Near the end of last year, cosplayer, singer, and tabletop enthusiast Ginny Di uploaded a video titled “ Why You Should Build Your D&D Character ‘Wrong’,” a 10-minute discussion about exploring unconventional character creation and playstyles—which she’d personally been heavily discouraged from, despite enjoying them immensely.
The video added fuel to the ongoing conversations around gatekeeping in nerd spaces, coming from both fan communities and the companies that market to them, which have generally aimed to expand and diversify what fandoms look like.
Gatekeeping is a tired, boring phenomenon whereby a fanbase dreams up an imagined complexity and reverence for the thing they enjoy, and weaponizes it condescendingly toward their new or casual peers to make them feel out of place in those spaces.
Motivated by the same momentary rush of power that fuels bullies, gatekeeping hurts both the communities it infects and the industries that create and refine the things they love. When tolerated, gatekeeping prevents the growth or evolution of a fanbase, guaranteeing its slow death from within.
As Di discusses in her video, the D&D old guard is stereotypically known for tearing apart anything that doesn’t resemble the motifs that have come to exemplify their subculture. A wood elf ranger is a perfect combination, so anything less is a kind of error, let alone abominations like an orc wizard.
Search results reveal dozens of vlogs and articles about the cardinal sins of roleplaying, which range from not understanding all the rules to being too excited at the table. The concept of “problem players” has been around for ages, and the toxicity players discuss is often legitimate, but it’s the hyper criticality the community also often demonstrates that fuels the gatekeeping impulse.
It’s worth contextualizing the recent rush of new players to D&D and tabletop gaming in general, thanks both to new releases such as D&D’s Fifth Edition in 2014 as well as all sorts of wildly popular podcast series.
Adventure Zone fans join the game after seeing their favorite characters’ constant jokes, massive creative license with the rules, and the construction of grandiose, epic tales of identity, love, and justice.
They join Critical Role fans who expect deep realization of fascinatingly crafted characters played with practiced delivery, building powerful bonds of friendship and camaraderie with their party.
These influxes may find themselves sitting at tables run by the D&D old guard, prepared to present the traditional knights and wizards largely inspired by middle-earth or The Forgotten Realms who expect arduous quests to slay great monsters and loot their treasure to bring glory to their kings or gods.
These different expectations have introduced a new layer of friction to the already fraught experience of roleplaying, which was gatekept enough without eager teens flocking to it.
Every roleplaying group is different, but what never changes is that these games are powered by imagination, which means everyone’s vision is valid. Tabletop roleplaying is nothing other than a shared adventure. When there’s friction at the table, it’s important to examine if it’s because not everyone is present to engage and collaborate with one another fairly.
Patience and empathy are vital, and if a player can’t bring acceptance to the experience, it might be because they’re attending with inflexible expectations. Adherence to conventions, exploitative min-maxing and flawless recall of the rules has never been the goal of D&D, and neither has it been an utterly freeform improv art piece in which rules and structure are irrelevant. The goal is to have fun with the people you’re playing with, which means you need to show up prepared to listen and compromise with your party.
Can someone not remember their spells? Then suggest they write them down. What about forgetting their character’s backstory? Perhaps they could rehearse it before the session. Are they not contributing enough? Then give them opportunities to make decisions, find a way for the greater plot to feature them, or ask them what they’d like their character to do between sessions. Communicate!
If you can’t meet your fellow roleplayers in the middle, you’re not really roleplaying.
The common solution is to find like-minded players, and while that’s unfortunately the only option sometimes, it shouldn’t be. The community is divided enough, and it’s about time we spent a little longer examining what we consider to be the “wrong” way to roleplay.
While perhaps beside the point, it’s worth mentioning how much work has gone into bringing diversity and inclusivity into media in our time, a trend that geeky interests have particularly embraced.
Last year, Twitter welcomed a small explosion of homemade content supporting the presentation of wheelchair accessibility in Fifth Edition D&D. Together with Thomas Lishman and Strata Miniatures, Russ Charles created a set of tabletop figures with personalized wheelchairs for use with Sara Thompson’s “combat wheelchair” rules.
Not long after, actor and producer Jennifer Kretchmer contributed to the release of the Candledeep Mysteries sourcebook, with an explicitly wheelchair accessible adventure, a style of play for which she has compiled many resources for free.
Speaking to Polygon, she explains, “As an ambulatory wheelchair user, I wanted people to have the opportunity to see themselves represented in-game. We have the ability in fantasy to imagine things. We don’t have to pay to make those accommodations.”
The terrifying backlash over these wholly optional resources shows how gatekeeping can be directed in the ugliest ways.
The inclusivity that creators have prioritized in fantasy has thrown open the doors for new people to feel safe at roleplaying tables. Nerdy communities have always been a refuge for those out of place or other, and the work to encourage minority, queer, neurodivergent, and differently abled people to feel included in adventuring with their own character is something to celebrate. Everyone should be welcome.
It doesn’t always work that way, though.
I can certainly recall being called the F-word at a table, presumably for being the only bisexual player present in the company of exclusively straight men, or for playing the sole character who wasn’t a straight, white, able-bodied man in the predictably Eurocentric and monoethnic setting of our campaign.
Whether that incident was a throwaway slur normalized into a regressive upbringing or a pointed statement about who was and who was not welcome to participate in high fantasy, I couldn’t say. I wasn’t much interested in finding out. But my experience is not unique. Many people can attest to the toxicity that can bubble to the surface with gatekeeping, revealing a more sinister side to the problem. One arguably being fueled by the source material.
As with any culture in history, roleplaying has changed since its inception. Dungeons and Dragons was invented in 1974, in a form barely recognizable next to its interpretations today. Its continued evolution into new forms is natural and necessary, both as a game and as a tool for representing and inspiring people.
Adventure Zone alone has already bent the Fifth Edition formula around illustrating drag races, magic gameshows, and wrestling matches, all while maintaining a full cast of vibrant and unique characters. This isn’t to say that every game of D&D ought to be unrecognizable from the last, but goes to show how much the game can be used to do, and more importantly, how that cultivates the community around it.
“Playing the game wrong” is a start because winning isn’t everything, especially in roleplaying, where failure is only one dice roll away. Dice games are about catastrophe as often as they’re about triumph. But true evolution comes from redefinition. Players shouldn’t be punished for playing the “wrong” characters; the rules should be able to fairly accommodate what they want.
The creation of custom assets and rule-waiving by players is nothing new, though some changes are still frowned upon by diehards. This is something Wizards of the Coast has actually explicitly encouraged a number of times through their ongoing Unearthed Arcana series, which appears poised to reimagine the way racial bonuses work in-game, likely more along the lines of Pathfinder 2nd Edition’s ruleset, due to the growing discussion about how two-dimensional that system is.
The developer of Numenera, a science-fantasy tabletop RPG launched in 2013, goes further. Shanna Germain’s Love and Sex in the Ninth World is a sex-positive supplement exploring the queer identities of orientation and gender at its core in bringing romance and erotica to the table in quite explicit terms.
Ultimately, the mechanics of roleplaying serve as a vessel for our fantasies. They work best when the imaginations of the people playing them fit their shape, but the reverse can be true too.
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