Why Some NPCs in Your Strixhaven Game Should Be Queer—Even If They Don’t ‘Need’ To Be
Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos for Dungeons & Dragons casts the player characters as students at a magical university and includes many of the aspects of university life, such as needing a job and forming relationships. Some of those relationships are good, others not-so-good, and still others…not so clear. Towards those ends, the book presents optional rules for things like work and extracurricular activities and building and maintaining relationships. It also includes a set of nonplayer characters (NPCs in common gaming parlance) that the player characters can get to know over their four years at Strixhaven including, potentially, as romantic interests, although the actual rules are deliberately vague in terms of what “beloved” status means in terms of a relationship, apart from the intensity of the feelings involved.
In order to maximize their “availability,” the relationship characters in Strixhaven have what I like to call “Schrödinger’s orientation.” Like the theoretical cat that is both alive and dead until you open the box to look, the NPCs are of indeterminate romantic and sexual orientation until a player character expresses an interest in them, at which point their orientation at least includes that player character. They are designed as “blank slates” the players can project their interests onto, as is often the case for “romanceable” characters in video games. While I don’t think straight and queer characters are necessarily interchangeable (we have different life experiences—although that’s a whole different essay) I do think this is a reasonable and efficient approach when having only limited space to describe potential supporting characters—short of having to detail Strixhaven’s entire diverse student body.
That said, there is a tendency in our culture, a pull towards heteronormativity, towards “default straightness.” That is to say, in much of Western culture, particularly American culture, people are assumed straight unless “proven” otherwise and an “indeterminate” orientation can sometimes be unconsciously pre-determined. If, for some reason, there are no potential non-heterosexual romances or relationships within your Strixhaven campaign, there may be a tendency to simply flip all of the remaining NPCs to that assumed “default” straight setting.
I’m going to ask you to consider not doing that, and here’s why: It’s unrealistic.
Yes, yes, I know. I’m bringing up realism in a game involving talking owl-people, spirit-possessed statues, and a magic school founded by dragons. Nevertheless, while “realism” is sometimes used as a cudgel in the RPG hobby to browbeat people with supposed notions about medieval culture or mores (usually not ones based in actual historical research) that’s not what I mean. In this case I’m talking about simple statistical realities.
Given that queer people exist in the world (and on the campus) of Strixhaven and throughout the D&D multiverse and given there are sixteen detailed nonplayer characters for the player characters to get to know over the course of their school careers, realism says that at least some of them must be queer, right? (Indeed, one of them is most definitely transgender and another nonbinary.) Even if there’s no particular chance of some of those characters having a romance with a player character, some of those NPCs must still be queer, right? So I recommend that, as your Strixhaven campaign progresses, and romantic interests and relationships start to sort themselves out, consider deliberately and overtly shifting some of the NPCs from the assumed “straight” column to openly LGBTQ+ in some fashion, whether they’re being romanced or not. Indeed, just because an NPC is involved in an opposite-sex relationship doesn’t mean they can’t also be queer: bisexual and pansexual people exist, and do not stop being who they are just because they’re in an opposite-sex relationship. Likewise, some people are polyamorous, and not just because they’re looking to stack up beloved boons.
Why? Again, because it’s realistic. The player characters in a Strixhaven campaign are going to have a diverse group of friends, acquaintances and, yes, rivals and frenemies, and some of them should be queer. Even if some of the relationships between player characters and nonplayer characters in your campaign are not heterosexual, some of the “unattached” NPCs may still be queer, because queer people also just exist, and we have queer friends, acquaintances (and, yes, rivals and frenemies) without necessarily being romantically involved with them. Indeed, some of those unattached or uninvolved NPCs might even be asexual or aromantic.
To limit the decision about which Strixhaven NPCs are queer solely to the player characters’ romantic interests is to fall back on that tired notion that LGBTQ+ characters need a “reason” for their sexual and romantic orientation or gender identity, something that “furthers the plot,” when no such demand is ever made of straight, cisgender characters. Like all of the various other qualities that describe us as individuals, gender and sexuality are not “plot” but character development and fictional queer people do not need a “reason to exist” any more than real queer people do. We simply are.
Therefore, as you read Strixhaven: A Cirriculum of Chaos and prepare to run it for your players, consider adding some “needless queers” to your game’s narrative. It’s realistic, it’s inclusive, and you may find that it paints a more detailed picture for the players of a larger and more nuanced world—and isn’t that the kind of broadening experience university is all about?
(* I use the word “queer” to mean “non heterosexual and/or non cisgender” and have done so for well over 25 years now. I find it simpler and more inclusive than the LGBTQIAA+ or “QUILTBAG” abbreviation. I understand some people find “queer” a slur, or have experienced it as such (as I have), and I respect if they prefer not to claim it, but I feel it is a term we have reclaimed and made our own and use it as such.)