Playing at Diversity: Race, Gender, and Culture in Tabletop RPGs

Much of the appeal of a tabletop RPG comes from the level of freedom that it offers. The character you create is totally yours – within the confines of the setting and game mechanics, you can be whatever you want. The decisions that this character make are solely up to you. This freedom allows boundless creativity that doesn’t exist in mediums that are frequently compared to tabletop gaming such as novels and video games. Even in a game like Skyrim where you have a plethora of character customization options and mechanical possibilities for your character, you are ultimately confined to the choices that the developer anticipated and therefore included in the game. At the tabletop, the sky’s the limit.

For members of diverse communities, this is a cool feature because these games allow you to play someone like yourself. While there are absolutely exceptions to the rule, video games still tend to cater to cisgender heterosexual white men (for those who could potentially be unfamiliar with the term cisgender, that simply refers to someone who identifies as the gender they were assigned at birth). RPGs allow folks who aren’t normally represented in our media to create characters that are like them. Conversely, they also allow people who are constantly catered to in video games to make the decision to play someone very different than them.

White Dudes
Wow, look how many kinds of brunette white dudes there are!

As one of the aforementioned cisgender heterosexual white men, for me I always find characters “like me” as the protagonists in my games. In tabletops it didn’t take long for me to use the freedom of the game to try and explore character types different than my own. I have in my few years of tabletop gaming played as female characters, elderly characters, and characters of other races – not just “elves” or “aliens” but folks of a different skin color and nationality. It’s fun to be inspired by a particular class in the game or a certain character concept to create something different than yourself, but today I want to take an honest look at the difference that really makes. Is a guy like me conceptualizing and creating diverse characters at the game table – playing at diversity – really a respectful reflection of what it’s like to be in a marginalized community?

The question has crossed my mind during play before. My first character in Mutants and Masterminds was from India – a couple years later we played a game set in the future of that same setting where that character made a comeback as a sort of mentor. When I described him to the group during his first appearance, nobody even remembered that he was of a different ethnicity. It was an odd moment – did it really mean anything that I had played a “diverse” character if nothing about that nation’s unique culture had actually affected the game?

I’m currently playing a female character in Dungeon World, the only female in the adventuring party at a table of all male players. Once we got past the error of everyone accidentally referring to my character as a male because she’s being portrayed by a male player, things seemed to be going pretty smoothly. But I noticed that different forms of sexism have drifted into my character’s experience, from the subtle to the overt. I’ve frequently had to deal with guards leering at me, my own soldiers not taking me seriously, and assumptions that my character had to end up with somebody because she’s the only female in the party. I can’t help but wonder if a line is being blurred here – are we portraying her as going through these trials because dealing with constant misogyny is a reality of the female experience? Or are we by subjecting this character to these experiences actually being sexist in this game?
The Witcher CoverThe whole thing makes me think of my experience with the original Witcher. The Witcher is set in a medieval fantasy world where things like racism and sexism are grim realities of the time. But in my mind, there is a difference between neutrally portraying these things as a reality and actually perpetuating them. The Witcher, in my mind, perpetuates sexism through its game mechanics. The player character Geralt, in addition to the many powers that result from his unique physiology, is immune to infectious disease and cannot sire children. With consequence-free sex as a superpower, the player has the option to play Geralt as someone who freely hooks up with many of the women he encounters in the game. This in itself is not necessarily sexist, in my view – that’s who Geralt is as a person, and if video games didn’t have cruddy people as protagonists basically the only game left would be Zelda. However, what IS sexist in my view is that whenever Geralt hooks up with someone, the game rewards you with what is effectively a naked trading card of the women you just banged. That crosses a line – the game has crossed from neutrally portraying how the character behaves to incentivizing the player to behave that way with a reward mechanism. Objectify the women in the game, interact with them with the goal of sleeping with them, and you get a naked picture of their character – that engages you on the player level and I personally found it uncomfortable enough that I ceased to play the game at all.

I say all this to say that playing at diversity is a really tricky thing – if you aren’t careful, you could end up with the Witcher effect and instead of simply portraying the struggles of people unlike yourself, you become a perpetrator. Oftentimes games have blurred lines when it comes to the distinction between player and character, and when operating in that unclear space it’s dangerous to mess with sensitive topics. Honestly portraying prejudice in a fictional setting can get dangerously close to just being prejudiced.
Force and DestinyHow’d I get to thinking about all of this, anyway? The aforementioned Dungeon World game I am playing in is wrapping up soon and our group is beginning to speak about what might be coming next. One of the games we’re looking at is Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars, specifically Force and Destiny. This game focuses on Jedi characters in the Star Wars universe, which for me is great because last time I played Star Wars I chose a character with no Force abilities. As a way to differentiate from that, I am wanting to play a character in the Mystic class. As the GM is wanting to set the game before A New Hope, during a time when the Jedi are secretive and persecuted, I wanted to portray a character who is not a formal Jedi but rather an individual who is powerful in the Force without understanding the formalized concept of “the Force (TM).”

Taking this concept and running with it, I envisioned a character who is an elder in their community, a spiritual leader to their people. Using the power of the Force, this individual might have visions that guide the people, might serve as the village healer. Out of nowhere, an idea hit me, a concept to base this character around: I wanted to take inspiration from the concept of a Two-Spirit person.

If you’re not familiar with the term Two-Spirit, it is actually one of the many terms under the umbrella of LGBTQIA+. It refers to a tradition in some Native American tribes where individuals with the spirit of both male and female are considered to be elevated above those with just one spirit. A two-spirit individual had to be identified by the elders of the community, but someone who is officially acknowledged as two-spirit is venerated and respected for that position. It was not abnormal for these individuals to be spiritual leaders in their tribe. Coming from a European culture where genderfluid or gender non-binary individuals are persecuted rather than respected, that concept is really fascinating to me and I liked the idea of using this concept for my character. A Mystic without a binary gender who is respected by their people for their spiritual abilities, abilities which ultimately come from the power of the Force.
Long Neck Meme

Is your skin crawling yet? Mine is just typing all this. When I first envisioned this concept I didn’t see it as any different than drawing inspiration for my character from Robin Hood or from medieval knights, but there is something about this specific concept that feels wrong in my gut when I sit down to really think about it. And I think what it boils down to is that this is a gross example of appropriation.

“Okay, so I’m not a Native American and I’m cisgender, but I like the idea that this one tribe whose name I don’t even know had a thing where people who identified as both genders were, like, spiritual, so I’m gonna make a character that’s based on that. Except their powers don’t even really come from that, it comes from science. Also, their society is tribal because stereotypes.”

Now putting it that way might be a caricature, but when you get down to the nitty-gritty that’s what I’ve done here. I know literally nothing about what it is like to be Native American or to identify as a gender different from the one assigned at birth. I cannot possibly include that material with any degree of understanding into a roleplaying game. Yet because Two-Spirit sounds cool I’m gonna build a character concept around it? No. It doesn’t feel right and I’m staying away from that direction for whatever character I end up making for this game.

When I ask myself what’s different about this compared to playing a female character or a character from India, the thing I keep coming back to is that this identification has spiritual significance for the people it originates from. You don’t just get to declare that you’re a two-spirit person; it has to be officially acknowledged by your community. While it is on the surface a matter of gender identity there’s a deeper significance that I feel like I’d be glossing over by “borrowing” the concept for an RPG. It feels very personal in a way that other types of character diversity I have experimented with do not.
Good Idea Bad IdeaThis isn’t all to say that I never plan to play anything other than a straight white dude just because I can’t realistically represent another person’s experience. Tabletop games are a great way to explore difficult concepts in a safe space, and to learn about other people by taking steps in their shoes. However, in the future I definitely want to be more careful about what kinds of diverse characters I try to portray. There’s a fine line between respectfully exploring diversity and portraying a stereotype or appropriating someone’s culture. When choosing a character concept, I want to be more careful to make sure I don’t cross that line.

I’d like to hear your thoughts, adventurers. Have you experimented in playing as characters unlike yourself in RPGs? Has it ever accidentally brought about “The Witcher Effect?” Are there some concepts you just won’t play out at the table? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below – thanks for reading!

10 thoughts on “Playing at Diversity: Race, Gender, and Culture in Tabletop RPGs

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  1. Oh, cultural appropriation. It’s currently my least-favorite buzzword. Here’s my idea on that. As a society, we learn from each other. We borrow from other cultures, which in turn borrow from “our” culture. While there are people that howl about this, I think if the borrowing is done respectfully, it shouldn’t be an issue. Your interest in having a Two-Spirit individual as a character sounds like it’s coming from a place of respect for someone highly respected in their community, that would also be able to defy stereotypes in our Western community. To me, that sounds similar to you playing as a woman: you take someone who is not (as) respected as a man in society, and put her in a position of absolute equality (in regards to power, etc.). Did you handle the leering and sexism the same way a woman would? Maybe yes, maybe not, but you probably tried. Did you pick a female character because you wanted to hear graphic depictions of her body and get off on it? Or because you just wanted her to have a relationship with another character? Well, no. That’s the difference.

    I think problems arise when people simply take a stereotype and use it because it’s easy or shorthand for something, but making a concerted effort to build a real character from there is really wonderful to see. It’s the difference between “this woman is a lesbian because she’s a strong female character who doesn’t need a man” and “this woman is a lesbian because she happens to be attracted to other women.” It seems like your character falls into that second category: respected, wise, a leader, who happens to be Two-Spirited.

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    1. That’s a good point. Learning from other cultures is really important for understanding people and feeling empathy, and for me I just like to see characters that are unique and interesting. The idea of playing yet another white Jedi “chosen-one” prodigy or whatever seems really uninteresting to me. I cheer when I see a female or a person of color as the protagonist of a big upcoming game – I flipped my lid when Dishonored 2 was announced because I loved Emily Kaldwin in the first game and thought that playing as her would be the coolest thing ever. We get so few diverse protagonists in our games and movies – it feels like tabletops are a good place to create the kind of characters I want to see in the world.

      As a result of that I do like to think that my desire to play a character inspired by the Two-Spirit concept is coming from a good place. I guess the thing that makes me uneasy is that since I don’t know a lot about the culture and no one at my table will either, we might end up in a situation where it becomes more of a stereotype than a fair representation of what it means to be non-binary in a society that ultimately looks down on that. I think in this situation the best thing I can do is talk to my GM and the other players and see if they’re comfortable exploring it, and from there I’ll have a better idea of whether this subject can be treated respectfully in our game.

      Thanks for the great comment, by the way. I appreciate you reading and being a sounding board for this idea. And also for not assuming that I’m being a creep about it! 🙂

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      1. You’re probably right to talk to the DM and the other players, especially since this is something you are very serious about wanting to explore.

        And I can hardly bemoan the lack of diverse characters and then judge someone for trying to make characters diverse! And, honestly, if someone “misses the mark,” that’s the time to educate, not judge and get angry. So if anyone thinks you’re a creep, send ’em my way and I’ll straighten them out! haha

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  2. I’ve only played D&D as a tabletop game so far and I’m only just getting to grips with it so making a really in-depth character is sort of second to me understanding how to play at the moment. While not exactly what you were talking about the bit about The Witcher in your post did remind of a time that I have felt uncomfortable when playing D&D though. There were 3 guys in our group (the rest of the group was me and another girl) who kept “rolling to seduce the barmaid” and at first it was just a bit jokey and funny but then they got way too into it (which was really, really sad) and they got almost aggressive with the barmaid when they failed a persuasion check on her or they would try to find a different way to seduce her once they failed the persuasion check. They started saying things like “I try to sneak a peak at the barmaid’s cleavage” just casually in passing and stuff like that that objectified this invisible NPC. The other girl and I got a bit creeped out by it at the end, it was kind of scary seeing them react that way to a fictional character that they can’t even see when in reality we’ve never seen them behave that way at all, it makes you wonder what is really going on in their heads IRL. In turn that then made us (and therefore our characters) quite hostile to them so there was a bit of a division in the group afterwards. We always try and avoid that sort of situation now when we play now.

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    1. Goodness, I’m sorry to hear that. That certainly sounds like an uncomfortable moment at the table.

      The creator of my favorite tabletop RPG talks about this concept that he calls “the Nuremburg Defense of gaming” where people tend to play awful characters and then say “I’M not a jerk, it’s my CHARACTER that is a jerk.” But if you’re using the character to act cruelly towards NPC characters or other players, or using the fact that it’s “fake” to casually objectify or belittle people, it definitely says a little something about you as a person. You stating that this incident made you wonder about how these guys think IRL led me to think of that. I can understand how that would be a little frightening, particularly as someone identifying with the group (in this situation, the gender) that is being mistreated in the scenario.

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      1. Yeah that concept sounds kind of similar to what was happening. I think it was because once one person had done it as a joke which we all took lightheartedly, because it was funny they were sort of like “oh, it’s ok to do this” and if we called them out on it they were like “oh, well it’s my character” even though they put no where near as much effort into any other personality trait of their characters and took it way too far. We don’t really play with them any more now though anyway so there’s that!

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  3. I love how deeply you’re thinking about diversity in both video games and table tops. The line between appreciation and appropriation can be confusing, and as a white, cisgendered (though not heterosexual) female, I don’t have the answers. It’s something I think about a lot in all of the media I consume from games to shows to books. Witcher, for example, is a game that I was hesitant to pick up because of the rigid player identity. I do own them and will play them eventually, but I am less excited about it. Dragon Age is one of my favorites in part because I like how they deal with diversity. It’s not perfect, but it’s clear they try.

    I’m about to start a round of DnD, so this post was really timely for me and will help me think more deeply about how I “play” at diversity.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment!
      I’ve been hearing a lot of good things about Dragon Age lately and that might be a series I want to start looking in to. As you said, it seems that those games make an effort to portray a diverse world that’s a lot more interesting than the typical fantasy realms of many other RPGs.

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  4. I really appreciate your post. I think you are right to take the issue of cultural appropriation seriously. It’s not quite as simple as: “I’ll take a little from your culture, you take a little from my culture.” For historical reasons, the exchanges between cultures is unequal. In U.S. society, people from other cultures have often been compelled to assimilate just to survive. So I think you are right to recognize that the very fact that you can freely choose which cultures to borrow from is itself a privilege that non-Westerners / POC do not enjoy. That said, and as other posts have pointed out, I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong to play characters from other races or cultures. Regarding your specific dilemma about playing a character inspired by two-spirit people: I think you have already identified your next step — more homework. Once you have done your due diligence with researching this identity and its cultural background, you may have a clearer sense of whether its a role that you can pull off in a respectful manner. Does that make sense?

    This is a great discussion. I’d love to talk further with you and others here!

    PS. I should mention that I am a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual male.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading and for the thoughtful comment! I think your point about assimilation is a big factor here for me – I wrote this post around Thanksgiving and that is a time when the systemic deconstruction of Native American culture by white Westerners is at its most public. I think for that reason I was particularly aware of how insensitive this could be if executed poorly.

      I think your statement about doing more homework does make sense and that’ll probably be my next move as I continue thinking about this character concept. I now know I have a lot of time between now and when this game will be played, so I can really dig into the culture and decide if that is something that I can portray respectfully at the table.

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