I wrote a whole introduction to this piece, but I think perhaps we should start, instead, with a quote from Amy T. Falcone, player on Penny Arcade’s C-Team (Thursdays, 3:30-6:30 PST).
“I have definitely been excluded from a campaign because of being “a girl” before. At the time, I was upset but didn’t think to really fight it because I had friends who were excluded from video game tournaments or any other number of things. It seemed par for the course! Does that really come as a surprise? One of my least favorite quotes is by Gary Gygax, the creator of Dungeons & Dragons, “gaming in general is a male thing… Everybody who’s tried to design a game to interest a large female audience has failed. And I think that has to do with the different thinking processes of men and women.” This, along with being profoundly tone deaf and problematic, is the mentality that we are still fighting.”
Falcone is one of the people fighting this mentality the best way I, personally, know how: by being a queer woman playing Dungeons and Dragons in public.
The age of Twitch has the potential to save nerd culture from itself by portraying a varied and complex notion of “gamer” to the community at large. There are so many different sorts of streamers that it’s hard to define anything as narrowly as Gygax did when he conceptualized Dungeons and Dragons; it evolved from war games, a particularly white, male, hetero- and cis- centric corner of the nerd universe. Heavy on strategy and light on diversity, it would take us years to get to where we are with fifth edition, which portrays the default human as a Black woman in the Player’s Handbook. It took me so long to jump into tabletop RPGs because it was a world that didn’t visibly include me. I’ve never been a joiner where I didn’t think I was wanted — life is just too goddamn short.
Noelle Stevenson, author of National Book Award-nominated Nimona, the comic series Lumberjanes and also an avid player of D&D, jumped in about the same time I did — after things had already started getting better:
“I only just started playing and 5e is the first edition I’ve ever been aware of, and there’s so much female representation throughout that it never felt anything less than natural to me. I haven’t really delved farther into the gaming community than just how I interact with it within my personal friend group. Like, I know so many queer women and so many of them are into D&D. I don’t feel like an outsider. I guess I’m coming in at a good time.”
Stevenson was a two-session guest player on Geek & Sundry’s streamed Dungeons and Dragons game, Critical Role (Thursdays, 7:00 pm PST). Both shows are expanding the definition of what a Dungeons and Dragons game can look like, and they’re also expanding the definition of player and what it means to game. Both Falcone and Stevenson play characters they designed themselves — both queer women also. And Falcone is in hot pursuit of an openly queer storyline. And I do mean hot pursuit. I caught up with both players to talk about what their games look like.
I wanted to know how they wound up on their respective shows—Critical Role is a game between friends that evolved into streamed entertainment and C-Team was explicitly cast by Penny Arcade to be a show from the very beginning. Their processes looked a bit different, and understandably so—Stevenson wound up a guest on the show by virtue of her friendship with Sam Riegal, who plays the (gay) adventurer Taryon Darrington, as well as his original character, Scanlan Shorthalt. Falcone, on the other hand, was selected as part of a cast of players: “At some point, months before being officially invited to join, I was simply asked, ‘Amy, you play D&D, right?’ I responded that not only did I play it, I was INTO it. There was a little back and forth but for the most part, I think our DM, Jerry, had his fantasy team picked and was just hoping we’d say yes.”
I asked both players to tell me a bit about their characters in the context of being queer. Falcone, who plays Walnut Dankgrass, a Druid who is very militantly always on the side of nature, approached her character creation from three axes. First, as a queer woman: “I think I always make my characters queer, because I am and, at this point, I would feel weird consciously making one straight. It just wouldn’t feel right. With Walnut, she just IS queer, there’s no question.” Second, as an aware person at this particular political moment in the United States: “…we started creating our characters right around the time that it became clear our government wasn’t going to make ecological preservation a priority. I was pissed off and wanted to make a wildly nature focused character, of course, a druid was the obvious choice.” And lastly as a gamer:
“When it comes to making builds, I do tend to min/max… to a point. I am heavily into the roleplaying side of things and so I did make some choices with Walnut that are not “optimal” for her build, but make sense with her backstory. I think you have to make compromises. At first, I really was trying to make her a perfectly efficient fighter, but that just doesn’t always go along with the story or who she is. She isn’t perfect, and I don’t think her build needs to be either. Instead of trying to focus on being a tank or a DPS, I just let her situation dictate how she is going to fight. Is she worked up? Angry? Emotionally compromised? Then she’s probably going to turn into a wolf and do a few bites. If she can keep her cool and think it out (hardly ever happens), she has other skills that help dissolve conflict.”
Stevenson had the difficult task of approaching character creation as a queer woman, a gamer and a guest player fitting into someone else’s campaign. So when she sat down with DM Matthew Mercer to create Tova the Blood Hunter, she had a few things vying for her attention. Being a guest in someone else’s world — something that could’ve been quite difficult — she took as a positive, because she got to play with a home-brewed class:
“I wasn’t really sure what kind of character I wanted to play at first—it was only my second character and I wanted to try something different than my first character who was a 20 charisma, 7 strength warlock. I was pretty sure I wanted to be more of a fighter, but I still wanted some spells, so he suggested the Blood Hunter class, and my eyes kind of lit up like a kid with a new toy because Blood Hunter?! Okay!!”
She also had this to say about creating butch characters, and it is Relatable with a capital “r”:
“It’s really hard for me to not play a butch lady character—I like playing different types of characters, but it’s hard to see myself in characters who aren’t some degree of butch lady. I’m so starved for those types of characters that I don’t even think about it, it’s just my first instinct and it kind of always has been.”
As a masculine woman, myself, I have adopted tabletop RPGs as a way of inserting myself into stories where folks like me would not normally be visible. Usually, this is done in the privacy of my own table, but when players like Falcone and Stevenson play these characters publicly on the internet, their choices take on a whole new weight, the same sort of weight that television, movies and books have with regards to the creation of culture. Stevenson, a creator of books and comics, sometimes has to remind herself of the difference:
“I look at everything from such a narrative point of view and I tend to want things to play out in a narrative way. So I’ll have ideas of how other people’s characters should act and how things should play out and then everything just goes to shit. But the cool thing about D&D is how unpredictable it can be! Anything that gets me to loosen up and just let things happen and roll with it is a good thing.”
The tension between private game and public entertainment is often felt when anyone tries to analyze what, exactly, is taking place here. I think it’s okay to let it be complicated, let it be both. And let it be important that we’re seeing queer gamers play queer characters in traditional nerd spaces. One of the delightful byproducts of these two characters is the potential disruption of toxic masculinity in a particular nerd-space that’s sort of famous for it. Which swung my brain in a different, perhaps darker direction; we all know what it’s like to be a woman on the internet, and these nerd spaces are fairly mainstream. Geek and Sundry’s Twitch channel has 19,561,682 total views; Penny Arcade’s has 7,905,947. On YouTube, episodes of Critical Role average between 275,000 and 300,000 views per episode, about the same amount of viewers Orphan Black averages per episode. I asked both players about reactions from the community. Stevenson had nothing but nice things to say about Tova’s reception in the Critical Role community, a group of internet denizens dubbed “Critters.”
“Honestly, the Critical Role community has been nothing but positive to me! They seem like such an enthusiastic bunch and if there’s a mean underside to the fandom I haven’t been exposed to it. I feel really lucky to get to play in their sandbox for a bit – I worried that people would view me with a lot of suspicion, since I’m a rando to most of them, but it honestly was so positive and everyone I interacted with seemed very open towards my presence.”
Falcone, however, has been playing more regularly, with more than a dozen streamed games under her (and Walnut Dankgrass’) belt:
“When I first started, I had forgotten what it’s like to put yourself out there as anything other than your average straight white male in any gaming space. Of course, those who have issues love to let you know how unsatisfactory you are. Some people don’t like how many queer characters or NPCs are in our campaign, or when either of the women on the show talk too much. Anyone feminine in our society is still expected to be quiet, subservient, and apologetic. Of course I’m not going to make myself or my character more palatable for anyone else’ sake. That’s just not going to happen. I do have to say, those negative voices consistently get drowned out by the outpouring of love and support from other viewers. The response has been absolutely amazing and I am so thankful to be doing something that resonates with others.”
Falcone’s overall positive experience is also the result of a pretty hearty trust in her Dungeon Master:
“[Walnut] has a canonical love interest. Their story is not the butt of any jokes, it’s not to fetishize queerness for the male gaze, it belongs to them. I trust Jerry [Holkins] completely when we bring that story to the table to help me flesh it out and be true to my character. I don’t know how I would do this if the campaign wasn’t so casually queer-friendly already, and I am truly lucky to be given the space and voice to realize that every week.”
One of the reasons I write about table top RPGs so often on Autostraddle is specifically because table top RPGs can look and feel however the Dungeon Master and the players would like; a game can be casually queer friendly at the behest of its players, and not at the whim of some far off creator. A queer, feminist DM usually means a queer, feminist game because we don’t magically become different people when we pick and choose what sorts of story lines interest us. (I almost wrote that we don’t magically become different people when we sit down at the table, but actually we kinda do, so.) In her appearances on Critical Role and the weekly Critical Role talk show, Talks Machina (Tuesdays, 7:00 pm PST), Stevenson mentioned her previous D&D game a couple times. I specifically asked her to spill about it because it sounded so interesting:
“My awesome girlfriend Molly was the DM, it was my first campaign ever, and she came up with this Breakfast Club idea where we all met through detention. I played Jericho Rose, a tiefling warlock who sold her soul to the devil to piss off her parents—we also had a half-orc jock, a Drow druid who saw herself as a Disney princess, an emo elf ranger, a dwarven wizard nerd, and a Tracy Flick-style lawful good halfling rogue to keep us all in line (and very specifically piss off my character). Playing as a teenage character is really fun, especially when it’s your first campaign, because you can just lean into the impulsive stupid decisions that teens and also new D&D players make without thinking the consequences through. In fact that was my character’s entire thing: Molly made me actually have to deal with the consequences of both being a tiefling in the world and having sold my soul to a demon patron as a teen, which meant I was at odds with the rest of my crew a lot of the time, and all those teen emotions just came pouring out. I think we were all playing some aspect of our actual teen selves so it got…intense.”
I did my homework and asked both Falcone and Stevenson if they knew of any other queer women playing D&D on the internet anywhere. I play and watch a lot of Dungeons and Dragons, but perhaps I was simply missing something? But alas, neither could think of another queer woman playing publicly on the internet. Stevenson then replied, “I know plenty of queer women who love D&D though, so maybe we just need to get them their own shows.” You heard it here first: Noelle Stevenson wants y’all queers to get out there and stream your D&D games. Who are we to argue?
Which brings me back around to why it’s truly important to see players like Stevenson and Falcone play characters like Tova and Walnut. I’m, of course, very into constantly fighting toxic masculinity and toxic geekery, and I asked Falcone why it’s important hoping she would blurt out a similar answer. Of course, her answer is a better one:
“It is important for me as a queer femme to feel seen and valid, and it can be hard even in queer spaces. There are so many different ways to be queer, to be a woman, to be feminine, to just, be. I wish I had been exposed to more queer representation in my youth, and I am constantly seeking it out now. Yes, I want to see people like me so I feel valid, and so others like me feel valid, but beyond that I just want to see other types of people. Unique voices, experiences, and backgrounds bring so much and have been excluded for too long. Tabletop roleplaying is all about imagination and unbridled fun. Everyone should have a seat at the table. Everyone.”
If you’d like to check out Penny Arcade’s C-Team, you can get caught up on their YouTube channel and then hit up their Twitch channel to watch live. If you’d like to get started with Critical Role, you can start from the beginning or jump in here, and then hit Twitch for the live games each Thursday. If you’d like to start playing Dungeons and Dragons, you can check out the Autostraddle guide to getting started with your own queer, feminist game.
Editor’s note: the title of this post has been changed to better reflect the work that women are doing in the table top gaming sphere at this present (awesome) moment in gaming.