Last July 27—the birthdate of Gary Gygax, creator of Dungeons and Dragons—I found myself around a table with a group of fellow adventurers, exploring a dungeon and, wouldn’t you know it, fighting a dragon. As my half-orc fighter Blue delivered the killing blow upon the legendary monster’s head, the realization that I was playing out the most literal version of Gygax’s game on his day was not lost on me. It was the sort of thing that I could see the teenage version of myself feeling equally excited about. It was one of those moments of pure nostalgic joy that transcended age or game editions.
What might have been more surprising for younger me, going by a different name, living as a different gender, and not imagining that such a thing could ever truly change, is that Blue the half-orc was a female character, and that the process of creating her for the game that night was incredibly simple. No agonizing over her creation, no debating if I could pull it off. Just rolling up a character and taking for granted that I could make her whatever leaped out at me. It’s the other end of a decades-long journey through my own private dungeon.
Were I able to speak to the late Mr. Gygax today, I’d hope to thank him for what I assume would be an aspect of his legacy that I don’t think he or co-creator Dave Arneson had ever considered. The way that Dungeons and Dragons and the games it inspired helped me find my real self.
In the very first tabletop roleplaying game I ever played, the second edition of Werewolf the Apocalypse, I found myself tempted by the possibility of exploring gender through my character. I had pitched to my GM (game master) the idea that my character was someone who would adopt a female persona as part of his litany of disguises. It was rejected, and I went with a more simplified concept, but I always found myself drawn to those types of ideas. I had neither the courage or self-awareness to just flat out pitch playing a female character. Even amongst a group of nerdy teenage outcasts rolling dice in a basement I saw this as likely a step too far.
While speaking with other gamers in the LGBTQ+ community, comedian Älia Meth told me she felt similarly as a teen, never feeling comfortable exploring female characters at the table. “I tried to affirm what I thought was my gender for so long to fit in, that I did that with RPGs too,” Meth said.
I was told almost the opposite from Em, a lesbian who told me that she doesn’t think she’s ever played a female character in an RPG, “but I’ve been out since I was a child so I don’t know what influenced what in that regard.”
Absent a steady source of in-person gaming outside that group, I took my desire to play RPGs online, to the early days of the internet with dial-up connections and text-based chatrooms on America Online. Here there were countless communities with dice-roller macros built into chat; making a character sheet was as easy as filling in a PDF and creating a new screen name. I found it safer to be myself by proxy through a monitor.
I took a bit of a hiatus from RPGs in college, distracted by school and the time consuming early days of my stand-up career. I returned in my mid-20s by joining a local live-action roleplaying group that played regular games in a small underground strip mall next to a boba tea shop on the Ohio State campus. While I created typical male characters again when joining the group, I quickly became aware of how much more diverse the voices were. While no one was explicitly trans, there were multiple queer identities present, with characters that reflected that, and even the seemingly hetero cis man who ran one of the groups would often play female characters while DMing. Soon I started to feel like maybe the waters were in need of testing.
Onyx Path Publishing
I joined in on a session of Changeling the Lost, a game that centered around humans who had returned to the mortal realm after having been kidnapped and held in captivity by the fae. It was fertile ground to create a character dealing with trauma, and I planted my seeds in the form of Simon Verona. Simon, who I played with an atrocious Northern English accent, had been transformed by his fae keeper into a form of feminine beauty, only to have his mortal form restored upon his return. Simon was an angry, bitter character, who hated the very vision of his face in the mirror. Simon would cross-dress to attempt to recapture that form only to find it fueled his self-hatred in preferring the beauty of his captured changeling form to his human body.
I only got to play as Simon for a few sessions before the game fell apart due to unrelated group dynamics, but I look back at him now and recognize it as the first time that I truly addressed head-on the trauma of my own sense of dysphoria. Absent a few metaphorical magical ingredients, Simon was an extremely literal depiction of my own struggles with identity and loathing. Of my anger and frustration at my own closet, that I didn’t know at the time I was on the very cusp of finally leaving.
For a Vampire the Requiem LARP, I created a character that allowed me to explore gender in a less angsty way. Inspired by Bowie and the Velvet Underground, I created a bisexual, androgynous vampire who had been turned during the heyday of glam rock and still clung to the aesthetic. Roleplaying in a very public space, the monthly Gallery Hop in Columbus’ Short North, I used the freedom of the character to indulge in making my look a little more femme, women’s pants, boots with a bit of heel, and a dash of eyeliner. Those gaming sessions were some of the first times I’d ever dressed in women’s clothing in public, feeling protected in my armor of being able to say “Oh this, it’s for an immersive gaming thing, no big deal,” if I ran into anyone I knew.
Ryan Omega of the Twitch gaming shows Scabby Rooster, Blank Slate, and Life. Action. Roleplay! also found LARPing to be a great place to test the waters of coming out. “I used LARP to do some self-actualization by dressing better and playing out my sexuality,” he told me. “Luckily, I also had anime. Yaoi was the gate. LARP is where I put those theories to the test.”
White Wolf Entertainment
Dash Kwiatkowski, GM of the Lost in the Multiverse podcast, unexpectedly found themself in a similar path. “I think voicing female characters, specifically for the format of theatrical liveplay podcast, really got me thinking about ‘performing gender,’ and what that means,” Kwiatkowski said. “Taking the time to consider what it meant to perform gender in terms of female characters made me deeply aware of what it meant to perform gender for male characters, which ultimately let me reflect on how I was performing ‘male’ gender outside of the context of this podcast and game table.”
Kwiatkowski continued, “Once you start acknowledging that your perceived gender isn’t necessarily intrinsic, but instead something you play into for society, I think you have the space to figure out what you actually are.”
For some, not playing into their own gender identity can actually be the thing that adds value to their game. Sy Clarke-Chan, a transmasculine non-binary writer, plays femme characters almost exclusively, and never questioned the choice until conversations about it on social media made them think they were supposed to. “I mainly play as femme characters because it feels a little freeing not to constantly be grappling with gender issues that need to be explained carefully to other people,” says Clarke-Chan.
I came out not long after that Vampire game. My road to transitioning and living openly as myself was hardly short, but it also led to my being able to focus on other elements in my character building and storytelling. I’ve even managed to do a small amount of self-representation, choosing to play trans characters like Velma Sweet on the D&D series The Broken Pact, or even playing as Braga the orc barbarian from the Rat Queens comic book in the official tabletop adaptation last year. For both characters, their gender origins mostly existed in the periphery, not a matter of plot but simply a matter of fact. And thanks to a long journey that included the occasional dice rolling and the slaying of a few personal demons, so is mine.
Featured Image: Art by Tyler Jacobsen for Wizards of the Coast