On Dungeons, Drow, and the Importance of Safe Spaces

October is #RPGSEA month! Roleplayers from the Philippines, Malaysia, and Singapore are coming together to share articles that put us on the map of the tabletop RPG scene. We’re loud, we’re proud, and we’re out to spread the love for our hobby. Tabletop roleplaying games are for everyone!

Girls Got Game will be sharing posts that we see from our friends in other countries on our FB Page. Make sure to check them out! If you want to participate, go right ahead: we’d love to see what you’ve got in store for us.


My first D&D 5E campaign ended with my Drow Warlock at Level 12.

D&D - Character Sketch
Here is a sketch of my babbin, care of Danzy!

All of the action of our campaign took place in Menzoberranzan – the dark soul of the Underdark – and Waterdeep, one of the greatest cities in Faerun. My group has a lovely routine going: we’d meet every Friday in the early evening, catch up on IRL things over Japanese, then head down to our DM’s house. After about an hour or so of prep time – one that almost always involved leveling up – we hit the ground running with our crazy cast of mostly drow babbins. We started out with just four players, with each one of us playing one character. We ended it with seven players; and almost all of us had a “secondary” character because our DM loves to do roleplaying experiments at the table.

We IGed our stuff like cool kids.

I regret absolutely nothing, but I do wish that our DM didn’t need to leave for Hong Kong. He had told us that originally, he’d planned to take us on a full ride up to level 20, with our characters – provided that they survived – taking their place among the rest as epic heroes of Faerun. Nevertheless, the campaign was, hands down, one of the most enjoyable roleplaying experiences I’ve had yet. It also came at a great time for me. My closest buds in RP know that the biggest source of my angst is how I’m always stuck as the default DM Option. I rarely ever get to sit back and enjoy the table as a player. Furthermore, my player runs don’t usually finish. Drama happens, life gets in the way, people lose interest… the works.

There’s another reason why this campaign meant so much to me. This became my inadvertent return to a tabletop system I had avoided for over a decade.

 

I grew up reading AD&D rulebooks and Dragonlance instead of Chronicles of Narnia.

My four older brothers were huge tabletop geeks – and this tracks, given the times. They tried all sorts of systems out with their friends, and were each other’s party mates and GMs. D&D, however, was their mainstay because they loved the Dragonlance Chronicles. Surprisingly, while everyone else thought roleplaying gamesespecially D&D – were Satanic, our extremely Catholic parents didn’t seem to mind the fact that my brothers killed dragons in our play room late at night.

As a consequence, their baby sister ended up getting curious about what they were doing. While they never let me play with them – the age gap was way too big, and my parents were uncomfortable at a little girl playing with a large group of teenaged boys – they encouraged me reading the books together with Dragonlance. The Forgotten Realms and Ravenloft followed soon after, which permanently ruined Chronicles of Narnia and other books more suited for “kids my age” for me. I even got an early taste of the glorious trainwreck that is old World of Darkness, because they loved playing Vampire: the Masquerade and Mage: the Ascension.

Raistlin Majere dungeons and dragons safe spaces
Raise your hand if you had a childhood crush on this sexy wizard beast.

My first actual experience as a player for D&D was with two of my cousins, a boy who’d end up becoming one of my closest geek friends ever, and my younger brother. We did a short run with D&D 3.5, where I played a Blackguard named Katreya. She made me appreciate feats, especially if they happened to be Cleave.

 

Then the shit started happening.

Given that I had such a positive experience with D&D, it shouldn’t be surprising that I started looking for it all the time. Unfortunately, the one time I did try to play with an older brother of mine, the experiment ended with one disastrous session. He tried to start a campaign with me and my younger brother as his players. The session turned into a major GM vs. player power trip. He took advantage of the fact that his younger siblings were… well, younger than him. And insisted on his interpretations of the rules, and his take on how the story should go. That afternoon ended with my younger brother abandoning the table in frustrated tears. Do note that the age gap between this older bro of mine and me is about eight years. The gap between him and my younger bro is fourteen.

Super mature, yeah? Unsurprisingly, he’s the one brother I have difficulty getting along with.

Anyway. A few years down the line, I thought to myself, hey, he’s probably the exception to the rule, right? You had so much fun with your cousins. You’re in a cool college now and the workload has stopped eating you, so why not? There are bound to be geeks who love to do tabletop!

There were. But there were just a few not-so-tiny issues:

  • Everyone and their father seemed to be into roll-play, NOT roleplay.
  • DMs were the gods of the table. They were not to be questioned at all, and they were to be worshipped regularly by their players.
  • Racism and sexism are fun and you should totally buy into it if you want to play with anybody. Else, you’re killjoy.
  • Apparently, girls couldn’t possibly know how to D&D, much less tabletop RP at all. Any decision you make can and will be questioned.
  • …And if girls were at your table, they had no place other than serve as token female/potential love interest.

 

Let’s talk a bit about that last one.

My first attempt at doing a D&D campaign crashed and burned with the full force of a dying dragon plummeting from the stratsophere down to Waterdeep during any of its large city-wide festivals. Close to the end of my college life, my friends and I decided to play D&D together. I agreed to be one of the campaign’s two DMs. The other one was a guy who ended up liking me.

Awkward Sealion dungeons and dragons safe spaces
You may brace yourself now.

One thing led to another, inclusive of the thrills, chills and spills that come with a whirlwind college kinda-romance and an equally huge falling out. There were other issues that came attached with this; ones that I acknowledge were my shortcomings as an immature, insecure college kid. Let’s focus, though, on what really destroyed things.

The long and short of my issues with this GM were he liked me, and wasn’t all that cool or courteous about it. I told him to wait, and he then decided, like the nice guy he was, that he was entitled to a relationship with me. Since I refused, I was, therefore, the biggest, ugliest, nastiest bitch on Planet Earth. This is something that he and his posse enjoyed telling other people for some years to come.

Players abandoned the table in emotional messes. Others were kicked out for not taking the “right side” in the argument; or for just not being “cool” enough in the eyes of other players. Everything came to a head when I found myself unceremoniously kicked out of both the campaign and the group. The other half of the table didn’t even bother informing me. They all just stopped talking to me, and eventually arranged for sessions behind my back. One of the sessions – or so I was told by one of the few friends I still had at that table – involved killing off all of my NPCs, and killing the PCs of other players they had kicked out because they were friends with me.

That was the last straw. I turned my back on D&D and tabletop RPGs as a whole for the next few years.

 

Up until late 2015, my bias against D&D was legendary.

I had way too many run-ins with roleplayers who wielded their insecurities and personal issues as weapons against other players. The common denominator appeared to be D&D. Hence, it was hard for me to NOT equate the system with all things evil in tabletop. It did not help that my subsequent experiences with players from other systems were pretty positive. It was almost like there was something about Dungeons & Dragons that made it attract the terrible ones.

…The same could be said about old – oh, I’m sorry, classic World of Darkness. That is another article for another time.

My way of reclaiming tabletop gaming as an experience was by hosting an extensive New World of Darkness campaign. That restored my confidence as a GM.  It also assured me that maybe roleplaying game geeks weren’t so bad. Of course it helped that some of my players were actually huge fans of D&D. They made it a point to sit me down and tell me about all of their fun shenanigans with the system, and point me towards D&D players and GMs who weren’t hostile. This hype eventually convinced me to wait for a good group to attach myself to, and check D&D out.

So there you have it. This is yet another case study in just how important the fans – and, by extension – the community of fans – behind any particular thing can be for determining the experiences of another fan. In fact, I think it’s even MORE important in tabletop gaming than it would be for a number of other geeky things.

 

Building inclusive spaces means acknowledging that our personal definitions of “fun” aren’t always the same for others.

I’ve written loads about fan behavior, most especially gamer behavior in my locale. Generally, gamers can be really toxic people. Like other geeks, we often let our feelings run away with us. We tend to believe that our opinions about this or that are the Best Opinions Ever. Gatekeeping is also a thing. It’s almost like we expect fans to have MA or PhD degrees in This Hobby. And there’s a whole lot of aspects to tabletop roleplaying that people can get gatekeep-y about. Players and GMs alike can judge each other for not being familiar with the rules of a system, or for the sorts of characters we play. On a deeper, more toxic level, we can even hurt each other by deciding – by merit of our race or gender – that we’re simply not good players or GMs.

Roleplaying is, by its very nature, immersive. As mentioned in the wrap that I did for Geek Word Wednesdays, we always put a piece of ourselves into our roleplay. In some ways, what we bring to the table has the potential to be glimpses of our ideals. Couple this necessary immersion with tabletop RPGs’ position as a game, and people can get pretty attached to systems, campaigns, characters, and so on.

Let’s also note that roleplaying games subsist on narratives. There may not be a story, per se, but there will always be narratives. All narratives are political because they reflect their narrators. Ever dealt with a player who seemed to make it their job to do exactly the opposite of what you were doing even if it didn’t make sense? How about GMs who seem to think that rape plot twists are A+, especially if they involve player characters? What we choose to do with our characters and in our stories directly reflect what we believe in. Sometimes, in an attempt to act those out, we end up alienating other people not just as players, but as human beings.

 

We say tabletop roleplaying is for everyone, but do we really mean it?

Photo by Bianca Canoza.

Confronting our biases can be difficult and uncomfortable. Something equally difficult and uncomfortable would be acknowledging our privilege, and being aware of the blind spots that our privilege confers upon us. This hobby further complicates both processes because it’s extremely immersive. However, it’s never been good to just insist that tabletop roleplay, like any geeky thing, is just “for fun”. This is becoming especially important in a digitized world that gets off on outrage, and a real world that is suffering because we all realized, too late, that whole swaths of disenfranchised people are angry and willing to be selfish about the most terrible things because of it.

I don’t think it’s too “deep” for me to go there. Microaggresions go a long way towards making monsters out of otherwise good people; because if you face the same shit every day, something’s bound to give. If it doesn’t end up making folks go over to the Dark Side, they could jeopardize their mental health or emotional well-being. After all, minority stress theory isn’t purely theoretical. It’s the depressing state of things for many people who aren’t “normal”.

I’m really, really lucky that there are safe and inclusive communities in my area. Gamers & GMs Philippines is big on providing a means for gamers of all colors and preferences to mingle and play with each other. On a smaller scale, I don’t lack for table mates who take me for who I am, and respect my boundaries just as much as I respect theirs. But not every gamer out there has that.

Let’s make our hobby better. All it takes is one step in the right direction.

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Pammu
Female, bisexual, not in Narnia about anything. Games, writes, DMs, watches shit, reads shit, loves cats. Answers to Kae, Pamela, Pam, Pam-Pam, Pammy, Pammeth. Pamera, and Pammu. Also part of the admin team of What's a Geek, over at http://www.whatsageek.com!

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