Tag Archives: memoir

Thinking About Tabletop RPGs

(Originally published on March 19, 2021, at the sunsetted GlitterCollective blog.)

Tabletop RPGs have been a major part of my life for a long time now. 40 years? 40 years. I wasn’t one of the very first D&D gamers, but I started damn early, even making up my own game system before I had access to the D&D books. I ran my first games for my next-door neighbors, and went on to run a homebrewed D&D game (based on a novel my best friend and I wrote together) for 2 different gaming groups, tweaking the rules to allow the elf variants we made up and their special powers.

During my grad school and just-post-grad-school years and the abusive relationship that spanned that time, it was easier to worry about the stories than the mechanics, so boughten game systems were the way to go. D&D, Rolemaster, Villains & Vigilantes, Marvel Superheroes, Champions, Chill, and the White Wolf games were all the rage in my gaming group then. I started running a Vampire: the Masquerade game the first week it came out, and continued running Vampire games for 4-5 years after. Werewolf: the Apocalypse didn’t grab me as much (until later GarouMUSHing happened).

Once upon a time, I really enjoyed painting figs. These are all figs I painted for my own characters in the uncountable D&D games we had in the early to mid-90s. You can tell how much each got played from the wear on the paint. Alas, the female figs had some obvious wear points.

Though I wrote for Mage: the Ascension, I didn’t run a game until I got together with my wife and we pulled a gaming group together. The Mage group was based in Philadelphia until we all up stakes and moved to New England. We ran another Mage game once we got relocated, and then I ran some short campaigns. There was a brief D&D game, I think, and a Big Eyes, Small Mouth game, and a couple of very homebrewed one-shots using a generic version of the White Wolf dice system. Other members of the gaming group ran games too, including a fantasy game using my friend’s SF game system, some Ars Magica, and an instance of testing the SF game system and setting. I also created a setting for a MUSH that took the White Wolf game setting and changed it heavily to get rid of the bits I didn’t like.

Our first New England gaming group broke up as some people absconded to New Zealand and we moved out of the city and into the burbs. Tabletop gaming was a little spotty for a few years as a result. We had a mostly-different group of friends who were willing to truck out to our house once a month, so I ran some nostalgia games: a short run of Vampire, a brief first edition D&D game, and a few homebrewed worlds and game systems.

One of these latter games slowly smoldered toward self-combustion over the course of a year. There were a few sources of ignition under the social lid, and we had a series of small blow-ups and player changes before the final explosion that not only ended the game but shattered the gaming group into flinders. The whole experience left me completely burnt out on tabletop RPGs for a long time.

My Relationship With Tabletop RPGs

My relationship with tabletop RPGs was changed and, in some ways, broken. I was unable to run tabletop games for about 5 years after the debacle. Though I now run games, I no longer consider it my “art form”: it’s a hobby. That change makes me sad — at one point this was something I did that was incredibly fulfilling in and of itself. Now it’s primarily a social thing, and any pride I take in a good GMing performance is the kind of pride I get from finding the perfect gift for one of my loved ones. It’s nice, but not the rush it once was.

The May 18, 1980, eruption of Mount St Helens, which feels very apt to my experience of the game explosion, especially the collapse of the north flank of the mountain and devastation of the surrounding countryside.

I think that disaster may have also broken my relationship with games created by game studios. I mean, I was already trending away from them, or modifying them heavily when I did use them. I think the last tabletop RPG I actually bought was Blue Rose. While I was attracted to many (queer! thoughtful!) aspects of it and wanted to support it by buying the books, I still haven’t run a game of it because I ended up bouncing off the mechanics. With other games since then, I find myself cringing when I pull a book off the shelf (even virtually) and see the heteronormativity and whiteness that are rampant throughout them. Once upon a time, I could overlook it, but now? It’s like my relationship with comics and other media; if the queerness isn’t present, I’m just not interested any more.

A lot of my homegrown games are inherently queer the way my favorite fantasy and science fiction novels of the 80s and 90s (and later, of course) often are: the cultures just happen to be queer by default, and I’m much more comfortable running that as a very queer GM for my now-entirely-queer gaming group. My game mechanics are also much more geared toward providing randomization for story purposes than providing “realistic” combat, because I don’t actually much care about combat any more. (Though I’m contemplating creating a dice system that invokes all the things I find fun about dice systems while jettisoning things I don’t enjoy.) My games have become (and perhaps always were) all about the story and the character relationships.

Homebrewed Queer Settings

Victorian Frat Boys

The boys spent so much time intoxicated OR running OR both.

I eventually got a small inspiration and put together a baroque little 5-session game. It took me a year or two to write it and to feel out a small, trusted gaming group for their desire to play it. The game was structured like a theatrical LARP in that I wrote the characters as well as the setting; this was, in part, because most of my players were theatrical LARPers and LARP GMs. I had some fancy name for the campaign but that has been rejected in retellings favor of “Victorian Frat Boys” even though the Victorian frat boys were only one small section of the game. Every session started with the players getting a new version of their characters in a different setting: Victorian horror, D&D, SF psionics, and, uh, angel chestburster apocalypse.

In the final game session, they all woke up to discover that these different worlds were generated as a kind of magical VR experience. They were all actually Royal cousins being tested for which one would be the better member of the Royal Family to inherit the throne, and they had to resolve that situation. My players, being the ridiculous LARPing queers they are, settled on essentially a polyamorous triumvirate. Because of course they did.

Imaginary Realm and Summoning

My wife and I then developed a game loosely based on the Persona videogames, also drawing from the world of the Yami no Matsuei anime. In this version of modern day Earth, mages are people who can transmit their minds consciously into the Imaginary Realm (all humans do that while dreaming, but it takes knowledge and practice to do it while awake). They can make contracts with inhabitants of the Imaginary Realm, which generally allow the mage to summon the imaginary person/concept, either in the Imaginary Realm or the real world, and order them to use their powers. The mage is essentially offering reality in exchange for servitude. The more popular the person/concept, the more infused with “reality” they are and the more power they can provide the mage — and also the more interested they may be in getting more reality.

I liked Persona 2 and Persona 4, but Persona 3 is the one that really grabbed me initially.

In our game, the situation got murky very quickly, because our newbie mage characters could only get contracts with fairly minor characters initially, lacking the power to really trade in reality with the more powerful characters. Being friendly and fannish types, the characters chatted up their summons, developing relationships with them that started to bring the whole “servitude” aspect into sharper focus. Can you have a relationship with a being that is bound to obey you? If they start to develop sentience outside their canon, can you bring yourself to terminate a contract with them since it means that that version of them will eventually cease to exist as the reality giving them that sentience leeches away? Can imaginary beings ever have anything approaching free will, since they’re always in service to something, whether it’s their canon, whatever fanon they inhabit, or the mages they contract with?

Meanwhile, the characters were trying to save the world from people who wanted to mash the real world and Imaginary Realm together to “bring back magic.” It was a fun couple of years of game, and we added another person to the gaming group along the course of the first game (they joined while the characters were temporarily trapped in Equestria, so their first appearance in-game was as a My Little Pony). We engineered a big calamitous final boss battle. (Where the “final boss” was a long series of final bosses, some of which they’d fought before, some of which they hadn’t.) After a bit of a break post-first-campaign, we came back around to the setting and characters, added another person to the gaming group, and are running another campaign in the setting with commensurately higher stakes with their “higher level” characters.

The system we cooked up for this game was very loosey-goosey. The characters have no stats, only skills. They also have Head, Heart, and Theme Tarot cards, though we only ever actually ended up using the Heart cards, which are all Major Arcana. For our randomization, we also use Tarot cards — every player has their own mini-Ryder/Waite/Smith deck and the GMs have an extra-large deck. We use the cards for combat, skill checks, perception, anything really. As the GMs, we sometimes use card draws to inform whatever happens next. In combat, a “higher” card usually wins (with majors, we sometimes look at the number on the card), unless it’s reversed. Sometimes we have to get into creative Tarot interpretation. The games are very cinematic and dramatic at times, and we blame the decks for that.

My games aren’t dark and gritty either. I want hope in my life, even if I have to make it up.

Genderqueer Utopia Versus the World

I also adopted the Tarot system for my other setting, which is high-fantasy where I decided that there weren’t going to be any elves or dwarves, but other human variants created by magical genetic engineering. These variants include materials from other species, and therefore aren’t considered human, so there’s a long history of enslaved peoples in the world. At some point, one individual from one variant started a revolution that ended when that individual fell into a well of liquid magic and transformed into a dragon. After defeating her foes and freeing the enslaved people in that country, she went off to create a mountain-walled country where human variants, particularly people of her variant, could live safely.

The Dragon didn’t quite burn everything down. Just a few things, like that country’s entire navy. Photo by Sean Thomas on Unsplash

In the game I ran, it is 400 years later and characters who were essentially the superheroes of their country were being sent out to run a series of very light espionage training missions in 3 other countries. Light training missions turned into fighting zombies, blowing up mage towers, burning down part of an enemy city, and finding the tomb of their variant’s creator. That was the introductory game in 5 sessions. I have a whole Part 2 planned, but I need my writing brain to come back in order to write the updates to the characters.

I kept the skill list and Heart card concept for this game, but also added a magic system (based loosely on a combination of Ars Magica and World Tree) with skill levels. Given that there’s going to be 3 years between games, I’m letting players rearrange some of their skills and magic to better fit how the characters landed at the end of the first game. Oh, and did I mention that all the members of this variant are a) born in a female shape and b) can shapechange? Genderfluidity and queerness built in. They’re also finding out that the variant designer infused all of them with some inheritable quality taken from fossils of Great Beasts (like Dragons), and this is why their country’s founder transformed into a Dragon.

I’ve also built a version of this world that predates that game by a couple thousand years — before the variants were created, during a time when there were still human families that claimed ancestry from Great Beasts. We haven’t played in it yet, and I’m still poking the worldbuilding. I was thinking of using 1st edition D&D, mostly because I miss playing with dice, but I’m already dissatisfied with that as a magical system. I prefer looser magical systems, because my players are more creative than any of the lists of spells allow them to be. Buuuut if I’m ever going to run the game, doing it in D&D will be the way to get that to happen.

All The Things I Want From Dice

I really like our Tarot system and how narratively helpful it can be for me as a GM. But, being the gamer geek I am, I kind of miss rolling dice. Also, this trend for people to make really fricking spiffy dice is appealing to my sparklegland. Clearly I do not own enough dice yet.

I started thinking about what exactly I enjoy about using dice in games, and came up with a short list:

  • Spectacular successes (natural 20)
  • Spectacular botches (natural 1)
  • Using every type of die I own (including the d12)
  • Rolling character stats
  • Rolling whole handfuls of dice

Oh, but then it occurred to me that there are some non-dice-related things I like about some system mechanics:

  • Filling in bubbles for stats/skills (because I apparently didn’t get enough of this from the SAT/GRE)
  • Virtues and flaws
  • Spending skill points
  • Also maybe skill trees like they have in some videogames (FF10 for instance)?

I might also enjoy randomly generated character background prompts sometimes, but maybe not the books of heteronormative claptrap I remember from the 90s.

So yeah, now I’m trying to figure out how to integrate all these things into a super-lightweight system that I’ve given the working name “Dopamine Dice” (because it’s based on things that give me joy). I had some ideas in the shower a few weeks ago, and promptly forgot to write any of it down! Maybe it will have been brewing in the back of my head all this time and the next time I contemplate it in the shower, it will come out, fully formed as Athena. Sometimes my games do that.

3 Movies I Wanted in 1984 But Didn’t Get Till Middle Age

(Originally published on March 10, 2021, at the sunsetted GlitterCollective blog.)

The 1980s were the heyday of wildly successful woman-led movies, though no one seems to acknowledge it and today’s moviemakers have apparently all forgotten it. This happened with both mainstream movies like 9 to 5 (Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, and Dolly Parton living a feminist corporate fantasy that’s still applicable 40 years later), The Color Purple, and Steel Magnolias, and iconic genre movies like Terminator 2, Aliens, and Labyrinth.

While I enjoyed T2 (and didn’t see Labyrinth until much later), my choice for Woman-led Genre Pic was Aliens, to such an extent that I cannot count how many times I saw it in the theater (the only movie that I saw in the theater more was Rocky Horror Picture Show). I loved Ripley, had a huge crush on Vasquez, and oddly did not find Newt annoying. (Actually, the actress, Carrie Henn, was bloody brilliant.)

The real power-up moment in Aliens.

Of course, the 1980s also sported a number of iconic and formative genre movies and series: Star Wars, Star Trek, the Indiana Jones movies, Superman, Mad Max, Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, Bill and Ted’s, Robocop, and The Princess Bride. I enjoyed a lot of them. My first birthday party with friends rather than family was going to see Superman II. I cried like a fool when Spock died at the end of Wrath of Khan and adored the soundtrack for The Voyage Home (still have the vinyl). I had to have friends tell me when it was okay to look again in the scene that punched all my horrible phobia buttons in Temple of Doom. A college friend and I bonded over quotations from The Princess Bride, as was required for all good geeks of the era.

But I wasn’t seeing anything like me in most of these movies. Vasquez was the closest thing to a butch that this baby butch saw in any movie of the time, and I was just starting to edge sideways into my butchness. Every non-woman-led genre movie had one (1) straight femme to exist in the male gaze and act as a love interest for the hero. There might be an accidental nerdy girl or a female villain in mainstream movies, but usually in genre, they kept the budget for hiring women short. (Also, sexual assault was normalized and romanticized, as in Blade Runner, and made things extra creepy.)

“Hey, Vasquez, have you ever been mistaken for a man?”
“No, have you?”

The 2015-2016 movie season suddenly served up 3 movies that punched straight through my middle-aged cynicism to the sad little teenager in the back of my head. It was an incandescent Utena experience all over again, only I was older and crustier and more cynical than I was in 1997. Why didn’t I have these in 1984?

The answer, of course, is Patriarchy.

Who Killed the World?

Speaking of Patriarchy, I wasn’t a huge fan of the Mad Max series. I watched the first 2 movies on VHS with my parents on a giant toploading VCR that Dad borrowed from work. And TBH I don’t remember them at all. They were kind of… brown and full of toxic masculinity and cars and desert? Oh, and that asshole, what’s-his-nuts. The only thing I got out of the third movie was that Tina Turner looked good in chain mail and sang a pretty good song about not needing another hero, though I wanted that movie to be better (and more about her character) than it was. But you know, what’s-his-nuts poisons everything he touches, so it’s not surprising.

I was more than a bit cynical when I heard about Mad Max: Fury Road. It was going to be another wet dream for the man-fans, I was sure. And I prepared to ignore it.

But then media I half-respected started to talk about it, and then my friends started to go see it and rave about it. Despite the enormous inertia I usually have to overcome (in myself mostly) to arrange outings to see movies, I did so.

Butch AND not just there for a joke?
Yes, please.

I spent the entire movie expecting the other shoe to drop. I waited for Max to become the star of the movie, the savior for all the poor li’l womenfolk. I waited for some sickening romantic BS between Max and Furiosa, some feminization of Furiosa. I watched for Nux to turn into the shithead I was sure he was. I anticipated the deaths of all the wives (Angharad’s death was a red herring down this road, but at least she died doing something instead of just getting fridged), or graphic flashbacks for their “origin” stories, or for one of them to betray everyone in order to get back to Joe.

I really wasn’t sure what to do at the end of the movie when… none of those things had happened. I joked that Eve Ensler, the “feminist consultant” on the movie, must have stood over the writer/director with a rolled-up newspaper and thwacked him every time he did something stupid or toxic.

Hit him again, Furiosa.

Additionally, the movie was the most cinematographically beautiful endless car chase I’d ever seen, with human interactions that felt raw and real, and a storyline that was actually heartwrenching. The loss of the Green Place. The Vuvalini so diminished. The devastation of all hope. Who killed the world, indeed. And Max’s best moment of the movie, cutting through the grief with a suicidal plan that might work, but if it didn’t, they’d be just as dead as they would if they tried to traverse the dry ocean.

I will probably never watch this movie again, though I own it, because the unrelenting violence is too much for me in my tender and soft middle age. I wish I didn’t think that it was a wild fluke on the part of the makers, one of those ideas that Pratchett talked about sleeting through the universe until it found the right place and time to get made. I wish I believed that any further movies in the series would be as amazing as this one was. But I don’t. Toxic masculinity ruins the party again and again and again.

Thanks, F-word Murdergirls!
(If you aren’t familiar, My Favorite Murder is a great comedy podcast about true crime and why everyone should be in therapy.)

We’re All Fine Here, How Are You?

I didn’t see the original Star Wars movie until it was rereleased a year after it first came out. I was very out of touch with pop culture as a small child, and it took my cousin getting an array of toys to convince me that I needed to see the movie. The Empire Strikes Back was the last movie my grandmother ever took me to (after that, I was going on my own), and she complained about not being able to nap through it because of the loudness of the shooting. I remember waiting in a line that wrapped around the mall for the opening day of Return of the Jedi. I listened to my double album of the Star Wars soundtrack on repeat throughout my childhood and tween years. I collected a number of the action figures, though my family couldn’t afford the playsets. I made my own Millennium Falcon out of a boot-sized shoebox, roughly laser-cannon-shaped pieces of plastic left over from a model I built, and a lot of scotch tape.

You bet your booties I still have Princess Leia. AND her little plastic cape AND her laser pistol. Because I am a GEEK.

I was skeptical of Princess Leia as a character, and certainly couldn’t be Leia in my imaginative play with my friends. I preferred Han or Chewbacca, letting the “real boys” play Luke. (And therein lies a whole analysis of Han Solo as feminized character or at least as acceptably detoxified Mary Sue Fanfiction Blues bait.) As I got older, I came to a deep appreciation for Leia’s presence and ferocity, as well as Carrie Fisher’s determination to make the character memorable when stuck in a film that should have ignored her. (We can thank George Lucas’ wife Marcia for her script and film editing as well as Fisher for making her performances unforgettable.)

While I enjoyed the callbacks to the Star Wars universe, I was disappointed in the depiction of Luke and Leia’s mother in Phantom Menace, and so I didn’t bother to watch the second or third prequels.

Cue being extremely skeptical about The Force Awakens.

But the advance hype sold me. Another woman, and this one a focus character? A Black character as a focus character? Leia returning? Han and Chewie returning? At the last minute, I convinced the gaming group to go see it on opening night.

The opening credits did their usual goosebumps thing (damn you, John Williams, damn you). But I didn’t expect to cry. I cried at multiple points in the movie, but my first breaking point was Leia’s appearance. Because, whether we knew it or not as kids, Princess Goddamn Leia was the fiercest, most memorable character in SF&F film at the time. And here she was, older and wiser and with far fewer fucks to give: precisely the model I needed in my middle age.

Antiope was the best thing about the Wonder Woman movie. I would’ve watched an entire movie set just in Themyscira, with zero men. But no, they had to ruin Wonder Woman by fridging Antiope and heteronormalizing WW.
At least General Organa didn’t get fridged.

This was the movie I came out of saying, “My inner 16-year-old wants to know why we didn’t get this movie the first time.”

It would have been trivially simple to make the twins both girls. (If Lucas had even had the idea of having Luke and Leia be twins originally, which I disbelieve.) It would have been even easier to give Leia a lightsaber and Force training. But no. It was a boys’ club and Leia was the Smurfette of the universe… until Rey came along. Rey was fantastic. Rey interacting with Leia was downright flooring.

Of course, none of my sniffling during Force Awakens could compare to my ugly sobbing at the end of Last Jedi when the dedication to Carrie Fisher rolled. Losing her was worse than losing Leonard Nimoy. Nimoy was sad. Fisher was heartbreaking.

Here. I can’t say it well enough. Watch this fanvid by Eruthros instead. Have Kleenex in hand.

Who You Gonna Call?

Was the original Ghostbusters amusing? Yes. Was it quotable? Yes. Did I quote it? Of course. Did I watch the heck out of it and its sequel? Yes. Did I mostly watch it for Sigourney Weaver? Yes. Was the humor chock-full of sexist bullshit? Yes. When I tried watching it again 10 years ago, was I able to watch it without spiking my blood pressure? Nope.

Not only was the original movie a pit of seething toxic masculinity “humor” but it was racist af (see all the information about what was done to Ernie Hudson and the character of Winston in case you missed that discussion). I think the movie had pretty decent bones, honestly, or it wouldn’t have been so enduring despite the shitty body it was given. I still feel pretty fond of the concept of the thing.


But but but.

Then the “reboot” (which I read as “alternate universe” or AU) of 2016 happened.

Not only did we get an all-women team of Ghostbusters, but I got one who rang queer, geeky, and butch to boot. The writing and comedy was solid, the characters were engaging, and I enjoyed the hell out of defenestrating Bill Murray’s character.

Yes, please, give me more.

My main issue was with Patty, who they treated at least as badly as Winston had been treated, and I wish to hell they’d fixed that problem. There’s no reason she had to be the “add-on” Ghostbuster. Leslie Jones would’ve rocked the hell out of a role like Abby or Erin. Patty could have been a disaffected PhD who was working for MTA because the benefits were better than in academia. (I’ve written some fic that postulates this too, because that’s one thing fic is for: fixit.) There were literally hundreds of less racist (and misogynist) possibilities other than what they chose.

I can still appreciate the Ghostbusters that Inner 16 wanted so much: the fat, competent scientist; the big, loud woman taking up space; the high-strung, serious scientist; and the geek butch geeking out and flirting madly with the nervy straight-wannabe who is attracted to both the project and the butch.


I think we saw the movie 3 or 4 times in the theaters and then I preordered the Blu-ray with the extended cut (I enjoyed the new content, particularly between Holtzmann and Gorin, but I think the released film is mostly better). I even started planning Holtzmann cosplay — I don’t do cosplay, you understand.

By the time Ghostbusters appeared onscreen, I hadn’t really spontaneously written fic for anything for something like 15 years. I don’t really count the little dribs and drabs that spooted out here and there (one very short piece for Fury Road, some cranky things about The X-Files and Doctor Who). For me, really being inspired to fic is the kind of thing I did with Utena: a few short pieces, a few longer pieces, maybe a novel-length monster that takes 10 years to finish. Ghostbusters was striking in that I not only had a several pieces appear in relatively short order, but I also wrote some Mature Content, which is very unusual for me.

Ghostbusters 2016 has actually gotten me more harassment than any of my other fandoms combined. I put a bumper sticker on my car that read, “Safety lights are for dudes,” with Holtzmann’s heart-radiation symbol, and I started getting dudes blowing their horns, flashing their headlights, and even following me as I drove through city streets (way too closely with brights on). (This behavior stopped as soon as I took the sticker off. It had never occurred with the pride sticker I had there before.) I have a “We Can Bust It” t-shirt with Holtzmann in the iconic Rosie the Riveter post and at a store in my town, the man (of course) behind the counter pointed at the picture on my chest (his finger halting less than six inches from my actual frontispieces) and opined that the movie wasn’t as good as the original. (I haven’t been back to said store, opting to go to a similar store at the other end of town instead.)

I cannot convey how much I wanted THIS Ghostbusters in 1984 and couldn’t even imagine it to want it.


Representation in media matters, y’all. (I say, preaching to the choir.) Women — and love between women — saving the world means so goddamn much to me. The way Black Panther means so much to so many Black people. The way having actual Native people playing Native characters matters. Inclusion matters. Having us not be goddamn tokens or placeholders to enable some dull interchangeable white dude matters.

What would these movies have done for me in 1984?

They would have given me joy. So much joy that it makes Inner 16 tear up.

And Patriarchy — as embodied in the white cis het men who whine and kick and throw whole screaming tantrums about these movies — is thoroughly invested in keeping that representation away from us. We — the queers, the women, the enbies, the BIPOC folks, anyone who isn’t a rich white cisgendered heterosexual man — are Not Meant to Have Joy in Western heteronormative capitalist neoliberal society.

If we have Joy, we might get Ideas, you know.

Carpe gaudium, my friends. Seize the joy.