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Intimate details

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!

Three Vignettes

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.

Peace,

Joel

26 thoughts on “Intimate details”

  1. I find this super-relevant. I just wish that I’d thought more about it long ago, before crappy poorly played sexual drama hurt so many of my games, much less my view of sex in RPGs as a whole. Furthermore, I’m tempted to think that it might be easier for people to be sexually creative (possibly even confident) IRL if they had experience with the dramatic details through roleplaying. Regardless, I don’t want comfortable, shy games.

  2. I understand, Dustin. I come from a roleplaying culture where sex IS a hangup, and no amount of me waving my arms shouting “It SHOULDN’T be a hangup” can make it otherwise.

    I only alluded to it briefly since my post was mostly celebratory, but setting clear boundaries and expectations is key. this isn’t about shoving sex in people’s face that they don’t want or aren’t ready for. I remember an Apocalypse World game awhile back where a player introduced possible underage sexuality, which moved to a possibility of underage sexual VIOLENCE, and made everyone at the table profoundly uncomfortable. That’s on me as the MC for not being clear at the outset what themes Apocalypse World can naturally tend toward.

    If you’d like to talk more about overcoming the baggage of “crappy, poorly played sexual drama,” and techniques for moving past “comfortable, shy games,” by all means, I’m all ears. Where would you like to go with this? Perhaps we should start by talking about what you DO want, and why.

    Peace,
    -Joel

    1. Oddly, for some reason there’s no Reply link under your lower comment. Hurm.

      Mostly I game with a group of friends that are pretty new to gaming together, but we had an interesting discussion concerning sex and general intimacy in RPGs, and how we’d all like emotions and intimacy to feature more highly in our new AW game, and the MC decided to rework all the fronts off the back of the conversation and your “Vulnerable Places” post on this blog. I’m excited about all of this, of course!

  3. I have only role-played *close* to sex in two games. One i will not speak of. I have never role-played *through* a sex scene. Fade to black has been the norm. There was one particular event early on in my experience as a GM when i drew closest to playing through a scene. I know this is funny but i’m not saying it for laughs: it happened because me and the player just didn’t realize what we were doing. We’d only just learned how Role-playing is awesome, and you can be totally awesome and sexy and cool (much more than real life). There was a moment when i described the generic hawt chick that was totally going to dew him…and then we both sorta…realized who we were talking to, we realized there was still a real world… and me and my buddy were flirting it up. It got WAY AWKWARD. I said, ‘okay, i’m not doing that again.’ We both laugh about it now, but…well. It’s a thing.

    Can you describe more why Sex gets this kind of treatment? There are a lot of things that are ‘completely natural’ but don’t get gratuitous detail in gaming. It’s not just comfort zones. Sometimes it’s about respect for the thing in itself. I myself personally don’t role-play graphic violence, pornographic sex, or a lot of immoral things because…well, i’m a prude. I could tell you all the things i believe, religiously, philosophically, personally. But i doubt that’ll justify the fade to black of sex in games. If that’s a thing you want to explore, me being a prude won’t stop it.

    So why sex? What about masturbation? What about prostitution? Or BDSM? I’ve talked with a few people that all advocate for these things, and other things. But they don’t get the same response as people getting laid. Typically, in our culture, it seems, Sex=Winner. But someone who spends their life masturbating to Furry porn because…well, because Furries *aren’t’ real*…that’s classified as Loser.

  4. Wow, that’s an interesting angle for approaching this issue. It’s true that a lot of specific kinds of sexual behavior have more stigma attached than others. There’s that Geek Hierarchy chart where Science Fiction writers look down on fanfic writers, roleplayers look down on LARPers…and everyone looks down on the Furries. And of course sex workers of all kinds encounter all kinds of shaming and persecution from casual insults to sexual victimization that’s excused because they “deserved it” or “know the risks.”

    And our culture definitely tends to cast sex in a role of “victory.” I “scored!” I “got some.” She “gave it up to me.” I mean, sure, sexual intercourse is a wonderful thing and should be celebrated, but characterizing it in terms of conquest puts it uncomfortably close to victimization and violence.

    Which, in the end, is what’s so troubling about all those “roll to seduce the barmaid” incidents many of us played through in high school (My group had a couple, for sure). It’s objectifying and possessive, playing out a fantasy of women as playthings. Immaturity accounts for a lot of that, but some people never grow out of it. I remember an incident in college D&D where my PC and another, played by a man, found a third PC, a Dryad, played by a woman, in a state of undress. The DM calmly told us, “roll a Will save to resist the urge to rape her.” We were both aghast, but he clearly thought it was obvious (she’s a Dryad with supernatural allure) and no big deal.

    That is NOT the kind of sex in roleplaying games I’m celebrating. And it’s stories like that, I think, that help give sex in roleplaying games an ugly stigma.

    By contrast, I play roleplaying games to address real human issues in an honest and emotionally engaging way. Doing that requires a bedrock of trust that wasn’t present in the Dryad Near-Rape Incident. And being authentic in my roleplaying sometimes means playing sexual situations. And when it does, it sometimes means playing them through rather than fading to black. And when you play it through, it sometimes means some degree of explicit detail.

    I feel that “Fade to Black” is a useful tool when it’s used as a conscious aesthetic choice rather than a reaction of shame or fear. And hell, even then it can be a valuable coping mechanism for someone who’s not comfortable with certain content. I’m not here to harsh on anyone for not being as edgy and daring as me. I’m just celebrating a personal aesthetic choice that I’M making. And anyway, it’s all contextual. I don’t narrate pornographic sex every time characters fuck in a game. In my Apocalypse World example above, I only said one sexually explicit sentence, to make it clear that Burdick was initiating sex. But I didn’t Fade to Black. I played out the scene, because what Burdick said while riding Carna, and how he responded, was vitally important for us all at the table to hear. It may even be the emotional core of Burdick’s story so far.

    It all depends on the focus of the scene and the emotional truth of those characters in those circumstances. It’s the Apocalypse World Principle “Always say what honesty demands.” If honesty demands some sexual detail, then I want to bring it, to be true to the fiction–but only if it reveals character or advances the plot in starting and thematically relevant ways.

  5. By the way, here’s a couple of links for further exploration:

    First, Joe McDaldno wrote a post for the Apocalypse World forum about varying levels of explicit sex, using an example of a sex scene I present for. it gives a look at how one can describe sexuality in a satisfying way by describing a few delicious details AROUND the sex.

    And second, Judd Karlman wrote the both uproarously funny and absolutely true “Dick Jokes Under Seige,” which addresses both the inclusivity and sheer fun of sex in a great way. Simply put, when we’re inclusive of women at the gaming table, the dirty humor gets BETTER, not worse. I’d venture to say that other kinds of sexual content tend to improve as well.

  6. Wow. So i just read Joe’s post, and i…think i get it? But it’s different from what i thought was being introduced here. To me, it seems, the relevant part has nothing to do with the details of the physical act, but the details of guns firing and people going deaf. It seems there was no description of genitals, or what parts of the body screamed with pain, or what they even said to each other during the scene. That same event could have happened with zero sex, replaced entirely by intimidation and threat, and have been just as necessary to explore for sake of the story.

    At what point do you introduce…well, for lack of a better word, smut? I think there’s a place here for that, maybe? And i want to thank you for being open to talking about it. Especially to shoulder-shrugging churchboys like me. To me there’s a difference between framing story in a sexy scene, and playing through a scene just for the carnal exhilaration of imagining it.

    Again, i’m a prude, so if this is just beyond me, let me know. I feel thoroughly allowed to say ‘i don’t get it’ while i’m here, but let me know what i can help to further the exploration. (besides repeatedly saying ‘i don’t get it’)

    Sell me on the beauty, i guess.

    1. Andy,

      There’s a few things. First, about that Apocalypse World scene: in my mind, we faded to black before the intercourse, but not really before the sex. White was establishing their sexual power dynamics throughout that scene. That scene was about the sex that was coming. It was a part of the sex that was coming. White fired off her gun, in a tiny side-room, inches away from Vega’s ear. That was a penetration metaphor. That was White saying, “I don’t care if I’m the girl, here, I’m fucking you, and not the other way around.”

      So, why not narrate the actual deeds done? First, we were playing in a public venue, and didn’t want to be asked to leave. But secondly, and way more importantly, we’d already answered all of the questions. Or, what few questions remained would be better answered with the next narration, about White dressing first and leaving first. The actual mechanics of sex aren’t very sexy. They’re kind of weird and funny and dumb. What’s sexy is what people bring to the table. And we’d already found out what White and Vega were bringing to the table, and how those things interacted. That’s the right place to end any scene.

      ***

      When I played Bacchanal (the same session Joel mentioned), I sometimes found myself narrating very explicit acts – how hard it was for him to swallow that older man, how the sensation became different after they rolled their way into the water, and so on. But sometimes I summarized the acts rather disinterestedly, with a single sentence. The reason for my sometimes briskness was that in those scenes, the sexy was elsewhere. Erotica is about the sensations that people feel, not the sensations that penises and vaginas and fingertips feel.

      ***

      Also, yeah – we live in a society where straight men are conditioned away from a great deal of intimate behaviors with one another. It gets labeled as either weird or gay, or both. And so the idea that it’s cool for two straight dudes to sit around and make up sexy stories about hot sex… well, it’s an idea we’re conditioned to dismiss.

      I think it’s pretty damn important to challenge that conditioning. Be subversive with your own heart and boundaries. (While being respectful of others, natch.) Narrate tender blowjob scenes when you’re telling stories with your friends, around a table. Not to be crass, not to be hilarious, but because it’s a part of the human experience. Your heart wants to share it. Your heart wants to be playful with sexual concepts, and a roleplaying game is a PERFECT venue for such activity.

      ****

      That’s what it’s about, for me. It’s about exploring characters, exploring my own sexuality, breaking down the weird barriers I put up with other people, being real with my heart, and telling the stories that I actually care about.

      1. Erotica is about the sensations that people feel, not the sensations that penises and vaginas and fingertips feel.

        Truth.

        This is why, in that Bacchanal game, Joe’s descriptions were more captivating and artful than my descriptions.

        Which is fine. It was a first step for me, and I’m learning. Partly I’m learning by watching and listening to savvy and sensitive people like Joe. Of the three stories I wrote, the Bacchanal scene is the weakest, i think. The AW scene was much richer and emotionally compelling, partly because I learned from watching others in bacchanal and from Joe’s AW game I linked, and so forth.

        By the way, I noticed one thing missing from Joe’s AW post–body language. At the table, Joe brought out White’s posture and gestures and so forth–partly by description, partly by standing up and miming them–in a way that told us a lot about who she was, the power dynamics involved, and the sheer sensuality of the interplay going on. that’s part of what made it a sex scene and not just a gun-deafening scene.

        I learned a lot from that.

  7. Because i love you and Joel so much, and because i feel good about this discussion, i’m going to be really dumb, and actually open up here.

    I think everything you’ve both said is beautiful. It makes me consider these things, it makes me want to hold them and turn them over, and really wonder about the hearts both of you posses, and what you can teach me.

    A few years ago the last of my close friends lost his virginity. He told me about it in a very awkward conversation over bad food at a diner on the north side of town. I don’t mean that he spoke of the details, just that he admitted to having had sex with his girlfriend. They were both very young, it was frightening.

    It was a big deal for me because that leaves me as the last of anyone i know to be a virgin. I’m still ‘waiting for the right person’ (which is a joke, but that’s another topic). I’m ‘saving myself for marriage.’ So having the last of my friends, one who shared a lot of my opinions about sex and abstinence, change his status without changing his mind left us both pretty jaded.

    It wasn’t long after that night when i had a dream. It was one of the few dreams i’ve ever had in my life that blatantly answered some questions for me, one of the few i remember at all, to be accurate. In the dream i was going to the same college i was attending at the time. I was jumping through all the hoops. In this dream i was required to take a sex education course. But in this fiction the course was not just about explanation. It was a lab course. I remember feeling helpless, the dream beginning several weeks into the semester, everyone had already made eyes at each other. They had their ‘lab partners’ picked out. As is only logical in dreams of this nature, everyone in the class was beautiful.

    The girl that got stuck with me for her partner made ever effort to show that this was a letdown. She would do it, because, you know, it was required. And because, you know, it was sex. Everyone did it anyway. This was just showing us how; like we even needed to know. (roles eyes).

    The dream became very real when we were in this room set up like a yoga class, with the teacher in front, and everyone laying around in sexy college kid work-out clothes. Nobody got naked until the instructor said so. There was some giggling. I remember being sick to my stomach, i mean really feeling this. But i remember the social anxiety. I remember feeling like, if i didn’t do this thing, it was just going to make people feel awkward, it was just going to make people angry.

    I also remember, vividly, what my imagination conjured when in entered into her. i remember her not wanting to look me in the face, always turning her head away. I remember having just pushed myself into her when i finally snapped. I was unhappy, more importantly, i was being untrue to myself.

    I know it sounds dumb. But i stood up, i pulled on my pants, and i said, “I can’t do this. I’m sorry.” I was terrified. I knew i was embarrassing her and acting a fool in this classroom. My ‘lab partner’ became so very upset. Angry. She covered herself and her face became red, and the teacher had to pat her shoulder and say, “It’s okay.” Because what i was doing was immature. It was one of those things weirdos do. This girl was hot! I should have loved that she was stuck with me.

    But it wasn’t what i wanted. I knew it. Even in my dreams, where i should be having crazy awesome sex with cybernetic vampire women. I just knew i wanted to respect it. To adore it. To have high hopes for it. I wanted sex to be magic. I wanted to wait until i was married.

    I’ve spent the years since knowing that about myself. Knowing that i don’t fit in with what most people know to be a totally awesome, beautiful thing. To me sex is sacred, and deserves a sacred place. To me playing with it in games, or having it without regard to consequences or connections is to make simple it’s wonder.

    I’m not saying any of this to persuade you. I’m not saying it for sake of shame. I’m not disrespecting your opinion in any way. I want to be here, for these conversations. I apologize if i came here with an opinion already set. I am thinking about this, i am opening myself up to it.

    All i want to say is that i think i know myself pretty well. And in my life i’ve come to believe that you don’t have to have a human experience to know what you feel about it. And, if i can go out on a limb here, it’s okay to want to keep those things in your heart and in your head, and not to share them. Even farther: it might not be universally true that these things you call beautiful are going to benefit me the same way.

    1. Andy,

      It sounds like, in your experience, being abstinent is about a lot more than just “not having sex.” It sounds like you’re saying that it’s an identity you have to actively uphold, one that comes ripe with its own sexual fears and (para)sexual experiences. It sounds like it changes dynamics between you and people you have intimacy with.

      Like… to put it differently, it sounds like abstinence becomes a sort of sexual identity, and a sort of sexuality. Am I off base here?

      My immediate thought is: bring that to the table, and play it with sincerity. If a group sits down to play a game about erotic fiction, say, “Hey, my character is going to be abstinent, and that’s going to be his sexual journey. Is that cool?” That would take more vulnerability than narrating some hot and steamy threesome.

      I’ll be super honest here. Please, recognize these statements are coming from someone who still has lots of learning and exploring to do. But: I think abstinence (of the “until marriage” sort) is unhealthy. No amount of “talking it through” or rhetoric or argument will be able to engender a different opinion in me. However, I believe that stories told with conviction, whether fictional or true, might.

      The point I’m getting at here, is: you’ve got a set of sexual experiences. They’re powerful and you’re sincere about them. It’s a set of experiences that scares me, that would really push my comfort levels to interesting places. It’s a set of experiences that the people around you don’t have. I’d be super curious to see what happened if you brought them to the table. I’d be super curious to see what abstinent erotica looked like, or what “only after marriage” erotica looked like.

      ***

      I’ve got this other thought, and I’m going to put it out there. Learning about one’s own sexuality is a long and awkward process. It involves bad experiences, for most people, somewhere along the way. It involves dealing with embarrassing truths, for most people, somewhere along the way.

      Story games provide a way to explore some pieces of your own sexuality, at a remove, or at least without having to actually commit to the described acts. Maybe all this time you thought having sex in a field would be boss, but when you go to narrate it at the table, you suddenly realize how disinterested you actually are in it. Maybe someone else narrates midget bondage, something you thought was gross, and your internal response is, “Woah, that’s super hot. They are sooooooooo little.” And you get that experience without having to go transgress your sexual boundaries, or satisfy needs that you want to abstain from satisfying.

      If you’re abstaining from sex, there are quite obviously a bunch of ways that you can’t explore your sexuality. For the time being. It’s my opinion that using other means to explore yourself is super valuable and healthy – flirting with people, having conversations about sex, asking questions about sex, bringing it to story games. I don’t know where your boundaries and lines are, but I definitely appreciate that you’re engaging here, in this conversation.

      1. Joe, did you know that when you speak i brace myself? Your wisdom often claps like thunder. Sometimes i become afraid that what i believe will irritate you, or that what you will say will hurt me with some kind of finality. When i get afraid like that i just stop for a moment and repeat to myself that you care first, and it’s always woven into your words. Posts like this make it easier for me to believe that. Thank you.

  8. Whoa, Andy. Thank you. Your vulnerability has a sacred place here, and I’m honored you shared. I’ve got your back, man.

    I was typing a comment myself when yours came down the pike. I’m going to go ahead and post it. Just know that it’s not a response or rebuttal to anything you’ve said. Your comment humbles me, and reminds me that we can never presume to know someone else’s mind or experience. So please accept this as nothing but my own story, honestly told:

    I think it’s pretty damn important to challenge that conditioning. Be subversive with your own heart and boundaries. (While being respectful of others, natch.) Narrate tender blowjob scenes when you’re telling stories with your friends, around a table. Not to be crass, not to be hilarious, but because it’s a part of the human experience. Your heart wants to share it. Your heart wants to be playful with sexual concepts, and a roleplaying game is a PERFECT venue for such activity.

    Yes, this.

    Thank you, Joe. Beautifully put. Your heart wants to share it. You’ve hit something I’ve fumbled to express, both here and on Google +. Honestly, it’s hard for me to try and justify (to harsh skeptics, like some in the G+ thread, OR to sincere questioners, like you Andy) why I like it and am drawn to it. In a very, very real way, the answer is “I want to because I want to.” “It’s beautiful because it’s beautiful.”

    Much like mechanical description of sex, attempting to justify beauty has a way of bruising the thing defended. “Look! look! Here’s this Butterfly! Isn’t it lovely? Here, let me spread its wings out so you can see how beauti–oh, I’ve crushed it.”

    Not that I fault your asking. I trust your honest heart, and I’m grateful for your engagement. And I don’t think I need to sell you or convince you. Hopefully if I shine a light on something beautiful just as it flutters out of view, you’ll catch that beauty and work out for yourself whether it’s something you want to pursue.

    Peace,
    -Joel

  9. In my game Ravenflight, sex happens as a normal matter of course… There is sex magic, there are courtesans, but the protagonist has 13 spouses of various genders and other lovers in addition outside that compact. It’s woven into the story. I agree with you and have frequently been puzzled by folks who shy away from sex.
    I love the Idea of “I will not abandon you “!
    Thank you for the post and i will be reading your others soon.

  10. I guess what’s important for me is that we can both accept each other as…seers of what is beautiful? That, even though games like Bacchanal might make me feel estranged and ask me to do express interest in what i know is counter to my own beliefs, i am still going to …i hate using this phrase, but…”like that you like it?”

    That sounds cheap to me. What i mean is that i want to be able to say, “That’s awesome, that’s beautiful. It makes me feel bad. But i don’t want it making me feel bad to make you withdraw or reduce your opinion of me. I don’t like what you like, but i still really like you.”

  11. You know it, Andy. I’m not about to try to harsh on your beauty or the ways you seek it (or don’t seek it). A lot of the response I’ve gotten (elsewhere) to this post has been like, “Ugh, I don’t want that. Why on hearth would you want that? Really? Are you SURE you want this terrible, terrible thing?”

    I’m so glad that’s not happening here. Thank you. This is I Will Not Abandon You in action.

    As a Baptist preacher’s boy, I can totally feel you on your sexual journey and experiences with abstinence. I grew up with a lot of the same messages. I’ve never had sexual intercourse with anyone I wasn’t married to. I could talk about my own experiences maybe I will when I have more time), but the important thing right now is that we both come from a similar background and have processed our experiences in subtly different ways…and that’s OK. We don’t have to preach each other into agreement. We can love the beautiful that we each see, even if we’re seeing it in different places and different ways.

    1. Joel that’s the best thing ever. These conversations often lead me to feeling the same way over and over again. Frustrated because my ‘lack of experience’ shows that i ‘obviously don’t know what i’m talking about or who i really am.’ Shut down because it’s painfully obvious that my choices in life are not considered equal.

      Sex is loaded with would be opinions. It’s bent in half so that the world can only see it through concepts of sin and control. I don’t want to tell you what to think about sex, because i know you’ll respect my vision of beauty. I will listen to you tell me what you think about sex, because i want to know what you believe. Nobody wins if we write off each others experience as invalid or lesser. We both win if we can say, “i don’t comprehend it, but i trust you.”

  12. I’m really interested in this conversation. I have pretty extensive experience with sexual situations in roleplay… though mostly online. I also have some experience with roleplaying in sexual situations, but that’s completely off topic. I think sex is a very important part of storytelling and it should be openly discussed.

    The amount of sex in a story can powerfully effect the mood and theme of the story and provide an enhancement to other themes, such as passion, love, betrayal, decadence, purity, jealousy, and , well, the human condition and stuff. On top of that a characters sexuality and sexual experiences are an important defining aspect of who they are. It’s actually quite common that a single sexual experience has a powerful effect the course of the rest of a person’s life. People have been murdered for sleeping with married women and committed great crimes in the pursuit of sex, sex has cemented the joining of nations and in some cases has been punishable by exile, imprisonment, and death. On the other end, sex is an important factor in love and romance, often being one of the deciding factors people use to find someone to spend the rest of their lives with. And the effect of pregnancy on a person’s life is equally profound. Our sexual relationships are often the most intense and meaningful relationships in our lives.

    So yeah, sex is important to storytelling and characters, and needs to be discussed. So the question is, how graphic does sex need to be? I think the answer is only as graphic as the story demands. I’ll give some examples from personal experience, but it’s like this. Say you have two characters having sex, and the result of that sexual meeting could result in a lasting partnership, marriage, infidelity and revenge, a family, mending of deep wounds and greater personal confidence, any number of things. A lot of possiblities are lost if you are stuck on always fading to black. If one character calls out the other’s best friend’s name during sex, that’s an important detail. If the sex is so rough it leaves obvious bruises that everyone will notice the next day, that’s important too. If something important could happen during sex, you have to go into that, and a lot of the time that could mean some sort of mid-sex dialogue too.

    Just like Joe’s scene, the important details are the ones that show the way the characters feel about the encounter and details that show the dynamic of their relationship. Joe’s scene is also an example of how to illustrate these elements without going into anything explicit.

    Now here’s some examples of scenes I’ve been involved in that would have been impossible if we had faded to black. In one game I had a situation where my character was in the middle of having sex in a hot-tub, and his wife walks in while a girl is going down on him. My character is mid orgasm and the girl’s head is underwater, and the wife is confused at first. Then the girl pops up,oblivious to the wife’s presence for a moment, and she says something sexually explicit that makes it even clearer to the wife what she just saw. Confusion quickly changes to horror, my character awkwardly tries to smooth things over by inviting the wife to join them, and the wife politely declines, then quickly leaves. Those specific images are traumatically burned into her memory forever and build upon other events to lead to their eventual divorce. And as a result of that divorce their only child commits suicide. I’m trying to think of a way that being more vague about that scene could lead to the same intensity of emotional impact, but I don’t think it’s possible.

    In another example, I played in a werewolf game where there was a forbidden homosexual relationship between two werewolves. Every time they had sex there was a growing tension building from what started as playful dominance and submission. They were also members of a pack that was sent on all sorts of missions and the tension manifested in leadership conflicts, usually my character undermining the other character’s authority. The tensions in their personal and professional lives fed into one another and spiraled out of control. Eventually this lead to my character developing an unhealthy fetish for dominance, which led to him getting into an intense sado-masochistic relationship later and then getting killed by an angry feminist when the details went public.

    So yeah, both of these melodramas went into some very dramatic and touchy sexual areas and were really dependent on them. The tragic arch in each is driven by character psychology and weakness manifesting as socially deviant sex acts. The thing is, both of these took place online, and I’m not sure I’d be comfortable playing something so heavy in person. It’s a lot harder to maintain detachment online, roleplaying these subjects in person could be a lot more uncomfortable and even painful.

    I think the main things I’m usually afraid of when it comes to roleplaying sex in person are two ends of a spectrum; at one end I’m afraid that I’ll cross a line and offend someone, or worse, that the offended will think my in character actions are a reflection of my real desires. At the other end, I’m afraid of role-played flirtation being taken seriously and becoming actual flirtation without me intending it to be. Either way my fear is that someone will take it seriously, whether they like it or hate it. The only way I’m comfortable being explicit is when I can be sure that everything will remain at a safe fictional distance. If I don’t have that separation, another problem I have is shaking the feeling that I’m propositioning the other player, and therefore being too damn shy to intiate anything sexual in the game. It’s also easier once you’ve defined where the line should be drawn, until that happens I find myself carefully pushing at it while I judge other player’s reactions.

    I have had some recent experience with sex in games, especially concerning Jackson’s game Slammin’, which I highly recommend as an exploration of sex in games, since the rules require the players to describe sexual situations between their character and another player’s. In fact the game revolves around the douchebag characters’ random nightly hook ups. Also with my game Go Puck Yourself, which always seems to involve a lot of scandalous romantic trysts. I played Slammin’ with my brother Sean, which was interesting because there was always a good possibility I would have to describe having sex with his character, (which ended up happening at some point). When my other younger brother and my mom visited, they wanted to play the game I wrote, and in that session there was a scene where I was playing a doctor examining Sean’s character’s anus, describing the beauty of her backside and falling in love with her as a result, while his girlfriend played my jealous assistant. My mom also played a gardener who had a scene of Dendrophilia, where she tore off her clothes and had sex with a plant in front of everyone. If you really want to get rid of your sex roleplaying hangups, try playing one of these games with your family.

  13. Hello, Orion, and welcome.

    As you say (and I’ve been saying), the level of detail in roleplaying sex depends on the needs of the story. Sometimes knowing what KIND of sex it is is important. Sometimes knowing what’s said in the midst of it is. Sometimes there’s some emotional tone, internal monologue, sensory details outside the sex itself, or so on, that we want to see. And sometimes not.

    I was playing Joe McDaldno’s Gun Thief at Go Play NW. When the Gun Thief player chooses the scene option “get the girl,” it’s my job as the player of the Jagged Women to “give him his sex, exactly how he likes it. The book’s examples make it pretty clear that this is expected to be at least a bit graphic. Less “…and they have sex,” and more “so she’s riding him cowgirl style, when…” It’s an important part of the aesthetic texture of the game, which strives for a Sin City or Grindhouse vibe.

    But in play, I never really got to describe the sex. It felt sometimes like I was hesitating and losing the moment, and sometimes like the other players were moving along without giving me the chance. Usually some of both. After the game, I talked about it with my fellow players, and we came to the conclusion that the characters in that particular Gun Thief game were so reprehensible that describing the sex would be just no fun. the Gun Thief wasn’t a Hero or even an Antihero; he was just a tawdry abusive dickhead with terrible, amoral friends. We didn’t have enough emotional identification or investment to actually enjoy seeing how the Thief, his paraplegic buddy, and his buddy’s girlfriend get together for a threesome in a sex swing. We weren’t rooting for them to have sex even a little bit. So in that case “…and they have sex” was exactly enough.

    Your examples are great. The story of the hottub blowjob is a perfect case where being “in the scene” while sex is taking place was vitally important to the drama. it’s awesome when yo can leverage explicit sexuality toward the story that way.

    I imagine you’re right that playing by post helped you to be comfortable in narrating something like that. In person there’s an immediacy and intimacy that can cause you to at least hesitate, if not flinch from sex entirely. It’s a tricky and complex thing to navigate the emotional landscape of acting out intense fictional emotions with real people. I think it’s OK if the fictional emotions bleed into, intensify, and mingle with your real emotions. As Vincent says in the old blog I linked: “We roleplay with one another and we roleplay with our hearts…[and] our hearts answer.

    I think that’s an ASSET of roleplaying (or of ANY authentic human artform). I’d even go so far as to say it’s why I roleplay. But obviously it means having clear intentions and boundaries. It means operating on a bedrock of trust.

    I envy you your roleplaying experience with your family! My family would definitely not be down for explicit sex in a roleplaying game, most of them not at all, and the rest of them, probably not with each other! I’m glad you were comfortable and trusting enough to explore that together.

    Peace,
    -Joel

  14. I was actually really surprised how smoothly playing those games with my family went, even when it came to awkwardly explicit sexual moments. I’m describing poking some kind of examination scope at my brother’s characters butt and they are laughing when he roleplays flirtatiously enjoying it. I was not going to play my game with them, but then we got the chance to play Fiasco together with Ross. My mom’s character betrayed my character and slit his throat at the beginning of the second act, and my littlest brother sacrificed his character for the greater good. After that I thought, “Okay, they can handle this.”

    Still, it was a little odd seeing my mom flirtatiously scoot closer to my youngest brother as her character tried to seduce his, and the same went for my character awkwardly, shyly hitting on hers. But the forced awkward situations we were put in as players were just as humorous as the in game romance.

    Actually, the scenes weren’t explicit, not in the pornographic sense at least. They were specific, pointing out specific details of the sex that were important. I think that distinction is very key. Roleplaying descriptions are always best when they are specific, but they never have to be pornographic.

  15. This is a wonderful discussion. I am sorry I arrived at it late!

    I have thoughts, but they are currently tangled up. So, brain dump:

    This reminds me a lot of a big discussion we had on the podcast- not about sex, but about romance: how the minute details of a moving, true, loving relationship often end up skipped over, fading to black, or just implied, versus being role played through. How those details and intimacy can sometimes be even harder to hear and to share than graphically sexual scenes. The end result of that conversation left us all wanting to play-out the history of incredibly romantic people in our next campaign =)

    I think of that when I think of the Hot Guys Making Out session- in the game Joel lovingly described in one of the vignettes, I played Honore. And our game, despite all our best intentions to make suppppperrr sexy times, was instead, due to cards drawn, incredibly tender and romantic- but the romance was hard to keep away from “cheesy, tawdry romance-novel land”, it was hard to keep it sincere- just as sometimes, narrating graphic sex can delve into the cheap or the vague.

    Personally, I’m always more interested in narrating sexual scenes that aren’t just about fingertips and body parts, but more, about the bizarre, adorable, sweet, sexy moments that happen before, during, and after. Jokes made about the sounds your bodies make, how someone’s face looks right before you lean in to kiss them, spontaneous giggle-fests, etc. I see more people being comfortable with role-playing through sexual scenes when they were more true to life, and less “OMG is this going to be pornapalooza?!”

    I might have more thoughts to add later, about being a person with ladyparts in regards to role playing explicit sex (and the only person with ladyparts who participated in 2 of the vignettes Joel wrote) after I’ve let this sit with me for a bit.

    Thanks for writing this Joel!!

  16. Tori, welcome!

    “This reminds me a lot of a big discussion we had on the podcast- not about sex, but about romance: how the minute details of a moving, true, loving relationship often end up skipped over, fading to black, or just implied, versus being role played through. How those details and intimacy can sometimes be even harder to hear and to share than graphically sexual scenes.”

    Yes, I think that’s a great point. In a lot of ways, sex is sex–physical, messy, a little bit silly–but emotions! Man, emotions. So while it’s easy to be all “LOL penises or “LOL vaginas”, the exquisite vulnerability of playing a relationship with authenticity can be overwhelming, and we take refuge in humor. Not the touching, intimate humor yo mention of real human beings in love and lust, but the over the top humor of the “pornapalooza.”

    And like you say, it can be a real challenge to keep things authentically human, and avoid cliche. I guess when you lapse into cliche for, say, an action-packed fight sequence, you’re not putting as much on the line as when you lapse into cliche for passionate sex or romantic love. the HGMO game is a great example. Narrating something like “Gonsalvo trembles under Gonsalvo’s gaze, his heart pounding” is a LOT more nerve-wracking than narrating “Killfist leaps into the air, spinning gracefully as he lands a Triple Axe Kick on his foe.”

    I remember that was my challenge in narrating Bacchanal–not, once I shook my initial jitters, that I would say something shocking or perverted or untoward–the atmosphere was very accepting of just about any content we could come up with. No, my big worry was that my narration would be silly, naive or boring. And I struggled with that as we played; the dice kept telling me to narrate the same sorts of scenes, and they started to get rather samey. And I WAS trying to describe as tender and moving a love story as I could, which proved to be hard! I’m glad I did it, and I don’t feel like I “failed.” Just that I learned a lot for next time.

    I think the first step of any bold, vulnerable creative process is to just let yourself go and get SOMETHING out there, without letting yourself judge it. That was the real value of Ink Brethren, the improvisational group songwriting game my friend Todd has led off and on for years. It showed people that yes we COULD music, together, and make it up as we went along! After you’ve broken that ice, THEN it’s time to perfect technique, still not in a judging spirit, just in a healthy self-reflection and improvement cycle, with supportive feedback from friends.

    You’re hitting on some great guidelines for folks to find their way to sexual and romantic storygaming that will feel right and fitting and emotionally invested for them. Thanks, Tori!

    I’ll look forward to hearing your further thoughts as a person with ladyparts, whenever they’ve ready!

    Peace,
    -Joel

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