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Our featured contributor for today is Valory Fox! They are a non-binary, asexual trans person from England, working on tabletop RPG supplements in their spare time. Their two favourite things are D&D, and rambling non sequiturs. You can follow them on Twitter, and check their work out on Itch.
A question that I’ve been asked several times by different GMs is, “How do I include trans and non-binary characters within my games?” It is also a question I have pondered for myself. Today, I am going to try and address it..
In the far flung future of space travel, or a world of magic and mystery, it seems strange to think that strict expectations of gender would remain the same. Consider that characters would not treat being trans or non-binary with the same taboo.
In a world of fantasy, people may go by they/them pronouns without so much as a batted eyelash, or transition free from a fear of losing friendships and family. One of the most freeing things of a fantasy realm is the ability to simply not draw attention to things that carry deep and uncomfortable weight and discrimination within the real world.
None of these are golden rules. However, when dipping your toes into inclusion, a story of discrimination is one that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Transphobia is not window-dressing to a setting, and shouldn’t be treated as such. All of what’s said below is of course simply suggestion, an option and path to take!
Limitations of the Medium
When a GM is running a game, there’s an inherent bias to things they choose to tell the players. This applies to everything: setting a scene, describing a character, detailing the lore a character recalls, and so on.
It’s assumed that the GM picks and chooses relevant information, or information that benefits immersion into the world. Immersion plays an important role in keeping the game running. Mundane details are assumed or left in a state of uncertainty.
Things only meaningfully exist within the game world from a player perspective if they know about it. If there is no real interaction or evidence proving its existence, it is hard to say that they really matter. But, more on this idea later…
Time for a bit of counter-intuitive thinking. If you want to introduce more non-binary characters to your world, what do you do? The obvious choice may be to pick a few upcoming NPCs and ‘decide’ they have one of these other gender identities. Maybe even writing it next to their names with some pronouns.
A few issues arise here. First: you are restricted to your interpretation and cultural exposure to non-binary identities, agonizing over how to faithfully represent them. Second: any attempt risks creating a caricature of that identity, not portraying a compelling and unique character in and of themselves.
Our last point is the most important. The identification of trans or nonbinary doesn’t actually tell you anything about the character. The terms ‘non-binary’, ‘agender’, and ‘genderfluid’ are deeply personal labels individuals use to define themselves, but they struggle to function in reverse. The wide variety of personal experiences mean these labels tell you nothing about the character.
So don’t write down a label. Don’t go out with the goal of making a non-binary NPC. Instead, aim to create a wide range of gender expressions, body types, pronoun preferences, and mannerisms. Treat these aspects as you would the same as creating a variety of interesting personality quirks and ideals for the players to encounter.
This approach, which I call inclusive noninclusion, has a whole heap of advantages. Removing yourself from labels grants an immediate detachment from harmful caricatures. It also allows you to use gender diversity as a tool to create more interesting NPCs. This could remove the stress around creating the perfect token.
The Challenge of Trans Characters
Trans characters pose a specific set of challenges to a GM wanting to include them in their games. This is primarily due to the unfortunate context that the process of transition in the real world can be rife with discrimination and conflict. While transitioning has the potential to be a freeing and beautiful journey of self discovery, it also has the potential to be a painful and difficult process fraught with discrimination.
As such, how does one approach the inclusion of trans people within an RPG setting? In a realm of marvelous wizards, ingenious alchemy, or futuristic medicine, allowing simple and easy forms of transition mark the arguably simplest way to provide a background for trans people within your game.
Once you have found a way to make transition a relatively easy process in your setting, reflect on how to approach the characters themselves. This is the more difficult part. A core experience of being trans for many (not all) trans people is transition. Inclusive noninclusion breaks down in the face of this, as it seems more planning is necessary.
An Example: Alchemy and Transitioning
In general, trans characters should be the active agents in their own transition. If they must seek out a wizard, perhaps they participate in the spell themselves. Maybe a trans character learns the basics of alchemy for their own needs. Perhaps they discover that they have a knack for it, leading them to start a business that the adventurers run into years down the line.
Not every trans character your players meet will disclose their status. It’s possible that very few might. It will depend on the nature of your players. Do they ask about the life of the NPCs they meet? In a world where being trans isn’t seen as taboo or strange, it’s likely it would be just another noteworthy story to tell when mentioning your life.
Now we can go back to our theoretical alchemy shop. When your players ask the alchemist about their shop, perhaps they could tell the party why they got into it. It’s possible that you never planned this plot point ahead of time. In my eyes, improvisation is a valid way to build inclusion within your game world.
With the above in mind, the most important thing is to make compelling characters. A compelling character is one with their own narrative agency, and aren’t defined by a sole characteristic. Adding variety of gender presentation will improve your game, and lead to more memorable NPCs that your players can grow to love!
No matter what, the above is just a guideline. If you have a transgender player, or a player who doesn’t conform to the gender binary, ask them if they have any preferences or feelings they’d like to voice! The most important thing is that those at your table are comfortable and having fun.