I exhaled a breath of stale air into the crowded lobby of the local hotel. My partner sensed my hesitation beside me and squeezed my hand encouragingly. With a small tug, he urged me onwards. “Let’s go, I don’t want to be around these neckbeards any longer than I have to,” he teased. I know, not a very kind way to refer to a wonderful community of tabletop gamers, especially when his partner is one of them, but I knew he was just trying to ease my nerves.
Walking into the entrance, I was immediately greeted by an older woman at the entrance booth. My partner paid our entrance fees, we got small, golden tokens that we could use to preregister for one game each.
Ignoring the hair standing on the back of my neck, the fear creeping up my arms, the imaginary breath and whispers of a strange man in my ear, I crept over to the table with lists of the games being run we could preregister for. After scanning the papers, I immediately noted my LGS Head DM’s name. I immediately pre-registered for it, not releasing upon seeing his name that I released my death grip on my partner’s hand. He was thankful for it though he was looking incredibly uncomfortable already by the thriving social environment.
“Is there – is there any Pathfinder’s Society games running right now?” I asked, not realising how much my voice would tremble when I spoke.
The man I was handing my preregistered token over to nodded, “Just about to start now, there’s spots left in Table 7,” he explained. I hurried over there, my partner following, and as soon as I laid eyes on the all-male table, I felt relieved. I recognised one face, a man from the LGS, and he immediately invited me to sit beside him.
“Are you okay?” my partner whispered in my ear.
“Eh, yeah, yeah, I think I’m good. Thank you. I think I can do it,” I assured him and myself simultaneously then gave him a fleeting kiss.
With hesitation – despite his dislike for crowds – he left me to the devices of my first convention in six years. Six years – had it really been so long?
The game the table was running was Tier 2. I only had a level three rogue/wizard multiclass (hoping to prestige by sixth or seventh level). That’s okay, the GM tossed me a stack of pre-generated higher leveled characters to choose from. After rifling through, I decided on the gunslinger. Not a class I often favoured.
We all settled in, I took out my dice box and rolled a few before deciding which set I would be using for the session. We were ready to play.
The session started off as most do for Pathfinder’s Society. The Society is enlisting your assistance for some sort of task central to a city or port area. (Side Note: one of the many reasons I prefer Adventurer’s League to Pathfinder’s Society is the content. I’ve never been a fan of the PS content, it all seems too drab and repetitive).
One of the older men, mid-to-late 40s, at the table introduced his character. Freya. His description of her left little to the imagination, “She’s tall, slim, with incredibly voluptuous curves. Her breasts are almost fully seen underneath her clothes – she isn’t wearing much more than a thin robe, hardly tied on. Her legs are really long and she is barefoot, as many in the courting profession are, and she’s wearing red lipstick and her long hair runs down her large cleavage.” I was a tad taken back, though not surprised, at how focused the description was around her breasts.
Either way, we continued our character introductions and the session moved onwards. It wasn’t until we were in the depths of the sewer and actually adventuring that the descriptions of Freya began to get old…fast. “Freya is going to jog ahead to scope out the next corner. As she runs towards it, her tits bounce sloppily, almost flopping out of her robe.” Was that…was that really necessary? I shrugged it off. If this was truly the visual he wanted to conceive as a player, it didn’t quite bother me, just unnerved me a bit with the terminology.
We reached a point where my Gunslinger passed a search check nobody else did. I had found a letter. My character was quiet, stoic, and kept to herself – she likely would only divulge the necessary information. When the GM took the letter out, he handed it to the man playing Freya instead of myself. Okay…that’s fine, not a big deal, as long as I get to read it in the end (being partially deaf at a convention, I truly needed to read it with my own eyes to understand all of it).
That didn’t quite happen. Freya’s player read it, passed it along to the older man beside him, and then the note went no further. “Oh, so we need to find the South Gate?” Freya inquired.
The player beside him responded, “Seems like it,” and handed the note back to the GM.
“May I see the note?” I asked.
Without hesitation, the player playing Freya responded, “No need, we know what it meant, sweetie,” he said with a smile.
Ugh. Sweetie. There it was. Subtle, harmless, yes? Not quite. If you can’t see this as undermining my ability as a player, then you’re not looking at it right.
I let it go and continued on with the game. Not much further in, we were in combat. I was mid-initiative order. I wanted to spend a grit point to use Pistol-Whip. I stated this, was about to roll as I recorded that I had spent the grit point, to which the player beside Freya – let’s call him George – said, “Honey, why don’t you just attack normally? It’s far less confusing than using all of that extra special stuff.”
“No, I think I’m good. Nobody is bloodied yet, I’d like to use what I can. Try this deed out, as well, since I’ve never used it,” I was literally about to roll, my dice about to hit the table, when the GM put up his hand.
“We don’t want to have to explain it to you,” he said sternly, rolled a d20 in plain view, and said “She attacks and misses. Freya, it’s your turn.”
I was furious. Absolutely furious. I swear my ears must have been steaming. But I let it go. Because, as I looked around the room, it was men for as far as the eye could see. Not just men, but primarily older men. What was I supposed to do? Stand my 90lb self up at a table surrounded by older, condescending men and tell them to piss off and stop being so sexist?
Like a punch to the chest, I began to feel winded. That breath in my ear came back, that whisper at my neck, those large, rough hands twisting my wrists…I shuddered and quickly grabbed my phone. I needed a safety net to calm down. Texting my partner with ferocious speed – Freya’s turn had still barely begun – I told him I was angry.
“Hey, Mysty, do you want a timbit?” the player beside me that I knew from the LGS distracted me from the texts with a whisper. I don’t know if he could tell how furious and scared I was or if it was just a coincidence, but his simple kindness of sharing a treat helped soothe me enough to continue with the game.
My turn came around…and went just as fast as the last one. I wasn’t even given a moment to state what I was going to do. Instead, the GM stated it for me, simply asked me to roll “before I roll for you,” as he threatened. I was fuming. But I said nothing. Because I was frozen. I did as I was told to do and continued to roll to hit and rolled my damage.
Out of sheer annoyance and boredom, I began to time our turns. Mine was on average below ten seconds per turn. Even before the GM began dictating what I was supposed to do with my turn (according to him) it was less than half a minute – I’ve always ensured to have quick turns and be ready before my order in the initiative came about. Freya’s player’s turn was on average three minutes per turn. Three minutes! He would always include in-depth descriptions of what his character was doing, too, which don’t get me wrong I love and enjoy a lot as a player and a DM, but not when 99% of it is centered around her breasts.
The entirety of this game continued on like this, myself barely hanging on for dear life on the edge of a full-blown panic attack. Each second felt like an hour and each voice sounded like him and each drop of the die felt like my body bruising beneath his grasp. That controlling grasp that resembled the one the GM had over me for the duration of this game.
We were at the end now, I finally spoke up for the first time in two hours, and said, “I’d like to Inve-” the GM quickly threw his hand up directly in front of my face.
“Let the real gamers play,” he simply muttered. The men around the table chuckled, and yet none of them would make eye contact with me.
The game was over, at last, and I had never stood up faster in my life. I quickly ran into the hotel bathroom nearby and into a stall, down on the floor, my knees pulled up towards my chest. My breath was coming in rigid, short gasps. Thankfully with the convention at the hotel this weekend, the female washroom was essentially empty so I had time to collect myself.
Then came the immediate blaming. Maybe they didn’t like my voice? Maybe they didn’t like the Gunslinger class? Was it a bad choice for a pre-gen? Was it what I wore? It had to be what I wore. Perhaps because I appeared much younger than I was and therefore they assumed I was inexperienced?
With all the strength and bravery I could muster, I returned to the convention room. I sought out the GM who was setting up for his next session. “Hey, I was just at your table and I wanted to let you know…I’ve been playing 3.5 for thirteen years now, and running it, too. I really enjoy tabletop RPGs. You seem like a decent GM, so I was wondering if I could join you at your next table and be allowed a bit more input into my character’s actions?”
Without even looking up at me, without the slight acknowledgment of a glance, he quickly blew me off. “No, table’s full.”
I sighed, went over to the registration desk. Thankfully, no tables were full yet for the next games, not even his. I took his name down, wanting to file a complaint with the Pathfinder’s Society as this was official play. As soon as I looked him up, however, I found out he was the Lieutenant of Pathfinder’s Society in our area. So my report would go straight to him.
Giving up, I distracted myself with browsing the stalls. My LGS had the largest stall there and it was soon to open. When it did, the owner immediately greeted me. “Hey, Mysty, roll a d20 to see if you win a free dice set?” he challenged with a smile.
It was okay. It slowly turned back into a normal convention. I skipped the next game, though, to shop around the stalls and grab a bite to eat. I even won a free book! Things were looking up and I was able to let go of my insecurities and fears a bit more.
Then came my evening game with my LGS’s Head DM, Geoff. I was super excited for it, especially since he was running Tomb of Annihilation! I hadn’t gotten the chance to play yet and I had this fantastic Tabaxi Monk character all prepped who was incredibly neurotic!
When I sat at the table, I felt immediately relaxed. Geoff was a great DM, and he was so inclusive. Nobody ever felt left out during his games – which were all run with brilliant theatre of the mind. Once the table was full, it was with all players from my Tuesday night’s Adventurer’s League friends, except for one, who was another male. Once again, I sat at a fully male table but this time – I was actually able to play! I could make my own decisions, we laughed, we created fantastic memories, and just everything about the game was fantastic!
This. This is what playing at conventions was supposed to feel like.
After that weekend, I returned to my LGS games I played weekly. Adventurer’s League on Tuesday evenings and Pathfinder’s Society on Wednesday’s. But when I returned to Pathfinder, I looked around at the primarily male players and began to feel uncomfortable. Especially when the man who kindly offered his timbit was there. His face – to no fault of his own – immediately reminded me of what had happened at the convention. Which then reminded me of the past. I began to sweat, wring my hands together, and feel altogether afraid and uncomfortable.
Despite having a kind, good GM for the Pathfinder’s Society play at the LGS, the experience itself was tainted for me and difficult to swallow, I guess. Even though he made me feel welcome, we hit it off as good acquaintances weeks ago, I could not find it in me to enjoy the game anymore as much as was worth four hours of my Wednesday evenings. So I retired from Pathfinder’s Society entirely and focused my attention on the amazing group of individuals that partook in Adventurer’s League every week.
The Head DM at my LGS as well as many of the other players I’ve come to be friends with have made me feel so much more comfortable with official play over the past few months that I will now be running a game at the next convention – the exact same convention I felt run out of. But I know when that same fear creeps up over me, threatening to take hold of my sensibilities, I can look out across the convention floor and catch a glimpse of some of the most supportive and inclusive individuals I have ever met in the amazing community of tabletop gaming and I can feel at ease.
So to them, I say thank you. Thank you a million times for giving me the confidence to publicly enjoy a large part of my life again after many years of living in fear to do so.
And to those I don’t know…
Please take a moment to realise that when things like this happen, the person it is being directed at may be too frozen, too afraid, or in too much shock to respond to it. To stop it. If you are able to stand up and say something – please do so. It will always be greatly appreciated.
During a discussion on this topic on Twitter back in October of 2017, a user expressed that “maybe he only wanted men at his table because men are generally better at RPGs”. This was something a young male in 2017 said to me to defend this GM’s actions.
Growing up, I was a huge nerd. Always have been. So I, like you, was quickly rejected from societies norms and standards. We weren’t allowed to be seen with the “popular” kids and were constantly made fun of because we were hiding a Dragonlance novel in our backpacks or behind girly magazines which I was supposed to be more interested in reading. When the girls in my grade were brushing up on their makeup skills, I was attempting to teach myself Elvish. So I understand what it’s like to feel cast out from society and what is expected of you…
…now imagine finding a group of like-minded people who love the lore you do, who play the games you do, only to discover that many of them still cast you out simply because of your gender. To be an outcast among outcasts is not fun.
Now, I can’t wait for the next convention and I hope the same man is running Pathfinder’s Society games at the same time as I run mine. Simply so I can look across the room from my table to his and I can show him that “sweetie’s” like me can game just as well as old grognards.
Anybody who reads this and says to themselves “it doesn’t happen” or “it happens so rarely” or “gatekeeping towards females in tabletop is bullshit”…I beg you to stop for a moment. Just because you have never experienced it nor witnessed it does not mean it does not happen enough for it to be a problem. The incident which has resulted in my fears of conventions occurred in Toronto, Canada in 2011, and no, I won’t fully indulge the incident for my own privacy but it only occurred because I am a woman and he was a man. Simple as. This should never occur in any tabletop community. Don’t let it happen in yours.
Edited to add: Paizo has been very helpful since this article in resolving this issue and we will be solving it privately going forward. As well, Phantasm, the convention in question this occured at in 2017, has also been incredibly helpful and are working at new strategies to make it so in the future things like this can be put to a quick stop and be dealt with in a timely and conclusive manner. Thank you everyone for your ongoing support and I apologise for every person who has every experienced anything similar in their gaming lives. I’ve received so many messages and emails stating “This happened to me, too” and it makes me so sad but also so proud that these women are feeling brave enough to come forward now. So thank you all for allowing a platform for that to happen.
Edited to add again: I have no idea where Paizo stands with handling this situation. It has been awhile since they’ve been in contact. It appears they have done so in a way that has caused some resignations from other Pathfinder GMs that were not involved with the incident. As well, the convention in questions is seemingly doing everything in their power to silence my voice as well as any voice of a reasonable ally. Please see here for further details.