I was drawn to 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons when a friend told me the Player’s Handbook explicitly mentioned the possibility of creating a trans or nonbinary player characters. He said it encourages players to think outside the box when it comes to gender, and remarks that “you don’t need to be confined to binary notions of sex and gender.”
“You could play a female character who presents herself as a man,” the Player’s Handbook told me, “or a man who feels trapped in a female body.”
“Finally!” I said to myself. “I can play a nonbinary hermit who grew up not understanding gender. Or even better: a badass orc who happens to be trans.”
I got into roleplaying games at the height of my own gender dysphoria, in the midst of coming to terms with my newly adopted identity as a nonbinary person. Playing Dungeons & Dragons (and, eventually, dozens of other roleplaying games) gave me an outlet to be other people, of any gender, without having to worry about the stress I had associated with my own pronouns, presentation, and identity.
Games became an escape for me, and an important outlet for trying things out: I tested out my friends’ reactions to they/them pronouns by having a nonbinary NPC in the campaign I ran. I created characters based on the future I wanted to see for myself: nonbinary characters who were masculine, nonbinary characters who were feminine, nonbinary characters who were interchangeably both or vehemently neither.
I never needed to defend myself, when it came to a character’s gender, but in the rare case I thought I might — I played, for a while, with some work friends who didn’t know that I was trans — I felt justified and supported by the section of the Player’s Handbook that told me I was allowed to make my character whatever gender I liked.
When I didn’t have the time or mental energy to play the game myself, I turned to actual play streams, like Critical Role or Rooster Teeth’s Heroes & Halfwits, to get my fix of gaming when I was feeling down.
But it was during one of these streamed games, as one DM led his group through the 5e adaptation of Gary Gygax’s classic and notoriously punishing 1978 module, “The Tomb of Horrors”, that I started to question just how welcoming Dungeons & Dragons really is for trans and nonbinary players and player characters.
In their playthrough of “Tomb of Horrors”, one of the characters entered a room and was told, in a pull-aside by the GM, that his Lawful Good male Dragonborn character was now a Chaotic Evil female. This was followed by a rather inappropriate set of descriptions about the character’s brand new breasts and his lack of a penis, and several distasteful jokes as the situation was revealed to the rest of the cast.
I thought I must have misunderstood what was happening. I had to pause the video and confirm with a friend who had also watched. Yes, that’s right: adapted for 5th edition in 2017 in the collection Tales from the Yawning Portal, “Tomb of Horrors” includes a room that, upon entry, “reverses” your character’s physical sex and alignment — whatever “reverse” means, with regards to sex.
I couldn’t help but think: what does “reverse sex” mean for a trans character? What would one of my characters do, in that situation? A trans character forced back into a body that makes them dysphoric? A nonbinary character for whom there isn’t, exactly, a “reverse” or “opposite” sex? Is it defined by what sex the character was assigned at birth? These weren’t the kinds of stories or problems I wanted to explore with my trans characters, or the kind I wanted to encourage my players to tell.
In a terrible wave of understanding, I realized this: Tomb of Horrors was updated for 5e mechanics, but it wasn’t updated for 5e sensibilities.
Or maybe that 5e wasn’t as welcoming to trans characters as it pretended to be.
This isn’t to say, of course, that there isn’t a place for trans and nonbinary characters in 5e. At the end of the day, it’s up to the DM to create a welcoming environment for trans players and characters. Certainly, more and more trans and queer people are making spaces for themselves in gaming with or without the assistance of inclusive rule books. And maybe a different DM would have run the Tomb of Horrors module in a way that wouldn’t have been quite so… well, horrifying.
But for a system that had been sold to me as one that would finally be inclusive not only of women and people of color, as much of D&D had never been, but of trans and nonbinary people like me, it felt like a serious misstep and an inexplicable oversight for Wizards of the Coast to not understand the harm they might do by including a “gender-bender” trope in an official module. The fact that the game I had lauded widely to friends for its inclusivity had failed to take into consideration the experiences of trans players shouldn’t have surprised me, but it hurt nonetheless.
At the end of the day, we can fit trans players and trans characters into any game system, and there are plenty out there that welcome us with open arms. But in a world that’s so often hostile to us, it would be nice for game designers to remember that trans people have to create new spaces for themselves every day, and we’d love for our escapist hobby to not make it harder than it needs to be.
Christine Prevas is a writer, graduate student, perpetual GM, and host of the delightfully queer actual play podcast The Unexplored Places.