• Dear Gaming As Women: NPC Diversity

    by and  • August 4, 2014 • Dear GAW • 1 Comment

    Welcome to the latest installment of Dear Gaming As Women! We invite our readers to asks us anything – and we’ll do our best to offer informative, thought-provoking, and entertaining answers. In today’s letter, a reader wonders about NPC diversity:

    Dear GAW,

    I recently GM’d my first campaign, a short little Savage Worlds one-shot. It must have gone okay, because everyone in it indicated an interest in continuing. (Yay!) This, then, is my question: if I turn this campaign into a longer campaign, I want my NPCs to be diverse. I was hoping the lovely people behind Gaming as Women could give me pointers on how to indicate (and how not to!) an NPC is anything but straight-white-male.

    I’ve been doing some thinking about it, and I figure there’s the straightforward approach: “Diane is a tall, dark-skinned/black woman, blah blah…”

    There’s the more oblique approach, such as naming an NPC Fatima or Jose, or making a reference to a male NPC’s ex-boyfriend/female NPC’s wife/etc.

    What I’m especially struggling with is how to represent transgender NPCs in my game. Flat-out stating an NPC is transgender feels like it sets transgender men and women apart from actually being men and women. I can’t think of any casual way to bring up that an NPC used to present as the other gender that doesn’t feel like a gross violation of privacy (as well as it would probably be terrifying for the NPC, given the campaign is set in current times).

    Please help,
    I Want To Do This Right


    Arlene: One option is to get a stack of magazines and go through them for images. It will have the benefit of giving faces to your NPCs. You can sort them and even group them by relationships (this is Meg and Felicia, they’ve been dating since college and are trying to decide whether to try to get married; this is Felicia’s brother, Rasheed, and his girlfriend, Janet, and her girlfriend Savranthi). You can glue or tape them to index cards and have a stack ready when you need your next NPC, noting any details on the back.

    Renee: Regarding the approach to transgender identities, I have to say, I like your instincts here. What I mean by that is that your concern for these characters and their privacy, fictional though they may be, speaks to your respectfulness, and I like that.

    What you have here, though, is a complicated issue. Being transgender myself, I very much want to see trans* folks represented in media, art, and pop culture. And in ways that are respectful of the lives we have, rather than the horrible, hackneyed stereotypes we often get. I’d like to refer you to other fictional representations, but honestly, there aren’t many I think are great.

    One thing you can always do, and you can use this more broadly than just with transgender folks, is to equalize the playing field. Race is probably the easiest example here, in that it often only gets mentioned when the individual is non-white, but we experience the same as transgender people…cisness is presumed, and a person’s gender identity only becomes relevant when it’s non-cis. Don’t do that. Don’t allow certain identities or labels to go unsaid, or to become the default, just because they’re more prolific. As we sometimes like to say, common does not equal “normal”. If you feel like declaring a character to be transgender somehow sets them apart from being actual men and women, try pointing out the other npcs’ cisness. Everyone has a gender identity, not just trans* people.

    But be careful with this! There is a flaw in thinking that you can know a person’s race or gender identity (or sexual orientation, or able-bodiedness, and so on) just by looking at them. Gender identity and gender expression are different things, and sometimes peoples’ perceptions of others are just flat out wrong. Just a few weeks ago, a cis women was badly beaten in Seattle because her attackers assumed she was trans*. Assumptions can be dangerous. And to be sure, lots of trans* people pass as cis without any difficulty. A better way of equalizing the playing field may be to simply describe what the character looks like, how they present themselves, and keep in mind that qualities of masculinity and femininity are a wide spectrum that apply to both cis and trans* people.

    In keeping with that, you may also want to explore transgender identities beyond just the commonly invoked transition-bound, binary coded man or woman. There are trans* people whose genders are fluid, who identify with both of the well-known genders, or neither, or as a different gender altogether, or whose identity has special cultural significance. Ours is a wide umbrella with lots of different people under it, but we only ever hear a few stories (and to be honest, mostly just one).

    When creating trans* characters, or characters of any marginalized group really, think about them, and play them honestly according to who they are. This is a bit weird, since as GM you create the characters, and they are an extension of your own imagination, but give yourself permission to see these characters as people and treat them with integrity. And understand that no two trans* characters will necessarily approach their transness the same.  Some of us are more open about who we are; I, for example, find it difficult not to talk about my experiences as a trans* woman, and I feel like I shouldn’t have to keep a lid on that…after all, cis people get to talk about their experiences all the time (though we almost never think of these conversations as cis coded, since cisness is the default). Others are much more private, but might be willing to share their history with someone they really trust (and may or may not have any choice with intimate partners). Some will never share their history, period. My last Pathfinder character, for example, was a trans* masculine drow who ran away from a matriarchal society determined to hold on to one of its valued “princesses”. The only people who knew I was trans* were me and the GM, but it still affected my play…particularly when issues of privacy and intimacy arose, but also in the broader choices I made about motivation. I was open to that becoming a bigger part of the story, but it just never manifested that way, and that was fine…even in the small choices I made, it helped shape the game we played in a real way. Much later, after the game was over and the character retired, I revealed his story to some of the other players, and they were able to reflect upon and appreciate what that meant…but in the moment of play, it wasn’t information they needed to know.

    Obviously, don’t use transgender people for shock value. If, for example, nude bodies are a thing in your game, and one of your characters is a pre-operative or non-operative trans* person, treat their bodies with respect, care, and matter-of-factness. Let trans* people be beautiful and handsome and all the things everyone else gets to be, but don’t necessarily conflate those things with cisness. And if it’s not important to the game – and I mean, really seriously important to it – try not to misgender us, or refer to the sex or gender we were assigned at birth, or to names given to us by others…those are things that are disrespectful to trans* people in real life, and not indulging them models good behavior for others.



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    I have been playing tabletop roleplaying games since my mom's friend introduced me to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons c.1980. I have been running roleplaying games (except for one disastrous session in high school) since about 1989. I have played a broad spectrum of games (I'd list them but you don't have time to read a list that long); ranging from Champions to Dresden Files, from D&D to Wizard's Realm, from Ironclaw to Traveller. I'm proud of: I have ongoing peripatetic Ironclaw and Jadeclaw campaign that I run at local conventions. I have been someone's 1st gamemaster. I wrote the creatures appendix to the Jadeclaw game book and contributed several articles to Sanguine's Bitemark Fanzine. Although I've written several adventures, I've never tried to get them published.




    I'm a queer trans woman who lives somewhere in Michigan with my cat Rufus. Yes, he *is* named after the cat in Re-Animator, how kind of you to ask.

    One Response to Dear Gaming As Women: NPC Diversity

    1. avatar
      August 6, 2014 at 19:51

      I notice that you talked a lot about how to portray trans people (and gender identity in general) well, but didn’t address how to let PCs know that NPCs aren’t vanilla cis gracefully.

      I know some trans people who are open about that part of their lives to friends or are publicly out (in the second case mostly public figures). I also know some trans people who I knew before transition… so it would be difficult to not know that they are trans!

      Portraying someone going through transition might or might not be something the writer wants to deal with in their game (it could be cool, but it also has it’s pitfalls for a cis person to portray). Either way, it’s a shared backstory event that allows a PC to reasonably know an NPC’s history. Transition doesn’t happen in some some sort of magical vacuum after all. 😛

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