Role-play has always been a curious concept to me despite spending half of my life believing it was little more than adults wearing fake armor and speaking in phony English accents. When I became obsessed with pen and paper RPGs, I forced three of my friends to try Dungeons and Dragons. Our awkward adventure was akin to four naive boys going on a journey, finding a dead body, and then never talking about it ever again.
But last week I discovered that Neverwinter Nights, the classic 2002 RPG, is not only still popular but also home to dozens of serious role-playing servers. Digging deeper I found that many of those servers are "adults only," hinting all too plainly at what kind of desires they catered to. I couldn't resist. What could this virtual Sodom have that was so compelling that people would spend time in a decade-old RPG just to experience it?
I needed to find out.
Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.
Stranger in a Strange Land
My name is Joren Arrenen and I have a leopard's tail. Later I'll realize that I look like Anakin Skywalker cosplaying as He-Man, but that won't be the first time I feel embarrassed or vulnerable this evening. I am about to step into a world of role-play with a taste for the erotic, and I have no idea what to expect.
The character creator isn't helping keep those expectations in check, either. It takes 20 minutes for me to choose the perfect penis to compliment my character—mostly because I'm unsure of how fully erect genitals will work with any clothing I wear on top. I go with the modest option: a flaccid penis big enough that you'd still tip your hat. With my downstairs sorted, my handsome He-Manakin Skywalker is complete, and I walk to the portal that will take me into Sinthara City.
Stepping through this door means that I'm Steven no more.
My first steps into Sinthara City are filled with trepidation. I’m surrounded by players; some are demon dominatrixes, others wear jeans and fancy shirts. A giant troll strides past me, and I have to naively wonder what kind of erotic fantasy this person is living out as such an ugly character. I realize then how vanilla my sexual preferences must be to some of these people, a point driven further home when I discover I can read a player's profile. Each one is a surprisingly long and granular description of their appearance and personality. I glance through the profile of an Asian woman with a fox tail and at the bottom is a whole section vividly describing the shape and color of her clitoral piercings. A relatively normal looking girl passes by and I feel drawn to her mundane appearance until I read about the massive penis supposedly concealed under her skirt. Suddenly I worry that mine's too small.
Below each profile is every player's "traffic lights," a system used to list which fetishes a player may or may not be okay with. Green lights are fair game, yellow lights are maybes, and red lights are absolutely off the table. I cannot describe how out of place I feel as I pour through one character's green light fetishes, seeing entire words and acronyms I don't understand.
What the hell is "vore?"
A quick Google search later tells me that it's a fetish for consuming or being consumed by someone—but only in the context of role-play and not to be mistaken for violent cannibalism.
It dawns on me that my own profile is empty and I should probably fill that out. Back at the OOC (out of character) Lobby, I find the NPC who can do that for me and spend almost half an hour trying to come up with something that doesn't sound stupid. It doesn't work.
"Standing at just under 6"2, Joren moves with the kinetic grace of a leopard—a kind of powerful yet lazy presence that puts others slightly on edge even if they're not sure why. His bare skin betrays lean muscles, the kind earned from years of arduous labor.
"When he talks, his voice is surprisingly quiet and restrained, hinting at some instinct that draws him inward. That isn't to say he's shy. In fact, his intense gaze and refusal to break eye contact suggests quite the opposite. There is a calm yet lethal air about him."
Combined with my He-Man attire, I'm halfway to a successful career in writing drugstore erotica. But that revelation only depresses me because it highlights how utterly uncreative I am. Around me are all these exotic characters, and I'm that kid in grade school art class forced to hold up his shitty attempt at a portrait—a failure that stings only because I genuinely tried my best.
When I create characters in MMORPGs, I'm not really creating anything. I'm hastily assembling a Frankenstein of body parts that no one is likely to look at twice. But in Sinthara, I'm acutely aware that I'm here to attract people, which means building a character—and personality—that's interesting to more than just me. I'm 20 years old again and on my way to meet a girl while stealing nervous glances at my own reflection in passing storefront windows.
Back in Sinthara City, I head down the main street, watching as people talk and pass by. I don't have the courage to approach any of them. What would I even say? I have no understanding of the protocol or social rules here, and the looming sexual proclivity hangs over my head like a giant sign that might as well read "This one's a virgin!"
I certainly feel like one. I'm barely comfortable in this new skin, I don't think I'm ready to fuck someone in it.
There's a group of players talking, and the conversation I'm reading seems candid enough that I decide if I won't talk to them, I won't talk to anyone. It's time to become Joren.
I approach the group and open the chat dialogue, shaking my head in shame as I type.
Joren Arrenen: Hello, excuse me, I'm very sorry to interrupt but I...err...seem to be a bit lost.
Darius: *He looks to Joren.* Hey there. What are you looking for?
Nashe: whatcha lookin for hun?
Joren Arrenen: That's the thing, I'm not very sure. I seem to have wound up in this place...Sinthara is it?
Staring at that sentence I just wrote makes me want to commit harakiri. I imagine my father walking in the room and seeing this. A single tear breaks down his cheek as he presses the pillow harder into my face.
I have no idea how I'm supposed to talk or act. Do I just speak normally? Do I have to invent some mannerisms for Joren to use? I'm an alien in a sitcom about infiltrating human society for which I have no understanding, only no one is laughing.
They ask me what I'm looking for, and, unsure, I hastily inquire where I might get a drink. Emery, a satyr-woman with golden hair, suggests I head to a particular establishment. Her friends are quick to warn me however that the destination is a trick.
Emery begins pouting, her joke spoiled by her friends. I begin to feel some measure of normality - they just tried pranking me and it's a thread I can work with.
As we chat, there's a strangely powerful sensation, and I'm struck by how vivid it feels to be a fifth wheel in a group of fictional friends. I'm watching their conversation scroll past as I try my best to participate, awkwardly aware of all the inside jokes and subtext I'm completely oblivious to.
Eventually the conversation drifts back towards me, as Morrinth begins to wonder why I have a tail and am dressed so terribly. I take it in stride, laughing it off instead of revealing that I'm burying my face in my palms for so naively thinking that a cool and original costume for a fantasy role-play server was dressing up like a barbarian. I'm that guy wearing the flavor of the year Halloween costume. This must be some sort of tell-tale sign of a new player—an imagination so depressingly imprisoned as to default to a loincloth and bared chest.
Morrinth, whose interest in alternative fashion is illustrated by her high heels, stockings, and black corset, isn't having any of it.
Morrinth: You have this freakishly odd metal skirt...
Joren Arrenen: It keeps my thighs from getting lopped off.
Morrinth: Well… you should invest in better armour… because metal skirts never suit a man. Admittedly, there is a sex club or two, which would likely love to have your current attire.
Joren Arrenen: I do feel rather… underdressed. Is there some place I might be able to buy something a little more appropriate?
Joren Arrenen: Care to show me? Or will I need to find it myself?
Morrinth: I will show you.
It's at this point that I realize my expectations for this server are likely wildly different than the truth. When I arrived, I thought I was walking into a kind of Sodom. I imagined a place where every street was filled with naked characters utilizing the custom emotes contained in the 15 gigabytes of extra content I downloaded to have lurid sex on these virtual streets. But Sinthara is actually a rather pleasant place to be. Characters stop and chat idly with one another, using asterisks to emote body language too subtle for Neverwinter Night's engine to display. If it wasn't for the fact that many of them were half-naked demons of some variety, Sinthara would feel more like a cozy village than a den of depravity.
With this in mind, I follow Morrinth.
The Hand That Clothes You
Morrinth leads us to the waterfront where ships wait to whisk players to far off lands. To our left, a barge has been converted into a bar that Morrinth informs me is for "the furry ones." We charter a boat and head to one of the Outer Isles. Sinthara is actually four separate servers routing the different characters between them, each with its own aesthetic and theme ranging from prehistoric jungles to sci-fi cantinas.
She takes us to Algon, another city that seems just as large as Sinthara though distinctly less populated. Inside a building, we find a clothing store where Morrinth chooses certain designer brands from an NPC and models walk down a runway and display them for us. She goes through several brands and everything from bondage gear to classical sets of armor walk down the runway.
Her generosity of taking me here makes me feel comfortable with her, and I push myself to inject more personality into my writing.
Morrinth: *She takes a parcel from the model, and offers it to Joren*
Joren Arrenen: *eyes widen* You have to be kidding…
It's a deep violet shirt and a pair of bootcut jeans. When I put it on, I can actually feel my cheeks flush because of how ridiculous I look. I'm no longer Anakin Skywalker on Halloween, I'm Anakin Skywalker, host of a reality show teaching desperate schmucks how to be "pick up artists." Morrinth isn't taking no for an answer, but I do convince her to pick out a suit of armor for me that feels more normal to be wearing in an online world.
After picking out several more ensembles, my least favorite being blue jeans and no shirt (because "this is Sinthara after all"), we head back. Despite how ridiculous three of my new outfits are, I'm beginning to feel like Joren—or rather, Joren is beginning to feel like me. As I settle into character, I'm becoming more talkative, more playful, and the tension between Joren and I is finding its balance.
Sinthara Lonely Hearts Club
We return to find Darius, one of the original group who made it immediately obvious that he was the foul-but-charming rogue. He's sitting alone.
Morrinth: Did you lose your entourage Darius?
Darius: I did, sadly.
Morrinth: Whatever went wrong for you?
Darius: *He sighs dramatically.* Everything.
We talk for another hour or more. I show off my new clothes and laugh off Darius's all-too-forward remarks about how sexy I look. It turns out that Morrinth and Darius had a running joke about all men wanting to take their clothes off for her and, without even realizing it, our whole shopping trip was a giant experiment to see if I'd do the same. Evidently my willingness to switch outfits without finding somewhere private first means I failed. It's one prank that I feel weirdly self-conscious about.
Emery returns to join us, but is later caught up in a devious murder plot she overhears within a group of demons and dark elves. She follows them, apparently finding their bit of violence more attractive than sitting with the three of us as we talk shit and watch people pass by on the street.
It's almost 12 AM when Darius stands next to Morrinth and puts his arm around her. They nestle into one another, speaking directly as if I don't exist. I watch them for a moment, hoping to be included back into their conversation, but it doesn't happen. Suddenly I'm the last person at a party and everyone's making out. I'm an odd wheel again, and reading their mildly suggestive conversation and emotes is making me overwhelmingly uncomfortable.
Morrinth: *she shifts, going to use Darius as a leaning post instead of the pole*
Darius: *Darius slips his arm around Morrinth's waist as she leans on him.*
Morrinth: So, not going to watch a murder?
Darius: Nah, not interesting.
Morrinth: Mmm Darius, I have a question…
Morrinth: Would you really do anything if you were asked nicely?
Joren Arrenen: Hey listen, I'm going to take a walk and check out more of the city.
We say our goodbyes and as I leave, I can't help imagining their relief that I've finally excused myself—and I don't know why that makes me feel guilty. It's night time in Sinthara, and I walk through an empty back alley and adjoining street, stopping to read the signs in front of buildings. A bizarre thought makes me sit back in my computer chair.
Sinthara might not exist, but the feeling I have wandering its empty streets is no less poignant than the nights when those streets were real. It's a kind of restless, selfish hope that maybe if I walk long enough, I'll stumble into someone who will be glad to see me.
I continue to explore, doing my best to avoid the street where Darius and Morrinth are standing so we don't become acquaintances bumping into each other in every aisle of a grocery store. I wish I had a cellphone I could fixate on to pretend I don't notice them. At one point I walk close enough to overhear their intimate conversation, and as I round a corner, I see them both headed towards a house.
I decide to check out a nearby notice board to see if there's anything interesting.
"Alpha Female Tehris Seeks Pet(s) and/or Slaves."
For a brief moment, I imagine myself crawling and meowing on the floor while this woman watches, her satisfaction bookended by asterisks as it spills over my chat window. I consider replying and decide I'm not ready. I'll go to the waterfront.
The Girl with the Golden Skin
Near the docks, I overhear a conversation between two people. One of them is dressed in a red tank top and leather pants, looking more like a character out of The Matrix than a fantasy universe. The other has ivory hair and horns, golden skin, and bat-like wings extending from her small frame. Threatening spines protrude from her armor, making her look positively demonic.
Joren Arrenen: Am I interrupting anything?
Arianna: You are, but you obviously don't really care about that! *she smiles to him*
Arianna: I'm just kidding... don't take my words too seriously. Is there something you need?
Joren Arrenen: Not really, you two both looked like interesting types.
The lady in the tank top departs without acknowledging me, leaving the two of us to talk. We exchange a few pleasantries and then she glares at a passing character.
Arianna: Excuse me a moment... I need to speak to this lady.
She runs off, leaving me alone again. I decide it's probably time to call it quits for the evening but just as I'm about to log off, she comes walking back.
Arianna: So what's your name again?
Joren Arrenen: Never told it to you. *he smiles*
Arianna: *answer his smile with her own* That's what I thought…
Joren Arrenen: It's Joren. *he says, almost as a gesture of goodwill* Might I ask for yours?
Arianna: Arianna, but Aria can do as well *giggles*... I had mistaken that person for another it seems.
We get to talking and before long, we discover we're both new in Sinthara (whether this is true or just role-play I have no idea). It binds us together though, and for the first time tonight, I don't feel like an alien wearing Joren's skin. Arianna is genuinely funny, and our conversation quickly becomes an exciting back and forth. The weirdness I felt only minutes ago is beginning to melt away. I'm genuinely enjoying myself.
I open her profile, expecting a long list of fetishes to make me uncomfortable, but what's written there only makes me laugh.
"So cold, yet so warm."
Shitty drugstore erotica, I want you to meet '90s MSN messenger display name.
We relocate to a nearby park to sit and talk more privately. Almost as soon as we sit, rain begins to fall and Aria suggests we head elsewhere. Following her lead, she takes me to an ornate building with a painted mural of naked women across its face. I pause briefly to look at the picture and Aria stops just before the door and turns to me.
Aria: *amused* Come.
The Red Lantern
The inside of The Red Lantern isn't nearly as subtle in its portrayal of the female form as the more classically inspired exterior. The walls are lined with pictures of naked women sprawled seductively, their wanting eyes intensified by the vibrant red decor.
Aria leads me into the back and we find a seat before a fireplace and resume our conversation. We laugh and tease and talk about our lives, a big bang of fiction rapidly expanding to define all that I am. At some point she mentions the suit of armor that Morrinth bought for me, and, for some reason, I decide to change.
I come back wearing the purple shirt and dumb bootcut jeans, and I'm no longer watching two virtual avatars sitting before a fire. I'm on a first date and I'm trying to interpret signals and flirtations, wondering what I'll do if this goes where I think it might go.
When I first pried open Sinthara's doors to look inside, I had no intention of actually participating. I imagined myself merely as a documentarian. After sitting and talking to Aria for two hours in The Red Lantern, I know that was naive.
I wanted to do this story because I thought it'd be absurd and funny, a comedy goldmine for readers to enjoy as I studied an island for sexually misfit toys. I imagined that everyone on this server treated it like some kind of virtual sex toy easily taken out and used before tucking back into a drawer. But I also wanted reduce those who did in order to avoid having to understand them. Instead of two people in fake armor speaking in phony English accents, it was two people in latex fondling each other with their words.
Sinthara was supposed to be a place where incomplete people came looking to fill a hole that they couldn't fill in their real lives. I mean, why else would you want to become someone else? It's then that I begin to understand that my intentions in coming here were cruel, that I was going to engage with these people while secretly judging them from the comfort of my anonymity.
But I'm not judging Arianna. I'm attracted to her.
Some spark of chemistry has impossibly pushed its way through all the cold pixels and programming—a warmth that finds me in the darkness of my living room.
Aria messages me and, for the first time, speaks out of character. In that instant, the facade we've been maintaining collapses.
Arianna: [Tell] It's 5 am here
Arianna: [Tell] I need to log off, thanks for the rp and see you soon :)
In my mind, online role-play was an escape, a way of shedding skin and becoming something else altogether. This direct message changed that. Aria might not be real, but I am painfully aware of the other human, like me, sitting in the pale glow of their computer monitor.
I wonder if she's aware of me.
Arianna: Do you want to see... something... special before I go?
Joren Arrenen: Depends, I guess.
Joren Arrenen: Hell, why not?
I don't know why I say this. I can't even look directly at the screen anymore. I'm peeking between fingers like an eight-year-old during a sex scene in a movie, but I'm not curious to see what happens next. I'm dreading it.
Arianna: *Aria hooks her belt with her fingers a little bit and toys with it* Mhmm... I'm too sleepy.
Arianna: *winks at you after teasing you*
She messages me directly again.
Arianna: [Tell] Good day/night *kiss kiss*
As Arianna's avatar fades away, I know this will be the last time I see her. It's not because I'm scared, but because coming back would be a betrayal. That, as odd as it sounds, my continued presence in Sinthara would breach a kind of trust.
I understand now that our avatars aren't a mask meant to hide who we are. It is, in some small but significant way, a window to our raw self - that same awkward, vulnerable self I haven't felt since I was a teenager nervously peeling off my clothes in front of someone I cared about. The masks Aria and I wear and the characters we play aren't the foundations of a lie. They are a trust we share to not betray the other—to not suddenly point and laugh at the shitty portrait they're holding up.
I log out and lay in bed, feeling conflicted and sad.
My wife stirs next to me and I don't know how I'm ever going to explain this to her.
I wonder if Aria will look for me the next time she logs in.
It's the worst part of me that hopes she does.