Hello, and welcome to Roleplaying the Other. In this column, I’m going to be largely focused on roleplaying, worldbuilding, and interactions at the table. They will be filtered through my own personal lens of queer experiences in the hobby. Firstly, I should define when I say “queer,” I am referring to LGBT+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) experiences. This is a blanket term encompassing asexuality and other distinct identities, as well. If you are not one of these letters of the acronym you may be asking yourself what you’re doing here. I’m glad you asked. I’m going to be sharing insights I’ve gained that can hopefully help anyone’s table run a better game. I am not a spokesperson for all identities and I’ll be reaching out to people within the community for their perspective from time to time.
Let’s talk about tieflings in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons. They’re a popular race in queer RPG circles and I’d like to examine why. To start, I’d like to clarify our favorite infernals are a good roleplay framework for many marginalized experiences and I don’t want to discount that but I’ll be covering the queer angle because that’s what I’m equipped to discuss.
We’re going to focus on a section of the D&D 5E Player’s Handbook on labeled “Mutual Mistrust.” It states that while most people don’t trust tieflings merely out of prejudice, our devilish friends have learned not to trust others due to a lifetime of mistreatment based on their heritage.
The book specifies the infernal nature of their personhood is not a great signifier of their personality. So while we all love to roleplay it out by saying things like, “That tickles my wicked little devil heart,” in the end it all it comes down to individual tieflings. However, being treated as a threat and a problem merely for existing is relatable to many people and makes this race a popular one to roleplay out queer concepts.
Being queer in a fantasy setting
It’s important to contextualize what it means to be queer. The standard setting most official D&D books are using right now is Faerun, the Forgotten Realms setting. It’s worth noting what might be considered queer in real life doesn’t carry the same social weight in Faerun. It isn’t out-of-the-ordinary for people to be genderfluid, for example.
Queerness comes from being or living in a way that deviates from what is considered ‘acceptable’ and having hellish ancestry is closer to what queer people experience than, say, being transgender in the Forgotten Realms. You’re not going to get strange treatment for changing your gender presentation in a world with changelings and magic.
According to the manual, the honor of having shops shut their doors to you and local barons blaming you for crop death goes to having devilish parentage. This makes for a good framework to explore queer concepts in Faerun if you’re looking to include themes of someone having their personhood treated as illegitimate.
I know someone is thinking, “Why would that be fun?” I’m glad you asked, hypothetical audience.
The truth is a lot of themes like this can be really compelling for people to play out when they’re trying to explore or examine what it means to be transgender, gay, etc. Collaborative storytelling and roleplaying games in general can provide a wonderful space to do this when played with people you trust. It’s not a rare event for people to use roleplaying to try out new roles or identities and decide they prefer them.
I can attest from personal experience, playing as that kind of character in my own D&D games has given me new context for real world feelings. I tend to be drawn to playing the Other often, which is why I like playing as a triton and a tiefling quite a bit and for similar reasons. In the same vein, I once made a goblin and had all of this stuff planned for how she would hide in plain sight in the non-goblin city we would be spending most of our time. Come session one of playing her, the Dungeon Master tells me I’m welcomed with open arms and this city is some kind of post-prejudice utopia. Well… Needless to say, while that’s wonderful for the denizens of the setting it really threw a wrench into what I had made the character to explore. It was a simple lack of communication between player and DM. Sometimes people enjoy playing something socially unacceptable in the fiction and that can lead to some genuinely unforgettable character moments.