Queer Design & DMing for RPGs: Some Advice

I originally wrote this as a reply to a gentleman who is giving a panel in which he wanted to touch on queerness in gaming, in terms of what to keep in mind, what to consider, and what to avoid. This was my response to him, which I figured was useful enough to keep around.

So, in my experience, when we’re talking about queer sexual orientations in particular, it’s important to emphasize that our identities are more than just what goes on “in the bedroom.” I cannot tell you how many folk like to go to the “Well, my game doesn’t really use sexuality at all, so I don’t include gay people because I never include even straight romances, so there’s no problem.”


The part where that unravels, usually, is when I express interest in their fascinating setting where everyone reproduces by budding, and there are no marriages or spouses of any kind.


The fact is that stories as simple as “the king and his queen sit next to each other on the dais” is the introduction of heterosexual identities into the narrative. Most people don’t *see it* that way, but that’s part of the culture we live in, whereby the traits of heterosexual pairings are considered “normal” and not even remarked upon. It’s not *bad*, but it’s important to acknowledge.


For designers and GMs, I feel like the most important thing you can do is based on the game you are working.


If the game is set in our world, there really ought to be queer folk in it. Queerness ought to be character-focused first. It is best to avoid tired stereotypes, yes, but by and large this works best by the “surprise yourself” sort of route. Don’t set out to create a queer character – unintended biases will creep into that. Instead, just create a character, and when you’re done, make it part of your process to ask what their orientation is. If you find yourself saying things like, “Well, s/he’s obviously straight”, those are often the best ones to make queer (which should definitely include genuinely bisexual characters; bi-erasure is a very real thing). Challenge expectations.


It’s important at this point to remind folk what representation does. In a cast of characters, if you have a single character of any minority, you have made that character the Atlas for that identity – narratively speaking, they’re basically holding the entire queer or black or disabled or female world on their shoulders if there is no one else. That’s not always bad – sometimes your cast is limited. But you need to be aware of it, because whatever you say about that character will be interpreted as being said about their minority group as a whole. It’s why stories in which the only queer character is a villain are Bad News, because beyond notions of queer-coding villainy, it’s also basically saying “gays = villains”. Diversity divides that burden up some, and frees you up to employ a bit more actual leeway in the dynamics of characters.


Now, if your design work is not just characters in the “real world” (where we generally have an okay idea of where and how queerness impacts the culture), the designer and GM really needs to spend some time thinking about where alternate sexualities come into play in that culture. How do queer romantic bonds form among folk from that culture, how do they demonstrate it, what are the rituals that acknowledge it, how does the rest of the culture respond to it? All very important, because in addition to making sure there is “space” for queer folk in that culture, you are also adding interesting setting detail, and that’s a good thing. I also look askance at any fantasy setting that has room for talking dragons and the resurrection of the dead, but a total absence of queerness.


By and large, I recommend inclusion of queerness not come with assumptions of prejudice and cultural antagonism. That said, though, I wouldn’t call homophobic cultures verboten. Instead, a culture’s ingrained homophobia – like other cultural traits like racism, sexism, slavery, and the like – should instead be clarion calls for the PCs to change that world. The designer should not assume that their reader is going to pick this out, though – call it out.


Likewise, the GM should not assume their players will pick up on that. Before a GM brings a homophobic setting to the table, they really need to have a very directed and pointed discussion with everyone at that table about that. They need to make sure everyone is comfortable with that sort of game, and should have a very clear discussion about how acceptable having actual homophobic PCs is (the default answer should be it is not, by and large). Even at a table where you “know everyone really well” and feel like you’re “adult enough to maturely roleplay that”, not only do you run the risk of someone who is not yet out suddenly finding the game to be a threatening place, but you are also contributing to what is called the normalization of bigoted thought, in this case homophobia.


I’m including a page from my personal wiki (please feel free to give excerpts) where I did some intentional cultural design work around various ways of expressing queer sexualities: http://oakthorne.net/wiki/index.php?title=Sexuality_in_Liminal

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