Trans-Inclusive Storytelling in Role Playing Games
This article is part of a series. Hopefully by this point you’ve already got a firm grasp of how to make sure trans people are safe at your gaming table and how and why you should put trans characters in your games.
If you’ve got a group of players of diverse genders, chances are that gender is a something you all think and talk about, and it’s an attractive subject to address in-game.
And that’s great! RPGs are an awesome place for everyone to explore what gender means to them, and what it might mean to others, regardless of your identity.
But cisnormativity (the baseline assumption that trans people don’t exist or are not “really” their genders) and gender binarism (the baseline assumption that everyone is either male or female) can creep into our explorations of gender, if we’re not careful. So let’s explore the most common ways that RPGs accidentally replicate cisnormative and binary thinking when addressing gender!
Unlike in my other articles, I don’t have do’s and don’ts here: just a lot of thoughts on how games succeed and fail at handling gender and what’s difficult to navigate inclusively.
Shapeshifting and Illusions
If the power to change how you look exists in your game world, trans people are absolutely using it: to reduce their body dysphoria, to bypass prejudice and harassment, and to generally lead better lives.
The first trick here is that these powers are usually presented in games as tools of deception. The mechanical assumption is that players will use them to fool guards, impersonate important people, or trick goblins into thinking they’re goblins too.
But for a trans person using clothes, makeup, or a spell to feel more comfortable in their body, that’s when they’re being the most honest version of themselves. D&D’s “Disguise Self” spell should more properly be called “Reveal Self” when a trans character uses it to better express their identity.
The second trick is that, while it’s tempting to analogize spells, potions and sci-fi body mods to modern day transition tools, we have to be wary of the “oppression tourism” I warned about in the article about portraying trans characters. The analogy hits close enough to home that it risks dragging trans peoples’ real-life oppression and trauma into a game world where they might be trying to escape it.
A trans woman wizard using magic to present herself correctly can have her gender denied to her (it’s dispelled, the potion wears off, her magic item is taken from her) in a way that’s much more sudden and dramatic than I, in real life, can lose access to my hormone therapy. But it’s still close enough to my real-life stressors that, as a plot arc, it could potentially ruin my night if I wasn’t prepared to witness it.
As with everything oppression-and-trauma-related, I think it’s better to communicate as a group when working with these themes and make sure everyone knows where everyone else’s boundaries of personal comfort are, and what we all expect to get out of our games.
Link has to put on a revealing outfit and pose as a girl to get into Gerudo Town. Mulan cuts her hair and hides her gender to join the army. Robin Hood and company don habits and impersonate nuns to hide from the Sheriff in a convent.
The entertainment value of these moments comes from the dramatic discomfort, conflict and excitement of seeing someone defy the taboos of the gender binary. But they’re usually doing it for personal gain or to complete an objective, so as classic as these moments are, this is all very murky territory for trans people, who aren’t trying to deceive anybody with their gender presentation, or challenging the gender binary for any reason except their own comfort, honesty and safety. Crossdressers in real life, like drag queens and kings, are mostly not trans people, and trans people are not crossdressing— they are the gender they present as.
Transgender women in particular suffer from a widespread, transphobic cultural perception that they are “dressing up as” their gender to gain access to women’s rightful spaces and resources: bathrooms, abuse shelters, scholarships, sports, awards, communities— it goes on and on.
Transgender men are often culturally invisible, in part because historical figures who were almost certainly trans men get co-opted by cisgender narratives as “women who posed as men to gain access to male privilege,” usually to pursue a career in academia or the military. The resulting narrative is empowering for cis women but erases trans men.
Some nonbinary people might shift between different modes of gender expression, and they aren’t being less honest about who they are in any of them.
If characters in your game are going to cross dress for plot reasons, it might be best to have an out of character discussion about these factors (and how trans and nonbinary characters should fit in to this storyline). Pause the game and figure it out before proceeding, and be prepared to go in a different direction if players aren’t comfortable.
It’s a fun character-building moment to roleplay out how a clueless cis character thinks another gender walks, talks, and how best to impersonate them. But most trans people have to take deliberate lengths, before transitioning, to “pass” as a cis person of the gender they were coercively assigned at birth. Being reminded of how their natural mannerisms were (or still are) policed and scrutinized and used to justify harassment can kill the fun on game night.
If a there’s going to be a crossdressing infiltration or escape sequence and there’s a transgender character in the party, it merits special consideration. Is this sequence forcing the transgender character back into the closet?
Maybe the transgender character should be the one trying to “train” their party members to pass, and taking the lead— even though they probably weren’t good at passing as their coercively assigned gender, most trans people have years of experience deflecting the resulting suspicion and code-switching between gendered expectations.
On the other hand, trans players might not like having their real-life trauma highlighted this way, and cis players who are portraying a trans character may not have the experiences to back up this kind of storytelling. Which is why communication is key.
Body swapping! Parallel realities! Transformations! These kinds of stories are a soft spot for a lot of trans people, because they engage with gender dysphoria in an indirect way and have often helped us to understand it. But if we’re going to revisit these ideas during the age of the gender revolution, we should do it in a more intentional and inclusive way, right?
Let’s talk about The Girdle Of Masculinity/Femininity, a magic item that appeared in the original 1979 Dungeon Master’s Guide, and stayed with D&D through 2nd edition:
If buckled on, it will immediately change the sex of its wearer to the opposite gender. Its magical curse fulfilled, the belt then loses power.
In 3rd Edition, gender-reversing became a common property of cursed magic items, but 5th Edition D&D wisely eschews these effects (until one cropped up in their reprint of the Tomb of Horrors adventure, which we’ll talk about at the end of this section).
It seems fairly plain to me, given Gygax’s well-documented sexism, his love of character-killing gotchas, and the description of the girdle as a “curse,” that this item was intended to inflict real-life emasculation on his (almost universally male) players, forcing them to consider the dysphoria and (to a male chauvinist) humiliation of their in-game alter egos being forced into feminized bodies.
But something about the mechanic must have seemed fun to players, because it kept popping up in D&D games and adventures. Gender-bending is fun for the same reason the crossdressing plot points above are: it confronts the gender binary that we’re told all our lives is immutable, and asks us to consider a character’s traits in a new context.
Do you see any problems with the Girdle, though, when there are trans and nonbinary characters in play, or trans players at the table?
What if a trans character has already taken some steps to permanently physically transition? If a person with both breasts and testicles puts on the belt, which of those traits change? Do they both “reverse”? Without surgery, gender-affirming hormones alter the physical traits and sexual function of a person’s genitals without affecting the basic shape of them. So what does “opposite gender” mean in that context?
The rules text becomes gibberish when a character with atypical traits puts on the belt, because trans and nonbinary and intersex bodies often reveal that “male” and “female” aren’t categorical opposites, they’re both sliding scales that can change independently of one another. You can have both very masculine and very feminine traits on the same body, or neither masculine nor feminine traits. And what “masculine” and “feminine” mean is heavily dependent on the culture framing them.
So how do we still use our fun gender-bending game elements without presenting a cisnormative, binary approach to gender?
First off, doing a gender swap as a trap or surprise is not a good idea. Remember, anyone at your table might invisibly experience dysphoria, so suddenly changing their character’s sexual characteristics against their will might bring up powerful feelings or trauma they weren’t prepared for. If you really want to surprise the players with it, stop the game for a moment when the trap is sprung to make sure everyone’s okay with it, and have a backup plan in case there is any conflict.
Second, inflicting an unwilling gender change that forces a character to more closely resemble the gender presentation of their player is a bad move: you’re stepping on that player’s ability to explore other gender roles and, potentially, taking away your closeted friend’s escapist fantasy.
Third, inflicting an unwilling gender change on a cisgender character usually requires their player to roleplay out the experience of bodily gender dysphoria. This isn’t a bad thing: I actually think that most cisgender people (irregularly) experience some gender dysphoria and that it’s possible to learn empathy for how transgender people are more regularly and harshly impacted by it. But there’s a danger, here, that a cisgender player won’t take the dysphoria seriously (likely because they can’t handle it) or that they won’t know how to play out the scene. There is also, as always, the “oppression tourism” dynamic that comes with treating real transgender struggles as a thought experiment.
And finally, we have to think about how nonbinary people and their bodies are affected by any gender-altering or gender-dependent forces in our game worlds. Mystical concepts like swords that can be wielded by “neither mortal man nor woman” and fizzling magic that depends on maidens’ blood can be very empowering storytelling elements if the magic of the world itself accepts the validity of trans and nonbinary identities.
It’s just a matter of thinking these things through, you know? Which reminds me…
In the official 5E Tomb of Horrors reprinting in Tales From The Yawning Portal, there’s a chamber that does the following:
“Any character passing through the portal will enter a 10-foot-by-10-foot room where their sex and alignment are reversed by a powerful magic.”
So… we bump into this “what does reverse mean” question again, but also, most D&D characters are good-aligned and male, so when they walk through this door, and they suddenly become female and evil.
Do I even have to explain how bad this is, in a world where transgender women are portrayed as “really men” and vilified in virtually all media?
Inhumanity, Monstrosity, Gender and the Other
The oppression and social dysphoria of trans people leads to such a pervasive feeling of alienation, and positive media depictions of trans people are so rare, that trans people are made to feel monstrous— and often take the next logical step into identifying with monstrous beings in fiction, whose positions and struggles usually resemble our own much better than the kyriarchal protagonists’.
So we feel like monsters, and identify with monsters, and root for the monsters. This effect is feels fundamental to queer identities (especially queer nerd identities) and it’s well-covered elsewhere (google search “Queer Monster Theory” if you’re interested).
One of the of the first female characters I ever played in person, away from the comfort of faceless online play-by-post, was a half-orc cleric. The box campaign I played her through was garbage compared to most other games I’ve played, but it was still one of my favorite play experiences ever. I had never connected to a character so thoroughly before.
As a half-orc adventurer, she was a social outcast, tall, broad-shouldered, badly dressed and “unladylike.” In short: she was everything that I worried meant I could never transition, and also, she was unarguably a woman. Despite her oppressed position in the game world and her mixed relationship with femininity, she fell in love, got married, started a cult, became a mother and saved the world.
I could have never, at that stage in my life, played an explicitly transgender character without suffering a panic attack. But her monstrosity as a half-orc took the place of my trans-ness, and let me handle it without getting burned. I came out of the closet that same year. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the opportunity to play that character dramatically improved my real life.
So, obviously, I think the opportunity to analogize queerness into monstrosity is incredibly valuable, and shouldn’t be discarded. (It’s literally in the title of our blog.)
But the truth is, queer folks aren’t monsters, and if media could take better care to represent us as normal people with a place in human society, we wouldn’t have to identify with Xenomorphs and Babadooks. And of course, the literal dehumanization of queer traits and queer stories in popular culture makes it easier for real-life bigots to treat us as subhuman, which is the first step in inciting violence.
As I mentioned in previous post, all of the nonbinary gender representation in fantasy settings is done by monsters: Gods and angels and other divine entities, especially, are depicted as embodying both male and female traits, or having “no true gender.” Robots, golems, elementals and other inhuman forces are often considered “genderless.” Meanwhile, virtually all of the humanoid characters have a binary gender.
But in real life, real humans have nonbinary genders.
Alternately: Sometimes there is an outsider culture in a fantasy setting that has gender roles that don’t match up to the dominant culture. Trans and nonbinary players may flock to the option of playing these characters, but the overall effect almost always otherizing at best, and reveals a deep-seated binarist thinking at worst.
For example, in D&D 5E, Volo’s Guide to Monsters says this about kobolds, a species of tiny bipedal lizards:
Because they lay eggs, and the eggs don't require much tending, kobold females aren't exempted from war or work. Furthermore, kobolds can slowly change sex. If most males or females of a tribe are killed, some survivors change over several months until the tribe is balanced again. In this way, the tribe can quickly repopulate with just a few survivors. Because of these factors, kobolds don't have assigned gender roles for young or adults.
Most of the nonbinary people I know (seemingly all inveterate kobold fans) jumped for joy and called this representation. But by drawing a connection between kobolds’ biological differences to humanity and their nonbinary conception of gender, Wizards of the Coast has inadvertently asserted that human biology and reproduction informs our binary concept of gender, even though nonbinariness is a biological fact of human existence. Nonbinary humans don’t need to lay eggs to be nonbinary, and their nonbinariness comes from an intersection of culture and biology.
Furthermore, the paragraph before the one I quoted above describes how kobolds can’t form emotional bonds, “choose mates primarily for convenience,” and have no concepts of marriage or family. All of which are nasty stereotypes about queer people. I don’t think this was intentional at all— Wizards of the Coast has taken active effort to include trans and nonbinary people in the game— but by framing the nonbinariness of kobolds as distinct from a binary humanity, they walked directly into queerphobic tropes.
When talking about sex and gender in the players’ handbook, they say:
“You don’t need to be confined to binary notions of sex and gender. The elf god Corellon Larethian is often seen as androgynous or hermaphroditic, for example, and some elves in the multiverse are made in Corellon’s image.”
Once again, by conflating nonbinariness with intersex bodies (when in reality, many intersex people conform to the gender binary, and most nonbinary people aren’t intersex), and by tying them to elves and the magic of their god, these naturally-occurring human traits get dehumanized and de-naturalized. And by choosing the slender, androgynous elves as the forgotten realms’ only nonbinary characters, WotC also accidentally recreates a stereotype that all nonbinary people have thin and androgynous bodies. When you otherize trans people you almost always step in something hateful.
So is it a bad idea, when building the world of your game, to include a nation of giants who socially segregate by height instead of sexual characteristics, or a culture with ten genders, or asexually-reproducing slime people who lack any conception of gender? No, and actually, trans players will probably have a blast with these explorations of gender if they’re well thought out.
But you risk further otherizing the queer humans at your table if there are no queer humans in the game.
The natural counter to this dehumanization is something I’ve been pleading you to do in each of these articles:
Include LGBT+ characters in your games, especially trans and nonbinary characters. Normalize us in the worlds that you author.
If you learn how to do this, you’ll be doing your part to make transgender people welcome in the RPG community, and you’ll have my very deep thanks.
Thank you for reading these thoughts; I’ve written more articles collected on the Gender at the Gaming Table master post.