Pitfalls of RP: Bad Representation

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.


  1. silverfeather says

    One thing that our group has done that has worked out well for us is to get together before we start a new game and lay out some ground rules. Everyone participates and has some veto power and influence on the world we are going to play in. For example, this time around we decided we were going to play in a truly egalitarian area – so many races and genders have come together and lived together for so long that there are no more systemic biases. It’s been kind of cool to play in a fantasy setting where the commonly expected fantasy sexism doesn’t exist. (O/c we screw it up sometimes, but on the whole it’s been good).
    At this time we can also discuss how dark we are comfortable letting the story go, and when we first got together we also hashed out previous bad experiences players had dealt with, so we knew each others sore spots and had an idea what to avoid.
    It helps that our GMs go out of their way to try to have diverse representation throughout.

    I think you’re completely right about being super careful roleplaying as a member of a marginalized group that you aren’t a part of. Just play them as a human. As long as you are creative though, there are plenty of fantasy races with fantasy struggles to explore (as long as they aren’t just a stand in for real world minorities) and as you said a wealth of general human experiences to draw from.

  2. Great American Satan says

    Yes! I was hoping for more comments on these posts because I know other people are going to have some good insights, but I’ll take one very high quality comment just the same. Good ideas, for sure. Thank you, silverfeather.

  3. dianne says

    I’m quite late to the party, here, but a couple of thoughts I had based on my experiences in RPG. These experiences, BTW, have been largely quite positive. I have been fortunate to have GMs that were genuinely interested in making playing a fun experience for all involved (one of my GMs in college actually went on to become a game designer so let’s just say I’ve got a high bar for what I expect from a GM.)

    Anyway, my thoughts on diversity, from a cis-woman of mostly white mixed ethnic background and a minor disability:
    1. Most people will give you the benefit of the doubt if you make a sincere effort. Doubly so if you admit it and correct if you screw up and don’t double down.
    2. Research is good. If you want to play someone who is different from you, knowing something about what life is like for people in their situation is useful. This is especially important, IMHO, if you want to incorporate a mythos that you didn’t grow up with into your game. If for no other reason, then so you don’t make embarrassing mistakes about the mythos like, say, having Coyote show up in a Cherokee mythos or Zeus show up in a Norse mythos. (Unless you want to cross mythoses, of course.)
    3. Avoiding inspiration porn: Let all characters have flaws. The blind, Islamic, African-American transwoman with Aspergers can also be the character who is annoying when drunk or thinks she can fight better than she can or is downright ugly* or whatever else. It’s tempting to want to avoid making “other” characters flawless out of fear of offending, but as long as you don’t end up with stereotypical flaws, it’s actually more validating, IMHO, to show that you don’t have to be perfect to be accepted as a (fill in the blank.)
    4. Have more than one of them, whoever they are. The reason the Bechdel test took off culturally is because of the “strong female character (TM)” phenomenon: Mainstream writers and producers realize that they’re supposed to have women in their stories and that the women are supposed to have a chance to do something other than scream for help. So they create the “strong female character” who blows something up and saves the day once early on in the production, to establish how strong she is, and then spends the rest of the time being rescued and falling in love with the hero. It’s almost worse than having no women at all be on screen. So have more than one character. Then if you accidentally craft one that’s a bit of a stereotype, the others will counteract the impression. As long as you make them all individuals.

    Does that help any?

    *I tend to like to have female characters who are ugly in my fiction because one of the messages mainstream culture sends to girls is “It’s all right to be smart/athletic/interested in computers/etc as long as you’re beautiful. If you’re not beautiful you literally have no place in society and do not exist.” Screw that.

  4. Great American Satan says

    Thanks Dianne, it’s great! Personally, I avoid describing any characters as ugly in my games, but encourage a diversity of appearance. Your feminist reasons for doing so are legit tho.

  5. dianne says

    “Not conventionally beautiful” or “low charisma” would be alternate ways to describe the same thing. Again, reacting to the traditional descriptions in which women who are not classically sexy literally have no place, even when the work is otherwise fairly “feminist”. For an example, see the cartoon “Girl Genius”. It’s very good in a lot of ways among others the reversal of the “girlfriend who is brave, competent, and capable but not _quite_ as brave, competent, and capable as the hero” trope: Agatha is clearly just a little bit smarter than Gil. But at the same time, there are literally no women in the story that are not classically beautiful, despite the extreme variation in the looks of the male characters. It’s a blind spot in society. I know you don’t like describing people in negative terms and I appreciate that, but in this case I think there is some level of reclaiming that needs to be done.

  6. Great American Satan says

    It makes sense. I’m down. On the subject of drawing different looking ladies, I drew this adventuring party for a D&D game, using Justin Theroux somewhat for visual information on the trans woman. The other blue lady is based on a little sketch my partner did that I think looks kinda like the late lovely Elizabeth Peña. Still ball park of conventionally attractive, but getting somewhere?

  7. TBRP says

    Those are good things to keep in mind when playing PCs, but also when running games as well. I’m a straight white cis man, and when I run games, I’m usually desperately trying to steer away from stereotypes when I make NPCs on the fly. It’s not usually a problem (I don’t think) when they’re characters I’ve made beforehand, but I’ve looked back and winced at some characters I’ve pulled out of thin air at the way they sometimes reinforce harmful tropes.

    One exercise I did that was eye-opening (to me, anyway) was to make every major NPC I created a woman during a Demon: the Descent campaign I ran (think modern day creepy occult). I take a small point of pride that the players (two men and one woman) did not actually notice anything different while the game was still going, but when I started I had intended to make *every* NPC a woman with the exception of the NPCs the players made during character creation. I failed because when I came down to improvising minor characters, they were men unless I kept my rule foremost in my mind during the session. I’m thinking I need to codify some diversity into my mental stable of NPCs, and I’m guessing many other GMs might have the same need as well.

  8. Great American Satan says

    TBRP – Absolutely. Because the GM is playing far more characters than any PC, it’s more important for them than anyone else. I had a game where I randomly generated all the big aspects of a bunch of NPCs – race, gender / gender identity, cultural background, mental and physical disabilities, etc. To act them, I thought of people I’ve known IRL that somewhat fit the descriptors. But there’s definitely a danger of reinforcing stereotypes and I no doubt fell into it a few times. I had a few wacky ESL characters that weren’t great and I wouldn’t do again. ;_;

  9. ravenouspoe says

    Just a response as one of those AFABs. While I don’t necessarily identify as trans I wouldn’t say I have a typical gender indentity and never really have. I don’t have gender dsyphoria and don’t care so much about my body. In a lot of way it’s more of an avatar to me, something I use to communicate in the world but I don’t have a huge connection to it. I have no issues with wearing feminine clothing when the mood strikes. I probably land somewhere in genderqueer/agender. Even in play though as a child I chose to play male roles in imaginative play. As a adult/young adult I had an extensive imaginative world where I would imagine myself doing normal things but as male. Having RPG has actually given me an outlet that has made me a much more mentally healthy person. I don’t feel comfortable RPing women if I was honest like wearing a really uncomfortable piece of clothing. I tend to go white more out of respect to people of color because I haven’t experienced anything like they would have as a white person. Even Mal who in our DnD Goblinish, as a marginalized race can feel a bit funny and false. I certainly would feel like I was culturally appropriating if I used race/culture soully to make my character more interesting. I do feel bad that it means there’s less representation in our games but is it better no representation than bad? I dunno.

  10. says

    Thanks for sharing, ravenous. I’m still a bit conflicted on the no representation vs bad representation front. There are a lot of stories out there from marginalized or oppressed people regarding their relationship with representation in media. Sometimes they identify with a character that was written as a bad joke, dream up headcanons where they are triumphant. Sometimes the grind of shitty stories makes them feel really bad.

    What to do? Whatever you do, it’s possible to hurt people, and good to be ready for the consequences. I think you’re right that leaving it alone is the safer route.

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