Friday, July 15, 2011

Sex in Role-Playing Games

(Not role-playing in sex. That’s a different essay entirely.)

Fiction is a strange place with regards to sex. Sometimes, as in children’s books, sex is deliberately avoided, often to the point of absurdity. Other times, particularly in fan-fiction and bad sci-fi novels, sex is common, explicit, and gratuitous. But somewhere between these two extremes of total chastity and juvenile fantasy lies the magical land of realistic portrayals of sex. In role-playing games, or RPGs, this “Goldilocks zone” is smaller than one might at first imagine.

This is an odd problem. Heroic fantasy literature, the genre most closely related to the average RPG, is hardly chaste. Nor are video games, which share the interactivity of tabletop role-playing. Indeed, in both cases romance and sex can be handled well or poorly, but they are rarely ignored. Tabletop RPGs have the opposite problem. Sex is rarely mentioned at all, outside of the odd joke, and romance simply isn’t mentioned. The problem is not in the setting, nor in the nature of interactive media. The stigma against sex in tabletop RPGs must instead stem from a reluctance to flirt with the person running the game (or with the other players, as the case may be). If the game master is the same gender as the player, it can be difficult and unappealing to “flirt” with them, even when all parties involved know that it’s just a game. If the GM and the player are of different genders, they may wish to avoid appearing to flirt and sending the wrong message to either party. If either the GM or the player are gay, similar concerns arise, but with the added difficulty of low-level homophobia ensuring that straight same-gendered players will feel even less comfortable “flirting” with their GM. All these reactions are understandable, but if the player and GM can portray mortal enemies without creating feelings of animosity, why can’t they portray lovers without feelings of awkwardness? Surely it is possible to portray sexual relationships in an RPG without making everyone uncomfortable.

Of course, simply adding sex to the game does not fix the problem. Indeed, sometimes the opposite problem arises. Sometimes, particularly in all-male gaming groups, sex is included as a subject of juvenile fantasy (interestingly, immature portrayals of sex by women are more common in fan-fiction, a medium that allows for similar creativity but with much more privacy). The heroes bed every woman with a name, and every barmaid whether she’s given a name or not. Women are generally portrayed as weak or in need of protection, and the few who do show independence are likely to at least sport the infamous chainmail bikini. Those who run these games like to tout their sessions as “realistic” or “Howardian” (after the works of Robert Howard, of Conan the Barbarian fame). But including sex does not make the portrayal remotely realistic, and Robert Howard did not write porn. Games run in this way speak to the emotional immaturity of those involved, and the only real solution is an increase in that maturity. Legitimate GMs hoping to add sex to their games should be careful to avoid falling into this trap. Just because characters can have sex doesn’t mean they should screw everything that moves. Just think of how difficult it is to establish a relationship in real life. Now imagine how much harder it is when extramarital sex is stigmatized, as in most pre-modern societies (and if players want their characters to get married, even more complications arise). Sex often happens in spite of stigma, of course, but people tend not to have sex at the drop of a hat, especially when their families will shun them for it.

The truth is that a realistic portrayal of sex is difficult in a medium where character interaction is often limited outside of combat and problem-solving. Adding sex means adding complex relationships between people, from physical attraction to love to jealousy to friendship and loyalty. These emotions are a challenge to portray as a role-player, especially when the person sitting across from you is three-hundred pounds and has a neckbeard. But these are challenges that we, as role-players, should accept. We gladly play pacifists, cowards, and deaf-mutes in combat focused games, why run from something as normal as sex? Think about it: what’s more unlikely, a blind poet saving the town from orcs, or the same blind poet wooing and eventually having a sexual relationship with one of the townswomen he’s just saved?

Ultimately, there are two major challenges to integrating sex into tabletop gaming. The first is the maturity of the other players and their willingness to handle sex in the game. If they aren’t mature enough, sex should be avoided, so that the game doesn’t devolve into a juvenile fantasy of the sort outlined above. If the players are mature enough, they may still be unwilling. Forcing sex into a game whose players don’t want to deal with it isn’t a very good idea. They won’t be happy, and they won’t play along (actually, this applies to forcing sex onto people in other contexts as well, but I hope you already know that). Unfortunately these challenges can’t simply be overcome. They rely on the thoughts and feelings of other people, and people’s feelings rarely change overnight. Maybe you can convince them, maybe not (and maybe this essay can help convince them).

The second challenge to simply how to add sex to a game. Sure, it’s easy to tell the other players that you think sex should be a part of the game, but how often does it actually come up? Players tend to simply ignore their characters’ potential sexual relationships. And why shouldn’t they? Sex is, fundamentally, a biological or psychological reward, and in an RPG it isn’t a very good one. Other kinds of rewards work well enough. A sense of triumph works whether the achievement is real or imagined. Greed is a good motivator because money is abstract anyway: anything you want to possess has value, whether it really exists or not. But sex is based on emotional connection (which isn’t truly there in games) and physical stimulation (which is even less present). So how does one make sex realistically appealing in games? The answer is obvious, but a bit distasteful. You add stats to it. Now, I’m not saying that characters need a “penis length” stat, or that the details need to be played out. I am saying that sex (which, I stress, should probably take place “off-screen”) needs to have intrinsic bonuses attached to it. If getting laid makes you a better fighter, as odd as that sounds, players will flock to any available member of the opposite sex that they can find. Adding realistic risks (STDs, pregnancy, etc) will help to temper the rush and create more realistic courting behavior. Add additional modifiers for well-portrayed emotional connections, and you’re in. Realistic relationships should, with any luck, ensue. The trick is to work these bonuses into the game in ways that seem at least credible. I suggest using morale as the mechanism of choice.

But why bother? You’re probably having plenty of fun already, why complicate things? Well, there’s really only one reason: realism. Not biological realism, or even cultural realism, although those things will certainly benefit from adding sex to the mix. No, the only convincing reason to add sex to a tabletop RPG is for the sake of realistic character interactions. Maybe you’re fine just hacking and slashing your way through a horde of rampaging orcs, but if you want to run a game based on character interactions, sex has to play a role. It’s part of who we are, written into our DNA as surely as our brain and lungs and heart. It motivates a huge amount of what we do in life, and it really does change the ways we view the people around us. Granted, sex is hardly our only motivator in social interactions, but it is among the strongest when it rears its head. Adding sex to a tabletop game can be hard, but it’s a mistake to ignore sex just because it’s difficult.

Basically, sex is difficult to portray realistically. In RPGs, it’s usually either ignored or mutilated beyond any resemblance to real life. Realistic portrayal is possible, however, if players are mature and willing to play along, and if the mechanics reward characters for having sex (odd as that sounds). In fact, a realistic portrayal of sex is not only possible but essentially necessary in any character-driven game. So go out there and have that uncomfortable talk with your gaming group.


  1. I'm ignoring the entire FATAL non-reference...

    Question: if getting laid makes you a better fight by Y for time period X, but there is a Z% chance sex with most people will result in sickness (I am ignoring pregnancy for the moment, because, let's face it, most characters are male), what is the optimal sexual strategy?

    Tell me you don't know people who will look at the rules and attempt to answer the above question.

    This is an interesting essay about mechanics. I'll be honest, though, when I saw the link I was hoping for an essay about running and playing. Specifically running, because I know I can make changes there, and need to.


    p.s. - you should have a tag for tabletop, as you've talked about CRPGs here before.

  2. FATAL is best ignored, yes.

    I'm betting the optimal strategy is to get laid before each battle, or at least every big one. This is a bit strange, I admit (although it does have some basis in real life, albeit for different reasons). And of course people will ask how to get the most advantage. People always ask that question. But it's remarkably easy to shoot down power gamers in this particular case (especially when their charisma is so very low), or simply to fudge the dice and slap them with all sorts of diseases if they act untoward. If anything, I suspect committed monogamous relationships would be the most effective "stat-boosters" for the risk involved. And committed relationships are hard to powergame. So ultimately I think this would be helpful?

    I tried to address a bit of everything here, but I never went into much depth on anything. The fact is that I'm sort of pulling a lot of this out of my ass. I'm a pretty good ass-puller, but I'm not good enough to give in-depth advice with only minimal personal experience. I'll get back to you if I get the experience necessary.

    (Alternative answer: as a DM and as a house-ruler I do everything I can to make the rules work for me. When the mechanics of the game support the kind of game you want to run, everything else becomes remarkably easy. I suspect this would hold just as true for sex as for the particulars of combat or social situations.)