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Male, Female, and Everything In-between

When we’re first introduced to gaming, we’re told we can play any character we want and our imagination (and the system) is the only limit. Your character can be anyone you want them to be! Do you want to be a brawny fighter despite struggling to carry a 40lb bag of kitty litter from the car to the house in real life? Go for it! Do you want to be a brilliant scientist despite flunking chemistry back in high school? Absolutely! Do you want to be a graceful elf despite obviously being a chubby, slightly clumsy human most of the time? Sure! Wait, you want to play a girl when you’re actually a guy? Whoa, dude, that’s just weird.*

Guess which characters were played by women. (Drawn by Chris Mann, one of the players from the game. Used with permission.) [1]

Guess which characters were played by women. (Drawn by Chris Mann, one of the players from the game. Used with permission.)

Despite the freedoms we’re given to create any character we can imagine, it used to cause great consternation for a player to choose a character with a different set of genitalia than they themselves had. I knew of GMs who actually had rules for character creation stipulating a player must play a character of the same gender. No guys playing girls and, if by some miracle the group had a female player, she wasn’t allowed to play a guy. Things have definitely gotten better in this day and age, but I still occasionally see people raising an eyebrow at players who gender swap their characters from who they are in real life.

Wizards of the Coast [2] has recently released a free-to-download rule set for D&D Basic that included a blurb on gender and sexual identity in the character creation section, and has been called both ground breaking and ‘about damn time’. Not only does the blurb clearly state that players are free to play a male or a female character, it also encourages players to think beyond binary definitions of gender. One example given is of a major Elven god that is considered androgynous or even hermaphroditic. Whether you think this is revolutionary, too little too late, or just plain weird, it opens up an interesting conversation about character gender vs. player gender.

Slightly over twenty years ago, I was in a Shadowrun [3] game at a local convention. As was typical back then (and is unfortunately still too common even today – but that’s a different article) all of the pre-gen characters were male. While I prefer to play female characters, I’m a gamer first so the lack of lady PCs isn’t a deal breaker. If it were, I’d have had a lot fewer games to play at conventions. Even though I made sure to introduce my combat mage as male and describe him as a dude during the early stages of the game, the players and GM kept referring to my character as ‘she’. By the climax of the game, ‘he’ had steadily morphed into ‘she’ and my character shape shifting into a killer whale to save the day was overshadowed by the shredding of her clothes once she was back on the escape ship. Yeah, there was a large degree of adolescent humor, but what do you expect from college students in the early 90’s?

It’s a trope common enough in gaming that even ‘The Gamers: Dorkness Rising’ [4] made fun of the issue. Gary, one of the players in the movie’s game, made a ridiculously sexy female mage named Luster. Whenever Gary remembers he is playing a female character, Luster is played by a female actress, but every time he forgets the character is a lady, Luster would be played by Gary’s actor in a blond wig. Keeping In-Character and Out-of-Character straight can be hilariously and surprisingly difficult at times, but it seems especially problematic when it comes to the sex of gender swapped characters.

Guess which characters are played by guys. It was definitely more than one. (Naked runs bring you luck.) [5]

Guess which characters are played by guys. It was definitely more than one. (Naked runs bring you luck.)

Online, the gender swapping is a bit more prevalent, but it’s also a bit more invisible. Unless you’re talking to people through TeamSpeak, Ventrillo, or some other game chat option, there’s no telling who the person is behind the toon. Since I’ve gotten back into playing an MMO with Neverwinter [6], I’ve had many conversations with my guildmates about the reasons people choose the toons they play. The most common response from straight guys is that playing a female toon provides a ‘better view’ of the game. It’s not the only reason, but it is probably the most typically ‘dude’ one I’ve heard. For some players it’s just about the story and it ended up that the story they wanted to tell with that character happened to need a female protagonist.

As GMs, we don’t have the luxury of sticking with one gender for the characters we play throughout any given game. We have to handle all the NPCs, young or old, elf or orc, male or female and everything in-between. Other than the occasional giggle at a GM having to play out a romantic NPC of a differing gender or orientation, no one thinks twice about GMs handling NPCs of all flavors. So why do some people still get a bit weirded out by players gender swapping their characters? And as a GM, isn’t our job to help remember who the character is regardless of who the player is?

I learned this lesson pretty early on with my current group. I’ve been playing with them for close to ten years and they taught me to see the character separate from the player to give them the best game I can. Among them, I have a straight female player that likes to play young, handsome, and dumb guys that are good at hitting things. Her husband tends to play straight male characters that are almost always roguishly flirty. One bisexual guy likes playing female characters, but his strictly gay fiancé tends to play almost asexual male characters. Another player is a bisexual who plays whatever character fits the story that inspires her imagination, male, female, straight, gay or not. Her husband also plays a mix of characters, but has also dressed up in drag to play female characters in LARPs.

Once you set aside who the player is and focus on the character, you can help bring the game to life in ways that’ll completely engage your players. For example, in a Firefly [7] game I was running for another group, one of the guys was playing a very Saffron-esque character who was trying to flirt her way into getting some supplies for the crew. I know he’s obviously not Christina Hendricks [8], but he’s not the character in the game. As the scene progressed, it was me, the female GM, pretending to be a male shopkeeper completely enraptured by the cleavage of a guy that was pretending to be a charming, manipulative, and well-endowed woman. The scene worked, was fun, and we only laughed at the juxtaposition of it all after the game was over.

Even if it’s easy to slip into using the pronoun of the player instead of the character, it’s up to the GMs to remember the character above all else for the player. If you can do that, it’ll truly let the player’s imagination run wild and play whatever character they want.


*This obviously doesn’t represent my view. 

34 Comments (Open | Close)

34 Comments To "Male, Female, and Everything In-between"

#1 Comment By Andy Evans On July 23, 2014 @ 3:42 am

I’m wondering whether some of the resistance to male players playing female characters is a lack of trust in the players to do it properly.

I’ve been in a few games where men have played female characters only to have them play up female stereotypes, which is a bit embarrassing for everyone at the table who isn’t a jerk.

Likewise I’ve played a female character before (pre-gen at a con), only to have it flirted with by other PCs. I doubt they would have done it if I was actually female, just finding it amusing to do so as I was male.

Whilst I agree with you that some GMs have big hangups over this, but I imagine many others just want to avoid potential awkwardness caused by other players.

#2 Comment By Angela Murray On July 23, 2014 @ 10:54 am

That is a very good point about people doing it badly when they play up the stereotypes.

As far as the flirting goes, I’ve seen it go both ways with people either doing more or less depending on the gender of the player. Some guys I know will flirt with a female character played with a guy before they’ll flirt with a female character played by a woman because it’s ‘safer’. Of course, vice versa is true sometimes as well.

#3 Comment By Scott Martin On July 23, 2014 @ 1:05 pm

I suspect a lot of people get their “doing it badly” baggage from early play. I know that my understanding of women was awfully simplistic in junior high and high school, which definitely affected the quality of the women I portrayed.

#4 Comment By shawnhcorey On July 23, 2014 @ 7:38 am

Elves are real. Any GM who insists that his players play only their gender should also insist that they play only their race. Anything else is hypocrisy.

#5 Comment By Angela Murray On July 23, 2014 @ 10:55 am

It’s funny you say that. When I was introduced to gaming way back in the stone age, one of the more prominent players was a Tolkien purist, so he was very adamant that most people were not able to properly play elves. It was about five years into my gaming career before I was brave enough to try and play an elf.

#6 Comment By Toldain On July 28, 2014 @ 5:02 pm

I’m sure I don’t, but I feel like I know that guy.

Of course, when it comes to playing Paladins, I’m quite certain that nobody (except for me!) does them justice.

#7 Comment By Benjamin J Hobbs On July 23, 2014 @ 7:59 am

Role play is what these games are for, right? To consider the challenges presented from a persona separate from your own. Gender is just one facet of a fully fleshed out persona, and I like shifting it from time to time.

– I just finished the Dead in Thay Encounters season where I played a Dragonborn Cleric in heavy armor. I repeatedly changed the gendered pronouns I was using through the season to throw off any gender assumptions.
– I have a teen male character in a Palladium Heroes campaign who has a goddess imprisoned in his head, and he changes into her form to power up.
– In the Fate Accelerated campaign I run, there is a female playing a male, my son playing a unicorn, and while my daughter was away, the neighbor boy sat down and played her fairy character especially well (“Can we use pixie dust and just fly over this river?”)

#8 Comment By Angela Murray On July 23, 2014 @ 10:56 am

Those are some awesome examples!

#9 Comment By Razjah On July 23, 2014 @ 8:11 am

I have mixed feeling about this. I don’t like playing female characters because I don’t believe I do it justice. My female friends don’t think the same way I do, even the gamer ones. I wouldn’t be playing a female character, just a male pretending to be a female. Plus I like using accents and different voices for my character, but can’t do a convincing female voice.

As for friends playing them? Go for it! We pretend to fight aliens, be elves, marines, or anything else we set for the game. Pretending to be a different sex and gender isn’t really any different from pretending to be an entirely different person for the game.

However, I prefer to see it done well. I hate it when a male is playing a female and needs to endlessly describe how attractive she is and how revealing her clothes are. We get it, she’s not wearing much and jiggles. Can I get back to the guy throwing fireballs at me? To me, it is demeaning to women.

#10 Comment By Angela Murray On July 23, 2014 @ 10:59 am

I’m the same way. Despite being a perpetual tomboy, it’s always been a little uncomfortable for me to try and inhabit a male character. (Though, it has gotten better. One of my favorite games at Origins had me playing a male character that had some great moments – and no one forgot he was male.)

Also on point about people doing it respectfully. That’s probably another article on its own. 🙂

#11 Comment By Razjah On July 23, 2014 @ 12:18 pm

Should I suggestion pot that one?

Heck, I’d like to see more about getting the gender psychology correct just to improve my NPCs. Making the PCs better would be icing on the GM cake.

#12 Comment By Toldain On July 28, 2014 @ 5:04 pm

I would suggest that, for the first cut, don’t assume there are any differences in gender psychology at all. I don’t think that’s entirely true, but it’s a very good first approximation.

Psychology is far more driven by experiences than it is by biology or genetics.

So start with motivations that would make sense to you, and then, observing women you know, add one quirk that they have. Do that for a while, and you’ll get better at it.

#13 Comment By Patrick Mikolajczak On July 23, 2014 @ 8:33 am

I as GMing a ShadowRun game for my friends (5 of us boys, 1 who happens to be prefer the male persuasion) and after character creation they all came to me giggling. They had all created female characters of all shapes, sizes, races, and objectives beauties. Linked their stories and were ready to run a few jobs.

Thrilled and excited I mentioned this to other groups of friends (who had females in them) and most of the ladies gave me “the eyebrow”. They seemed speculative and worried that we were going to do God knows what with the characters. Which made me uncomfortable. I had this aweful feeling that my female friends thought we were going to make a laughing stock of their gender when we played.
Regardledss, I reassured my friends that we were smarter than that, and wanted to play Shadowrun and not just ripp on gender stereotypes. And lo and behold, the guys came through and played their characters perfectly. They all had their fun quirks and what not. They had avenues of charming male NPC’s that they wouldn’t have been able to try before, and were shut down by my Female NPC at other parts. The group of them were like the girls from Charlies Angels mixed with The View and Sex and the City. I was basically proud of them. In the end they played the characters they made, and didn’t make fun of the gender they choose. /rant.

I think I just felt like typing. 😀

#14 Comment By Angela Murray On July 23, 2014 @ 11:01 am

That is an amazing example! I’m sure the whole idea started as a lark, but it is awesome that they bought into it and really got into playing the characters.

(I think if I’d been the token female in the group, even though I prefer playing chicks, I’d have had to make a guy just to keep it balanced…)

#15 Comment By black campbell On July 23, 2014 @ 9:06 am

I never understood, only once or twice encointered resistance to playing whatever the hell you want to. Guy wants to play a woman? Coll. Vice-versa? Cool. I don’t care about the haravters being homosexual — although it’s usually abused by male players playing females (”Again with the lesbian, Sam?”)

I did find the inclusion of the gender paragraph in the D&D manual felt more like pandering to a vocal bunch of the gender obsessed (of which there are oh so many in academia) rather than some ground-breaking progressive victory that will free gaming from gender normative yadda yadda…

If it’s a appropriate to the game and the players (Sam, tere’s kids at the table…howza bout we don’t talk about the dualistic nature of your character’s genitalia..?) go for it…

You wanna play a hermaphroditic race, Sam? Cool, this Star Trek campaign even has a race for that.

#16 Comment By Angela Murray On July 23, 2014 @ 11:04 am

I was really glad to see the inclusion of the paragraph. While I don’t obsess about it, I do think about gender in relation to gaming and being a nerd in general quite a bit. To most people (I hope) the paragraph was a no-brainer, but I do feel it needed to be said for the small percentage of gamers that are stuck in the 80’s and think it’s a dude’s-only type of hobby.

#17 Comment By danroth On July 23, 2014 @ 9:12 am

This came up just last night for me, actually. I was playing a character whose gender was ambiguous/unknown (it was a Dwarf, so I don’t really want to say androgynous). So instead of using pronouns, I just referred to the character by name (or in first person). It worked great! Best of all, the DM and the other player were into it, too.

#18 Comment By Angela Murray On July 23, 2014 @ 11:06 am

That reminds me of Vaarsuvius from Order of the Stick. It takes a bit of work to keep things ambiguous (we default to binary gender so easily), but it can really pay off in cases like this.

#19 Comment By Knight of Roses On July 23, 2014 @ 10:28 am

A lizrdfolk, robot or superintelligent shade of the color blue are all far more alien than another gender, so I have never understood the resistance to letting people play the character they want. But like everything else, treat the character with respect and play the character like a real person not an exaggerated set of characteristics.

#20 Comment By Angela Murray On July 23, 2014 @ 11:08 am

Very well put.

It is funny how it seems easier to accept some sort of alien creature before excepting a gender swap.

#21 Comment By Razjah On July 23, 2014 @ 12:21 pm

“But like everything else, treat the character with respect and play the character like a real person not an exaggerated set of characteristics.”

Fantastic quote! I need to remember that the next time someone is being a butt about a character’s gender. Or about anything really.

#22 Comment By Ravenspawn On July 23, 2014 @ 2:48 pm

I recently played a female, elven wizard in my friend’s campaign. At first the other players were a bit surprised (especially since some of them hadn’t met me before) but after a while no one had a problem with it. It even allowed the GM to introduce a courting with a local noble, where an all male cast wouldn’t made it possible.

We made a few jokes about her good looks and the occasional loot of jewellery and fancy dresses helped her in the social functions we had to attend.

But she was a very effective wizard, summoning elementals to aid the group. I had a good time, but I simply didn’t like the system all that much so I had to leave.

#23 Comment By Blackjack On July 23, 2014 @ 7:28 pm

I understand why a lot of players are apprehensive at first when someone chooses a gender-bender character. They’ve probably had a lot of bad experiences. Most of the examples I’ve seen of men playing female characters have played flirtatious porn stars under-dressed for the weather.

Though this stereotype is usually associated with teenage boys it’s not just a youth problem. I’ve seen it in guys 40 years old, too. If anything the 40yo type is often worse because while teens will blush and laugh nervously about what they’re doing– they usually know it’s wrong– the older men who still behave this way are likely to be unapologetic about it. I remember one actually debated me when I confronted him over drawing pornographic sketches of his character at the gaming table. “This is a fantasy roleplaying game, right?” he asked rhetorically. “Well, this is my fantasy.”

#24 Comment By Angela Murray On July 23, 2014 @ 11:18 pm

Teenagers I usually give a little more leeway because they’re still learning and they rarely behave that way directly in front of a woman. Older guys, though… well, let’s just say that when I have met them like that, I don’t game with them more than once.

I also think it’s okay for GMs to step in and let a player know their out of line with their character, whether it’s a gender based issue or even a race issue, or really almost anything that’s crossing a line and making the other players uncomfortable.

#25 Comment By Silveressa On July 23, 2014 @ 8:25 pm

In a lot of my games over the years I’ve seen players (of both genders) more often than not make a right mess out of playing the opposite gender, (or more rarely of a different race or sexual preference) Mostly because they tend to either:

a) Stick their with their “normal,” (the gender the player is) mindset/personality on a character of the opposite gender and run with it, which often has mixed results, and usually makes for either a very effeminate man or extremely masculine lady.

b) They tend to exaggerate a particular stereotype of the gender and go overboard with it, usually to the point of making other players uncomfortable.

c) Become far to hung up on the sexuality of the character to the point it overshadows the adventure. (Although to be fair I’ve had players do this when playing their own gender/sexual preference too; but not as often.)

The one excellent exception to this is players that also GM, they tend to be able to play the characters in a suitable manner without much difficulty, largely in part due to their regular experience handling NPC’s of both genders.

These days before letting someone play a character of the opposite gender I usually prefer to have gamed with them before hand at least a little, and have a sense of whether or not they can do so without upsetting the table.

#26 Comment By Angela Murray On July 23, 2014 @ 11:19 pm

I can see b and c being issues, but I actually don’t have a problem with a. While it may be the result of the player not quite getting the finer facets of the gender they’re playing, there’s nothing wrong with having a character that’s an effeminate male or a masculine lady. 🙂

#27 Comment By Silveressa On July 24, 2014 @ 10:00 am

Aye it not normally problem, although when said effeminate male character is supposed to impress the bad guys as a space faring Jack Bauer, it begins to be a little difficult to make it work without the scene going from tense and serious to campy. 😉

#28 Comment By Angela Murray On July 25, 2014 @ 12:48 pm

That could definitely be a problem, but the same could be said for any character the player isn’t quite getting right. The noble elf that’s supposed to be gracious and charming and the player lumbers through every scene. The character that’s supposed to be an innocent teenager, played just like the 30something player. The alien that keeps spouting off pop culture references… 🙂

In other words, I get how that situation (the effeminate Jack Bauer) could be a problem, but I don’t really see it as directly related to the gender swap. It’s just more obvious as a problem for many of us.

#29 Comment By Blackjack On July 24, 2014 @ 6:15 pm

I agree with Angela, I don’t see (a) as a problem, per se. It’s a roleplaying game. If a guy wants to play a female character with an average man’s mindset– or vice versa– that’s okay. It’s a form of exploration. Done well it can provide insight as well as entertainment. Done poorly… well, about the worst I can say is it’s a missed learning opportunity.

Let me give an example. One of the guys in my LT campaign played a tomboy woman. She had a masculine physique and was a skilled warrior. “Mom raised me like my brothers,” s/he’d quip. In combat gear she was often mistaken for a man, and that was part of what we as a group enjoyed about the character– the chance to explore how s/he forced people to confront their expectations about how men and women should look & act.

#30 Comment By Tomcollective On July 25, 2014 @ 1:03 pm

I do and don’t understand why this can be such a “thing”.

I was creating female RPG characters almost as soon as I started gaming. And while the vast majority were statted to be rediculously HOT, my behavior and my friend’s reactions with the character weren’t much different than when I created male characters. I jumped around and did crazy things and killed bad guys. Sometimes my character was an incredibly attractive woman. Sometimes not.

To this day, I have more favorite characters that are/were female than male. All these comments are making me feel lucky that I never came across too much gender stupidity or debate while doing this.

I did play one character that got turned from a man into a woman. If I remember correctly, he had already fathered a child when this had happened. I can see some people at the time, and at the age I was, getting upset at this turn of events. But to be honest I got a big kick out of it.

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#32 Comment By Toldain On July 28, 2014 @ 4:58 pm

I started with AD&D in the winter of 1980. This turns out to have been with a very special group of people, though I didn’t realize that at the time. Our GM was a woman, and many of the other players simply flipped a coin to determine the gender of each new character they rolled up.

There wasn’t a lot of romance, and we tended to ignore gender in our roleplay – kind of playing them “gender-blind”. Nevertheless one of my most favorite characters in all my roleplaying history dates from those days. And I have another woman that’s a bit more recent.

As I’ve progressed, I’ve tried to ground these characters more in reality by using models from life. People I’ve known personally are the best, but celebrities work too. I’ve used both.

#33 Comment By Manjushri On August 6, 2014 @ 8:34 pm

I don’t understand why people are surprised by the idea of a Hermaphroditic god. The very word comes from Hermaphroditus, a Greek God and the child of, you guessed it, Hermes and Aphrodite. Also, Hermes was usually portrayed in Renaissance alchemist texts as a Hermephrodite himself, having combined both opposite forces of creation within himself. This was then the path of the Hermetic Alchemist who sought magical power, the philosopher’s stone, and immortality.

Hermes even got his famous staff/wand, the Caduceus, from the most famous transgendered figure of all, the blind prophet Tiresias. You might remember him from Oedipus Rex or the Odyssey. He was transformed by the gods into a woman for nine years before being turned back. In the process, he admitted to the gods that he actually preferred having sex as a woman.

Greek mythology is filled with such things. Why wouldn’t D&D be as well.

#34 Comment By mdlake On September 29, 2014 @ 1:36 pm

I don’t understand the problem with “cross-dressing” PCs and never have. As Angela observes, (1) we’re okay playing elves and spacemen and other things we’ve never actually been, and (2) GMs play all genders of necessity anyway. So what’s the big deal?

Gender issues are a problem for me as a GM, however. Not in my NPCs, but in my settings. Some settings are gender-neutral, and that’s swell, but others are not. Victorian London, for example, or the Arabian Nights or imperial Rome are unrepentantly sexist, and presenting these settings without punishing players (male or female) who want to play female PCs is difficult. So how do I make room for my group’s female player who wants to play only female PCs?

One solution is to slap a veneer of quasihistorical costuming onto a thoroughly 21st century world view, but the result is often fakey, tongue-in-cheek, and quite probably destructive to the tone that made the setting appealing in the first place. As a power-fantasy romp, it works; as an immersive historical background, it stinks. (If/when ren-faire Xena is the tone I want, of course, that’s fine. But not when I want to do Seven Samurai.)

Another solution is to exaggerate what should be a niche role, as Castle Falkenstein inflates the demimonde. This works for a while, but only stretches so far. It quickly becomes a manifest bone-throwing, an excuse for something to do. Compare the way the Superfriends’ villains so often started a reign of terror near a marina so Aquaman would have something to do: rather than making him look like a vital member of the team, it actually made him look pointless and pathetic.

So far, my answer to how to include female PCs in sexist settings has been: don’t play those settings. I wish I had a better answer.

[My current group has two hetero males comfortable playing females but a bias to playing male, one homosexual female who prefers male characters in the conviction she doesn’t play female convincingly (?!), and a straight female who flatly prefers female PCs–although she once took a male PC when the story begged for one and did a bang-up job.]

#35 Comment By Angela Murray On September 29, 2014 @ 2:00 pm

As someone who prefers playing female characters, even in historically sexist settings, I think it’s important to understand that getting true historical accuracy is going to be difficult even without female PCs. It’s okay to bend things a little without going to extremes.

For your Seven Samurai setting, the player could go the Mulan route and have her woman pretending to be a man. It allows her to play the female character, the GM to keep the same gist of the setting they wanted, and provides some awesome plot for later on.

I think the key is to figure out how to let the player have the character they want while staying true spirit of the setting. Both the GM and the player(s) need to understand the setting and bow to it without letting it ruin player fun.

Honestly, some of my favorite roleplaying experiences have been playing female characters in historically sexist settings. Victorian settings can be especially fun, but one of my favorites was a Renaissance game with super powers. My poor tomboy was forced to dress more properly, but was still able to take a stand and save the day during the climax of the game.