The Alphastream Game Design Blog

Diversifying Our Gaming

Diversity makes our hobby stronger. It brings in new ideas, furthers the breadth of experiences offered, and draws more people to our hobby.

Diversity is Vital

I have wanted to write this blog post for a long time. The recent political events and my discussion on today’s Ego-Check Podcast with the Id DM have pushed me to write.

Shortly after I joined organized play in 2000, my friends noticed a worrying trend. Almost everyone around us was the same demographic: aging male white gamers. The few new people we met were usually not much younger. Gaming at local stores was like a members-only club – everyone knew everyone and had been gaming together for years. We began to seriously worry: was our hobby going to die out? You can find old threads online where even industry members wondered if our demographic had completely stagnated and the game would literally age and die out with us.

The early 2000s did not have much diversity, despite some notable female industry employees and organized play volunteers. The gaming tables were still predominantly white, male, and older. Adventures were full of stereotypes, and so was play. The white king, the damsel in distress, the all-male squad of thugs, and the players making crass jokes about the barmaid. We weren’t inclusive, or even aware.

Fortunately, this began to change. Older players began to bring older kids, and a few kids in their teens and 20s showed up to stores and conventions on their own. Change was slow at first. As the 4th Edition of D&D was released, some policy changes were visible. Wizard of the Coast’s advertising was more gender and race inclusive, and the Encounters organized play program was easier for new and casual players to fit into schedules. A “just walk up and play” policy at gaming stores meant a mother could drop by with her kid and it was a convenient reliable time. We saw a slowly growing number of families, teens, and children.

Advertising really can make a difference over time. Here are two of the older ads for D&D. The model is none other than Gary Gygax’s daughter, but it ends up being the opposite of inclusive.


And here are more recent advertisements. Staged shots have shown a good measure of diversity for D&D since at least 4th Edition, and it has likely made a big



Video Games have also had issues with how they portray inclusivity, but have a very diverse player base (the largest demographic being female). Some of that has crossed over, as a general interest in games can lead to tabletop games. The PAX convention (heavy on video game play with a little tabletop) was an oracle of sorts. I was blown away by the diversity of the crowd when I first attended in 2009. It wasn’t uncommon to see tables with families, couples, and a wide diversity of genders, culture, and color. Gen Con started to attract families and added a kids area to the exhibit hall a few years ago. This year, at Origins 2016, I saw the level of diversity I was seeing five to seven years earlier at PAX. The increased diversity has come hand-in-hand with growth.


How to Increase Diversity

As a Latino who grew up in Colombia, diversity is really important to me. As a gamer, everything about diversity has benefited our hobby. Many of my favorite DMs, organizers, players, and tabletop game designers are women or of color. Our hobby was worse without them and better with them. Because being a woman or person of color comes with many challenges, including harassment, our support is vital.

Here are some ideas on how we can increase our hobby’s diversity, and with it attract more players, new ideas, and different kinds of play.

Organize for it

Many entities and individuals have a hand in organizing play, including convention organizers, organized play admins, store owners, podcast and live-play owners, and even someone running a local game table. When we organize events, we can devote some energy to attracting, promoting, and supporting diversity.

Everything is easier if you recruit diverse staff and volunteers. The more diverse the staff (especially senior staff) and volunteers are, the more that diversity is likely to remain a focus and the more approachable the organization/event will be for diverse GMs and players.

Standards of conduct are vital, because they are both an assurance and an education tool. 13th Age created an excellent Organized Play Harassment Policy, found on the 13th Age Resources page. When I helped to write the Herald’s Guild Code of Conduct for Baldman Games’ DMs, we borrowed heavily from their leadership on the issue. When standards are posted in convention/store play spaces where everyone can see them, and GMs/staff read them and know they are expected to follow them, we are educating the members of our hobby and establishing common behavior.

Organized play can work to hire diverse authors. This is an area that is lacking. Female authors were 3 of 12 adventures in the Storm King season, but 0 of 15 for the previous Strahd season. Abyss was 3 of 16, and Tyranny was 1 of 14. The numbers are worse for Persons of Color.

Organizations can also create visibility. The rise of shows such as Critical Role, Force Grey, Dice Camera Action, Tabletop, and others with high diversity is huge. Here are the tables I was invited to by Wizards of the Coast for Extra-Life 2015 and 2016:


Extra-Life 2016

Thousands of people watching those games see diversity in action. The message is clear: “You are welcome here. You aren’t alone. Our hobby is for everyone. Join us!”


Diversify Your Play

Even as a single player, we can bring diversity to every table.

Play characters that draw from the wealth of cultures, colors, gender expressions, and sexual preferences in the real world. The Forgotten Realms (FR) offers a wealth of cultural ideas. Here are some canonical ways to diversify your next PC (this information is inspired by a writing guide provided to authors by Wizards of the Coast):

  • Elves: In FR, Sun Elves have bronze skin, some have black hair. Wood elves have coppery skin, brown or black hair. Wild Elves have dark brown skin, black to light brown hair.
  • Dwarves: Gold dwarves have brown skin, black hair.
  • Rock Gnomes: Skin ranges from light brown to light gray.
  • Strongheart Halflings: dusky skin, brown or black hair (similar to people from India).
  • Humans from Turmish, Tashluta, and Chult have black skin and features.
  • Humans from Kara-Tur have Asian features (Wa/Kozakura have similarities to Japan, Koryo to Koreans).
  • Humans from Calimshan, Zakara, and Anauroch have similarities to Arab ethnicities.
  • Humans from Amn and Tethry have features similar to Spaniards.
  • Humans travel far and wide both currently and historically, so the above ethnicities and combinations of them can be found in any large city, fit in, and can speak and communicate fluently in the city’s tongue(s).
  • Males and females in the Realms have the same jobs, status, and opportunities across nearly all cultures. Earlier texts noted orc culture as misogynistic, but the Volo’s Guide to Monsters seems to place the genders on more equal footing with different roles.
  • Homosexuality and bisexuality are as valid as heterosexuality, and are not depicted as negative.
  • Gender identities can be other than their physical gender, and this is not depicted as negative. Ed Greenwood (who created the Realms) has spoken out several times about the Realms welcoming many gender and sexual expressions, right down to gender-changing Elminster.

Regardless of your gender or culture or even class choice, you can be a paladin for diversity. You can do that at the gaming table, online, at work, and at home. Change the world!


Diversify GMing


Conventions and public play spaces don’t always have standards of conduct (see the section above). Download the Baldman Games Code of Conduct or similar standards and follow them regardless. Share the standards with other GMs.

The adventures you purchase or run will sometime lack diversity. That lack of diversity isn’t a “truth”. Correct the adventures, adding in diversity. The Forgotten Realms information above can be used to make NPCs more diverse, portraying different skin tones, cultures, genders, and identities.


Write for Diversity

Whether you write for Pelgrane Press, Wizards of the Coast, organized play, the DM’s Guild, or your own home game, you can change our hobby by writing a more inclusive adventure. NPCs can correctly depict the diversity of the Forgotten Realms mentioned above (and most worlds are just as diverse). Adventures can avoid stereotypes and tired tropes, creating events and situations that have a wider appeal.

New players are a kind of diversity, especially since newcomers to the hobby are often of more diverse demographics. community-jengaThe more that we can make our content easy enough to run by and for new players, the more that we can grow a diverse hobby. Organizations can do this as well as authors, ensuring there are more on-ramps into our hobby and that the on-ramps are easy to find. Here’s an easy test for publishers: can a new person find how to get started on your web site? At a gaming store, can a new person find how to get started in a particular game? At a convention, what is the experience like for a new person? As an author, how does the material appear to a new GM, about to run this as their first adventure ever?

Organized play could consider labeling play experiences. Campaigns such as Heroes of Rokugan (for the Legend of the Five Rings RPG) labeled their adventures with the primary elements, such as travel, role-play, combat, investigation, intrigue, and mystery. While D&D aims to balance the three pillars, there can be times when an adventure would be more appealing if a primary pillar (such as exploration) was highlighted. When you write, try to create a balance of experiences, or to provide experiences that D&D doesn’t see often.

Wizards of the Coast has long ago requested diversity in its art orders (where an artist is contracted to create a specific illustration based on a concept). As authors we can further that. As developers we can add diversity as an item on our checklist and add it in where needed. Admins for organized play can do the same.

Writing diversity can be hard, as I discussed on the Id DM podcast. It is an important skill to develop and takes time to improve. I worked really hard on the diversity/inclusivity in The Howling Void (where I originally wrote all the characters except two as female) and in The Artifact (where NPC ghosts of any gender could end up with a love interest with a male NPC). In Adamantine Chef: Supreme Challenge, I tried to explore and invert our real-world preconceptions (particularly those of my Asian friends) around the cultural concept of a father expecting his son (not his daughter) to inherit the family occupation, as well as some real-world cultural expectations around art as an honorable profession.


Support Diversity

The last thing you can do is to recognize those companies that further diversity. Buy their products if you can, but you can also support them by praising their efforts and sharing their works with others. Companies such as Pelgrane Press, Evil Hat, Paizo, Monte Cook Games, and Wizards of the Coast have done a lot for diversity in our hobby. That diversity is likely saving our hobby.




Thank you for supporting my work on the DMs Guild!

10 comments on “Diversifying Our Gaming

  1. Guest
    November 16, 2016

    Another viewpoint:

    I’m a gamer. I’m female. I’ve been the former for 38 years, and the latter for 54 years. I’ve also been a science fiction fan most of my life, along with comic book reader, video gamer (including once managing an arcade), superhero fan … you get the picture. Growing up, I read Tom Swift books, Encyclopedia Brown, Three Investigators, everything Hugh Walters wrote, etc., and then moved on to adult SF by the time I was in junior high. In short, I’ve been a she-geek since the days when “geek” meant a guy who ate live toads in carnival sideshows.

    And in that time, there were very few fictional characters that looked like me. Particularly, they were all male. Because of this, I didn’t develop an expectation that fictional characters had to be like me. I didn’t avoid Tom Swift books because I was a girl any more than I avoided The Hobbit because I was a human. Given that this led to me being able to enjoy fiction whose characters had every imaginable kind of background, race, sex, even species, I think that mindset has been quite beneficial.

    I think we’re doing people a disservice when we emphasize that “this is for you because there’s a character who looks like you in there.” The flipside of that is everything else *isn’t* for them, and this thing isn’t for anyone else. Following that logic, I couldn’t have enjoyed stories about Kimball Kinnison, and my husband couldn’t have enjoyed Jirel of Joiry. And Dossouye would be right out. I’d have missed so much if I didn’t read The Zero Stone because the protagonist wasn’t female, or Shimenge’s Mask because the protagonist wasn’t white, or The Slaves of Heaven because Berry wasn’t either one. And, in the end, the only person who is EXACTLY like you is … you.

    There is, I think, a huge difference between welcoming all comers and not being obnoxious to them (the naked chicks in so much fantasy art, the painful racial stereotypes of the original Tom Swift books, etc.), versus trying to pick ‘one of these, and one of those, and one of the others”. The former treats people as human beings, all different, united by a shared interest — whether it’s gaming, or growing orchids, or whatever else the group is about — while the latter treats people as *things*, only valuable for ticking a box in some diversity list. I am not a “female gamer” — I’m a gamer who happens to be female. I no more insist that characters in games I play have to be female than I insist they have to be human. Replace “female” with any other characteristic.

    Sitting on my desk, I have a small action figure of Rey, the Star Wars character. Remember #WheresRey? Remember the reason the Hasbro executives didn’t want to make Rey action figures? “No boy wants to be given a product with a female character on it.” Is that really what we’re striving for? The idea that the game, the story, the toy, has to look like the user or otherwise they won’t want it? Because if we do that, we all miss out on so much. Not to mention proving those Hasbro executives were right.

    I get the problem with the aging and narrow focus of the hobby; remember, I’ve been a gamer since before many of the people I play with were even *born*, and I’ve watched it happen. But it has happened because the whole RPG thing started in a small wargaming club in the midwest, and spread because friends recruited friends. Even today, there are very few people who see, say, the Pathfinder rulebooks in a store and decide they’re going to spend that kind of money on something they know nothing about; virtually all gamers got into it because someone they knew invited them to a game. People’s friends are very often of the same age cohort, sex, socioeconomic group, race, etc., as they are, so the earliest gamers recruited people much like themselves … and the nth-removed descendants of those gamers still do. But the reason that people who don’t look like those early gamers aren’t participating isn’t that there isn’t someone exactly like them on the cover of the box — it’s because they don’t have a friend who plays, so nobody brought them into the hobby in the first place.

    If we want to strengthen our hobby and secure its future, THAT is what we have to address: We need to recruit new gamers by means other than just “friend of a friend” contacts. That, not ticking off boxes on a “diversity” list, not seeking out people because of what they LOOK like instead of what they THINK like, is the future.

    • Alphastream
      November 16, 2016

      I hear what you are saying. I’m not advocating something as narrow/myopic as a diversity checklist (x women GMs per y tables, for example) or replacing all white GMs with Latinos. Rather, that we go from not at all considering the diversity of GMs at our event to actually considering it and seeing what attract a diverse crowd to GM.

      As a Latino I’m not looking for the world to be Latino, and sometime all I’m asking for is to not have any racism and some awareness of Latino cultures. But, when I think on it, I do want to see more Latinos in the hobby. I moved to North Carolina from Colombia when I was 12. My high school was hugely racist, and full of assumptions around my culture that weren’t just wrong, they were absurd. I didn’t see myself represented anywhere I looked at all, and it was hard to get excited about the opportunities around me.

      Star Wars is sort of a good example, in that Hasbro also likes to say the assumption was that Kylo Ren (you know, the emo bad guy) would be the big sell. They underestimated just how appealing Rey (a strong self-sufficient courageous woman) would be to both genders when she was allowed to be a cool character. My son (10 at the time) saw a bunch of Force Awakens posters – he chose the one of Rey. I think we underestimate what happens when everyone is on level footing and is just a darn cool character. When we relegate women and minorities to bit roles and ones that hinge on a male character (love interest, foil, sidekick), then we will see reduced appeal.

      That’s not to say that everything should suddenly be non-white-male. One of the things I also notice as a parent is that my daughter suddenly has an amazing range of books where the lead is a smart outgoing girl, while my son has very few new books with a similarly strong male lead. The boys tend to have serious character flaws or are very meek characters – the whiny impotent sad part of Kylo Ren. A parallel for me is the tired trope seen on a nearly endless number of sitcoms, where the husband is clueless and isn’t involved in their family. We don’t need that trope either. It isn’t good for society. In RPGs we’ve never had a shortage of cool male NPCs, from the brave devoted king, to the brilliant sage, to the wise monk, to the rough wilderness ranger. There is room at the top to diversify those figures without reducing their appeal. Working to change damaging tropes is worthwhile, just as it is worthwhile to increase diversity in our hobby.

  2. James Rogers
    November 17, 2016

    You mention orc culture as misogynist but didn’t mention from as mysandrist. In orc culture women have fixed roles (healers, midwives, etc) and at least have a modicum of respect. Drive culture is full on female superiority. Men cannot be clerics but otherwise while there are less fixed roles, there is much more sexism.

    • Alphastream
      November 17, 2016

      Great catch, James! I was working off of a WotC guidance document for writers at the beginning of 5E, but the pages on orc culture in Volo’s seem to really place the two genders on equal footing, with different roles. I’ll edit the post for that. Thanks!

      • Guest
        November 17, 2016

        One important thing to remember is that, just as our mothers told us that two wrongs don’t make a right, two inequalities do not make an equality. For example, I remember when, back in the day, the Power That Were argued that even though a beginning D&D magic user might have only 1 hit point (an angry house cat could kill him) and no armor, that was perfectly fair because a high-level magic user was the most powerful player character in the game. That wasn’t a balanced class — that was a class that was out of balance in two different ways, and therefore twice as unbalanced. If you put one hand in a fire and the other in liquid nitrogen, your hands might be at a pleasant temperature on the average, but you’re not likely to get either one back.

        Why yes, I did grow up hearing “girls can’t be mechanics, but they can be mommies” as if that was some kind of equivalence — replace “mechanics” with basically everything I wanted to be when I grew up, from astronaut on through the language. So I tend to be VERY paranoid about anything presented as any “separate but equal” arrangement for any PC type.

        That’s no issue for a non-player race. If the characters are all going to be humans, for instance, it doesn’t matter how goblins arrange their lives, because it’s not presenting a choice to the players. But when the player does have to make that choice, issues of things that limit players’ options (especially when those limitations do not affect other players at the same table) become a lot more significant.

        I long ago found a practical solution: Even if a player character is something unusual for their species, sex, etc., unless that player wants it to be an issue because they enjoy the confusion/conflict/whatever that results, I simply have everyone ignore the difference. So if, for instance, paladins are usually male, but a female player wants to play a female paladin, but just as a paladin, not some sort of pioneering feminist icon, that’s fine; she’s a paladin. Nobody has an issue with this. Nobody says “Oh, wow, you’re really a paladin?” or anything; they just accept her as a paladin the same as they would anyone else. Realistic? Of course not. In reality, I’ve had decades of experience with people not even accepting that I’m standing at the parts counter to buy car parts. But magic isn’t realistic, either, nor dragons, nor elves, nor most of the rest of what we fill our fantasy worlds with. In light of that, nobody making a big deal about a non-standard paladin is pretty trivial.

        In so many ways, it’s about choices. CSB: Many years ago, at Origins (so long ago it was still held on a college campus), I played in a Traveller tournament. There were six or eight players to a table, and an equal number of pregenerated characters. The other players got to decide which characters they wanted to play; I was handed the sheet for the only female character. I was allowed no choice, and that frankly sucked. (on the plus side, I did come in second in the tournament, and no one else at our table even placed)

        Another thing: In a lot of ways, I’ve very often been the groundbreaking “first female X.” A company I worked for had 50+ locations — I was the first female manager. When I took an electronics tech course, there were only two female students and the other one dropped out. I was the only female who had ever been a member of my college wargames club. Yadda yadda yadda. Fine, I get it, and can I stop now? I just want to be a gamer, a player, a character, not singled out for being the first or being different or being special, just … there. Like everyone else. I think in the eagerness to include people we think are “special” in some way, we can easily forget that very often, what those people want is NOT to be special. We get enough of that. (and of course, some do — because people aren’t “female” or “male” or “white” or “black” or any other homogeneous group, people are PEOPLE, and the way to find out what a particular person thinks is to ask them) I’m happiest when I’m treated as “one of the guys”. That’s all I want … just to be a gamer. And because so many people can’t see beyond “female” I don’t get that very often.

        That’s what I mean about accepting people as themselves, as individuals, instead of as representatives of a class, a race, a sex, or any other group. They’re not. Nobody is. And very few people WANT to be. What most people, in my experience, want is simply to be treated as individuals, to be seen as themselves as people instead of what they look like.

        In the end, isn’t that what we all want?

        • Alphastream
          November 17, 2016

          Those are fantastic points. Despite how I myself don’t want to be an envoy for Spanish-speaking Hispanic anything, I have at times forgotten this with others. I once told a friend how I dug that she was part of the gaming group because she was a woman and brought in different ideas. Wow, that did not go over well. It took me a while to understand that and learn from that. I would have felt the same way if someone said that to me.

          Congratulations on that Traveler championship! I am a big fan of dual-gender NPCs, where you have both genders represented. We did that for Ashes of Athas after discussing with the community. It seems to offer the greatest flexibility to everyone, without painting anyone into a corner… Hmm… I think I’ll update the post on that.

          On the issue of first vs expectations… I remember my Mom talking to me about how she struggled with her parents, who only saw a few possible job opportunities for her, and particularly that of secretary. Teacher was not what they wanted, and she fought them over that and eventually did as she pleased. I can’t imagine that today, and yet it is true in many cultures and in other ways here. We certainly don’t need to stick to that in a fantasy world. Seeking ways to reverse those tropes can be really good for us, and often makes a great story.

  3. Sue McFellan
    November 18, 2016

    Good article. As a gamer and a female, I endorse the sentiments above. I feel best when gender in the game is balanced but is not an issue. When my DM introduces a great NPC who just happens to be female, I feel included but not singled-out. When my female character’s goal was to rescue a kidnapped NPC–who happened to be male–it was all good.
    I have noticed the change in WotC illustrations and really appreciate the new look in many ways: diverse races in non-stereotyped roles. The female, Asian figure for the “Solider” background in PHB deserves a shout-out. And the dark-skinned woman in armor for “Human” in the PHB is awesome.
    Like the other commenters, I have often been the only woman in the room IRL professional settings. When I sit down to bash some balrogs, I want to be just another player.

  4. David Oakes
    December 13, 2016

    An advantage of Campaigns over Convention games is that you are creating the world. You want to be the only Female Paladin in the world? Say you are, and then work it out with the GM and other Players. You don’t want it to be a big deal? Ditto. You may not get everything you want, but the game will be stronger/better/faster for having the conversation.

    The trick is having enough diversity in the presentation of the Setting to give everyone permission to realize that “Everything is Negotiable”.

  5. Michael E. Van Ness
    February 1, 2017

    I loved the article – diversity and inclusion are things to work on not only due to the current political climate, but because of the history of tabletop gaming as predominantly male, heteronormative activities. To this end, my (admittedly hyper-fringe) indie game company Funmunitions will ALWAYS seek to provide gaming content that embraces the themes of your article – as well as “gaming relativity”, anti-heteronormativity, and (as the vulcans say) IDIC: Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.

    For example, check out these d100 tables for use during generic character creation (for character sex and sexual identity – at the bottom of the page): Again, excellent post! I will be following up with your work and I invite you to promote your creations on the Funmunitions site!

  6. Jesse
    January 9, 2018

    My friends and I decided to add our table to the online Gaming streaming community. We’re running a 5e Steampunk game and we’re pretty diverse, with some comedy on the side. Check us out here:

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