Thursday 7 May 2020

Sex in TTRPGs

Now that I've got your attention...

...nah. This actually is about sex. Here's some thoughts on how I've handled sex in RPGs, and how GMs have handled it, and why it's fun. This is all based on my own experiences, maybe yours are very different.

First up: What the fuck? 
"Cavegirl," I hear you ask, "isn't putting sex into RPGs really weird and awkward and a bit creepy?"
To which I reply, no. Not unless you make it weird, awkward or creepy. If everybody's on the same page and wants to engage with it as a topic, it needn't be any of those things.
Obviously, this is gonna vary by group. A lot of groups aren't gonna want to go down this route, and if they don't, that's fine!
It's something that comes up a decent amount in games I run and play, and by and large people that are new to the idea, and sometimes even a little nervous about getting into this sort of thing, tend to get into the swing of it really easily once they're confident nobody else in the game is going to make it weird. There's a lot of judgement and unfortunate stereotypes around sex in RPGs, and once you've demonstrated that that stuff isn't a factor in your own game, those hangups melt away.

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So. With that done: Why? What's the appeal?

Look. I read a lot of romance fiction, and a lot of fiction that sits right on that border between romance and erotica. I like love stories, and... I mean, lots of love stories have people fuck. That's a thing people do when they're in love (or, like, bored or horny or insecure or...). I don't think it's a big deal; I'm an adult, you know?
It's really easy to limit RPGs to a fairly small set of stories; ones that are about danger and fighting and action. But that doesn't need to be the case, I've used RPGs to explore all sort of themes; I have a habit of building very religious characters and RPing through crisis-es of faith, for example.

RPGs are, by their nature, an immersive experience. I like using them to explore characters, which means digging into a PCs emotions and personality, working out what makes them tick and how they respond to different situations. I like putting my PCs in difficult situations, roleplaying intense emotions, doing angst.
So, romance falls into that. How two characters relate to one another in a romantic context can unlock all sorts of big dramatic emotional states, cause all sorts of trauma and euphoria and heartbreak. Plus, like, I'm a sucker for love stories in general, and I like playing through love stories in character. Sometimes they're heartwarming. Sometimes they're fucked up and toxic. Sometimes, they're just tragic. Sometimes, they're all three.
Sex scenes are kinda just a natural culmination of that. 
To take it further, I think sex scenes can be uniquely good for exploring some stuff. Sex is, by its nature, disarmingly intimate. You make yourself vulnerable and expose yourself to your partner. So, in the context of RPGs, that vulnerability (coupled with the fact that its a pretty intense experience) lets you expose aspects of a character that might be hidden or flying under the radar the rest of the time.

Let me use an example. In a recent game, I'm playing Saint Anna, a dead martyr who's corpse miraculously stood back up again and carried right on preaching. She's a sweet, sincere, self-sacrificing sort of girl. She's also worried that, because she's undead now, she's going to end up as a cannibalistic monster like the ones she's heard about. That worry is being mostly repressed, and its emerging as guilty urges. She wants to bite into people, to tear flesh out with her teeth, to taste blood and viscera. And the more she tries to ignore those urges, the stronger it gets.
So, recently, she hooks up with a friend. Ends up fucking, like you do. And it's odd, because a lot of the biological processes of 'being horny' don't really work for a zombie-girl, but on an emotional level she still wants that intimacy. So this gets mixed up with those hungry-zombie urges above, and she gets this overwhelming desire to bite her partner, to wrap her lips around her, sink her teeth into sensitive skin.
She's hungry and it comes through in how they kiss, and what comes next. So they fuck, and it's a bit bitey before Anna goes down on her partner, and kind of works through those hungers, channels it into a desire to taste her. And the human connection helps - for a while, at least - to assuage those fears that she's a monster, and accept that she's still the same person she always was.
She comes out the other end much more secure and stable, better able to cope with her new undead state. It's kinda heartwarming if you ignore the necrophilia.

Could I have explored this stuff outside of the context of sex? Sure. But sex provided a good catalyst for it, let me probe angles that I wouldn't have been able to outside of that context. And the other PC had her own stuff going on that came through in the scene, resulting in a wonderful complex entanglement of feelings. It was a good scene.

I dunno. I enjoy this stuff. It feels kind of stupid that I have to justify putting it in RPGs. We put violence and gore and horror in RPGs, and nobody feels like they have to justify including fight scenes. And, personally, I find playing through a sex scene far more interesting than another interminable fight.

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Next up: How?
Like, how does this actually play out at the table, how can you do this healthily? 

The social demographics of the group matter a lot, I think. I have found that all of the following factors tend to make a group more comfortable engaging with sexuality in games:
  • People who are happy being very open about sexuality ooc.
  • People who know one another fairly well.
You probably need one or both of those. I wouldn't get my rpg slut on with total strangers, nor with people who were significantly less open about this stuff than me. Personally, I've found that the higher the proportion of queer people in the group, the better for this sort of thing, although I'm not sure why. Maybe the cishets are having wonderful smutty fun in their own games and I'm just not invited.

On that note, you want to be really fucking careful with the OOC power dynamics at play. 
I shouldn't need to say it, but there are plenty of shitty predatory men who'll use this sort of situation to harass or manipulate women, using the game as an excuse. Work out if any of your potential players are like that, and kick them out. Do this even in games not involving sex, because you don't want to be around people like that. 
But even when there's not a deliberate predator in the mix, power dynamics can get icky. Where one of the players involved is a guy, and the other a girl... look, we live in a sexist society with expectations for men to be sexually pushy and women not to give a firm no. The dynamic can be perfectly healthy, but keep an eye on it just in case. The same goes for other differentials in social power and privilege. Older & younger players, experienced with this stuff & new to it, GM & player, whatever. Be mindful of the situation, check in, make sure everybody's OK and nobody's being pressured into stuff they'd not be comfortable with.

Seriously. Sexuality is messy and intense and personal. Fucking check in with people before and after (and during, if it's not brief). Your fellow players' emotional wellbeing is more important than 'not interrupting the scene'.
In one of the games I'm in, we've got into the habit of using traffic lights to check in sporadically through the scene (not just sex, but anything that gets dark or intense). Just a quick "Everything green?" "Yeah, all green, let's get nasty." It doesn't really interrupt the roleplay, anymore than pausing for a moment to roll dice and apply the result does.  

By and large, the further detached the medium is, the more comfortable people will be delving into sexual stuff. People will do stuff in a tabletop game they won't do in a larp. They might do stuff in a game over voice-chat that they would get embarrassed about in face-to-face games. And, believe me, they can sometimes go all-in in text-based/play-by-post games.
Seriously. Absolutely filthy. It's great! Here's a post of mine quoted from a text-based game I'm in:
Ash leans in, kisses Hina, and then... ah, the pressure, the feeling of being so close and tightly held is enough to push her over the edge, and as she lets the climax claim her her moans turn to breathless gasping 
"Oh... oh fuck... ah... please more, Ab-"
No. She catches herself in time, corrects it before she blurts out the wrong name. Focuses on her flesh-and-blood partner.
"Hina, don't stop, please... ohh..."
And then unintelligible noises as the sensation washes over her.
So, yeah. Pretty fucking explicit. That scene in particular was really fun to roleplay through, there's some more discussion about it here. And it was little moments like that, such as Ash nearly calling out the wrong name at the crucial moment, that really made it worth it. Stuff that you might only get if you play through the sex scene frame-by-frame.

But this is one extreme of the sliding-scale of graphic-ness. At the other end, you've just got "...and then they fuck, right?" "Right." "Cool, moving on..." and if that's all you're into, that's fine.

Mostly, though, I find it's somewhere between the two. You'll discuss the broad details of how it goes down, who's taking what role, what the general dynamic is like. 
A (paraphrased) example from a Dungeon Bitches game I ran recently:
"So, I figure she'd push Mags up against a tree, right? As much to prop her up as kinda a domme thing. And because Margaret is kinda delicate, she's going to be really gentle at first, at least until she knows what's OK."
"Yeah, that makes sense. But I think as she gets into it Margaret is going to be getting rougher, like her body's working on its own. Her sex-move says its a bit rough and intense, so I think she'll get really into it and kind of move like she's not actually ill." 
"Oh, that makes sense. My sex move basically just says I'm good at it, lol." 
"Right, so. They fuck. And then once they're done, Mags is gonna fall asleep without bothering to get dressed again."
 Like you skip over the graphic details, but get a general picture of what happened.

Really, the key is to work out what your group are comfortable with before you go in, and then once you're engaged with this stuff keep an OOC dialogue going so everybody's on the same page wrt things like graphicness, nastiness, ooc intimacy, all of that stuff.
You need to communicate well. You need to treat the topic maturely. But if you do, it's well worth it, in my experience.


  1. I can't believe I'm typing this, but this post is making me rethink my "no, nay, never" policy on sex in RPGs. I normally confine that kind of stuff offstage (I love to joke about the camera panning to a burning fireplace, the moon, a waterfall, or all three). Great essay.

  2. Wonderful writing. Intimacy in RPG’s (of any sort) can be the hook for a great experience, and you’ve done a great job laying out the benefits of getting vulnerable. Thank you.

  3. This is a great post. I've had PCs have sex with NPCs in my games before, and been on both sides of the table for that; text definitely makes people feel a little less awkward, in addition to allowing you to tweak your grammar as needed. It also helps that a lot of my nerdy friends are also pretty active; of the eight or so of us that were at a recent party, three work at a sex shop. :D

  4. This covers a good range. I think if people could read your third example they'd be a lot less hesitant to include this kind of thing in their games: it's characterful but still pretty nonspecific, and many adult tables would be fine with that level of detail.

  5. The cishets are totally doing this. I *suspect* you're encountering a phenomenon that I've noted about who I invite to this sort of game. If someone is a kinkster or tell me the read certain books, even if they've never mentioned D&D before I'll ask if they've considered invoking that sort of thing in an RPG context, "You know, like D&D with all those funny dice and things." But if I know someone's really, really into RPGs but I don't know anything else? I'm not going to bring it up at all.

    It looks like your strong focus is on exploring your characters' psychological landscape and pushing at weak spots. Are there other areas you've found it useful in, such as creating local color, resolving as opposed to initiating or exacerbating conflicts, etc.?

  6. A few things I want to tell you Cavegirl:
    1) I just caught up on the Dungeon Bitches posts and then read this one and I have never wanted so badly to try a gaming style outside my norm. Like, for lack of experience exploring this kind of roleplaying I would need to take it slow and would prefer to be taken in by a group that already has a strong handle on it (I feel like I couldn't, myself as the leader, introduce this into my group of cishet mostly-guys who have spent years basically just dungeoncrawling and not much else), but GOD I WANT TO.

    2) Others have disagreed but to my own experience, I think your perception that "cishets don't seem to really do this" is pretty much on point. I'm a cishet guy who has almost only ever played with other cishets but I've played with a TON of them at many tables in many groups and with plenty of different tones/subject matter/whatever and yet sex only ever, at best, is used for humor or occasionally horror. And in real life, I have also agreed with my queer friends that the Straights are just generally so painfully boring about sexuality and often disengaged with it. Like, Tinder flirting with straight cis women is basically a sisyphean curse. Probably because being Straight is treated as the default by society so you'll never be FORCED to ask questions about sexuality the way queer people are.

    3) Something I don't feel is accounted for here and is maybe a bigger variable than you could suspect: a lot of roleplayers are very sexually inexperienced or outright virginal. And, like, they would like not to be and have an interest in sexuality but their lack of experience would hold them back from being able to do all this. Hypothetically, sex in RPGs could be a great way to help with this issue, but... well, let's just say I have literally watched the D&D sex scene from Community play out before my very eyes, where everyone at the table was either Jeff or Troy.

  7. It is funny how we so easily handle theft,arson, and violence in RPGs and yet react so oddly to the suggestion of sex in rpgs.

    If it comes up it's usually used to paint the baddie in a bad light or dealt with by old fashioned movie "fade to black" transitions.

  8. Just my two copper pieces-
    I'm asexual, so I've never really felt comfortable narrating sexytimes (as a GM) or roleplaying them (on the other side of the screen). I did have a good laugh when someone in my group pulled off the legendary "seduce the dragon" exploit, though. To make a long story short, that got us out of an immediate problem and into a new and exciting one, as Stalker Dragon Ex pursued us through the jungle.

  9. Amazing post full of truth. I think this is something they is glanced over and ignored in most game. Like you said it is very people specific and I like the traffic light idea.