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The most well known tabletop roleplaying game is Dungeons and Dragons. If you don't play, you've probably heard of it from the satanic scares of the '80s, or surprisingly accurate references on The Big Bang Theory. D&D is really just the gateway game to a hobby that contains a giant variety of games mostly played by rolling dice.
As a teenager I heard about people pretending to be elves and wizards and hammer-toting dwarves and I wanted in. Since there wasn't much opportunity in my small town, it wasn't until my mid-20s that I played in a lengthy D&D game (also known as a "campaign"). By the time it ended, I wasn't thinking about the next campaign I could join or the next character I could roll.
I was thinking about the chair at the head of the table. The Game Master's seat.
The Game Master ("GM") is the person behind the monsters that the players' characters ("PCs") fight. The GM decides what the world is like, who the bad guys are and just how difficult it is for a PC to climb that rope out of the Duke of Pain's summoning chamber before the Elder Beast of Varanoth is unleashed upon the world.
Since tabletop gaming systems are based on complex rules, different sizes of dice and a hefty dose of make-believe, a lot of games aren't easily accessible to new players. The need for memorization and in-depth knowledge of the ins and outs of every complication (what gaming lingo calls "system mastery") makes the whole hobby daunting to break into. Especially for women, who are already an oddity at the gaming table since we're a tiny minority in the hobby.
For me, tabletop gaming was the only one of my nerdy hobbies where I felt like I hadn't done enough to escape the ever-present specter of the "fake geek girl." My difficulty with system mastery terrified me. Being a GM became the bar I set to surpass the unrelenting impostor syndrome I felt in a hobby impossibly dominated by men.
I wanted to run my own game so I could take the title of "Game Master" for myself. It was the ultimate nerd cred.
Despite my desire to run a campaign, I didn't actually like Dungeons and Dragons enough to run it. When I finally found another game that had a system I loved, it pushed me into action despite the massive amounts of anxiety around my perceived lack of system mastery. I knew my own weaknesses going into the campaign. So I asked people I felt comfortable with and who'd tolerate what I thought of as my incompetence to be my players.
I pushed my boundaries during the campaign. I designed my own monsters instead of using pre-made ones. I overacted the part of supporting characters the PCs encountered, using silly voices that would have embarrassed normally super self-conscious me, but somehow didn't when I was sitting at the head of the table. Once I even made one of the PCs' fiercest enemies (a demonic whale) out of a shoe box and pipe cleaners. The staff of the comic book store where we played would put us near the front door because we were loud and excitable and ievitably somebody would come up to us to ask what game we were playing.
My anxiety around GMing never really went away, though. That anxiety and my perpetual self-consciousness would skyrocket every time I had to deal with the kind of microaggressions women in all gaming regularly get.
On my very first night running the campaign at the comic book store, another GM of a game being held there walked past me as I was holding my gaming books, my laptop and my dice. He leaned past me over the table and started to read my GMing notes without saying a single word to me.
It's pretty easy to identify the Game Master when you walk up to a game in progress: traditionally the GM sits at the head of the table and often uses a small screen to hide notes and dice rolls from players. That didn't stop men from coming curiously up to our table and treating one of the players in my all-male group like they were running the game. These random men always carefully avoided eye contact with me.
At a large gaming convention, I interviewed one of the writers of the game system I was using for my campaign. We were chatting at the publisher's booth after wrapping the interview when another con-goer interjected. This guy, who'd just stood off to the side and listened to me describe how I was running my campaign to one of the creators of the game, decided he needed to tell me that I didn't know what I was doing.
After a year of gaming, the group decided it'd be a good idea to add another player. We all agreed on a mutual friend. He was a hot mess of a human who didn't have his shit together at all, but he was a good enough friend that as long as he showed up and rolled some dice, I was happy.
The campaign progressed quickly. I saw the plot coming to an end and set a goal for when it would wrap up. I was eager to get to the end of the story but managed to stay patient. My players were having fun and that was the most important thing to me.
Then I had a conversation that destroyed my neatly laid out plans.
A friend who'd relocated out of country told me that now that she was so far away, she wanted to share something she'd felt pressured to keep quiet—especially because she knew I still hung out with Hot Mess regularly.
He'd told her that he'd gotten drunk and sexually assaulted a girl.
Or maybe he hadn't? He thought maybe she'd consented but claimed he was too drunk to remember the details. He'd said the girl had made "false rape allegations" in the past, so he implied she wasn't trustworthy.
The GM position I'd wanted for "the ultimate nerd cred" suddenly meant something entirely different. It meant it was on me to deal with the toxic knowledge burning a hole in my head. I had to figure out if I should tell my players the truth: there's maybe a rapist in our group.
I was terrified of ruining a friend's reputation. I had no way of verifying the story beyond asking him and I had no idea how to breach that conversation. I'm awkward at the best of times, but asking a friend, "Hey, did you sexually assault someone?" is reaching a new level in conversations I'm not equipped for. And even then, could I actually trust what he said?
After an awful couple of days I realized that although all I'd wanted as a GM was nerd cred, what I'd ended up with was a position of accountability to myself.
For me, being GM was about more than figuring out how much damage a dragon's fire breath does or describing the terrible fel-orcs of the upside down temple. It was about creating a safe space for everyone—including me. It was about proving that I'm more than my anxiety, and stepping outside my comfort zone.
So I sent Hot Mess a simple email. I told him I'd heard about what he (allegedly) had done, and that I was really upset. Could we talk?
After about two weeks with no reply from Hot Mess and increasingly impatient conversations with the other players about when we were going to start gaming again, I got everyone except Hot Mess together for tacos, beers and a very honest conversation. I told them exactly what I'd heard, the email that I sent and Hot Mess's radio silence. I let the situation speak for itself so they could come to their own conclusions.
Unfortunately, that was also the end of my game.
For me, GMing is exhausting even when I'm doing it well. I'm carefully balancing the fun of people that I care for in my hands while stumbling over a tightrope of expectations. Throw Hot Mess's hot mess on top of that balancing act and I was done. I pulled the plug before the campaign was concluded.
Telling my players that the guy they'd fought back the heralds of the apocalypse back with, who'd come up with crazy schemes and absurd plans, who lightened up overly dramatic moments with weird jokes was maybe a rapist was one of the hardest conversations I'd ever had.
But I'm proud of myself for having it.
I still think back to the campaign a lot. I second guess a ton of my choices—was it the right call to let the assassin who killed the drow wizard get away, even though it frustrated the players? But I never second guess how I handled the end of the game.
When it came down to it, my first GMing experience became about way more than nerd cred for me. I don't know if I ended up proving anything to anybody about lady GMs, but I proved to myself that I could weather storms, make tough choices and come out the other side. In gaming terms: I leveled up.
Promo image credit: Lydia/CC