[+] Pride Month- A Brief History of Representation in TTRPGs

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Please note that this is a "Plus" (+) thread, and is meant to be Positive. (Source) If you don't have something productive to say, please don't say it.

In addition, there will be references to games mature subject matter in this post. While it is not explicit, it is present.


So 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. Finally, 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.

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 essay) 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 almost 50 years ago. While there aren't a lot of contemporaneous accounts, we can see the hints of it, especially as younger players began to flood in starting in 1979. Dragon 36 recounts the experience of one DM at a convention being flustered when running a dungeon for a group with mixes 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 in original). 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 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, 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 80s made for a game that in the published materials, 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.

But ... the remnants of transgression remained for players, even younger players, to explore. D&D (and other RPGs) let you play different characters- 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. Why System Matters to 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 "system matters," 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:


Obviously, not everything is perfect. 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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Arilyn

Hero
Just finished reading Costikyan's sex rules in "The Elusive Shift" 😂

I'm so happy we can see titles like "Thirsty Sword Lesbians" not only get published but become successful titles.

I'm happy that my LGBTQ son and his boyfriend feel mostly welcome in the rpg community.

Here's to continuing progress!
 

Sacrosanct

Legend
Publisher
Ah, who could forget this gem from Dragon #10...(edit, removed screen shot for SFW purposes, but you can easily find the article. Basically, instead of XP for treasure, you only got XP for treasure spent for things like orgies).

Also, I for one am glad to see increased representation, for a few reasons. Firstly, all gamers should feel welcome. Secondly, a rising tide raises all ships. Thirdly, as an Old School gamer and fan, I think I own some responsibility to fight back against those other old school fans who are exclusive.
 

TheSword

Legend
As a gay man. I don’t want rules for sex and relationships in my ttrpg. Such things should be left to what seems right, not what the dice say. I can think of nothing worse. I don’t want to see it at the table at all to be honest… I’d rather stick to the heroics.

That said, it’s nice to see gay characters. I particularly liked the knightly order in Curse of Strahd. It was a nice touch.

It’s worth mentioning that Paizo were ahead of the curve in their adventure paths from an early stage. Credit to them.
 


MGibster

Legend
AD&D used to have the girdle of masculinity/femininity, which was a cursed item that would change the wearer to the opposite sex once donned. As this had no other negative effects, I think this was mostly viewed as a rather humorous cursed item in most groups.

I'm so happy we can see titles like "Thirsty Sword Lesbians" not only get published but become successful titles.
Me too. There are a lot of games I'm not personally interested in, but I'm so happy there's a wide variety of games out there for everyone.

Ah, who could forget this gem from Dragon #10...(edit, removed screen shot for SFW purposes, but you can easily find the article. Basically, instead of XP for treasure, you only got XP for treasure spent for things like orgies).
I gotta be honest with you, when I play D&D that's pretty much how my character spends his money. My characters get so much gold, and there's not much to spend it on, that I just tell the DM, "I'm spending 500g to live like a rock star while we're in town." But we don't get graphic and I don't get XP for that.

As a gay man. I don’t want rules for sex and relationships in my ttrpg. Such things should be left to what seems right, not what the dice say. I can think of nothing worse. I don’t want to see it at the table at all to be honest… I’d rather stick to the heroics.
As a straight man, ditto. The few gay players I've had in my games had the same attitude.

That said, it’s nice to see gay characters. I particularly liked the knightly order in Curse of Strahd. It was a nice touch.
Strahd even had a dude he kept around his castle for sexy-fun-times.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Ah, who could forget this gem from Dragon #10...(edit, removed screen shot for SFW purposes, but you can easily find the article. Basically, instead of XP for treasure, you only got XP for treasure spent for things like orgies).

A player may orgy continuously as many days as he has constitution points, but then must rest for as many days as he orgied.

There are so many questions raised by this sentence... but mostly the verbing of that word and using it in the past tense.

(But yeah, pre-1980 Dragon was a very different magazine)
 


Lyandelill

(She/Her)
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."
Oh, that's from Central Casting. I suspect the author might have changed her mind on that... 🏳️‍⚧️:giggle:
 

This is a well-done video on this topic. One point is that “queer representation” is not necessarily a matter of game design, but has to do with aspects of performance and trying out identity, which applies much more broadly than games that are ‘about’ sex or queer identity

 

MGibster

Legend
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.
Last year, I was reading through some old Cyberpunk 2020 sourcebooks that were published in the late 80s and early 90s. The Rockerboy sourcebook from 1989 features an article about Maz Despair, a lesbian stand-up comic on the run from Texas authorites after being framed for the murder of a corrupt politician. From 1991, in the supplement Forlorn Hope, the owner of the bar's wife is a transgender woman. When asked if it bothered him that his wife was born a male he answers, "She was a woman when I met her, and that's how I always thought of her."
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
This is a well-done video on this topic. One point is that “queer representation” is not necessarily a matter of game design, but has to do with aspects of performance and trying out identity, which applies much more broadly than games that are ‘about’ sex or queer identity

So, if I was going to do something more than just the history, I would say that there are three axes that matter.

Oh no. Did I just do a three-part typology. NOOO! Ahem, anyway...

For RPGs, the three things that matter for queer representation are:

1. The roleplaying aspect. This is sort of the "fluff" I was referring to in the 70s and 80s (and is always a part of the game). The ability to role-play, to perform, as someone not yourself- that's incredibly important when it comes to a lot of things in general, and queer identity specifically.

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).

I would say that all of these are different, and all of them are important in different ways. But that's a good video, and I love all the contributions people are making!
 


TerraDave

5ever, or until 2024
add-t1-4th-back.jpg
 

grankless

Explorer
How about very intentionally queer-inclusive/aimed games from the last decade or so? Off the top of my head, i can think of thirsty sword lesbians, dungeon bitches and flying circus. I know there are more as well.
Armour Astir: Advent's "Impostor" playbook is explicitly designed to invoke transgender and disabled identity, being someone who has had their body changed in order to be able to pilot a mech. Also is just about fighting fascists in general.
 

AnotherGuy

Adventurer
I've always felt WoD, particularly VtM, was and would be a great game for queer community members - mostly because of the character options available (straight out of the book) & that was my first exposure to a game which had the ability to deal with more mature themes as compared to D&D.
However, I feel you need a Storyteller of some calibre to handle that well - far more so than your average DM for D&D.
The positive about D&D is that the game relatively speaking is predominantely dialed towards heroic storylines, so light and fun, which may be more appropriate for those in the earlier stages of discovering oneself.
 

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