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The Contract

Kinky Sex and Killing Orcs: Character as Role

by J.S. Majer
September 13, 2001  

"Tomorrow, we can play the Rape of Lucretia - and I'll be Lucretia, and you can be Rape." -The Producers

There is, you do realize, more than one sort of role playing out there. A friend of mine caused a mite bit of chaos in my life when he forgot that fact. When I started to ponder the dual nature to the wording, it was more for the aerobatics of column writing. After all, the two are not typically associated with one another. However, in the process of writing this column I discovered that looking at the way sexual role playing works explains an awful lot of things.

In some ways the slight glee of running into role playing in an unsuspecting place, like the newspaper or the classroom or television (sufficing it is not mauled too seriously) should make us proud. Yet, I suspect there are readers out there who are seriously mollified by the idea of sexual role play, and detest that form of degradation has the same name as this respectable hobby. And that both are role play! A terrible misnomer. Model U.N., now that is respectable, and even though it is role playing it is not called so, while people dressing up as prostitutes to have their lovers pretend to hire them is?

Say we took a session of Model U.N., and compared it to role playing games at large. Model U.N. is a LARP, a freeform, theater-style, high-context, high-politics LARP. Come to think of it, the people who ran the simulations I have taken place in could stand to learn a few tricks from a good LARP Referee. But it is definable, and clearly so. What about sexual role play? The analogy is unclear. You might get away with calling it a boffer LARP, but we can do better.

The easiest way to get out of this dilemma is to use a semantic argument. There is a difference between role playing and a role playing game. Both are, essentially, make-believe, but that term is too context laden to use with any ease. So people use the term role playing. For once in my life, I am going to dismiss the semantic argument outright. There might be something to it, but the problem is you could quite easily call both types games, it just depends on a definition of game. I prefer to focus on the fact that both entities have a similarity of name, and go from there.

For the uninitiated, sexual role play could be thought of as acting out porn. The point is to take some sort of fantasy, sometimes Wonderbread in its clich-ness, and act it out. "You be the failing student, and I'll be the professor," or "you be the escaped convict, and I'll be the lonely trucker," or "you be the patient, and I'll be the kindly medical official." Sexual role play is frequently toted about as a solution to bed death, something to bring a new level of verve and vigor to the relationship. It serves to work out all those desires to cheat, because at that time your partner becomes another person.

Furthermore, people do have fantasies, and while it is unlikely that the pizza delivery girl is going to show up naked and willing, it is possible to have happen if you play it out with your partner. Some of those fantasies can get pretty bizarre and specific, like "you be an eighty-year old French prostitute, and I'll be Alan Greenspan," or "you be the sailor whose been at war for a decade, and I'll be the immortal nymph." While there is a slim chance the odd cute traveling salesman might show up at your farm, most other fantasies are beyond possibly. So sexual role play is the best way to exorcize them.

Besides, quite a few fantasies are somewhat shady, for lack of a better term. Yes, you may have a rape fantasy, but it is not a good idea to wander around trying to get raped. Yes, you may want to have a sixteen year old chained up in the basement as a gimp, but such is thankfully illegal. But someone who is role playing the situation gets a taste of things safely and without breaking any laws or hurting anyone who is unwilling to be hurt. A couple bags of ice, some blue lipstick and an understanding partner is a lot better for all parties involved then someone getting a job at a funeral home for one bad reason.

Admittedly this is an ultra-rough exposition, but what is the connection? How did the two get almost the same name? Proposing some sort of connection based on the dominatrices of Lake Geneva would not only be misguided, but also quickly get me to court. It is easy to just launch off a blanket statement that the names are bad. The only way to tell whether the definitions are bad or not is to look at what role playing means. Just those two words, taken in and of themselves.

Typically, role and character are relatively synonymous concepts. A role in a play is which character someone is playing. But role has other meanings as well. These other meanings are evident in the other ways we use the word. I can write about the role of the weather on human history, or someone's role in a company, both meaning function. This holds for theater as well, because, as I wrote before, identity is action. Someone's role in a play is the function they serve for the play, their job if you will. The Antagonist, the villain, the one whose job it is to frustrate the Protagonist in her assigned rounds. If a story is a machine, role is a way of describing just how all the parts work, which gear is what.

What should be remarkable about role in sexual role play is its lack of character, quite contrary to our experiences in role playing games. To the extent that we are acting out a role in a role playing game, that role is always defined first and foremost in terms of the characters that we have. A role in a role playing game is the character chosen to be played.

This is not the case for sexual role play. Is the lonely housewife a character? Maybe, but only in a redundant sense that it is a role in sexual role play. It lacks all the action and definition of characterization, and remains only in the realm of idea. It is archetypical as opposed to factual. If you were told to play the role of the lonely housewife, you would know how to play it even though the details: why the housewife is lonely, what her history is, what else goes on in her life, even though we could all play the lonely housewife. We understand what the role means, even though there are many different interpretations of character so as to fit that role.

Other examples can get even further out. After all, the lonely housewife does bespeak a few irrevocable facts, mainly that the lonely housewife is a she, married and stuck at home. The hitchhiker and the trucker know no bounds. They can be played with different genders, sexual orientations, ages, pursuers or situations. Of course the game can change differently in nature based on these picks, but the game remains the same.

I would seem to be saying that sexual role play is the truer form of role play. This is not quite true. I would never want to claim one way of play was "truer" than the other, and not out of some namby-pamby toe-avoiding sentiment. Consider the class.

The whole issue of class-based or points-based is an interesting split, but far too polemical for a quick discussion. But classes are roles, defining a character much in the same way that sexual role play defines character: loosely. Two fourteenth level paladins could be as different as night and day in terms of character - personality, beliefs and goals - even though they fulfilled the exact same roles. They are statistically identical. They have the same job. They are the archetype that is paladin.

On the other hand, there have come about what I like to call "tribe-based" systems, point based systems that force an allegiance for the sake of power division and understandability. For tribe-based systems, think White Wolf. Tribe defines character. Two Gangrel are not so recognizably similar by their abilities as much so as their personalities. The have a unity of thought, which is how we know to recognize them as the same. That aberrations can exist means there is a status quo to be towed.

That most of the original role playing games were class based, it makes sense that the notion of role playing should spring to mind as a concept. They were playing roles, and then characters. The name has stuck, and with good reason. Roles cannot be destroyed, only sublimed. Even when you get rid of classes, you are still stuck with roles. Someone is going to have to be the fighter.

In sexual role play the first and foremost thing is the role, and it is around the role that everything else goes. It is one of the less often toted good aspects of a class-based system. While it may seem dumb to put people into categories, doing so is part and parcel of a good story, almost a natural development of one. Actually, I suspect that a point based system that figured out how to smoothly (imperative word there) implement roles within a point-based character design would be the best way.

However, at the point that you start playing the Orc and the Princess, the Primogen and the Whip, or Eliminster and Volo you're on your own. It's really best that way. I mean, when you start getting sex tips from an RPG site, there's some trouble brewing. Although, I have to add that if it seems odd to take cues about how role playing games work from sexual role play, remember that the names, being similar, underlies another important truth. While everyone does things that hinge on role playing, we, us and them, are the ones who have spent good money, hours of time or made careers out of role play. To the proverbial street man, both forms of role play are equally as deviant.

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