Mild Signal Boostage: Oral History of Women in Tabletop Gaming

If you remember my post hyping Playing at the World from a while back, you’ll know I find the history of this nutty hobby of ours to be interesting. That’s why I want to bring to people’s attention Lillian Cohen-Moore’s Go Fund Me project, where she wants to go to GenCon and record an oral history of women in tabletop gaming.

Now, we’re well into the backlash period when it comes to Kickstartery stuff, and I know a lot of people (especially dudes who feel a certain hostility to the project) might say “pshaw, you’re paying to send someone to GenCon”, but a) strictly speaking we’d be paying to send her to GenCon to work (and as an journalist she must be aware that if she doesn’t use the money for the intended purpose of gathering this history she’d be kind of wrecking her career) and b) oral history, asides from being cool, is actually a completely appropriate mode of historical research for tabletop RPGs – not necessarily from an academic rigour standpoint, but from a thematic appropriateness standpoint. After all, tabletop RPGs essentially consist of oral historical re-enactment…

AD&D: In Dreams I DM You

So, the most recent Dungeons & Dragons session was essentially a long dream sequence, necessitated by a PC sticking their head in a magical field to prove that they are as hard and tough as their bastard half-brother. This turned out to be a good opportunity to plot dump.

I deliberately didn’t plan the session very tightly, because I thought that a highly improvised session would be appropriate for the shifting built-on-sand/written-on-the-wind nature of dreams. As it turned out, that was a good call, because the player whose dreams were being invaded did a great job of – really without very much prompting – offering up details and ideas themselves that I could work with (giving myself free reign to try and twist them out of shape, of course, since that’s what the dreamweavers would try to do; a roll of 1 on 1D20 when trying to imagine the “cool kids” and their trebuchets resulted in a particularly memorable addition).

Running a game set inside a character’s subconscious is a tricky call if, like me, you prefer not to tell people how they react to things. I covered my ass a little on that front by telling the PCs at the start of the session that the images conjured up in dreams don’t necessarily reflect the real attitudes or outlook of the dreamer – a point reinforced by being OOC true, since in real life I don’t have a fear of my brother growing two heads and being chewed by foxes even though I still remember that goddamn dream to this day – and on top of that I kicked off the dream sequence by focusing on something the player in question had very firmly underscored in their character background and in their roleplaying throughout the campaign so far (being overshadowed or otherwise pushed around by their elder siblings). From there the adventure was about one third my contributions and two thirds riffing on the player’s ideas.

One of my insertions was an encounter with a major villain of the campaign world, Erzebet Barthory. Not my fault, the player in question chose that surname so I was honour-bound to include a vampire in their family tree. Having reread most of Dracula recently before getting annoyed at how crap the characters are (I get not taking reasonable precautions when you don’t know the vampire rules, but failing to do so once Van Helsing has explained then is just daft), I really wanted to underscore the intrusive nature of vampirism, since I found one of the scariest things about Dracula was the way he could just rock up and insert himself in people’s nocturnal lives without anyone catching on. Hence the plot point about the vampire in question visiting her blood-relatives in their dreams, interrogating them, and then making them forget the interaction.

Likewise, I really like the spiral into increasing control by Dracula, so rather than vampiric bites causing level drainage as such – a process I find tedious to do the book-keeping for and generally a little annoying – instead I’m going to have them give a permanent penalty to PCs’ saves against the vampire’s Charm Person ability and other magical effects. Level drain makes the victim more vulnerable to everyone, but I think an effect which makes people more vulnerable to that specific vampire fits the vampire concept much better.

Again, slipping such a presence into a character’s subconscious can be a risky move because you’re playing a little with their self-image, but I think it worked: it helped that the vampire’s presence was implied to be an external intrusion, and I think in general the player in question is OK with curveballs like that. (They GM a lot of Unknown Armies…) Also, though I say so myself, I think it was a really neat mood shift in the session, which for the most part had been comedic and surreal in a mildly dark way and took a shift towards pitch black when the vampire showed up.

Stuff I learned:

  • Tell a player the adventure is taking place in their subconscious and they’ll design most of it for you.
  • Guidelines for playing a vampire: when in doubt, Charm Person and nom.