The Fantasy of Being Human: Queer Joy and TTRPGS
By Angela Lemus-Mogrovejo
Looking back on the past six months, I am amazed at how much more connected I have become with others despite my life conditions not being the best. Back in August of 2018, I was moving into a new household, looking for work, and wondering if I would ever make friends where I would be living. I had no car, no real expendable income, and often had difficulties leaving the house due to limited energy prompted by various mental health disabilities. For all intents and purposes, I didn’t really have any conventional or easy means of meeting new people.
And yet, despite my situation remaining much the same now as it was then, I have found myself slowly connecting online with new friends who I could no longer imagine being without. I feel less isolated, more well-adjusted, and more secure in my new home among communities just beginning to thrive online and beyond. Even better, it has not cost me more than the time and energy which I have wanted to put into it, only requiring my attention and presence as a participant. But how precisely was such a feat possible without an extraordinary amount of effort, let alone money, being involved? Strangely enough, the answer is as simple as make believe. Or, at least, as organized as one can make believe through tabletop role-playing games.
For anyone who has never been involved in a tabletop role-playing game, imagine it simply as playing pretend with a group of people while occasionally having someone help referee and bring a bit of order and rules to the situation. Add in some improv, some occasional dice rolls or other game mechanics, throw in a strange setting, and you have the makings of a tabletop role-playing game. Whether you want to imagine yourself as a cunning space bounty hunter evading the law, an adventure-seeking magic user traversing fantasy lands, a fated occultist set to save the world from Armageddon, or a semi-corporeal body hacker living in the 26th century, there is a game avenue for you. At their core, tabletop role-playing games are storytelling in a communal form, regardless if that story is ridiculous or grandiose.
If any of this sounds ridiculous from the outset, let me reassure you: it is. I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel a bit silly imagining myself as a thieving cat humanoid, an ex-doctor turned “good-hearted” serial killer, a crystalline rock lady, or any other number of characters I’ve created over the past months. The idea of adopting a persona entirely different from myself yet occasionally inspired by shrinking/expanding elements of my personality does sound pretty absurd when you say it out loud. To be honest, I like it that way.
And, if conversations I have had with friends both old and new involved in the hobby say anything, I am not the only one who likes these ridiculous but entertaining games. As I have become more involved with the tabletop role-playing game (or TTRPG) community, I have found myself connecting with more and more friends who enjoy the storytelling medium. Not only that, but I have found that an extraordinary amount of those friends also happen to fall along varying queer, trans, and disabled spectrums, with some folks of color as well. Now, while this is obviously a biased sample, as I tend to keep a rather queer and trans focused friend group, I couldn’t help but notice how much TTRPGs bring joy, comfort, and community to queer, trans, and disabled folks. Many people like myself who would otherwise be unable to connect with their respective communities nevertheless find extreme comfort in TTRPG spaces.
But why this medium? What in particular about TTRPGs stands out for facilitating joy and community, particularly for disabled queers (of color) like myself?
I reached out through various social media to see if folks could provide some insight on why TTRPGs help facilitate happiness and community so strongly for disabled queers. Fay Onyx, queer, disabled, white, and genderqueer creator of writingalchemy.net, offered the view that part of the fun built into TTRPGs is the inherent sense of creativity it demands from players. While different games can offer pre-made modules or storylines for players to go through, how those stories play out and reach their conclusion relies entirely upon player decisions and interactions. More importantly, regardless of how a particular game setting carries over social dynamics from the real world into the game world, the players have the ultimate say in how much those dynamics persist. As Fay best puts it, players have the ultimate say in creating spaces different from the world they live in now, spaces “without all of that colonial baggage crap. And without all the ableism.”
With the overwhelming levels of structural oppression that threaten me on an everyday basis, having an escape from reality is something that should not be underestimated. I’ve read countless articles and heard countless stories about people like me struggling to get by and finding any means to believe our futures will improve is worth holding onto. TTRPGs offer the unique opportunity to imagine myself in a different place with a different level of control over my life. While I can’t automatically overturn capitalism or remove patriarchy from my everyday life, I can begin to imagine a world where neither hold the same power anymore. Or, if terrible systems of domination do exist in the worlds I choose to play in, I as a player can “make dramatic changes” in the world for the better. All of this from a medium that, with the advent of sites like Roll20, can even be done from the comfort of my own home without any costs or need to travel. I can imagine the revolution without having to sacrifice the bits of life stability I do have.
The beauty of TTRPGs is that these attempts to imagine better worlds also don’t have to happen alone. While many gaming formats can encourage toxic, competitive impulses, much of what makes TTRPGs special, to me and many others, is the need for collaboration built into the games. No matter how much any one player would like to be the center of attention in a game, TTRPGs function best as a collaborative format for storytelling. Although a campaign can start by focusing on one character’s personal history, a story in a TTRPG context thrives best through the interplay of various backstories and characters with each other. That focus on collaboration offers a needed break from an everyday life that often demands people act without consideration for other people’s wellbeing. Shanel Wu, a Taiwanese-American, trans, and fellow disabled queer of color, says it best: “I like competitive games, but I’m realizing that there’s a lot of that in my life and it’s really nice to cooperate and create for once.” Collaborating to build a world, no matter how ludicrous the setting may be, requires everyone’s input, which includes considering better ways to provide space for one another. Without that core of collaboration and consideration for one another, TTRPGs could not work.
More importantly, the collaborative storytelling element, which TTRPGs offer, helps facilitate one of its best qualities: facilitating what Shanel describes as “[empathizing] with and [embodying] another person’s experiences”, with the potential for healing and growth. While I can’t always tackle all the demons I battle in my personal life, the ones my character deals with can be vanquished with the aid of my friends. I can’t count how many times during a session when depression has been affecting my gameplay where a friend has reached out and comforted me when I needed it. While they didn’t always understand quite what I was dealing with, the willingness to learn how to support one another was nevertheless appreciated. It was a kind of affection that, while virtual, reminded me I wasn’t alone and neither was my character, whether they were perfectly fine or ready to face a horde of enemies both personal and literal.
More than just being there to care for me, other players also give me the chance to get some distance from myself and look at my problems in a new light. While not every TTRPG lends itself to serious storylines or thematic considerations, different stories can facilitate better understanding of one another’s differences. While a friend in real life may not understand the ins and outs of my family trauma, their in-game elven cleric can be a mirror to my orcish paladin’s anxieties and point out where the fears no longer serve her any good. That one interaction can prompt a thousand new insights, not only in how I play that character but also in how I or another person move through life with our own burdens to bear. Yes, it sounds silly and yes, it can seem like an absurd amount of importance to place on something as quaint as a hobby rooted in make believe. But when much of everyday life eclipses your imaginative future, leaves you feeling stuck and rooted with only the trauma of vast histories of oppression, it is nice to find a version of the story where growth and healing are not only encouraged but involve friends by your side.
So, why should anyone, let alone disabled queers of color, care about this medium? Why do TTRPGs bring such joy and connection, and what could such an ostensibly frivolous hobby offer to much more serious matters like activism and organizing?
The answer is hard to say but I think much of what makes TTRPGs powerful comes from what they represent as storytelling formats. Stories, whether they be humorous, serious, tragic, or somewhere in-between, have the power “to instruct, inspire, and suggest new paths” for how different our world could be. Similarly, activism concerns itself primarily with enacting changes in the current world in order to shift power away from those who enable structural domination towards those who have been oppressed. Underlying both storytelling and activism is a concern, ultimately, with how people collectively imagine the world as it should be. If an activist hopes to right the injustices they see in the world, many of their solutions to unjust realities will rely on what they can imagine as better worlds to create. With TTRPGs, this same principle applies on a smaller scale in terms of who the players imagine being worthwhile heroes and what themes they seek to explore with their characters.
As stated before, while not every game will entertain serious conversations or themes, the fact that TTRPGs can engage such topics speaks to their power to touch on histories beyond the interpersonal and concerning our larger social contexts. Although the characters players create may be fantastical, the exploration of those characters can connect to forms of social ills and healing that are both material and beyond them. Whether these contexts involve histories of family violence addressed in a fantasy setting, internalized ableism left behind through playing a human cyborg, or caring bonds created through mourning the loss of a comrade in arms, the game may be make believe but it enables practice of something very real. Storytelling on the small scale, like in TTRPGs, allows people to world-build, to engage not only in making a silly world together but also expanding awareness of what needs to change beyond the game for a better world to be possible. If the practice of imagining a different world is not ultimately at the core of TTRPGs (and activism for that matter), then I’m not sure what the point of activism and TTRPGS really is.
And I can think of no group of people who craves the opportunity to imagine otherwise than disabled queers of color. When the world denies our humanity at every turn, having a medium to create stories where the order of things is kinder and more just is a godsend. Knowing that, if only for a little while, we can pretend to be something grander or more fantastic than ourselves can be a blessing in a world that does not offer disabled queer and trans folks (of color) many luxuries. And who knows? Maybe, after a while, some of that make believe in TTRPGs can become real, and the fantasy of being human with room to grow and heal will be a future that doesn’t have to be imagined. It can be a reality vast and ridiculous enough for disabled queer and trans dreamers of color like me.
Angela Lemus-Mogrovejo (she/her) is a twenty-five year disabled, transgender femme of color working to make a stable life for herself in the LA area. Having graduated some time ago with degrees in Psychology and Philosophy, Angela now dedicates her professional life to creating writing uplifting the concerns and struggles of marginalized communities. As a writer for Art for Ourselves, she writes in the hopes of supporting QTPOC creatives in imagining/creating a better world for us all. A better world is possible and she hopes to play her part in making it be realized.