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An illustration shows two characters holding hands while floating through the sky surrounded by tabletop game pieces Illustration: Lianne Hazendonk for Polygon

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Queer tabletop games are having a moment

From Thirsty Sword Lesbians to Queerz! to Yazeba’s Bed & Breakfast, queer tabletop games have come a long way

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Sometimes, family looks like a runaway teen, a rambunctious devil-child, a gallant knight turned into a frog, an aspiring rock star, or a robot maid learning to live in community. Sometimes, it looks like a team of bright, rainbow-hued Super Sentai-style heroes kicking ass with the power of empathy. Sometimes, it looks like a team of plant children raised by a kind-hearted witch mother saving their community from ecological disaster.

Sometimes, it looks like friends at a table, rolling dice, telling a story, and enjoying each other’s company.

As long as TTRPGs have existed, queer people have used them to tell queer stories. Now, a new crop of queer storytellers and game designers are bringing innovative, entertaining games to the table. Evil Hat Productions’ Thirsty Sword Lesbians, a role-playing game designed for telling queer stories with friends, not only met its initial Kickstarter fundraising goal in less than three hours, but raised more than 10 times the initial goal — and won a Nebula award for Best Game Writing.

“I think queer creators are whom I trust the most to tell queer stories because they are invested the most in making sure they ring true,” says Dominique Dickey, a writer who has worked on a number of TTRPGs, including Thirsty Sword Lesbians. They say following the success of Thirsty Sword Lesbians and Possum Creek Games’ anticipated legacy slice-of-life, found-family-focused game Yazeba’s Bed & Breakfast, they hope to see even more queer TTRPG success stories and creators being able to make a good living telling these stories.

The Thirsty Sword Lesbians book cover shows two characters clashing sword up close to one another
Thirsty Sword Lesbians
Image: Evil Hat Productions

Dickey recently completed a successful crowdfunding campaign for their newest TTRPG project, Plant Girl Game, a cozy game where players assume the roles of plant children — from hardy haworthia to fearless agave — of a gentle witch mother (the titular “Plant Girl”), working together to prevent an ecological disaster in their community. An ashcan version is available and free to play now; the lush, dreamily-illustrated full version is available for preorder for a digital release in December and a print release in March 2023. The full version will feature starter scenarios by Hugo Award winner Sarah Gailey and World Fantasy Award winner C.L. Polk.

The world-building process in Plant Girl Game is highly collaborative and customizable for repeat plays, with players empowered to discuss the story and community they want to create together through a series of open-ended questions, from What do you love most about your town? to What’s your school’s mascot? “I think about open-ended world-building and open-ended safety tools, and I think about generosity in design,” Dickey says. “Where do I want to be more closed-fisted and have a very clear vision, and when do I want to give that over to the players entirely?”

It’s natural that so many queer TTRPGs would center the theme of found family, also an essential part of the TTRPG experience — just look at any Dungeons & Dragons party. Why is the brooding veteran hanging out with the beautiful dancer? “It’s the natural conclusion of thinking for 10 seconds about party composition,” says Ruby Lavin, the art director at Possum Creek Games. “It’s always the hard part about D&D — figure out why you’re hanging out. If you think about it for 10 seconds, it’s going to be a found family.”

Jay Dragon of Possum Creek Games and co-creator M Veselak began working on Yazeba’s Bed & Breakfast in late 2019. The game, which also raised more than 10 times its initial goal amount in crowdfunding, puts players in the roles of the permanent residents and rotating guests of a bed and breakfast operated by the witch Yazeba. The prose-heavy game, where players can plan a birthday party for a resident or embark on a scary adventure to the basement to turn the power back on, emerged from an idea rooted in an intergenerational community space where queer people can be happy.

The community ethos of Yazeba’s can be seen in the collaborative creative process behind the game — which sports 48 chapters and 400 illustrations at time of writing — where writer Mercedes Acosta says writers were encouraged to be involved in the art development process and vice versa. The unique, bespoke mechanics in Yazeba’s feed into the development of these community relationships — additional adventures are “unlocked” by collecting “mementos” of their adventures together and evolving relationships.

Even with the whimsical characters like stone trolls and rabbits who wear little outfits, the community depicted in Yazeba’s Bed & Breakfast is intergenerational and ever-changing, and the game includes mechanics around characters getting older or leaving, and elder characters passing away. “It was really important to all of us for characters to be presented as accepted as they are,” Acosta says. “Someone can be cranky and mean, and instead of getting a callout post on Twitter, they can say, ‘Yazeba, that wasn’t cool,’ but they still love her.”

Acosta wrote the chapter “The Witch’s Old Hostel,” a pensive dungeon crawl elaborating on the source of Yazeba’s trauma and how she’s healing. In it, two of the housemates, Amelie and Gertrude, go through the ruins of the all-witch hostel Yazeba used to run, which was burned down by monsters, an act coded as an anti-trans hate crime. It’s a slice-of-life game, and with that includes not just the moments of putting on a play or doing laundry, but the ways these characters experience, and heal from, their trauma.

Queerz! began life as a manga by Isago Fukuda about a dynamic queer Super Sentai-style team using their powers of Rainbow Empathy to battle Ignorance. Fukuda wanted the story to be “stupidly positive” and welcoming for all kinds of readers. Amit Moshe of gaming studio Son of Oak loved Fukuda’s story and thought it would make for a great role-playing game.

“I wanted a game that was about being kind, not only to yourself but to other people, and recognizing humanity in places you might have problems finding it,” says Steven Pope, the lead writer on Queerz! “And there’s an unbridled optimism in Isago’s work and in the Super Sentai genre that I really wanted to bring to this game as well.”

A photograph shows a game of Queerz laid out on a table
Photo: Son of Oak Game Studio

The game, which is powered by the system from Son of Oak’s City of Mist, raised more than five times its initial Kickstarter goal, and is available for preorder now with an estimated December release.

The heroes of Queerz! are colorful and campy, poking at some stereotypes while drawing from queer subcultures and history — there’s the bear-inspired Teddy Woof, dance instructor Willi (a nod to ballroom legend Willi Ninja) and the “new kid,” Harvey M., named for civil rights leader Harvey Milk. “I’m using all the stereotypes and the words and the places and it’s kind of introducing our culture to everybody,” Fukuda says. “I drew this for everybody, for all generations and all ages and putting in everything I like, saying This is amazing; we’re having fun.”

The adventures in Queerz! are punchy, Super Sentai fun of the “fighting a witch who crawled out of a dumpster on the moon” variety, but the central theme of empathy is baked into the mechanics and stories. In addition to action tags like “Slay” and “Strike a Pose,” players can opt to “Care,” “Be Vulnerable,” or “Talk It Out,” exploring non-combat conflict resolution.

Writer Robin Caulfield’s adventure for the Queerz! Kickstarter, “Hero Support,” tackles big themes like self-acceptance, self-forgiveness, and never giving up on your friends (while taking down a villain called Cyber Skeleton, natch).

“It’s an adventure about overcoming your failures and how you can succeed again in the future, and I think the system made it so easy for me to put all these different, complex ideas that are usually so hard for me to put into words to play through and experience them,” Caulfield says. “As a queer person playing this game, I got to celebrate my identity through these characters, do all these cool things I wanted to do, especially when this superpower is intrinsically linked to something so important to you, and I hope that when people play my adventure or make their own adventures, that they see what I saw.”

“In RPGs, there is an almost bottomless capacity to build empathy,” Dickey says. “It’s one thing to read about someone with a different experience, and it’s another thing to become that person. Queer RPGs by queer creators give queer players and GMs room for self expression, but also give people who are not queer or may not know they’re queer yet the opportunity to explore that.”

A key component of building a fun, empathetic environment is considering safety. For Dickey, who has worked as a cultural consultant on several RPGs, one of the most heartbreaking things is when a game design team brings on a consultant too late. Although the family in Plant Girl Game is not intended to be an analog to being in a foster home, Dickey wanted their game to be safe and welcoming to players with those experiences, so they brought in cultural consultant Bee Zelda, working to ensure the family structure in the game felt comforting and kind without being the “traditional” nuclear family.

“I think of stories a lot as life rafts,” Dickey says. “If you’re going through a hard thing, a story can be what you latch on to get through that. When I was writing Plant Girl Game and thinking about the safety tools and character dynamics, I thought, How can I make this the coziest landing place possible for people who have their own stuff and get to play for escapism?

A larger version of the cropped image, showing more characters from the bead and breakfast. The include a Black person, a robot, a frog, and someone in a white mask.
Yazeba’s Bed & Breakfast
Image: Aster Santiago/Possum Creek Games

In Yazeba’s Bed & Breakfast, the safety tools are presented in a narrative voice, that of the character Hey Kid. Dragon says ideally, every aspect of a game’s design would have a mind toward safety — there are safety tools in Wanderhome, for example, that players wouldn’t immediately register as such. “If we could, we would have a page that just said ‘Be cool,’” Lavin says.

Dragon says part of making games about queer joy is “creating space for many spaces,” where people can have fun and goof around, but also be sad or angry or pained. “If you’re going to create a community space for love and care, it’s gotta hold space for many feelings,” Dragon says.

Dickey, who served as lead editor on Yazeba’s Bed & Breakfast, agrees that queer joy in TTRPGs is not without big feelings or conflict, but the conflict in that game, for example, mostly stems from the day-to-day realities of living in community and running a small business, not the characters’ identities.

“To me, queer joy, in TTRPGs specifically, but also in fiction, looks like escapism, it looks like imagining a kinder, more optimistic world, imagining a world where there are still problems but those problems aren’t inherently due to queerphobia,” they say. “I think Plant Girl Game is a good balance of that that I’m very proud of because it’s meant to be very cozy and very safe, but there’s this threat of ecological disaster. It’s not a perfect world, but it’s a much kinder world.”

Fans of Queerz! have made a home on Discord, where they can discuss the game and find groups to play. Moshe says he’s excited to see the characters and adventures fans start creating when the full version is released. “People have already made some characters — for me, that’s a big moment,” Moshe says. “We’re also looking forward to hearing from the community what they want to hear next and how they want to interact with this universe.”

For Jay Dragon, the community of play around a tabletop game is just as important as the game itself. The full digital version of Yazeba’s Bed & Breakfast from One More Multiverse, an interactive, online platform for TTRPGs, is expected to arrive in March 2023 and the full book in August 2023, but the community around Yazeba’s Bed & Breakfast is already growing, from Possum Creek’s Discord to Tumblr to the game’s first jam running now through Sept. 15 — there’s even fanfiction about it on AO3.

The Possum Creek Games team sees the play community as the “heart of the game” and seeks to uplift it, and that includes practical support for the creative community — it’s created third-party licenses to give creators the capacity to create supplements or fan works based on their games, and created the Haeth Grant, which provides material support to small creators wanting to create projects (playbooks, settings, etc.) related to Possum Creek’s marquee title, Wanderhome. (The grant is not currently accepting applications at time of writing.) Lavin says to support the next generation of creators, the best thing to do is “hand them money,” and to provide “a space to talk about their ideas and feel like they matter.”

“Ultimately, I don’t care about the games I make as much as the games people make because of the games I make,” Dragon says. “I do this because someone’s going to read that book and have an idea that’s going to knock my socks off. That’s the magic part.”