Redesigning the Tabletop

Queering Dungeons and Dragons

Lee Hibbard is a Rhetoric and Composition PhD student at Purdue University, where his research is focused on game studies and design, archival practices, queer theory, and digital rhetorics. He uses his identity as a queer transgender man to inform his research and scholarship as well as his D&D game, which runs twice a month on Saturdays. Find him on Twitter talking about social justice and game design, posting pictures of his cat, and appreciating memes. Follow Lee on Twitter

In 2014, needing a break from working on my Master’s Thesis, I drew a map of a fantasy realm extemporaneously on a large piece of paper acquired from my artist roommate. The result: a freeform coastal continent spanning over five thousand miles, hung on my wall for three more years before I figured out what it was for.

I’ve played Dungeons and Dragons on and off since 2007, but after a sizeable hiatus I jumped back into my role as a Dungeon Master in 2017. I wanted to run a game for a small group of friends who had never played before, and the map that had sat on my wall as a decoration for years across multiple living spaces spoke to me again. The world of Aeridas wasn’t my first foray into homebrewing, or creating my own setting for Dungeons and Dragons, but it has been the most ambitious, and most fruitful.

aeridas map photo

The term homebrewing has been used widely in tabletop roleplaying game (or TTRPG) spaces to refer to the adaptation, modification, and creation of mechanics and settings for these games that fall outside the official source materials. A Dungeon Master, or DM, that engages in homebrewing participates in modding (or the modification of a game’s mechanics) that can lead to more creative forms of expression. In my own game, which serves here as a case study, the modification of 5th Edition D&D’s mechanics and setting allowed me, as a queer individual running a game for three other queer individuals, to explore the ways in which queer theory, expression, and identity discovery inform the game and world I have designed. The practices I engaged with in order to ‘queer’ my D&D game provide an insightful lens into a new way of engaging with participatory storytelling games, one that allows for alternative play styles, a pushback against stereotypical (and frequently racist/sexist) fantasy worldbuilding, and queer identity expression.

Alternative Play: Negotiation, Persuasion, and Research as Queer Game Mechanics

Both video games and tabletop games traditionally operate via a win or a loss mechanic, where players must triumph over obstacles in order to succeed. Recent moves in both digital and analog games have shifted this requirement, with the question of what truly makes a game lying beyond this and other binary systems including success/failure, narrative elements/mechanical gameplay elements (or narratology/ludology), control/agency, and production/reception (Ruberg & Shaw 2017). Games such as Toby Fox’s Undertale (2015) create a space in gaming culture where the idea of mandatory combat, grinding, and leveling up systems can be set aside and allow for a style of gameplay that inherently works against the status quo.

This also speaks to an effective ‘queerness’ present in video game design and play referenced by Halberstam, who notes that a queer person’s function in society involves redesigning the world around them, “hacking” straight narratives and inserting their own “algorithms” for time, space, life, and desire (2017). As a game that operates outside of a rigid digital structure, “hacking” the D&D mechanics for a game is simpler than the technical expertise needed for digital modding and play. Rather than needing to adapt one’s play style to avoid combat and violence (such as Fallout New Vegas’s ‘No Kill’ run) or engage in a different game mode (such as Minecraft’s Creative or Peaceful Modes), the only settings a DM needs to adjust in a D&D game to eschew violence are the parameters of their game.

I found myself in the surprising position of needing to rework my usual DMing style in the very first session of my Aeridas game, where the players, rather than engaging in combat with a pair of ghouls who attacked them, took the less traditional approach of hiding behind their overturned wagon and sneaking away from the monsters. I knew at this point that I would need to run a game with less emphasis on combat and more on other mechanics, such as complex skill checks and roleplay scenarios, if I wanted my players to stay engaged and interested. My players did not actually engage in a combat scenario until well into our second year of bi-monthly gameplay, and our sessions were therefore highly narrative and character driven, with players using complex skill checks involving persuasion or deception to move the story forward. One instance of this involved the party’s rogue persuading a rather unsavory character to share plot-relevant information, and rather than having this persuasion check be a standard single d20 roll, it became a series of opposed rolls, sometimes assisted by the other members of the party. The result was an encounter that lasted several in-game hours, that gave the player the chance to use dice-rolling mechanics to assist with a long-form persuasion check roleplay scenario.

This method of play places the burden of investment in a different space for the DM: rather than motivating players via riches, treasure, or kill counts, the DM must create an immersive world and believable non-player characters (or NPCs) for the players to interact with. The DM must operate entirely as game designer in these scenarios, finding ways to establish Flow (Chen 2006) that keeps players in the gaming ‘sweet spot’ without relying on the traditional gameplay of killing monsters. The complex skill check, used initially as a variant in edition 3.5 of D&D, allows for players to engage in a mechanic of accruing success that builds over time, rolling skill checks that accumulate to determine success and failure. Pairing this mechanic with the act of persuading an NPC to give up sensitive information queers traditional tabletop mechanics while still creating a sense of flow that gives players motivation and satisfaction.

Drow and Dark Elves: Fantastic Racism and Homebrew Settings

As a game created in the 1970s, D&D in its standard form holds some racist and sexist notions. The most notable example comes in the form of the Drow, a sub-race of elves characterized by selfishness and greed as well as their worship of the evil goddess Lolth. Their black skin creates parallels between skin tone and an ‘inherent’ level of evil attributed to Drow as a whole. As Sturtevant (2017) notes in his work on fantasy racism, this concept of all members of a race, such as Drow or Orcs, being characterized as inherently evil, not only insists on an operational moral binary of good and evil, but also enforces colonialist, white supremacist tactics used to demonize and dehumanize people of colour.

What then do I as a DM do with a sub-race initially designed with racist and colonialist intentions? Do I remove Drow entirely, hoping to combat the negative stereotypes by refusing to participate in them? This seems like the most obvious solution, especially as a white person, but removing Drow has its own complications. While homebrewed settings are not the perfect solution, the possibility of creating and modifying a fantasy world to address racist fantasy tropes holds a strong appeal. However, using homebrew as a method of erasure rather than modification creates as many problems as it removes, and omitting the fantasy races in question serves more to sweep things under the table than address very real problems with racist representation. In a medium already stacked heavily against minority gamers (Nakamura 2017), Homebrewing as a means of addressing and combating racist fantasy tropes requires a more nuanced hand.

My solution comes from reworking the race’s origin story. With the help of one of my players, Ian Neidlinger, an avid worldbuilder and talented artist, we worked together to come up with a history and culture for Drow and other elven subraces that pushed against racist generalizations. Elves in Aeridas all have the same origin, rooted in the Elven religious pantheon, and mechanically have the traditional major subcategories of High Elf, Wood Elf, and Drow. The similarities to the standard D&D setting end there, however, with Elves being divided into five sub-races, one for each major Aeridas kingdom. Each sub-race has a history and culture all its own, which specifically avoids categorizing whole sub-races as good or evil. The Drow are instead just people trying to make their way in the world, with all the trials and complications associated with a diverse and complex culture.

While DMs do not always have the time to rewrite entire D&D races to be more inclusive and have fewer colonialist racist undertones, this is the most effective means of change that players and DMs can engage with. Working within the created world to remove homogenous moral views, as well as creating more nuanced and complex origin stories, helps push back against the hegemonic systems of power imbalance in tabletop gaming lore. Rather than removing the Drow entirely, the option to rewrite the history of this Elven subrace out of racist notions of dark skin being equated to evil leads, ultimately, to a more rich and in-depth world that works to actually address the complexities of representation in a game created in an era with very different cultural values.

Play and Becoming: Queer Identity Expression through Dungeons and Dragons

Like the Multi-User-Dungeons (MUDs) of early internet gameplay (Isbister 2017), D&D operates in a space of flexibility, where players can achieve anything within the reaches of their imaginations. The original parameters for both narrative and character possibilities in D&D and other TTRPGs thus make them the ideal spot for players and DMs alike to engage in creative identity discovery, particularly queer identity discovery. By making use of the flexibility of the game’s primary medium, text (Isbister 2017), players in a D&D game have the opportunity to express and explore their identities in ways that would not be possible outside of a fantasy game setting.

Even as queerness reaches some level of mainstream acceptance, this does not erase the struggles queer individuals face, particularly in their youth, to discover and express their identities. In her reflection on Gone Home, merritt kopas comments on the importance of queer games to queer people, and their ability to provide a space for queer happiness, spaces where “girls in love don’t die tragic deaths”, and allow queer individuals to write new stories even if they cannot change their pasts (2017). The world of Aeridas echoes this notion, as it has its roots in my experience as a queer transgender man seeking spaces in which to express and explore my identity. Every move I make as a homebrewer involves me writing the queer narratives I never got to experience as a child, working to create a space where my players can have the happy lives they’ve always wanted. The main plotline of my campaign features my players working together to save their world from an oppressive governing force that’s explicitly anti-queer, and rather than have this mirror the tragedies both of the real world and of mainstream fiction by emphasizing failure and destruction, the story is one of triumph over oppression, where queer voices are heard instead of silenced.

Running a D&D game as a queer person allows me as a DM to create that new space and story for my players. Much like taking on a virtual avatar (Isbister 2017), D&D works to peel back some of the layers of identity we can (or must) wear in our day-to-day lives and explore them in a fantasy setting. The result is a game that inhabits queerness at its core, where the DM and players have queer identities. Each of us are at different levels of ‘out’ in our day-to-day lives, but in the D&D setting, each of us is given the opportunity to explore our identities in a way that emulates and reflects the social dynamics of reality (Isbister 2017) while still being safer than expression in the real world. Using a D&D game as a space for queer expression demonstrates the power and potential of a TTRPG and the ways in which it can be used to craft and design a story that allows people, especially queer people with minimal outlets for expressing their identities, to be themselves, or at least, some iteration of themselves.

Conclusion: The Future of Queer Tabletop Design

Homebrewing, whether it functions as a means of hacking the mechanics of a game or creating a world from the ground up, provides near endless possibility for creative expression, both for players and DMs. In a culture where games are not usually made for queer individuals (Clark 2017), running a D&D game as a queer person allows for a queering of the mechanics, world, and player expression typically found in a setting most commonly inhabited by cisgender heterosexual white men. The flexible canvas of TTRPGs presents queer individuals with the opportunity to explore aspects of culture, gameplay, and identity that have previously been restricted for them. This opportunity for expression and play also functions as a form of iterative design–since beginning my D&D game in the spring of 2017, all of my players have begun actively working on their own settings, learning the mechanics and building new worlds they can craft narratives for. Ian and I have worked extensively on documentation for our setting so that in the future we could perhaps share it with others, including extensive PDFs about Elven culture and history made using The Homebrewery. My players have all participated in other games, worked on creating other queer narratives beyond game settings, and had personal revelations about their own identities. As they, and I, continue to seek ways in which to queer the D&D experience, we continue to uncover new possibilities for design, gameplay, and self-discovery, opportunities that stem directly from what a flexible game like D&D allows.

Works Cited

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kopas, m. (2017). On Gone Home. In In B. Ruberg & A. Shaw (Eds.), Queer Game Studies, Minneapolis MN: University of Minnesota Press, Kindle Edition.

Nakamura, L. (2017). Afterword: Racism, Sexism, and Gaming’s Cruel Optimism. In J. Malkowski & T. M. Russworm (Eds.), Gaming Representation: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Video Games (pp. 245–250). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Ruberg, B. & Shaw, A. (2017). Introduction: Imagining Queer Game Studies. In B. Ruberg & A. Shaw (Eds.), Queer Game Studies, Minneapolis MN: University of Minnesota Press, Kindle Edition.

Sturtevant, P. (2017, Dec 5). Race: the Original Sin of the Fantasy Genre. Retrieved Jan 15 2019.