The sounds of dice rolling and conversations echo over the room. One person sits at each table with a laptop or books, directing a campaign of elves, bird people and centaurs. Each table is filled with men and women, some strangers, each a warrior in their own story.
It’s Dungeons & Dragons Night at Missouri River Regional Library, a place where both experienced and newer players can congregate and explore campaigns. More than 50 people showed up on a late evening in January, forming 10 groups with the addition of two new DMs, or dungeon masters. Megan Mehmert, programmer for D&D Night and staff member at MRRL, said the group will need a bigger room soon.
“I feel like D&D has always done this,” Mehmert said. “[The games] facilitate relationships with people. …You’re forming camaraderie on an imaginary battlefield.”
Mehmert has seen a shift for the game — instead of “middle-aged men in their mom’s basement,” the demographic has changed. She said “the perfect storm” came when Wizards of the Coast released its fifth edition, a much more accessible version than previous editions. With a rise in players, veterans have taken the role of DMs who guide the game. Most of them are male.
“Gender roles change over time, but since most DMs are adults, they generally tend to be men because women weren’t encouraged as much back then,” Mehmert said.
She attributes this to stigmatization of women in gaming: although everyone comes to play the same game, “geek girls” are often fetishized. “I think that, in part, steers girls away from stuff like this,” Mehmert said.
Women’s presence in the gaming world has been a debated topic over the years. One memorable peak in this issue came in 2013 with #GamerGate, a harassment campaign centering on problems of sexism and social issues in video game culture. Supporters campaigned on sites like 4chan, Reddit and Twitter, and expressed seeing unethical collusion between the press and the feminist movement and specifically targeted women in the gaming industry.
Notable game developers who had built their lives on the gaming world received death threats and threats of rape or harm, which led them to leave all together. One victim, media critic Anita Sarkeesian, created a YouTube series addressing gender in video games called “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games.” In August 2014 releasing one of her videos, she received rape and death threats and her information was leaked, causing her to flee her home. At the XOXO arts and technology conference in September 2014, Sarkeesian talked about how to help victims of harassment, noting that people simply need to believe women when they talk about their experiences.
Although gaming companies have done more to prevent harassment, it still permeates some circles. Mehmert, a gamer herself, says she doesn’t use her voice in some multiplayer video games. The minute she speaks and the players know she’s female, “it’s either oversexualized talk towards me or it’s ‘you’re a girl, you suck.’” She thinks it’s different in tabletop communities like D&D Night.
“Here, I don’t feel like it’s as bad,” Mehmert said. “Still, it’s intimidating to walk into a room as a girl. Most females I see are more hesitant … but once they know what they’re doing, they’re just as bold as everyone else.”
For some, this boldness comes with redefining the game for themselves. Jefferson City resident Amanda Lueckenhoff started playing D&D with a group of guy friends years ago. She said their method of gameplay was “how to fight, how to move this sword and mechanics,” which she had never experienced before. Once she focused more on creating the personality of her character, it brought her out of her shell.
“Whenever I got into it later, I focused a lot more on the role play and personality of the game instead of the mechanics and fighting,” Lueckenhoff said, “which is what guys liked to do back then.”
Others have found empowerment from creating their own characters, experiencing an “opening of the heart and mind” through gameplay. Alexis Edenburn, a first-time player, said she found herself asking what she would do in certain situations and put that into her character.
“I felt myself in the character I was playing,” Edenburn said. “She was an amalgamation of other characters in fiction and a little bit of myself thrown in there.”
Sofie Ogden said that through playing with her family and in group settings, she’s gained confidence by being herself, although she recognizes the value in discovery.
“I find it’s easier to be myself in games rather than someone I’m not,” Ogden said. “Sometimes for others … it’s good to be something you’re not because you can see what you can be.”
There is a unifying factor in the gaming world – being a nerd. Gamers wear the title proudly, and for some, it creates a standard of how gamers should treat each other. Kristen Solindas, a dungeon master, has been playing D&D since 1984. She said that in terms of nerd acceptance, gaming has always been at the forefront.
“We’re just a little more generally accepting because we’re all nerds,” Solindas said. “If you don’t accept other nerds, you’re not doing it right.”
At one table, high school players chatter while their dungeon master, Anna Worthen, yells “Order in the court!” She isn’t phased by being one of the youngest female DMs in the room, saying she has felt welcomed here.
“I don’t think there’s much discrimination,” Worthen said, “because there’s no need to be.”
What is Dungeons & Dragons?
Dungeons & Dragons was created by the company Wizards of the Coast, which released its fifth edition of the game in 2014. This edition repopularized the game and helped it gain new cultural significance. In 2016, the web series “Stranger Things” featured gameplay of D&D, bringing its attention to a younger demographic.
D&D is a fantasy tabletop role-playing game (RPG). Unlike traditional wargaming, the game lets each player create their own character.
Who is the dungeon master?
The dungeon master (or DM) runs the game, laying out the story (or campaign) and asking players to respond to the created situations and storylines.
How do you play?
Once you have created a character and started a campaign, the DM will direct the storyline. To act, players roll a 20-sided die to determine how successful or ineffective the move is, with 20 being the best and one being the worst.
There is no winning or losing in D&D. It’s about taking the adventure with a group of people and the DM working along with the players.
The campaign can last as long or as short as the team wants – but why let it end?