I learned to play Dungeons and Dragons from a close friend of Gary Gygax. On a visit, Gary had occasion to show her how the game was played back in the mid-seventies.  She was my first Dungeon Master, and to be honest, I can remember her face but not her name. I was 13 when I learned to play from a wonderful young navy wife with a vivid imagination. However, this was the only woman Dungeon Master I would run across for many years to come. I’m 55 now and can think of perhaps one other Dungeon Master who wasn’t male.

Co-creator of Dungeons and Dragons, Gary Gygax

My dad’s library consisted of a lot of John Normans’ Gor series. The author’s work is appalling in its depiction of rape, brutality and debasement of women in a fantasy setting. Suffice it to say the books are generally reviled, but still, have spawned a hardcore subculture. If one were to go to a Wikipedia article or Gorean subculture, you would immediately see a photograph of a topless woman in a submissive pose. While the subject is smiling and clearly consenting to the pose, it nevertheless is derived from a book which depicts women in a negative and humiliating light.

It seems that in the seventies that the sexual subjection in fantasy was epidemic. If you take a look at Marvel’s Conan series, the hero was involved continuously with scantily clad women in sexually charged settings.

Why? Because in addition to adult male customers, hormonally charged teens bought them en masse.  Fantasy culture of the time, with few exceptions, tended to be exploitive. If one looks at the art of Boris Vallejo and Julie Bell their craft, however beautiful, is replete with highly sexualized and erotic imagery. If one looks at the cover of Tarnsman of Gor it is adorned by a Boris painting.

Women have also been depicted positively as with Dale Arden from Buck Rogers, to Uhuru in Star Trek.   However, for every Athena in classic Battlestar Galactica, there are four or five Cassiopeia’s who are ‘solicitors’ –essentially a temple prostitute; of course, Cassiopeia would move on from her ‘sordid’ life to become a medical technician, – a far more dignified role. The role of space prostitute would later be repeated in Joss Whedon’s Firefly series with the character Inara Serra. However, this time, around Inara’s role as a companion is treated with respect and dignity not enjoyed in Cassiopeia’s day.

The point here is not to indict either classic BSG or Firefly, (my favourite series) but to contrast this with women’s depiction in fantasy culture and ask why it seems to be more prone to subjugate women into roles where women are sexually exploited.

In the classic eighties movie, Conan starring Arnold Schwarzenegger women are depicted in two ways, either strong women such as Conan’s mother portrayed by the actress  Nadiuska and  Sandahl Bergman’s Valeria. While even Bergman was nude in a love scene –the intimacy, not the nudity – was integral to the plot advancement of Conan and Valeria. Nevertheless, littered throughout the film were a plethora of nude or topless women filling the screen in the background.  

Nothing has changed much if one casts a critical eye on the now concluded Game of Thrones. Sex and nudity was a hallmark of the series, as was rape.  If you have seen the series, I don’t need to go any further. Again, I liked the series as the story was gripping. As an author, however, I can tell you that the vast majority of the sex contributed very little to story advancement. In Game of Thrones second season, episode two ‘The Night lands’ the character Littlefinger ( portrayed by Aidan Gillen) is seen wiping semen from one of his prostitutes who has patently just performed oral sex on someone. Why was this necessary for story advancement? The answer is clear; it wasn’t.

When it comes to rape the track record of the series is appalling, nearly every major female character is raped or sexually abused.   Quoting from The Game of Thrones wiki;

“Rape in the Game of Thrones TV series.”

Executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have defended that [Rape] scenes were in some cases from the source material itself and they felt it would detract from the integrity of the drama to shy away from it – i.e. Daenerys’s wedding night with Drogo in the first episode.

This explanation does not account for all changes, however: many critics familiar with the novels have complained that they are outright inventing rape scenes which did not exist at all in the source material, for shock value. The general counterargument from the scriptwriters has been that they want to stay true to the situation in the narrative, due to scenes being condensed and moved around, even if it wasn’t word-for-word described in the text. Another counterpoint has been that rape scenes, even those directly adapted from the novels can be more shocking or disturbing in television because it is a visual medium, compared to the novels simply mentioning that a rape occurred without going into too much visual detail.

Whether or not one subscribes to this argument or not, the bottom line is that rape was depicted, and rape is always dehumanizing and traumatic to men and women.

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Kiera Knightley has criticised the amount of sexual violence against women in films, saying that she prefers period stories to contemporary-set dramas because, in the latter, “the female characters nearly always get raped”.
This is why you will no longer see Ms Knightly in fantasy or sci-fi epics.

Now, how does this fit in with women being safe in roleplaying games?

The virtue of roleplaying games is that they allow us to act out different roles that are empowering or cathartic. As an outsider in high school, who did not yet know that I was afflicted with manic depression because of abuse at home, I was a skinny, awkward kid with few friends. However, when some friends introduced me to D&D. I was in love because I could be a muscular Elf named Greg the Barbarian. (I know, elves are named Greg and aren’t barbarians. I was young.) I was empowered. What was cool was that our group had two regular female players; Marie and Noelle. We were all teens, playing from junior high into high school. Never once in my recollection did we try to sexualize, demean or minimize our lady players. It just never occurred to us to do so.

When I was in college and playing in my fraternity that changed, many guys were always ‘going to town to get laid’ and our DM’s usually had a Succubus about.  Me? I built a female assassin named Adriane who emasculated men and after killing them ripped their eyes out and replaced them with their testicles – then sent their decapitated adulterous heads back to their wives.

Yeah, I know. I was sexually abused and raped by a family member as were my siblings, so I had a lot of unresolved rage at sexual predators.

Being transparent even my artwork of the day was influenced by Boris Vallejo, Frank Frazetta, and Ralph Bakshi. Even cartoons were sexualizing women in the same styles as the rest of the genre.  It would be a few years before I grew up and stopped doing exploitative artwork. Men can be taught to know better. I know that I was.

Knowing the feeling of helplessness that comes with being exploited, it has further frustrated me to see how much women, especially young women, are still being marginalized in gaming groups and play at game stores. I recently asked women on Facebook to share their experience in roleplay gaming, to include online RPG’s.

One woman told me about being attacked by a person in a gaming group which led to her being further attacked and doxxed on a website. It took her a year to take down the offending material.

“[Website] doxxed me … and others. A mixture of correct [photos, home addresses] and inaccurate [criminal accusations, just plain insults] information, definitely damaging.”

Another lady told me how she was hit on in World of WarCraft, and after she rejected his advance, the individual harassed the young lady to include death and rape threats. She successfully had him banned.

In a 2017 VICE article talks about the rape issue on World of Warcraft.

“Klara leaves. Outside there are other players who are waiting for her. They surround her mage character and spew glowing white spells into the air, an example of the kind of unwanted cybersex that takes place in the tavern. Klara logs off. What the fuck just happened? She discovered the “Rape Tavern” of World of Warcraft.”

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My Daughter, a minor teenager at the time was repeatedly hit on, and sexual comments were being made about her –until I found out about it and confronted the individual and threatened him with a solid beat down. Several friends of mine also did. Oddly, the man became very polite after that.

Recently I was checking out a new game store and its D&D group. I appreciated being invited. The DM was a man in his early forties; there were four adult men and two high school girls.  

Apparently, the last game consisted of the party going to a party, being drugged and the performing random sex acts. For this, the DM had two stacks of cards he made, one depicting what sex act they had to perform and the other with whom. Fortunately joining the game after that session, to say I was appalled would be an understatement. After the game, I stood outside with the girls until their mother came and got them. One of the girls was upset and said her character became a ‘Ho.’

Why is this a thing?

One opinion is that men have been overexposed to porn which, no matter how you cut it, does, in fact, degrade women, and unfortunately, we are in the age of men feeling weak and threatened by the rise of female empowerment.

I also blame the game industry for not stepping up and supporting female empowerment. Early in their History and up until 2000 the Dungeons and Dragons books were heavily sexualized, as seen here.

D&D version 3.0 Nymph

Yes, with the arrival of D&D 3.5, Wizards of the Coast change their art style to stop being so exploitative, but why have they not taken the next step and come out with female-centric material?

D&dD Version 3.5 Nymph

Wizards, Paizo and the rest of you, I must ask: Why is there not an Amazonian, or Grecian supplement where females are the dominant protagonists? What about a world supplement that includes stories, campaigns and classes that are female-centric?

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Also, why is the industry not standing up and condemning sexual harassment and the marginalizing of women, and GLBTQ players? In 2017 Wizards promised to make D&D to be more GLBTQ friendly.

I’m not sure how that’s played out. But why isn’t the industry vocal about making not just gaming industry sensitive, but safe?

I must also ask why are game stores not stating and posting signs that if women or others feel threatened by other gamers that the DM will step in and inquire what’s going on. Likewise, game stores must be willing to eject if not ban customers from the store if the egregious activity is taking place. They must never blame the victim or defend the guilty no matter how much they spend.

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The RPG industry needs to make sure that women can show up, enjoy a game and live out their inner heroes without being attacked by real-life ogres and tolls.

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John White
John White

John R. White is a USAF veteran, and has served as Art Director for the Honor Flight Network, and Honor Flight Northwest Ohio. He is most well known as the Author of ‘The Tales of the Airship Neverland’ steampunk series, and the author and designer of the ‘Airship Neverland’ Roleplaying game.