There is a question that people tend to avoid asking in roleplaying game discussion, in my experience, even as they spend a fair amount of time articulating answers and implicitly presenting them. This question is along the lines of “How much am I allowed to deviate from my social positionality and my lived experiences in making and playing characters?” There are of course a lot of domains this question concerns, right off the bat, but this is Actual Play, and I have a fair amount of Actual Play experience with the specific topic of cross-gender play.
So to talk about my own social positionality and lived experiences for a moment, I’m a Person of Gender, in a fairly complicated way where it is generally more convenient to present myself as a trans woman in social settings where that becomes relevant, but in actuality, I have a pair of nonbinary transfeminine genders and I use she/her pronouns for ’em both, and honestly, most of the convenience or lack thereof comes from not wanting to have to explain the jargon to people who have never encountered it before. On top of all this, my personal experience of gender is one that’s fairly common for trans people of my general age- there was a moment of realization, a point at which I became aware of my gender variance, but also a retrospective recognizable pattern of experiences that pointed to this gender.
Or genders. Because really, there have been several moments of realization and slightly fewer of retrospective analysis. All of which is to say, the question of whether a given character was cross-gender or same-gender play is one that I would say has no single answer. There are contextual answers based on whether we’re thinking about social positionality or lived experiences more, and there is another category of answers in which, because those multiple genders are expressible with the words “amazon” and “shapeshifter” and I have never put those words in a space marked for character gender on a sheet or defined an NPC as having those genders on their prospective record sheet, all of my play has been in some fashion cross-gender. But the meanings behind those words for me are such that I think certain characters I have played *would* constitute same-gender play regardless of the word on the sheet. Much of what follows is a string of anecdotes.
In university, playing in a D&D3.5 game which was converted to a D&D4 game, I decided I would make a sorcerer (converted to a bard), make him a clownish self-important twink perpetually in wildly sexualized clothes, gave him a hastily gender-flipped version of “Emma Frost” for a name, and found an appropriate picture for him, of a skinny androgynous model. This picture would, several years later, turn out to be a picture of a woman when Andreja Pejić, only a month younger than me, came out of the closet. Spooky synchronicity of that aside, this Emil Frost was very much a distinct imagined entity from myself, someone who I had to make decisions about playing, contemplating, “what’s this jackass liable to do in this situation?” At the time, this would have been read as same-gender play.
A few years later, that game having ended, I ended up in an ongoing King Arthur Pendragon game, using the full Great Pendragon Campaign, and I made a Player Knight of Aquitanian culture but holding a manor in Brittany. I used a public domain painting of a woman in High Medieval clothing holding a sword as character art, and then after two sessions, I determined/realized this character, Sir “Julian” was a woman in drag, creatively masculinizing “Julia”, right after her first episode of berserk murderous violence. This remained a secret to the other PKs but not to their players, and then she ended up on an adventurous journey into fairyland where she inaugurated romantic chivalry by falling in love with and marrying a fairy damosel, and then because of the superhuman stats of the fey lady, she ended up with an absurdly large Passion of Love (Wife), and then the demands of working 12-hour overnight shifts at a refueling nuclear power plant caught up with me.
KAP, I think, has a very good, if sometimes risky, methodology of differentiating PKs as not player self-inserts, but as characters to be discovered and played. Certainly Sir Julia became increasingly distinct as an imagined person as I played her, though there of course part of it was wanting to press all the “buttons” on the character sheet. All of this would have been seen as cross-gender play at the time.
A few more years pass, I’m aware of being trans but not yet of being nonbinary in that finicky and difficult-to-explain-concisely way, and I play in two D&D5 games that don’t last very long at all. In one of them, I make a snooty magician/slumming college professor, and in the other, I make a Zoroastrian mystic paladin. The former a man, the latter a woman. Both games are blandly Illusionist and neither character really exists in a state of play at any point.
Finally, I end up making two characters for a Runequest: Roleplaying in Glorantha game, after coming to realize my nonbinary status. For one of them, I put “vingan woman” in the gender box and for the other, I put “woman”. There is, of course, a whole mess of fan questions about and interpretations of the gender terms “vingan”, “nandan”, and “helering” articulated in RQG, and after doing some historical research of old mailing list posts I realized it didn’t matter, I was going to play vingan gender in this game as “more-or-less butch”. The game is far more in a dungeon-crawl kind of mode, though, so character moments are more subtle and emerge less overtly. This last character still isn’t quite same-gender play, for the complexities laid out above, but there’s a definite affinity there as well.
So what can I say about my own actual play experiences which have produced a string of characters, almost all of whom are some degree of medial between cross-gender and same-gender play? Well, I’m clearly comfortable with doing so on some level, even though my cultural exposure saw cross-gender play as probably suspicious, perverse, and inauthentic. Untangling that complex of ideas is difficult- how much of this is the imaginary of stark gender differences working its way out? How much of this is suspicion of people being “too into roleplaying their character”, eg the transmission of bad experiences at the table and their formulation into a general rule? I don’t know, and I don’t have the resources or training to really probe that sociology.
What I can say instead is that, at the current moment, I do have clear preferences about the kinds of characters I like to create and play, which run towards playing androgynous, femme, and butch-rather-than-masc characters, and this definitely inflects questions of genre appeal for me. But with that being said, these preferences are far from absolute, in particular if I’m sitting in the “GM” seat at the moment. Some of it is definitely from negative associations for masculinity, and some of it is, glibly, “I spent decades trying to play a dude, I’m clearly not very good at it”. I’m not sure how much it matters.
And even then, I don’t feel any specific need to make characters and play them with a specified gender of “amazon” or “shapeshifter” on the sheet (setting aside what the game itself may say about what you can put there), but simultaneously, I can identify bits of those gender identities in most of these characters I’ve articulated here. It’s a tangle of thorns indeed! I suspect that digging any deeper may require digging out Judith Butler, not an action to be undertaken lightly.
So- my experience is that the lines of cross-gender and same-gender play are very easy to find fuzzy and easy to cross, and in turn, I am generally able to draw linkages between my own subjective experience and that of these imaginary people with different genders, and feel comfortable playing them. What are some experiences other people have had with this distinction of play?