The story of the Sunless Citadel is a familiar one to fans of Dungeons & Dragons, an immensely popular tabletop role-playing game that revolves around collaboration and storytelling. Players create and control a character, choosing specific actions for them to execute and working alongside other characters to meet a wide range of goals — for example, conquering the Sunless Citadel.
Do you risk plucking a fruit from the tree’s branches? Should you converse with the strange creatures populating the fortress, or attempt to fend them off?
Last week, six players gathered around a table at downtown’s main branch of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, carefully tackling one decision at a time to reach a common end goal: infiltrate the citadel’s core.
It’s similar to what countless other players around the world have been doing since the fantasy-oriented game first emerged in 1974. But this was special — all six players were also trying to infiltrate the male dominance too often associated with playing Dungeons & Dragons.
They were responding to the library’s new Lady Knights, a women-focused Dungeons and Dragons group, which is for “ladies, genderqueer, agender and non-binary folks” ages 14 and older. Of the six at the main library on this evening, five identified as women and one as “they/them.”
The brainchild of the library’s Popular Library and TeenSpot sections, the Lady Knights have been meeting on a consistent basis since November. To date, Teen Librarian Jami Thompson says, the Lady Knights group has drawn participants ranging in age from 18-55.
Demand for the program has been high — so much so that Thompson and Popular Library reference librarian Adam Vorobok have just increased the frequency of Lady Knights gatherings to twice a month. In February, they will continue the Sunless Citadel campaign at meetings scheduled for Tuesday and Feb. 21.
“I’ve been playing D&D since grade school in one form or another,” says Lady Knights member Allison Kinney, who has been attending the meetings since they began. “I was just sort of poking around the library and I happened across the TeenSpot. They were telling me about the game and I was like, ‘I could show up for that, sure.’ ”
The idea to create a women-centric Dungeons & Dragons group evolved from an article Vorobok read about creating safe spaces for women to play games. Although the article was specifically about tabletop gaming, Thompson says there was already an interest at the library to establish such a group for Dungeons and Dragons.
“I think patrons who attend feel welcomed, encouraged and supported,” Thompson says. “I think part of the popularity is a desire to play D&D in a supportive space, and part of it is that space itself. I’ve heard people talk about how cool they think it is that the library is hosting a feminist D&D group.”
Lady Knights member Elisabeth Page says she had been seeking out something like this for months. “I think the message is really cool — that this is specifically toward people who are often marginalized in Dungeons and Dragons,” she says. “I hadn’t been able to find anything nearby. My New Year’s resolution was to be involved with my library… I was so excited when I found this group.”
Vorobok creates props (like a paper fortress) for the game and researches campaigns — stories with specific goals, like Sunless Citadel — to be played during meetings, which is quite a feat; there are hundreds to choose from. Thompson corresponds with players and sets meeting dates and times. She is also a Dungeons & Dragons player herself; she served as Dungeon Master — the game organizer who creates the details of a particular campaign — for the first time during the Lady Knights’ latest meeting.
New players are welcome to join the group at any time, even if a campaign is already underway. In these cases, Thompson says new players are assigned pre-made characters, which allow them to jump into the fray right away.
Character creation, according to Thompson, is the most complicated part of Dungeons & Dragons; archetypes available to choose from include everything from barbarians, monks, druids and bards to warlocks, paladins, rangers and sorcerers, each of which possesses unique actions and abilities.
Member Ellen Rielag had never played Dungeons and Dragons before joining the group.
“But I’ve always wanted to get into it,” she says. “I just didn’t have an opportunity until now. It’s been pretty fun so far.” Rielag adds that she enjoys the problem solving within the game while getting to know the other members of the group.
During each installment, Lady Knights members spend about 15 minutes talking and catching up before delving into the game; food and drinks are also provided. For many, it’s a refreshing change of pace to be in a Dungeons & Dragons environment with like-minded individuals.
Thompson says that the group’s first meeting took place soon after the release of the Netflix cult-favorite TV series Stranger Things, in which Dungeons & Dragons plays a predominant role.
“Role-playing and tabletop games are having a resurgence right now, and geek/nerd culture has become a huge part of pop culture,” she says.
For now, the group will continue to navigate the recesses of the Sunless Citadel until they come face to face with Belak the Outcast, a sinister druid that guards the fortress’ fruit-bearing tree. And as the Lady Knights work toward conquering their quest, it’s clear that Vorobok’s vision for a safe space for women to play games has not only come to fruition; it’s continuing to grow.
LADY KNIGHTS next meet 6:30-8:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Main Library, 800 Vine St., in Main Room 3B. More info: cincinnatilibrary.org.