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Eat Play Love: A Love Letter to Tabletop Gaming

In partnership with CheckPoint, we’re participating in Great Games Done Slow, a fundraising event to forward mental health awareness for gamers through games! We join other content creators from all over the world to show how games can be used for positive wellbeing. Great games, no time limit, no pressure.

Featured image from Natural 20 PH. Many thanks to Eliza Verzosa for allowing us use.


“There are no wrong turnings.
Only paths we had not known we were meant to walk.”
– Guy Gavriel Kay, Tigana

 

In a developing country like the Philippines, games are viewed strictly as play.

Play is perceived as a luxury for children. And when you’re into the third decade of your life with responsibilities and expectations, the status quo tends to believe that you’re not allowed room for that.

Grow up, they say. The time for childish things is over.

There’s a similar feeling of censure whenever I choose to talk about mental health in a public forum. The stigma of being incapable of functioning “normally” is heavy in this country. To go into the particulars of how my diagnosis changed me, and how living with it continues to shape my experiences, is often met with resistance, suspicion, and mistrust.

If you’re sick, you can’t be well. If you’re not well, then how can you function and contribute? If you can’t do either of those, isn’t it your fault for choosing to be “depressed” or “anxious”?

I was recently reminded, though, that honesty is all any of us have. And if there is anything I have learned to take to heart, it is that our truths are the ones that we must hold tight to.

As a person who wrestles constantly with an unseen illness; and as a girl, a geek, and a gamer – I’ve found that play becomes a necessary space to allow myself to breathe. Play is a temporary escape from the demands of my daily life; a refuge that allows rediscovery and relief. Play is where I can be myself – without apology.

This year taught me that I don’t have to stand for feeling silenced – and that others don’t have to feel that way either.

 

Hey, kiddo.

I’m writing this to you some nine years after you sit – nervy, upset, but resolute in getting help – outside of Dra. B’s office.

You thumb anxiously at the journal you purchased after your first session, wondering why the words you’ve written down – honest as they are – don’t read back to you right.

The urge to rip the page out and start over is strong. I get it. The meds suck. The creative well is dry. That scares you because going to therapy was supposed to help.

The hall is noisy and a child crying somewhere down the corner is distracting. But you’re already halfway through a reflection on the events of October 2009. Keep on going.

Ondoy – Typhoon Ketsana to the rest of the world – just ripped through your neighborhood. I know you’re feeling really low. You can’t stop thinking about all the things that still need to be thrown out; the walls and floors that need cleaning. The photographs and books and so many other things that are little more than debris.

It’s even more depressing to think about how your upright piano – the one that’s almost as old as you are – has been reduced to warped plywood. You’ve forgotten the last time you ever wrote a new tune. Your fingers won’t dance over those familiar keys ever again.

Trying to be optimistic is a feat when your thoughts often feel like a mess of long, black thread that is difficult to untangle.

I know what you’re thinking. Everyone you love is safe – so why do you feel like crying all the time?

I want you to know that it’s okay.

It’s been awful. For the next couple of years, you won’t be able to sleep soundly on nights when the rain is a little too hard. Calamities leave lasting effects. That’s just how they are. It’ll feel heavy for a while. But it won’t be forever, I can promise you that.

Trust the process. Don’t rush. It gets better. Just repeat after me: If you can breathe, you can be.

 

I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety and clinical depression in the early half of 2009. I barely recall the intake exam I was given at the time. But as I sat quietly in that small, white-walled clinic, it was all I could do to fold my hands over my lap and try not to cry.

This was years before the Philippines would see gradual, more visible steps to advocate responsible dialogue around the topic of mental health. It would take a decade before the government would pass the Mental Health Bill of 2018.

At the time, admitting I needed professional help to cope with suicide ideation and the panic attacks went hand in hand with the fear that I might lose my job if my superiors found out. I’d already heard from one close friend who had to deal with that kind of fall out. I was terrified that it might happen to me.

“We’ll start you on half a tablet for 3-6 months. Don’t worry. This is standard.”

My therapist told me on no uncertain terms that I would need to commit – to the meds (money spent), to the twice a week visits (more money spent) – if we were going to make this work. She said those words kindly, while scribbling down the prescription I would need for the pharmacy on the first floor.

I wanted – desperately – to get better. But wanting that did little to ease the growing sense of failure. That feeling would remain a knot in my chest for the years to come.

 

Going to therapy is a big financial investment.

When you’re about two years into your first job and nowhere near the kind of financially liquid that just lets you do as you like, the idea of cashing out anywhere between 3,000 to 4,000 pesos (approximately 50-60 USD) on mental health resources is frightening. I was being paid only a little more than minimum wage. That routine expense was close to a fourth of my monthly earnings.

This felt like failure. Admitting I needed professional help felt synonymous with saying that I could not Adult. This stung because acknowledging an invisible illness meant re-evaluating all the things I was holding on to.

For the first three months, I met with my therapist twice a week to unpack the mess of feelings and thoughts, and also to monitor the direct effects of my medication. I was encouraged to keep a journal, told to write things down as honestly as I could.

eat play love
“I took about three kinds of medication, with sertraline being the constant in the equation. My feelings were a complex mix of gratefulness, acceptance, and frustration. So, when sessions finally tapered down to an as-needed basis and my doctor broached the subject of weaning me off, I was prepared as I could be to face the slow and exhausting process of living without them.”

Anxiety feels a little bit like you’re drowning in your own skin. You can’t breathe, you’re perpetually tense and struggling to get through the day.

Writing out the excess of feelings was a technique to help unload all of that helplessness. Sometimes it worked, sometimes not so much. But you stick with it. You have to try.

“Your brain is a muscle just like the rest of your body. Sometimes, it gets injured. Think of these sessions and your meds as a brace you need to wear until things heal.”

Three years later, I was still on meds.

Staying on medication took longer than our (my) original projections, despite the optimism that accompanied committing to the life change.

See, I had told Dra. B, I wanted to try to live without what I called “chemical intervention”. I was scared and suspicious of what it would mean to rely on small, white pills taken under specific conditions. She assured me that the best case scenario was that I’d be on it for half a year. Hearing that helped ease that uncertainty – but only just.

Throughout the period I took about three kinds of medication, with sertraline being the constant in the equation. My feelings were a complex mix of gratefulness, acceptance, and frustration. So, when sessions finally tapered down to an as-needed basis and my doctor broached the subject of weaning me off, I was prepared as I could be to face the slow and exhausting process of living without them.

I asked what convinced her it was time. Her answer had been to outline my progress.

“I ask you every time we start: ‘How are you?’

You started with a consistent ‘not so good’. You moved on to the occasional ‘better’.

And then finally, you came in just to tell me about what’s been happening since last we met.”

I don’t have hard evidence that my participation in play-by-post roleplaying games had something to do with it. But entries reviewed across 5 different notebooks recount that I had talked enough about my new creative outlet during those 40 minute sit-downs to be significant.

Where returning to music, to writing poetry and original prose still prompted episodes – moonlighting as fictional characters seemed to help.

There’s half-scribbled thing on one of the pages – no date cited, just the hospital name serving as a label: I feel like I remember who I am. I write, I build worlds and stories.

 

[11:00] beautybedamned: bb :< why do we not live close to each other?
[11:00] skwinkilios: My goal for my life is to learn how to apparate
[11:00] skwinkilios: since there are too many far away people ;;
[11:05] beautybedamned: ;;
[11:05] beautybedamned: /clings to
[11:05] beautybedamned: i say teleportation devices are a must for every home =|
[11:06] skwinkilios: Yes
[11:06] skwinkilios: we would save so much on gas
[11:08] beautybedamned: :>

the dilemma of the ocean between us; May 21st, 2010 11:11 am

 

Before the boom of social media spaces, journaling platforms like LiveJournal provided spaces for geeks and gamers to connect and build communities.

Joining LJ opened up an entire world I hadn’t thought existed. This wasn’t my first foray into fandom, but it was the first space I could own, be myself in, and meet people who accepted me for what I was. Unlike fan forums, keeping a journal meant being able to share personal anecdotes without fear of censure. It eventually became a space to post the occasional fanfiction short for my friends list.

It was only a matter of time before I was introduced to the idea that I could create journals for characters I liked, and to throw them into interactions with other people – players – who were doing the same. Once I started, there was no going back.

Roleplaying communities provided an alternative digital space for people to meet and collaborate creatively without the pressures of scheduling physical meet-ups. If you loved a character from any of your fandoms but you weren’t inclined to write fanfiction about them, it was as easy as creating an account, uploading icons with a range of images to represent reactions or facial expressions, and to join in on the fun.

Games could range from premises catering to over 50 different players and 200 different characters – to as intimate as 2-3 people working on a PSL (personal storyline).

I’d been Rangiku from Bleach, Boromir from the Lord of the Rings, Kate Bishop from the Young Avengers; and much later – Yancy Becket, Tendo Choi and Naomi Sokolov from Pacific Rim.

Some of the people I’ve met through LJRP are friends to this day, nevermind that we’ve not actually met in person.

We grew up together in these spaces: shared our personal victories, offered shoulders to cry on during our defeats. We’ve seen each other through college, first jobs, natural disasters like Ondoy and Hurricane Katrina. I’ve seen love stories unfold, careers bomb and soar. I’ve also mourned friends who’ve passed on.

Even if we don’t interact the way we used to or at all, I’ll always remember that these were the people who helped me through some of the roughest periods in my life – if only through the mutual investment of playing out stories between characters who may have otherwise never met.

I made it to 2012 ragged but otherwise in one piece. My family and I watched the New Year’s fireworks display over the city together – and I remember being a bit more hopeful than I remembered in a while.

 

eat play love
“Rescue from the Dark Hour” feat. Cisco Montelibano | picset by Noey Pico

Your phone goes dead just as you’re about to send a message to your best friend that you’re 20 minutes away from that club he invited you to. It’s really odd. You were sure that you had enough battery to last you the evening.

When you look up – your skin runs cold. In the front seat, where the driver should be sitting, is an upright coffin. When you turn your eyes outside, the stretch of highway on the way to Makati is dark and still.

The taxi isn’t moving anymore. But neither are any of the cars on that road. The sky outside is a radioactive green, and the moon is a sickly yellow shining full overhead.

You step outside. It’s so quiet – too quiet. As if someone decided to press the mute button on the whole world.

As you wander some three cars from the taxi, you find yourself looking down. The air is cool and smells of rain, but the color of the pockets of water at your feet look strange. They’re a little too dark; a little too thick and red.

When you finally look up, you spot a white-faced figure in the distance. It mirrors you when you step to your right. It does the same when you step to your left. Stepping forward is much the same – but by now, the sound of your heart is loud in your ears. When you step back, it surges forward.

That’s when you run.

– Session log: August 2013, Waking the Dead

The play group that first introduced me to tabletop was a mix of college students and teachers who knew each other because they all went to the same place on campus to smoke, and ended up becoming friends.

Sessions were held regularly at a place that was part-coffee shop, part-restaurantthemed around the truth that chocolate was good for the soul. Our ST – Storyteller – was a good friend of mine from my online rp days. The invitation to join their group had come up at her birthday party.

While I was nervy and a little overwhelmed by all the new faces (we were a table of 13? 15?), their warmth and obvious interest to introduce their Fun Thing had me ready to try.

I was a late entry into the world of Waking the Dead, a cribbed Hunter the Vigil, mixed-class campaign set primarily in the Philippines. Unlike D&D, it’s premise and execution was more urban horror, with a touch of slice-of-life.

The narrative component of tabletop was familiar, especially since online roleplay was all about collaborative writing. As a player, you participated by moving your character and have them react to the scene and the other characters in it.

It was an entirely new experience to sit at a table and to put on my character’s skin. To become who they were for a few hours at a time.

For those unfamiliar with what it’s like, tabletop roleplaying games can be an exercise in improv acting.

Beyond the dice, beyond the character sheet, wasn’t Noey Pico at the table. I was Cisco Montelibano, a 23-year-old contemporary dancer who’d fallen through the cracks between reality and the World of Darkness. And since it was – as we like to call it – Season 3 of the campaign, I’d come in when everyone else had firmly established relationships, dynamics and expectations.

On the character front, it wasn’t much different from the plotting with people online. Integrating a character was a simple matter of finding which plot hooks to latch onto and going with the flow.

On the player end, it didn’t feel as simple.

Being flung in the midst of a group made up of a wide range of personalities felt strange and alien.

80% of that table felt intimidating – not because they were hostile, they weren’t – but because the tricks my brain used to play on me were things I still half-believed. I was so convinced that if I messed up even a little, I’d ruin everything by sheer proximity.

I’d ask myself: Am I taking too much time on this scene? Are they bored? Maybe I should have made a cheat sheet for my rolls – would they mind if I asked for help? How the hell does EXP work? Will they think I’m dumb for not getting how it works?

In our first combat-heavy session, one of the youngest members stood up from his chair, sat beside me and walked me through building my dice pool for archery. He had done this for me before, and I was a little mortified that I’d forgotten which went where. But it didn’t matter: I was having trouble and needed help, so he helped.

That same day, another member took me aside to remind me that she really wanted me to be at her birthday a few weeks down. I remember watching her with fascination as she methodically set out the siomai that always seemed to be available for our sessions at her house. She then ribbed me gently that I’d been calling her by her character name all day without realizing it.

Those interactions kept playing over and over in my head for the days to come. Logically, I knew that these were normal things friends – even casual ones – did for each other. Emotionally, I was a wreck and I couldn’t figure out why.

These people were so warm, so welcoming, so kind. What reason did I have to freak out?

 

Let me give you an analogy to work with, so you can better understand where I’m coming from.

There’s a unique frustration that comes with needing to charge your mobile device, but you can’t figure out if it’s the cord, the adapter, or the port itself that’s keeping you from doing it properly. That’s what living with anxiety is like, especially when social interaction is what replenishes your spoons – the energy you work with.

Let me stretch that analogy a bit further.

Mobile phones keep us connected today in a way that we didn’t anticipate when they first came out.  Need to chat up someone for whatever reason? Have to urgently send in a file or coordinate for school or work? Maybe you’re just browsing through your social media feed, or reading a book on your e-reader.

Whatever it is you’re doing, those things take up storage (energy for hobbies and interests) – and bandwidth (time).

eat play love
When your internal battery doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter that you have a lot of storage or bandwidth. You can’t use either if you’ve hit 0%.

I had – have – a lot of storage. I also have a healthy amount of bandwidth to allocate to things. But my charging port was shot, leaving me with the exhausting process of constantly looking for ways to recharge. When your internal battery doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter that you have a lot of storage or bandwidth. You can’t use either if you’ve hit 0%.

I wasn’t always like this. People – how they would receive me, or perceive me – didn’t used to be terrifying to the point of paralysis. Crowds did not used to make me feel ready to faint. Conversations did not used to make me, in a fit of paranoia, spiral into a loop of “what did they mean when they said…” Small things that weren’t my fault didn’t used to leave me losing hours to crying.

I’m mostly better now, but that’s the thing about trauma. It changes you.

Whenever we talk about abuse, it’s often framed with either (a) family dynamics or (b) romantic entanglements. It’s taboo to say ‘abuse’ and ‘friends’ in the same sentence. Not saying it, though, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen.

It’s taken me a long time to say that it happened to me. And like any survivor of trauma, I still have moments where I wonder if I was to blame.

Struggling with mental illness, dealing with chemical changes in the brain that feed to the rest of the body; crying nightly over listing out how to juggle your finances because the strain on them is very real, and trying so hard to manage getting out of bed given how you’re fucked up inside – it doesn’t make you the nicest or the easiest person to be around.

Still, it never occurred to me that my barkada (core friend group) wouldn’t have my back. After all, when you’ve been together for six odd years, you believe you’ll be friends until you’re old and gray.

It’s a rude awakening when you realize that there are very real limits to a friendship you’d been counting on. Then, when you’re yelled at and called selfish, inconsiderate, and even blamed for getting sick in the first place – it breaks you.

You start wondering if you should save everyone the trouble and just disappear. You start apologizing for existing. For forgetting things, even if you sometimes can’t tell if someone told you about it or not. You cry in the middle of grocery aisles, and wonder if you’ve finally snapped; because the meds make it difficult enough to determine whether you’re dreaming or if you’re wide awake.

There are moments when you blame your condition, and inevitably, yourself. Why couldn’t you be better yesterday? No one has time to wait for you to get through this.

Then, one day you wake up and you make a choice. You choose survival. Even if it means figuring out how to put one foot after the other in front of you all by yourself.

Make it to tomorrow, you whisper to yourself. Deal with all the rest after.

 

eat play love
Customized character sheet for Waking the Dead | design by Noey Pico

“[…] A Zangyaku oni-tsukai’s blade mates are his closest family within
the larger family of his conspiracy. Siblings exist to love each other,
and help each other out no matter what.”

– “The Demon’s Code” from Zangyaku’s dossier, Waking the Dead

 

Seventeen-year-old Gio Malaahas falls to his knees. He reaches out to cast Detect Life only to find nothing – no pulse, no breath, no heartbeat. Around him, the room is in ruins. The immediate threats are dead – but the quiet is almost too much to bear.

The rest of the party gathers close. No one speaks, but tears run silently down cheeks; hands clasp together in disbelief.

“You were my responsibility,” he whispers, reaching out to gently shut the pair of brown eyes staring emptily up at the ceiling. When he finally turns his gaze up at Henry Lim, the werewolf looks ready to argue for the right to pick Cisco up and carry her home – to pack.

I’m her blade leader. I should be the one to tell Cen.”

Session log: October 2013, Waking the Dead Halloween Special

 

The funny thing about tabletop is that immersion makes all the fiction happening on the table real.

Interventions on family drama, well-meaning meddling in accidental love lives; revelations, betrayals, victory and loss on the road to saving the world – that’s also happening to you.

The day I conspired with my Storyteller to drop Cisco in a situation she might not survive, I honestly just wanted to explore a merit that meant she wouldn’t actually die. When my teammates hunkered down to find spells and tap other skills to make it so her health bar didn’t run to empty – it caught me a little off guard.

There was very real distress from my play group during that session. None of them were aware of the plan (one my ST told me we’d see if we could make happen), and I found myself met with a series of OMG NOEY WHY as we played out her death and its aftermath; the party carrying her home to her best friend, recently turned lover.

Of course, Cisco woke up eventually – the plan wasn’t to keep her dead; but to explore the consequences of self-sacrifice, and her eventual realization that she didn’t need to prove that she already belonged.

We all walked away from the session a little closer to each other that day. And a year down the line, I started opening up more easily to them, about surviving close calls of wanting to end my own life.

Just to clarify: Cisco was not a proxy for myself. Nor was she a wilful projection of the issues and trauma I was – am – still learning to articulate.

The catharsis was unexpected. And the happy result was finding the courage to let my walls down, be vulnerable, and grow closer to people I’d already come to consider as friends.

There’s a phrase that’s stayed with me from the Safe Spaces and Fun 101 panel. It came up during our discussion of mental health and gaming, and how we dealt with that – as players, as GMs, and as members of the tabletop gaming community.

“Don’t disappear. Tell them.
It’s not good for them, it’s not good for you.
Let them know that you’re safe.”

– Sin Posadas

 

I don’t know where I would be today if it wasn’t for my first tabletop play group.

From sharing a table together, they’ve become my found family – providing me with a large support network that’s branched out opportunities for things I never imagined myself doing a decade ago.

I’m the Site Mom that I am for Play Without Apology because they showed me kindness and understanding; taught me that it’s okay to lay my heart bare and relate to people again. When I discuss the subjects that I do for this site, and when I engage with this team and our partners on projects – I remember that group and how they opened their table and their homes to a scared young woman in need of compassion.

I’m also a more conscientious and vocal advocate for mental health – even when doubt and fear loom like the fictional monsters we’ve faced in the game. Because whether it’s beating back the apocalypse, or showing others near and far that there are ways to make the world a kinder and better place; I’ve learned that it can start with making room at the table for one more.

Ingredients

1 kg of potatoes
1 pack of all purpose cream
1 bar of butter, salted
1 bar of cream cheese

Instructions:

  1. Make sure to scrub the potatoes clean; then boil until soft in salted water.
  2. Drain; do not remove the skins. Mash thoroughly in a bowl.
  3. Fold in butter, all purpose cream, and cream cheese. Cubing the butter and cream cheese helps to evenly distribute.
  4. Optional: garnish with parmesan cheese or some other topping.

Serves 3-4 people. Realistically, let’s peg it at 2. Best for social events, or feels-driven tabletop sessions.


This piece was written to Greta Svabo Bech’s “Shut Up and Sing”. You can view her wonderful lyrics over here.

Noey Pico on EmailNoey Pico on FacebookNoey Pico on InstagramNoey Pico on Twitter
Noey Pico
Noey Pico is a tiny Ball of Feelings™ and an audioromantic with a passion for writing, and all things geek. A former contributing editor at What’s a Geek, she has an ongoing love affair with tabletop gaming because it’s the closest thing she's got to being a jaeger pilot. She also writes music, you can check her work out over on her Bandcamp page.

One Comment

  1. Carla Mendoza Carla Mendoza September 21, 2018

    Oh, Cisco. :<

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