The First Female Adventurers
  • The First Female Adventurers


    The limitless boundaries of interactive fiction and role-playing have always held the promise that anyone could imagine playing anybody else. Despite the fact that there were several important female contributors to the creation of the hobby, it took some time for the hobby to reflect their diverse contributions.


    D&D's First Player Was a Girl

    Co-creator Gary Gygax's nine-year-old daughter Elise, along with his son Ernie, were the first to play Dungeons & Dragons in its draft form, The Fantasy Game. She played a cleric named Ahlissa, who would go on to become Queen Ehlissa of the United Kingdom of Ahlissa and who created the Marvelous Nightingale artifact that first appeared in Eldritch Wizardry. Their adventures are recounted by David Ewalt's Of Dice and Men:

    In the very first room, they discovered and defeated a nest of scorpions; in the second, they fought a gang of kobolds— short subterranean lizard-men. They also found their first treasure, a chest full of copper coins, but it was too heavy to carry. The two adventurers pressed on until nine o’clock, when the Dungeon Master put them to bed. Fatherly duties completed, Gygax returned to his office and designed another level of the dungeons.

    Ewalt even gives Elise credit for naming Dungeons & Dragons. Although she likely didn't know it at the time, Elise was following in the footsteps of other women who greatly influenced fantasy gaming.

    The First Gamebooks Were Written by Women

    PhD candidate James Ryan recently revealed that the first English-language gamebooks were in fact written by women in 1930, discovered during his research for his paper on the origins of branching narrative:

    This is a phenomenal narrative artifact: it's the earliest known example of branching narrative—in *any* medium—with multiple choice points

    Written by Doris Webster and Mary Alden Hopkins, the book has three playable scenarios, with multilinear plots that intertwine. The book even includes plot graphs of each scenario. These gamebooks would go on to influence a solo form of play for role-playing games that was launched by Flying Buffalo. Their success was noticed by TSR, who owned the D&D brand at the time. Rose Estes, TSR's 13th employee, pushed the choose-your-own-adventure format at the game company to help make D&D more relatable:

    Pushing aside her traveling circus adventure, Estes and her children drove back to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin and dropped the book on the desk of the head of sales. He gave it, and her, no thought for weeks, she said. She continued to remind him about the book, and he continued to ignore her, until finally, she remembers, he told her to write it herself if she cared so much. “I’d never written fiction. But I was so mad—Don’t tell me I can’t do something—so I did it. I wrote the book, longhand on legal pads. I took it back and gave it to him.” Later, after a meeting with a publishing company, Estes’ choose-your-own-adventure book was allegedly touted as an upcoming product. “The [head of sales] came back and casually dropped a pile of legal pads on my desk. He said, ‘Write three more.’ So I did.” Estes went on to write TSR’s best-selling Endless Quest books, like Mountain of Mirrors and Revolt of the Dwarves.

    Women and Wargamers

    Given that Dungeons & Dragons' roots were drawn from wargames, it's not surprising that what was primarily a male-dominated hobby transferred a similar demographic to role-playing. According to Jon Peterson's Medium post, 0.5% of wargamers were female:

    That figure, that roughly one half of 1% of “gamers” were female, is borne out by other contemporary sources as well. The “Great Lakes Gamers Census” of January 1974, assembled by the Midwest Gaming Association, tabulates more than one thousand gamers in the Midwest. It contains five recognizably female names: Marie Cockrill, Anne Laumer, Denise Bonis, and then two couples: Mr. & Mrs. Linda Anderson, and Mr. and Mrs. Paul Pawlak. It was this overwhelmingly male community which was the target of contemporary periodicals branded for “gamers” like Gamers Guide. And it was this community of gamers which was the intended audience of Dungeons & Dragons.

    And yet, there was one female designer at SPI named Linda Mosca, who would go on to design the American Civil War Game Battle of the Wilderness. In an interview, she saw an opportunity to attract more female gamers:

    In her Moves article, Mosca had asserted that “wargaming has been attracting a steadily increasing female following,” but she wasn’t talking about SPI’s board games: she elaborated that “the largest concentration of women is [in] military miniatures simulations.” This might sound counterintuitive without her further explanation, “Perhaps the fact that this area deals more often and more explicitly with fantasy or perhaps the added visual effects attract more people previously unfamiliar with wargaming.” The fantasy miniatures wargaming she identifies here surely means Dungeons & Dragons.

    TSR agreed with her in a 1977 ad, as reported by Jon Peterson:

    WHY WOMEN DON'T PLAY WARGAMES The answer is easy - most of them haven't heard about the fantasy game which allows players to fully use imagination and intellect in a unique and challenging system of role playing! A game which women play and enjoy equally with men! Here's why: You enter a world of swords & sorcery with DUNGEONS & DRAGONS

    TSR was not just expanding the female player base of D&D, but also its contributors, the very first of which would create a groundbreaking work that was pulled from shelves months after it was released.

    Waking the Silver Princess

    Palace of the Silver Princess was written by Jean Wells. It was recalled hours after it was released. Cecilia D'Anastasio tracks Wells' career in a Kotaku article:

    Wells was the first woman designer hired by TSR. An avid D&D player since a college canoe trip in the Ozarks, Wells had come across an employment ad for a designer in an issue of Dragon in 1978. She wrote to Gygax, who, after some correspondence, offered her a job at TSR in Lake Geneva.

    Wells was the "Sage" in Dragon Magazine's "Sage Advice" column. Her adventure was written the way she wanted, which may not have been to TSR's tastes:

    At one point in the module, players encounter a beautiful young woman hanging from the ceiling, naked, by her own hair. “Nine ugly men can be seen poking their swords lightly into her flesh, all the while taunting her in an unknown language,” the module reads. In-game, this scene turns out to be a simple magical illusion—but the accompanying illustration included in the module that TSR shipped to hobby shops nationally was not.

    72 hours later, the adventure was retracted. John D. Rateliff theorized why:

    What was so objectionable? Take a look at the illustration on page 9, titled "The Illusion of the Decapus." A woman tied by her own hair, being menaced by nine men who threaten her with knives while tearing off bits of her clothing, is hardly wholesome, but rather mild by TSR’s standards. After all, it pales in comparison with the cover of 1976’s Eldritch Wizardry (a nude woman tied down to a sacrificial altar), or the various bits of actual female nudity in the hardcover Deities & Demigods rulebook (1980, just the year before), not to mention the various bare-breasted illos of harpies, mermaids, and even witches that had appeared in various D&D rulebooks over the year.

    In an interview on the Save or Die! podcast, Wells shares her own perspective. It started over a dispute with Kevin Blume over Wells' absence during an illness. Gygax sided with Wells, which would have far-reaching consequences later:

    Kevin is the kind of person who never forgets. As soon as he was able to, he got his brothers...try to get me fired over Palace of the Silver Princess. At 23 years old back then, we didn't know what S&M was or anything like that, and...[they asked] why did you write S&M into a child's module? And Ed and I just looked at each other and went, 'What's S&M?'

    The real reason might have been the picture of a monster known as an ubue, a hermaphrodite depicted in Erol Otus' art (art which Wells had no control over) with the heads of TSR leadership at the time. Given Wells' dispute with Blume, the description of an ubue takes on a new light:

    These beings vaguely resemble humans, but have three heads, three arms and three legs. One of the three heads will always be of a different sex from the other two and it will always be in the middle. The sex of the ubue is determined by how many heads it has of one sex. Two male heads indicates it will be male and vice versa. Due to this division of heads, there is a great deal of argument between the heads from time to time. Sometimes these arguments are untimely, as in the middle of a battle (15% chance).

    The adventure was rewritten by Tom Moldvay with the offensive pictures removed and redistributed with a new green cover.

    D&D Today

    Since then, gender diversity in D&D has come a long way in both its contributors and its player base:

    ...the newest version of the game credits women as contributors to its design more than any previous one: About 26 percent are female, as opposed to 20 percent in the last version and 12 percent in the one before that. It's also telling that three-quarters of D&D's branding and marketing team is now female.

    And it's reflected in the gaming demographic:

    While Wizards of the Coast, which manages the D&D franchise, won't share sales figures, reps tell the Daily News that Millennials (ages 25 to 34) presently make up the largest group of D&D players, followed closely by those aged 35 to 44 and 18 to 24 — and up to 30% of these gamers are girls.

    In some ways, D&D is just getting back to its roots, when D&D's earliest demographic was 50% female and a nine-year-old girl helped her brother navigate a dungeon.

    Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to http://amazon.com. You can follow him at Patreon.
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