Ego Check: Tracy Hurley of Sarah Darkmagic

One of the blogs that assisted me during the early stages of forming an identity as a Dungeon Master was Sarah Darkmagic. The author’s description of her process of taking on the DM role and its many challenges was inspiring. The site also featured a number of Downloadable Delves that I was able to easily insert into my campaign, which saved me a great deal of time and stress while preparing sessions for my players.

Once I started my interviews, I had targeted the writer of Sarah Darkmagic, Tracy Hurley, as a subject for an interview. Over the past few months, Tracy was kind enough to share some time with me to discuss a variety of topics. For those of you who are familiar with her writing, she expresses herself intelligently and passionately. Her talents have taken her from blogging on her own site to writing a column for Wizards of the Coast. Below, she discusses a variety of topics including her first steps into roleplaying games and her views on sexism in the RPG industry.

Thank you for meeting with me. Your site, Sarah Darkmagic, was one of the first blogs I found when searching for ways to improve as a player and DM back in 2009. When you started the site, you related a story about playing D&D for the first time after never playing before even though many others in your life had attempted to gain your participation over the years. It seems like quite a journey from never playing D&D as recently as two years ago to now having such a strong voice in the D&D community now. How did Sarah and you get to this point?

Thanks for having me. I think a lot of things happened at once. First, 4th edition came out. My husband’s gaming group used it as an excuse to ask me to play. Since the changes to the system were large enough, it was a great opportunity for a new person to come in and not feel like the only person at the table who wasn’t quite sure of the rules. I hate feeling that way and it would have taken me a long time to “master” the 3.5 rules to where I would feel comfortable playing. Being a new person was also an advantage. I didn’t have to translate between editions and could just come to the game as it is now.

The other thing that happened was social media. Twitter was still new and growing pretty rapidly. At times like that, it’s easier to catch the eye of someone well-known because they don’t have a ton of followers. The experience you have when 30 people follow you is much different from when it’s 2000, and not always for the better. It also feels like there were fewer D&D blogs, but to be honest, that could be that I was new and just hadn’t heard of a lot of them yet. Podcasts help a lot too. Emotion can be hard to convey through the written word, especially in the fire and forget atmosphere I feel we often have on the internet.

Going to conventions helped a ton. The first PAX East, in 2010, was my first convention ever. Phil, ChattyDM, organized a game night right before it started and he introduced me to a few of the other bloggers and people from WotC. Meeting someone in person, in my opinion, makes them even more real and allows for even deeper connections. I can say on Twitter a 100 times how much I love this game or that, but delivering that message in the person, to me, feels even more special.

Finally, there’s me. I write decently and I give a lot of thought to what I write. While I might compare editions and games, I really don’t care to get into edition wars where all we do is put each other down. Given my similar but different background, I can show my inner geek while sometimes putting a unique spin on it. Also, I’m not afraid to show my vulnerabilities. You can see that pretty early in my post “How much of a role to play?” Those things help me stand out and, I think, help me connect with people.

I believe I share your ability to consume 4th Edition from an unbiased perspective since I did not play previous editions of the game for 15-plus years. I have not been looking at the game from a “3.5 lense” either, and perhaps that gives us both a clean slate for commentary. 

The article you referenced above is intriguing because it questions several stereotypes about what gaming “should” be about:

In addition to the amount of role playing, it’s hard to figure out what I should include and what I should leave out. Even though I was a tomboy growing up and am most comfortable around guys, I still have a few, more stereotypically girly thoughts than most of the group. For instance, my character isn’t looking for a shining white knight but she also has some romantic notions of adventuring since her parents met as adventurers. But that leaves me with a ton of questions. Can she have crushes? Should she blush whenever a handsome waiter asks her a question? Should she get her own room at the inn especially since one of her fellow adventurers is a bit of a heel? Can she hide behind the dragon-born whenever she sees a monster that really scares her? To me, these are important matters but I’m not sure how important or amusing they are to the guys.

I’m curious about the answers you have developed to these questions during the past two-and-a-half years. What have you (and Sarah) learned about roleplaying since that time?

Sometimes I feel like I haven’t learned a lot. I still struggle with a lot of these. The main thing I’ve learned is that the answers really depend on who I’m playing with. Some people aren’t going to be comfortable interacting with a character whose head is full of romance, whether it’s actual love or the naiveté of a younger character raised on adventure stories. Others will love that sort of character. So, sometimes it’s about just doing what you and your character like while keeping other’s comfort levels in mind.

I’ve also found that I love letting my character’s actions tell her story. The times I’m happiest with my character aren’t when I personally am doing much but when my characters do something relatively bold and a little risky, especially in one-shot games. For instance, one of my favorite games was a session of Old School Hack. I rolled up a fighter and decided that she was the wayward daughter of a local baron. Formerly the Butterfly Bandit due to her agility, she was trying to transform herself into someone better. The GM spent the entire session tempting her with power and fame if she would just turn from her path. That sort of session makes me so happy I started playing. I didn’t use a lot of words, I didn’t describe intricate scenes. I just made simple but strong choices that illustrated who she is.

I think the most important thing I’ve found as a result of experiences like that is that people need to find their own way to enjoy the game. Just because it’s different doesn’t mean it’s not role-playing or that it’s somehow wrong.

Your example reminds me that role-playing is not solely on the shoulders of the player. You stated that your GM “spent the entire session tempting her with power and fame” and that dynamic encouraged you to roleplay your character. It is very much a two-way street; I’m not sure if players can truly form an interesting character without a supportive GM, and I’m not sure a GM looking for more roleplaying can do so without players whom are invested in their characters. It is a struggle I continue to have both as a player and a DM in 4th Edition where many of the actions are already “spelled out” for the player.

As a player, how do you encourage the other players and GM to focus more on roleplaying? As a GM, how do you encourage your players to invest more in their character’s motivations and story?

I agree that it’s a two-way street. In my experience, it’s a street paved with saying yes. If we can learn to build on each other’s ideas in a way that is fun (with fun defined by the table), then so many things become easier.

As a player, I can’t help it. I guess my way of rebelling has always been finding my version of fun in whatever it is we’re doing. So I love it when a GM is willing to put aside the character sheets and lets me create interesting new maneuvers for my character or picks up on one of the character hooks I put out there. Once it’s clear that I’m interested in that, all but the most focused of players tend to start doing it as well.

As a GM, I do the same sort of thing in reverse. I ask players what their character might do instead of assuming it. The question gets them thinking about their character while also providing a starting point and a concrete example. If someone asks me straight out, “Hey, what is your character like?” I tend to stumble and tense up. If a person asks if she might like to climb the statue to dig out the jewels in the crown, I can usually answer that pretty quickly. I worry that there’s a tendency to think in terms of adventure seeds as the way characters make those sorts of choices, but deciding between adventures is more abstract than deciding between actions. In addition to asking, I really listen to the table chatter and introduce some of what gets said into the game.  Players give hints all the time about what they find fun or interesting. I also introduce story threads and see which ones they pick up on. One of the hardest things to do is to force a player to be interested about something she hasn’t chosen. I love the element of choice, both as a GM and as a player.

The discussion of choice also leads me to think about some of your previous comments about the gaming community and gender. I can only speak of my experience with 4th Edition, but it seems there is a dearth of female voices in regard to the development of the product. To examine this, I went back and compiled a list of D&D books published for 4e; I may have missed a few but I believe I got most of them. Then I simply listed the author names appearing on the cover.

4e Author List (Excel file)

I found 57 books published by WotC for 4e and only one book, Dungeon Magazine Annual, Volume 1, has a female’s name on the cover. The 57 books have a total of 126 authors listed on the covers, and only two females, both on Dungeon Magazine Annual, Volume 1, are present. The result is that females (2/126) account for only 1.6% of the authors listed on the cover of WotC’s 4e publications. If you remove the women involved in the Dungeon Magazine Annual, then it drops to 0%.

I am certain many talented women are working for WotC and by no means am I labeling the company as sexist. However, it is an interesting data point to discuss and I believe it highlights some of your commentary about choice in RPGs. As a researcher who has published articles in peer-reviewed journals, the order of authors is important to identify the contributions of the writers involved. It would seem that 4th Edition has not had many female staff at the top of the hierarchy in development of a book.

As a prominent female voice in the online gaming community, what do you make of this? And how does it relate to your level of choice as a player and DM?

I have to admit, it’s sometimes hard on me and often makes me feel like I’m in an uncomfortable position. I’ve had the chance to meet a number of the people whose names appear on the front of those books as well as a number of those who don’t. Everyone I’ve met in the industry has been welcoming and encouraging. I’ve even moved into freelancing myself, writing for DDI and third-party publishers. They are also all very talented, often with years of experience writing and designing D&D content.

So on one hand, I can’t think of a single person who I would want to see replaced in those books. On the other, I think the lack of prominent female voices makes it difficult to get more women into the hobby. And this isn’t limited to the RPG industry, it’s often a societal and geek culture wide issue. Particularly in geek culture, I feel there is this strong desire that we must identify as geeks first, and keep any other identifiers as a second. The problem, as I see it, is that geek culture for a long time was defined by what geek men liked and enjoyed. Since there were so few women and those who did participate felt a large pressure to conform, it feels like these assumptions about culture were never questioned. Now that we have a number of geek women entering the culture on their own terms, and with their own voices, there’s a tension surrounding what defines a geek, or, in our case, D&D. Is it cheesecake art and the misogyny from the foundational Swords & Sorcery and medieval stories? Or is D&D something bigger and more basic than that, the ability to be heroes in our own right?

As for me as a player and DM, it means I often have to create my own content. Perhaps it’s my own biases at play, but many times it seems clear to me that the game is not designed for me or my perspective. And the people I play with often have a different view of how society works than I do. I remember after we finished an adventure, we returned to the tavern for some food and rest. I stated that my character was going to take a bath and was going to check in with the bath attendants to see if anything happened while we were gone. The guys looked at each other a bit at that. To me, it was pretty standard in fantasy that most places don’t have running water. To take a bath, someone had to bring in a tub and fill it with warm water. But in their mind, they were somewhere else with it entirely and it was a bit shocking to them.

As for the lack of women in the higher parts of the industry, that will be hard problem to fix if we continue to view the game as the domain of boys and men. In my experience, most game designers start as players. Over time they tend to transition over to DMing. As they gain comfort there, they will hack the game, pushing it to its limits or at least customizing it to what they want. Then they start submitting their creations to the forums, blogs, or RPG companies. While I know a fair number of people with at least 50% female players, I know lots more with no women. And it’s still pretty rare that I hear of a female DM. So where are the female designers and writers going to come from?

And, if we want to fix that, we need to change how the game is marketed and we need women to step up to be evangelists for the game. When we look at other industries where things have changed, including comedy and television, it’s largely because there were a few woman who broke the mold and the younger girls saw someone who looked more like them. The girls could then picture themselves in that position and aspired to be like their role models. Boys and men could also then picture women in this positions and it made it harder to argue that women just aren’t capable or interested.

Thank you for that honest assessment, and I agree with you that the lack of diversity is an issue that permeates throughout geek culture. You indicated that one factor inhibiting the development of female leaders in the industry is the lack of women playing RPGs and, more specifically, becoming DMs. 

It seems some elements of geek culture – including roleplaying games – have a high cost of entry for females. What I mean by “cost” is that there is an intellectual and emotional price that is paid to commit to a hobby. As a 35 year-old man, I certainly take my fair share of jokes from others because I still play D&D (and, good heavens, write a blog about it!). But I don’t have to make any other intellectual leaps to get involved in these hobbies.

Meanwhile, a woman likely has to execute some intellectual gymnastics to get involved while overlooking or ignoring some of the uglier elements of the industry includng booth babes; overly-sexualized female characters of impossible proportions wearing unrealistic outfits for the vast majority of the time; stories and themes that generally favor the sensibilities of men; and the subtle (and not so subtle) feedback from others that the hobby “isn’t for them,” just to name a few.

Al Bundy, always breaking ground in poor ways. Image taken from recent article featured on Kotaku.

What – if any – intellectual and emotional costs have you paid during your time as a player, DM and now freelance writer of roleplaying games?

The feedback that the hobby “isn’t for me” comes up now and then. It often comes up when I talk about playing a looser D&D game, where rules are more guidelines than anything else. Some people really dislike my style and they “helpfully” suggest that I play something else. Nevermind that earlier versions of D&D were much closer to that looser style.

That leads into another point. For some good reasons, we often play with people who have a similar play style and view of the game as our own. However, it can lead us to believe that our way of playing is *the* way to play. Through conversations with many people, I’ve learned to spot my own biases, while I’m not perfect. One of the problems I often have, and it’s hard to tell if it’s due to gender or my popularity or something else, is that when I defend my view of gaming, some people believe I’m bashing on them even though they defend their own opinion just as vigorously and rarely complain about others doing the same thing. It also feels at times that even if multiple people express a particular point, the dissent is more likely to write the blog post about me. It feels like they think I’m an easier target or something. People should play what makes them happy.

What are the elements of geek culture that you constantly find yourself rebelling against?

The biggest topic I rebel against though has to be the narrowness of feminine expression. I didn’t grow up wanting big breasts or to wear body hugging clothing. Yet, when I discuss depictions of women in artwork, I’m often told that this is fantasy and this is what women want to be, that the art is drawn that way because it’s what men want to be with and who women want to be. That belief is the one that bugs me the most because it’s not what I or a number of my female friends want out of life. On the other hand, I often call out people who put down pink versions of things. If someone wants a pink DS, they should have one. To me, there should be diverse expressions of what a woman is and can be.

In some ways, you want people to let you “be a girl” without deciding what a girl “should be.” That is a difficult concept to communicate in face-to-face meetings let alone during online conversations (e.g., forums, blogs, comments, Twitter), which can easily escalate into something unfortunate and unproductive. On that note, you previously stated the following on your blog:

One of the hard parts of being a woman online; there are a number of people who will say terrible, abusive things to you solely because you are a woman and have an opinion.

How much of this behavior is specifically sexist compared to the general practice of many to be less than civilized online? And why do you think people act this way toward you and other women?

To me, there’s a few things going on.

Even if the intent is to just be a troll, using sexist language is still sexist. And sexist trolling does damage on two levels. First, there’s the normal trolling damage, something that keeps many people, regardless of their gender, quiet. The second level is that it reinforces stereotypes about gender.

Some people are afraid of losing their privilege, even if they don’t feel they have any. It’s easy to look at all of this as a zero-sum game and to concentrate on what people might theoretically lose rather than what they might gain. For instance, if more women enter design, some might think that means there will be fewer opportunities for male designers instead of concentrating on the possibility that more inclusive design might lead to a bigger audience.

Many are just as much a victim of sexism as the people they are attacking. When we define men as the opposite of women, instead of the evolution of a boy to adult, we run into problems when it turns out that women enjoy what previously had been considered male activities. If those activities no longer define manhood, what does that make them? And since our society tends to devalue the traditionally female, that can lead a fair amount of insecurity.

The terms used to talk about sexism have nuances that are hard to explain to people. I’ve talked about not wanting to feel sexually objectified and have had men say they sexually objectify their wives all the time. I want to reply with, “Really? You think of your wife as an object meant only to satisfy your own sexual needs, a person devoid of her own wants and needs?” Because, when we talk about sexual objectification, that’s what we mean. So, I think sometimes the people see the sex part, think that their significant other is sexy, and interpret those terms as saying what they are doing is bad when really they often apply to extremes of behavior.

You raise excellent points about the language we use and how it can have powerful effects, especially when it is not associated with non-verbal cues and other gestures. It is one of the many reasons online communication can become so unproductive.

Knight Exemplar from MtG - Not a victim of the "male gaze."

It seems that games – video, tabletop and otherwise – are made primarily by males for males. And earlier in the week you highlighted the concept of male gaze in media. I made the observation after the announcement of D&D Next that only one female (Miranda Horner as Editor) was on the development team, and received some “push back” from some on those comments that were in the “zero-sum game” category you referenced above. But I believe the open playtest offered by WotC for D&D Next is a tremendous opportunity for both males and females to have their voices heard in terms of the type of game they want to play. I think the move by WotC levels the playing field and I hope females take advantage of the chance to shape the game and provide feedback.

With your recent online column series, Joining The Party, for WotC, you have become a trailblazer yourself. What lessons have you learned from becoming more involved in the industry in recent years?

I hope we can keep the feel of playing D&D in its various editions and forms while also taking the time to rethink how some groups, particularly women, are presented in the game. I hope that when it comes to the story elements of D&D that the designers leave room for a fuller view of humanity than was existent in the game’s earlier editions. I hope we can develop a vocabulary that allows us to communicate more easily which topics we want to explore in a fantasy setting and make setting boundaries easier regardless of which side of the screen we call home. I hope the modular concept can be used to provide an inclusive game that also allows some tables to play the way they wish.

Thank you for spending so much time discussing these topics. I’m glad we had the opportunity to carry on an in-depth conversation. How can people contact you if they would like to continue this conversation? And finally, what guidance would you provide to other girls and women out there who want to become more active in the development of roleplaying games?

Elizabeth Sampat recently addressed this topic in an awesome post Sex, Lies, and Game Development. First, today’s digital age makes it much easier to just create things. If you want to get into game design, do it. Start a blog. Design games. Find a group of people who love what you do and whose stuff you love and create your own community. Reach out to the game designers you love and follow them, comment on their stuff, and offer to help out where you can.

Understand that being different is an asset that you have that others don’t. For a long time I worried that I was too different. Sure, game design, especially for some companies, is a business and you need to create things that resonate with the market. But there’s a large amount of untapped diversity in that market and the size of market that you need to succeed is much smaller than what the larger publishers need.

Most importantly, don’t let negativity get you down.

If people say crazy stuff to you, let them know it’s not ok. I might suggest not unloading all barrels but don’t feel like you have to take it. Feel free to find me on Twitter, Facebook, or G+. I can’t guarantee that I’ll have the time to always respond, but I try to.

Author: The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.

9 thoughts on “Ego Check: Tracy Hurley of Sarah Darkmagic”

    1. The Penny Arcade podcasts were also the thing that convinced me to start playing D&D again. I couldn’t stop laughing, and it seemed like those guys were having such a good time.

  1. I find saying yes all the time to my players creates a problem, they take advantage and get some kind of mechanical advantage out of it 😉

    It’s interesting how much of the sexual bias in gaming (and the discussion on sexism) comes down to male insecurity. We’re insecure about our sexuality so the industry creates art that “definitely isn’t gay! Look at the boobs!” (thus drawing in horny young males and pushing away women, of course this just accentuates the problem)
    We create characters that also reinforce sexual stereotypes- not because we want to define women, but because we have a need to define male behaviour.

    Then you try and start a conversation about sexism. As soon as you start talking about the “male gaze” and “sexual objectification” we don’t actually know what you mean, but we can’t possibly admit that. So we pretend we do and end up misusing the language.

    But that said, if women put out the message that the media, men or the industry “sexually objectify women”, and the man who hears it believes it, why shouldn’t he assume it is referring to something he actually does?

    ie. Thinks of his wife as an object meant to satisfy his own sexual needs, without the “only” and “devoid of her own wants and needs”

    1. Thank you for commenting. I’m not sure I understood the last two paragraphs of your comment. Could you explain?

      I think it is certainly a challenging topic to discuss. If you enjoy a hobby – and someone says that the hobby is rather sexist – then it is easy to think that person is also calling you sexist. It’s possible to decry “the industry” without labeling those that support it, but it’s a tough circle to square during discussions.

      1. Sure- I have a habit of over explaining myself, so I made a concious effort to avoid it there but I will elaborate.

        Its really just illustrating the point that (most)men don’t really don’t understand the language used to discuss sexism -“The terms used to talk about sexism have nuances that are hard to explain to people.” to quote Tracy. I’m following the thought process of the man who tells Tracy he sexually objectifies his wife.

        So if I am the man to whom Tracy “talked about not wanting to feel sexually objectified”, my thoughts skip over the exact meaning of the words, especially the phrase “sexually objectified”, and go straight to “Am I guilty of this? Probably.”.

        It’s the related to the whole adage of men not wanting to stop and ask for directions as well. We can’t admit that we don’t know where we are- we can’t admit we don’t really know what Tracy just said. We’re just that insecure.

        So I guess maybe I’m sticking up for this poor shlob I identify with. It’s not entirely unlike me making a joke about beholders at the office and expecting everyone to get it. And there’s also a little element of attempting to get the die rolling on a little more debate going about the meat of the interview. I’ll admit, I was really shy to actually post at all about this- but gender and sexism in gaming has definitely been an issue at my table before, so I wanted to take the opportunity to provoke further discussion.

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