Before it was put on hold by the pandemic, I was the Dungeon Master for an in-person group of teenagers who had mixed levels of experience in tabletop gaming. The group included diverse ethnicities: Hmong, Latinx, Mixed-Race. It included a variety of genders and social-economic backgrounds. But what stood out to me was one player in particular.
As the group began to create their characters as we prepared for the upcoming campaign, one player excitedly told me all about the character they were creating. It focused at first on the standard tidbits: class, background, what cool abilities they wanted their arrakocra to be able to do.
But then they asked me this: “Is it ok for my character to be gay?”.
Being a happily married gay man, I enthusiastically told them yes. A few minutes later, they said to me that all of the characters they’ve played before had been gay. I responded that all of mine have been queer in some way. A few minutes later, they came out to me, and I proudly smiled at them. At that moment, the shell they had constructed dissolved. I recognized it because it was the same shell I used to wear when I was their age.
I can’t imagine how scared they may have been to even ask that first question. They weren’t even my student at the time, so they didn’t know me very well. They didn’t know how open I would be to their question. They didn’t know how I am dedicated to diversity and safe spaces and that I would welcome them with open arms. So they took a chance, and it paid off beautifully. They went on to hit on every male we encountered in the campaign, and their fellow players assisted in being wingmen and wingwomen when they could.
If they were rejected by a different Dungeon Master or by their fellow players, I wonder if they would’ve wanted to continue gaming. All I know is that their story as part of the TTRPG community would have been gone and unable to be experienced and enjoyed by others. And that would’ve been a shame. By embracing diversity, we uplift all. We grow. We thrive.
I want to get this clear. Framing the tabletop gaming experience in terms of how inclusive it can be regarding the diversity of its players and the stories that they tell and allowing these experiences to be played in a safe space is not pandering. If you feel the need to restrict diverse gaming, be it consciously or unconsciously, you are gatekeeping, and you are a part of the problem.
TTRPGs are inherently collaborative. I have found so much queer joy in these games. I, my friends, and my students have all found a queer haven in these experiences. I’m proud to be gay and to be a part of the queer community. Why wouldn’t I roleplay that?
Positive representation matters. Seeing positive representation of the trans experience in college literally saved my life. Until I met the trans professor for my freshman year seminar, who showed me that being trans could be freeing and beautiful, I was lost, terrified, and filled with self-hatred.
So many moments in media and in life instilled these feelings in me. Seeing Jim Carrey showering while sobbing and brushing his teeth with an entire tube of toothpaste after kissing a trans woman in an Ace Ventura movie. When the villain in Dude, Where’s My Car? (whose name I sadly can’t remember) reveals a bulge in her underwear, and one of the main characters visibly retches. Not to mention the slew of transphobic jokes slung around in The 40-Year-Old Virgin after a transgender sex worker is hired for the titular virgin. Or, in the more current and supposedly more “progressive” film, Deadpool, when Wade off-handedly jokes that a very buff, very strong woman must have a penis due to those other aforementioned traits. These depictions of transness and gender essentialist ideas terrified me, made me swallow down any sense of kinship I had with trans characters so that I could hide from the ridicule and hatred I knew would come with it. And those are just moments I can remember off the top of my head – there have been so many more.
What gave me the freedom to see and understand who I was was a single person representing the experience in a positive light. And that’s why diversity in gaming – and every other format, really – is so important. I want depictions of transness and queerness (along with other marginalized identities) that give people hope. We’ve had enough of the grimdark, “realistic” portrayals – we’ve lived the experiences those portrayals broadcast. It’s time for gaming, movies, television, books, and everything else to paint another picture. My picture happens to be of tons of queer folks doing cool magic shit and destroying evil. What will yours be?
Gaming is often about more than telling a great story – it’s about getting to live out a power fantasy and an experimental version of yourself. This can be really vulnerable and exciting, getting to try on and try out different aspects of our potential identities in low-stakes, low-commitment environments.
It’s hard to know what to portray, though, or what the possibilities for yourself and others might be without multiple examples laid out for you in the media you consume. Representation in film, books, tv, video games, podcasts, and your buddies you sit down to play tabletop games with is crucial to discovering different potential identities. How can you fully know who you are without being aware of all the possibilities?
Speaking from my own experience, I never considered the possibility that I was bi or ace-spec until I encountered more nuanced versions of these concepts in my gaming content and podcasts I was listening to. You have to love compulsive heterosexuality – because since I liked men, I thought I couldn’t possibly be queer. Even though I have also wanted to make out with girls my whole life, I thought they were pretty and wrote some pretty dramatic sapphic fiction as a teenager – I thought every straight girl also did that. I also thought every AFAB person just took a while to “warm-up” to a sexual partner. It took reading a few books, getting bisexual and ace representation in shows I liked and just meeting other queer people to make me reconsider my own experience with attraction. My life and understanding of myself have become vastly richer with that exposure, and I’m so grateful for it.
Something else I’ve been musing on with regards to my own experience is that as a bisexual woman who was only able to fully recognize and embrace that aspect of my identity as an adult in my late twenties who had only ever dated men, met one she liked, and entered a monogamous partnership with him – I’ve never really gotten the opportunity to date girls, or to be bisexual in a way that is immediately apparent. I’m so grateful to have found the FWP crew to play with because I feel like I finally have the space to explore that part of myself and a community that not only embraces that part of me but centers it.
Embracing diversity in tabletop games allows us to explore different aspects of ourselves. That might manifest as our desire to explore what being an ancient elven mage might be like – but I’m also talking about if you want to explore what being a non-binary ancient elven mage might be like, or a pansexual barbarian, or even just a new name for yourself – you need a table full of people who understand and embrace your characters, and more importantly you, in all your infinite variety. If those people aren’t available to you (for whatever reason), you need representation in the games you listen to. It’s something we try to incorporate into the universes we create with each other, and it’s imperative to all of us and, we hope, to you.
I recently purchased My Time at Portia. As usual, I spent a good portion of time in the character creation area. I was selecting the exact shade of green I wanted for the hair when my boyfriend commented, “you making another dark character?” He didn’t say it in a snarky way. We play a lot of video games together. Over the years, he noticed I would create my characters, if the game allows customization, with super golden brown skin or the equivalent.
As he commented, I smiled and thought back to a recent conversation with the FWP crew. I shared how each of my TTRP characters contained an element of me. Part of it is to live vicariously through their adventures. The other part is growing up I felt there weren’t enough shows and games made just for me. As a gaymer and co-host with some awesomesauce queer folk and allies, I proudly get to nerd out with a diverse group who brings their amazing personalities and backgrounds to create a truly fantastic experience.
It tickles me pink to think that our stories and experiences, joined with other incredible queer podcasts, games, books, and movies, encourage others to embrace themselves. I know my younger self definitely would have benefited from the diverse and supporting gaming voices. I sincerely appreciate all of you who wave your respective flags and create safe places for gamers of all ages and backgrounds to play and tell their stories. Besitos!
Diversity is a part of what I think makes Fantastic Worlds unique; we might not be the most famous actual play podcast out there, but we believe that it is helping to put good into the world.
Last year when we received our licensing partnership with Paizo, it was a big deal for us and representative of a lot of hard work. However, when the press release went out, most of these sites chose to cut out the part about our group diversity. Representation matters; It is not something that should be just cut on a whim to save space, or in some cases, because you are afraid of making waves with someone intolerant.
Our contribution to equality is small, but much like Mariposa, we are fierce. It is also that quality that we will always choose to represent who we are rather than hide in the shadows. It just drives us to work harder.
Diversity makes the world fantastic, don’t ever let anyone convince you otherwise. To me, worlds can be an infinite number of sizes. It can be your world of friendships, the world of your career, the world of your community, and it especially means the fantastic worlds we explore in tabletop gaming.
I encourage anyone who reads this, look at the groups you play with and ask this question. Is there someone with a different background than my own that I can invite to my group? Have I created a space that works towards making everyone feel welcomed, encouraged, and appreciated? Am I celebrating differences in flavor and playstyle and encouraging it?
Be prepared to listen, be ready to have your thoughts and ideas changed, and, most of all, be ready to grow. Nothing wrong with learning and understanding.
“Are you a boy or a girl?” This innocuous phrase asked by Professor Rowan at the beginning of Pokemon Diamond rankled me in high school because I couldn’t answer it. Not honestly at least. But that’s been so much of my life. Being dishonest with myself and with others, lying about who I was, pretending to be my parents’ perfect son. I didn’t feel like a son, and I didn’t feel like a daughter because of my upbringing. So, “Are you a boy or a girl?” I always wanted to choose a girl, so I gave it a shot, and I named her Lily. Ultimately this didn’t change how I related to the world, but it opened up an opportunity to start exploring my gender with a very simple question.
Since then, any chance I’ve had to choose or create a character, the first character I create is always a woman. It was a way for me to explore my identity, pretend to be someone I wanted to be, but I felt like I was out of my reach. Playing a girl in MMOs gave me a chance to interact without wearing the mask of masculinity I had been wearing my whole life. Then coming across more and more beautiful transgender characters in games made me wonder: ‘Is this something I could do for myself?’
For me, diversity in gaming has been about normalizing differences and offering underrepresented people the opportunity to feel like the hero or the story. It’s about having those people tell their stories that white, cisgender, straight people lack the experience because of being part of the majority group. It’s about being willing to ask questions and listen to the answers. So tell me, “Are you a boy, a girl, or other?
I remember my best friend going away for summer vacation when I was 13 or so. I missed her a ton, so I bought her a card to give to her when she got back, and my sister saw this and decided to tease me and tell me that I was a lesbian and had a crush on my best friend. I was mortified and honestly a little confused. I DID love her. A lot! Was I a lesbian?
It being the early 2000s (and me being a very insecure teenager), I freaked out, ripped up the card, and decided to never tell my friend. Which is so funny because just four years later, we would openly sing songs about being lesbians. While we never ended up together as a couple, we were damn cute and didn’t care what anyone else thought, because first off–there’s nothing wrong with being lesbians! Secondly, for me anyway, love and attraction are really fluid.
Time can quickly change how we perceive cultural norms. It has been exhilarating growing up and experiencing this shift in queer acceptance and positivity. When someone uses the word “gay” as a descriptor nowadays, I automatically assume the best because fuck yeah! That’s gay as hell, and we are HERE. FOR. IT! That wasn’t always the case.
This outward acceptance–Pride flags, events, rainbow paraphernalia–is relatively new and isn’t common. It’s a very Western concept, and not everyone has the privilege of coming out and having a safe space to do so. The first “Pride parades” were riots (as recent as 1969, mind you) because of a horribly anti-gay legal system, and people couldn’t be open without being arrested, or fuck–even killed. It’s always an important reminder that we have black trans women to thank for SO MUCH.
Pride month absolutely makes my heart soar with happiness that so many people feel liberated to be their most genuine, authentic selves. Love is powerful and vast and complicated, and no one should be shamed for it. Life is way too short to suppress your beautiful self to make others around you comfortable (and if they need that, how boring and sad for them). Diversity is so important, and I’m lucky to be a part of a podcasting community that values it.