Shattering the sexual skyhook: A review of Numenera’s Love and Sex in the Ninth World

Love-and-Sex-CoverFor a genre made up of nothing but imagination, many roleplaying games (RPGs) have shown a startling lack of it when it comes to reimagining social relations. Instead of giving players something wild and new to sink their teeth into, the escapism has always had a rather reductive and puerile bend to it at its worst when it comes to gender, sex, and even race. The construction of all the foregoing in most roleplaying games takes the shape of what I call a “skyhook society,” a world with social relations that are not well supported by what the history, lore, magic, or culture of the setting would make possible. If the world is clearly patriarchal, as many are, there is little to no political or historical explication of it; it’s taken for granted. Meanwhile, the minutiae of a random mushroom’s ecology may rate several paragraphs of elaboration. (No offence to mycology fans; I actually adore mushrooms and fully support fungal nerdery).

It is unfortunate because this social aspect is the warp and weft of these worlds, and often the raison d’etre for playing in the first place; the relationships between characters, their cultures, and their environments provide the electric frisson that makes for a mile-deep investment in the characters you and your friends play.

You could be forgiven for not noticing that, however, if you roamed the danker corners of some online RPG fan forums. It is not uncommon for men in such forums to bloviate about how the social and relational dimension of roleplaying games is a mere distraction from the good, honest work of slaying monsters in a dungeon. But they reserve special ire for romance: sex, partnership, lust, and love are poison to any “true” RPG, they say, and are the stuff of horny teenagers, girly men, and romance-novel besotted women.

There is always a gendered dimension to this sort of thing, reinscribing the old pattern of men insecure in their masculinity warding off any meaningful discussion of sex and sexuality as if it were an existential threat to all they hold dear.

Mind you, I’m not opposed to a good old fashioned dungeon crawl; sometimes you just need a grim-dark Goblin kill-fest at the end of a long day. Who am I to judge? What I find troubling is the way that such play is often situated among certain male gamers as the Platonic ideal of roleplay, however, and the ugly gendered overtones that is given (killing = manly = good; romantic feel feels = girly = hells no).

There are a variety of other valid ways of approaching the question of how to roleplay that merit the attention of game designers. This is one of many areas where Monte Cook’s stunningly imaginative Numenera RPG shines with a lovely light.

Rolling for Initiative in Game Design

This new crowdfunded independent RPG is set one billion years in Earth’s future. Eight hyper advanced civilizations, not all of them human, have risen and fallen in the intervening geological time and the game is set in the “Ninth World,” a quasi-Medieval setting whose “magic” arises from the scattered artifacts of high technology from ages past (the eponymous ‘numenera’). One of my favorite details is that “deities” in this setting are, essentially, rogue AIs that gained sentience and still exist in the wi-fi-like internet left behind by those past civilizations. The game’s enchanting alchemy of sci-fi and fantasy, with a dash of cyberpunk, leaves an impression that glows as warmly as the core rulebook’s sun-drenched cover.

That core rulebook—the 400 page behemoth that lays out the rules and preliminary details of the Ninth World setting and gameplay—only briefly mentions sex and gender arrangements with a parenthetical aside about all “orientations” being represented in the world’s population, and the passive implication of gender equity sprinkled throughout the detailed descriptions about various cultures and personages of import. That’s where writer, and lead editor Shanna Germain’s excellent 13 page supplement Love and Sex in the Ninth World comes in.

Numenera CoverThis full color supplement, produced and distributed as a licensed Monte Cook Games book, goes a long way to breaking the silence around its titular subject matter—a silence that has prevailed for too long in the copious texts of tabletop roleplaying.

In its preamble, Germain is after my own social-scientist’s heart:

“When bringing love and sex into a game, it’s important to remember that most of our modern-day sensibilities about those topics don’t carry over into Numenera. Because people of the Ninth World don’t have the same cultural norms, pressures, and expectations that we do today, they have very different views of relationships and sex.”

With these two sentences she actually goes further than the vast majority of roleplaying games in considering how a wildly different, fantasy society, might have rather different norms and mores about sex and gender. Germain breaks a lot of gaming taboos about discussing sex/sexuality and integrating them into the game world.

Breaths of fresh air abound in her discussion of gender as well, illustrating how the numenera can be and are used to change one’s body, for example. In giving samples of lore one can use in a Ninth World game, she describes a city where people we would think of as men can become pregnant, or—channelling Ursula K. LeGuin—the Isle of Issak where three genders, none of which “align to what we would traditionally think of as male or female,” exist.

The book goes into great detail about a variety of courtship rituals, story or adventure ideas that involve romance and/or sex, and offers creative insights on how the gamemaster should negotiate with players on dealing with these titillating and thorny issues. In the process, Germain shows off her talents as a designer quite nimbly, giving out advice that simply and elegantly addresses itself to player discomfort while avoiding lending credence to prejudicial attitudes. She writes:

“When a game involves sex, it can bring out the worst in players who have misogynistic, homophobic, or sexual issues. Players who are derogatory or negative about sexuality in general, specific sexual practices, gender, or sexual orientation can make the game a bad experience for everyone at the table. Consider how to handle them, whether that means having a conversation about their behavior and its repercussions, asking them to leave the group, or keeping the subject out of the game.”

This is a useful piece of advice to be quite sure, but for those inured in gaming mores it’s a surprisingly radical statement for how it refuses to assume that the “sexual issues” and prejudices she describes are normal. She situates such players as potentially troublesome people who need to be reasoned with, but not the normal or ideal gamer. She places such people where they belong: as one of many in a pantheon of possible players, whose prejudices can injure the gaming experience.

Germain shows a concomitant path towards improving it, meanwhile. Her advice about setting boundaries, having open and honest conversations with players about introducing sexual content, and gaining consent from players before imposing sexual scenes on their characters all model excellent and sensible behavior; it is a timely reminder that the monster in the shadows some gamers imagine sex to be is, in truth, elegantly humane.

One of the aforementioned sex toys, complete with stats (pronouns are alternated throughout the text; this listing happened to use male ones).

One of the aforementioned sex toys, complete with stats (pronouns are alternated throughout the text; this listing happened to use male ones).

The Organically Sexual Society

Everything gets its due here, from BDSM-style numenera, to thoughtful reflections on how love and/or a good sex life can boost character stats, to ways of thinking about sensuality as a religious practise. STDs even rate a mention. But the book’s great strength is as a quiet, well-written treatise on the merits of sexual roleplay, and why it should be accorded an equal place at the gaming table. In considering everything from gender identity, to sex, to orientation, to pregnancy, to sex work, Germain argues that characters become more than mere rolls of dice, but “someone with motivations, deep emotions, and vulnerabilities.” Like me, she argues that there is no intrinsic need for this sort of content in an RPG, but that nothing is lost and everything is gained by experimenting with it: “characters can make decisions and take actions based on emotions rather than on the random toss of dice,” allowing for a more “natural, intuitive storyline to develop.”

Crucially, this all grows organically from the world and does not feel in any sense tacked on; it emerges from the lore of this universe, and quite sensibly from the details of the various cultures provided. It is not only a celebration, of course. The Ninth World’s ugly social pathologies, like its slave economy, give rise to sexual exploitation and coercion, whose impact on the setting is also discussed openly here—as are attempts at resistance. It is unsparing and insightful in its analysis; sex, as a feature of this world, is demonstrably good and evil, and our games can be richer for considering it.

Nothing in this book feels tiresomely puerile, unlike so much wasteful onanism that lacked the courage to name itself in past RPGs, male-gaze and all. Sex, sexuality, and gender here feel fantastically diverse and discomfiting in an especially beautiful way—enticing and exciting without falling back on porn clichés. Many people can write an RPG; few can make it sing.

From her imaginative Castle of Corriere, whose “high-end sex parties” attract a sensual gender-bending clientele, to a panoply of transgender conceptions, to exotic sex toys, Shanna Germain acquits herself with aplomb and in the process may help to bring one of my most beloved hobbies into a more mature, sociologically rich future.

Related:
Not buying sexism: How inclusive games show hope for gaming culture
A song of faith and sexual fire: How roleplaying game religions work as moral tools

Katherine CrossKatherine Cross really wants to try the “stronglass sphere that vibrates at random intervals and frequencies” from page 13.

and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.

Feministing In Your Inbox

Sign up for our Newsletter to stay in touch with Feministing
and receive regular updates and exclusive content.

158 queries. 1.143 seconds