Today, Paizo employees announced their intent to form the organization Unionized Paizo Workers. The editorial team of JoD4HAP would like to express support and solidarity with our friends and colleagues at Paizo.
Efforts to keep Paizo leadership accountable for their actions are ongoing, but successful unionization is a step forward. In their statement today, the Unionized Paizo Workers noted that speaking with one voice will imbue their words with the power necessary to bring leadership to the bargaining table.
We see you, friends. We stand with you and with your cause.
Logan Bonner is an industry veteran. We asked Logan to share some thoughts about his career and his independent expansion for Pathfinder 2nd edition, The Pnoll: An Ancestry. Sita Duncan graciously provided Pnoll art for this piece. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Question: Please introduce yourself to our readers, along with some of your contributions to TTRPGs?
LB: Hi! I’m Logan Bonner, currently the Pathfinder Lead Designer at Paizo Inc. I’ve been at Paizo for a while as an editor, developer, and designer, and previously worked full time at Wizards of the Coast in the late 3.5 into 4th Edition era. I’ve also worked on other RPGs: Spectaculars, Mistborn Adventure Game, Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, and a ton more.
What character class do you most identify with?
Probably the bard. A lot of performance at the game table, studying bizarre things nobody else needs to worry about, and all that.
Tell us a bit about your background, and your journey to get to where you are now in the industry.
I’m originally from Kansas, and got into TTRPGs in college when I was pursuing a Fine Arts degree with an English minor. I got pretty lucky and got a job on D&D from applying cold to an editing job and doing well on the test! After some time there, I did several years of full-time freelance. That was exhausting, and I was happy to take something full time at Paizo. My former coworker Stephen Radney-MacFarland was there at the time, and recommended me for an open editing job. Since then, it’s been mostly Paizo stuff, with the occasional project I can fit in outside of work hours.
Tell us about your work at Paizo.
I’m the Pathfinder Lead Designer, meaning I keep a general overview of the rules coming into the game to make sure we’re keeping things in line with the base rules of the game, introducing new concepts at the right time and in the right books, and that sort of thing. Most of my job is putting together new books in the Rulebook line and doing development passes over the text for them.
The pnolls (puh-nols) seem to have been well received! We picked up our copy as soon as it dropped, and they have generated a lot of fan art on social media. Tell us about your work on The pnoll: an Ancestry for Pathfinder 2nd Edition.
The pnolls came out of a conversation about possum people on social media. I ended up drawing a possum person on my iPad, and eventually settled into the idea of turning it into a small, fun thing I could publish.
You included many references to actual Virginia Opossum biology in the supplement. What interesting ‘possum facts’ did you learn in the process?
It’s weird, because so often with concepts based on real-world things like this it’s more important to meet people’s expectations rather than be strictly accurate. So you learn a lot that you don’t necessarily use. Their newborns are peanut-sized and once born need to crawl to the pouch to go inside and find a teat. Not a whole lot of application of that for an adventurer!
Did you come up with the “puh-nol” pronunciation before or after you came up win the brilliant “pnolltimate sacrifice” ability?
I think they came about together. I was probably going back on forth on what wordplay would work depending on the pronunciation. I ended up picking “puh-nol” since it would allow for the roleplaying tidbit of correcting pronunciation, and would also make pnolls and gnolls clearly different since games so often need to convey information verbally.
Proceeds from the pnoll go toward the Black Trans Advocacy Coalition, who have done some great work dispersing resources and funds to the Black Trans community and have even joined the congressional fight for the Equality Act. What drew you to support them with your independent work?
Trans rights were under attack at that particular moment, something that’s unfortunately so frequent that I don’t remember who was behind it at that particular moment. I’d seen a friend run a fundraiser for this group shortly before, so I had them in mind.
Plug any projects you are working on now.
Right now we’re finishing up work on Secrets of Magic for Pathfinder 2nd Edition. It’s a very exciting book, with a fun take on rules, lore, and presentation. Looking forward to people seeing it!
Quinn Murphy is a longtime industry freelancer who is presently emerging as an influential voice in adventure and encounter design. We caught up with Quinn this summer over discord to talk with him about his latest projects and musings. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Alex G. Friedman: Quinn, why don’t you introduce yourself?
Quinn Murphy: My name is Quinn Murphy, I’m a tech nerd by day and a game designer… Well I would say by night, but really it’s just like, all the time.
AF: Well, you get paid for it, so…
QM: Yeah, right, I do get paid for it. It’s like blurred lines. I feel like I’ve had these two careers so long, they’re always happening simultaneously. My gaming stuff is informed by my tech nerd stuff, and my tech nerd stuff is informed by my gaming. I’ve been doing freelance off and on for a little over a decade now. I’ve been doing roleplaying for like 30 years. I got my kickoff during 4th edition D&D. I wrote a site called At Will, where we specialized in homebrew 4th edition stuff. I did a lot of stuff with skill challenges, which was different from how Wizards of the Coast (WoTC) was doing it. I designed monsters and new rules and different ways to use the 4th edition rules. I transitioned to other games from there.
These days… I took a few years off to deal with a case of “wild life” and have come back in the last like, six or seven months or so and have been working for stuff like the Ultimate Micro RPG book, I had one in there. I’ve been working a lot with Paizo these days, but also recently working with Sig: City of Blades. I wrote the adventures in there, and that’s actually out now, so that’s really exciting. It’s like Planescape meets Blades in the Dark. Jason Pitre had written the game, which was set in an interplanar metropolis. City of Blades is about the underbelly of that big city.
When Dragon went digital, I got published on their blog. I wasn’t in Dragon magazine, but I did get published in Kobold Press a couple times.
AF: Yeah, Kobold’s great. They just had the big bestiary come out for 5th edition, great book. Couple ice breakers here: What is your favorite kind of NPC?
QM: I like NPCs that are loveable trouble. Every time the player sees them, they know something’s about to go wrong, but they are really fun, so bring it on. Characters who are problematic but are also loveable.
E:lizabeth Parsons: You can hear your players groaning in the background but also they’re like “Well, we knew this was coming.”
QM: Right, and if you took them away, and have them leave, your players are like “No-no-no, come back!”
AF: What player class would you be?
QM: Like, real life me? Um. I’m gonna be like, I feel like I’m cheating or breaking the fourth wall here, but it has to be Investigator.
QM: Because the iconic Investigator’s name is actually Quinn. He’s an older Black gentleman.
EP: That’s not cheating, that’s pretty legit.
QM: But also the Investigator is my favorite class. What I love about the investigator is like, “ah, here’s something.” Its balance is interrogating the fiction.
AF: Page 54 of the APG.
QM: In 2nd edition, the Investigator has some of my favorite mechanics, because they’re very meta. I love it for the reason that some people might hate it. There’s one feat that’s just like, what’s wrong here? “That’s odd.” You walk into a room and you’re like “That’s odd. GM, tell me what’s wrong here.” What’s wrong with this picture, right? And it’s such a great thing. As a GM, I am sorely missing having an Investigator on one of my teams, because I love having that kind of thing to run with.
I like when players get to interrogate the world and establish fiction; it creates this cool thing where they get to author the world. Because when you ask, “Hey, what’s wrong with this thing?” Well, now, fictionally, I have to explain it to you, and it adds that little detail into the world. Even if it’s like, well, it’s a fine crystal from here, but otherwise harmless. We’ve established bits of the world and it feels a touch more real.
EP: Reminds me of when I was writing my early fiction, you would take it to someone and say “Please read my story!” They would say, “Okay, why is this happening in your world, and why is this happening, and you have to make up something on the fly. And that’s what you’re doing as a GM. You’re establishing that fiction. You can’t just be like “IDK”
QM: You’re allowed to do that. But then it flattens your world. The things I live for as a DM are those moments when both the player and I are kind of surprised. Where they’re like, I’m going to go off the beaten path and go into the brambles. And you’re like, “What is the brambles? Huh. I guess this is in the brambles.” And I find when I’m making stuff up on the fly, and improvising, stuff comes out of my brain that’s even surprising to me. And I’m like, Oh this is great. And we’re all along for the ride. I love that feeling.
AF: I first encountered your work in “Archaeology at Aspenthar,” and as a player who played it in Organized Play, boy did that Alchemical Golem whip us. That was a memorable fight. It basically came down to… Everybody was down except my cleric and the party’s ranger. I had to cast “magic weapon” on him. And we had to outmaneuver him. That was great. Tense time.
QM: How did you do on the climb down?
AF: The climb wasn’t so bad, because we were all lighter characters with high Athletics scores. Could have been rough if we had a wizard along.
So how did you pitch that story? What went into writing it?
QM: Sure. Well, with a lot of the Society stuff, they’ll usually have the “frame” for what things they want in it, and you sort of flesh it out, with characters, with the flow. You have a rough outline of it, but you’re sort of sculpting how we’re gonna get there and things like that. That was the first thing I had written with Paizo. I spent a lot of time researching the people of the area, so I could write interesting characters. Then the Alchemical Golem seemed like a really cool monster. Obviously it’s an extremely leveled down Alchemical Golem. But I like monsters that aren’t just mechanically like, I just have a really high Armor Class. That’ll get the job done when you just want to beat players up, but when it’s dealing different conditions, and it’s got all these different points of articulation and interaction…
A sort of a maxim that I have, when I design encounters and monsters, is that I design always for interest first. Challenge is a thing that I almost don’t think about. Especially in Pathfinder 2nd edition, the encounter-building rules are really tight. If you build to budget, you’ll get what it says on the tin. If you want to possibly TPK your party, give them a Severe. If you want to GUARANTEE a TPK, give them an Extreme. That’s it! And so, you build the encounter to taste, then really what you want to do is think: Will they remember this?
I’ve had challenging encounters that went really lopsided for the players because from the outset they roll a couple of critical hits–incredible damage. With dice, challenge just ebbs and flows. But let’s say all the dice go wrong–will the characters remember the fight? And something like the Alchemical Golem was cool because it has all these chemical weapons, effects it can inflict. The chance that you’re not gonna remember having fought that thing is Zero.
AF: As we’ve demonstrated tonight, yeah!
We were going to ask you about chasing interest in encounters, because you were tweeting about that earlier, so I’m glad that’s on your mind.
Moving on to some of the other stuff you’ve got with Paizo…
QM: I contributed to the backmatter for the second Abomination Vaults, the Fleshwarp article. And two monsters in Bestiary 3, Shabti and Sumbreiva. I have a couple other ones I can’t talk about yet. My big thing last year was to do the second volume in the Strength of Thousands AP. I was an author for the second adventure in the adventure path. That was monstrous. Lots of writing.
I never! My largest piece up until then had been about 12,000 words on one assignment. Twelve thousand words! And that was pretty challenging. But doing that AP was about 40,000 words, just the main adventure.
EP: That’s an entire novel!
QM: Yeah! And while you’re doing it, you’re creating monster entries, making maps—you don’t have to go crazy with maps, they have cartographers for that—but the design! You have to work with mechanics and ACs (armor classes). The first parts of it were super challenging, because you’re just trying to make progress. And sometimes, like, in the early part of it, I would think, ‘Okay. I’m gonna go get X amount of words done, right? I’m gonna get 500 words done.’
EP: We’ve all been there.
QM: And I’m gonna get 150 words in and then, “Oh yeah, crap, I need a monster entry. Hmmm. Okay, so, let me go design a monster.” And the monster is maybe 100 words or so, 150 words. But mentally, it’s like you wrote four or five times that. Because you’re trying to juggle numbers, and then that kills your writing for the night. You’re done for the night. So you get out of pace with it.
What was awesome for me was that it forced me to work through it. You know, because I have a day job, it’s not like I could spend all day writing. I have time to spend with my partner, time to spend with my son, right? And so I had to really be strategic about how I was going to use my time and it forced me to develop a really good process for game writing, specifically. I broke down mechanical work. Anytime I got to something mechanical, I’d flag it and put it on a separate list. Cool, that’s a mechanic, pin this thing. And then I would break out narrative writing, and I would build out mechanics in a separate session. So I would do a morning session for like an hour or two and then a night session for an hour or two. I honed my process. I needed to! Because otherwise, I wasn’t gonna get it done. It was like 40,000 words in about three months.
AF&EP: (sounds of sympathy from interviewers)
QM: It was intense, but it was great. I look forward to hopefully doing it again. To apply from the start everything that I learned and do an even better job.
EP: How did that job come about? Did you apply to do that writing or were you commissioned to do it?
QM: I think they asked me to do that one, after I had done some stuff. They were pretty happy with my previous work. And I have a lot of experience in the field before even writing for Paizo. And so they asked me if I wanted to take it on, and I thought, yeah, sure do.
EP: That’s a great opportunity, yeah.
AF: Yeah, that’s a huge honor to be asked to write an entire AP volume.
QM: Yeah, it was a great honor. And you know, for me, it was a great honor to be asked to write for The Strength of Thousands theme set in The Mwangi Expanse. For me personally, it’s the kind of setting—very Afro-centric fantasy setting—that I had been wanting to write for and see from a major publisher for a very long time, and to be asked to write… you know, I didn’t get to write for the main Mwangi Expanse setting book, but writing for the adventure set there was really incredible. So I was really excited about that.
AF: That setting book is said to be really great too, I can’t wait to see that. Particularly in this edition, Paizo has done so much work on making the Mwangi Expanse bigger than just the one Heart of the Jungle expansion we got in 1st edition, and really, like you said, they’ve made an Afro-centric setting for Golarion, which is really cool. Can’t wait for that book. The art that I’ve seen so far has just been great.
QM: Yeah, it’s gorgeous, it’s gonna be so good.
AF: Can we talk a little bit about Bestiary 3?
AF: So what can you tell us about your monster design philosophy?
QM: So, recapping first, building for interest instead of challenge, right? Because you don’t control dice, right? What you can control and influence are having things that your players can react to and have fun with. I think the thing that helped me design monsters the best was back in 4th edition D&D days, I had built these things called Worldbreaker monsters. And they were like these big unique legendary monsters.
AF: Kind of like, kaiju sort of things?
QM: Well, no, the influence there was I was watching someone play World of Warcraft, a raid boss, and at the time I was looking at it, and I was like, I am really, as a tabletop player, really jealous of this raid boss. Because there’s all these like, shifting strategies, right? You’d be fighting the monster and then all of a sudden, boom! The whole scene would change, it would blow everything up; the whole stage that you’re fighting on would change. And so I thought, I’m going to do that in tabletop. So I worked on this concept of making monsters that would sort of trigger and change the scene.
AF: Are you talking about lair actions?
QM: So this was long before lair actions, actually. Technically, I was first!
AF: Okay, that’s cool.
EP: You heard it here first, folks.
QM: Not that anybody at WoTC was paying attention to what I did! But I did do this back in 4th edition, long before 5th. When the monster hit a certain HP level and got bloodied, it would trigger a special action. The first one I did was called Etherkai, and it was a nightmare dragon. When it went into its special mode, it would create these nightmare wells and reach into your nightmares and create nightmare soldiers out of them. Players could interact with the nightmare while they’re fighting. And there are different kinds of skill challenges and all this other stuff that you could do within that mode.
Playtesting that, and releasing it, I would hear stuff like, “Oh my god, we fought Etherkai and he wiped our whole party.” But they would be like: “He wiped our whole party, and it was awesome! It was a great fight.” Because they’d talk about nightmare things coming out, and you hear these tales, and I was like, oh my god! If you’re happy getting wiped out, I think I did a good job there! Thumbs up! I’d also hear ones where people would be like, “Yeah, our party killed it in 3 rounds,” but they thought it was so cool, right? That was sort of what helped shape my maxim. I would hear both ends of the spectrum.
That was sort of the influence, and one of the things that shaped my thinking was having these points of interaction. It’s one thing to have stats and your armor class. But have a point with your monster where it’s going to do a special thing, and give your players the ability to do something about it.
You can see it in actually quite a few of the APs. There will be boss characters, and they’ll sometimes come with an action that players can take, like for example, try to convince this person. Spend two actions trying to convince this person that they’re wrong. And then you can make a diplomacy check. Pathfinder 2nd edition’s design works really well with this philosophy, because it’s action-based, and since all actions are equal, you’re not trying to spend a move action to talk, or spend a standard action to fight like you would in 1e. Second edition is pretty fluid.
AF: It’s another part of that design philosophy that gets characters away from just doing full attack actions. It’s always wiser to spend a third action doing something interesting, which that kind of design really speaks to.
EP: Writing for memorability and for interest, that to me seems like the throughline to your work.
AF: Yeah, like having to do skill checks to counteract the nightmare, that’s a story within a fight.
EP: I wanna play that fight. Right now.
QM: I’m a huge shonen nerd. And one of the things I love about shonen manga and anime is the way that… You’ll often hear in tabletop—“I don’t want too much combat in my game, I want more story.” But what I love about shonen is that combat can be story. People will fight for like ten episodes, and like live out half their lives in the middle of one fight, right? It’s laughter, it’s sadness, it’s my past colliding with my future, it’s, “How could you betray me when we were five years old?? Aaaahhh.” Clashing of powers! And it doesn’t need to be that overwrought, but I feel like fights can and should have narrative. Create flow and sense and meaning within it, until the fight’s over.
EP: That dovetails into one of the questions we have here, which is to talk about anime influences in your writing.
AF: You’ve talked before in your social media about how you try to incorporate anime into RPGs. Hyper-emotion?
QM: The TL;DR explanation of hyper-emotion is when a cry becomes a punch. The longer explanation is, when you see, especially in shonen anime, there is a style of storytelling where you have a community of two types of people: actors and feelers. Feelers tend to be weaker characters (not always, everybody has some actor and feeler in them). People who, because they are vulnerable to the world, can experience the world and feel it deeply, right? And actors are hardened against the world but are powerful. And the major arcs of these stories tend to be about feelers experiencing being vulnerable to the world and actors stepping in on their behalf, and ultimately sort of climaxing into these moments where an actor, with all the energy of those feelers, has this big eruptive moment, like Goku going, “You can’t hurt my friends anymore!” Or Naruto is legendary for that, “I’m here for my friends!”“How could you betray this person who loves you?” And then they have this big release of power. It’s about finding, mastering, and releasing those emotions that are the true narrative arc underneath all the powers and fighting moves. They’re these narratives of communities.
AF: Jack Berkenstock (interviewed in issue 1) would love that idea. His work includes using RPG play to help people become better emotional communicators.
EP: What was your experience writing for Paizo and writing in the Golarion setting, versus playing it?
QM: Golarion is delightfully weird in a good way—just strange enough to feel real. I feel like the problem with a lot of fantasy worlds is they try so hard to be like, sensible. But as anybody experiencing real life will tell you—the real world is not often that sensible. And when things are a bit weird, you think, okay, I feel at home here.
AF: That’s a cool way to put it.
QM: I’ll just use a Golarion example. Hellknights, right? Hellknights are so dumb they feel real, right? Imagine someone like the Hellknights. “Hey, you know who has really great laws? Devils! Let’s emulate hell!” They have these great tensions, they’re trying to do what they think is right, but it’s like, “Guys, do you understand what you’re doing?” Because they really don’t! I am fascinated by the Hellknights, because that weirdness of them makes them feel cool and like they would exist.
AF: A lot of your comments got me thinking about how weird and yet approachable some of the creatures in the new ancestry guide were. Golarion is one of my favorite settings.
QM: It’s a fantastic setting. My writing for them has hooked me on Golarion, so I use it in my games a lot. Then, when I GM Pathfinder, I love to experiment and try new things. There’s a lot of new stuff that I would never even try to put on a developer for Pathfinder. Especially if you’re doing an official release, you need to keep within bounds. When I GM games, I get to push limits really hard—because it’s not getting published, it’s for my players, and as long as they’re having fun, we’re good.
AF: What projects do you have coming out that you can tell us about? Where can we find the work that you’re most proud of? And where do you want to be found online?
QM: Stuff I am working on right now: I just turned in my first work for Starfinder. I also love Starfinder. I want to be playing and writing more for Starfinder. That’s going to be in a society adventure that’s coming out in a bit. I’ve been working on rules for solo play. It’s really one-on-one play. I made it with my son. I wanted to make it be a simple thing of playing Pathfinder, so I didn’t have to make too many rules. I want to be able to play in AP with just one other player.
My adventures are in Sig: City of Blades. I did three really cool adventures in that. I did some consultant work in Hard Wired Island (a cyberpunk themed TTRPG on Itch.io).
It’s time for my advice column! First point of advice this issue, as in every issue, is to please tell everyone you know about the eldritch horrors waiting for you just beyond the veil of sleep. They’re really bad. You should get your friends and practice lucid dreaming together so that you can locate each other in the Astral Expanse and become dream warriors. It’s your only chance to save reality! Anyhoo, enough of that, let’s get to the letter pile…
Hi there Felix,
I was asked to send my “dilemma” over your way.
The Paladin player in the campaign I’m running got bit by a wererat and failed his constitution save and became cursed with wererat lycanthropy. May have been poor planning on my part while following theadventure (it’s my first time DMing). Now he’s loving the immunities, but hates that it’s a rat and evil and is trying to talk me into letting him become a werebear because it’s good aligned.
Now, I’m not completely opposed to the idea, but I have zero intentions on allowing him the immunities and just gifting him the werebear lycanthropy for no reason. He’s already in the process of finding a cure for the wererat lycanthropy and I adjusted the NPC that gave him the info on the cure to actually be a werebear in secret. I was planning on having the final secret ingredient be some of the Paladin’s blood, drawn from the bite of the werebear NPC, causing a weaker werebear lycanthropy curse, but I feel like I need to present some sort of test that the paladin needs to pass I order for the lycanthropy to happen. He wouldn’t know outright about becoming a werebear lycanthrope because it would be a slow onset.
Advice from Felix
You can send letters to Felix the Flumph at
Use “Dear Felix” in the subject line. Ask anything you like, but this column will focus on resolving awkward situations around the gaming table.
Thoughts on what I might be able to present as a test of worthiness for the NPC to decide to pass on the curse? The party has already rescued her before so she knows that he’s not a total arse, but I definitely feel like there needs to be more.
The paladin is lawful neutral, if that matters at all.
Thank you for your consideration,
Hi there SneakAttackJak!
Wow, you and your player really dug yourselves a dungeon-sized hole to crawl your way out of! No worries, I’m here to help. I consulted my brood of friendly flumph game masters (there are thousands of us watching your culture flounder, lol) and they had some THOUGHTS.
First, from a philosophical perspective, we caution you against granting your players a boon when you were trying to provide a challenge. It sounds like you were trying to YES-AND with your player. That’s good! But you might be diverting them from a better time by being too eager to help them with what should be a really fun challenge.
Lycanthropy can be a really fun way to challenge your players at lower levels. It can force players to find help in a situation where they are two or even six levels out of their depth. You’re obviously considering this; having them seek out a werebear NPC is in the right ballpark for how to handle the situation. Yet y’all seem to be getting ahead of yourselves! A LN paladin suddenly confronted with the curse should have to deal with the curse as written. This will vary from edition to edition, but generally speaking, the player should be confronted with the monstrosity of the curse at least a few times. This will challenge the other players at your table to creatively neutralize the paladin-rat as a threat. That’s a lot of fun! It’s in the books for a good reason!
Now, when presenting your player with a way to lift the curse, you want to make it feel like its own sub-quest. Maybe a dryad (who is very dangerous and difficult to find; finding her could be a whole session) will lift the curse in exchange for one of her own curses? The paladin must plant a tree, every week, without fail, for the rest of his life! Should he fail? The wererat curse returns, and the paladin is turned to wood during the day. Sounds harsh, but it’s the sort of curse that could be lifted magically around 8th or 10th level. So it builds character!
But exchanging rat power for bear power? Werebear curses are one of the “secret menu” of pretty good curses to have in roleplaying games (although so is wererat if you play it right).
Every GM I consulted was against giving your player werebear powers as a part of this solution. A paladin should refuse any curse that would influence their alignment.
If your player is more set on becoming a werebear than being a paladin, you could give them the werebear curse in a way similar to your description, but at the cost of their paladin powers. Now they can re-spec and make some interesting character roleplay choices. Just make sure it doesn’t eat into the fun of lifting the initial wererat curse.
We, the editors of The Journal of Dungeoneering for Hip and Attractive Professionals, have decided to jointly express our support for the creative people, community organizers, and laborers at Paizo whose work has created immeasurable value for the TTRPG community.
Our beloved community and our games are much bigger, much realer, and much more resilient than any given corporation, golem, frog god, or beach magician. Remember, the TTRPG community and our games have weathered more than a few instances where people have abused the privilege of working alongside us for power, money, and antisocial motivations. Yes, our shared imaginative spaces, our tables, and our stories aim to be inclusive. Yet, inclusivity in itself is a social contract. Inclusivity requires us to abide by what we owe one another as people, professional colleagues, and friends. We encourage Paizo’s leadership to act accordingly.
When we first envisioned what this journal would look like, we dreamed that it would be a place where literature, analysis of tabletop roleplaying games, and fashion could intersect in effective, engaging ways.
Well, we got that in this issue, for sure.
We also gathered an amazing community of people who believe in this project and who want to share their successes, their failures, and their journeys in tabletop roleplaying game culture. Our first issue dropped in March 2021, after two years of hard work — and the reception was mind boggling.
This second issue touches on some deeper challenges. Throughout the 2020-2021 pandemic, folks had to adapt their play styles to accommodate virtual play, since we could no longer safely be in the same room. We learned how to use virtual tabletops like Roll20 and Foundry, and along the way, we learned a little bit more than the practical, too.
Throughout this volume, a theme emerges: Roleplaying games have always offered ways for players to express themselves creatively, but that sense has magnified a hundredfold as we navigated ways of interacting with each other in the virtual world. And some of us have spent the better part of the last year focused on throwing our energy into social justice initiatives and bringing that part of ourselves to the fore.
In short, we’ve all grown a lot.
Thank you for reading, and thank you for letting us borrow some of your brain space at least for a little while.
Issue 2 is H A P P E N I N G. On Monday, September 13, we will be dropping our second issue at 10 a.m. EST. Bookmark this site now and keep an eye out for any sneak previews that may be coming in the next week…
We are planning a virtual release party as well, and YOU’RE INVITED. Come for the fashion, stay for the litmag hype.
Mark your calendars now:
September 13, 2021
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Kaye Galondel, a Half-Elf Druid, flicks her wrists to summon vines, which reach out and grasp her foes. Her long auburn hair blows in the wind as she focuses on the spell, holding the enemies at bay while her companions take them out with weapons and offensive spells. As the enemies escape the grasping vines or fall, she changes tactics, releasing concentration in order to shift her body into that of a wolf, snarling into melee combat.
The party victorious, they head to the bar for a night of drinking. Kaye attempts conversation with the locals to gain information, but fumbles her way awkwardly through words. She is a woman of the forest, not accustomed to such conversation.
That, and the woman behind the character just rolled a Natural One. That’s a critical failure, meaning the character not only fails to do what they intended, but fails hard. It’s no coincidence that I chose a druid, with an abysmal charisma score, as my first Dungeons & Dragons character. I’ve been real-life failing charisma checks for as long as I can remember.
“Did you watch DBZ last night?”
I’m eight years old, riding the bus to Fairfield West elementary, and my ears perk up as the boys in front of me chatter excitedly about the latest developments in Dragonball Z’s Cell saga, which I’ve been following religiously as it airs on Cartoon Network. I yearn to chime in, share my feelings about Android 18’s choice to join the heroes, fight alongside them to defeat her former ally, Cell.
I have become obsessed with Android 18, the first strong female character I’d encountered, who could keep up with the boys while also not wearing a skirt and sporting impossibly long, flowing locks that would undeniably be a disadvantage in battle. I tape a printout of her on my Composition notebook alongside the faces of a hundred and one cartoon boys I have crushes on. She stands out, a strong female character in a sea of guys.
The boys on the bus don’t talk about her much. They’re far more interested in Goku, Vegeta, and the goings-on of the men the show primarily focuses on. No matter how much I have to say about these characters or the overlooked Android 18, I can’t make the words come out. I am shy–I can’t count the number of minutes I’ve spent in agonized silence, rehearsing a single phrase in my head in the hopes I can get it to come out my mouth, only to see the conversation skate along past the point where my carefully calculated comment would fit.
This was my childhood: watching shows like Dragonball Z and Yu-Gi-Oh!, listening to the guys on the bus and at lunch and recess, wanting but not knowing how to join in. My composition notebook was a carefully crafted message that screamed “I am a nerd, too!” with its photos of characters from Yu-Gi-Oh!, Dragonball Z, X-Men: Evolution, Lord of the Rings, and Digimon. I brought it with me everywhere, setting it in plain view, just hoping someone would do me the favor of striking up a conversation.
I’m just old enough to have spent my younger years without the internet, so I couldn’t log on to forums and find the conversations I wanted until high school, when I started writing fanfiction and learning how the internet can be a beautiful balm to the socially anxious nerds among us.
The thing was, I didn’t meet another girl who liked that stuff until I was older, and even if I was incredibly passionate about nerdy “boy stuff,” I was also undeniably 110% boy crazy. Regardless of what I watched or read, even when romance was the least priority, I found couples to ‘ship, picking up the smallest threads of potential romance and clinging to them. I also spent a lot of time watching shows in which there was nearly always a guy best friend who was secretly in love with the main female protagonist (the plot of many a Disney Channel original movie, not to mention shows like Kim Possible and Lizzie McGuire). As a result, I was terrified to talk to boys, because the cute ones were too cute and the ones that weren’t would almost definitely develop an unrequited crush on me. As far as I could see, it was impossible that I could just have guy friends.
Kaye Siondel, halfling druid, walks alongside her wizard companion, shooting sparks of lightning into the sky to underscore his passionate speech. Boffin is another halfling, though he has disguised himself to appear more menacing than stature would suggest. Still, Kaye felt a little help from the elements would be in order if they planned to sway the crowd in their favor. She is silent, knowing that speech is not her forte, but focuses her energy in the shocking blasts that leave the crowd mesmerized. If they can convince them this lynching is against the favor of their gods, then maybe, just maybe, they can save these innocent people from death.
Thankfully, the dice roll is in her favor. I sit on the couch in a circle of friends, staring down at the mat where our game master (GM) has sketched out the town map. We move our minis along this grid in combat, indicating the allotted movement. For a hobbit like this version of my druidic character, that’s never very far. I’ve been playing with this group for a while now, and Kaye has gotten our party out of a few scrapes here and there, but for all that I’m still learning to play this game. I’ve been listening to a podcast dedicated to this tabletop RPG, Pathfinder, so I feel more confident about the rules, more willing to speak up and suggest outlandish ideas. I’m learning to ask “druid questions,” like “Would you say there’s vegetation in this area?” or “What’s the weather like at this moment?” and loving it.
As I roll the dice to determine the success of Kaye’s next move, I try to imagine what the younger version of me would think if she could see me now.
While I didn’t have much of anyone to talk to at school, at home I’d sit with my kid brother and play videogames on our N64 and PS2. I loved any game where I could swing a sword, do magic, or shoot a bow and arrow, but my special favorite was a little game called Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance. I loved it for two reasons. First, the roleplay aspect allowed you to create your own character, meaning there was more than one option for a playable female avatar. I might be dating myself here, but that was hard as hell to come by when I was a young nerdlette. Second, it was one of the few RPGs at that time with a two-player mode, so Josh and I could fight together. While we had fun with him watching me kick butt on solo runs through Ocarina of Time and Final Fantasy X, my best memories of growing up with a sibling were undeniably these runs through the dungeons of Baldur’s Gate, my Dark Elf Archer fighting alongside Josh’s human warrior. Little did I know that the game I loved and devoted hours and hours of my adolescence to had a predecessor in the form of tabletop RPGs.
I don’t quite recall when I first learned of the game called Dungeons & Dragons, but from the moment I heard about it, I wanted to play it. It didn’t matter that, as I grew up, this type of activity was increasingly considered ‘uncool.’ I was already a lonely kid who didn’t have a lot of friends, and ‘cool,’ for a chubby girl with glasses who could barely string a sentence together in the presence of classmates, was an option I’d flown right past long ago.
I didn’t know anyone in my day-to-day who played Dungeons & Dragons, so I settled for my RPG video games and my fantasy novels. Eventually, I’d join color guard and make some friends, even occasionally get invited to parties. There, if given the chance to get my hands on a console controller, I came alive. I would gain unprecedented attention as I sat surrounded by the boys, reigning supreme amongst them as the Super Smash Bros champion.
If I’d had even a hint of charisma, I could probably have dated any number of those guys. I knew from the uncomfortable experience of browsing the shelves at Gamestop that I was nerd-boy kryptonite. Between 7th and 8th grade, I’d lost 50 pounds and, freshman year, gotten contacts. I was a walking She’s All That transformation, minus the part of the makeover where I magically also gain confidence.
There were two types of reactions to my presence in Gamestop. The best case scenario was that the guy working there would follow me around, being entirely too helpful and standing entirely too close. I’d read the cases of the latest RPGs and fighter games, steering clear of your Call of Duty and Halo, as I wasn’t very good at first-person shooters and hated to feel like I fit into the “girls aren’t good at video games” stereotypes.
The second type, I loathed. Sometimes, the guys would be combative, quizzing me, daring me to reveal that I was just there to buy something for a sibling or boyfriend, or only interested in Dance, Dance Revolution (a game that, admittedly, had contributed a solid amount of my weight loss). When I did play Halo with my brother or boyfriend, I learned that I had to mute my mic, or stop playing a character with a pink or purple suit–otherwise, a chorus of “Are you a girl?” would blare through the speakers, followed by mocking if I failed to rack up kills.
This gatekeeping made me feel unwelcome and made me worry that I could never, ever find a guy who’d teach me to play Magic: The Gathering or Dungeons & Dragons. As a girl growing up in the early 2000s, there was a price to being a beginner. That price was mockery. If they had to be angry, I much preferred the rage borne of being “beat by a girl” to the self-righteousness of a guy who knew anything in nerd culture better than I did.
In high school, I had a couple of close guy friends who would occasionally play video games with me. Once, I even got invited to a LAN party, where I came close to winning the Super Smash Bros tournament. These were beautiful moments, few and far in between. As my brother and I grew up, we grew apart–he leaned towards the first-person shooters popular amongst his friends, while I hid in the basement playing Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts whenever I could get him to let me use his PS2. Once he got the Xbox, I was able to co-opt the older console, even taking it with me to college where I’d spend lonely hours playing through Kingdom Hearts II much to the confusion of my roommate, who rushed a sorority.
They say you’re supposed to find “your people” in college, yet I didn’t, not really. I made some friends in the Creative Writing and English majors, who’d talk to me about books and writing. My social anxiety still reigned supreme, but I broke through now and again and made a solid, small group of friends by the end of my sophomore year. Yet there was an absence, a gap. I knew that, somewhere, there were the right kind of nerds, playing tabletop RPGs and video games. I even knew where they lived–in the boys only dorm that smelled like sweaty socks and Doritos. But, once again, a gate I couldn’t pass through (or, more truthfully, one I didn’t dare to approach).
I graduated from college in 2014, which was also the year of Gamergate. By this time, I wasn’t playing video games much anymore, since the PS2 in my dorm room had proved too much of a distraction from my studies. Still, I remained engaged at the periphery of gaming conversation, following a few key personalities on Twitter. So, I saw enough vague tweets about this “Gamergate” to pique my interest.
I want to say I was surprised by what I found when I read about Gamergate, but, unfortunately, I was not. That there was a targeted harassment campaign aimed at female developers in the video game industry was nothing shocking to a girl who had on occasion been bullied out of Gamestop or away from a particular game at the party. Guys rallied behind the hashtag #gamergate, writing in opposition to the very same increased diversity of gaming content and representation of gaming identity that I’d been thrilled to experience over the past few years. The proliferation of playable female avatars, among other things, was viewed by some as an attack on traditional gaming culture, bemoaning feminism’s influence on the gaming world.
I didn’t follow Gamergate too closely. For one, I hadn’t played many of the games mentioned in the articles I read, and for another, I didn’t need more reasons to feel uncomfortable in the world I secretly loved. I had avoided World of Warcraft and other games that drew my interest because I was terrified of the multiplayer mode, that I would be asked to interact and collaborate with random internet men who would begin their rallying chorus of “Are you a girl?!” which would, more often than not, turn into sexual harassment or outright bullying. To play “like a girl” was my greatest fear, and I wouldn’t let myself be a beginner even in something I loved. This kept me out of massive multiplayer gaming, and kept me far, far away from the tabletop games like Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons that had drawn my secret fascination for years.
Gamergate didn’t scare me so much as it reaffirmed what I already knew. Alongside it, though, was the undeniable wave of actual change. People like Felicia Day wrote TV shows and books centered around the existence of the “female gamer” as a real, valid identity–as real, valid people who could exist in the world as something other than sex object or laughable n00b. I cried listening to Felicia Day’s memoir, You’re Never Weird on the Internet, overwhelmed to hear an actual female voice talk about nerd culture from the inside. In spite of Gamergate, in spite of having less and less time to actually game, I was beginning to feel, in some small way, seen.
I hate how people constantly tell you “it gets better” when you grow up with social anxiety. But, in my case at least, it did get better. I graduated from college, moved out of my parents’ house, and started working as a Success Coach for community college students. Here, I found my voice. I couldn’t make myself speak up for me, but somehow, when it wasn’t for me, I could. My AmeriCorps group were built-in friends, who taught me to play beer-pong for the first time and always, always remembered to include me. I hung out with two of the guys, easily accepted as someone who knew about nerd stuff and could hold her own in a deep discussion of anything Marvel.
And then, grad school. A newly-minted, mildly less awkward version of me rolled into my MFA program and found my people. While I was undeniably on the more “basic” end of my fantastic new literary friend group, I finally had a way to let loose all my nerdy tendencies. Harry Potter marathons? Check. Playing Skyrim? Check. In-depth film analysis of all the latest Marvel movies? Check.
At 24, I had finally found a group of people who meshed with me so much that I was finally able to let all sides of my multi-faceted personality run free. I felt safe, and normal, and capable of indulging in nerd culture without feeling like the odd one out.
When a large chunk of these people moved away after the program ended, it broke my heart. The golden age of being among “my people” seemed to have passed, and I would have to settle for occasional board game nights with my boyfriend’s friends. And then, as luck would have it, I received an unexpected text:
Mel gave me your number and said you might be interested in joining a D&D campaign I’m going to run?
Was I, a 27-year-old woman now working full time (and then some) at the university where I’d earned my master’s, interested in finally entering the world of tabletop gaming I’d dreamed of since I was a kid?
Hell yes I was!
In recent years, I’ve gotten so used to my routine and my typical people that I often forget I even have social anxiety. It just doesn’t come into play much when you’re running on autopilot, interacting with the same people in more or less the same roles more often than not.
The first time I pulled up outside the house where I’d play Pathfinder for the first time, I remembered. I sat in the car looking at my phone, paralyzed by the reality of a social situation I did not know how to navigate.
It was ridiculous. I knew most of these guys at least casually, part of the broader circle of MFA folks I’d gotten to know during school. But somewhere down in my little nerd girl heart, I remembered the scoffing tones of the guys in Gamestop who didn’t believe a girl could play RPG video games. These unknown entities I was about to play with could be anyone. They could be those guys. My social anxiety brain ran into overdrive–I was breaking a cardinal rule of growing up as a nerdy girl. I was about to be a beginner. In public. In front of men. What the actual fuck had I been thinking?
And then one of those guys pulled up and got out of his car and my brain relaxed a fraction. Oh right, I thought, my friends are here. I dug deep, found some courage, and followed him inside the old house, which I’d been in once or twice before. The refrain of oh god, new people didn’t quite shut up as we made introductions. I pulled up the character sheet my friend had made for me and read the stats, calming my mind with the realization that a lot of this stuff was pretty familiar from my old Baldur’s Gate days. Once I went full-nerd-obsessive mode on D&D culture (in other words, like three days later), I would learn that the games I’d grown up playing actually owed their existence to Dungeons & Dragons, the forefather of the modern RPG. All this time I thought I was walking in as a beginner, but I had all this half-forgotten RPG knowledge to light my way.
I did myself a favor designing my first characters, making them quiet, awkward druids who didn’t require much in the way of roleplay out of me. And yet, I soon rediscovered the girl I knew well from the classroom, who had a lot of Opinions and wasn’t afraid to speak them. After that first sesh, I learned about the world of actual play podcasts, and started binge-listening my way through The Glass Cannon Podcast. This gave me a quick and perhaps occasionally obnoxious confidence in my understanding of game mechanics, aided by the fact that I had somehow become part of two campaigns in which I played similar druid characters named Kaye. I knew how to Druid like nobody’s business, and I wasn’t afraid to do it.
In spite of this, my own personal dragon of social anxiety continued to rear its head every single time I drove over there. I would sit in my car, letting the GCP play out, working up the courage to walk through the door, knowing that my fear was utterly irrational and unfounded. The moment I got inside, I knew, I would remember that these were not scary monsters, but in fact, my friends.
It took me a while to figure it out. Why was the social anxiety lingering week after week in spite of the fact that these guys weren’t new to me anymore?
“Guys” here is the key word. Years upon years of social conditioning have made me someone who struggles to feel at ease around men, who is always waiting for the other shoe to drop no matter how much I know it isn’t going to.
The girl sitting on the bus wishing she could join in talking about Dragonball Z never imagined a future where she’d be part of not one, but two groups of tabletop gamers. She never imagined a future where she’d blink and then, suddenly, most of the friends who lived near her were men. And yet, here I am, a 27-year-old whose social calendar is filled, more often than not, with tabletop gaming sessions with two groups of guys I am happy to call my friends.
It’s not that I don’t know, rationally, that I am safe here. I wouldn’t keep coming back for these sessions if I didn’t believe I was welcome there, truly just one of the group. I know it’s okay. It’s just that on some primal level, my brain doesn’t feel like this is my life. Because for most of my childhood, the dominant message was that girls don’t game. That’s why there was only one option in Mario Kart, over-the-top girly Peach, and many more games with no female playable avatar. Hell, even Pokemon games took a while to let you tell Professor Oak if you are “a boy” or “a girl.” And if the looks I got at Gamestop were any indication, the way I’d been brushed aside when I went into a tabletop gaming or comics shop was worse, like this deeper step into nerd territory wasn’t meant, wasn’t allowed, for me. It’s gotten so much better, and yet I’m still working to unlearn that understanding of my place at the table.
Lillian Avarest saunters to the front of the group, a devilish grin on her face. Her bright clothing and carefully made-up face demand attention as she waves her arm in the air, dramatically draws a card from her tarot deck, and reads aloud.
“The odds are in our favor, friends,” she says, inspiring courage in her party as they battle the man who’s come to claim the silver we’ve decided not to give him.
As the battle continues, she reaches into the pocket of her skirts, drawing out one of the coins. “If you want it so badly,” she says, the coin coming to float midair above her palm, “Then take it.” With her mind, she sends the coin flying at the enemy, hitting him square in the center of the forehead, winning the battle.
She takes a jaunty curtsey and grins.
The woman who rolled that Natural 20 smiles, too, learning to be okay with the attention that comes with playing a charismatic Bard. My new character is nothing like me, and lets me step into being someone who commands, demands, and enjoys attention. I’ve written myself a challenge in Lillian, and playing this new character is more fun than I could have ever imagined. I’m getting a taste for what it would be like, to be confident and sure of myself. Maybe I’m learning that in real life, too.
Time and time again, I pack up the purple set of dice I was generously gifted, throw my laptop in its bag, drive all of five minutes to my friend’s house, and coach myself to get out of the car. To walk past the learned discomfort into a space where I know I am, in fact, perfectly welcome. I do this because I’m not a girl anymore. I’m a grown woman, a gamer, a person enjoying a fun time around the gameboard with her friends. I do this because I know that pushing past the lingering discomfort, the sense that I’m doing something I’m not allowed to do, not really, is worth it.
Because I love this game, love stepping into the shoes of characters who can do things I never could. I dream up entire worlds not alone and in my head, like I did as a kid, but in conjunction with a group of friends. We’re imagining out entire scenes, and writing our story together.
Amanda Kay Oaks is a Pittsburgh-based writer and wearer of many professional hats. Her essays have appeared in Hoosier Lit, bonfires, Golden Walkman, and others. She received her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Chatham University.