While many things continue into modern times from the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons, most of them have either disappeared or shifted so much that anyone who played back in 1974 would find the modern iteration all but unrecognizable (and likely complain about how it had been ruined). Gone are the charts required to determine if a certain roll hit a certain armor class (and the incomprehensible design choice of making lower AC’s better–why did it take 25 years for someone to reverse that particular logic?). Saving throws have been consolidated down, simplified, and modified to actually take into account how dangerous the thing causing the saving throw is. Nonhuman races are no longer classes, the level caps for nonhuman races are gone, and the races a person can play aren’t taken directly from a Tolkien story. And a longsword, shield, and plate armor are no longer the clearly superior combination of equipment for all fighters. —
One thing that still exists, largely unaltered in 45 years of revisions and play, is the alignment system. Though originally just one axis (lawful through chaotic), the alignment chart has remained essentially unchanged since the second axis (good through evil) was added almost 45 years ago when Advanced Dungeon & Dragons came out in 1977. While it got a significant overhaul in 4th edition, like most things from 4th edition, the changes were abandoned by 5th edition. In fact, it has been such an integral part of the game for so long that people who have been playing long enough start seeing the abbreviations everywhere. For example, I always wonder for a moment how something can be Chaotic AND Neutral AND Good when I see the Compressed Natural Gas logo on the back of a car.
The crux of the alignment chart is to determine a character’s attitude about themselves, society, and the world along the two axes. Simple enough in and of itself, and an idea that is so popular that versions have popped up in both tabletop RPGs and video games, in one form or fashion. The Palladium system had alignments, for example, though they were standalone rather than on axes. These alignments were even more limiting than those in the “standard” alignment system, and it was difficult, if not impossible, to find one that fit a character concept.
There was an entire line of Star Wars video games that tracked whether or not a character was drifting toward the light or dark side, including advantages and disadvantages for being on one end or the other or right in the middle.
I always wonder for a moment how something can be Chaotic AND Neutral AND Good when I see the Compressed Natural Gas logo on the back of a car.
The ubiquity of the alignment system is strange, because it is arguably the least well-defined and least functional system in D&D or any of its numerous offspring. If you got nine different gamers together and asked them to describe the alignment system and define the alignments, you would get nine different answers. Perhaps ironically, you could then place these nine different answers on an alignment chart (and get nine different answers about whether or not your placements were accurate).
Even determining which alignments represent the best and worst possibilities is up for debate. While the neutral alignments are just that and no one would suggest they’re paragons of right or wrong (though some might suggest the middle path is the best), the question of whether a person who obeys all laws and is good (Lawful Good) is better than someone who cares more about the greater good than following all the rules (Chaotic Good) is a matter of opinion. We’ll call this the “Superman vs. Batman” question. Just as questionable is whether it is the person who eschews all order with no care for others (Chaotic Evil) or the person who only wants there to be laws that they control and that benefit them (Lawful Evil) is the worse sort of villain. This would be the “Joker vs. Darkseid” argument.
And the cultural norms underlying morality are constantly shifting, so even examples made at one point in time are no longer considered viable in another. For example, the creator of the alignment chart, Gary Gygax, apparently said that it was acceptable for a Lawful Good paladin to kill kobold babies because they were just going to grow up to be kobolds, an idea that is horrifying to most modern gamers and would be considered Chaotic Evil.
None of this would be an issue, were the alignments firmly established with objective rules in place the way things like spells and weapon attacks are. But since what a player may think fits with a particular alignment and what a game master thinks fits with a particular alignment could be completely different, a player could be subjected to a ruling with no real recourse to rules–which might be surprising to both. Debates about rules are common, and the usual rule is that the GM has final say, but this system is almost entirely objective.
This would also not be an issue if the alignment system only existed as an aide to role playing, but that is not the case. Several mechanics–from the damage weapons do, to how spells affect targets, to whether or not a character is even eligible for some options–hinge on a character’s alignment, and if a character has chosen a certain option then behaved in a way the GM thought was opposed to the character’s alignment, the character could lose out on abilities and become unbalanced compared to other characters.
Yet there is something so evocative and inviting about being able to break down a person’s whole personality into a couple of dimensions. All sorts of alignments get made up. Lawful Annoying, Neutral Jerk, and my personal favorite, Chaotic Stupid, which was once used to describe a player whose Chaotic Evil character went through an entire dungeon with a 10-footladder strapped to his back but didn’t use it until the characters got back to town and never once did anything even rude, let alone chaotic or evil.
I would say they’re the Myers-Briggs charts of memes, but Myers-Briggs charts are the Myers-Briggs charts of memes.
Perhaps this is the very allure that explains the otherwise baffling fact that the system has not only stayed a part of Dungeons & Dragons so long but also has wormed its way out into other systems and beyond into the larger world of pop culture.
You can find an alignment chart for pretty much anything. A quick search pulls up ones for gift-giving, what components are required to make something a sandwich, and texting techniques and etiquette. I would say they’re the Myers-Briggs charts of memes, but Myers-Briggs charts are the Myers-Briggs charts of memes.
And they are commonly distributed by people who not only have never touched a polyhedral die, let alone actually played D&D, but would likely consider D&D some form of devil worship and would be horrified to know that they’re passing on anything based on such satanism.
But then, it is probably the same things that makes the alignment chart so troublesome in a complex game system bounded by specific rules that makes them so appealing in the wider world. They are a way to quickly and visually break things down into finer components than just “there are two types of people in the world” generalizations, but not actually detailed enough to truly analyze things. The fact that there’s at least some aspect of them that is invariably thrown in as a joke (usually what is defined as Chaotic Evil) only makes them more popular.
So, the next time your Aunt Marjory sends you an alignment chart meme, ask her if she wants to join your Thursday night game session and find out if she’s Lawful Cool or Chaotic Clueless.
*If you have comments or opinions about alignment charts, or thoughts on your aunt Marjory being chaotic evil, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Using Virtual Tabletops in Hybrid and In-Person Games
Virtual tabletops (VTTs) have become a fact of life in the tabletop gaming community during the global pandemic of 2020-2021. If you’re like me, the prospect of games returning to the real-life tabletop is exciting! As it became safe for my gaming group to meet in person again, I got excited as I dusted off my minis, unfolded my battle mats, and rolled my favorite d20s once again. Yet there was so much I learned about VTTs before and during the pandemic, and I would hate for all of that to go to waste. I’d like to tell you about my journey with VTTs, and why they will continue to be a tool in my GM toolbox.
My first steps into remote gaming were primitive by today’s standards. I have friends who live across the country, and our first steps to try to game together involved using Skype with a laptop camera pointed at a physical map. It worked okay, and we had a lot of fun with those early remote games, but the introduction of VTTs made remote gaming feel much more like gaming in person.
As my experience with using Roll20.net, a virtual tabletop website, grew, it occurred to me that I could also use this tool in my in-person games. At the time, I was running Pathfinder’s Giantslayer Adventure Path, which unsurprisingly had some huge maps! My table was not large enough to draw these maps to scale. I remembered running TSR’s Against the Giants when I was a kid, and I thought about how I used theater of the mind to describe those combats, and I was sure that would work just fine. I saw an opportunity, however, to tell this story visually using this new technology, so I created a map representing a giant’s hall the size of a football field. Everyone brought their laptops, and we played a thrilling session in which the players felt absolutely tiny in this huge space with fearsome giants. This was when I fell in love with VTTs as a storytelling tool.
When virtual games became mandatory in 2020, my group already had some experience playing this way, so we made the switch without missing a session. During 2020, I attended virtual conventions across the country, and learned tips and tricks for using different VTTs. I went from dabbling into VTTs to becoming comfortable creating engaging virtual games. I started thinking about their potential to tell different kinds of stories–to be able to create puzzles, social encounters, chases, and complex skill challenges using the visual aspects of this storytelling tool.
As I move back into in-person and hybrid games, there are four ways I plan on continuing to use virtual tabletops:
One of my favorite features of VTTs are handouts. While I love a tangible handout I can place in the player’s hands, I don’t always find it necessary to print handouts that will just be tossed later. With virtual handouts, you can include visuals and player-facing information, while attaching hidden GM notes. Once they unlock the secrets of a message, character, or item that you’ve made the handout for, you can simply copy and paste them into the player information section.
2. Large battle maps
As I learned in my Giantslayer campaign, some maps are too large for most tables. Let’s say you want to play on a map of a ruined village, giant encampment, dragon’s cave, or chase across city rooftops. VTTs can do a nice job of conveying the scale of epic battles.
3. City and world maps
City and world maps are useful tools in any game, but VTTs can take your large area maps to a whole new level. With some VTT knowledge and a little bit of time, you can create an interactive city map, regional or world map. You can use tokens on the map to make clickable locations that have player-facing options and hidden notes. You can hide locations that have not yet been explored, and reveal them as players discover them. You can set the scale of the maps in the settings page, and then use the measuring tool to calculate the distance it takes to travel between locations. Virtual maps can be a great tool for setting up a sandbox-style campaign with well-organized notes.
4. Adding virtual players
Getting people together in physical space can be a challenge, even when there’s not a pandemic. Giving players the option of joining the game virtually can add more flexibility to your gaming schedule. If a player gets sick or is out of town but would still like to play, they can join virtually. If a player gets transferred to another city or even across the world, the campaign doesn’t have to end for them.
If you have some players who are virtual and others in person, I suggest everyone at the in-person table except for one person mutes their microphone, and you set up a speaker and table mic that everyone can use to communicate with virtual players. I’ve gotten excellent results from suspending my 40-dollar USB condenser mic from a cup hook in the ceiling over the table, or using a simple mic stand that is out of the way of the battle map.
Some people may not like VTTs, and if you are one of them, I am glad you may have the option of ditching them in the near future, because I think everyone should be able to play the kind of game they want to play. For me, they will be a tool I will continue to use sometimes. I’ve always had the option of using a battle map or using theater of the mind. VTTs give me a third option, and when I’m collaborating with my friends to tell a story, I like to have as many tools to convey that story as possible.
If you’ve ever crafted a fictional world, dropped your player characters into it, and asked them “So what do you want to do?” you may have encountered blank stares. Your players may be paralyzed by choice. You may need to run a different style of campaign.
Narrative-driven campaigns are a type of storytelling designed to follow the journey of heroes following the call to adventure to its epic conclusion, saving the universe from immeasurable evil. Before a Game Master can get into the minutia of encounters in story arcs, they first need to outline the plot points their story needs to hit. I would like to share with you a modern story structure that originated in The Round that will draw in your players and help them invest in their characters and your world. In this article, we will discuss how to structure your campaign using The Seven Steps of Professional Wrestling.
The common structure of the “seven steps of professional wrestling” is often seen in a five-minute wrestling match, with each step consisting of a series of maneuvers. Translating these concepts to your campaign should also be applied to events in the greater story. This should not be adapted to individual encounters. This thesis also operates under the assumption that the player characters (PCs) “always win.” As we dissect each step, I will explain how the party can technically win, while still losing, and generating “heat” for your antagonists.
Before a match begins, wrestlers are introduced to the crowd individually, with the villain entering first. This is done to introduce the threat to the audience: the millionaire oligarch, fan of the rival city’s sports team, or a large undead menace. By identifying the threat, it is then easy for the audience to identify the hero, which is why they enter second. Your session zero should follow a similar motif. You do not necessarily have to show Darth Vader capturing the princess, but you should at least introduce overarching threats the heroes will confront, such as the evil empire. Your players will create characters that exist in the world, and with a vested interest in protecting their attachments to that world.
1. The Shine
The first sequence of events to run your players through is the shine. In the shine, we prove our heroes’ formidability, and desire to see them win. This is where the party fights the giant rats in the tavern cellar, the goblins raiding the village, and possibly the foot soldier minions of the main antagonist. Use these opening adventures to establish the “normal life” the party will return to once changed, and get a sense for who the characters are. Slowly introduce the overarching plot by having the party deal with the collateral damage of the antagonist’s plans. Peaceful forest denizens turn violent from Fey influence. A mephit escapes the cultist that summoned it. Undead haunt a place the antagonist raided. Displaced kobolds attack travelers crossing their newly claimed domain. The antagonist may or may not be aware of the heroes, but the shine alerts the antagonist to their presence and the threat they pose.
2. The Cut-Off
Once there is momentum behind the heroes, and victory seems inevitable, we move to the cut-off. Our heroes encounter their first major blow. This is also where we first encounter the nuance of the players always winning while losing. The game master’s role is to provide challenge, but ultimately lose. Never plan to win a fight. Your dice will betray you, and you will betray the trust of your players. Instead, use this part of the adventure to have the heroes return to find their attachments beset upon by the antagonist. A much-needed caravan of supplies has not arrived yet. They return to find their quest giver is not around to reward them for the quest they just took. The McGuffin, stolen. Their village, destroyed. Their mentor, struck down by a dark force they have history with. You’ll want to craft adventures around fetch or escort goals. Don’t plan on defeating the heroes when your antagonist’s lieutenant attacks their village. Plan on the heroes successfully defending one particular area, but unable to interact with the lieutenant’s main goal. Perhaps make the goal of the adventure a successful escape by escorting the important McGuffin away from the conflict.
The game master’s role is to provide challenge, but ultimately lose.
A McGuffin, the term popularized by Alfred Hitchcock, refers to a desired object or person that drives the plot. In film and literature, it compels the protagonist, and oftentimes the antagonist. The Holy Grail, The Death Star plans, and Infinity Stones are all examples. For the purposes of gaming, and particularly this narrative structure, I would encourage your antagonist to be primarily motivated by the McGuffin. Your players don’t have to be motivated by the McGuffin. They can be motivated by the actions taken in pursuit of the McGuffin.
3. The Heat
After the heroes are cut off, the villain starts The Heat. In professional wrestling, this is when the villain begins fighting back against the hero. Creating momentum behind your villain while still giving your players achievable goals can be difficult and may require some nudging by NPCs. I will start by reminding you don’t write encounters you expect to win. Your dice WILL betray you. More importantly, the goal is for your story villain to draw ire, not yourself as the storyteller. Giving the players an achievable goal will help maintain their trust in you as a storyteller, and thus keep the campaign progressing cooperatively. I would not recommend bringing in a strong encounter intended to defeat the party. Instead, give the party a McGuffin to escort away from the location. They may need to be prompted to do this. Perhaps let them successfully fend off the attack, but they were unable to protect a McGuffin. Find a resource the party needs and cut them off from it; money, a mentor, their NPC cleric, their base of operations. If you do plan to bring in the main antagonist or a lieutenant, give them a way out, like flight or teleportation.
Another aspect of the heat to be aware of is how long and how far reaching this time of strife lasts for the party. I would recommend a minimum of two scenarios or story arcs where they are struggling beneath the victorious villain. Your antagonists’ army may control several cities at once. Maybe other gods at other churches are not granting spells. Perhaps the next MacGuffin is already in their possession, but thanks to clues left behind in ancient texts, coupled with your MacGuffin, you know where to go next and the villain doesn’t. I would be very cautious to drag this out more than three story beats because you risk turning off your players’ investment if they don’t feel like they are making progress.
4. The Hope Spot
Your overall story may need “more heat,” but you will need to break it up with the fourth step, the hope spot. Give your players a decisive win. This provides a good point to force your villain to pivot their plan, or perhaps a revelation of something greater to strive for. The heroes might recover their denied resource, or replace it with something better.. You might also want to kill the villain’s lieutenant here, or… kill your main antagonist as their lieutenant presents themself as the true, greater threat. The hope spot concludes this specific subplot arc in your campaign narrative.
You may need to go back into the “heat” step if you introduce a new main antagonist, so you can establish the threat they pose to the heroes. I wouldn’t recommend dragging this out too long, probably no more than one scenario. If you increased the threat level of an existing antagonist, you could skip this altogether if you want. Your story should have enough backstop and unresolved plot elements to already establish the danger the party is facing. Dragging out the story too long where the party doesn’t actually feel like they are succeeding against the villain can discourage them from wanting to pursue further. They will either distract themselves with side quests so they feel adequately equipped to handle the threat, or they will check out of the story because they feel like the storyteller is going to win regardless.
Dragging out the story too long where the party doesn’t actually feel like they are succeeding against the villain can discourage them from wanting to pursue further.
5. The Double Down
After the hope spot, you’ll move into the double down. This is where the heroes place the villain between two pieces of fried chicken… No, this is where the heroes and the villain find themselves at their lowest point. The heroes score a victory, but at a cost so great, they feel as though they have lost. The party may have been unwitting pawns in the villain’s grand scheme, defeating a powerful guardian monster that appears when the McGuffins are aligned. The defeat of the villain may be the needed catalyst to reveal their true power. Perhaps their success requires the sacrifice of a beloved NPC. Despite the loss, this should open up a path for ultimate victory for our heroes.
6. The Comeback
All of the suffering the party has endured will begin to pay off as we then move into the comeback. Your players should recognize the opportunity or advantage they now have over the antagonist, and have some motivation to put an end to them once and for all. Their denied resources are renewed and expanded beyond their previous capability. This is when the players can begin eliminating remaining lieutenants, freeing previously occupied territories, breaking curses and healing wounds. Their power and experience are greater than when they first encountered these problems. Reluctant acquaintances become allies. The Gods judge them worthy of their boons. This should take a few scenarios to work through and be its own story arc as the heroes build up for the final confrontation.
7. The (False) Finish
Finally, you’ll end your campaign with a series of false finishes and the finish itself. In professional wrestling, both athletes have a maneuver they perform that is strong enough to finish off their opponent. Should their opponent break free from a three-count pin attempt after suffering such a devastating blow, there is shock and disbelief. Each opponent raises the stakes, hitting harder and harder strikes until their ultimate victory. You may recognize this as “Now, I’ll show you my true power.” “This isn’t even my final form.” The villain may also be aware of their own weakness, and planned for it accordingly. You may want to involve a short side quest prior to the final encounter that can weaken the Big Bad End Guy (BBEG). Perhaps you plan your fight in multiple phases, and the environment changes after a few rounds. The more damage the villain takes, the thinner the wall between the material plane and The First World becomes. The giant robot inflicts area of effect damage that destroys or weakens some of the landscape. The BBEG is simply stalling the party so the party cannot disrupt the ritual bringing the evil god into existence… and a tentacle just poked through a portal.
Your dice WILL betray you.
I’ve included some examples below of story beats that follow the professional wrestling narrative style to inspire your games. It requires a well-thought-out antagonist, an understanding of their plans, and how the players act as obstacles to those plans. The campaign can be run as a pseudo sandbox as the story arcs of the shine, heat, and comeback can be more open than a straight railroaded campaign.
I hope you have fun trying this narrative structure in your next game and playing, not just the game, but also with your players’ emotions.
The babyface punches and slams the heel.
Heel pokes babyface in the eye.
Heel punches and slams babyface.
Babyface dodges an attack, and gets a few hits in.
Babyface flies from the top rope to the heel, knocking both down for a while.
Both rise, babyface blocks heel’s offense and strikes back.
Heel blocks babyface’s finishing maneuver, tries to cheat. Babyface dodges the cheating, finishes heel and wins.
Infinity War/ End Game
Heroes stop Black Order from getting gems.
Thanos obtains the gems himself.
Ant-Man returns and the heroes discover time travel.
The heroes obtain the Infinity Stones in the past, ultimately gathering all the stones for Thanos and losing Black Widow.
The heroes restore their fallen allies and fight back against Thanos’s army.
Thanos wrestles the Infinity Gauntlet from Captain Marvel, who loses it to Iron Man, snapping away Thanos.
Obi Wan Kenobi saves Luke, Leia, and the droid from the Empire’s control.
Obi Wan sacrifices himself so the rebels can escape.
The empire prepares to destroy the rebel base on Yavin IV and nearly destroys the rebel fleet.
The Death Star Blows up. Literally a New Hope spot. Luke learns of Yoda.
The Empire taking Hoth and Cloud city are heat spots. Luke rescues most of the rebels, losing his hand and Han. Darth Vader fails to not only finish the rebellion, but fails to recruit Luke to the Dark Side.
The rebels rescue Han Solo and launch their attack to end the Emperor once and for all.
It’s a trap! Luke and the rebels appear to be defeated, but are rescued by Ewoks and Darth Vader turning good.
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.