Sometimes people are offensive because they are made out of garbage. Sometimes, it’s because they are operating from a position of ignorance – and possibly amenable to education and improvement. If you want to play characters who are different from yourself without perpetuating bad ideas, let’s talk about it. I love it when character groups are more diverse than the players themselves, as long as it’s done right!
First advice: If your character concept is A) from a group oppressed by the kyriarchy in real life and B) that is a group to which you do not belong, look around you at the table. Is anyone present, player or GM, a member of said group? If so, it might be a good idea to just skip it. There are a million landmines around each of these things, mine one being that someone could be offended by you trying at all in the first place.
Whether you agree with their position or not, respect it. They have enough problems without you doing something that, with one misstep or bad circumstance, can come off as badly as blackface. Generally leaving representation to the people being represented is the highest ideal, but it’s not always possible. For example, if you’re a gaming group in Utah wanting to run a campaign based in New York City with more black characters than the cast of Friends. Or if you’re the Game Master, and you have no choice but to represent every kind of person in the game world / campaign setting.
I’ll talk about gender first. My situation is unusual in that many of my players have been AFAB people. And yet, the characters they want to play are overwhelmingly cismale. Some of them have a damn good reason for that, namely gender dysphoria. Both transgender and cisgender people can feel a strong sense of association with their gender, which would make playing across gender lines very disturbing for them. And any trans person I think can be forgiven for wanting to ditch that particular lived experience when engaged in a fantasy.
As for my cisfeminine players (assuming I have any in the final tally, people are always sorting themselves out), why are they playing cismasculine characters? It could be a desire to play an escape from patriarchy. Like, even if I ran a fantasy campaign in which I dispensed with all the most egregious aspects of patriarchy from the real world, maybe it still would feel liberating on some level. As much as our society forces those we perceive as women to be utterly caged in by their physical presence, that makes total sense, and I’m not going to be the one to rain on it.
But that leaves cismasculine players in the weird position of feeling like they ought to play lady characters to balance the scene. I do try to skew the NPC world feminine, with varying success. So. As a cisbro, you feel like you should play a lady character – or maybe you just think it would be fun. As a person highly privileged in all matters gender, how can you do this with sensitivity?
Again, ask around. If even one AFAB person in your group says it would bother them, give it a pass, leave it to the world of NPCs to balance those scales. If you get the go-ahead, remember the character’s humanity above all other things. It’s easy to get wrapped up in minutiae and forget that the best way to play a character of an oppressed group is simply to allow them to be any kind of character they could be. See cinema, where the problem of representation for women, people of color, and LGBTQIA folks is that their roles are limited to a set of tropes. Think – if this character was a cishetwhitebro, how would I make them interesting? Non-cishetwhitebros should be able to be mad scientists, eccentric geniuses, two-fisted rogues, and anything else you can come up with.
A contrary note though: There are a lot of bad tropes in fiction you can accidentally step into – sexist, racist, queerphobic, etc. Keep your eyes open for them. For example, casting a black man to play the Human Torch is pretty cool (horribad movie notwithstanding). OK, the character is one of the less intellectual members of the team and that could dovetail with badness, but he does have a superior wit to Benjamin Grimm. Now. How about casting a black man as The Hulk? Yes, black super-genius Bruce Banner defies stereotypes, but as soon as he hulks out, you’re in “giant negro” territory – inherent criminality, superpredators, holy hell it’s bad. It helps to have some familiarity with the ways this can go wrong before you set out to try and do it right.
Voice. If the game takes place in a fantasy world or sci-fi future or anything removed from the present, no AAVE please. Don’t be ridiculous. If you are playing a character with ESL or a culture that is not your own and feel the need to alter your word choice to reflect that, find a person or character to pattern that speech after. But you’re best picking a very subtle example, if you do anything different at all. This aspect of acting a part is potentially very bad. Some have said on the subject of writing that you should never attempt to emulate a dialect in print. That’s the extreme position, but there’s some validity to it.
The struggle. Say I’m portraying a trans woman character in a game, but I am not, myself, a trans woman. I know many trans women face struggles with dysphoria, histories of suffering verbal and physical abuse, rejection from their families, suicidal thoughts, homelessness, and so on. To portray the truth of their struggle, I should include those elements in my portrayal, right? Actually, wrong.
This can be a very bad thing to do. When people say “no representation without us,” the main reason (aside from giving underrepresented people paying jobs in the entertainment industries) is that the rest of us can’t really feel what it’s like for them.
Sometimes some other axis of oppression may put us closer to understanding, but it’s never quite the same. And when we try to portray the struggle from our outside view, it can end up being exploitive, crass, foolish, or turning into inspiration porn. And even if we do the portrayal very well, we may just end up depressing people by unnecessarily importing real life miseries into fantasy scenarios.
Is it realistic to portray your character from a traditionally oppressed group as having a life blessed with no troubles? A transgender character who is never misgendered? A black character who hasn’t been sneered at by authorities? A lady character who doesn’t have the potential of situations to turn rapey in the back of their mind almost every day? Maybe not, but you don’t really know.
If you’re playing your character as a human first, they’re probably within the range of possibilities for the diverse human experience – realistic enough. Leave the portrayal of the struggle as an option for someone in the know, or for them to leave behind at the door. RPGs are for escape.