We were well on our way to having a regular issue. Not “regular” in a bad way, just nothing groundbreaking. Content with the great quality you’ve come to expect from our magazine. Gorgeous art. Editorial snark. Tongue-in-cheek reviews of upcoming TTRPG releases. We have also welcomed Brent Bowser as co-editor.
And then the employees of Paizo, Inc., raised their voices as one in a show of solidarity and union – like, a literal union. Of course we had to show our support for their incredible work, and so we set out to learn all we could about the unionization efforts, what went down behind the scenes, and what the next steps will be. (Read our statement of support of the unionization efforts at JoD4HAP.com.)
As Jason Tondro told us during our conversation, there has been talk of unionizing in roleplaying games in general for many, many years.
“But it’s been very hard to do,” he said. “Unionization is quite a bureaucratic challenge.”
It’s a challenge – but the workers and freelancers at Paizo have taken their stance and started down that path. We are here to uplift them and amplify their words.
In this issue you’ll find art, editorials, reviews, and interviews. But you’ll also find the beginning of a story that’s still ongoing, one that started, as these stories do, with whispers that grew into a cacophony. Thanks for sticking with us and thanks for supporting these fine folks.
And, as always, stay fashionable.
Elizabeth Parsons Alex G. Friedman Brent Bowser Editors
The Journal of Dungeoneering for Hip and Attractive Professionals releases the following call for papers and art to fill its third issue.
This is an interesting time for our field… and, at risk of sounding a tad trite, it’s an interesting time for our society. Our comrades are unionizing, TTRPG has never been more popular, and we are finally getting back to in-person games (where it makes sense).
Whether we like it or not, our world is a different one than existed two years or even one year ago. The world of tabletop roleplaying games is no exception. The past year has brought us unionization at Paizo (which JoD4HAP has unquestionably backed), calls for more representation in every level of the field, and unionization efforts across nearly every industry that serves as a vertebra in the spine of our current capitalist machine. Marginalized voices are crying out to be heard and taken seriously.
For our third issue, we are looking to amplify those marginalized voices. How have you been impacted by the labor movement? What can TTRPG teach us about the persistence of people like the Paizo workers union? How can allies give space to folks who have traditionally had to fight for a seat at the table? Have you had good experiences working with certain publications and companies? Bad experiences?
Send us your poetry, your short fiction, your essays, your features, your art.
The TTRPG community is resilient. It strives to be inclusive. It needs work.
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!
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
7 p.m. EST
Editor Liz is hosting the virtual party on her stream. Throw her a follow and keep those notifications on, so you can know when to join the fun!
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.