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FEATURE: SEX, RPGS, AND THE HARLOT TABLE

Mary Hamilton finds that sex, in fantasy RPGs, can get really, really messy…

Let’s get something clear right from the start. This article is going to contain references to anal circumference, being sexually aroused by candles, non-consensual sexual encounters, and copious use of the word “harlot”. I’m sorry in advance.

So, Dungeons and Dragons is a high fantasy role-playing game that’s played by groups sat around a table, pretending to be characters inhabiting a world of magic, taverns and mythical beasts. Random encounters and other interesting random effects are fairly frequent occurrences. The rule books are full of tables that let you roll a 20-sided die to find out how much treasure there is in a room, or what sort of monster attacks the players on their way through Gribbly Dark-wood, or what that mysterious magical artefact actually does. 

In the first edition of D&D, along with wasp lobsters, owlbears and animated murderous bridges, there was the harlot table.

You enter a tavern. Your games master rolls two 10-sided dice, and you’re confronted with one of 12 harlot options. You can have a cheap trollop, a saucy tart or even, if you’re very lucky, a rich panderer. My personal favourite, the haughty courtesan, shows up on a roll of 86-90. The rulebook helpfully mentions that harlots have a 30% chance of knowing valuable information, 15% likely to make something up for a reward, and 20% likely to be, or work with, a thief - wouldn’t want you to think they were only there for one thing, after all. The game leaves it quietly up to you, the players, to work out how precisely you’re going to role-play the encounter if you do decide to try and have sex.

These days, now that it’s widely acknowledged that female gamers are not akin to unicorns, the harlot table is jarring to come across. It feels subtly archaic, representative of an attitude that women didn’t really belong in the D&D universe, or that when they did appear they were somehow special. Since these harlot archetypes were invented, we’ve had dozens of sex-at-the-gaming-table jokes, and the random approach seems kind of quaint.

Certainly, it does in comparison with some of the things that have followed it. FATAL, a one-man epic high-fantasy rules-packed game that manages to be entirely, 100%, utterly creepy and wrong in literally every way you can imagine and probably about 47 more that would never have crossed your mind.

For instance - the spells. Where D&D has fireballs and magic missiles, FATAL has spells that transform any bodily orifice into both an anus and a mouth at the same time, and spells that force women’s vulvas to swell and may make them incapable of standing up. Then there’s the series of complicated equations you use to work out the precise tightness - and hence pleasure - of any given sexual encounter. And the fact you can sacrifice people with mental disabilities in order to gain magical power. And the fact that the lowest possible score for vocal charisma in the game gives you a rating of “gay”. (I mean, it’s not like any gay men have ever been particularly charismatic. Whatever happened to that Graham Norton bloke, anyway?)

Issues of consent can get complicated at the gaming table. Sample thought process: would my character have sex with your character? I mean, I don’t want to have sex with you at all, but my character’s kind of pushy and a total ladies’ man and yours is a lady with, like, 18 charisma. But if my character comes on to your character and you say yes does that mean we’re going to be talking squelchy bits, because I don’t really wanna do that with you because you’re my best mate’s girlfriend …

But there’s nothing complicated about FATAL. Rape is part of the game - so much so that there’s a handy table that lets you check out the potential penis size of any given race, compare it with the possible anal circumference of your character, and decide precisely how much damage the random encounter did in physical terms.

The point where your brain literally melts and falls out of your ears, though, is the table you roll on if you mis-cast a spell. Possible results include itchy buttocks, being sexually aroused by candles, being forced to try and fist-fuck the next woman you see, the appearance of a magical 3ft 10in dildo that tries to rape pretty characters, and your guts falling right out of your arse. Oh, and becoming a serial rapist.

The sad thing about FATAL isn’t so much its existence (which is pretty fucking sad, don’t get me wrong) but the fact that it’s possible for tabletop games to do sex well. The harlot table didn’t just spawn abominations made of rape jokes and fail - it also gave birth to the Book of Erotic Fantasy which, while schmaltzy as hell in places, manages to make D&D sex an interesting option without invoking the ick factor. And there are games like Boy X Girl, based loosely on anime conventions, where one player plays a shy high school girl and other players play 3-5 boys vying for her affections.

The harlot table managed to introduce sex into a fantasy world where magic exists, where spells can change the shape, size and appearance of a person. It also put sex squarely into the context of the gaming room, and gently nudged open the door that led to games that explore sexual themes gently, in interesting ways that push boundaries without involving giant ogre dong. And it’s paved the way for deeply upsetting monsters in horror games like Fear Itself, playing on themes of consent and motherhood and unwanted sexualisation. It’s enabled tabletop gaming to grow up and get some serious adult themes, and for those of us who love the medium, that’s definitely a good thing.

Shame we had to go through such a lot of ogre dong to get here.