I’ve had some experiences recently with explicit sex in roleplaying games that I’d like to explore with you. To start with, I’d like to share a set of short erotic stories written from the fictional events of three roleplaying games I played: respectively, Ben Lehman’s Hot Guys Making Out, Paul Czege’s Bacchanal, and D. Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World.
Because these stories are so intensely personal, and out of deference to loved ones, I’m presenting these stories in a password-protected PDF. If you’re a friend or blog regular, email me for the password at Storybythethroat AT Gmail DOT com. Adults only, please!
The stories aren’t necessary to understand the post, though. If you don’t read the vignettes, their summaries are:
1) The orphan Gonsalvo and his inscrutable benefactor Honore share a moment of smoldering tension as the lad emerges from his bath.
2) While the Bacchanalia rages in Puteoli, the incestuous twins Appius and Livia make love one last time as a current sweeps them out to sea and they blissfully drown.
3) After the village gardener Burdick discovers her assistant Thuy has been keeping the other gardeners as drugged and brainwashed slaves, she gives the injured Carna a brew to flush the drugs and makes love to him to break Thuy’s hold.
Playing these games was freeing and inspirational. For some reason roleplaying culture has giant walls erected around sexual content. In a hobby where splattering gore is the rule, I’ve seen shyness to outright hostility toward the expression of sexuality in anything but the most caricatured of forms. It’s OK to roll Charisma to have sex with the barmaid, but when it comes down to describing an act of lovemaking or even flirtation, suddenly players are recoiling in horror.
Even in the Indie game scene, where sexual content is welcome, and sometimes even encouraged or mandated by the game, the default mode seems to be to “fade to black” the minute a sex act actually comes “on screen.” To some degree this is healthy, in terms of respecting players when we don’t know where each others’ boundaries lie. But I sometimes feel a certain skittishness inherent in the practice as well.
I’m not interested in exploring the reasons for that aversion, here and now. A future post, maybe! I’m much more interested in exploring my experience with free and liberated sexual content in games, and celebrating the result!
First, let’s look at the practices and techniques that enabled these experiences. The biggest and most obvious is up-front discussion of boundaries and creative intent. Having the courage to say before play (as I did in my Apocalypse World game), “Hey, I’m intending to explore some heavy themes including explicit sexuality; is that cool with everyone?” saves you from awkwardness or crossed lines when sex comes up unexpectedly.
All the games in my examples were grounded in an I Will Not Abandon You foundation.
The second obvious tool is the game rules themselves. Each of the above games have specific structures that encourage and guide sexuality. HGMO is designed for sexual tension, with the stipulation that Honore cannot express feelings, and Gonsalvo cannot take effective action. Certain cards must be played to escalate intimacy emotionally or physically. Bacchanal provides narrative direction in dice results that call for things like “a surge in thrills and excitement” or “an escalation of decadence,” and the game demands that players narrate what feels uncomfortable to share. And Apocalypse World creates a web of community relationships in a harsh and desperate world, then lays out rules for the social consequences of each character type having sex.
So that’s a bit of the how; now for the why. Bluntly, why would I want to play out explicitly sexual situations in a roleplaying game?
Sex in roleplaying games is fun. Everyone who’s ever told a dirty joke understands: innuendo and entendre are great tools for tension relief. In my roleplaying groups, sexual humor has typically been relegated to out-of-character banter, but it can be a great source of lighthearted fun within the roleplaying itself.
Sex in roleplaying games is true to life. Sexuality is a huge part of most people’s lives, and exploring it in a game means we’re able to more honestly and completely address what it is to be human. This adds a vital richness to play.
Sex in roleplaying games is emotionally affecting. Sex is intense, and including it in play means the whole story can intensify if you approach it honestly. It’s a great way to emotionally invest in the fiction you’re creating, and to share a moving experience with friends.
Sex in roleplaying games is liberating. It’s one thing to narrate sex in a furtive, guarded way, unsure of its reception. It’s quite another to describe it frankly and boldly, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. The act of describing explicit sex in a frank and celebratory way, was a personal breakthrough for me. And the friends who extended the trust necessary for that are dear to me indeed.
Sex in roleplaying games is inclusive. I’ve found women who play games to be more ready, eager even, to roleplay sex than many men I’ve played with. Being willing to put thoughtful sexuality on the table can make games more inviting to women, by broadening games’ subject matter in ways that are relevant and enjoyable for them. And by exploring sexuality beyond the heteronormative, we make roleplaying inclusive to Queer gamers as well.
Sex in roleplaying games is meaningful. All of the above is to say: sex is human, and celebrating it celebrates our humanity. As Vincent Baker said in an old blog post, “We roleplay with one another and we roleplay with our hearts.” Exploring sexuality with authenticity is one thing which allows people, through trust and bravery, to create something together that matters.
That sums up my own experience. I’d like to hear yours! I need to stress, now more than ever, that comments follow the SbtT posting guidelines: Tell Your Story, Ask a Question, Interpret Generously. Let’s ground the discussion in shared human experience! Thanks.