I was nine when I played my first game of Dungeons and Dragons.
My younger brother Raffi was seven, and we were both under the care of a teenager named Lowell. He was a lanky, affable guy who once choreographed a routine to “Safety Dance” to impress a girl. It required him to wear knee pads over his pants. I remember thinking with all my young gay heart, “he is amazing, and this is sure to work.”
Lowell babysat for us often. We could be a handful, as it was difficult to get Raffi and me to work together or even play the same game. When he showed up one night with the D&D Basic red box and asked us to pick one of his pre-generated characters, it was out of desperation.
Like many of us who, for whatever reason, feel isolated, Dungeons and Dragons provides an escape. The ability to take up a person in a story that both reflected me—and the hopes and dreams I had to be something greater—grabbed my attention and imagination as no other game or media had. When I played a brave character, I felt brave, even when I was afraid and sad most of the time.
Being gay was not something I had to hide from in these stories, but something to be celebrated. A seven-year Vampire the Masquerade game in which I spent most of it with a werewolf boyfriend was one of the best I have ever played. It taught me that games were great not because of the conflict but the relationships we forged along the way.
I was hooked and still am. These stories and the joy of telling them with friends is a place of safety and clarity in a world that has often been confusing. When I am acting like someone else, my stuttering seems to vanish. Much like when I sing or speak in unison, something different happens in my brain when I roleplay.
Stuttering introduces fear to the transition between thought and speech. Having a tool to strip away that dread was liberating. People who watch my roleplaying streams or listen to the podcasts I produce often tell me they hardly notice it. It is difficult to express how healing that is for the kid in me who is often still scared to speak.
I had found a way to explore and test my hopes and fears in a place of safety. I had found that I could write my own stories and that those stories were interesting to others. I found that I could rewrite the world into a place that felt more magical and just than our own. A place where my friends and I could simply be ourselves.
This place needs a set of rules agreed upon by those playing within it, and many believe worldbuilding must be firmly grounded in our reality. Racism, misogyny, homophobia, ableism, and all other struggles people face in their actual lives must be included for the game to have any weight. Slavery, torture, sexual assault, and other obscenities must exist as foes to be conquered or struggles to be endured.
The people who make this demand most fervently are rarely part of the groups affected by these stories. They have no skin in the game and see the struggles of marginalized people as a fable to insert themselves as the main character. They demand our trauma as a backdrop for their hero’s journey.
Do not give it to them. Write them out.
I do not owe anyone that trauma, nor do the players at my table. Queer players deserve a space free of judgment. Players of color deserve a world free of bigotry. Women deserve to be free of the constant grind of misogyny, and none of them need to spend a single ounce of effort justifying that truth.
Do not argue with people who claim otherwise. Write them out.
Make your worlds as beautiful and free and colorful and queer as you want. Implement session zero games and use safety tools to help ensure that no one at the table is ever made to feel unsafe. Celebrate the hopes and dreams of your players and shut out the gatekeepers who claim you aren’t playing the game “right.”
There is nothing lost in a tale of heroism by stripping out base injustice. There is no lessening of a story when it is free of the daily trauma many players turn to TTRPGs to escape from. No greater immersion can be achieved by their inclusion. Do not listen to those who seek only to demean and ridicule this idea to fuel their sense of superiority.
Write them out.
About the author
Aram Vartian is the writer of Godsfall and a founding producer of the Does It Roll podcast network. He has played Dungeons and Dragons for over thirty-five years and been queer for slightly longer. Find them on twitter at @GODSFALL.