5 New Ways to Introduce Player Characters

Here are 5 questions to ask your players that aren’t “Are you a male or a female?” These 5 introductory questions will provide a clearer image of the visions of your players without limiting them to the binary of “strong female characters” or “flawed men.”

How is your character dressed?

What someone wears says more about them to strangers than perhaps anything else ever will. Are their trappings more expensive than what they can afford? Are they excessively simple? Have they dressed themselves to hide something, or reveal?

What markings can we see?

Is your character tattooed? Ritually scarred? Striped, spotted, or painted? Body markings can speak to a rich connection to their past, a traumatic history, or evidence of a fresh fight.

How does your character introduce themselves?

A strong relationship to a higher power is often felt in the first meeting with a religious PC through their blessings, or curses as the case may be. Alternatively, a greeting might open the doors to quirks a character’s picked up along the ways. Do they timidly offer their name? Does their voice boom in jolly greeting?

What does your character notice first?

Inevitably, your story starts somewhere. Once establishing the setting of the opening scene, find out what’s important to your PCs by seeing where their eyes land. Lay plenty of objects and NPCs around to trap them into revealing something deeper about their character. Who notices the coin purses at the hip and who notices blasters? Does anyone notice just how alien the architecture is, or how cold the unnatural chill in the room?

What does your character smell like?

Maybe more character development than introduction, what a character smells like can also define them. The adventurer’s will be on the road (or in the ship, no board the balloon) for what may turn into a long time. Might as well find out now who will be attracting the fleas.

How a character smells can also let you know more about their job, their upbringing, and social class. Do they smell of expensive oils? Stink like mechanic’s grease? Have the scent of a long journey without bathing still on them?

Smell is also one of the first things we react to as humans, whether passively or actively. Maybe a character doesn’t like strong perfume, or only feels at home with more earthy travelers. Using this sense also gives other PCs a threat for constant interaction beyond planning who will hit the orc, and who might delay their action.

However you choose to have your players introduce their in-game personas, make sure to get the action moving immediately to encourage the players to begin interacting.

How do you introduce your PCs?

Planning for Fun: How to Start Your RPG Campaign

It. Finally. Happened. You did it! A group of people want to play a tabletop roleplaying game with you. Not just for a session. For an entire of campaign.

But where do you begin?

Planning for a campaign means establishing your characters and grounding them in the world you’ve created, but it also means establishing trust among the players and GM to provide a fun, respectful space to tell a story together. This may require a solid Session 0.

What is an RPG Session 0?

A 0 session is a session before the story of the main campaign starts. It can be a time to come together and craft characters, or polish ones that were created independently. It may be a chance to learn the geography of the world, or build it together as a group. Session 0 is also the time to establish the boundaries for your worlds without end.

Understanding the basics of the world is important to the ultimate success of the campaign, but many players also carry heavy burdens of negative experiences at the table. They also have certain themes that will place a burden on them mentally, emotionally, or cap the fun they feel they can have. Establish these at the beginning of your time together to reaffirm the agency of PCs and strengthen the relationship of everyone at your table.

I’ve created a 1 page guide to help you form your conversation around the PCs and themes that will be included in your adventure. Click on this link to download the Session 0 Worksheet.

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Taking the Terror Out of Error: Roleplaying Games, Queer Existence, & the Beauty of Failure

I have wondered for a long time what it is about roleplaying games that feels inherently queer to me. Something about the format of collaborative storytelling has always struck me as being a particularly sharp and insightful mode for telling queer stories. I thought, at first, that it might have something to do with the necessity of community, of the radical “camaraderie and companionship” Foucault cites as being central to queer life,1 with the way that collaboration is intimately connected to communities who need each other to survive.

I recently realized that it’s something much more simple than this: Roleplaying games de-privilege and decentralize the significance and necessity of success. They do not punish us for failing.

The word game, when talking about roleplaying games in this way, feels at first somewhat deceptive: games, we have been taught, have winners and losers. They have goals and win-conditions and we are conditioned to want to win.

But roleplaying games — or, at least, the best of them — don’t feel like this. You don’t win a roleplaying game; when the dice don’t come up in your favor, bad things happen, but they move the story along. A bad dice roll does not mean you lose, it just means the story carries on in a different direction than you anticipated. It isn’t a loss, it’s an unexpected complication. At the end of a session, or the end of a campaign, or the end of a story, the players are not divided up into winners and losers. Roleplaying games are not designed to be won.

Or, and perhaps this distinction is important, they have different win-conditions than triumphing over the people at the table with you.

Usually, in a roleplaying game, the person setting the win-conditions is you or your party. You set personal goals, both mechanically and narratively: I want to get enough money to buy this cool item, I want to level my character up enough to get this power, I want my character absolved of their crimes, I want my character to get vengeance on the person who killed her family. I want my character to find a new family. I want my character to realize that their distrust of their party members is holding them back and learn to trust. I want my character to come up against and overcome their fatal flaw. I want to have a funny story to tell after the game is over.

Good game design knows what it wants its players to accomplish, and it rewards them for accomplishing those things. Whether it’s fighting and slaying monsters, like in Dungeons & Dragons, or something a little more nuanced, like strengthening character relationships (Apocalypse World’s Hx mechanics, Dungeon World’s bonds), or playing truthfully to your character’s flaws even when it gets you in trouble (The Sprawl’s Personal Directives, etc.), a good roleplaying game rewards you for pursuing what you want to pursue. And many of them reward you for failing.

What appeals to me about roleplaying games is that we are mechanically encouraged to fail. In fact, the rules (of the game, of the universe) require it: no one will succeed every time. And so, as players, we are permitted to make mistakes without worrying that those mistakes will cost us the game.

After all, what’s the worst thing that can happen in a roleplaying game? Your character dies, and you roll a new one, joining into the story again with a fresh perspective and a chance to explore new angles, new dynamics, and often — in the case of games with differing classes or playbooks — new mechanics to explore.

There is something appealing, something almost liberating, about a game that not only allows you to go with the flow, but forces you to; about a game which doesn’t give you full control and, thus, never expects unconditional success. By setting up failure as something that not only can happen, but will and must happen, roleplaying games free us from the burden of success, and the pressure that comes with it.

There is a book that I think about a lot, with regards to failure: Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure, a whirlwind of a book which explores not only failure but everything from anti-capitalism in animated films to temporality in Dude Where’s My Car. In it, Halberstam vocalizes a celebration of failure, and what failure can offer us.

He writes:

“Failing is something queers do and have always done exceptionally well; for queers  failure can be a style, to cite Quentin Crisp, or a way of life, to cite Foucault, and it can stand in contrast to the grim scenarios of success that depend upon ‘trying and trying again.’ In fact if success requires so much effort, then maybe failure is easier in the long run and offers different rewards.”2

These “different rewards,” for Halberstam, are everything from alternative family structures to alternative concepts of labor production, new ways of relating to one another that can allow us to escape the oppressive institutions of heteropatriarchal capitalism.

These “different rewards,” for me, are the itch that roleplaying games scratch. Narrative complications, unexpected character development, tough decisions that illuminate things about our characters and stories we never would have imagined if we had just been allowed to succeed at every pass. They are the things that make our stories lifelike, and keep us coming back to the table week after week.

In Sara Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life, Ahmed works to redefine the idea of happiness: it has become, she argues, an end goal which revolves around leading a life that is shaped to certain expectations, certain win-conditions which are set for us. Happiness, however, should not be an end goal, predetermined, but something else, something situational and not bound by artificially imposed limitations and expectations.

As she beautifully writes in her conclusion, “Killjoy Manifesto”:

“I stumble; maybe by stumbling I found you, maybe by stumbling I stumbled on happiness, a hap-full happiness; a happiness that is as fragile as the bodies we love and cherish.”3

This hap, this stumbling, is what roleplaying games at their best are all about. Happenstance and mishap, what delightful accidents can happen when we let go of the reins of narrative control and cede them over to a healthy mix of fate (dice, cards, etc) and trust (in the GM, in the other players, in the game itself and its designer, in the story we want to tell).

This hap, too, is what queer lives are about. None of us asked for this but still we make the most of it every day, embracing the small bits of luck we are granted. While others might see queerness as inherently unhappy — thanks to media which perpetuates the idea that the only outcomes to queer life are tragedy via early death or tragedy via personal loss — queer life is often centered around making the best out of bad situations, around building a life which accounts for mistakes, around redefining success.

It’s about rejecting the implicit win-conditions of life — settling down with a nice, heteronormative nuclear family — and setting our own win-conditions, whatever they may be.

As Joseph Litvak writes, “a lot of queer energy, later on, goes into . . . practices aimed at taking the terror out of error, at making the making of mistakes sexy, creative, even cognitively powerful. Doesn’t reading queer mean learning, among other things, that mistakes can be good rather than bad surprises?”4

Doesn’t playing queer mean learning these same things?

Playing roleplaying games, where our success at any action or decision is ultimately left up to chance — a roll of the dice or the drawing of a card, or the whims of another player — forces us to be open to not only the possibility of failure, but to be open to the good surprises that can come from the unexpected. It embraces the queer mode of failure and builds successful stories out of the inherent messiness of real life. It allows us to take our failures, whatever they may be — and, like in life, there will always be many — and find and embrace those different rewards.

Sources:

  1. Foucault, Michel. “Friendship as a Way of Life.” Foucault Live (Interviews, 1961-1984). Ed. Sylvère Lotringer. Trans. Lysa Hochroth and John Johnston. New York: Semiotext(e), 1996. 308-12.
  1. Halberstam, J. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.
  2. Ahmed, Sara. Living a Feminist Life. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017.
  3. Litvak, Joseph. Caught in the Act: Theatricality in the Nineteenth Century English Novel. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. Qtd. in: Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.

Christine Prevas is a writer, graduate student, perpetual GM, and host of the delightfully queer actual play podcast The Unexplored Places.

Visualizing RPG Players on Facebook

Gathering Results

PanopLit boosted 4 posts on Facebook, each for 7 days. As covered in previous posts about this data, users targeted were male and female for the first campaign, and only female for the last 3. Users were in the United States, United Kingdom, or Australia, and either belonged to groups or had expressed interest on Facebook in gaming and table top roleplaying games.

The Data

Generally speaking, users rarely interacted with the posts. This could be due to many factors, and I would be interested in knowing the results of boosted posts by well known publishing houses of RPG content. The posts that were boosted for PanopLit focused on calls to action like taking a survey or clicking a link to our submissions page.

View the results in an infographic below, and feel free to share!

PanopLit Facebook Results

Private Rooms: Gender, RPGs, & MUDs

CN: Author describes nonconsensual sexual experience that happened virtually while they were underage.


While browsing my usual internet sources, I found myself on Panoplit.org. On there, the founder posed a series of questions near the end of her article “What Do I Write About?. One thing she asked really stuck with me and I felt compelled to respond. After receiving a reply, I felt encouraged to tell a story.

My first experience playing an RPG (unless you count Rogue on the computer…does that count?) was Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. I bought it while perusing the computer software section at Barnes & Nobles (does anyone else remember when B&N stores used to have a software section?).

My sister and I always loved games and eagerly cracked it open at home. We found something unlike any other game we had ever seen. There were figures, books, pictures, maps, and numbers. So many numbers, yet also so much freedom. “Make your own adventures” the guidebook said. So we did. She took the role of Dungeon Master and I took Slinker the thief (no girls in this game, unless you count the drow in the Monster Manual). I don my sneaky black cloak and enter the gates of a broken castle, my eyes set on finding treasure and adventure. I meet my first monster three steps in: a horrible gargoyle! Slash slash went my dagger! …nothing. Bite bite went the Gargoyle.

Game Over.

We switch sides. She took the Cleric (also not a girl). She met her first monster: a Gnoll. Bash bash and she won. Roll for treasure: 100. On a d100. Three diamonds, netting her 3,000 gp in the first room. I was so jealous.

Fast forward a few years.

I’m now a freshman in high school. I still love RPGs. My sister and I have played 3rd edition Dungeons and Dragons with her friend’s dad as DM. Final Fantasy VIII takes up much of my time outside of school, but I have also discovered text based RPGs called MUDs, Multi-User Dungeons. I spend many of my study periods in the compute lab “studying”. I created a male cleric and it took me some time to get out of the training areas.

I made a few mistakes and got bored of the character once I figured out the game better. I made a new character, and pause when it asks for the character’s gender. For the first time, the question strikes me as odd. For the cleric, I had just typed in ‘m’ because I guess I was used to male heroes. Or maybe because I was afraid? I don’t know. This time I pressed the ‘f’ key. A strange feeling goes through my body: almost like a mixture between fear and relief, I can’t really explain it.

I begin to play my female bard. I spend my study periods questing, getting better equipment and levelling up. I learn how to use the ‘charm’ spell to force NPC to type things into chat. It is hilarious. The other players are friendly and helpful. A few of them are very friendly. Much more friendly than they were to my cleric.

This goes on for a couple months until I was a regular. People cheered when I came online, and I cheered for them. We chatted a lot. I began to private chat with some of them. Some of the private chats became much more personal. I do not give out personal information.

One of my game friends wanted to show me an area of the game I have not seen before. The admins have made a section with apartments that players can purchase with gold. They have a lockable door, and players can use these apartments to sleep when they log off or to safely drop off items that they don’t want to carry around. I thought it was cool he had so much gold. He took me to his apartment. He has customized it with a beautiful description. I told him I think it is so cool. He gave me a flower. I said thank you. He locked the door. He used local chat to say he is happy we could have some alone time. I agreed. We chatted a little more. He asked me a lot of questions about if I liked parts of his apartment. He gave me a cookie item from a Valentine’s day event.

I am young and inexperienced and I do not know what is going on until he emotes to kiss me. I stared at the screen. I had never been kissed before, irl or in a game. I am nervous, but also really curious. I saw no harm in emoting kissing back. Then the emotes traveled south. I was confused and a little scared. I thought I understood what is going on because I have watched movies and heard stories from friends’ older siblings. I feel awkward. This is someone who has been very friendly to me. I feel bad and do not want him to feel the same awkwardness. I feel like this is somehow my fault.

I emote back some kind of response based on what I think an experienced girl would do in this situation. He does not respond for a bit. I sat there staring at the rated R material on my screen in the high school computer lab. He responded by asking how old I was. I type 16 (this is a lie). He was silent again for a time. Then he unlocked the door, said he was sorry, and left. We did not have private chats anymore. I did not tell anyone.

I went back to playing my cleric for a little. People were friendly, but not overly so. There were very few private chats. There were no invitations back to private apartments.

This was only the first experience of many to come. Over the next years, I join other online RPGs, but I begin to see a pattern. Whenever I am a boy, I can hide in the crowd unnoticed. Whenever I am a girl, there always seems to be a group of boys trying to stick their parts into mine. I do not “send pics”. I use the block or mute button when it is available. I stay off of voice chat.

Now I play D&D 5e with a group who is very open to players and characters who do not conform to binary gender expectations. I think I am lucky. But that is a story for another time.


Artemis V. is a writer, designer, and avid tabletop gamer.

Targeting the RPG Community on Facebook

I promoted two posts on Facebook  to the gaming community with different gender ID targets and received vastly different results. Now, this was far from a perfect experiment, but it provided some insight that others promoting their projects through the platform may find useful. Whether creating RPG resources, or talking about something completely outside gaming, Facebook is one of the most important sites to get the word out and build your community.

Both posts featured a call to action. The first was for the November Survey, and the second for the December. I kept the age range between 25-65+, but changed the “interests” on each one. The important data point for me was the gender option.

On Facebook there are only two genders available when targeting posts. This is extremely short sighted. While it might be nice to not be advertised to as a gender outside the binary, it limits the ability of communities to reach their desired audiences completely.

For the November Survey (N), I chose to advertise to “men and women.” The December Survey (D) was only advertised to “women.” Both had a budget of $30.00 and ran for 7 days.

N was seen by 2,782 people, and provided 237 engagements (or actions on the part of the viewers). While a seemingly high number for an unknown organization, less than 9% of those who saw the N interacted with it. Only 8 clicked on the link and I only received 1 redirect from FB that resulted in a survey result. Rounding up, that translates to 0.04% of viewers performing the action requested.

D was seen by 628 people, making the reach 78% less than N by limiting the number to one gender on Facebook. However, the engagement shot up to over 19%, with almost 2% of the total people who saw the promotion choosing to share it. This is compared to 0.4% who shared N. That being said, N had 10 total shares, while D had 12.

There are still more factors to take into account: Both were run during holiday weeks (Thanksgiving and Christmas/New Year’s Eve), but preliminary data provides more focus for my questions. While Facebook does not seem to be the best tool to promote PanopLit‘s surveys or resources due to its extreme targeting restrictions, I wonder what other experiments can be run to narrow in on the gaming community’s make up on the website.

Are less women identified as RPG gamers on Facebook? Generally speaking, most sources agree that women make up the majority of FB users. Do these results indicate they are less engaged, or more likely to interact once targeted?

While I don’t think my small budget of $60 over 2 months and limited resources can solve these questions, it is certainly something to chew on. What kind of engagement have you seen while using Facebook?

Weekly Reading

This week I had the great pleasure of listening to some key podcasts, so this week’s reading takes the for of weekly listening.

Avonelle Wing discussed inclusive conventions and how to create them on Greatway Games. The casters also discussed “community” and terminologies that create strong networks, rather than exclusionary groups. It’s an important conversation for anyone looking to keep their gaming open and diverse.

Also of interest, Dungeon’s & Donations is currently running with raffles and live D&D for charity. Check it out on Twitch!