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An illustration of a female dwarf barbarian in the Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition Player’s Handbook. Designers of the game said purposefully showing diverse characters in the game’s art is one way they are encouraging a more diverse player base. (GeekWire Photo / Clare McGrane)

Dwarven wizards. Dragon-born clerics. Orc wizards. There’s plenty of diversity in the world of Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), the oldest and arguably most influential tabletop roleplaying game.

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But until recently, the game has suffered from a particular archetype: That it was only for people who are nerdy, antisocial and overwhelmingly male.

That perception — and D&D’s player base — has changed dramatically in the past decade, thanks in large part to a concerted effort from the game’s designers.

At GeekGirlCon this weekend in Seattle, six members of the Dungeons and Dragons team from Wizards of the Coast, the company behind D&D, described efforts to go beyond the stereotypes and appeal to more players, including women, people of color and even middle-schoolers. Each worked on the game during the development of its most recent edition, which launched in 2014.

For those unfamiliar with the game, the basic setup is simple: Players embody a character with a set of traits and abilities and play through a story set up by the game’s dungeon master. True to the role-playing game genre, some obstacles will take feats of strength and fighting skills, while some will require persuading a different character or solving a puzzle.

Renton, Wash.-based Wizards of the Coast releases a huge number of manuals, play guides and other materials laying out the game mechanics, character design and possible storylines or monsters for dungeon masters to use. But the designers said much of the work to expand D&D’s reach actually happens outside the official game manuals and materials.

“Streaming has been such an amazing thing for Dungeons and Dragons,” said Liz Schuh, head of publishing and licensing for the game, referring to the practice of live-streaming video of people playing D&D around a table.

Members of the Dungeons and Dragons team spoke about their experiences working on the game and its effort to expand into more diverse player groups at GeekGirlCon in Seattle. Left to right: Jaden Emme, Shelly Mazzanoble, Trish Yochum, Kate Irwin, Liz Schuh, Emi Tanji. (GeekWire Photo / Clare McGrane)

“For people who play and stream their games, they have a ton of fun doing it, and you can see that when you watch them. But it also has been a great way to introduce the game to people who maybe never thought it was a game for them,” Schuh said.

Fan-run streaming groups, like the popular Critical Role, have been central hubs for the Dungeons and Dragons community for several years, but Wizards of the Coast only became directly involved in streaming a few years ago.

Wizards now runs an official D&D streaming channel on Twitch that produces three seasons of content every year, largely featuring fan-run groups. Shuh said the company purposefully highlights a variety of players on the channel to make sure the streams represent the full breadth of D&D players.

“We know that when people see people that look like them, people that seem like someone that you would want to hang out with, it makes you much more likely to get involved with the game,” she said.

Diverse Dungeons and Dragons groups, like streamers Hell’s Belles and the Seattle-based podcast D20 Dames, are also gaining significant traction in the D&D community. Both of those groups performed live shows at this year’s GeekGirlCon.

The game has also become increasingly popular with young geeks.

“One of the things that’s really exciting is when educators use Dungeons and Dragons as part of their curriculum,” Shcuh said.

Last year, a teacher at the Seattle-area Lake Washington Girls Middle School decided to start a Dungeons and Dragons club for a handful of students. Now the club has grown so large it takes up four classrooms and many of the girls have learned how to dungeon master their own games.

“It’s such a great way for kids, especially kids who have some social challenges, to find their party,” said Shelly Mazzanoble, the game’s brand manager. “They find a group of people that are like-minded that they go on these adventures together.”

“You get this opportunity to step out of yourself and become a character. And while you’re doing that, you don’t even realize that you’re learning. You’re learning analytic skills and social skills and math and solving problems. And you’re also making friends,” she said.

An illlustration of the characters in Hell’s Belles, a Dungeons and Dragons streaming group made up of female and players who identify as non-gender-binary. (Illustration by Kayla Cline)

But the team has also worked to make D&D materials themselves more representative of the player base. The art for Fifth Edition materials, the game’s most recent reboot, is a great example.

“We started from bare bones,” said Kate Irwin, senior art director for Wizards of the coast. “It could be anything.”

She said the art team put an emphasis on representing a huge variety of people in the official art for the new release, and that wasn’t something that happened organically.

“When you don’t say someone is old, or heavy, or very very young —you get a lot of the same characters,” she said. “So we asked for it.”

“We wanted to… make sure that anybody who would be playing D&D would feel like they saw themselves,” she said. That means not just including characters who are female, non-white and a variety of ages, but showing those people in a variety of roles.

For example, Irwin said, women are often portrayed as healers, but in the new edition, “they were also barbarians. They were also rangers. They were in every aspect of D&D.”

Join GeekWire for a live interview with Wizards of the Coast President Chris Cocks on Thursday, Nov. 1, at the Hyatt Regency at Southport in Renton, Wash. The event kicks off at 5:30 p.m. Click here for more details and to register. 

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