Critique, Games, Geek Culture, LGBTQ

Queer Fantasy: An Exploration of a Genre Through Modern Narrative Games

This series will focus on my thoughts about Queerness and Fantasy through the lens of tabletop and video games. I believe these intersections, and the further intersection of Queer Fantasy through games, is very important in the year 2017. As games become a larger cultural touchstone, Fantasy games come closer to the forefront of pop culture. Fantasy, as shown by the staggering readerships of authors like J. K. Rowling and J. R. R. Tolkien, is a genre in high demand. Tolkien in his time offered tales of heroism in the shadow of Fascist regimes as well as escapism. Queer Fantasy goes farther to show the heroism of the oppressed, ignored, and othered. In our current battle with fascism this is an artistic weapon we should be making use of.

Fantasy has become a bedrock of our culture and its influence is seen across all forms of media. Queerness is becoming an ever larger facet of society as more people than ever are identifying themselves as queer, gaining far more visibility than in any other period of history.

Games, simply put, is a language I am fluent in. I feel comfortable creating them, critiquing them, and playing them. As the Game Master of my roleplaying campaign, I will be able to cater to my players directly by helping them pursue their own queerness as opposed to a pre-authored (usually heteronormative) narrative.

[pullquote]Fantasy is about the twisting of reality to amplify the things that we find grand, strange, wondrous, awe inspiring, and whimsical.[/pullquote]Queer and Fantasy are not only genres but also ideologies and philosophies. Fantasy is about the twisting of reality to amplify the things that we find grand, strange, wondrous, awe inspiring, and whimsical. It can be an escape, allowing the reader to compartmentalize their problems to rest their mind upon the beauty of a different and better place. This, in the right context, can be radical. But it is the Fantasy that uses this twisting with purpose that I really admire. Tolkien’s hobbits are indeed fantastic not because they are smallish and swarthy, but because they show us what we can be at our best. That we can be quietly brave, we can do things we never even thought of before, we can be jolly and good to our fellows.

Queerness is about the Other. It is about rejecting norms. Queerness rejects definition because it fails to meet the criteria of mainstream definitions. Here we are talking about Queer Theory, not simply gender or sexual minorities. In their YouTube video about Queer Theory, What Does it Mean to be Queer?, Shon Faye offers up the point that Queerness is a rejection of both labels and certainty. It is accepting that we do not always know who we are. It goes further to not only disrupt solid affirmations of our position in queerness but the definition of queerness all together. Shon points out that if gender is indeed a spectrum, then isn’t everyone transgender? For this project that question is a modus operandi as opposed to a actual query.

Queer Fantasy is then the genre of mixing together these two concepts. However, a Fantasy novel with a single queer character or a thematically Queer video game with small elements of Fantasy do not satisfy my goals. If Fantasy is about creating elements that are not real, coherent, or plausible, and Queerness is about rejecting standard definitions and certainty, then my campaign must radically reject what we construct as normal reality. Fantasy offers up the freedom from reality and Queerness doubles down to reject an uncertainty not only of our reality, but the new fantastic reality created by Fantasy authors. So we are describing a world that rejects what is true about our world while also rejecting the certainty of any biological, sexual, or societal truths stemming from the lived experiences of our in-fiction characters.

For this new project, I have created a Fantasy setting of my own invention. It is as yet still unnamed and is still mostly unknown. This in itself serves the definition-resisting nature of queer.  The rule set I’m using to structure play with this world will be Burning Wheel. Like many fantasy inspired tabletop roleplaying games, it takes heavily after Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). The advantage of Burning Wheel over something like D&D’s 5th edition is its focus on storytelling and characters over combat.

Burning Wheel. Luke Crane. 2002.Burning Wheel is driven by a system of character quirks. What is of importance is that players are rewarded for playing out the flaws and traits of their created characters. I believe this will help create Queer narratives as it demands that characters are always growing or changing in their beliefs. Beliefs are meant to be challenged and a Belief cannot be swapped out with another until it is resolved. Some Beliefs might never be fully resolved and simply change again and again over time. Traits work similarly but with the added twist that other players can vote them off they feel they are no longer true.

The rules also reward players who purposefully play out the struggles of their character’s traits and beliefs with extra dice they can use later to get what they want. A player might receive one from bringing up the fact that because their character believes they must serve their own divine patron so that they would be against helping a priest that serves another god even though it would benefit them and the rest of the party.

Burning Wheel also does away with Alignment. This is a system popularized by D&D that designates all beings as one of nine moral outlooks. Lawful Good to Chaotic Evil, this grid is inherently systemic and confined. I believe labeling all actions under that paradigm would hinder the full freedom of interpretation and expression that I believe will be the hallmark of this campaign.

The fusion I’m creating, then, will focus on the undefinable, whimsical and out of the norm scenarios, poignant alterations to “normal” reality, and player-focused storytelling. This synthesis is important as I find distilling my thoughts down to a single sentence is a great way for me to understand the essence of my own ideas. This essence once known will then hopefully lead to better and better sessions for my characters. This is a succinct mission statement for myself. As my players and I move forward, I believe this statement will change. Not to mention right now it consists of only my own idea of queerness and fantasy. Going forward, it is my hope that my players will put forward their own ideas and together a more complex model will arise that can hold truth for more people.  

My personal hopes for the campaign revolve around player expression and story. The story as it stands is less of a story and more of a narrative structure. I am giving my players a setting with chunks of specific smaller stories scattered throughout. The hope is that they will pursue what intrigues them and as I observe their interest I will steer things in those directions. I am authoring broad story arcs that can easily be filled in with a spectrum of different themes and narratives. The players will steer the story while I build the road.

I also hope to allow my players to express themselves in ways that are personal and empowering. To that end, I am eschewing normal Burning Wheel combat for a much more open-ended system of magic-focused characters. I am going to be homebrewing a system of magic for each of my players based off of what sorts of things they want to be able to affect in the game. Burning Wheel’s elegant rule set includes rolling a number of six-sided dice (D6s) equal to your skill rating at an activity versus an obstacle that I decide. So if one of my players is a Witch that has a six in hexing and they want to curse an elderly cleric, I might decide the obstacle is a three. They roll six dice and need to come up with three or more successes. A success is rolling a four or higher on the die. The system is highly adaptable and comes with suggestions for creating skills.

[pullquote]This is why I need to start involving my players more in the creation of our world. We can cover each others’ shortcomings and bolster our strengths.[/pullquote]Of course, I have fears regarding this project. Considering it is an attempt at good representation of queer characters, persons, and ideas, I do have a bit of anxiety over handling these well. I have worries about representing race and ethnicities in a way that will connect to my potential audience and not alienate, offend, or in general make anyone uncomfortable. My tendency to want to make “checkboxes” of representation is a deeply misguided way to approach having meaningful diversity and I need to do better for my players and audience. This is why I need to start involving my players more in the creation of our world. We can cover each others’ shortcomings and bolster our strengths. I have started to do this, each player has designed a city, a deity, and a species that exists in the world. Going forward I’m going to challenge myself to come up with more ways of deeply involving them in the state of our world.

I will end here with a list of predictions. At least two of the things that are easy to implement in my mind will be quite difficult to actually implement. I will hate an aesthetic decision made by one of my player but have to live with it. I will absolutely adore the majority of my players’ decisions. One character’s magic system is going to seem fine at first but will start breaking the whole world at some point and I will be responsible for retconning a fair amount of fiction, which will be hilarious for my players. Many things will change during the first few sessions. One of my players will try to make love to an inanimate object and I will encourage a player to use sex to help resolve a narrative moment.

It’s going to be a fun time.

  1. Anna Kreider

    February 28, 2017 at 9:07 am

    Using Burning Wheel to explore these themes sounds really interesting! Using Beliefs to explore these themes sounds like it could be really interesting, and I look forward to reading more.

    You may be interested in checking out a game that I co-developed called The Watch, about women and non-binary femmes fighting to retake their homeland from the Shadow, an evil embodiment of toxic masculinity? It seems like it comes at the themes you’re looking to explore from a different angle: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/medeiros/the-watch-rpg/

  2. Lillian Everette

    February 28, 2017 at 12:50 pm

    This sounds really interesting! Funny enough I started checking out Dungeon World and fell in love with it. The campaign is being shifted to use most of its rulesets but also the Belief, Instincts, and Traits and the Artha system of burning wheel on top of it.
    I’m happy to hear about other folks doing Queer Fantasy projects. It’s exciting.

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