The Power of Queer Play in Dungeons & Dragons

Over the past five years, Dungeons & Dragons has experienced not only a revival, but a renaissance. With more cultural connections, digital assets, and online gameplay opportunities, the barrier for entry into the tabletop game is lower than ever. Within this revival, D&D has found a large, outspoken following among queer and gender non-conforming people.

While queer people have always been nerdy as hell, the vocal contingent of gay-mers and queer roleplayers has created a new facet of appreciation and understanding for D&D. Because of the way that the game is set up, D&D allows for new methods of play as identity and queerness intersect and are explored. The power of queer people to interact with a game that does not question their existence, but molds itself to support it, is a hugely emancipating and rewarding experience. Dungeons & Dragons is an open sandbox in which queer folk can enact their fantasies of power and gender without consequence or question.

Back to the basics. How did this happen? After enduring a few decades of faltering sales, Dungeons & Dragons has come back into vogue following the 2014 release of Fifth Edition (5E). 5E simplified the rules of the game, created more direct lines of character advancement, and separated itself from its main competitor, Pathfinder, by reducing conversion tables and implementing a more user-friendly magic system. If this sounds ridiculous to you, don’t worry. It’s absurd for those of us who play Dungeons & Dragons too.

Now, these changes weren’t the only things that spurred a renewed interest in the tabletop game. Fifth Edition was the book that finally made good on Wizards of the Coast’s promises to diversify their marketing and representation, creating a book full of art that showed an incredible diversity of races, bodies, and genders. Wizards is also the publisher of the ubiquitous card game, Magic the Gathering, and in between these two properties, Wizards is the largest commissioner of fantasy art in the world. Because of this, Wizards holds a controlling share of the cultural exposure people have to fantasy games, and it was only a matter of time before they realized that inclusion had to become a priority rather than an assumption. People saw this change and responded, as representation within the canon of the book had been (somewhat) removed from stereotypes and cliches, attempting to rectify the previous fantasy universe of racially charged assumptions. (This was not always successful, but WotC has acknowledged its canon is problematic, and they are taking small steps forward.)

The popularity of Dungeons & Dragons was also spurred on by mainstream media exposure, which facilitated a lower barrier of entry to a game that previously appeared impenetrable to many. Wizards of the Coast, which has always embraced fan-made hacks, ‘homebrews,’ and personal adventure creation using their products as a foundation, also fully embraced digital streaming and Twitch plays. Podcasts like The Adventure Zone also took off in 2014, the same year that 5E was released. This improv comedy actual play audio drama combined the well-known talk show personalities of the McElroy brothers with active gameplay and rules explanations, starting the trend of producing tabletop roleplaying game stories for the masses.

Queer people, in particular, flocked to the system. From the start of the game, Dungeons & Dragons offered an equalizing method of roleplay that many other games don’t have. Video games, for example, when they even allow for character creation, usually have very specific and very limited parameters for the shape, size, race, and colorways you can choose for your characters, and rarely (if ever) has customizable gender options. It’s limited because the rules are written in the code of the game, and are, by and large, immutable.

The character creation structure for Dungeons & Dragons, (like many tabletop roleplaying games,) simply operates differently. When creating your characters, one isn’t limited by a codified set of rules regarding gender, identity, or any kind of familiar social dynamics. A basic example is that a female Dwarf Fighter will have the exact same strength statistics as that of a male Dwarf Fighter. A non-binary tiefling will have the same advantages and disadvantages applied to their character as any cisgendered tiefling. If your character is disabled, you can still participate in the game to the same degree as any other character. It’s a fantasy game, and while wheelchairs and trans people exist through a different lens, they still exist, and the rules of the game do not change for them.

In D&D there is absolutely no rules-as-written, mechanical difference between any gender, sexuality, or ability. It’s all treated the same. The rules become an equalizer. Besides the fact that there are no “hard-coded” settings for players is the premise that at your table you make the rules. It’s actually written in the Player’s Handbook that even though Dungeons & Dragons is a game with rules and play expectations, those are all suggestions. Within this framework of fun, adventure, and cooperation, you have all the narrative power.

While on a panel about this topic, game designer, writer, and professor Sharang Biswas stated that the ability to play without rules is his definition of playfulness (Flame Con, August 2019.) The rules of the world are up in the air. The interactions are going to unfold at the table. Even if the Dungeon Master (the game facilitator) has the final say over rules (all of which are arbitrary anyway). Therefore the decisions that are made, no matter what, are made together.

This idea, that you can mold the rules to the game to fit your own ideas for play, is a power fantasy that most queer people dream of. The assumption that gender and sexuality doesn’t define how the rules apply to any person is an empowering space where queer people are allowed to play, explore their identity, and perhaps learn more about who they are. The inherent play encouraged by tabletop roleplaying games is not limited to how many kobolds you can hit with your axe, but is, at its core, a tacit liberation from societal norms and expectations, allowing a freedom in gameplay that is not often allowed in the world at large.

I began experimenting in earnest with my own gender expression through roleplaying games; first by playing as a boy, then a girl, and then playing as a nonbinary character. The way that I found myself becoming more comfortable with blurring these binary lines of identity was because I had space to experiment in a consequence free container, where I could take on and take off genders in order to find the one that fit me. In the game it didn’t matter what gender my character was as long as I understood who the character was, what they wanted. I began to understand that a lot of the boundaries I set up for myself in real life were likewise arbitrary, and by extension, not what I wanted. When I allowed myself a space to play with the rules of my identity, I was able to come out with confidence, knowing that I had been able to “come out” through playing Dungeons & Dragons.

In the real world, this sort of experimentation is never completely safe. Changing names, pronouns, and appearance is never as easy as pulling out a new character sheet. When you sit down to play a roleplaying game, you invite yourself to act out a new person, act out their life. For queer people this can be monumental. It can be revolutionary. Having space to experiment is special because you can rarely find another place where it is acceptable to blur these lines.

Pulling back from Dungeons & Dragons is the fact that playfulness itself actually defines the queer experience. Queer people are constantly playing with binaries, expectations, stereotypes, culture, and societal norms, making existence itself an act of play. Queerness inherently demands that queer people reclaim, remake, and transform the world around them because the world is inherently heteronormative. Whether within the bounds of a game or just in their personal lives, queer people toy with society’s rules by simply existing within a dominant culture that is not queer. For many queer people, most of their childhood is spent repressing, ignoring, or not even realizing their queerness. Breaking out of the traditional expectations society sets on every one can be traumatic and difficult, and having a space like Dungeons & Dragons where breaking out of your everyday “role” is encouraged is a special and important experience.

Simply living authentically as queer people challenges society’s traditional expectations. Queer lives are inherently counter-cultural, and because of that, queer people are often considered a threat to society because of the ways which queer people cross and play with societal boundaries. Often queer people must live within a limited authentic experience because of the pressures of dominant (in this case, straight/cisgendered) culture. Tabletop roleplaying games specifically allow for queer playfulness without real-world consequence or commitment.

The ability to play around with expressions of queerness and identity inside of a consequence-free gaming container allows people to discover more about who they are, and who other people are. Exploring a personal identity, or a new identity, through play allows people to be more fluid and comfortable in their own lives. This gives people permission to understand different facets of themselves through play at the table and through introspection after playing, while living authentic, embodied lives.

Roleplaying games of all kinds provide an arena of expression that allows for self-determination outside of the societal norms and dominant cultures. When queer people sit down at the table they literally play by different rules. Within the game, real-world aspects of society don’t automatically apply to the characters or the game that you play. The ability to pick and choose aspects of the world, to deny or amplify voices, the container of the game is an immensely liberating and joyful experience.

Because of the way that character identities are inherently fluid and self-determined, the ability to mold and shape a new queer identity, separate from your own, within a character provides a space for both the development of personal expression and an empathetic exploration of a different spectrum of queerness. There are many examples of queer people coming out through gameplay, exploring aspects of their sexuality, and even generating real-world relationships at the game table. This exploration of queering characters also extends to video games that have an element of character creation or embodiment—how often have queer kids played as Link and imagined that they were him? How often have queer people played with a more authentic expression of themselves while worldbuilding in the Sims in order to create a version of themselves they wish were true?

Dungeons & Dragons moves beyond the structure of video games to allow a real-time and unstructured re-enactment of situations and queerness through scenarios. When you are roleplaying within a game that has created a safe space, queer play is allowed to happen, and it is this freedom that provides a framework for fluid exploration of gender, sexuality, and social constructs. The construction of a world different-yet-similar to our own often allows for a ground-up building of queerness and a new imagining of culture.

Dungeons & Dragons is especially conducive to this because of the huge, sandbox-play nature of this game. The huge rulebook that’s laid out is all arbitrary, and the game accepts that. You learn the rules so that you can break them. You keep the book on the table to help facilitate a discussion, not to slam it down like a judge’s gavel. The nature of Dungeons & Dragons is such that it can conform to anyone’s game. The world adjusts to fit around the players at the table, instead of forcing the people to change in order to fit into the rules of the game. D&D is a space for queer people to transform dominant culture into a game that not only accepts queer people, but expects queer people.

Like many pieces of speculative fiction, the creation of an inclusive culture is an act of both defiance and optimism. Many people have written about the trauma care that can happen at the gaming table, and for many queer people playing at a table where queer people affirm and uplift your cultural decisions and societies is a healing experience. The affirmation people experience while playing Dungeons & Dragons has also contributed to its popularity among the queer community, as playing the game is a form of escapism where prejudice and bigotry is replaced by hope and purpose. To look at the world while sitting with your friends and say “no, actually, it’s not like that” is an act of cultural ownership. Marginalized people rarely get to feel this powerful.

The worlds that queer gamers play in are inherently queer, inherently different, and inherently optimistic. Social circumstances within gameplay are rewritten and transformed into a space where queer people are allowed to exist and thrive. The collaborative, cooperative ownership of gameplay allows queer people to enact power fantasies of equality, understanding, family, love, and acceptance. Dungeons & Dragons, because of the cultural impact it has had over the past six years, has allowed queer people a space to play with the understanding that while sitting at the table, your rules are your own, and you have the power to create new, expansive, queer worlds with your friends.

Linda H. Codega is an avid reader, writer, and fan. They specialize in media critique and fandom and they are also a short story author and game designer. Inspired by magical realism, comic books, the silver screen, and social activism, their writing reflects an innate curiosity and a deep caring and investment in media, fandom, and the intersection of social justice and pop culture. Find them on twitter @_linfinn.

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