The New Generation of Sex-Centric Tabletop RPGs

Role-playing games are finally allowing player characters to fall in love and have sex, with decidedly mixed results.

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Apr 3 2015, 4:36pm

Image from 'Monsterhearts' via Avery Mcdaldno

Note: Some of the images below depict violence and sex in ways that might disturb some readers.

In the 70s, when tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons were first winning the hearts and minds of the nerds everywhere, sex was usually relegated to just a paragraph in most RPG rulebooks, if it was mentioned at all. Player characters could slay dragons, explore caves, and save townships from all manner of villains, but their game worlds weren't really designed to accommodate love or the physical actions that follow it.

That didn't stop some dungeon masters from crafting sex-related scenarios for players—sometimes against the will of the other players. Tabletop gaming, like much of nerd culture, began as a male-dominated space, and it remained so for decades. From the very inception of RPGs, female characters have possessed less strength or speed than their male counterparts. Some games even implemented a "comeliness score," which rated how hot your character was and how much influence she could have over the opposite sex. According to a survey of 105 female players conducted in 2006 by a University of Miami philosophy student for a dissertation on gender in role-playing games, more than 55 percent of respondents had been "made to feel uncomfortable, judged, or harassed because of their gender" while playing a game or interacting with the RPG community.

It wasn't until the late 80s and early 90s that companies like White Wolf started to release sex-tinged games like 1991's Vampire: The Masquerade, which centered around lovelorn goth-punk vampires. Though arguably making romance and eroticism important components of the game was a step forward, today The Masquerade seems outdated when viewed through the lens of today's sex-positive, LGBT-inclusive, and feminist values—as do most RPGs from earlier eras. After all, tabletop games reflect the fantasies of their makers and players, and fantasies can easily become colored by biases and misconceptions.

But more open and equitable representations of sex and gender are finally breaking into RPGs. In the latest edition of D&D, for example, a new " androgynous or hermaphroditic" spin was added to the classic elf god character named Corellon Larethian last August. According to the new rules, you should feel free to play your character as "a female character who presents herself as a man, a man who feels trapped in a female body, or a bearded female dwarf who hates being mistaken for a male."


Image from Numenera: Love and Sex in the Ninth World. Image courtesy of Shanna Germain.

Another major game that is making strides is Numenera, one of the top-selling RPGs of the 2014 holiday season. The game's makers just released an official supplement called Love And Sex in the Ninth World, created by erotica writer Shanna Germain. "We really wanted to create a guide for love and sex just like you would create a guide for any other aspect of a game," she told me.

The supplement includes background on the roles of gender and sexual orientation in Numenera, ways to incorporate sex into your game, and even special items your characters can come across, like the "blood boiler," which is a pill for your characters that "causes an increase in blood flow to any stimulated body parts."

By diving into sex and fleshing out the rules and ways players can incorporate sex into the game, the Numenera supplement helps establish more equitable relations between players in general. It includes a section on how consent should be handled when engaging in these acts with other players that notes that "such topics should be handled with care and with a solid understanding of what your group can and wants to handle at the table."

"We really wanted to create a guide for love and sex just like you would create a guide for any other aspect of a game." –Shanna Germain

Sex and gender boundaries are really being pushed in the world of experimental, indie RPGs. The small scene these games have emerged from have enabled its creators and the players an opportunity to explore sex in new and exciting ways.

Avery Mcdaldno is among the new generation of game developers who are changing the RPG landscape. She's created sex-and-romance-centric games that she told me are often about "queers, community, and disillusionment." Her game Monsterhearts bases its rules on those of another indie RPG, Apocalypse World, but sets the action in a fictional, monster-filled high school.

"I wanted a game that borrowed from the structure of Apocalypse World (messy relationship triangles, partial successes, leading principles, abrupt power swings) to tell a story about the messy, horny lives of teenage monsters," she said. She added that Monsterhearts and its characters are influenced by Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Twilight, and The Craft, but her game isn't so "painfully heterosexist" as most teen supernatural romances.

"The game pushes a queer agenda," Avery said. "There's a two-page spread dedicated to talking about the importance of queering your monster stories, but furthermore, queer themes pervade the mechanics of the game. Monsterhearts is about ambiguity, uncertainty, shame about your body, shame about your wants and needs, feeling like you have something to hide, being horny, but especially being horny in ways that surprise you. It's about coming to terms with the way that sex intersects with power."

This is, as you might imagine, an extremely dramatic evolution from the dark ages of the "harlot table" from the first edition of the Dungeon Master's Guide for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which described female characters as everything from "wanton wenches" to "slovenly trolls":

While Numenera and Monsterhearts offer players opportunities for romance, there are other RPGs that portray sex in more shocking or grotesque ways. One of the first games to do this was 2002's F.A.T.A.L., which has been called "the date rape RPG, without dating" and one of the worst RPGs ever; among all sorts of other problems, the rules included an extensive rules and mechanics for rape but didn't even mention consensual sex.


Cover of F.A.T.A.L.

Though F.A.T.A.L. was universally panned, there are still new games coming out that offer a boundary-testing mix of sex, shock, and humor. Lamentations of the Flame Princess, which was created by James Edward Raggi IV, was widely released in 2011 and involves sacrifice, sex cults, a monster called a Penis Walker, and adventures with titles like "Fuck for Satan."

"I am intentionally trying to get into trouble," Raggi told me. "One of the things I do is try to re-fight the 1980s idea that ' Dungeons & Dragons is satanic, it makes you commit suicide, it's horrible.' From my perspective, back then TSR [the company that owned D&D] totally caved in to that. And if they had said, 'Hell no, you people are crazy,' we might have a much different hobby on our hands now."


Zombie attack from the pages of Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Image courtesy of James Edward Raggi IV

Lamentations of the Flame Princess has been criticized by some gamers for its depictions of violence against women. When I asked James to comment on those criticisms, he said, "A couple years back, because of such claims, I went through the current Rules & Magic book and counted certain occurrences." According to him, men get messed up at a rate of about 8:1 in the rulebook's art—which he admits can be pretty harsh.

"There is a lot of horrific shit depicted in LotFP books, and sometimes it even involves genitals," James said. "Anybody can cherry-pick examples and make whatever claims you want (and some people do), but absolutely nobody can look at the entirety of LotFP art and tell me with a straight face there's an excess of victimized women."

So what are the most divisive moments in his game? "That core rulebook has got a medusa turning someone to stone while she's fucking him and it's got a Vince Locke illustration of the zombie attack where a zombie's shoving his arm straight up the woman. All the complaints, for any of the artwork, that's the one that gets the most. As far as I'm concerned: mission accomplished."


The Penis Walker from the pages of Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Image courtesy of James Edward Raggi IV

Kira Magrann, an avid gamer and blogger for GamingAsWomen.com, isn't too impressed by Raggi's brand of shocking RPG.

"I feel like games that use sex to provoke and shock are like most media that features sex to provoke and shock... a little boring?" she said. "What's considered shocking and provoking varies a whole lot, but when I hear those terms, I think 'rape-y or violent' as opposed to 'dark and kinky.' There's ways to showcase all kinds of perverse stuff while still showcasing consent, gender-queerness, and safe sex."

Which is why she welcomes some of the recent sex-positive developments that have taken place in RPGs. However, she still believes there's much more room to grow. "I think that if you want well-rounded characters in any game," she said, "regardless of the setting or rule set, you need to touch on relationships and sex more than most games do today."

Are we at a point where gamers and creators are, across the board, ready to embrace and experiment with sex and sexuality in a mature and equitable way? No, probably not. And major publishers are still at the very infancy of embracing these subjects in ways that aren't childish or insensitive. However, for the brave, adventurous RPG fans out there, there's never been a better time to be a horny elf.

Follow Giaco on Twitter.

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