07 March 2014

LGBT in gaming, Gossip Column style

The notion of gay, bisexual, or transgender characters has come up in many a discussion forum thread.  It’s an astonishingly contentious topic, running the gamut of “Why do our games need to mention s-e-x at all?” to “People who want this stuff mentioned are pushing The Gay Agenda,” to “OMG that game company’s new city book had two gay couples in it” – out of a hundred hetero PCs – “so the company must be Pushing The Gay Agenda!!”

So I could write a coherent rant on the subject, or I could just do this in letters-to-the-gossip-columnist style, with excerpts from posts, and my response to them, from over the last decade.

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In another discussion, on another forum, I was just reminded of a game of D&D 3.5 I played a while ago. I wanted my character to be bisexual because it just fit with the whole androgynous glam-rock Bard thing he had going. The DM disallowed it "because of the setting" ... Anyway, I was just wondering how many people play sincerely gay/bisexual characters or use them as NPCs.

Yeah, I would've been all over that DM like white on rice. "Exactly what about your setting is incompatible with bisexual characters, and what is your explanation for why that is?"

I've played a bisexual character in the past, and gay/bi NPCs are in my world a fair bit, to the degree which the PCs are aware of their sexuality. Some of my world's cultures are less than welcoming towards them; most don't care.

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Honestly, I don't think there's a need for even introducing sexuality in most RPGs. Why would you even bother stating your characters sexual preference? Is it such a significant part of who he/she is that you need to specify?

Gosh, I don't know. Is your character's religion pertinent? His or her background quirks? Do we need to know that your character was an orphan, enslaved as a child, is buggy about heights, or that you have a fetish for hidden knives? And do we really need to know that your characters visit brothels (in a he-man, heterosexual fashion, of course) or that they flirt with the cute NPCs (in an approved, heterosexual fashion, of course)?

So why do we? It's called character development. Unless there's some reason, unique to all of human emotion and endeavor, to exclude sexuality from those traits. Exactly what about our settings is incompatible with overt mentions of such things, and what is your explanation for why that is?

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That's pretty easy, actually. "The gods created the mortal races, and none of them saw any need to make any portion thereof homosexual in nature." There's no particular reason to make it a part of the setting unless it's something your players really want to explore, so it's pretty darn easy to omit.

To which I'd respond to the latter with "Well, plainly you do have at least one player interested in exploring non-hetero characters."

The former? Unless the GM could whip out the printout showing me that was already a part of acknowledged doctrine, I'd have to ask why in a pantheon - as typical RPG pantheons run - where the gods agree on nothing, from who created the world to moral codes to common dress for clerics to what races are subhuman, the only thing upon which they DO agree is that everyone is 100% hetero? Say what?

I'd bet a twenty against a dime that the result'd be GM hang-ups rather than a genuine explanation.   Even giving the GM the (very large) benefit of the doubt, I'd be no more enthused to play in that person's campaign than under any GM who when confronted with an unconventional RP trait responded with "Well, you just can't play that way.  Urrr, well, hurr ... because you just can't, that's why."

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... if someone created a male character in your game and mentioned in the backstory that they had a wife, would that similarly annoy you? Would you tell them that you didn't want them introducing sexuality into the game and ask why they felt the need to state their character's sexual preference?

Yeah. The very next time I hear a gamer make such a complaint will be the very first. 

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But why would anyone want to play a gay character unless they were pushing the agenda?  I’m not the only player who objects to this!

What I'm surprised there are some people missing is that roleplaying is a broad world, with a lot of folks doing things that others find boring, objectionable or outright grotesque.

Would you think so concerning other areas of gaming? Would anyone respond to a post about wanting to play a hardboiled 1950s detective, "Why would anyone bother?" or "Well, my campaign is medieval fantasy." Okay, sure, fair enough, but some folks like playing fantasy, and some like playing steampunk, and some like vampires, and some like chaotic evil characters and some like Star Wars and so on and so forth, and no doubt there are some campaigns out there that do, indeed, channel Archie Goodwin or Mike Hammer.

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No one's advocated doing that, though. There's a big difference between eliminating homosexuality because of personal biases and not including it because it serves no purpose in the campaign setting. Again, if it's not something your players express an interest in, why bother?

I question upon what, if any, basis homosexuality would "serve no purpose" in any campaign setting whatsoever. It's a human trait.  It's no more setting dependent – or setting violating – than claustrophobia, a love for music, a tendency towards athleticism, OCD, or a thousand other personality or physical traits within the range of human expression.

Now you certainly can have settings where it isn't likely to come into play, where it might be inconvenient, unwelcome or outright dangerous/illegal/proscribed. Certainly a homosexual character in a WWII or Holy Lands campaign has to keep a tight lid on things, no error.

But I'm afraid my reaction to the "Err, it just doesn't exist in my campaign because, erm, it serves no purpose" would almost always be "Yeah, right, the only underpinning to that is that the notion of guys getting it on with guys squigs you out so much you can't even handle the theoretical concept."  Beyond that, we're not talking about a campaign that doesn't include matters sexual in it because no one wants to touch that trope - any more than the one the OP cited.  We're talking about making a point of banning homosexuality from characterizations.

Fair enough; there are a lot of folks who can't handle it. I just don't need to let them be in charge of my escapism.

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But frankly, at high levels, a fantasy character is akin to a force of some fickle sort of nature. This is not a sexually-charged setting, and making a fantasy world into one seems to be shoehorning something in that was never meant to be there.

Not in the fantasy you prefer to play, demonstrably, and it is no more or less a "sexually charged setting" as the players prefer. I've certainly played in campaigns that were nothing more than one-dimensional collections of stats and where all we did was, indeed, kill them and take their stuff. I've also played in campaigns where eroticism was a major theme (to date, I've had three characters married to the characters of fellow PCs).

But you know something? I don't play steampunk or nihilistic fantasy or Vampire LARPs. D&D leaves me cold, and what is termed "D&D Fantasy" leaves me a lot colder. There are a great many systems, milieus and styles I haven't played, and a good many I wouldn't play. I stop far short of airily stating that sexuality, eroticism and/or romantic tropes were "never meant to be" in a fantasy world, the more so in that I can quote a good many fantasy works where they are major elements. Anyone want to claim that sexuality and/or romantic entanglements don't form a significant plot element in Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time? That even as the quintessesial kill-them-and-take- their-stuff protagonist, Conan the Barbarian's motivated in a lot of plots by heaving bosoms? From Lois McMasters Bujold (The Sharing Knife books) to Marion Zimmer Bradley (Darkover) to Michael Moorcock (Eternal Champion) to Tanith Lee (damn near every adult book she wrote) to Robert Heinlein (Glory Road) to Harry Turtledove (Videssos) to Robert Adams (Horseclans)  - and that's just a casual glance at two of my bookshelves - those themes are everywhere. Heck, Elizabeth Lynn was writing fantasy works with explicit LGBT sex scenes in them thirty years ago.

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But NPCs are just that: non-player characters. They're co-stars at best and even in story heavy games they shouldn't be given the attention that player characters command. Why should I care about an NPC's sexuality and how will I know unless it's established IE they're married or in a known relationship?

Whether you care or not isn't the point. It's whether the NPCs who've been presented are straight or otherwise. I'd say the 99% total is pretty much accurate.  I'm going to provide some evidence of my own. The city in my setting in which I've done the most work has over 1100 locations, and I've given information on 498 NPCs. Of that total, 143 are explicitly (or presumed) hetero, oftentimes through identification of an opposite sex spouse or children ... although my wife being the daughter of a gay man, I know how much that's worth.  Fifteen characters are explicitly gay.

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If I'm in a combat-focused game like D&D or Pathfinder, sexuality never enters into it except the occasional off-color joke. So there's no need to worry about homosexuality in the game; I'm more worried about initiative and flanking bonuses.

In other words, spouses, children and anything that references marriage don't exist? No one has any heirs? There aren't any brothels? No NPCs ever introduces you to a wife or a husband?  If your response is "nope, never," then fair enough. If not, then of course you have sexuality in the game.

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Now if that decision to include GBLT NPCs clashes with the adventure background, then I believe it damages the adventure because it will appear to be shoehorned in for political reasons.

Just out of curiosity, how would mentioning that a NPC happened to be LGBT clash with an adventure background, any more than a casual mention that a NPC happened to be hetero (by virtue, say, of an opposite sex partner)?

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If that information does not have a direct bearing on the adventure, then why include it? How many adventures do you know of that call attention to the sexual preferences of the NPCs if that sexual preference does not have a bearing on the adventure?

Well, for starters, suppose you let me decide for myself what has a "direct bearing" on the adventure or not, and I'll even return the favor and let you decide for yourself. I might even be one of those GMs who likes to include local color and flavor to my adventures, and come up with details that have no bearing on solving a tactical problem. (Come to that, I might even be one of those GMs whose gaming isn't always based around solving tactical problems.)

It's funny that you bring up Village of Hommlet.  Possibly unfortunately for your argument, I happen to own it. On the very first entry in which the village is described -- two pages into the booklet -- we see that the head of a house is a manly man, and there's a "large goodwife," and several children. Location #2? An elderly "master and mistress" and their son. Location #3? The local woodcutter, his wife, and three young children. Location #4? A widow and her two grown sons. Location #5? A widower and his five children. Location #6? The leatherworker, his wife and their three children. Location #7? The innkeeper, his wife, and their children. (The inn is named, as you surely know, the "Welcome Wench," and depicts a buxom serving maid on its sign. Are you arguing that that has nothing to do with sexuality?)

In all, twenty-five of the 33 numbered locations in the village mention the sexual preference of the inhabitants -- if all male, and all with housewives who have no part of business. Why do I need to know this? What kind of -- what was your turn of phrase again? -- direct bearing does the number of small children of the stonemason or the marital status of the carpenter have to do with the plot of the adventure?

Perhaps, while you're so eager to have your questions answered, you can answer that one.

As it happens, I own 38 other adventures written for D&D. Anyone want to bet me that there's as many as ONE that never mentions a spouse, never mentions a brothel, never mentions a child?

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One reason I love my wife is that she can often anticipate my thoughts. In marching in the Boston Pride Parade a few years back, we were talking about whether we'd be marching in them ten, fifteen, twenty years down the road, I was raising my finger for my next point, and she glanced sidelong at me and said, "It's not even that you don't want to be marching here ten years from now. You don't want this parade to exist ten years from now."

And she was right, and she knew the reason: that however much that parade evolved from a desperate protest in the face of shrieking bigots throwing things to a joyous celebration, it'd be lovely to live in a world tolerant enough that it wouldn't even occur to anyone to have a parade for a segment of sexuality ... any more than we have parades celebrating blondes, vegetarians, hockey fans or any other human aspect or trait.

We're not quite there yet. It's sobering to realize that topics on alternate sexuality in our escapism routinely provoke hundred of posts and thousands of page views.

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