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One-on-One With…Tammy!

August 6, 2012
One on One

One on One

One of my most successful campaign’s was a decade-long, globe-spanning epic. This week’s guest, Tammy, is a fellow game master that loves story–the more epic, the better. She offers some insights for new GMs as well as what it’s like to be a female in the mostly male RPG community. 

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Give me a brief bio of yourself. Where are you from? What do you do for a living? How long have you been gaming and/or a game master? 

Hi my name is Tammy and that’s right, I’m a girl (well, woman, I’m in my early 40s for crying out loud). I was born and raised in Los Angeles, CA but I now live in the Ummmm, 5th (?) Level of the Abyss, or at least that’s what Texas feels like in the summer (won’t say where, but close-ish to the nice person that owns this site). Oh, and have a pretty bad/wicked/snarky sense of humor (depending on the day and who you ask). My real life is pretty uninteresting, but I do have a home based business I run in my time off making costumes and toys and quilts and such. I have been gaming for around18 or so years now and I’ve played so many systems now, it’s hard to remember them all: AD&D (THAC0 anyone?), 3.0, 3.5 and 4th edition D&D as well as White Wolf and GURPS and a bunch of online games, and some play-by-email stuff I think that’s it, for now, might change at a moments notice. I “just” started DMing (still with the old school terms) “full time” since September of 2009 (I had tried one or two one shots here and there before that, but that’s the start of my first campaign). I also on occasion run a blog about my most recent campaign (The Blue Phoenix Inn).

In your opinion, who are game masters?

I like to think of DM’s as architects, they frame the space, and work with the rules to build something (hopefully) awesome. Game Masters can be anyone, any age, race or gender. They just need a good story they want to share with the world (or at least their small portion of the world).

How do you describe to “outsiders” what a game master does?

What ? There are folks outside the gaming world? Haha, seriously though I explain gaming and DMing this way. When you were a kid, you played Cowboys and Indians or Cops and Robbers, and invariably there was that kid that always was saying “You didn’t shoot me”. Well, I’m the one that helps solves those disputes. I’m also the Calvary, the FBI and all the folks that make what we do richer and more interesting than just a simple game of cops and robbers.

How did you get started game mastering?

I sort of fell into it really. We were in-between campaigns (my group tends to do long epic stuff, not so much one shots or short games) and I had been reading a couple of series of books (FR Avatar Series, War of the Spider Queen and the Lady Penitent series in that order) and I was thinking of what would happen if something like that happened on Krynn, which is such a closed world. So, I asked if anyone wanted to try out having me run a campaign. Imagine my surprise when they said yes.

How has being a game master affected you as a player? Or vice-versa?

I think being a DM has made me a more cooperative player. I sort of always knew that DMing was a big job, a big deal, but now that I have to do it, be ready for any twists the characters throw at me every session, I understand when another DM has to shuffle around and vamp when we go off the reservation. I’m much more willing to work with a DM to keep things moving. I’m usually the utility gamer of the group anyway, I play a few distinct classes/races/character archetypes that tend to cover any holes in the party, but now I try to really give the other DM’s something to work with cause I know that a DM needs some meat to latch onto when they are planning. I’m also quickly becoming the one that’s flipping through the books looking for that obscure reference to help them out while the keep the stuff moving along or the go to rule paralegal (not quite a rules lawyer yet).

I think having been a player, and more importantly a player that has been in some games where the DM just wasn’t ready for the session, I think that makes me aware that I really, really need to be on point and ready for a session. I even tend to over plan so that there are things to do and things go well during a session.

How has game mastering impacted your “real” life–if at all? And has “real life” impacted your game mastering?

I think that being a DM has somewhat gotten me out of my shell a bit and I’ve found my voice again. I can be pretty quiet, but now I’m blogging, getting back into the creative writing thing (see my blog) and I’m all over Twitter and such. When you are a player, it’s so easy to just fade into the background sometimes, but not so when you’re a DM. You need to have a voice, and when people actually like what you are doing, it’s this great big feed back loop.

I want to say that Real Life doesn’t affect me as a DM, but really? How many folks haven’t been to a gaming session where it’s obvious that the DM or one or more of the other characters have had a really suck day and the whole session has gone down the proverbial tubes? As far as how Real Life has affected me in general as a DM, well, except that I never seem to have enough time to be ready for sessions I don’t think that it really does (but I’ve been called delusional before).

What inspires you as a game master?

Great/good/mediocre/bad/truly terrible literature as I am an avid reader and I get inspiration from all over the place. I also get a lot of inspiration from TV and movies, shows like The Walking Dead and Falling Skies or Pirates of the Caribbean and Indiana Jones movies. How does post-apocalyptic TV inspire RPG’s that usually take place in at a tech level of around the Middle Ages? Well, it’s all about taking the great bits, images, scenes, characters all of that and tweaking them to within an inch of their lives. Like the XP fairy on my blog said, there’s nothing new under the sun, it’s all in how you package things.

How would you explain your philosophy or approach to game mastering?

I come up with some great character for NPC’s, a really compelling thing for the characters to do and a vague outline of stuff that then needs to be done. Then I set up what’s going on and let the characters go. I try to meddle as little as possible with the characters and what they want to do, unless the player wants “something interesting” to happen to their character (Trust me, they usually only ask for THAT once).

What do you like best about game mastering? Least?

I love story! Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not at all squeamish about hurling my characters up against a hydra (or two) and random encounters are great when the story is lagging, but creating this story, this collaborative narrative is the thing I love about being a DM.

As far as what I like least… I would say dealing with those folks that aren’t there to play. I’m not a task master by any stretch of the imagination, but if you are going to be spending most of your time texting, or checking your email or being disruptive, then you need to do that instead of coming and taking away from other people’s enjoyment. And it just makes it hard to do a good job for the folks that do want to game.

What is the most challenging aspect of game mastering? Why?

For me, it was learning to say “No” at least to folks that I have respected for a long time (my original group was together for something north of a decade). I hate to disappoint people, and I want them to have fun. But sometimes you have to say “No, you can’t have that artifact. I don’t care what your great back story is” and when it’s someone that you’ve been gaming with for a decade and half and you respect, it’s a big challenge.

What are the traits of a good game master? Are there different traits needed to be a good player?

Creativity and patience for sure are good traits for both a player and a DM. I would say that for a DM, you have to have a thick skin. I think that being organized is slightly more important for a DM to have than a player, buy a completely unorganized player can bring a session to a halt really quick. I also think that a DM has to be able to compartmentalize things, if something is bothering them at work or home, that they don’t bring it to the table and take it out on the players (unless the players are into that of course).

What is your favorite game story (with you as the GM)?

Ok, this is story that requires a bit of explaining, and it didn’t happen in game, but I think it’s still awfully cool.

So I have now DM’ed my current campaign not one, not two, but THREE times (we are going to get it finished this time if it’s the LAST thing I do in gaming).

The first time that I ran this campaign the group sort of… well, it kind of imploded. One couple (Couple A) got in a fight with another couple (Couple B) and they (Couple A) banned (yes, BANNED) Couple B from their house. So, we tried to soldier on with what was left of the group and eventually Couple A moved out of the area.

So, I “restarted” the campaign with a slightly different group of folks. I started them a bit farther along in the story and one of the signature NPC’s showed up almost right away in a completely different place than that character had been in the first adventure (and yes, if we had went longer than two session on this, I did have a really good excuse for the bi-location).

Anyway, I was packing up from said second session and I’m walking out to the car and two of the guys from the group who had played both versions are standing around the cars talking. My roommate had gone out before me and was heading back into the house so instead of eavesdropping on what they were talking about, I asked her.

“Oh, they were just wondering how Taywin could be in two places at one time.”

Now, we were “restarting” this campaign about 4 months after the first go round had ended, and the campaign had originally ran for almost a year and a half (did I mention we do epics?) so it really floored me that they remembered almost two years before what had happened in the first campaign when there was a shorter campaign in between there.

That had to be my favorite moment as a DM.

Now as far as my favorite story that I have DM’d it would be this very campaign I’m working on now. I get one of my Player Characters to bring down the pantheon on Krynn and it’s up to the characters (with some help of some NPCs) to fix things. All told, it’s about a two to three year epic quest near as I can figure out (having never finished it), and this one is taking a completely different tack than the last time I ran it.

It sounds like your reception as a female DM by your players was pretty positive. Do you think they play or act differently because of your gender?

Actually, most of the groups I have played in, the females have either been in equal numbers or more numerous to the males so I haven’t really had that issue as a DM, I’ve had a few ladies pave the way with the group already thank goodness! I think that at first, when I first started to game with a particular group, the guys do cut down on the cussing and bawdy stuff, but as they got to know me, and figured out that I can cuss like a pirate when I want to and that I like killing stuff and blowing stuff to pieces, then they just come to see you as one of the guys.

How have the reactions to your gender from gamers outside of your group been?

Oh lord, don’t get me started with that. I’m not going to name any shops by name, but I have stopped shopping at a couple of places because they have talked down to me or completely ignored me when I walked into a shop, or pointed me to something else like “The puzzles are over there” kind of thing when I specifically asked for a specific book by name and complete title! Now don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of great gamers out there, and the numbers of folks that are accepting of us “gals” are getting to be more and more everyday, but back when I first started…whew, it was rough.

Have you encountered other female GMs? Have they had similar experiences to yours? Radically different?

Actually the second DM I ever played with was a female (the wife of my first DM) who had DM’ed in college. Unfortunately since I don’t do the Con thing, I haven’t really met anyone in person that has not been part of my group, so I met other females that have had issues with their groups. Most of my female DM peers that I know personally have had experiences that are essentially the same as my own since they have ran the same group of folks.

Nowadays, as “the geeks inherit the earth”, do you think that it is easier to find acceptance as a female GM now? Or have the obstacles just shifted a bit?

I think that it’s a bit easier for us female DM’s but we aren’t there yet. It is getting better, people at game shops don’t look at you quite as oddly when you come in to buy minis or books. I have even had some great conversations with random gamers at used books shops browsing for out of print books, but for every… I don’t know…4, 5 people that are cool with you coming into the club there is that guy that looks at you like you have an extra head. Especially when I show up somewhere wearing a “GM’s Don’t Kill Characters” shirt, that seems to confuse some of the guys.

Side note: As I was getting ready to send this off, I was listening to a report on NPR (The World) about harassment of female players on online gaming communities. Apparently it’s pretty widespread out there as far as online. Pretty interesting article in today’s New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/02/us/sexual-harassment-in-online-gaming-stirs-anger.html?_r=1&ref=technology

Now, I know that this is online gaming, and not table top gaming which is what we are talking about, but I thought I would add this, haven’t gotten a chance to read it yet.

What advice would you give to new GMs?

Glad you asked! I’ve been trying to convince my roommate that after 10 years, she needs to start running games so I’ve done a lot of thinking on this one.

Be creative. If you feel that you can’t be creative (because I sincerely believe that everyone has at least one GREAT campaign in them), be resourceful. There are a lot of great resources out there, use them to help you get started. Read everything you can, watch everything, listen to anything that moves you, you never know when a great campaign idea is going to come your way.

Be fearless, no one knows all of the rules and no one is always right. Know you are going to get it “wrong” and let yourself be ok with it. Don’t be afraid to look silly.

Be confident. Know that really, there is no wrong, no right, just your story and your voice, believe in the story you want to tell and tell it.

And if you live in the same house as one of people playing your campaign or have folks over that are in the gaming group socially a lot, hide your notes!

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Thanks, Tammy! Your enthusiasm for epic storytelling is awesome and you offer some great advice for new (and experienced) GMs.

I hope to hear more great insights from other GMs as part of this project. I want to hear from every type of GM there is–male, female, people of color, people of faith–all of us. So spread the word, take the survey, and contact me for interviews. That’s what this project is all apart–expanding our horizons as we define who we are as game masters. 

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