I want to get this clear. Framing the tabletop gaming experience in terms of how inclusive it can be in regards to 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.
Before it was put on hold, I was the Dungeon Master for a group of teenagers who had mixed levels of experience in terms of 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 he was creating. It focused at first on the normal tidbits: class, background, what cool abilities he wanted his Arrakocra to be able to do.
But then he asked me this: “Is it ok for my character to be gay?”.
Being a happily married gay man, I enthusiastically told him yes. A few minutes later, he told me that all of the characters he’s played before had been gay. I responded that all of mine have been queer in some way. A few minutes later, he came out to me, and I proudly smiled at him. At that moment, the shell he had constructed dissolved. I recognized it because it was the same shell I used to wear when I was his age.
I can’t imagine how scared he may have been to even ask that first question. He wasn’t my student, so he didn’t know me very well. He didn’t know how open I would be to his question. He didn’t know how I am dedicated to diversity and safe spaces and that I would welcome him with open arms. So he took a chance, and it paid off beautifully. He went on to hit on every male we encountered in the campaign, and his fellow players assisted in being wingmen and wingwomen when they could.
If he was rejected by a different Dungeon Master or by his fellow players, I wonder if he would’ve wanted to continue gaming. All I know is that his story, his thread in the collaborative tapestry that is tabletop gaming would have never been there. It would be unable to be seen by others. And that would’ve been a shame. By embracing diversity, we uplift all. We grow. We thrive.
Positive representation matters. I wrote about this in a personal article about my identity as a nonbinary person and how it has impacted my gaming, so excuse me for repeating myself a bit, but seeing the positive representation of the trans experience in college 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 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 played by Steve Carrell. Or, in the more current and supposedly more “progressive” film, Deadpool, when Wade off-handedly jokes that a very buff, powerful woman must have a penis due to those other aforementioned traits. These depictions of transness terrified me, made me swallow down any sense of kinship I had with the 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.
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 – is so important. I want depictions of transness and queerness (along with any different 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 fantasy, experimental version of yourself. It can be incredibly vulnerable and exciting, getting to try out different aspects of our potential identities in low stakes and low commitment environments.
Representation in gaming (all media really, but we’re discussing gaming here) of different potential identities is crucial. Speaking from my own experience, I never considered the possibility that I was bi or potentially ace-spec (still working that one out) until I encountered more nuanced versions of these concepts in my gaming content and podcasts I was consuming. My life and understanding of myself have become vastly richer with that exposure, and I’m so grateful for it.
Embracing diversity in tabletop games allows us to explore different aspects of ourselves. That might manifest as our desire to explore, what is an ancient elven mage might be like, but I’m also talking about wanting to explore what being a non-gendered ancient elven mage might be like, or a pansexual barbarian, or even just a new name – 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 that representation in the games you might find in other media, like podcasts. It’s something we try to incorporate in our Golarion – 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 us 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.
That was a highlight in our press release when we sent it to various groups to promote our partnership with Paizo. It was a massive surprise to me when several of those sites chose to leave the focus on diversity out of their articles, and honestly, while it was a surprise, it helped me understand just how big of an issue this is.
Our contribution to equality is small, but much like Mariposa, we are fierce. I was and still am frustrated at those who choose to ignore a part of who we are, but it just means we need to work harder.
Diversity makes the world fantastic. 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.
So as Pride month comes to a close, I encourage you all to look at the groups that you play with and ask this question. Is there someone with a different background than mine 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 supporting it?
Be prepared to listen, be ready to have your thoughts and ideas changed, and be ready to grow. Nothing wrong with learning and understanding.
In the next month, we will be highlighting some of the gayest people I know, my lovely and wonderful co-hosts, as they share their experiences and thoughts and wish you all the best this pride.