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.