"The Bitch Rule" and Monsterhearts: Modern Queering of Tabletop Games

Curator's Note

The current resurgence of tabletop gaming is in no small part a reflection of the queering of table top game design. A common refrain among old-school adherents to Dungeons & Dragons, for instance, is that the newest 5th edition game is less geared toward the power gamer or toward the deep dungeon dive and more geared toward the narrative-driven or casual player.

Monsterhearts by Buried Without Ceremony is a game that is by design queered. It promotes sexual and gender expression, non-expression, or exploration as a game mechanic and as an in-game skill set. Evoking and countering some of the transactional-sex-tropes expressed in earlier D&D books and going back to at least the early 90's. 

While casual may not be quite the right word, there is some truth to this narrative shift, in that modern tabletop gaming reflects a shift away from a competition-oriented design towards something more geared toward the development of narrative and cooperative world building. For evidence of this, one need look no further than "the sex book."

Some version of The Dungeons and Dragons guide book to sex has existed for several decades, but the version I'm using here as a comparison point is "For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge: The Complete Guide to AD&D Sex Created for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons" system text by Reid Bluebaugh. Inherent to the design of the game itself is an adversarial tinge, what shows itself in the design of STIs as sexual hazards, competitive rules to determine “success” and “failure” at sex, and even a calculable “bitchiness score” for NPCs that the ostensibly male players try to seduce. Given the fact that contracting “bitchamania” or Bitchy Magical Syndrom (B.M.S.) is also a possibility, but only for female characters, the expectation that all players are male and straight makes itself very clear.

Monsterhearts was released in its original iteration in 2016. This game is effectively a serial storytelling game, where players take on the role of characters in a Buffy-style high school and explore supernatural powers and burgeoning sexuality. An update released recently contains supplements with more alternative sexual identities and gender identities than the first batch, including Safe-Hearts on consent. Now, the original was quite inclusive, but the author was concerned it was not inclusive enough, so they took active steps steps to open up the design even further.

The roots of games studies flow from Johan Huizinga (1938), from his formative text Homo Ludens. In it, he discusses how players, cultural conditions and the space of play interact with one another, negotiating the rules that result in the development of the conceptual “game.” The more freeform “play” happens, but gets closed off through the codification of specific rules that must be followed based on prior gameplay. Players make the game every time they play, because they keep adding their ideas and their rules, until there is one set of rules and one way to engage.

The former game in this instance is the original Dungeons & Dragons, where play has been opened up through the shifted emphasis on narrative construction and audience engagement. These games are queered because of this change in emphasis, and because that change in emphasis focuses on a prior cultural barrier, sexual expression. Tabletop games are opening up, even in the original, “old school” case of Dungeons and Dragons for pen and paper games, but a big part of that opening up is the other games people are making to break the rules and allow for more play, and fewer rules about what being "bitchy" means.

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