Portraying Trans and Nonbinary Characters In An RPG
Before reading this article, please repeat after me:
“Nothing in this article should be taken on a higher authority than anything a trans person says to my face.
The transgender experience is incredibly diverse, and I understand that these guidelines won’t be universal.
My goal in reading this article is to learn, as an ally, how to play a more inclusive game… but nobody owes me a chance to demonstrate my wokeness.”
Okay, great. Now, let’s talk about trans and nonbinary characters, and how and why you, a person who is not transgender, can and should put them in your RPG.
As a disclaimer, my only source of expertise on this subject is that I’m transgender, nonbinary, and a GM. I’ve thought about this subject a lot, but what I have to say comes from my personal experience, and is not pure gospel. My hope is that you walk away from this article with a good background from which to begin communicating with your fellow players about these ideas.
Why We’re Doing This
Let me put some words in your mouth, just as a rhetorical device:
“I’m a cisgender GM. Why should I put trans and nonbinary characters in my game world to begin with?”
Gender non-conforming people been have present, in one form or another, in every culture in every time period in every part of the world, forever and always. If a civilization has records and has gender, it has records of gender non-conforming people. If there are no gender non-conforming people in your game world, your game world is incomplete.
If you play with a trans or nonbinary person, and they choose to play a character that reflects this part of their identity, the experience will be frustrating if they’re the only trans person in the world. Being very attuned to gendered appearances, transgender people really frequently recognize or “clock” one another and seek each other out for solidarity.
It’s not unlikely that at least one of your players is a closeted trans or nonbinary person, because despite the small size of the trans/nonbinary demographic, lots of us gravitate towards RPGs. By choosing to explicitly portray characters like us in your game, you can make us feel safer and more supported, and clear the way for us to play the characters we really want to play.
“I’m just a player. Why should I make my character trans or nonbinary?”
Contributing to an environment where anyone might play an LGBT+ character provides cover for any closeted friends at the table to play characters they can identify closely with without scrutiny— if you do it without prejudice or stereotype.
Transgender roleplayers are often caught between wanting better representation in their games, and wanting to escape into the fantasy of being a cis person of their gender. If the burden of representing trans characters falls solely on trans players, then by default our game worlds will have fewer trans people than the real world.
Exploring different experiences of gender in an RPG can be healthy for you as a cis person, help you better understand your own relationship to gender, and expand your empathy for trans people.
“Trans people are so rare! It’s unlikely the protagonists of my game would ever run into one.”
Not really! The most conservative estimates suggest that 1 in 200 people is transgender, and that’s probably low. To pick an arbitrary fantasy setting, Waterdeep, on the Sword Coast of Faerun, has a population of 130,000. That’s 650 transgender waterdhavians. That’s probably a low estimate.
Also, I don’t claim to know what your table is like, but the protagonists of games— whether they’re dungeon-diving adventurers or cyberpunk hackers— tend to be the sorts of people living on the fringes of society. Which is where we should probably expect to find trans people, if the world’s gender structures resemble ours at all. (And if there is a default assumption that everyone is male or female, then yes, the world’s gender structures do resemble ours.)
“Can we just agree that, hey, there are trans people in my setting, but they’re all passing for cis people of their gender, or they’re so normalized that they’re not worth commenting on?”
In our world, most trans people don’t pass for cis with perfect consistency. What makes your world different? And what about nonbinary people, whom you, as narrator, should be referring to by nonbinary nouns and pronouns?
The absolute normalization of trans people begs a deep rethinking of how gender works for cisgender characters. Social institutions in a queer utopian setting like the one you’re proposing would be distinctly different from a boilerplate fantasy world.
Out of game, veiled representation is basically non-representation. You’re not making your transgender players any safer or more comfortable unless your representation is explicit.
“I know it’s wrong for cis actors to play transgender roles on TV and in movies. Why is it okay for me to do it in a tabletop RPG?”
There are plenty of reasons to be angry that corporate media keeps choosing to cast cis actors as transgender characters, but the main problems are these:
It shuts underemployed trans actors out of roles literally written about them.
Having a cis actor put on and take off a trans identity contributes to a cultural perception that trans identities are costumes rather than our true selves (which in turn contributes to transphobic violence).
But your gaming table is not Hollywood: You have the actors you’re going to have (though please do invite trans people to your games), and your responsibility is to each other, not to a broader culture that is going to consume your game en masse.
Unless you’re playing for an audience, you’re totally capable of making sure that everyone who will ever become aware of the trans characters you’re playing understands that you want to respectfully explore a gender identity that doesn’t belong to you. Your tabletop character doesn’t misrepresent us to the wider world, and it can be a good place for you to learn normalize our experiences to yourself.
GMs are usually responsible for portraying everyone in the game world that the players don’t directly control. If you avoid playing trans people out of a fear of misrepresenting us, you’re erasing us from your world. That’s why I want to give you the tools to do it, and do it without causing harm.
“What’s the difference between a transgender character and a nonbinary character?”
That depends on who you ask.
But you’re asking me, so here’s some simple definitions I think most people can probably agree on:
A transgender person is someone whose internal sense of self doesn’t match the gender role that was coercively assigned to them at birth. As a result, they might experience physical discomfort with their body, or social discomfort with how others treat them. These feelings are called “gender dysphoria,” and trans people have endless mechanisms for coping with them— the main one being transitioning, physically or socially, to the gender that matches their internal sense of self. Not all transgender people necessarily have dysphoric feelings, but all of them live with a deeply-held (though often repressed) knowledge that they would rather occupy a different gender role, whether physically or socially.
A nonbinary person (or, cutesily, an “enby”) is a specific kind of trans person: Their internal sense of self doesn’t closely match either a male or female identity. They might not identify as either a man or woman, or they might identify strongly as both, or they may find their internal sense of gender constantly in flux, or they might just want to ignore gender roles and be themselves.
So how do we represent such a diverse group in RPGs?
Let’s talk about nonbinary characters first, because I think that they’re easier to learn to play without doing any harm.
Portraying Nonbinary Characters
Portraying a nonbinary character is simple: Tell the other players the character is nonbinary. Use the character’s correct pronouns in narration: probably refer to them with “they” and “them,” rather than he/him or she/her (though some enbies use the familiar gendered pronouns, or “neopronouns” like xe/xem).
BOOM. The character is now nonbinary. You did it!
Is it really that easy?
“I fit neatly into the gender binary,” you might say. “I don’t really know how to portray a character who doesn’t!”
No you don’t fit neatly into the binary! No matter how great you are at your assigned gender, you’ve definitely felt social pressure, shame and dissonance for not fitting perfectly into it. Case in point: you’re playing a nerdy RPG, which is neither a manly nor ladylike thing to do. Take that sense of both rejecting and being rejected by your gender, and amplify it.
There’s tons of ways to be nonbinary! Because nonbinary people are so diverse, virtually any detail you give an enby character about how they’re defying gender norms is going to describe a real-life experience.
It’s like eating a Reese’s: There’s no “wrong way” to be nonbinary. Nonbinary people might look like anyone, and can have any combination of traits.
Even if you just decide that an existing character is now nonbinary, you don’t have to change anything else about them. Some nonbinary people continue to present and pass as their assigned gender (with varying levels of personal distress). When you decide a character is nonbinary, you’re really making a choice about an internal trait: how the character relates to gender. And as this character’s player, you have authority over their internal truths.
Not every character who defies gender norms is necessarily nonbinary: Cisgender people (and binary trans people) all have traits that don’t match the rigid social ideal of their gender, and that doesn’t make them nonbinary.
And not every nonbinary person is going to openly defy gender norms: nonbinary people often try to pass as one gender or the other to avoid discrimination and harassment, even if it causes them discomfort and dysphoria.
In real life, when someone says their sense of their gender doesn’t line up to male or female, we shouldn’t question their own authority on their own identity… even if we think we see masculine or feminine traits in them. Remember: nonbinariness is an internal truth.
So for that same reason, it’s pretty hard to screw up when roleplaying a nonbinary character. Nobody should tell you that your character is “not really nonbinary” or you’re “not playing nonbinary right” for any reason.
Some Ways To Screw Up While Playing A Nonbinary Character Even Though I Just Told You It Was Easy
There’s still some stuff to avoid.
If the fact that a character is neither male nor female is a source of humor or confusion, you’re probably playing the character in a hurtful way.
Funny stuff happens all the time as a result of not conforming to the gender binary, and plenty of people in real life will do find nonbinary identities confusing. But if you’re not a nonbinary person yourself, you shouldn’t use a nonbinary character’s identity for jokes.
Remember, you may have an invisibly nonbinary friend in your games— you don’t want them to think you’re making fun of them, or wouldn’t understand them if they came out to you. Model respect and compassion in your in-game choices.
Likewise, if a nonbinary character is sinister or deceptive, be very careful that these traits have nothing to do with their nonbinariness. In mainstream media, characters who break from gender norms are often treated as inherently creepy, or as being dishonest or delusional about who they are, and these are really hurtful portrayals.
You can have nonbinary villains, but they shouldn’t be the only nonbinary characters in the game, and their nonbinariness should never be used to horrific effect. If you don’t think you can make this distinction, don’t use a nonbinary character in a villainous role.
Finally, don’t fetishize a character’s nonbinariness: Your nonbinary character can pursue romance and have sex, if that’s the kind of game you’re playing, but don’t linger on their sexuality, their appearance, or their genitals.
Don’t entertain long guesses at the gender they were assigned at birth, because that’s not who they are.
When we first start exploring gender as a theme in our RPGs, we tend to want to experiment with gender norms on big, cultural scales, and to re-conceptualize inhuman forces as transcending human ideas of gender.
For example, nonbiological entities like elementals and golems are often depicted as being genderless, and divine beings like gods and angels are depicted as having multiple genders. Shapeshifters who can take any form almost always wind up being portrayed with fluid notions of gender. Elves are often depicted as androgynously genderless.
That’s all great, because it acknowledges the gender binary for the flawed and human thing it is!
But remember to throw in some nonbinary humans, too!
Nonbinary people are a natural part of any culture with rigid concepts of gender. If there are men and women, there will also be nonbinary people. Nonbinariness is a cultural phenomenon, but it’s also a biological one. Nonbinary people are normal.
And despite being supremely normal, nonbinary people are so regularly otherized that they often feel monstrous and inhuman. So if you’re going to make monsters that play havoc with gender, please also make sure that there are very visible humans in the game who don’t conform to the binary, either.
SO, to summarize: Explicitly tell the other players the character is nonbinary, and use their correct pronouns. Think about how they might or might not relate to the gender roles in their home culture. Don’t play their identity as if it is funny, creepy, or inherently sexual. Don’t focus on their appearance or their genitals or what their assigned gender at birth was. Make sure there are nonbinary humans, too, if there’s an “other-ed” culture or creatures in the game that can be read as nonbinary.
Portraying Binary Transgender Characters
Binary transgender characters might seem a little more familiar to play, because they adhere more rigidly to the familiar male and female gender roles, their portrayal also more fraught because of the political backlash against them. If you’re not comfortable playing a trans man or trans woman character, feel free to start with just nonbinary characters, because the existence of more nonbinary characters indirectly helps binary trans people, too.
Here’s the simple part: Introduce your transgender character as their internal gender. Use the pronouns of their internal gender. They are their internal gender.
From there, there’s an easy mode and a hard mode.
I recommend that you, as a cisgender GM or player, engage on easy mode unless you are very confident and experienced in the portrayal of trans people. Even then, don’t try hard mode unless you’re doing it with the consent and approval of the people at your table.
In either case, the first hurdle is this: How do you express to the other players that the character is transgender?
Just tell the other players, out of character, that the character is trans. Then play the character exactly as you might play another character of their gender.
In The Adventure Zone, cisgender Dungeon Master Griffin McElroy introduces the fact that a female character is a trans woman like this:
“She was assigned male at birth, but at a fairly young age she transitioned and identified as female.”
And then he never mentions it again, except to say that her trans-ness has generally not been a source of conflict in her or her brother’s life. He goes on to play her as a bombastic, hilarious, powerful wizardess who falls in love and gets married and saves the world, all without it ever being an issue.
This is pretty much the perfect way for you, as a cis player, to play a trans person. Make their identity explicit, make it a non-issue, and then play them exactly as if they were a cis person of their gender.
Is this a 100%, deep dive, super accurate way to portray a trans person?
But your compassionate, un-nuanced, 20% accurate portrayal is still valuable, because currently, trans people don’t get portrayed at all, except as jokes, creeps or tragic losses. If you make an explicitly trans character whose transness is of no consequence, you’re already improving our representation.
Obviously, not every transgender person transitions, and those who do transition don’t all manage to perfectly “pass” as their gender. If you are extremely confident in your ability to do so, and if you have the blessings of everyone at your table, you can try to realize a trans character more fully by including some details of how their appearance, personality, or life are uniquely trans.
The reason you need to discuss this with the trans players at your table— and shouldn’t do it if there’s even a chance that someone at your table is closeted— is that you don’t want to pick up on a detail that will exacerbate their dysphoria, and you want to explicitly empower them to correct you or to ask you to stop and make different choices.
These kinds of details I’m talking about, by the way: Your elven sorceress is grumpy and irritable before she shaves in the morning. Prince Charming never appears in public without his plate mail on, because it compresses and obscures his chest. Details like these are facts of trans life (or, at least, of some trans lives).
UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES should you broach the subject of a trans character’s genitals.
Cis peoples’ endless fascination with trans peoples’ genitals is exhausting, objectifying and dehumanizing. Not only is it an invasive, alienating and fetishizing subject, but it’s a subject of strong dysphoria among many trans people. Just don’t bring it up, and explain to anyone who does why it’s inappropriate and harmful.
Follow all of the rules for nonbinary characters: If a character’s transness is a source of humor, you’re overstepping your role. If it’s a source of confusion or horror, your portrayal is harmful. Your trans character shouldn’t be deceptive or a liar.
NOR SHOULD YOU EVER have a “reveal scene” where suddenly you reveal your character is actually trans, especially against the character’s will. There is no good way for you to do this, not least because having a “reveal” means you concealed your intention to play a trans character from the other players (who might actually BE transgender).
Even in the “hard mode” I just laid out for you, your character probably shouldn’t interact with systems of oppression unique to real-world trans people. Those aren’t your stories to tell, and it can feel like “oppression tourism” to watch a cis person play out a struggle… only then leave the experience at the gaming table and return to their real-life privilege. Almost all of the media with trans people in it is tragedy presented for cis people; your time as a cis player will always be better spent playing awesome, successful transgender characters who are held back by nothing.
Playing Trans Men
Trans men were usually assigned female at birth, but subsequently realize they’re men. In real life, if they choose to transition, they can enjoy more anonymity than trans women, because male-presenting people are generally under much less scrutiny and can assume more privilege than female-presenting people. On the flip side, they can also be so invisible that they struggle to receive specialized services, they receive almost no media attention or representation, and their lack of mainstream visibility means often the uninitiated don’t believe they’re really men.
The main way to screw up when playing a trans man is to undermine his manhood, or reduce him to “a woman in a man’s role.” He’s not a woman, no matter how he looks.
One of the absolute worst things to do to a character who is a trans man is to put him in a position of vulnerability to sexual assault. Obviously, “is it okay to put sexual assault in games” is a whole other discussion. But trans men in media, scarce as they are, virtually always get assaulted, and in addition to the usual baggage, it literally emasculates the character and reduces him to his genitals in a way that rejects his gender.
Like cis men, real-life trans men have a mixture of masculine and feminine traits, but as a cisgender person, it’s not your place to toy with this delicate counterbalance. Play up his masculinity instead.
Playing Trans Women
Trans women were usually assigned male at birth, but then subsequently realize they’re women. In real life, if they choose to transition, they exist under an incredible lens of scrutiny: if they present themselves too femininely, they’re accused of being a sexist stereotype, but if they don’t present femininely enough, they’re told they’re really just a man playing dress-up. This can feel like a lose-lose situation.
The bigotry hurled at trans women most violently in real life is that they’re “still men,” that their desire to be recognized as women is a sexual fetish, and that they are sexual predators hoping either to trap straight men in homosexual relationships or to gain access to women’s spaces in order to assault them. None of these things are true, and all of them are used to justify deadly violence against them.
Accordingly, the absolute worst way to screw up when playing a trans woman is to make her seem sexually threatening (or sexually deceptive), to call to her womanhood into question, or to otherwise play her like “a man pretending to be a woman.” The prevalence of these depictions directly kills trans women. If you can’t think of your trans woman character as a normal woman, then you can’t play a transgender character.
Just like cis women, real-life trans women have a mixture of masculine and feminine traits. But as a cisgender person, it’s not your place to try to walk that tightrope with your portrayal. Instead, play up your character’s femininity. Err on the side of a more feminine woman than you would for a cisgender character, especially since you’re (hopefully) playing cisgender women against stereotypes.
There are lots of good reasons to include transgender characters in your game world, or to make your next player character transgender.
Talk to your fellow players before deciding to play a transgender character, and don’t do it if it’s going to make your fellow players uncomfortable.
When narrating, use the pronouns that the character you’re referencing would want you to use.
Being nonbinary is an internal truth; a nonbinary character can look like anyone.
There’s no wrong way to be nonbinary, so there’s no wrong way to portray a nonbinary character.
Include human nonbinary characters in your world to avoid otherizing nonbinary players.
The best way for you, as a cis person, to introduce a trans or nonbinary character is usually just to tell the other players about the character’s identity directly.
Trans men are men, and you should avoid depicting them as womanly; trans women are women, and you should avoid depicting them as mannish.
There’s a lot of nuance to transgendered life and presentation that cis people shouldn’t try to navigate in their portrayals.
Don’t revel in or dramaticize a trans character’s oppression if you’re not trans.
Don’t depict trans identities as sinister, deceptive, comical, confusing, or innately sexual.
Never bring up the subject of a trans character’s genitals, or dramatically “reveal” their assigned gender.
And finally, to reiterate one more time: Nothing in this article can or should be used to gainsay or overrule a flesh-and-blood trans person.
If you can wrap your head around all of this, congratulations! You’re ready to start including trans people in your roleplaying games. I highly recommend that you start with nonbinary characters, because they’re more diverse and visible than binary trans characters, and there are fewer ways to do accidental harm while playing them.