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In All Their Looks & Words: Introducing Queer History To Your Games

**Initial note: the word “queer” has a complex [1] history [2] for a lot of people in the LGBT+ community. For some it’s a painful slur that brings up traumatic events, for others it’s a powerful reclaimed umbrella term for all sorts of identities and orientations. In this series I’ll be using specific terms when possible (“Bisexual” or “Lesbian”) but whenever I need to be general about multiple identities or orientations I will be using “Queer”.

Although it’s been a long running event at GenCon, this was my first year attending the Queer As A 3 Sided Die panel thrown by the Tabletop Gaymers [3] organization. Last year was my first Gen Con ever and by the time I had my badge and registered, tickets for the panel had already sold out. This year, however, it was the first thing I registered for, in addition to another event run by that organization, Queering Your Setting.

The two events run by Tabletop Gaymers that I attended were some of the highlights of a life-changing Gen Con 50 for me.

I loved both panels so much, seeing people in respected positions in the gaming world such as Jeremy Crawford [4], Crystal Frasier [5], and Tanya DePass [6] was inspiring and encouraging. It may be an access or reach problem, but I feel like I have to try hard to find resources talking about queerness in games the way this information was presented. Much of these panels were about how many big titles (I’ll steal the phrase AAA from video games) are starting to add more queer inclusion into their lore and setting with queer characters. Blue Rose [7] was talked up for good reason, and Pathfinder [8] and Dungeons & Dragons [9] both were mentioned as making efforts to put more queer characters on the page. I think inclusion is great, obviously representation is important, but it got me thinking, especially after reading an article about how adding queer characters is a promise D&D is making [10], about what’s next.

So What Is Next?

A question I’ve been going over is “How can we make games more queer beyond simply including queer characters in lore?” Again, representation is a powerful thing, especially given roleplaying’s feet-dragging at getting to a healthy portrayal of queerness in its games [11]. “Queer people exist” should not be the end of this discussion. To me, that’s baseline, a given, that’s ground floor. Still, I think inclusion is a great first step and I want to know what the next steps can be. Smaller, more niche games can center queerness and queer stories in ways larger games seem reluctant to do, so how do we start moving AAA game spaces towards centering queerness? 

I want to make it clear that I don’t have an easy or quick answer at the moment, and that’s the driving force behind setting out to write more, podcast more, and develop more about the role of queerness & LGBT+ issues in tabletop. Because I don’t have an answer to “What’s next after we prove we exist?” I want to keep mulling these points over. Part of my growth as a bisexual man includes teaching myself about queerness, since mainstream culture and our public education system has done kind of a subpar job at that. In the past few years after coming out to myself and others, I’ve learned so much that I would have never discovered. Maybe by teaching some of this awesome queer history, I will learn myself. Using history as a vehicle to incorporate queer elements into games seems an obvious choice. From Feudal Japan, to the Viking North, to Medieval Europe or any of the hundreds of analogues of these, tabletop has had a fascination with history. In this series, I’ll be highlighting moments, figures, and themes in queer history and exploring how to incorporate these into your games.

 “Queer people exist” should not be the end of this discussion.
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While I don’t know that I have a great answer to my question yet, at least I can take the queer characters represented in games and put them at the forefront. Exploring the lives of queer history can not only help me learn about an underrepresented segment of history, but also give myself a chance to explore that history in play. By highlighting these historical events, maybe we can put the focus on their context and not only check the box of “Does this game have a queer person in it?” but learn why that’s an important box to check.

I’m In, Let’s Go!

I’m no expert at Queer Studies. I took as many classes as I could in college and I take an active role in seeking out info on the subject, but there’s still an ocean of information out there. I’ll do my best at laying out the information I find while reading and learning, and by tying it into games, let’s do our best to work through this process together. I’m bound to get something wrong at some point. If that happens, let me know & I’ll try to fix it, or if I can’t fix it, I’ll try to do better next time. If you have a subject or question you’d like to see addressed, let me know! Otherwise, let’s jump right in and see what we can learn. The next installment of this series will start to dive into what may be the first ever recorded instance of same-sex affection, from around 4,500 years ago. Stay tuned!

6 Comments (Open | Close)

6 Comments To "In All Their Looks & Words: Introducing Queer History To Your Games"

#1 Comment By Clawfoot On November 6, 2017 @ 7:35 am

I play a lot of D&D, and thus I play in the D&D worlds with the D&D races. And when I play, I play to escape the real world, so the basic -isms (racism, sexism, etc.) aren’t a huge problem, by and large. If someone wants to create a character with that kind of struggle in their background, that’s fine; I can create a small pocket of the world somewhere over there in which that happens, but for the most part, I like my conflict to come from other sources.

As a result of a world without sexism, one of the things I’ve established in my games is that because of the dragonborn (whose women do not have breasts) and the dwarves (whose women sometimes have beards) and the eladrin (for whom androgyny is a popular fashion statement) and general adventurers (whose armor can make it hard to tell when they’re fully suited up), it is not taboo or unusual or at all even noteworthy to ask a person what pronouns they prefer if it’s unclear, or for someone to correct another person if they use the wrong ones. It’s generally not offensive or embarrassing to be mis-gendered at all. “‘She,’ please” is no more weird than stating your preference for coffee (“Cream, no sugar, please”). It’s just a normal part of navigating a world in which a) gender isn’t always immediately apparent, and b) one gender isn’t viewed as lesser than the other.

So I think one of the next steps after establishing that “queer people exist” is establishing HOW queer people exist and how they’re treated by the rest of the world. Basically, “queer folk aren’t freaks” is what I go for. They’re a normal part of society and nobody thinks it’s scandalous that the unmarried Lord shares a tent with his favourite knight on hunting trips, or bats an eye at the lovely woman and her wife who run the bakery down the road, and nobody thinks it’s weird that the village heartthrob flirts with everyone, regardless of gender.

Showing that queer folk exist is important, but it’s also important to show how the world reacts to them and treats them. Not criminal. Not scandalous. Not weird at all. Just a normal part of the normal world. That’s what I do, anyway.

#2 Comment By Steve Kenson On November 6, 2017 @ 2:15 pm

“Showing that queer folk exist is important, but it’s also important to show how the world reacts to them and treats them. Not criminal. Not scandalous. Not weird at all. Just a normal part of the normal world. ”

This raises an interesting question we’ve discussed on panels and in workshops before: What does it mean in a setting when queer people are no longer “queer”? A great deal of modern queer culture and sensibility is based on marginalization and transgression against cultural norms. If queer people are “not weird at all” what are we? If the spectrum of gender, sexual, and romantic expressions encompasses everyone and everything, do queer people even exist as such?

#3 Comment By Taylor LaBresh On November 6, 2017 @ 5:54 pm

This is a good question especially for people looking at creating fiction because while we as creators have the power to create utopias where LGBT+ people are not marginalized, we still exist in a world where we are. One common thread that came up at both panels mentioned in the article was balancing being honest with our existence & struggle with presenting a utopia and imagining our ideal selves. It’s definitely a big Thing to think about, for sure!

One thing that imagining a utopia where queer people are no longer “queer” lets us do is exercise our speculation muscles & give us not only something to look forward to but also a “what if” that can be really healing for people! That said, we’re not making stories for the sake of the characters in our stories, but for ourselves, and exploring queer struggle can be really cathartic for people. I know that there’s a therapy in exploring aspects of my sexuality or gender identity through roleplay and having a setting that is utopian changes how I do that compared to a setting where I can confront real world issues or anxieties I might have about myself and my identity.

Going back to the original topic of these replies, I definitely think that we should be exploring worlds in which queerness can exist unimpeded, and exploring *How* LGBT+ identities exist in our stories is something that does go past *That* they exist! This makes me want to revisit Shana Germain’s Love & Sex In The Ninth World as a way to look into that, where the setting of Numenera certainly normalizes sexualities & gender identities that we might consider nonnormative. Thinking about how to celebrate the differences of love, sex, identity, and expression is something I’m frequently trying to do in my games! I think it’s really easy to say “How can I represent queerness in my world where it’s not marginalized” but I want to play in games where it’s more than just not marginalized, but celebrated and explored in safe & positive ways!

#4 Comment By Steve Kenson On November 6, 2017 @ 2:11 pm

Taylor, this series is off to a promising start and I eagerly await further installments!

#5 Comment By Silveressa On November 6, 2017 @ 4:37 pm

Interesting article and I look forward to seeing more of the series. I do agree, the more inclusive games become of LGBTQZ characters the less noteworthy their presence will be, until eventually they are considered just another aspect of any given rpg setting.

#6 Comment By Blackjack On November 6, 2017 @ 11:43 pm

Be careful when exploring themes of gender and sex in your campaign that it represents what your players actually find enjoyable to play. I give that caution because my usual gaming group and I are all very open-minded adults. I thought they would enjoy situational challenges around gender norms and sexual harassment and easily defeating them. Instead they found it unsatisfying. To paraphrase how one player admonished me: “My idea of fantasy game is one where I don’t have to deal with this [crap] at all. It doesn’t even exist. I never have to respond to a challenge about gender identity. No one CARES. That’s my fantasy.”

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