Friday, October 23, 2015

Sexuality Matters in Roleplaying Games (And Here's Why)

Anyone who's played Pathfinder, or the 5th edition of Dungeons and Dragons, has likely noticed the effort both Paizo and Wizards of the Coast have put in to attract a more diverse audience to their games. Pathfinder's adventures involve NPCs of various genders and sexualities, and Dungeons and Dragons opened with language that made it clear that the game world doesn't necessarily resemble the world we live in when it comes to sexual and romantic norms. Both of these were covered in greater detail over at Mighty Meep, for those who want to know more.

The companies' decisions to use more inclusive language, and to present a wider diversity in their game worlds, was met with a positive reception from many players. Some players had a significantly more negative response to the language, and the conversations they sparked. Those who didn't want to hear any more about it, or who simply didn't want to deal with an expanded spectrum of sexual orientation, asked a very loud question to which they didn't actually want an answer.

The question "Why does any of this matter?" or "Why do we care?" is an attempt to silence discussion by implying that the issue of sexuality either doesn't matter, or is inappropriate for roleplaying games. You know, the games that have succubi in them.

So, let's dig a little deeper, shall we?

Sex and Sexuality Have Always Been Part of RPGs

Before we go any further, let's dispel the myth that RPGs were clean, wholesome things that had no sexual aspects to them in the past. As far back as the first edition of Dungeons and Dragons there was a chart for what kind of prostitutes players encountered. There are entire encounters which hinge on the strategy of sexual temptation, from female bandits in the forest, to vampires that press themselves against you before sinking their fangs into your neck. Sure, we can have a chicken or the egg discussion about whether it's the game or the mythology it draws on, but the point is that there have always been aspects of sex and sexuality in RPGs.

If there weren't, then the joke about how the bard sleeps with everything would never have become a stereotype.

Representation, and Identification With Your Character

Representation and identification are two, big issues when it comes to RPGs. On the one hand, we want to play people who are very different from who we are so we can escape into the fantasy. At the same time, though, we want to be able to identify with these characters in some way. So, while the greatsword wielding barbarian may be literally twice the player's size, maybe he shares the player's ethnicity. Alternatively, maybe the character and the player grew up in similar places (rural, urban, etc.), or have similar family structures. Maybe they share certain religious convictions, or philosophical beliefs (the strong protect the weak, for example).

In many cases the low-hanging fruit is that the character and the player have the same sexual preferences.

Whatever those may be.
If a player is heterosexual, then there's not likely going to be an issue. That sort of sexuality is built into most games, even if it never shows up on screen, so to speak. But imagine if you had a player at the table who was gay. Will they receive a similar experience?

Let's create a situation for comparison. Say that Dave joins your game, and he brings a cleric. We're all forward-thinking, inclusive players, so we accept that Dave, as a person, likes men. Dave likes to game, and he runs a good cleric. But we make it very clear that gay characters are not allowed in this game world, and when they do show up they face extreme prejudice. So, while John's bard can leave a trail of illegitimate pregnancies from one town to the next without any trouble, if Dave's cleric looks too longingly at the bartender, it might result in him having to roll initiative.

Sounds like things are a little out of whack, doesn't it? Flip that scenario on its head, and ask yourself if heterosexual players were told that heterosexual characters would be mistreated and punished in the game world, while homosexual characters would be accepted as average. Would we be quick to answer any player displeasure by telling them to just deal with the way the world is?

The scenario doesn't have to be that blatant, either. It could simply be that, no matter what Dave's character does to find NPC companionship (perhaps because he wants to create actual ties to the community, and possibly gain a cohort who also happens to be his lover), the DM just refuses to allow him to succeed. In this case no one is saying Dave's character can't be gay, but there is a not-so-subtle message that he'll be the only gay male character in the entire world.

That's more than a little alienating, since the implication is that heterosexuality is fine, and can easily be met with character development and/or off-screen love affairs, but homosexuality will receive no such attention.

I Don't Want Sex In My Game At ALL, Though!

Here's something that often gets overlooked in this discussion. Sex and sexuality are two different things.

Though I can see how you might confuse the two.
Saying that sex is inappropriate for your game, for whatever reason, is fine. Perhaps you feel it cheapens the story, or it simply makes other players uncomfortable. That's something every table will have to work out for itself regarding what it wants out of a game. Sexuality isn't sex, though. Sexuality is someone's preferences, and what that person is attracted to.

Those things matter in order to flesh the character out more fully.

There's the aspect of character identification and representation that we already covered. Beyond that, though, a character's sexuality is an important part of who they are, and how they came to be where they are now. Sexuality, and the character's feelings about sexuality, comes as a result of life events and experience, and it may play into character motivations and life goals, in addition to just informing part of the character's personality.

As an example, let's say someone is playing a cleric of a god or goddess of love. Were they allowed to explore their own personal tastes in a secure environment in order to bring them a greater understanding of attraction and relationships? Would that sort of faith lead to someone who is empathetic toward the plight of others, and who is tolerant of the needs different people have? Alternatively, say you're playing a transmuter. As the wizard grows in power, ideas like race, and even gender, may cease to have meaning. When you can change yourself into so many different things, what does that do to your perception of sexuality and desire? Does the wizard, for example, find certain forms to be more pleasurable than others? Or does the transmuter cease to see someone's body, since all bodies can be altered, and learn to form connections with deeper aspects of who people truly are?

Does the tribal hunter want to prove his strength so he can be deemed a fit match for the shaman's daughter? Will the knight attempt to win honors in order to seem a more appealing prospect as a husband? Do the rogue and the paladin become friends, and then lovers, traveling and adventuring together in order to keep the other safe? These are just a few possible ways that a character's sexuality can mix into their goals and motivations.

A character may also be someone who is asexual, focusing on non-sexual relationships exclusively. Characters may also be pansexual, and could be attracted to a wide variety of genders, as well as races in a fantasy setting. In short, by ignoring a character's sexuality you are ignoring a huge part of who they are, and how they developed. Even if those aspects never show up in the game itself, they may affect what kinds of decisions PCs make, and how they act. Sexuality, gender, physical appearance, these are all things that have no spot on the character sheet, but they can be a serious difference between a unique, interesting character, and one that is completely forgettable.

It could also lead to plot complications when the ninja decides she's going to seduce the baron, only to find that his preferences tend to run more toward bearded, broad-shouldered knights.

EDIT: A point was brought up during discussion of this topic that sex and sexuality affects more than just one player's character. In a very real sense, it touches all aspects of a society, and the culture that helps shape people's attitudes about what is desirable, and what is allowed. Different cultures have different mating rituals, and different ways that desire is expressed. Some societies may assign the role of stoic resistor to one party while the other pursues, whereas others may have formalized rules of courtship. Some may have certain vows or promises that must be made, or gifts that must be exchanged. Some societies place a high value on a single pairing, whereas others will have more complicated rules for polyamorous relationships. Even if a character isn't actively pursuing sex, or looking to form sexual relationships, their perspectives of "normal" will be influenced by these cultural norms, and what they experienced growing up before becoming adventurers.

Thanks for reading to the end of this entry. I know it's a tough one, but next week I'll have something a little more light-hearted to make up for it. If you want to make sure you don't miss any of my updates, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. If you want to help support me and my blog, then drop by my Patreon page to toss a little bread in my jar. If you become a patron before the end of November, there's even a free book in it for you!


  1. Note that the harlot table is from AD&D first edition, not original D&D. So we're talking at least 5-6 years after the original. Doesn't change or invalidate your argument any, just like to get things correct. Agree that the early days were often extremely mysogynistic and heteronormative. I don't know about anybody else, but I barely knew that level of diversity existed. I think I'm better now.

  2. I understand the desire to be more inclusive but in believable worlds thefe are going to be taboos and prejudices. As much as the barbarian may be unfairly chastised as a stupid brute despite being from a poetic, family oriented culture that forges steel like no other culture we can also expect that in some places one's secular orientation is not going to be acceptable to the general populace.

    This is just how world's work.

    1. This is true, Eli. However, we can also agree that worlds and cultures are not universal. What is taboo in one place is accepted in another.

    2. So you can believe in a world where elves and dwarves and orcs exist, but not one where homophobia doesn't?

    3. Unknown, I believe in world where nothing is universal. Just as orcs may be considered dangerous raiders in the north, there's no history of conflicts in the deserts of the south. As such, while northerners may view orcs with hostility and distrust, southern tribes may see them as just another race, out trying to survive.

      Yes, a society may be homophobic. However, not ALL of them will be. In much the same way a tiefling may be a shameful curse in one kingdom, it may be a mark of favor in another. Gay relations may be tolerated in one place, made a crime in another, and considered completely unremarkable in a third.

      The point is that these decisions need to be made for our fictional cultures in realistic ways. By just blanket stamping something so you don't have to deal with it, you're not running a cleaner or better game. You're just sticking your fingers in your ears, and not answering the question being asked.

    4. well Neal, you can certainly make an all inclusive world where everyone is accepted no matter what, however reality and history have shown this to be false, thus making it an ideal or wish.

      Other Dm's may wish to align their worlds more in line with how our world has progressed. That is their prerogative.

    5. This is quite true, Josh. I am a schmuck with a keyboard. If what comes out of my head is enough to make a DM feel completely insecure about the games he or she is running, it might be a good idea to tear them down and rebuild from scratch.

      I have ideas. I share them here. If people like them, they should use them. If they don't, that's fine. There's no point in yelling at me, though, as it's pretty clear what my thoughts are since I took the time to write the posts.

      *Post Script: The idea that a game world should reflect real Earth history is something a DM can choose to do. However, justifying anything in a game world that isn't Earth by saying "that's how it would be in the 1200s here" is ridiculous, because they don't share the same history. Also, magic.

    6. So sad to see people who fight dragons cannot see a world were gay people (which are very real) are accepted.

    7. "however reality and history have shown this to be false" Oh, right, I forgot about that historical accuracy we need to adhere to when making up fantasy worlds 9_9 (y'know, never mind the examples of homosexuality and transsexualtiy being acceptable throughout history)

    8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. AD&D, especially in some Gygax adventures (check out a highly influential gay couple in The Village of Hommlet), we're subtly inclusive. Also, the reaction table could be interpreted any way you want. The issues detailed in your blog are important but even your examples point more toward DM fiat than to system rules or campaign setting.

    1. The idea, p1r8 was to write something applicable for all games (or at least for as many as I know of). Whether it's sci-fi, fantasy, horror, etc. this isn't an issue that affects JUST DND or JUST Pathfinder. It isn't a mechanical issue. While there are some settings that are attempting to include cultural attitudes in order to make deeper worlds, there are still a LOT of DMs out there who make their own settings. As such, these issues become their issues.

  4. Oh no, Neal, agree with you. I think with the younger rpg crowd they need to be reminded that just because something isn't explicitly endorsed doesn't mean it's excluded.

    In my 25+ years of gaming I can't remember a time when i, as a heterosexual man, didn't game with someone who wasn't LGBTQ. It wasn't until the rise of the internet that I encountered these machismo types.

    Now I find myself DMing 1e AD&D with my my gay daughter, playing a male homosexual ranger, in Forgotten Realms, seemlessly.

    DMs who miss out any type of variety in their campaigns are totally missing out.

    Ps. Dragon sexuality... scary.

  5. The question "Why does any of this matter?" or "Why do we care?" is an attempt to silence discussion by implying that the issue of sexuality either doesn't matter, or is inappropriate for roleplaying games. You know, the games that have succubi in them.

    Absolutely not. Someone saying you're attempting to silence them is attempting to silence you. "Why does this matter" is a legitimate question, to which you should, and DO Have a legitimate answer.

    1. Ok. Tell me why it matters. I'm gay, ive been playing since i was 9 im in my 30s and I simply don't get it. NOT having homosexuals does not mean Homosexuality is bad. It means nobody thought to change the story to add them in, because nobody in my grp gives a shit.

    2. The reason it matters is two fold. First, if a player wants to use sexuality to make a character more relatable to him or herself, they should be allowed to do that. The second, as mentioned above, is that it is an aspect of a character that should be considered. Even if you never bring it into game, even if it never affects your rolls, you need to ask yourself what your character's sexuality is, and why.

      Why do you need to ask that? For the same reason you ask what their religion is, how tall they are, who their family members are, and what qualities they look for in friends. Because it's a part of who the character is, and therefore it should be explored to make them a deeper concept.

    3. The big question is how important is this aspect to both you AND your players. If this is something that makes the characters more relatable to the players then as the GM you need to consider it. Over the years I have tried to add depth into my campaign that is usable or not at the desire of the players. For the first 10 years of my gaming experience I was in the military so my group of players changed often as both I and players transferred in and out as our careers took us.As such the sexual tone ranged from the Ale and Wenches antics of the crew I ran at my technical school to the ongoing relationship that became the central plot device for our main warrior. (I had run a maiden rescue mission for the players and the description I gave for the maiden just happened to also match his wife who was station elsewhere for most of the time I knew him. So he decided to have his character court and eventually marry the maiden.)

  6. What this post boils down to is your opinion on sexuality in games, though you tried to mask it like something of earth shattering importance, and absolute necessity.

    If you want to run games geared towards all sexualities, that is your choice. Don't act like every DM who doesn't is a terrible close minded person

    1. Very well written post though! It is a relief to see that there are some out there capable of formulating an opinion and logically defending it, rather than just spouting hate at anyone who disagrees with you.

    2. I've passed no judgment on DMs who choose to let heterosexual characters act on those impulses in game, but who will not provide the same RP cookie to other PCs.

      My opinion, since that's what we're discussing, is that players should always attempt to bring fully-realized characters to the table. That means they should know their name, their physical size, scars, tattoos, family history, religion, what motivates them to adventure, and if possible some of those character's life goals. Somewhere in there should also be the character's moral compass, thoughts on gender, and what he or she finds attractive.

      It is a fact that this is an area of character development that players can choose to pursue. It is my opinion that this area is often glossed over, or ignored entirely, when it isn't being used for comedic relief.

    3. I honestly think a normal player this kind of thing does not occure too. Its a game that challenges creativity which means everything is open ended. I think honestly, this matters to people who care way too much and invest themselves into the fantasy way too seriously.

    4. I have to pipe in on this. So as a gamemaster/dungeonmaster you wouldn't allow me, an intersex, genderfluid individual, to create a character that embodies one of those traits? (for those who aren't aware, because I have been asked: Intersex means a person is born with both sexes. Genderfluid means that a person may wake up as a different gender on any given day.)

      (Please ignore my profile. I haven't touched this thing since I was like 13 years old and it is rather cringey.)

  7. When I was setting up the religious metaphysics for my campaign I decided to work on the idea that various gods had multiple "aspects" depending on the collection of portfolios they carried. (I borrowed heavily from the ideas MAR Barker used for his Tekumel setting and game.)
    One of the more interesting projects was deciding on the different aspects of the goddess Ishtar. historically she was patron to magic, wives, mothers, and the harvest among others. In early times in our own history her worship included sacred prostitutes and ritual deflowering of maidens prior to marriage. So we have Ishtar worshiped in her aspect as mother in one part of the temple and another shrine elsewhere celebrating her as the patron of love in its many forms physical as well as spiritual. Each priest/ess in the temple has their own rituals each just as important to the worship of Ishtar as any other.
    I have had a few players take this and use it to add depth to their characters, not just the clerics but other classes because it is common that a person revere the pantheon and chose to directly worship various patrons whose aspects reflect those things important to the individual.
    My best example was a sorceress who followed Ishtar as the source of magic and patron of lovers as well as Thoth in his aspect as keeper of knowledge and revealer of secrets. The player was in a committed relationship with another girl (not in our playing circle) and reflected that in the sorceress who was pursuing a relationship with the female owner of the inn the party used as their base of operations.

  8. Neal, I've just recently happened upon your blog and i gotta say I am quite entertained and brought into deep thought by many of your topics. It's interesting that something I've just recently noticed about characters I've been making is that I've actually started considering their sexuality and how it came to be: life experience vs. born whatever way. I've gotta say it's an interesting exercise of character psyche to plumb those depths of a character's being.
    One such character (I'll do my best to keep this short, I know how we gamers ramble on about our characters) is a Drow I'm about to start playing in Pathfinder. He was always treated little better than as a slave even though he was by birth better than actual slaves (drow superiority). Being cruel at heart he would inflict terrible things on the actual slaves he was in charge of, his own sexual frustrations included. Well over time the company of men (gladiators specifically) became what he grew comfortable with especially given the cruelty of the women he knew. Well now that he's had some change of soul and is trying to live a life of virtue due to a God's interference in his life he has found that emotional and physical love with women is difficult. As such he identifies as bi-sexual with a preference of men.
    He's found support from his newly acquired religious brethren to accept himself and be a better self, which has made him accepting of who he is and who he loves.
    Well that's that little tale and while I have another I don't want to bore you and everyone else. Keep up the great and thought provoking writing, I'll be reading!

  9. There are going to be some campaigns that are pretty much all inclusive as to what any player wants to do with their character. There are going to be other campaigns that take themselves more seriously. Those campaigns are going to enact consequences for when characters break the laws or taboos dictated by the world. I think the article downplays the value and intent behind those sorts of worlds and that type of role play. Many campaigns incorporate aspects of racism, slavery, prostitution etc... and yet the players, the GM, or the campaign creator aren't necessarily condoning those practices. They are saying this is the way it works in this world. These sorts of rules make the world more interesting and realistic. They also provide detail and controversy that the players usually require in order to interact with the world. So because a world is homophobic, racist or sexually repressed doesn't mean that's an indictment of the group or the trpg community as a whole. In fact you can run a very inclusive and robust campaign for all, within that setting. Also for what it's worth I would totally run a world or society where it's taboo to be exclusively heterosexual. I think that would be an interesting world to interact with and something that might challenge most players in a lighthearted way.

    1. I believe the issue you are focusing on is more in a player unable to enjoy a game and a gm's refusal to work with their players.

      Most GMs I have played with, ran the world they created by us to make sure everyone was comfortable with it before playing, however I have had GMs that didn't accept player input on triggering subjects. (I don't use the word "triggering" lightly here, I mean something that causes intense mental distress due to PTSD, an anxiety disorder, or other mental disability or handicapp.)

  10. Thank you for a lengthy, reasonable apologetic on the sexuality issue in gaming. I don't agree with your conclusions, but I am glad that you have an outlet for your opinion. And I am glad that you no longer feel persecuted for your opinion. I like your entry, because in recent years, there has been an aggressive campaign by Paizo to promote alternatively views of sexuality. Too aggressive in my opinion. Though, I can understand that people feel suppressed and will likely come out strongly now that they have the bully pulpit. So to speak.

    So. Enjoy your game! Continue exercising your freedom of speech. And God bless you.