🏳️‍🌈Pride Month- Celebrating Representation in TTRPGs🏳️‍🌈

Snarf Zagyg

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This is an update and edit from a prior post. Please note there will be references to mature subject matter in games in this post. While it is not explicit, it is present.

June is LGBTQI+ month* in the United States (aka Pride Month), and I wanted to make a post celebrating that Pride in the TTRPG sphere by posting a little bit of history related to representation in TTRPGs and some general thoughts about that representation and why it matters. In addition, I hoped that people could use the comments to discuss some of the amazing contributors to the hobby we have had over the years, or any other positive things in light of the month.

*That's the official proclamation.

THE HISTORY OF QUEER REPRESENTATION
1. The Early Years- From the 70s through the Aughts.


The early years of TTRPGs have a reputation, not entirely undeserved, of being an unwelcoming space for those who did not fit in- whether due to gender, skin color, or (as befits this post) queer and LGBT+ issues. That standard surface view, reinforced by some retrogressive attitudes today as well as stories about games like FATAL, isn't a completely accurate portrayal of what was really going on.

(Note, I will be using "queer" as an inclusive term from this point on.)

The earliest years of TTRPGs, before the "Egbert explosion," were dominated by college-age and older individuals. As such, there was a much more mature style of gameplay. This doesn't necessarily translate to "open" in the way we think of today- after all, this was 50 years ago, and Stonewall had just occurred in 1969! While there aren't a lot of contemporaneous accounts of what exactly was going, we can see the hints of it, especially as younger players began to flood in and playing in 1979. Dragon 36 recounts the experience of one DM at a convention being flustered when running an adventure for a group with mixed ages that had prostitutes (of both genders) that were offering their wares to the party. Earlier, there had been articles discussing how TTRPGs were useful ways to explore psychological aspects of the character you are playing, and in so doing, perhaps gain greater insight into yourself.

Given the mature nature of the market, it is unsurprising that we can see that sexuality was part of the hobby from the beginning. In 1975, Greg Costikyan had made a system for sex in D&D, and it contained affiliations for heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual, transexual, or "extraordinary" (with fetishes) for characters. (All terminology from original article). This being the era of dicing and tables, it had rules for generating a "sex drive" attribute, with admonitions that a Paladin's sex drive could not be higher than 14. Further explanation of the article would run afoul of the board's rules. (Source- The Elusive Shift, A&E 12). Further, while I hesitate to mention it because of other ... more recent issues regarding the creator of the setting that have come to light, it was also the case the Tekumel explicitly referenced a non-heteronormative relationship.

Arguably, the 1980s changed this approach, at least in America; I would say that the combination of overall culture (the "Reagan 80s" and the moral panic over HIV), the massive influx of young players starting in 1979 to the point where pre-teens and teens were buying the majority of TSR's products, and the Satanic Panic combined to make overt sexuality a much more fraught topic for TTRPGs. The changes in the rules, the art, and even in material around it (such as Dragon Magazine) in the 1980s made for a game that would either present a chaste (if violent) look, or a heteronormative "teen-safe" approach, with manly men and scantily-clad (but clad) women. This greatly increased over time, as evidenced by the changing art styles from the 70s and early 80s onwards. By 1984, TSR codified this as follows: “Rape and graphic lust should never be portrayed or discussed. Sexual activity is not to be portrayed. Sexual perversion and sexual abnormalities are unacceptable.” ...While the last sentence is undefined, I don't think it takes much creativity to understand what it is referring to. In other words, much like American society writ large, the 1980s saw a massive retrenchment in what had been a more open atmosphere.

But ... the remnants of transgression remained for players, even younger players, to explore. D&D (and other RPGs) let you play different characters and different roles- for that reason, it was possible for people to play characters that were different genders or do different things than they "should" do, without being called out on it. And the lack of social mechanics could also allow for some more free-form roleplaying in social situations within the game. Finally, there remained elements of the fantastic- such as Corellon Larethian (male or female, both or neither), that provided inspiration for queer players. This goes to what was a benefit of having "fluff" take such a large part of the game when it came to social cues; simply put, you could not have crunch mechanics for these issues at that time, and the nebulous boundaries within all the fluff provided a safe space for some queer players to explore issues. In what was otherwise a difficult time for many queer youth, D&D and other RPGs provided some amount of respite.

However ... only some amount of respite. I do not want to leave a false impression of what was a hobby that was male-dominated and catered to a certain fanbase. While we laugh and mock it now, a game like FATAL did not arise in a vacuum; while it has a questionable sample size, Fine's book Shared Fantasy indicates that among all-male groups in the late 70s, there was widespread sexual assault of female NPCs within games. Publishers, such as Task Force Games in the late 80s and beginning of the 90s, would write that expressions of queer sexuality were a perversion and using roleplaying materials to explore it would cause people to "ultimately be held accountable for their actions."

Over time, as we moved from the 80s to the 90s, what was implicit became more explicit. Games, from Vampire: the Masquerade to various cyberpunk games, began to market themselves as edgy or (to use the 90s term) "extreme" compared to the vanilla D&D counterpart. There was also the beginning of fan-published content on the internet; as it was the internet, sex was involved.


2. The Independent Game Explosion and Queer Representation.

The turnover from the the 90s into the 00s saw an explosion in games that had explicit references to sex, or, more importantly, queer representation. While it was the case that you might (if you were lucky) have positive representations of queer characters in materials by certain publishers (e.g., Steve Jackson Games and Green Ronin), increasingly we began to see games with mechanics that allowed for romance, and queer romance.

As an aside, I am not always a big fan of the concept that rules determine the nature of the game, but it is inarguable to me that having express mechanics for certain types of interaction, and romance, necessarily increases that type of representation. And the rise of indie games, such as Blue Rose (2005) and the troika of games by Emily Care Boss starting in 2005 (Breaking the Ice, Shooting the Moon, Under My Skin) show that the expression of these issues in mechanics was important for many people.

Eventually, this leads to games like Monsterhearts (2012), where players are put in a position of exploring romantic issues without the preconception of heteronormativity- as some have put it, an evolution from mechanics that are explicitly inclusive of queer romance, to mechanics that are queering.

At this time, then, issues of visibility and queer representation are at the best point within the hobby that they have ever been in history. The largest mainstream publisher, WoTC, explicitly acknowledges queer characters within its texts, and Jeremy Crawford (lead designer) is openly gay. There are indie publishers and numerous, numerous games you can get:


WHY REPRESENTATION MATTERS
For RPGs, the three things that I think matter for queer representation are:

1. The roleplaying aspect. This is sort of the "fluff" that I was documenting in the 70s and 80s, and is always a part of the game. The ability to role-play, to perform, to act as someone not yourself- that's incredibly important when it comes to a lot of things in general, and queer identity specifically. This ability to roleplay as different personas, as different genders, as different people, has always been an aspect of RPGs that has been important.

2. Representation within the game. Seeing others, whether they are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, asexual, or queer, within the game materials is important. It's especially important that they are presented as normal, and not as "deviant" or just as villains.

3. Mechanical support. While I personally am not a huge fan of certain aspects of "system matters" it certainly the case that when you start putting in mechanical support in games for romance, etc., you want to see support for inclusivity in the relationships- explicitly by allowing for it, or by making it a gameplay aspect (the difference between mechanics that allows queer romance, and mechanics that are queering).

Representation matters, and it always has. There are numerous resources on this, so I'll just re-use this one that I was given previously. H/T @Malmuria


Finally, it would be remiss without nothing that there have been numerous contributors to our hobby. I'll start by naming one- Jennell Jaquays, who is a foundational game designer in the hobby. Feel free to name others!


CONCLUSION
Obviously, not everything is perfect in the industry or, certainly, the world. But the continuing growth of the hobby, and the growth of the explicit inclusivity of the hobby, has been amazing to watch. It is something everyone should all feel proud of, even while acknowledging more work needs to be done.

🏳️‍🌈 So, what do you want to discuss this Pride Month? 🏳️‍🌈
 

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A Pathfinder campaign I ran a few years ago was, in hindsight, a venue for a then-closeted bisexual man and a then-closeted transman to explore elements of their identities through their characters, as well as to have a bit of rather weighty meditation on abuse and unhealthy relationships, filtered through the lens of killing a bunch of bad guys, supporting each other and validating one another's suffering, and becoming heroes beloved by the masses.

Around the end of the campaign, they each got out of unhealthy relationships they were in. Afterward they started seeking therapy. And later this year the two of them are getting married.

All fiction can hold up a mirror so we can see ourselves, but role-playing is especially personal.
 


Voadam

Legend
I think Vampire the Masquerade in the 90s in particular was big in opening up RPGs to a wider more diverse audience. I don't remember a lot of overt LGBTQ representation in materials but it definitely focused more on sexiness and transgression and even being yourself in a close group while being closeted from the wider world as part of the play experience.
 

Clint_L

Legend
There is tremendous overlap between D&D Club and Pride Club at my school, so we collaborate on a ton of stuff (this week is Pride Week at my school; I'm getting ready to DM today's session while wearing my Pride shirt to a group of students representing a variety of gender and sexual identities).

One thing I've noticed is that for many kids, D&D is a way to make those first tentative steps into coming out. They will often create a character that sort of announces something about themselves (not always, so you have to be careful) like the Grade 9 girl in my current game who used her lesbian character as a vehicle to eventually come out herself, sort of dropping it into the conversation after no one seemed fussed about her female character using flirtation to try to distract a female NPC. I think there is a security in being able to gauge reactions to your fictional character first.

Or sometimes you just enjoy playing from a different perspective - I'm a cisgender white dude but my current character is an asexual woman. And I think that also makes us more open to different perspectives and experiences when we encounter them in life.
 

Sacrosanct

Legend
I think Vampire the Masquerade in the 90s in particular was big in opening up RPGs to a wider more diverse audience. I don't remember a lot of overt LGBTQ representation in materials but it definitely focused more on sexiness and transgression and even being yourself in a close group while being closeted from the wider world as part of the play experience.
I think that was reflective of the 90s in general. Goth and androgyny were often used as standards of beauty and sexiness in general pop culture. Interview with a Vampire is a clear example that jumps right to mind.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Schmoderator
Staff member
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I’m a straight dude and I’ve played female, gay & bisexual characters more than once, in a variety of systems & genres over my decades in the hobby. The main reason was I wanted something more than a “boys’ club” for EVERY campaign, and I was often the only person coming up with non-straight male characters. I wanted different perspectives to be part of the party’s decision-making processes.

(This wasn’t something I forced- I’d find a concept I wanted to play, and play it if it was allowed. All told, my total of non-straight male PCs combined might amount to 10-15% of the total.)

But I never noticed any rules/mechanical support- OR barriers- to playing such PCs, just GMs (or groups) who were pro or con. Since I’m not part of the community, that kind of stuff simply didn’t register.

Even when I DMed a campaign with a mostly queer* group, that kind of info never got brought up. Of all the stuff they went through as part of the queer community, not one syllable about issues within the gaming community was shared.




* as it turned out. Not all of those in the group who were queer were out at the time.
 
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MGibster

Legend
When I started going through old Cyberpunk 2020 material last year, I was a bit surprised to find some positive portrayals of LGBTQ characters and was especially surprised that this included transgender individuals. In 1989, R. Talsorian games published a sourcebook for Rockerboys titled Rockerboys. Okay, it isn't the most imaginative of titles, but the sourcebook was written from the in game perspective of a Rolling Stone type magazine in universe. One of the "articles" was about a Rockerboy named Maz Despair who was a stand up comedian on the run from Texas lawmen after being framed for a murder. Despair was a lesbian, and she mentioned the gay community helped her stay hidden while she was on the lam.

In Folorn Hope, a source/adventure book based around a bar of the same name first published in 1991, the owner is married to the bartender and she's a transgender woman. It might be a little hamfisted how it comes up in the text, but the owner of the Forlorn Hope is fine with it because his wife was "woman enough" for him.

And of course from the 1991 sourcebook Night City, there's a posergang called the Gilligans who hang out at Lake Park. A posergang are a type of gang whose members all have surgical and sometimes psychological alternations to appear as celebrities. There's one posergang who all resemble the Kennedys for example. Anyway, the Gilliagans are a "militant gay posergang, also based on an old vid show. Members include Skippers (leaders), Professors (techs), Maryanns & Gingers (transexuals) [sic], and Gilligans (initiates)."

And let's talk about Palladium games for a moment. I laugh about it now because it's so absurd, but homosexuality appeared on their insanity chart in the mid-1980s. Your character could actually end up gay because he went crazy and then literally be scared straight in another encounter. I believe Palladium removed this from their insanity tables by the late 80s.
 

billd91

Not your screen monkey (he/him) 🇺🇦🇵🇸🏳️‍⚧️
When I started going through old Cyberpunk 2020 material last year, I was a bit surprised to find some positive portrayals of LGBTQ characters and was especially surprised that this included transgender individuals. In 1989, R. Talsorian games published a sourcebook for Rockerboys titled Rockerboys. Okay, it isn't the most imaginative of titles, but the sourcebook was written from the in game perspective of a Rolling Stone type magazine in universe. One of the "articles" was about a Rockerboy named Maz Despair who was a stand up comedian on the run from Texas lawmen after being framed for a murder. Despair was a lesbian, and she mentioned the gay community helped her stay hidden while she was on the lam.

In Folorn Hope, a source/adventure book based around a bar of the same name first published in 1991, the owner is married to the bartender and she's a transgender woman. It might be a little hamfisted how it comes up in the text, but the owner of the Forlorn Hope is fine with it because his wife was "woman enough" for him.

And of course from the 1991 sourcebook Night City, there's a posergang called the Gilligans who hang out at Lake Park. A posergang are a type of gang whose members all have surgical and sometimes psychological alternations to appear as celebrities. There's one posergang who all resemble the Kennedys for example. Anyway, the Gilliagans are a "militant gay posergang, also based on an old vid show. Members include Skippers (leaders), Professors (techs), Maryanns & Gingers (transexuals) [sic], and Gilligans (initiates)."
It's not that surprising depending on how well read you were on some of Cyberpunk's inspirational material. They cited books like When Gravity Fails in the Cyberpunk bibliography and Effinger's work incorporates trans characters who are present and accepted as part of the setting. Moreover, Cyberpunk as a whole often involves themes in which the body isn't some immutable thing anymore and that full transformations to match who you are, who you want to be, are within your grasp.
Plus, you've got the Cyberpunk ethos of living on the edge and breaking rules, including the cisgendered, heteronormative, monogamist, nuclear family rules that existed while the genre was developing. The Expanse series also ran with that, particularly with characters like Michio Pa in the books and Camina Drummer in the show, and I definitely feel that series should be part of the Cyberpunk inspirational canon (though, of course, as a much later entry than CP2020 could have cited).
 

MGibster

Legend
Many, many years ago, back when the RPGA existed and other companies besides TSR participated, I heard tell of a rumor that Steve Jackson Games withdrew because they disagreed with some policies. There was a save-the-princess type of adventure, except the princess in this case was a prince who was to be saved by his true love who was a man. The RPGA wouldn't allow this adventure at their event so Steve Jackson Games decided to bug out. Allegedly. Does anyone know anything about this at all?
 

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