Top image: battlecrazed-axe-mage
If you looked at the group gathered around various tables in the cramped shop, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything other than the casually-dressed, after-work folk.
Some are in khakis and sandals, and others are in button-up shirts with serious laptop backpacks. My table seemed to have a good mix of amiable older players, awkward teens, and a few in their 30s who embody the essence of “chartered accounting”.
This was a night of Adventurer’s League, where strangers meet in their local game shops for a night of rolling dice, communal story-telling, and wacky shenanigans all around. It’s your average game of Dungeons & Dragons, a tabletop roleplaying game produced by Wizards of the Coast.
The shop itself isn’t large, just a premise above a chicken rice eatery. What little available space between the Warhammer kits and Marvel Legendary expansions is filled with large rickety tables, all of them occupied by players of D&D.
Over the general hubbub and anguished groans over lousy dice rolls, my group of fellow players sat enraptured.
Like the pious gathered before a sacred object, in the centre of our table was a large printed map showing the layout of a small neighbourhood set in the largest metropolis of the fictional world of Faerun.
The Dungeon Master (DM), who led our game, continued his narration from the official adventure module and said, “Fala turns, and you see a sway in their hips as their skirt flares with their movement. They greet you in a voice that sounds like a man’s, saying, ‘Welcome to Corellon’s Crown.”
My player character for this game session was basically an idiot with a heart of gold—think Naruto but with two swords and fewer brain cells. She was ready and waiting to invite this lovely shopkeeper out for some wine and dine, but I stopped short. In my mind, pieces of Fala’s description click together. They were a genderqueer character, written right into the official adventure module.
I found myself glancing at the rest of the players, that old guarded trepidation at their reactions rising in me. I didn’t know these people outside of the game. Some of them I had met for the very first time tonight.
One young player looked confused. He was dressed in a sports tee with the name of a polytechnic across his chest. Frowning, he asked the DM to repeat “her” description again.
The DM pointed out that Fala preferred “their”. Confused, Guy paused for a moment and went, “Huh? Okay.” He then asked Fala (as roleplayed by the DM) if the group could get a “Neighbour Discount” for the potions Fala sold. The other players immediately joined in on this endeavour.
You could tell these were Singaporeans.
As a closeted queer at the time, I can’t describe how I felt other than pleasantly surprised and oddly proud of Wizards of the Coast for including that precious detail in their published adventure module. Millions of people participate in this adventure module, and many will read, see, and interact with Fala, whose pronouns are they/them and identify as genderqueer.
What reassured me more was that this expression of queer identity ended up being quickly woven into the fabric of the communal narrative we strangers had gathered to tell. Whoever Fala identified as what’s important is got discount or not?
Meat Grinders to Woke Wizards
D&D was not always the game it is today, where we could ask our genderqueer fantasy shopkeepers for potion discounts. D&D was long held to be the domain of heteronormative narratives of might and magic where big strong men, lithe elven bards, and wizards who are also humanoid cats could battle the undead sorcerers in a dungeon of death.
The D&D games of yore centred around dungeons, traps, and min-maxing. One of the most infamous adventurers of D&D is the Tomb of Horrors, which was essentially a meat-grinder dungeon designed to kill as many Player Characters as possible.
Story and character identity were present but not always at the forefront of the game.
With the massive popularity of the streamed D&D series Critical Role, D&D faced a new renaissance in 2015. Critical Role has played a pivotal, well, role in bringing D&D to mainstream media. You know you’ve “arrived” when Funko Pop makes figures of your characters.
But what is their secret to such meteoric popularity? Plainly put, the characters created for the game are compelling, engaging, flawed, expertly roleplayed and, included in every campaign, pretty gay.
D&D has evolved from its adversarial wargames roots to one that elevates the narratives built and shared at the table. With Critical Role setting the example of a game where character development is placed centre-stage, the inclusion of queer identities in worldbuilding and character creation is but inevitable.
Wizards of the Coast has included canon gender queer key NPCs in newer published modules, like my dear Fala. Advertising art for the module Strixhaven, which provides for a handy-dandy set of mechanics for in-game character dating and relationships, prominently features two gay wizards dancing.
In Curse of Strahd, the most popular adventure module ever produced, lead-writer Chris Perkins (also from the LGBT community) included a canon male ‘bride’ for the chief vampire villain thirst-trap.
Wizards of the Coast has clearly become woke, but have we?
Agendas aside, how does this encouragement to include queer identities play out at our tables, with our fellow players, our DMs, in our Singaporean culture?
Welcome to D&D — We’re all pretty queer here
Queer identity expression is a seed sown by players and Dungeon Master (DM) alike, and their experiences are unique. Player Bryan’s hobgoblin wizard character is asexual, neutral and emotionless. While he himself is gay, the subject of his sexuality was never initially brought up among his regular group of players. The players at his table were all male, all straight.
The uncertainty of how accepting they would be was enough for Bryan to feel hesitation at being himself. He was there for the game, after all. For him, playing his character through this long-running campaign was an act of exploration, with a pinch of working through personal trauma through roleplay by being someone straightforward and neutral and asexual.
Then came the day when one of his fellow players suggested greater sensitivity from a player at the table, for Bryan’s sake. That player had made a “That’s so gay” joke in the game. After apologising to Bryan for the remark, it turned out that the other players had known he was gay from the moment he introduced his character.
When asked what gave away Bryan’s identity, they said, “No straight person would play an asexual character.”
Bryan plays in a long-running campaign with a regular group of players. For those at open Adventurer’s League tables, where strangers and players come and go from game to game, their experience with queer identities comes from Wizards’ inclusion of diversity in their official modules.
Still, at such tables where games involve testing character builds, wacky shenanigans and general tomfoolery, queer identities are rarely explored too deeply.
As a DM myself, I have noticed that the inclusion of queer identities takes some finesse from the DM running the game. Queer identities manifest in a myriad of different ways, and one cannot assume that only LGBT identifying players or DMs include queer identities in-game.
Introducing my Adventurer’s League character’s pansexual identity by intending to date Fala was made easier by the DM’s lead.
Through his handling of Fala’s introduction, he had set the boundary that this was accepted and to refer to Fala as “they”. This made me feel safe to engage in my own character’s brief expression of queer identity.
DM, take the wheel
It’s no surprise then that the DM plays a pivotal role in setting boundaries and creating a culture of genderqueer safety at the table. Whether one comes in out and proud or quietly penning “gay as hell” on their character sheet, the expressing of these identities is modelled and led by the DM at the table.
DMs breathe life into the fantasy world their players interact with. They get to decide whether or not to include queer elements into their world and how these affect the societies within.
They get to decide which NPC is LGBT, and who isn’t.
In a campaign I personally play in, the DM K.A. (She/her, Pan, Norway) explains her decision to include queer identity and neurodivergence in her game. A key plot Non-Player character is an asexual powerful wizard on the spectrum, secluded away in a tower to research the arcane.
“What do I want to represent in this world? So, of course, as a neurodivergent gay person, I ended up having a few more neurodivergent females in power,” K.A. explains. “And that makes sense. She is in no way a lesbian power symbol. She just has a presence I enjoy seeing in certain female roles in movies.”
Still, K.A.’s players have not yet directly interacted with this character’s queer identity aspect, and neither does K.A. go out of her way to bring it up. But she puts it there anyway.
This openness to queer identities bleeds into the dynamics of her players. At her table, two player characters are in a gay relationship. Another has just entered the story seeking out his gay lover; one is asexual, and one is a chaotic lesbian with a thing for big women.
It’s a D&D party of bisexual, straight and asexual men and women. At K.A’s table, queer identities become a massive part of the characters’ dynamics and how the fictional world evolves.
The work of modelling queer representation
Still, to create a safe environment for expression, the DM must be willing to shoulder the burden of deciding how they want to model the representation of queer identities in their stories. Unsurprisingly, not all are ready to bear the responsibility.
Representation of any minority group requires ethical and cultural sensitivity, whether or not these inclusions are intended or incidental. The impact of the Queer Coded Villain, the “Slutty” bisexual, the Sassy Gay Best Friend™ and other adverse LGBT tropes must be implicitly understood by both player and DM. To understand, one must speak, listen and learn—players to DM, DMs to players.
Bryan shared another instance where he created a non-binary character (they/them) in another game with his cis friends. He had a new colleague at work who preferred the pronouns they/them. So, his agenda behind this character was to acclimatise himself to using these pronouns.
To his surprise, when he forgot to use the correct pronouns he had chosen for his character, his fellow players stepped in to remind him, making everyone more aware and comfortable using those preferred pronouns.
For DMs, the experience of player-initiated character queer identity inclusion helps educate them on LGBTs’ real-life experiences at their table.
In D&D, communication to set boundaries and willingness to speak up when a boundary is crossed is all key to queer identity expression. Still, the inclusion of such expressions should not affect the game’s flow for other players.
After all, gathering is not to have discourse but to bow to the fickle whims of fate, weave our collective tale, and yell at plastic for coming up with the wrong number. Queer identity is but one part of D&D, and perhaps that is precisely how it should be.
What’s important is, got discount or not?
Thus we return full circle to Fala and their discounts. In talking to players and DMs about their experiences of queer identities in-game, they all agreed: We Are Here To Play A Game.
The game’s object is not to become a discourse on queer identities, nor is it there to impose one’s views on others in the expectation that they conform. The game’s object is to get together to roll dice, save Phandalin and try to seduce the local dragon. It is a game where queer identities are part of the world, adding to the tapestry of its richness, making it resemble the one we live in where everyone is different.
Where queer identity comes up, players tend to accept it, just as Confused Guy did at my table so many years ago. Then they move on to other priorities. In D&D’s fantasy worlds, the group of fictional characters work together towards greater goals, regardless of whether one is queer or not.
That it somehow absorbs and mirrors lived realities of a world trying to repair fractures in identities is a but a happy and, in some small ways, a hopeful coincidence.