Early the campaign of my current Rothlingsmark game, I asked my GM (who is also my husband, Geoffrey) a simple question that completely changed the course of the game.
The question was made half in jest. It was a sort of “I’m joking unless you’re serious” kind of joke, anyway. I referenced it in an earlier Gaming as Women post about the game:
There was only one important question that I had to ask Geoffrey:
“So is Rukkokainen hot?” I asked him one afternoon.
Geoffrey thought about this for a moment, and said, “I don’t know. I haven’t rolled his stats yet.”
A few days later, he wandered into my office and announced, apropos of nothing, that yes, Rukkokainen was in fact, “hot.”
But I didn’t stop with Rukkokainen. I decided that I had to know about the attractiveness of every male NPC. It was still a bit of a joke, but Geoffrey always took my question seriously enough to have an answer for me (even if he had to make a few quick dice rolls first).
Before long, I was thinking of every male NPC in terms of their attractiveness. This may not seem like much, but it completely changed the way I viewed the men in the game. Jarl Wyrmval isn’t only a scheming political rival, but he was also dangerously handsome. Runthorn isn’t only self-important, he’s also attractive enough to charm people into believing in his delusions of grandeur. Nadric isn’t just bookish and awkward, he’s also ugly enough that the servants gave him the byname Gul. Rukkokainen isn’t just a skilled veteran and keen advisor, he’s the most eligible Tauthra bachelor in the province.
It occurs to me that this has never been true of any game I have played in. Even when I’ve played in games run by people who are sexually attracted to men, men are not described in terms of sex appeal. (I ascribe this, of course, due to our male gaze-centric and homophobic culture, because duh.)
On the other hand, I’ve seen plenty of games where the attractiveness of female NPCs is spelled out explicitly. (Remember that skeevy guy from college who never got tired of the “huge tracts of land” joke? Remember how everybody thought you were a bitch for refusing to play in his games? Good times.)
Conversely, it occured to me as I was writing this article that I had really no idea how “hot” the women of the setting were. This is even true for the women that my character has flirted with. This isn’t to say that I don’t know what they look like; I can readily imagine Herla’s lopsided grin and swaggering gait, or Trondvica’s round face and piercing eyes. But their sex appeal (as conventionally construed) isn’t even part of the way that I view the characters, even though they exist in a sexy context with my character. They’re sexual, rather than sexy. They’re subjects, rather than objects.
On the other hand, the men get objectified all day. Women comment about the attractiveness of male characters frequently. They make suggestive jokes about them, and tease each other about them. (They even do that thing where women will flirt with each other while simultaneously talking about hot guys.) This largely makes sense because this is a solo game, and my character is predominantly attracted to men. The world, therefore, is largely filtered through her gaze. It’s a bit of a revelation for me, frankly, because I’m used to looking at my own world through the eyes of patriarchy. In a game, I can control the narrative in such a way that I erase the patriarchal gaze, and look at the world with a woman’s eyes for the first time.
So how can you bring this into your game? Easy.
When you introduce a male NPC, talk about his hotness. You don’t have to go completely Tom of Finland. You can use phrases like “handsome” or “good-looking” or “ugly.” If you’re world-building, then think about what “an attractive man” looks like in your campaign world. Does your culture prize slender, boyish men with doe eyes? Are men supposed to be big and muscular? Are battle scars sexy? What about body hair? Ritual tattoos? Does a luxuriant mustache drive the masses wild with desire?
If you’re a player, though, you can just ask the GM a simple question: Is he hot?