Last Friday, I clicked open one of my favorite Zoom invites to find a stunningly gorgeous group of humans, each in various stages of applying their bold lip of choice or replenishing their beverage of choice. After the requisite period of catching up, which for us mostly means talking about food, we started playing Dungeons & Dragons.
On this occasion, that meant reminding my friends that their ragtag crew was standing in an enchanted wood with a gnome druid, a man who looked like a cow, his boyfriend, and some talking mushrooms. They told me what they wanted to do (it was to ask for the meet-cute between the cow-man and his boyfriend), and just like that we were off. Conversation may have veered to vibrators, bisexual lighting, Cosmo quizzes and what Muppet each of us is (I’m Rolf with Scooter rising, if you’re curious), but the ostensible reason for the Zoom was to do fantasy roleplay with an astonishingly sex-positive, queer-centric, intense chemistry-having group of people.
When this group got started in early May, each of us was meeting at least one person for the very first time. Now, we group-text with what Anna Drezen helpfully termed “the unsustainably horny rush of making a new friend.” We would probably love each other no matter what, but the reason we play D&D and not Jackbox, the reason we are so deeply into one another’s deals right now, is that together we’ve created a magical story in a magical world that doesn’t exist without us. In these messy Zoom nights, we’re a goth teenager with healing spells, a socially inept wizard whose hair is fire, a try-hard folk hero who just really wants to do a good job, a bear-worshipping half-orc tank, a cagey forger with some demon blood, and the gay mythical creatures they meet along the way. I love them with the passion of a thousand fiery suns.
Most of the rest of the time, I’m a bisexual mom who is married to a man and does regular adult things like work at a job, make out with my husband and read my daughter bedtime stories. I love all of these things fiercely, but having an established straight-presenting home life means it takes a little extra effort to be, essentially, out. Running this game gives me the opportunity to let my bi side play consistently, openly, and in community, and D&D’s roleplaying and worldbuilding aspects offer unlimited ways to lean into my queer identity. Not only has queer D&D been valuable and healing for me, other DMs and players have similar experiences!
Backing things up slightly, let’s quickly define some terms. Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) is one of the first table-top role playing games (TTRPGs) ever, and was first developed by Gary Gygax in 1974. In the years since then, it’s enjoyed a spot in popular culture as a thing nerds and weirdos like to do, being featured in episodes of Community, Buffy, The Simpsons, and most recently and especially, Stranger Things. In D&D, players create characters based on a variety of races (think everyone in the Lord of the Rings) and classes (wizard, fighter, ranger, etc.), and then play out an adventure (commonly known as a campaign) as those characters. This can take anywhere from a single night to literal years, and usually consists of the players fighting monsters, getting treasure, solving puzzles, catching bad guys, and getting progressively more fond and protective of each other. The adventure is laid out by a Dungeon Master (DM), a person who narrates the story for the players and fills in as every non-playing character (NPC) and monster they meet. At its best, D&D gameplay is tender, stressful, silly, triumphant, and very fun. Also there are dice, and dice are very beautiful and satisfying to roll.
I started playing D&D about six years ago at the invitation of a board gaming friend, who asked my husband and I to join a campaign using the game’s then-new Fifth Edition. With him as DM, we’d be adventuring in a party with two other board gaming buddies, both also dudes. At the time, my total understanding of the game was that there would be elves and fighting, and that I desperately did not want to look like a noob in front of my friends.
To remedy this, I chose to enter the campaign as a Dragonborn Barbarian. Dragonborns are literal dragon-people with weaponized breath and tough skin who are not really known for emoting. Barbarians are usually kind of dumb, very strong, and they don’t do a lot of magic (which has more in-game rules). I loved my gruff, beefy dragon guy—still do, actually—but despite my efforts to come into the game as well-armored as possible, roleplay still felt extremely vulnerable. The first time I tried to speak in character and my scary barbarian used my speaking voice, I wanted to crawl right under that rickety kitchen table. Pretty much the whole time, I remained mildly terrified of what I was revealing about myself, because there were a lot of things about myself that I was scared to see. I did have a whole bunch of fun swinging my greataxe, though.
It probably doesn’t need saying, but at the time of this early D&D experience I was not out as bisexual, even to myself. Finding my queerness came later, thanks to lots of gay fantasy books, the “San Junipero” episode of Black Mirror, and realizing that noncommittally muttering “I probably would’ve been bi” just means “internalized homophobia made me to scared to process my feelings for years, and while I’ve worked that stuff out now I’m also happily monogamous with a man so I guess case closed?” In the short time since I’ve enrolled in the Bisexual Academy*, I’ve learned that this experience is extremely common for bi folks.
The lesson in bi identity that I keep having to relearn is that it’s not who you’re with, but who you are. Coming out at the age of 33, I had already defined myself in all kinds of other ways, and done so through actions such as “work at a job, “get married,” “have a child.” While it felt truly wonderful to publicly identify as bi, it also meant that my opportunities to lovingly walk the bisexual walk** would forever be fewer. I had no interest in trying to get involved with someone of the same gender or finding out how this would affect my marriage, which I happen to like a great deal. I just was bi now, and the relief of living that truth would have to be enough.
So I can hardly describe what a revelation it’s been to show up on D&D nights and pretend to be a lesbian half-elf messenger and a pansexual cat-person sex worker, and have both of them flirt with my players. And then a couple sessions later, to be both halves of a gay couple who go on adventures together, and one of them looks kind of like a cow, and everyone is thoroughly smitten by them. Not only smitten, but also fully overcome with curiosity about which one of them is the bottom, to the point where one of them asked if she could roll a “bottom check” to learn the answer (she rolled very well, and the answer is that it’s a little complicated). It’s a fucking blast, is the best I can describe this.
As it turns out, using roleplay as a vehicle for queer exploration is not a rare or brand-new thing. Earlier this year, Linda H. Codega wrote a beautiful article for Tor.com titled, “The Power of Queer Play in Dungeons & Dragons.” They described D&D’s transformative powers from their own experiences:
I began experimenting in earnest with my own gender expression through roleplaying games; first by playing as a boy, then a girl, and then playing as a nonbinary character. The way that I found myself becoming more comfortable with blurring these binary lines of identity was because I had space to experiment in a consequence free container, where I could take on and take off genders in order to find the one that fit me […] When I allowed myself a space to play with the rules of my identity, I was able to come out with confidence, knowing that I had been able to “come out” through playing Dungeons & Dragons.
I also reached out to the members of a LGBTQIA+ D&D Facebook group (which exists!) about their favorite parts of playing queer-centered D&D, and found that a lot of us find pleasure in similar things.
“It’s really comforting to play in an LGBT group,” says Maddy, a bisexual woman who’s been playing D&D for a year and has just started DMing. “I never really got to be super open about my sexuality in my teen years and while I was more open about it in college, I was definitely still closeted in certain parts of my life. Now I’m definitely the most out I’ve been and really getting to goof/play around with my sexuality more in game.”
Holly is a bisexual player whose DM husband roleplays as women love interests for her in-game. She got so invested in the characters’ relationship that she started making art of the two of them together. “Being so inspired to draw, and wanting to post and talk about my art, lead me to coming out as bi to my family,” Holly said. “It’s such a relief to not be hiding anymore, and a big part is my D&D characters.”
Getting to periodically exist in a world that welcomes you just as you are is a pretty special thing. In particular, being a queer DM is hugely gratifying, because I get to shape every inch of that world, giving it a culture where being queer is so supremely regular it’s boring. The moment I realized one of my NPCs could be married to a woman and having a fling with a man and that everyone was chill about this arrangement BECAUSE I DECIDED IT was honestly mind blowing. Who owns that tavern? Two gay half-dwarves. Who’s the most powerful person in this town? A polyamorous lesbian dwarf. Who’s the captain of the guard? An enby ace half dwarf (this campaign setting happens to have a lot of dwarves). Who gets to roleplay as all of them? Me. I do. I get to. And the best part is, I don’t feel mortified about what I might be revealing each time I step into a new skin, because I’m comfortable with all of it.
Another of my esteemed Facebook colleagues, who identifies as queer/ace/aro, enjoys the chance to live in a space that leaves romance out of the equation completely. “It’s nice because [the campaign is] more story focused than romance and that kinda drama focused which I really like. That being said our characters are often pretty close friends […] Basically sexuality is just no big deal which is really nice.”
For others, worldbuilding has become an opportunity for friends who aren’t queer to broaden their own horizons. Longtime DM, writer and player Stephanie is bi and trans, and her D&D group consists of mostly cis het guys. “My favorite part,” she says, “is through me and [my friend] these cishet white boys are starting to include more gay, more trans, more queer NPCs in the games they run and in their PCs as well! … I love watching them grow.”
When we’re open to it, giving ourselves honest space to roleplay can be pretty powerful stuff. And also, I cannot stress enough how fun it is to pretend-attack something with a greataxe.
*The Bisexual Academy is real. It is. Ask any bisexual.
**The bisexual walk is also real, I believe. Accounts differ.