Wizards of the Coast quietly made a stir recently with the release of the new Basic Rules for the 5th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons. Nestled on page 33 is a section about determining the sex/gender of a character that makes the inclusion of LGBT characters explicit.
“You can play a male or female character without gaining any special benefits or hindrances. Think about how your character does or does not conform to the broader culture’s expectations of sex, gender, and sexual behavior. For example, a male drow cleric defies the traditional gender divisions of drow society, which could be a reason for your character to leave that society and
come to the surface.
You don’t need to be confined to binary notions of sex and gender. The elf god Corellon Larethian is often seen as androgynous or hermaphroditic, for example, and some elves in the multiverse are made in Corellon’s image. You could also play a female character who presents herself as a man, a man who feels trapped in a female body, or a bearded female dwarf who hates being mistaken for a male. Likewise, your character’s sexual orientation is for you to decide.”
Reaction has been mixed, leaning toward the positive and I can see why. For a trans person the inclusion of the “trapped in a woman’s body” says that the authors did not do the research or talk to a trans person because they relied on a reductive, “coming out narrative” stereotype. For the intersex the use of the word “hermaphrodite” is a definite issue because that has been seen as stigmatizing and misleading. Hermaphrodite only refers to the presence of both genitalia and not the gender presentation or ambiguous genitalia of intersex people. As a biologist, it makes me wonder whether or not elves are supposed to be literal, simultaneous hermaphrodites, something that’s not terribly substantiated by the elf entry in the book. While I applaud sentiment a gamer culture full of homophobia, misogyny, transphobia and racism (the authors explicitly said in interview that they’re “not worried about offending bigots – quite the opposite”,) I hope that WOTC edits this section to make it less awkward.
This step is a far cry from the way that LGBT people were presented in earlier role-playing games. Palladium Publishing infamously included homosexuality on its random insanity table in 1985, republished in both the Palladium Fantasy Role-Playing System and the tie-in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness. If characters in the game experienced a traumatic event they could randomly “turn gay”. Later editions omitted that section of the book after parents complained about the inclusion of the other sexual “deviancies” in the insanity table.
Wizards of the Coast has not been at the forefront of representation until this announcement. In The Book of Exalted Deeds a particularly infamous image of a lady paladin staring down a pair of cuddling lesbian succubi is captioned “A paladin must choose between destroying evil and honoring love”. The image frames a lesbian relationship as something alien, other and associated with evil. This is problematic without the pandering to the straight male gaze. The Queen of the Court of Stars and her bisexual, polyamorous triad aren’t much better. The only art of them depicts the Queen and her male consort in what can only be described as a sexy chokehold while the second female partner is isolated from them by several pages, making it easy to miss the relationship.
Other than instances offensive instances like this LGBT people weren’t represented at all in role-playing game material within official source material until fairly recently. The most notable early attempt at open inclusion was the Blue Rose line by Green Ronin Publishing. Billed as “romantic fantasy” the players were from the Kingdom of Aldis which practiced not only gay marriage but polyamory. This progressive step was marred by the inclusion of the Kingdom of Jinzon, a theocratic, pseudo-Catholic nation that opposed Aldis strictly because of their LGBT leanings. Instead of handling the issue with deftness and nuance Green Ronin made it into an afterschool special.
The issue was much better handled Paizo in the fantasy setting of Golarion. Instead of making LGBT people (and people of color) a major setting concern they made them an editorial issue. LGBT people have been featured since their first publication. In Burnt Offerings there is a gay couple woven into the setting without comment. One of the members happens to be a paladin, a holy knight of goodness and law. In addition, the Pathfinder Iconic characters, characters that represent different player character types in the game, also include LGBT people, including a lesbian couple and a trans woman. These characters weren’t presented as “the gay one” or “the trans one”, it was simply included in the material.
More obscure, but no less noteworthy Posthuman Studios has been inclusive in their Eclipse Phase setting and system. Eclipse Phase is a transhuman, sci-fi setting where body modifications, body switching and non-cis gender identities and non-het relationships are expected and normal. People often “try on” living as their non-birth sex to see how it feels. Many people have abandoned sex and gender presentation altogether, living as “neuters” with ambiguous, non-binary gender presentation. Likewise many people are understood to be asexual. This extends to in-universe characters and short stories as well. Instead of discrimination against LGBT people there’s social stigma levied against “uplifts”, artificially generated intelligent animals, Artificial Intelligences and any inter species relationships. In addition there’s human-on-uplift policing of sex and sexuality in an analogous way that the sex lives of LGBT people are policed by the cis-het majority. It’s all done in a way that feels plausible and non-trivial. It’s also not given after school special-level earnestness or focus within the setting.
All of this is important for an industry that’s plagued by, sexism, racism and homophobia but it’s also important for gamers themselves. Tabletop RPGs have immense power to explore identity in general. Acting has been understood to be a means to explore the self and role-playing games are essentially structured, acting and improvisation lessons. For games to be inclusive in this way is to officially endorse what acting has been doing all along and to reverse the pervasive erasure of the hobby. Wizards of the Coast is just the latest in a trend towards inclusion, notable for the brand-name recognition but far from pioneers. For this to keep going we need to support the publishers that support us, no matter how small they are.
EDIT: Serendipitously I was handed an RPG based on the Tekumel series. Score another one for inclusion. On Tekumel being homosexual or bisexual is completely fine as long as you’re not closeted.