in another’s voice

This is a guest post by Katie, who divides her time among operating an interplanetary spacecraft, turning the gearwheels at her local hackerspace, practicing the Japanese Way of Tea, and an optimistic number of other things. It was originally posted to her blog.

When it comes to “geek culture,” my experience is slight—I’ve long thought of myself as a computers-and-engineering-and-hacking kind of geek, not a gaming/comics/fantasy kind of geek. There’s at least a post’s worth of potential self-reflection there, but my point is that despite currently showing few signs of involvement with the second kind of geekdom, I spent several of my high school and college years participating in tabletop role-playing games like D&D and Ars Magica. I probably would be now if I’d been invited into a group in the post-undergrad years before my plate filled with other things.

diceWhat I’m interested in exploring in this post is playing across gender lines—that is, role-playing a character of a different gender than your (the player’s) own. I don’t imagine this is entirely untrodden territory, but I hadn’t processed my own experience of being disallowed from doing it in the gaming group I spent the most and longest time in. Specifically, I hadn’t processed how bullshit that is. The GM‘s reason for the ban: verisimilitude. Fellow players would not be able to imagine the character accurately when that character’s words were coming from the mouth of a player of a different gender. Such a difference would overtax players’ ability to suspend disbelief; it would break the collective fantasy.

An obvious counterargument: if players can overcome the differences between a late-twentieth-century t-shirt-clad, Mountain Dew-chugging American teenager hanging out in a friend’s parents’ rec room and a pious sixteenth-century Saxon blacksmith trekking along thief-ridden roads, a difference of gender identity is barely material, let alone insurmountable. I may have expressed this argument to our GM, but I had no support from any other players, all of whom identified as male, so it was a take-it-or-leave-it situation. Since these were not only fellow players but friends, and I had a painfully hard time making friends, I took it. In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t, not because cross-playing was important to me, but because this absurd essentialism should have been a red flag.

None of the role-playing-game rule systems I’ve used have either banned cross-playing or discriminated among characters’ genders when it came to abilities or characteristics, as far as I remember. However problematic game publishers have been when it comes to issues like objectification, they weren’t the problem in this case. No, this was our GM’s own policy, informed of course by society-wide ideas about gender, and I’m curious how widespread that kind of thing was and is among GMs.

The one specific instance where I remember cross-playing was with a casual D&D group. To give you an idea of our silliness, I named my character Gillette just so that I could cap a victory by quipping that he was “The Best a Man Can Get.” There, though, we didn’t embody our characters so much as describe their actions in the third person. We moved figurines around a map of a dungeon. We did not often speak in our characters’ voices.

What have been your experiences with role-playing games and playing across genders? As a player and/or GM, have you encountered rules against it? Groups that encouraged it? Systems that imposed gender-based modifiers? Or supported non-binary character genders? And not just for creatures? Did the level of character embodiment make a difference? At the height of embodiment, have you had any experiences with live action role-playing across genders?

[For an overview of some feminist issues in tabletop role-playing games, see the Geek Feminism wiki.]

17 thoughts on “in another’s voice

  1. Katherine1

    I can’t speak too much about D&D cross-play. I’m a trans woman and do not like using male characters. My GM was from my campus’ LGBT group, and had no problem with a lot of things. I have never had any problems with being allowed to make the kinds of characters I want.

  2. Meg

    I’ve played D&D for decades (well, recently Pathfinder) and have almost always had at least one player cross-playing in our games. This includes back before I knew anything about gender or feminism, and involves mostly cis women and men. It was just never that big a deal and if nothing else, the DM always ends up portraying both men and women in the process of telling the story. If a DM was anti-cross casting, I’d definitely be wary of playing the game; it seems awfully limiting and suggests an essentialist attitude I’d be uncomfortable with.

    Additionally, Warforged and Changlings have often been portrayed in our house-created settings as either genderless or non-binary gendered.

  3. Torpedo

    I’ve played a lot of RPGs, mostly high (and some low) fantasy. In my experience when men play as female characters it’s either unremarkable (rare) or ends up as sexist parody. However women playing male characters is pretty normal as men are so often treated as the default in fiction and society.

    One thing I’ve done is to consciously create more female characters both PCs and NPCs. Partially this was a conscious feminist decision because it is important to have fully rounded women in game worlds and not just I-show-the-dragon-my-tits style characters so often played by guys. But also because I realized that when I larped and played generic NPCs (normally guards, I always end up a guard) I would drop my voice down to sound more manly which is quite silly. It really made me realize how that had been my automatic response and was derived from how I had been GMing.

  4. Cathy B.

    I agree with the respondent above. i’ve played D&D and Iron Kingdoms for years with a stable group, and have dabbled in a couple other systems in the past.

    In my current group, most people play their characters of their genders most of the time, but we often have at least one person in the group playing cross-gender (usually one of the guys playing a female). We play Warforged as genderless and Changelings as born one gender, but able to take on the gender they prefer. I don’t think I’ve seen a game system explicitly encourage transgender characters, although I would be surprised if anyone would mind as long as they had a good backstory and played it consistently – which is the same as any aspect of character development. I’m sorry you got that sort of attitude in your group. I’m a cis female who prefers to play females, but I don’t think I could stay in a group that required it.

    In a past group, I got into an interesting discussion with a man who was trying to play a female for the first time. My character was female, and, as an experiment, I had her be very sexually active. If I remember right, she was a classic spy who used her feminine wiles. I’m a geek. It was fun having some wiles for a while.

    If I remember right, he wasn’t sure I was playing her realistically at first – he thought I was playing her as too sexually aggressive. But this was his first try at playing a female character and he cared about role playing well, so the we talked over a couple of sessions on what realistic female actions feelings and actions might be for both his character and mine and in general. Since I was the relative expert on being female, he listened to my point of view. I feel like the his attempt to play a female in game ended up with him understanding real women a little better, because he had to think about what it felt like to be female. I wish more men did it.

  5. Brendan

    I’m a guy and I play cross-gender in tabletop games about half the time. My opinion of Katie’s GM is very low.

    Beyond D&D and other traditional games, there are several I know of that encourage cross-gender play. Emily Care Boss’s Breaking the Ice is a two-player game in which both players must play a different gender, and Elizabeth Sampat’s It’s Complicated encourages players to play multiple characters of different genders. There’s also Kagematsu, by Danielle Lewon, a game for three men and a woman; the woman plays a male samurai visiting a small village, and the men play three women who need his help.

  6. Deborah

    Cis woman, pretty much only play male characters, never had a problem with a GM. My current gaming group is 50/50 m/f (all cis), and 50% is played cross-gender, which is pretty common in my social circle. (Though my outright refusal to play same-gender is pretty rare; more of my friends mix it up. I find that my same-gender characters have an annoying habit to turn into caricatures of me. Playing different gender makes it easier for me to overcome by own limitations as a role player, which is weird, because you’d think that playing a sahuagin would be a pretty good starting point for difference.)

    I’ve been playing for twenty years and I started with a male character from the very beginning. That was also when we were younger and there was a lot less blurring of gender lines; mostly girls played women and boys always played men.

  7. Doctor Jay

    Let’s see, the first tabletop game I played in, in 1980, had a woman (the only identified woman) as DM, and most of the men had, at one time or another, cross-played a female character. All were cis-gendered. There wasn’t a lot of in-voice play, but there weren’t none either. My female ranger in that campaign had a sort of romance with an NPC (male). Often we flipped a coin to determine the gender of a character. We called it gender bending.

    Nobody played something that I would characterize as an I-show-the-dragon-my-tits female. Though I think I get what that is.

    Two of my favorite go-to characters, characters that I keep coming back to and re-creating in different systems or games, or using as an NPC when I run a game, are female. My wife (whom I met later on) has cross-played men many times, too. It just isn’t a big deal to us, and it would kind of be a thing if someone suggested it was.

    Additionally, I know a trans woman who says that playing a female character in her early 20’s when she was identifying male was an important step in her self-knowledge to identify as a woman. Clearly, this isn’t everyone’s story, but it’s hers.

  8. Alan

    Getting in-world gender correct with a cross-playing player/PC is a bit difficult. Sure, in fiction Alice is addressing to Bob, but Alice’s player is addressing Bob’s player, and if Bob’s player’s presented gender doesn’t match Bob’s, there are going to be mistakes. My own experience is that even after a year of play, players will make mistakes, most evidently with pronouns.

    That said, when I GM I have nothing against cross-playing, and happily I’ve never knowingly gamed with a GM who blocked it. Yes, it’s a bit of a challenge, but given that role-playing games are usually about exploring people that you’ll never be, surely we want gender to be an area we can explore. Players need to do the best they can and accept the mistakes that are inevitable. My own experience is that slip ups are quickly apologized for and corrected.

  9. Alex

    I’ve cross-played a lot myself (I would consider myself genderqueer, which makes it a little odd, but generally I’m pinged as female by others so I am counting male characters as the cross-). In fact, when I was first starting out at 13 (and when I felt more “male” to the point of wondering if I was, in fact, a trans man) I pretty much exclusively played charismatic bisexual-trending-gay men (usually bards, if in fantasy-style games, or otherwise intelligent/sexy characters – deep poets, etc – if a more real world game) – basically who I wanted to be at the time.

    (Or, in one case, a female character turned male, largely for the reason of “I wanted to RP a gay romance”, if I’m being totally honest.)

    As I became less certain of myself as ‘male’ I started playing more female characters, although not exclusively (I did play a trans man in a one-off game during this time, though); in a gaming group that DID have a somewhat higher percentage of traditional-mindedness than my high school friends, I played mostly women so as not to rock the boat too much (although those women were very diverse in characterization). Because those games -lasted- longer than many of the others, I have played women for -longer-, but fewer of my characters have been women.

    With my current gaming group, I’ve played 1 man, 2 women, and a shapeshifter who mostly considered herself female.

    That said, I’ve always had more difficulty playing a heterosexual or asexual character than with male/female/neither/both/none of the above. Not sure why.

  10. Kate K.F.

    I’ve done a lot of RP over the years in a number of different formats. In tabletop, I’ve never done crossplay as it didn’t suit the various worlds I was in. When I ran a Changeling: The Dreaming LARP at my all woman’s college, playing across gender was a normal part of the game as well as in the small tabletop game I ran. It was comfortable for us and part of the fun.
    At the moment, I mainly play online on DW where the majority of my characters are male. Its far easier to experiment with another voice when its just text, but in LARPing I felt comfortable doing both sexes. I also have a history of acting, which is part of why I enjoy LARPs. I think a lot of it comes down to the group, the game and what fits for that moment.

  11. talkswithwind

    I’ve cross-played quite a lot over the years.

    The first character I remember was in high-school, when a friend and I had this awesome idea for a brother and sister pair and I volunteered to play the sister. I’m reasonably sure that was the first cross-playing experience anyone around that table had run into (all male), and there were some problems with it. Pronouns were the hardest part since that particular group talked to players more than we talked to characters. But they got used to it.

    Katie’s mention of a LARP very strongly reminds me of a group I was with for five years. All of the players there were LARPers, and in-character talking was very much the norm. We didn’t roll our fast-talk, we actually fast-talked and the GM rolled to see how convinced the NPC was. Because we had so many people around that table who had experience acting characters, the players would create voices for their characters which made the IC/OOC voicing problem a lot easier to handle. Cross-playing wasn’t even remarked upon, and handled really well. Pronoun problems were there for the first couple sessions with a character but settled out very fast.

    It also helped that most of those players were women who had been frequently cross-playing male characters since their early teens.

    My current group is very much of the third-person, push the figures around a map style of role-play. Only one of the players is currently cross-playing, and people are forever missing pronouns. The player, a woman, has stopped correcting people since they’re clearly not getting it.

    So yes, it really is all up to the group! I prefer the LARPy style, but I have to get my gaming fix somehow.

    Torpedo’s point about NPC gender mix also resonates. That five year stretch when I was playing with all those LARPers was GMed by a very great guy, he just had a bit of a blind-spot when it came to setting out sexual honeypots (this being GURPS and ‘Lecherous’ being a commonly taken disadvantage in our group, a honeypot is kind of called for). Our female-oriented characters were forever being tempted into the pretty-but-don’t-go-there, where the male-oriented characters with the same disadvantage never had to make a will-save.

  12. Ashera

    I’ve never gotten a chance to play it, but Kagematsu is a romance-ish RPG that requires cross-playing. Kagematsu, who must be played by a woman, is a male ronin who comes to a town under threat. The other players (regardless of gender) play women from the town trying to get Kagematsu to promise his help.

    The designer, Danielle explains some of her goals in a comment: .

    And this is a neat account of how playing Kagematsu forced a man to face his privilege:

  13. Sean Riley

    What utter bullshit. Cross-playing is a long standing tradition of the RPG hobby, and to deny oneself to half the character concepts out there is flatly crap. It always staggers me how many people (usually men) do not understand a simple concept: Play a person, not a sex. Start at motivations, goals, hopes, foibles. Build. You’ll have a realistic person.

    (And I wonder how your DM would deal with the existence of Hellcats & Hockeysticks, a game with zero male PCs.)

  14. Imp

    As a trans guy, playing a male character before coming out was really important for me – and when one group that I played with was uncomfortable with it, then it was a sign that playing with them much would be a bad plan. In my Ars Magica group (which is actually about half made up of non-cis people, and most players are some flavour of queer) we currently have two men who have a female character, and two women with male characters as well.

  15. Caite

    A late reply, but our group encourages cross-play, especially for new players as a way of distancing oneself from their character. So I am currently playing a young man just out of college despite being a middle-aged woman myself. This character in particular has very “traditional” ideas about gender and sexuality, which is something I quite enjoy mocking OOC, and it’s actually quite interesting to watch the reactions of the male players as he interacts with their female characters. (I did check with the group that they would be okay with me playing such a character before starting, because I thought it would be interesting to explore how it is possible to hold tight to such beliefs when being forced to interact with, and gradually come to like, a group of bisexual genderqueer werewolves.)

    Our group is pretty used to people who cross-play, and after the first few sessions of a game it’s rare for anyone to mix up their pronouns.

  16. Neil

    The groups that I have played with have almost never paid attention the mapping of player gender and character gender. Only twice has the gender of the character been an issue.

    I once played as an apple tree based plant creature for a game that was originally created for a high school prom. Gender was important for me since I wanted to know whether my character was in a Tux or Gown. (Apple trees are sequentially multi-gender: first flowers of one gender and then later the flowers of the other) However, I don’t think the DM or the other players cared.

    The other time it came up was in a bought module which had a promiscuous female NPC get a PC in trouble with her father (rather tacky and we did go through with a shotgun (crossbow) wedding). I had my female character advise the female NPC to become a priestess of a fertility goddess for respectable promiscuity and discuss some feminism and discrimination issues with the NPC. I could tell that DM was really uncomfortable with the cross play and cut it short.

    That is the crux of the issue as many comments highlight: how comfortable are the other members of the group with cross play. If someone is having trouble with cross play, should you tone it back or find a different group? For most responders cross play has never been an issue. For myself, cross play is sufficiently normal that no one has particularly though about it. Thus restriction on cross play seem bizarre and abnormal.

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