Jaym Gates is an editor, author, and communications specialist. She’s edited the anthologies War Stories, Broken Time Blues, and is working on Genius Loci. She is also the Communications Director for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. She is active in ensuring a safer, more respectful environment in SF. Follow her on Twitter as @JaymGates, or online at JaymGates.com.
by Jaym Gates
My first Dungeons and Dragons game was with four industry veterans. Not just guys who had played for years, but guys who had actually developed the game. Nothing like being thrown in at the deep end.
Fortunately, the two running the game were merciful and gave me a chaos-oriented paladin. Our host had mead and scotch for us to bolster the usual snacks. It turned out to be handier than he’d perhaps planned. The Game Master (GM) began drinking heavily about two minutes into the game because one player wouldn’t stop punning, one had somehow ended up with a cross-dressing rogue, and I was being myself, which is just never good for anyone trying to run a serious game. We romped through the first half of the adventure, puns and lipstick flying, trying with all our might to break the GM.
And then we were looking at a statue, and the kobold shaman we’d kidnapped was telling us we needed the relic the statue was holding. Since I had the most health, I was obviously the one who would find out if the statue was cursed. Since it had been decided that I should hold the prisoner (after he utterly failed to escape), I said, “Well, I grab the kobold and stick him in the water to see if it’s cursed.”
The GM had been getting in character for the Non-Player Characters (NPCs), but at this, he stopped, looked at me in horror, and said, “Why would you DO that?” as if I’d suggested using one of the player characters as a mine-sniffer. He took a drink to stiffen his spine and enacted a drowning kobold, assuring us that the water wasn’t booby-trapped. So, I stepped in and reached for the statue.
The bastard fried me, in my heavy metal plate armor, for about half of my remaining health. His smug rebuttal was that, although the water wasn’t cursed, the statue was.
And thus, when the question of “What do we do with our prisoner?” arose, I stuck him face-first in the fountain and left him to drown for real.
At the end of the game, I took all of the special powers and skills I’d been sitting on and unleashed them on the undead horde, arranged so that they would build on each other to simply crush the enemy. The battle ended before the GM even got to reveal all of his deviltry. I’d figured out how the game worked, and had already started subverting the system with far too much glee. But that wasn’t really what I took away from the game.
It is emotionally painful for me to make a mistake. I know why, I know the psychological damage that led to it, but that’s not helpful in handling it. It means I over-think the simplest things. Most people learn to play as children. I did not. I grew up very fast, and was running a ten-horse ranch by the time I was twelve. By fifteen, I was managing that ranch, working for a trainer about an hour away, working part-time as an office assistant for my grandfather’s engineering firm, and homeschooling myself. Play was a luxury I didn’t get to indulge in.
Now, as an adult, I do, but it’s hard. It feels childish and wasteful. I also worry that I’m not doing it right. Drowning an NPC “just because” sounds awful, and yet. It was playful, and silly, and oh did I pay for it, and oh did we laugh. Colleagues I respected and liked were laughing with me, enjoying the silliness. It was cathartic and wonderful, and one of the highlights of my life.
I found my way to gaming through an anime Role-Playing Game (RPG). Yeah, I know, but we all had to start somewhere. I don’t know how I ended up with the anime geek group, but they latched on to me my first year of college. A few months in, they asked me to play the villain in their game.
I spent hours developing that character. I’d been writing for years, but my characters had always existed within a closed system. Playing with this group, the story was taken out of my hands, and my character had to respond to the story as it was chosen for him. Since it was a play-by-email game, it was the perfect mix of narrative and reaction to teach me how to start thinking about organic characters.
It was also based on an existing character, although not one that was entirely fleshed-out, forcing me to be creative within a boundary. Instead of having to build the house from scratch, I just had to supply the finishing details like sheet rock, wallpaper, and furniture.
I had a tendency to write my characters like puppets, mannequins moved by outside strings, with no particular focus or will. They were flat and slippery. Because I couldn’t get into their heads, they never became anything more. Eventually, I realized that it was largely because they were all cut from the same cloth, with wildly varying fears and desires pasted slap-dash onto them in an attempt to force them to be unique.
Gaming taught me to create a character from the inside, self-willed and independent of my own needs.
Later, I was a GM for a couple of forums, building stories and developing characters alongside the players. I created a couple of stock characters that I used for most of these, because the familiar characters let me focus more on the other players while using mine as necessary to guide the story.
I was going through a rough spell then, having just broken out of a serious relationship with someone who was becoming unstable and unsafe. I had also just disowned part of my family after a holiday spent listening to racist rants and enduring abuse from a misogynistic cousin.
I was also dealing with the baggage of a rough upbringing. I grew up in the fringe of an already outlying religious group, in a small town in the backwoods of Northern California. I was also raised by my grandparents, who brought even more old-fashioned beliefs into the mix. The expectation was that I would go to a denominational college, get a degree in nursing, teaching, or related field, find a good husband, settle down, and be a homemaker. I was taught that I had to constantly guard against tempting men to hurt me or assault me.
I was also the youngest in a family of hot-headed, opinionated people. Due to religious beliefs and an unstable home life, I was pulled in and out of the local private school, barely skating through with low grades and high test scores. In sixth grade, I was pulled out for good and lived in relative isolation until I was eighteen. My only social outlet was church, and even that was heavily controlled. We lived about thirty minutes out of town, so I didn’t even have people around me in that respect. The only thing I had was the fantasy and science fiction books I managed to buy at the store and sneak out to the barn.
I moved out when I was eighteen, and moved in with my mom, an absolute wreck. No high school diploma, no friends, no social experience, no work experience, not even a driver’s license. I took my college entrance exams and got a job, and set about recreating myself. By the end of the school year, I was invited to be on the Dean’s List and an honor’s society, and was doing well at work. I had friends.
The spectre of my upbringing wouldn’t let go. Just walking into work was physically painful. Walking into a new situation churned my stomach and set off panic. My mom and I both needed distance from my family, so we moved to North Carolina, where I would begin putting together a player character: myself.
Gaming was a way to distance myself from the problems and get a bit of outside perspective. My characters could be going through a totally different issue, and because I was focused on that and not staring directly at the problem, the answer would start forming at the edge of my vision.
It also taught me my single most valuable lesson about life.
Most of us seem to be taught that we’re little cogs in a grand machine. In a sense, that’s true: We are only one part of a big picture. But gaming gave me the framework to see that there’s also a little picture, one that I control. I choose where to go and how to get there.
My life is a story—one that is prone to looking like a surrealist tragicomedy—with all of its own little pieces. But who’s writing it? I’m Agnostic, so I don’t believe that there’s a higher being in control of it. So, who? I finally realized that the answer was “everyone but me.” That had to change.
Once, I went to a reading where three authors told a story, made up on the spot, based on input from the audience and each other. The results are easily imagined, I’m sure. Three people, and the story was crazy. How many people did I come into contact with in a year? Hundreds? Thousands? Even if only half of them influenced my life, that was still ridiculous.
No wonder it looked like Mad Libs gone wrong.
Growing up without any sense of empowerment, self-worth, or identity meant that I had two choices: continue to be a non-entity, or create myself as everything I’d ever wanted to be. I chose the latter, but still lacked empowerment. It was only recently that I realized that I’d marginalized myself.
Things happened to me, they would always happen to me, and I just had to accept that and hope for the best. Anything I did would probably meet with failure because I didn’t have the power to make any sort of difference.
I made a decision, recently, to stop being a NPC in my own game (life).
Things happened to me, right? No. I happen to things. I’m not the NPC; I’m the GM.
A good GM will take the pieces of a world and assemble them into something fun, well-paced, and engaging. They will work with the players to make sure everyone is having their needs met, resolve interplayer issues, and manage the challenges that arise during play. It’s less about manipulation or forcing your will onto someone else than it is about making the best of what you have and being flexible.
It isn’t easy. Life throws some pretty wild stuff at all of us, and I seem to be a magnet for strange events and stranger timing. Staying in control of my story means identifying, acknowledging, and choosing a course for every event that comes along. It means jumping off an awful lot of cliffs, too, and hoping that my parachute opens before I hit the bottom.
It means not regretting the mistakes I make, something that I particularly struggle with.
Breaking up with my unstable ex after he became emotionally abusive was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I regretted it for years, wallowing in the guilt to the point of not dating for two years to punish myself for breaking his heart. Last year, I saw him for the first time since the breakup, and we reconciled. I was finally able to look at him again and see all of the things that I’d seen then, and knew that I’d made the right choice.
It’s been a long road. I’ve told all of these stories before, but each time I tell them, I find a new angle on them, a new piece of the puzzle, a new subplot.
People frequently tell me that they’re waiting for that big reveal where we find out that I’m just the construct of an author’s imagination.
I am. I’m the construction of my own imagination. Everything I’ve been through has shaped me, but it isn’t the entirety of me. I am my own character, my own person, my own choice.
Life is the sourcebook, the rules, the assortment of premade characters.
I’m the Game Master of my own adventure, and I’m damn well going to run my own story.