by Lee Gold
Originally published in Interactive Fantasy #4, 1995.

Most of the time I approach roleplaying as an amateur. I game master a monthly game for roleplaying friends. I publish ALARUMS AND EXCURSIONS\ a monthly APA (amateur press association) for roleplaying gamers. I have also written some professional RPG products, mainly sourcebooks: LAND OF THE RISING SUN (FGU), GURPS JAPAN (SJG) and VIKINGS (ICE).

I have never received any explicit order from any publisher or editor to censor any elements from these sourcebooks. I got the idea all on my own that Fantasy Games Unlimited, Steve Jackson Games, and Iron Crown Enterprises didn't want my sourcebooks to include even a few paragraphs about Japanese or Norse attitudes towards homosexuality. So, even though my researches indicated this was a significant aspect of the culture, I didn't touch it in my books.

It wasn't that I was unwilling to disagree with my publishers. My Vikings sourcebook occasioned a long though friendly argument with my editor about Viking attacks on castles. My source material seemed to agree that Vikings had been unwilling to assault even a minimal motte and bailey castle, let alone more elaborate fortifications. We eventually compromised on the statement, "the raiders would ride inland, pillaging but steering clear of castles and other fortified areas....However, a few adventurous Viking relished the challenge of storming a motte and bailey castle, which bore little resemblance to the grand stone edifices which would tower above the fields and towns of Europe centuries later."

Eventually it occurred to me to wonder whether I'd been wrong to ignore cultural attitudes towards homosexuality. So when I next spoke to management people at my various publishers, I asked them. They said they were very glad I hadn't included the material, and -- yes, indeed -- if I had, it would have been deleted. RPG publishers don't boggle at gaming material featuring amoral bloodshed, torture, drug addiction, vampires, succubi (all strictly heterosexual, in every piece of artwork I've seen), and even demons -- but homosexuality seems to be beyond the pale.

Of course, this doesn't apply to all RPG publishers. For example, when White Wolf asked me to write a piece on modern Oriental vampires (included in the first edition of A WORLD OF DARKNESS), I prefaced the rules and cultural background with a story in which an American tourist (from San Francisco) has erotic encounters with a male gaki (vampire) and a female shapechanging cat. The piece was narrated in the first person, and my accompanying note begged that if it were illustrated, the artist leave the character's sex undefined so readers would be left uncertain which encounter had been same-sex.

I'd read White Wolf's VAMPIRE: THE MASQUERADE rulebooks and figured they wouldn't mind -- and they didn't. The rest of my piece didn't mention changing attitudes towards homosexuality over Japanese history (which would certainly show up in immortal vampire society, drawn from many different generations) -- and they didn't ask me to detail them. (They did ask for a rewrite on a couple of other items.)

Even though all this has been self-censorship -- based on (apparently accurate) perceptions of publishers' attitudes, it's beginning to get frustrating. I was delighted to find that, thanks to Interactive Fantasy, there was now a forum in which I could discuss how medieval Japanese and Norse attitudes towards homosexuality might affect roleplaying games set in those cultures.


I haven't encountered any material documenting, or even alluding to, lesbianism in medieval Japan. Ivan Morris notes in The World of the Shining Prince, his sourcebook on the ninth century Heian period: "Homosexual relations among the court ladies were probably quite common as in any society where women are obliged to live in continuous and close proximity...but...I have found no specific evidence." Of course, the court ladies' "continuous and close proximity" was tempered by frequent visits from the court men. Morris notes that "A maid-of-honour or a lady in the Office of the Empress's Household would usually have a 'chief lover' who, theoretically at least, had a prior claim to her attention. In addition, if she was sufficiently attractive and enterprising, she might have a secondary lover and numerous casual lovers...."

Of course court society isn't the Japanese setting most roleplaying gamers are interested in. They want to put their characters into a culture dominated by samurai and ronin, not courtiers: not ninth century Heian (Peace and Tranquillity) but sixteenth century Sengoku (Warring Provinces) before the rise of the Tokugawa Shogunate or nineteenth century Late Tokugawa during the waning of the Shogunate's authority. At least, those were the two eras that my GURPS JAPAN focused on, with the approval of Steve Jackson Games.

Samurai era Japan tolerated male homosexuality and, in fact, institutionalized it in certain cultural areas: among "salesboy" prostitutes, Kabuki actors, Buddhist monks, and the samurai warriors themselves.

Boy Prostitutes

This group is treated at length in Oliver Statler's classic Japanese Inn, in which he quotes the writings of Englebert Kaempfer, a doctor employed by the Dutch East India Company, who lived in Japan 1690-1692.

At Seikenji they make a famous plaister [salve]...On the chief street of this town, thro which we pass'd, were built nine or ten neat houses, or booths, before each of which sate one, two or three young boys, of ten or twelve years of age, well dress'd, with their faces painted and feminine gestures, kept by their lew'd and cruel masters for the secret pleasure and entertainment of rich travelers, the Japanese being very much addicted to this vice. However, to save the outward appearances...they sit there, as it were, to sell the above said plaister to travelers."

Seventeenth century novelist Saikaku Ihara's The Life of an Amorous Man describes itinerant "salesboy" prostitutes, tobiko:

womanish youths who called at rich widowers' estates or made the rounds of poor sections where country samurai lived. They might peddle other dainty goods besides perfume, but...their trade was a screen to hide their true identities from the unknowing. They followed a set pattern of conduct and a line of talk easily recognizable to men acquainted with their secrets: men who felt no attractions in real women.

GURPS JAPAN devoted a number of paragraphs to Japanese prostitutes, whom I politely called courtesans. A sidebar explained how girls were brought up as courtesans, how much money a family might get for selling their daughter to a "tea-house," how much money a courtesan might make for her manager and herself, and how much it would cost a lover to buy her contract. I even introduced a new Disadvantage: "Love for Courtesan or Geisha," a financially and socially destructive compulsion.

I didn't mention boy prostitutes at all. I should have explained that both boys and girls were sold as children by their families: peasants bankrupted by a drought who needed to pay their taxes or city artisans or salesclerks who'd staked their children at dice games. Sometimes even a child of a respectable samurai family might be sold to raise money, if the family honor was somehow at stake. Again like girls, the boy prostitutes would turn over a significant percentage of their earnings to their managers (in exchange for their room and board, plus their expensive clothes and cosmetics). Courtesans typically retired in their mid-30s; boy prostitutes retired in their late teens, when they'd reached physical maturity. Very beautiful courtesans were treated as social celebrities and had the right to accept or reject would-be clients, but boy prostitutes don't seem to have ever acquired this sort of status.

My Japanese roleplaying campaign has been running for over ten years real time. Some years ago, one player character bought a fifteen-year-old peasant girl as his concubine. Her family had been sentenced to be crucified because her father had been rude enough to submit a petition asking their lord to lower taxes after a year of drought. Her only chance of escape from death was to legally change the family unit in which she was registered by becoming a wife, concubine or prostitute.

I've never made prostitutes, male or female, part of my campaign plotlines, and the player characters have never sought them out. On occasion, they've sought out actors, gamblers, and shapechanging animals. One player character even wandered the wilderness crying, "Demon! Hey, demon! I want to sell my soul to you!" I think my players just aren't very interested in prostitutes.

There are a number of plotlines involving boy prostitutes that I might have used. There's the samurai boy who was sold in order to support his widowed mother -- and who's looking for his father's murderer. In one variant, the object of the vendetta would turn out to be the man he's fallen in love with. There's the boy whose demands for expensive gifts have driven his lover to a life of crime. There's the boy who's really a shapechanging fox or badger, who's sold himself in order to raise money for an impoverished samurai or Buddhist priest he admires. There's the boy who's fallen in love with a handsome customer and is wasting away for love of him, his ikiryo (living ghost) haunting his lover.

Buddhist Pageboys

In GURPS JAPAN, I wrote, "Devout Buddhist priests are strict celibates." I didn't mention that most Buddhist priests were less devout and interpreted their vows to foreswear sex as only forbidding them from having sex with women. I wrote that some Buddhist priests were wanderers while others lived in temples which functioned, among other things, as schools. I didn't write that some temples institutionalized homosexual treatment of the children entrusted to them as students.

Louis Frederick's Daily Life in Japan, records:

The nobles often entrusted their [male] children, from their earliest years, to the care of the monasteries; there the monks undertook to educate and instruct them until they reached their majority. These children were cherished by the monks and priests, to whom they served as pages. Their clothes were sumptuous, they had their eyebrows shaved [as upper class women did] and were made up like women. They were the pride of the monasteries which often boasted of possessing the prettiest and most talented pages in the district.....Some, on their majority, became monks; others returned to their families.

Charles J. Dunn's Everyday Life in Traditional Japan concurs: "Many [Buddhist priests] entered into homosexual relationships with temple acolytes, and the boy prostitutes that flourished at the time counted them among their reliable clients."

My Japanese campaign has had virtually no contact with monastic Buddhist priests except for brief visits to the head temple of one very ascetic order. They haven't visited any temple schools. And, I admit, I haven't made any effort to work these institutions into plotlines. Depicting institutionalized sexual abuse of children just doesn't appeal to me. Perhaps that's why I've also refrained from plotlines featuring prostitutes.

If I ever did work a monastic pageboy into my Japanese campaign, it would probably be an adaptation of a kabuki play I read a long time ago. The monastery's handsome pageboy was deeply in love with a girl from a nearby village, and sneaked off to visit her one long winter night. He returned home a few hours before dawn despite a threatening snowstorm, only to find that the jealous monks had locked the temple gates. In the play, he froze to death, but I'd arrange to let the player characters find him.

Kabuki Onnagata (female impersonators)

GURPS JAPAN devoted a sidebar to the kabuki theater. I wrote that "Men played women's parts. It was considered indecent for real women to appear on the stage....Samurai and nobles were legally forbidden to attend plays but did so anyway, sitting in special curtained booths so they weren't technically visible as part of the audience." In the introductory section on Japanese social classes, I classified actors as hinin (literally "non-persons"): outcasts, along with beggars, gamblers and the Eta untouchables. The census enumerated them as a subtype of animals, not human beings. "Killing a hinin," I noted, "is not considered murder; it is published only by a fine." I didn't mention the onnagata, Kabuki's female impersonators.

Kabuki theater troupes were all-male. Unlike the Shakespearean British theatre, women's parts were not played by boys but by men who specialized in such roles, speaking in a falsetto. Courtesans and geisha were sent to kabuki performances to learn from the onnagata (literally "women people") how to behave with proper femininity. Charles J. Dunn wrote in Everyday Life in Traditional Japan:

The [Kabuki] actor had no life apart from the theatre, and this was especially true of the onnagata, the player of female roles...Actors who took female parts were live as women even outside of the theatre, and to keep any male characteristics, not to mention a wife and family, very much out of the public view.

Aubrey and Giovanna Halfords' The Kabuki Handbook notes that onnagata "even entered the public baths by the ladies' door!"

Ihara's The Life of an Amorous Man is mainly devoted to the hero's escapades with women but has one episode in which a number of handsome young actors are summoned to a party. The host remarks:

"Truly there is fun in playing with young actors....Dallying with these youths is like seeing wolves asleep beneath [a] scattering of cherry blossoms, whereas going to bed with prostitutes gives one the feeling of groping in the dark beneath the new moon without a lantern."

Our ongoing Japanese campaign has one shapechanging cat who briefly became a playwright in order to influence public opinion. He didn't make any acquaintances among the actors he wrote for, just sent them his play and attended its performance.

I haven't introduced any plotlines featuring kabuki actors. I might someday. It might be amusing to introduce an onnagata who has a couple of jealous samurai courting him -- and is desperately trying to keep both his lovers from discovering that he also has a wife. Or the onnagata might be courted by a rich merchant while secretly in love with some poor but deserving shopclerk. Finally, the onnagata might really be a ninja assassin. Come to think of it, that might also apply to the boy prostitute or monastic pageboy, just as the vendetta and criminal plotlines I mentioned would be adaptable to the onnagata.


Oliver Statler wrote in Japanese Inn that the samurai "frequently proclaimed that love for a woman was an effeminate failing," meaning that it didn't properly inspire a man to bravery. One culturally significant word still found in modern Japanese dictionaries is wakashinu, dying in one's youth. My GURPS JAPAN rules noted that "The cherry blossom is honored because it does not wither and fall petal by petal but falls while still whole. Thus it is emblematic of the samurai, who is willing to throw his life away in youth for his clan lord." My history stopped in the mid-nineteenth century, so I didn't go on to mention that the plane flown by the Japanese shimpu (an ideograph combination misread by Westerners as kamikaze) was the oka, the cherry blossom.

Hagakure ("Behind the Leaves") is an eighteenth century classic of bushido, the samurai philosophy, dictated by the samurai turned Zen monk Tsunetomo Yamamoto. It stresses the warrior's obligation toward all the virtues, in the service of his clan lord. Seen from this point of view, one samurai says, homosexual love is at once honorable and dishonorable. It is honorable because, unlike a man's love for a woman, it is love of a social and intellectual equal. It is dishonorable because its very strength might distract the samurai from his love of his clan lord. Yamamoto's own ideal of homosexual love focuses on the issue of integrity.

As a faithful wife would not marry a second time, one should stick to only one faithful he-lover to have amorous affairs with in his lifetime in the pursuit of shudo ("the Way of Men")....While Saikaku [Ihara] is known for his impressive remark 'A young man without a pledged, elder he-lover is likened to a young girl without a fiancé,' others are apt to make fun of the shudo lovers. After finding out for sure the steady amorous intentions of an elder man following several years of association, you could ask him, from your side, for a shudo relationship. Inasmuch as the two, once thus tied together, are required to sacrifice their lives for each other's sake, one should make doubly certain of the other's mind.

The highest ideal of shudo, according to Yamamoto, was "not disclosing one's secret love until he falls dead, still holding his lover dear in his dying heart." Ihara's own tales of samurai lovers, some of which are collected in Comrade Loves of the Samurai, do not aspire toward this highest ideal but certainly show brave young men willing to dare death in order to prove their love for one another.

My GURPS JAPAN rules quoted the old Japanese proverb: "A man who loves his wife is spoiling his mother's servant." I wrote that marriage was "a legal and financial arrangement, not a romantic one," that romantic love was not felt "for a respectable woman." (This attitude persisted well into the twentieth century. A Western woman who married a Japanese diplomat recorded in her memoirs that one of her husband's colleagues was quite shocked when he entered their home one evening and found them kissing. "You are treating your wife as if you respected her no more than a prostitute," he admonished her husband.) Terence Barrow notes in his preface to Comrade Loves of the Samurai:

The general attitude toward women was similar to that of classic Greece, namely that women were for breeding but boys were for pleasure. Women, in both cultures, were thought to make men cowardly, effeminate and weak.... Provided social proprieties were observed, there was no association of sin with sex. Women were excluded from important arts...because they were of little social importance. In the circumstances it was fitting that men should seek men for their most intimate life.

The player characters of my Japanese campaign are wandering pilgrims. They've encountered a broad spectrum of Japanese culture but haven't spent much time at court. If they ever live among samurai long enough to notice the social undercurrents, there are a number of plotlines involving homosexual samurai that I might use. There's the samurai who falls in love with his lord's pageboy -- or even more against court etiquette -- with his clan lord himself. There's the samurai who is searching for evidence to prove his lover guiltless of a charge that led the lord to put him under house arrest or banish him as a ronin. There's the samurai whose fiancée or wife dresses like a boy in order to attract him since he isn't interested in feminine beauty.


The Norse attitude toward male homosexuals was quite different from that of the Japanese. The Eddas refer to Odin and Loki -- the most morally ambiguous of the gods -- as having taken on female form -- but the only references the sagas made to homosexuality was in insult contests. The law codes ruled that you could be outlawed for accusing someone of being a passive homosexual -- or for being a passive homosexual.

Insult Contests

The senna (insult contest) seems to have been a standard preliminary to most fights. Last year, I gave an example of one of these elaborate insults in ALARUMS AND EXCURSIONS and found enough reader interest that for some months thereafter I ran a "Saga Insult of the Month." Such insults frequently involved accusations of some sort of sexual perversion, often sex with animals. In Ale-Hood, for example, one angry man tells his enemy:

You...made a big mistake last spring when you rode to the local assembly. You didn't notice the fat stallion that Steingrim had till it was up your backside. That skinny mare you were on faltered under you, didn't she, and I've never been able to make up my mind whether it was you or the mare that got it. Everybody could see how long you were stuck there, the stallion's legs had got such a grip on your cloak...You didn't bother to defend the narrow pass in your backside.

Similarly, in Njal's Saga, an attempt to settle a bloodfeud by wergeld is broken up by the accusation, "you are...the mistress of the Svinafell Troll, who uses you as a woman every ninth night." The translator notes, "This particular insinuation, that a man behaved like a woman every ninth night, was specifically forbidden in the laws, and must have been not uncommon. It occurs in two other sagas."

In Gisli's Saga, a man prepares for a duel by asking a carpenter "to make wooden figures of Gisli and Kolbjorn -- 'and have one stand close behind the other; and the nastiness of that will always be there to shame them.'" The translator notes that this is "significant of a charge of sodomy."

The fact that only passive homosexuality was considered shameful is clearly shown in the senna of Sinfjotli the Volsung. In the poem "Helgavitha Hundingsbana," Sinfjotli tells his enemy,

A witch in Varin's isle thou wast,
A woman false, and lies didn't fashion;
Of the mail-clad heroes thou wouldst have
No other, thou saidst, save Sinfjotli only.

This is paraphrased in The Sagas of the Volsungs: "You probably do not remember clearly now when you were the witch on Varinsey and said that you wanted to marry a man and you chose me for the role of husband."

My VIKINGS for Iron Crown Enterprises had a list of insults for senna in one of the scenarios. One of them was "You kiss your horse when nobody's looking," a bowdlerization of the accusation of having sex with horses. One of them should have been an accusation of passive homosexuality with a close friend -- or perhaps with a troll.

Our Viking campaign has only had one homosexual incident, and that was the action of a player character, whom the group met as they sailed past Nastrond, the snake-covered shore of Hel where scoundrels go after their death. He begged the group to take them with him, and one of the younger and more naive members promised him protection and gave him the name of Mord. I initially roleplayed Mord but later gave him (in a pre-arranged deal) to the player who had roleplayed him before he'd died, back when his name was Wormtongue.

Later on, in Jotunheim, the group encountered a pack of werewolves; Mord's master ordered him to subdue them. Mord found his sword useless against them, so he pulled off his clothes and had sex with first the alpha female and then the alpha male of the pack. No one's insulted Mord (who didn't take the passive role), but the male werewolf's pack status has changed.

Effeminate Seidr Magic

Understanding the Norse attitude toward passive homosexuality is necessary to properly appreciate the Norse attitude toward seidr (platform) magic. The patron gods of magic were Freyja the goddess of passionate love and Odin Val-Father (Slain-Father), lord of madness (including poetic inspiration, berserk fury and panic).

Many mythology books portray Odin as the honored king of the gods, but the sagas clearly show that many Norse distrusted him and preferred to direct their prayers to the more forthright Thor or Frey. In the "Lokasenna" (Loki's insult contest), Loki and Odin each accuse the other of having a sexually ambiguous past.

Odin tells Loki:
Winters eight wast thou under the earth,
Milking the cows as a maid
(Ay, and babes didst thou bear,
Unmanly thy soul must seem.)

Loki replies
They say that with spells in Samsey once
Like witches with charms didst thou work;
And in witch's guise among men didst thou go;
Unmanly thy soul must seem.

Snorri Sturluson wrote in HEIMSKRINGLA:
Odin knew and practiced that craft which brought most power and which was called seidr (witchcraft), and he therefore knew much of man's fate and of the future, likewise how to bring people death, ill-luck or illness, or he took power and wit from them and gave it to others. But in promoting this sorcery, lack of manliness followed so much that men seemed not without shame in dealing in it; the priestesses were therefore taught this craft.

Peter Foote, translator of Gisli's Saga, defined seidr as
a type of shamanistic magic-working, probably borrowed by the Norwegians from their Lapp neighbors.... The wizard or shaman mounted a raised platform and fell into a trance, aided normally, it seems by a circle of singers round about the platform; he was recalled from his trance by the single song of a special singer.... While in the trance it was believed that his soul was freed and either went to seek information about the future, or if the purpose was evil, went to 'attack' the object of the rite, whose mind and body could be enfeebled and killed. Seidr was not considered manly, although it is not said explicitly why in Norse sources; there are, however, numerous sexual elements in this form of magic practised till recently by Lappish and Siberian tribes, and similar elements were probably to be found in its Norse form as well.

Foote and Wilson in The Viking Achievement write that Odin learnt "the magic called seidr which involved such practices as to make people believe that he played the woman's part in the sexual act." Ellis Davidson in Gods and Myths of the Viking Age notes that seidr magic seems associated with the horse cult. (Odin's magic horse Sleipnir was the child of his foster brother Loki in mare-form, and knew the path to Hel.) Davidson hazards a guess that seidr magic was the reason that Norse Christianity forbade the eating of horseflesh (along with worship of idols and exposing newborn babies). She also notes but doesn't explicitly tie into the seidr ritual, the story of Volsi in Flateyjarbok where a housewife's "god" is "the generative organ of a horse."

In my Vikings for ICE, I wrote, "Male shamans were often despised as unmanly, because they fought with magic rather than risking death in battle." I also wrote, "A male shaman was considered effeminate. People gossiped that he turned into a woman once every eight days because Freyja would not give her gifts to someone who was always a man. Even Odin had had to take on women's form in order to learn shaman magic." I should have hinted more clearly that the shamanic trance involved some sort of ritualized sexual encounter in which the shaman took the passive role.

Two of the player characters in my Viking campaign are female shamans, but neither has ever performed seidr magic's platform ritual. They've settled for singing themselves into a trance in order to scout out unfamiliar territory. Perhaps that's because their divine patron isn't Odin but Freyja.

There was also one non-player character shaman, a briefly-observed Finnish witch who enchanted a merchant, stole most of his tradegoods, and then stuck a "sleep-thorn" in him, producing apparent death. She fled after the merchant was rescued by his loyal wife.

I don't want to have any divinatory shaman, male or female, as a major figure in the campaign. Norse shamans didn't indulge in the ambiguous prophecies so beloved by Greek and Roman diviners. Clear, accurate prophecies are awkward things for a game master to have to deal with.


I seldom buy roleplaying sourcebooks and modules. I prefer to design my own campaigns, based on historical and fictional materials I've read. But from what I've heard, there's a number of other seemingly taboo areas that most game designers prefer to ignore.

Obviously, attitudes toward homosexuality are significant in a number of cultures besides Japanese and Norse. There's classical Greece and Rome -- and the Persia of the Arabian Nights (see the Richard Burton translation). And Giraldus Cambrensis asserted in The Description of Wales that "It was because of their sins, and more particularly the wicked and detestable vice of homosexuality, that the Welsh...lost first Troy and then Britain. In the History of the Kings of Britain [by Geoffrey of Monmouth] we read of Malgo, King of the Britons, who practised homosexuality, and many others with him." That's sixth century post-Roman Celtic Britain, the era of the historical King Arthur.

Another taboo subject, shunned in all the game rules I've ever seen, is the possibility of rape, particularly within the player character group. This subject came up recently in ALARUMS AND EXCURSIONS. I was surprised, and shocked, to hear a number of stories of roleplayed rape of player characters, often used as a way of discouraging girls from joining an all-male player group. It may be time for game designers to admit that this sort of thing can happen and to address it in the official rules.

Is socially distasteful sexual behavior the only taboo area in roleplaying game designing? Of course not. There's also religion. It's accepted in fantasy settings because religious miracles provide a quick fix for wounds that the culture's low tech medicine can't handle. It's virtually ignored in 20th century or futuristic high tech cultures (unless you count the "Star Wars" Force as religion).

This neglect of religion means gaming sourcebooks present high tech cultures as less well-rounded than low tech ones and usually make little or no attempt to set out the culture's moral guidelines. Some gaming companies explain that their fantasy games describe the obviously false gods of pagan mythology, but their twentieth century and futuristic games don't describe the One God of contemporary faiths. Of course that puts them in the position of allowing believers in pagan gods to benefit from miracles while believers in the One God cannot expect any supernatural help against creatures of the Cthulhu mythos or the vampires of the Masquerade.

Do I expect any of this to change? Not unless our culture does. As long as there are subjects that gaming publishers prefer to ignore or, even more significantly, perceive their buyers as preferring to ignore, then they will continue to encourage game designer self-censorship. What's more, they'll use their own blue pencils if the self-censorship process breaks down. The publisher always has the last word.

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