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Hot Button: Playing in Drag

Posted By Walt Ciechanowski On May 30, 2008 @ 6:03 am In Hot Buttons | 29 Comments

You’ve just walked into the game room and are patiently setting up your notes and props. As the players gather around you, you turn to Bob. His last character, Chance Fortune, was gunned down after a particularly unwise scuffle with some space station guards. You plan on introducing his new character to the rest of the party, who are busily hoisting drinks in the Starbase lounge in honor of their reckless friend. Bob nods and shows you his character sheet.

“Here it is,” he says, and then utters those fateful words. “Her name is…”

As GMs, we play characters of the other gender on a regular basis, yet some of us don’t like the idea of players playing characters of the other gender (I’ve been on both sides of the fence over the years).

What say you? Do you allow players to play characters of the other gender? What factors did you consider when making that decision?

Walt Ciechanowski

About  Walt Ciechanowski

Walt’s been a game master ever since he accidentally picked up the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set in 1982. He became a freelance RPG writer in 2005 and is currently the Victoriana Line Developer for Cubicle 7. Walt lives in Springfield, PA with his wife Helena and their three children, Leianna, Stephen, and Zoe.




29 Comments (Open | Close)

29 Comments To "Hot Button: Playing in Drag"

#1 Comment By Phasedweasel On May 30, 2008 @ 6:13 am

I run a group of 5-6 players in D&D. We’re in our mid-20’s and this is no one’s first game. I have one player who’s been “in drag” (male playing a female character) the entire campaign.

Basically, it’s a non-issue. The character is cool, it is run no differently than any other character, and no one has had an issue with it. There is even in-game sex, as occasionally I introduce situations or NPCs that the players have the option of becoming romantically entangled with. Nothing explicit, no intimacy occurs on-screen, and there’s been no difference in the handling of such situations between the “drag” player and the regulars.

(Off topic – is there anyway we can get threaded comments like LiveJournal? I greatly prefer email notifications of replies to my comments, as I don’t have time to check back often just looking for them).

#2 Comment By ChattyDM On May 30, 2008 @ 6:18 am

Same as Phased here. Only we are mid-30’s and up.

Cross-Gender playing has started popping out when we all had mastered the D&D 3.X Rules set and we started exploring more story-driven characters.

It got to a point where fully half of the gaming group were playing ‘in drag’ for a full campaign as you’d put it.

#3 Comment By davethegame On May 30, 2008 @ 6:44 am

It’s weird, I never play female character as a player by choice (I have had characters sex-changed though) but I DM frequently, and play female characters as part of the cast. I suppose the difference for me is that I don’t have to delve as much into the personality and take on the role as much when I’m DMing.

It’s rare for any of my players to play “in drag”, and for my current campaign, I made it strongly known that I prefer people to play their own sex. Pronoun use and visualization get confusing for me otherwise- “The Gamers 2: Dorkness Rising” plays on this heavily for hilarious results.

#4 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On May 30, 2008 @ 6:46 am

I think this is one of those “it’s the players, not the game” issues. If the players (including the GM) can’t handle it, then don’t do it.

By this I don’t mean to imply that they’re immature or incompetent as players. Some people just have trouble picturing a character that is radically different from the player, just as some people have trouble playing a character that is radically different from themselves.

#5 Comment By darkliquid On May 30, 2008 @ 6:54 am

I have to agree with Kurt. If the players can all be mature about it and the player in question can pull off a convincing character of a different gender to themselves, then I’m all for it.

Personally, I rarely play females in table-top games (unless I’m GMing, in which case it comes with the territory). However, when roleplaying online I tend to play male and female characters an equal amount. This is mostly a personal choice though, since most of my gaming group tends to start being silly when players are ‘in drag’ as it were and things rapidly become either insulting or exasperating. Also, with the slower pace of online play, I can think more about my character and make her more convincing, I find it harder to have my character act convincing female at the table-top since I don’t have the time to think from that point of view and I don’t want to just play a male character with breasts.

#6 Comment By LordVreeg On May 30, 2008 @ 7:03 am

Old setting.
So many things have happenned. And some of my most prolific and oldest players have played ‘in drag’ quite a bit, and I have had some of my female players play male characters as well.

My players have played characters in different gender roles and with game-specific sexual tendencies. Dwarven women in Celtricia are extremely liberated and sexual, as are male orcash. That is how you are supposed to play them in these games.

My players are very mature with this stuff, and always have been. And I guess it stems from the type of game you run.

#7 Comment By JoeTortuga On May 30, 2008 @ 8:18 am

Is this really an issue? I find that hard to believe. Maybe it’s just been a long time since I played with younger gamers. It’s been 25 years since I was 15, but I’m pretty sure we had m2f and f2m players even then.

#8 Comment By Scott Martin On May 30, 2008 @ 8:46 am

While I play in drag often, it’s nothing like 50%… even when I GM, to be honest. Too often I default to male, which robs the world of flavor. When I play a female, I’m often a little more self-conscious and worry about whether I’m portraying a bad stereotype. That comes up much less often when I’m playing a dwarf, though I do avoid Scottish accents. ;)

My wife, particularly when she’s playing with people for the first time, will often default to a male or neuter character. She’s much rather be “one of the boys” than have to negotiate the extra stuff that she encounters being female every day.

#9 Comment By MoonHunter On May 30, 2008 @ 9:31 am

Even back when we were begining, playing the “in drag” character did not make a big difference. When the groups were less mature, they were caricatures. Then again, our “grown ups” were caricatures. As we progressed in playing skill and maturity, our characters progressed from silly things to “real people”. While most players tend to stick to the gender, species, and sexual orrientation they know, they will extend themselves sometimes and make it work. (One guy is a dwarven male, no matter what it says on his character sheet).

I am “in costume” 90% of the time. Most of my players (and GMs) think I play everything but my actual gender and species really well. Thus I play a great female anything. I play wonderful fairy dogs. I play great shapeshifters and robots. My aliens are alien enough to spook some players. My elves have made certain GMs redefine them in their games. Make me be a regular human male, and players wonder where my skill went. In this case, it is all about the “expectations”.

Now sometimes my players get a little strange about “confused gender issues” such as cross dressing (making the Elves of Tallarn http://www.strolen.com/content.php?node=1873 very confusing once they go the truth), homosexuality, and so on. However, that is mostly based on their personal experience, rather than role base.

#10 Comment By rekenner On May 30, 2008 @ 10:34 am

And this is where online roleplaying on IRC can be better than in person. This is pretty much a non-issue. Person nickchanges to their character’s name and then … they are that character. A number of times, in session, I’ve forgotten who’s “behind” the character, which is a good thing. You can much more easily disassociate player from character.

#11 Comment By Joey On May 30, 2008 @ 12:02 pm

I allow my players to play the other gender. There are several reasons. My gaming group is currently one of those groups with no female players (we had one but she dated one of theother players and they broke up) so if I allowed players to only play there real gender we wouldn’t have any female characters and having both genders in a party can make things more interesting.

I personally enjoy playing a female character every now and then. It’s fun. THough it is hard to play something you don’t know anything about.

one other problem that occassionally pops up is when a man is playing a female character (or vice versa) is I will say things he, or him when I should be saying she or her

#12 Comment By David Reese On May 30, 2008 @ 1:26 pm

I like playing across genders. One of my regulars in the D&D campaign I’m running is playing a transgender dwarf, and it’s both led to some great story moments, and provided me with a great opportunity to practice my zhe pronouns without offending anyone non-fictional.

#13 Comment By Snargash Moonclaw On May 30, 2008 @ 1:38 pm

I remember a friend I gamed with many years ago who *only* played transgender – he said it was the only way he could actually play a character that wasn’t simply himself with a bunch of neat abilities. Whenever he played male characters they wound up with his own personality, preferences, etc. regardless of class, race, whatever, so playing transgender forced him to break free of his personal mindset.

N.B., I’m replacing “in drag” here with “transgender” because there are groups (and it’s not just a west coast thing – tho’ I currently live in Portland and see it mentioned in local “looking for another player” adds at times,) in which many, if not all players actually *do* play in drag. Occasionally it is “in character costume” but usually simply a player preference – working out when the character is then “transgender” or not can get more convoluted. Actually transgendered (pre-operative) players may be playing characters who are trans-sexed but *not* transgendered – and find it very helpful, or find they simply can’t play characters of the sex they were born with because they don’t actually comprehend them.

What that all boils down to is to point out that most players, no matter how intensely nerdish, by the time they get out of high school, begin to play a character’s gender role rather than the character’s sex role.

#14 Comment By tallarn On May 30, 2008 @ 2:12 pm

I have one player who may choose to play a m2f character, and it’s no big deal for me as I know he’ll do it well. If it became a problem then I’d ask him about it quietly out of game.

#15 Comment By longcoat000 On May 30, 2008 @ 3:32 pm

There’s two people in my (all male) group(s) who play female characters about half the time, one guy who plays women exclusively, and one guy who’s borderline squicked about playing with guys who are playing women. We’re all pretty mature about it, and “playing in drag” has never affected our play experiences (always fun).

I’ve never played a character of the opposite gender (unless I’m GMing). 99% of the time, I fall into the “play what you know” category, and it’s never really been something I’ve been interested in doing or trying out.

#16 Comment By Dire Emu On May 30, 2008 @ 3:54 pm

In the past when I played a lot, most of my characters were female. I found that it helped me get outside of myself and play the character more than I was able to do so with male characters. Somehow, my male characters always seemed to end up with too much of myself in them.

I originally started playing the female characters because, as an artist, I found they were much more interesting to draw. In addition, nobody else was playing female characters and the adventures seemed rather flat, compared to a lot of the stuff we read, in their absence.

#17 Comment By Swordgleam On May 30, 2008 @ 5:46 pm

I’m a girl, and I play as a guy about a third of the time in real life, and closer to half the time in online games. I don’t really think about the gender of my character and the implications of it – I just think of a character I want to play, class, personality, etc, and gender is just one of those decisions. Aside from occasional pronoun confusion, no one has a problem with my current male man-at-arms.

When I’m a DM, I tend to default to male NPCs even more often than the guy DMs whom I know do. I think part of it may be habit – I grew up reading a lot of fantasy novels with male protagonists, so that’s what I first think of. It’s also the nature of the medieval worlds that most of our games are set in – there are more male characters in positions of power than female ones.

I don’t think anyone I know would have a problem with a guy playing a girl character. Our gaming group includes enough genders and sexualities that no one is really phased by anything like that.

I’d agree that online playing seems to lead to more cross-gender characters. It also makes people more flirty. I’m not sure if it’s the type of people attracted to online games (more of them are girls, for one thing), the fact that online play lends itself to in-depth characters, or just the lack of potentially awkward face-to-face interaction.

#18 Comment By DarthKrzysztof On May 30, 2008 @ 5:49 pm

James Jacobs called such gamers “transvirtuals” in Dungeon #144, but I guess “drag” terminology works too. In that case, I’m a part-time queen. ; )

I’ve been gaming since 1981, and I’ve spent most of those years as a DM, managing no end of female NPCs. So, for me, playing a woman PC never seemed like a big deal… it wasn’t until I reached the Internet that I learned it’s a hot button topic!

I’m the kind of player who creates characters to fill roles unclaimed by the rest of the group, and if no one else is playing a female, that’s something I think should be represented. I mean, sure, a male PC -could- sneak into the harem, or flirt with the baron, -but-…

I have two women playing in my current campaign, and they’re both playing male PCs (though one also has a second PC who’s female), so it does cut both ways. I agree with rekenner, chat-based gaming makes life in drag much easier, for the GM as well as the players. At one point, the two women were playing their two men, having a conversation about women. It wasn’t until one of them pointed it out that the situation’s peculiarity dawned on me.

And dire emu reminds me of a story I heard about Lara Croft: the developers decided, “If you’re going to be looking at someone’s behind throughout the whole game, it might as well be an attractive one.”

#19 Comment By Knight of Roses On May 31, 2008 @ 8:34 am

Interestingly when I read the name “Chance Fortune”, it made me think of a female character.

But, that aside, I play the character that ‘clicks’ with me. Sometimes male, sometimes female, sometimes liminal. And, when I GM, I have no problem with the players getting to play the character they want. I see no more issue with playing a different gender than playing a different race or in a different time or in a radically different culture . . .

#20 Comment By Fnor On May 31, 2008 @ 10:09 am

I always allow cross-gender characters. In fact, I often encourage players to play cross-gender characters, because I think it really makes them think about their character much more when they don’t have that “comfort” zone of personal experience to use as backup. To my mind, this gives me better-thought out characters and actions to work my story with.

#21 Comment By Djyn On May 31, 2008 @ 11:18 am

I have a few guys playing girls in my star wars saga game. I have this great tendancy to think of them as guys only because they dont role play very well. Its a great idea if your players can role play well enough to make you believe they are playing the opposite sex. But when all i can get from them is a swinging lightsaber or a spray of blaster bolts it dont seem to work.

#22 Comment By Martin Ralya On May 31, 2008 @ 1:18 pm

I’ve never worried what gender PCs my players were playing, and I don’t see any reason too worry. Lots of folks switch it up in games, and if that works for them, cool.

#23 Comment By V. Hobbs On May 31, 2008 @ 4:30 pm

Adding another one to the pile. As long as everyone in the group is okay with it, and the players make some effort to roleplay their characters, where’s the harm? The group I run for has been particularly good about it – two of the women in the group are playing male characters, and they’re very entertaining.

I haven’t played a cross-gender PC yet myself, but I’ve played with someone who is – her (frat boy) character hits on my (tiny Chinese alchemist) character all the time, and it is funny, and their dynamic has led to some interesting roleplaying moments. (Mostly it involved jealousy over an NPC. Long story.) All of the players in this particular group are female, so that’s a subplot we would’ve missed if she hadn’t been playing a male character. So my experience with it has been positive.
I do play a lot of male characters as NPCs, of course, but so far they only rarely interact with the PCs in a way where their gender actually makes a difference. The few times that anything more interesting than getting jobs and selling people something has come up, we’ve all handled it well. Again, under those circumstances, where’s the harm?

#24 Comment By Dragonstar On June 1, 2008 @ 8:55 am

I see no harm in it as long as it’s handled with maturity. Like others have said, I go both directions when I DM, but as a player I have yet to have a good character concept that I see as being enhanced by switching gender. On top of that, I ran my players through City of the Spider queen a while back, so I probably just got tired of playing angry priestesses. ;-) I’m messing around with 3 character concepts in case my current drow factotum dies, and one of those is a female tiefling rogue/wizard/magelord. Whether she gets used or not depends explicitly on what the party needs at the time.

Aside from filling in for a friend’s game one time, my playing experience on both sides of the screen has (sadly) not involved any female players, and so with only three exceptions I can think of, the PCs have also all been male. One of those players played his two very well, but he roleplays very well period. The other one decided to use Savage Species to play a succubus, and really it didn’t go well. The only reason he played her was to be able to act like a stereotypical succubus. It didn’t add to the whole party experience and was much more of an annoyance. And in fact, the only reason she stayed around as long as she did was because my cleric wasn’t of high enough level to dismiss her. She got killed and sent back to the abyss before I could take care of it, so that problem fixed itself.

#25 Comment By Omnus On June 1, 2008 @ 9:48 am

Cross-gender gaming isn’t a “big deal” unless it gets distracting. I once had a guy (he was a bit too immature, I found out) in my group who wanted to play a female paladin. Not a big deal, usually, so I let it go without comment. He then goes on to play fairly well for a few nights, and then caps off one night with a blood-soaked rampage that endangered innocents on a seeming whim. When I asked him why he’d violate his alignment so blatantly, he said, “Eh, it’s her time of the month!” as if that was all the explanation he needed. Needless to say, he became a straight fighter promptly. To cap it off, he was slapped with a girdle of femininity/masculinity. Fortunately he left the group soon after, as he pressed the issue beyond my tolerance.

I have had precious few noteworthy performances in my groups when the players go cross-gender with their characters. The distraction seems to mar their ability to role-play well. I’m not saying it’s a universal constant, it’s just something I grit my teeth over when my odd player or two decide they want to m2f or f2m. I myself have only ever played one female character, and really, the adventuring lifestyle killed a lot of the reward of the female experience. Whoring? Not as much fun if you can get pregnant. Getting taken prisoner brings up whole new anxieties (the kind every character in FATAL faces, but not what you’d want in D&D). I just didn’t have all that much fun with the novelty, and I haven’t done it since.

#26 Comment By Snargash Moonclaw On June 1, 2008 @ 6:07 pm

“. . .caps off one night with a blood-soaked rampage that endangered innocents on a seeming whim. When I asked him why he’d violate his alignment so blatantly, he said, “Eh, it’s her time of the month!””

In interesting parallel to this, I played a (different incarnation of Snargash Moonclaw as a) half-orc monk. Moonclaw in this case was the nickname the other novices in the monastery had given her. She actually had a serious reputation for her PMS rage and concomitant behavior there. However, this was actually a conscious “flaw” (simply as flavor – not something to balance some other added beneficial trait/advantage,) and one of the things she struggled with in her “quest” for enlightenment. Here I was adding hormonal factors to someone with preexisting major anger issues belonging to a race well known for such. Hence I tracked her cycles and played her accordingly – usually through acute withdrawal for the duration of the cyclic phase, but with an eye on potential triggers of her explosive rage. She kept the nickname, viewing it as “fair warning” to others of something she rarely spoke of. Rather than an excuse for unacceptable behavior, her menstrual cycle instead created the potential for producing consequences which she would have to take responsibility for. As a kind of surprising real world example/parallel re: monks dealing with anger, both H.H., the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh, major leading figures in the “world peace movement,” state rather emphatically that anger is by far their greatest obstacle, which they continue to have great difficulty dealing with. This is a concept she would readily grasp and relate to.

#27 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On June 2, 2008 @ 8:43 am

Snargash,
Your comment above brings up another interesting hot button topic: dealing with normally taboo issues (if a mild one). Some groups are more than happy to delve deeply into discussion or roleplay of things that people don’t usually openly discuss in polite conversation even going so far as to roleplay things like torture or rape. Others are unwilling to deal with anything even questionable and one of the quickest ways to destroy a group is a player that doesn’t mind not realizing they’re playing with other players that do. Maybe that one will get tackled in a future hot button post.

#28 Comment By Snargash Moonclaw On June 2, 2008 @ 6:53 pm

This has to do with establishing clearly the comfort and maturity level of the players and game content. Games I run, I put up front that it “may contain mature content.” That’s not a major element in the whole mix and might not even be noticed the vast majority of the time, but I strive for a “realistic” setting in terms of the spectrum of human(oid) thought/feeling/behavior. Anything along those lines which exists in this world can be assumed to exist in the game world as well. e.g., If someone’s uncomfortable that a bar called “The Dungeon” exists downtown, they”ll probably be uncomfortable about the tavern of the same name in one of my cities – for the same reason. Of course they’ll probably be even more uncomfortable simply meeting the rest of the gaming group – no doubt at least one of whom would be quite comfortable tossing a few in The Dungeon. On the other hand, some characters will likewise be uncomfortable around the tavern’s patrons. The game could just as readily confront characters with the question of what to do when some local bullies drag someone into an alley late one night because he “wears his leather armor too tight.”

In a different manner of handling such things, the character I described was in an on-line game where the other players were unknown quantities. Her anger problems however were initially only known to the DM, and her behavior patterns in dealing with them wouldn’t be clear to others very quickly, if ever. Some might eventually notice over time that her temper was much shorter, but really only if provoked – she mostly withdrew and spent a lot more time meditating, which wouldn’t seem unusual for a monk. The DM however would know that at certain times she (a skilled grappler) was more likely to maim or kill than subdue – even if the party wanted to take prisoners – a single wound would blow any opponent’s chance of surviving the encounter without winning the fight. This was essentially a personal issue of the character which only warranted inclusion in the character’s story in contrast to her spiritual development – making it something primarily for her to deal with, not the other characters.

As a separate hot button issue this could be very good – and can bring up some deeper issues and problems. In a group that is perfectly comfortable with inclusion of a full spectrum of “gritty reality” in the game someone could encounter an unexpected problem with some facet, say abuse in some form, triggering personal issues they hadn’t recognized when it appears as a story element. The gay bashing vignette I mentioned in the first paragraph could bring up long forgotten memory of something that occurred to a classmate in high school – trauma can both manifest and be reflected in surprising ways. Even in an heroic “High fantasy” game which doesn’t normally include “mature” themes, the aftermath of an orc raid on a village, barely described only as “smoking huts and dead bodies” could trigger some major responses from a veteran, or even the adult child of a veteran who had never really come to grips with what they knew about their father’s experiences in Vietnam. Generally low probability scenarios certainly, but it’s not uncommon for people deeply immersing in character to run into difficulty on a smaller scale with less traumatic in-game events.

#29 Comment By Creature On September 2, 2009 @ 1:21 pm

Personally I don’t allow it as a general. This is due to problems I’ve had with immature players doing it in the past. A player flayed a lesbian elf swashbuckler, which is fine, but he was very immature and because of it my entire campaign took on an unwanted commedy. I only allow it if I know the person is mature enough to handle it.


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