A GM looks back: What two campaigns have meant for me

One of the highlights of my year has been the Blades in the Dark campaign I’m running. Almost every week Marcy, Nox, Lucas, and Nathan, four of the most wonderful people I am graced to know, jump into our little Discord server. Before we actually start, we just talk as if we stepped into a little living room. Our running gag is to keep track of how long it takes for us to actually start — longest it’s taken was 45 minutes, shortest was 11 minutes. But when we start, god, it’s good.

I’ve been a GM for about four years now, having run with a wide host of people and a great number of different games — Shadowrun, T/Mechnoir, Dungeon World, Tales from the Loop, Monsterhearts. I started out because in my little queer circle, I noticed everyone said “let’s start a tabletop group!” and then getting very excited for about 20 minutes and then it’s never brought up again. I decided to bite the bullet and organise something. It sounds like a big step, but really all you need is a free Saturday and a microphone. It snowballed from there into a really regular thing to me. From March till June 2016, I hosted three campaigns for different groups (I don’t recommend doing this). Fast-forward to 2017, and suddenly I’m writing my Master’s thesis about the ‘neoliberal entrepreneurialism’ of traditional/digital gaming spaces (I’ll spare you any details).

But I’ve never stood still to reflect on what tabletop means to me. It clearly claims a large spot in my heart, mind, and schedule, but hardly have I really looked at the significance of having a ‘game night’, especially in queer circles. I have a group of close friends whom I provide with and involve in these wild, tempestuous narratives and showy, but beautiful character arcs. Conversely, they surprise me with their amazing ideas, hilarious antics, and beautiful initiatives. So, I’m going to take you all on a little retrospective with this piece. I’m going to think back on my Blades campaign, talk about Dungeon World with my queer community, and share some personal anecdotes. It’ll be a lot more personal than what I usually write, and I’m excited.

And yes, this is going to be a postmortem for something only a handful of people know about. It’s understandable if you don’t want to read about that.

Rolling Blades in the Dark — GMing

Blades in the Dark takes place in the whalepunk citadel of Doskvol, a city rapidly transforming through an industrial revolution, one fueled by the proactive blood of lovecraftian sea-dwelling creatures.

This setting owns! It’s Bloodborne meets Lovecraft with the setting of Dishono(u)red. Doskvol stands where the demonic, human, and spiritual worlds collide. Still, the social relations of the historical era are the same: a large rich-poor divide, a bustling but contested union movement, an imperialist navy force, a church worshipping demons embodying the basest of human desires, the souls of the dead haphazardly pacified by a clan of mystics. Standard Victorian stuff.

My approach to storywriting is largely inspired by my own interests as a writer. I value the begrudging cooperation between enemies suffering under the same experiences, the conflicted importance of what can be considered a ‘home’, the ugliness of exploitation and colonialism and the toll of its resistance, and lots of queer sex. These inform the boundaries of the field and the directions I let the gang play in — but like a good GM, I don’t let this dictate what stories actually develop or envelop.

My approach to storytelling is inspired by Friends At The Table: encounters should be impactful, decisions should be consequential, all moments should be beautiful and it doesn’t matter if they’re good or bad. I think GMs and writers in general should demarcate for themselves what they want to tell, and the stories available in order to tell these. Always remember that fiction is an emotive medium. You have ways to affect emotions and, ideally, this reinforces the power of a passage. Basically, if my players don’t go “fuck you Ruben” at the end of a session I have failed as a GM.

Rinn, Stockholm, Kurou, Montblanc (my OC), and Kyr. Scroll all the way down for character bios!

Rolling Blades in the Dark — Wild and beautiful ride

Starting a campaign is always tough, because you want to get to the character-specific parts of the story as soon as possible. And with this fantastic crew, I’ve had a really, really hard time resisting the urge to throw in all the juicy backstory reveals. So to avoid making first real mission about someone, I decided to ask the silliest question and rolled with it: what if a person came to possess a ghost? It’s like a shitpost as a premise. But it went places.

“Sometimes it’s better not to know. Sometimes the silence around something speaks for itself; no words we know can even begin to describe the horror of it all. Language struggles to catch up with reality when it seems so cruel as to be unreal. I hope no one finds about what we did, Inspector Marduk. Because you’ll agree: we are far beyond forgivable.”

There was Rosepoint Hospital, which was shut down in all haste after a terrible incident. As it turned out, the place was a front for a black site where some pretty terrible human experimentation happened. In a setting where ghosts are interactable with, I’m not interested in stories like “a ghost is angry and haunts a place”, but rather, how would this (super)natural phenomenon be molested by the scientific forces that existed at the time? The Victorian age is the age of imperialism, of institutionalisation, of eugenics. With that in mind, I began writing a campaign that was the hardest (emotionally) to do and the most gratifying to accomplish. At the very least, I wanted two scenes to happen: 1) an old woman found peace, and 2) a reunion gone wrong.

The stated mission was to infiltrate and collect some documents that benefited the quest-giver, but it became so much more than that. The hospital may have been boarded up and abandoned, but there were still some occupants. Seven people who ‘remained’ — I called them the ‘Remnants’ — they were the subjects the hospital had experimented on. Deprived of their souls, they became unable to age, feel, or die, but the body remembers. The gang met up with them, and I gave everyone a round of introductions. I remember how I voiced one of the subjects, a chimera (think FMA: Brotherhood): “I’m Huh! That’s what the doctors said when I was made. They went huh!” And the gang’s reaction was “Oh, oh no.” I really liked that moment. They might have been people who have/are nothing left, but I wanted to give them all a personality. I think that sad sympathy explains why the gang grew so fond of them, and why they agreed to their strange request: “save Soma.”

Soma was the ‘patient zero’ of this campaign arc. A refugee urchin stolen off of the streets when her brother wasn’t looking. They were the only subjects whose experiment ‘succeeded’ — this caused the incident which made the hospital a no-go zone. Her body and soul split, and remained as separate entities in the hospital. Stockholm happened upon Soma’s body in a locked patient room. An old woman, connected to an iron lung, too many tubes for comfort, kept alive only because machines can’t be told to stop. They had a conversation. Her voice was quiet and long past giving up, but, she was happy to “finally have a visitor”. “It’s nice to feel cared for.” Now, Lucas is the kind of player who loves poking holes in the script. He plays Stockholm as cheeky and unpredictable, which makes for great redirections. But even he was humbled by this moment. He later found Soma’s old room and an old record she listened to.

The end of the arc was one of the coolest pieces of fiction ever. The resolution the gang went for was to find Soma’s soul-part and release her from torment. After going through a fleshy basement puzzle-wall, the gang was transported into a tranquil little garden. There stood Soma, still a child, playing in the only memory left intact. Nathan then had a suggestion: he asked the gang if they wanted to do a bit of collaborative storytelling. Based on the magical tarot cards his character Kyr drew, all four of them told a bit of the same fairytale. The intention was to ‘let her stop being alone’. Unfortunately, none of us remember how the story went (PROTIP: take notes of cool moments so you don’t forget!), but, what happened was so powerful. Entirely improvised, they added closure for a character where I’d intended none. Of course I let them finish the arc on those terms.

With her soul at rest, Lucas had one last scene in store: he returned to the other Soma, the old lady. Already passed on, with a smile on her face, he put the needle on a record player, and put on the record he found in her old room.

Rolling Blades in the Dark — Sickness in the family and closure through collaboration

Looking back, I wrote this campaign around the time my grandmother’s Alzheimer’s started escalating. One afternoon I visited her, it became clear she’d finally forgotten my name. She’d always disliked me and my mother and sister, and as a result, I never enjoyed her or saw her as family. I had no grandmother on my dad’s side growing up, but this illness is so strange. She forgot the vile things she’d said and done to hurt us. And I was told to play the part of the grandson she thought to have endeared, or I’d risk escalating her emotional state.

Alzheimer’s medicalises the family; you have to act out the same demands as an asylum. Curfews, pills, monitoring (disguised as family visits) — at the behest of the specialist, my family collectively registered away grandmother’s agency as it became gradually riskier for her to act by herself, then be alone, then be, We did this without the cold, but safely distant bureaucracy of hospitals. We did this out of care and love.

I think I had wanted to handicraft an external moment, for myself, a field of fiction where an endpoint to her suffering was believable. She’ll be put in a nursing home, early January. So when Lucas, at the end of this campaign, went out of his way to visit Soma’s old body, playing that old record she’d loved, that had somehow become a real moment of closure for me.

I was happy and perplexed that this convoluted story about medicine, humanity, and power could have two perfect and concrete points of closure. As a writer, the hardest thing for me to write is the end of a story. But tabletop roleplay is different. It follows a story and a narrative provided by one person, an open book of sorts. It becomes a collaborative effort to reach the best parts of it. The interplay between the person who calls the shots, and the people who take them culminate into a living piece of fiction. And, don’t get me wrong, the ‘goal’ of tabletop isn’t to create a joint work of art. It remains a social experience — a communal project you develop with people. It’s an external, but shared thing you get to pour body and soul into. It’s through this game we have chosen to play together, sharing fictional details about our characters and the world, that we’ve grown closer as friends. Every input comes from a real place.

The banner image for our campaign page on roll20

Rolling Dungeon World —a time and space for utopia

There’s a lot of emphasis on tabletop providing a fantastical space where they can be whoever they want — and this is super true. I’m the co-coordinator of an organisation that acts as a second home for LGBTQ people of colour (white people are welcome, but we focus on POC). I can’t understate how central the word ‘community’ is for this group. Not only is it a collective of people, connected by a common experience, it is a physical location we are in charge of. We make an active effort to keep the outside world without, and provide our own little LGBTQ valhalla within. We host events like poetry open-mics, creative zine workshops, queer book clubs, movie times, karaoke nights, readings on the overlap between non-western spirituality and queerness — you name it! A lot of new people tell us that, “for once, I feel safe”, and that is exactly our goal.

I set up a small Dungeon World campaign with some of the people frequenting there, and it was the most fun I ever had rolling chargen. Not because it was goofy or wild — it was — , but because how a ‘fantasy of being’ looks when unrestrained by the inhibitions of oppression is fundamentally superb.

Fantasy is formulated by what it cannot directly attain. When this is the fantasy of queer (non-western) people of colour, it actually becomes a very realistic one. Marginalised folk have disproportionate less access to material avenues of becoming. This sounds philosophical, but it simply means: who gets to be what they imagine themselves looking like, and what external factors inform these images? This doesn’t mean that people literally want to become half-orc lesbian warlords (I think?), it’s more like, what characteristics can we unpack from this image — woman, masculine, capable, strong, independent, ethnically diverse, sexually free. So I always start out chargen by asking, “hey, so, in this fantastical setting where anyone can look like anything, how do you think your character looks in this setting?” And the responses were incredible:

  • “I’m an Indian genderfluid witch who travels the lands with her sapphic coven powered by sex energy”. (Anysha, Hindustani, pansexual)
  • “I am an elf and elves grow from the seeds of one eldertree. I am an extremely dark-skinned and beautiful genderless prince or princess with dark purple eyes and great lips. And I want to be covered with all tattooes and gold jewellery and no one can tell me no, because I am a beautiful prince.” (Elvis, Aruban, gay)
  • “I think my character is a living flame. She wasn’t always fire, but, I think she tried to transform herself, or maybe purify herself, yeah, and something went wrong. I think because of trauma? And it became this big uncontrollable flame that consumed her. And now she lives like this unstoppable force.” (Tracy, Korean-American, pansexual)

All of these are incredibly powerful projections of a type of becoming. It’s something I joked about, but it’s so strongly present. Queer people are not allowed to fantasise, be it about sexuality and gender, art and culture, fashion and bodies, or politics and the personal. So much of our visions are repressed by normative narratives that brand them as ‘radical’. But with the limiters turned off, they become… a new normal. Just another, reasonable thing. I truly and greatly felt so empowered with those people. Like the anxiety about being seen as transgressive and over-the-line wasn’t even present — in that space, we held all the power.

Echoing Ernst Bloch, the times we are told no are rejections of hopes. Hope, not as a pure fantasy, but as an instructive path lined with characteristics that show an object of utopia. Not abstract, but concrete. There is a reason that in the multinational era of capitalism, people (including myself) hold so much stake in the politics of a given cultural narrative. The central question of politics — what must be done for a better life? — has become so diluted from our immediate existence, that media becomes the premium anchor of those politics.

I don’t want to make the argument that doing tabletop (or consuming media) is in anyway revolutionary, but through these possible reminders can we grapple more firmly, formulate more closely our vision: an egalitarian, sustainable, and oppression-less future — AKA socialism.

(You thought I’d write a piece without leftist propaganda in it? Ha!)

Rolling tabletop — in conclusion

I guess to answer my own question, tabletop is an excuse to connect with people. But it also becomes a way to cultivate ourselves. It’s not just relaxing, it’s activating. Talking about this has been very exciting for me, because this is something that I hold close to my heart and want to give a place. And in all my writing, I want people to think about stuff in structural ways. Tabletop has a very real social benefit in that it provides fun through improv theatre. Through tabletop, I got less shy. Learned to write better. Met and connected with fantastic people. Became a better host and entertainer. Learned the importance of empathy and care. It’s where I get most of my fun stories out of. And above all, it’s an excuse to do a lot of silly voices.

As a GM, I write two types of campaigns: 1) The utopia: semi-idyllic settings where homophobia, misogyny, racism, transphobia, etc. don’t exist, but this doesn’t mean the world is problem-free. 2) The confrontation: forces that hold power over people exist, but they’ve become identifiable and surmountable targets that can be destroyed. Both are equally valid, but I tend to prefer the second one. Not to deprive them of fun (all my campaigns are super fun regardless), but to give everyone a sense of option. We all need mirrors and a fair bit of bravery to fight against injustice, so hey, what would you do?

Thanks for sticking with me throughout this mess of a text! If you reached the end, and you’re still interested in some other thoughts I have about tabletop, you can read my thesis about ‘neoliberal entrepreneurialism’ in game design here.

Introducing the gang

  • Thelyra (now retired): A surgeon wearing a seifuku who runs a street clinic for those requiring care but unable to afford and access it. Docile and frustrated, but she has a split personality (‘Vivi’) who is hyperactive, scalpel-wielding serial killer. Ended up skipping town with her girlfriend — it was gay and good. Played by Marcy.
  • Stockholm: A happy-go-lucky Lurk who drinks during the day and steals during the night. Ignoble as hell — he’ll steal from kids (he has) — , but he says it’s all for this grand thievering gestalt of a project. He’s really good at stealth and I can’t stand it. Played by Lucas.
  • Rinn: A sharkgirl Whisper who wears a gas mask because the factory pollution gives her asthma (Tycherosi people in our campaign are sea-based monsterfolk). She kills and eats industrialists to relieve stress, and is probably planning something very sinister. Played by Nox.
  • Kyr: A spiderboy Slide (the Skovlani are non-aquatic monsterfolk) who goes to college like a nerd. He loves inpromptu storytelling and also dark rituals with demons. Played by Nathan.
  • Kurou: An older guy who looks like Toshiro Mifune who wields a big sword and hates stairs for some reason. Used to be a sailor, ended up in security, then stumbled upon Rinn when she was investigated some old religious structures. They’re roommates now. Marcy’s new character!

Has shown interest in text and frogs, known website-owner http://thefriendden.net/

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