Dungeons and Queers

Reparative Play in Dungeons and Dragons

Elise Vist is a PhD candidate at the University of Waterloo, completing a dissertation on Hockey Real-Person Fandom and the queerness that exists in hockey (even if it doesn’t always seem that way). Find her on Twitter RT-ing things about hockey, bisexuality, feminism, and whatever odd thing has her attention on any given day. Follow Adan on Twitter

I play Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) at least once a week–more if I can convince my friends to play with me. I have a monthly tabletop gaming group where we try new and weird role-playing games (RPGs) like Fiasco and Dread, where there are a few rules that create a space of play that’s otherwise pretty boundless. But I always come back to D&D. It’s something special, getting to play with friends in worlds that I’ve imagined alone for so long (see also my long-standing obsession with Bioware-style RPGs, heavy on character creation and relationship-building).

I like D&D a lot, but I have to do some work to make it into something that I love. I am still inspired by Mary Flanagan’s depiction of young girls who “‘hacked’ the household norms of Victorian period through their own critical forms of doll play” (17). Where critical play stops being useful for me as a way to think about my relationship to games, though, is the idea that critical play is designed into the system by the game maker. Flanagan may see hints of critical play in the hackers of Victorian doll play, but, as the title makes it clear, critical play is a kind of game design – one that I love but does not quite describe how I like to play inside systems.

D&D is my favourite way to play rules-based-pretend (no one who knows me is surprised that “rules-based pretending” is my favourite activity), but it’s taken me several years to become comfortable in my D&D play. I learned D&D in 3.5 and 4e, both of which focus a lot more on the system than the feelings like 5e does, and when I tried to find a less min/max kind of play, I found people who played D&D without any system and–well, there have to be rules (I am clutching my dice like pearls as I say this, a horrified expression on my face). What I love most is making characters and playing around with possibilities–and my fellow queer gamers/scholars might recognize hints of Jose Muñoz in this: I like nothing more than to “squint” and “strain my vision” to see those places where what is not-yet might be (22). The constraints of the system make that squinting more or less necessary, and more or less possible. The system of D&D-style tabletop RPGs and especially computer-based RPGs comes down to the math of it, and part of the fun (for me) is finding ways to subvert that system while playing within it.

So, sure, I could design an Anti-Dungeons-and-Dragons but I don’t want to–I want to play the game that exists and I want to rub my queer little hands all over it.

Straight Systems

Systems tend to be straight–even if they’re queer–because for something to be a system, it has to have rules that fit into other rules and make sense at both the micro and macro level. Things that exist in computer systems are also going to be straight (even if they’re queer, like every single male player-character [PC] I create in Dragon Age Inquisition because do you really expect me not to smooch Dorian?) because they need to fit into the system. I can make all the voluntary constraints I want to make for my PC, but to work within the game-system, the body still needs to fit (sometimes to hilarious effect). Although some modders, bless them, do their best to stretch that system for us, it’s often clunky (as I discovered when I forgot I had a bisexual Cullen mod installed and found myself silently romancing him, since there was no “male” voice acting to go with the romance dialogue), so we’re generally stuck with the system as it’s been designed.

Say I wanted to create a trans Inquisitor (which I technically can, with gender-neutral character creation options when it comes to hair and facial features), but I used the “female” body to create a trans man. I can’t romance Dorian (who is a gay man) or Cassandra (who is a straight woman), because the game still reads me as a woman. People call me “she” and “lady” all the time, and Sera (a lesbian woman) will happily flirt with me (and we know she’s a bit of a terf). Sure, I could create this trans man as a “male” character, but I don’t want a giant ‘man’-body, I want the wonderful ‘American’ accent voiced just beautifully by Sumalee Montano, and I want to be able to talk to Krem about binding. I want to be able to say “me too!” when Krem discloses to me that he’s trans, rather than “But u r ladee?!”

But whether or not that kind of customization is possible (it is) is moot, because by the time the game is in my hands, it’s too late: basically, if I want to play the character that I want, I have to hope that there’s someone at the table saying “Hey, you know, maybe we could make pronouns an option in character creation?”

“So play D&D!”, I hear you say. If I want a fully customizable character, I should play a game that has no computer deciding which avenues are or are not open to me, because imagination! And this is true, to an extent. As long as my DM isn’t a complete jerk, I can build pretty much whatever I want in D&D–narratively. But there are still races and classes, rules about which ‘races’ receive which stat boosts (and permanent debuffs), and which races are playable (and which races are monsters), and while there are lines about considering different genders and body types, the Players’ Handbook is still mostly about choosing the numbers that make up your character.

Even when they take steps to queer up their game, they do it within the system. The latest handbook, Mordekainen’s Tome of Foes, includes Eladrin–a “subrace” of elves–with the ability to change their skin and hair colour, changing the “season” the Eladrin are associated with. They also include “The Blessed of Corellon,” non-player characters who have the ability to “assume whatever sex they liked” but this blessing is not included in the “racial traits” of all elves. Instead, it is up to the DM to “decide[] whether an elf can manifest this miracle” (why not the player?). Making “the Blessed of Corellon” a rules-compliant option makes the possibility of queerness official, but in doing so, it reinforces the sex-gender binary and also ignores a lot of really important theory about the difference between the reality of transgender and genderfluid people and the harmful fantasy of transracialism.

Reparative Play

I’m talking myself into circles: we need critical game designers to put queerness into their systems, but once it’s in the system it becomes straight so we need queerer systems but systems tend towards straightness.

That’s queerness for you, though. It can never quite exist in the here and now, because queerness is utopia and all we can do is work towards queerness (Muñoz 1). That is why I love D&D and Bioware: they give me just a bit more room than other mainstream games. Where Bioware games close off possibilities, though, D&D is a reparative playground (to borrow from Kara Stone’s essay “Ritual of the Moon”).

Reparative art, as Stone describes it, “is a form of academic creation where the emphasis is on finding forms of healing and reparation rather than the seemingly endless mode of finding more things to be depressed about,” and I’d posit that reparative play is about finding and making spaces within game systems where you don’t have to squint as hard to feel healed and affirmed. Just as suspicious reading, “a style of interpretation driven by disenchantment,” creates spaces and relationships of distrust and antagonism between the critic and the author (Felski 1), suspicious play is agonistic play where the game and its system are things to be mastered. I would call min/max players suspicious players–they see the system of D&D, with the stats, modifiers, backgrounds, and so on, as tools in the competition between the balance Wizards of the Coast tries to maintain across all player-characters and the desire to be the best god-damned hero this campaign will ever see.

This is not a wrong way to play D&D.

Just as suspicious reading has given us many wonderful readings of the unspoken and unsaid, suspicious play can reveal things in a game system that the designers didn’t realize they were designing, and that can be cool and fun for a lot of reasons. However, it’s not the kind of play I generally enjoy. Suspicious play and reading are, to me and to others, stressful, unpleasant ways to engage with a system/text. I, like Stone, prefer reparative ways of reading, which are “mode[s] of staying in” those uncomfortable spaces, modes that allow us to feel things, good and bad. Reparative play is not about winning; it is about feeling–together, ideally.

The Queer AF Character Generator

My favourite thing to do is create characters in D&D. Anyone who’s DMed for me knows this and has probably sighed in resignation as I send them yet another message about “actually I’ve changed my mind I want to play this class and this race and can I use that Unearthed Arcana option? Oh and here’s a two-page single-spaced background on my character and an hour-long playlist I put together if you feel like listening to it.” To all my DMs: I am sorry and thank you.

But most of the characters I create never actually get played in a game. I have notebooks full of characters who’ll never see the light, because creating characters in 5e is my reparative play, and it works like meditation.

I sit down with some d6s, a pencil and paper and I make character after character. Often they’re weird combinations, because I can’t believe that all half-orcs are only fighters or barbarians or other classes that mesh well with their +2 Strength and +1 Constitution bonuses. I want to imagine a spindly, frail half-orc who spent their days in study.

And I can! There’s literally nothing stopping me other than expectation. But expectation is powerful and difficult to avoid, so I made the Queer AF Character Generator (QAFCG) to help other people queer up their PCs. It’s a lo-fi generator: just a list of tables that you can roll d10s and d20s on to build the skeleton of a 5e character. The ‘twist’ (inspired by tables like robot-hugs.com’s Gender Rolls) is that gender, sexuality, ability, race, class, stats, and background are all chosen a) randomly and b) separate from each other.

A photo of some completed Queer AF character sheets

Queer AF character sheets

What you look like is not necessarily how you were raised (so QAFCG can produce a minotaur with the system-traits of a goblin), and your class is an afterthought, something that you can decide based on what you (randomly) like doing, with what (random) tools you use to do it. And your stats are randomly determined last, after you know what you do, because not everyone ends up in a job perfectly suited to their physical and mental attributes. For example, my real-life ‘racial’ traits, thanks to the hearty Estonian stock that makes up half my DNA, are clearly meant to belong to a woman who can carry pigs under her arms and bully chickens into submission (as my ancestors surely did, proudly), but here I am, writing a dissertation about gay hockey fanfic.

All of the characters you generate in the QAFCG are technically playable in a game, although some might require a permissive DM who’s willing to let you play a very tall minotaur who still has the trait “fury of the small,” since your parents trained you how to fight like a goblin; or a blind rogue with a seeing-eye beetle who communicates with you telepathically about your surroundings because magic, you guys, it’s awesome.

But the reparative play in QAFCG happens whether or not they show up in a game: it happens while making these Queer AF characters. I’ve watched people laugh, say “it me…?”, feel Called Out, feel recognized. We find joy in seeing these random characters come together as legible, sensible beings who make sense to us. And yes, you could do this without my Queer AF Character Generator, but it is way less fun.

Bending the Game

I know that some of you reading this are shuddering in pain because I’m breaking the game, and to you, I say: I’m sorry. But I’m not breaking it–I’m just…bending it a little. I still use stats and dice rolls and classes and “racial” features (rules-based…) but I mix them up so that no one ‘race’ is limited to any one set of expectations (…pretending!).

I want a game that lets me hold onto things like disability without punishing me for it with a -2 to Constitution, or disadvantage on Perception checks, or any of the other math-based ways you could deal with someone who’s blind or has one leg or chronic pain.

Source: Elise Vist

Source: Elise Vist

I want a game that doesn’t imagine that every fantasy world is heteronormative, cisnormative, and patriarchal, where it isn’t shocking to be trans or queer or nonbinary and where a mom-adventurer isn’t unthinkable.

I want games that let me sit with the weird things that make people different from each other, so I find DMs who are happy to let me play this way, and players who are willing to play in the worlds I make for them, and it is reparative. It is healing.

I run a game where dragonborn are canonically nonbinary, because as the player who created their dragonborn put it, their gender is “dragon.” I play in a game where we’re discouraged from making tragic-queer backstories because we’ve all agreed to imagine a world where that doesn’t happen, so now I don’t have to listen to straight people imagine how awful it is to be queer. But even if I didn’t, I have the QAFCG to make those characters real, regardless.

That’s what reparative play is in D&D: allowing players to take on identities and bodies that might not fit smoothly into a system–whether that system is fictional or real–and holding them like real people: feeling the possibilities that bloom from those bodies, without the math that would make them fit.

Works Cited

Flanagan, Mary. Critical Play: Radical Game Design. MIT Press, 2009.

Munoz, Jose Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. NY University Press, 2009.