If you ask an average guy if they have ever pretended to be a woman, you will likely get punched. Ask a gamer and the reaction will be quite different. It is not uncommon for gamers to play characters opposite their own gender. Some it out of mechanical necessity, some for the roleplaying challenge and others just because they cannot imagine that character any other way. Whatever the reason, roleplaying outside your natural gender is a tricky thing and involves walking a narrow line.
Gender Archetype vs. Gender Stereotype
When inventing a character that is nothing like us, we tend to gravitate towards archetypes. For cross-gender archetypes men might go for the femme fatale or the overly protective motherly type. Women can make an a horn-dog hyper macho man or the socially awkward geek boy. This isn’t a bad place to begin thinking about a character, it’s just a bad place to stop. Chromosomes do not take the place of motives and history. Your character, male or female, is shaped by life events. Your gender may influence those events, but it is far from the whole story. A solid background provides makes an archetype into a real character.
In roleplaying we tend to go for extreme personalities. Characters might be lawful, honorable and chivalrous or they might be mad as a hatter. Whatever they are, they are something big. This is great for creating great scenes at the table and being memorable, but it doesn’t handle subtlety very well. In playing your first cross gender character, I recommend moderation. Playing a fanatic or other extreme personality is fun, but it overrides the more subtle gender differences. Does it make that big a difference character-wise if you paranoid delusional warlock is a man or woman?
Start with something more simple, get into the mind set of the other gender first before going big. You can always develop your character or play a new one later on. Master the basic before moving on.
Victims of Society
If you go into a deeper character background, don’t forget the influence of society. I don’t just mean “oh, a medival-ish society was probably oppressive to women”. You D&D game may have the same tech level, but it is not Europe in the middle ages. D&D has female gods, magic and constant threat of monsters. Did priestesses have a special station? Was there a stereotype that men make inferior sorcerers? Did women frequently take over the estates of their slain male loved ones? Gender relations could be completely different in your campaign, collaborate with your DM! And don’t be afraid to make things unfair or biased against your gender. Being the underdog can be fun!
Remember not be human-centric. Drow males are going to be treated much differently than human males in their societies. Dragonborn women might have a very different experience than human ones. Odds are good your DM has not even given thought to a lot of it, so you have leeway to write your own society. If you want to say that your character’s home pack of razorclaw shifters was matriarchal and polygomist, you’ve just created hooks for both genders.
What Not to Do
It would be negligent to not refer you the D&D gaming comedy “The Gamers: Dorkness Rising”. That movie features a character who does everything wrong in playing an opposite gender character.
Have you played a character outside your gender? Share your stories in the comments!