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#WomeninTabletop: Eliza Verzosa

We’re counting down to LacunaCon and Play Without Apology is pleased to partner with Women in Tabletop Gaming Month as we once again celebrate the incredible women who contribute to our local gaming communities! 

For this round, we have a familiar face!


Hi, Eliza! Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule for this interview. Last year, we featured you in a round-table interview with fellow tabletop game masters in celebration of Women in Tabletop Gaming Month.

You talked a bit about your background as a licensed nurse, your advocacy of mental health, and how you were inspired by organizations like Wheelhouse Workshop and their initiatives to introduce tabletop gaming as a tool for therapy. Can you catch us up on what’s happened on your end since you last sat down with PWOA? We hear that you’ve been completing Play Therapy classes—and I think everyone by now is aware that you’re The Dice Girl.

Henlo! It’s your Friendly Neighborhood Nurse-Slash-Resin-Sniffer again. It’s been a while, and we’ve got some catching up to do!

Since the last time we sat down, I’ve professionally transitioned into a Research Nurse role, assisting in the management of clinical and health researches at the St. Luke’s College of Medicine as my Real Life day job. On the side, I’ve helped run mega-games for corporate clients, and yes, that’s correct—my newest venture involves the crafting of hand-made polyhedral dice over at Natural 20 Gaming Goods.

women in tabletop eliza verzosa
Photo courtesy of Eliza Verzosa

All of those things are great, no doubt! But if it’s one thing I’ve got my sights on, it’s Play Therapy as my main bread and butter, professionally.

That’s seriously so good to hear! Okay, to start: can you tell us a bit about what Play Therapy is and why you decided to pursue it?

For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, let’s start with the understanding that everyone, regardless of mental and emotional faculties, will practice some form of therapeutic activity to cope with the daily and non-daily stresses of life.

Therapeutic is just the hoity-toity way of saying that something has healing properties or necessitates healing, physically, mentally, socially, or emotionally. Sometimes, therapeutic may come in the simplest form as say, venting out to a trusted confidante, the act of cooking, writing and designing a bullet journal, or binging on your favourite series on Netflix.

How can you tell if an activity is therapeutic? Simple! After you’re done with it, ask yourself: Do I feel so much better? If yes, then holy smokes, it’s therapeutic.

That’s really reassuring to hear, and those examples cover a really nice range. About Play Therapy though, how does it address specific needs?

That’s a very good question.

Play Therapy was originally intended as a psychological intervention for children with mental health disorders. The problem with children is that the lot of them are still developing their verbal skills, and their vocabularies aren’t as big as adults.

I’ll pose to you a question: if adults already have a hard time expressing their feelings, thoughts, and emotions through words, given their relatively good grasp of language – more so children with limited vocabularies and processing abstract concepts such as feelings.

So if adults express themselves verbally, what is an activity inherent to the child that allows them to express?

…Play?

That’s right, it’s play. It’s through play that we see the child’s desires and fears. But hey, I’m not here to discuss Play Therapy in depth. If I do, then I’ll have to get paid for it!

We support this 100%! Especially since all of this is highly specialized! But, do go on.

Okay, now you have a good idea of what Play Therapy is. But did you know, adults also play? Of course, most of us no longer play with dolls, with rocking horses and jack-stones—but in us, we still have an inherent need to play.

After office hours, we play mobile games, watch movies, engage in a sport. Or we play video games and tabletop games, make art, read books, experiment with make-up, journal, go out and drink with our friends. We never stop truly playing. And a lot of the play we do helps us get through our daily stresses be it from work, from family, from our intimate relationships, or from ourselves.

Now, my role as a future Play Therapist is simply to encourage and facilitate that inherent drive to heal through a controlled and ideal environment. What is essential to Play Therapy is the provision of a safe, cathartic, non-judgemental space where societal expectations are cast aside and you can be free to be who you truly are, to say what you truly feel, without worry to be corrected or judged. You are taken as you are, strengths and flaws and all.

Wouldn’t that be nice, if we lived in a world where we are accepted as who we are regardless of our mistakes? In a world that just lets us be?

Yes, definitely.

For clients to bare all of who they are is especially hard after building upon layers and layers of walls to hide their flaws from society. And when we no longer live in the fear of judgement, that is when we start to truly heal from our wounds and hurt.

We can see why mental health is such a big advocacy of yours. That said, can you share with our readers the inspiration behind taking Play Therapy classes and how that ties in with tabletop and how it’s helped you?

Hmm, where do I even start?

Honestly? Anywhere you feel comfortable.

As a lot of you know—and this is something that I am very open about—I wrestle with the monster in my head called Major Depressive Disorder (MDD). It was bad, the first two, three years, but after around six years of getting to know this monster—when it prefers to strike, its weaknesses and triggers—you learn to tame the beast and make it bend the knee.

But I’d lie if I said that I’m 100% cured of MDD. Hell, I’m not even sure if it’ll ever be cured. But it’s okay. I still get the symptoms twice or thrice a month, but it’s okay. If I have to live with MDD until I’m ninety, it’s okay. I have come a long way from the long, arduous journey of healing, and I’ve still lots to go.

Would you say that learning more about Play Therapy has given you insights on your own experiences on and off the table?

This is where tabletop games come in. During the time I’ve been struggling with MDD, one of the things that truly proved as tools that facilitated my own drive to heal were tabletop games, particularly tabletop RPGs. These present a high potential as a therapeutic tool. It’s a form of escape into a world of imagination – the theater of the mind, taking you to other places, where you can be whoever you want to be.

women in tabletop eliza verzosa
Photo courtesy of Eliza Verzosa

You can be a strong warrior, a dependable leader or a wise sage, even if, at times, in the real world, you think of yourself otherwise. I’m a firm believer that the characters we play are made of tiny bits and pieces of our being and consciousness, whether we like it or not.

We are products of our experiences. Our characters are also made out of our experiences. So, maybe you’re someone who thinks that you’re not enough for this world, that you’re not competent, that you’re not able… and maybe you play an empowered and charismatic High Elf Cleric that proves to be an inspiring leader to your teammates.

All it takes is to take a look inside and realize that you are inherently empowered, charismatic, and inspiring to be able to play this character.

It’s a cognitive restructuring tool.

Meaning, it can change how you process your thoughts. Think of it as rewiring your brain. A lot of persons struggling with MDD lack this internal positive self-reinforcement mechanism and have decreased problem-solving capacities due to a lack of motivation.

For me, purposefully, I ask my GMs to collaborate with me on how to present personal difficulties for my characters. I am known as The Masochistic Player.

We recall you mentioning this once! How you give your GMs permission for Feelings.

Why do I prefer to be the Masochistic Player, practically giving my GMs consent (BIG NOTE: CONSENT) to inflict emotional duress to my characters? It is partly, to my own benefit, to let me practice in a safe space, the coping techniques I intend to use in real life.

When I can’t accept my own personal failures and hurt, I allow my GM to give my characters opportunities to fail and hurt. My character whispers to herself, “It will be okay. My teammates still accept me regardless of my mistakes.” And then as if magically, I find myself repeating the same thought when I fail at a Real Life Situation instead of thinking of the worst possible outcomes. Sooner or later, it becomes natural to me.

So, our pick-up from this is: the table and the people joining you there become your safe space. Is that right?

Yes. It provides a space to connect socially and develop trusting relationships.

Most tabletop RPGs require at least three people to run, so these sessions give us an avenue to meet different people with different personalities, likes and dislikes, needs and resources. Tabletop games have been proven to be therapeutic for people with Autism, where most people who live with it struggle to read social cues. By playing, they learn to work with their teammates and negotiate with the GM on how things should work for their character. They get to learn to adapt and adjust to the social dynamic of people in the table.

It’s an avenue to express and be heard without judgement. Personally, I think this is something that should never be absent in the table.

Roleplaying can reveal who you truly are as a person, even though part of the game is playing someone else that isn’t you. What a paradox, ain’t it?

When we play, we bare ourselves to our GMs and to the other players, which is why the concept of safe spaces is particularly of high value ‘round these parts. We let ourselves be vulnerable when we play and it takes a leap of faith to trust everyone in not taking these vulnerabilities for granted.

This is inspirational—and it does track with how gaming groups tend to become incredibly tight-knit!

Anecdotally, for me at least, my gaming groups have become my closest allies—people who know me for who I truly am, people who I can be transparent and honest with.

These are the people who have shown me the goodness and light in the dark, bleak world. I’ve found people who can unconditionally accept me for myself and my mistakes through tabletop gaming; I hope I can pay it forward to others, too.

You’ve given us (and our readers, I’m sure) a lot to reflect and think on with this. Thank you so much for sharing? So, how difficult is it to put Play Therapy into practice?

It requires a lot of training and conditioning to be able to be a Play Therapist, and the hardest of them all is to cast aside our own judgments and personal dilemmas when we step into a safe space to serve clients.

We aren’t advisors. We can’t solve your problems for you. We’re only here to give you the ideal healing and supportive environment and walk with you along the way as you heal yourself.

What about the challenges with Play Therapy? Can you go a bit into that?

There are a lot of challenges in incorporating Play Therapy in tabletop gaming.

First, tabletop gaming is still quite niche, compared to a lot of other activities and hobbies. Play Therapy is also quite niche as an intervention in the Psych/Clinical world. Put two niche things together and you’ve got… A SUPER NICHE THING CALLED “THERAPEUTIC GAMING”!

For a clinician to implement an intervention, it must more or less be founded on ideas that have been proven to work for a very long time. The thing with Therapeutic Gaming is, there aren’t a lot of clinicians doing it (I only know of a few groups in the West), nor a lot of experts who can write The Bible of Therapeutic Gaming yet, so we can’t tell what the best practices are for now. But! We’re working towards it.

women in tabletop eliza verzosa
Photo courtesy of Natural 20 Gaming Goods

The second is having the bandwidth to run the game, do your best to make sure your players are enjoying, while at the same time addressing the mental health and psychological needs of your players.

Just running the game can be tiring!

The third challenge is, as GMs facilitating Therapeutic Gaming, it’s a struggle of telling our story versus players telling their story.

Of course, as GMs we’ll set up plot hooks, and sometimes we train ourselves to keep players within the bounds of our plot. We’re even given tips on how to give players the illusion of choice, of branching out the plot so that after they run around and explore a bit, they find themselves back on your rails.

In Therapeutic Gaming, GMs need to unlearn this. Players should take the center stage. Their healing, the story they want to tell, no matter how miles off it is from your plot, takes precedence before the story you intend for them to play through.

We must respect their pace. We can’t tell them to go a particular direction in the same way we can’t tell a grieving person to get over it. The players lead, the GM simply follows.

Can you share a bit about procedures or tools necessary to make Play Therapy successful? And do you think Play Therapy could help the local gaming community?

Play Therapy (and Therapeutic Gaming as a subset) can really help anyone of any population because as said, everyone truly plays.

It’s simply a tool to facilitate the expression of thoughts, feelings and emotions in a safe space. We—all of us—more or less deal with issues and problems in our day to day lives.

In the gaming community, we are no different.

Let’s shift a bit and talk dice. Natural20 Gaming Goods is the other thing you’re becoming known for in the local community. Can you talk about what it’s been like for you to set it up, as well as your process when making dice and what you consider your best and most challenging experiences?

Back in college, I wanted to set up an online shop selling gaming paraphernalia. I planned to buy dice from other sources and resell, but it didn’t take off immediately as I was still studying VERY, VERY hard and fastidiously.

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The first die ever cast | Photo courtesy of Eliza Verzosa

After graduating, securing a job and stocking up on some capital, I thought it was a very good time to start Natural 20 to earn a bit on the side. I wanted to do something different this time. [I asked myself] what could set Nat20 apart? Hand-made dice, every piece unique and like no other!

And so, I did months of R&D—what business model was most fair to myself and my customers, and what production processes were most efficient for me, a full-time nurse who could only work on the business a couple of days a week.

We know this has probably been said before but: that’s honestly amazing. What was that experience like for you?

The ten months of Nat20’s existence isn’t without challenges, for sure.

Full disclosure: I didn’t even have any existing skills with resin. I didn’t know how to even make rubber molds or how resin behaved at different ratios. I got ratios wrong and wasted so much material even if I watched so many YouTube tutorials.

Thousands of pesos went down the drain trying to get the best results from local materials. And the process was very laborious!

At first I only had one set of molds, and my first brand of resin took four hours to harden and fully cure. They didn’t even cure correctly and the texture of the dice’s surfaces was rough AF when they came out. I had to then rub off the excess resin with a solvent, then sand the stems of the dice by hand.

After sanding comes inking the numbers in, which I admit I used the wrong paints initially. So, it took another solvent to clean off the “trenches” of the dice. Then I’d coat them with varnish. All in all, a Poly 7 set would take five hours to complete!

Five… hours.

I was afraid it was all folly and didn’t even know if I could sell ten sets a month. I didn’t even know if the five hours per set was worth it. On the first month I only had nine sets sold. A lot of customers didn’t seem to understand that the dice I make aren’t mass-produced. They didn’t understand that the dice wouldn’t be perfect.

Full disclosure: a number of us at PWOA own sets from Natural 20. They’re really, incredibly beautiful and lovingly made.

[That’s because] I pushed myself to make my molds better; measured out the correct ratios and figured out the best process for myself. I bought better resin and experimented with colorants and things I could embed in it. Then, I rebranded and pushed hard to get the page up with consistent updates.

My immediate community spread the word out about my page and supported me, letting me partner with their events and set up booths. Until now I work some thirty to forty hours a week with my full-time day job and when I get home, despite being exhausted from a two to three hour commute, I make time to work on orders.

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The sanding process | Photo courtesy of Eliza Verzosa

Now, ten months on, I find myself reaping all the support and effort put into the business. Nine sets ordered became twenty. Twenty sets ordered became forty! Forty sets ordered became sixty, until I realized I could only make forty sets a month and employed a waitlisting system for those who didn’t make the window for orders.

I remember partnering with Gamers and GMs for their January 2019 event, where I had a small, humble booth and didn’t even expect to sell half of what I brought over. To my surprise, as I went into the venue people were already lining up for my booth! IMAGINE MY BEWILDERMENT. My body wasn’t ready for the volume of people purchasing and pre-ordering. Twenty six sets were purchased—and fifty pre-ordered in one day. I CANNOT EVEN.

Wasn’t it shortly after that that you had to make an announcement that you could only supply local orders?

Yes. People abroad took notice—people from the United States, Norway, Russia, Hong Kong, Singapore! Everything got so overwhelming for a time! I would get so much messages asking to start shipping abroad. I do appreciate the international market and potential of Nat20, and I am slowly and trying to scale up as carefully as possible.

For now though, I’ve decided to saturate the Filipino market and satiate the Filipino Gamer’s Dice Thirsts before moving on to the South East Asian plus Hong Kong market, and then, who knows—world domination?

An explosion of interest of that scale… you mentioned it got overwhelming ?

All this success with Nat20 comes with a big, big price. I went into building Nat20 with the mindset that it shouldn’t take over my life. But it’s so hard to let it take a back seat especially when it’s quite a fruitful endeavor and when many people are telling me to expand.

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So pretty you actually want to eat them (except pls don’t) | Photo courtesy of Eliza Verzosa

I work six to seven days a week and a lot of times my mental health takes a toll. So, I have to remind myself often that Natural 20 is just a chapter in my life, tangential to what I truly want to be my life’s work—Play Therapy. I always have to remind myself, too, that Natural 20 is something I can close and re-open whenever I need a break. I dictate when and how I run the business.

Overall I’m very thankful for the opportunity to be the person behind Natural 20, a passion project that is a proof of concept of the product speaking for itself.

It seriously speaks volumes! Also, we were super flattered when you released Lacuna—the set you named after last year’s event. I know you weren’t able to run for us due to previous commitments, but can we look forward to seeing you there on the 22nd?

I did miss Lacuna last year, and for sure, Natural 20 will be there as an event partner!

Go, everyone! Go!

EXCELLENT! Now, this year’s theme for LacunaCon is “Dauntless”, and the work you’ve been doing is really brave and very inspiring. That said, is there anything you’d like to share to people in the community who struggle with mental health, or who wish to pursue dreams like you’ve pursued yours?

I’m working hard to become a certified Play Therapist, but as a Nurse, I believe I have the foundations of being molded into a therapeutic individual, regardless of the presence of a certification.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot. We have all these tools to prevent emotional duress during games. The X Card, The Veil, The Handwave and such. These tools work at the level of prevention. But what tools do we have to mitigate further damage and duress when someone becomes actually triggered in a game or an event?

A lot of gamers might not be fully equipped to respond to these crises. Given this gap, I’d like to extend myself as a “first responder” if I’m present in the vicinity. If I’m playing or running a game, managing a booth or whatnot; if someone needs to be attended to, my commitment is to drop whatever I am doing and attend to a person in duress in a gaming event. I just want everyone to know this. And never be shy to tap me if I am present.

This sounds a lot like the initiative to address mental health the way you would First Aid. Does this mean that you think that others can do this too?

But of course, I can’t always be in every event.

Responding to persons in duress doesn’t need for the responder to be a certified therapist or a licensed professional. Everyone can learn to be therapeutic. Everyone has the capacity to learn generally what and what not to say to a triggered person. It’s a skill that can be learned. But it also means a lot of conscious effort and active surveillance of the self because it’s so easy to do more harm when we don’t know what to say to a distressed person. But hey, maybe someday, I’ll do a crash course on this!

For those of you struggling with mental health issues, I want you to know that I’m here. Your friends are here. Your gaming friends are here. We’re all here for you.

“I am not okay, I need help,” is something we should never be ashamed to say.

I used to be in a very dark place and my immediate gaming family reignited that flickering, fading light inside of me, and imbued me with their light until mine could shine strongly on it’s own. And now it’s my turn to imbue others, and I hope this reaches you:

Your illness isn’t your enemy. It’s a part of you that you must make peace with. And it’s more than okay for it to be a part of you. You’re going to be alright. How do I know you’re going to be alright? I know because you’re dauntless.

Thank you again, Eliza, this was an incredible pleasure. For readers interested to check out Natural 20 (the pretty dice are wonderful to look at), hop on over and check out their official Facebook page!


Editor’s Note: This article has been edited for clarity. Featured photo courtesy of Natural 20 Gaming Goods.

#LacunaCon2019 is this June 22! Interested to attend? Hop on over to our official Facebook event page!

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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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