How I found my way back to roleplaying games

Contributed by
Nov 15, 2018, 6:32 PM EST (Updated)

Before now, I had two major eras of roleplaying games in my life. One was a period in high school when I had been introduced to White Wolf Publishing’s World of Darkness setting, specifically the Werewolf the Apocalypse game. Before long, a group of friends and I started a gaming group, meeting regularly in each others’ basements and sitting around tables telling intricate group stories. The other began in my late 20s when I’d been barely making ends meet as a road comic and filling in the gaps with a gig as a substitute teacher. I joined a local LARP (live-action roleplaying) group in town when looking for a relatively low-cost activity I could do during the summer months when I wasn’t making that sweet subbing money.

Not content to simply wait every few weeks to play with the group again, I dove into online gaming sessions in chat rooms or message boards, even Usenet groups, the archaic pre-social media that helped build the internet as a community platform. As a writerly dork of a kid obsessed with science fiction and fantasy, it was a way of crafting my own movies and books untethered from the budget restraints or the reality of visual effects. More importantly for me, as someone who wanted nothing more than to be a different person than who the world saw her, it offered a temporary and much-needed escape. Although I was afraid to create a female character in the living room games I had with my friends, in online text-based games I was free to do as I pleased and did so. Despite their magical powers or supernatural origins, often I felt more like myself in the characters I played than I did in real life. With pencils and paper and a few rolls of the dice, I could be the woman I knew myself to be.

The first era ended for a multitude of reasons — people going off to college, part-time jobs and after-school activities taking away the time I would have spent playing online, and of course, there was the night that our game master, Seth, yelled at us. We joked too much during games or weren’t taking it as seriously as his old group had, or some other issues that boiled down to much the same thing: despite our collective fun, we were doing it wrong. While apologies were issued after a long discussion, the game was never the same after that and most of our players began to drop off or simply not make the effort to make it to games until eventually we just didn’t play anymore.

The second era I chose to end due to toxic infighting and tribalism within the gaming group I had joined, and the overwhelming amount of attention that all of it demanded from me, giving me a sense that I was wasting time that could be spent on writing or other creative pursuits. And so I quit and for a long time, I didn’t look back.

Fast forward a few years, until I had moved across the country to Los Angeles. By this time I had come out as trans and had been open as such for several years. I had also discovered that within the many subcultures of the greater Los Angeles area, there were pockets where things like a history of roleplaying games or obsessions with geek culture weren’t the socially stigmatizing things they had been in high school, or among the comedy scene in Ohio. Yet, as much as I wanted to get into the games, I couldn’t.

No one had told me I couldn’t, no one had prevented me from joining a game, and yet every time I thought I might try it, I wouldn’t. It had been so long since I’d last played that I felt like anyone who welcomed me to their table would likely grow quickly frustrated at my learning curve. I’d played a variety of systems in my previous two eras, and yet everyone seemed to have this common language of game versions I had never touched, most notably, Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition, or “5e.” I’d run into people for whom 5e and other similar dice-based systems like Pathfinder were such the norm, that I’d quickly find myself lost trying to keep up. Likewise, I’d see their faces gloss over when I’d bring up my own gaming history.

The base ingredients of the games were exactly the same, get a game going, build a character sheet, inhabit a character and collectively tell a story, led by a guiding voice, either a dungeon master or storyteller or other official branded term, yet they may as well have been entirely different. It was such a strange feeling how something that contained all the same working parts could feel so completely foreign from each other, and how talking to someone who, on paper, had grown up playing essentially the same kind of games that I had, could end up with just a total disconnect of references and bearings from both parties. Deep down I remembered that high school basement, getting yelled at by my GM for doing it wrong.

And of course, I was scared of how much I’d be able to enter the fray again given the changes in my life and how I present myself to the world. No one had specifically told me I wouldn’t be welcome anymore, but given the tension I’d had in other aspects of my life, I convinced myself that there would be this barrier. In this way, I had actually served as my own gatekeeper, I was the one telling myself, "no one wants you here, you don’t belong."

It wasn’t entirely in my head, I did have experiences of sitting in on games where other players consistently misgendered me, or worse, dominated play in a way that left me out of the action. I almost made the decision to walk away from gaming once and for all, consider it what it was, a relic of my youth that was better left in the past.

But there was just this nagging voice in my head. It reminded me of that immense joy I got when the games were good, when the stories came together in ways that were unbelievable. I remembered LARP sessions that had broken my heart as much as any book I’d ever read, or the way groups of us would laugh when someone rolled a critical failure at the absolute worst possible time. These weren’t experiences that I wanted to close off forever. I’d listen to roleplaying podcasts and feel such immense jealousy at how much fun the people on them were having. I decided that it was absolutely unacceptable that I shouldn’t be allowed to have that fun, and I disagreed with anyone who said otherwise, whether they were sitting across the table from me or voices deep within my own subconscious.

So, I just made it my mission to get back into gaming. I started simple. Being a comic who works in nerdy media, I’ve got connections with some folks who also blend the walls between performances and the geekosphere, and I put out feelers to friends who played tabletop games or knew people who did. Soon I was put in touch with folks from various Twitch streaming channels, and suddenly before Christmas last year I found myself sitting on camera at HyperRPG in North Hollywood, wearing a red velvet jacket and playing in a one-off Doctor Who Christmas Special RPG. It was a simplified version of the published, licensed game, designed to maximize roleplaying over dice rolling for performance reasons, and on top of that, it was a completely bizarre setting, with viewers donating money that caused the setting, characters, and plot to change at random. In short, it was the perfect low-pressure scenario to get back into gaming. No one was going to get mad at me for doing it wrong. And being the mad Whovian that I am, it was a comfortable setting for me to get my sea legs back with as well.

But it wasn’t enough. I jumped into another one-off Who game on the same channel a few months later and started to actively and vocally seek out games again. It wasn’t easy. But knowing I wanted to avoid some of the more toxic elements that had pushed me out before, I actively started seeking games out within my circles, including friends who were regular gamers, and in private Facebook groups for various marginalized folks.

I found two things the more I dug. First, I found a vibrant, engaged community of players who not only were cool to let someone rusty on the rules join in, but they were excited to do so. I learned quickly that among most hardcore gamers, one of the most popular activities to do is look up the rules or argue them playfully until the GM tells them to shut up so we can move on. This idea that I wouldn’t be welcome at the table because I wasn’t already an expert couldn’t have been further from the truth. The more that I just let myself relax and play and get engaged, the more second nature these details became to me again. In less than a year, I went from being skittish about being back at the table to being competent enough in my playing that I’ve been sought out to play in more streaming games, including one on the official Dungeons and Dragons channel. (Ethical full disclosure: a paid gig.) 

The other thing I found was a multitude of people just like me. I had a friend tell me her ex-boyfriend played in regular games but wouldn’t let her join in because he declared that she wouldn’t have the attention span for it. I ran a game as part of a show at a women’s comedy festival and half my roster were ladies who had never played before “but always wanted to.” And there were my friends from high school, the ones who never played tabletop again after that night Seth yelled at us. It was like a light was switched off and they just never could care again. Perhaps some could say that maybe they just weren’t that interested in it, to begin with, who knows. I personally don’t think that running away when you've been chased means you didn’t care to show up.

When so much gatekeeping exists around these little pockets of fandom, it can be really easy to see the first telltale signs of it happening and decide not to bother. When combined with past experiences that left you isolated and feeling unwanted, it can only get that much harder. If anything, the most important thing I’ve learned as I’ve rediscovered my dice rolling roots is that it’s on me to be vocal about how welcome you are. I have found my seat at the table and to anyone out there who wants one too and doesn’t think you can, you can. Find a group in your area, talk to your curious friends, or even find a fan group online and hook up with a game you can play that way. Not every GM will yell at you, and the ones who do probably have boring games anyway.

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