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Women in Tabletop Gaming: Play Without Apology

Reading Time: 12 minutes.

To celebrate Women in Tabletop Gaming Month, Play Without Apology interviewed with some of the very women who contribute to our communities! We’ve done a pretty good round so far, and you can check out the previous interviews over here!

That said, PWOA has some pretty awesome GMs in our number. Each of them also participates actively in communities both locally and abroad. It felt apt to feature them given that our advocacy for empowerment and inclusivity. So today, here are Pam Punzalan, Lee Flores, Xrystina Marcos, and Maki Martinez.


Hi loves! Our readers know how this goes already, so let’s do the round of introductions plus a rundown of the games and systems that you run?

Pam: Ello, I’m Pam, aka Scary Mom from Play Without Apology – although my formal, fancy title is Editor-in-Chief of the website. Am also one of the administrators of the FB Group Philippine Table-top RPGs. My first books weren’t really fiction books, but Advanced Dungeons & Dragons handbooks. I’ve run a bit of D&D 3.5 and 5E in the past, but my system of choice is World of Darkness/Chronicles of Darkness.

women in tabletop
#JustWakingtheDeadThings: Pam hosts an intro to her universe at The Vigil: 24 Hours of RPGs event!

At the moment, a lot of my energies are going into Waking the Dead, a homebrew I’m making based off of CoD.

Let’s just say that I got tired of people assuming WoD couldn’t have a shared universe across all of its templates. And I was even MORE tired of the way WoD lore tended to be written for the Philippines. Hoping to get into Blades in the Dark, Dungeon World, Night Witches, and Shadows of Esteren soon!

Lee: Henlo, my name is Lee and one whole genderqueer living Sydney, Australia. I do illustration and graphic design, and every fortnight I’ve been maintaining a long-ass campaign for 5th Edition D&D. We’ve just hit our 2nd anniversary. I plan to make up for forgetting it last session by making the next one a bit special for my players! I’ve also run a D20 system Call of Cthulhu one-shot. But so far I’ve just been focusing on the main campaign.

Xrystina: Hello! I’m fairly new in the tabletop RPG scene. Been playing and running for two years now. I’m a frustrated illustrator and writer, who wants a pet cat because it’s the closest thing to a snake. I run bits of everything, from D&D 5e to FATE core, though I’m a bit rusty in the systems I run. I normally just dabble, and I love homebrew because I can just go wild!

Maki: I’m Maki Martinez and I’m an artist and an avid sticker collector. My love for Dungeon World started with my dad and his friends. It’s a very beginner friendly TRPG for new GMs who like to tell stories and players who like an upbeat pace while gaining more skills.


Everyone’s got their origin story, so to speak. Can you tell us how were you first introduced to tabletop? As well as what continues to fuel your interest in the hobby?

Pam: Although my older brothers never really GMed for me (the age gap was just too big, and our parents were the traditional sort who were leery of their smol daughter going for “boy hobbies” with much older boys) they were instrumental in me getting interested in tabletop. They never shied away from letting me watch sessions, and were also fine with me reading all of their books. So, by the time I met peers who wanted to game, I was raring to try all the things out.

Tabletop’s always been my greater love between TRPGs, strategy tabletop games like Warhammer or the now defunct Mechwarrior, TCG games (hi Versus) and play-by-post/blog RP. It’s intense, it’s social, and it lets me build worlds to my liking. I can say, without hesitation, that my interest in the hobby has moved away less from it simply being stress relief and more about it being… well, survival.

 

Could you expound on that a bit for our readers?

Pam: The world often feels very dark and scary, and the narratives we’re fed don’t always feel right for us. Developing a sense of hopefulness and optimism is a life skill. It’s one that could help anyone get through the day, week, month, or year; depending on how we’ve been ground down by responsibilities, expectations. And having to face a whole lot of things we cannot readily change.

I’m a bisexual woman who’s often told that I either don’t exist, that I am not relevant, or am simply not palatable in the real world. What makes this worse is I’m – GASP! – a feminist, which tends to make me Public Enemy No. 1 online and offline.

Tabletop lets me challenge those perceptions, which helps me find ways to face them better as myself. And it also lets me build a better place for me and my own.

Being a GM is especially useful in this case. Safe spaces are in short stock, and are constantly besieged. Perhaps by running long campaigns that are all about letting my players explore things that would otherwise be difficult or painful to look at, and are also letting them be themselves without prejudice or fear, I can make things a little better for everyone.

 

How about you, Lee? What’s your tabletop story?

Lee: My introduction to tabletop wasn’t particularly pleasant. I’d been watching my then-partner participate in a small D&D group made up of game design students. I was an animation student and had always been interested in TRPGs. Unfortunately a lot of my participation was dismissed. I was only ever treated as my partner’s plus one, rather than an actual interested player.

Oh, ouch. That must have sucked.

Lee: I remember being scoffed at because I went to great lengths and wrote a backstory about my character. Not even my partner backed me up on that. Only one of the other players showed genuine interest and wanted to ask me about my fledgling Deva Cleric.

That would be the first and last time I played D&D for a few years before I was reintroduced to TRPGs through what is now almost a household name in D&D livestreams – Critical Role. The fact that both the fandom and the cast were so open and sharing (a stark contrast to my introduction to the idea of TRPGs) reignited my desire to play, along with the multitude of shows with a similar formula that followed.

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Yay for technology! Lee hosts her games mostly online, bridging distances with a simple click!

[My reintroduction] started with a 7-hour long campaign that lasted from 8PM to 3AM the next morning. It was a one-shot campaign I had opted to DM for a lifelong friend and my brother. From then on, I was hooked. [We] eventually roped in more friends, who are now some of my closest and best people I’ve ever met.

Managing between 6 to 8 players – initially over Skype, before shifting over to Discord – is, unquestionably, a challenge. But with the rapport and shared growth we’ve had over these two years, it’s been one of the highlights of my life thus far. My friends, watching Critical Role, and my thirst for escapism are my constant fuel, basically. Being female-presenting makes it difficult to find circles I am comfortable in; much less being queer and being able to explore these topics as freely as I wish to.

 

How about Xrystina and Maki? How did you girls get into the hobby?

Xrystina: First got into it when a speaker at our school couldn’t make it to a talk, and suggested we go to a Gamers and GMs event instead. I volunteered, and now here I am!

The thing I love about joining is the ever expanding Tabletop RPG community. I like seeing new players, and guiding them. It’s so great whenever I see those who aren’t normally exposed to these sort of things. And I see them have the time of their life when they realize they can become the charismatic rogue or anthropomorphic cat they long to be.

Maki: My dad had been insisting I play D&D with him since I was in high school, but my very first game was FATE. It got me thinking about a lot of possibilities!  Ever since they introduced me to board games and then to Tabletop RPGs I’ve been running games for my friends, playing with new friends and I’ve been hooked!

 

Women in Tabletop Gaming month was established because of the desire to recognize, respect, and empower women in the tabletop gaming community. Can you share us some challenges you’ve faced; as well as your personal philosophies on how better to encourage a culture of inclusivity?

Pam: Ahaha, well… I’ve mentioned how the hobby is both entertainment and survival with me. And how almost every day is an exercise in resisting how the world seeks to silence me or erase me entirely.

The primary challenge I’ve faced is the community as a whole not taking me seriously. Simply because I am a woman. Or [them] assuming that I am around as an attachment to a cisgender male player. One of my D&D campaigns, for example, folded all because I rejected the advances of my male co-GM; who took it upon himself to ruin my reputation. That experience made me pretty gun shy about doing tabletop roleplaying anything for several years.

In more recent history, being an administrator of PTRPGs has been A Journey. I was, for almost two years, the only woman on the administration team. And [I] had butted heads with a now former admin due to heteronormative expectations of behavior. A.K.A., This Girl Is Too Bossy and Difficult.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been shunted, ignored, disrespected. Or told I’m too “angry” or “mean” by members of the group; only to have them immediately listen when the same thing is told to them by a male administrator. I’ve also dealt with straight women insisting that I am being too pedantic. And that I police their fun for simply wanting them to be careful with the way they play or GM; in light of any friends or potential players of those who may be gay.

women in tabletop gaming
“Safe spaces are in short stock, and are constantly besieged. Perhaps by running long campaigns that are all about letting my players explore things that would otherwise be difficult or painful to look at; and also letting them be themselves without prejudice or fear, I can make things a little better for everyone.” – Pamela | Photo courtesy of Carla Mendoza, one of Pam’s players

Personally, I think the best way to encourage a culture of inclusivity is not to compromise.

Too many people insist upon their toxic convictions being “just opinions”, and turn things on their heads by making everything personal. It seems paradoxical, but really: a safe space is a defended one that lets EVERYONE feel safe, not just one privileged group.

What might be “fun” for you – what might be simply a story for you to play with; like, let’s say, a gay character coming out, or a narrative of sexual violence and survival – is someone else’s lived reality. We all need to responsible, even at our private tables, for our actions. To assume that we can simply retreat to our own spaces where we determine what is acceptable WITHOUT considering ethical standards as a whole is, quite frankly, the beginnings of dangerous echo chambers and precedents that affect everyone around you.

 

Any thoughts to add, Lee? You’ve written about your experience with tabletop for us before, and you touched upon some of the issues you faced.

Lee: The main challenge I faced was finding the space I was most comfortable in.  As an introvert it was hard to find the energy to find one, much less establish a space. But after getting involved with the first GXAustralia, the convention opened a whole lot of roads for me.

Through there I managed to find many queer and inclusive spaces, not afraid to be critical of content; but also dedicated to make room for diverse stories.

women in tabletop gaming
Performing inclusivity serves no one. But honestly applying it is what makes for a robust gaming community.” | In photo: Lee during her panel at PAXAU

Thing is, I feel mine is not a common story. That I was invited into these spaces that have allowed me to grow and explore the gaming industry as I have. It was not without its hurdles. However, it was a charmed welcome compared to most. This is exactly what fuels my personal philosophy on inclusivity.

If the people behind these spaces did not have the genuine wish to broaden the community to be more inclusive, I would not be here.

Performing inclusivity serves no one. But honestly applying it is what makes for a robust gaming community.  Make it so that not only is it a space safe for a person from any walk of life to walk in; but one where it is also open to criticism and constant scrutiny. This is what opened up TRPGs to me, and I believe can open it up to anyone.

 

What about your experiences, Xrystina? Anything of note that you’d like to bring up?

Xrystina: [I’ll speak] as someone who has been friends with more men than women for half of her life.

There are people who join game groups for the sake of finding the manic pixie dream girl they’ve always longed after. It’s a problem, because women that do join game groups often [become] the target. When this happens it’s so frustrating when drama arises because of it. [Because] even when people know what the problem is, they expect the Game Master to fix it.

women in tabletop gaming
“Don’t be afraid to step up, be it joining in games or taking action. It all starts with being heard.” | Xrystina at The Vigil: 24 Hours of RPGs, photo by Bim Canoza

[It’s] like the responsibility has to be dumped on the person running the game, [with the expectation for] them to be the Mom Friend. This is especially annoying when the player-character bleed effect happens and the drama affects the game you’re playing.

If there’s a problem, it is not the Game Master’s job to fix it, but they also cannot allow it to keep happening. Acknowledging the problem together is much better than having one person act as an arbiter.

Pam: I like your point on GMs being left to be fixers. I’ve been very lucky that most of my usual players go out of their way to help. Expecting your GM to do everything is bad taste. For a table to function everybody’s got to do their part.

Xrystina: I am not meant to be the Mom Friend. But it has even come to a point where I have to go to them one by one and do the HR thing. I should just be running games. It’s really stressful. Especially if the person you’re telling off doesn’t stop and people make no effort to do anything about it.

 

How about from your end, Maki? What challenges have you faced, and what is your philosophy on inclusivity?

Maki: I fell in love with Tabletop RPG since it allows me to create and experience stories that can’t be seen in mainstream media. I can cater it to myself and to my friends who enjoy the representation and exposure to more stories.

You mentioned the value of representation and creating stories not typically seen in mainstream. Can you elaborate a bit on why this matters to you, and share some anecdotes?

Maki: I love my circle of friends because they really are queer space friendly. A portion of my NPCs are queer because I am too; and it gives out so many dynamics for me to wiggle around. And they – my friends – are out there supporting it all.

“You must take the first step to create and write your stories and games. It takes hard work to prep a game, but by the end of the day, the pay off and the stories always make it so worth it.” A self-portrait by Maki! Check her work out at makimartz.com!

My players – some, not all – end up experimenting relationship dynamics in my campaign. They can flirt with anyone if they want to, but of course the story may or may not give them consequences if they don’t do things properly, like any other relationship. A straight friend may play as a bi character, a bi friend may opt for other goals in the game. It’s Anything Goes in a campaign, and relationships should be like that as well. We shouldn’t restrain ourselves.

In terms of challenges, I feel that the comfort and communication between players and GM must be established because boundaries allow us to thread through each other’s likes and dislikes to build a healthy table dynamic. And if I may add as well, I think it’s very important for GMs such as ourselves or any GM, to realize that even though we created the game for our players, and we’re also the main cheerleader of our players, it’s still by the end of the day also our game. We take that for granted sometimes.

 

Any last words for our readers and anyone interested in helping their own gaming communities?

Pam: Keep up the fight, but know when to take a step back and be kind to yourself. Compassion, empathy, and respect are ultimately what makes everything better – but remember, someone’s “harsh” reactions always come from visceral, real, painful experiences. So know when you’re reacting to what they’re saying or if you’re just reacting to their tone or approach. And, never worry: you are not alone.

Lee: It serves absolutely no one to maintain a pantomime of diversity. Seek out more voices, fully appreciate the conversations that need to occur for these spaces to grow, but never at the detriment of the marginalised.

Most importantly, support communities that make diversity and inclusivity their main platform. This does not mean blind faith – true support is in healthy criticism and dialogue. Listen and engage, but know when to disengage. Not just for yourself, but for others involved too.

Xrystina: Don’t be afraid to step up, be it joining in games or taking action. It all starts with being heard.

Maki: You must take the first step to create and write your stories and games. It takes hard work to prep a game, but by the end of the day, the pay off and the stories always make it so worth it.


Once again, we’d like to give a shout-out to Bim Canoza of momatoes.com for her photos.

Want to share your own experience as Women in Tabletop Gaming? Let us know in the comments!

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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.

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