Everybody settle in and get cozy. We're about to share some deep stuff on gender, personal identity, sexual orientation, and personal expression. The following deep dive is an exploration of distinct characters I've played, others I've observed behind the screen, and a small look of the current state of D&D and how it affects and empowers us.
How Playing A Woman Made Me A Better Person (and many other things)
Gender-bending is a foregone conclusion when you are a Game Master. Unless you're running a completely male or female world (I mean...why?), the assumption follows that if you are playing as every character that is not another player-character, you will undoubtedly play a character that is the opposite sex that you are.
And we've all seen some cringe-worthy elements come out of this with newer DMs. A dude that plays all the ladies like lascivious harlots with high-pitched voices (because all women CLEARLY sound like THAT), or an awesome dudette playing all the men similarly but down two octaves. I get it, we're learning, and their range will (I hope) increase.
I'm happy to say I came from the middle when it came to voice. I was blessed with a love of the theater, and I adore trying out new voices, dialects, and accents. Some I've blended into regional accents for my fictional world, and that took some time! It's great to look back, and when I play ladies, they run the gamut of high to lower pitches. Most tend to sit in soft palette, and elevate slightly. But...it's not about the voice.
Characters are EMBODIED. A lot can change by a simple shift in posture and position. How a person moves, in face and body language, is even more important than how they sound. A shifty urchin looks shifty (regardless of gender), and a stoic knight is no less stoic with feminine features; both can also be seductive, or monstrous, or terrifying. Their actions and body language speak more than any masculine or feminine features would at their base. A lot of it ties more into the variables of communication, interest, and an alignment of style.
I'd be lying if I said gender DIDN'T play a role, but for me, I find it a little more complex.
I think I played Vanora to feel sexy at a time in my life that I certainly didn't. As frame, many of my men were shy and awkward (like me), or far too exuberant and annoying (like a cartoon version of what not to be), and my women, though cool, had what I thought was lacking in personality. Now, Vanora was not flirtatious; she was confident. Not once did she hit on anyone in the game, but I knew she could rock it if it came up. She was sensual in her movements, almost animal-like (Aasimar Shifter, Pathfinder), and I wanted to experience an otherworldly perspective, separated yet powerful, and highly feminine. And the perspective was...neutral. In fact, it became a piece far more about characterization; the subtle aspects of a person - their flaws, ideals, and the deeper shifting layers of emotional sand. It was a lesson in HUMANITY most of all. As the campaign fizzled out, her lessons reformed in the creature known as Lorelai in Gray Owls, except ten-fold, and much more complex, dangerous, and alluring.
And I end up playing a lot of women in my games, and not to feel sexy. Actually, I'm very proud of the women of Io in every age. I find I play them like people, rather than women or men, which might sound silly to some of you, but I think that that's the best way for me. Instead of gender first, it's always character. There's no sexism in Io (at least not in any frame that is acceptable), so a good leader is a good leader, regardless of gender. A ruthless tyrant is still a tyrant, whether it a man, woman, or anything in between. Yet, my players have had little trouble identifying who I'm playing and when (there is a family of strong women that all sounded a little similar early on, but I've adapted), and usually grasp their gender quickly.
In a lot of ways, playing women helped me consider people as people. I didn't want to box myself into tired narrative cliches or tropes, so to break free I played a person who just happens to be female, male, or something else. Their gender is secondary to their personality. What a concept to consider, yet I do believe - as a clearly heterosexual man - that women hold certain extra powers over those that would be interested in them, and the same is true for any gender that interests another.
So of course this swings toward orientation, at least at first. Love is love in Io; you love whom or what you want (as long as you're not hurting anyone), so the societal pressures that surround one's orientations that we feel so viscerally today...don't exist here. And it doesn't define someone's prevalent or lack of partners. Let's take Cecil, a high-elf bard of the court in Gray Owls, who, despite being married to probably one of the most frighteningly-powerful women I've ever played, has to play the field of information, favors, and rapport in order to sway the odds in the favor of his family and his assets. Cecil is a listener, first and foremost, and can flip on a dime whether to be masculine or feminine and all levels between as the situation allows so he can make the other in the room feel the most comfortable...whether that's manipulative or not. But for me, it forces me to wait and pick my moves carefully, embracing whatever side I need to and being open to multiple possibilities; a perspective of a tactically sound mind who will wield physical and mental intimacy to position others is a thing of beauty.
Contrast this with Obidia Skurr, the Master Slate Duelist of Feathertongue, who is concretely gay yet classically masculine, and chooses partners rarely, if at all. He never uses his sexuality overtly as a tactic; it is a subtle piece of himself that he chooses to save for only his most vulnerable times. A private person; willing to help, but only willing to open himself up to those that truly matter, yet he is pursued for his mystery. (Not the mystery of his orientation, mind you, because that doesn't matter). Whereas Alejandro Esuarve, definitively pansexual, can't get anything in bed due to his aggressively abrasive and annoying personality. Neither is a commentary on either orientation, and such an orientation is secondary to who they are as people. Whom we choose to love is really only a small piece of who we completely are, and we can choose to wear that intimate choice on our sleeve or express it only in the quiet, special moments. Neither is hiding, and both are completely normal. And yet still I can play the strong and masculine Lyla Ironwood, who (at this point in the campaign) hasn't expressed any shred of sexuality or interest in anyone, and still get hit on by the party's Barbarian, even though he knows she can rip his heart out. People are interested in who they're interested in, and each of those is a layered person (which I dare say is MUCH more attractive). ;)
Too often, we find ourselves in camps of judgment, across picket lines of which fun is most "right." We view one side in a given context, and omit others, yet we forget key powerful facts of the human identity. A person using their sexuality as a weapon is empowering and a person wielding a great sword in a huge battle is also empowering. The existence of one does not belittle or negate the existence of the other. And you know the best thing? That can be the same person. True agency is having a say in how you portray yourself in every given moment; a badass soldier can be a sexy seductress, and a sexy seductress can be badass soldier, and people WANT TO BE BOTH at different times, and run the oscillation between many others. The ability to pivot to what is most appropriate given the situation is an adaptable skill that so many desire, yet have little practice in. Wouldn't it be great if we could feel strong AND sexy? They're not exclusive, people.
I guess my main point in exploring this deeply is that, similar to my post on Boundaries, I build and play characters from a state of ideal representation. I'd be silly if I didn't reference the cruel fact that we fight for empowerment and representation because of a long history where it was taken from us, and how cool would it be if the core aspects of ourselves could be expressed without the barriers we have to punch through today. If I want to look good, I will. My choice to be fabulous. My choice to fight. My choice to breathe. My choice to express myself however I see fit.
And I choose unhinged Druid Assassin who believes she's descended from a long line of Tabaxi, despite being human. :) That fun is not wrong, and I'll probably learn something from it, too.
When Players Pursue Identity Through Gender and Orientation
I expect it at every one of my tables now; especially the one-shots. One of the gals is going to play a guy, and I'm totally down. Maybe it's just to be different, gain a new perspective, or to practice their own identity. Yeah. Practice.
So much of what we do at each table involves communication, problem-solving, complex fantasy cooperative storytelling...and social interaction. I'd be an idiot if I said my characters were not related to me SOMEHOW, as each will undoubtedly represent or be manifested from an aspect of oneself. They may grow and change, but, actually, so are you (the player). Each character we play is intrinsically tied to a piece of us, and will affect us in ways we may not have planned for.
Which is why when I witness players step outside (or inside) their comfort zones with new characters or explorative decisions I internally squee with glee. You now get to experience, in a safe and imaginative space, actual feedback on character choices, orientations, responses, communication... And if you offend, or miscommunicate, or cause a mass genocide - it's okay, because this is a game, and you can try again. That's one rep. Take the feedback, apply where you can, and we'll continue to grow together.
And 5th Edition has done quite a lot for representation. Couple this with Io's world, and my players have a lot of opportunity to explore themselves (as theme and appropriate for each age group in campaign, of course) in the shoes of each character. Maybe you're a girl that's figuring out if you like girls...so you play a guy character and try flirting out. Or you play a girl character who is bisexual, or lesbian, or pan. Who knows? Maybe you're a guy that would like to see what happens if you play a girl; will your perspective change, your thoughts, your motivations? What if your character is asexual? What does that mean, how would I play that? What if I'm a boy, and I identify as a girl? How do I explore that?
How does the group react to your bend, or your orientation? Do they support you, reject you, or are just uncomfortable? Are they uncertain, and need to consider a few things for themselves?
Maybe they're actually decent people and accept you for who you are, and try to help wherever they can. :)
I'm happy to say that I have players that decided, through their experiences pursuing an orientation they were uncertain of, to come out to their family and fight for agency in their own life. They used their character to harness the warrior inside, and actually fight for what made them happy. That's the beauty of this game; it's an opportunity to find your Sword and Shield, and rise above the walls you built around yourself. It is a forge, and when building yourself, you can always start over. You can always rewrite your narrative; tell yourself a new story.
And what we're seeing, more and more, is how little it actually matters at the table what sort of orientation, gender, or identity you wish to pursue. Those aspects of yourself (as long as they don't hurt others, and respect each other's boundaries) will be accepted at my table, and many others. However, those aspects are only tiny pieces of a much greater YOU.
What becomes possible when we expunge the social gender norms present today in what separates the expectations of a boy or a girl or the spectrum between, and embrace only the commonality of character and the sliding gradient of alignment point to point; decision to decision? Then, we are only measured by our actions, not solely by our gender, and we are but people drifting together. Sometimes we have a heading, others not, and either way, the journey is our own as we grow and learn and love together.
Forever pride. Forever human.
See you at the table.
We've all been there.
The group's been together over a year now and things just don't seem right. Johnny's SO ANNOYING - he's late, he's loud, and he repeats himself all the time! Adam doesn't let the DM speak - no one knows what's going on, and Alex is *still* on his phone looking up cat videos. We've fought beholders together, yet we're still not...blending.
When a scenario like this presents itself, it's important to take a step back and recognize one big circumstance and answer a question: is it something about today, or has this been a trend? If the former, take a deep breath. Let go of the things that linger, and urge the group to join you in this; you'll all be better for it, and it might help alleviate a few things on people's minds. Everyone's allowed an off-day.
If the latter, still take a deep breath, but there might be reason to explore the various facets that can affect a group's alignment (not mechanical alignment, mind you).
This one's up front because it's the most persistent, and holds up a realistic truth: not all people get along. But it's the WHY that's important, and a personality misalignment is often expressed in MANY ways. It's complicated, which is why it is difficult to explore, but once a player becomes self-aware and cognizant of their own personality or incongruence with others, changes begin to manifest.
Awareness goes a long way, and a growth mindset will aid you. It could be as little as the way you say hello, or your brand of particular-ness. Reflection is important in all walks of life - use it.
But there are a few more specific elements that one can consider in the group and in life that may augment your perspective at the table.
Assuming Intent (especially negative)
We reference The Four Agreements quite a lot in the Podcast and in this blog, but SERIOUSLY dudes, it's because it keeps coming up. Inferences are important - they take facts and observable factors, coupled with experience, and help you navigate your world efficiently. However, assumptions about people, their intentions, and intended effects in interpersonal situations...cause pain and misunderstanding.
I've had conversations with people where it seems we come to a mutual understanding...only to have them rewrite their own narrative and assume wide-reaching intent, returning angry and confused. I try my best to be Impeccable With My Word - make sure that I am clear and up front - only to have others assume something very different. Assumptions like this at the table only sew misunderstanding and discord. Take people at their word, and if you must assume, give them the benefit of the doubt.
Pace, "The Plot", and Obsession With YOUR Story
When you are playing, you are furthering "The Plot." That is all.
That plot can be role-play heavy, group discussion, combat-driven, a big blender mix of everything... Whatever you decide to engage in at the table...is the Plot of this GROUP STORY. It cannot, and will not, ever be all about you.
The speed, or pace, of this story is decided on by the players. The DM is the guide, but not the impending sword-of-damacles wall pushing you in a direction. I've got hooks and floating elements for ya'll, but if you spend 3 hours shopping and everyone's having a good time, then that's the episode, and that's great too. From a player's perspective, placing emphasis on "your story" over everyone else's invalidates the group story, and in case you haven't noticed, this is a GROUP GAME. Now, some players may have more spotlight at certain times than others, and that's totally cool, but that doesn't mean that before that spotlight wasn't also "the plot."
If you must be in the spotlight, share it; invite others to come along (they can always refuse). If your character is already doing something, avoid jumping into another person's activity. This is a shared experience...share it.
Flow and Resistance + Contributions and Withdrawals
Sessions that just plain CLICK are my ultimate goal as a DM. Everybody's rolling, everybody's all in, the rapport is awesome, and everything just...flows. Achieving Flow is described as reaching a supreme "lack of resistance" with the players. Tiny rulings, circumstances, voices, characterization, pace, style...it all works and everyone has invested in each element in play, creating a worthwhile flow.
Resistance is felt when players clash over rulings, there's a misalignment of play style, roles, and any moment where things grind to a halt. Sometimes resistance is necessary to clarify rulings and understanding, but there is a particular balance inherent in such clarification, which demands that you ask yourself a very important question: Does it matter? Sometimes we focus too much on micro; take a step back and see if, in the macro, does it matter if the word you use is points or slots? No? Then use what you need and remove your ego from the situation. If it DOES matter, then talk through it, and if your overruled...get over it. You can address it again outside of the game.
The other half of this has to do with contributing to the experience of the group or withdrawing from it. This is most often felt when we joke around in the middle of play - which is awesome, by the way. BUT, a quick quip in the middle of a scene contributes to group play, but pulling up a youtube video to show everyone in the middle of a scene withdraws from it. These two sides of the same coin show respect for everyone's play and disrespect for everyone's play. It's a balancing act, and one that will have missteps of course, but must be a skill that is cultivated. If you find a player, or players, are withdrawing from the game (or pulling others to withdraw), it is worth a conversation. Remember, it isn't the jokes, it's the longer, tangental withdrawal, especially if other players are bothered by it. If that's the type of game you agreed to, alright then, but if NOT, check yourself.
Ultimately, if it goes against the social contract... Don't do it. I'll say it again, this is a group game.
Antagonists In The Party and None Of Us Are Perfect
If players are escalating each other, and failing to take responsibility for such actions, instead citing the other as the problem... Congratulations, you're kindergartners. I'm so proud. Take responsibility for your own actions; if you're perpetually late, fix that. If you seem to clash with another player, discern why (don't just let it sit there, this is an opportunity to grow), and ACT on it. If you always cite others as the problem, and evidence suggests the contrary, then you might be playing victim - own that and grow up.
This might seem like some tough love right now, but a role-playing group is a vulnerable thing. Playing with others can be hard, and this setting is especially beautiful in how accepting it can be. I am so honored to have cultivated a community that legitimately cares about its members and their wellbeing, mental health included, and am horrified when I hear of the awful experiences people have come from. And yet, none of us are perfect. We are all seeking our best selves through play with others, and because we all come from different places, there are bound to be some clashes. These moments, as difficult as they might be, are opportunities to grow, pivot, and reflect. And the community will be there to help you.
However, if you find yourself UNWILLING to grow or adapt to smooth things over, if it rallies against your own concept of yourself and "you've tried everything," then maybe this isn't the group for you. Sometimes taking space IS the best course of action; removing yourself from the situation gives context and perspective where none were present before.
Luckily, we DO exist in a space where there is always another group to try. :). We'll wait for you.
See you at the table.
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Game On! Director, musician, music teacher, game designer, and professional game master. In short, I'M A BIG NERD.