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How Queers Found Sanctuary in Dungeons & Dragons

by keisha 6 months ago in adventure games
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Alternatively: How Dungeons & Dragons became the gayest game on the Internet

How Queers Found Sanctuary in Dungeons & Dragons
Photo by Jack B on Unsplash

Like many others, I was introduced to the tabletop role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons through the web series Critical Role. After I'd gotten over 50 hours deep into "nerdy ass voice actors sitting around and playing Dungeons & Dragons", I begun my search to find a collection of friends to give the game a go. The first group I'd stumbled across were six guys sitting around a table in a local game shop, four of which I knew from high school.

The experience was relatively stereotypical: a handful of straight men (mostly white) were playing a game with little narrative about slaying dragons and fighting off hoards of monsters, a play style colloquially called a "murder hobo" game. It had energy of a first-person shooter game where the main objective is to rack up kills. It was to this group that I (somewhat) jokingly suggested their bard seduce the dragon, to which they all grimaced and cringed. I dreaded the experience so much that I stopped looking for groups to play with, until the next time, when other players found me.

I've always been a storyteller myself. What appealed to me about D&D was the possibility to explore characters and relationships in depth, as well as interact with enriching worlds and narratives. It was a realm of endless possibilities  -  sword fighting women clad in armor, colorful races, and tackling corruption. As a bisexual woman of color, it was an opportunity to explore those aspects of my personality safely and take a whack at bettering a world. It could be a form of reverie, especially in the current unrelenting political climate.

After all, I could tell other people viewed it that way, too. I was treading into peculiar territory, though, because my biggest exposure to the game was Critical Role, and I was aware of the "Matthew Mercer effect". Named after the aforementioned web series' dungeon master, it refers to when players go into D&D games expecting it to be too much like Mercer's group of friends, whom are all professional creatives. (I've always thought the term Mercer effect honed in too much on one person, when in reality, any professional web series could have that kind of influence on new players.) But it wasn't that I was expecting anything like that when I sat with those six boys, it's that the game was so painstakingly… straight.

"Prior to starting my current game, my experiences with D&D had always been very short lived, mostly games with cishet guys. In college, I did pick up groups at my local comic shop, but no one was really interested in long form narrative, and again, the groups were largely cishet, if occasionally more gender diverse. Regardless, I always kind of felt like the odd one out."  - Eriana Ura-Smith, 29

And that's been the long time reputation of Dungeons & Dragons  -  it's a white, straight, cis man's game. Because of this, often times, the less vocal queer community was often pushed out of tables and sequestered themselves away. In 2014, the game's fifth edition, or 5e, released to the public, which streamlined rules and made the game easier to pick up. Consequently, the player pool grew, swaying towards audiences of people of color and the LGBT community. Since then, Wizards of the Coast, the publisher behind Dungeons & Dragons, has been making a more conscious effort towards inclusivity in their recent releases for 5e. Races that once were written off as inherently evil  - many of which draw on harmful stereotypes of varying ethnic groups - (dark elves, goblins, orcs, etc.) have been made out to be equally as complex characters. In an article addressing diversity on WotC's site, they said, "Dungeons & Dragons teaches that diversity is strength."

On a smaller level, queer dungeon masters take the task of creating space for their fellow queer and BIPOC friends seriously. Anna, a player-turned-dungeon-master, decided to make the change because she found the tables she was sitting at were always through the lens of someone cis and straight. "I didn't feel represented."

Inclusivity leads to liberation. Over are the days of when every hero was a cardboard cutout of Chris Hemsworth. Sorry, Thor fans. A hero could be anyone, including you and me, or even our eclectic group of characters who stumbled across a legendary weapon because our dungeon master told us we did.

A friend first introduced Rafael to Dungeons & Dragons. He'd always loved video games and how they put the player in the driver's seat of the story, but he wanted more freedom to explore and do more.

Even video games that offer character customization have a finite amount of options for identity, which can feel equally as restricting as societal norms, but D&D gives the player full reign over what their character. It allows the characters to be as unique as the people behind them. In addition to this, gender, sexuality, and race do not impose different rules or hindrances.

(Dungeons & Dragons is no leftist utopia, though. The content is a long way's away from perfection, and WotC recently acknowledged the problematic content in a blog post and is taking steps in the right direction to correct the issue.)

Dungeon master Toni told me about a game she runs where homophobia, transphobia, and racism are never an obstacle her players encounter. She described it as "a neutral playing ground where they can play around with pronouns and gender". She encourages to and makes it safe for her players to explore different aspects of themselves. During this experience, one of her players, who was playing a male character, came out to the group because of how it resonated with him.

"I got into D&D about four years ago when I started college and I started at a table of mostly white, cishet guys, but they were good friends and it was fun and I felt safe. I remember the first time my character flirted with another woman NPC and there was only a momentary pause before the DM flirted back, and just like that, my world tilted on its axis."  - Haelley, 22

Queerness, in and of itself, is a never-ending journey of self-discovery. Many of the players I spoke to while drafting this article described to me a similar experience: they set out playing D&D thinking they identified one way, often cis and/or straight, only to have discovered something new about themselves in the process. Cain, a now regular D&D player, begun playing when they identified as a demigirl, but has since found themself leaning more towards transmasculinity. On a similar note, Bradyn, another player I spoke with, went from identifying as a cis man to nonbinary. A safe experience at a table with people they trust has made this possible for people like them.

When I spoke with Cain, they described a handful of their characters they've played in the past, noting their inclination towards transmasculine ones, because they closely reflect themself. Something special to them, in particular, is having playing trans characters who have transitioned through non-magical means. "[My character] didn't want to be a cis man, he wanted to be a trans man. The distinction was important to him, [and] it's made me realize the distinction was important to me, too."

For a lot of young queer people, the acceptance they find in Dungeons & Dragons is a sanctuary unlike any other. These spaces tend to feel more welcoming than even stereotypically "gay" spaces like theater and band club, commented Haelley, a queer player who has recently been experimenting with using she/they pronouns after playing nonbinary characters.

"I think D&D is an ideal game for people to break free from the boundaries they have placed upon themselves, or that society [and] their family places upon them," Toni says.

Rafael found the role-playing game to be one of the few spaces ordinary people can do something that feels inspiring and exciting. "It can really make you question and worry and fret about these characters, because in a lot of ways, they're you!" And for Rafael, that's more than true. His current character, a cleric, is young and black, much like himself. He loves being able to see someone who looks like him so free and unafraid, versus the constant need to just survive. It instills him with hopefulness.

Anna commented, "For me, at my table, D&D is about love. It's about trust in the people at your table, trust that you can go on a narrative journey together where you will meet all kinds of people. I want my table to be a place where anyone can sit down and feel represented [and] feel like they belong. Because they do."

For some, it's not only the table that becomes a safe space, but queer people will find comfort in their characters, too. Shep, who mentioned this in our interview, described the experience as empowering, especially when their character can stand up for themselves.

"My friends, really, were those that made me feel as comfortable as I am today, being incredibly welcoming, truthfully, and allowing me to settle on my new pronouns and my new identity."  - Bradyn, 19

Similarly, one of my players, Peyton sees our sessions as a form of escapism, but she has also found a sense of community and camaraderie in it. Once a week, she sets up her camera, does a few test rolls to find her lucky dice for the session, and then hops on to Discord to join in on a game I run. Being able to set aside time to collaborate on a story has been especially important for human contact and mental health during the Covid pandemic "when it's been so hard to connect with anyone," Peyton says.

Online communities like Discord and Roll20 have made joining a campaign easier. Finding a game can be as easy as making a Tweet asking my online following if anyone is willing to incorporate a new player into the game, and it's worked for me twice now! On Roll20, players looking for a group can sift through the tags of open campaigns, including the appropriate tag to find LGBT-friendly ones. This accessibility has made it easier for minorities to find others they resonate with and tell their stories.

I asked Peyton to join my D&D game after suddenly losing three of my players. Since then, she's fallen head over heels in love with her character, a tiefling rogue named Vesper. This is her first time playing in a campaign, but has dived in head first. "There's something so enthralling about being able to lose yourself so completely in a character you've built and know that they will have an impact on this world you're playing around in." Peyton has also excitedly messaged me outside of sessions about all of the possibilities and routes Vesper could take, including the potential to pursue a sapphic relationship in-game.

In narrative-rich campaigns, bands of adventurers often find themselves saving the world and, along the way, they find a family in their comrades. They might not set out to be heroes, sometimes starting as unlucky bystanders getting swept up in the chaos or just mercenaries grabbing a drink at a local tavern. Fighting side by side and facing daunting challenges brings the characters closer together and grow as people, leading the characters' players along with them.

These days, I spend the week prepping for my table's game on Saturdays. As a storyteller through and through, it brings me joy to see my friends interacting with the narrative and world I present to them, but it also gives me the opportunity to help them learn about themselves, and once in a while, I'll find myself learning a little something, too.

A special thank-you to all of the people I spoke with for this article (in alphabetical order): Anna, Bradyn, Cain, Eriana, Haelley, Peyton, Rafael, Shep, as well as the others who shared their stories with me. There are too many to name, and I received overwhelming support for this article. It was such a pleasure to talk to everyone.

adventure games

About the author

keisha

22-year-old teller of stories. aspiring novelist, columnist, poet, historian, and teacher. happily dabbles in anything creative. born and raised in kona, hawai`i.

also writing on medium as keikc.

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