The Alphastream Game Design Blog
Diversity makes our hobby stronger. It brings in new ideas, furthers the breadth of experiences offered, and draws more people to our hobby.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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!”
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):
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!
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.
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. The 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.
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.