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I’m going into week two of being terribly sick, so I’m grouchy today. Instead of fighting it, though, I thought I’d take advantage and talk about some of my pet peeves that I usually avoid because I’m in a good mood when I write about RPGs. I’ll be honest; I’ve been relatively lucky as a female gamer. I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve come up through a very male-dominated branch of academia or whether it was something about my upbringing, but I don’t tend to get patronized at the table or treated badly when I post on boards (although I do tend to be relatively careful about which boards I choose to visit; Paizo, for instance, is absolutely a no-go for me.) Still, even for me, there are three assumptions that get made about me because of gender that I absolutely hate.

#1) Because you’re a woman, you’ll just LOVE the chance to babysit my kid at the gaming table!!

Okay, so…no. I work with (much, much) older children, but I’m not keen on the little ones. I know most normal humans find it adorable when little Tommy mispronounces his pasta as “basghetti,” but I’m not normal. My initial reaction is to wonder why mom didn’t correct him so he can become more facile with language at an earlier age. I don’t think it’s “just kids being kids” when tiny Amy spills on the character sheets; I wonder why dad let tiny Amy, with her limited motor skills, have juice at the gaming table filled with papers and minis–and yes, I’m pissed about having to redo my character sheet. (I’m equally pissed when a drunken adult does the same thing–I’m equal-opportunity grump when it comes to people Messing with My Stuff.)

For some reason, kids have a tendency to flock to me during gaming conventions. Here’s the thing, parents: just because I’m not openly hostile or rude to your kids doesn’t mean I don’t resent it if you don’t pull them off of me and redirect their attention to someone or something more appropriate. All too often, I’ve seen kids dragged to gaming conventions or taken to games in which they can’t participate or can’t participate fully because of their age. My heart goes out to kids whose parents didn’t bring them something to do, but just because I gave the child a sympathetic look, it doesn’t mean that I want to provide him with something to do. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve ended up with strangers’ kids glued to me for the duration of a convention day just because I wasn’t a chilly ass to the kid. You brought him, you pay attention to him. That’s what you signed on for when you became a parent. I just want to get back to concentrating on my game, and the only reason I’m not being a jerk about it is because I think the kid will take it more personally than the parent will.

#2) Because you’re a woman, you obviously put the sisterhood of women above all else and want my girlfriend/aunt/friend/cousin at your table because she’s a girl, too!! You can talk about shoes together!

Also no. Here’s the thing: I like having a relatively gender-balanced table. Right now, I’m really grateful that my game includes a vibrant, intelligent, witty, educated female player whose great social skills often pull the party out of tight situations. But while I like having another female at the table, what I like most about her are all those other descriptors; I like her as a person and as a player, and that person/player just happens to be female.

I think gender balance can open some opportunities for game play that might not otherwise exist. I know that there are bits of story I couldn’t have presented as easily without a female player; the men wouldn’t have made the same assumptions about the hook or have been as interested in it at least in part because their cultural programming is different from hers. On the other hand, I don’t just want any player in the world because she’s female. If you’re disruptive, easily distracted, uninterested in narrative, rude to the other players, or self-centered, you’re a nonstarter for me regardless of gender. If you think that because I’m a female GM that game day is the time to have girly talk, we have a problem, because I’m way more interested in getting my scenery on the table than chatting about nail polish. And while I’m more than happy to help ease women who haven’t had a solid background in fantasy or in gaming into the worlds and rules of RPG play, I’m not more than happy to act as a crutch for a player with crippling self-doubt because of her gender or who can’t be bothered to put in some of her own time to play catch-up if necessary. I’d expect the same of a male gamer who didn’t know anything about the rules or setting; I’m not patronizing enough to have different expectations for females.

#3) You must really be excited that WotC has Shelly Mazzanoble out there representing you! Isn’t it great to have high profile women in gaming?

Again, not so much. For various reasons, I have very little in common with many of the high profile women in the RPG industry and blogosphere. I’ve already posted about how I feel about Shelley Mazzanoble. In fact, since I’m grumpy, I’ll take this opportunity to talk about exactly the kind of move she makes that drives me crazy. Check out this quote from Dice Monkeys’ interview with her:

9.   There’s been a lot of talk recently around the blogosphere about women’s portrayal in the art of RPGs. They’re seen as eye-candy rather than as serious warriors like male characters are seen. What’s your opinion?

I think this is a very worthy discussion and one that our Art Director gets into every day. Not too long ago we were looking at art from 1st edition books and laughing hysterically. The women were not warriors. They looked like victims, complete with palms over forehead and looking upwards at their male counterparts to save them. Since when does being well-endowed imply weakness? But that was a product of the time and the times are a changing. In a good way. The art of D&D today will look very different from the art of D&D tomorrow. And it will look very different ten years from now. Art will continue to change and evolve as long as these discussions are happening. Why does the armor on a barbarian female leave her navel exposed while her male counterpart is fully covered? Why does the female wizard look like she stuck her dry-clean only robes in the dryer? First and foremost, your armor should protect you! It’s not an accessory you put on to go clubbing.

Personally I would never let my character go out in tight leather armor and a breastplate. I’d be like “Button up, young lady! You’re not going into the dungeon looking like that!” But that’s just me.

Instead of saying something meaningful here about how WotC’s art directors actually address the issue, she pretends that the problem with images of women in games an “old school” problem that we no longer have anymore. Golly gee, that problem’s so archaic that we can just laaaaugh at it! Please. If we take hobby books as a whole, you’ll still find more women without clothes than with–and don’t get me started on miniatures. It’s not “yesterday’s issue,” and it makes the problem worse when a prominent female in the hobby says it is, even if it’s in her company’s best interests to pretend that the problem doesn’t exist.

I respect Shelly’s right to describe her own experiences playing DnD and I respect the women who identify with her; what I dislike is the fact that she’s being held up by WotC as the face of female gaming. I find 99.999% of what she says profoundly alienating (and I have a feeling she’d say the same about my writing, to be fair.) Because we have such drastically different interests as gamers and as human beings, I wouldn’t invite her to my game, and if I were the sort of person who tended to think in terms of reductive social identifiers, I might be loathe invite any other woman to my game if her books represented the only sample I had of the intersection between “women” and “RPGs.” I get what WotC tries to do with her writing; they’re trying to claim a demographic that they haven’t had as purchasers before, but why not have several different kinds of women stand up and become the voice of female players? After all, we have a bevy of different kinds of male voices represented in WotC’s magazines and online sites; why not at least a handful of women, each with a different but equally strong perspectives?

To go feminism 101 for a second, Judith Butler and other post-structuralist feminists of the late 80s and early 90s worked tirelessly to undermine the assumption that there is “a female identity.” No single identity defines women’s needs and desires; for heaven’s sake, we’re 50% of the population. How could we possibly agree on anything? The only thing we have in common is the assumptions you (male or female) bring to bear when you sit down at the table about who we are. So, you know…don’t.


Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Although I do love my gaming stuff, I’m always most thankful for all the wonderful gamers I’ve met during my lifetime. I fondly remember days at the dining room table with my first set of gaming friends from high school, with whom I played DnD; we had to hide the books from my GM’s mother because she thought the game was Satanic. I’m grateful to the players who taught me to love GMing Vampire and Changeling and built characters with too many points in Knowledge: Art History. I was lucky to meet the wonderful GM who ran Traveler for us and let us pretend we were werewolves and vampires in his space world without losing his temper–in spite of the fact that we kept derailing the game to get silver bullets for our guns. I’m grateful for the awesome gamers I’ve met at conventions who have improved my GMing and RPing and to the game designers who have been happy to discuss their love of design with me. Most of all, I’m so happy to game with my current group of players, who put up with my silly gobbo voices and my penchant for art-directed player handouts–and who are at least willing to entertain trying out any weird indie system I scare up. (Wait until you guys see what I just ordered!) 
It’s good to have a life filled with so many articulate, interesting, thoughtful people who want to tell collaborative tales. May all of you have lives equally filled with excellent storytelling!

Whew! It’s been a busy week, but I managed to squeeze in a quick trip to the gaming store tonight. Although it’s been available for awhile, I was pleased to see Gale Force 9’s outstanding Dungeon Master’s Mat set on the shelf. I’ve already discussed how impressed I was by the map of the Welcome Wench. Made of high quality materials with great graphics, the GF9 mats are sturdy, attractive, and easy to write on/wipe off.

That being said, some of the previous mats had strange graphic details that made made me leery of using them. The King’s Road map seemed, at first glance, to be infinitely useful; how many times a game does a GM need a plain path with a few rocks strewn here and there? Yet the handful of graves alongside the road had me cringing. I could get away with ignoring them once, but by the second time the mat came out, my players would be harping on the repetition like an insidious Internet meme: “My God, these roads are deadly! Is it a pothole epidemic? Should we stop drinking the water? And why do the people always die in sets of three?” If you have a group like mine, minor details in the art can lead to the players asking a major NPC in the next town about “all those graves,” and then you have to make a GM call about whether or not to roll with it and bring their metagaming into the fiction by having the NPC respond–and God help you if they decide to ditch the quest you had planned and instead go after the metaquest, which you’ll now suddenly need to create on the fly. Ugh!

That’s why I was glad to see the plain DM’s mat set available. One mat has a plain grassy background; the other has stone tiles. They’re perfect for placing under cardboard scenery, and since you can write on them, it’s easy to set up the buildings ahead of time, mark where they should go on the map, and wipe the outlines off after your session ends. Further, these mats would be great to throw in a GM’s convention gaming kit, as they have a bit more flair than plain brown grid maps.

I generally prefer detailed and evocative art, but sometimes, simple is best, especially if simplicity serves to focus your players on the details you want them to see.

I’m in that weird post-vacation thing where there’s so much to do and so much I want to do that I can’t manage to do any of it.

My Seemingly Insurmountable Trivial Task of the Day is rearranging my RPG shelves to accommodate the signed copy of Burning Wheel Gold that I just received. We have two sets of RPG shelves here. One holds my husband’s d20 (Pathfinder, DnD 3.5) stuff, and the other holds my space-eating collection of WFRP boxes–I can’t bear to throw them out, even though I don’t really need to keep them–plus all my other wacky non-d20 systems. I suspect a trip to the furniture store for a bigger shelf is in order, but that will require a negotiation about whether or not the new bookshelf should cover the living room window that I’m just not prepared to handle at this juncture.

(Hmm…now that I look at the shelf, I realize there’s a borrowed book in there.)

In the meantime, check out this comic that one of my players sent my way yesterday. Pretty much sums it up, yep.

Lego Minis

In a related recent exchange:

Me: I made a whole bunch of buildings and furniture and props and stuff for this weekend’s game. There’s now a whole army of tiny chairs and tables!
Player: …are we playing Warhammer or dolls?

Sometimes we like to get away from it all. What I really mean by that, of course, is that we pack it a whole bunch of crap from our gaming room into the car, drive to the woods, and relocate all the things we were doing inside the house to the forest. Given that we have smartphones and bring half the house with us, it’s more like changing the backdrop of “it all” than escaping it, but at least it spares us from having to clean the kitchen after cooking hot dogs.

Traveling with gaming gear can get tricky. What do you bring? On what do you put it when you get there? There’s no sense in traveling all that way just to play games in your tent unless it’s raining (and if you’re as uptight about the condition of your games as we are, you tend to leave your games in the car when it rains so the boards and bits don’t warp.) Portable gaming tables are thus a high priority. We’ve ended up with two, one for board gaming in the wild and a different one for RPGs in the wild.

This little khaki table came from Amazon. It’s made entirely of canvas, but the side straps pull down so that the top stays nice and taut. It’s just the right size for most medium-sized board games (think Alien Frontiers,) and its solid plastic feet make it sturdy enough that your pieces won’t wiggle around. Best of all, the drink holders are under the play surface, making the possibility of spillage on your precious game board highly unlikely except by the most advanced klutzes. When you’re done, it folds up into a cylindrical bag just a bit bigger than that of a folding camping chair.

Of course, sometimes you’re idiotic enough to have brought a massive game with you–the kind with a million bits that just invites the rain as soon as you set it up (think Runewars.) Or maybe you’ve decided to get seven of your closest friends together to play an RPG out in the wild, but are still unwilling to give up your battlemat and minis. Roll-top aluminum tables make the ideal solution, as their light weight makes them easy to move even though they’re large. We went with the one at Gander Mountain, although it had one major drawback: an umbrella hole right in the middle that we had to cover over with electrical tape. The big wad of tape looks kind of stupid, but at least it keeps pieces from falling through the center of the table. One bad thing about these tables, of course, are the little spaces between the slats, but a plastic tablecloth secured under the edges will keep pieces from falling through if you know you’ll be playing all weekend. You can, of course, find bigger and non-slatted tables, but you may end up sacrificing portability in order to get a flatter or bigger surface.

Speaking of the sporting goods store, if you have a host of minis you want to bring with you for RPGs, consider a fishing tackle bag. (This won’t, of course, be a solution for WFRP3e, because you need a full U-Haul for the Core Set plus expansions, but for games like Pathfinder or DnD, it’s not a bad way to go. If you’re really smart and brought Burning Wheel, then bless you for being so sensible.) Small tackle bags with sets of 3-5 plastic trays can house organized sets of minis; as an added bonus, you can take out one of the trays and put in your core rulebooks.

One word of caution, though. Don’t stand in the sporting goods store debating whether or not your large Dracolich mini will really fit in the side pocket of the tackle bag. It turns out that other seasoned fishermen within earshot will look down on your for this kind of speculation. I guess you just have to be sure.

(Second tip: no matter how much you love your gadgets, do not jokingly tell the salesperson you will buy “whichever tent your iPhone will hook directly into.”)

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