The healing power of games

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The healing power of gaming
My last chemo treatment!

Life threw me a major curveball in 2017. I’ve shared bits of it over on twitter, but if you don’t follow me there: I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer, and spent the last year and a half going through treatment. I’m officially considered a cancer survivor, but as any survivor will tell you, it’s something that will echo through the rest of my life.

And thus for my first post back I’m going to talk about… the healing power of gaming!

There are a lot of benefits to tabletop gaming, even if you aren’t suffering a major illness. But reflecting back, gaming really was a positive factor that got me through the bad times. My husband and I wouldn’t have made it through this past couple of years if it hadn’t been for our family, and for our awesome friends who kept our spirits up through gaming.

TCTC 2018 with my hair just barely starting to grow back.

Since I’m a big fan of lists these days, here are my ways that gaming helped me heal:

  • Distraction. Gaming gave me the chance to think about something else. Whether it was an immersive RPG or just a quick five minute party game, it gave me something totally different to focus on than my medical issues.
  • Escape. With Dungeons & Dragons and role-playing games, I was able to become someone else for a while. For a few hours I wasn’t “Andrea the cancer patient”, I was Ocoria the Goliath Monk, Ellie the vampire, or Wren the Starfleet Security Officer. It also gave me the chance to feel their strength even when I wasn’t feeling strong in my own life.
  • Connection. My friends wanted to be supportive and present in my life, but sometimes it was difficult for them to know what to do or say. Gaming gave our friends a way to bring some extra positivity into our lives when we desperately needed it. I think this really solidified our friendships in many ways.
  • Accessibility. New technology in the gaming sphere allowed me to continue playing, even when some of the side effects of my treatment would have otherwise prevented me. I could still participate in our regularly scheduled D&D games on roll20 without having to leave our house.
  • Mental focus. Chemo brain is this fuzz that rolls into your mind and memory. Some days it feels like you’re in a heavy fog. Some days it’s like your short term memory has taken a vacation. But gaming gave me something specific to focus and concentrate on, to help me keep my mental acuity as sharp as I could.
  • Laughter. It really is the best medicine. Even on the worst days, laughter was possible. (And laughter releases endorphins, which makes you feel happier.)

Creating character

Rolling up a new character!

I’d always had a hard time getting into the fantasy genre. I’d read the odd novel or two, seen the Lord of the Rings trilogy in theatres, but I just couldn’t get into it. Science fiction was the side of the fence I lived on.

When I took up learning Pathfinder RPG, a game set in a fantasy world, I had absolutely no basis for what sort of character would work in this world or what the ultimate goal was in playing said character. I didn’t know where to start, what was a traditional class and their typical influences might be, how they would think, or act.

I was lost. Really lost.

Like a goof, I struggled through at first. I did my best with the very limited knowledge I had, and hoped that while I learned the game I would also learn the world.

I was wrong. It only made it worse for me.

When I finally admitted this lack of knowledge to my gaming group, a light bulb went off for them. They knew I’d been struggling, but until then had thought it was just the game system. They really stepped up to help me: Blair took extra time to explain the backstory of his world for me, while Dee sent me home with a stack of entry-level fantasy books, and Ethan gave me ideas of what sort of actions a character of my class might do. They made it okay for me to ask questions when I before I’d been afraid to ask.

Once I had a better foothold in the fantasy world, creating other characters became much, much easier, and I found I didn’t stress about the game mechanics.

Lighting the spark

So, how can my bumbling through the fantasy world help you? Here are some tips I’ve picked up along the way.

1- What interests you? You don’t need to have any sort of knowledge of a certain world to know what kind of characters appeal to you. Think about the books and movies you’ve read: did the sauve, debonair James Bond spy appeal to you? How about shape-shifting, ass-kicking Mercedes Thompson? What about the bow-wielding Katniss Everdeen? Tall, large, and fierce Lieutenant Commander Worf? Find one that appeals you, and don’t be afraid to borrow elements from that character.

2- Talk to the GM. They are more than happy to tell you about the world you’re about to play in. If you have an idea (see #1), ask them if that idea will work in their world. A good DM will help you weave the kind of character you want to play in to the world they set up.

3- Listen in. If you’re joining a game already in progress, ask if you can listen to game play for a bit to get a feel for the world and what’s going on. You might find a need for someone that’s missing in the group (a magic user!) or you might get inspired by current events (the trolls ate my parents!).

4- Look at the book. Head to the classes section and find one that might appeal to you. It might be the class description that inspires you, or the character illustration that accompanies it.

5- Man, woman, other? It might seem like a small detail at first, but depending on the world you’re in can change how you play. I once created a female engineer in game set in the 1970s. Though women in sciences wasn’t unheard of, it was still pretty rare, so other characters and NPCs often associated a lot of old-fashioned stereotypes to her. She had to work to overcome those–and the accompanying chip on her shoulder. It made for a more interesting character than just a cookie cutter character that should fit into this world.

I also know some players who will only play one gender — either the same as their own, or not. Start playing whatever you’re comfortable with, but don’t be afraid to try something different.

Hopefully by now you have a good idea of what sort of character you’d like to play. My first long-term character was a druid, sparked by the idea of the Mercedes Thompson from the book series of the same name by Patricia Briggs.

Top 5 Tips for Tabletop RPG Newbies

Dice tray with dice, and a Pathfinder RPG character sheet.This post originally appeared in the Terminal City Tabletop Convention program booklet. See my recap of the weekend here. 

Six months ago I dove into the world of tabletop RPGs. If you’ve never played, or are relatively new to it like me, RPGs might seem a little intimidating. Over the past months I’ve discovered a fun world of storytelling, laughter, friendship, and fun. If you’re thinking about getting into tabletop RPGs, but are a little uncertain, here are my Top 5 Tips for Newbies.

1. It’s all about the group. Who you game with can have a big impact on your experience. I tried to get into RPGs several years ago, but the experienced players were impatient with newbies, and they didn’t appreciate input that was outside of their already defined box. I’ve since learned that groups like this are the exception; not the rule. The two groups I game with now are encouraging, and are keen on spreading their love for the game to new players. If the group you’re in isn’t working for you, don’t be afraid to find another.

2. Character sheets are not that scary. The first time you roll up a character, you may feel a little overwhelmed about all the things you need to consider – skills, traits, race, alignment… Don’t worry: if you have a good group (see #1) they will walk you through what you need to know and why it’s important. Each time you play, you’ll find it easier to remember what to roll and what stats give you what sorts of bonuses.

3. Don’t be afraid to sit back and listen. There will be a lot to take in the first few games you play. If you aren’t sure what or how the heck you’re actually supposed to contribute, sit back and soak in the game. Watch how experienced players add to the story and interact with the Game Master. You’ll absorb a lot in the process.

4. Don’t be afraid to jump in. You may feel a little out of your element when you first start playing, because you aren’t a rogue, cleric, or druid in ‘real’ life. But nobody expects you to know all the magic user spells the first time through. Jump in and see what your mind can come up with.

5. Ask. Gamers are a friendly sort (generally, but see rule #1), so if you have a good group they will be happy to answer any questions you might have. Sometimes experienced players forget what it’s like to be new to the game, so if you don’t ask, they might not realize you need help. If something isn’t making sense, don’t be afraid to speak up.

What is Dungeons & Dragons?

You’ve heard about Dungeons & Dragons — maybe you have some preconceived notions of the game and the players — but have you ever wondered what exactly it is?

What is Dungeons & Dragons?

Dungeons & Dragons is a game created in 1974 by Tactical Studies Rules, Inc (TSR). Considered the beginning of modern day role playing games, D&D was based off of contemporary war games that used dice to determine success and failure. Dungeons & Dragons is often used as the catchall term for tabletop role playing, particularly by those who have never played. From this point on when I say tabletop RPG, I’m referring to the genre of game that Dungeons & Dragons falls into. When I mention Dungeons & Dragons, I’m talking about the game created by TSR.

So then, what’s a tabletop RPG?

At it’s simplest, a tabletop roleplaying game (tabletop RPG for short) is a collaborative storytelling game.

The game master (GM) acts as the narrator, setting the scene that the player characters (PCs) get to play in and giving them opportunities for adventure. Together, the GM and PCs weave a story while giving the character the chance to grow, shaping the outcomes of the game.

When the GM and PCs make actions where they don’t know the outcome, they roll dice. Based on that roll, formalized rules tell them whether their action was a success or a failure (though many GMs use these rules only as a flexible guide, not something that is set in stone, in order to make the game more fun).

Players need to interact and work together in order to succeed. Those who don’t will often find themselves bored and with little to do, or they will find their PC being very easily killed off by the GM. A good GM will try to get everyone involved in the game, and strives to foster interactions between players.

As the game progresses, characters will gain experience points (XP) for things they accomplish. Once they have earned enough XP, characters will then level up. Leveling up means that characters become more proficient at the skill they know, and they get the chance to learn more skills.

Is it only fantasy games?

Most people imagine something from Lord of the Rings when they think of tabletop RPGs (D&D is a pop culture staple, after all). Though Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder RPG do use fantasy, there are a multitude of games from different genres to choose from!

Maybe something akin to True Blood appeals to you: try Vampire: The Masquerade. Or maybe you want a riproarin’ space battle: there are Star Trek, Star Wars, Firefly, and other space based games. If a modern day caper is more your speed, try the Leverage RPG.

Looking for group

Whatever you enjoy, tabletop RPGs are easy to get in to. The trick is to find someone who knows the game and can help walk you through.

A good place to start are game conventions, like Terminal City Tabletop Con or VCON, both local cons to Metro Vancouver. Game Moderators at cons are more than happy to welcome new players into the fold. I regularly run an “Intro to Dungeons & Dragons 5e” session at these cons, to help get new players into the game.

Websites like the Vancouver Gaming Guild and are great places to connect with other players. A quick search of shows 10 groups close to where I live.

Many friendly local game stores often run tabletop RPG nights. Even if the group is in the middle of a campaign and not able to accommodate new players, they are usually more than happy to have an audience. And this is a great way to get a feel for the game.

If you start asking polite questions, I’m sure someone can help you find a group in your area to join.

Unfortunately, not all gamers are friendly. As a woman in tabletop gaming, I’ve definitely experienced my fair share of sexism. It exists. It’s incredibly uncomfortable. And sometimes male gamers will deny it happens. If you’re a woman looking to get into tabletop, be aware of your personal safety. It’s okay to leave a group if you’re uncomfortable. Listen to your gut. You don’t have to put up with garbage attitude from other players or the GM. There are groups out there that are welcoming.

My journey to D&D

Dungeons & Dragons always scared me. I’m ashamed to admit it, but back in the day I totally bought into the stereotypes of the game. As a geek, I should have known better.

In the last six months, a world of fun, friends, and storytelling has been opened up to me. I’m a table top role-playing game convert! Over the next few weeks I want to share my adventures as a newbie RPG gamer and as a woman trying to find her place in the world of tabletop gaming.

Nasty first taste

I’ve been a proud geek since my days in high school. It wasn’t until my grade 12 year that I could really wear the geek label with pride, and not care what anyone else thought of me. Looking back now, my perception then of Dungeons & Dragons suprises me. I bought into the stereotype: socially awkward, skinny guys around a table in someone’s basement. They probably had acne, thick glasses, and hadn’t seen the light of day in weeks.

It wasn’t until university did I really start thinking about playing Dungeons & Dragons.  Being a writer I was intrigued by the storytelling aspect of the game. I was already playing in online forum and play-by-email RPGs… it couldn’t be that much different, could it?

My best friend and I were both dating guys who played. I put feelers out to them to see if they might teach us. At first they were keen to teach us. We rolled up characters (a ranger for me, a druid for her) and we were excited to play.

Unfortunately the group dynamics didn’t work out. The guys didn’t like how we wanted to play our characters, and eventually their enthusiasm for teaching us waned.

Online communities

In the years since that first game of Dungeons & Dragons, I’d joined a forum based Star Trek RPG called Federation Space. Eight years later I’m still an active member and administrator. I’ve put a lot of effort and love into the site, and I’ve grown leaps and bounds as a writer. I also learned a lot about online engagement and community management, which helped me with my university education (communications) and my eventual career (online community manager).

But the biggest impact the site had on me was the friendships I’d made. Here was a diverse and friendly community made up of players from around the world. They understood many of the things I was going through as I grew up as a geek and we had a shared perspective of the changing geek society (suddenly it was cool to be a geek).

I’ve had the good fortune to actually meet many Federation Space players, and become good friends with several of them. I never thought I could connect with people on such a level, let alone through an online RPG game.

Tabletop RPGs take two

Fast forward to 2013. I finally managed to make it out to VCON, a local and nonprofit scifi, fantasy, gaming, movie convention here in Metro Vancouver. I went mostly for the writing aspect, though part of me was curious about tabletop gaming. I’d long been playing Settlers of Catan, and my friend Kathy had introduced me to more games like it. Wanting to play more of these games, and expand my social circles, I went to the con hoping to discover a gaming group in / near my neighbourhood that I could join.

That’s where I met Blair, Ethan, and Deanna. We connected at an inclusive gaming panel, and they kindly invited me to join their gaming group. So I jumped in.

They introduced me to a whole new realm of tabletop RPG games.

The rest, they say, is history.