan their own events, not just have events that I plan, so it’s a possibility.

  • Doc Cross

    Great article. I’m an old white dude who has been playing D&D forever and I do not think I’ve seen more that two black women GMing RPGs in the 100 or so conventions I’ve been at. I’ve seen maybe a couple of dozen playing at various cons or game stores. It would be great if this article got the word out and got more black women to give RPGs a go. Ladies, there is a whole lot of fun to be had, so grab some dice and dive in.

  • stefan_pokorny

    Yes! We need more black RPG’ers!
    Hopefully one day we won’t see each other as black or white or yellow or red….one day…

  • Brandon Stewart

    This was a great read. I hope more POC and especially women embrace the open ended immersion of tabletop rpgs, it can feel much more engauging and personal than a video game… As nerdy as that sounds aha. More than any other game dnd makes you feel like you really can choose to do anything and each and any choice has consequence. Your character can reflect your irl sentiments, and in a weird way you might help get perspective on stuff in real life, especially when sharing the game with close friends. Returning to my nerd cave, good adventures to all!

  • Logan9a

    Rare to find women in tabletop RPG.
    Rare to find blacks in tabletop RPG.

    Doubly rare if they’re both. They’re always welcomed at my virtual table.

    Actually – any good gamers are. I don’t care about gender, race, etc. I care more about things like “Do you have a good web cam, mic, quiet place to game from, are you a good gamer, etc.”

    http://heroiccthulhu.proboards.com/

    Season 2 starts FEB 2018.

  • Jack V. Butler Jr.

    I’ve had the same group of players for 35 years now. One of them is a black woman. We actually discussed this once, why there aren’t more black people in the hobby. Her answer was simple: “D&D is seen as a ‘white thing’ and too many black people don’t like being seen as doing ‘white things.”

    No, seriously. It is her contention that the reason why there aren’t more black people of either gender in Tabletop is because they just aren’t interested. No one is intentionally — or even unintentionally — preventing them from joining in but themselves.

    I can’t say that she’s wrong. I’ve tried recruiting new players of all shapes and sizes over the years and the reception I’ve got from black people has generally been a polite, “Why would I want to play that game? That’s something you people do.” And I don’t have to go into what they meant by “you people.”

    I think that Sobani is right, personally.

    Gaming — and in fact nerd culture as a whole — has been, is, and remains one of the most open and accepting subcultures on the planet. Everyone is welcome. Everyone. The only thing keeping people out is their unwillingness to join in.

    • Mr. S

      Dear Jack,

      I think it is great that you have offered the perspective of your fellow gamer, a black woman who plays RPGs. We obviously should not expect all black women nerds to have the same opinion. I also have no doubt that the coding of RPGs as a white activity is an obstacle to the participation of at least some black people in RPGs. It is not surprising that RPGs would be coded as white given that the hobby has historically been dominated by white people and white men in particular. As more POC players join the hobby, I hope this association with whiteness will diminish and will eventually cease to be an obstacle to future participation.

      That said, you seem to think that this is the SOLE reason for the lack of black players. Why is that? Because one black person told you that’s the reason? As I mentioned, you can’t treat black people as a monolith or treat one black person as a spokesperson for all. This author has mentioned other obstacles, such as the hostility in gaming spaces. It is not a rebuttal to cite another black person who said something different.

      I also detect in your post another reason for treating white-coding as the sole reason for lack of black participation: because it seems to absolve you and the white gaming community of any responsibility for the current state of affairs. Sorry, we’re not.

      I don’t think there is a single answer to the question of why more black people don’t play RPGs. I would point out that the coding of RPGs as white and the hostility of gaming spaces are not mutually exclusive explanations — both factors may be at work.

      I will point out another factor that I think contributes to the exclusion of POCs from the RPG hobby: social segregation. It’s hard to get into RPGs without a mentor: a friend, an older sibling, etc. That’s how learned, and I’ve heard similar origin stories from most gamers I know. White people who make up the vast majority of gamers tend to hang out with and play with other white people. Hence prospective POC gamers may face the daunting prospect of figuring out how these weird games without boards or cards actually work.

      In the end, it doesn’t really matter what mix of factors have led to the lack of diversity. We need to change the status quo. It’s not enough to just assert that nerd culture is welcoming. The author of this article has indicated otherwise. I would encourage you to take her viewpoint seriously and think about how you can help remedy this problem.

      Best,
      Larry

    • Mr. S

      Dear Jack,

      I think it is great that you have offered the perspective of your fellow gamer, a black woman who plays RPGs. We obviously should not expect all black women nerds to have the same opinion. I also have no doubt that the coding of RPGs as a white activity is an obstacle to the participation of at least some black people in RPGs. It is not surprising that RPGs would be coded as white given that the hobby has historically been dominated by white people and white men in particular. As more POC players join the hobby, I hope this association with whiteness will diminish and will eventually cease to be an obstacle to future participation.

      That said, you seem to think that this is the SOLE reason for the lack of black players. Why is that? Because one black person told you that’s the reason? As I mentioned, you can’t treat black people as a monolith or treat one black person as a spokesperson for all. This author has mentioned other obstacles, such as the hostility in gaming spaces. It is not a rebuttal to cite another black person who said something different.

      I also detect in your post another reason for treating white-coding as the sole reason for lack of black participation: because it seems to absolve you and the white gaming community of any responsibility for the current state of affairs. Sorry, we’re not.

      I don’t think there is a single answer to the question of why more black people don’t play RPGs. I would point out that the coding of RPGs as white and the hostility of gaming spaces are not mutually exclusive explanations — both factors may be at work.

      I will point out another factor that I think contributes to the exclusion of POCs from the RPG hobby: social segregation. It’s hard to get into RPGs without a mentor: a friend, an older sibling, etc. That’s how learned, and I’ve heard similar origin stories from most gamers I know. White people who make up the vast majority of gamers tend to hang out with and play with other white people. Hence prospective POC gamers may face the daunting prospect of figuring out how these weird games without boards or cards actually work.

      In the end, it doesn’t really matter what mix of factors have led to the lack of diversity. We need to change the status quo. It’s not enough to just assert that nerd culture is welcoming. The author of this article has indicated otherwise. I would encourage you to take her viewpoint seriously and think about how you can help remedy this problem.

      Best,
      Larry

    • Mr. S

      Dear Jack,

      I think it is great that you have offered the perspective of your fellow gamer, a black woman who plays RPGs. We obviously should not expect all black women nerds to have the same opinion. I also have no doubt that the coding of RPGs as a white activity is an obstacle to the participation of at least some black people in RPGs. It is not surprising that RPGs would be coded as white given that the hobby has historically been dominated by white people and white men in particular. As more POC players join the hobby, I hope this association with whiteness will diminish and will eventually cease to be an obstacle to future participation.

      That said, you seem to think that this is the SOLE reason for the lack of black players. Why is that? Because one black person told you that’s the reason? As I mentioned, you can’t treat black people as a monolith or treat one black person as a spokesperson for all. This author has mentioned other obstacles, such as the hostility in gaming spaces. It is not a rebuttal to cite another black person who said something different.

      I also detect in your post another reason for treating white-coding as the sole reason for lack of black participation: because it seems to absolve you and the white gaming community of any responsibility for the current state of affairs. Sorry, it doesn’t.

      I don’t think there is a single answer to the question of why more black people don’t play RPGs. I would point out that the coding of RPGs as white and the hostility of gaming spaces are not mutually exclusive explanations — both factors may be at work.

      I will point out another factor that I think contributes to the exclusion of POCs from the RPG hobby: social segregation. It’s hard to get into RPGs without a mentor: a friend, an older sibling, etc. That’s how I learned, and I’ve heard similar origin stories from most gamers I know. White people who make up the vast majority of gamers tend to hang out with and play with other white people. Hence prospective POC gamers may face the daunting prospect of figuring out how these weird games without boards or cards actually work.

      In the end, it doesn’t really matter what mix of factors have led to the lack of diversity. We need to change the status quo. It’s not enough to just assert that nerd culture is welcoming. The author of this article has indicated otherwise. I would encourage you to take her viewpoint seriously and think about how you can help remedy this problem.

      Best,
      Larry

  • Jim

    I found the first half of this article interesting, but the rest fails to answer key questions, or support its assertions.

    How are game stores and gaming conventions hostile territory for black women?

    I’ve never heard of a cultural refrain that dictates that black women don’t play games. Why do you believe this exists?

    How does creating a gaming group of only black women increase diversity?

    BTW, tabletop RPGs are impossible to play alone.

    • Mr. S

      Jim,

      I think it’s great that you are engaging with the author’s ideas. That said, I’m going to offer some critical feedback on your response.

      I think it’s unfair to state the author “fail[ed]” to support her assertions. The article mentions but is not about hostility toward black women in gaming spaces or the stereotype that black women don’t play games. It’s about finding freedom in games and freedom in gaming with people who are similarly marginalized as you. You can’t reasonably expect the author to do a deep dive on every ancillary point.

      Also, I wonder how you expect the author to support these assertions. With sociological data? I am confident that none exist on these points. We are talking about a relatively obscure corner of our pop culture, after all. More important, the author has told us that she is a black woman. It is therefore reasonable to assume that the author is speaking from her lived experience as a black woman. Do you recognize this as a valid form of evidence or support? I hope so. Otherwise, you would be requiring marginalized people to cite sociological studies just for you to believe their daily experiences. I would encourage you to reflect: Do you make the same demand for “support” to everyone or just some people or only about certain subjects?

      Lastly, I find it very strange that you apparently think the fact you haven’t heard about the “cultural refrain that black women don’t play games” is a reason to question whether such a refrain exists at all. Jim, are you a black woman? The author is. As one of the people who would be affected by this refrain, she is obviously in a much better position than you to know whether the refrain exists.

      It’s great to be curious and ask questions about the author’s experiences. You, however, seem to be challenging the validity of her experiences. Your questioning strikes me as very dismissive. I hope you will take a moment to reflect on how you are engaging with this author and her ideas.

      Best,
      Larry

      • Jim

        Larry,

        You’re counter-argument is wide of the mark. Very wide.

        The author has failed to back up her assertions. First, your lack of understanding shows in your first comment. You should have ended the sentence with “similarly marginalized. That being said, you just reinforced my argument. The author claims to want to increase diversity, but has created an all-black female group. That does nothing to increase diversity. In fact, it isolates black women. You may want to rethink that one.

        Your second paragraph is ridiculous. The author claims that gaming conventions are hostile territory for black women, yet provides nothing to back that up. Tell us how conventions are hostile. Personally, I’ve been to hundreds of conventions and a) have seen plenty of black women playing games b) no one has ever been hostile to black women, or women at all c) gamers have welcomed all people. If the author can’t support her claims, then they are invalid.

        Lastly, your debate skills are limited. My question was for the author to explain her assertion. If she’s a black woman who claims that black women are not supposed to play games, then explain why that is. Where did this “cultural dictate” come from?

        I don’t need to take a moment to do anything. You, however, should probably ask an adult how to make a point. You’re just ridiculous.

    • zid

      Game stores are traditionally white male spaces that have historically excluded females and people of color. Since role playing games in general are a predominantly white pursuit due to white people excluding poc/the LGBT community from, well, almost everything the number of non-white’s playing games like D&D has always been smaller than the amount of white people playing. It goes along with everything else in western cultures history of oppression by whites. As far as how it increases diversity much like encouraging young black girls to pursue the sciences and other subjects they’ve been historically excluded from its because it’s something they’ve been historically excluded from.

      • Jim

        Your argument makes no sense, because you’re relying on stereotypes and assumptions to make your point.

        As for the main flaw in the article, you’ve missed the point entirely.

        Creating an all-black, female gaming group does not increase diversity.

  • Doug Carter

    I would love to see this go larger. I feel like this is a hobby that any one should be accepted into!

  • Mr. S

    I am a white man. Even though I am not the primary intended audience of this article, I still found it very moving to read — specifically, how RPGs offer an imaginary space where black women can find freedom from racist/sexist hierarchies and restrictive stereotypes.

    I also appreciate that black women and other marginalized players need safe places to play and agree that one way of creating that kind of environment is to play with other members of the same marginalized group.

    I have never played a RPG with a black woman before. I believe that my gaming experience is impoverished as a result. I say this because the thrill of playing RPGs for me is that sense of surprise and delight when another player comes up with some new bit of fiction that I never would have thought of myself. I also believe that our imaginations are informed by our lived experiences. If I only play with other white guys, I am missing out on other perspectives.

    I am very interested in creating a safe space for diverse players to play RPGs online. I want diversity to be the norm, not the exception. I want to create systems and foster a culture to facilitate discussion about race, gender, and other social issues as they arise in game play. If something problematic occurs in play, I want players to call it out in a respectful but direct way. I want to play games and fun but also enact my vision of what a just, anti-racist and anti-oppressive society should look like.

    If this project sounds interesting, then please look me up on G+: Larry S. I’d love to talk!

  • Joham

    Any advice on getting my wife, who is only slightly nerdy, to play RPGs? She’s doesn’t play video games, but loves Harry Potter, LOTR, and GOT.

  • Mr. S

    I am posting this response to Jack V. Butler’s comment as a separate comment because my response keeps disappearing for some reason. Thanks for your understanding.

    Dear Jack,

    I think it is great that you have offered the perspective of your fellow gamer, a black woman who plays RPGs. We obviously should not expect all black women nerds to have the same opinion. I also have no doubt that the coding of RPGs as a white activity is an obstacle to the participation of at least some black people in RPGs. It is not surprising that RPGs would be coded as white given that the hobby has historically been dominated by white people and white men in particular. As more POC players join the hobby, I hope this association with whiteness will diminish and will eventually cease to be an obstacle to future participation.

    That said, you seem to think that this is the SOLE reason for the lack of black players. Why is that? Because one black person told you that’s the reason? As I mentioned, you can’t treat black people as a monolith or treat one black person as a spokesperson for all. This author has mentioned other obstacles, such as the hostility in gaming spaces. It is not a rebuttal to cite another black person who said something different.

    I also detect in your post another reason for treating white-coding as the sole reason for lack of black participation: because it seems to absolve you and the white gaming community of any responsibility for the current state of affairs. Sorry, it doesn’t.

    I don’t think there is a single answer to the question of why more black people don’t play RPGs. I would point out that the coding of RPGs as white and the hostility of gaming spaces are not mutually exclusive explanations — both factors may be at work.

    I will point out another factor that I think contributes to the exclusion of POCs from the RPG hobby: social segregation. It’s hard to get into RPGs without a mentor: a friend, an older sibling, etc. That’s how I learned, and I’ve heard similar origin stories from most gamers I know. White people who make up the vast majority of gamers tend to hang out with and play with other white people. Hence prospective POC gamers may face the daunting prospect of figuring out how these weird games without boards or cards actually work.

    In the end, it doesn’t really matter what mix of factors have led to the lack of diversity. We need to change the status quo. It’s not enough to just assert that nerd culture is welcoming. The author of this article has indicated otherwise. I would encourage you to take her viewpoint seriously and think about how you can help remedy this problem.

    Best,
    Larry

  • Jim

    I found the first half of this article interesting, but the rest fails to answer key questions, or support its assertions.

    How are game stores and gaming conventions hostile territory for black women?

    I’ve never heard of a cultural refrain that dictates that black women don’t play games. Why do you believe this exists?

    How does creating a gaming group of only black women increase diversity?

    BTW, tabletop RPGs are impossible to play alone.

  • Me’le’sa Greene

    Yessssssss black female gamer here and I’m totally digging this post. Do the Valkyries play on roll 20?

    • Lauren Frazier

      Hi there, we currently do not play on Roll 20 since we are trying to build up a regular member base at the moment. I encourage you to join the group anyway so that if/when we do start, you will be in the loop!

      • Me’le’sa Greene

        I’ll join the group but I’m sure you ladies live super far from me. ☹️ But I’ll love to get updates even if i can’t play. 😊