Whether in a classroom, a friend-filled apartment, or a neighborhood game shop, tabletop role-playing games (TTRPGs) bring gamers together to create adventure-filled worlds and characters to explore them. Ruled by grit, teamwork, and a bit of luck, TTRPGs are, in theory, a dynamic activity for friend groups. But the TTRPG space hasn’t historically been welcoming to everyone.
Black played one-on-one games with that girl in an empty classroom but wanted to keep playing and sought out new spaces to play in.
Black’s early experience was largely at the house of a teacher who had three white sons. Black says being the only Black person and the only nonbinary person at the table was challenging. Black says there wasn’t a lot of overt racism, but one intentionally racist comment caused them to walk away from the table, although they ended up coming back.
“When you're the only place in town that has D&D, you gotta make up and come back and just hope that their parents straighten them out and you keep moving because the resources aren’t there,” Black says.
Black’s introduction to tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons as white, male-dominated spaces isn’t unique. But Black is one of many creators reshaping those games and the spaces where people play them into safer, more inclusive places that better represent the genre’s growing, diverse audience and are more welcoming to people who want to learn to play.
The rise of actual play shows like Dimension 20 and Critical Role—in which casts play D&D on camera in real time—and related podcasts means more people have been introduced to games they may not have thought were for them.
Aabria Iyengar took the stage this summer as the Game Master of both Critical Role and Dimension 20 and has worked hard to create a safe and inclusive space for everyone who sits down to play at her table.
Game Masters (GMs) and Dungeon Masters (DMs)—the narrator-like figures who establish the game's plot and set its tone—are also responsibility for creating a game world and play space that's inclusive for all players, especially those who come from marginalized backgrounds and may not have always had diverse circles to play in.
Iyengar was often the only woman or person of color at the table, and she faced a lot of other players questioning her knowledge of the game, as well as more overt harassment. As a GM, she now works to ensure her players don’t have to face those same challenges.
“I feel with every fiber of my being for people who are like ‘I'm going to put up with a lot of nonsense just because this is my only way to be able to game at all.’ And that breaks my heart to pieces,” Iyengar says.
With the increased visibility of actual play games, especially though platforms like Twitch and YouTube, Iyengar has increasingly been able to tailor her playing experience to what she wanted it to be for both herself and her audience.
‘“It wasn't really until streaming that I was like, ‘Oh wow, this is what an all-female table feels [like], this is what like a queer table feels like, this is what a POC table feels like,’” she says. “Getting to live in the beauty of not having to be the token all the time was what really got me to stay.”
Persephone Valentine, a cosplayer, TTRPG content creator, and Twitch streamer, says streaming has helped her create a space away from a lot of the gatekeeping present in the TTRPG community. She says she has gotten pushback from players who don't like the fact that the tabletop scene is becoming more diverse and inclusive and who are trying to exclude new voices and players. But Valentine says that’s not going to stop her from playing the games she wants to play.
“I have curated very much my presence online in a way that people who don't agree with my values know that they need to stay away,” Valentine says.
“High fantasy and fantasy in general [are] stagnant without the varied voices of other people that have been kept out by gatekeeping,” she continues. “Our stories and ideas have been kept out, and that creates a very stagnant culture where things repeat. Let us have our voices because it'll be much more entertaining on the whole.”
Exploring Identity Through Character Creation
Valentine also used tabletop as a way to explore her gender before coming out as trans. “I wouldn't have survived my transition or even come out without tabletop games and LARP [Live Action Roleplaying] and being able to experience and play around with what I thought my gender was,” Valentine says.
She’s not alone. TTRPGs not only allow players to create characters completely different from themselves, these games also provide the opportunity to explore and play with parts of their identity they may not have had the chance to otherwise.
Erika Ishii is an actor, host, and performer on shows like Critical Role, Dimension 20, and L.A. by Night. Ishii jokes that their characters dated women before they did. “I think that play and storytelling is a fantastic way for you to try on identities in a safe environment with friends,” they say.
Comedian and internet personality Ally Beardsley’s gender presentation has changed in real time in front of an online audience—and the characters they created on Dimension 20 have allowed them to explore that further.
Reflecting on some of their past characters—which include a church camp lesbian, a chaotic trans guy, and most recently a nonbinary Doberman pinscher—Beardsley says a piece of themself is in all of their characters.
“I think the beautiful thing about role-play fantasy is it’s just kind of this vacuum, and it's sucking up some of your deepest subconscious thoughts,” they say. “You end up with a character sheet and wonder where all these details came from, and it’s like, ‘Guess what baby, this is your diary, and these are your deepest wants and desires.’”
Creating Safe Spaces and Worlds for Marginalized People
Beardsley doesn’t have a specific set of rules when it comes to creating inclusive game worlds. But they acknowledge the importance of representing trans characters with a degree of care that can be lacking in other forms of media, where characters from marginalized backgrounds are often portrayed as victims. “We're not going to, for drama’s sake, hurt the character,” they say.
“I think there is something important about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes that helps you learn to be more compassionate,” Iyengar says.
Iyengar said she was old enough when she first read the Harry Potter books to notice some of the problems in that world—from casual racism to the sorting of children (not to mention the author’s transphobic statements.) So when it came to building the world for Dimension 20’s Misfits and Magic, she was conscious of making it more accessible and inclusive.
She describes the balancing act of acknowledging problematic themes while embracing positive elements as an inspiration to move forward and do better.
Valentine has found that to be true in her experience playing Dungeons & Dragons. She says her podcast Fast Times at D&D High gets a lot of pushback for using the D&D system because of some of the problematic elements in the game’s design.
“This system is never going to go away, and it’s up to us to push the creators to change things because it’s not going to go away,” she says. “And, honestly, the mistakes of the white creators are not going to stop me as a Black and trans creator from creating something that I like in a system that I enjoy.”
When confronted with those mistakes, Black opted to create their own game, one dedicated to embracing the experiences of Black gamers. Black’s game, Mutants In the Night, tells the story of empowered mutants consigned to live in ghettos and fighting against a rigged system. Black approached the project with a design philosophy of creating a world that was unique and easy for Black players to get into.
Before becoming Dimension 20’s creative director, Black worked as a sensitivity consultant for the production, a critical role in helping game designers make responsible and inclusive decisions that portray storylines, characters, and real-world situations in a way that resonates with diverse audiences rather than further marginalizing them.
Black stressed the importance of involving consultants early in that process.
While table-top games originated as just that—games played around kitchen tables and in game shops with a group of friends—the growth of actual play shows and TTRPG podcasts have given those involved the opportunity to educate audiences through role-play.
Ishii keeps this in mind when playing for an audience. “What is viable in a home game can be very triggering for others,” they say. “There have been times where character concepts or story beats have been tabled for the sake of realizing that we have a responsibility to educate and represent people in honest and authentic lights.”
Valentine says she holds herself to the same standard online as she does in her home games, and centering LGBTQ+ voices is part of that.
“A lot of the characters that are NPCs [non-player characters] are queer. I like to say that everyone [in Fast Times] is trans or queer until stated otherwise, rather than the opposite, because the opposite tends to be what people believe as the default and I like to challenge that default and be like ‘You don’t know.’”
Ishii hopes audiences watching actual play shows recognize that the format lends itself to exploration but that this also means there might be missteps. “These are not scripted performances,” they say. “We are flying by the seat of our pants, and we just have to do the best that we can to balance all those aspects of having fun and being present in the moment.”
As actual play shows grow in popularity, bringing in new audiences, Beardsley describes the genre’s potential for growth as the Wild West. “It is a massive, massive industry,” they say. “Critical Role raised $11 million on Kickstarter for one of their projects, which blew all of the records that they had previously.”
“What I think people are starting to realize about tabletop products shows in particular is that it’s reality TV,” says Black. “You attach yourself to the players who are playing the game, who then you attach to their characters, or even vice versa.”
Black is grateful to be part of the growing TTRPG community and have the chance to show other people—especially more Black, nonbinary people—that the space can be for them too. “That’s the greatest honor that I can have because it’s really just opening doors for people,” they say. “I just want to keep opening as many doors as possible.”