By Sophie Breeze
The world of tabletop roleplaying has changed. Millennials and Gen Z represent some of the most active players in today’s gaming culture, and tabletop RPGs are no exception to our domain of influence. We say ‘jump’, and Wizards of the Coast say ‘how high?’ We say ‘hey, let’s scrap these racial and sexual prejudices’ and they say ‘yeah, sounds good’. In a gaming culture where stereotypes were rampant and biases were never challenged, us young people have managed to make a change. After all, we don’t see fantasy as a realm of exclusion—we see it as the exact opposite! It’s a place to explore, imagine, and create. A place wholly outside the bounds of reality, where, as far as Dungeons & Dragons is concerned, the only real law is the law of your DM.
Welcome to Dungeons & Dragons—Gen Z style.
My first ever Dungeons & Dragons campaign began in November of 2020. Before then, my exposure to the game—to all tabletop RPGs, in fact—was through the lens of 1980s geek memorabilia. I was no stranger to the manner in which Dungeons & Dragons players were stereotyped: reclusive, nerdy, middle-aged white men. Needless to say, I approached my friend’s offer to write a campaign for us with a grain of salt. Little did I know that by saying ‘yes’ and taking the plunge into the vast, exciting world that is Dungeons & Dragons, I’d be taking part in a vibrant legacy of entirely subversive proportions.
Firstly, a short summary of how the game actually works! In Dungeons & Dragons (stylised as both D&D and DND), a group of players band together to form a ‘party’, with one player elected to write and navigate the campaign as our ‘Dungeon Master’ (or ‘DM’). Every player builds their own character, structured by a chosen race (human, orc, elf, et cetera) and a chosen class (barbarian, druid, wizard, et cetera). With these characters, the party traverses their DM’s landscape—completing side quests, fighting monsters, interacting with NPCs, and (normally) striving toward some ultimate goal.
Gameplay is centred upon rolling dice to determine whether your character will pass or fail various skill checks—will you pass the strength check to break that ogre’s nose? Will you fail the charisma check to convince the barkeep to pour you a free drink? These dice mechanics are precisely where the ‘tabletop’ component of Dungeons & Dragons lies.
It’s important for me to summarise the fundamental game mechanics, player-ship, and landscape in this way because, as far as I’m concerned, that’s where the similarities between D&D then and D&D now ends. Of course, us Millennial and Gen Z players owe a lot to our predecessors in establishing such a rich and adaptable RPG platform in the first place, but I’d argue that our imaginative approach is far more inclusive and diverse than it has been previously. I’m not saying that the aforementioned stereotype of sexist, middle-aged white guys is true to reality, but the bitter subtext within this caricature is not entirely unfounded.
Something about depictions of fantasy in the mid-to-late 20th century drew upon racial and sexual prejudices which, carried into the practice of tabletop RPGs, may have been enacted a little too tangibly for comfort. I won’t describe these prejudices in any further specificity, but let’s just say that there’s a reason why the stereotypical player is often a straight, cisgender, semi-problematic white man.
Far more interesting to consider is how the D&D community has rejected such problematic coding in recent years. Take a look at the most recent edition of Dungeons & Dragons—D&D 5th edition, released in 2014. In response to backlash from newer generations, the creators made several notable changes, not just to the game’s rules, but to its overarching enterprise. Sensitivity readers and diversity quotas have been integrated into the creative protocols, including the official guidebooks and associated resources. And, likely as a result, the problematic representations of race and sex have been both recognised and revoked. In the grand scheme of things, maybe these amendments don’t seem like that much of a shakeup, but it begs the question—why now? Who is driving this change? This progress?
Well, we are.
To us Millennials and Gen Z, Dungeons & Dragons is more than a pillar of community—it is a pillar of acceptance. DM willing, you interact with the story world on your own terms, fight your battles on your own terms, and (if you’re like me) turn most every NPC interaction into a queer love story on your own terms. There are no limits to gender expression, sexual orientation, or moral alignment. What’s more, your physical ability, magical capacity, and intellectual prowess are dependent only on the passing or failing of their respective skill checks. Within the excitement and acceptance of your party, your character can safely be whoever you want them to be.
There’s also a point to be made about the game’s newfound accessibility. Not only has Dungeons & Dragons endeavoured to keep pace with modern technology, offering an array of online resources like D&D Beyond and Roll20, but it has also upped its free content. Character sheets, player guides, and gameplay instructions have never been more readily available than they are for D&D 5th edition, thereby breaking down the financial and intellectual barriers to partaking in a campaign.
The motions toward accessibility were likely also inspired by Millennial and Gen Z demands. Unlike some of our predecessors, us young people possess the technological literacy to engage with virtual content surrounding Dungeons & Dragons. What’s more, we can’t necessarily afford to shell out bundles of cash on every player’s handbook and dungeon master’s guide, which makes the free online resources more inviting. Dramatic as it may sound, we are the driving force behind Dungeons & Dragons’ broadened horizons, as embodied by our demands for inclusivity, creative liberty, and practical accessibility.
This, in my opinion, is what Millennials and Gen Z have brought to Dungeons & Dragons. From the grumpy half-orc just looking to swing her berserker axe in my first campaign, to the hearty dragonborn just looking to make some friends in my current campaign, D&D has been an involving, unexpected journey into fantasy on my terms. And rest assured, during my next free character creation, I will cherish my DM-given right to be as big, butch, and queer throughout.
Sophie Breeze is currently studying a Master of Creative Writing, Editing and Publishing at the University of Melbourne. She is very interested in contemporary feminist theory as the basis for her creative work.