A Woman’s Roll

Illustration: Angelica Alzona, kotaku.com

My daughter Mikah has Dungeons and Dragons in her DNA.

On Valentine’s Day, 1980, an elf named Terra Coriander met a cleric called Hwong (“high in wisdom, low in intelligence”). A few years later their corporeal bodies, aka my husband Kevin and I, spawned our very own future Dungeon Master.

Mikah shared some thoughts about the joys and challenges of world creation.

Beth: What happens in a typical face-to-face D&D session?

Mikah: A group (usually about four or five people) sits around a table with a set of dice and character sheets detailing their characters’ professions, abilities, and possessions. The Dungeon Master describes where they are and what’s happening, and the players ask questions about what they see and what they can do. It’s interactive storytelling crossed with a board game where you and your fellows work together to defeat monsters (and hopefully stay alive).

Beth: How did you get interested in D&D?

Mikah: When I was 15 I began playing with my homeschooler group. I couldn’t even imagine being the Dungeon Master back then! I must have played in five or six games before I even thought about attempting to figure out what was going on behind the DM screen (which is just a piece of cardboard that screens off the DM’s dice rolls and notes). Our DM Andrew, with his mysterious instructions and confidence in knowing everything that was going on in our fictional world, seemed like a literal wizard.

Beth: What does it take to build a world? What kind of background do you have that helped?

Mikah: Running a game takes work, but building the world itself is actually the easy part. Most DMs end up becoming DMs due to having a whole world in their head already. Years of reading fantasy and sci-fi novels are an absolute must. Story-rich video games are also huge influences, especially with Dungeons and Dragons-rules-based games such as Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights, favorites of mine.

Weapons of Legacy, The Neverwinter Vault

Beth: How do you prep for a session?

Mikah: I sketch in the parts of the world where I predict the players are going. This includes quests, NPCs (Non-Player Characters) likely to be present, nearby shops (players always want to be able to load up on supplies), monsters in the area, and ways to advance the “plot” of the game.

Beth: What makes a D&D session cook?

Mikah: The end of a pitched battle is always an exciting time. Also solving a big question, such as What does this key go to? or, Why did the prince go missing? Battles seem exciting, but they’re likely to drag a session down, since they involve long stretches of players waiting their turns. The bigger a choice I can give the players, the better the game, since the characters can all interact and argue about what to do next. And stuff. Chests full of interesting treasure are the best possible lure I can put in a room.

Beth: Tell us more about NPCs (Non-Player Characters).

Mikah: The more interesting I can make the NPCs, the more fun people have engaging with them. A randomly generated shopkeeper will just slow things down, whereas a manic troll shopkeeper spouting anarchist propaganda might end up with the group inviting him along on their quest!

Beth: Woman DMs are pretty rare. Have you connected with others? Do you think being a woman helps and/or hinders being a DM?

Mikah: I have interacted with a few through Google+, which became a huge tabletop tool for running games in Google Hangouts. But very few, and I’ve only met one in real life. Being a woman is a hindrance, partly because there are so few of us playing. If you go into a game store that hosts tabletop role playing games, you’ll rarely see a single woman. Every woman I’ve played with has some cringe-worthy tale of a game where she was singled out or generally had her character humiliated for no reason. It’s hard to stick with playing after an experience like that, much less run a game of your own.

Beth: It sounds like we need more women in role play to get a critical mass of support. What is your advice for women who’d like to try playing?

Mikah: It’s all about finding the right group. It’s a very word-of-mouth, invite-only pastime, but once you start talking to people about it, someone is likely to know of a game or two going on, or at least network you towards a guy who knows a guy. I mentioned that some game stores host games, although I also noted that can be a discouraging place for a woman to start. If you get so frustrated you just want to start a group of your own? Welcome to the other reason most people become DMs! I recommend my friend Chris Kutalik’s blog on his game Hill Cantons, and the links under “Fellow Travelers” from similar world-builder blogs, for advice and inspiration. Otherwise, it’s a matter of getting the manual, learning the rules, and believing that you can actually do this.