For some, a home is four walls and a roof. For Arwen Canino-Fluit, a senior linguistics and gender studies double major, it’s at a table surrounded by friends, narrating the next hair-raising adventure as they complete quests and defeat evil, becoming inseparable along the way.
As a queer person, Canino-Fluit had never expected to find a home at a table with scribbled notes and haphazardly-cast dice. Role Playing Games (RPGs) became a safe-place for him, one that made trying out new pronouns, genders and love interests easier than in real life. Quickly, the games became an integral part of his life.
“I don’t want to live my life without RPGs. I can’t imagine it,” Canino-Fluit said.
Canino-Fluit is not alone in his experience. In a world that often marginalizes queer people and their experiences, fictional realms created by a party of players allow for exploration and self-expression. For Canino-Fluit, playing these games means that he’s creating a world made by and for queer people. This aspect of pretend worlds appeals to queer people specifically because it’s in opposition to a world that is oppressive towards LGBTQIA people.
Canino-Fluit was seeking out pretend worlds as a safe harbor long before picking up a Dungeons & Dragons player’s manual. “I was the kid who played pretend, you know?”
He recalls his natural inclination towards the imaginary as a child, always inventing new worlds and creating stories out of nothing. Recess was a time for magic wands made from sticks casting spells on dangerous monsters.
But the first time he ever considered adding structure to his play-pretend worlds was after watching other people play RPGs online. Professional campaigns such as Critical Role sparked an interest that was lying just under the surface.
After begging his dad to play as Dungeon Master, the narrator of the game, and dragging his friends to play, Canino-Fluit had successfully established his first campaign. That first session began something Canino-Fluit had no idea was coming. He fell in love with the storytelling and the ability to create new worlds.
It was the first session of hundreds to come as Canino-Fluit found game after game and played session after session. For him, it was less of a choice and more of an inevitability, a natural part of his life.
“I’m an artist. I’m a writer. I’m a storyteller” he said.
It’s that same draw towards the imaginary that pulled Canino-Fluit into SBU Tabletop Club. As the event coordinator, he’s creating the same atmosphere that he found in that first game. Having a community of players is indispensable to him, something he says that he can’t imagine living without, and he’s trying to pass that love of RPGs on to every player.
SBU Tabletop President Divine Charles shares a similar sentiment when it comes to the draw of the game. The decision to keep playing was as simple and unquestionable as it was for Canino-Fluit. “I just feel so happy,” he says. There was no other choice. The love for the game was instantaneous and perpetual.
While imaginary worlds can be as accepting as the players make them, the outside world can be anything but. In 2022, almost 240 anti-LGBTQIA bills have been introduced to state legislature. This number has skyrocketed from just 41 in 2018 and will likely increase in the future. A significant amount of these bills target teenagers and young adults, making the real world a difficult place for young queer people to exist.
Rey Scocchi, who has been playing with Canino-Fluit for years, expressed the core of what makes RPGs home for them. “Table have been really helpful for me in finding and exploring aspects of myself,” Scocchi said. Role-playing is a way to let out parts of yourself that aren’t always accepted in real life. “It’s fun to play a neurotic cleric, it’s not fun to be a neurotic coworker.”
Canino-Fluit notes that, for him, there’s a safety vector in creating a new identity in a make-believe world. Players can try out new pronouns, new genders and new names in their characters without the pressure of making a change in real life.
Looking back at his early games, Canino-Fluit points to expressions of gender in his own characters that he didn’t understand at the time. One of his first characters, a bearded lady, shocks him today. “That was an expression of gender dysphoria,” he says, reflecting back on it. Those earliest expressions of gender in a fantasy world hit truer than he had ever intended. Exploring his gender in a safe space, one that encouraged adopting different identities and appearances, helped him explore his gender in the real world as well.
RPGs also provide a freedom from the constructs of the binaries that rule our society. Canino-Fluit comes alight when discussing the gender options in Dream Askew, which range from Female to Gargoyle to Ice Femme. It speaks to a deeper understanding of gender identity, one that is innately and truly felt by the player. By picking a gender that feels more accurate than the binary labels, players forge their own place in their world.
Of course, RPGs also draw in queer people because of the community they provide. Campaigns, which can run for years, create camaraderie between players. Fighting alongside each other in the game builds bonds in real life as well. In a world where 40% of all homeless youth are queer, these games provide a found family build on respect and trust.
Sean Yang, a senior computer science major who frequently plays with Canino-Fluit, says that there’s something special about playing with a group.
“We end up creating a fun experience that’s better than the sum of its parts,” Yang said.
Because this camaraderie is what brought Canino-Fluit into the RPG world as a queer teenager, he has constantly sought out new games that encourage interpersonal bonds. He mentions his favorite games, Thirsty Sword Lesbians, Dialect and Dream Apart, which spawned out of more popular RPGs and became their own creations. These underground, indie games focus less on fighting, unlike D&D, and more on the relationships between characters. The emotional stakes, not the blood and gore fighting, are what draw him in.
Canino-Fluit also embraces indie RPGs because of the overtly-queer storylines and the focus on diversity. While D&D has a racist and sexist past that still haunts today’s version, plenty of newer games are made by and for queer people. It’s a different experience to have queer storylines be built into the world rather than to have to craft them in a space they were never intended to be.
In the future, Canino-Fluit hopes that more games embrace players like him, shag mullet and crystal necklaces included. It’s a world he’s found so much freedom in and one that has so much safety to offer, if only players choose to embrace it.