Role-Playing Gays – Tabletop RPGs
‘Being a Lesbian saved the world!’
Our third installment of Play It Loud delves deeper into the world of tabletop gaming, specifically queer representation in RPGs. We’ll draw upon precedent from other media, and earmark some of the podcasts and streamed “live plays” that “get it right”. We’ve also got some examination on the nature of good representation, and how it’s not Calculus if you’re not performative.
First things first, a shout-out to my Dungeons & Dragons Friday night campaign group for this amazing quote and, just, y’know, for being the best damn group of friends I’ve ever had, honestly.
It’s not hard to see why tabletop RPGs, especially D&D, seem very much like the stereotypical Straight Boys Club. Just think of every time you’ve seen it portrayed in media not by real players. Then think of all the times you’ve gone into your local friendly game shop and who you’ve seen playing Magic, or Warhammer, or discussing the latest supplement book for Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder. Got the picture in your mind? Think about who you’re actually seeing in that real life example, rather than the example that the media has portrayed.
Chances are good reality is way less male, less white, and less straight than you would ever imagine based on the representation in media. Although, truth be told, that last one is nearly impossible to tell. But trust me when I say that your local game shop is a lot more diverse than you might expect. Why is that? Well, for one, the game literally puts diversity into the rule book [ 1 ]! But to say this is purely what drove Queer and marginalized people into the hobby and community would be disingenuous at best and probably an outright lie at worst. Many of the people I know into D&D either stumbled on it because of the growth of the community, or things like Critical Role and The Adventure Zone.
I’ve spoken about both Critical Role and The Adventure Zone before, at great length. I’ll likely do it many more times in the future (especially when the podcast and web series portions of this series crop up), despite its being full of heterosexual people for the most part. One player, Taliesin Jaffe [ 2 ] is a bisexual man, but it’s mostly still a bunch of straight people. And that’s fine, straight folks like playing D&D too. The point, however, is not how many of our voices are being projected into people’s computers every Thursday (or every other Thursday, for the McElroys and The Adventure Zone), although that can be helpful.
These men and women have shown the D&D community to be an inclusive one. They show love and respect for people within the community as well as representing people of all walks of life, including asexual player characters and nonbinary NPCs for Critical Role, and a gay player character with a trans woman sister for The Adventure Zone. While this doesn’t completely contradict the feeling that the Dungeons & Dragons community or even the tabletop RPG scene has a Straight Boys Club problem, it does give a much stronger indication that we are more welcome than we ever have been.
But therein lies the problem: Sure, Queer characters being treated with respect and kindness is a good start, and it’s an even stronger step to make a trans woman not only a powerful spellcaster in her own right, but one who gets the happy and respectful romantic ending, rather than painting her as something one has to “settle” for and “learn” to love. It’s a bit more complex than that. Or rather, it’s not that complex a solution, but a more complex problem.
Representation is important, of course. The world is filled with diverse people as a default. But when it’s straight people portraying LGBTQ+ characters, with all due respect that representation feels inadequate. While it’s not as bad as it has been, and things have definitely been on the rise, it is always disheartening to see yourself on the screen as little more than an act [ 3 ]. But let’s be clear, being portrayed on screen by a straight actor not simply trying to mock or belittle your existence feels incredible. Or, well, I imagine it feels incredible. I’m trans and we don’t… really get that [ 4 ]. But this isn’t the topic for that discussion and, trust me, that storm is coming.
But back onto the topic at hand, while it feels nice to be portrayed as someone who is not a stereotype rife for laughs, having podcasts like Thrilling Intent with a trans woman like Fae Kells [ 5 ] in the main cast, or Critical Role with Taliesin Jaffe as a bisexual man, it feels good to know, as Amanda McLoughlin from the Join the Party podcast, “I am not just welcome in this universe; I am a part of it” [ 6 ]. And there’s the rub. How do you make players feel like they are a part of your world? Well, obviously, Queer characters added to your game can make them feel included, but there’s always gonna be that one jerk who wants to play the straightest, whitest, most unnervingly ill-tempered Barbarian he can and wants you to know he’s going to the tavern to find a waitress to seduce. That cannot be avoided short of excluding Kyle over here from your game. But Dungeons & Dragons is a game for everyone. So…
It’s really this simple, y’all
Make it for everyone. It’s no mystery that D&D is, once again, kind of the bastion of weird, smelly nerds [ 7 ]. If that sounds like a hurtful stereotype, it is. It’s so permeated into our subconscious, however, that merely thinking of Dungeons & Dragons conjures up the unfair aesthetic that does little more than belittle the community. But stop and think, especially if you don’t have a D&D or Pathfinder group of your own to play with. Completely subtract the idea of social ineptitude, give ’em all a good shower and a strict diet. And think of the one thing that stands out not as a vile insult, but more as just a “truth.”
Even if you are familiar with the likes of Critical Role and The Adventure Zone. Think about the faces you see, most of all, in that group? It’s probably mostly, or in some cases entirely, men, probably straight, likely white. And now think of a random character in a fantasy movie or show. Maybe it’s Lord of the Rings. Maybe it’s Final Fantasy. Maybe it’s Shrek. How many of them are Queer and not used for a punchline?
I don’t mean head canons or fan theories that tell you that Cloud Strife is asexual. These are valid in their own place, but I’m talking explicit and in-canon. How many non-straight or non-cisgender characters are there in these shows, movies, games, and other media? Go ahead, count them on as many fingers and toes as you need. Done? How many did you need? Yeah, that number is around zero, at least for the ones I listed. About the only Queer character I can come up with from the three I listed, excluding problematic jokes (Pinocchio wearing “women’s underwear,” for example) is one barely named character called Beautiful Bro in a gym full of crossdressers, in a mini-game dedicated to dressing Cloud up like a woman to help your friend infiltrate a creepy sex dungeon [ 8 ]. There is the problem.
But the fine people over at Wizards of the Coast are doing their damnedest to make Dungeons & Dragons as Queer-friendly as possible in the best ways [ 9 ]. This, ladies, gentlemen, and nonbinary folks of all kinds, is how you make us feel welcome. But WotC isn’t the first to introduce Queer characters, and hopefully aren’t going to be the last. There have been many before them and, considering the success in the Queer community, there will be many more. But WotC has come a long way from its past that we talked about, with the whole Belt of Gender Change [ 10 ]. While there are always going to be troubling stereotypes, sometimes those stereotypes can be used as a broader discussion.
Look at the X-Men, for example. They fit as pretty much a stand-in of any marginalized group you’ve got, and they still work. The overarching allegory of the “pretty ones” being able to live in “polite society,” but the second Scott loses his glasses and outs himself as a mutant, even the staunchest supporter clucks their teeth and comments how he should just keep it private.
And who is more marginalized than vampires? Okay that’s a bit of a stretch I’ll admit, but yeah this is a segue into Vampire: The Masquerade’s Queer characters. Vampires are very much a part of LGBTQ culture [ 11 ]. It seems a bit negative on the outset, but just as vampires started out as a predatory force that depletes the life from their victim to recruit more of their own (which, despite the similarities, is not an allegory for the AIDS epidemic, if nothing else can be said of the portrayal), and slowly became a romantic and sought-after identity that people love to portray and explore… so, too, have Queer people become a much more celebrated part of society. So where does that fit into Vampire: The Masquerade? Clearly, they depart heavily from the classic Vampire tropes. There are multiple clans with unique powers. While some, like the ability to summon bats and turn into a wolf, are classic vampire mythology, others, like blood magic, seem wholly developed for the game itself.
One clan in particular twists the most attractive and charismatic into horrifying visages reminiscent of the classic Nosferatu vampire movies, which they were named after. One such example is known as The Equalizer, notable in that not only were they painted as one of the “Beautiful People” that the Curse of Vampirism twisted into the horrific Nosferatu clan [ 12 ]. It showed a truly agnostic look at Queerness. They weren’t turned into the artsy Toreador, or the high and mighty Ventrue. They weren’t even pigeonholed into the rebellious Brujah.
But furthermore, it subverts the “Bury Your Gays” trope that says that Queer characters die to advance the story of straight ones, by giving the Queer character not only life after death (in a sense), but a sense of belonging among those who were tossed out of society. Horror and cyberpunk, despite what one might think of bleak and otherwise dark settings, can be surprisingly Queer friendly. But rules and such are one thing. What about actually playing these characters? And worse yet, what if you misstep and realize your character is kind of… unfriendly representation? Well, you course-correct.
‘I am a fully realized creation’ [ 12 ]!
Let’s face it. If you aren’t Queer, it’s highly likely that you’ll screw up your representation of Queer characters. It won’t always be something terrible or hateful, and it won’t always be something you can’t walk back. Ideally, it will never be so bad that people feel so insulted by that you they just do not want to talk with you or feel like they can’t trust you anymore. But if you do screw up, the best way to handle it is, well, apologize and learn.
First and foremost, saying “I’m sorry” is the least you can do. Sometimes it’s the most you should do. As a trans woman, my trans friends and I can attest that being misgendered sucks. But what also sucks is the constant “I’m sorry, god I screwed up, I’m awful,” that many people will resort to when they slip up. This centers the wrong person in the conversation, as it focuses on the “anguish” of the person who did the misgendering instead of how the person who was yet again misgenders feels.
I am not too proud to admit that back when I identified as cisgender then bisexual, I slipped into this when screwing up. But with most things, a simple “Oh my bad” and course-correcting is all that is due. Simple mistakes need simple apologies. What if you’re a celebrity, and the voice you’re using for your character comes off as a homophobic stereotype? Unfortunately, that might require a bit more of an explanation [ 13 ]. And that’s fine. No one is perfect, we all make mistakes, and these kinds of things can be very helpful in mending fences.
But what about the oft mentioned “Bury Your Gays” trope? Does death get thrown out the window for Queer characters simply because they are Queer? That doesn’t seem right because otherwise you have no way to reasonably challenge and threaten Queer characters. Unfortunately, there is no real solid answer for that.
Many will argue that a straight DM, especially someone like Matt Mercer, has no right to attempt to finish off a downed Queer character (with a Queer player, no less). But it’s hard to say if that’s fair. In a scripted sequence, it can be troubling. It can even be downright insulting to watch the only representation you’ve got figuratively tossed into the trashcan because they’re little more than a prop for the straight characters to mourn. The treatment is no better for women in general (with specific terminology—“fridging”—for being killed off, in case you were curious), as little more than catalysts for growth for straight male heroes. But, again, there’s no solid concrete answer. I can’t say “it’s always wrong” or “it’s never wrong,” because that, dear reader, is subjective. But as a former bisexual, now-trans woman who DMs on occasion? All bets are off.
The truth is that character death has always been a contentious issue, and it’s one with a million different approaches. Some DMs will fudge die rolls to ensure PCs don’t out-and-out bite it if they’re in danger of dying. Others will strictly adhere to a “the dice are what they are” mentality, letting any and all characters end up face-down in Flanders Field if things go south. Others still will, undoubtedly, play favorites in “saving” characters they like and “letting” characters die that they don’t like, or disapprove of.
For whatever reason, including homophobia, sexism, player stupidity or just simply being a vindictive jerk. What’s important is that a DM and their players need to have explicit conversations about how character death is handled in their game and the likelihood of it occurring before the dice start rolling. Many DMs will also say that, only under certain circumstances, the “safety is off” for a specific game session—implying that this one will be potentially more deadly than others.
It’s this open and honest conversation that’s the linchpin here. Without clearly establishing expectations, and without allowing everyone involved to have fully informed consent regarding those expectations, character death will continue to be an issue. And not just for Queer or Queer-coded characters, either—for everyone. “Rocks fall and everyone dies” is more than just a meme sometimes!
Jokes/threats about destroying my player’s creations aside, however, the Dungeons & Dragons community has grown drastically in recent years. Tabletops in general are becoming more colorful, Queerer, and less of a Boys Club, as are video games, movies, comics… but we’ll get to those, just you wait, dear reader.
The real point I want to drive home, however, is that the community has opened up and accepted us for who we are. Source books explicitly encourage being yourself, Queer designers are making their own products and statements, we’re being included in incredibly popular podcasts as major NPCs and characters. We’re not being shoved into the Very Special Episode niche of when the Straights feel the need to flex about how good they are as allies anymore.
Queer folk have always gathered around in the world’s basements, dice in hand, to play D&D and other tabletop games. This is nothing new, even if it wasn’t out in the open much of the time. Today, we are thankfully in a time when Queer nerds are not forced to hang out in the basement closet. Dungeons & Dragons has had a renaissance of success and a surge of popularity it hasn’t seen since probably the 1980s, and this time there’s about 70 percent less worrying about “Devil worship.” The Queer community has gone with it, making D&D, and, in the process, local and hobby stores, into safe spaces [ 14 ], places where the Queer community, notably Queer youths, feels respected, protected, and most of all, allowed to be themselves [ 15 ]. At least more than they felt they could be at home in many instances.
If you’ve read my past articles, you’ve heard me discuss the idea of the Diversity Lounge at PAX East, and how my worry was that it’d be a “Weirdo Room”—essentially a way to self-segregate the Queer con goers and guests from everyone else. If you have not, I’ll summarize: It was an incredibly open series of extra-large panel rooms acting more as a “base” for many of these booths that might not be big enough for the main show floor, with programming spread out around the panel rooms over the entire weekend, with merchandise and developers. Although it did get a mixed response in its first year [ 16 ]. And for those curiously reading the “Tabletop RPG” title and finding a video game convention segue, yes, there’s a PAX Unplugged variant [ 17 ]!
Overall, the tabletop community has opened its arms and welcomed us into it in a stunning and beautiful way. Are there holdouts? Of course there are—just as there are in any evolving community. Bigots are gonna bigot. But in general, Queer folk feel more at home, more loved, but most importantly, safer. Safer to write our stories, our romances, our triumphs. No longer is a villain gay coded because of society’s demonizing of us, but because villains are hot. There are more characters, both player and otherwise, using they/them pronouns.
The noble knight clad in his heavy armor and wielding the power of the gods introduces you to his husband, rather than his wife. The Orc tribe celebrates two Name-Days for its High Shaman: One for her birth, and one for her transition. But most importantly of all, we get to be ourselves in a world that is still more than a little weirded out by us. Nothing feels more comforting than the truth that, despite what might be happening outside our windows, in our minds we are champions and heroes, rebels and guardians. And no bigot can ever take that from us.
- “In tune with inspirational sources such as Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, White Wolf’s Vampire: the Masquerade has always been a haven for queer representation, for decades.” Deagreez. “Halloween. The Girls Are Dressed in Sexy Evil Nuns.” Adobe Stock, stock.adobe.com/images/halloween-the-girls-are-dressed-in-sexy-evil-nuns/89951043?prev_url=detail. Accessed 17 July 2022.
- “LGBTQ-owned ‘Snowbright Studios’ has produced a series of queer friendly D&D modules, Teatime Adventures.” SnowbrightStudio. “Teatime Adventures: A Cozy, Queer Series of DnD One-Shot Adventures.” Reddit, 21 June 2021, reddit.com/r/ainbow/comments/o51d3e/teatime_adventures_a_cozy_queer_series_of_dnd.
A cosplayer who’s worked with Nerd Caliber and Cosplay Court Case, Juno Rebecca Delphi combines an academic approach to otherwise “flippant” subjects with significant attention to detail. In addition to her love of gaming, Juno’s an accomplished fiction writer, performer, and nerdy historian, but is most passionate when it comes to social justice and queer culture. Originally joining Steam-Funk Studios in 2014, Juno’s personal journey has been revelatory, as she continues to evolve.
- Rudolph, Dana. “New Dungeons & Dragons Rules Embrace Diverse Gender Identities, Sexual Orientation,” Huffington Post, 6 December 2017, huffpost.com/entry/new-dungeons-dragons-rule_b_5595244.
- Geek and Sundry. “Wednesday Club: Love is love! w/ Mark Andreyko and Taliesin, Matt, and Amy #PrideWeek,” Twitch, 2017. clips.twitch.tv/AthleticHonorableKittenChefFrank.
- Armitage, Hugh. “The Only 7 Ways You Were Allowed to be LGBTQ+ in ’90s Movies,” Digital Spy, 4 July 2018, digitalspy.com/movies/a860896/lgbtq-gay-stereotypes-90s-movies/.
- Ferguson, McKenna.“Why OINTB Refuses to Say the Word ‘Bisexual’,” Pride, 30 June 2016, pride.com/oitnb/2016/6/30/why-oitnb-refuses-say-word-bisexual.
- Kells, Fae. Twitter. twitter.com/schadenfae.
- Amanda, “Roll for Kinsey Scale: The Official Queering of D&D,” Join the Party podcast, 28 August 2017, medium.com/@jointhepartypod/roll-for-kinsey-scale-the-official-Queering-of-d-d-dd6d402cd39f.
- Myers, Derek. “Stereotypical Gamers—Debunking the Myths,” Dungeonmaster, 22 April 2013, dungeonsmaster.com/2013/04/stereotypes/.
- Strategy Wiki, “Final Fantasy VII/Wall Market.” strategywiki.org/wiki/Final_Fantasy_VII/Wall_Market.
- D’Anastasio, Cecilia. “Dungeons & Dragons Promises to Make Its Adventures More Queer,” Kotaku, 24 August 2017, kotaku.com/dungeons-dragons-promises-to-make-the-game-more-Queer-1798401117.
- North, Jenny, Transgender Graphics and Fiction Archive web site, tgfa.org/rpg/items/girdle.htm.
- Primuth, Richard. “Vampires Are Us,” The Gay Lesbian Review, 11 February 2014, glreview.org/article/vampires-are-us/.
- McElroy, Griffin, et al. “Ep. 23: Petals to the Metal—Chapter Six/Transcript,” The Adventure Zone podcast, 10 September 2015, theadventurezone.fandom.com/wiki/Ep._23:_Petals_to_the_Metal_-_Chapter_Six/Transcript.
- McElroy, Griffin, et al. “The Adventure Zone Zone (episode)/Transcript”, 17 March 2016, theadventurezone.fandom.com/wiki/The_The_Adventure_Zone_Zone_(episode)/Transcript.
- Dragon’s Lair Facebook group, facebook.com/DragonsLairTCG/.
- Girl’s Best Friend Foundation, “Creating Safe Space for GLBTQ Youth: A Toolkit,” Advocates for Youth, 2005, advocatesforyouth.org/wp-content/uploads/storage//advfy/documents/safespace.pdf.
- Grayson, Nathan. “Was PAX East’s Diversity Lounge a Success? Asked People Who Went,” Kotaku, 21 April 2014, kotaku.com/was-pax-easts-diversity-lounge-a-success-i-asked-peopl-1564499083.
- Tabletop Gaymers, Conventions page, 2020, tabletopgaymers.org/conventions/.