Live Dungeons & Dragons Shows Are Inviting More Players to the Table

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.

Orion Black, creative director for Dimension 20, got into TTRPGs as a high schooler. “I had a crush on a girl and she wanted to play,” Black says.

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.”