I’m comfortable with sex as a subject matter. I would imagine that’s fairly obvious to anyone who has been reading my work here for any length of time. If you keep up with my play reports, session titles like “In Which My Ex Kills My Penis Monster,” “Have Your Cake and Fuck It Too,” or “Passing Through the BDSM district.” may have clued you in. Heck, I wrote a sex worker class at one point, and have never made any secret of the fact that I write pornography under a pseudonym. Sex is something I find very artistically engaging, and I’m not shy about pursuing that interest.
Until recently, it never occurred to me that I was unusual for feeling this way. After all, how many dungeons have you delved that included a harem? How many monster books include some creature inspired by psychosexual horror? In 2017, the ENNIE award for best adventure went to a book that includes a gangbang. That same publisher, LotFP, recently released a book called “Vaginas are Magic.” To me, it seems like sex is pretty well represented in the OSR scene.
Yet increasingly, I feel like I’ve been developing a bit of a reputation as a guy who “gets” how sex in RPGs works. I keep getting tagged into google+ threads where people are talking about it, because “Nick will have something to say about this.” And the other day, on Reddit, someone asked me point-blank to explain to them how I get away with including sex in my games without it turning into a shitshow.
So, alright, lets talk about sex.
First, why is sex interesting? Like, obviously we all enjoy a good orgasm now and again, but why include sex outside of a sexual situation? Why include in D&D?
Because sex is an elemental force. Beyond our individual lusts and experiences, it is a basic, primal thing that we all think about. And whether or not a particular flavor of fuck piques our interest, each new idea gets mixed in with the complex morass of our own sexuality. Sex is interesting because it’s universal.
But sex is also something that is deeply personal. People don’t tend to talk about it as much as they probably want to. We rarely have the opportunity to sit down with someone and intellectually engage with what sex is and what it means to us. It’s an emotional state, not so different from anger, joy, disgust, fear, or sorrow, and yet its exploration in life and art is comparatively shallow.
That’s why I feel compelled to put sex in my art. And, yeah, to some extent I do consider the D&D games I run to be my art. I know it sounds pretentious, and (even worse), story-gamey, but there it is. And I don’t mean to say that I’m rocking people’s world with how fuckin’ eye-opening my games are or anything. But, if your world has a BDSM town where everybody wears rubber and half the citizenry is on leashes, then that’s probably not something your players will have encountered before. It’s probably something they will remember, and that is a pretty decent accomplishment on its own.
Which I guess brings us to the question of how to do it right. The honest, but lazy, answer is “I don’t fuckin’ know.” You and yours are going to have different comfort levels than me and mine. I can’t write you a guide for how to make your friends comfortable with something they’re not comfortable with. But even ignoring that, even just writing about my own experiences, I can’t claim to be any kind of expert. Sex, in my games, is more of an ongoing experiment than anything else. That being said, I do have quite a bit of sex in my games, and I more or less make it work, so, what’s involved in that?
I never let sex be about anyone’s personal gratification. That’s what people are afraid of when they think about sex in a D&D game. They remember every horror story they’ve ever heard about some greasy basement dweller describing the contours and proportions of an NPC’s tits, while he fumbles and fails to hide his erection. That’s less about having sex in your game, and more about one person foisting their exhibitionism fetish onto the group.
Fortunately, if you play with decent human adults, that’s not going to be a problem.
You could probably chart a scary-accurate map of the sorts of weird sex stuff I’m into by paying attention to everything that doesn’t show up in my game world. I don’t think that sort of avoidance is really necessary to make sex work in a game, but it does help me stay honest. I know I’ll never get gross and linger over-long on the cake farting NPC, because cake farting isn’t my thing.
I also don’t make my game about sex, (most of the time). I just make sex part of the world. Players randomly encounter a dildo salesperson, but they don’t generally go on a quest to retrieve a magical sex toy. Sometimes the players are amused or interested, and they spend time role playing with the weird sex thing they bumped into, other times they ignore it and get right to the point. It depends on their mood.
When it comes to players actually having sex in the game, I want to share two examples I feel are usefully illustrative. One is the closest I’ve ever come to feeling like sex was becoming a problem, and the other is just a good example of how sex should normally work in a D&D game.
To tackle the latter case first, the players were in the middle of traveling, and had a random encounter with a succubus. She openly flirted with the party, and made it pretty clear that she would be happy to have sex with any one of them. One player decided to take her up on that offer.
The player mentioned that his character was a fairly modest guy, and would prefer to do the deed out of sight of his companions. The succubus agreed, and so the PC and the demon disappeared into a nearby bush. I then briefly described how sex with a succubus is weird, and terrifying, but so intensely good that it kinda ruins sex with anybody else. (After all, what mortal could measure up to a literal embodiment of the act? ) I tell the player what the experience is like, without lingering on sordid logistics.
In-game, the act took 30 minutes, so I ask the rest of the party if there’s anything they want to do with their 3 exploration turns. When that’s resolved, the PC was kicked out of the bushes, and the succubus left without another word. (At least, not until 13 game-months later when she showed up and handed off their infant child).
In this situation, the player self-censored by taking things into the bushes. But, even if he hadn’t, I would have described things almost exactly the same way. I might have included a few other notes for the observers, like “You see things you’d never considered, and new fetishes take root in your mind.” Given that it was a sex demon, I may even have required some kind of saving throw against the desire to join in. But one way or the other, the whole thing lasted a handful of seconds, and the game moved on.
I don’t “fade to black,” but neither do I obsess. I describe sex with the same level of detail I would use if my players said “Lets stop in this town and find something to eat.” I don’t describe the firmness of the vegetables, or the way the meat’s juice dribbles down their chin. BUT, I do make a point to come up with some interesting local cuisine, I tell the players how it tasted, and maybe throw in a tidbit about some strange local dining custom they encountered.
If those same players then wanted to have sex with the bartender, and he agreed to it, I’d say something like “He leads you back to the store room. He’s surprisingly gentle, and at one point does this weird thing with his feet that you really didn’t like at first, but was actually workin’ pretty well for you by the end. When you finish, he quickly excuses himself to get back to work, lest he get in trouble.”
My second example involves an NPC named The Hangman. She’s a towering bodybuilder of a woman, and a high level wizard to boot. Her role in the game is a long story, but the short version is that she is the party’s patron. She gives them access to some cool stuff, and in exchange they do jobs for her.
At one point, one of my players announced his intention to seduce The Hangman. His attitude about it made me a little uncomfortable, because it felt like he was only interested in seducing her because he found her annoying. She’s an imperious and demanding NPC, and it felt like he wanted to sexually “conquer” her as a means of bringing her down a peg or two.
(I don’t want to unfairly malign this player. He’s a decent guy, and was never anything but respectful. This is more about how I felt, how I reacted, and how the game world was affected as a result).
I waffled for awhile about how I wanted to deal with this situation. On the one hand, The Hangman is an NPC, and the player just wanted to build a stronger relationship with that NPC. It’s a completely reasonable thing for a player to want to do in an RPG. On the other, the situation was bumping up on my internal barometer of grossness. I didn’t want to let this powerful character be reduced to her sexuality. I could have easily just said “She’s not into you,” but honestly, I didn’t want to fiat an NPC’s feelings like that. I try to let the dice handle that sort of thing.
It took me awhile to come up with a solution that, in retrospect, is painfully obvious. I just played to her character. The Hangman is immensely powerful, physically, magically, and socially. Just because she’s been seduced by a player, does not mean she will become any less powerful or imperious.
So after a few game-months of (honestly pretty charming) flirtatious role play between the player and the NPC, the Hangman decided to take what she wanted. The PC had sex with The Hangman, yes, but like everything The Hangman does, she did it completely on her terms, and afterwords expected him to be ready for a booty call at any hour of the day.
Which is, again, precisely why sex is so interesting to include. Dealing with that situation forced me to understand this NPC better, and created a lot of fun role playing opportunities, and character moments, for everyone involved.
Lots of folks will read this, and think I’m some kind of deviant whack-job for including all of this in my games. And of course, there are plenty of actual deviant whack jobs out there who go even further than I do. Like anything, it’s all about your level of comfort, and what you and your group enjoy. But, if nothing else, I hope I’ve demonstrated that games with sex in them aren’t necessarily doomed to fail.