You can play a male or female character without gaining any special benefits or hindrances. Think about how your character does or does not conform to the broader culture’s expectations of sex, gender and sexual behaviour. For example, a male drow cleric defies the traditional gender divisions of drow society, which could be a reason for your haracter to leave that societay and come to the surface.
You don’t need to be confined to binary notions of sex and gender. The elf god Corellon Larethian is often seen as androgynous or hermaphroditic, for example, ad some elves in the multiverse are made in Corellon’s image. You could also play a female character who presents herself as a man, a man who feels trapped in a female body, or a bearded female dwarf who hates being mistaken for a male. Likewise your character’s sexual orientation is for you to decide.
This is the passage that, coupled with the use of consultants, seems to have been causing so much trouble when it should have been a source – surely – of happiness and victory for some people. I gave my thoughts about it before, but let’s take a break from the drama and consider the implications and meaning of these options.
At the heart of any role-playing game scenario there’s conflict and at the heart of any good character is also some sort of conflict or ambition. The downside of an accepting setting is that you lose some sources of that conflict. The conflict can be wearing in real life because it can often feel insurmountable but that is part of the power of fantasy and fiction, to resolve the irresolvable, win against impossible odds. Taking the ‘Blue Rose’ route that everyone and everything is completely tolerant and lovely about everything is to miss out on all that, especially if you’re making these choices for your character.
D&D settings are primarily pseudomedieval, though they also draw on other cultures for inspiration. While in Greco-Roman culture homosexuality and other alternative sexualities were mostly celebrated (though less lesbianism than than homosexuality) and even considered divine in some cases, or as a touch from the gods.
As Christianity took over that more accepting attitude melted away along with the panoply of pagan beliefs that were being replaced. As church and state became one in a much more prescriptive way via Christianity and Islam the tolerance also melted away, though as has become apparent to those paying attention to events in the Catholic Church and cases like ‘anal jihad’ or rulings on bestiality from Islamic scholars, that’s no guarantee that the rules are absolute – just that there are rules (note that I’m not comparing paedophilia or bestiality to homosexuality or trans issues, just pointing out – via extremes – how weirdly accepting even strict religions can be sometimes).
D&D cities and cultures tend to be polytheistic and while certain gods are more associated with certain races (Lolth and Dark Elves), it’s by no means certain or absolute. One of the examples given is a defiance of the gender roles within the Faerun context of dark elf society – a cruel matriarchy – though a male cleric of Lolth would have a near impossible task to win over his goddess.
Temples and churches in broader D&D fantasy societies tend to be more… goods and services. You go to the temple to pray and appeal to that specific god, to gain the services of the temple. It’s more like attending a shop and there’s no direct political power, only influence, save where the clerics are running the city.
The moral precepts of RPG gods and goddesses are rarely codified in the way, say, the Noachide or Levitical laws of the bible are and unlike ‘real’ religions if there’s any misunderstandings the god can be directly conferred with and is capable of manifesting in the real world.
Broadly speaking ‘Good’ gods, ‘Neutral’ gods and ‘Chaotic’ gods are probably more likely to be tolerant, while ‘Lawful’ and ‘Evil’ gods are probably more likely to be prescriptive. That will, of course, depend on the religion’s concept of ‘evil’. Transgressive behaviours and sexualities are considered ‘evil’ by many cultures and may be celebrated by evil gods on that basis and condemned for it by the followers of an opposing god. This is one of the fundamental plot problems with absolute – and inherent – moralities. On the other hand, fertility and agricultural gods and goddesses, whatever their alignment otherwise, might have a rather more Catholic approach to sexuality and reproduction.
In various religions and spiritual traditions in the real world, those of androgynous, trans or hermaphroditic nature have been regarded as special and accorded special spiritual or religious positions. That could be the position of shaman or living totem, or more formal roles such as the ‘contrary’ who would do everything backwards from speech to wearing women’s clothing. Places, however limited and restrictive, for people who were different.
Culture may shape attitudes towards people of alternate sexualities. The harder the life – generally – the less accepting and tolerant a society is while, when there’s luxury, wealth and leisure a society tends to become more accepting and tolerant – some would call this degenerate and decadent. Greek and Roman cultures did this via slavery, in a world of magic that power take up much of the strain and lead to a more tolerant and leisure oriented society but magic-users are a limited resource and – as with most places in the world – cosmopolitan cities are likely to be more tolerant and understanding than isolated rural communities. Those looking for acceptance may well move to the cities, seeking that acceptance and leaving the smaller, more superstitious rural communities to wallow in their bias – a potential problem for unconventional adventurers seeking a place to rest in the wilds. Conversely, of course, cultures in hard circumstances may end up being more accepting, more interested in a person’s capabilities than anything else, unwilling to sacrifice a single member of the group and needing everyone to maximise their chances of survival.
Subcultures are also likely to have different ideas and beliefs. Arts communities have always tended to be more accepting – or at least willing to overlook – ‘aberrant’ behaviours and lifestyles and this is also true of nobility, clergy and (less so) of wealthy merchant classes. Power buys license and causes scandals to disappear and people to refer to differences as eccentricity, rather than treating them as a death sentence.
The stage, in particular in many cultures, has been a haven. In some cultures all stage actors – even those playing women – are men which provides a plae for those who like to dress and behave as women. Pantomime especially has traditions of women playing men and men playing women but men playing women was a tradition in Elizabethan theatre.
As mentioned in culture, above, wealth and nobility or other forms of power are also excuses for aberrant behaviour: “They’re not like us.” There’s also the matter that being powerful almost invariably means being wealthy – or being able to access wealth and favours. Based on older editions, for example, a permanent magical sex change would cost at least 810 gold pieces, nearly seven and a half years of wages for a skilled hireling. Needless to say, a great deal of money for most people within the fantasy setting and means that adjusting ones gender (or appearance) to conform with ones wishes would cost – roughly – the equivalent of $100,000 USD. The only people with access to the money, and thus the ability, to be the way they want to be will be magicians themselves, nobles, clergy, merchants… and adventurers. That makes a hell of a motivation for a character.
Bridget, from the game Guilty Gear is a boy who was brought up as a girl, dresses as a nun and acts as a bounty hunter. Voted one of the most popular characters in the game, you could do worse than emulate parts of that character!
Pie’Oh’Pah, from Clive Barker’s Imajicca is an hermaphroditic non-human, an assassin with a fluttering ‘something’ between their legs that lets them be a lover as a man or a woman. A ‘mystif’, a sort of familiar, able to become something people love and trust and to use that to be an assassin. Pie carries a lot of weight from not fitting in and not being master of their own destiny. Perhaps a concept that can be adapted for a a doppelganger, changeling or shifter.
Orlando, the character created by Virginia Woolf (in part as a means to avoid scandal about writing about lesbianism) is an immortal who slowly changes from one gender to another over the course of the years. While the original is fascinating, for roleplaying purposes I would look to the version of the character created by Alan Moore and Kev O’Neill for the expanded timeline of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – which is far more accessible for roleplayers.
Tiresias of Greek mythology was transformed into a woman for seven years after attacking two mating snakes and displeasing Hera. Making the best of it and his/her gift of prophecy, Tiresias became – according to some versions – a much sought after prostitute before regaining his/her masculinity.
In the Mahabharata, the hero Aryuna takes on the persona of Brihannala and lives as a woman for some time, teaching dance and living amongst the maidens. Modern Indian culture may be conservative – and often misogynistic – but there is a rich past of sexual and gender mythology and traditions if you go looking for them and the Indian legends and mythology are criminally under-represented in role-playing.
Alfhild was, according to somewhat apocryphal writings, a shield maiden with her own viking fleet, ‘manned’ by women.
In the old west, Charley Parkhurst lived as a man, despite being a woman, so successfully as to have voted at a time when very few women (presenting as women) could. One eyed after being kicked by a horse, Parkhurst had a reputation as a great stagecoach driver and despite living as a man, had, had a child somewhen in their past. It’s a life that makes you wonder at the REAL reason John Wayne’s real name was Marion.
Dee Palmer from Jethro Tull would make an interesting model for a bard, and a hell of a life.
Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont was a spy, diplomat, soldier and chevalier (knight) in the 18th century who spent the last thirty years or so of her life as a woman. D’Eon was consistently and constantly frustrated in attempting to serve her country but a version of them as a character could overcome those roadbocks and would be well suited to game settings of a more clock/steampunk bent.
Roman Emperor/Empress Elagabalus – whose gender and orientation are the subject of some debate – gave precisely zero fucks about the Roman establishment, took huge amounts of lovers of all sexes, forced members of their court to worship the god they insisted on, rather than Jupiter and otherwise made Caligula look like Queen Victoria. Which was all very interesting and inspiring as a power play, up until they were assassinated by the Praetorian Guard, aged only 18. A genderfluid Justin Bieber if you will.